Topic: Government and Politics

A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees

newspapersThe Associated Press reports:

The federal government is wading into deliberations over the future of journalism as printed newspapers, television stations and other traditional media outlets suffer from Americans’ growing reliance on the Internet.

With the media business in a state of economic distress as audiences and advertisers migrate online, the Federal Trade Commission began a two-day workshop Tuesday to examine the profound challenges facing media companies and explore ways the government can help them survive.

Media executives taking part are looking for a new business model for an industry that is watching traditional advertising revenue dry up, without online revenue growing quickly enough to replace it. Government officials want to protect a critical pillar of democracy—a free press.

“News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

Language mavens, observe the lede: The federal government is “wading into deliberations.” I infer that in Newspeak, this may mean something like “trying to spend more money.” Perhaps I should look forward to the federal government wading into deliberations over my salary? (On second thought, maybe not.)

Some of the proposals aimed at saving traditional journalism are relatively innocuous, like letting newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofits. At least this wouldn’t do too much harm, and, given recent performance in the industry, it approaches being fiscally neutral.

Other ideas, like forcing search engines to pay royalties to copyright holders, would have far more serious consequences. It’s hard to see whom this proposal would hurt worse, the search engines, socked with massive fees, or the copyright holders themselves – if search engines don’t index you, you don’t exist anymore.

The surest loser, though, would be the rest of us. Restricting the flow of news for the financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch seems a far cry from our Constitution, which allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Burdening search engines seems only to inhibit the progress of science and the useful arts, while enriching a small number of people. It might pass the letter of the law, but I doubt that this is what the founders had in mind.

But anyway…. shame on Americans for our “growing reliance on the Internet”! Don’t we realize that, as the article notes, “a free press is a critical pillar of democracy” – and that a free press only counts, apparently, if it’s on dead trees?

I’m all in favor of the good the press can do, but it strikes me as shortsighted to think that this good can only be done in the traditional media. It also seems foolish to me to think that tying the press more closely to the government will make it more critical and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites:

In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

… That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

Tell me again, who’s the parasite here? And why should taxpayers bail out yet another industry that isn’t delivering what we want?

Not the Change We Hoped For

express-coverBarack Obama first became a credible presidential candidate on the basis of his antiwar credentials and his promise to change the way Washington works. But he has now made both of George Bush’s wars his wars. The Washington Post’s front-page analysis began, “President Obama assumed full ownership of the war in Afghanistan on Tuesday night…” The cover of the tabloid D.C. Express was even more blunt.

Speaking of Iraq in February 2008, he said, “I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.” Responding to Hillary Clinton’s criticisms in March 2008, he said, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009, so don’t be confused.” Now he is promising to end the Iraq war in 2011, and to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in that year. Not the change we hoped for.

President Obama promises that after all this vitally necessary and unprecedented federal spending, he will turn his attention to constraining spending at some uncertain date in the future. And now he says that he will first put more troops into Afghanistan, and then withdraw them at some uncertain date in the future (“in July of 2011,” but “taking into account conditions on the ground”). Voters are going to be skeptical of both promises to accelerate and then put on the brakes later.

Of course, John McCain thinks that even a tentative promise to get out of this war after a decade is too much. “Success is the real exit strategy,” he says. And if there’s no success? Then presumably no exit. Antiwar voters may still find a vague promise of getting the troops out of Afghanistan three years after the president’s inauguration preferable to what a President McCain would have promised.

But as Chris Preble wrote yesterday, this increase of 30,000 troops – or 40,000 – is not going to win the war. The U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine says that stabilizing a country the size of Afghanistan would require far more troops than anyone is willing to invest. So why not declare that we have removed the government that harbored the 9/11 attackers, and come home?

The real risk for Obama is becoming not JFK but LBJ – a president with an ambitious, expensive, and ultimately destructive domestic agenda, who ends up bogged down and destroyed by an endless war. Congress should press for a quicker conclusion to both wars.

