Topic: Government and Politics

Cato and the ‘Republican Tent’

Justin is quite right to object to John Quiggin’s charge that Cato has somehow soft-pedalled its opposition to the the Iraq war. But I wanted to also object to his comment about Cato “remaining within the Republican tent,” which I personally found even more aggravating.

There certainly are a few issues where Cato scholars have agreed with the White House, with Social Security reform and immigration being the most obvious examples. But there are also plenty of examples of Cato scholars sharply criticizing the White House and the Republican leadership. Here is Cato’s Neal McCluskey criticizing the president’s signature education policy initiative. Here is a Cato paper criticizing the Republicans’ expansion of Medicare. Here are two books criticizing the Republicans for abandoning their small-govenment roots. Here is Gene Healy and Tim Lynch’s devastating brief on the Bush administration’s civil liberties record. Here is a critique of the GOP’s Federal Marriage Amendment. Here is a podcast of yours truly opposing the White House’s stance on warrantless wiretaps. Here is Cato’s Jim Harper arguing against the REAL ID Act, which is backed by the White House. Here are repeated critiques of the Republicans’ pork-laden energy bill. Here is Cato’s Roger Pilon arguing for lifting the ban on “drug reimportation,” a ban the White House supported.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And that’s in addition to all the foreign policy work Justin already noted. Cato scholars criticize Republican policymakers constantly. We are not, and have never sought to be, “within the Republican tent.” Unfortunately, partisanship seems to have so curdled public discourse that many on the political left seem to reflexively assume that anyone who’s not in “the Democratic tent” must ipso facto be in the Republican tent. Even a cursory review of our recent work makes it clear that’s not true.

Tales from the Clinton Dynasty

Nina Burleigh, who covered the Clinton White House for Time and who once said of President Clinton, ”I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” reviews a new biography of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post. She writes, “The details are riveting as ever. Who can get enough of POTUS sweating on the phone at 2 a.m. with a love-addled 24-year-old woman, placating her with job promises, knowing his world is about to explode as surely as a Sudanese powdered-milk factory?”

It seems a cavalier way to refer to the bombing of a factory in a poor country, a factory that was not in fact making nerve gas, and a bombing that happened suddenly, just three days after Clinton’s traumatic speech to the nation about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Critics suggested that he wanted to change the subject on the front pages. Bombings aren’t funny, and Burleigh’s jest does nothing to put to rest the cynical, “Wag the Dog” interpretation of Clinton’s action.

Tax-and-Spend or Borrow-and-Spend?

In Virginia,

Pat S. Herrity wants a new elementary school and middle school for southern Fairfax County. Douglas R. Boulter wants to hire more zoning inspectors. Vellie S. Dietrich Hall calls for more and better-paid police. Gary H. Baise promises roads, an expanded auditor’s office and the newly created post of county ethics officer.

And they all pledge to lower property taxes.

Meet the Republicans running for the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 6.

In Virginia, as in Congress, voters get a choice between tax-and-spend Democrats and borrow-and-spend Republicans. As I’ve argued before, there’s a bit of fat in the Fairfax County budget. It’s too bad that voters aren’t offered any candidates who would trim it.

Limited Government: Good for Thee, But Not For Me

An interesting, if not encouraging, piece today by Jonah Goldberg in the LA Times about how Americans, although all for limited government in theory, are all-too-fond of the goodies government throws their way in practice. People usually like stuff, especially if someone else pays for it. Consequently, according to Mr Goldberg, the constituency for limited government is small. That might explain the lack of advocates for a very limited government among the front-runners for the Republican nomination (Side note: I have often wondered how many of the Democrats I know would lose their enthusiasm for Ron Paul if they looked beyond his anti-war stance).

Things might get worse, too. A 2006 study from the Heritage Foundation shows that the number of people who receive some sort of assistance from the government grew two and a half times more quickly than the U.S. population as a whole between 1962 and 2005 (see graph 10). And although it does not measure the same thing, a recent report by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation shows that 42 percent of Americans didn’t pay any income tax in 2006 (hat tip: Chris Edwards).

It seems we may be reaching a crucial “tipping-point” of dependency talked about in the Heritage report, although obviously it can only go so far before those being looted pull the plug (Say, that sounds like a good idea for a book plot!).

