Topic: Government and Politics

The Stimulus Feeding Frenzy

Billions and billions of dollars! Get yours today!

I’ve written before about the massive lobbying game in Washington to get your own special interests written into the stimulus and budget bills. And about the efforts to pressure governments into spending that money NOW.

Today a friend sent me a new piece of the incredible expanding stimulus economy. A publishing company has created a new newsletter on how to keep up with “ever-changing opportunities and the complex requirements to apply for them” – The Money for Main Street Monitor. Yes, for only $229 a year, with this special offer, you can keep up with the lucrative and ever-changing “new stimulus funding opportunities.”

I’m omitting the specifics so as not to give this parasitical industry any more publicity, but here’s the text of the email advertisement:

Dear Nonprofit Professional,

Billions of dollars from the Obama stimulus plan are becoming available daily for funding thousands of new state, local and nonprofit programs!

And while it’s extremely time consuming and difficult to keep up with the ever-changing opportunities and the complex requirements to apply for them, we can help make that task easier than you’d imagine.

That’s why [the company] is proud to introduce our newest and much-needed online service: The Money for Main Street Monitor.

Just click on or cut and paste the following link into your Web browser to take advantage of a special one-week offer on this continuously updated service:

Continuous Stimulus Funding Updates

While we have diligently kept our readers up to date on the billions of dollars in funding coming from the Obama stimulus package, many tell us they need much more coverage!

Consequently, we have assigned a team of experienced Washington, DC-based editors to focus exclusively on new stimulus funding opportunities for health care, family services, education, mental health, disabilities and substance abuse programs, housing and community development!<

Through continuously updated articles, subscribers to this new online service will be kept up to date on the latest funding opportunities as soon as they emerge. And with our online format, subscribers will have access to our user-friendly search tools to instantly find the funding opportunities most suited for their organizations!

Plus, our updates – unlike those on government Web sites – are in plain English and easy to find.  And, we’ve included a wealth of grant-writing tips designed to help your organization get its share of stimulus funding!

We know how important it is for every organization to watch their dollars closely these days, and we’re doing are best to help. That’s why we are offering you a specially reduced rate for this much-needed publication, The Money for Main Street Monitor.

Just click on or cut and paste the following link into your Web browser to find out more about this special one-week offer:

Or you can call in your order toll free at 1-800-[GET OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY].

This isn’t the only company making such offers. Lobbyists, consultants, newsletter publishers, and others will be making money this year guiding their clients to the pot of gold at the end of the stimulus. But in economic terms, all this effort is deadweight loss. Instead of devoting time and talent and resources to the production of real economic value, these people are being lured into the parasite economy, jockeying for money extracted from productive workers and businesses and redistributed by a Washington bureaucracy and the lobbyists that revolve around it.

Cato Unbound Update

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound has drawn an extraordinarily hostile response from a couple of mainstream online publications. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind inferred, mistakenly, that our interest in Seasteading and other radical libertarian projects was due to our disappointment that Republicans lost in the 2008 election. Because this issue was my idea, I feel I can speak effectively to the charge.

As I see things, it was basically impossible to cast either John McCain or Barack Obama as a libertarian. Neither of them shared the policy goals of the Cato Institute to any appreciable degree. Speaking as a private individual, I didn’t vote for either of them, and I don’t regret my choice. I found both Democrats and Republicans profoundly unappealing this election cycle.

This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose. Electoral politics had nothing to do with it.

As our disclaimer makes clear, Cato Unbound doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cato Institute. No endorsement is implied. Instead, we strive to present ideas and arguments that will be interesting to libertarians and also, if possible, to the general public.

Sometimes this means soliciting opinions that are very, very far from the American mainstream, and also far from our own views. It was a proud day for me when a prominent climate change blog suggested that Hell had frozen over – because the Cato Institute had published a piece by Joseph Romm. But that’s just the kind of place that Cato Unbound has always tried to be. We court controversy.

Some of Lind’s harshest barbs were reserved for contributor Peter Thiel, and for his suggestion that, demographically speaking, women have tended to oppose libertarian policies:

According to Thiel, one problem with democracy is that women have the right to vote:

Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.

What could more beautifully illustrate the pubescent male nerd mentality of the libertarian than Thiel’s combination of misogyny with the denial of aging and death? We had a nice John Galt libertarian paradise in this country, until girls came along and messed it up!

Thiel continues:

In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms – from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’

After considering the possible mass migration (if that is not a contradiction in terms) of libertarians to cyberspace and outer space, he opts for Fantasy Island:

The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism. For this reason, all of us must wish Patri Friedman the very best in his extraordinary experiment.

Here’s an idea. Thiel could use his leverage as a donor to combine the Seasteading Institute with the Methuselah Foundation and create a make-believe island where girls aren’t allowed to vote and where nobody ever has to grow up. Call it Neverland. It would be easy for libertarian refugees from the United States and the occasional neo-Confederate to find it. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

Emphasis added. Owen Thomas at Gawker jumped to about the same conclusion, but with even more ad hominem.