The Cost of Government Guarantees

John Kay’s column in yesterday’s Financial Times criticizes government guarantees to banks because they involve hidden but large costs. According to Kay:

  • Such guarantees distort competition: sheltered banks outperform rivals not because of greater efficiency, but because capital becomes cheaper to obtain.
  • Sheltered banks gain too-big-to-fail status, which creates barriers to entry for smaller, more efficient banks.
  • Relief from business risk leads to more risk taking, AKA moral hazard.
  • Cheaper private risk management incentives are reduced within and outside the bank.

Other kinds of government guarantees, such as social insurance, also involve large hidden costs. Social Security and Medicare’s guarantee of a paid holiday with medical care for the rest of retirees’ lives generates the same types of costs:

  • Labor competition is reduced because the programs induce early worker retirements, which leads to higher wage costs, on average, and lower national output.
  • Workers who believe they will receive Social Security and Medicare will engage in lower personal saving, which means less capital formation and lower economic efficiency.
  • Retirement income guarantees induce riskier personal savings portfolios, AKA moral hazard.
  • Guaranteed retirement income means poorer financial knowledge and poorer risk management.

And now, retiree political power is too big to fail as well!

How come when Kay writes about market distortions from government guarantees for banks, he gets published; but when I do the same about government guarantees for people, I get the cold shoulder from editorial page editors?

Hungry for Taxes

The Washington Post reports:

Would you gladly pay more for a cheeseburger today if it keeps your local librarian working tomorrow?

Several members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors think so. So do supervisors in neighboring Loudoun County, who hope the General Assembly will allow them to impose a meals tax, too.

If the supervisors are so sure that a tax increase would be popular, why don’t they put it to a referendum?

Or better yet, why not make it voluntary? The waitress could bring you a bill that shows the cost of the food and drink, the state tax, the county tax (as Virginia receipts already do), and then “additional voluntary local tax to keep Fairfax government big.” If the supervisors are right, people will gladly pay it.

Right, supervisors?

Defending Obama…Again

I caught a lot of flack from my Republican friends for my post blaming the FY2009 deficit on Bush instead of Obama. Well, I must be a glutton for punishment because I can’t resist jumping (albeit reluctantly) to Obama’s defense again. I’m venting my spleen for two reason. First, FoxNews.com posted a story headlined “Obama Shatters Spending Record for First-Year Presidents” and noted that:

President Obama has shattered the budget record for first-year presidents – spending nearly double what his predecessor did when he came into office and far exceeding the first-year tabs for any other U.S. president in history. In fiscal 2009 the federal government spent $3.52 trillion …That fiscal year covered the last three-and-a-half months of George W. Bush’s term and the first eight-and-a-half months of Obama’s.

This story was featured on the Drudge Report, so it has received a lot of attention. Second, Bush’s former Senior Adviser wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal eviscerating Obama for big budget deficits. Given Bush’s track record, this took considerable chutzpah, but what really nauseated me was this passage:

When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion. At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion.

I’m a big fan of criticizing Obama’s profligacy, but it is inaccurate and/or dishonest to blame him for Bush’s mistakes. At the risk of repeating my earlier post, the 2009 fiscal year began on October 1, 2008, and the vast majority of the spending for that year was the result of Bush Administration policies. Yes, Obama did add to the waste with the so-called stimulus, the omnibus appropriation, the CHIP bill, and the cash-for-clunkers nonsense, but as the chart illustrates, these boondoggles only amounted to just a tiny percentage of the FY2009 total – about $140 billion out of a $3.5 trillion budget.

There are some subjective aspects to this estimate, to be sure. Supplemental defense spending could boost Obama’s share by another $25 billion, but Bush surely would have asked for at least that much extra spending, so I didn’t count that money but individual readers can adjust the number if they wish. Also, Obama used some bailout money for the car companies, but I did not count that as a net increase in spending since the bailout funds were approved under Bush and I strongly suspect the previous Administration also would have funneled money to GM and Chrysler. In any event, I did not give Obama credit for the substantial amount of TARP funds that were repaid after January 20, so the net effect of all the judgment calls certainly is not to Bush’s disadvantage.

