Topic: Government and Politics

Cato Scholar Comments on Breakup between Bush, U.S.

A lot of my colleagues here were really excited when The Onion, to my mind America’s premier fake news source, cited the work of our colleague Dr. Adam Stogsdill recently. But now Brian Whitaker has also made it onto The Onion’s pages to comment on another important story.

WASHINGTON—Amid allegations that his thoughtless and insensitive decisions have damaged his relationship with the nation, President George W. Bush vowed Monday that he would, starting now, “make everything better.”

“This time I’m serious,” Bush said. “I am ready to make a fresh start if we can just put the past behind us. I promise.”

[…]

Despite Bush’s seemingly conciliatory stance, public response to Bush’s promises has been frosty at best. Cato Institute policy scholar Brian Whitaker echoed the sentiments of many Americans, calling Bush’s recent overtures “too little, too late.”

“We want to believe that he’s finally going to be the president we always wanted, but we’ve given him so many chances,” Whitaker said. “I don’t think we can handle another disappointment. Maybe it’s time to realize that President Bush will never be the head of state we need him to be.”

“Then again, maybe our expectations are unfair,” Whitaker added. “He seemed so sincere this time. He wouldn’t abuse his executive powers if he didn’t care about us, right?”

Whitaker predicted that the nation will likely move forward and try to forget Bush, though it may be difficult for Americans to ever trust a president again. He said the current crop of presidential contenders offers little in the way of an alternative to Bush, but maintained that “at least Barack Obama listens to us.”

Wow, congrats, Brian. A lot of folks in the building are bound to be pretty jealous today.

The Politics of Freedom: Libertarianism with Sizzle

Brian Doherty, the author of the magisterial Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, has some generous things to say about my new book The Politics of Freedom in Sunday’s New York Post. I especially like the subtitle in the reason.com version: “sells the libertarian message with sizzle.”

Brian discusses my claims about the extent of libertarianism among American voters and writes:

Whatever the near-term prospects for libertarian political victories, The Politics of Freedom reminds you of the service libertarians provide to public discourse: They can point out the hypocrisy, power grabs, hubris and counterproductive folly issuing from Washington under either political brand name since they are beholden to neither. …

No major political party has fully embraced the implications of the proper role of government that follow from Boaz’s simple limited-government vision. But when expressed that plainly, it’s a moral vision many Americans can cheer.

The Politics of Freedom is available at all fine bookstores, at Amazon, and from the Cato Institute.

Demander-in-Chief

Bill Kristol’s column in yesterday’s New York Times contained an interesting, if disconcerting, quote from Michelle Obama:

Barack Obama … is going to demand that you shed your cynicism… That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.

The President of the United States is the employee of the American people. He is not there to make demands of people. If I want to sit on my couch for the rest of my life eating Doritos and watching trashy television – unengaged, uninformed and uninvolved – that’s my prerogative.

(Hat tip: our beloved founder, Ed Crane).

Fleecing Europe’s Taxpayers

Congress certainly has its share of crooks, but Members of the European Parliament make American lawmakers look like amateurs when it comes to pilfering tax monies for private gain. The U.K.-based Sun reports on the latest scandal:

Crooked MEPs are trousering cash meant for workers’ wages, it was revealed yesterday. Some hire “ghost” staff — then claim thousands of pounds from the £100million annual allowance. Others recycle the handout by employing unqualified relatives, a bombshell report on MEPs’ expenses found. In many cases the whole £125,000 allowance is paid to just one person on the staff. One assistant received a “Christmas bonus” worth 19 times their monthly salary. Taxpayers’ money is also being diverted to party funds, with the internal probe describing the corruption as “massive and widespread”.

Brussels had wanted to cover up the abuse — but EU fraudbusters have demanded a copy of the report. Last night Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies — one of a handful of people who have seen the audit — called it “dynamite”. He said: “The allegations should lead to the imprisonment of a number of MEPs. It’s embezzlement and fraud on a massive, massive scale.”

Lilla on Heilbrunn on the Neocons

Mark Lilla has a hot-and-cold review of Jacob Heilbrunn’s book They Knew They Were Right in the New Republic. Lilla, a former editor of The Public Interest, hilariously describes his view that Commentary was “the great simplifier–everything always came down to holding the line and proving your manliness. The articles made sense only if you imagined the authors screaming at the top of their lungs.” But he has some scathing remarks for the unrepentant neocons of today:

Poor Iraq! And poor America! The dénouement we all know, but Heilbrunn’s book, for all its superficiality, still shows how depressingly predictable it all was. By leaving the reality-based community and creating their own Team-B approach to every issue–and stocking that team with reliable soldiers who happened not to know what the hell they were talking about (trivia question: who was Laurie Mylroie?)–the neoconservatives had become the very last people you’d want leading you to war. They knew how everything connected but not how anything worked–the Army, the United Nations, the Sunni-Shiite quarrel, the balance of power, human culture in the face of occupation and humiliation. And what they used to know about the unintended consequences of political action they seem to have willfully forgotten. Reactionaries are like that–because in the end, contrary to Heilbrunn’s title, they really don’t care whether they are right. What they care most about is reconfirming their picture of the world.

Whole thing’s worth a read.

Right-Wing Glasnost on Foreign Policy?

