Opening Day at Judiciary Park: Sotomayor On Deck

The first day of the Sotomayor hearings yielded many baseball references but little in the way of home runs and strikeouts—or surprises. Democrats lauded Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story and career achievements. Republicans questioned the “wise Latina’s” commitment to objectivity, whether she would be a “judicial activist” and—most interesting to me—whether she planned to use foreign law in helping her to interpret the Constitution. These would clearly be the lines of attack and counterattack.

It was all “set pieces”—prepared statements that often said more about the senators themselves than about the nominee. The stars of the show were unquestionably Senators Sessions (R-AL), Graham (R-SC), and Franken (D-SNLMN). Sessions, the ranking member, is armed for bear and has clearly been reading the memos my colleagues around town have been writing. Graham marches to his own (very candid) drummer, pronouncing that Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had a “complete meltdown.” Franken… well he’s just happy to be on the big stage on his sixth day in office.

Assuming Sotomayor is confirmed, however, this will not be that big a political victory for President Obama. With Democrats holding a 60-40 margin in the Senate, confirmation has long been expected, and the political markets have already discounted for it.  The president will likely see a temporary blip of support, particularly among Hispanics, but not as much as one might think—because those who are high on Sotomayor already support Obama.  Moreover, most people will soon forget the Supreme Court and go back to worrying about their personal economic situation—which the president’s policies are certainly not helping.

In a way, this week’s hearings and the confirmation process generally have more downside potential for the administration than upside.  Not because of the small chance Sotomayor won’t get confirmed—which would be a real blow—but because issues such as affirmative action, property rights, gun rights, and the use of foreign law are all being thrust to the forefront of the news cycle.  These issues, and the debate over judicial philosophy generally, are all winners for the Republicans—if they play their cards right.

In any event, tomorrow the real fun begins—with the blue team tossing softballs at the nominee and the red team sending the high heat.

Mandate for Taxes?

The New York Times reports that House Democrats want to raise money for health care with a $550 billion tax hike on people who produce the most wealth. The Times says,

the proposal is perhaps the clearest expression yet of the mandate that Democrats believe they won last November, when voters expanded Democratic majorities in Congress and sent Barack Obama to the White House.

If Democrats think they won a mandate for huge tax increases – without talking about them – then 2010 ought to be fun.

Bob Barr on Drug Reform

President Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, says he wants to banish the idea of a “war on drugs” because the federal government should not be “at war with the people of this country.”

At a Cato policy briefing on Capitol Hill on July 7, former Republican congressman Bob Barr, once a leading drug warrior in the House, explained why carrying out an end to the “war on drugs” will require a bipartisan solution.

A Look Inside the Ivory Tower Spiral

With the Obama Administration promising to ramp up all sorts of college-affordability (read: government expenditure) efforts in the coming months, now is a crucial time for Americans to understand why our colleges and universities ingest money as bottomlessly as their students guzzle beer. With that in mind, the release of a new report from the John William Pope Center is perfectly timed. The Revenue-to-Cost Spiral in Higher Education explains how colleges’ internal arrangements render them almost destined to spend every dime they bring in, no matter how wastefully. The basic problem, argues author and economist Robert E. Martin, is that very few colleges and universities are intended to make a profit – which would give “owners” a powerful incentive to maximize efficiency – and no one really seems to be in charge at most schools.

Of course, this is a serious over-simplification of Martin’s argument, so you’ll have to read the report. But don’t just stop there: A few weeks ago the Pope Center held a colloquium right here at Cato to discuss the report, and Pope Senior Writer Jay Schalin just posted an excellent summary of the back-and-forth between participants. I think you’ll find the points about the third-party-payer problem especially powerful, but there are lots of other good arguments highlighted as well.

Other Countries as Ends-in-Themselves

Here in Babylon on the Potomac, most foreign policy discussions begin and end with the United States: How can we extend our control of the world?  Who is challenging us?  What problems might, say, a rising China, pose to American primacy?  We are, as Madeleine Albright asserted, the “indispensable nation.”  One popular scholar recently advanced the theory that the U.S. government is, and should be, the world’s government.  There’s a real refusal to recognize that we are, as a simple matter of fact, isolated by the blessings of geography and power.  We’re just not a 19th century continental European power, no matter how much we threat-inflate and conceive of ourselves as the only source of order in a disorderly world.

You’d think we’d be inclined to recognize the luxury that our isolation affords us, but you’d be wrong.  Consequently, in discussions about the rise of China, for example, U.S. analysts generally pose the question as a simple U.S. vs. China confrontation: How quickly can they challenge us?  Where should our “red lines” be?  Which allies will support us?  If our strategists were smart, they’d be thinking more creatively about offloading responsibility to countries that live more closely to China, and waiting to see how things progress.  While the ChiCom menace tends to get represented as ten feet tall in these discussions, the Chinese have a host of significant problems, including the internal unrest that has been on display recently, among others.

china-india-exerciseHigh on the list of “other problems” is China’s relationship with countries like India.  Much more so than the United States, countries like India and Japan have a lot to lose, potentially, from China’s rise.  Liberal international relations thinkers are right to point out the positive-sumness of economic relations between potential adversaries.  Economic ties between China and Taiwan, China and the U.S., China and Japan, are also positive forces that can help to moderate security competition.  That said, security itself is zero-sum.  Either you control your sea lines of communication or else another country does.  If another country does, bad things can happen to you, as, for example, Japan remembers all too well.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing this excellent article by James Lamont and Amy Kazmin in the Financial Times.  Lamont and Kazmin highlight the growing unease in New Delhi about China.  Unease tends to crop up when a big powerful neighbor does things like claim whole provinces of your country as its own territory, as China does with the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh.  (For more on this subject, see my talk on Capitol Hill from May 2008: video here.)

In fairness, the Bush administration did some smart things on this front, like trying to improve ties with India.  For years, U.S.-India relations had been tainted by a cold war mindset where we resented their association with the Non-aligned Movement.  (I think the India nuclear deal has a lot of downsides, but the intentions underpinning it were smart ones.)  Similarly, the Bush administration signed a joint agreement with Japan stating that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan dispute is a “common strategic objective.”

But the important part will be beyond getting other countries to accept our goodies (the India nuclear deal) or sign a statement of interest (the joint Japan-US statement on Taiwan).  Those countries would rather, ceteris paribus, stand tall against China from over the shoulder of the United States.  The only way that we will get to a point where the countries with the most to lose pay the most for a hedge against China is for the United States to credibly commit to do less.  And on that front, there is a lot more work to be done.

Obama Says 20 Percent for Government Is Too Much!

While perusing Instapundit, I came across a post suggesting that President Obama thinks investment will suffer if government takes 20 percent of a company’s income. At first I thought this was a form of satire, but there is a real link to a speech that the President gave to the Parliament of Ghana. Indeed, the speech has several good comments:

Development depends on good governance. …Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves… No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top… No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end. 

My initial reaction, focusing on the passage about 20 percent being too much for government, is to ask why Obama wants higher tax rates in America? After all, he wants American small businesses to pay 40 percent, which is twice the burden he thinks is excessive for Ghanians. Upon further reflection, though, I wonder if the President is referring to corrupt bureaucrats asking for bribes. But, even if that is the case, why does that matter? Investors and entrepreneurs care about the amount of disposable income that is generated by an investment. Losing 20 percent to the tax collector has a negative impact on incentives, regardless of whether the money winds up in Treasury coffers or a bureaucrat’s pocket. In any event, it is good to see that the President recognizes that the economy suffers when government becomes too much of a burden. We just need to figure out how to convince him that the laws of economics work the same way in America as they do in Ghana.

Want to Know Why the U.K. Tory Party Is Revamping its Development Policy?

If so, just pick up a copy of James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

The Tories have looked at the evidence amassed by James and his colleagues (see p. 36 of their new report) and concluded that the best way to advance education in developing countries is to encourage and support existing entrepreneurial schools that are already serving the poor. And if the polls are any guide, that will likely be official government policy in the U.K. before too long.

Congratulations to James, Pauline Dixon, and their wonderful team for bringing sanity to the development policy debate.