Topic: Government and Politics

Michael Gerson Thinks You Are “Morally Empty”

If you like the work of the Cato Institute, that is.  “Morally empty” is how Bush’s former head speechwriter described the “small-government” aspect of small-government conservatism in this interview with Foreign Policy magazine:

It is superficially attractive. But in the long run, it’s politically self-destructive because [candidates] end up talking about the size of government while others are talking about education, healthcare, and serious public concerns. It’s morally empty because, from my tradition and political philosophy, any political movement has to have a vision of social justice and the common good in order to appeal [to people]. And government can play a part in that. I’ve seen over the last five years that it clearly can.

And in case you had caught your breath after almost six years of Bush’s foreign policy, here he is on the question “Which of the president’s speeches do you think best expresses his worldview?”

Probably the second inaugural, which he wanted to be the democracy speech—the culmination of a series of doctrines and approaches that we had defined in the previous two to three years. It talks very frankly about the necessity of democratic transformation for the future of American security. Particularly in the Middle East, the cycle of tyranny and radicalism has produced an unsustainable situation. That dynamic has to be changed, and democracy is the only way to do it. Some of it is working with authoritarian governments that may go down the path of reform, some of it is standing up for dissidents and taking the side of the oppressed, and some of it is confronting outlaw regimes that threaten the international order. This is, in many ways, the clearest crystallization of his foreign policy.

It’d be comforting to think they’ve learned their lesson, but they clearly haven’t.  In case your outrage quotient isn’t yet filled, you can read this interview at Christianity Today.  Gerson on the Democratic Party:

I would love to see the Democratic Party return to a tradition of social justice that was found in people like William Jennings Bryan. During that period, many if not most politically engaged evangelicals were in the Democratic Party, because it was a party oriented toward justice.

I don’t see much of that now in the Democratic Party. Instead of an emphasis on the weak and suffering, there’s so much emphasis on autonomy and choice. And so the party of William Jennings Bryan, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, I’m not sure it exists any more. But it would be good if it did.

Gerson on Republicans:

There are some members of the Republican Party who…have a much more narrow view of government’s role. It would be a shame if conservatism were to return to a much more narrow and libertarian and nativist approach.

Your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.  Bomb-slash-democratize the Arabs, accomplish “social justice,” cure AIDS in Africa, and ban gay marriage.  There’s going to be a lot of work left for the federal government, apparently, even after Bush leaves office.

Cavanaugh on Lieberman

Tim Cavanaugh’s short, acerbic postmortem on Joe Lieberman is worth a read. Here’s a snippet:

Lieberman is possibly the least libertarian member of the United States Senate: An infinite-state liberal who always found ways to oppose Social Security reform (which he allegedly supported), an absurd moral scold who co-sponsored the “Silver Sewer Awards” with William Bennett, a values buttinski who couldn’t resist attaching himself to Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, he was in the final analysis nothing but a fake, a tartuffe, a figure able to puff enough gas into every opportunistic action to make it seem like an example of high principle.

Lamont’s Victory Exposes the True Nature of Campaign Finance “Reform”

There is not a line in McCain-Feingold that isn’t designed to protect incumbents. The so-called Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act makes it a crime to even mention the name of a candidate for federal office in a radio or television ad within 60 days of a general election. No criticizing incumbents! But the worst part of these laws came with the 1974 Amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, which instituted a $1000 contribution limit to candidates running for federal office (now slightly more than $2000, but less in real terms than the ’74 limits). Incumbents have earmarks to pass around and large mailing lists. Challengers do not. Advantage, incumbents.

Ned Lamont’s remarkable victory over three-term incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman yesterday exposes the true nature of contribution limits. They aren’t about the “appearance of corruption.” They’re about preventing a challenger from having a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. The one “loophole” the Supremes created with their incoherent 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo was that candidates have rights the rest of us don’t have. Apparently, they can’t be corrupted by their own money, so there are no limits on what they can spend on their own campaigns.

More than 60 percent of Ned’s campaign expenditures came from Ned. Without Ned, Ned loses. In fact, no political observer thought any candidate dependent on a $2000 contribution limit had any kind of chance of ousting Lieberman. Ned was a very poor candidate. Inarticulate with zero charisma. But by spending his own money he enfranchised the Democrats of Connecticut who otherwise, given the contribution limits, were disenfranchised. The Democrats in Connecticut hate the war in Iraq, Lieberman has rather energetically endorsed it. Yet the federal election laws would have assured Lieberman reelection were it not for the “loophole.”

This anti-war election is directly analogous to my late friend Gene McCarthy’s race for the presidency in 1968. Gene used six-figure contributions from wealthy liberals like Stewart Mott who opposed the war in Vietnam to fund a campaign that ousted a sitting president from his own party. Gene often said that had the ’74 amendments to the FECA been in place in ’68, he would not have run. Campaign finance laws should not have the power to change American history. But they do. Give everyone the “loophole” of being able to spend as much of their own money to promote their political beliefs and we’ll throw a remarkable number of incumbents out of office. And with good candidates instead of bumbling millionaires.

What’s Another Taxpayer Liability?

Today’s New York Times includes an excellent article — the first of a series — on the underfunding of state and local government pension plans. Different calculations of the nationwide unfunded liability — which ultimately is the taxpayers’ burden — range from $375 billion to $800 billion.

