Topic: Government and Politics

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]

The Draft: Way to (More) War

The United States’ increased military activity following the declaration of the “War on Terror” has inspired a growing movement to reinstitute compulsory service — that is, to bring back the draft. Perhaps surprisingly, the movement is largely on the political Left.

We could joke cynically that the new draft movement shows Democrats’ love of slavery is still strong nearly a century and a half after the 13th Amendment. But draft advocates have a serious motivation: They see the return of compulsory service as “a way to peace.”

Their thinking goes like this: If the draft were reinstated, then a cross-section of the public would be directly affected by U.S. military action — our children could be drafted. The public would thus develop a more critical view of military involvement than what they have now. They would pressure Congress and the White House to give greater attention to the troops’ well being, would prompt a withdraw from Iraq, and would decrease the likelihood of questionable missions in the future. As an Iraq war veteran wrote in a Sunday NYT op-ed:

[S]erious consideration of a draft could set off such a violent reaction from the American public that the pressure on politicians to abandon their cliché-ridden rhetoric and begin a well-considered withdrawal would be overpowering.

The draft advocates’ motivation is respectable. Unfortunately, their strategy is too clever by half — or, perhaps, not clever enough about the incentives and disincentives of political leaders who dispatch troops, and about 20th century American military history.

With no compulsory service, America’s military can only rely on volunteers to fill its ranks. If political leaders are overly aggressive in their use of the military, or if service members are poorly treated, poorly compensated, and poorly trained and equipped, or if they are exposed to unacceptable risk, then the Pentagon will have trouble with recruitment and retention. That’s why, when the United States abandoned selective service in 1973 after 25 years of paying conscripts poorly, training them minimally, and using them as cannon fodder in Korea and Vietnam, the Pentagon had to increase troops’ compensation significantly and reduce their risk of being killed or injured in combat (which was accomplished, in part, by developing and deploying advanced weaponry and improving troops’ skills and training).

Call this the “enlistment veto” — because the United States has an All-Volunteer Force (AVF), would-be volunteers act as a check on the politicial leaders who would send them to war and the military leaders who would command them. If those leaders are reckless and abusive in their use of the troops and miserly in the troops’ compensation, then the military will have trouble filling its ranks. As a result, the leaders would be less inclined to use the military because the understaffed force would be less likely to achieve military success.

Contrast the AVF with compulsory service, where there is no enlistment veto. With the draft, young people are forced to soldier for America’s political and military leaders regardless of the soundness of those leaders’ decisions, their treatment of the troops, and the troops’ level of compensation, training, and equipment. With the draft, U.S. politicians have an ample, cheap supply of military manpower to use as they see fit.

Put simply (and perhaps crudely): If political and military leaders were given a larger, cheaper supply of a vital input to war — namely, troops — would that result in less military involvement or more?

A look at selective service in the 20th century shows politicians can find all sorts of questionable uses for the military when young people are forced to serve. Following the expiration of the WWII draft in 1947, the United States adopted the peacetime selective service program for the period 1948–1973. In that quarter-century, the United States dispatched troops to the following foreign entanglements:

  • China (1948–1949)
  • Korea (1951–1953)
  • Egypt (1956)
  • Lebanon (1958)
  • Panama (1958)
  • Vietnam (1960–1975)
  • Panama (1964)
  • Dominican Republic (1965–1966)
  • Cambodia (1969–1975)

Did U.S. leaders show they more highly valued the cheap, forced labor of the selective service era than the more costly, more discriminating labor of the post–selective service era? Complete data on casualties for the two time periods are difficult to compile, but we can make a rough comparison by using fragmented data [sources]. The two major U.S. military involvements of the selective service era (Korea and Vietnam) saw 81,165 hostile action deaths of U.S. troops and 256,587 wounded. In contrast, for the period 1980–1999 (including the Gulf War and Somalia) plus the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (as of 10/06/2007), U.S. troops experienced a total of 3,927 hostile action deaths, and the three prominent post-1980 military conflicts (as of 10/06/2007) yielded a total of 30,290 wounded.

Granted, the conflicts and geopolitical dynamics of the selective service era are different than the post–selective service era. But given the historical data, it’s very hard to accept draft advocates’ claim that reinstituting compulsory service would make the United States less aggressive militarily and would make political and military leaders more responsive to the troops’ concerns.

Draft proponents would respond that using compulsory service to supply troops for a politically unpopular war would lead to social unrest that would reshape U.S. politics. But is that unrest a stronger check on political and military leaders than the enlistment veto? Consider that there has been precious little change in Iraq policy despite protests and considerable public criticism of the war. And yes, the United States did change course in Vietnam after a lot of 1960s protests — but it took a very long time before that policy change happened. It is difficult to believe that the United States would have fought the Vietnam War the way it did, for as long as it did, if it had to rely on an all-volunteer military instead of being able to call on cheap, forced labor.

