Topic: Government and Politics

Hold the Presses! Public Doesn’t Believe Obama on Deficits!

Shocking, I know.  But while the public likes President Barack Obama personally, they are just a bit more skeptical when it comes to his policies.  Such as deficit reduction. 

Reports the New York Times:

A substantial majority of Americans say President Obama has not developed a strategy to deal with the budget deficit, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which also found that support for his plans to overhaul health care, rescue the auto industry and close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, falls well below his job approval ratings.

This shows that the public is paying attention to what is going on in Washington.  In fact, the president’s policy is debt inflation rather than reduction.  You know – $13 trillion in bail-outs (so far; who knows what new financial disasters await!), nearly $1 trillion in “stimulus” spending, proposed budget deficits of nearly $10 trillion over the next decade, health care “reform” which will run trillions (the only argument is how many) over the same period, and more, much more.

Yes, I’d say that the president has no strategy to deal with the budget deficit, other than to increase it at every opportunity.

Transparency in All Things

The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board is seeking requests for production of a better Recovery.gov. And in a bold stroke the Sunlight Foundation is stepping up to bid.

A substantial amount of database and Web talent circulates around and in the Sunlight Foundation, and they can produce as good a Web site or better than any government contractor - and cheaper too.

I think Sunlight stands a pretty good chance in this, simply because the contract award will now be subject to public scrutiny. Value-for-dollar to the taxpayer will be easily discernible, and that will raise the political risks of awarding the contract based on cronyism or go-with-whatchya-knowism. Transparency in all things.

If Sunlight wins the contract, I have little doubt that they will produce a much better site and make real progress in transparency and oversight – things I talked about at our December 2008 conference, “Just Give Us the Data!

Kudos to Sunlight for taking this bold and fun step.

The Government Is Not the Economy

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) is very upset that the Obama administration has rejected the California state government’s request for a bailout. She tells the Washington Post:

This matters for the U.S., not just for California. I can’t speak for the president, but when you’ve got the 8th biggest economy in the world sitting as one of your 50 states, it’s hard to see how the country recovers if that state does not.

First, presumably Lofgren knows that the federal government is projecting a deficit of $1.8 trillion for the current fiscal year – so where is this emergency aid for California to come from?

But perhaps even more importantly, Lofgren seems to confuse the state of California with the State of California. That is, she confuses the people and the businesses of California with the state government. There’s no clear and direct relationship between the two. The state government is currently running a large deficit and is warning of a “fiscal meltdown.” Of course, as it continued to issue claims of fiscal meltdown and painful cuts over the past many years, California has continued to spend. The state has nearly tripled spending since 1990 (doubled in per capita terms).  It went on a spending binge during the dotcom boom and never adjusted to the lower revenues after the bust.  During the Schwarzenegger years the state has increased spending twice as fast as inflation and population growth. What were they thinking?

But a bailout for the government won’t necessarily help the recovery of the state’s economy. In fact, by increasing taxes and/or borrowing, it would likely weaken the national economy. And by encouraging continued irresponsible spending by the state government, it would just be an enabler of destructive policies that suck money out of the productive sector of California’s economy. We all want the California economy to recover. But that’s not the same thing as giving more money to the California government.

My Morning Tabloid

Why is a U.S. senator’s extramarital affair on the front page of The Washington Post this morning?

Don’t get me wrong, I like a juicy sex scandal as well as the next guy. And I’m amused at my friend and former colleague Radley Balko’s Facebook comment (or was it a tweet? who can keep up with the new media?) that ”sadly, growing public acceptance for gay marriage has given yet another conservative politician no choice but to cheat on his wife.”   But this affair fit Bill Kristol’s definition of good Republican behavior:  “Republicans have old-fashioned extramarital affairs with other adults.” No prostitution, no underage interns, no public toilets.

So why is it front-page news?

Meanwhile, you know what’s not on the front page, today or any day so far? President Obama’s firing of the AmeriCorps inspector general, in apparent violation of a law that Senator Obama voted for, perhaps in retaliation for the IG’s investigation of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, an Obama supporter. It’s an interesting story. As a Wall Street Journal lead editorial explained:

In April 2008 the Corporation [for National and Community Service] asked Mr. Walpin to investigate reports of irregularities at St. HOPE, a California nonprofit run by former NBA star and Obama supporter Kevin Johnson. St. HOPE had received an $850,000 AmeriCorps grant, which was supposed to go for three purposes: tutoring for Sacramento-area students; the redevelopment of several buildings; and theater and art programs.

Mr. Walpin’s investigators discovered that the money had been used instead to pad staff salaries, meddle politically in a school-board election, and have AmeriCorps members perform personal services for Mr. Johnson, including washing his car.

