Topic: Government and Politics

Supreme Court Lets Eminent Domain Abuse Continue

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided not take up an important takings case, the infelicitously titled 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States. As I blogged previously, Cato filed an amicus brief in the case in the hopes that the owner of the “480.00 Acres of Land,” Gil Fornatora, would ultimately receive the “just compensation” to which he is constitutionally entitled.  The Court also missed the chance to correct the pattern of due process abuse that is apparently rampant in Florida.  The case involved the federal government maneuvering to unjustly drive down property values before taking land for (legitimate) public use – in this case expanding the Everglades – thus greatly diminishing the compensation it was obligated to pay the owners.  Fox News recently had a report about the case, in which I briefly appeared.

Interestingly – and sadly – since the Fox News report, my voicemail and email inbox has been receiving story after story of individuals who have experienced injustices similar to that of Mr. Fornatora. While it is unfortunate that this case has come to an end, the number of calls and emails leads me to believe that more cases like this will be making their way through the federal judiciary and that, eventually, this abuse will be halted.

To that end, while Cato does not involve itself directly in litigation, on the subject of takings and eminent domain abuse I can certainly recommend our friends at the Institute for Justice and Pacific Legal Foundation.  Specifically on the type of “condemnation blight” at the heart of the Fornatora case, feel free to contact PLF’s Atlantic (Florida) office at (772)781-7787 or write to Pacific Legal Foundation, 1002 SE Monterey Commons Blvd., Suite 102, Stuart, FL  34996.  Steven Gieseler was the attorney who presented the Fornatora case to the Supreme Court, and who got me involved.

In other eminent domain news, George Will had an excellent column on January 3 condemning the pernicious Atlantic Yards land grab that you can read about here.

The Real World - D.C.

Reason.tv has a characteristically good video about the failure of House and Senate leaders (and the president) to make negotiations about the health care bill transparent.

It’s probably not true, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement that “there has never been a more open process…” But even if it is, that doesn’t matter. Technology that can make the legislative process far more open is there, and the audience wishing to use it is there too.

The public’s expectations for open government have risen to what can be achieved—matching past practice is not good enough.

Another Hero(ine) of Freedom Dies

Freya von Moltke, the last of the leading plotters against Hitler, has died. 

Reports the New York Times:

“He put the question to me explicitly — ‘The time is coming when something must be done,’ ” Freya von Moltke said. “ ‘I would like to have a hand in it, but I can only do so if you join in too,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it’s worth it.’ ”

So, with a wife’s assent, began a famous challenge to Hitler. At the height of the Nazi victories, Count Helmuth James von Moltke invited about two dozen foes of Nazism, many of them aristocrats like himself, to imagine a new, better postwar Germany.

For him, his wife’s participation was essential, as she remembered the conversation in “Courageous Hearts: Women and the Anti-Hitler Plot of 1944,” a 1997 book by Dorothee von Meding.

The dissidents met at the count’s ancestral estate, Kreisau, which Bismarck had given his legendary great-great-uncle, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, for his victories over Austria and France.

It was a perilous act of resistance. As many as half of the dissidents were later executed, some for actively plotting to kill Hitler, others for thinking the unthinkable: they had marshaled logical, moral and religious arguments to question the legitimacy of the Third Reich. Their high-minded planning for a future without Nazis angered a regime that expected to endure 1,000 years.

Mrs. Moltke, who disdained the title of countess, was the last living active participant in the group. She died of a viral infection on Jan. 1 at her home in Norwich, Vt., her son Helmuth said. She was 98.

In his book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (1960), William L. Shirer said the Kreisau circle had provided “the intellectual, spiritual, ethical, philosophical and, to some extent, political ideas of the resistance to Hitler.”

It is easy to become frustrated with politics today, and grow weary of fighting for liberty.  But some people risk death when they take up the banner of freedom.  So it was with Freya von Moltke, whose husband, Count Helmuth James von Moltke, was executed by the Nazis, along with so many others.

Now, as then, “something must be done,” in Helmuth von Moltke’s words.  But we have a far easier task than did those opposing Hitler, many of whom paid with their lives.  We have no excuse for not carrying on.

Where Are the Jobs?

The Washington Post’s “Mega-Jobs” section, ballyhooed all week in radio ads and placards, turns out to be a pathetic six pages of classifieds. Not a great indication of recovery. At his December jobs summit, the president said, “I want to hear from CEOs about what’s holding back our business investment and how we can increase confidence and spur hiring.” Since then, and most recently in his Saturday radio address, he has promised to focus relentlessly on jobs.

But he refuses to take a serious look at the burdens he and his administration are placing on job creation. American businesses already face the highest corporate tax rate in the OECD. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says her agency will seek to enact 90 rules and regulations this year to give more power to unions, and President Obama is appointing NLRB members who have said that that the NLRB could enact “card check” without congressional authorization. If Congress resists expensive “cap and trade” regulation, the EPA has announced that it can impose even costlier regulations on its own. The media blitz about state and local fiscal crises has employers worried that states will raise taxes and/or that the federal government will spend more to bail them out. The “health insurance excise tax” looks like a tax on hiring, especially for the biggest companies. Beyond any of these specific concerns is the general impact of uncertainty – employers and investors don’t know what might be coming down the pike, but none of the prospects look like making it cheaper or more profitable to hire new workers.

And in response to all this, the only idea President Obama and congressional Democrats put forward is to spend more money. There may be arguments for Keynesian stimulus. But it’s hard to imagine that the economy will benefit from a deficit larger than the currently projected $1.5 trillion, which is already a trillion dollars more than any previous deficit except for 2009. If $3 trillion in deficits in two years hasn’t stimulated the economy, it might be time to think about different strategies – like lifting the burdens on entrepreneurship, investment, and job creation.

