McCain, Obama, and Clean Coal

After you’ve watched federal policymaking for a number of years, you realize that the actual effectiveness of federal programs has absolutely no bearing on their survival or level of funding. That’s because the purpose of federal programs is not to solve problems, but to provide a menu of levers that politicians can pull to appeal to certain types of voters.  

We see this at play in the 2008 election with “clean coal,” which has attracted the attention of both candidates. Obama wants to “significantly increase the resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal technologies.” Meanwhile, McCain has pledged to spend $2 billion a year on clean coal technology if elected.

Since these pledges make for good bullet points in speeches, the campaigns don’t really care about the actual track record of federal subsidies to clean coal. But after the election, the next president should hesitate to increase such corporate welfare. Here is what I noted in Downsizing the Federal Government:

The federal clean coal program funds projects that burn coal in an environmentally friendly way, but the program is not very taxpayer-friendly. The Government Accountability Office found that many clean coal projects have “experienced delays, cost overruns, bankruptcies, and performance problems.” [GAO-01-854T] The agency examined 13 projects and found that “8 had serious delays or financial problems, 6 were behind their original schedules by 2 to 7 years, and 2 projects were bankrupt.”

One clean coal project in Alaska gobbled up $117 million of federal taxpayer money during the 1990s.[Washington Post, April 24, 2005] But the project never worked as planned, it cost too much to operate, and it was finally closed down as a failure. But project failure is not a problem in Washington because costs are benefits to politicians. Thus in 2005 Republican legislators inserted $125 million of taxpayer money into an energy bill to revive the failed Alaska project.

When Did Hillary Clinton Become President of China?

The Wall Street Journal reports on the Chinese government’s energetic effort to improve the quality of its citizens:

Beijing officials have distributed 4.3 million copies of an etiquette book outlining rules on good manners and foreign customs, including rules about what not to wear. The guide is part of an effort by various departments within China’s government to clean the city up in preparation for the at least 400,000 foreign visitors who are expected to descend on its capital for the Olympic Games, which start Aug. 8.

Among the no-no’s: more than three color shades in an outfit, white socks with black shoes, and pajamas and slippers in public.

“No matter what, never wear too many colors…especially during formal occasions,” the book said. “When you wear [formal shoes], be sure to wear socks in good condition…socks should be a dark color – never match black leather shoes with white socks.”

“Older women should choose shoes with heels that aren’t too high,” it said.

The book, published by the Beijing Municipal Government’s Capital Ethics Development Office, is part of the department’s effort to make Beijing more “civilized,” officials said.

Along the same lines, Beijing authorities announced earlier this year that they would step up efforts to fine people who spit in public as much as 50 yuan ($7.33).

Other guidelines range from the obvious to overly specific. Public displays of affection aren’t acceptable, for example. In a section about escalators and elevators, the book said people should place their hands on escalator railings to avoid falling. It then addresses a pet peeve of many in Beijing: “When entering an elevator…let people walk out before you enter,” it said. It goes on to say riders should look only straight ahead and never stare at other passengers.

It also warns readers of the “Eight Things Not to Ask” foreigners, including their age, marital status, income or religious and political beliefs.

It sounds like the woman who wants to create government programs to help people “quit smoking, to get more exercise, to eat right, to take their vitamins” has found her niche.

Of course, you might suspect that the idea to require taxi drivers to wear uniforms came from John McCain.

Sound Advice from Bill Clinton’s Trade Rep

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing last week, a top trade official from the Clinton administration voiced her dissent from the trade-skeptic orthodoxy that now seems to dominate the Democratic Party.

Charlene Barshefsky was one of several former U.S. Trade Representatives who testified at the July 29 hearing. She served as Bill Clinton’s USTR from 1997 to 2001. In contrast to presidential hopeful Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress, she told the panel that Congress should pass pending free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama.

According to BNA’s weekly International Trade Reporter newsletter [sorry, subscription required], she told the panel that blocking the U.S.-Colombia agreement would do nothing to improve labor rights in Colombia. In fact, refusing to enact the agreement would be the “dream” of Colombia’s anti-American neighbor Hugo Chavez, the heavy-handed president of Venezuela. Those are among the main points my Cato colleague Juan Carlo Hidalgo and I made in our Free Trade Bulletin on the agreement earlier this year.

Former USTR Barshefsky pronounced the U.S. tariff code as outdated in our era of globalization. We continue to apply high tariffs to such light-manufacturing products as clothing, shoes and household linens at the expense of low-income families. “They protect few if any jobs, but do noticeable damage to hopes of poverty reduction in the United States,” Barshefsky reminded the senators.

Her fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer, the congressman from Oregon, made the same point a few days earlier at a Cato policy forum on why Congress should unilaterally lower tariffs on shoe imports. You can watch a video of the forum here.

Trade-Blog-Posts-At-Dawn

I’ve written before on the presidential candidates’ positions on trade (and spoke at a forum here on their economic positions more broadly) but the Wall Street Journal has gotten one degree closer to the candidates by getting their advisers to engage in back-and-forth discussions on trade.

The latest entry was a discussion on farm subsidies. John McCain has been a staunch opponent of farm subsidies, never voting for any during his time in Congress. Barack Obama, however, seemed to out aside his general theme of change to support the 2008 Farm Bill, a shameful example of Lobbying 101 and outmoded pork. What caught my eye, though, was this quote from Daniel Tarullo, economic adviser to Senator Obama, when he was asked about a possible change in negotiating strategy on farm subsidies should the failed Doha round ever be revived:

…as a matter of negotiating strategy to advance American interests, it would be self-defeating to indicate to the rest of the world what positions an Obama Administration might or might not take should serious negotiations eventually resume.

Why the secrecy? Does Tarullo not know the answer to the question? Does Obama?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of the heroes of the long struggle against Soviet communism, has died at 89. As the New York Times says, he “outlived by nearly 17 years the Soviet state and system he had battled through years of imprisonment, ostracism and exile.”

After he came to the United States in 1974 and was free to express himself, we discovered that he was a scathing critic not just of communism but also of capitalism, consumerism, America, modernity, and liberalism. Nevertheless, he is a hero of freedom. After spending more than a decade in the gulag and internal exile, he wrote The Gulag Archipelago and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union so it could be published in the West. He could have been sent back to prison or even executed. What an act of courage and resistance. As it turned out, the Soviet czars didn’t dare to kill or imprison him. They “only” deported him. To some of us, being deported from the Soviet Union might seem like a reward. To Solzhenitsyn, it was not. Just four years earlier, he had declined to travel to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, lest he not be allowed back into his beloved Russia.

NPR declared this morning that Solzhenitsyn was “in some way as dictatorial as the regime that he criticized.” Really. The rest of us will remember him as an irascible intellectual who for decades told the truth about the totalitarian state that had seized his country.

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10,000 Bills in Congress, and the Annual Spending Process Ignored

Before leaving for its August recess last week, Congress saw the introduction of its 10,000th bill. Meanwhile, not a single one of the twelve annual bills that direct the government’s spending priorities in 2009 has passed the Senate and only one has passed the House. Congress is neglecting its basic responsibility to manage the federal government, and is instead churning out new legislation about everything under the sun.

What does Congress occupy itself with? A commemorative postage stamp on the subject of inflammatory bowel disease. Improbable claims of health care for all Americans. And, of course, bringing home pork. Read about it on the WashingtonWatch.com blog.