Topic: Government and Politics

I Gave You My Heart, You Gave Me a Pen

I’ve been a John Cusack fan since Sixteen Candles. Thus his recent unflattering comments about Cato kinda sting.

I think Cusack is a smart guy who has been misinformed. As Tom Firey notes, Cato scholars, like Cusack, are keenly interested in making it harder for Congress and the president to start wars. I recently offered a proposal for reforming veterans’ health care. One of the proposal’s main selling points, to my mind, is that it would force Congress to confront many of the costs of war that the current system hides.

I even agree with some of what Cusack said. Cato scholars certainly don’t have “any monopoly on insight into anything.” And I’m sure we come across poorly at times. 

But do Cato scholars really want, as Cusack has written,  ”the total liberation of corporations”? If I were really a corporate tool, would I have just penned an oped where I smeared the entire health care industry as a pack of “rent-seeking weasels”? 

If Cusack could see how poorly we get along with most corporations most of the time, he might give Cato another look.

Anyone Know What This Guy’s Saying?

One fun little perk of working at the Cato Institute is the daily e-mail from our media department listing recent press references. Often, these “Cato Clips” are sources of pride — a Cato scholar being quoted on a good point, or a member of the public citing Cato while making a thoughtful argument in a letter to the editor. Occasionally the clips can be disappointing, as when someone misrepresents or straw-mans a Cato scholar’s position or misunderstands the institute’s philosophical perspective. (We’re sometimes identified as “ultra-conservative“ and “neo-conservative.”)

And then sometimes a Cato Clip is just plain baffling. Case in point, yesterday’s clip of an interview with actor John Cusack that appeared in the Detroit weekly Metro Times. The piece includes this bit:

“Do you think all these people work at the Cato Institute?” he continues. “No. Even the people who work at these places, I’ve met them. They don’t have any monopoly or insight into anything. Where does their intellectual or moral clout come from? Nowhere. The guy’s talking in front of a camera, reading from a teleprompter, bitching at people. I know enough to be intimidated by serious men and women, but I won’t be cowed by people like that.”

I don’t know exactly what Cusack is on about here, but he doesn’t seem to like Cato very much. The question is why.

Earlier in the interview he argues that the U.S. should bring back the military draft because people would then be more inclined to oppose U.S. military action. There, he’s definitely at odds with at least one Cato scholar who worries that, by making military labor cheaper, the U.S. would be more inclined to military action. On the other hand, Cusack laments Republican politicians’ use of the threat of terrorism as justification for all sorts of dubious policies. Cato scholars have made this argument repeatedly, including this piece by Ohio State professor (and one-time Cato visiting fellow) John Mueller.

Anyhoo, if you can explain Mr. Cusack’s comment about Cato, please %20tfirey [at] cato [dot] org (drop me a line).

Defending Ron Paul’s Tax Plan

The Washington Post takes a swipe at Ron Paul, deriding his plan to abolish the income tax because revenues would fall to 1995 levels (rather than 2000 levels, as Dr. Paul mistakenly claimed in a recent Jay Leno appearance):

Expounding on his proposal for abolishing the income tax, Paul claims this would still leave the U.S. Treasury with roughly the revenues it had in 2000, in the final year of the Clinton administration. A post on the Paul campaign website explains that individual income taxes account for “approximately one third of federal revenue.” Unfortunately for the tax slashers, the one-time Libertarian candidate for president is wrong on both counts. According to the Congressional Budget Office, individual income taxes represent between 45 and 49 percent of federal tax revenues, depending on the year. For financial year 2007, total receipts from individual income tax were in the region of $1.1 trillion dollars. If you eliminated all that revenue, the federal budget would shrink to the size it was around 1995.

The Post’s criticism is akin to condemning a book because the typesetting was not centered on a few pages. The real issue is whether America would be a stronger and more prosperous nation if government was reduced to the levels envisioned by the Founding Fathers. America climbed from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity before the income tax was adopted, and federal government spending (with the exception of times of war) was a small percentage of GDP. The Post also fixates on whether the Paul campaign has identified $1.1 trillion of savings to match the forgone revenue from eliminating the income tax.

In attempt to figure out where the $1.1 trillion in annual savings is going to come from in a Paul administration, I talked yesterday afternoon to the candidate’s policy director, Joseph Becker. He pointed out that Paul has promised to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, eliminate foreign aid, eliminate agriculture subsidies, and get rid of the U.S. Education Department. A President Paul would, however, still have a military sufficient to defend the homeland.