Ryan Lizza, in a profile of John McCain in the New Yorker, describes the dispute between factions on the Right, with Newt Gingrich and Co. arguing that in order to win, conservatives must jettison conservative economic principles, and Grover Norquist’s faction arguing that conservative economic principles are the core of conservatism. Here’s Lizza describing Norquist’s view:

In a forthcoming book, “Leave Us Alone,” he describes the Republican Party as little more than a collection of interest groups—such as anti-tax activists, gun-rights advocates, and homeschoolers—that, if they are carefully tended, will grow into a “supermajority.” The merits of his argument aside, Norquist’s description of the conservative coalition is notable for what it leaves out—voters whose overriding concern is national security. That exclusion seems to be a trend on the small-government right. Not long ago, I spoke with Mallory Factor, a Republican fund-raiser and the co-organizer of a monthly meeting for conservative thinkers and activists in New York. When I mentioned that McCain’s aides plan to use the Iraq war to unite the right, he said, “That’s not the glue that keeps conservatives together. There is an enormous amount of frustration over the war on a number of grounds, from the cost, to the way the war has been fought, to what the outcome is. One of the things that I’ve talked about in our group is that we’re using the finest military in the world as an N.G.O. I mean, we’re talking about nation-building, not fighting a war. Is that the proper use of our military?”

Factor has reason to be concerned. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, McCain called for the kind of costly nation-building capacity that makes libertarians shudder, arguing that the United States should “energize and expand our postconflict reconstruction capabilities” and create a “deployable police force” that would prop up collapsing states. Echoing Norquist’s book, Factor insisted that the war in Iraq is not a unifying issue for the right. He told me, “The bottom line is that to the base of the Party the war isn’t Communism—to the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, Communism was a rallying point. This is not like that.

Lizza goes on to describe how all of the non-Norquist factions of conservatism have essentially made their peace with the welfare-warfare state:

Gingrich, Gerson, and Frum all reject the anti-government ethos that has come to define conservatism. Gingrich calls for managerial competence in government. Gerson asks for expanded programs to fight poverty at home and to combat AIDS abroad. Frum recommends making peace with the realities of the welfare state.

For whatever it’s worth, down here in the policy trenches, it doesn’t feel too much like Mallory Factor’s description of a conservative reunion with reality on foreign policy is accurate. But here’s hoping it is.

Inside the Sausage Factory

The cover story of this week’s Washington Post Magazine offers a fantastic look at how lobbyists make a living by helping some people take from others.  Every citizen should read it.  Casual observers of government may be surprised (and nauseated) to see how elaborate, expensive, and disingenuous such efforts have become.  (Students of public choice economics will not be.)  As author Jeffrey H. Birnbaum notes, it’s usually the wealthy who are trying to do the taking.

The article is about the travel industry trying to force taxpayers to fund the industry’s advertising campaigns.  (Birnbaum includes such gems as: “One thing everyone agreed on: The travel industry did not want to pay for the ads itself.”)  But the story could have been written about nearly any of the countless lobbying shops littering the D.C. landscape:

The explosion in the size of K Street, the locus of the lobbying industry, is an extension of the growth and reach of government. The ballooning federal budget has its tentacles in every aspect of American life and commerce. No serious industry or interest can function without monitoring, and at least trying to manipulate, Washington’s decision makers. The penalty for ignoring the federal government can run into the billions of dollars. Just ask Microsoft. The software giant was hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department in the late 1990s and, in 2001, agreed to alter the way it packaged its computer operating system. Before then, it had mostly ignored the nation’s capital.

Bad mistake. Chastened by its defeat, Microsoft has built a powerhouse presence in Washington, as have scores of other companies and industries. Lobbyists argue that it’s a relatively cheap investment. The Carmen Group, a mid-size lobbying firm, regularly compares its clients’ costs with the benefits it says they receive from lobbying. In its latest internal assessment, Carmen said it collected $15 million in fees from about 70 clients and delivered $1.5 billion in assistance – measured both in benefits received and in burdens avoided – a return ratio of roughly 1 to 100. Most clients still part with their lobbying dollars grudgingly. But they do part with them, which is why new buildings are going up all the time to accommodate the industry’s growth. Want a former senator to guarantee a meeting with a current senator? No problem. Half the senators who leave Congress for the private sector register to lobby. Need to know the history of a tax law and whom best to ask to change it? Easy. At least half a dozen consulting firms are composed of nothing but former congressional tax aides and Treasury Department officials who know as much as, and probably more than, the current people inside.

And why wouldn’t ex-lawmakers and aides gravitate to K Street? Lobbying jobs pay at least twice and sometimes three times government salaries. Serving in government is now viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to a lucrative career in bending government to the whims of paying clients. In many ways, lobbying now mimics the government it targets. It has become a bureaucracy, with its own language, its own peculiar ways of doing business and, most important, its own instinct to survive.

Indeed, the last thing any lobbyist wants is to win everything his or her client is seeking. That would mean an end to a retainer, the closing of the feedbag. Success for a lobbyist is not outright victory but, rather, just enough progress to justify the creation of an elaborate and well-funded lobbying apparatus. Even outright failure can underscore the need to lobby harder.

Lobbying is Washington’s version of a perpetual motion machine. Once it gets revved up, it rarely stops running. In fact, it tends to grow. 

All of which raises this question: why don’t we see more such stories?  Whatever the reason, Birnbaum deserves kudos for inspecting this small corner of the sausage factory.

Of course, the solution is not to restrict the people’s ability to lobby Congress.  All that sleazy lobbying is nothing more than “petition[ing] the government for a redress of grievances” – a constitutionally protected activity.  The solution, conveniently enough, is to respect the rest of the Constitution too.  Were the People to do that, those sleazy lobbyists wouldn’t get anywhere.