Topic: Government and Politics

Another Potential Winner of the “Strange New Respect” Award

Advocates of limited government often joke (otherwise we would cry) that Republicans are the Stupid Party and Democrats are the Evil Party (this is why taxpayers should hide their wallets the moment there’s talk of “bipartisanship,” but I digress).

One of the reasons that the GOP is the Stupid Party is that Republicans generally are easy to manipulate. Most people understand that their enemies don’t want them to succeed. As such, they are — at the very least — skeptical about any advice coming from their opponents (as a Georgia Bulldog, for instance, I wish the coaches of the Florida Gators took suggestions from the Bulldog coaches, but I digress again). Republicans, however, are a tad bit gullible. When statists give them a few kind words and a pat on the head for supporting schemes to expand the burden of government, some Republicans genuinely think that they have a new set of best friends and they become even more likely to surrender to the left. This is so commonplace in D.C. that there’s an unofficial “Strange New Respect” Award, which is given to Republicans who get seduced by those who want to make government bigger and/or to exterminate the GOP.

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson may be the next winner of this dubious prize. The New York Times business section has a big article featuring lots of praise for Mr. Paulson from some of the most collectivist politicians in Washington:

Mr. Paulson…has won praise on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, particularly among Democrats, for his role in fashioning solutions to economic difficulties this year. “He has handled this crisis extremely well,” said Representative Barney Frank, the acerbic Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and customarily a scathing critic of the Bush administration. “It’s fair to say that he and almost everybody else failed to anticipate some of these problems. We all underestimated it. What I give him credit for is how rapidly he adapted.” …this month, as Mr. Paulson helped hammer out emergency legislation authorizing the federal government to potentially inject hundreds of billions of dollars into Fannie and Freddie if the government-sponsored mortgage makers weaken further, he spent long hours with lawmakers of both parties. …The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and a critic of the White House, praised Mr. Paulson for changing Mr. Bush’s mind. Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is chairman of the Senate banking committee, is also singing “Kumbaya.” “I’ve watched him grow in the last year, not in terms of intellectual capacity but in his appreciation of how this town works,” says Mr. Dodd.

In the business world, Secretary Paulson never would have taken advice from his competitors on how to land a big client or secure a major deal. Hopefully he will apply the same smarts to the political world and realize that flowery words from the left are a sign that he’s on the wrong path.

Stewart Baker Crosses a Line - What’s the Strategy?

I’ve been nothing if not dogged about responding to DHS’ advocacy for REAL ID and E-Verify. I’ve had fun responding to post after DHS post on the “Leadership Journal” blog promoting E-Verify. But I let one recent post from DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker go by. Enough people have pointed me to it and asked me what I thought that I’m finally drawn to comment.

Baker’s post, “Exactly What Do They Want?,” addressed none of the substance of the E-Verify program, but simply attacked a group called the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

 Here’s a taste:

SHRM lobbies for the HR execs who do corporate hiring. It also opposes E-Verify. I suppose corporate hiring is easier if you can hire illegal workers, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that SHRM wants to kill a program that makes it harder to hire illegal workers.

But SHRM has taken Washington arts to a new level. SHRM says it doesn’t want to kill E-Verify. SHRM says it wants to replace E-Verify with a new, better program to prevent illegal hiring. A closer look shows that the SHRM alternative is doomed to fail – and will take years to do so. So for a decade, while the SHRM alternative is failing, no one will have a good tool to actually prevent illegal hires. Which may be precisely what SHRM wants.

Politics can be ugly. And attacking the motives of your opponents is ugly politics. But what matters in the first instance is that it’s politics at all. Stewart Baker is an executive branch official who was appointed to his office, not elected. His role is to administer the laws, not to participate in the political processes that decide what the laws are. He crossed a crucial line by becoming a critic - and a harsh critic at that - of a private association because of its public policy stance.

It’s interesting to speculate about what caused Baker’s fit of pique. A theme in his post is the potential transfer of responsibilities for verification of workers from the Department of Homeland Security to other agencies like SSA and HHS. Job #1 for government ministers is to build their fiefdoms, and the SHRM’s preferred employment verification vehicle, the New Employee Verification Act, would be a DHS bureaucrat’s biggest outrage.

But everyone who knows him knows that Stewart Baker is savvy and cool. It’s not like him to lose his temper - especially not in such a public way. So I expect that this is part of some clever strategy, but I just don’t know what it is. Baker’s vitriol has drawn justified indignation from the folks at SHRM. The comments on Baker’s post have lots of interesting tidbits, including allegations that Baker consistently declined to meet with SHRM. He got written up in Politico for starting this public imbroglio. And the human resources blogosphere is popping with discussion of Baker’s explosion.

So, does Stewart Baker surprise us all and pull a rabbit out of a hat? Or has he really lost his cool? It could be frustrating, as he winds down his stint at DHS, to look down the road behind him at his key issues: the E-Verify program limping along, and the REAL ID Act in full collapse.

One Set of Rules for the Peasantry, Another Set for the Political Elite

Until the seedy practice was exposed, the host committee for the Democratic National Convention in Denver was dodging state and federal taxes by filling its cars using the city government’s gas pumps.

Defenders of the scam tried to say the GOP elites were doing the same thing in Minneapolis (plausible, but not true in this instance). They also have the absurd excuse that city pumps were being used for security purposes (I suppose we should be happy that these nonentities are not demanding 24-hour police protection):

The committee hosting the Democratic National Convention has used the city’s gas pumps to fill up and apparently avoided paying state and federal fuel taxes. The practice, which began four months ago, may have ended hours after its disclosure. An aide to Mayor John Hickenlooper released a statement Tuesday evening saying that Denver 2008 Host Committee members would pay market prices for fuel and would also be liable for all applicable taxes. However, Public Works spokeswoman Christine Downs told City Council members just hours before that host committee members were fueling up at the city pumps.

