Word Abuse

In Washington, no word is more overused and abused than “reform.” But a Washington Post story today shows the abuse taken to new heights:

Farm bloc lawmakers yesterday offered the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry $1.8 billion in new federal grants over the next five years as part of a farm bill that would leave in place far larger subsidies for grain, cotton and dairy producers.

The concessions were part of a balancing act by House Democrats to craft a bill that will satisfy politically powerful farm interests while also bearing a Democratic imprint of reform. The House Agriculture Committee was set to vote on the legislation late last night or today.

The package, unveiled yesterday by Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), also increases funding for land conservation, wetlands protection and nutrition programs – popular with environmental groups and urban lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the package ‘a good first step toward needed reform.’

Let’s see: Congress is keeping all the old programs, creating new subsidies for fruits and vegetables, increasing funding for conservation and nutrition programs. That’s reform?

The story title is also worthy of The Onion: “Farm Bill Leaves Some Subsidies.” Some subsidies?!

Great Moments in Local Government, Part I

I became a libertarian in high school and college thanks to Ronald Reagan’s eloquent commentary against big government. I remain a libertarian because of Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Several years ago, I had to make four trips to the DMV to get my son his learner’s permit (I don’t remember all the details, but I periodically have flashbacks about Social Security cards, birth certificates, and DNA samples).

Today, I began a new odyssey in an attempt to renew the registration on one of my vehicles.

Theoretically, DMV was supposed to send something in the mail, but that never arrived and I was unaware that my registration expired until one of DC’s finest recently pulled me over (to his credit, he gave me a warning rather than impounding the car, which ostensibly is the law in such situations).  So I went online to find out about renewing the registration, and was horrified to discover that I had to make a visit to DMV because my registration had lapsed (needless to say, I can’t think of a single reason why this should require an in-person visit).

Resigned to an unpleasant experience, I woke up early so that I could avoid a three-hour line at the DMV office and managed to see someone after a wait of just 15 minutes. But when I attempted to register, I was told that Fairfax County had placed a hold on my registration because of unpaid taxes. I would like to claim that I was being a principled tax protester, but I meekly pay my car taxes…at least when I’m aware that a bill is due.  I don’t know whether to blame the Post Office or the vehicle bureaucracy, but there are no letters from Fairfax County in my inbox.

In any event, the logical next step should have been for me to pull out a credit card and take care of both the unpaid tax and the registration. Silly me. Not surprisingly (and this may be a good thing), there is no coordination between Fairfax County and the state government. So I had to surrender my spot at the counter and go look at a sign with numbers for various local tax offices. I called Fairfax County’s automated system, filled with naive thoughts about making an automated payment and then taking care of my registration.

 I was surprised to learn that Fairfax County thinks I have four cars. Unfortunately, the system does not tell you the cars you ostensibly own, or which car has the unpaid tax bill. But the amount was not very large, so I was willing to pay it - even if it was for a car I didn’t own. Like any sensible person, my top goal was to avoid having to make a repeat visit to the DMV. So I spent the next five minutes typing in a bunch of numbers in response to about 10 different prompts, only to be told that my credit card was not accepted. So I then typed in the information for another credit card and got the same rejection message. Since I know my credit cards are good (I used one of them last night and used the other one after leaving DMV just to make sure), I opted out of the automated system and eventually got to speak to live bureaucrat. For reasons that I will never understand, though, the bureaucrats can only process payments if you have a Discover card.

Utterly defeated, I tucked my tail between my legs and went to work. At some point, before a less-friendly cop pulls me over, I will now have to visit the Fairfax County tax office and then make a second visit to the DMV. And if that is all that I have to do, I will consider myself lucky.

But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. I now am fully re-energized in my disdain for government.

Farm Fibs

My toddlers have recently been having fun with the phrase “liar, liar, pants on fire.” I’d like to set them loose on the farm bill debate in Congress. 

Take a comment today in a Michigan news source by Rep. Timothy Walberg, a member of the House Agriculture Committee: “We want our food cheap, and we’ve become used to that, and that’s where the farm bill comes in. It guarantees cheap and plentiful food.”

But numerous farm programs raise food prices. I’ll give you three: milksugar and related products such as chocolate, and infant formula. And don’t forget about federal ethanol policies, which are pushing up prices for corn and derived products. 

Heck, Why Not Just Burn Him At The Stake?

