Topic: Government and Politics

“Wing” Nuts

In the latest issue of the American Prospect (subscription), Ezra Klein has a piece saying “good riddance” to NBC’s West Wing. I share the sentiment, if for different reasons than Klein outlines. His complaint is that the show was too nice to Republicans. Mine is that it was too nice to both parties — and to politics as a whole. 

Has there ever been a sweller bunch of folks than Toby, Sam, Donna, Josh and C.J.? A more selfless, high-minded, public-spirited, fundamentally decent pack of, er, political operators? Where in the world did Aaron Sorkin get his ideas about how politics works?

The White House of the West Wing exists in a Bizarro-world where the Oval Office is apparently devoid of office politics. We see almost none of the infighting, backstabbing, and jockeying for position that appear in real-world accounts of White House life. And no one, it seems, is tempted to abuse power. Can you picture a young John Dean in the Bartlett White House, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of “using the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?” A young Bill Moyers demanding that J. Edgar Hoover find homosexuals on Barry Goldwater’s campaign staff? Could even a Dick Morris or a David Addington walk the halls with saintly C.J. and noble Toby? Not likely.

It’s not that every White House staffer should be played as Gollum-with-a-briefcase. But the West Wing writers wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that anybody gets corrupted by proximity to power. 

And then there’s Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett. He’s some sort of Catholic theologian-cum-Nobel-laureate in economics — you know, the sort of guy we usually get for the job. And of course, he’s unbearably decent as well. Even his scandals are noble; no thong-snapping involved. Instead, Bartlett gets diagnosed with MS and chooses not to reveal it to the American people. This is Clinton, plus a spine and a moral compass, minus the libido. It’s Kennedy’s Camelot without the mob connections and the dirty tricks and the Motley-Crue-on-world-tour sex life

The West Wing was, above all, a Valentine to power. And despite the snappy repartee and the often-witty scripts, it was a profoundly silly show. It managed — in 21st century America — to be markedly less cynical than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

And that was by design: Sorkin and the show’s other writers and producers repeatedly spoke of their desire to renew “respect for public service” and to combat a culture of cynicism about politics. But is that really a pressing problem in modern American life? Are we too cynical about politics these days? Or not cynical enough?   

Karl Rove’s Paean to T.R.

Gene Healy beat me to the punch in commenting on Karl Rove’s Time essay on Teddy Roosevelt.

My colleague (and office neighbor) John Samples is always telling me that Bush supporters are capital-P Progressives. In the course of some parallel research a while back, I happened on an article by the historian William E. Leuchtenberg that explains the Progressives’ comfort with ambitious, activist government, both at home and abroad. Fudge the language a bit in places, and it sounds frighteningly similar to the Bush administration today.

[I]mperialism and progressivism flourished together because they were both expressions of the same philosophy of government, a tendency to judge any action not by the means employed but by the results achieved, a worship of definitive action for action’s sake, as John Dewey has pointed out, and an almost religious faith in the democratic mission of America. The results of the Spanish-American War were heartily approved not merely because the war freed subject peoples from tyranny, but because, since the United States was the land of free institutions, any extension of its domain was per se an extension of freedom and democracy. It was an age that admired results, that was not too concerned with fine distinctions and nice theories. The Progressives, quite apart from sharing in the general excitement of middle-class America in the rise of the United States as a world power and the sense of identity with the nation which imperialism afforded in a time of national stress, admired anyone who could clean up the slaughterhouses or link two great oceans, who could get a job done without months of tedious debate and deference to legal precedents.

The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government, which would mean the reign of plutocracy at home and a narrow, isolationist concept of national destiny abroad, which would deny the democratic mission of America and leave the brown peoples pawns of dynastic wars and colonial exploitation.

William E. Leuchtenberg, “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1916,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, no. 3 (Dec. 1952), p. 501

Some Good News from the Court for a Change

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a set of restrictions on campaign finance enacted by Vermont. Six members of the court believed Vermont’s spending limits and extremely low contribution limits violated the First Amendment.