Times reporter Mary Williams Walsh nicely summarizes the dynamic that creates this liability:

[Public pension plans] are governed by boards that often include municipal labor leaders, whose duty to represent their workers’ interests can easily conflict with their fiduciary duty to represent the plan itself. And even the most exemplary pension boards can be overruled, in many cases, by politicians whose priorities may be incompatible with sound financial management.

In other words, politicians and labor leaders who need political help today make grand promises of future benefits to special interests. But the politicians don’t want to anger taxpayers with the cost of those benefits, so they underfund the promises — after all, the bill won’t come due for years or decades. Between then and now, I suppose we’ll hide under some coats and hope that somehow everything will work out.

On a related note, Jagadeesh Gokhale and Kent Smetters calculate that the present value of the fiscal imbalance for Social Security stands at more than $8.4 trillion and Medicare stands at more than $63.4 trillion.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the House

Cleaning out some old magazines, I came across the September 2004 issue of the Washingtonian, which included a poll of congressional staffers on the “Best & Worst of Congress.” Libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul was voted “Worst Follower” in the House. That probably doesn’t bother him. But if it did, his feelings would probably be assuaged by the item just before that one: staffers said that the “Best Leader” in the House was Tom DeLay.

Selling the Rope with Which They’ll Hang Capitalism

From the Washington Post:

Late last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began broadcasting television ads that extolled several Republican lawmakers for supporting the new Medicare prescription drug program. The spots were part of the chamber’s $10 million midterm advertising and voter mobilization budget.

Even if the Medicare expansion were popular – which is not at all clear – the Chamber of Commerce’s ads would just encourage voters to increasingly expect transfers and handouts from Washington. If the Chamber of Commerce praises Republicans for expanding entitlements by a trillion dollars over the next decade, then it’s just contributing to an environment in which spending and deficits and unfunded liabilities continue to soar. Surely the Chamber could find something good the Republicans have done to highlight in its ads.

Couldn’t it?

Dog Bites Man

The Washington Post reports that Jack B. Johnson, county executive of Prince George’s County in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, is very generous to his friends. Since he took office,

…15 of his friends and political supporters have been awarded 51 county contracts totaling nearly $3.3 million, according to records and interviews.

In several cases, Johnson awarded county contracts to supporters after he failed to persuade the County Council or others to place them in county jobs. He has also created at least a dozen high-profile positions and filled them with supporters, including fraternity brothers. Some of those who received contracts or jobs had no expertise in the field, and others did not produce written reports required by the county.

In one case, Johnson hired a friend’s company, which produces a local cable show, to write a report on school construction financing and then gave him two more contracts to evaluate economic trends. He gave a similar contract to his campaign chairman.

Perhaps the surprise is that this is considered front-page news. What politicians don’t hand out tax-funded benefits to their friends? Certainly the various scandals swirling around the Republican Congress – involving Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and others – provide fresh reminders.

As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, one of the earliest and most charming descriptions of political reality came from Lord Bolingbroke, an English Tory leader in the early 18th century. He wrote to a friend:

I am afraid that we came to Court in the same dispositions as all parties have done; that the principal spring of our actions was to have the government of the state in our hands; that our principal views were the conservation of this power, great employments to ourselves, and great opportunities of rewarding those who had helped to raise us and of hurting those who stood in opposition to us.

Jack Johnson should tell the Post, “Yeah, what he said!” But Johnson doesn’t have to reach back to Lord Bolingbroke for a precedent. In the same part of Libertarianism: A Primer, I told the story of Johnson’s predecessor as Prince George’s County Executive:

A particularly striking illustration of what we might call Bolingbroke’s Law is the record of Maryland governor Parris Glendening. Elected in 1994, Glendening seemed a clean, honest, moderate, technocratic former professor. He might give Maryland big government, but at least it would be clean government. So what did he do when he took office? Well, here’s how the Washington Post described his first budget:

In his first major act as Maryland governor, Parris N. Glendening unveiled a no-new-taxes budget that unabashedly steers the biggest share of spending to the three areas that voted most strongly for him: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore.

Lord Bolingbroke, call your office. A few days later, it turned out that Glendening and his top aide were collecting tens of thousands of dollars in early pension payments from Prince George’s County, where Glendening served as County Executive until his election as governor, thanks to Glendening’s creative interpretations of rules that gave early pension benefits to government employees who suffered “involuntary separation” from their jobs. Glendening decided that officials not allowed to seek reelection because of term limits, such as the two-term limit on the County Executive, had been “involuntarily separated” from their jobs. And he “demanded” the resignations of his top aides a month before he left his county job–making them also victims of “involuntary separation”–whereupon he hired them as his top aides in the governor’s mansion.

Like the Energizer bunny, the Glendening money train just kept on going. In May the governor asked the legislature to spend $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to rescue a struggling high-tech firm in Prince George’s County headed by one of his political supporters. Then in August, Frank W. Stegman, the state secretary of labor, licensing, and regulation, hired the wife of Theodore J. Knapp, the state personnel secretary and a colleague of Stegman’s from the Prince George’s government, for a job in his agency. No ingrate, personnel secretary Knapp then returned the favor by recommending a $10,000 raise in Stegman’s meager $100,542 salary.

Politicians reward their friends. What else is new? The best way to limit the damage from this sort of corruption is to limit government to a few specific functions and leave most important services in the marketplace.