Energy Mismanagment

Try as they might, supporters of big government spending cannot make federal programs work very well. The Department of Energy, for example, has been plagued by mismanagement, cost overruns, and scandals for decades.

Today, the Washington Post reports on the poor performance of DoE’s environmental clean-up programs. As I reviewed in the linked essay, these enormously costly programs have been plagued by mismanagement for at least 25 years. Last week, Lou Dobbs lambasted DOE’s National Ignition Facility in California for its huge cost overruns (Hat Tip: Harrison Moar).

I summarize these costly projects and other DoE boondoggles here. With bipartisan support for increases to energy subsidies, we can expect a raft of bipartisan boondoggles developing over coming months and years.

Cultwatch: Union Station, New York Times

obamastoreSnapped this pic at DC’s Union Station this afternoon, on my way from the Amtrak platform to the Metro (where the machine dispensed a metrocard featuring a grinning BHO). Readers planning to visit DC will be happy to know that you can get all your Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans in one convenient locale right after you get off the train.

Say what you will about hapless Jerry Ford, but he had this going for him: nobody ever thought of making an action figure in his image.

In other cult-related news, today’s New York Times has an “Op-Extra” sidebar,with “excerpts from Opinion Online.” Our friend Judith Warner, last seen discussing cougar fantasies about “sex with the president,” weighs in about the shirtless Obama cover on the current Washingtonian:

“Just as having a president who can string a sentence together with subject-verb agreement makes us all look a little bit smarter, just as having a really admirable family in the White House makes us all seem a little less dysfunctional, perhaps having a president who can look good in a bathing suit is in some bizarre way good for the nation.”

Yeah, I mean, God knows it’s been good for Russia.

Elections in India

Despite being hit by the global recession, the ruling Congress Party-led coalition swept to an unexpected victory in India’s general election, mainly because of rural prosperity in a country where 70 percent of the population is rural. Good monsoons and high agricultural prices—linked partly to the global commodity boom—helped agriculture grow at a record annual rate of almost 4.5 percent for five years. The combination of high prices and high output yielded a happy peasantry. High food prices did not outrage rural workers because of a new rural employment scheme guaranteeing up to100 days work, and this helped despite corruption in implementation. Many states raised minimum wages too, raising worker pay faster than prices, and this was sustainable because of high crop prices. The government had partly or fully forgiven bank loans to small farmers, and this too won its votes.

However, this policy will encourage loan defaults in future: far better would have been cash payments to the needy, while maintaining loan discipline. The world commodity boom made it possible for the government to hike its support prices for crops as well as minimum wages, but such happy conditions will not last. India needs agricultural reform that focuses on raising productivity rather than loan waivers and hikes in controlled prices. And it must carry on its good work in improving rural infrastructure.

Most election forecasts predicted a hung parliament and an unstable government. But Congress’ victory means India will have a stable government for five years. Unlike last time, it will not depend for survival on the Marxist parties, which thwarted several economic reforms and opposed the nuclear deal and defense framework agreements with the USA . Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s courage in risking his government on this issue has been vindicated, and the two countries can now raise cooperation to a higher level. This could be especially important in checking Islamic terrorism, a serious problem for both countries.

The Congress must now proceed with legislation earlier thwarted by the Marxists—on pension reform, allowing private investment in coal mining, and raising foreign investment limits in insurance, telecom and retail. Victory and stability should also make it politically possible to avoid brazenly protectionist measures advocated by some sections of industry. The new agenda should include education reform—school vouchers to promote choice, liberalized rules for private schools, permission for foreign universities to set up shop in India . India badly needs administrative reforms to make civil servants and the police more accountable to citizens. A perceived lack of justice is an important cause for Maoist insurrections in some states, to which force alone cannot be the answer.

Obama’s Unerring Instinct for Aides with Authoritarian Instincts

President Obama has appointed New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden to head the Centers for Disease Control. Public health is an important issue, but as Jacob Sullum points out at Reason, Frieden has a weak grasp of what’s “public” in the world of health:

Frieden, an infectious disease specialist who is known mainly as an enthusiastic advocate of New York’s strict smoking ban, heavy cigarette taxes, trans fat ban, and mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menu boards, embodies the CDC’s shift from illnesses caused by microbes to illnesses caused by lifestyle choices. “Dr. Frieden is an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies,” Obama said today, ”and has been at the forefront of the fight against heart disease, cancer and obesity, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, and in the establishment of electronic health records.” Some of these things are not like the others. When it comes to justifying the use of force, there is a crucial difference between health risks imposed by others (such as bioterrorists or TB carriers) and health risks that people voluntarily assume (by smoking or overeating, for example). In the former case, even those who believe that government should be limited to protecting individual rights can see a strong argument for intervention; in the latter case, intervention can be justified only on paternalistic or collectivist grounds. Frieden either does not recognize or does not care about this distinction.

