Topic: Government and Politics

Washington—the Anti-Economic Center

“Two West Coast senators are leading an effort to increase the number of cross-country flights out of [convenient but overcrowded] Reagan National Airport, a move that could lead to more noise over neighborhoods and jam already filled parking lots,” reports the Washington Post. 

Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have amended a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill to allow up to 20 additional takeoffs and landings a day.

“It’s about connecting West and East Coast economic centers,” said R.C. Hammond, spokesman for Smith, elaborating on the senator’s motivation for the amendment.

Actually, Washington isn’t really an economic center. It’s more like an anti-economic center. Washington doesn’t do business, it impedes business, and subsidizes business, and regulates business, and cripples business. New York, Baltimore, Atlanta – those are East Coast economic centers. Not Washington, the city of lobbyists and government contractors.

Just what is it that businesspeople from Seattle and Portland would come to Washington for? They’d go to New York and Atlanta to make business deals. But they’d come to Washington to lobby for subsidies, or for regulations on their competitors, or to try to get a piece of the $2.9 trillion federal budget. But not to do actual wealth-creating business in the marketplace.

Some people say that West Coast senators want direct flights from National Airport to their home towns to make travel more convenient for them. If so, they should say so. But don’t tell us that the country would benefit from more Lobby Express flights.

Fighting for Earmarks

“Republicans will seek a House vote next week admonishing a senior Democrat who they say threatened a GOP member’s spending projects in a noisy exchange in the House chamber, Minority Leader John Boehner said Friday,” according to the AP.

Their target is Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a 35-year House veteran who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on military spending.

Murtha, 74, is known for his gruff manner and fondness for earmarks – carefully targeted spending items placed in appropriations bills to benefit a specific lawmaker or favorite constituent group.

During a series of House votes Thursday, Murtha walked to the chamber’s Republican side to confront Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a 43-year-old former FBI agent. Earlier this month, Rogers had tried unsuccessfully to strike a Murtha earmark from an intelligence spending bill. The item would restore $23 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center, a facility in Murtha’s Pennsylvania district that some Republicans say is unneeded.

According to Rogers’ account, which Murtha did not dispute, the Democrat angrily told Rogers he should never seek earmarks of his own because “you’re not going to get any, now or forever.”

“This was clearly designed to try to intimidate me,” Rogers said in an interview Friday. “He said it loud enough for other people to hear.”

Now it’s true that there’s a House rule that prohibits “lawmakers from placing conditions on earmarks or targeted tax benefits that are based on another member’s votes.” Wouldn’t want anybody to oppose your earmarks just because you opposed his.

But really – after they lost control of Congress partly because of their profligate spending and their multiplying earmarks – this is what Republicans choose to fight over? They’re going to draw a line in the sand on C-SPAN to defend Mike Rogers’s right to put special-interest earmarks in appropriations bills? That ought to bring the independent and libertarian and small-government voters streaming back.

Ad Hominem Absurdum

A little story popped up in the press today that offers what my wife and I, in the context of our responsibilities toward our 4 year-old son, often refer to as “a teaching moment.” That opportunity is afforded by an accusation out of Greenpeace this morning that Cato, along with 40 other policy organizations, are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Exxon-Mobil and thus should not be trusted.

The contention that Exxon-Mobil funding colors Cato’s analysis (with contributions, by the way, that accounted for less than 1/10th of 1% of our budget in 2006) is compelling only if Greenpeace has some sort of “motive detection device” that can be produced for public inspection. For instance, I say I’m motivated by genuine skepticism that industrial greenhouse gas emissions will usher in the Book of Revelations. They say I’m motivated by greed. We can settle this argument to the satisfaction of some third-party observer … how exactly? Even administering me with liberal doses of sodium pentathol is unlikely to settle this little spat about the nature of my character.

The truth is that my colleagues at Cato and I are skeptical about the end-of-the-world scenarios bandied about by zealots like Greenpeace, we anchor that skepticism in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and that skepticism naturally attracts funding from those parties who like what they hear. Arguing that causality actually works the other way is not only an unproved and unprovable assertion (let’s call it “faith-based argumentation”), it is impossible to square with all the work we’ve published arguing against many of the things the oil industry is known to support.

For instance, we have vigorously argued against President Bush’s national energy strategy and the resulting Energy Policy Act of 2005, called for the dismantlement of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, railed against federal oil and gas subsidies, argued for the elimination of the Clean Air Act rules that allow older refineries to escape tough anti-pollution standards, suggested giving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Greens to do with as they wish, argued against allowing cost-benefit analysis to dictate environmental standards, and defended the government’s right to renegotiate drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico that provided highly favorable contractual terms to some oil companies.

Regardless, Greenpeace’s assertions — even if true — are founded upon a classic logical fallacy. For those who never took a course in logic, it’s called ad hominem. Despite what the body politic might otherwise believe, the merit of an argument has nothing to do with the motives of the person making that argument.

For instance, if the Institute for Policy Studies argues that minimum wage laws have little net effect on unemployment and produce citations in the literature to back that up, the reply that “IPS is staffed by a bunch of socialists who simply want to bring down capitalism and should thus not be listened too” persuades only those people who are too intellectually lazy or mentally impaired to think straight. Similarly, if Cato argues that it’s very hard to justify tight greenhouse gas emissions controls using strict cost-benefit analysis — and provides academic citations to back that up — the charge that “Cato is paid by Exxon-Mobil to take that position and thus shouldn’t be listened too” is likewise a variation of the argument made famous by Joe McCarthy. “He’s evil — and thus a liar.”