The six justices agreed that the Vermont law was invalid. But they disagreed about quite a bit, too. Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito focused on the shortcomings of the Vermont law. Breyer and Roberts also rejected Vermont’s demand that Buckley v. Valeo be overturned. Justices Thomas and Scalia concurred in the opinion but rightly called for overturning Buckley in order to offer better protections for political speech. Justice Kennedy rightly expressed dismay with the Court’s recent campaign finance jurisprudence. In the larger picture, he seems closer to Thomas and Scalia than the other three in the majority.

This ruling was expected, but nonetheless good news. The majority opinion shows that we now have a majority of the court who recognize some limits on the power of the state over political speech. After McConnell v. FEC, it was far from clear than the judiciary would draw any lines limiting state restrictions on speech.

Still, this is hardly a robust affirmation of the First Amendment, and it is somewhat discouraging that the new justices, Roberts and Alito, were unwilling to overturn past errors by earlier majorities on the Court.

A Legacy of Bias

Last week on my personal weblog, I ran an excerpt from Dan Baum’s essential book Smoke and Mirrors about how the 1986 overdose death of Maryland University basketball star Len Bias led to the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The act is arguably the most militant, draconian crime-fighting bill ever passed by Congress.

Much of Baum’s book is told from the point of view of Eric Sterling, a congressional staffer who helped write most of the 1980s drug laws, but who has since become a vocal opponent of those laws, and of the drug war in general.

Yesterday, Sterling and Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums had an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that, sadly, the legacy of Bias’s death isn’t an end to the use of illicit drugs, but an exploding prison population, violence, and increased drug use — all caused not by Bias’s death, but by Congress’s overreation to it.

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page covered similar ground this week.

Hillary and the Candlemakers: Not a Parody

One of the most famous documents in the history of free-trade literature is Bastiat’s famous “Candlemakers’ Petition.” In that parody, the French economist and parliamentarian imagined the makers of candles and street lamps petitioning the French Chamber of Deputies for protection from a most dastardly foreign competitor:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity… . 

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival …  is none other than the sun.

For after all, Bastiat’s petitioners noted, how can the makers of candles and lanterns compete with a light source that is totally free?

Thank goodness we wouldn’t fall for such nonsense today. Or would we?

Last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and nine colleagues (ranging from Barbara Boxer to Tom Coburn) endorsed a petition from — you guessed it — the domestic candlemaking industry asking the secretary of commerce to impose a 108.3 percent tariff on Chinese candle producers.

After the Commerce Department approved the candlemakers’ petition, Clinton said in a statement:

This is a real victory for the Syracuse candle-making industry. Our manufacturers deserve a level playing field and we owe it to them to make sure that others do not unfairly circumvent our fair trade practices. Syracuse has a proud history of candle production but attempts by importers to undercut our producers have put that tradition at risk. I am pleased that the Department of Commerce heeded our call to take action against these unfair practices and recognized the importance of this decision to local producers, especially here in Syracuse. We will continue to make the case on behalf of Syracuse candle-makers as the Commerce Department considers its final determination.

But perhaps the comparison is unfair. After all, Clinton and the National Candle Association aren’t asking for protection from the sun, only from Chinese candle producers who are allegedly “dumping” candles in to the American market “at less than fair value.”

What’s the difference, though? Any source that supplies light to American consumers is a competitor of the American candle industry. And any source that can deliver the light cheaper than American candle companies is a tough competitor. Domestic producers will no doubt gain by imposing a 100 percent tariff on their Chinese competitors. But they could also sell more candles if the government required “the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses,” as Bastiat’s candlemakers requested.

