You’ll Get Served

Tonight Barack Obama and John McCain will appear together in New York to “discuss in depth their views on service and civic engagement in the post-9/11 era” in a primetime forum hosted by ServiceNation, “a dynamic new coalition of 110 organizations that has a collective reach of some 100 million Americans and is dedicated to strengthening our democracy and solving problems through civic engagement and service.” 

According to their website, bethechangeinc.org, ServiceNation does not support mandatory national service. Their model is a dramatically expanded version of the subsidized volunteerism so popular on both sides of the political aisle. (For Cato work on federal national service programs and proposals, go here.)

Starting Inauguration Day 2009 — and culminating on next year’s 9/11 anniversary — they’ll be pushing their “advocacy campaign for national service legislation.” Among the proposals they favor: “Expanding service on college campuses. Placing 1 million Americans per year in full- and part-time stipended national service by 2020.” As the website states: “This policy agenda proposes meaningful opportunities for service at every key life stage, and for every socioeconomic group, from kindergarten through the post-retirement years.”

One wonders what sort of useful “service” five-year-olds can perform in between playtime and naptime. But the point, apparently, is that “these proposals will help instill a culture of service at an early age and provide opportunities for Americans to continue serving throughout their lifetimes.”

As tonight’s event demonstrates, both parties link the call for national service to the tragedy of September 11th. At last month’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, Pastor Rick Warren asked both candidates “what do you think is the greatest moral failure of America?”  McCain’s answer was especially interesting.  Was it slavery?  Indian removal?  Japanese internment?  Nope: 

I think America’s greatest moral failure has been… throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been at the best at it of everybody in the world.

McCain continued with a backhanded dig at President Bush’s post-9/11 advice to Americans to “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” McCain told Warren:

I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you’re doing — (APPLAUSE) — expand what you’re doing, expand the current missions that you are doing, that you are carrying out here in America and throughout the world, in Rwanda. And I hope we have a chance to talk about that later on.

In an October 2001 Washington Monthly article, McCain displayed what Matt Welch has called his “essentially militaristic conception of citizenship.” He praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.” But perhaps we can take heart in McCain’s grudging admission that “it is not currently politically practicable to revive the draft.”

In any event, it’s good that ServiceNation is encouraging people to help their neighbors out. But why does that effort have to culminate in federal legislation? All too many people, Left and Right, seem to buy into David Brooks’s notion that “ultimately, national purpose can only find its voice in Washington.” According to that mindset, if a barn-raising takes place without a federal subsidy, it’s like it hasn’t really happened at all.

Few of us will want to argue with noble sentiments like Obama’s (or was it God’s?) injunction to act as our “brother’s keeper” or McCain’s call to serve “a cause greater than our self interest.” But it’s hard to see how any of this is their — or the government’s — business.

Americans help each other out in myriad ways everyday without expecting a government paycheck or the seal of approval from a newly minted bureaucracy. But when Americans perform charitable works outside the state, it’s awfully hard for politicians to take credit for their service.

DoJ Trustbusters to Attack Google?

C|Net’s Charles Cooper reports today that Department of Justice trustbusters are considering a comprehensive antitrust attack on Google.

Sources who have provided testimony to the government say a departmental debate revolves around whether antitrust regulators should challenge Google’s proposed revenue-sharing deal with Yahoo, or go for the whole enchilada–and haul Google into court on broader charges related to its dominance in search advertising.

C|Net’s Declan McCullagh speculated earlier this week about how Google would fare under an Obama administration:

[Obama’s] technology campaign platform pledges to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement” and “step up review of merger activity.” He complained to the American Antitrust Institute that “the current administration has what may be the weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century.” If the Bush administration’s current antitrust probe of Google, coupled with this week’s apparent threat of a federal lawsuit, amounts to a “weak” record, imagine what antitrust true believers in an Obama administration might do. (A three-way split of Google into search, applications, and display ads, anyone?)

I’m not sure whether structural separation is on Google’s near-term horizon, but Washington, D.C.’s parasite economy will make its move.

$1 Trillion Budget Deficit by 2017?

The Congressional Budget Office released new figures on the federal budget yesterday, which show that the deficit will peak in 2009 at $438 billion and decline thereafter. But budget watchers and CBO economists know that these “baseline” projections don’t describe actual budget realities.

So I constructed a “business as usual” scenario for revenues and spending to get a sense of the fiscal picture that the next president will actually face. The figure illustrates that it will be much easier being the president who enters office in 2009 than the one who enters office in 2013.

The revenue line in the figure assumes that all current tax cuts are extended and the alternative minimum tax is indexed for inflation. Extended tax cuts include income tax rates, dividends, capital gains, child credit, death tax, expiring business breaks, and other items.

The spending line assumes that discretionary spending rises as fast as GDP, the number of troops in Iraq and Afganistan is reduced to 30,000 by 2011, and Medicare payments to physicians are not cut back after 2010 as under the baseline. These adjustments are based on CBO data. I also estimate the extra federal interest costs of these assumptions.

