An Australian Perspective on Joe Wilson

wilsonWill you allow a foreigner to comment on something that has intrigued her about this great country?

All this hand-wringing and then censure (not to mention impeachment talk) over Rep. Joe Wilson’s admittedly rude intervention at President Obama’s speech last week has me baffled. Partly, it is because I come from a land that is governed by a parliamentary system, where Question Time is a much-loved institution. The offense (manufactured, perhaps) that Representative Wilson’s comment has caused is almost laughable when I think about some of the insults that have been hurled in both directions in Australia’s parliament. Here’s a collection of quotes from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating just for starters (warning: offensive language). Here is a Brit’s take on why American politicians are “a bunch of wimps.”

Mainly, though, I am surprised that questioning of power is not more valued in America. To be sure, the President of the United States is not answerable to Congress in the same way that Ministers (including Prime Ministers) are to a Westminster-system parliament, but I would have thought that questioning the president would be well within the bounds of a nation conceived in liberty and on the understanding that all men are created equal. You got rid of infallible kings in 1776, remember?

I get why the Democrats are making political hay out of Representative Wilson’s outburst, even if I think they are hypocrites for suddenly finding religion on civility, given their own history. And I thoroughly reject, by the way, the notion that much of the criticism directed towards Obama is based on racism, even if this sort of talk gives unfortunate credence to the claims. But those same Dems who are shocked (shocked!) by Joe Wilson’s behavior are right now allowing a tax cheat to pull the nation’s purse strings.

This focus on style – who says what, how they say it, what their motivations might be – over the substance of what the congressional and administrative branches of government are doing is tremendously disappointing. I have heard far more censorious talk about Joe Wilson’s character and the propriety (or lack thereof) of what he did than of the point he was making. Meanwhile, the Dems are keeping “internal” investigations of Charlie Rangel’s ethical violations very quiet indeed.

Quite frankly, I’m far more interested in those than I am in Joe Wilson’s rudeness.

Government Pays $4 Million for a Bike Rack

bike rackThe $4 million Union Station Bike Transit Center is scheduled to open in Washington, DC on October 2nd.  According to an August Washington Post story, 80 percent of the cost of this opulent bike center is being borne by federal taxpayers via the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Look, I harbor no animosity against bike riders, but under what authority – legal or moral – does the federal government tax me in order to build bike centers for parochial, special interests?  The Constitution?

But let’s pretend – and I mean pretend – that such federal expenditures are legitimate.  The Post article say the center will have 150 indoor bike racks and 20 outdoors.  A recent NPR article says it will hold 130 bikes.  Whatever the figure, at a cost of $4 million, it comes out to around $25-$30 thousand per bike.  And, yes, I recognize that the “1,700-square-foot building west of the station will also have changing rooms, personal lockers, a bike repair shop and a retail store that will sell drinks and bike accessories.”  But the ultimate purpose is to hold bikes.  In my mind, the extra extravagance merely reflects the fact that taxpayers are picking up the tab.

There’s the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.  In this case, it’s more like 4 million:

bike rack 2

There you go, America.  Your taxes are funding this multi-million dollar bike rack in Washington, DC – the beneficiaries of which will probably be the same Capitol Hill lobbyists and congressional staffers who spend all day pilfering your paychecks.

20-somethings Will Pay for Big Government

A front-page Washington Post story today notes that the cost of Obama-style health care reform will fall disproportionately on young adults.

Younger workers are typically more healthy than the population at large, and a significant share of them quite rationally choose not to buy health insurance, as my colleague Mike Tanner explains in a recent op-ed. The major health care plans on the table in Washington would force them to buy coverage. As the Post story explains:

Drafting young adults into any health-care reform package is crucial to paying for it. As low-cost additions to insurance pools, young adults would help dilute the expense of covering older, sicker people. Depending on how Congress requires insurers to price their policies, this group could even wind up paying disproportionately hefty premiums—effectively subsidizing coverage for their parents.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. Those same young workers will be forced to pay the bills for soaring Social Security and Medicare expenditures when the Baby Boomers begin retiring en masse a decade from now. And of course, they will be the ones paying off the $9 trillion in additional federal debt expected to be wracked up from the current explosion in federal spending.

I always thought parents were supposed to support their kids, not saddle them with bigger bills and huge debts.

Czar of All the Americans

Anger about Obama’s many “czars” is rising, reports the Washington Post:

On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them “czars” whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.

Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight.

I have tended not to take concern over “czars” very seriously. After all, advisers to the president can’t exercise any power that the president doesn’t have (or assume without response from Congress or the courts). And I figured the White House doesn’t call people “czars,” that’s just a media term, so it’s not really fair to blame the White House for what reporters say.

