America’s Subsidized (and Amazingly Wealthy) Farmers

In a speech in Indiana last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Michael Johanns reminded his farm-sector audience that U.S. farmers have perhaps never had it so good:

“For the last three years in a row, farm net worth has grown by an amazing, if not eye-popping, $90 billion per year, and we expect the same to be true in 2006. Farm equity, ladies and gentlemen, well, it’s at a record high today: just an unbelievable $1.6 trillion. And we expect the debt-to-asset ratio, by the end of the year, to be the lowest in 45 years.”

So can somebody explain to me again why the federal government subsidizes and protects American farmers at a cost to American taxpayers and consumers of $40 billion a year?

Schumer’s Epiphany?

I had to do a double take of the by-line of an unabashedly pro-capitalism op-ed (subscription required) in today’s Wall Street Journal. Yes, indeed, that was Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who co-authored a piece with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg on the need to rethink stifling regulation of America’s financial services industries, and to consider tort reform.

Lamenting the relative decline of NYC as the world’s financial capital, Schumer and Bloomberg identify stifling regulation and frivolous law suits in the United States as major factors contributing to London’s and Hong Kong’s relative ascent as premiere locations for initial public offerings in recent years. Among the facts they cite is that in 2005, only one out of the top 24 IPO’s was registered in the United States, while four were registered in London. Moreover, “next year more money will be raised through IPOs in Hong Kong than in either London or New York.”

Schumer and Bloomberg cite regulatory costs that are 15 times higher in the United States than in Britain, an adversarial relationship between “tough cop” regulators and business in the United States, and the surging costs of securities-related class action suits as key factors driving business away from New York’s financial houses. The auditing expenses associated with the requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley are deemed to have grown “beyond anything Congress had anticipated.”

These are indeed serious problems, but it’s hard not to laugh about the irony. Schumer’s never met a regulation he didn’t like. He’s never been a friend of business. Of course he voted for Sarbanes-Oxley, along with all of his colleagues in the Senate, but he also led the charge against Kelloggs, General Mills, and the other cereal companies in the 1990s, when the price of Lucky Charms became unacceptably high to him. Just last summer, Schumer urged federal regulators to examine the behavior of oil companies to make sure they weren’t holding back production. And Schumer has been quick to ascend the podium to decry America’s growing trade deficit, urging, at times, government intervention to “correct” that growing problem.

That Schumer is suddenly opposed to stifling regulation and is saying things that are sure to upset the trial lawyers is welcome news. But it is likely just a fleeting flirtation with enlightenment. Let’s see what happens when someone points out to the Senator that New York’s capacity to attract IPOs, and the foreign investment that follows, is more a cause of the U.S. trade deficit than any “unfair trade” practices he assails. Which cause will he champion then?

Can Bloomberg Manage America?

Richard Cohen speculates that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg might spend as much as half a billion dollars of his personal wealth on a race for president. He could certainly afford to. His company may be worth as much as $25 billion, and it has recently been reported that he could realize $7 billion from a “leveraged recap” while retaining 70 percent of the company. And a top Republican fundraiser pointed out to me that if you don’t have any fundraising expenses, then half a billion is the functional equivalent of a billion-dollar campaign fund. If a lunatic billionaire could get 19 percent of the national vote by spending $70 million in 1992, how much better could a sane and stable billionaire with ten times that much money do?

Cohen writes that “there is no doubt that Bloomberg has done a terrific job managing New York, and there is no doubt that the federal government is a mismanaged mess.” True enough.

But if anyone thinks that a good manager can make the federal government run like a well-oiled machine, he’s going to be disappointed. In the first place, the federal government is far larger than Bloomberg LP or even the New York City government. It’s not amenable to hands-on management. And more importantly, government failure is systemic. It’s not a product of stupid or lackadaisical presidents or Cabinet secretaries. It results partly from inherent disagreements about what would be good policy; a corporation may have one goal or mission, but a society does not. And if government is supposed to reflect society, then it can only have a clear mission as long as that mission is to protect citizens from rights violations and leave them otherwise free to pursue happiness in their own ways. Once government begins taking on broader duties, citizens will disagree about what it should do.

