February 3, 2010 3:54PM

Criminalizing Politics

Steve Poizner, the California insurance commissioner who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, created a stir this week by charging opponent Meg Whitman's campaign with attempting to coerce him out of the race. He said he had reported her campaign to state and federal law enforcement authorities.

What did Whitman actually do? Well, Poizner said that Whitman consultant Mike Murphy had contacted a Poizner staffer by phone and email to urge him to withdraw from the race. The email, released by Poizner, said: "I hate the idea of each of us spending $20 million beating on the other in the primary, only to have a badly damaged nominee. And we can spend $40 million tearing up Steve if we must; bad for him, bad for us, and a crazy waste to tear up a guy with great future statewide potential." In the email, Murphy went on to suggest that if Poizner dropped out of the race before the June 8 vote, Whitman and her team would immediately get behind him for a 2012 challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Poizner says that's not only "strong-arm tactics" but possibly an illegal inducement to get him to withdraw. But isn't this really just politics as usual? Don't candidates as a matter of course say "support me this time, and I'll support you next time" or "run for a different office and I'll endorse you"? Presidential candidates, or their campaign managers, are often said to have promised the vice presidency to more than one rival to clear the field.

The point about spending $40 million of Republican money tearing up fellow Republicans is a pretty common complaint about party primaries. In fact, National Review correspondent John J. Miller raised just that concern about the Rick Perry-Kay Bailey Hutchison showdown in Texas.

Even during the Rod Blagojevich flap over "selling" a Senate seat, the always-provocative Jack Shafer and Jim Harper both asked, Isn't this what politicians do? They make deals -- including deals like "I'll support your campaign if you'll make my buddy (or me) a Cabinet secretary." No doubt the promises are often worthless, but they still get made. Blagojevich and Murphy have reminded pols all over the country that such deals are better made in person, not via email or telephone.

Politics ain't beanbag, Mr. Poizner. Accept the deal or reject it. But "let's clear the field and spend our money fighting the other party" is pretty standard politics. And a darn sight better than another standard political practice, using the taxpayers' money to bribe the voters to support you.

February 3, 2010 12:21PM

Liberty, Even for People You Don’t Like

In a conversation about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council admitted that he wants to re-criminalize sodomy:

...which is easy for him to say, of course, because he's unlikely to be affected by the law. As someone who is likely to be affected by the law, I'm tempted to criminalize Peter Sprigg. Liberty is never more negotiable than when it's liberty for someone you don't like.

What is it that I don't like? I don't like putting people in cages. Whenever we can reasonably avoid it, we should. Liberty means liberty even for people we think are weird, or disgusting, or immoral -- provided that they do not hurt us or our own legitimate interests. Lawrence v. Texas, for which the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, is one of the most important expressions of this idea in our time.

Once liberty applies only to the things that we like, we have abandoned the true idea of liberty entirely. From that point on, you and I, as enforcers, must cling ever more tightly to arbitrary power. If we don't, then someone else may come along, take that power, and criminalize us. A free society leaves the misfits alone, because sooner or later, everyone is a misfit, in some way or another.

January 20, 2010 8:22AM

Can Scott Brown’s Election Stop the Federal Takeover…of Education?

Yesterday, I wrote about President Obama's proposal to extend the Race to the Top program, this time letting school districts completely bypass state governments and apply directly to the feds for funding. I pointed out that the proposal was one among several troubling signs that Obama intends to put Washington fully -- and, of course, unconstitutionally -- in charge of American education.  At the time, I didn't realize how right I was.

When I was writing yesterday I was basing my comments on documents from the White House's website and hadn't yet read the details of what went on at the President's photo-op announcing the proposed extension. I sure wish I had: At the dog-and-pony show, the President just came right out and said that he wants to push aside states -- mentioned by name was famous holdout Texas -- that dared to invoke the Constitution and not participate in a program that was, Constitution or no Constitution, supposed to be voluntary.  

"Innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms," intoned the President. 

Fortunately, Texas Governor Rick Perry wasn't about to be cowed: "I will say this very slow so they will understand it in Washington, D.C.: Texas will fight any attempt by the federal government to take over our school system."

So it's pretty certain now, more so even than just 24 hours ago: President Obama wants to federalize American education.

Thankfully, a lot can clearly happen in 24 hours. Yesterday's election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts could very well send shockwaves of fear through the ranks of Democratic (and maybe even Republican) legislators in DC, who might finally get the message that Americans just don't like federal takovers. Heck, perhaps even the President will get the message. If so, then maybe even something as relatively small as a $1.35-billion scalpel designed to cut through states and get right at districts could be seen as too dangerous to handle.  

That's speculation, of course, but we should know a lot more  in just, oh, the next 24 hours.