The “protests instead of enlistment veto” strategy becomes even more untenable when we consider U.S. demographics. The American public is aging, families are growing smaller and more fragmented, and it is older Americans with adult children — people who are not at risk to be drafted, and whose kids are not at risk to be drafted — who are increasingly dominating American politics. This older, less-connected American majority seems unlikely to take a stronger interest in the well-being of U.S. troops than the would-be volunteers themselves.

Grand Old Party of Immigrants?

Move over, Arnold Schwarzenegger. America has a new political star.

Bobby Jindal, the 36-year-old son of Indian immigrants, was elected governor of Louisiana on Saturday. He’s the first non-white governor of a Deep South state, and one of very few non-whites to achieve political success in a majority-white constituency.

Talk about assimilation—Jindal is so American that when he was four years old he told his parents he wanted to be called Bobby, like the youngest of “The Brady Bunch,” rather than his given name of Piyush.

Although he’s a conservative Catholic who lives far from the bright lights of Hollywood, Jindal has a lot in common with Schwarzenegger. Both reflect America’s historic promise as the land of opportunity. Arnold’s election four years ago was improbable enough to impress even the French: “American democracy has tremendous resilience,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French interior minister. “Someone who’s a foreigner in his country, who has an unpronounceable name and can become governor of the biggest American state – that’s not nothing.”

Around the world, especially in Asia, people may be even more impressed with the slight young Jindal, a whiz kid Rhodes Scholar who became Louisiana’s state health secretary at 24, head of the University of Louisiana system at 27, and assistant secretary for health care in the Bush administration at 29. When he first ran for governor, no one thought a dark-skinned 32-year-old with no electoral experience could be elected. But he led the first round handily and then narrowly lost to lieutenant governor Kathleen Blanco in the runoff. After he got elected to Congress and Blanco botched the Katrina disaster, she chose not to run for reelection and Jindal waltzed to a 54 percent victory against 11 opponents in an open primary. With more than 50 percent, he avoids a runoff and is governor-elect.

Jindal’s future could be even more promising than Schwarzenegger’s. His mother was pregnant when his parents arrived in Baton Rouge from India, so he’s a natural-born citizen and eligible to run for president–if he can achieve success as governor of what is arguably the nation’s poorest and most corrupt state, which is still suffering badly from the hurricane. But watch for him to be featured by the Republican Party as a symbol of America and of the GOP’s welcoming approach to minorities.

Schwarzenegger and Jindal both campaigned as fiscal conservatives, but they part company on social issues. Jindal, a convert to Catholicism, ran radio ads attacking abortion, gay marriage, and Hollywood and supported the teaching of “intelligent design.” The pro-choice Schwarzenegger vetoed a gay marriage bill but has supported domestic partnerships.

In American politics, immigration is usually discussed as an issue for Hispanic voters, the largest group of recent immigrants. Republicans will hope that the combination of the Terminator and an Indian-American Republican governor in the Deep South can counter the party’s increasingly tough line on immigration and shake up immigrant voting patterns. Jindal and Schwarzenegger may play some role in improving the image of the Republican Party in America, and the image of America—land of freedom and opportunity—in Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world.

David Harsanyi’s Nanny State

In the Washington Post today, Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I’ve thought a lot about in discussions of our growing “nanny state”:

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines….

It is true that in 1960 U.S. automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under “blue laws,” most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90 percent income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications, and finance.

Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity, and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we’re progressively less free.

Allen also complains that

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. “People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed.” Plus, “the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves.”

That’s a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it’s not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking, and fatty foods is that we’re adults; that we’re endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.

Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we “read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill.”

Debating the Law of the Sea Treaty

The Law of the Sea Treaty (dubbed LOST by opponents, and LOS by supporters), represents the culmination of a decades-long project to clarify the rules governing the oceans, from the seabed to the waves. The treaty, first rejected by President Reagan in 1982, has been revised over the years; now prominent Republicans, including Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, are urging passage. The Bush Administration has quietly endorsed the process.

Doug Bandow, who wrote a paper for Cato on the subject two years ago, makes a strong case for why the Senate should reject the treaty and continue with the status quo. He squares off this week against Raj Purohit of Citizens for Global Solutions in an online debate at the Partnership for a Secure America.

If you haven’t followed the issue closely, Doug and Raj do a good job of spelling out the relevant arguments for and against.