…that’s how Gerald Ford described himself once, and there’s a lot to like in that phrase. It reflects a disarming personal modesty and a modest approach to the most powerful office in the world: two things we could use more of in our presidents.
Far too often, Americans look for heroism in their chief executives, a tendency that’s undemocratic and dangerous. It would be wiser to judge presidents through the prism of the med‐school precept: “First do no harm.” And by that standard, Gerald Ford did pretty well.
Aside from Chevy Chase’s pratfalls, one of the first things that comes to most Americans’ minds when they think of Gerald Ford is the Whip Inflation Now campaign, with its chirpy little “WIN” buttons. Granted, the campaign was ridiculous: an exercise in futility roughly equivalent to Yippies trying to levitate the Pentagon. But better a silly campaign than a destructive one: compare WIN to Nixon’s wage and price controls. In the Whip Inflation Now speech Ford refused to seek comprehensive price controls, and he later made some progress towards getting rid of some price controls on oil.
Coming to power after three imperial and lawless presidents, Ford was sensitive to the temptations of power and the dangers of the White House “bubble.” He ordered his staff to read Twilight of the Presidency, written by LBJ’s former press secretary and special assistant, George Reedy. The book is a scathing critique of the modern presidency, particularly the president’s utter isolation from normal life, perpetually surrounded by supplicants and sycophants jockeying for his attention, which, as Reedy saw it, was “the cause of the many aspects of presidential behavior that are so strikingly similar to the conduct of kings and czars during the great days of monarchy.” (Unfortunately, the book seems not to have made much of an impression on Ford staffers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.) Despite two attempts on his life in the space of three weeks, Ford refused to retreat behind a palace guard, bravely resisting Secret Service attempts to isolate him from the public.
Ford wielded the veto pen vigorously, as it should be wielded:
Ford vetoed more bills relative to time in office, an average of 26.4 a year, than all but three Presidents: Grover Cleveland, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Most of the vetoes by Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Truman, however, had been of private bills, passed at requests by members of Congress to deal with particular problems of individual constituents. All but five of Ford’s sixty‐six vetoes were of bills dealing with substantive policy issues. Many of Ford’s vetoes were delivered against major appropriations bills, passed by the Democratic Congress to counter the deep recession of 1974 – 1976. Such budget‐breaking expenditures, the President argued, would set off a new round of inflation.
(Alas, he had limited success, as can be seen from this study [.pdf] by Cato’s Steve Slivinski). Not all of his vetoes were wise, but many were, including the veto threat that went down in history as “Ford to City: Drop Dead!”
As president, Gerald Ford did less harm than most of those who came before him, and most of those who followed. As the New York Times puts it in today’s obituary, “he placed no intolerable burdens on a weary land, and he lived out a modest philosophy.” In a healthier political culture, that wouldn’t sound like faint praise.
During a speaking trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, a couple of years ago, I whiled away a few spare hours touring the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
The news stories today about Ford’s death rightly focus on his “accidental presidency,” his pardon of Richard Nixon, and the important if transitional role he played in helping our nation recover from the trauma of Watergate and the fall of South Vietnam.
One underappreciated aspect of Ford’s record that I learned from my visit to the museum in Grand Rapids is that he was a committed internationalist. When Ford won his first race for Congress, in 1948, he ran as an internationalist Republican, defeating an isolationist incumbent.
It is easy to forget today, but before World War II, the Republican Party was the protectionist, isolationist party. Republicans sponsored the 1930 Smoot‐Hawley tariff bill that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression, contributing to a downward spiral in global trade and feeding the resentments that set the stage for World War II.
After the war, Republicans such as Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan broke from the party’s past to work with Democrats to forge a bipartisan trade and foreign policy. In the late 1940s, the United States not only joined NATO but also the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Under this bipartisan consensus, U.S. government barriers to international trade and foreign investment continued to fall from their peaks in the 1930s to their relatively low levels of today.
Gerald Ford’s presidency and career are open for critique, but on the basic question of whether the United States should engage in the global economy or wall itself off in fear, Gerald Ford was on the right side of history.
My young colleague Jessie Creel has an even younger sister, Mary, who sounds like a future libertarian debater. Jessie tells me that a speaker from Fannie Mae recently visited Mary’s 7th‐grade class at a Maryland Catholic school to discuss poverty. The speaker said, “I love my job because I make money helping people.” And Mary raised her hand and said, “What job doesn’t help people?”
Sounds like a natural economist.
With oil prices still above $60 a barrel, do oil companies need inducements to find and produce more oil? That's the underlying question of today's NYT front-page article about an Interior Department report questioning the value of royalty rebates and tax breaks for gas and oil production.
The rebates are targeted at expensive and difficult exploration, usually in deep water or that requires deep drilling. The intention is to incentivize that exploration, allowing the United States to increase its domestic reserves using "unconventional oil."
But it's unclear how effective the incentive is, given the expense of producing such oil. Here's the article's punchline:
[The report] estimates that current inducements could allow drilling companies in the Gulf of Mexico to escape tens of billions of dollars in royalties that they would otherwise pay the government for oil and gas produced in areas that belong to American taxpayers.