In our modern world, the candlemakers might also propose that electric lights be banned. Think what that would do for the Syracuse candlemaking industry! Sales would soar, profits would soar, jobs would be created. And, no doubt, the owners and the employees would be immensely grateful to Senator Clinton. Of course, Senator Clinton is a centrist these days, so she would not support such sweeping legislation; perhaps she would propose only to ban electric lights from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In either case, the benefits would not stop with the Syracuse candlemaking industry alone. As Bastiat’s candlemakers told the Chamber of Deputies:

If you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged?

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth.

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land… .

Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc.

No doubt, we can expect the same cascade of benefits to ensue from the government’s approval of the petition of the Syracuse candlemaking industry.

I Voted for What?

Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) is an important man in Congress. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and chairs its Military Personnel Subcommittee which spends $85 billion annually.

Whether he knows how that money is spent is an open question. The Hill reported today that McHugh voted for a defense authorization bill that included a provision “he said he philosophically opposed.” (The provision overrode a federal court’s decision in a dispute between National Guard members and the government about who should pay for correspondence courses).

McHugh apparently had not read the defense authorization bill. Never mind, everyone does it, as The Hill reports, “It is no secret that some — if not most — lawmakers vote on bills that they do not read in their entirety.” McHugh notes that “hundreds and hundreds” of provisions come through, and he relies on his staff “for judgment on more routine matters.”

Members of Congress are elected to work on behalf of their constituents. How can they do that if they don’t read the bills they pass? It is true that the government is so large that supervising how well past laws are being implemented, much less reading bills, takes a lot of time and effort. Maybe more time and effort than even a hard-working member has.

Here’s a thought for members of Congress: maybe the fact that you don’t read the bills you vote for means the government has grown well beyond anyone’s control. Maybe — and this will be shocking to you — the government is too big.

What’s Worse than Corruption?

Visiting Ireland, Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein writes about the death of former prime minister Charles Haughey:

In recent years, Haughey’s reputation has been badly tarnished by revelations that he diverted millions of dollars from party coffers to finance his lordly lifestyle, that he carried on an affair for years with a newspaper gossip columnist, that he tapped the phones of political journalists, and that he had to sell his large Georgian estate to pay more than $6 million in back taxes.

But Haughey was also “the father of the Celtic economic miracle … that transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its most prosperous and dynamic.” So the column raises an interesting question: Would you rather have an honest, abstemious Puritan who taxes, regulates, and plans an economy into stagnation or worse – or a high-living, philandering cream-skimmer who transforms your economy from the world’s leading exporter of talent into a Celtic tiger?

In his book Prosperity versus Planning: How Government Stifles Economic Growth, David Osterfeld discussed two kinds of corruption. As John Mukum Mbaku explains, Osterfeld “argued that in a heavily regulated economy, one can find two distinct types of corruption: ‘expansive corruption,’ which involves activities that improve the competitiveness and flexibility of the market; and ‘restrictive corruption,’ which limits opportunities for productive and socially beneficial exchange.” In other words, when a trade official takes a bribe to allow imports in, or a regulator issues a business license for a piece of the action, they’re making economic activity happen. But when a regulator embezzles public funds or takes a bribe to prevent a business from opening, he is reducing competition and economic activity. So the problem isn’t corruption per se; it’s corruption that restricts productive activity.

Haughey’s case is slightly different: wiretapping journalists and evading his own taxes are not market-expanding activities. So maybe he offers the political choice in starker relief: was Ireland better off with a corrupt prime minister who kick-started economic growth than it would have been with an honest socialist who kept Ireland in poverty? I’d say so. They should have gotten Helmut Kohl to speak at his funeral. Kohl could have made his own case there: I served 16 years as German chancellor, I ended communism in East Germany and reunified the country, and along the way, to stay in power, I helped my party skim a few million off arms sales and privatization deals. Not as good a case as Haughey would have, since Haughey opened up his country’s economy and improved growth, while Kohl allowed the German economy to slow and stagnate–but I’ll bet a lot of Germans still think it was overall a good bargain.