Topic: Government and Politics

No Majority Yet

The banner headline across the top of this morning’s Washington Post is

Obama Takes Delegate Majority

But that isn’t true. As the story itself (and the online headline) correctly said, Sen. Barack Obama is now “claiming a majority of the pledged delegates at stake.” His campaign is doing a great job of getting the media to declare that a “milestone” and a “major victory.” But in fact it tells us nothing we didn’t know already: Obama is ahead of Sen. Hillary Clinton in the race, and it seems impossible for Clinton to catch up. But “a majority of the pledged delegates” is virtually meaningless. There are several kinds of delegates that make up the convention, and you have to get a majority of all the delegates. “A majority of the pledged delegates” is no more relevant than Obama claiming “a majority of the delegates from coastal states” or Clinton claiming “a majority of the white delegates.” (I don’t actually know if either candidate has those majorities.) When Obama produces a list of 2025 delegates pledged to vote for him, it will be time for the Post to drag today’s headline out again.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Just a little campaign bombast.

A David Brooks Two-fer!

David BrooksCouple of notes on recent David Brooks-related program activities. First, he calls the small-government wing of the conservative movement un-American. No, honestly, he does:

At the end of [1995], when the radical conservatives in the Gingrich Congress shut down the federal government, they learned that the American public was genuinely attached to the modern state. “An anti-government philosophy turned out to be politically unpopular and fundamentally un-American,” Brooks said. “People want something melioristic, they want government to do things.”

Then, in today’s column for the Times, Brooks points out how screwed up the legislative process is, a function of myriad rent-seekers, lobbyists and special interests. His foil? The farm bill:

Interest groups turn every judicial fight into an ideological war. They lobby for more spending on the elderly, even though the country is trillions of dollars short of being able to live up to its promises. They’ve turned environmental concern into subsidies for corn growers and energy concerns into subsidies for oil companies.

The $307 billion farm bill that rolled through Congress is a perfect example of the pattern. Farm net income is up 56 percent over the past two years, yet the farm bill plows subsidies into agribusinesses, thoroughbred breeders and the rest.

The growers of nearly every crop will get more money. Farmers in the top 1 percent of earners qualify for federal payments. Under the legislation, the government will buy sugar for roughly twice the world price and then resell it at an 80 percent loss. Parts of the bill that would have protected wetlands and wildlife habitat were deleted or shrunk.

My colleagues on The Times’s editorial page called the bill “disgraceful.” My former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page ripped it as a “scam.” Yet such is the logic of collective action; the bill is certain to become law. It passed with 81 votes in the Senate and 318 in the House — enough to override President Bush’s coming veto. Nearly everyone in Congress got something.

Funny thing, though: I bet I can think of a much, much better example of what Brooks is driving at here. After all, at least there was broad elite consensus that the farm bill was depraved. But where could we find an example of a legislative product where literally all interests are tied up in rent-seeking and resource extraction? Ah, right:

In current national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are on one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive U.S. national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former defense secretary Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Hitler and Stalin destroyed America’s isolationist tradition. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organize interest groups against defense spending. A scattering of libertarians and anti-war liberals confronts a bipartisan juggernaut. The information about national security threats comes to Americans principally from people driven by organizational or electoral incentives toward threat inflation.

Physician, heal thyself. Yet more evidence the that contemporary Right offers nothing of value to libertarians.

Medicare Advantage for All

The Church of Universal Coverage is whipping itself into a fervor over the Healthy Americans Act (S.334), a piece of legislation originally introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that promises “affordable, guaranteed private health coverage that will make Americans healthier and can never be taken away.”  Wyden has enlisted seven Republican senators as cosponsors, including such conservatives as Lamar Alexander (TN), Bob Bennett (UT), Mike Crapo (ID), and Judd Gregg (NH). 

That guarantee and that bipartisan support have generated opeds in major newspapers, a web site, journal articles, a preliminary scoring by the Congressional Budget Office, and much twittering among the left-wing blogocracy that this could be the vehicle for achieving universal coverage.  There’s even a clever video that, come to think of it, supporters of market-based health care reforms could emulate in selling their own ideas.

What’s most interesting about all this is that so many conservative Republicans are acquiescing to a sweeping government takeover of the health care sector.  The Healthy Americans Act wouldn’t go quite so far as to enact the Left’s long-sought dream of “Medicare for All,” where government would dictate the terms of coverage for all Americans, set the prices, and cut checks to the doctors.  Rather, it would throw us all into a Medicare Advantage-like program, where government would dictate the terms of coverage, set the prices, and cut checks to … insurance companies.  Call it “Medicare Advantage for All.”  I have more to say about how the Healthy Americans Act would operate in this podcast

The conservative group Americans for Tax Reform claims the Act would constitute “the largest tax increase in history.”  Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey accuses the bill’s GOP supporters – in particular Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking Republican on the Senate’s committee of jurisdiction – of “signing on with the government-run health-care Democrats.” 

So why would conservative Republicans sign on to such a bill?  In particular, why Bennett, who has done an admirable job as a member of the Joint Economic Committee of trying to explain free-market concepts to his fellow senators? 

