Topic: Government and Politics

‘Terror Porn’

The Homeland Security budget has become a business-as-usual way for politicians to steer tax dollars to contributors and supporters. But even though the budget is being allocated using traditional pork-barrel methods, the arguments for more homeland security spending are based on exaggerated claims that the money is necessary to thwart terrorism.

Veronique de Rugy, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and Cato adjunct, call these claims ”terror porn.” ABC News’ John Stossel quoted de Rugy as part of a recent report:

[T]he bureaucracy hypes terrorism to justify its pork. “Terror porn” is what economist Veronique de Rugy calls it. Why “porn”? “Because porn sells, [and] terrorism sells even better,” she says. “It’s great for politicians. They can campaign on the fact that they are protecting us. They also can campaign on the fact that they’re bringing more money to their states.”

Lots of small towns do get absurd grants for homeland security. Lake County, Tenn., a rural county with only 8,000 people, got nearly $200,000 in homeland-security money. …”I don’t know that terrorists will come, but I don’t know they won’t come,” Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson told us, smiling.

At least he didn’t do what Columbus, Ohio did: spend it on bulletproof vests for police dogs.

Inordinate fear of terrorism leads to more than just wasteful spending. Stossel also cites a study estimating that 1,000 people have died because they avoided air travel and instead relied on a much riskier mode of travel:

Of course, terrorism is a real threat. But fear kills people, too. A University of Michigan study found that an additional 1,000 Americans died in car accidents in the three months after Sept. 11, because they were afraid to fly. We need to keep risk in perspective.

If Bush Is a Conservative, the Word Has No Meaning

Writing for National Review, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute seems surprised that conservatives like Reagan but disapprove of Bush.

Conservatives have not been happy with George W. Bush. For each brand of conservatism, there is a different critique. Not so with Ronald Reagan, whom conservatives uniformly praise for various reasons. Seventy-nine percent of those in attendance at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference said they would prefer a candidate who is a Reagan Republican. Three percent would go for a G. W. Bush Republican. One gets the impression that Bush isn’t even considered a conservative.

But maybe Novak is confused because he doesn’t understand conservatism. He assumes conservatives are upset about deficits and debt, when the anger is really because of wasteful government spending. He writes, “Some say that Bush’s budget deficits prove he is not a conservative.”

Novak then lists several Bush “accomplishments,” most of which expand the size and scope of government. Most conservatives, for instance, presumably think that families and private institutions should be responsible for moral teachings, yet Novak claims that Bush’s subsidies for abstinence education are a conservative victory: “He dedicated unprecedented funds to abstinence education through the Department of Health and Human Services.”

“He was the first president to sign a school-choice bill to give parents greater freedom in deciding where their children will be educated.”

Bush’s record on education is particularly disappointing, with record spending increases and more centralization, yet Novak claims Bush is a conservative because of a tiny school choice program (which shouldn’t be operated with federal dollars anyway).

“He has dedicated funding to prepare prisoners for productive lives after they leave prison.”

Novak praises Bush for programs that ostensibly rehabilitate prisoners, but it is unclear why this is a responsibility of the federal government. Nor is there any evidence that Bush’s rehabilitation strategy would work any better than the left’s rehabilitation approach.

“He signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which will curb Medicare/Medicaid spending by $11 billion over the next five years.”

Bush has increased federal spending more than twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation, and entitlements have been growing at three times the rate of inflation. But Novak thinks Bush is a conservative because a so-called Deficit Reduction Act that included $11 billion of savings. Yet this is the same president that added trillions of dollars of new Medicare spending by creating a prescription drug entitlement. Moreover the savings are only savings using the Washington definition – i.e., not increasing spending as fast as previously planned. After the “cuts,” for instance, the Medicaid budget was projected to grow 7.6 percent annually, compared to a projection of 7.8 percent before the legislation was adopted.

One of the many disappointments of the Bush presidency is an increase in regulation, particularly the hugely expensive Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, yet Novak makes a completely unsupported assertion that Bush believes in deregulation:

“He implemented deregulation across all government agencies.”