Frieden told the Financial Times in 2006 that “when anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it’s my fault.” That’s a breathtaking vision of the scope and power of government. If you eat butter or salt, or smoke, or climb mountains, or ride a motorcycle, or bungee-jump, or run with the bulls in Pamplona, Dr. Frieden feels that he and the government are personally responsible. This isn’t paternalism; your parents usually let you make your own decisions along about the age of 18. And it isn’t fair to nannies to call it “nanny state” regulation: after all, nannies are paid to take care of children until they can care for themselves; they don’t barge into your home or your bar or your restaurant uninvited, issuing orders to adults. Maybe the right term is food fascism, for the attempt to use force to tell adults what they can and can’t eat, smoke, or purchase.

More on the distinction between public health problems and health problems that are merely widespread here.

And more about Obama’s appointment of “a bunch of statist ideologues who have been waiting years or decades for an election and a crisis that would allow them to fasten on American society their own plan for how energy, transportation, health care, education, and the economy should work” here.

Why Can’t the Destroyers Just Get Along?

A friend comments on my “How Does It Feel to Be at the Table Now?” post thus:

I think there is a pyschological element at work here a la Atlas Shrugged — many of the Washington lobbyists who were here in 93-94 feel repentant of having killed health reform back then and don’t want another 15 years of being considered “bad people” in Washington cocktail party circles. So they genuinely want to be “part of the solution” this time. The hard part is selling that to the folks who pay their salaries!

An Overdue Reckoning in the Auto Sector

Bloomberg reports:

General Motors Corp., facing a probable bankruptcy filing by June 1, is telling 1,100 “underperforming” U.S. dealers they will be terminated as the automaker starts shrinking its retail network.

Most of the closings will occur by October 2010, and none are happening now, Detroit-based GM said today. The targeted outlets will have until the end of the month to appeal the decisions, GM said, without specifying the stores on the list.

The shutdowns are the biggest U.S. automaker’s first step toward paring domestic dealers to a range of 3,600 to 4,000 from 5,969 by the end of 2010.

To be sure, it is a very sad day for thousands of workers and businesses around the country.  But we’re in the midst of a deep recession, which may be nowhere deeper than in the auto sector.  Demand for cars and light trucks has absolutely tanked, which means the economy has an excess supply of inventory, productive capacity, and retail capacity.

Dealerships are closing, as they should be. Chrysler’s in bankruptcy, as it should be. GM is headed for bankruptcy, as it should be.

But this all should have happened long ago…

…long before President George W. Bush had the chance to circumvent the wishes of Congress to give Chrysler and GM more than $19 billion (not including GMAC) from the TARP allotment,

…long before President Obama had the chance to promise billions more and assume a large operational role for the U.S. government in Chrysler’s and GM’s future operations,

…long before President Obama had the chance to create a huge moral hazard by strong-arming Chrysler’s preferred lenders into taking pennies on their loan dollars, while giving preference to claimants of lesser priority,

…long before Ford, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Kia, and the rest of America’s automobile industry were implicitly taxed by the government’s insistence on preventing two firms from exiting the market or substantially reducing their presence in accordance with established bankruptcy provisions.

And most certainly, long before other businesses in other industries started to get the idea that failure is the new success.

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Worrying Delevopments in Guatemala

In the last week there’ve been deeply worrying developments in Guatemala. Rodrigo Rosenberg, a highly respected Guatemalan lawyer, was killed Sunday outside of his house by unknown gunmen. On Monday, a posthumous video recorded by Rosenberg was released where he blames the country’s president, Alvaro Colom, for his assassination. Constantino Díaz-Durán, former editor of elcato.org, tells the story in a piece appearing in the Daily Beast.

Since Monday, thousands of Guatemalans have flocked to the streets demanding Colom’s resignation, but they have been met by an equal number of government supporters who are resorting to violence and intimidation against the protesters. This is the modus operandi of the hard-left in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador. But nobody would’ve expected a center-left government led by a mild-manner president like Colom to employ such tactics.

However, there are more worrisome signs that the government is planning to crack down on dissenters. Yesterday a man was arrested after encouraging people through Twitter to withdraw their savings from Banrural, the bank involved in the corruption charges that Rosenberg made against the Colom administration. He’s been charged with “inciting financial panic.” Hours later, another man was arrested for distributing copies of Rosenberg’s video in the streets. The government claims he was “inciting the public.”

Whatever happens in the following weeks will determine the future of Guatemala’s institutional democracy. The United States should be paying closer attention to the situation, considering Guatemala’s position as Central America’s most populous democracy.