Topic: Government and Politics

Institutional Crisis Unfolds in Honduras

A serious institutional crisis is taking place in Honduras as a result of President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a new constitution that would allow for his reelection. Zelaya, a close ally of Hugo Chávez, is barred from pursuing a second term in the general elections in November.

Unfortunately for Zelaya, he doesn’t have the backing of his own party, much less any other major political group. So he has moved unilaterally to call for a referendum on the need for a new constitution. The vote, which is scheduled for this Sunday, has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and condemned by the Honduran Congress and attorney general (whose office is not part of the cabinet in Honduras).

Despite the widespread institutional opposition to his plans, Zelaya is pushing for the vote. On Wednesday he ordered the Honduran armed forces to start distributing the ballots and other electoral materials throughout the country. The army chief, complying with the Supreme Court ruling, refused to obey the order. Zelaya sacked him, which prompted the resignation of all other leading army officers and the defense minister.

The attorney general is asking Congress to impeach Zelaya for violating the institutional order and abusing his powers. Last night, the Congress discussed removing Zelaya from his office. The president is defiant and has accused the Congress of attempting a coup.

In the meantime, thousands of Zelaya’s supporters are taking to the streets. Yesterday, a mob personally led by Zelaya stormed a Honduran air force base in order to retrieve the electoral materials that the generals refused to distribute. The army is reportedly deploying troops in the capital Tegucigalpa to prevent possible riots.

Zelaya’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, is not staying out of the row. Last night he warned that Venezuela and its allies won’t sit idle while the Honduran “elites” launch a coup d’etat against Zeleya. He threatened to do “whatever it takes” to defend him. It might be more hot air coming from Venezuela’s strongman, but it certainly raises the spectrum of foreign involvement in what constitutes a domestic Honduran crisis.

In an interesting twist, Zelaya has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene and defend Honduras’ democratic institutions. Most countries in the OAS are client-states of Chávez’s oil largesse. This is why the organization has repeatedly failed to condemn the abuses that Chávez and his Bolivarian friends in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have committed against democratic institutions, independent media, the opposition, and so on. More recently, the general assembly of the OAS has lifted the membership suspension imposed on Cuba, despite the country’s blatant violation of the democratic charter of the organization.

So it wouldn’t be surprising for the OAS to come to Zelaya’s rescue with a statement in his favor, despite his efforts to subvert Honduras’ democratic institutions. Mimicking Chávez’s words, the OAS envoy to Honduras has already said that the organization won’t recognize any government that comes out of “a coup.” José Miguel Insulza, the OAS secretary general, gave a confusing and ambiguous statement regarding the sacking of the army chief, saying that “the Armed Forces should obey the constitutional mandate and the constituted authority.” It sounds more like an endorsement of Zelaya’s position. The OAS general assembly is meeting today to discuss the crisis.

It’s clear that Zelaya is deliberately generating an institutional crisis. He can rely on the support of Chávez and his regional allies in the OAS. And he knows that if the armed forces try to remove him, it would look like a “coup d’etat” that would probably be widely condemned all throughout Latin America.

This is a real test for the OAS and its supposed (and tarnished) commitment to democratic republican principles.

Buy American, Destroy American Jobs

The “buy America” provision in the misnamed stimulus bill was supposed to protect jobs in the U.S.  Alas, by encouraging foreign protectionism, the measure is likely to end up destroying American jobs.

Indeed, the provision has all the earmarks of a grand political fiasco.  Reports the Financial Times:

Confusion reins. For fear of missing out on contracts, many companies are demanding that all their suppliers are Buy American-compliant regardless of any exemptions.

“Those companies that can comply are of course thrilled and are trumpeting that in their marketing. Those that cannot are in agony and are losing business and cutting workers,” says David Ralston, a government procurement lawyer at Foley & Lardner. “The many companies that find themselves in the gray areas are calling their lawyers.”

Canada’s government has been an early and vocal lobbyist against the measures, sending officials to Washington to warn that a trade war is brewing. Canadian municipalities threatened to attach “do not Buy American” provisions to their own public projects after manufacturers were cut out of US stimulus projects, but have agreed to hold off while the national government tries to resolve the problem.

Canada wants to broker a bilateral trade agreement on government contracts which would extend all the way down to the level of local authority. The US trade representative says it is open to the idea.

