Topic: Government and Politics

Battle for Libertarian Voters in Virginia

Almost two months ago I quoted a Washington Post op-ed that said that this fall’s gubernatorial race in Virginia would depend on

the all-important independent voters — the disproportionately moderate, young, prosperous, suburban and libertarian-leaning people who typically decide Virginia contests.

It looks like Frank B. Atkinson, a high-powered Richmond lawyer who served in the Ronald Reagan and George Allen administrations and has written two books on Virginia politics, knew what he was talking about. At least on my television here in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the race has been dominated by two kinds of ads: Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds tells us over and over again that his Republican opponent Bob McDonnell is a reactionary social conservative. McDonnell counters with endless plays of Deeds’s stumbling admission that he’d like to raise taxes.

Judging by the polls, it looks like people are more worried about taxes and the overreach of the Obama administration than about McDonnell’s career-long ambition to roll back social change.

Of course, the bad news is that both candidates are right: McDonnell is a reactionary social conservative, and Deeds will raise taxes. The even worse news: Deeds voted for the anti-marriage constitutional amendment in the Virginia legislature, though he later flipped his position; and as a legislator and attorney general, McDonnell backed transportation tax increases. So if you’re a pro-tax, anti-gay Virginia voter, you have a wealth of choices on Tuesday. Freedom-loving, “leave us alone” voters, a tougher day.

Our Libertarian Future

Brink Lindsey described a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie said that right now is a “libertarian moment.” I saw a “civil liberties surge” in public opinion polls on marijuana laws and gay marriage. And now Jacob Weisberg foresees the imminent end to various kinds of prohibition in these United States:

Within 10 years, it seems a reasonable guess that Americans will travel freely to Cuba, that all states will recognize gay unions, and that few will retain criminal penalties for marijuana use by individuals. Whether or not Democrats retain control of Congress, whether or not Obama is re-elected, and whether they happen sooner or later than expected, these reforms are inevitable—not because politics has changed but because society has.

For good measure, he adds that we’re not going to prohibit either abortion or gun ownership. “Conservatives would be wise to give up on the one, liberals on the other. In each of these cases, popular demand for an individual right is simply too powerful to overcome.”

Sounds like libertarian heaven:

The chief reason these prohibitions are falling away is the evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness….

Republicans face a risk in resisting these new realities. Freedom is part of their brand; if the GOP remains the party of prohibition, it will increasingly alienate libertarian-leaners and the young. But the party as presently constituted has very little capacity to accept social change. Democrats face a danger in embracing cultural transformations too eagerly. Nearly four decades after George McGovern became known as the candidate of amnesty, abortion, and acid, cultural issues are still treacherous territory for them. Why get in front of change when you can follow from a safe distance and end up with the same result?

Of course, if the Democrats raise taxes and the deficit high enough, and do what they’re threatening to do to health care, marijuana may be the only medicine you don’t have to get on a waiting list for, but you won’t be able to afford it. And the marriage penalty may make everyone decide they can’t afford to get married. And flights to Cuba may be too expensive on our dwindling after-tax incomes.

Politicians Fiddle While America’s Corporate Tax System Burns

KPMG has released its annual global survey of corporate tax systems. For the 10th consecutive year, the average corporate tax rate fell, and it is now down to 25.5 percent — and just 23.2 percent in the European Union!

In the United States, unfortunately, the corporate tax rates remains stuck at about 40 percent. Only one developed nation, Japan, has a more punitive regime.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time a politician complains that jobs are going to China, where the corporate tax rate is 25 percent.

The New Republic and Guilt by Association

I watched with interest the J Street debate between Matt Yglesias and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait over the question “what it means to be pro-Israel.”  Matt’s a very efficient thinker, and Chait’s a particularly sharp debater.  I witnessed him slug it out at length in a debate with David Boaz a while back, not something I’d like to do.

Chait made a straightforward argument: to be pro-Israel, someone has to accept two premises.  First, one has to believe that historically, Israel is the more sympathetic party in the Middle East.  Second, one has to believe that the U.S. should not be even-handed in the Middle East, but rather should be on Israel’s side.

But what was most interesting about his argument was his accusation of guilt by association against J Street.  It was a problem, Chait argued, that J Street had been embraced by people who did not meet his definition of pro-Israel.  Chait rang the alarum that “The American Conservative magazine, which was founded by Pat Buchanan, …has been saying nice things about J Street.”  In addition, “the famous Walt and Mearsheimer have been saying extremely nice things about J Street — embracing J Street.”

This is a pretty straightforward guilt-by-association argument: The American Conservative doesn’t meet Chait’s definition of pro-Israel, therefore, for that magazine to praise J Street tarnishes its pro-Israel bona fides.  Same story with John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt.

