The Still-Frozen Dohapsicle Round

After nine days of trying to reanimate the cryogenically preserved Doha Round, negotiators are calling it quits again.

I have sympathy for the well-intentioned, hard-working members of those trade delegations who hoped to finally nail down the structure of a Doha Round agreement in Geneva this week. Unfortunately for them, their counterparts included too many pretenders who were more interested in using the stage provided by the negotiations to make political statements for the crowds back home.

The fact that after several days of progress the talks broke down over failure to bridge gaps on what should have been a small caveat provision proves that the political costs of a successful outcome overshadowed the political benefits for some countries.

But there are some silver linings. International trade flows continue to grow faster than the global economy, which has been moving forward at a decent clip this decade. Cross-border investment, too, continues to increase. All of those trends have been facilitated by reforms undertaken unilaterally by countries around the world. And there is every reason to believe that those trends will continue, and perhaps even accelerate while Doha sleeps.

Sounds Familiar?

“[The speaker] urged the students to study in order to serve the people and those in need, and not to fill their pockets,” reported the media.

Sound familiar? No, it wasn’t Barack Obama urging students to pursue “collective service” instead of chasing after a “big house and nice suits,” but Aleida Guevara, the daughter of the infamous Che Guevara, talking to Paraguayan students yesterday.

Guevara went on to say that “Each of us isn’t worth anything. The processes belong to the people, and not to any individual man.”

That’s a good audition for the commencement address at Wesleyan University next year.

Evo Morales’ Candid Disregard for the Law

“When some lawyer tells me ‘Evo, you’re making a judicial mistake; what you’re doing is illegal,’ well, I keep going even though it’s illegal. I then tell the lawyers: ‘If it’s illegal, go ahead and make it legal. That’s what you went to school for.’”

- Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, candidly admitting to violating the law while promoting a socialist revolution in his country [In Spanish]

Another Episode of “Great Moments in Local Government”

Faithful readers of this blog may recall my three-part series (here, here, and here) about the hassle of re-registering a car in the wonderful Commonwealth of Virginia. As you can imagine, that was a libertarian-reaffirming experience. But just in case you were wondering whether the effect was wearing off and I was about to be co-opted by the forces of statism, you can put your mind at ease. I recently had the pleasure of being called for jury duty by Fairfax County.

I have to confess that the jury summons did not cause immediate anguish. I had never served on a jury, or even been part of a jury-selection process, so I was a tad bit curious (I did receive a summons at my work address many years ago from the D.C. government, but since I lived in Virginia - and had never lived in DC - I tossed it in the trash). Maybe I would be selected for a case involving a gun owner, a drug user, or a tax evader, and I could stop a harmless person from being convicted. So I showed up at the Fairfax County Courthouse last week at the announced time of 8:15.

The first thing I noticed - much to my dismay - was that the rent-a-cops at the entrance were confiscating cell phones and blackberries. This would have been a tragedy since I’m addicted to the blackberry and I was planning on filling any dead time with emails, text messages, and Internet browsing. Fortunately, it turned out that they were only seizing devices with cameras, leaving me grateful (for once) that the tight-fisted Cato managers provided me with the oldest and cheapest version on the market.

Having avoided the near-death experience of being without a blackberry, I wander to the jury-assembly room. This is where the day begins to head downhill. The bureaucrats cheerfully thank us for being there and announce that we will be shown a video at 8:45. I’m tempted to ask why we had to show up at 8:15 if things didn’t begin ‘til 8:45, but I bite my tongue. After all, a court system is one of the few legitimate functions of government, so I didn’t want to rock the boat.

Thirty minutes later, it’s finally time for the video. Some of my colleagues give me grief about my mini-documentaries, but they would be tempted to award me an Oscar if they had to watch the syrupy being-a-juror-is-a-wonderful-civic-experience video that I had to endure. But at least it didn’t last too long and there was no offensive pro-government propoganda. Afterwards, the court bureaucrats ask if we have any questions and then tell us that we will get paid $30 per day for our trouble. We’re also told that we could request a form if we wanted to reject the money and instead have it funneled into some sort of Justice Trust Fund. My faith in my fellow citizens was bolstered when only about five percent of the crowd raised their hands and asked for the form.

At this point, we’re then told that someone may call our names at 10:00 to go to a courtroom for potential jury selection. Since it’s not much past 9:00, I’m once again tempted to ask why we had to show up at 8:15, only this time the voice in my head in phrasing the question in a slightly less polite fashion. Only the soothing presence of my blackberry prevents me from making a scene.

Shortly after 10:00, a group of jurors gets called, but I’m not one of them, but hopes of any early dismissal evaporate when my name is part of the second group. So about 30 of us dutifully march to a courtroom, only to then wait for another 20-plus minutes. We eventually get seated, at which point 12 of us (but not me) are called to the jury box and asked questions about impartiality and whether there are any conflicts that would prevent being on the jury.

This is where it got interesting, at least from a libertarian perspective. The court was hearing a civil case involving a contract dispute, and the judge explained (if I understood correctly, which may not have been the case at that uncivilized hour of the day) that the law did not necessarily seek to enforce and uphold contracts. Instead, the goal was to find a utilitarian, cost-minimizing way of settling the dispute. In other words, if the cost of forcing the fulfillment of the original contract was greater than the damage to the wronged party, then somehow jurors were supposed to let that guide their decisions. The potential jurors were asked to raise their hands if they had a problem with the notion that they were supposed to apply the law as determined by the state legislature, not to decide based on their own view of right and wrong.

