They’re Not Making Jeff Smiths Like They Used To

Movie poster

For generations of Americans, “Jefferson Smith” was the archetype of the honest, hard-working man of the people who gets into politics to serve the public interest and stands up to powerful interests. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential movie about a corrupt system that can be toppled by a single man of integrity. So maybe it’s no surprise that there seem to be a lot of Jeff Smiths getting into politics. What better name to inspire confidence?

Unfortunately, Sen. Jeff Smith of some unnamed Western state would be mighty embarrassed by some of the Jeff Smiths who have come along in his wake.

Today in Washington, D.C., former city council candidate Jeff Smith was sentenced to 60 days in jail for accepting illegal campaign funds and making false reports to the city’s campaign finance office. Like D.C. mayor Vincent Gray, Smith was essentially accused of benefiting from an illegal shadow campaign run by a major donor who makes his money from city contracts.

Today’s Jeff Smith story reminded me of one from a few years ago. As Jason Zengerle reported in the New Republic, Missouri state senator Jeff Smith “was the brightest young star in the Missouri Democratic Party. Thanks to an award-winning documentary about him, he was also a national political figure—a crusading reformer whose combination of charisma, idealism, and intelligence prompted comparisons to Howard Dean, Paul Wellstone, and even Barack Obama. Although he was only in his first term, no one (least of all of Smith himself) doubted he was destined for greatness.”

Jefferson Smith was the leader of the Boy Rangers. Jeff Smith of Missouri taught political science at Washington University and had equally devoted young supporters. Indeed, that Jeff Smith was so Capra-esque – at least to liberal eyes – that filmmaker Frank Popper made a film about him. Zengerle writes that the film, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, is a minor masterpiece of the political documentary genre. After its release in 2006, it broadcast nationally on PBS’s prestigious ‘Independent Lens’ series and earned Popper, a first-time feature director, numerous festival accolades.”

But then it all went wrong. Right from the beginning, actually. In his first campaign, afraid of losing, Smith turned to some sketchy operatives who put together – whattaya know? – an illegal shadow campaign to attack his opponent. Eventually the FEC came calling, and then the FBI. Things spiraled out of control. One of the operatives ratted him out. His campaign manager committed suicide. Smith was sentenced to a year in jail.

I remember hearing back in Kentucky about a woman who refused to vote for a friend for public office because “if a man’s not ruint when he gets in there, he’s ruint when he comes out. And there’s no sense in ruining a good time.” Frank Capra’s fictional Jeff Smith could resist the temptations of power, but it seems that a lot of regular folks named Jeff Smith – or anything else – can’t.

 

 

Posted on August 28, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

How the British Burned Washington

The British burned Washington 200 years ago today. In the Washington Post Joel Achenbach, with help from Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight, tells how the day went, including this description of how thorough and careful the British were:

The British knew how to build a bonfire. You just stacked the furniture, sprinkled it with gunpowder and put a torch to it.

They built multiple fires inside the Capitol, immolating the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the splendid chambers of the House and Senate.

Later in the evening, Ross and Cockburn made their way to the White House and helped themselves, amid hearty toasts, to the fabulous meal and adult beverages left by Mrs. Madison and her staff. They took a few souvenirs, and one filthy lieutenant ventured into the president’s dressing room and put on one of the president’s clean linen shirts.

Then they set the fires. Up in flames went some of the most beautiful furniture in the country, including pieces obtained by Jefferson in Paris and the private possessions of the Madisons. The fires left the mansion a gutted, smoldering shell.

The British also burned the Treasury building, and the building housing the War and State departments. They ransacked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, with Cockburn ordering the seizure of all the letter C’s from the presses so that the editor could no longer write nasty things about him. The Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep the ships and stores out of British hands. 

The invaders spared private dwellings. This was to be a civilized sacking; no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.

 One would hate to think that the British army was more respectful of private property rights than the current U.S. government.

 

 

 

Posted on August 24, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses ”enemies of freedom” on FBN’s Independents

Posted on August 18, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Is Hillary the Heir Apparent?

The New York Times reported Thursday:

Mr. Obama is fast becoming the past, not the future, for donors, activists and Democratic strategists. Party leaders are increasingly turning toward Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as Democrats face difficult races this fall in states where the president is especially unpopular, and her aides are making plain that she has no intention of running for “Obama’s third term.”

Which put me in mind of this statement famously attributed to another woman who had “the heart and stomach of a king” and the will to rule, Queen Elizabeth I:

I know the inconstancy of the English people, how they ever mislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon that person who is next to succeed. More people adore the rising sun than the setting sun.

Which is why Elizabeth never designated a successor. Every incumbent president probably wishes he had that power.

Posted on August 16, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

If an Interest Group Says We Need to Spend More Money, Check It Out

Young journalists are told, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Every day journalists follow that advice, protecting us all from reading rumors and unconfirmed stories in the morning papers (though of course the increasing pressure to be first with the news is threatening this rule).