Based on Paul’s rhetoric and record, this presumably is not a problem. The candidate almost certainly would favor the elimination (or transfer to the states) of the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Labor, Commerce, and Health and Human Services. (What a joyous sentence to type!) Indeed, because he also would gradually turn entitlement programs into systems based on personal accounts (and shift welfare components back to the state and local levels), the long-term savings would significantly exceed the amount of money collected by the personal income tax. Ron Paul may not be a realistic candidate in today’s America, but that is an unfortunate reflection on voters (and the forces that have shaped voter attitudes), not the candidate’s platform.

Libertarian Voters Hiding in the Post Poll

The headline on the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll was “Poll Finds Americans Pessimistic, Want Change.” And why would they not, with a floundering war, civil liberties abuses, soaring federal spending, and the prospect of four years under the rule of Hillary or Rudy? But there are some signs in the accompanying data that seem to confirm the existence of libertarian voters, voters who don’t fit into either the liberal or conservative box.

One of the questions was an old standby: “Generally speaking, would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with more services?” Smaller government won by 50 to 44 percent, but the Post noted that that was a much smaller margin than previous surveys had shown, indicating the damage the Bush administration and the congressional Republicans have done to the “smaller government” brand. Still, a six-point margin is better than Bush achieved in his two elections, and 50 percent is better than Bill Clinton ever did.

The next question in the survey was “Do you think homosexual couples should or should not be allowed to form legally recognized civil unions, giving them the legal rights of married couples in areas such as health insurance, inheritance and pension coverage?” Respondents said they should, by 55 to 42 percent, up from earlier surveys.

So if you take support for smaller government as an indicator of libertarian-conservative sentiment, and support for civil unions as an indicator of libertarian-liberal sentiment, then the libertarian position got a small majority on both questions.

I asked Post polling director Jon Cohen if it was possible to get crosstabs for those questions, and he generously supplied them. So we can use those two questions to construct a four-way ideological matrix. I categorize the responses this way: Roughly speaking, libertarians support smaller government and civil unions. Conservatives support smaller government and oppose civil unions. Liberals support larger government and civil unions. And the fourth group–variously called statists, populists, or maybe just anti-libertarians–support larger government and oppose civil unions. And thus we find that on these two questions 26 percent of the respondents are libertarians, 26 percent liberals, 23 percent conservatives, and 17 percent anti-libertarians:

A few other reflections on these questions: It’s often been noted that how you ask the question can shape the answers. For instance, if you offer three positions, people will tend toward the middle option. Polls usually show that a majority of voters oppose gay marriage, while a slimmer majority now support legal recognition for domestic partnerships or civil unions. But if you give respondents three options–marriage, civil unions, or no legal recognition–the opposition is reduced, and polls tend to show a strong majority supporting some form of recognition. In the 2004 exit poll, for instance, the results were 25 percent for marriage, 35 percent for civil unions, and 37 percent opposed to both.

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–“more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. That suggests that adding “higher taxes” to the Post question would have widened the margin from 6 to 15 points, or perhaps a response of 55 percent for smaller government and 40 percent for larger government. (Note that Jon Cohen and the Post are not responsible for any of this speculation.)

And when you adjust the four-way division on the basis of our Platonic ideal of the two questions, then we get slightly more libertarians and conservatives and fewer liberals and anti-libertarians—29 percent libertarians, 25 percent conservatives, 23 percent liberals, and 15 percent anti-libertarians:

Yet more evidence that there is a libertarian vote that is indeed different from liberals and conservatives.

News Flash: Neocons Hate Ron Paul

So Ron Paul’s record fundraising haul has rattled the cubicles on 17th Street, forcing the Weekly Standard to run a hit piece on him, offering the limp zinger that he’s the “don’t tase me, bro” candidate, named for the fellow who got zapped at a John Kerry event earlier this year*.

It’s not surprising that the neocons hate Ron Paul, for his policy views, of course, but it also seems likely that they’re envious. As Cato’s president Ed Crane and chairman Bill Niskanen pointed out over four years ago

The neoconservative agenda is a particular threat to liberty perhaps greater than the ideologically spent ideas of left-liberalism. Always a movement of bright intellectual leaders, neoconservatism has mostly been a movement with a head but no body. One rarely runs into a neocon on the street.

