Topic: Government and Politics

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.

Gingrich Conflates Meaning of Indigo vs. Cobalt

Electoral scholars and pundits appear to be reaching consensus that the Democratic nomination could very well be decided by the superdelegates. Writing in today’s New York Times, AEI scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein project that neither Obama nor Clinton is “likely to come close to the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination” from their pledged delegate counts. The key to the nomination, they write, is winning enough support from the 796 superdelegates.

Even though Democratic Party insider and superdelegate herself Donna Brazile said on CNN, “If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party,” Mann and Ornstein express faith that the superdelegates will fulfill their purpose and produce a candidate behind whom Democrats will unify. At this point, anyway, that process seems more likely to produce bitterness than unity.

Meanwhile, on the pages of today’s Wall Street Journal, Newt Gingrich opines that, given the seeming stalemate, the only way to produce a legitimate Democratic presidential candidate is for the party to permit Michigan and Florida to hold do-over primary elections. Excluding those states’ delegations from the nominating process or including them and awarding the majority of those delegates to Clinton (who won those technically-meaningless-at-the-time elections after breaking her pledge not to campaign there) boils down to a choice between disenfranchising voters in two states or allowing party insiders to run roughshod over the nominating process. That, Gingrich claims, would constitute a “tainted or stolen” nomination, which would potentially “delegitimize the election itself and its outcome.” Gingrich implores: “The voters — not the party insiders — have the moral authority to choose the nominee.”

I agree with Newt that voters have the moral authority (and having primary elections in the first place honors that truth). But this is an issue between and among a group of people called Democrats, who are members of the same political party by choice. This is a nominating election, which is administered according to party rules, which have been agreed to — at least tacitly — by all party members. One of the rules is that there are superdelegates, whose opinions carry more weight then Joe and Jane Democrats’.

In the cases of Florida and Michigan, party rules were broken and consequently, members’ privileges were revoked. Voters haven’t been disenfranchised; party members have been disciplined.

How the issue is “resolved” will say nothing about the legitimacy of the general election and its outcome. How could a McCain victory in November be delegitimized by Democratic Party nominating procedures? Even more to the point, how could a Clinton or Obama victory in November be delegitimized when the proper rules and processes yield either her or him as the party’s nominee?

The best way to “resolve” the issue is to stay the course.  Rules are in place to guide the process. That doesn’t mean there won’t be discord; there probably will be. But changing the rules now, at this late date, to avoid implementing the original party nominating rules would be the real scandal.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In his final press conference as Russian president, Vladimir Putin made clear yesterday that as prime minister he has no intention of playing second fiddle to his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev. “I have been president for eight years and worked pretty well. I won’t need to hang his portrait,” he remarked.

Putin added: “The highest executive power in the country is the Russian government, led by the premier.” One can’t imagine any of his prime ministers saying that and getting away with it during his presidency. He also made it clear he will remain prime minister throughout Medvedev’s turn in office, or for as long as “I am meeting goals that I myself have fixed.”

As if to emphasize that Putin will remain the real boss in the Kremlin, Russia’s new ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, told the Financial Times, “Putin’s role will be as strong as ever.” Closely linked with Putin, Rogozin, a well-known nationalist politician, can even sound like the bullish outgoing president. Asked in the interview about Japan’s protest this week over a Russian bomber violating the country’s airspace, Rogozin joked: “It’s been a long time since the Japanese have seen the Russians in the air. They got quite a surprise.”

Putin’s marathon press conference yesterday was vintage stuff: he was full of his usual bluster. It was all in marked contrast and tone to Medvedev, who in a speech today in Siberia talked about how he wanted to improve relations with Russia’s neighbors. So it looks like we are going to see a routine of good cop, bad cop. Some analysts wonder if Medvedev will be prepared to play a secondary role to Putin. Will a divided power system emerge? My money is on Putin and his KGB friends to retain the upper hand.

Regarding Congressional Hearings on Baseball, the Glass Is One-Tenth Full

Andrew Coulson complained on this site yesterday about a House committee investigating steroids in baseball. Andrew sarcastically noted that the country must be in good shape if politicians are holding hearings on matters that have nothing to do with the legitimate functions of the federal government.

His analysis is correct, and politicians certainly deserve the scorn he tosses in their direction. But we should be careful what we wish for. If you watch this clip beginning at 3:50, I explain that there is a bright side to the committee’s ridiculous ploy to get TV coverage. Simply stated, every minute the politicians spend pontificating on baseball and steroids is one minute that they’re not using to create new taxes, increase spending, and add regulations.

Maybe next month, they can waste their time investigating Paris Hilton. Anything that keeps them distracted has to be good for the country.

Puncturing the Two-Americas Myth

John Edwards has dropped out of the presidential race, but the left continues to trumpet his class-warfare arguments. The two-Americas theme is endlessly regurgitated, particularly the notion that the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer (with the obvious implication that the rich are somehow causing greater poverty). These assertions have been repeatedly discredited (most recently by a Treasury Department study), but practitioners of the politics-of-envy seem impervious to factual arguments. So it highly unlikely that they will bother to read – much less understand – a powerful op-ed in the New York Times by Michael Cox and Richard Alm of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. Cox and Alm look at consumption data rather than income data and they find that there is only a modest difference in the living standards of the rich and poor:

…renewed attention is being given to the gap between the haves and have-nots in America. Most of this debate, however, is focused on the wrong measurement of financial well-being. …Looking at a far more direct measure of American families’ economic status — household consumption — indicates that the gap between rich and poor is far less than most assume, and that the abstract, income-based way in which we measure the so-called poverty rate no longer applies to our society. The top fifth of American households earned an average of $149,963 a year in 2006. …they spent $69,863 on food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care and other categories of consumption. The rest of their income went largely to taxes and savings. The bottom fifth earned just $9,974, but spent nearly twice that — an average of $18,153 a year. How is that possible? …those lower-income families have access to various sources of spending money that doesn’t fall under taxable income. These sources include portions of sales of property like homes and cars and securities that are not subject to capital gains taxes, insurance policies redeemed, or the drawing down of bank accounts. While some of these families are mired in poverty, many (the exact proportion is unclear) are headed by retirees and those temporarily between jobs, and thus their low income total doesn’t accurately reflect their long-term financial status. So, bearing this in mind, if we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. …Let’s take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with 2.5 people in the middle fifth and 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1.