Topic: Government and Politics

Why Won’t Al Gore Debate?

Former vice president and Oscar winner Al Gore is scheduled to testify to both House and Senate committees today about global warming. For the past few years Gore has traveled across America speaking to audiences that range from friendly to worshipful, from journalists in New York and Washington to actors in Hollywood. If he has ever faced skeptical questions, it hasn’t been reported.

We have several times invited the former vice president to present his famous slide show at the Cato Institute, in conjunction with a slide show prepared by Patrick J. Michaels, who takes a more benign view of climate change. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. He is the state climatologist of Virginia, a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, and an author of the 2003 climate science “Paper of the Year” selected by the Association of American Geographers. His research has been published in major scientific journals, including Climate Research, Climatic Change, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Climate, Nature, and Science. He received his Ph.D. in ecological climatology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1979. His most recent book is Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media, which has been number one on Amazon’s global warming bestseller list for months at a time and has been reprinted twice this year.

Gore’s office has declined our invitations. If Vice President Gore is committed to public understanding of climate change, why will he not demonstrate to a Washington audience composed of both supporters and skeptics that his ideas can carry the day in a dialogue with a leading critic? He wiped the floor with Ross Perot; does he fear that the case for catastrophic climate change is not as strong as the case for NAFTA?

The invitation is still open. Mr. Vice President, please come to the Cato Institute and present your slide show to an audience of journalists and scholars with a knowledgeable climate scientist also on the dais.

More on Libertarians and Democrats

In a blog post yesterday, my colleague John Samples tried to pour cold water on my idea of libertarian outreach to the left. Specifically, he cites depressing polling data that show strong support among Democratic voters for increased government spending. Alas, the appetite for free ice cream from Washington isn’t restricted to Democrats, as I point out in an essay for this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. I’ll concede, though, that Democratic voters are especially unlikely to pressure their representatives to show spending restraint.

Does that mean libertarians have no business seeking common ground with liberals? Let me make just a couple of quick points.

First, polls aren’t everything. After all, as Cato’s Stephen Slivinski has written, real federal spending increased at an annual rate of only 1.5 percent under Bill Clinton, as compared to a 5.6 percent rate of growth during George W. Bush’s first term. So Democratic politicians can run and win on a record of fiscal prudence. Yes, it’s true that Clinton’s good spending record was due in significant part to the fact that he faced a GOP Congress for most of his time in office. But this just shows that people who care about controlling spending would do better to rely on divided government than on Republicans’ small-government rhetoric. And you can’t have divided government without electing some Democrats!

Second, spending isn’t everything. The cause of limited government has many other dimensions besides the degree of budget bloat. How, I wonder, do Democratic voters compare to Republicans in their attitudes on getting out of Iraq? Getting into Iran? Torture? Warrantless wiretapping? Immigration? The drug war? Whatever voters tell pollsters, it’s clear that Democratic politicians are more likely than their GOP counterparts to resist government overreaching in these vital areas.

The sad fact is that libertarians have few allies today in either political party. Why on earth then should we refuse to seek common ground with those Democrats who hold relatively pro-market attitudes?

REAL ID News and Views

An interesting report says that at least one member of the Carter-Baker Commission would not have signed on to its recommendation to use REAL ID as a voter ID card had she known more about it.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe editorializes against REAL ID, calling it “unrealistic.”

Greater safety is imperative. But given its flaws, the Real ID law should be scrapped. The country needs to invest more thought, time, debate, and money into how best to upgrade driver’s licenses.

The State Department’s Misguided Money-Laundering Wish List

A couple of decades ago, there were no laws against money laundering. Instead, governments fought crime by…well…fighting crime. Then politicians came up with the idea of making it illegal to use the proceeds of crime. This was not necessarily a bad idea. After all, crime theoretically will be reduced by polices that either increase the expected punishment or lower the expected rewards. Unfortunately, anti-money laundering laws have been an expensive failure. They costs billions of dollars yet there is no peer-reviewed literature showing that they have any impact on crime. Heck, they don’t even stop crooks from laundering funds. Yet the myopic bureaucrats at the State Department publish an annual report hectoring other nations to make their anti-money laundering laws more intrusive and burdensome. Richard Rahn’s Washington Times op-ed reviews some of the sillier suggestions:

This month, the State Department has set a new record by managing to insult the citizens of 123 different lands at one time in the “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes.” The 450-page report discusses what other countries are doing to reduce money laundering and financial crimes, which is fine. But then the authors go on gratuitously lecturing each of the countries by name about how they could do things “better.” To understand the total hypocrisy of the State Department nags, it is important to remember that more money laundering goes on in the United States than anywhere else, and that the U.S. is the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs. The Report…is filled with endless demands that other countries do a better job enforcing their laws, pass more laws, sign more international treaties and engage in some practices that would be illegal and unconstitutional in the U.S. Many of the demands would not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test… Some examples: The Belgians “should strengthen the adherence to reporting requirements by some nonfinancial entities, such as lawyers and notaries,” so says State, while completely ignoring the importance of lawyer client confidentiality. …To the Germans they say, “Amend legislation to waive the asset-freezing restrictions in the EU Clearinghouse for financial crime and terrorism financing, so that the freezing process does not require a criminal investigation.” Perhaps, the folks at State Department forgot there are certain historical reasons why the Germans now insist on strong legal protections against a potentially abusive state. The Greeks (and others) are told, “Abolish company-issued bearer shares, so that all bearer shares are legally prohibited.” Maybe the State Department gurus were unaware that bearer shares are perfectly legal in some states in the U.S., such as Nevada, and can serve a sound economic and personal privacy purpose. The authors say the government of Dominica “should eliminate its program of economic citizenship.” But then again, maybe they were unaware that many, if not most, countries allow permanent residency and/or citizenship (including the U.S.) to noncitizens who invest a certain amount in their adopted homeland. …Singapore is told that it “should add tax and fiscal offenses to its schedule of serious offenses.” Perhaps again, it did not occur to the folks in State that the highly educated and prosperous citizens of Singapore are quite capable of figuring out for themselves which laws ought to be “serious offenses.”

