American People to Government: Don’t Mess Up the Economy

The American people get it.  The government is likely to go too far in “fixing” the economy. 

Explains Rasmussen Reports:

Fifty-four percent (54%) of U.S. voters worry more that the federal government will try to do too much to fix the economy rather than not enough. That’s up three points from a month ago and the highest level of concern found on this question since Barack Obama was elected president.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 37% are more worried that the federal government will not do enough in reacting to the nation’s current economic problems. That’s little changed from last month and down from a high of 44% in January.

Last October, as the meltdown of Wall Street dominated the front pages, 63% worried that the government would do too much. By the first week of November, that number had fallen to 46% and it stayed below the 50% level for several months.

Among the nation’s Political Class, (70%) worry that the government will not do enough. As for those who hold populist or Mainstream views, an identical percentage (70%) fear the government will do too much.

Notable is the contrary thinking of the political class.  The vast majority worries that the government won’t do enough.  Unfortunately, this group has far more influence over what government is likely to do than does the general public.

Tom Ridge on the Bush Administration’s War on Terror

Former congressman, governor, and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge is a long-time GOP loyalist.  But he apparently doesn’t have good things to say about the Bush administration on its vaunted war on terrorism.

A new report on his upcoming book warns:

Tom Ridge, the first head of the 9/11-inspired Department of Homeland Security, wasn’t keen on writing a tell-all. But in The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…and How We Can Be Safe Again, out September 1, Ridge says he wants to shake “public complacency” over security.

And to do that, well, he needs to tell all. Especially about the infighting he saw that frustrated his attempts to build a smooth-running department. Among the headlines promoted by publisher Thomas Dunne Books: Ridge was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings; was “blindsided” by the FBI in morning Oval Office meetings because the agency withheld critical information from him; found his urgings to block Michael Brown from being named head of the emergency agency blamed for the Hurricane Katrina disaster ignored; and was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush’s re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.

This confirms widespread suspicion that the Bush administration’s terrorism initiatives were highly political.  It also undercuts the claim that we should trust government to protect us by sacrificing our liberties and giving trustworthy public servants greater discretion.

The President Drops by to Tout Immigration Reform

I’m back at my desk after a meeting this afternoon at the White House on comprehensive immigration reform. [For small fish like me, “the White House” never means the Oval Office or the West Wing but the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.] The meeting was presided over by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and included about 100 representatives of groups interested in reforming the current system. It also featured a surprise guest speaker.

The meeting began with Secretary Napolitano expressing the administration’s commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, a goal that I have been advocating for several years. The phrase has come to mean legalization of low-skilled immigrants, both those already living here illegally and future inflows of workers, with the promise of more vigorous enforcement against remaining illegal immigrants and those who hire them.

After the secretary’s opening remarks we broke up into smaller roundtable discussions of about 15 people each moderated by DHS officials. In our group I made the point that any reform worthy of the name must include a temporary worker program with a sufficient number of visas to meet the future labor-force needs of our economy. I invited those around the table to read our latest study, “Restriction or Legalization?: Measuring the Benefits of Immigration Reform,” that finds significant income gains ($180 billion, anyone?) for U.S. households from legalization.

After the roundtables, we reconvened in the auditorium where the secretary began to summarize the main points discussed in the breakouts groups. Then, with the usual bodyguard of Secret Service agents, President Obama entered the auditorium and strode to the podium about 20 feet from where I was sitting.

Speaking in generalities, the president said his administration is committed to an immigration policy that is true to “our history as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws.” He said he had attended a “terrific bipartisan meeting” on immigration reform that included Republican Senators John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Jeff Sessions (AL). The president said we need “a legislative solution to a broken immigrant system,” which I interpreted hopefully to be an acknowledgment that ramped up enforcement alone will not solve illegal immigration. He concluded by saying, “Immigration is a problem begging to be fixed.”

For those of us who want to legalize low-skilled immigrant labor, President Obama’s words were short on specifics but they were mostly pointing in the right direction. According to other people at the meeting, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has said the committee will mark up and vote on an immigration reform bill sometime after returning from the August recess, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will schedule a floor debate and vote before the end of the year. Perhaps the third attempt at passing comprehensive immigration reform will be a success after failed efforts in 2006 and 2007.