Perhaps the most amazing assertion in Novak’s article is that the creation of a new entitlement program is conservative. It also is interesting to note that Novak apparently believes that a program is conservative if it has popular approval. That means the looming minimum wage hike also is conservative (though not as conservative as the prescription drug entitlement, since only 70 percent of Americans foolishly think that government can raise the wage level). Moreover, the assertion that the program is “under budget” is rather odd. I wonder if he would be willing to bet (akin to the Ehrlich-Simon wager) whether the program 10 years from now will cost more than projected:

“He signed into law prescription drug assistance for the elderly — the first and only health-care reform in modern history to win a nearly 90-percent approval rating and to come in substantially under budget.”

To be fair, however, Novak was certainly correct when he wrote that “President Bush has defined a new kind of conservatism.” It may have nothing to do with limited government. It may be a complete reversal of Reagan’s policies, but it definitely is new (though Democrats surely can argue that they’ve been peddling these ideas for decades).

Webb on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Trolling through a news story about Sen. Jim Webb’s effort to preemptively deny the administration funds for attacking Iran unprovoked, this statement seems like one of the smartest things a congresscritter has said about foreign policy in a long time:

It is important that we clarify, formally, the perimeter of our immediate military interests in the Middle East.

Who would object to that?

Paternalism Runs Out of Gas

I was filling up the minivan on Saturday when a woman at a nearby pump approached me and said, “Can you do me a favor? I don’t know how to pump my own gas.”

My first reaction was puzzlement. She was probably in her 30s, driving an SUV with what looked to be one or two kids inside. How could she be driving a car all these years and still not have figured out how to pump her own gas? Then she said something that instantly made it all clear.

“I’m from New Jersey.”

New Jersey, of course, is just about the only state left that requires that all gas stations within the state be full-service. Defenders of the ban on self-service pumps claim it is safer and more convenient for motorists and that it does not cause higher prices. None of those arguments hold water against the decades of successful experience with self-service pumps across the country. If a gas station attendant could pump your gas more safely and conveniently and at the same price, why do so few stations offer full-service anymore?

On top of its economic inefficiencies, the New Jersey ban on self-service is an insult to the good people of New Jersey. Their own state government is telling the world that its citizens are not smart enough or responsible enough to be trusted to handle a gasoline pump. When it comes to the routine task of filling up our vehicles, the paternalistic government of New Jersey treats its citizens as though they are children.

As I witnessed first-hand over the weekend, that paternalism can leave its citizens overly reliant on the kindness of strangers whenever they venture away from home.

The Federal Communications Commission Versus the First Amendment

Newspapers and movie studios have reasonably good protections from government intervention and censorship. But as Steve Chapman explains, the Federal Communications Commission successfully has limited the First Amendment rights of television networks:

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech has complex implications, but it clearly means two things: The government cannot tell you what to say, and it cannot tell you what not to say. That is your own business, and if you conduct it in a way the government dislikes, the government can take a flying leap. Unless by “government” you mean the Federal Communications Commission. It operates on the assumption that in its special realm, the First Amendment is a nonbinding resolution.

In addition to the constitutional argument, he makes two excellent points. First, improving television quality (as defined by politicians) is not the business of government. Second, parents should decide what their kids see, not bureaucrats:

…parents who want to shield their kids from bad language on TV already have ample means to do so – via channel blocking and V-chips that can be used to filter out programs with content they regard as inappropriate. The FCC says these methods are ineffective because parents don’t use them. More likely, parents don’t bother because they don’t think the problem is serious enough to justify the effort to shield kids from words they’ve already heard on YouTube. To insert the federal government is not a way to strengthen the authority of parents but to circumvent it. …The idea that we need the FCC to assure educational opportunities for children is nonsense on stilts. In the first place, there are plenty of channels, from PBS to the Discovery Channel, that offer nothing but educational programming. …In the second place, any parents truly interested in exposing their children to intellectual stimulation are more likely to shut the TV off than turn it on. Even if more educational programming would be a good thing, what business is that of the government? More G-rated films would be a good thing, too, but we don’t force movie studios to produce them. …Today, most viewers no longer distinguish between cable and broadcast programs. So having different rules for each makes about as much sense as having different regulations for odd- and even-numbered channels.