Other papers have been on the story, notably the Washington Examiner. But as even The Washington Post’s ombudsman notes, not a word in the Post (until a small story on page A19 today, featuring the Obama administration’s spin on the issue). The Post is, however, ahead of The New York Times, which has apparently not run a word on the story, even online, though it did have room for the senatorial affair. 

And I have to wonder: If George W. Bush had fired an inspector general who had alleged fraud by a key Bush supporter, would the Post and the Times have covered the story?

“United States”: Singular Noun, or Plural?

Paul Starobin, the author of an informative primer on foreign policy realism, had an interesting piece in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of breaking up the United States.

Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.

[…]

Today’s devolutionists, of all stripes, can trace their pedigree to the “anti-federalists” who opposed the compact that came out of Philadelphia as a bad bargain that gave too much power to the center at the expense of the limbs. Some of America’s most vigorous and learned minds were in the anti-federalist camp; their ranks included Virginia’s Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” renown. The sainted Jefferson, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the convention, is these days claimed by secessionists as a kindred anti-federal spirit, even if he did go on to serve two terms as president.

The anti-federalists lost their battle, but history, in certain respects, has redeemed their vision, for they anticipated how many Americans have come to feel about their nation’s seat of federal power. “This city, and the government of it, must indubitably take their tone from the character of the men, who from the nature of its situation and institution, must collect there,” the anti-federalist pamphleteer known only as the Federal Farmer wrote. “If we expect it will have any sincere attachments to simple and frugal republicanism, to that liberty and mild government, which is dear to the laborious part of a free people, we most assuredly deceive ourselves.”

Bonus points to Starobin for pointing to the same passage from George Kennan that I’ve taken to quoting.  Kennan worried whether “ ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself.”  As a result, he wondered “how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”

The most obvious objection with which Starobin doesn’t deal is that you’d have a hell of a time selling this scheme on Washington, which happens to have–how to put this politely?–the means to ensure it gets what it wants.

A related objection would be the eternal political question “who gets the guns?”  What sort of armed forces would a decentralized United States possess?  Under whose control would they be?  Would we distribute nuclear weapons to each of the States in order to ensure none of them would get too skittish?

People smarter than me have argued that size isn’t an obstacle to republican government in the case of the United States.  Note, though, the first of the four premises on which the pro-size argument rests:

In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws.  Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any…

If the case for centralism rests on premises like these that are artifacts of a long-since-squandered legacy, we probably ought to reconsider the arguments against centralism.  At the very least, those of us who want a very small government ought to think hard about the viability of a situation in which a small, weak federal government administers a giant, powerful nation.

Kristof: Drugs Won the War

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s latest column is about the failure of the drug war.  Excerpt:

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that’s because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)

I’ve seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.

Good stuff.  Jeff Miron is a Cato senior fellow.  Here’s a link to Cato’s new study, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal,” by Glenn Greenwald.  More Cato research here.

Not So Free Love in San Francisco

Yet again the city of San Francisco is demonstrating its “love” for humanity.  By threatening to fine them for getting their garbage wrong.

Reports MSNBC:

Trash collectors in San Francisco will soon be doing more than just gathering garbage: They’ll be keeping an eye out for people who toss food scraps out with their rubbish.

San Francisco this week passed a mandatory composting law that is believed to be the strictest such ordinance in the nation. Residents will be required to have three color-coded trash bins, including one for recycling, one for trash and a new one for compost — everything from banana peels to coffee grounds.

The law makes San Francisco the leader yet again in environmentally friendly measures, following up on other green initiatives such as banning plastic bags at supermarkets.

Food scraps sent to a landfill decompose fast and turn into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Under the new system, collected scraps will be turned into compost that helps area farms and vineyards flourish. The city eventually wants to eliminate waste at landfills by 2020.

Chris Peck, the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of an ordinance as tough as San Francisco’s. Many cities, including Pittsburgh and San Diego, require residents to recycle yard waste but not food scraps. Seattle requires households to put scraps in the compost bin or have a composting system, but those who don’t comply aren’t fined.

“The city has been progressive, and they’ve been leaders and it appears that they’re stepping out of the pack again,” he said.

San Francisco officials said they aren’t looking to punish violators harshly.

Waste collectors will not pick through anyone’s garbage, said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Sunset Scavenger Co., which handles the city’s recyclables. If the wrong kind of materials are noticed while a bin is being emptied, workers will leave what Reed called “a love note,” to let customers know they are not with the program.

“We’re not going to lock you up in jail if you don’t compost,” said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom who proposed the measure that passed Tuesday. “We’re going to make it as easy as possible for San Franciscans to learn how to compost.”

A moratorium on imposing fines will end in 2010, after which repeat offenders like individuals and small businesses generating less than a cubic yard of refuse a week face fines of up to $100.

Businesses that don’t provide the proper containers face a $500 fine.

Most everyone wants to be loved.  But this sort of government “love” we can all do without!