First, the person at TAC who’s been praising J Street has a name: Scott McConnell.  Scott has a PhD in history from Columbia, and is the current editor-at-large (previously the editor) of the magazine.  I don’t know in great detail Scott’s views on Israel, but I think it’s fair to say that he thinks it’s very important for America, for Israel, and for the Palestinians to get a two-state solution set up, and sooner rather than later.  He also believes, I think, that in order for this to happen, Washington will have to put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to give up things they don’t want to give up.  The same view is held by Mearsheimer and Walt.  So the allegedly guilty parties’ view is certainly less zero-sum than Chait’s (would Chait characterize himself as “anti-Palestinian,” I wonder?), maybe even positive-sum.  But I don’t think that receiving praise from a person with such views on the matter necessarily should serve to taint J Street’s pro-Israel bona fides.

But beyond this, is guilt-by-association really something that Chait wants to engage in at all?  For instance, Chait’s boss at The New Republic, Martin Peretz, wrote last March that Mexican people suffer from “congenital corruption” and possess “near-tropical work habits.”  (The piece is no longer available on TNR‘swebsite, but the passage in question can be found here.)  Should we be asking what Chait’s views on Mexicans are, since he is a writer at TNR under Mr. Peretz?  When Peretz suggested two days ago that President Obama’s views on foreign policy are infused with an ideological narrative, and “Obama’s narrative is assumedly third world, maybe just by dint of his skin complexion,” should we be asking Chait to clarify his views on African-Americans?  Finally, although I’m no expert on Mr. Peretz’s views on Arab people, those who’ve paid closer attention make a good case that he has said some reasonably provocative things about them, as well.  Should Chait be brought in for questioning on these matters?

If people only wrote for magazines every word of which they agreed with, few people would write for magazines.  Even if people took the much more modest step of steering clear of writing for magazines that regularly publish offensive material like the above, consumers of magazines like The New Republic would suffer.  But the fact that Chait doesn’t feel the need to distance himself from Mr. Peretz’s various racial foibles ought to raise either questions about his views on Mexicans, blacks, and Arabs, or else questions about his standing to level charges of guilt by association.

The Death of Private Investment

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released third-quarter gross domestic product numbers yesterday, and overall real growth at 3.5 percent was pretty good.

But examining the components of GDP reveals a more disturbing picture. While consumption, exports, and the government sector were up, private investment has fallen through the floor.

Figure 1 reveals a dramatic collapse of private investment over the last two years. In nominal dollars, private investment in 2009 has only been at about the same level as the bottom of the last recession eight years ago (BEA Table 1.1.5).

Figure 2 has the same data in real 2005 dollars (BEA Table 1.1.6). It shows that private investment is stuck in a rut at about 17 percent below the lowest level reached at the bottom of the last recession.

The third quarter GDP numbers show that the economy is only starting to “recover” because of growing government and expanding consumption, which has been artificially inflated by large government transfers.

Business investment continues to be in a deep recession. Companies are simply not building factories or buying new machines and equipment.

Why not? I suspect that many firms are scared to death of higher taxes, inflation, health care mandates, increased labor regulation, and other profit-killers coming down the road from Washington. That is speculation, but I haven’t heard a better explanation of the death of private investment in America.

Data note: the measure of “government” here is government production as a share of GDP, not total government spending, which includes transfers.

Another Education Road Sign Screaming “Stop!”

This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scores: 2005-2007.  What the results make clear (for about the billionth time) is that government control of education has put us on a road straight to failure. Still, many of those who insist on living in denial about constant government failure in education will yet again refuse to acknowledge reality, and will actually point to this report as a reason to go down many more miles of bad road.

According to the report, almost no state has set its “proficiency” levels on par with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” (Recall that under No Child Left Behind all children are supposed to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014.) Most, in fact, have set “proficiency” at or below NAEP’s “basic” level. Moreover, while some states that changed their standards between 2005 and 2007 appeared to make them a bit tougher, most did the opposite. Indeed, in eighth grade all seven states that changed their reading assessments lowered their expectations, as did nine of the twelve states that changed their math assessments.

Many education wonks will almost certainly argue that these results demonstrate clearly why we need national curricular standards, such as those being drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If there were a national definition of “proficiency,” they’ll argue, states couldn’t call donkeys stallions. But not only does the existence of this new report refute their most basic assumption – obviously, we already have a national metric – the report once again screams what we already know:  Politicians and bureaucrats will always do what’s in their best interest – keep standards low and easy to meet – and will do so as long as politics, not parental choice, is how educators are supposed to be held accountable. National standards would only make this root problem worse, centralizing poisonous political control and taking influence even further from the people the schools are supposed to serve. 

Rather than continuing to drive headlong toward national standards – the ultimate destination of the pothole ridden, deadly, government schooling road – we need to exit right now. We need to take education power away from government and give it to parents. Only if we do that will we end hopeless political control of schooling and get on a highway that actually takes us toward excellent education.