In Search of the Libertarian Democrat

Virginia Postrel writes today of the importance of empiricism to advancing liberty. She also mentions the possibility of persuading Democrats to become more sympathetic to the struggle for limited government.

I decided to assess the likelihood of a liberal-libertarian coalition empirically by looking at Democratic replies to questions about government spending. How open are Democrats to limiting government? These responses came from the 2004 pre-election survey conducted by American National Election Studies.

ANES posed the following choice: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services even in areas such as health and education in order to reduce spending. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Other people feel it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7.” People could also choose 2 through 6, 4 being the median choice.

About 9 percent of Democrats responded on the low or limited government end of the scale. 70 percent of Democrats responded 5 or more; almost one in four answered 7 to the question, the response farthest from the limited government answer. Not much evidence of a desire for limited government.

ANES also asked: “Some people feel the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others think the government should just let each person get ahead on their own. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.” In other words, the lower your score, the more you favor a nanny state.

Slightly less than half the Democrats gave a 1 to 3 response to the question. One in five Democrats gave the most extreme response favoring a nanny state. Three out of four Democrats gave a median response or higher.

ANES also asked about whether spending should be increased in various ways. Here are the percentages of Democratic respondents who favored increased spending on:

Aid to the poor 73.9%

Social Security 72.1%

Public Schools 87.3%

Science and Technology 57.3%

Dealing with Crime 68.4%

Child care 72.4%

Border security, illegal immigration  57.3%

In a few cases, a majority of Democrats did not favor increased spending. Here are the percentages of Democrats who favored increased spending on:

Highways 35.9%

Welfare programs 28.7%

War on terrorism 38.3%

Foreign aid 14.1%

However, on each of these issues, the percentage of Democrats who favored either increasing spending or keeping it the same was

Highways 90%

Welfare programs 75%

War on terrorism 71.7%

Foreign Aid 60.1%

No Democratic majority could be found that favored decreasing spending on any issue broached by the ANES survey.

Postrel notes, “a liberal-libertarian coalition may sound crazy when you look at the Democratic Congress, the 2008 presidential field, or the Democrats’ reflexive demonization of pharmaceutical companies.” But this data makes it clear that the Congress and the presidential candidates reflect the attitudes of Democrats more generally.

Crazy is not the correct word for the liberal-libertarian gambit. It is not like believing the Cato Institute building is made of cheese. But a political coalition requires some agreement in basic outlook about what government should do (or not do).

To believe in the liberal-libertarian proposal, you have to believe that huge, unprecedented numbers of Democrats are going to change their minds about increasing government spending or that libertarians are going to stop caring about increases in government spending.

I am sure the former will not happen.

Congress Puts Unions Above Taxpayers

Governments are infamous for sordid policies that enrich the well-connected at the expense of taxpayers and consumers, and the Davis-Bacon law is a good example. Originally designed at least in part to block minorities from gaining jobs on government-funded construction projects, the law now serves to line the pockets of labor bosses - with taxpayers picking up the tab. Yet as the Wall Street Journal opines, the House of Representatives actually wants to expand this bill. That’s the bad news. The good news (though it hardly creates a feeling of confidence if the track record is any indication) is that the White House has threatened a veto:

The 2007 Water Quality Financing Act, passed by the House late last week, reauthorizes a loan fund that lapsed in 1994 for state and municipal waterworks, sewage treatment, water conservation projects, etc. If it emerges from the Senate in its current form, the bill is projected to cost $14 billion over four years, a 250% increase over current spending levels. The bill not only extends the 1931 Davis-Bacon regulations to all federal water-infrastructure projects, but also to those funded solely by states. Economists have shown repeatedly that the artificial wage floors of Davis-Bacon freeze low-income laborers – primarily black or Hispanic – out of competition with their union counterparts. Small-business contractors are especially hurt by the compliance costs. Davis-Bacon also dramatically increases the cost of government projects, amounting to a mandate for more spending – and all for the sole justification of satisfying the AFL-CIO. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 18% of construction workers are unionized.

The Negative Side-Effects of Government Safety Rules

Politicians and bureaucrats frequently impose rules and regulations to protect us from the risks of life. But even if one assumes that all this red tape is well-meaning, the consequences often are negative. The costs to the economy often are the most obvious downside of regulation, but sometimes safety regulations actually make us less safe. John Stossel’s Townhall.com column notes that safety caps on drugs actually have increased the number of children who get poisoned:

A joint study by the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute found that government regulations that are supposed to save lives actually end up killing more people. Why? Because safety laws almost always have unintended bad consequences. …In 1972, the FDA passed a law requiring child safety caps on many medications. It was supposed to keep kids from being poisoned by drugs like aspirin. But there is an unexpected side effect. Because safety caps are hard to get off, some people – particularly older people – leave them off, and some parents, feeling safer with the cap, leave the aspirin where kids can reach it. A study of this “lulling effect” concluded that an additional 3,000 children have been poisoned by aspirin because of the regulation.