But the study predicts that the inducements would cause only a tiny increase in production even if they were offered without some of the limitations now in place.
The article notes that royalties and corporate taxes deliver into federal coffers about 40 percent of the revenue produced from oil and gas extracted from federal property. The worldwide average government take is about 60–65 percent. A 40 percent federal take may have been fair at a time when oil prices and profits were lower, the article suggests, but the government should be getting a much higher cut from today's prices.
Reading the article, I thought about a question that my colleague (and boss) Peter Van Doren has often asked: Why do we have federal royalty payments at all? Why not, instead, use the initial mineral rights auction as the sole source of government revenue from extracting oil or gas?
The Washington Post reports:
On the evening of Oct. 2, 2003, former White House national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger stashed highly classified documents he had taken from the National Archives beneath a construction trailer at the corner of Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW so he could surreptitiously retrieve them later and take them to his office, according to a newly disclosed government investigation.
The documents he took detailed how the Clinton administration had responded to the threat of terrorist attacks at the end of 1999. Berger removed a total of five copies of the same document without authorization and later used scissors to destroy three before placing them in his office trash, the National Archives inspector general concluded in a Nov. 4, 2005, report.
After archives officials accused him of taking the documents, Berger told investigators, he “tried to find the trash collector but had no luck.” But instead of admitting he had removed them deliberately — by stuffing them in his suit pockets on multiple occasions — Berger initially said he had removed them by mistake.
The fact that Berger, one of President Bill Clinton’s closest aides from 1997 to 2001, illicitly removed the documents is well‐known: A federal judge in September 2005 ordered him to pay a $50,000 fine for his actions and forfeit his security clearance for three years.
What Berger did, and the ham‐handed and comical methods by which he did it, are freshly detailed in the National Archives report, which the Associated Press obtained first under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Although the report reiterates that Berger’s main motive was to prepare himself for testifying before a commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, it makes clear that he not only sought to study the documents but also destroyed some copies and — when initially confronted — denied he had done so.
His lawyer, Lanny Breuer, said in a statement yesterday that Berger “considers this matter closed, and he is pleased to have moved on.”
More special rules for Washington insiders?
In the wake of last November’s election, there has been talk of a paradigm shift in American politics and a new public interest in “progressive ideas.” I’m not sure that a one‐Senate‐seat legislative advantage marks a “shift,” but there certainly is much chest‐thumping on the left, and intense rallying on the right.
Both edges of the political spectrum are promising their adherents that they will redouble their efforts to molding the nation according to their “ideals.” Imagine: our decisions about our persons, our relationships, our children and their education, our health, our property, our political activity, our activities in the marketplace, etc., will be pushed toward even greater conformity with the preferences of Washington politicians. Meanwhile, those individuals with different preferences will suffer the eternal hostility of a Nancy Pelosi or a Trent Lott or a John McCain.
Doesn’t this sound just a bit (a nonviolent bit, yes, but still a bit) like the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds in Iraq? Why would we want to follow that model, and further erode the individual liberty model that once served us so well?
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the Cato’s Letter abridged version of George Will’s remarks from last summer’s Friedman Prize dinner. One section is especially on point:
You go to spring training, and a baseball manager will tell you that his team is just two players away from the World Series. Unfortunately, they are Ruth and Gehrig.
Iraq is just four people away from paradise. They need a George Washington, a charismatic, iconic, talismanic figure, a symbol of national unity, above politics. They need an Alexander Hamilton, who could create a modern economy out of human dust. They need a James Madison, a genius of constitutional architecture, for getting factions to live together. And they need a John Marshall, a great jurist, to breathe life into a parchment. They need that and they need the astonishing social soil of the second half of the 18th century, from which such people sprank with profusion.
Which is to say that they’re not close.
And, it seems, we’re drifting further and further away, ourselves.
At a high-level, off-the-record meeting concerning energy security that I attended earlier this week in Washington featuring New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, former CIA director James Woolsey, and energy consultant Daniel Yergin, a study came up in the course of discussion that has been bobbling around for a while now just below the radar screen regarding oil subsidies. The study, co-authored by major Republican C. Boyden Gray and published in a conservative law journal out of the University of Texas, alleges that the oil industry is subsidized to the tune of $250 billion a year, and that claim was marshaled to support the case for countervailing ethanol subsidies. If a careful guy like Boyden Gray — no enemy of business community he — has come to this conclusion, then there must be something to it, right? At least, that’s what many of the attendees were telling each other.
Now, this is a pretty remarkable claim given that the most aggressive yet credible oil subsidy estimates I’ve ever seen come from economist Douglas Koplow of Earth Track. He argued in a 1998 study for Greenpeace (not available electronically as far as I know) that total oil subsidies range from $18-40.6 billion if you count not just subsidies targeted at the oil industry but (1) those that help multiple industrial sectors as well, and (2) embrace some pretty ambitious claims about the chunk of defense spending that would disappear if the military’s oil mission were to disappear.