Yet Thiel’s claim is not that women should be denied the vote. He writes only that women have tended to favor policies and candidates he opposes, and which he thinks are bad for the country. This seems – to my mind at least – regrettable, but also generally true. Thiel might have chosen his words more carefully, but it’s still quite a logical leap from what he actually wrote to demanding the end of women’s suffrage. Of course women should be able to vote. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. We libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing them that voting in favor of individual liberty and free markets are the best choices they can make.

Consider that a Democrat might complain that white evangelical Christians don’t support enough Democrats, and that this works out badly for the country. No one would ever conclude that Democrats want to take away the votes of white evangelical Christians. We would all figure that they are just confronting a failure of practical politics, and perhaps trying to do better at realizing their particular vision of the world. That’s what Thiel was doing too, albeit not via electoral politics. Something about libertarians, however, seems to demand that some people read us as uncharitably as possible.

Seasteading proposes to create a demonstration of how a libertarian society might work. Its proponents believe that if it works, everyone will be drawn to it, including women. Will they succeed? I have some serious doubts, to be honest.

That’s why I set up this issue of Cato Unbound, and why I think the discussion has been valuable.

The Politics of Budget-Cutting

helicopterIn Washington, the symbolic almost always trumps the substantive.  Thus, legislators complain, for good reason, about pork and earmarks, which ran about $35 billion at their maximum, and ignore entitlements, which entail some $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

So it is with President Obama.  He continues the endless bailouts, which cumulatively now run around $13 trillion.  He proposed a $3.6 trillion budget and will leave us with a $1.4 trillion deficit next year–and nearly $5 trillion in additional debt on top of the massive deficits already projected over the coming decade.  But he asked his Cabinet officers to chop $100 million in administrative expenses.

And he says he doesn’t need a new helicopter.  Fiscal responsibility in action.

Alas, the helicopter, while costing billions, isn’t an easy budget target.

Reports the New York Times:

At a Washington conference on fiscal responsibility in February, President Obama tried to set the tone by saying he did not need the new costly presidential helicopters that had been ordered by the Bush administration.

“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me,” he said to laughter. On a more serious note, he added, “I think it is an example of the procurement process gone amok. And we’re going to have to fix it.”

But the president is learning that in the world of defense contracting, frugality can be expensive. Some lawmakers and military experts warn that his effort to avoid wasting billions of dollars could end up doing just that.

The administration’s plan to halt the $13 billion helicopter program, announced this month, will leave the government with little to show for the $3.2 billion it has spent since the Bush administration set out to create a futuristic craft that could fend off terrorist attacks and resist the electromagnetic effects of a nuclear blast.

Critics say the Pentagon would also spend at least $200 million in termination fees and perhaps hundreds of millions to extend the life of today’s aging fleet. As a result, several influential lawmakers and defense analysts are now calling for a compromise that would salvage a simpler version of the helicopter that is already being tested.

They say it could be a more palatable alternative in tough economic times than seeking new bids for a more advanced craft, which has proved difficult to develop.

No wonder Washington is known as a place where everything about government is permanent.  Once you start spending money on a program, it becomes extremely hard to stop.  Part of that is the political dynamic of interest groups, the problem so well dissected by the Public Choice economists.  And part of it is legal and procedural.  Contracts are let, cancellation fees are due.  It’s bad to waste money on a gold-plated helicopter.  It seems even worse to waste money developing a gold-plated helicopter, and then getting nothing at all by canceling it.

There is, however, an amazingly simple solution, of which Congress and the president apparently are not aware.

Don’t spend the money in the first place.  Eschew new programs.  Say no to special interests.  Let taxpayers keep more of their own money.

This approach would seem to make sense at any time.  But especially today, with the federal government facing a deficit approaching $2 trillion in 2009.

Didn’t Nancy Reagan lecture us to “just say no”?  We should invite her back for a return tour of Washington, only she should talk about federal spending this time.

In Defense of “Libertarian Crusades”

We in the public interest legal community – especially on the libertarian or conservative side – are used to taking slings and arrows from all quarters.  The media doesn’t understand our quaint obsession with following the text of the Constitution.  The so-called progressives seethe at our evil defense of property rights and the freedom of contract.  Even the business community blanches at our refusal to leave their sacred regulatory protections untouched in our attack on statism.

But what we don’t expect is to see federal judges openly and wantonly question our motives – least of all in an actual opinion.  Yet this is precisely what Judge Jacques “Jack” Wiener did last Thursday in dissenting from a Fourth Amendment seizure/Fifth Amendment takings case.  The case, Severance v. Patterson, involves a challenge to a Texas law that caused the seizure of beachfront property after Hurricane Rita pushed the vegetation line landward.  The purpose of the law, the Open Beaches Act, is to ensure public access to the beach regardless of erosion and other natural land migrations (a.k.a. a “rolling easement”).  The Fifth Circuit panel ended up affirming the dismissal of part of the claims and asking the Texas Supreme Court for a ruling on state-law issues implicated in others.

