Archives: 04/2008

The EU Sides with the Thugs in Bolivia

This Sunday, the department of Santa Cruz, the richest region of Bolivia, will hold a referendum on regional autonomy. Other departments in the eastern half of the country will likely follow suit in the upcoming months. The central government in La Paz opposes the project and calls it “separatist.” Despite that, polls show that an overwhelming majority of “cruceños” will vote in favor of autonomy.

As a consequence, the ruling party has threatened to use violence against the citizens of Santa Cruz who show up to vote on Sunday. It wouldn’t be the first time. Last December, the government forced the approval of a new constitution in a Constituent Assembly while a pro-government mob outside the building prevented opposition assemblymen from attending the session. This year, something similar happened when the national Congress declared these referenda on regional autonomy illegal in a rigged session while mobs outside Parliament prevented opposition Congressmen from entering the building.

This time around, the party of president, Evo Morales, has warned about the possibility of taking thousands of its supporters to Santa Cruz to prevent the vote from taking place. The only way to accomplish this is by force.

So it’s kind of surprising that the European Union is taking sides with those who, over and over again, have used violence to suppress democratic institutions. The French ambassador in Bolivia and representative of the EU in that country has stated that the leaders of Santa Cruz who are pushing for autonomy will have to “assume the consequences” if violence erupts on Sunday. That is, the EU will blame the victims if they get beaten up by government thugs for exercising their democratic rights.

Shame on the EU.

How Free are America’s Private Schools?

The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation has a useful new report out that assesses regulation of private schools in all fifty states, assigning letter grades according to market freedom.

Many of the criteria used are similar to those considered in the private schools section of the Cato Education Market Index (an overall ranking of educational freedom and incentives across all school types in the 50 states and 2 nations), but they’ve added a few extras (e.g., regulations on class sizes and libraries) and lent additional detail to others (e.g., a breakdown of different types of curriculum regulation). Kudos to the Foundation and author Christopher Hammons for an illuminating report.

The Global Warming Hysteria that Isn’t, Part II

Last week, a Gallup poll was released revealing that about one-third of Americans worry “a great deal” about global warming, a number that hasn’t changed much since 1989. Less than half of the respondents believed that climate change would pose a serious threat to them in their lifetimes. The trade publication ClimateWire (subscription required) quotes a Gallup official as noting that “there has been no consistent upward trend on worry about global warming going back for decades.”

Today, ClimateWire reports that a new study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has even worse news for environmentalists: climate change is at the absolute bottom of the public’s list of priorities for the federal government (oddly enough, there’s no trace of the report on Pew’s website). When given a list of issues and asked to state whether the issue should be a “top priority” for President Bush and the Congress, those surveyed responded as follows:

Strengthening the nation’s economy: 75%
Defending the country against terrorism: 74%
Reducing health care costs: 69%
Improving the educational system: 66%
Securing social security: 64%
Improving the job situation: 61%
Securing Medicare: 60%
Dealing with energy problems: 59%
Reducing the budget deficit: 58%
Protecting the environment: 56%
Reducing crime: 54%
Providing insurance to the uninsured: 54%
Dealing with the problems of the poor: 51%
Dealing with illegal immigration: 51%
Reducing middle class taxes: 49%
Dealing with moral breakdown: 43%
Strengthening the military: 42%
Reducing the influence of lobbyists: 39%
Dealing with global trade: 37%
Making tax cuts permanent: 35%
Dealing with global warming: 35%

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The political strength of the environmental lobby is almost entirely based on the proposition that they represent a large number of well organized swing voters who will reward and/or punish politicians for their position on environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. Hence, a great deal of hard work and effort goes into the Green campaign to scare hell out of politicians regarding the political risks associated with saying no to things like a cap & trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To be fair, all special interest groups have the same incentive to talk-up their alleged public support. Regardless, this particular political Green emporer has no clothes.

Anonymous Earmark Manifesto

Appropriations lobbyists have weathered a rough few years of media scrutiny, and a series of earmarking outrages has put pressure on Congress to pass minor reforms. Luckily there may be fewer vehicles for earmarks this year as Congress will probably pass only one or two appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2009 and leave the budget mess for a new president to sort out.

Congressional appropriators have well-rehearsed defenses of the earmarking process, and an anonymous appropriations lobbyist has joined the fray to strike back at earmark critics. I obtained a copy of a six-page document defending the earmark system called “Fairness of Congressional Earmarking Report,” which is circulating around Capitol Hill.

Earmark enthusiasts argue that the Congressional system of doling out money to local governments, businesses and special interest groups is better than giving “faceless bureaucrats” the ability to allocate federal funds. The anonymous white paper expands on this argument and tries to make the case that earmarking is a much fairer process than letting federal agencies allocate the money.

The author of the paper is a member of an exclusive clique of former appropriations staffers called the 302(b) Group, according to Washington Post lobbying columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum.

Whether earmarks are useful depends on one’s perspective. To appropriations lobbyists and groups that have difficulty obtaining federal funding through merit-based, competitive grants, earmarks are a welcome bonanza. To taxpayers and advocates of spending restraint, transparent government and federalism, they’re woefully inefficient and pit parochial interests against the national interest.

Let’s look at the debate from the perspective of an appropriations lobbyist, to whom all federal spending is good federal spending:

The most democratic way to distribute these federal dollars is to spread funding across to numerous, meritorious local government projects rather than to concentrate resources to a select few.

Ah, democracy. The implication is that if someone is against earmarking, they must be some sort of dictator-loving democracy hater. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigative piece in March showing that the top recipient of educational earmarks for research in FY 2008 was Mississippi State University (Number two? The University of Mississippi). The Bulldogs are not known for a world-class research program, but they happen to have influential representatives and senators on the appropriations committees to steer funds their way. Never mind that educational earmarks receive little to no scrutiny to determine merit by scientists or that millions of dollars winds up at universities with no graduate or research programs in the research areas for which they receive funds. That’s earmark “democracy” in action.

The paper also analyzes the appropriations process during FY 2006 (when Congress used earmarks) and FY 2007 (when Congress did not use earmarks because the appropriations process fell apart and Congress fell back on a series of continuing resolutions that just increased spending across the board).

Generally speaking, federal agencies awarded substantially fewer grants when compared to when Congress earmarked these funds. A few local governments did better; the vast majority did not.

There’s a debate over whether earmarks increase overall spending or if they only divert it. Assuming that overall spending doesn’t change in a given year, earmarks just redirect spending to narrow interests; removing earmarks does not decrease spending. However, the paper seems to argue spending was reduced without considering the money was likely spent on other priorities.

In the bizarro lobbying world, the federal government spending less money on special interest projects is automatically a bad thing. To taxpayers, the notion that the government isn’t indiscriminately spending money because a representative or senator inserts an earmark in an appropriations bill is usually a good thing.

Communities across the nationwide are faced with increased traffic congestion and transportation needs. These local governments must address broken sidewalks, antiquated infrastructure, congested roads, and inadequate bicycle and pedestrian trails.

Setting aside this excerpt’s grammar issues, it’s comically ludicrous to suggest that the federal government needs to bail out local governments so that they can fix broken sidewalks and bike trails. Local governments are more accountable to residents’ spending wants and needs. It’s also more efficient to tax local and state residents to provide local and state infrastructure and services instead of routing the money through the maze of federal bureaucracy.

Reasonable people can disagree about the solution to the earmark problem. An effective argument for appropriators is that until the system is reformed, it’s their duty to get as much money for their district as possible — even if it’s wasteful and inefficient. This anonymous paper, though, is a silly defense of the system. It’s understandable why the author wants to remain anonymous.

An Elephant Never Forgets?

Over at Ars Technica, I’ve got an in-depth write-up of the White House’s problems with email archiving. Federal law has required executive branch officers’ official emails to be preserved for legal and historical purposes. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has had some difficulties with this:

In 1994, the Clinton administration reacted to the previous year’s court decision by rolling out an automated e-mail-archiving system to work with the Lotus-Notes-based e-mail software that was in use at the time. The system automatically categorized e-mails based on the requirements of the FRA and PRA, and it included safeguards to ensure that e-mails were not deliberately or unintentionally altered or deleted.

When the Bush administration took office, it decided to replace the Lotus Notes-based e-mail system used under the Clinton Administration with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. The transition broke compatibility with the old archiving system, and the White House IT shop did not immediately have a new one to put in its place.

Instead, the White House has instituted a comically primitive system called “journaling,” in which (to quote from a recent Congressional report) “a White House staffer or contractor would collect from a ‘journal’ e-mail folder in the Microsoft Exchange system copies of e-mails sent and received by White House employees.” These would be manually named and saved as “.pst” files on White House servers.

As you can imagine hijinks ensue. The White House developed a new archiving system that was ready to go in 2006, but the White House CIO reportedly canceled the system just before it was due to go live. They’re supposedly working on yet another archiving system, but it’s looking increasingly likely that it won’t be ready before the Bush administration leaves office.

Transparency is an important tool for limited government. Senior administration officials are more likely to behave themselves if they know their correspondence is subject to subpoena and will be available for the scrutiny of future historians. It’s therefore troubling that for most of the last 8 years, the Bush administration has failed to have an automated system in place for complying with the law as his predecessor did. More pressure needs to be placed on the next administration to ensure that the law is followed.

The New York Times Should Take Credit Where It’s Due

In a piece by Jad Mouawad, Tuesday’s NY Times reports that Oil Price Rise Fails to Open Tap.