While this would quieten the Canadians, it could spark cries of protest from the US’s other trading partners. The British ambassador has given several speeches in recent weeks chastising the US over Buy American and the way it is being implemented. The Europeans are watching closely. But could the US write bilateral deals with them all? Buy American’s supporters in Congress would surely kick back.

The Chamber of Commerce is proposing a compromise. It has called on the administration to tell municipalities to act as if they were signatories to the federal government’s agreements. “I think there is enough flexibility for OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] to make that change. I don’t have a crystal ball but for multiple reasons it would make sense for them to do it,” says Chris Braddock, the Chamber’s procurement expert.

On Monday all groups with a stake in the debate submitted their written comments to the OMB, the White House department handling the stimulus. The administration must now write the final rules on how to implement Buy American.

The U.S. has gained enormously from the expansion of trade in recent years.  We all will lose if Washington now encourages a global retreat from free markets.

Press Release Economics in Michigan Picked Apart

This morning I blogged on the wave of state governments giving away taxpayer money to businesses in the name of “creating jobs.”  One of the examples I mentioned is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a state program that exists to generate press releases to provide cover for the state’s lamentable fiscal policies.

Michael LaFaive at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan was kind enough to send me a recent report he wrote on the folly of state subsidies to businesses.  State officials like to solicit studies from local universities that just happen to conclude that such-and-such government program is creating X number of jobs.  (Of course, in the rare occurrence that a study doesn’t come back with what the bureaucrats were expecting, such study will likely disappear into thin air.  I’ve seen that happen first hand.)  Michael’s paper deconstructs a study on the purported benefits of Michigan’s film maker subsidies, which was prepared by Michigan State University at the behest of the MEDC.  A quote he cites from a 2006 study on tourism-related economic development programs nails it:

“Most economic impact studies are commissioned to legitimize a political position rather than to search for economic truth. Often the result is mischievous procedures that produce large numbers that study sponsors seek to support a predetermined position.”

If you read nothing else, read the section on page 4 entitled “Why Government Subsidies Won’t Save Michigan’s Economy.”  The reasons apply to all fifty states, not just Michigan.

Trouble in Obamaland

The Washington Post reports on a recent survey:

The poll found little change in underlying public attitudes toward government since the inauguration, with slightly more than half saying they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services. Independents, however, now split 61 to 35 percent in favor of a smaller government; they were more narrowly divided on this question a year ago (52 to 44 percent), before the financial crisis hit.

The Obama team probably assumes people who identify as Republicans will disapprove of  Obama’s actions sooner rather than later. Independents, however, are crucial to keeping up his public approval and thereby getting what he wants out of Congress.  On the size of government — as well as on many specific policy issues — Obama is now running counter to public opinion.

This may be the beginning of the end of the beginning.

Americans Want Smaller Government

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll again shows that voters prefer “smaller government with fewer services” to “larger government with more services”:

Obama has used the power and financial resources of the federal government repeatedly as he has dealt with the country’s problems this year, to the consternation of his Republican critics. The poll found little change in underlying public attitudes toward government since the inauguration, with slightly more than half saying they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services. Independents, however, now split 61 to 35 percent in favor of a smaller government; they were more narrowly divided on this question a year ago (52 to 44 percent), before the financial crisis hit.

The Post calls a 54 to 41 lead for smaller government “barely more than half,” which is fair enough, though it’s twice as large as Obama’s margin over McCain. It’s also twice as large as the margin the Post found in the same poll in November 2007.

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–”more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. So maybe the margin in this poll would have been something like 59 to 37 if both sides of the question had been presented.

For more on “smaller government” polls, see here and here.

The “Culture of Spending” from the Mouths of Babes

Each semester, when I speak to Cato’s new employees and interns, I give them a quick discussion of some of the reasons that government tends to grow, such as the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs and what James Payne called “the culture of spending.” In his book by that title, Payne noted:

The congressman lives in a special world, a curiously isolated world that is dominated by the advocates of government action. He is subjected to a broad chorus of persuasion that incessantly urges the virtues of spending programs. Year after year he hears how necessary government programs are.

