Topic: Government and Politics

Loneliness is Such a Drag

I knew, just knew, there had to be a public policy proposal somewhere in this Sebastian Mallaby column about some new data from the American Sociological Review on loneliness in America. And sure enough, it shows up right at the end of the piece:

But there’s one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman found that commuting — generally alone, and generally by car — is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

There’s a new frontier in nanny statism. It’s not enough that government at all levels has moved beyond the prosaic tasks of protecting life, liberty, and property toward promoting clean living through sin taxes, fat taxes, and the like. Now it’s going to lean in real close and ask, “Are you happy, buddy? I mean really happy?” — and regulate you further in the hopes that you’ll make some new friends.

Breyer’s Gambit

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in Randall v. Sorrell, six justices agreed that Vermont’s campaign spending and contribution limits violated the First Amendment. That majority split, however, on what made the Vermont law invalid, resulting in what was in essence a plurality ruling.  Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito affirmed Buckley v. Valeo’s finding that spending limits violated the First Amendment. In striking down Vermont’s contribution limits, the plurality sought to break new ground.

In the past, the Supreme Court has said contribution limits should not be so low as to prevent “effective advocacy.” In fact, the “effective advocacy” standard did not constrain legislatures; the Court approved contribution limits deferring to the legislature’s “expertise” in this matter.

Vermont’s contribution limits, however, went too far, according to Justice Breyer, because they harmed “the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.”

For Breyer, the First Amendment is not a constraint on state power expressed as “Congress shall make no law.” Rather, it is a means to realize the value of democratic accountability. That value requires that challengers be able to mount effective campaigns against incumbents. The government can prevent such effective campaigning through contribution limits. Hence, Vermont’s limits must be struck down.

Of course, the Constitution does not demand that Congress advance democratic accountability. But the language of the Constitution has not constrained the Court for some time. Five members of a future Court majority might well explicitly import “democratic accountability” into the First Amendment as a way of enlarging, rather than constraining, state power.

Citing Breyer’s opinion, a future Court might require taxpayers to fund campaigns as way to enable effective challenges against incumbents, thereby increasing democratic accountability. It might also cite democratic accountability as grounds for imposing draconian restrictions on groups that have “undue influence.”

People concerned about free speech welcomed the Randall v. Sorrell decision, but the plurality sought to affirm “democratic accountability” and not the idea of limited government spelled out in the First Amendment. This is not surprising. Justice Breyer is no friend of free speech in campaign finance. That Justices Roberts and Alito signed on to his opinion cannot be a good sign for the future of free speech.

Jefferson Was a Great Man, But He Didn’t Write the Constitution

Quotations from respected sources, such as the Founders and Tocqueville and Churchill, are often apocryphal. George Washington apparently didn’t say, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.” Jefferson, alas, doesn’t seem to have said, “That government is best that governs least,” though he certainly believed it. A tip: If you find the quote on the Internet without any source given other than the alleged speaker, then he probably didn’t say it.

Some quotations are hard to trace, and it’s hard to prove a negative. But this month some of our national leaders have revealed that they don’t know who wrote our most basic founding documents – and neither they nor their speechwriters apparently have access to Google.

At the Southern Baptist Convention two weeks ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “My ancestors in Mr. Jefferson’s Constitution were three-fifths of a man.” Then yesterday Senate minority whip Dick Durbin opposed a flag-burning amendment by saying, “In fact, [flag-burning] rarely, if ever, happens. And so why are we about to change the handiwork and fine contribution to America of Thomas Jefferson?”

Wrong again. Jefferson did not write the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. He was in France during the Constitutional Convention and during the congressional debate over the Bill of Rights.

As every schoolboy knows or should know, James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution. He also introduced the Bill of Rights into the House of Representatives in 1789. So Rice and Durbin should have referred to “Mr. Madison’s Constitution” and “the handiwork of James Madison.” Perhaps someone should send them a Madison biography or a copy of James Madison and the Future of Limited Government.

‘Breathtaking’ Waste and Fraud in Hurricane Aid

That’s the front-page headline in today’s New York Times. Eric Lipton begins this way:

Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion.

A hotel owner in Sugar Land, Tex., has been charged with submitting $232,000 in bills for phantom victims. And roughly 1,100 prison inmates across the Gulf Coast apparently collected more than $10 million in rental and disaster-relief assistance.

There are the bureaucrats who ordered nearly half a billion dollars worth of mobile homes that are still empty, and renovations for a shelter at a former Alabama Army base that cost about $416,000 per evacuee.

And there is the Illinois woman who tried to collect federal benefits by claiming she watched her two daughters drown in the rising New Orleans waters. In fact, prosecutors say, the children did not exist.

The tally of ignoble acts linked to Hurricane Katrina, pulled together by The New York Times from government audits, criminal prosecutions and Congressional investigations, could rise because the inquiries are under way. Even in Washington, a city accustomed to government bloat, the numbers are generating amazement.

Some of us are impressed but not exactly amazed. When an institution with no incentive for cost-cutting, and little risk of anyone being fired or demoted for malfeasance, sets out to spend money on the principle “It’s going to cost whatever it’s going to cost,” then you can expect plenty of waste, fraud, and abuse.

I noted last September that

Congress passed a $51.8 billion Katrina relief bill on the very day the Associated Press released a study of where the $5 billion small-business relief money after 9/11 went. It found that the funds went to a South Dakota country radio station, a Virgin Islands perfume shop, a Utah drug boutique, and more than 100 Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway shops–“companies far removed from the devastation.” Fewer than 11 percent of the loans went to companies in New York and Washington.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Big boxes of government money will not be spent wisely. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep as many of society’s resources in the private sector as possible. Private owners have incentives to cut costs, save money, and have more money to spend later. Employees of private companies know that they could be fired for waste and malfeasance, and they know that their company (or even their nonprofit) could go out of business if its costs aren’t managed. Those incentives are almost entirely lacking in the government sector, where resources are acquired coercively and no one has his or her personal funds at stake.

The logical result? “Breathtaking … stupefying … amazing” amounts of boondoggles and bungles.

“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.