Government Hall of Shame

The Washington Post reported the other day that there are more delays and cost overruns at the new Capitol Hill Visitor Center.

In my letter in the Post today, I suggest a display case be installed in the visitor center for the most outstanding federal cost overruns: scale models of the Big Dig, the International Space Station, the Denver airport, and much more could be included (see ships, fighters, much more).

Even better would be an independent “Government Hall of Shame” built somewhere near Capitol Hill. That way visitors to Washington could find out how the government really works after they have listened to the bedtime stories about grand federal achievements heard at the usual D.C. tourist stops.

The Hall of Shame could focus not just on outstanding cost overruns, but could also include scale models of infamous pork projects such as the Alaska Bridge to Nowhere. Another display could highlight grand-scale federal failures such as high-rise public housing and the Army Corps of Engineer’s New Orleans levees. 

Madame Tussauds has announced plans to open a D.C. museum. Perhaps they could donate wax figures of Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Dan Rostenkowski, and other scoundrels to the Hall of Shame. 

The Good News behind Today’s Trade Deficit Report

America’s broadest trade account reached another record deficit in 2006, according to a report this morning from the U.S. Commerce Department. The U.S. current account deficit reached $857 billion last year, which will predictably unleash a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in Washington today about the alleged failure of U.S. trade policy and the menace the deficit poses to U.S. economic growth.

The deficit doomsayers are wrong yet again. Far from being a sign of failure, today’s report contains a lot of good news if you care about the freedom of Americans to engage in international commerce. U.S. exports of goods and services last year were up by 12.7 percent from 2005, and imports grew by 10.5 percent, stoked by strong demand from American consumers and producers alike. Driving the record deficit last year were continued inflows of foreign capital, including a 67 percent jump in foreign direct investment. Growing levels of trade and foreign investment have boosted U.S. growth, job creation, and rising real wages.

As I have argued for a long time now, the trade deficit does not mean what our politicians and cable commentators keep telling us it means. For example, in a Free Trade Bulletin of mine published this week, I found no evidence that rising trade deficits are associated with slower economic growth. In fact, more robust economic growth typically translates into a rising current account deficit. 

If the expanding current account deficit is a drag on growth, somebody forgot to tell the U.S. economy.

Bush’s Failure: More than Incompetence

Writing on opinionjournal.com, Joseph Bottum offers a conservative case against President Bush—sort of.  But in doing so, he actually reveals the larger problem with much of the conservative movement these days.

Bottum argues that the problem with the Bush administration is not the lack of a conservative ideology, but a lack of competence.  Bush has tried to do the right thing, but messed up the execution.  It’s hard to argue with any critique of the Bush administration’s competence.  Yet look at the list of “good things” that Bottum says the Bush administration has tried to do: reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges.  Bush has generally appointed good judges (the Harriet Miers fiasco aside).  But the other items on Bottum’s list, except for Social Security reform, are all hallmarks of big government conservatism. 

As I point out in my new book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought down the Republican Revolution, conservatives once opposed things like a federal takeover of education or giving tax dollars to private charity.  Now a new brand of conservatism has no problem with big government as long as it can be used to achieve conservative ends.  Just look at some of what President Bush has done:

  • Enacted the largest new entitlement program since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program’s unfunded liabilities;
  • Dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent;
  • Signed a campaign finance bill that greatly restricts freedom of speech, despite saying he believed it was unconstitutional;
  • Authorized warrantless wiretapping and given vast new powers to law enforcement;
  • Federalized airport security and created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security;
  • Added roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, bringing the cost of federal regulations to the economy to more than $1.1 trillion;
  • Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage;
  • Proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car;
  • Abandoned traditional conservative support for free trade by imposing tariffs and other import restrictions on steel and lumber;
  • Expanded President Clinton’s national service program;
  • Increased farm subsidies;
  • Launched an array of new regulations on corporate governance and accounting; and
  • Generally done more to centralize government power in the executive branch than any administration since Richard Nixon.

Yet, Bottum offers no criticism of this agenda.  Instead he is upset that Bush “fumbled” the faith-based initiative. What Bottum and others need to understand is that the biggest failure of the Bush administration (and its allies in Congress), is not incompetence but an abandonment of conservatives’ traditional belief in limited government.

Al Qaeda in Perspective

Multiplicitous federal policies and programs threaten privacy - data mining, the REAL ID Act, National Security Letters, etc. - and they threaten trade and commerce too.  The link among them, of course, is the threat of terrorist attacks. 