Day after day, year after year, people come to the congressman’s office with stories about why some particular government program is needed – to help their grandfather, their brother-in-law, their community – and rarely if ever does a constituent fly to Washington to urge his congressman to vote against any particular one of the myriad programs that add up to his entire income tax bill.

The Washington Post has a great illustration of this problem in the Sunday paper. The little town of Owego, New York, was excited to hear that Lockheed Martin would build the new presidential helicopter – it’s called Marine One, though fortunately for Lockheed the government wanted 23 of them – at a plant in Owego. But as the price tag ballooned from $6.8 billion to $13 billion, even politicians began to see it as an unnecessary expense. The military canceled the program on June 1. Hundreds of jobs will be lost in Owego. And as the Post writes:

An 11-year-old Owego girl, whose parents are longtime Lockheed employees, recently hand-wrote a letter to Obama. It was published in the local newspaper and quickly became a voice for her shaken community.

“Lockheed is the main job source in Owego,” Hailey Bell, now 12, wrote. “If you shut down the program, my mom may lose her job and a lot of other people too… . Owego will be a ghost town. I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here! Please really, really think it over.”

I’m sure she loves her parents and her town. And there’s no reason to expect Hailey to understand what $13 billion means to taxpaying Americans all over the country. But this is just the kind of story that members of Congress hear all the time: save my parents’ jobs, save my community, save our farms. And it all adds up to a $4 trillion federal budget with a $1.8 trillion deficit. (And by the way, if you Google “fiscal 2009 budget,” you will quickly find the Obama administration’s budget page, which somewhat oddly does not show the actual budget totals but does invite you to “Use the map below to learn more about how the President’s 2010 Budget is restoring long-term opportunity and prosperity in your state.”)

For a more, shall we say, adult view of what it means to direct federal dollars to particular areas, we might turn to an advertisement in the Durango, Colorado, Herald in 1987, which touted the Animas-La Plata dam and irrigation project  and made explicit the usual hidden calculations of those trying to get their hands on federal dollars:

Why we should support the Animas-La Plata Project: Because someone else is paying the tab! We get the water. We get the reservoir. They get the bill.

That’s the way they tell it back home, usually without putting it in writing. In public and in Washington, they say, “Without this dam, our little town will waste away. Only you can save us, Mr. Congressman.” And it’s bankrupting us.

Privatize the Post Office

Another day, another story on financial troubles at the federal government’s mail monopolist.  We don’t expect the government to make our blue jeans, transport fruits and veggies from the farm to the market, build computers and IPods, or manage the manufacturing of automobiles, so why must it continue to deliver first-class mail?  The quality of the USPS’s “services” has been a punchline in my family since I learned to walk.  But with technology rendering it’s clunky business model increasingly moot, Government Mail’s bottom line is looking uglier and uglier. It would cost me 44 cents to mail a letter to California, and it would cost me the same amount to mail that letter to the next town over.  What sense does that make?

As today’s editorial in the Washington Post leads off:

THE POST office may be the next too-big thing. If it continues on its present course, the U.S. Postal Service stands to post $6 billion to $12 billion in losses by the end of the fiscal year. By the end of the second quarter of fiscal 2009, it had racked up an operating loss of more than $2 billion, almost equal to its total losses last year. So far, the Postal Service has depended on loans from the Federal Financing Bank, a federal borrowing agency, to help make up the difference, but it is fast approaching its $15 billion credit limit. Something has to give.

Kudos to the Washington Post for proceeding to acknowledge that the rest of the western world has been trending toward privatization of it’s government mail monopolies for years.  My colleague Chris Edwards recently touched on the issue of privatizing the USPS as part of a larger piece on privatizing a plethora of federal operations:

The mammoth 685,000-person U.S. Postal Service is facing declining mail volume and rising costs. The way ahead is to privatize the USPS and repeal the company’s legal monopoly over first-class mail. Reforms in other countries show that there is no good reason for the current mail monopoly. Since 1998, New Zealand’s postal market has been open to private competition, with the result that postage rates have fallen and labor productivity at New Zealand Post has risen. Germany’s Deutsche Post was partly privatized in 2000, and the company has improved productivity and expanded into new businesses. Postal services have also been privatized or opened to competition in Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Japan is moving ahead with postal service privatization, and the European Union is planning to open postal services to competition in all its 27 member nations.