Given the general lack of health-policy literacy on the Right, it seems plausible that these conservatives just didn’t know what they were doing – or that their understanding of the legislation was sufficiently dim that any resistance could be overcome just by dangling the words “health savings accounts” in front of them.

A more troubling prospect is that these conservative senators and their staffs knew exactly what they were supporting, but made the calculation that their immediate political needs are more important than their fellow citizen’s health and freedom.

Rep. Tom Davis, Republican Brand Mangler - Er, Manager

In the opening segment of this week’s Washington Week on PBS, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) commented on the viability of the Republican party in the upcoming elections: “The Republican brand name - if you were to put this on a dog food - the owners would just take it off the shelf because nobody’s buying it.”

Davis has more than a little responsibility for these circumstances. He’s been a consistent cheerleader of the REAL ID Act, for example, the moribund national ID law. He has consistently pressed and promoted REAL ID. He claimed that imposing $17 billion in costs on state governments is not an unfunded mandate, and pretended like shaking $50 million in federal money loose made any difference. Davis saluted the final regulations when they were issued earlier this year.

In a REAL ID story including Davis, Federal Computer Week saw fit to note that he “represents a Northern Virginia district heavily populated by federal employees and government contractors.”

P.J. O’Rourke comments in the most recent Cato’s Letter: “It took a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives 40 years—from 1954 to 1994—to get … corrupt and arrogant, and the Republicans did it in just 12.” Being wrong on liberty, even in service to your district’s government contractors, is not good for your party’s brand, Mr. Davis.

When Would McCain Intervene?

Matt Bai has a writeup in this Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine of McCain’s vision on foreign policy. Buckle up:

McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain’s view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet….

[…]

[A]s we talked, I tried to draw out of him some template for knowing when military intervention made sense — an answer, essentially, to the question that has plagued policy makers confronting international crises for the last 20 years. McCain has said that the invasion of Iraq was justified, even absent the weapons of mass destruction he believed were there, because of Hussein’s affront to basic human values. Why then, I asked McCain, shouldn’t we go into Zimbabwe, where, according to that morning’s paper, allies of the despotic president, Robert Mugabe, were rounding up his political opponents and preparing to subvert the results of the country’s recent national election? How about sending soldiers into Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest by a military junta?

“I think in the case of Zimbabwe, it’s because of our history in Africa,” McCain said thoughtfully. “Not so much the United States but the Europeans, the colonialist history in Africa. The government of South Africa has obviously not been effective, to say the least, in trying to affect the situation in Zimbabwe, and one reason is that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of modern colonialism. So that’s a problem I think we will continue to have on the continent of Africa. If you send in Western military forces, then you risk the backlash from the people, from the legacy that was left in Africa because of the era of colonialism.”

The United States faced a similar obstacle in Myanmar, McCain went on, shaking his head sadly. “First of all, you’d have to gauge the opinion of the people over time, whether you’d be greeted as liberators or as occupiers,” McCain said. “I would be concerned about the possibility that if it were mishandled, we might see an insurgent movement.” He talked a bit about Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he called “one of the great figures of the 20th century,” but then wondered aloud if the American public would support a military intervention.

“It goes back to the Vietnam thing,” McCain told me. “I’m just not sure the American people would support a military engagement in Burma, no matter how justified the cause. And I can’t tell you exactly when it would be over. And I can’t tell you exactly what the reaction of the people there would be.”

Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn’t make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, “Why intervene?” McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, “Why not?”

Thankfully, though, the Washington Post is reporting that McCain apparently has a secret plan to win the war in Iraq by 2013.

The Gas Tax Holiday Explained

The commentariat (including Cato folks and friends) have spent the past couple of weeks sounding off on John McCain and Hillary Clinton’s proposals to suspend the federal motor fuels tax this summer. The commentary has been almost uniformly critical of the idea, and some of the harshest critics have been economists.

Unfortunately, a lot of this commentary seems to be value judgments disguised as economics. Also, much of the economic analysis makes assumptions about the market that may not be correct or that may be offset by other market conditions — but the commentators do not mention (and may even forget) those problems. Put simply, though the idea of a gas tax holiday may be flawed, many of the opinion and analysis pieces on the McCain and Clinton proposals appear to be flawed as well.

Peter Van Doren and I have put together this short paper on the microeconomics of the gas tax. Don’t let the figures and the talk of “elasticities” throw you — the ideas are easy to understand.

The upshot is this: Contrary to many economists’ claims, it’s quite possible that a tax holiday could give consumers some price relief on motor fuels. (This is an economic insight.) However, it’s an open question whether that savings is worth its cost. (Answering that question requires a value judgment.)

California: Poster Child for Poor Fiscal Management

On Wednesday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is releasing his revised budget proposal against a backdrop of a massive deficit.  In my op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I lay out the background of the “fiscal crisis” in the state (too much spending) and point out a few specific programs the governor can terminate.  Enacting a spending limit and working to increase the use of public-private partnerships would be great, but this year’s budget debate highlights the need to also eliminate programs, cut spending (not merely spending growth) and refocus the state government on its core functions. 

Not from California?  Your state has also likely forgotten the lessons of the 1990s and may have its own “crisis” brewing.