Prisoners against the Stimulus

A postcard in my mailbox this morning from Stan Hart, inmate #800054, at Iowa State Penitentiary:

“Is there a chance of stopping the great giveaway ‘stimulus’ plan? Isn’t the fact that none of those ‘shovel-ready’ projects are currently funded mean that they are neither necessary nor essential?”

Great point Stan. State and local investment spending is at high levels, and many governments have so much extra money that they have been wasting billions of dollars on sports stadiums and convention centers. How could it be that “the highways are crumbing” as stimulus supporters claim?

The answer is that policymakers misallocate investment. They always have, and they always will, because governments are nonmarket institutions. That’s why the hope for a more rational infrastructure policy comes from privatizing highways, airports, and other facilities.

Bernard Madoff for Social Security Commissioner

As Barack Obama prepares to take office, a few crucial administration positions remain unfilled. Herewith a modest proposal for one still open position: Bernard Madoff for Social Security Commissioner.

True, there may be a minor problem since Madoff is under indictment for running a $50 billion “Ponzi scheme” on Wall Street, but think of the qualifications. Madoff is accused of running a scheme in which he took money from people with a promise to invest it. But instead of making investments, he kept the money for himself, and simply took more money from later investors and used it to pay earlier investors. Now compare that to a Social Security system that takes money from workers but does not save or invest it. Instead the government simply uses money from younger taxpayers to pay benefits to earlier retirees, while spending any “surplus” on other things. In the end, neither Madoff’s scheme nor Social Security are sustainable.

The big difference is that Madoff will likely go to jail; the politicians in Washington will likely get reelected.

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Obama Wants 600,000 More Bureaucrats

In his weekly radio address, President-Elect Obama regurgitated some typical nonsese about how everyone “across the political spectrum” agrees that the burden of government spending should increase and that this somehow will “stimulate” the economy (for an explanation of why this is nonsense, see here). Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his radio address, though, is that he says he wants to create three million new jobs, eighty percent of them in the private sector. I’m no math genius, but 20 percent of three million works out to be 600,000 new bureaucrats to harass the American people. This is hope and change?

Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we don’t act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double digit unemployment and the American Dream slipping further and further out of reach. …we can’t just fall into the old Washington habit of throwing money at the problem. We must make strategic investments that will serve as a down payment on our long-term economic future. We must demand vigorous oversight and strict accountability for achieving results. And we must restore fiscal responsibility and make the tough choices so that as the economy recovers, the deficit starts to come down. That is how we will achieve the number one goal of my plan—which is to create three million new jobs, more than eighty percent of them in the private sector.

Spendaholic Governors Want $1 Trillion from Feds to Replenish Political Liquor Cabinet

Every interest group is busy in Washington lobbying for a slice of the so-called stimulus plan being concocted by the incoming Obama Administration. The governors are especially greedy, particularly the ones that already have taxed and spent their states into deep trouble. As Reuters reports, five of them are asking for $1 trillion. They say this money would restore the economy, but everyone who has watched this video knows that is nonsense. The real purpose is to buy more votes with other people’s money:

Governors of five U.S. states urged the federal government to provide $1 trillion in aid to the country’s 50 states to help pay for education, welfare and infrastructure as states struggle with steep budget deficits amid a deepening recession. The governors of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin – all Democrats – said the initiative for the two-year aid package was backed by other governors and follows a meeting in December where governors called on President-elect Barack Obama to help them maintain services in the face of slumping revenues. …The governors said during a conference call with reporters that the plan had been discussed with Congressional leaders and the incoming administration, which had indicated its willingness to help. “The Obama team has been very receptive in listening to us,” said Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin. He said “quite a number” of other governors back the initiative. …The proposal comes amid expectations that the Obama administration, which takes office on January 20, will provide hundreds of billions of dollars in economic stimulus to boost the shrinking U.S. economy and halt the loss of jobs.

Helen Suzman, R.I.P.

Helen Suzman, the longtime leader of the parliamentary opposition to apartheid, has died at 91. The Times of London writes:

Helen Suzman had a special place in South African history, being generally recognised as the most effective parliamentary fighter against apartheid policies.

For 13 years - from 1961 to 1974 - she was the sole representative in Parliament of the liberal Progressive Party, forerunner of the Democratic Party.

In South Africa they knew the difference between liberals and leftists. Plenty of leftists and communists opposed the National Party and its apartheid system. But so did liberals like Suzman, people committed to human rights, freedom of thought, and a market economy. She did not forget her liberalism when apartheid finally fell and the African National Congress came to power. She continued to speak out against repressive policies and the Thabo Mbeki government’s continuing support for Robert Mugabe.

I loved reading about her quick wit in parliamentary debates. She sent the minister of law and order a postcard from the Soviet Union, saying, “You would like it here. Lots of law and order.” Once she told a government minister to go into the black townships and see their appalling conditions for himself. He would be quite safe, she said, if he went “heavily disguised as a human being.” In a famous exchange a certain minister shouted: “You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas.” To which she coolly replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa – it is your answers.” When an Afrikaner in Parliament sneered at her Jewish roots and asked what her ancestors were doing when his were bringing the Bible to the “savages,” she snapped, ”They were writing the Bible.”

In 1989 Helen Suzman was a Distinguished Lecturer at the Cato Institute. See a picture on page 55 of this very large pdf of our 25-Year Annual Report. Her remarks were reprinted in Cato Policy Report and then in Toward Liberty, our compilation of essays from our first 25 years, and can be read here.

On the first day of the new year, the world has lost one of its great champions of freedom. May she inspire many more.

Brady Campaign Suing to Block Concealed Carry in National Parks

As I noted before, the Department of the Interior recently announced that it will allow the concealed carry of handguns in national parks and wildlife refuges. New West reports that the Brady Campaign is now suing to block implementation of the rule. (H/T to David Hardy at Of Arms & the Law.) The Brady Campaign claims that the rule will allow concealed carry on the National Mall just in time for inauguration. Not true. 

The full complaint is available here (pdf), where the claim about National Mall carry is repeated. Scroll down to pages 19-20, where one of the Brady plaintiffs alleges harm from the new rule because he lives in Maryland and visits the National Mall, where he may feel threatened by the prospect of concealed weapons.

Actually, the rule only allows carry “if, and only if, the individual is authorized to carry a concealed weapon under state law in the state in which the national park or refuge is located.” D.C. officials recently ramped up requirements for a gun permit, and a gun permit does not permit concealed carry outside the home. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier made it explicitly clear that “[w]e have no plan to expand those laws to allow people to carry handguns in public.” 

The Department of the Interior’s rulemaking came in the wake of the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller, which overturned the District’s long-standing gun ban. The Heller case is detailed in Brian Doherty’s new book Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment. The Cato book forum is available in video and podcast formats here.

TARP

The Bush administration has blown through the first $350 billion of your money that Congress authorized it to spend under the Troubled Asset Relief Fund. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is now asking for the second $350 billion.

Will Congress approve the second $350 billion of TARP money? I have no special skill at political speculation, but since a reporter asked, here are five reasons I think that it won’t, thankfully.

  1. It is not clear that the first $350 billion of TARP money has aided the economy at all. I suspect that all the recent Treasury micromanagement through TARP has destabilized the economy and delayed the recovery, not helped it. But certainly TARP supporters cannot claim any big success
  2. Congress and the general public are unhappy with the lack of transparency and poor oversight of TARP spending. President-elect Obama campaigned on creating a more transparent government. TARP spending does not fit into that Obama vision.
  3. Democrats don’t like TARP anymore. Democrats are unhappy that TARP money has bailed out Wall Street and not Main Street, to use their nomenclature. They are resisting further bailouts of financial firms.
  4. Republicans don’t like TARP anymore. Republicans in Congress are unhappy that the Treasury bailed out the auto firms with TARP money after they explictly opposed an auto bailout. They don’t want to give the new Democratic administration a similar open-ended opportunity to spend.
  5. The U.S. economy will recover from the current recession, and the Obama administration will want to take credit for it. Renewing TARP will muddy the waters for that credit-taking. For Obama, it is politically important that he “do something” in his first few months to the economy so that when the recovery comes he can claim success. TARP is a Bush thing, Obama needs something fresh and new.

What Obama should do is a pass a large corporate tax rate cut, which would spur long-run growth. Alas, Obama appears to be an old-fashioned Keynesian, and his credit-taking vehicle is shaping up to be a gigantic “stimulus” spending plan. I think that’s crackpot, as I touched on here, and will address in future blog posts.