But journalists are still too quick to take the word of special interests without seeking other viewpoints, especially in stories about things the taxpayers need to spend money on. Take this morning’s story about water infrastructure on Marketplace Radio:

Following the expensive water-main break that flooded UCLA’s campus, Los Angeles officials say they’re trying to aggressively fix the city’s aging infrastructure. 

The costs are daunting. It’s going to take the city of Los Angeles billions of dollars to fix.

“They estimate some over 20 millions of gallons of water were lost and of course it wound up on that new floor at the Pauley Pavilion Basketball Arena,” says Greg DiLoreto, former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “We have some 240,000 water main breaks a year in this country. And the age of our water infrastructure continues to get older and older and older.”

DiLoreto says the country needs something like $84 billion dollars in water infrastructure investments between now and 2020.

Carolyn Berndt, program director at the National League of Cities, says local governments haven’t had the access to the kind of capital they need to make these upgrades.

“The traditional method has been through the state revolving loan funds,” Berndt says. “Those numbers have been declining in recent years.”

Berndt says if cities are going fix their leaky pipes, they’ll need more financing than just a drop in the bucket.

That’s the whole story. And maybe them’s the facts, though Chris Edwards would beg to differ. But the information comes entirely from the National League of Cities, speaking for cities that want more money, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, the people who would be called on to design and build new or improved infrastructure. Journalists shouldn’t rely entirely on the oil industry for the facts on the Keystone pipeline, or the teachers union for the facts about education, and they shouldn’t rely entirely on civil engineers or asphalt manufacturers for the facts on infrastructure.

Posted on August 12, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Russia Imposes Embargo on Itself

The American economist Henry George wrote, “What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin started a war and then, in response to mild American and European sanctions, retaliated by imposing greater sanctions—on his own people.

Even American journalists, whose economic acumen I have been known to question, have noted the likely effects of Putin’s sanctions. See Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post:

Russia on Thursday banned most imports of Western food products, a sweeping escalation in an economic war that will deal a multibillion-dollar hit to affected nations but will also unreel wide-ranging consequences at home.

The measures were a signal that Russia is not backing down from a confrontation that has sent Western-Russian tensions to heights not seen since the Cold War—and that it is willing to risk barer shelves and higher food prices at home in the name of striking a blow against countries that have tried to punish it over its role in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has suspended imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and milk products from the United States, the 28-nation European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia for a year. The move came in retaliation for sanctions those countries imposed on Russia….

In Russia, the food measures promised to hit not just city centers, where the urban middle class has grown accustomed to visiting supermarkets overflowing with high-quality imported European cheeses, fish and sausages. Analysts warned that food prices also would increase and that a wide range of Russian industries, including food processing plants, shippers and retailers, would be affected….

“It will be quite sensitive,” said Yevsey Gurvich, the head of the Economic Expert Group. “Not only rich people will feel it, but literally every family will be affected.” He said he estimated that Russian consumer prices would go up 2 percent this year because of the measures.

“Alternatives to imported foods will be more costly, and, anyway, I believe they will be insufficient, and our supplies will diminish. And, hence, prices will go up,” he said.

Americans who wished for more painful sanctions on Russia than President Obama has imposed are getting their wish—thanks to Putin. 

Posted on August 8, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Justin Amash’s Victory Is a Win for Free Markets, and a Blow to Chamber Cronyism

Big business’s campaign to purge libertarians from Congress and state legislatures stumbled again last night in Michigan, where Rep. Justin Amash soundly defeated his Chamber of Commerce-backed challenger in a Republican primary.

Amash defeated Brian Ellis with 57 percent of the vote.

Organized business interests don’t seem to like Republicans who take Republican values seriously. Most Republicans say they believe in fiscal conservatism and free enterprise. The self-proclaimed “liberty Republicans” actually vote that way, even when it comes to subsidies and other government help for established businesses.

Business won an under-the-radar victory in May when the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and companies such as Delta Airlines, Georgia Power, and AT&T suddenly set up a Georgia Coalition for Job Growth and managed to defeat a Republican legislator, Rep. Charles Gregory, who was just too libertarian for them.

Organized business interests don’t seem to like Republicans who take Republican values seriously.”

Gregory, a big fan of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, wasn’t trying to legalize drugs or bring the troops home from Afghanistan. No, the ads and the special website that the Georgia Coalition set up accused him of voting against education spending and against an intrusive measure to require drug testing for food stamp applicants.

The real issue was probably that he wouldn’t go along with pork-barrel projects that benefit business, such as taxpayer funding to help the Atlanta Braves move to Cobb County.

One lobbyist involved in the business effort told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We’re not going to let liberty Republicans throw business out of the Republican Party.”

It seems unlikely that a free-marketer like Gregory wanted to “throw business out.” But he did want to persuade the GOP to stop supporting subsidies and sweetheart deals for $700 million businesses like the Braves.