The results indicate that the federal deficit would be held roughly constant as a share of GDP until 2012, mainly because of the optimistic draw-down of troops abroad. But after 2012, spending explodes as entitlement programs continue a long-term expansion under a no-reform scenario.

Federal revenues will remain roughly constant at a bit less than the long-term average of about 18 percent of GDP. Revenues dip in the first few years as corporate tax revenues fall, but then commence a slow and steady rise as real bracket creep pushes people into higher income tax brackets.

In the chart, the revenue line is quite flat, but the spending line begins a rapid ascent after 2012, making it clear that the federal fiscal problem is caused by overspending, not a shortage of tax revenues. 

Under the scenario shown in the figure, the federal budget deficit will hit $1 trillion in 2017 and $1.1 trillion in 2018, which will represent 5 percent of GDP that year. The president coming into office in 2013 will be forced to take major actions to stem the tide of red ink.

The open question is whether the president extering office in 2009 will muddle his way through without spending reforms–as he could probably get away with–or whether he carves a new path and finally tackles the out-of-control spending machine in Washington.

Bob Samuelson Joins the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

In this morning’s Washington Post, columnist Bob Samuelson earns himself a membership in the Anti-Universal Coverage Club:

At the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Ted Kennedy echoed the view of many that health care is a “right” that demands universal insurance. This completely understandable view is, I think, utterly wrong. Take note, Barack Obama and John McCain.

The central health-care problem is not improving coverage. It’s controlling costs.

Welcome, Bob.  Here’s your fez.

You can keep current on the Anti-Universal Coverage Club by clicking here.

Dana Goldman Digs the Anti-Universal Coverage Club Scene

Health economist Dana Goldman, according to his bio, “holds the RAND Chair in Health Economics and is the Founding Director of the Bing Center for Health Economics at RAND. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Health Services and Radiology at UCLA.”  He also started a peer-reviewed journal or something.  So, not exactly a slouch in the health policy/economics realm.

In a contribution to Cato Unbound a little while back, Goldman wrote the following, which qualifies him for membership in the Anti-Universal Coverage Club:

the health policy debate is preoccupied with the wrong issues — for example, covering the uninsured. The real challenge for society is deciding how we can best buy better health, not just health care. In fact, I suspect that early child development, education, clean air, and medical research may offer better returns than health insurance and more medical services. But it may also turn out society should be spending more, not less, on medical care — just doing so in a more prudent manner.

Emphasis added.

Keep up-to-date on the Anti-Universal Coverage Club here.

A “Tech Czar”? No Thanks.

Congress Daily reports that an Obama administration “would likely create a national technology czar with broad authority to develop policy, elevating high-tech issues to the cabinet level in a major recalibration of the government’s approach to regulating the communications sector.”

No thanks.

Technology, telecommunications, and information policy are important areas, but not everything that is important needs a lot of attention from the government. And as federal priorities go, tech is not even in the same league as national defense and fiscal order - issues that deserve a cabinet-level officer.

Creating a cabinet-level “tech czar” would be an odd joke and it would stand out as a queer sop to some political constituencies. It’s an unserious idea.

If you’re on the fence, consider the results that have come from raising other fields to “cabinet-level” importance. Education ascended to these heights in 1979 with the establishment of the Department of Education under the Carter administration. Nearly 30 years later, education in America is no better for it, and arguably even more awash in bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Yes, technology is important. No, a federal “tech czar” is not a good idea.

Adventures in Censorship

Matt Yglesias details the ways that McCain-Feingold is restricting his free speech rights. It seems that because Matt now works for a company that lacks a “media exemption,” he’s prohibited from commenting on the “character, qualifications, and fitness for office” of candidates for office. Since Matt has an extremely low opinion of one of the major presidential candidates, I imagine this is pretty hard for him.

And yet Matt doesn’t reach what seems to me the obvious conclusion: that McCain-Feingold is a restriction on free speech that can’t be reconciled with the First Amendment. Matt doesn’t defend McCain-Feingold either, and he’s said in the past that he doesn’t think McCain-Feingold will accomplish much. But it’s awfully hard to come up with an interpretation of “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech” that doesn’t protect Matt’s right to question the “qualifications and fitness for office” of candidates for office, or the Center for American Progress’s right to pay him to do so.

Update: Matt writes to point out that both he and his erstwhile colleagues at the American Prospect have long opposed McCain-Feingold as a restriction on free speech. Good for them. They’re more enthusiastic about public financing than I am, but they recognize the basic point that the First Amendment doesn’t allow Congress to restrict people from criticizing political candidates in the months before an election. It’s a pity that the “liberal” members of the McConnell court had trouble grasping the same point. Maybe they should spend less time reading the censorious New York Times editorial page and more time reading the Prospect.