Topic: Government and Politics


Good news for Virginia taxpayers! Turns out that gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, longtime Democratic fundraiser and former national chairman, understands the power of tax cuts. At a forum on Wednesday, he said that $1.25 million in tax cuts could generate $80 million in economic activity. I’m not sure even Art Laffer or Christina Romer would claim that much return on tax cuts. But here’s McAuliffe:

At George Mason University yesterday, McAuliffe said Virginia’s appeal to Hollywood filmmakers could improve the state’s economic picture. McAuliffe said he became familiar with the potency of the film industry while serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

During a roundtable discussion with local filmmakers and producers at George Mason, he unveiled a proposal to offer additional tax incentives and other benefits to film crews making movies in Virginia. He said the state has been losing out to such states as North Carolina and Georgia, which offer greater benefits and have seen their film industries flourish.

He pointed to the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” about the nation’s second president, as an example of a film project that had benefited the state. The miniseries, filmed partly in Williamsburg and at the College of William and Mary, cost Virginia $1.25 million in tax breaks, but it boosted the local economy by $80 million and created 3,500 jobs, he said.

Unless … wait a minute. Could it be that McAuliffe only favors targeted tax cuts, tax cuts that would direct economic activity in a particular direction, tax cuts that would in fact help his Hollywood fundraising friends? Hard to say. He’s not calling for tax increases during his gubernatorial campaign, but of course he helped President Clinton raise taxes and he supports President Obama’s tax-spend-and-borrow policies. According to this liberal blogger, McAuliffe tells liberals privately that he can’t run for governor of Virginia on a tax-increase platform … if you get my drift.

But hey, if a $1.25 million tax break can generate $80 million of economic activity, what could a $125 million tax break do for Virginia?

Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns Returns

Taxpayer financing of congressional campaigns has returned.

Yesterday Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced a modified version of their public financing bill first proposed in 2007, now as then called the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA).  The older version included “free media vouchers” and discounted ad rates for television; the new model focuses more on small contributions and matching funds from the federal treasury.

These bills to finance campaigns with government revenue are often introduced in Congress and rarely make any headway, much less pass either chamber.  Their perennial failure is not difficult to understand. Members are interested in campaign finance regulations that make it more difficult for challengers to raise money.  They are not interested in giving candidates federal revenue to run against incumbents. Members are especially unwilling to fund campaigns because the public takes a dim view of  using taxes in this way.

FENA tries to avoid public opposition by creating the appearance that taxpayers do not actually fund this scheme.

As Politico reports:

In the Senate version, the public money would come from assessing the country’s largest government contractors with a small surcharge… In the House, the money would come from the sale of broadcast spectrum.

But the question should be asked: if public financing of campaigns will actually achieve all the great things claimed by its proponents, shouldn’t the public be asked to pay the bill? After all, the public can expect to receive the promised benefits. Why should the bill be financed by government contractors and the sale of public assets?

We know the answer to these questions. Durbin and Specter have to obscure the role of taxes in these schemes because the public would oppose the bill if taxpayers were on the hook for the funding. Yet the senators obscure rather than eliminate the role of the taxpayer who will have to pay higher levies to fund more expensive government contracts or to replace the money that might have been obtained from the sale of the spectrum.  Once the FENA lunch turns out not to be free, will voters feel like paying the tab?

The rationale for the new program also merits attention. In the past, advocates of taxpayer financing argued that private financing of campaigns corrupted representation, policymaking, and the general political culture.  Replacing private contributions with public financing would, it was claimed, remove private interests and end corruption.  That rationale appealed to most of the supporters of  public financing; they tend toward the left politically and had little trouble believing the Republicans running Congress – all of them – were corrupt.  But 2006 brought the Democrats back to power, and general claims of corruption no longer fit the background assumptions of both powerful legislators and supporters of public financing. So we now hear little about corruption and a lot about how FENA will free up legislators to “tend to the people’s business.”

Will “tending to the people’s business” be enough to convince Americans to spend tax dollars funding congressional campaigns at a time of record public sector deficits brought about by reckless spending on bailouts and much else?

The question answers itself.

When the Government Takes Your Money, It Takes Your Property

When Daniel and Andrea McClung applied for a permit to build a small business on their property in Sumner, Washington, the city charged them nearly $50,000 to pay for improvements to the city’s entire storm drainage system.

The McClungs sued the city under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, whose Takings Clause prohibits the government from “taking” private property for public use without just compensation.  They argue that the city cannot force them to pay fees for off-site pipes absent proof that their development would have a specific detrimental effect on the existing drainage system–and without any evidence that the impact was worth $50,000.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the city, reasoning that money is not property (so there could be no unconstitutional taking) and that because the fees were imposed by ordinance (so the city’s determination that the pipes needed upgrading was justification enough for the fees).  The McClungs have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case.

Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Building Industry Association of Washington, argues that this case is a perfect vehicle for the Court to revisit the scope of Fifth Amendment protections.

Our brief highlights the deep divisions among state and federal courts over several important issues, such as whether the Takings Clause applies to legislative (as opposed to bureaucratic) exactions and whether it applies to monetary exactions (not just burdens on land use).  The Court should take this case to ensure that the standard for reviewing development conditions is uniform across the country and make clear that property right protections do not depend on ill-defined distinctions such as the form of property demanded by the government or the manner in which a condition is imposed.

