Topic: Government and Politics

Econ 101 for Democrats

Executives from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley met with Democratic staff members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week to make the case that trading in energy contracts is not the reason that oil prices are rising. Judging by Jeff Birnbaum’s report in the Washington Post, it’s not easy to teach Democrats about economics:

But the executives were met with skepticism and occasional hostility. “Spare us your lecture about supply and demand,” one of the Democratic aides said, abruptly cutting off one of the executives.

Another aide “warned the executives that no matter what arguments they muster, it would be hard to prevent Congress from acting.” So much for fact-finding and economic sanity in an election year.

He’s a Politician after All

This might be a shocker to many, but Barack Obama has admitted that he’s a politician after all. After calling NAFTA “a big mistake” and “devastating” just 2 months ago, the presumptive Democratic nominee now thinks that the trade agreement is not that bad.

He justifies this U-turn saying that “Politicians are always guilty of [overheated and amplified rhetoric], and I don’t exempt myself.” This is coming from someone who, on the campaign trail, has attacked those who would say anything to get elected.

Pundit Watch

I pulled the September 24, 2007, copy of the New Republic out from a stack on my coffee table last night and happened on a fascinating column about the upcoming primaries. John Judis laid out in convincing detail just why the primary race was likely to go all the way to June and maybe even to the convention. He did acknowledge that people had made such predictions before:

Of course, dire prognostications of brokered conventions are made nearly every election…. But the structure of the election has changed this year. The old schedule of primaries and caucuses was designed to winnow the field. Invariably, only two candidates were left standing by March, one of whom would eventually capture enough delegates through the remaining contests to win the nomination. By contrast, the 2008 schedule concentrates more than half of the primary and caucus votes in the first month, which ends February 5. If there is no clear frontrunner by then, the race will probably continue on into June and perhaps even up until the convention.

And that’s why, he said, the delegates just might find themselves choosing the nominee at their convention in Minneapolis.

Yes, Minneapolis. Not Denver. The Republican convention. Because, Judis said, it was likely that Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson would divide the states on a regional basis and no one would get a majority of the delegates. “So there is a very good chance that, by June, none of the Republican candidates will have secured the nomination.”

And then what would happen? Well, “the struggle for the nomination would probably move to the GOP convention’s rules committee,” which would have to decide, among other things, whether to disqualify delegates from Florida and other states that held their primaries too early.

TNR readers might have been worrying, Could this happen to our party? Not to worry, said Judis:

Democrats seem far less likely to face this sort of challenge next year. Indeed, Hillary Clinton appears to be putting her competition behind her, and none of her challengers has a built-in regional advantage that will ensure a respectable block of delegates….In fact, the compressed primary schedule could make a stalemate less rather than more likely for Democrats….While Republicans become ever more fractious as the general election approaches, Democrats will have already spent months coalescing around a new leader.

In this I think Judis was doubly, or triply, wrong. Not only did he get the primary process completely wrong in each party, I think he was wrong to predict that a drawn-out nominating process would be bad for the party. It seems clear today that Barack Obama has greatly benefited from the long battle with Hillary Clinton: he held the nation’s attention longer, he became a sharper debater, he raised unprecedented sums of money, he built an organization in every state, he faced a lot of the revelations and charges that would otherwise have come up closer to the election.

So … what are the pundits predicting about the fall election?

Sustainable Architecture - A (Real Life) Straw Man?

If you’re free Friday morning, you might want to hop on over to the Russell Senate Office Building to learn about the amazing, inexplicable, short-sighted market bias against straw-bale buildings and the need for the feds to do something about it. The Environmental & Energy Study Institute, the sponsor of this event,

Invites you to learn how the ‘new but old’ method of straw-bale construction can help address some of our most serious national policy challenges, such as record energy prices and unemployment, inadequate supply of affordable housing, the threat of climate change, and pressing needs in transportation and infrastructure funding. The modern building industry places heavy demands on the energy and transportation sectors. Straw is a locally-sourced, widely available, and renewable resource that builders, architects, engineers, and home owners are turning into affordable, safe, durable, and energy-efficient buildings in many climates. The following presenters will discuss the benefits of using this American invention, the regulatory barriers and institutional biases against straw-bale construction, and the role of the federal government in resolving these issues.

