Topic: Government and Politics

What’s So Funny about P. J. O’Rourke?

I decided to give a young colleague a post-graduate course in political science and economics – P. J. O’Rourke’s books Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich. So I went to my local Barnes & Noble to search for them. Not in Current Affairs. Not in Economics. No separate section called Politics. I decided to try Borders. But first – to avoid yet more driving around – I went online to see if my local Borders stores had them in stock. (An excellent innovation that Barnes & Noble should copy, for customers who like to look at the actual book before buying it, or who don’t do their Christmas shopping far enough in advance to shop online.) Sure enough, they did, in a couple of stores just blocks from the Cato Institute. Checking to see where in the store I would find them, I discovered that they would both be shelved under “Humor–Humorous Writing.” Oh, right, I thought, they’re not books on economics or current affairs, they’re humor.

Yes, P.J. is one of the funniest writers around. But what people often miss when they talk about his humor is what a good reporter and what an insightful analyst he is. Parliament of Whores is a very funny book, but it’s also a very perceptive analysis of politics in a late 20th century democracy. And if you read Eat the Rich, you’ll learn more about how countries get rich—and why they don’t – than in a whole year of econ at most colleges. In fact, I’ve decided that the best answer to the question “What’s the best book to start learning economics?” is Eat the Rich.

On page 1, P. J. starts with the right question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” Supply-and-demand curves are all well and good, but what we really want to know is how not to be mired in poverty. He writes that he tried returning to his college economics texts but quickly remembered why he hated them at the time–though he does attempt, for instance, to explain comparative advantage in terms of John Grisham and Courtney Love. Instead he decided to visit economically successful and unsuccessful societies and try to figure out what make them work or not work. So he headed off to Sweden, Hong Kong, Albania, Cuba, Tanzania, Russia, China, and Wall Street.

In Tanzania he gapes at the magnificent natural beauty and the appalling human poverty. Why is Tanzania so poor? he asks people, and he gets a variety of answers. One answer, he notes, is that Tanzania is actually not poor by the standards of human history; it has a life expectancy about that of the United States in 1920, which is a lot better than humans in 1720, or 1220, or 20. But, he finally concludes, the real answer is the collective “ujamaa” policies pursued by the sainted post-colonial leader Julius Nyerere. The answer is “ujaama—they planned it. They planned it, and we paid for it. Rich countries underwrote Tanzanian economic idiocy.”

From Tanzania P. J. moves on to Hong Kong, where he finds “the best contemporary example of laissez-faire….The British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing.”

You could do worse than to take a semester-long course on political economy where the texts are Eat the Rich and Parliament of Whores. So, bookstore owners, leave them in the Humorous Writing section for sure, but also put copies in the Economics, Politics, and Current Affairs sections.

Government ID Card Program Off the Rails

“The Internal Revenue Service paid a contractor $188,000 to provide one person to do clerical work over 11 months.”

That’s the opening line from an AP report on waste in the implementation of a Bush Administration federal worker identity card.

Here’s a little more:

The IRS was responsible for developing and implementing the program to provide identification cards to about 150,000 employees at the Treasury Department. The projected cost of the program was $421 million over 14 years.

Check my math: Is that $2,800 per card?

Hillary Claus

Hillary Clinton’s Christmas-weekend TV ad shows her sitting at her famous couch wrapping presents. They’ve all got tags — reading “Alternative Energy,” “Middle Class Tax Breaks,” “Universal Health Care,” and “Universal Pre-K.” (Also “Bring Troops Home,” but she’s already made clear that that box is empty.) I’d embed the video here, but you’d think it was a Club for Growth parody, so instead I’ll link directly to her campaign website.

Hillary actually sees herself as Santa Claus, handing out presents to the voters. Except, as my colleague Justin Logan notes, instead of putting together the toys at the North Pole with her elves, she’ll just take our toys, wrap them up, and then give them back to us after taking her cut and then pretend that it’s a great act of beneficence.

I complained once about teenagers interviewed by Parade magazine who “seemed to regard the new president as a combination of Superman, Santa Claus, and Mother Teresa.” But they were teenagers, not 60-year-old presidential candidates. Only one of the teens interviewed had an adult understanding of where government benefits come from. “I worked every day last summer,” he told Parade, “repairing and setting up cattle fences, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in very hot weather. I got a good tan, but other than that it wasn’t worth it — just to have the government take a third of my money and have it go to someone I don’t even know who didn’t earn it in the first place. Do something about taxes.” He’s old enough to vote now. If only he were old enough to run for president.

Follow Huckabee’s Money

I read in Robert Novak’s column this morning that Mike Huckabee held a fundraiser earlier this week at the Houston home of Dr. Steven Hotze. As Novak notes, Hotze is “a leader in the highly conservative Christian Reconstruction movement.”