Court Embraces the Spirit of Aloha

Today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the resolution Congress passed in 1993 to apologize for U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy—a determination that remains controversial among historians—did not affect Hawaii’s sovereign authority to sell or transfer the lands that the United States had granted to the State at the time of its admission to the Union.  In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court correctly explained that the words of the Apology Resolution were conciliatory and hortatory, creating no substantive rights—and indeed the resolution’s operative clauses differ starkly from those which provided compensation to, for example, the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

Importantly, the Court also noted that it would “raise grave constitutional concerns” if any act of Congress purported to cloud Hawaii’s title to sovereign lands so long after its admission to the Union.  This last point is perhaps most important to the ongoing debate over the “Akaka Bill,” which would create a race-based entity to extract political and economic concessions from the state and federal governments on behalf of ill-defined “native Hawaiians.”  It is delicious irony that Hawaii’s attorney general, Mark Bennett, an Akaka Bill supporter, secured this victory.

Just as Hawaii is now allowed to develop state lands for the benefit of all its citizens, hopefully Congress will in future refrain from inflaming racial divisions and instead treat all Hawaiians, regardless of race, with the legal equality to which they are entitled.

Further Cato materials on the above: Here’s our brief in the case, Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs.  Here are articles I wrote on the case and on the on the Akaka Bill.  Here is a write-up of a debate I had at the University of Hawaii last month.  Finally, here is a podcast I did for the Grassroot Institute (Hawaii’s free-market think tank) – where, among other things, I correctly predicted the Court’s vote today and the scope of its opinion.

Government Motors collected and posted sundry opinions about Rick Wagoner’s dismissal as GM CEO yesterday. Those opinions, including mine, are posted here. But to spare you the click, here’s what I wrote:

President Obama’s newly discovered prudence with taxpayer money and his tough-love approach to GM and Chrysler would both have more credibility if he hadn’t demanded Rick Wagoner’s resignation, as well. By imposing operational conditions normally reserved for boards of directors, the administration is now bound to the infamous “Pottery Barn” rule: you break it, you buy it. If things go further south, the government is now complicit.

It also means that Wagoner was perceived as an obstacle to whatever plans the administration has for GM. And that’s the real source of concern. If getting these companies back on their feet is the objective, a bankruptcy judge can make a determination pretty quickly about the viability of the firms and the steps necessary to get there. But if the objective is something more grandiose, such as transforming the industry into a model of green production, government oversight and close scrutiny of operations will be necessary. CEOs must be compliant and pliant. It is worth noting that a return to profitability and the metamorphosis of the industry according to a government script work at cross purposes.

How Progressive Are You?

I’m two weeks late coming to this, but the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” Obama Administration Farm Team Center for American Progress has developed a quiz aiming to answer the question, “How Progressive Are You?“  The quiz asks you to rank, on a 10-point scale, how much you agree with 40 different statements.  Now, I won’t quibble here with the misuse of the word “progressive” – having debased the term “liberal” (which in any other country pretty much means what Cato supports), the Left moves on to its next target – but the quiz highlights the false dichotomy between “progressive” and “conservative.” 

The fallacy of this linear political spectrum forces people to wring their hands and call themselves “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” – does anyone call themselves “fiscally liberal” even if they are? – or “moderate” (no firm views on anything, huh?) or anything else that adds no descriptive meaning to a political discussion.  Where do you put a Jim Webb?  A Reagan Democrat?  A Ross Perot voter?  A gay Republican?  A deficit hawk versus a supply-sider?  Let alone Crunchy Cons, Purple Americans, Wal-Mart Republicans, South Park Conservatives, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and, oh yes, libertarians. 

And the statements the quiz asks you to evaluate are just weird.  I mean, yes, “Lower taxes are generally a good thing” (I paraphrase) gets you somewhere, but what does “Talking with rogue nations such as Iran or with state-sponsored terrorist groups is naive and only gives them legitimacy” get you?  Or “America has taken too large a role in solving the world’s problems and should focus more at home”?  What is the “progressive” response to these statements?  The “conservative” one?  I think I know what the Bush response and the Obama response would be to the first one, but how does either fit into any particular ideology? 

The Institute for Humane Studies at least gives you a two-dimensional quiz, so you can see how much government intervention you want in economic and social affairs (the “progressive” view presumably being lots of intervention in the economy, none on social issues).  And IHS poses classical debates in political philosophy rather than thinly veiled leading questions relating to current affairs.  

In any event, when you finish the quiz, it tells you your score and that the average score for Americans is 209.5.  How do they get this number?  A selectively biased survey of people who frequent the CAP website would surely score much higher on the progressive scale.  No, it’s based on a “National Study of Values and Beliefs.”  Well, ok, but, again, if those are the types of questions you ask people – or, even worse, the quiz designers code the survey responses – I’m not sure how much I care about the result.   (Incidentally, the survey reveals that “the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades.”  Great, that’s either a banal formulation of the fact that Democrats have retaken the political branches or a self-serving conclusion.  Or both.)

In case anyone cares, I scored 100 out of 400, which makes me “very conservative.”  I suppose that won’t come as a surprise to my “progressive” friends, but then I’m always talking to them about how bad the bailouts/stimuli are for the economy, how we should actually follow the Constitution, etc.  All the folks who over the years have called me a libertine or hedonist, however, will not be amused to learn that I’m actually one of them…

Who’s Blogging about Cato

A few bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin wrote about Cato’s forthcoming full-page ad on climate change that will run in newspapers around the country next week.
  • Wes Messamore helped set the record straight: Cato scholars have criticized the growth of government regardless of who’s in power.
  • Brandon Dutcher posted Cato’s Monday podcast with Adam Schaeffer on universal pre-school.