Topic: Government and Politics

Bloomberg Wins the Nanny State Olympics

As he counts his money and ponders an independent bid for the presidency, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has won one competition. He’s the biggest nanny-statist around. Sure, Bangor is banning smoking in cars if children are passengers, and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee wants to get rid of cigarettes, and Texas wants to require parents to attend parent-teacher conferences, and Kansas wants to require all seventh-grade girls to get vaccinated against a sexually transmitted infection. But for sheer nannyism, can you beat this?

Available soon: an official New York City condom.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration wants to reduce rates of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, and part of the strategy is the aggressive promotion of free condoms. Officials say more people will use them if they have jazzy packaging.

One idea is a subway theme, with maps on the wrappers.

“Brands work, and people use branded items more than they use nonbranded items, whether it’s a cola or a medicine even,” Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said.

Old Dominion GOPers Fall Off the Tax Wagon…Again.

Virginia Republicans have lost seats in the state legislature and lost the governor’s mansion in part because of their propensity to raise taxes. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand the link between their profligate behavior and their political misfortunes. The Wall Street Journal explains that they now want to raise taxes when the state has a giant budget surplus:

Virginia was once a solidly conservative Republican state, but in recent years it has tilted Democratic. A big reason for the shift is the GOP’s recent love affair with higher taxes. In the 1990s Republican Governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore won sweeping victories running as tax cutters. Then in 2004 Richmond Republicans enacted the largest tax increase in the commonwealth’s history – a $1 billion hike in sales and tobacco taxes. Now they are flirting with another tax hike even though the state has a Blue Ridge Mountain-high $900 million budget surplus. …The Republican plan would spend $1 billion more for roads and cost-inefficient transit programs and pay for it through borrowing, raising taxes and fees on cars and trucks, and giving local governments authority to raise their assessments. …Only 10 years ago the Virginia GOP was riding high after Jim Gilmore was elected Governor on a wildly popular message: “End the Car Tax.” Now the Virginia Republicans want to raise car taxes. Have they learned nothing from the party’s implosion in Washington?

The United States Owes Hillary Clinton a Debt

Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her presidential bid has evoked several news stories predicting the demise of the presidential public financing system.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that spending limits violated the First Amendment. The same decision, however, said that the government could impose spending limits in exchange for public financing of a campaign. The presidential system enacted just after Watergate provided public funding for primary campaigns (on a matching basis) and for the general election. The law established equal spending limits and prohibited private fundraising for the general presidential election for the major party candidates.

McCain-Feingold is also part of this story. That 2002 law liberalized contribution limits a bit which made it easier for strong candidates like Hillary Clinton to raise more money privately than she would receive from the public funding scheme. Of course, she could accept public funding and forego the larger sums she might raise privately. However, her competitors for the nomination – say, Barack Obama or John Edwards – might also be able to raise more money privately, and they would do so to gain an edge in the primaries over Sen.Clinton. The same might well be true of the Republican candidate in the general election. If Sen. Clinton took the public funding and its spending limits, she would be outspent by the GOP nominee. Given all these considerations, Sen. Clinton has decided to forego public funding. Any serious candidate for the presidency in 2008 is likely to make the same decision.

Too much political analysis, you might say. After all, didn’t Congress create the public financing system to prevent corruption of candidates or “level the playing field” for outsiders?  The members of Congress who created public funding ascribed such noble and moral ends to their effort. But the actual purposes of the system were rather less noble and more partisan.

From 1960 to 1974 – the year public funding was created – the Democratic presidential candidates fell increasingly behind their Republican opponents in fundraising. Remember, the public funding scheme required equal spending by both major party candidates in the general election. The law was, in short, a good solution to the emerging Democratic presidential fundraising gap. In The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, I looked at how this equalization affected the two parties after 1974, assuming the trend in fundraising from 1960 continued to 1992. The public funding law cut projected Republican fundraising (and campaign spending) by 60 percent while imposing no limit on expected Democratic donations or expenditures.

From the start, the presidential public funding system was a raw partisan ploy obscured by a moralistic rhetoric. It worked in the sense that some analysts believe the equalization of funding gave the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But the system has failed otherwise. It has not increased entry into the party primaries compared to the system it replaced. Public funding has forced taxpayers to support candidates they would not support if they had a choice. For that reason, the system has lost 75 percent of its supporters over the years. Now only about 7 percent of taxpayers check off support for the presidential fund. In 1978, 28 percent did so.

That lack of public support means Congress is unlikely to save the system. In any case, Democratic presidential candidates have drawn even with their GOP counterparts in fundraising. The real, partisan reason for the system no longer exists. Soon the system itself will be the first choice of those who finish last. Surely Congress could find a better use for a few hundred million dollars.

Spin Doctors Left and Right

Never say the Republicans don’t learn from their adversaries. On NPR, historian Timothy Naftali discusses responses to State of the Union speeches. He notes a tough response by House Republican leader Robert Michel to President Clinton in 1993, in which Michel complains about the way the “Clinton spin doctors” are changing the meaning of words. In particular, he grumbles, “Patriotism now means agreeing with the Clinton program.” That’s certainly a definition that (with the change of one word) the Bush spin doctors and their conservative supporters have endorsed wholeheartedly.