And then there are the institutional obstacles to lean and effective government. As Milton Friedman told President Bush (pdf) in 2002, “if you spend someone else’s money on someone else, you are not very concerned about how much is spent, or how it is spent.” The problems of incentives, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the concentration of power, and bureaucratic self-interest cannot be solved by a hard-nosed manager who’s good at hiring, firing, and delegating.

Federalism Gone Awry

Many self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives in Congress defend pork-barrel spending by arguing that the practice circumvents the wasteful Washington bureaucracy and allows folks who best know the local community (i.e. congressmen) to steer money where it is most needed.

For instance, in a misguided appeal to federalism Representative Mike Simpson and Senator Larry Craig, both conservative Republicans from Idaho, assert, “We have always believed that better decisions are made by local officials. Who would you rather have making decisions about funding for Idaho? Lawmakers who are accountable to you, or some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., who has never stepped foot in Idaho?”

It’s a clever attempt by Simpson and Craig to redefine the term “local officials” and frame the earmarking issue in their favor. But an article in the Raleigh News & Observer tells a different story:

North Carolina’s members of Congress quietly took control of more than $135 million from the state Department of Transportation last year to help pay for dozens of highway projects they favored.

That means other projects deemed more important by state and local officials must be delayed.

The new projects dictated by Congress didn’t have enough support in North Carolina to be included among the 2,337 funded in the state’s 2006-2012 Transportation Improvement Program.

And the problem is worsening:

Within broad guidelines set by Congress, the states have traditionally decided how to spend their share of federal gasoline tax receipts. But that is changing.

The growth of earmarks in the transportation reauthorization bill, which Congress considers about every six years, has been remarkable. It raises questions about who knows best how to spend federal highway money: members of Congress, or state and local officials and the highway planners who assist them.

If Simpson, Craig and their colleagues in Congress truly believe in federalism, they sure have a funny way of showing it.

Santorum v. the Pursuit of Happiness

I hate to keep picking on Sen. Rick Santorum, but he’s the most articulate and principled opponent of individualism and individual rights since Hillary Clinton first rose to prominence. I noted previously the NPR interview in which he rejected “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone”:

This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

Now Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to a television interview from the same time last year in which the senator from the home state of Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson denounces America’s Founding idea of “the pursuit of happiness.” If you watch the video, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

Santorum has done some good things in the Senate, such as supporting Social Security reform. But conservatives should call him out when he denounces individualism, personal autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

Undeterrable

The subhead to Joshua Muravchik’s “Operation Comeback,” a strategy memo for his fellow neocons that appears in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, reads:

Neoconservatives have the president’s ear, but they also have lots of baggage. To stay relevant, they must admit mistakes, embrace public diplomacy, and start making the case for bombing Iran.

Which I might ordinarily chalk up to mischief by a smartass editor, but in this case it’s a fair summary of the piece.

First among the mistakes Muravchik says neoconservatives need to own up to? “We are guilty of poorly explaining neoconservatism.” Apparently it’s the packaging, not the product, that has led the American public to reject perpetual war aimed at “transform[ing] the political culture of the Middle East from one of absolutism and violence to one of tolerance and compromise.”

There’s no need to give up on that dream, says Muravchik. We can get ‘er done with a bigger army, and by repairing America’s public diplomacy apparatus abroad. That problem with the packaging? Leave it to the folks who designed the product–they’ll fix it: “No group other than neocons is likely to figure out how to [repair public diplomacy]. We are, after all, a movement whose raison d’etre was combating anti-Americanism in the United States. Who better, then, to combat it abroad?”

Wasn’t this the movement that once styled itself as “liberals mugged by reality”? Somewhere along the line they really learned how to fight back.