When Common Sense Just Isn’t Enough

The National Association of Manufacturers has been in Washington long enough to know that sometimes, if you make that last appeal, that last argument, compliment the right person, then things might just go your way. 

In an unusual (to me, at least) letter expressing opposition to an utterly inane amendment sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer that would required ALL inbound cargo at U.S. ports to be screened (an impossibility without bringing international trade to a halt), NAM’s Jay Timmons urges the Senate to oppose the amendment. In the letter, Timmons describes the impracticability of the idea and describes how such measures would actually make the ports less secure.

But, to be sure, to cover his bases, and to appeal to that special sense of honor and duty reserved only for politicians, Timmons concludes with this gem:

The NAM’s Key Vote Advisory Committee has indicated that votes on the Schumer amendment will be considered for designation as Key Manufacturing Votes in the NAM voting record for the 110th Congress.  Eligibility for the NAM Award for Manufacturing Legislative Excellence will be based on a member’s record on Key Manufacturing Votes.

That could be the clincher!

Cost Overruns, Again

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the cost of new combat ships from Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics will likely be at least $350 million each, instead of the originally budgeted $220 million.

That 59 percent cost increase is routine for big federal procurements. The table below summarizes official government estimates of costs for various defense, energy, and transportation projects.

No doubt, what goes on with these projects is a “nudge nudge, wink wink” between federal officials and major contractors. The game involves key players on both sides low-balling initial costs in order to get project approval, and then having an informal agreement to let costs float up over time.

In this case, one cause of the combat ship cost increase, noted the Post, was that ”the Navy said its original cost estimate did not factor in some management costs.” How convenient!

A Sampling of Federal Cost Overruns
(Defense items in constant dollars; other figures in current dollars)
Project Estimated Cost and Date of Estimate
Original Latest or Actual
Transportation    
Boston “Big Dig” $2.6b (1985) $14.6b (2005)
Virginia Springfield interchange $241m (1994) $676m (2003)
Kennedy Center parking lot $28m (1998) $88m (2003)
Air traffic control modernization $8.9b (1998-2004) $14.6b (2005)
Denver International Airport $1.7b (1989) $4.8b (1995)
Seattle light rail system $1.7b (1996) $2.6b (2000)
     
Energy  
Yucca mountain radioactive waste $6.3b (1992) $8.4b (2001)
Hanford nuclear fuels site $715m (1995) $1.6b (2001)
Idaho Falls nuclear fuels site $124m (1998) $273m (2001)
National ignition laser facility $2.1b (1995) $3.3b (2001)
Weldon Springs remedial action $358m (1989) $905m (2001)
     
Defense (per unit in 2003 dollars)  
Global Hawk surveillance plane $86m (2001) $123m (2004)
F/A-22 Raptor fighter $117m (1992) $254m (2002)
V-22 Osprey aircraft $36m (1987) $93m (2001)
RAH-66 Comanche helicopter $33m (2000) $53m (2002)
CH-47F cargo helicopter $9m (1998) $18m (2002)
SBIRS satellite system $825m (1998) $1.6b (2002)
Patriot advanced missile $5m (1995) $10m (2002)
EX-171 guided munition $45,000 (1997) $150,000 (2002)
     
Other  
Capitol Hill visitor center $374m (2002) $559m (2004)
Kennedy Center opera house $18.3m (1995) $22.2m (2003)
Kennedy Center concert hall $15.1m (1995) $21.3m (1997)
Washington D.C. baseball stadium $435m (2004) $611m (2007)
International space station $17b (1995) $30b (2002)
FBI Trilogy computer system $477m (2000) $600m (2004)
Pentagon secret spy satellite $5b (n/a) $9.5b (2004)
Pentagon laser anti-missile system $1b (1996) $2b (2004)
Sources: Compilation by Chris Edwards based on GAO reports and Washington Post stories. Figures in $millions (m) or $billions (b).