Topic: Government and Politics

Finally Legal!

I can finally report that I am driving a legal automobile.

As readers will recall, this was my third trip (see here and here for previous installments in the saga). Actually, it was my third and fourth trip. When I got to the DMV this morning, happily clutching the Fairfax County tax receipt to my chest, I was told that I also needed an emissions test. It would have been nice of the bureaucrats to tell me that on my first trip, but why expect miracles.

So I had to exit the line, go back out to my car, and drive (illegally, once again) to a nearby service station. This interaction with the private sector was predicatably brief, so I was back at the DMV in less than 30 minutes. Unfortunately, Dan Griswold must have been hard at work in the interim since there was now a long line of people, none of whom appeared to be native-born Americans.

But after a 90-minute wait, I got up to the counter, and was able to get registered - but only after dealing with a libertarian quandary. While twiddling my thumbs, I noticed that I could request a vanity plate. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to have a license plate reading “anti gov.” But getting a special plate also involved paying more money - funds that presumably would help finance the sloth-like bureaucracy that I despise. After wrestling with my conscience (which usually comes out on the short end), I decided that the cause of freedom would be best served by having the vanity plate.

I feel guilty about giving government more money, but I somewhat compensated by paying for my registration and vanity plate with a credit card, which means at least some small slice of the $103 gets diverted to the financial services industry. It ain’t easy being libertarian, but I somehow muddled through.

Air Traffic Control

You often need a crisis, real or imagined, to get major policy changes enacted. There are two looming challenges in our backwards and bureaucratic air traffic control system that might nudge Congress toward reform. The first is that the government system is having a hard time keeping up with the continued growth in air travel.

The second, as Government Executive magazine reports today, is that a large group of controllers are nearing retirement and the government might have a hard time finding replacements.

These challenges add to the woes of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has mismanaged the air traffic control (ATC) system for decades. The FAA has struggled to modernize ATC technology in order to improve safety and expand capacity. Its upgrade projects are often behind schedule and far over budget, according to the Government Accountability Office. (Discussed in here). 

Privatization of U.S. air traffic control is long overdue. During the past 15 years, more than a dozen countries have partly or fully privatized their ATC, and provide some good models for U.S. reforms.

Canada privatized its ATC in 1996, setting up a fully private, non-profit corporation, Nav Canada, which is self-supporting from charges on aviation users. The Canadian system has received rave reviews for investing in new technologies and reducing air congestion, and it has one of the best safety records in the world.

The United States should be a leader in air traffic control, especially given the nation’s legacy of aviation innovation. A privatized system would allow for more flexible hiring policies, replacement of expensive human controllers with machines, and access to private capital for infrastructure upgrading. It is also likely that privatization would help improve safety and reduce air congestion by speeding the adoption of advanced technologies.

Great Moments in Local Government, Part II

I am moving ever closer to being a compliant citizen of Fairfax County and the State of Virginia. As I noted in an earlier post, I am seeking to renew the registration on my car, but I failed miserably in my first trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The trip to the Fairfax County tax office was rather successful, albeit a bit puzzling. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to pay a mysterious overdue tax and then a $20 fee to remove a “hold” on my registration. But the County bureaucrat said there was no overdue tax. This made sense because I hadn’t received any notices in the mail, but I can only imagine why the automated system was trying to get me to cough up $174 (I’m now thankful my efforts to comply were unsuccessful).

Yet even though there was no unpaid tax, the County still insisted on getting $20 to remove the hold. In an ideal world, I would have loudly protested this ridiculous demand. In the spirit of the Founding Fathers, I would have pointed out the absurdity of being forced to pay the remove a hold for a tax liability that did not exist. In reality, the County got its money and I’m just happy that I have (at least in theory) just one final visit to the DMV.

I never did ask, by the way, why the County thinks I have four cars. While I am a tad bit curious, discretion is the better part of valor when dealing with bureaucracy. Stay tuned.

Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power

Eight British Cabinet ministers have admitted that they smoked marijuana in their youth, most of them “only once or twice” in college, which would be an atypical pattern. The revelations began with Jacqui Smith, the new Home Secretary, the equivalent of the attorney general. They also include the police minister and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs. The eight have been dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in acknowledgment of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

On Wednesday Brown announced that Smith would lead a government review of the laws on marijuana, specifically with reference to whether simple possession should be again grounds for arrest. (The law was eased in 2002.) Several leading Conservatives in the Shadow Cabinet have also acknowledged using drugs, and party leader David Cameron has emulated President Bush in saying that he’s not obligated to discuss every detail of his private life before he entered politics.

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

And the same question applies to Sen. David Vitter, who has acknowledged employing the services provided by the “D.C. Madam.” Many people have compared Vitter to other politicians who engaged in adultery, or have mocked his commitment to “family values”–he has said that no issue is more important than protecting the institution of marriage from the threat of gay couples getting married. But the other politicians usually cited were not breaking the law when they had affairs, and Vitter’s hostility to gay marriage while cheating on his own is a matter of simple political hypocrisy. The more specific issue, as with the pot-smoking drug warriors, is that Vitter (presumably) supports the laws against prostitution. Yet he himself, while a member of the United States Congress, has broken those laws and solicited other people to break them.

Vitter should be asked: Do you think prostitution should be illegal? If so, will you turn yourself in? Or will you testify for the defense in the D.C. Madam case, asking the court not to punish Deborah Jeane Palfrey if it’s not punishing you?