He identifies a number of reasons for the lack of responsiveness on the supply side:

  1. OPEC countries’ “explicit goal is to regulate the supply of oil to keep prices up”. Iran and Iraq’s productive capacity has been crippled by war and civil unrest. In non-OPEC countries, problems are due to “sharply higher drilling costs and a rise of nationalistic policies that restrict foreign investment.”
  2. Some regions are simply running out of reserves, e.g., Norway, Britain, Prudhoe Bay.
  3. “In many other places, the problems are not below ground, as energy executives like to put it, but above ground. Higher petroleum taxes and more costly licensing agreements, a scarcity of workers and swelling costs, as well as political wrangling and violence, are making it harder to raise production…”
  4. “Foreign investment could help Mexico produce oil from deeper waters, but that is a controversial proposition in a country where oil has long been seen as part of the national patrimony.”
  5. “The Russian government has been muscling Western companies to gain more control over its energy resources. That rise in energy nationalism could freeze new investment and slow any meaningful growth in supplies there for years.”

Surprisingly, in an otherwise decent article, absent from this report is the credit that is due to the New York Times itself (and like-minded entities) in their long-standing efforts decrying the search for oil and gas within the US. A search of the Times site for the words “editorial drilling oil gas”(sans quotes) over the past few years reveals a constant stream of editorials in the Times decrying efforts to drill for oil and gas. Examples include:

Leave Bristol Bay Alone, December 6, 2006: “President Bush is thinking about rescinding a longstanding presidential order that specifically prohibits oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay… Mr. Bush has been speaking out lately about the importance of making America more energy independent. Few things are more important for the new Democratic Congress than developing an energy policy more heavily weighted toward conservation, efficiency and development of alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. This might be a rare area in which both sides can work together, but opening Bristol Bay to drilling would be exactly the wrong way to begin the conversation.”

Regulatory Games and the Polar Bear, January 15, 2008. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne could do the polar bear … a favor by ordering a timeout and halting the [oil] lease sales for at least a year… There is no urgency to lease Alaskan waters. President Bush’s suggestion that new oil production will bring short-term relief at the pump is nonsense, since oil fields take years to develop. It is urgent to help the bears.

Losing Patience, August 21, 2007. Dirk Kempthorne’s arrival … raised hope among conservationists that he would moderate the Bush administration’s aggressive search for oil and gas in some of the country’s most environmentally sensitive lands. This has not happened.

Protecting a Monumental Sculpture, February 18, 2008. “There is every good reason to call this plan to a halt on aesthetic grounds. But there are other reasons too. This stretch of the lake is also a critical breeding ground for many species of shorebirds.”

Drain America First, July 25, 2006. “The Senate measure is narrower and less mischievous than the House bill. Yet it, too, is aimed exclusively at increasing production. … This is mind-boggling. The bill’s stated purpose is to reduce fuel prices. But while the gulf may hold enough natural gas to affect the price of that commodity, the same cannot be said of oil.”

And of course the NY Times has been in the forefront of opposition to any drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge based on the logic that it would supply only six months of US oil consumption while forever sullying the Wildlife Refuge (an arguable claim).

Using this logic we could shut down every farm in the U.S. – and the world – since no single farm provides more than a few hours’ worth of food, and food production is the single greatest threat to terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity worldwide.

This is not to say that drilling – or farming, for that matter – is acceptable everywhere, but reflexive opposition to energy production is not.

Maybe a Less Checkered Future?

Yesterday, Andrew Coulson wrote a detailed response to an attack on libertarian education reformers by Chester E. “Checker” Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Finn declared, among other things, that libertarian support of universal school choice, unfettered by government-imposed standards, typified how libertarians “never let their vision of how the world ought to work be distorted by any realities about how it actually works.”

As Andrew made clear, we have often explained, based on empirical research and political reality, why universal school choice is the key to powerful standards and accountability—not to mention efficiency and innovation—while government-controlled education is routinely corrupted by accountability-loathing special interests like teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats. We’ve shown, using historical and political analyses, how increasingly centralized control over education has frozen out parents and good pedagogy, and have explained why proposals for national standards, including Fordham’s, would be educational suicide. Yet we have been dismissed by Fordham folks as naïve and heartless.

Fortunately, not everyone at Fordham seems to have tuned us out. Today, after reading a Washington Post article on how good education research fails to translate into good policy, Coby Loup, a Fordham policy analyst, declares that government education is essentially doomed to failure. Why? Because of the very political realities that we at Cato have been lamenting for years:

What’s surprising is that so many people continue to believe that these embarrassments stem from a failure of political will, rather than the inherent obstacles posed by, as the Post puts it, the “turbulent forces of politics, policy and public opinion.” We always think we’ll do better next time around, when our guys or gals are in office.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.