October 2006

October 19, 2006 5:58PM

Grading the Governors

Today, the Cato Institute released the eighth biennial report card on the nation’s governors. It provides an index of fiscal restraint for each governor based on multiple objective measures of fiscal performance. This year there are 23 variables on which the governors are graded – more than the 15 variables of the 2004 report card. The methodology has been improved this time, too. You can find a copy of the report here.

The formula for success in the report card is simple: If a governor cuts taxes and spending the most, he will get a high grade. Raise taxes and spending the most, he’ll get a low grade.

Cutting taxes is important, at least, because doing so makes a state more economically competitive. As I report in the study, between 1990 and 2005 the rates of growth in employment and personal income in the top 10 tax‐​raising states were lower than the national average. The tax‐​cutting states, on the other hand, saw economic growth faster than the national average.

Cutting taxes is also important because it reduces the amount of private‐​sector resources that the government can stake a claim to. Yet that’s only part of the story. While this sounds elementary, it’s a key point. The report card tries to capture how fond a governor is of big government. There are many governors who cut merely cut taxes and think it’s enough to get them a good grade. But if they increase spending, they really haven’t cut the size of government. Thus, the top grades will always go to the governors who keep taxes and spending under control simultaneously. It’s something you rarely find among most governors, Republican or Democrat. That’s why there are always so few “A” and “B” grades in the report card.

October 19, 2006 5:22PM

GOP Crime Record

This is the glistening new headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms:

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IMHO, this is a fitting symbol of the GOP’s administration of the federal government. When the Republicans took control of the Congress in 1995, there was talk of abolishing the ATF for its appalling role in the Waco incident. (For background, read this and/​or watch this). But the GOP “grew in office” as they say, and steadily expanded the budget of the ATF and then approved the construction of a fancy new headquarters. There is still oversight, mind you. The ATF director wanted a $65,000 conference table and the Bush administration put a stop to that. Bush’s people cracked down and said “You guys have to make do with a $33,000 table!”

For an article about how ATF continues to run amok, go here.

For an article about the GOP’s criminal justice record over the past 10 years, go here.

October 19, 2006 3:49PM

Taxing Times

Washington Post headlines Thursday read “Poll Shows Support for Tax Increase” (front page) and “In N.Va., Open to More Taxes” (jump page). And on the website “Poll Shows Support for Tax Increase.” Well … sort of.

It’s true that voters in Northern Virginia (the Washington suburbs), though not the rest of Virginia, want to spend more money on roads. And they support allowing voters to approve local tax increases for roads. But if you read down to the 19th paragraph, on the second jump page, you’ll find that they don’t actually like the idea of raising taxes. Even in Northern Virginia, only 21 percent of respondents said that raising taxes was a good way to pay for increased transportation spending. Twenty‐​nine percent preferred tolls, and 22 percent said other spending should be reduced. In the rest of Virginia, tolls were more popular and tax increases even less popular.

Sometimes it just seems that journalists like taxes. Which is their right as Americans. But they should be careful about how they present voters’ opinions. In this case, even though voters would like to spend more on transportation, they believe either that users should pay through tolls or that less‐​essential spending could be found somewhere in the state’s $37 billion annual budget. Seventeen percent statewide seems like fairly minimal “Support for Tax Increase.”

October 19, 2006 1:49PM

“Dumb” Is the New “Smart”

What’s wrong with this conversation?

“Smart” Person: I just bought a car, and I way overpaid for it!

Admirer: You did? Brilliant!

OK. You know what’s wrong. Unless the admirer is being sarcastic, what kind of idiot congratulates someone for getting ripped off? Actually, this kind of idiot.

That’s right, the professional rankers at Morgan Quinto Press have produced a “Smartest State” report for 2006 (their full education report is available for only $59.95!), and have deemed Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut their three “smartest” states.

There is, actually, some logic to the rankings, which consider students’ proficiency on a few standardized tests — hardly enough on which to base a designation of “smart,” but at least there’s some connection to actual knowledge. It’s after that, though, that we really see who’s not so smart: In addition to test results, the rankings give positive credit to the states that spend the most money on their schools, the most on their teachers, and have the largest portion of their population in public schools (apparently kids in private schools can’t be that smart).

