Topic: Government and Politics

A Defense of Third-Party Voting

Judging from my Facebook page, the internet is blowing up with arguments that, in November’s election, voters must cast their ballots for a major-party candidate even if they dislike that candidate, and they must not vote for a third-party candidate.

These arguments go like this:

Third-party voters say neither major-party presidential candidate is worthy of their vote. But in fact, [major-party candidate the writer supports] is not nearly as objectionable as [other major-party candidate]. If [other major-party candidate] wins, terrible things will happen, but if [major-party candidate the writer supports] wins, terrible things won’t happen. So stop selfishly thinking about a third-party candidate, and cast your ballot for [major-party candidate the writer supports]!

No doubt this argument is appealing to the writer and other major-party backers. But even if we grant the writers’ assertion about the virtues of their preferred candidate AND their belief that a third-party candidate can’t win the presidency, this argument literally is irrational and–worse–it deprives voting of perhaps its greatest virtue.

The Real Clear Politics “Battle for White House” electoral map currently shows only 13 states, plus one Maine congressional district, to be toss-ups in the presidential race. Six more are rated as “leaning” toward Democrat Hillary Clinton and six (plus a Nebraska congressional district) are leaning toward Republican Donald Trump. RCP categorizes the other 25 states and the District of Columbia as being “solidly” (or stronger) in either the Clinton or Trump columns.

For those latter 25 states plus D.C., a would-be third-party voter’s grudging ballot for a major-party candidate is literally meaningless in deciding the presidency. The state’s Electoral College electors will go to Clinton or Trump regardless of how that voter casts his or her ballot–and the voter certainly must know that. So if that person chose to forgo voting for a third-party candidate and instead voted for a major-party candidate anyway, that voter made an irrational decision.

What about the other 25 states? Yes, there is a possibility that a voter’s ballot could matter—but only if that voter’s state (or congressional district, in the states where electors are awarded by distict) popular vote is perfectly evenly divided +/– one vote , and the national electoral college is decided by that state’s (or district’s) Electoral College electors. (Notice the qualifier “only if,” which means there are still more conditions that need to be met in order for the one ballot to prove pivotal.) In this case, the probability that the voter’s ballot would be meaningful isn’t zero, but it practically is. So, if a person in these states chose to forgo voting for a third-party candidate and instead voted for a major-party candidate anyway, that voter made an irrational decision.

Does this mean that people shouldn’t vote for president? It does if their sole motivation is to cast the deciding ballot. Voting has costs in time and money (e.g., gas money, bus fare), and it is pointless to absorb those costs for no benefit.

But there is a sound reason to vote (for some people, at least): for the pleasure of expressing one’s political preference. If voting for one of the major-party candidates provides that pleasure, then the voter should do it. For some voters, third-party candidates provide that pleasure because third parties are strongly associated with specific political causes (e.g., liberty, the environment, federalism) that many people care about deeply. Expending time and money to enjoy that pleasure is as sensible as spending time and money for the pleasure of reading a good book, or watching a baseball game, or eating chocolate.

Why Tax Credits Aren’t Controversial & Why They Should Be

Ah, tax credits. The answer to all of our environmental, social, and urban cares. Or so they say.

This spring, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) cheerfully joined forces to expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program. Their bill was subsequently referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which Hatch chairs. LIHTC provides select developers with tax credits for building affordable housing units, and the newly minted Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2016 would enlarge the LIHTC program by 50%, which puts the program at about $11 billion annually. If it’s anything like previous expansions of the program, it will surely draw broad bi-partisan support.

This brings us to a rather heartwarming aspect of tax credit programs more generally: tax credits appeal to democrats and republicans alike. In an age of acute political polarization, such collaboration seems to be the essence of civility and fraternization that the American public so longs for. Or is it?

Enter the alternative hypothesis: tax credits get a free pass because people think that tax credits are free. Unfortunately, as Milton Friedman said, TANSTAAFL, or “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and someone, somewhere paid for that hotdog and chips. So the question is who’s paying for tax credits?

The answer – if you’re not utilizing the credits – is probably you. That is because although select businesses or individuals are writing off taxes owed, the total U.S. tax burden is consistent or growing. Unlike across-the-board cuts that reduce taxes for everyone and are designed to support economic growth, LIHTC and other tax credit programs choose special businesses or individuals to reduce taxes for. So in the absence of reductions in spending, you’re just moving the money around, akin to any other direct subsidy (e.g. ethanol). When Uncle Sam needs to collect, the American tax payer is still on the hook.

Of course indirectly, we all “pay” for tax credits due to the slower economic growth caused by the misallocation of capital.

What’s more, tax credits operate outside of the annual Congressional appropriations process, and do not appear as an expenditure on the federal budget. In other words, a tax credit program may be completely ineffective at accomplishing program goals and never warrant so much as a side-eye come budget season.

This is particularly problematic for LIHTC, which National Bureau of Economic Research, Journal of Housing Economics, and Journal of Public Economics studies all found subsidize affordable units by displacing affordable units that would otherwise be provided by the private market. Economist Ed Glaeser agrees: “current research finds that LIHTC is not very effective along any important dimension—other than to benefit developers and their investors.” In other words, rather than improving welfare, LIHTC may actually just improve corporate welfare.