And that parable about the three little pigs? A PR smear spun by “Big Brick” no doubt.

Political Brouhaha

InBev, a giant Belgian beer conglomerate, has made a bid to purchase Anheuser-Busch, the brewer of popular beers like Budweiser, Bud Light, and Michelob – not to mention lesser-known, though equally-delicious beverages such as Bud Dry, Busch Ice, Hurricane High Gravity, and King Cobra.

Anheuser-Busch is of course, headquartered in St. Louis.  So it should come as no surprise that Missouri politicians have sprung into action to block the deal.

Senator Claire McCaskill is “nervous” and “upset” and plans on contacting the board of director’s at Anheuser-Busch to urge them to stop the deal.  Governor Matt Blunt finds the deal “deeply troubling” and is frantically searching for a state law that would allow him to intervene.

Senator Kit Bond has honed in on a specific set of laws that he believes should be used to block the deal. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Mukasey and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Kovacic he claims:

The proposed foreign acquisition of Anheuser-Busch is troubling to me because it potentially raises antitrust issues under existing law by putting a significant market share of the U.S. in the hands of fewer competitors.  I urge you to scrutinize closely InBev’s proposed acquisition of Anheuser-Busch to protect the interests of American consumers and the
U.S. economy.

This is yet another case of government officials trying to meddle in the free market to protect parochial interests. Thankfully, early indications suggest that despite the pleadings of Missouri’s elected officials, the federal government will not intervene in the possible deal. 

The political uproar should serve as a reminder of why Congress should repeal antitrust laws altogether. As the Cato Handbook on Policy explains:

More than two centuries ago, in the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that ‘‘people of the same trade seldom meet together … but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.’’ Coming from the father of laissez faire, that warning has been cited ad nauseam by antitrust proponents to justify all manner of interventionist mischief. Those same proponents, whether carelessly or deviously, rarely mention Smith’s next sentence: ‘‘It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice.’’

Antitrust is bad law, bad economics, and bad public policy. It deserves an ignominious burial—sooner rather than later.

Cheers to that.

Obama Tax Proposals

Candidate Obama has introduced an array of tax proposals, which he discusses in various places on his campaign website. There are four overlapping themes in the Obama tax proposals the way I see it:

  1. Social engineering.
  2. Discrimination.
  3. Economic micromanagement.
  4. Empty populism.

Under social engineering, I would put Obama’s plan to greatly increase the dependent care tax credit. That would further encourage parents to find institutional day care for their children, rather than providing care themselves.

Under discrimination, I would put Obama’s proposed special tax break for the elderly. The federal fiscal system is already heavily tilted in favor of the elderly, thus it is unclear why Obama would want to further discriminate against the young. 

Obama’s “American Opportunity Tax Credit” also creates unfair discrimination. This new tax break for college essentially increases subsidizes for future lawyers, accountants, and other professionals. Why subsidize these folks who will likely have much higher earnings than factory workers, retail clerks, and others who don’t go to college?

Under economic micromanagement, I would put Obama’s Patriot Employer Act, which provides tax breaks to certain businesses that jump through hoops related to hiring, wages, and other items.  Obama wants to cut capital gains taxes on certain investments and increase capital gains taxes on others, and he is proposing various narrow energy tax breaks. 

Under empty populism, I would put Obama’s railings against “tax haven abuse” and “corporate loopholes.” If Mr. Obama really wanted to reduce corporate tax avoidance–rather than just using it as a campaign prop–he would join with John McCain and call for an across-the-board corporate rate cut.

A final category might be “innocuous tax cuts that do nothing for economic growth.” Here I would put Obama’s $500 payroll tax credit called “making work pay.” If Obama had wanted to spur employment, he should have proposed a cut in the payroll tax rate, which would change the marginal incentive to work, unlike the proposed credit.

In sum, Obama’s tax proposals are pretty awful. It is true that many Republicans and Democrats have proposed similarly bad tax ideas over the years. But Obama can be contrasted with candidate McCain, who thus far has avoided narrow favoritism in his tax proposals, and favors broad-based tax reductions designed to spur economic growth.