Bush IS a Big Spender

Investor’s Business Daily, responding to an article appearing in several McClatchy Company newspapers, argues that President Bush isn’t a big spender because outlays as a share of GDP are not that different today that they were during the Clinton years. But this analysis has two shortcomings:

First, it looks at average spending as a share of GDP over an administration’s total tenure. What matters more is that federal spending was down to just a bit more than 18 percent of GDP when President Clinton left office. It’s now more than 20 percent of GDP today.

More important, spending as a share of GDP involves both a numerator (government outlays) and a denominator (economic output). But consider what has happened to federal spending: by that measure, Bush unambiguously has been fiscally irresponsible.

This doesn’t mean that spending as a share of GDP is not an important measure. Indeed, IBD is correct to explain that it is the most appropriate measure of the overall burden of government relative to activity in the productive sector of the economy.

What does this say about the Bush years? Well, the good news is that the American economy has enjoyed strong growth since the supply-side 2003 tax rate reductions. The bad news is that a significant chunk of that new output has been diverted to government coffers.

The McClatchy piece says discretionary spending under Bush has risen an inflation-adjusted 5.3% in his first six years, outstripping the 4.6% under Johnson — and way above President Reagan’s meager 1.9%. By “almost any yardstick,” the article continues, Bush “generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors.” Any yardstick,” that is, except the most important of all — spending as a share of GDP. On this, Bush is actually lower than most of his predecessors. Spending as a share of GDP is the most important measure of the size of government, since it measures what government actually takes from the national economy.

Brito on E-Government Transparency

One of the most important tools for limited government is transparency. Transparency keeps government accountable by giving citizens the ability to monitor what government officials are doing and publicize instances where government officials abuse their authority.

Of course, government officials dislike transparency for precisely that reason, and they have often worked hard to limit the amount of information they make available. The Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 1966 and given teeth in 1974, required government agencies to disclose information upon request from voters.

Some government officials have taken the opposite tack: instead of withholding information, they’ve released enormous quantities of poorly organized information, making it difficult for voters to sift through the material and find what they’re looking for.

Former Catoite Jerry Brito, now at the Mercatus Center, has written a fantastic paper describing the remedy for this tactic of government obfuscation. Jerry argues that government agencies should be required to release their data in structured formats suitable for easy manipulation by software tools. That would allow computer geeks to use software tools to organize the information and make it easily searchable. And that, in turn, would make it much easier for citizen-activists to sift through the available information and unearth relevant information about government activities.

Jerry points to several excellent examples of how structured data can improve government accountability. One is Washington Watch, a side project of our own Jim Harper, which gives voters a user-friendly way to keep track of what Congress is doing and discuss pending legislation with other voters. Another is opensecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, that provides well-organized, searchable access to the FEC’s campaign contributions database. Creating opensecrets.org would have been prohibitively expensive if the FEC hadn’t made the raw information available in a reasonable electronic format.

Many more projects like this would be possible if government agencies made more public data available. I encourage you to check out Jerry’s paper to learn how it can be done.

The Liberaltarians Are Coming…

… and Harold Meyerson is not pleased!

In his Washington Post column today, Meyerson bemoans the sinister influence of “Wall Street Democrats”:

The younger masters of the universe who work on Wall Street like as not are liberal on cultural issues and appalled at Republican foreign policy, though they’re no fans of regulating capitalism. They give big-time to such Democrats as Barack Obama (who supported legislation moving class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts, a bill intended to reduce the size of jury awards in such lawsuits) and Chuck Schumer (who has opposed a fairer tax rate for hedge fund operators)….

The problem is that the drift of much of Wall Street toward the Democrats on noneconomic issues coincides with Wall Street’s creation of inscrutable and unregulated investment devices that imperil the entire economy, as the current mortgage crisis makes painfully clear. On gay rights, say, the nouveau financiers are 21st-century progressives; on economic oversight, they are 1920s speculators, determined to keep their machinations free from public oversight.

Last year, in a piece called “Liberaltarians,” I wrote that conservatism’s crackup had created the possibility that libertarian-leaning “economically conservative, socially liberal” types might shift their loyalties to the Democratic Party. I was urging liberals to meet them halfway, and that certainly hasn’t happened yet. But maybe it doesn’t matter.

After all, if small-government voters come to think of themselves as Democrats because of social and foreign policy issues, sooner or later they’ll try to make their influence felt on economic matters as well. Will they be able to make a discernible impact on the Democratic Party’s longstanding love affair with Big Government? Who knows, but the very idea is giving Harold Meyerson heartburn – and, surely, that’s an encouraging sign.

[cross-posted from www.brinklindsey.com]