In the case of LIHTC and other tax credit programs, regular budgetary oversight would provide an opportunity to determine whether there is a better use for our collective resources, whether the program is achieving its objectives, and whether the country has the political will to continue supporting the program. Yet tax credit programs are protected from these basic questions by their very design.

And that is why tax credits are a problem. But out of sight on the federal budget outlay, out of mind. In the meantime, Congress will continue to play a cute little bipartisan game until American taxpayers get suspicious about all of that celebrated bipartisan collaboration happening in Washington. 

Free Speech and the University of Cape Town

Cato adjunct scholar Flemming Rose who recently won the 2016 Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty has been disinvited from speaking at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The academic freedom committee of the university had asked Rose to give the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture. The Vice Chancellor of the university rescinded the invitation. He argued that Rose’s lecture might divide the campus leading to protests and even violence. He also said having Rose “might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus”. The last statement will remind many people of Doublespeak.

Fortunately, this injustice has prompted several principled defenses of free speech.

Kenan Malik, an English writer and broadcaster, who gave the TB Davie lecture last year, makes the case for open debate and defends Rose.

Nadine Strossen, a former ACLU president and current law professor at New York University, quickly provided a comprehensive critique of the decision. Professor Strossen adds her comments about Flemming Rose that she gave at the Friedman Prize dinner.

Ronald K.L. Collins, a law professor at the University of Washington who runs the First Amendment News blog, has challenged an administrator at the University of Cape Town to reply to these critiques. Collins has done the right thing: a bad decision has led to critical speech which now invites a response.

Finally, Flemming Rose himself has replied, citing his recent defense of free speech for radical imams: “A more diverse society needs more free speech, not less.” He continues:

It’s really a sign of poor judgment and bad academic standards to disinvite me on the basis of what other people say about me, when I have published a book that covers my own story, which tells how my views on politics were formed and analyses the history of tolerance and free speech. The book is not only focusing on Islam. I write about the Russian Orthodox’ Church silencing of criticism, Hindu-nationalists attacks on an Indian Muslim artist and so on and so forth. Why use second-hand sources when you can read the primary source in English and make up your mind?

Why not indeed? Rose’s book, The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech published by Cato in 2014 may be found here or at your local bookseller.

 

Government Unions and Dysfunctional Government

Why is government so often dysfunctional? Why is it, in contrast to the voluntary sector of society, so often slow, inefficient, wasteful, and counterproductive? Peter Schuck explored the question at length recently in his book Why Government Fails So Often. Chris Edwards offers a shorter and more libertarian analysis in a recent Cato policy study. But maybe these two new stories from the past few days shed some light on the question, first from Washington, D.C.:

Metro officials fired a senior mechanic just weeks after the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident last year, alleging that he failed to properly inspect a tunnel fan, falsified an inspection report, and later lied about it to investigators.

But now, the largest union representing Metro workers is fighting the transit agency to have the mechanic reinstated.

Seyoum Haile, a 13-year Metro veteran, was terminated one month after the January 2015 incident that resulted in the death of a passenger — but arbitrators said he should be suspended instead, and now the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is suing to get him back on the job.

Meanwhile, in Miami:

National condemnation has been swift today after video showed Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black behavioral tech trying to help an autistic patient, holding his arms in the air before a North Miami Police officer shoots him. But Miami’s two most prominent police union chiefs have now leaped to the officer’s defense. 

John Rivera, who leads the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, says the officer was actually trying to protect Kinsey because he believed the autistic man, who was holding a toy truck, had a gun — but then he accidentally shot Kinsey instead. 

For more on the consequences of government employee unions, see here and here.

Power Always Attracts Friends and Supplicants

Napoleon Trump

A month ago Politico reported:

Donald Trump is trying to win over a skeptical Republican donor class, but they’ve closed their wallets — and they’re angry.

Today the New York Times reports a different view:

G.O.P.’s Moneyed Class Finds Its Place in New Trump World

In his unlikely rise to the Republican nomination Donald J. Trump attacked lobbyists, disparaged big donors and railed against the party’s establishment. But on the shores of Lake Erie this week, beyond the glare of television cameras, the power of the permanent political class seemed virtually undisturbed.

Though Mr. Trump promises to topple Washington’s “rigged system,” the opening rounds of his party’s quadrennial meeting accentuated a more enduring maxim: Money always adapts to power.

At a downtown barbecue joint, lobbyists cheerfully passed out stickers reading “Make Lobbying Great Again” as they schmoozed on Monday with Republican ambassadors, lawmakers and executives. At a windowless bar tucked behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel, whose rooms were set aside for the party’s most generous benefactors, allies of Mr. Trump pitched a clutch of receptive party donors on contributing to a pro-Trump “super PAC.”

To be sure, a number of individual and corporate donors stayed away from the Republican convention and seem to be unwilling to support Donald Trump. Still, the reconciliation of so many principled conservatives, prudent donors, and former targets of vicious personal attacks puts me in mind, again, of the following headlines that may have appeared in a Paris newspaper, perhaps Le Moniteur Universel, in 1815 as Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and advanced through France:

Pervasive Misconduct and Corrosive Culture at the TSA

A new report from the House Homeland Security Committee lays bare the culture of misconduct that continues to plague the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), finding a surge in complaints and a pervasive lack of accountability at the agency.

This comes on the heels of another significant increase in cases of employee misconduct at the TSA, as a 2013 investigation from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported a 27 percent increase from fiscal years 2010 to 2012. In response to that earlier report and the GAO’s related finding that the TSA did “not have the process in place to adequately address it,” the TSA installed adopted many of the GAO’s recommendations for investigating misconduct in an attempt to finally bring some effective oversight and accountability to the troubled agency.

Despite those efforts, there has been no slowdown in the surge of misconduct allegations filed against TSA employees: misconduct complaints increased by 28.5 percent from fiscal year 2013 to 2015 while the number of full-time equivalent employees grew by only 1.6 percent.

These allegations range from relatively mundane but still troubling offenses like a failure to follow instructions and failure to report to duty to more egregious cases like an officer being charged with facilitating human smuggling and allegations of sexual misconduct by officers.

The concerns go beyond just the sheer number of complaints or the recent surge, it’s that there are so many employees that have allegedly committed some form of misconduct multiple times: roughly 43 percent of the employees with a complaint had more than one, almost 5 percent had more than 5, and one ‘enterprising’ employee had 18 separate complaints during fiscal years 2013 to 2015.  Despite the long-recognized problems contributing to a culture prone to misconduct, there do not seem to be consequences for these TSA employees. As the report says “it appears as though minimal accountability is provided with certain employees engaged in ongoing misconduct.”

Number of Complaints among Employees with Filed Complaints, FY 2013-2015

 

Source: Homeland Security Committee.

This recent surge in complaints might be due to the perception that allegations of misconduct will not be thoroughly investigated, and this does not seem to be baseless: even as the number of complaints increased substantially, the number of investigations over this same period declined by 15 percent, while the number of investigations closed fell by 28 percent. Even within the shrinking pool of cases where the agency takes some action, fewer employees faced real consequences, as “TSA increased the use of non-disciplinary actions by almost 80 [percent], while it decreased the use of disciplinary and adverse actions by 14 [percent] and 23 [percent], respectively.” In most cases, TSA employees can think it is plausible that they can avoid being investigated should they have a complaint filed against them, and if there is ultimately a decision against them, the most likely reprimand will be non-disciplinary actions like counseling, guidance, or additional training.

Employees within the TSA who might have tried to bring attention to some of the agency’s problem may have faced some form of backlash, as almost a dozen individuals told staffers that  “certain senior leaders at TSA have reassigned employees to other locations around the country as retaliation for, in some cases, employees raising security concerns.” Far from moving towards more transparency and attempting to address the ongoing misconduct that seems to be so prevalent in the agency, some senior level employees could be undermining these efforts. Outside agencies and Congress have also lamented their limited ability to investigate these concerns because the agency has not been forthcoming with requested data.

Misconduct Allegations and Investigations, FY 2013-2015

 

Source: Homeland Security Committee.

Beyond these concerns about misconduct, other investigations have revealed the TSA to be ineffective and prone to security failures. My colleague Chris Edwards has an insightful policy analysis laying out the case for privatizing the TSA and following the lead of most airports in Europe and Canada that use private companies for screening procedures. As he explains, allowing competitive bidding to multiple companies could finally bring a degree of accountability to the sphere, something that is sorely lacking at the TSA. 

Arizona Gov. Ducey Cuts Off Many Public Sector Lobbyists

In search of some upbeat news this morning? Here you go:

“Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order [last month] that effectively ended all government contracts with lobbyists in Arizona. The order terminated contracts with professional lobbyists at all state agencies, boards and commissions.” In future, state agencies other than the judiciary and independently elected officials will need permission from the governor to hire lobbyists, and Ducey’s office said requests would be “heavily scrutinized” and require documentation that the hiring would be important for the “public health, safety and welfare of the state and the taxpayers.” A gubernatorial spokesman says outside lobbyists hired by professional licensing and other boards have often “pushed for burdensome regulations, and that these agencies lack sufficient reporting practices.” The move “comes nearly a decade after the Goldwater Institute — a conservative think-tank — recommended it.”

Reports the Arizona Republic: “Use of contract lobbyists varies state by state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Utah bans agencies from using public money to pay contract lobbyists. Louisiana prohibits a state government entity or an employee from using state funds to lobby ‘any matter being considered by the legislature.’…In Virginia, officers, boards, institutions or agencies are prohibited from ‘employing lobbying for compensation,’ the NCSL website said.” And no less should be expected. Why should taxpayers be forced to pay so that those on the inside can persuade legislators to increase their powers and prerogatives yet further? [cross-posted and expanded from Overlawyered]