And in that vein, notice the thinly veiled smear entailed in Greenpeace’s constant use of the phrase “climate denial” and its related cousins. In this context, it’s obviously meant to echo the ugly “climate denial is like Holocaust denial” charge rampant at some high-decibel quarters on the Left. Greenpeace’s strategy here is to leave no insult or character smear off the table in its drive to censor the policy debate.

That Greenpeace resorts to such a tactics does not surprise. Those with good arguments pound the arguments; those with poor arguments pound the table. God forbid Greenpeace grant that people of good will might actually disagree with them. And God forbid that we ask people to judge an argument by the facts rather than some schoolyard game of “you stink.”

Tony Blair on Global Warming

This morning on NPR’s Morning Edition, we were treated to an interview with outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The conversation touched on a number of rather predictable subjects, but the discussion of global warming is worth noting. Here, we find Tony Blair at his best — and worst.

Tony the Sensible: Even if Great Britain were to shut down its economy and zero-out all greenhouse gas emissions, growth of those emissions in China would wipe out Britain’s greenhouse gas reductions within about two years. So without an international agreement binding all global actors of note, nothing that any OECD government might do will have much effect on future temperatures.

Tony the Lunatic: The world’s inability to execute a global agreement to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions is fueling Islamic terrorism.

Huh? I didn’t know that al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas has linked up with Greenpeace. Must have missed that in those periodic tirades coming out of Pakistani caves.

I can see it now:

Abdul: “We must strike out at the Crusader/Zionist oppressors and impose the word of Allah and the Koran on the nonbelievers and the Arabic lackeys of the Christian imperialists.”

Muhammad: “Wait Abdul! The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by a new American admistration and China and India are likely to cut back on their coal consumption as a consequence! I no longer have the heart for jihad. Let us open a falafel business instead.”

Solving the Organ Shortage: A Move in the Right Direction

Jon Christiansen, a former Republican congressman from Nebraska, has founded an organization to create grassroots initiatives to help overcome resistance to providing organ donors with financial compensation.

Currently, under the National Organ Transplantation Act, it is illegal to provide “valuable consideration” for an organ. As a result, only altruistic donations are allowed and an average of seven people die every day waiting for an organ that never comes.

Christiansen’s new organization is called the American Organ Coalition. Christiansen, who is the group’s executive director, can be contacted by e-mail at jonlc [at] united [dot] net">jonlc [at] united [dot] net.

End the Postal Service Monopoly

A recent column in The (Baltimore) Sun explains why the government should not have a monopoly on mail delivery. The column focuses on the theoretical case for private competition.

Two political obstacles stand in the way of making private mail a reality. The first problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of Postal Service employees, and they receive exorbitant compensation packages. Needless to say, they are an automatic constituency against reform. The second problem is that the current monopoly subsidizes rural areas at the expense of urban areas. This means politicians from places like Alaska will fight to keep the monopoly in place.

Principled leadership could make a difference in this fight, but that is in short supply in Washington:

Sure, government is growing and putting its nose into all sorts of new things all the time, but there are very few businesses the government runs entirely, as it does with first-class mail delivery. Most of the important stuff Americans buy — food, clothing, and shelter — is produced almost entirely by the private sector. The result? Nearly everyone is fed, clothed and housed. What’s so special about mail delivery that the government must do it?

[C]ompanies such as FedEx and UPS can deliver packages, which could include letters — but they are limited by law to “extremely urgent” letters (such as overnight deliveries) and forced by law to keep their prices much higher than those of the post office. The postal monopoly costs you, me and all of us who have no choice but to be the post office’s customers if we want to send standard letters, and yet the post office still can’t come close to breaking even.

Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted cost of other things has plummeted. Consider how much a long-distance telephone call costs compared with 10, 20 or 30 years ago. The price of gasoline seems to keep going up, but adjusted for inflation it has mostly gone down over the decades.

Hagel Inches Closer to a Run

Chuck Hagel dropped another veil or two this week in his long tease about running for president. (In Thursday’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank uses both the “Hamlet” and “showing a little leg” metaphors, so I needed something different.) On Sunday’s “Face the Nation” he talked about the need for new leadership and speculated about running on a ticket with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Then on Wednesday he somewhat belatedly called for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And on the same day he gave a speech to the Center for National Policy (a non-partisan think tank run by former Democratic Party officeholders). Milbank reports that he delivered a speech about foreign policy and other problems, complete with lots of speculation about the viability of an independent candidacy in this “perfect storm” of an election year.

If Hagel should run, voters would see a commonsense Midwestern conservative who voted against Bush’s trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare and against his federalization of education, against his friend John McCain’s attempt to outlaw criticism of politicians, and for the Bush tax cuts. Unfortunately, from my perspective, he also voted for the Patriot Act, the Federal Marriage Amendment, and the authorization for war in Iraq. But he’s had second thoughts about some of those. He’s a solid free-trader, though he sometimes votes for a few too many trade subsidies.

But if he hooks up with Bloomberg, who’s on top–the experienced senator with foreign policy credentials or the competent mayor with a billion dollars? They seem to have very different views on lots of issues; Bloomberg is for gun control and all manner of nanny-state provisions, for instance. It’s hard to know if you want Bloomberg and Hagel in the White House until you know who’ll have the Oval Office.