Cross-posted at Politico Arena.

No, the ‘Real’ Unemployment Rate Isn’t 17.3%

Nearly every economic commentator from Fox News (on the fair and balanced side) to Paul Krugman (on the unfair and unbalanced side) is eager to tell you that the “real” unemployment rate is not 10% but 17.3%.  The latter figure is the largest of six offered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.   But that does not make it more meaningful.

Many people believe (incorrectly) that unemployment is a measure of how many jobs were lost.   But people can also be unemployed because they quit their job, or because they never worked before, or haven’t worked in a long time.  Job losers accounted for 63.7% of the unemployed in December, down from 66.1% in September.  If we counted only those who were unemployed because they lost their jobs, that measure of unemployment was 6.3% in December — down from 6.7% in October.

The 17.3% figure, by contrast, starts with those looking for jobs during the past month and adds “all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons.”   That phrase “marginally attached” means people who looked for work at some point during the past year, but not lately. Contrary to press reports, relatively few of the “marginally attached” are those discouraged about job prospects.  Adding discouraged workers would only push the unemployment rate up by half a percentage point, to 10.5%.   And even that small number of discouraged workers is not simply those who could not find work, but those who simply “think” no work is available, or think they are too young, too old, or that they lack the necessary schooling or training.

The rest of the “marginally attached” don’t even think they can’t find work.  Instead, they are not looking for work “for such reasons as school or family responsibilities, ill health, and transportation problems.”  To describe such people who are not available for work as “underemployed” (much less unemployed) is an abuse of the language.

As for those “working part-time for economic reasons,” only a fourth say they could only find part-time work.   Those who normally work a 9-to-5 schedule (35 hours a week) are counted as working part-time for economic reasons if they miss even one hour “for reasons such as holidays, illness and bad weather.”   That isn’t really underemployment, much less “real” unemployment.

What is unique about last year’s unemployment was its typical duration — doubling the number of weeks people remain on the dole.   Because those who have been unemployed 12–18 months do not leave the ranks of the unemployed until their benefits are about to run out (after an unprecedented 79 weeks or more), it doesn’t take many newly unemployed to push the rate above 10%.  Congress tripled the number of weeks people collect unemployment benefits (describing that and other transfer payments as a  “stimulus”) and now wonders why so many people take so long to accept a suitable job offer.   If you subsidize something, you get more of it — and that applies to unemployment too.   Many of those same clueless  legislators may be equally surprised to find themselves out of a job next November.

On C-SPAN: What’s a Little Promise Among Friends?

My, oh my. Transparency is getting defined down to excuse a breaking campaign promise.

At the Center for American Progress’ “Think Progress Wonk Room” blog (or whatever it’s called), Igor Volsky makes the case against allowing C-SPAN cameras into negotiations about the health care bill. Recall that President Obama promised on the campaign trail to have health care negotiations broadcast on C-SPAN.

“But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009,” says Volsky, “filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.”

He does have a point. Television causes politicians to grandstand and doesn’t necessarily improve the legislative process.

But President Obama knew that when he made the promise, and he made the promise all the same. The credibility of the legislative process suffers from its overall opacity, and Candidate Obama promised different, starting with health care legislation — to progressives’ cheers as much as any other group.

Yet he appears to be walking away from that promise. And Volsky wants to abet him with a transparency caveat — only if it “improve[s] the underlying bill.”

Improvement is in the eye of the beholder, of course. This is not a welcome gloss. It’s bait and switch. “[T]he reality of politics doesn’t square with the promises of the campaign trail,” says Volsky.

Matt Yglesias’ short post backing his co-blogger is — appropriately, perhaps — opaque: “This is also an example of the concrete harm done to the country by politicians overestimating the impact of campaign tactics on election outcomes.” I don’t understand what that means.

Ezra Klein has the decency to say he’s conflicted. He admits that a transparent health care conference might be “better than nothing,” but he makes the same argument as Volsky: the process will change, but not necessarily for the better. No mention that this was a promise, or that the credibility of the president to marginal voters matters.

The argument that transparency is only useful if it leads to a better bill is reminiscent of Lawrence Lessig’s widely panned essay “Against Transparency.” I wrote of it:

Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement” — unvarnished access to government data — “is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

These commentators have sounder premises, of course. They want transparency to improve legislation.

But transparency is not simply a means to better bills. It’s a means to better politicians — when people see one leader being smart and fair, while others are not. It’s a means to a better organized society — if people decide that politicians aren’t as qualified to apportion society’s resources as they thought. It’s a means to better-run programs — when people compare the dollars going in with the results coming out. Heck, transparency is a civics lesson for high school students! There is a transparency vision that these commentators eschew in favor of the status quo.

Even good John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to transparency, kicks the ground and mumbles about televising conference committees not being a panacea. The promise was to broadcast “negotiations,” of course, not just the formal meeting of any conference committee. And one of the commenters on his post has the better of it. “Open [conference committees] are not a panacea, but they are one tent-pole,” says Sarah Welsh of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Her state mandated open conference committess last year, for the good.

And it was a campaign promise.

“The public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote,” Igor Volsky says. Which brings us to another promise: On the campaign trail, Candidate Obama said, “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

The president is currently six for 124 on that promise, having shown recent improvement. But one has to wonder how Volsky would caveat away that promise and further define down government transparency.

One to watch: President Obama’s promise to “go line by line” over earmarks, which OMB has said it will implement by collecting and databasing Congressmembers’ earmark requests in the FY 2011 budget cycle.