But the legal details aren’t important.  What I want to highlight is Wiener’s dissent, which begins with the following “Context” (a section title not commonly found in judicial opinions; see pages 22-23 here):

Although undoubtedly unintentionally, the panel majority today aids and abets the quixotic adventure of a California resident who is here represented by counsel furnished gratis by the Pacific Legal Foundation. (That non-profit’s published mission statement declares that its raison d’être includes “defend[ing] the fundamental human right of private property,” noting that such defense is part of each generation’s obligation to guard “against government encroachment.”) The real alignment between Severance and the Pacific Legal Foundation is not discernable from the record on appeal, but the real object of these Californians’ Cervantian tilting at Texas’s Open Beaches Act (“OBA”) is clearly not to obtain reasonable compensation for a taking of properties either actually or nominally purchased by Severance, but is to eviscerate the OBA, precisely the kind of legislation that, by its own declaration, the Foundation targets. And it matters not whether Ms. Severance’s role in this litigation is genuinely that of the fair Dulcinea whose distress the Foundation cum knight errant would alleviate or, instead, is truly that of squire Sancho Panza assisting the Foundation cum Don Quixote to achieve its goal: Either way, the panel majority’s reversal of the district court (whose rulings against Severance I would affirm) has the unintentional effect of enlisting the federal courts and, via certification, the Supreme Court of Texas, as unwitting foot-soldiers in this thinly veiled Libertarian crusade. It is within this framework that I shall seek to demonstrate how the panel majority misses the mark and why Severance’s action should be dismissed, once and for all, for her lack of standing to assert either a Fifth Amendment takings claim for reasonable compensation (because Severance has had nothing taken by the State) or a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim (because that which was putatively seized did not belong to Severance at the time; and even if it had, there was nothing unreasonable about the purported seizure).

 
Apparently in Judge Wiener’s world, it is beyond the pale for an organization to provide pro bono legal services that also advance some larger ideological mission.  Somebody tell the NAACP or ACLU – or the Supreme Court for that matter, which invites amicus briefs from just the kinds of groups Wiener excoriates.  Cato itself routinely files such briefs, of course, and on several occasions has joined with PLF.

Chief Judge Jones pithily dispatches her colleague’s grandiloquence in the majority’s first footnote (see bottom of page 2 here):

Notwithstanding the hyperbolic and unsupported assertions in Part I of the dissent (“Context”), the judges of the court endeavor not to decide appeals based on who the litigants are, who their lawyers are, or what we may believe their motives to be. Whether that rule is observed in light of Part I of the dissent, however, the reader must determine.

And I won’t even get into Wiener’s mixed metaphors and schoolboy Latin – he meant qua, not cum – other than to say “hit the road, Jack.”

(Full disclosure: I clerked on the Fifth Circuit and am familiar with Wiener’s squishy, unreliable jurisprudence; he’s very nice in person, but something happens in chambers – left-wing clerks? – that detracts from his effectiveness.  One caveat: Wiener is a great friend of the taxpayer; the IRS does not win in his courtroom.)

For commentary from the Volokh Conspiracy, see here.  For PLF’s press release, see here.  Hat tip: Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur (whose day job is with PLF, though he did not work on this case).

Robert H. Frank, A 200% Tax Even Socialists Will Hate

In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.

What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. …A family’s income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction – say, $30,000 a year for a family of four – would be its taxable consumption. …Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. …With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”

His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved.  This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues.  There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).

In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000  and rising to 200%.  Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.

For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place.  Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving.   The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.

In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties.  Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans.  My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.

In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck.  As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed.  He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”

In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.”  He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”

Frank  claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves.  Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.”  If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.

In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979.  Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967.   In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a “researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing.”  Hartman’s non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis…  of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.

In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.

Obama’s Transparency Average Drops

On the campaign trail, President Obama promised to post bills online for five days before signing them.

Last week, President Obama signed three new bills into law. None of them received the promised “Sunlight Before Signing” treatment - at least, not as far as our research reveals. (The White House has yet to establish a uniform place on its Web site where the public can look for bills that the President has received from Congress.)

The new bills put today’s podcast on Obama’s five-day pledge slightly out of date. He is not batting .091 on his transparency pledge. He’s batting .071. The substance of the podcast remains true, however: This is still a worse record than the Nationals.

President Obama waited more than five days to sign two of the three bills he passed into law last week. The simple matter of posting them on Whitehouse.gov would have fulfilled the promise as to those bills - and would have brought his average up to .214.

The current list of new laws, with presentment date and signing date, is after the break.

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 1/28/2009 1/29/2009 1/29/2009 No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 2/4/2009 2/4/2009 2/1/2009 No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act 2/9/2009 2/11/2009 2/5/2009 Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 2/16/2009 2/17/2009 2/13/2009 No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes 3/6/2009 3/6/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building” 2/26/09 3/9/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 3/11/2009 3/11/2009 3/6/2009 No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs 3/18/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes 3/19/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009 3/24/2009 3/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act 4/20/2009 4/21/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse” 4/14/2009 4/23/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009 4/14/2009 4/24/2009 No n/a