The State of the State of the Union

It’s time once again for the State of the Union, that annual ritual of outsized promises and insincere, if thunderous, applause. As I recount here, thanks to a custom initiated by President Jefferson, for 112 years presidents delivered their annual messages to Congress in writing. With each passing year, that custom looks better and better. Would that they’d go back to mailing it in.

As the presidency has grown more powerful over the course of American history, the content and style of the State of the Union has changed accordingly, as Elvin T. Lim documents in “Five Trends in Presidential Rhetoric,” a very interesting article [.pdf] in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly.

Over time, presidential rhetoric has become less humble, more assertive, less intellectual, less republican (in the small-‘r’ sense of the word) and more populist. And the promises have grown ever grander and less credible. In his half-dozen SOTUs, for example, President Bush has promised, among other things to teach our children well, heal the sick, defend the sanctity of marriage, and bring democracy to the world. Last year the president pledged that, with fedgov’s help, we would “change how we power our automobiles.” (“Wood chips, stalks,” and “switch grass” may be the answer.) And this year, he’ll confirm once again that, as he put it last year, “we are on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.”

Here are a couple of neat SOTU-related links that you can use to track changes in presidential rhetoric over time.

First is the “US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud,” which “shows the popularity, frequency, and trends in the usages of words within speeches, official documents, declarations, and letters written by the Presidents of the US between 1776 - 2006.” Click and drag through the ages and watch as the word “Constitution” becomes less and less prevalent.

Second is this site, which “provides access to the corpus of all the State of the Union addresses from 1790 to 2006, [and]…. allows you to explore how specific words gain and lose prominence over time, and to link to information on the historical context for their use.” (Via Julian Sanchez).

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “man, that speech gets dumber every year,” you’re not wrong. The latter site analyzes the SOTUs using something called the “Flesch-Kincaid score,” “which is meant to suggest the grade level in an American school for which the text is comprehensible.” That score’s declining steadily.

Similarly, Lim notes that the quality of argument and the language used in the speeches are becoming more simplistic:

Thus, whereas William Henry Harrison likened liberty to ‘the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive’ in his inaugural address, George [H.W.] Bush simply likened it to a kite: ‘Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher in the breeze.’

Of course, complexity of language isn’t necessarily a virtue, and the fact that the SOTU’s becoming more comprehensible shouldn’t necessarily be taken as evidence of a national slide toward Idiocracy.

But some of the other trends Lim tracks are discomforting for supporters of limited, republican government, such as the increasing focus on “the children” with “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton [making] 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.” Nothing against the cute little buggers, but a properly limited federal government would spend less time talking about them and designed policies that focus on them.

In any event, if you get bored during Tuesday’s speech, use the links above to see how the speech has changed. Or, if not, there’s always the State of the Union drinking game.

Debate: Does Anybody Want the Libertarian Vote?

This Thursday Brink Lindsey and I will participate in a panel discussion sponsored by America’s Future Foundation on “The Future of Fusionism.” It’s sort of an odd format: I will discuss the libertarian vote and how the Republicans are losing it, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review will say “we don’t need no stinkin’ libertarians.” Then Brink will talk about his proposed tactical alliance between liberals and libertarians, and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic will say – well, pretty much the same thing Ramesh says. Then we’ll all debate whether either Democrats or Republicans can win consistently if they leave the libertarian center on the table.

AFF says you must sign up in advance.

Of the Government, By the Government, For the Government

Members of Congress who represent federal employees are demanding higher pay for their constituents. In particular, they want “parity” in the raises for the civil service and the military. The Bush administration is thought to believe that sometimes military employees, especially in certain fields, should get higher raises, although both civilian and military raises were 2.2 percent this year.

As Chris Edwards wrote in the Washington Post last August:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released data this month showing that the average compensation for the 1.8 million federal civilian workers in 2005 was $106,579 – exactly twice the average compensation paid in the U.S. private sector: $53,289….

Since 1990 average compensation for federal workers has increased by 129 percent, the BEA data show, compared with 74 percent for private-sector workers.

If federal employees were underpaid in our strong economy, presumably it would be hard to hire them, and current employees would be quitting. Yet in fact the “quit rate” among federal employees is far lower than in the private sector. Even during the Great Depression, when employees thought very carefully before leaving an unsatisfying job, the quit rate in manufacturing was higher than it is among federal employees today. Federal employees are paid handsomely. Indeed, when they talk about “pay parity,” one could only wish that Congress would legislate parity between the pay of private-sector employees and that of federal employees. If it did, decades would pass before federal employees got another raise.

We might note that this effort is being pushed by eight House members representing Virginia and Maryland, plus District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The Founders put the seat of government in a special district, outside any state, so that the government wouldn’t be unduly influenced by local pressures. And they denied the vote to residents of the district because the government shouldn’t be influencing itself.

Now, though, we have 1.8 million civil service employees (plus about 800,000 in the post office and more than a million in the military). That’s a large voting bloc, especially in the states surrounding Washington, D.C. And so members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland, especially the Washington suburbs, have become in effect representatives of the bureaucracy in Congress.