I hope that Jacqui Smith, Barack Obama, and David Vitter will engage in some introspection and conclude that if they didn’t deserve to go to jail, then neither do other pot smokers, prostitutes, and their customers. They might decide that not every sin or mistake should be a crime. But they should not sit in the halls of power, imposing on others the penalties they don’t think should apply to them.

Bush Waxes Philosophical on Health Care

People sick of the big-government conservatism practiced by the Bush administration might be excited at the headline in today’s Washington Post: “Bush: No Deal On Children’s Health Plan/President Says He Objects On Philosophical Grounds.” But President Bush’s philosophical objection to the proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program is in no way a reversal from his stance that big spending is okay as long as Republicans can take credit.

What philosophy does Bush subscribe to?  Apparently, it’s the philosophy that says the federal government should only expand the welfare state by billions of dollars, instead of tens of billions of dollars: “The president said he objects on philosophical grounds to a bipartisan Senate proposal to boost the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years. Bush has proposed $5 billion in increased funding and has threatened to veto the Senate compromise and a more costly expansion being contemplated in the House.” 

Later in the article Bush is quoted as saying, “I think it’s going to be very important for our allies on Capitol Hill to hear a strong, clear message from me that expansion of government in lieu of making the necessary changes to encourage a consumer-based system is not acceptable.”

He also said, “I’m worried that there will be a strong incentive for people to switch from the private sector to the government.” 

If only the president had adopted a similar attitude when he approved a $1.2 trillion expansion of Medicare in 2003 in lieu of consumer-based approaches.

Word Abuse

In Washington, no word is more overused and abused than “reform.” But a Washington Post story today shows the abuse taken to new heights:

Farm bloc lawmakers yesterday offered the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry $1.8 billion in new federal grants over the next five years as part of a farm bill that would leave in place far larger subsidies for grain, cotton and dairy producers.

The concessions were part of a balancing act by House Democrats to craft a bill that will satisfy politically powerful farm interests while also bearing a Democratic imprint of reform. The House Agriculture Committee was set to vote on the legislation late last night or today.

The package, unveiled yesterday by Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), also increases funding for land conservation, wetlands protection and nutrition programs – popular with environmental groups and urban lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the package ‘a good first step toward needed reform.’

Let’s see: Congress is keeping all the old programs, creating new subsidies for fruits and vegetables, increasing funding for conservation and nutrition programs. That’s reform?

The story title is also worthy of The Onion: “Farm Bill Leaves Some Subsidies.” Some subsidies?!

Great Moments in Local Government, Part I

I became a libertarian in high school and college thanks to Ronald Reagan’s eloquent commentary against big government. I remain a libertarian because of Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Several years ago, I had to make four trips to the DMV to get my son his learner’s permit (I don’t remember all the details, but I periodically have flashbacks about Social Security cards, birth certificates, and DNA samples).

Today, I began a new odyssey in an attempt to renew the registration on one of my vehicles.

Theoretically, DMV was supposed to send something in the mail, but that never arrived and I was unaware that my registration expired until one of DC’s finest recently pulled me over (to his credit, he gave me a warning rather than impounding the car, which ostensibly is the law in such situations).  So I went online to find out about renewing the registration, and was horrified to discover that I had to make a visit to DMV because my registration had lapsed (needless to say, I can’t think of a single reason why this should require an in-person visit).

Resigned to an unpleasant experience, I woke up early so that I could avoid a three-hour line at the DMV office and managed to see someone after a wait of just 15 minutes. But when I attempted to register, I was told that Fairfax County had placed a hold on my registration because of unpaid taxes. I would like to claim that I was being a principled tax protester, but I meekly pay my car taxes…at least when I’m aware that a bill is due.  I don’t know whether to blame the Post Office or the vehicle bureaucracy, but there are no letters from Fairfax County in my inbox.

In any event, the logical next step should have been for me to pull out a credit card and take care of both the unpaid tax and the registration. Silly me. Not surprisingly (and this may be a good thing), there is no coordination between Fairfax County and the state government. So I had to surrender my spot at the counter and go look at a sign with numbers for various local tax offices. I called Fairfax County’s automated system, filled with naive thoughts about making an automated payment and then taking care of my registration.

 I was surprised to learn that Fairfax County thinks I have four cars. Unfortunately, the system does not tell you the cars you ostensibly own, or which car has the unpaid tax bill. But the amount was not very large, so I was willing to pay it - even if it was for a car I didn’t own. Like any sensible person, my top goal was to avoid having to make a repeat visit to the DMV. So I spent the next five minutes typing in a bunch of numbers in response to about 10 different prompts, only to be told that my credit card was not accepted. So I then typed in the information for another credit card and got the same rejection message. Since I know my credit cards are good (I used one of them last night and used the other one after leaving DMV just to make sure), I opted out of the automated system and eventually got to speak to live bureaucrat. For reasons that I will never understand, though, the bureaucrats can only process payments if you have a Discover card.

Utterly defeated, I tucked my tail between my legs and went to work. At some point, before a less-friendly cop pulls me over, I will now have to visit the Fairfax County tax office and then make a second visit to the DMV. And if that is all that I have to do, I will consider myself lucky.

But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. I now am fully re-energized in my disdain for government.