That’s what makes it so obvious that the Standard’s lament that

Paul supporters organized the event on their own with minimal coordination with the campaign.

is an apt reflection of their envy that an unlikely fellow like Paul has had such a genuinely grassroots groundswell of support, and has been pushed forward by his supporters rather than attempting to cajole them into line. It’s equally funny that an ostensibly conservative magazine criticizes his views not just on foreign policy, but grouses that

He hates the Iraq war. He hates the rest of our foreign policy. He pretty much thinks we shouldn’t have a foreign policy. He hates our bloated and meddlesome federal government. (What’s that they say about stuck clocks?) He hates abortion. He hates the Treasury and floating currency.

That sounds fairly conservative to me. But it’s funny to see the Standard squirm at the realization that the ideas of peace and freedom are rousing the electorate.

*[Update: A reader advises that the tasing incident took place at a John Kerry speaking engagement earlier this year, not in 2004. I regret the error.]

How Cheap Are Politicians?

Dan Morgan has another excellent Washington Post report on our tangled web of farm subsidies, tariffs, government purchases, and so on. This time he examines the sugar industry’s political contributions–“more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million to candidates, parties and political funds” in 2007 alone. Most of the money went to Democrats, apparently, which might explain why Democrats opposed more strongly than Republicans an amendment to strike the sugar subsidy provisions from the bill. Morgan delights in pointing out members of Congress such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Queens and Manhattan and Rep. Steven Rothman of bucolic Hackensack and Fort Lee, New Jersey, who received funds from the sugar magnates and voted to protect their subsidies despite the fact that they would seem to have more sugar consumers than sugar growers in their districts.

One wants to be careful here. The assumption that contributions drive congressional votes is often exaggerated. Party, ideology, region, religion, and other factors may have much more influence on how a member votes than contributions, and contributions often reflect a member’s votes rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the sugar subsidy is so manifestly a bad policy, and support for it seems so obviously an odd position for urban northeastern Democrats, that it is hard to resist the suspicion that contributions play a role in getting 282 members of the House of Representatives to support it.

So $1.5 million is a lot of money, and it seems to have done the trick. But … is it really so much money? According to Morgan, the sugar provisions in the farm bill are worth $1 billion over 10 years. That’s a huge return on investment. In what other way could a business invest $1.5 million to reap $1 billion? And look at the contributions–“more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million.” That is, the average contribution was less than $1700. Morgan writes that a fundraiser for Maloney raised $9,500, and she also received $5,000 from a union that represented sugar workers. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) received $5,500 from sugar interests. That’s not very much money.

So the really interesting question is why we don’t see more such investments. If indeed, as Morgan’s article would lead us to believe, an investment of $1.5 million in political contributions can ensure a payoff of $1 billion, why doesn’t everyone do it? Congress hands out some $2.8 trillion a year. There aren’t many pots of money in our society bigger than that. Getting one percent of that, or one-hundredth of one percent of that, would be worth a lot. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this, lest politicians start raising their prices and lobbyists persuade even more industries to invest in Washington.

Quiggin Says “libertarian,” Reynolds Said “Libertarian”

As Justin notes below, Aussie social democrat blogger John Quiggin recently wrote that Instapundit Glenn Reynolds has renounced being “a libertarian.” Quiggin then launches into a bizarre spleen-venting about libertarians, including the charge that Cato’s opposition to the Iraq war is sotto voce. (If you listen carefully, you can still hear the echoes from Justin’s shriek of frustration. And rightly so.)

Justin’s not the only one who should be frustrated; Quiggin completely misunderstands what Reynolds wrote. (I thought Australians knew English?)

Here’s the Instapundit post that Quiggin cites as showing Reynolds’ change in philosophy:

CONFESSIONS OF A former card-carrying Libertarian. I’m one of those, myself. Takeaway line: “From here, it looks as if the Republicans have become wrong and corrupt, the Democrats are stupid and corrupt, and the Libertarians have gone plain crazy.”

UPDATE: Bill Quick: “Do I ever understand where Steve is coming from, because I live in the same damned place.”

Get it? Reynolds isn’t talking about libertarianism, but about the LP. And the GOP. And the Dems. That is, it’s a (critical) comment about political parties adrift from sound political philosophy, not about Reynolds changing his political philosophy.

Quiggin apparently spent less time reading and understanding Reynolds’ point than he did skimming Cato’s website.