…”There’s something there that just doesn’t seem right to me because, in a sense, you’re saying then that the officials who pass the laws are not willing to live by them,” said Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz.

Hickenlooper said the practice isn’t unique to Denver. “I do know for a fact that they’re doing the same exact thing in Minneapolis,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the city that along with St. Paul is hosting the Republican National Convention. But Teresa McFarland, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul host committee, said its members are getting their gas at public pumps.

…The host committee, which is responsible for raising money to put on the convention, is using the city’s pumps “for safety and security reasons,” Lopez said.

Losing Faith in What?

In the Los Angeles Times, Peter Gosselin offers a “news analysis” on the theme that “Americans may be losing faith in free markets.”

For a generation, most people accepted the idea that the core of what makes America tick was an economy governed by free markets. And whatever combination of goods, services and jobs the market cooked up was presumed to be fine for the nation and for its citizens — certainly better than government meddling.

No longer.

This kind of crisis of confidence occurs every time the economy temporarily heads south — which it inevitably does from time to time. What does this tell us? It tells us that people do not understand the economy very well. And what do stories like Gosselin’s tell us? That most journalists don’t either.

But economic downturns do offer the motivated reporter an opportunity to speculate on the possible political consequences of unflagging public and media ignorance. The causes for our current economic troubles are evidently too complex to fathom, so instead of writing intelligibly about what is actually happening and why, we are asked to wonder (hope? fear?) whether voters can be made to demand a “New Deal Lite,” before the economy regains steam and we become too satisfied to regulate ourselves into oblivion.

It would be useful if journalists could find a way to report on the actual nature of the American economy. This would be a real public service. The American economy is in fact a byzantine amalgam of market and state institutions enmeshed in a thicket of regulation. Gosselin maintains that “most people” in the U.S. think there is something out there called “the free market” that operates without “government meddling.” I’m not really sure that most people think that, but it seems Gosselin does, because he goes on to structure his “news analysis” as if the story is that dissatisfaction with a kind of laissez faire we do not have may be generating demand for basically the kind of dirigisme we’ve already got. But since economic systems we haven’t got can’t cause our economic problems, the result is confusion.

Consider the fact that the Federal Reserve is a central planning committee. We are lucky, I think, to have intelligent, highly professional planners, but there are in-principle limits to what they can do with limited information, and so there is no way they are not going to get it wrong sometimes, or a lot of times. The housing “bubble,” which has turned out very badly for a lot of people, and the historically high price of gas, which is to a large extent a function of the low value of the American dollar, probably has had a lot to do with the policies chosen by our monetary central planners. Failures of government planning don’t discredit free markets. Rather, they suggest free markets might be worth trying some time.

Did the ratings agencies and investment banks screw up royally in their assessment of the risk of certain classes of mortgage-backed securities? Yes they did. Did assurances of bailouts, implicit and explicit, from the government to the financial industry encourage dangerous risk-seeking? Yes they did. Many market institutions, like our advanced financial markets, are very far from being self-organizing outgrowths of unregulated market exchange. Instead they are, by and large, creatures of the vast body of law and government regulation that defines the rules of market exchange — that determine what may be bought and sold, and how — and are tightly integrated with more or less freestanding government institutions like the Fed. When these markets stumble, it’s just a rookie mistake of political economy to see that as problem with markets, per se, rather than as a problem with the way regulation and government institutions happen to have structured those markets and thereby structured the incentives of the individuals and firms that act within them.

Here’s another example of the mixed economy. Food is expensive these days, which hits poorer Americans especially hard. Part of the price hike is due to normal market forces; supply has yet to catch up with the increased demand from the rising middle class in China and India and elsewhere. But a large part of it comes from our own government’s frankly idiotic policy of subsidizing corn ethanol, which pushes up the price of all sorts of foods, from wheat to milk to meat. So the conclusion we should draw from this is what? Damn you free market!?

Gosselin winds down on what to many must be a hopeful note:

Historians watching the nation’s current economic and financial troubles say that just because Americans don’t throw up their hands about markets and rush to an opposite pole, such as socialism, it doesn’t mean that change isn’t underway.

As UC Davis’ Rauchway pointed out, the devastating panics and depressions of the late 19th century eventually resulted in the progressive reforms of the early 20th century and, later, the New Deal of the 1930s.

Before we get too excited about “progressive reforms” once again saving capitalism from itself, perhaps we should try a little harder to comprehend the way the actually-existing economy works (journalists might think about helping with this!), so that we can pinpoint the most likely institutional causes of the recent gloom and effectively focus our reforming zeal. Were the media willing or able to explain how our mixed economy actually functions, this downturn might just as well inspire a loss of faith in the government meddling we’ve already got. But what would be the point of writing an article like that?

The Mechanics of Government Gaining Ground

Over at the new WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve posted a piece illustrating the simple modern mechanics of something Jefferson warned against: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

Congress is considering a bill to cancel the scheduled termination of a commission that studies minority veterans issues. It would only cost three cents per U.S. family to keep it going, but it’s one of nearly 10,000 bills of all different stripes pending in the current Congress.

Did minority veterans fight for a country where each group looks to the government for special treatment or a little cut of the loot from taxpayers? Or for the country where the people’s spirits are still free?