Business operatives ran into trouble early on in Kentucky, where they lobbied hard though unsuccessfully to persuade the head of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to run against Rep. Thomas Massie, a frequent ally of Amash. Massie, a businessman himself, is a strong fiscal conservative, but some local business leaders don’t like what they see as his stand-off approach.

And in California’s June primary Rep. Tom McClintock, a crusader against earmarks, turned back a challenge from Washington business consultant Art Moore, who “thinks representatives should deliver for folks back home,” in the words of a local reporter. McClintock got 56 percent in a three-way primary, but he’ll have to face Moore again under California’s nonpartisan primary system.

But Amash seems to have been the number one target of establishment business interests in the Republican Party. He seems like an odd choice for business opposition — the most pro-free-enterprise and most libertarian member of Congress.

You don’t have to take my word for that, by the way. The Club for Growth rates Amash 100 percent. The National Taxpayers Union rates him second among 435 members of Congress in fiscal conservatism. He scored 100 percent on the Freedomworks Scorecard. He organized a bipartisan effort to rein in the National Security Agency that came within a few votes of passing the House. He heads the House Liberty Caucus. He told the New York Times, “I follow a set of principles, I follow the Constitution. And that’s what I base my votes on. Limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty.”

Why would the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with the Grand Rapids and Michigan chambers, try to unseat him?

Could it be because Amash opposes the Export-Import Bank, while the Chamber vigorously supports it? Or because Amash opposes corporate bailouts, like the $800 billion TARP, and profligate spending, such as President Obama’s $800 billion “stimulus” bill — both of which the Chamber supported?

They said they wanted a congressman who would work with others to “get things done.” Andrew Johnston, the political director of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, told the Wall Street Journal, “There is frustration among those who think his rigidity makes it difficult to move forward on legislation.” He promised that Ellis “will have access to funds that will be helpful to his campaign.” It wasn’t just local businessmen. Washington lobbyists rallied around Ellis. He also put $800,000 of his own money into his campaign — in the form of loans, which could have been paid back out of more lobbyists’ contributions if he had won the race.

Amash wasn’t without friends, of course, even in the business community. Several members of Amway’s DeVos and Van Andel families contributed to his re-election, and he was supported by Freedomworks and the Club for Growth. And a majority of the Republican voters.

This clash between politically minded businessmen and free-market libertarians is an old one. Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations to denounce mercantilism, the crony capitalism of his day. Milton Friedman wrote, “There’s a common misconception that people who are in favor of a free market are also in favor of everything that big business does. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Maybe the Chamber of Commerce should take note of the “libertarian populist” currents in today’s politics and learn to work with, not against, elected officials who actually support the free market that the Chamber professes to defend.

Posted on August 6, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Raising Big Money to Fight Big Money?

In the latest of many enthusiastic National Public Radio reports on Professor Lawrence Lessig and his efforts to remove money from politics, Lessig outlines big plans:

In 2016, we want to raise a substantially larger amount of money - could be 200 million, could be 800 million - so that we can win a Congress committed to fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded.

Well, if spending $800 million in billionaires’ contributions to “win a Congress” won’t knock out big money, what will?

But even if he does raise this kind of money, Lessig might find himself disappointed. You can’t always get what you want, even if you’ve got a lot of money to throw around. From John Connally’s “$13 million delegate” in 1980 to Ross Perot’s $65 million campaign in 1992 to Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, and Jeff Greene in 2010, the candidates with the most money sometimes fail badly. Or take the billion dollars that Republican groups planned to spend in 2012 to take back the Senate and the White House. 

Given the consistently low priority Americans have placed on “campaign finance reform” for decades and up to the present – the lowest priority in this 2012 Pew poll, save for global warming – even $800 million may not be enough to sway the voters.

John Samples has raised many questions about the advisability of campaign spending restrictions in articles such as this one.

Posted on July 30, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Tonight, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us”

Cato Mencken Fellows Penn Jillette and Teller launch a new hour-long show, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” tonight at 8 p.m. on the CW television network. Here’s an enthusiastic review from Slashfilm:

Magician duo Penn & Teller are finally set to bring one of my favorite UK TV series, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, to broadcast in the States….

One of my favorite UK television television series was a show called Penn & Teller: Fool Us. It was basically a competition series where the world’s best magicians would perform in hopes of fooling Penn & Teller. After the performance, the magic duo would try to vaguely explain how the trick was done (without fully exposing the magic). If they were fooled, the magicians would get a gig as their starting act in Vegas.

Each show would also have Penn & Teller do a trick or two for the television audience. I’m a magic geek and this is probably one of my favorite magic series to ever air. I’ve shown it to a lot of non-magic geek friends, and they all ended up loving it. 

Until 8 p.m., you can listen to Cato’s podcast with Penn Jillette recorded in 2011.

Posted on July 30, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses Sen. Rand Paul’s urban outreach on FBN’s The Independents

Posted on July 28, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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