But then, thanks to crack Cato intern Miles Pope, I discovered that the White House does call its czars czars, at least informally. A few examples:

In an interview on April 15, 2009 Obama said, “The goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security…”

In a March 11, 2009, briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to “address the czar question for a minute, because I think I’ve been asked in this room any number of times if the czars in our White House to deal with energy and health care had too much power.”

On March 11, 2009 Vice President Biden said, “Today I’m pleased to announce that President Obama has nominated as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – our nation’s drug czar – Gil Kerlikowske…”

More examples here.

So they do like czar imagery. So have at them, critics.

And while I said that the advisers have no real power, there’s at least one who does – a real czar – the “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees” of large companies receiving bailouts, and his “decisions won’t be subject to appeal.” Now that’s a czar.

Another Day, Another Tranche of Afghanistan Reading Material

Item: The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of concerned scholars and authors who work on international security and U.S. foreign policy, have issued an open letter to President Obama warning him not to expand U.S. involvement in that country.  (Full disclosure: I was a signatory.)  The list of signatories includes many of the scholars who urged President Bush not to invade Iraq.  Politico was the first to run the story: see here.

Item: Via Michael Cohen, former CIA counterterrorism honcho Paul Pillar takes to the pages of the Washington Post to think through the concept of “safe havens” in Afghanistan.  His conclusion?

Among the many parallels being offered between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, one of the most disturbing concerns inadequate examination of core assumptions. The Johnson administration was just as meticulous as the Obama administration is being in examining counterinsurgent strategies and the forces required to execute them. But most American discourse about Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s took for granted the key – and flawed – assumptions underlying the whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam would gravely harm U.S. credibility.

The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made.

Item: Michael Crowley offers a piece in the New Republic that strongly implies but doesn’t quite come out and say that President Obama should ignore the skeptics and the political risks and wade deeper into Afghanistan.  The piece swallows whole the conventional wisdom narrative on Iraq–that the Surge amounted not to a combination of defining down “victory” and appeasement of Sunni tribes but rather a borderline miracle whereby Gen. Petraeus loosed his wonder-working COIN doctrine on the maelstrom of violence in that country and produced a strategic victory.  Crowley then uses this narrative to frame the decision before President Obama.  Still, he writes

[I]f the definition of success isn’t clear to the Obama team, the definition of defeat may be. Bush argued unabashedly that Iraq had become “the central front in the war on terror” and that withdrawing before the country had stabilized would hand Al Qaeda not only a strategic but a moral victory. Current administration officials don’t publicly articulate the same rationale when discussing Afghanistan. But former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a regional expert who led the White House’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, cited it at the Brookings panel held in August. “The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,” Riedel said. “[T]he stakes are enormous.”

Obama may have one last thing in common with Bush: personal pride. Bush was determined to prevail in Iraq because he had invaded it. And, while Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long supported the campaign there–including during the presidential campaign as a foil for his opposition to the Iraq war. Speaking before a group of veterans last month, Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”–a phrase which politically invests him deeper in the fight. “The president has boxed himself in,” says one person who has advised the administration on military strategy. “The worst possible place to be is that our justification for being in a war is that we’re in a war.”

Lots to chew on.

Obama: I Want Those Patriot Act Powers

Yesterday, President Obama’s lawyers informed members of Congress that the president does not want any provision of the  Patriot Act to expire.  Turns out that  Obama wants to have the sweeping powers.  This is just the latest example of the cacophony that pervades Washington.  When Bush was in the White House, the Dems postured against his runaway spending, his military quagmires, and his constitutional violations.  With Obama in the White House, Bush’s most misguided policies either continue or worsen.

Obama is in the news today for his “off-the-record” comment about Kanye West.  It would have been better had a reporter overheard Obama saying something like, “John Ashcroft was a terrific Attorney General, but  I’ll never admit that publicly.”

For related Cato work, go here and here.

The New Puritanism

H. L. Mencken described puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

The new puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere, may be learning.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a story today in which public school educationalists wring their hands over the fear that suburban whites may be getting a good education in charter schools. This, somehow, is perceived to be a bad thing for urban minority kids.

Um. No.

What is bad for any child is a paucity of high quality education options from which to choose. The focus of policymakers should be on ensuring that more and better education options are constantly coming within reach of all children, regardless of the contents of their parents’ wallets, the pigmentation of their skin, or their ethnic background. This, the research shows, can most reliably be achieved by harnessing the freedoms and incentives of a competitive education marketplace.

Can the charter school system create such a marketplace? Can it relentlessly spawn new excellent schools and scale up the established ones to reach a mass audience? For a discussion of those questions, drop by Cato on October 2nd.