Let’s use an analogy. Obama’s FY2009 performance is like a relief pitcher who enters a game in the fourth inning trailing 19-0 and allows another run to score. The extra run is nothing to cheer about, of course, but fans should be far more angry with the starting pitcher. That having been said, Obama since that point has been serving up meatballs to the special interests in Washington, so his earned run average may actually wind up being worse than his predecessor’s. He promised change, but it appears that Obama wants to be Bush on steroids.

The Reagan Tax Cuts, Budget Forecasting, and Government Revenue

While perusing the Internet, I saw an article by Iwan Morgan, who is the author of The Age of Deficits: Presidents and unbalanced Budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. The author asserted in this article that, “The deficit explosion on his watch was a nasty surprise for Ronald Reagan not a deliberate strategy to reduce government.  In his rosy interpretation of Laffer curve theory, the personal tax cuts he promoted in 1981 would deliver higher not lower revenues through their boost to economic growth.”

The first sentence is an interesting interpretation, since many leftists believe that Reagan deliberately created deficits to make it more difficult for Democrats in Congress to increase spending. I’m agnostic on that issue, but Morgan definitely errs (or is grossly incomplete) in the second sentence. The Reagan Administration did not employ dynamic scoring when predicting the revenue impact of its tax rate reductions. It is true that the White House failed to predict the drop in revenues, particularly in 1982, but that happened because of both the second stage of the 1980-82 double-dip recession and the unexpected drop in inflation (the Congressional Budget Office also failed to predict both of these events, so Reagan’s forecasters were hardly alone in their mistake). Moreover, Morgain’s dismissal of the Laffer Curve is unwarranted. While several GOP politicians exaggerated the relationship between tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue, this does not mean it does not exist.

The table below, which is based on data from the IRS’s Statistics of Income, shows what happened to tax collections from upper-income taxpayers between 1980 and 1988. Supply siders can be criticized for many things, especially their apparent disregard for the importance of limiting the size of government, but the IRS figures clearly show that lower tax rates were followed by more rich people, more taxable income, and more tax revenue. For those keeping score at home, that’s a perfect batting average for supply-side economics.

1980-88 Laffer

We Should Not Praise Stalin, But Bury Him

Although the debate has been raging for months, it has just come to my attention that the man responsible for the second-most number of murders ever – after Mao, of course, with Hitler a distant third – is to have his bust placed at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.

Defenders of the Stalin bust argue that, whether we like it or not, our uneasy alliance with the Soviet Union during the war is a part of history and should be recognized. Furthermore, they say that his visage is in no way glorifying the man or his deeds.

This argument misses the point entirely. Memorials are monuments to fallen heroes, not historical dioramas. There is no statue of Stephen Douglas at the Lincoln Memorial, no bust of Wendell Willkie at the FDR Memorial, and no plaques honoring Axis dead at our WWII Memorial. Moreover – and perhaps most importantly from a historical perspective – Stalin had no role in D-Day; the invasion of Normandy by U.S., British, Canadian, Australian, Free French, and other Western forces.

While there is no question that Stalin, by virtue of commanding the army fighting on the Eastern Front, played an indispensable role in defeating Hitler, it should escape no one’s memory that he too was an evil, mass-murdering despot.

Stalin and communism should be universally reviled in the very same way as Hitler and Nazism. (Note also that Stalin only fought the Germans because Hitler invaded the USSR in violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Eastern Europe and enabled the Reich’s western incursions in the first place.)

Finally, no one doubts or discounts the bravery of the Russian and other Soviet soldiers fighting in defense of their homeland and families, far removed from the politics of terror that permeated their government – including my maternal grandfather, a tank captain who helped take Berlin. Accordingly, if we are to honor the Soviet role at our D-Day Memorial, we should honor the common Red Army soldiers – whom Stalin treated as disposable bullet-stoppers, many of whom he murdered after the war because they had witnessed the world beyond communism – not the tyrant and the murderous system they represented.

You can read about the collective amnesia – if not willful blindness – about the evils of communism that has set in among Western elites in Paul Hollander’s excellent Cato Development Policy Analysis.