August 26, 2009 11:34AM

Have Mexican Dishwashers Brought California to Its Knees?

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An article published this week by National Review magazine blames the many problems of California on—take a guess—high taxes, over-regulation of business, runaway state spending, an expansive welfare state? Try none of the above. The article, by Alex Alexiev of the Hudson Institute, puts the blame on the backs of low-skilled, illegal immigrants from Mexico and the federal government for not keeping them out.

Titled “Catching Up to Mexico: Illegal immigration is depleting California’s human capital and ravaging its economy,” the article endorses high-skilled immigration to the state while rejecting the influx of “the poorly educated, the unskilled, and the illiterate” immigrants that enter illegally from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Before swallowing the article’s thesis, consider two thoughts:

One, if low-skilled, illegal immigration is the single greatest cause of California’s woes, how does the author explain the relative success of Texas? As a survey in the July 11 issue of The Economist magazine explained, smaller-government Texas has avoided many of the problems of California while outperforming most of the rest of the country in job creation and economic growth. And Texas has managed to do this with an illegal immigrant population that rivals California’s as a share of its population.

Two, low-skilled immigrants actually enhance the human capital of native-born Americans by allowing us to move up the occupational ladder to jobs that are more productive and better paying. In a new study from the Cato Institute, titled “Restriction or Legalization? Measuring the Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform,” this phenomenon is called the “occupational mix effect” and it translates into tens of billions of dollars of benefits to U.S. households.

Our new study, authored by economists Peter Dixon and Maureen Rimmer, found that legalization of low-skilled immigration would boost the incomes of American households by $180 billion, while further restricting such immigration would reduce the incomes of U.S. families by $80 billion.

That is a quarter of a trillion dollar difference between following the policy advice of National Review and that of the Cato Institute. Last time I checked, that is still real money, even in Washington.

June 2, 2009 5:22PM

Get Back to Me When They’ve Got Something to Launch

Over the past few days, it seems like every major state newspaper ran a story on the state’s governor signing onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort to establish national standards in mathematics and reading curricula. The only holdouts are Alaska, Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina.

I should probably be more worried, because national standards are a terrible idea.

First, there is nothing inherently better about having a single standard agreed to by numerous states than having individual states set standards for themselves. Either way, politicians – people inherently most responsive to mobilized, highly motivated public school employees who want as little meaningful accountability as possible – will be setting the standards, and the standards will therefore either start low or end up there pretty fast.

Second, the notion that national standards adopted by even just a few states will remain both voluntary for all states and non-federal is pure fantasy, like unicorns, or selfless bureaucrats. Once some version of national standards exist, Washington will tie money to adopting them, which is how the feds force states to “volunteer” for all kinds of odious stuff.

“Oh, sure, feel free to turn down the money, Mr. Arizona” Uncle Sam says. “But your citizens? Well, I don't think we'll be taking any volunteers on paying federal taxes..."

The Obama Administration has already got this in the works, suggesting that adopting some sort of national standard could make a state eligible for a piece of the Secretary of Education’s so-called “Race to the Top Fund,” a $5 billion “stimulus” pot of gold controlled by the secretary.

Of course, the ultimate threat is that once standards go federal they never go back, and we’ll be stuck with one-size-fits-all standards for every state, district, and child in America, standards controlled by the National Education Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and every other card-carrying member of the self-serving education establishment. And even though we’ll finally live in a utopia in which “the child in Mississippi is held to the same standards as the child in New York,” we won’t suddenly see test scores skyrocket or heretofore untapped genius spring forth across the land. We’ll just see an even worse version of the hopelessly moribund, socialist education system we have today.

So why, in light of all these dreadful threats, am I not too worried? Because what governors have agreed to so far is just to draft national standards, not to adopt them, and as I wrote last month, while the national standards crowd seems unanimously exuberant about having a single set of standards for every kid in America, they can’t even come close to agreeing on what those standards should be. And if they can’t agree on what the national standards should be, what are the odds that millions of other people will simply assent to having someone else’s standards foisted upon them?

Not very high. Indeed, when establishing national standards was attempted in the 1990s the real fireworks didn’t begin until proposed standards were published. Then, it seemed that everyone had a different reason they were outraged – outraged! – by the standards.  At best, there was only one point of broad consensus: that the wannabe national standards simply had to go.

So are national standards a serious threat? They sure are: Were they to be enacted, the educationally deadly government-schooling monopoly would be complete, with even the ability to escape to better districts or states cut off. But the news of states agreeing to develop shared standards doesn’t raise the threat level to DEFCON 1. It’s only if they complete the task – if they can somehow agree on how many fins to put on their missile, what range to shoot for, what color to paint it, where to target it, whose names to put on it, what fuel to use, and so on – that we should really become concerned. And making those decisions is, of course, the really tough part.