An essential part of any security discussion is to get a handle on the threat.  Cato Unbound devoted some energy to that problem last September with exquisitely rational analysis from the Ohio State University’s John Mueller, while former Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security Clark Kent Ervin argued, “I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers.” 

Now the RAND Corporation has released a report called “Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences.”  According to the press release announcing the report, it finds “little evidence of a coherent al Qaeda strategy for U.S. attack.”  The report explores four different theories of al Qaeda’s motivation, toward the end of determining its likely future actions.

I don’t have the capacity to critique the report and I don’t think it ends the inquiry, of course.  Al Qaeda’s motivation should be a matter of continuous study, along with all other threatening entities.  The capacity of threats to follow through on their intentions should be the subject of equally searching, continuous study.

But I think it is essential to have reports like this issued and discussed.  They are part of getting the threat of terrorism in perspective and solving the security dilemmas created by terrorism. These problems are not easy, but they are fully susceptible to solution consistent with our Constitution and our tradition of liberty.

The Grey Lady Strikes Again

Did Al Gore really deserve that Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth”?  The Left says yes - only the ideologically disabled or intellectually dishonest deny that the four horsemen of the environmental apocalypse (drought, disease, sea rise, and hurricanes) will soon devastate our fair planet.  Reporter William Broad in the New York Times today, however, says not so fast - a backlash is brewing among REAL scientists who are getting sick and tired of bed-wetting hysteria surrounding climate change.

The gist of their concern is this: while most (but not all) scientists are willing to accept that industrial emissions are an important driver in the planetary warming we’ve experienced since the late 1970s, they aren’t anywhere near so eager to embrace politically inspired warnings from non-scientists about how “the end is near.”  Al Gore, according to many of the scientists interviewed by William Broad, is too shrill and too apocalyptic given the scientific evidence. 

Case in point: Al Gore warns in his documentary that sea levels will rise over 20 feet if warming continues.  Yeah, well maybe in a thousand years or so if trends continue indefinitely, but the former Vice President leaves that little bit of perspective out of the movie.  What might happen during our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren?  A sea rise of 23 inches, max, according to the new report just out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  That’s hardly going to flood Manhattan, but acknowledging that would spoil the wonderful special effects visuals offered in the slideshow, now wouldn’t it? 

Gore’s scientific advisors, friends, and admirers defend the documentary and the book that followed by conceding that he may be a bit dodgy here and there, but that he gets the big picture right.  That’s ridiculous.  The fact that the planet is warming and that industrial emissions might well have something to do with it is not what this debate is ultimately about.  This debate is whether we should or should not care.  And if the former, how much should we be willing to sacrifice to do something about it? 

To say that Al Gore is to some extent out to lunch on the “should we care” argument but relatively sound on the question about whether we’re warming the planet (at least, if we measure these things by that most holy of metrics, the “scientific consensus” as defined by the IPCC) is akin to saying that the fellow proclaiming that a wrathful God is about to incinerate the planet is contributing to social welfare by usefully pointing out to the unbelievers that there is a God.  That bit about God being particularly angry or plotting to destroy the world - Well, that’s a bunch of nonsense, but hey, he got the big picture right.

One of the scientists interviewed in the article - Roger Pielke, Jr. - wrote an essay recently for our own Regulation magazine pointing out that science is inevitably corrupted when politicians decide to effectively delegate policymaking power to those who wear white frocks.  So if you want to know why scientists aid and abet this kind of thing, go there.

Dice-K Takes American Job

Russell Roberts of George Mason University writes about Japan, China, and the trade deficit scare in the Wall Street Journal. Along the way he notes:

The story of the baseball off-season is the Red Sox spending $100 million to bring Daisuke Matsuzaka from Japan to the United States. Dice-K, as he’s known, is the ultimate import. He takes away a job from an American pitcher.

Russ is mocking the protectionist argument, of course. But he could have drilled in on this point more than he did. We often hear that immigrants “take American jobs.” But really, when America welcomes software engineers from India or magazine editors from England or the laborers who built my house from El Salvador, they don’t necessarily take anybody’s job. An expanding economy–expanding partly because of the immigrants–may well need more engineers, editors, or laborers than it would have needed in the absence of immigration.

But Dice-K actually is taking someone’s job. He’s going to pitch in the major leagues. There’s a fixed number of major league teams, and pretty much a fixed number of pitchers on each team. If the Red Sox hire Dice-K, they’re going to fire or not hire some other pitcher. Probably some good ol’ boy from the American South, whose next best alternative is, yes, being a greeter at Wal-mart. Maybe even one of my Kentucky relatives. Hey, maybe Pat Buchanan’s onto something here…