Just when you thought partisan idiocy in Washington couldn’t get any worse, the House voted last night to cut off the salary of Andrew Biggs, the new Deputy Commissioner of Social Security. No one doubts Biggs’ qualifications for this position. But his sin is having supported proposals to allow younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through individual accounts. Apparently holding a position that Democrats disagree with is now so abhorrent that it disqualifies you from public office.

Randy Barnett and the Iraq War

I’m a great admirer of Randy Barnett’s work. I can think of few libertarians and few legal scholars from whom I’ve learned more. And I agree with Professor Barnett that foreign policy issues are harder to sort out from libertarian first principles than, say, the question of minimum wage laws. But his op-ed on “Libertarians and the Iraq War” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal raises many more questions than it answers. Among them:

Is libertarianism really a political philosophy that tells you what to think about mandatory recycling and restrictions on the interstate shipment of wine, but has virtually nothing of interest to say about when it might be morally permissible to use daisy cutters and thermobaric bombs?

If even the nightwatchman state is, as Barnett has argued, extraordinarily hard to justify, isn’t it harder still to justify a government with a half-a-trillion dollar defense budget, a government that has described its national security strategy as one designed to “make the world not just safer but better”?

Is “self-defense” such a blob of a concept that one can mold it to cover invading a country that had nothing to do with September 11th, no significant connection with Al Qaeda, and no apparent intention to attack us?

Is “electrifying” really the best adjective for the sensation one feels upon discovering that Rudy Giuliani is either (a) ignorant of the most basic historical facts about Al Qaeda, or (b) couldn’t care less so long as he gets appreciative hoots from the cheap seats?

Is there a hypothetical set of facts that would convince Randy Barnett that the Iraq War has turned out to be a very bad idea indeed for life, liberty, and property at home and abroad? If so, how would that set of facts differ from 3,600 American dead, thousands more horribly maimed, Iraqi civilian casualties at least in the tens of thousands, and two million refugees?

But since this subject has been done to death over the past several years, I’ll provide some links rather than take up more space. Here’s one on not getting into Iraq; here’s one on why we should get out; here’s one on a prior attempt by Barnett to justify interventionist foreign policy on libertarian grounds, and here are three on why Wilsonianism and libertarianism don’t mix.

Just one final question, though. Can we please declare a moratorium on the use of phrases like “rooting for success in Iraq” to distinguish libertarian hawks from doves? If, God forbid, single-payer health care ever comes to the United States, I’ll be “rooting” for the success of our new National Health Service, because I’m not the sort of person who wants to see people suffer and die just so I can enjoy a sense of intellectual vindication. But I hope I’ll be forgiven if I also start looking for a quick exit strategy.

Hagel on Iraq, Iran and U.S. Domestic Politics

I had the pleasure of introducing Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at a Cato-sponsored event earlier today up on Capitol Hill.

The event was promoted as “America’s Next Steps in Iraq,” and the senator shared his insights from the very latest happenings in the Senate, including the pseudo all-night debate, and the failure to achieve cloture on the Levin-Reed amendment. Sen. Hagel also had some choice comments about the Bush White House’s bizarre attitudes with respect to Congress’s role in shaping foreign policy, and he admitted that he wasn’t comfortable with the foreign policy views of the leading GOP presidential candidates. He deftly parried a question pertaining to his own political plans, other than to say that he will make a decision about his future in the next few weeks.

I was most struck, however, by his comments regarding Iran. Hagel stressed the need for engagement with Iran, along the lines of what was put forward by the Iraq Study Group late last year, and generally consistent with what Cato scholars have argued (e.g. here and here).

In a general sense, he pointed out that the problems of the Middle East will not be resolved by pushing Iran to the sidelines. They are a major power in the region. We might wish it otherwise, but that is the reality. And while our interests often diverge, they have converged in the past (as in when Tehran assisted us in deposing their bitter enemy the Taliban in the fall of 2001) and they are likely to converge in the future. For example, one could certainly argue that they are the one country in the region that is at peace with the current composition of the Iraqi government. Diplomacy is about capitalizing on common interests; focusing on areas of potential cooperation while at the same time not losing sight of the important differences. Hagel noted that Ronald Reagan, after all, was not above negotiating with the leaders of the country he deemed “the evil empire.”

Hagel’s thoughtfulness, integrity and courage are needed in the Congress. They would be of equal or greater value on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.