Christian Reconstructionists, for those unfamiliar with the term, are Religious Right radicals who believe that America, and the rest of the world besides, should be governed in accordance with strict Biblical law. And yes, that includes stoning adulterers. Here’s a snippet from “A Manifesto for the Christian Church,” a 1986 document from an outfit called the Coalition on Revival that was signed by, among others, Steven Hotze:

We affirm that the Bible is not only God’s statements to us regarding religion, salvation, eternity, and righteousness, but also the final measurement and depository of certain fundamental facts of reality and basic principles that God wants all mankind to know in the sphere of law, government, economics, business, education, arts and communication, medicine, psychology, and science. All theories and practices of these spheres of life are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible.

For more, check out this audio clip of Hotze from back in 1990. Over the years, Hotze has achieved some prominence for his anti-abortion and anti-gay activism. Also, the good doctor appears to be a total quack.

Meanwhile, Novak reports that among the members of the fundraiser’s host committee was Baptist minister Rick Scarborough. The founder of Vision America and a self-described “Christocrat,” Scarborough made news earlier this year when he argued that the HPV vaccine improperly interferes with God’s punishment of sexual license.

Just when you thought the Huckabee campaign couldn’t get any creepier….

[cross-posted from www.brinklindsey.com]

The Man with the Plan

The Russian government’s monthly propaganda insert in the Washington Post includes this headline today:

The Man with the Plan/President Putin Has Got the Nation’s Future Mapped Out

It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago with the same title, “The Man with the Plan.” (In Liberty, July 1996, or you can read it in my forthcoming book The Politics of Freedom.) I was writing about Clinton adviser Ira Magaziner, whose various planning schemes, while scary, are certainly not as bad as the ones that have been tried in Russia over the past century. Though this idea, expressed by presidential candidate Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992, might come close:

We ought to begin by doing something simple. We ought to say right now, we ought to have a national inventory of the capacity of … every manufacturing plant in the United States: every airplane plant, every small business subcontractor, everybody working in defense.

We ought to know what the inventory is, what the skills of the work force are and match it against the kind of things we have to produce in the next twenty years and then we have to decide how to get from there to there. From what we have to what we need to do.

Five-year plans not having planned out so well, Clinton and Magaziner decided the problem was their short-term focus. Whether Bill or Hillary, Putin or Magaziner, when I hear the phrase “the man (or woman) with the plan,” I think of Adam Smith:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Evangelicals and Libertarians

A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal features this chart:

It shows, as the Washington Post bannered after the 2006 election, that evangelicals moved a bit away from the Republicans in 2006. Indeed, there was a 7-point decline in the Republican margin among evangelicals.

But if you want to see a real shift, the Post and the Journal could run this chart:

In other words, among libertarians, the margin for Republican House candidates dropped from 47 to 8 points, a 39-point swing. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large. Strategists in both parties should take note.

Washington In a Nutshell

C@L readers with a cynical view of Washington and an openness to crude humor may appreciate Andrew Ferguson’s, er, celebration of the McLaughlin Group’s 25th anniversary over at the Weekly Standard. (Warning: Disturbing imagery.) In it, Ferguson describes his one-day tenure as a staffer on the show:

For my first task he told me to work up a lead-in to a segment on some bit of legislative sausage grinding its way through Congress. “Cokie Roberts had an excellent report on the bill on NPR this morning,” he said. “I taped it to make it easiah on you. It’s all the background resuch you’ll need.”

I went back to another office carrying Dr. McLaughlin’s handheld recorder. He had evidently propped it against his radio speaker to record the tape that morning. “Considerate of the old bastard,” I thought, pressing the play button. I heard Cokie’s swampy voice explaining the doings on the Hill. And then I heard water rushing, and a clatter of ceramic, and a mysterious release of air, and I realized that the doctor had made the tape in the bathroom. I was hearing his morning ablutions: the gush of faucets running and the honk-honk of nasal passages clearing and the rumble of phlegm rising and … much worse. Scraps of show tunes hummed off-key competed against every noise the human organism is capable of producing at that hour of the day, and together they threatened to drown out Cokie’s report: “The prognosis, critics say, is still a matter of PHLOOOTH!” At times I could barely make out what she was saying. I’d rewind the tape only to hear some new intimate eruption. I shut off the recorder after four or five minutes. I wrote up the lead-in as best I could and walked back to his darkened lair.

He was eating an enormous platter of steak and eggs from the restaurant downstairs. “Did you learn anything, Andrew?” he said from behind his desk, with a half smile. He dabbed his thumb and forefinger on the napkin tucked into his collar.

“It’s hazing,” one of the assistants told me later that morning. “He’s establishing the parameters of your relationship. This way you know who’s in the dominant position. He can embarrass you, but you can’t embarrass him. That’s the key: He refuses to be embarrassed.”

The anecdote absolutely speaks volumes about life in Washington. Idealistic young people beware: this is what awaits you in DC.

Added bonus McLaughlin Group parody featuring Dana Carvey here.