At this stage, I knew I would not be a juror. Even if all 12 jurors had excuses and could not serve, I would be rejected the moment that the judge asked me to raise my hand if I would be guided by something beyond the capricious choices of the Virginia state legislature. While twiddling my thumbs in the back of the courtroom, I began envisioning the Patrick Henry-style speech I woud give when the judge asked why I would have a problem. In a very anti-climactic development, though, a jury was seated without additional names being called. Then, this morning, my group was not called, so my Walter Mitty fantasy of starting a judicial revolution with a stunning oration will have to wait at least three more years.

Obama, McCain, and Health Care

In the face of widespread public demand for changes in the U.S. health care system, both Barack Obama and John McCain have offered detailed proposals for reform. In the new study, ”A Fork in the Road: Obama, McCain, and Health Care,” Cato scholar Michael D. Tanner examines the candidates’ plans, and concludes that, while Senator McCain’s proposal is far from perfect, from a free-market perspective, it appears superior to Senator Obama’s plan.

Reauthorization Of E-Verify In Doubt

Had you asked anyone knowledgeable in the area a year ago, they would have told you that Congress was going to make “E-Verify,” the federal government’s immigration background check system, mandatory for all employers by the end of 2008.

Well, a headline in National Journal’s Congress Daily yesterday tells quite a different story (paylink): “Reauthorization Of E-Verify Immigration Program In Doubt.”

“House lawmakers and aides are locked in an impasse over legislation that would renew a program employers can use to verify the legal status of their workers,” the story says, “mainly over language that some worry might ultimately kill this means of enforcing immigration laws.”

E-Verify has gone from “greased” to “on-the-chopping-block” in just one short year.

Irony of ironies, it’s the bureaucracy that may kill it. The main holdup is a dispute over how the system would be paid for. The Department of Homeland Security has apparently been sticking the Social Security Administration with the bill for operating the system, and Social Security hasn’t got any spare funds.

This brings together threads from a couple recent posts of mine on E-Verify. I wrote in April about the inability of the Social Security Administration to provide the services it is currently called on to perform. New responsibilities placed on SSA wouldn’t just magically get done.

From a representative of a Social Security workers’ union, I had learned the following about what people could expect when they went to straighten out their E-Verify paperwork with SSA:

What would the process be like? Well, try calling your local SSA field office to find out. The SSA worker rep reported that 50% of those calls aren’t answered because field offices are too busy. Calls to the SSA’s national 800-number don’t go through 25% of the time. It’s not just a phone problem. The agency currently has a backlog of 752,000 on disability rulings. That’s three quarters of a million people who aren’t getting an answer from SSA. It takes 530 days – a little under a year and a half – to get a disability ruling out of SSA.

And I speculated the other day that Stewart Baker’s recent rant against the Society for Human Resource Management might be motivated by bureaucratic jealousy. Now we see that there’s plenty of it to go around. E-Verify isn’t important enough to get federal agencies to play well together.

In truth, I don’t think E-Verify will go under because of this dust-up, but I don’t think it’s going to be the mandatory, nationwide program so many thought either. (I described many ills of such a policy in my paper, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”)

There are lessons here for Republicans (and some conservatives) who dreamed that they would solve illegal immigration with a big, national, background-checking enforcement system: Bureaucrats own the bureaucracy. You do what they let you do; they do not do what you think they should do. You can’t turn big government to your ends. It only works for its own ends.

Another Potential Winner of the “Strange New Respect” Award

Advocates of limited government often joke (otherwise we would cry) that Republicans are the Stupid Party and Democrats are the Evil Party (this is why taxpayers should hide their wallets the moment there’s talk of “bipartisanship,” but I digress).

One of the reasons that the GOP is the Stupid Party is that Republicans generally are easy to manipulate. Most people understand that their enemies don’t want them to succeed. As such, they are — at the very least — skeptical about any advice coming from their opponents (as a Georgia Bulldog, for instance, I wish the coaches of the Florida Gators took suggestions from the Bulldog coaches, but I digress again). Republicans, however, are a tad bit gullible. When statists give them a few kind words and a pat on the head for supporting schemes to expand the burden of government, some Republicans genuinely think that they have a new set of best friends and they become even more likely to surrender to the left. This is so commonplace in D.C. that there’s an unofficial “Strange New Respect” Award, which is given to Republicans who get seduced by those who want to make government bigger and/or to exterminate the GOP.

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson may be the next winner of this dubious prize. The New York Times business section has a big article featuring lots of praise for Mr. Paulson from some of the most collectivist politicians in Washington:

Mr. Paulson…has won praise on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, particularly among Democrats, for his role in fashioning solutions to economic difficulties this year. “He has handled this crisis extremely well,” said Representative Barney Frank, the acerbic Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and customarily a scathing critic of the Bush administration. “It’s fair to say that he and almost everybody else failed to anticipate some of these problems. We all underestimated it. What I give him credit for is how rapidly he adapted.” …this month, as Mr. Paulson helped hammer out emergency legislation authorizing the federal government to potentially inject hundreds of billions of dollars into Fannie and Freddie if the government-sponsored mortgage makers weaken further, he spent long hours with lawmakers of both parties. …The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and a critic of the White House, praised Mr. Paulson for changing Mr. Bush’s mind. Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who is chairman of the Senate banking committee, is also singing “Kumbaya.” “I’ve watched him grow in the last year, not in terms of intellectual capacity but in his appreciation of how this town works,” says Mr. Dodd.

In the business world, Secretary Paulson never would have taken advice from his competitors on how to land a big client or secure a major deal. Hopefully he will apply the same smarts to the political world and realize that flowery words from the left are a sign that he’s on the wrong path.