Stay tuned.

Kristof on the Drug War

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cites the Cato report about Decriminalization of Drugs in Portugal by Glenn Greenwald.  Here’s an excerpt:

Above all, it’s time for a rethink of our drug policy. The point is not to surrender to narcotics, but to learn from our approach to both tobacco and alcohol. Over time, we have developed public health strategies that have been quite successful in reducing the harm from smoking and drinking.

If we want to try a public health approach to drugs, we could learn from Portugal. In 2001, it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. Ordinary drug users can still be required to participate in a treatment program, but they are no longer dispatched to jail.

“Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” notes a report this year from the Cato Institute. It notes that drug use appears to be lower in Portugal than in most other European countries, and that Portuguese public opinion is strongly behind this approach.

A new United Nations study, World Drug Report 2009, commends the Portuguese experiment and urges countries to continue to pursue traffickers while largely avoiding imprisoning users. Instead, it suggests that users, particularly addicts, should get treatment.

Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes.

Good stuff.  Read the whole thing.

Majority of Americans Say Afghan War Not Worth Fighting

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC Poll, the majority of Americans say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.

Usually, I don’t take kindly to polling data; they are ephemeral snapshots of public opinion that fluctuate with the prevailing political winds. But I will say (as I’ve said before) that Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States. In that respect, I can understand why Americans are growing skeptical of continuing what’s become an “aimless absurdity.”

America’s flagging support for the war comes as millions of Afghans head to the polls to elect their next president. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, is the front-runner, but if he is unable to secure more than 50% of the vote there will be a run-off scheduled for early October. Given the pervasive levels of corruption within his own government, if Karzai ends up winning, America and the international community might be perceived as propping up an illegitimate government; however, if Karzai loses, it might further alienate the country’s largest minority group, the Pashtuns, among whom Karzai, and the Taliban, pull most of their support.

This morning, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall writes from Kabul, “initial reports from witnesses suggested that the turnout was uneven, with higher participation in the relatively peaceful north than in the troubled south.”

Before the elections, Taliban militants, mainly concentrated in the southern and eastern provinces but now spreading to the north, threatened to cut off fingers marked with purple ink used to indicate when someone casts a vote. Ms. Gall writes: “In the southern city of Kandahar, witnesses said, insurgents hanged two people because their fingers were marked with indelible ink used to denote that they had voted.” Wow! Maybe the elections will be a watershed moment in Afghanistan’s history: the democracy experiment comes as a death sentence.

On a lighter note, there are already allegations of voter fraud. An inspection of the rolls revealed the name of an unlikely voter, “Britney Jamilia Spears,” one of a number of phantom voters.

Many people would agree that the atmosphere surrounding Afghanistan’s presidential elections is analogous to the country as a whole: dysfunctional. Candidates are forging alliances with warlords; tribal elders are being offered jobs, territory, and forgiveness of past sins to secure their allegiance; and Britney Spears is a registered Afghan voter. It’s about time that America narrow its objectives and start bringing the military mission to a close.

VAT Hikes

From this week’s Tax Notes International (subscription required):

In a stark warning to all countries facing mounting debt, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all imposing further VAT increases to help shore up their faltering finances. They join countries such as Ireland and Hungary that have been forced into recent crisis VAT increases, and a number of Western countries seem certain to follow. This includes the U.K., which may be looking at a 20 percent VAT within the next two years.

I’m not a fan of raising taxes to balance budgets, but what’s interesting here is that all of these governments are reaching for the VAT tool to shake more money out of their citizens. The take-home points I think are that:

1) VATs are handy money machines for governments. Governments fear raising income taxes during recessions because of concerns over damaging their economies. But they have less such concerns with respect to VATs.

2) International tax competition continues to generate pressure for countries to keep income tax rates down. Policymakers don’t want businesses and investment capital fleeing abroad for lower taxes, particularly during economic downturns.

VATs are generally less damaging to economic growth than income taxes. But the flip side to that widely-understood result is that politicians have less fear about using them to grow the size of governments during good times and bad.