Now, maybe I missed something (and there’s no way I’m paying for the full report to find out), but it sure as heck seems that Morgan Quinto is telling us that the smartest states are the ones where kids maybe get decent scores, but where they definitely spend the biggest wads of cash.

There’s a term for that, of course, but it isn’t “smart.” I believe, in fact, that the word is “dumb.”

October 19, 2006 11:36AM

Lemon Lawsuits

Sunkist Growers, the wholesome name you probably associate with that morning swig of orange juice, has stolen a page from the playbooks of its more traditionally protectionist agricultural brethren. 

Last month Sunkist filed an anti‐​dumping petition alleging that Argentine and Mexican producers are selling lemon juice in the U.S. market at “unfairly low prices.” Heavens! The petition alleges dumping margins in excess of 100 percent, which means that Sunkist believes the U.S. prices of lemon juice from Argentina and Mexico should be more than double what they are today. (Maybe the U.S. prices of U.S. lemon producers would be half as much if our restrictive immigration policies didn’t drive up the cost of labor at harvest time.)

In a carefully crafted petition designed to minimize damage to Sunkist’s public image, only lemon juice used as an ingredient in the production of other products (i.e., not concentrated lemon juice or lemonade purchased directly by consumers) is subject to the anti‐​dumping investigation. 

Sunkist notes in a press release that: “The anti‐​dumping duty, if assessed, will not result in increased prices to consumers.” Obviously, that’s a lie. What Sunkist really means is that consumers won’t be able to attribute to Sunkist’s litigation the higher prices they will have to pay for the dozens of everyday food items that contain lemon juice. The prices of soda, fruit juice, ice cream, cake mix, seasonings, salad dressings, microwave dinners, frozen vegetables, hair coloring, candy, chewing gum, cough syrup, and many other items will be affected by any prospective anti‐​dumping duties. 

And, as has been the case in the sugar‐​using industries, lemon juice‐​consuming industries will have greater incentive to move their operations to Canada or Mexico or any number of other countries where the price of lemon juice is market‐​based. Whenever the supply of upstream products is choked off by protectionist measures, jobs, revenues, and profits in downstream industries suffer. And contrary to Sunkist’s feeble rationalization, consumers flip the bill.

October 19, 2006 10:41AM

Why the Controversy Will Continue

Good op‐​ed in today’s Washington Post entitled “The Unlearned Lessons of Abu Ghraib.” The author, Christopher Graveline, was an Army JAG officer who participated in the prosecution of 10 soldiers for detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. Graveline writes: 

President Bush has signed into law Congress’s latest attempt to clarify our country’s position on proper treatment of detainees and the boundaries of legitimate interrogation techniques. Unfortunately, this legislation demonstrates that both the administration and Congress have failed to learn important lessons from what Bush described as the “biggest mistake that’s happened so far” in Iraq: the detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib.

By dissociating potential criminal responsibility from overly aggressive interrogation practices that could be classified as “minor” breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and setting up a situation in which different interrogation practices can be used by our military and the CIA, our national leadership has ensured more abuse scandals. …

The new law grants too much latitude in an area where precision and oversight are critical. If confusion reigned in Washington during the past several weeks over whether waterboarding or other, “harsher” techniques would be permissible under the legislation, imagine the results when our agents and service members are faced with the same question halfway around the world and years removed from this debate — especially if the threat of criminal responsibility is gone.

To illustrate that point, compare Scenario A with Scenario B below.

Scenario A: This is a random misdeed by U.S. personnel and it is illegal.

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In this scenario, the man under the hood is a prisoner in U.S. custody. But this is a rogue operation against the prisoner that was not authorized by the president. Incidents like this will be investigated–and whoever did this will face prosecution.

Scenario B: This is Long‐​time standing and it is permissible.

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In this scenario, the man under the hood is also a prisoner in U.S. custody. Long‐​time standing is an interrogation technique reportedly used by the CIA. And President Bush says the Military Commission Act will revive the CIA program. Thus, if this tactic was indeed authorized by the president, there is no need for any investigation in this scenario. The American interrogators were just doing their job.

This Washington Post editorial sums it up well. President Bush alludes to “tough tactics,” but he will not publicly identify what will be done. Bottom line: tough tactics will be used–and then there will be more media reports of torture, and then, in response, the administration will restate its opposition to torture. The Military Commission Act has done little to clarify the rules and to settle the controversy surrounding the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody.