Archives: 06/2012

Bipartisan Policy Center Rejects Bipartisan Budget Control Act

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) has come out against bipartisan spending restraint. The BPC has issued a report highly critical of the sequestration spending cuts that were agreed to in the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011.

The BPC is a center-left thinktank in Washington that houses some very good policy scholars. The goal of the group is to celebrate “times in American political history when two sides have come together in the interest of the country and the people.”

Surely that describes the Budget Control Act. The Act made some modest progress at trimming the giant federal budget deficit, which is an important concern of BPC scholars. The Budget Control Act passed the House 269 to 161 with 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats in favor. It passed the Senate 74 to 26. President Obama signed it. What could be more bipartisan than that?

However, the BPC complains that the sequester will cause “immense pain, disruption, and uncertainty,” and it could “cost the economy more than one million jobs” from the supposedly negative “multiplier effects.” But that’s not what happened the last time we had bipartisan spending restraint in Washington, which was in the 1990s. Federal spending fell from 22 percent of GDP to 18 percent during that decade, and the economy boomed.

Government shrinkage creates a positive multiplier, not a negative one, because the government releases resources—such as skilled workers from the defense industry in the 1990s—that are put to more productive uses in the private sector. You take an engineer from the Department of Defense or Energy and put her in the private sector producing goods for the market, and GDP will go up not down.

I don’t want to pick on BPC in particular, and their new report has lots of useful data and analysis. But how is America going to avoid a Greek-style fiscal disaster if even the supposed deficit-hawk groups start chickening out of spending restraint after just the first small reform steps?

Rather than reversing course, we should be build on the BCA with the reforms at


“Government Is Always a Rival, and Often an Enemy, of Religion”

On Friday, under leadership mostly associated with the Roman Catholic Church and the anti-abortion movement, protesters rallied in more than 150 cities against the HHS Obamacare mandate requiring church-affiliated universities, hospitals and other institutions to furnish access to “reproductive health services” that run counter to their church’s teachings. In today’s Washington Examiner, columnist Tim Carney writes, “What should have been obvious is becoming clearer to religious conservatives: Government is always a rival, and often an enemy, of religion.” An accompanying AP picture of a demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas shows protesters waving crosses inscribed “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Carney goes on to discuss another controversy in the news, last week’s ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court Court of Appeals that a photographer’s business counts as a “public accommodation,” which requires her to photograph a gay wedding for a prospective client despite her religious objections. (New Mexico does not legally recognize gay marriage; its courts instead ruled under a general anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation.) Like Carney, and like most people I’ve talked to about the case, I find this result an appalling intrusion on the photographer’s wish to live her own life and run her own business as she pleases.

So I was taken aback when Carney goes on to assert that all this proves “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters.” Who does he think has been on the front lines on these questions, during long stretches in which organized religion chose not to get involved, if not libertarians?

Take the photographer case. Google “Elane Photography” + “New Mexico” and the top entry you find is from libertarian-leaning law professor Eugene Volokh, who has spoken out strongly against the ruling as contrary to First Amendment values. Another of the top ten is from our friend Hans Bader at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who calls the decision “wrong” and “the imposition of progressive orthodoxy by judicial fiat.” Notably, two among the other top ten results are from writers at gay websites who argue on generally classical-liberal grounds that it is wrong to coerce the photographer.

The story is similar on the ObamaCare contraception mandate: any number of libertarians and classical liberals who do not necessarily share the Catholic Church’s views on contraception or gays have nonetheless spoken up for the importance of letting it run its institutions under its own lights, an argument that extends to other social service areas such as adoption.

Meanwhile, as Carney rightly observes, many who share his own religious convictions “have too often embraced government, either in the name of social justice or traditional values.” It might be noted that modern discrimination law accords “protected group” status to religion itself, an inclusion that remains curiously uncontroversial among many religious conservatives even though it carries with it a rich potential for chipping away at private conscience rights and the autonomy of private institutions.

As I understand it, the libertarian position is to prize religious liberty, while also disapproving the use of government as an instrument of culture war. That’s no contradiction. It’s the American way.

About that Pivot to Asia

At the start of his long journey across Asia, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the Shangri-La Security Dialogue that the United States would play a greater role in the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

Specifically, Panetta explained, the United States would focus on “promoting strong partnerships that strengthen the capabilities of the Pacific nations to defend and secure themselves.” (Emphasis mine)

In a speech with the requisite amount of hand-waving and pleasing rhetoric, this statement stands out as one that is eminently measurable. If the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region succeeds, 10 or 15 years from now we will have observed that countries in the region expanded their military capabilities, such that they are better able to secure their territory and their wider interests. That was Panetta’s goal, clearly set forth in the speech, and he is speaking for the entire Obama administration.

How this will play out is still quite murky. If the pivot works as planned, does that mean that the Asian allies will be spending more money on their militaries? Not necessarily. Will they be better able to operate independent of the United States? Not clear; Panetta’s speech declared that the United States would “modernize and strengthen” existing “partnerships in the region.” Does that imply that there will be fewer troops in Europe and more in Asia? Probably not. Panetta has stressed, and he did again in Singapore, that there will be a U.S. presence in Asia, but it would be more flexible. The Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are obviously more conducive to air and naval operations, and there is little need (and therefore little enthusiasm) for a vastly larger U.S. ground presence.

But while we can’t know the precise disposition of U.S. forces in the region in the future, we can assess where they are now, and where they have been. A recent issue of Defense News (June 4, 2012) includes a map of the region showing where U.S. troops are located, and in what numbers. The data is compiled from this quarterly report, plus a separate report on deployments in South Korea (numbers which are curiously excluded from the 309A report).

All told, the numbers are quite small. Of the 19 countries listed, 13 hosted fewer than 100 U.S. military personnel. There were more Americans stationed in China (74) than in India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh combined (71). And a substantial share of the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific is based in Hawaii (42,502) and Guam (4,272).

Panetta reminded his audience that the U.S. military presence in Japan (36,708) and South Korea (18,470) will be smaller in the future, but this too is a continuation of a very long term trend. Consider, for example, that there were 136,554 U.S. active duty personnel in Japan (including Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands) in 1950, 82,264 in 1970, and just 46,593 in 1990. (The historical data can be found here.) The presence has leveled off since then, but is likely to decline still further, as more U.S. personnel are moved to Guam. This move, Panetta explained in Singapore, “will make the U.S. presence in Okinawa more politically sustainable, and it will help further develop Guam as a strategic hub for the United States military in the Western Pacific”

To recap: the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region has been steadily declining for decades, particularly the number of active-duty personnel stationed in East Asia. Panetta implies that this trend will continue, but he also stressed that “the United States will play a larger role in [the] region.” The U.S. Navy is expected to boost its presence, but it is unclear exactly where or how. Singapore agreed “in principle” to host four littoral combat ships on “a rotational basis,” but that doesn’t come close to meeting Panetta’s promise to deploy 60 percent of U.S. Navy assets to the Asia-Pacific by 2020 (the current split between the Atlantic and Pacific is 50-50).

Another big unknown: Will the countries in the region be as committed to their own security as Panetta imagines? One way to measure this (though not the only way) is by the amount of money that each country is willing to dedicate to its military. The trends are not promising. IISS’s The Military Balance 2012 notes dryly that “elevated growth rates across Asia have not necessarily translated into equivalent increases in defence spending.” Over the past ten years, 2001 to 2010, spending as a share of GDP has fallen from 2.83 to 1.94 percent in the South and Central Asia Region; and has not budged in East Asia and Australasia (1.41 percent in 2001; 1.44 percent in 2010).

This is not surprising, especially given that U.S. spending rose dramatically during this same period, from 3.0 percent in 2001 to 4.8 percent of GDP in 2010. Much of this growth was driven by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and therefore not directed toward the Asia Pacific region, per se. Still, people are disinclined to pay for things that others will provide them for free, and U.S. grand strategy, and the military posture that flows from it, discourages other countries from spending more on their defense.

American policymakers frequently complain about our allies doing too little, or of not sharing the burden more equitably, but many are content with the status quo. Fearful that other countries might either a) grow too capable militarily, appear threatening to their neighbors, and precipitate regional arms competition, or b) allow security challenge to fester and grow, necessitating U.S. involvement at a later date, Washington has preferred to maintain a forward military presence in both Europe and Asia in the hopes of preventing either from happening. We cannot know what would have occurred if Washington had withdrawn U.S. military personnel from both regions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we can see that U.S. taxpayers have incurred higher costs, and U.S. troops have borne greater risks, while other countries have done relatively less. At times, U.S. policymakers seem to be quite worried that other countries might acquire greater military capability, and be more inclined to use it, but that has not occurred; most of America’s allies were militarily weak at the end of the Cold War, and they have allowed their hard power capability to atrophy further since then.

In 10 or 15 years, will we declare the pivot to Asia a success if we see this trend reversed, if Americans are spending less as a share of regional military expenditures, and if the countries in the region are contributing more? I would. I think that a majority of Americans would. But I remain skeptical that the foreign policy establishment here in Washington feels the same way.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall

Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, President Ronald Reagan made his famous speech at the Berlin Wall in which he declaimed:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

On a trip to East Germany in 2006 I talked to a politician who had been involved in the 1989 Leipzig protests that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall. I asked him, “When Reagan said ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ in 1987, did you know that?” He said, yes, not from East German TV but from West German TV, which they could watch. And what did you think, I asked. “We thought it was good, but we thought it was impossible.” And yet just two years later, “peace prayers” in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche turned into protests for liberalization and open borders. The Leipzig politician told me, “As it says in the Bible, we walked seven times around the inner city, and the wall came down.”

Then I went to a museum exhibit in Leipzig on the history of the German Democratic Republic. It was very impressive, with a large collection of posters, letters, newspapers, video, and more. Alas, it was all in German, so I had only a dim understanding of what it all said. I did get the impression that it wasn’t a balanced presentation of communism such as might be found in a Western museum; these curators knew that communism had been a nightmare, and they were glad to be out of it. As it happened, the only English words in the entire exhibit came in the collection of audio excerpts that greeted visitors in the entry foyer. And they were a familiar voice proclaiming: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!”

Government as Faith

Ensconced at Brookings and Georgetown, opining twice weekly at the Washington Post, and a frequent PBS/NPR voice, E.J. Dionne is your quintessential inside-the-beltway liberal. His column this morning, “Government is the solution,” doesn’t disappoint. Democrats should “just say it,” he argues. If they really believe in government, then stop beating around the bush, apologizing, qualifying. Look at Gov. Scott Walker’s win last week in Wisconsin, “helped by the continuing power of the conservative anti-government idea in our discourse. An energetic argument on one side will be defeated only by an energetic argument on the other,” he counsels.

Trouble is, it’s not just the energy, or the clarity: It’s the argument. As we say in horse racing, no matter how good the jockey, he can’t carry the horse across the finish line. And the government horse has a pretty bad track record.

You’d never know it, however, from the rest of Dionne’s exhortation. Going back to the nation’s beginnings he invokes Hamilton’s and Clay’s road and canal building projects – they who “read the Constitution’s commerce clause as Franklin Roosevelt and progressives who followed him did, as permitting the federal government to serve the common good.” Alas, Dionne’s constitutional history is amiss. In his 1791 “Report on Manufactures,” which Congress rejected, Hamilton invoked not the Commerce but the General Welfare Clause. And the canal projects, like the railroad projects 20 years later, involved improvident donations of government land, under Article IV’s Lands Clause, resulting in the panics of 1837 and 1857, respectively, all of which is nicely documented in Harvard Law Prof. Charles Warren’s wonderful little volume, aptly entitled Congress as Santa Claus, published in 1932, on the eve of the New Deal.

But it doesn’t get any better when Dionne turns from law to economics. Here his main point is to urge Democrats to say that “government creates jobs.” Thus, he writes that it was “salutary that Douglas Elmendorf, the widely respected director of the Congressional Budget Office, told a congressional hearing last week that 80 percent of economic experts surveyed by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business agreed that the stimulus got the unemployment rate lower at the end of 2010 than it would have been otherwise.” Who could argue with that? Indeed, more stimulus spending would have lowered the rate even further: there was no unemployment in the Soviet Union, if you want serious stimulus spending.

The point is that government spending is not cost-free. The money comes from the private sector now, where it might otherwise be employed creating private-sector jobs, or is borrowed from the future. And it’s no answer to contend, as Dionne does, that we need government “investments” in such things as transportation and clean energy (high speed rail? “green fuel” requirements for the Defense Department?) because “the private sector is no longer investing” and hence no longer creating jobs – not if you ignore the massive regulatory uncertainty that is impeding private-sector investing. But what’s any of that to someone who believes that “government is the solution.”

The Obama Justice Department Didn’t Have to Defend Bush-Era Government Actions

No, I’m not talking about Guantanamo or interrogation techniques or anything else related to national security.  I’m talking about various unconstitutional actions by administrative agencies and law enforcement that ultimately resulted in unanimous defeats at the Supreme Court, as I described in my Wall Street Journal op-ed.

That analysis – focusing on cases decided this year in the areas of religious liberty (Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC), criminal procedure (U.S. v. Jones), and property rights (Sackett v. EPA) has generated plenty of positive reaction from a variety of perspectives.  One criticism that I’ve seen a few times, however, is that I’m being disingenuous because in all three cases I dissect, the DOJ was merely defending actions and policies that originated when George W. Bush was president.  “The Solicitor General, who is the government’s top lawyer, has, in almost all cases,” notes Media Matters, “an obligation to defend government actions and federal laws, including those actions undertaken by previous administrations.”

There is some validity to this point:  Hosanna-Tabor did indeed involve an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC during the Bush administration; Sackett involved an order issued by the Bush administration’s EPA; Bush’s Justice Department instigated the federation prosecution at issue in Jones.

Of course, these lower-level administrative actions probably didn’t reach the radar screens of actual Bush-era political appointees and policy makers – bureaucrats will do their own thing, trying to expand their own power regardless of who’s in the White House – and DOJ lawyers who actually represent an administration’s legal policy typically aren’t involved until the appellate stage (under Obama in these cases).  But even if they had here, that doesn’t somehow excuse Obama’s Justice Department, which made dangerous legal arguments betraying an incredibly expansive view of federal power, ones that didn’t gain a single vote at the Supreme Court.  Bush attorney generals John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey (or solicitor generals Ted Olson, Paul Clement, and Greg Garre) weren’t the ones filing these briefs.

Moreover, while the solicitor general’s office does indeed have the duty to make the strongest plausible legal arguments supporting federal laws, that doesn’t mean that the Obama administration as a whole was handcuffed.  The solicitor general (be that Don Verrilli or his predecessors, Neal Katyal and Elena Kagan) could’ve decided not to seek Supreme Court review of cases that were clear losers for the federal government.  Or he, along with his boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, could’ve settled the cases and worked to change the EEOC, EPA, and FBI policies that led to the unconstitutional actions.

Or, indeed, if the administration really thought that there were no less-ridiculous arguments to be made, President Obama could’ve instructed DOJ officials not to defend these cases any further – as he did with the Defense of Marriage Act.

Finally, even if the Bush administration had acted exactly the same way, making exactly the same legal arguments (impossible to imagine in Hosanna-Tabor and Sackett, at least), two constitutional wrongs don’t make a right.  And I don’t think President Obama’s defenders really want to rely on the argument, “All administrations regularly violate the Constitution and get reversed 9-0 by the Supreme Court.”

In sum, I’ll stick with my claim that the legal arguments the Obama Justice Department has made before the Supreme Court “don’t pass the smell test” and constitute a fundamentally flawed vision of federal power.

Happy Birthday Nat Hentoff!

Happy Birthday to my friend and Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff.  He turns 87 today, but he’s busier than ever with book and article deadlines.

Let’s take a quick look at his work.  This week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a measure to rein in marijuana stops, arrests, and convictions in New York City.  Nat Hentoff was sounding the alarm on that problem years ago!

Here he relates his encounter with Che Guevara: