Topic: Government and Politics

Does Harper Support Regulation of Gambling and Financial Services?

My post yesterday regarding Members of Congress who voted to exempt financial derivatives from state gambling laws created a firestorm of controversy. Well, two people asked me about it, anyway …

(A new WashingtonWatch.com post on the presidential candidates who didn’t help create our economic problems is available for your perusal, by the way.)

“Why would a libertarian think it’s bad to exempt anyone from regulation? Do you support gambling laws? Do you support financial services regulation?”

These are all fair questions, given my objection to preempting state gambling laws in this case. So let me expand on this observation from my earlier post:

Many gambling laws are nanny-statism, of course, but if they’re going to go away, they should be repealed by the legislatures that wrote them. This federal preemption gave special permission to certain parts of the financial services industry to run a huge gambling operation masquerading as a market in real assets.

I’m quite a bit less a fan of preemption than many of my colleagues. There are fair-minded people who believe that national markets call for national regulatory regimes to replace the states’. As commerce has become national, the Commerce Clause has become a grant of authority to regulate national markets, they appear to believe.

I’m not convinced. Given the nation’s experience under the Articles of Confederation, the Commerce Clause was included in the Constitution to prevent states from regulating parochially - that is, for the benefit of local interests over out-of-staters. The Constitution gave Congress authority to regulate commerce “among the states” - which, if words have meaning, is something narrower than just regulating all commerce.

So when state gambling laws interfere with an interest capturing the sympathy of a majority in Washington, D.C., that doesn’t necessarily empower Congress to withdraw state authority. Congress is supposed to prevent only state parochialism, not every bad idea coming out of a state legislature.

If we are to have a healthy political economy, debates about state gambling regulations should be taken to each state that enacted them. The merits of freedom and personal responsibility should be made clear there so they win majorities once again.

The alternative preferred by many is a shortcut: trumping states by moving power to the federal level. This is not a felicitous trend, and its end-point - a remote national government with plenary power - is not good for liberty.

Gambling regulation is nanny-statism, but I wouldn’t go and kick the legs out from under state anti-gambling regulation through federal preemption - especially not for one narrow part of the financial services industry. This is not a game, where any loss for regulation is a gain for liberty.

If responsibility for self-protection against gambling is going to be restored to people in a given state, the legislature of that state should repeal the anti-gambling laws, signaling people that they are once again responsible for themselves. What happened here was that Congress trumped state power and withdrew the protection of state anti-gambling regulation without signaling to anyone that there were risks to be encountered. What looked like asset-based financial services to all but a few was in fact gambling.

The Congress helped perpetrate a deception about what was going on with financial derivatives - and just because some regulation went under the tires, that isn’t a victory for liberty.

No Socialists Here

Is Barack Obama a socialist? That’s the question Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux asks in one of the last paper editions of the Christian Science Monitor. Not really, he concludes. But

Anyone who speaks glibly of “spreading the wealth around” sees wealth not as resulting chiefly from individual effort, initiative, and risk-taking, but from great social forces beyond any private producer’s control….This “socialism-lite,” however, is as specious as is classic socialism. And its insidious nature makes it even more dangerous. Across Europe, this “mild” form of socialism acts as a parasitic ideology that has slowly drained entrepreneurial energy – and freedoms – from its free-market host.

So why does he say that Obama is not a socialist? Well, after all,

“Socialism” originally meant government ownership of the major means of production and finance, such as land, coal mines, steel mills, automobile factories, and banks.

And no American politician would favor that, right? Oh, right.

For a Good Time Call the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Back in September, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service became a punchline after issuing 3.5 million duck stamps with the wrong phone number. But it wasn’t just any ordinary wrong number.  Unassuming callers who were “lucky” enough to dial it were invited to “talk only to the girls that turn you on” for $1.99 a minute.

It’s a safe bet that were this to have happened in the private sector, someone would have been reprimanded or fired.  Not so in the public sector.  In fact, the Washington Post’s Al Kamen tells us this morning that an upcoming U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trip “will send 28, that’s twenty-eight, senior officials to Mexico for a week of post-election R and R.  It includes a tour of the fabulous Mayan ruins in Palenque in the Lacandon rain forest.”

Kamen says, “It’s unclear what benefit will be derived by the wildlife agency’s director, Dale Hall, who’s retiring Jan. 3, and Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty, who should be moving on after Jan. 20. The group includes most of the agency’s regional directors and various assistant directors.”

The folks out there working hard today, whose taxes pay for incompetent, joy-riding career bureaucrats like Dale Hall, should bear stories like this in mind the next time some DC politician speaks of the federal budget being “tight.”

Bailouts: Where Will They End?

“There’s no logical end to it,” Cato Senior Fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. said to Neil Cavuto on Fox Business. He’s talking about the incredible expanding bailouts. It started with Bear Stearns in March and then homebuilders in April. Then Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in September, and after that the deluge. AIG, announced at $85 billion but quietly increased to $123 billion so far, and the $700 billion centerpiece and then money market funds and then bank nationalizations and an increase in the federal guarantee to bank depositors. Where will it stop?

Friday’s papers noted that the head of the FDIC said that the federal government might start guaranteeing home mortgages. On Saturday we learned that insurance companies want to get a piece of the money. Yesterday the Treasury said that automobile companies–which already got their own $25 billion program–might also be eligible for the general “financial rescue plan,” and their success might encourage other industries to try to get in on it.

As I noted before, Congress is talking about “a second economic stimulus package, totaling $50 billion in the form of money for infrastructure projects, relief for state governments struggling with rising Medicaid costs, home heating assistance for the Northeast and upper Midwest, and disaster relief for the Gulf Coast and the Midwestern flood zone.” And Transportation Secretary Mary Peters wants “an $8 billion infusion” for the federal highway trust fund.

Where does all this money come from? The total cost is hard to estimate, because we don’t know how many of these guarantees will actually result in payments. But some analysts are talking about a total bill of $2-3 trillion. Given the underestimate on the cost of the Iraq war, we shouldn’t have confidence in any claims that it will be less. So where does the money come from? Even Obama doesn’t want to raise taxes that much. And if you tax Americans to bail out as many Americans as we’re now talking about helping, eventually you’re going to be taxing people to bail themselves out. In fact, the government is likely to borrow some of the money and have the Federal Reserve create more of it. That process seems to be under way, as Greg Mankiw and Jeff Hummel have discussed. How can that astounding and unprecedented increase in the monetary base not lead to inflation, even hyperinflation? We’ve already decided to tax the prudent and thrifty to bail out the imprudent and irresponsible. Now the prudent may face a danger even worse than taxes: inflation that erodes their hard-earned savings.

Howard Baker famously called Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts a “riverboat gamble.” This is more like a “Celebrity Solstice gamble.”

Members of Congress Who Voted for the Financial Crisis

In late 2000, with the budgeting and spending process in collapse, Congress hurriedly passed a mammoth spending bill called the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2001. It contained a provision preempting state regulation of financial derivatives under gambling or “bucket shop” laws. The result less than a decade later was the out-of-control market for credit default swaps that has caused so much financial, and perhaps economic, chaos.

One hundred fifty-five members of Congress who voted for the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the preemption of state law are still serving and are up for election next week. Twenty-two senators who stood by as the bill passed by unanimous consent are also up for election Tuesday.

Details are in a WashingtonWatch.com blog post entitled “Did Your Representative Cause the Financial Crisis?

Many gambling laws are nanny-statism, of course, but if they’re going to go away, they should be repealed by the legislatures that wrote them. This federal preemption gave special permission to certain parts of the financial services industry to run a huge gambling operation masquerading as a market in real assets.

All this is a good illustration of why it’s harmful for Congress to let the annual budgeting and spending process go off the rails. Maybe voters will hold some of their representatives accountable.

Sen. Harry Reid’s Pork Park

When the weight of big government has me worn down at day’s end I occasionally look at a few politician photo-ops to keep me motivated.  A good source is the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA): (See here.)

The latest EDA photo-op shows Sen. Harry Reid presenting a goofy oversized check from the U.S. Treasury (i.e., taxpayers) to some of his Nevada constituents to help build a technology park to be named after (drum roll please)…Sen. Harry Reid.

The arrogance is breathtaking, until one remembers that we’re talking about a man who earns his living spending other people’s money (largely against their will).  The picture also illustrates why it is difficult to get rid of even the most obvious losers in the federal budget.

The EDA provides grants and loans to state and local governments, nonprofit groups, and private businesses in regions under “economic distress.”  It was born in the 1960s and has survived several attempts to kill it, including efforts by the Reagan administration and congressional Republicans in the 1990s.  The EDA’s wasteful spending is legendary and it is notorious for exaggerating its successes, which have often proved to be illusory.  (A perfect example of an EDA boondoggle can be viewed here.)

Unfortunately, the EDA survives for a common reason: the agency’s benefits are concentrated on special interests and its costs dispersed across millions of taxpayers. EDA administrators are aware of this reality and cultivate support from Congress by including politicians in the publicizing of money given to constituents. Press releases are coordinated with congressional offices to maximize political gain for both the EDA and the benefiting legislator.

It is little wonder that former EDA director Orson Swindle labeled the agency a “congressional cookie jar.” He realized that private actors in unfettered markets, not government bureaucrats, are better at fostering economic development. Swindle said, “The minute politics enters the equation, rational financial management and economic decision-making goes out the window.”

Getting back to Sen. Reid, yes, I know I’m singling him out for tawdry behavior routinely engaged in by most of his colleagues.  But don’t feel too sorry for him. In February, the Nevada Biotechnology & Bioscience Consortium gave its first ever “Harry Reid Award for Biotechnology and Bioscience Achievements” to (one more drum roll please)…Sen. Harry Reid!

A New Blog on Free Speech and the Media

This is the time of the season for being fed up with politics and not least, of course, with the presidential election. (Actually, I reached that point a while ago). Part of my frustration comes from the candidates who appear willing to say anything, no matter how unrealistic, to win the White House. But part of my frustration lies also with the media who don’t hold the candidates to any standards that might inform voters who care enough to read and listen. This is all the more so since we are experiencing a financial crisis that elicits nothing more from the candidates than a promise “to fix the economy,” whatever that might mean. Shouldn’t the media demand more on our behalf?

Writing for a new blog from The Media Institute, Patrick Maines helps makes sense of my frustration. He points out that the media are following their practice of covering the financial crisis (and the presidential election) like a horse race. Yes, the crisis is helping Obama, but is that the most important thing to know right now? Maines writes:

The stark fact is that the national news media have underreported and misreported virtually every important aspect of our national nightmare: how we got into it, how we can prevent it from happening again, and, most importantly, how we can escape its worst effects now – and how our national leaders can help us.

Maines’ criticism is apt and convincing. The Media Institute, the home of the blog, works on free speech issues and receives substantial support from media companies. Of course, free speech does not necessarily mean good or even useful speech. But the answer to such shortcomings is more speech as Maines proves in his post.

I am intrigued that Maines criticizes the media, a pretty independent stance when you think about it. This blog bears watching as we head into a new administration that seems likely to offer many challenges to freedom of speech.