May 18, 2009 12:27PM

Revenge of the Laffer Curve

Steve Moore and Art Laffer have an excellent column in today's Wall Street Journal. They explain that high-tax states drive repel entrepreneurs and investors, leading to a pronounced Laffer Curve effect. Productive people either leave the state or choose to earn and report less taxable income. And because growth is weaker than in low-tax states, there also is a negative impact on lower-income and middle-class people:

Here's the problem for states that want to pry more money out of the wallets of rich people. It never works because people, investment capital and businesses are mobile: They can leave tax-unfriendly states and move to tax-friendly states. ...Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts. ...Dozens of academic studies -- old and new -- have found clear and irrefutable statistical evidence that high state and local taxes repel jobs and businesses. ...Examining IRS tax return data by state, E.J. McMahon, a fiscal expert at the Manhattan Institute, measured the impact of large income-tax rate increases on the rich ($200,000 income or more) in Connecticut, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 5% from 4.5%; in New Jersey, which raised its rate in 2004 to 8.97% from 6.35%; and in New York, which raised its tax rate in 2003 to 7.7% from 6.85%. Over the period 2002-2005, in each of these states the "soak the rich" tax hike was followed by a significant reduction in the number of rich people paying taxes in these states relative to the national average.

Interestingly, the Baltimore Sun last week published an article noting that the soak-the-rich tax imposed last year is backfiring. There are fewer rich people, less taxable income, and lower tax revenue. To be sure, some of this is the result of a nationwide downturn, but the research cited by Moore and Laffer certainly suggest that the state revenue shortfall will continue even after than national economy recovers:

A year ago, Maryland became one of the first states in the nation to create a higher tax bracket for millionaires as part of a broader package of maneuvers intended to help balance the state's finances and make the tax code more progressive. But as the state comptroller's office sifts through this year's returns, it is finding that the number of Marylanders with more than $1 million in taxable income who filed by the end of April has fallen by one-third, to about 2,000. Taxes collected from those returns as of last month have declined by roughly $100 million. ...Karen Syrylo, a tax expert with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the millionaire bracket, said she has heard from colleagues who are attorneys and accountants that their clients moved out of state to avoid the new tax rate. She said that some Maryland jurisdictions boast some of the highest combined state and local income tax burdens in the country. "Maryland is such a small state, and it is so easy to move a few miles south to Virginia or a few miles north to Pennsylvania," Syrylo said. "So there are millionaires who are no longer going to be filing Maryland tax returns."

With President Obama proposing higher tax rates for the entire nation, perhaps this is a good time to remind people about the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve that I narrated. If you have not yet had a chance to watch them, the videos are embedded here for your viewing pleasure:

April 16, 2009 3:00PM

Is Rick Perry Really for Limited Government?

Conservative radio hosts are excited about a recent speech by Texas governor Rick Perry. Perry forcefully argued his theme of "unwavering support for efforts all across our country, but, most of all, here in Texas, to reaffirm the states' rights affirmed through the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

That sounds great, but does he really mean it?

In a study, I noted that Perry and the Texas state government are aggressive scavengers of federal grant dollars. The rise in federal granting is one of the central causes of the destruction of the Tenth Amendment in recent decades.

I noted that Perry's official webpage is chock full of press releases touting his distribution of federal subsidies. These press releases are from a short time period in 2006:

  • "Perry: Texas Farmers and Ranchers to Share $780 Million in Drought Assistance."
  • "Perry: FEMA Agrees to Reimburse Texas at Same Rate as Louisiana for Hurricanes."
  • "Gov. Perry Announces $1.6 Million in Grants to Juvenile Offender Accountability Programs."
  • "Perry: Homeland Security Grants to Focus on Technology Needs."
  • "Gov. Perry: Presidential Disaster Declaration Approved for El Paso."
  • "Gov. Perry Announces $38,098 in Victims of Crime Act Funds to El Paso County."
  • "Gov. Perry Announces $3.6 Million in Grants to Local Law Enforcement."

Notice how Perry takes credit for all the new spending? Politicians love spending, especially when they can foist the cost on taxpayers living in other states.

Look at these two press releases up on Perry's website right now:

  • Apr. 9: "Gov. Perry Backs Resolution Affirming Texas' Sovereignty Under 10th Amendment."
  • Apr. 10: "Gov. Perry Calls on FEMA to Assist the State in Fighting Wildfires."

Governor Perry: Do you want to revive the Tenth Amendment or do you want the FEMA money? You're giving us whiplash out here!

I don't think Perry's tax policies have been particularly conservative either, as they have centralized fiscal power at the state level and thus reduced beneficial competition between local governments.