Topic: Government and Politics

Don’t Call It “Stimulus”

David Friedman raises a very good point:

A well chosen name wins an argument by assuming its conclusion. Label cash subsidies to foreign government as “foreign aid” and who can be so hard hearted as to oppose them? Call subsidies to the public schools “aid to education” and you neatly skip over the question of whether additional spending in the public school system results in more education.

And “economic stimulus” is a classic example.

Everyone—including Obama, back when he was running for President—is against deficit spending. Relabel it “stimulus” and everyone is for it. The label neatly evades the question of whether having the government borrow money and spend it is actually a way of getting out of a recession—a claim for which evidence is distinctly thin. It is stimulus, so obviously it must stimulate.

So what should we call it? President Obama’s spending proposal? The deficit-spending package? I think we’d have trouble getting the media to call it the Big Boondoggle. Maybe the government bailout, following the Wall Street bailout and the auto bailout?

Alas, we’re probably stuck debating the “stimulus.” But that means the battle was half lost before it began.

Cato Unbound: An Appreciation of Partisanship

This month’s Cato Unbound is up, featuring a lead essay by Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum. She discusses themes developed more fully in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. Rosenblum makes the case that political parties have gotten an undeserved bad reputation, and that they do useful, unappreciated coordinating work in democratic politics.

In the first response essay, Brink Lindsey replies in essence that political parties are much better than they used to be, but there’s still plenty to complain about. Response essays by Henry Farrell of George Washington University and James Fishkin of Stanford University will appear on Friday and Monday, respectively, followed by a blog chat among the authors.

My own biggest questions on the topic are as follows.

First, is it even meaningful to say that we are “for” or “against” partisanship? Or, when we say this, are we really just saying that we’re for or against certain aspects of partisanship? Political parties seem to appear wherever we find the concepts of representative democracy and loyal opposition. Complaining about political parties is a bit like being against the weather.

We may hate many of the things that political parties do, but their main alternatives seem to be dictatorships and death squads. Even the most committed anti-partisans wouldn’t go that route. And even those who cheer for partisan politics may seem to be making a virtue of necessity.

Second, what about the legal regime that sustains the two-party system? The rules that support partisan politics were written by partisans, after all. Certainly we can’t just take them as a given. Ballot access regulations, campaign finance rules, and the incumbent advantage help to give us the specific type of partisan politics we have. Who else gets to write their own ticket like that, and should we let them?

The Audacity of Spin

Regarding Tom Daschle’s withdrawal from consideration to be the next secretary of Health & Human Services, a front-page story in this morning’s Washington Post pulls off one of the most ingenious feats of political spin I’ve ever seen:

But some observing the debacle wondered if the capital’s ways were changing. The story of how [Daschle] fell in with the monied elite and out with the popular mood involves a longtime Democratic financier, Leo Hindery Jr., and his keen interest in currying influence with powerful politicians. The outcome caught many in Washington off guard.

“I think it’s possible this is some sort of bridge between an old Washington and the new Washington,” David Arkush of Congress Watch said of the initial backing of Daschle and the sudden reversal.

So you see, Daschle’s withdrawal is actually a victory for President Obama!  He’s changing Washington already!  Brilliant!

Actually, the brilliance is Arkush’s for getting the Post to adopt his spin both in the article and the subtitle (“Some See Failed Nomination as Harbinger of Change”).

For the record, I hope Arkush is right.  I hope Obama does something about the revolving door that lets people like Daschle write complicated laws and then make millions of dollars helping people navigate and alter them.  Of course, as they say, the only way to reduce the amount of money in politics is to reduce the size of government.

“Economists across the Spectrum” Continue to Flee Stimulus Bill

People like Robert Reich, who try to back up the claims of President Obama and Vice President Biden that “economic advisers across the political spectrum support Obama’s plan,” have managed to come up with two names of economists who support the stimulus plan and would not be regarded as left of center: Martin Feldstein of Harvard, a former top economic adviser to President Reagan, and Mark Zandi of Moody’s, who was an adviser to John McCain last fall. And now the Washington Post has blown both of those names out of the water. Leaving – by my count – exactly zero libertarian or conservative economists on that much-touted spectrum. As the Post notes this morning:

Democrats lost Feldstein on Thursday when the Harvard professor published a Washington Post op-ed declaring the House bill “an $800 billion mistake” laden with ineffective provisions.

As for Zandi,

The 49-year-old economist is a Democratic dream, a former adviser to GOP presidential candidate John McCain who advocates spending over tax cuts as the best way to deliver a quick jolt.

And Democrats have touted him a lot:

In floor speeches and news conferences, Democratic lawmakers confer on Zandi an authority once bestowed on Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman.

“I’m just saying what Mark Zandi from Moody’s, an adviser to John McCain, is saying: You have to have a package of this robustness if you’re going to make a difference,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a recent news conference. …

“I think [he] is a Republican. I am pretty sure he is,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said of Zandi after a recent meeting. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) described Zandi on Fox News as a “conservative Republican.” Defending the bill’s sizable spending during a recent CNBC interview, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) responded: “I think if you listen to economists like Mark Zandi, who was the economic adviser to John McCain in the presidential election, he has said this is the right mix.”

But wait! Post reporter Shailagh Murray actually asked Zandi about his politics.

“I’m a registered Democrat,” he acknowledged.

He signed up with McCain when Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the candidate’s chief economic aide and a longtime friend, asked him to join the campaign’s diverse economic advisory team. “My policy is I will help any policymaker who asks, whether they be a Republican or a Democrat,” Zandi said.

So … the count of Republican or conservative or libertarian economists who support Obama’s biggest-spending-bill-in-world-history stands at … zero. And hundreds of economists have declared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers that they don’t support the plan. It’s time for politicians, pundits, and journalists to stop making this claim.

Obama’s Next Step on Transparency: A Shortcut

I’ve been following President Obama’s early moves on government transparency on the Tech Liberation Front blog and here on Cato@Liberty.

Last week, Obama’s first broken campaign promise was the pledge to post legislation online for five days before signing it.

Well, the White House is working to address that, but it appears to be doing so with a half-measure that comes up short. On Sunday, the White House blog announced that the SCHIP legislation pending in the Senate was up for public comment. And it is, of course, but it hasn’t passed the Senate yet.

It was implicit in the promise to post bills online for five days prior to signing that the bill posted would be the one passed by the House and Senate and presented to the President.

If the White House were to implement the promised practice of leaving bills sitting out there, unsigned, after they pass Congress, that would have significant effects. The practice would threaten to reveal excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks which could bring down otherwise good bills. President Obama’s promised five-day cooling off period would force the House and Senate to act with more circumspection.

Taking comments on a bill as it makes its way through the House and Senate does not have the same salutary effect. If the White House is trying to start the five-day clock on the SCHIP bill with the posting of a comment page on Sunday, that is not consistent with President Obama’s promise.

Sarah and the Giant Stimulus

My blog yesterday on potential 2012 GOP candidates and the stimulus provoked a deluge of e-mails from fans of Sarah Palin objecting to my characterization of her support for the bill. And Palin’s office, responding to news reports (like this one from Fox News and the Associated Press that I relied on), put out a statement attempting to clarify her position. It wasn’t particularly successful.

Palin does urge Congress to “consider” whether the stimulus bill is too big and burdens future generations with debt, but unlike some other governors (Sanford, Barbour, Jindal, for example), she does not call for the bill’s defeat or urge her congressional delegation to vote against it. Instead, she goes on to raise her big concern with the bill – it doesn’t give enough money to Alaska:

“Governor Palin discussed troubling elements in the stimulus package including provisions that punish Alaska for forward-funding education, the mass transit funding formula that will limit Alaska opportunities but will pour money into other states, and the “shovel-ready” criteria for projects that northern climates might not be able to accommodate consistently due to the shortened construction season.”

Earlier Governor Palin sent a letter to her congressional delegation in which she similarly complained, not about the spending in the stimulus bill per se, but about the formulas for distributing the funds, which she believes short changes her state (as if Alaska were not already a wholly-owned subsidiary of the federal government.) She also wants the bill to include five specific projects (we used to call those “earmarks.”)

So, I’ll stand (somewhat) corrected. Governor Palin didn’t lobby for the bill. She just lobbied for her share of the pork.