Bush the Budget Warrior

After six and a half years of spending faster than LBJ, President Bush has decided to proclaim himself the guardian of the taxpayers, accusing Democrats of “working to bring back the failed tax-and-spend policies of the past.” The very recent past, perhaps? Today he complained that Congress has not yet completed appropriations bills for the fiscal year that begins Monday, and warned that Democrats shouldn’t send him an omnibus bill that would “make it easier for members to sneak in all kinds of special projects, put in wasteful spending or pork barrel that they are not willing to debate in the open.”

Republicans protecting the taxpayers from the tax-and-spend Democrats. It’s a golden oldie. But it doesn’t have much relevance in the past decade. As the chart below indicates, spending has risen more than twice as much in Bush’s first seven budgets as it did in Clinton’s eight years.

If President Bush is indeed going to be a fiscal conservative for the last one-sixth of his term, that’s good news. But he has already raised annual federal spending by more than one trillion dollars, and he’s not planning to reduce spending, just to slow the growth from a massively bloated base. Fiscal conservatism remains an orphan in today’s Washington.

Posted on September 24, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Hillary Hates Freedom

Maybe that’s a bit strong. Let’s just say, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton operates with reckless disregard for individual freedom and the limited government that protects and sustains it.

In her latest salvo, she dismisses the great promises of the Declaration of Independence, the founding principles of the United States, as rhetorical flourishes, mere garnishes on the real stuff of life. “We can talk all we want about freedom and opportunity, about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but what does all that mean to a mother or father who can’t take a sick child to the doctor?” she asked.

In her senatorial activities and her presidential campaign, Clinton has tended to propose modest, moderate programs. Even her new health care proposal is being hailed as more modest than her 1993 plan (though it would in fact impose a new government mandate on every person in the United States). But at her core, Hillary Clinton rejects the fundamental values of liberalism, values like individual autonomy, individual rights, pluralism, choice, and yes, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. She seems to see no area of life that should be free from the heavy hand of government. And to her the world of free people seems a vast nothingness. When a few Republicans proposed to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which spends about $125 million of the $63 billion spent on arts in the United States, she declaimed that such a move “not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people.”

After her first attempt at nationalizing and bureaucratizing American health care, she told the New York Times that her next project would be “redefining who we are as human beings in the post-modern age.” I’d say 300 million Americans can do that for themselves.

Her hostility to freedom is not just a left-wing attitude. In the Senate, she’s been adding the paternalistic agenda of the religious right to her old-fashioned liberal paternalism. Clinton has called for federal legislation to prohibit the sale of “inappropriate” video games to children and teens. She’s introduced a bill to study the impact of media on children, a likely prelude to restrictions on television content, and she touts the V-Chip regulation that President Bill Clinton signed. She supports federal legislation to outlaw flag desecration (though not a constitutional amendment).

In her book It Takes a Village, she insisted that 300 million free people could somehow come to “a consensus of values and a common vision of what we can do today, individually and collectively, to build strong families and communities.” She told Newsweek, “There is no such thing as other people’s children,” a claim that ought to frighten any parent. She promised to inflict on free citizens government videos running constantly in every gathering place, telling people “how to burp an infant, what to do when soap gets in his eyes, how to make a baby with an earache comfortable”—all the things that no one knew how to do until the federal government came along.

Hillary Clinton is no socialist. But when she makes her rejection of liberal values as explicit as she did on Monday – dismissing “freedom and opportunity [and] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as irrelevant to people’s real lives–she is far too reminiscent of some of the most authoritarian figures of the 20th century. Lenin, for instance, wrote, “Bourgeois democracy is democracy of pompous phrases, solemn words, exuberant promises and the high-sounding slogans of freedom and equality.”

And maybe it’s no surprise that Clinton cosponsored her videogame ban with Sen. Rick Santorum, who is also an articulate and determined opponent of individualism. In his book It Takes a Family and in various media appearances, he denounced “this whole idea of personal autonomy.” At least once he rejected “the pursuit of happiness” explicitly, saying, “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness . . . and it is harming America.” Not the mantra of the Hillary Clinton left, obviously.

We know that societies that reject bourgeois freedom – the freedom of individualism, civil society, the rule of law, and yes, you guessed it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – in favor of collectivism and economic goods end up with neither freedom nor prosperity. The United States has the most advanced medical care in the world — The rate of death from heart disease in the U.S. was cut in half between 1980 and 2000, for instance – because we have a mostly free and capitalist economy. Mandates and regulations make medical care more costly than it needs to be, and Hillary Clinton now proposes to pile on yet more mandates and regulations. But the really scary prospect of another Clinton presidency is not what she would do to our medical care but what she would do to the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that is the foundation of our free society.

Posted on September 18, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Surprise! Subsidized Projects Not Viable

Sometimes I complain that the media give us a distorted picture of the world by reporting bad news and ignoring the sea of good news, like the drop in heart disease deaths that I celebrated here. I understand why bad news is news and good news isn’t, but I do worry that we get a misleading picture of the world.

But then other times, perhaps contradictorily, I open the newspaper and see a story that seems so obvious that I almost wonder why it’s reported. Like this one in the Washington Post today:

Several projects subsidized by Maryland’s economic development agency are in financial trouble, legislative auditors reported yesterday, citing, in particular, a resort in Western Maryland and a golf course in Calvert County.

Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, the state-subsidized retreat built for $45 million a decade ago to revive an economically depressed area, has operated in the red for years and is $27 million in debt, the auditors said.

Chesapeake Hills, a golf course that the Maryland Economic Development Corp. took over from Calvert County five years ago, is running a $1.3 million deficit and cannot pay its operating costs without help from the county, the auditors said.

Whattaya know? Projects that weren’t financially viable without a subsidy from the taxpayers turn out to be . . . not financially viable, even with the subsidy. If there just wasn’t much market demand for a resort in an economically depressed area or a golf course in Calvert County, then it’s no surprise that the projects can’t even make their operating expenses. And of course, projects that are owned, managed, or subsidized by government tend not to be run as efficiently as projects in which individuals and businesses are risking their own money.

We’ve seen a bigger example of this recently in the subprime mortgage market, of course. People who borrowed money they really couldn’t afford discover that they can’t pay it back. That’s why it’s probably best to let the market work in deciding which mortgages, business start-ups, and other projects are financially sound.

Posted on September 7, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Oprah Winfrey, Political Power Broker

Billionaire Oprah Winfrey is making a million-dollar contribution to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. And despite all the campaign finance restrictions of the past 30 years, it’s perfectly legal. That’s because Oprah is making her contribution in the form of time on her television show, appearances with him on the campaign trail, and other uses of her celebrity. But if a rival media mogul, someone like Sumner Redstone or John Malone, wanted to make a contribution of more than $2,300 to a presidential candidate, that would be illegal. Because, you know, it’s corrupt to make a large contribution. Wouldn’t want the next president to be indebted to a businessman who gave him a $10,000 contribution.

This Saturday, “Winfrey will host her first-ever presidential fundraising affair on the grounds of the Promised Land, her 42-acre ocean- and mountain-view estate in Montecito, Calif. — an event that is expected to raise more than $3 million for Obama’s campaign.”

Matthew Mosk of the Washington Post outlines some of the other ways Winfrey might help her preferred candidate.

Among the weapons in Winfrey’s arsenal: the television program that reaches 8.4 million viewers each weekday afternoon, according to the most recent Nielsen numbers. Her Web site reaches 2.3 unique viewers each month, “O, the Oprah Magazine,” has a circulation of 2 million, she circulates a weekly newsletter to 420,000 fans and 360,000 people have subscribed to her Web site for daily “Oprah Alerts” by e-mail.

More than that, though, the Nielsen tracking data show that her most loyal viewers are women between 25 and 55 — a group that also votes in large numbers in Democratic primaries.

Oprah’s well aware of her power:

The fundraiser may be only the start. The Winfrey and Obama machines have maintained silence on the exact nature of their talks over what her role will be, but the idea of her appearing in television ads and other appeals is very much in play. She offered during a recent interview with CNN’s Larry King: “My money isn’t going to make any difference. My value to him — my support of him — is probably worth more than any other check that I could write.”…

Winfrey said in an audio Web chat last week that, this year, the Obamas will be her only political guests.

Campaign finance reform was promised as a way to make everyone equal in the political process, to squeeze out the power of big money. But one of its effects is to make some rich people more equal than others. If Oprah–or Rupert Murdoch, or Donald Graham–decides to use his or her resources to help a particular candidate, that’s legal and very powerful. But the rich man who runs a software company is forbidden to use any significant part of his financial resources to help a candidate.

All power to journalists and celebrities in the reformed political process.

Posted on September 5, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Republicans’ Post-Election Personal Pork Party

At The Hill, I have an article about a little-known dip into the pork barrel: big bonuses for congressional staff if there’s money left over at the end of the year, especially if the money will fall into the hands of the other party at the end of the year.

How can there be money left over when the government is running multi-hundred-billion dollar deficits? Well, you might ask. But each department has its own appropriation, and those accounts often have “money left in the budget” as the end of the year approaches, necessitating the famous end-of-the-year spending spree.

In the congressional case, I found examples like this on committee staff budgets:

The House Energy and Commerce Committee showed similar patterns. In 2005, when the Republican leadership was spending its “own money” on year-end bonuses, several staffers received less than 10 percent of their annual salaries, while a few lucky staffers received extra payments of as much as 17 percent.

But when GOP Energy and Commerce bosses faced losing their chairmanship after the 2006 election, they decided to leave no dollar behind for the Democrats. Lucky staffers then got windfalls of 31 percent on a $35,000 salary, 30 percent on a $50,000 salary, 18 percent on a $100,000 salary, and so on. At least 15 committee staffers got bonuses of between $11,000 and $17,600.

And I concluded, cheekily:

Members of Congress are free to pay their staffers whatever they choose, up to an annual ceiling, so there’s nothing illegal about year-end bonuses, even year-end, post-election, before-the-other-party-gets-in bonuses.

But this pattern illustrates a big difference between the private and public sectors. In the private sector, if your customers become dissatisfied with your product, you tend to make less money. In the public sector, you get a couple of months to double-dip before you lose control of the money. For participating in a Congress that voters booted out of office, these bonuses are a handsome parting gift.

A big tip of the hat to Cato interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod for poring over payroll records, and to LegiStorm for making such information about Congress public and accessible.

Posted on September 5, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

John Edwards’ Nurse Ratched Plan

John Edwards says that his universal health care plan will be mandatory not just for taxpayers and doctors, but for patients: You will get preventive care, and you will like it:

“It requires that everybody be covered. It requires that everybody get preventive care,” he told a crowd sitting in lawn chairs in front of the Cedar County Courthouse. “If you are going to be in the system, you can’t choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years. You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK.”

He noted, for example, that women would be required to have regular mammograms in an effort to find and treat “the first trace of problem.”

As Jon Henke notes, Edwards also proclaims that “the right to choose and the right to privacy are fundamental constitutional rights.” But apparently abortion is the only thing you have a constitutional right to choose. You have no fundamental right to choose not to get a mammogram. Or any other kind of preventive care. Shades of This Perfect Day and Brave New World.

This is, of course, a fundamental problem with socialism, or with socialization of the cost of anything. Edwards sincerely believes, with good reason, that preventive care helps to reduce costs by catching problems early and helping people stay healthy. (Though he may not be right about that.) But why is my health care budget his concern? Because he plans to socialize the costs of health care. So indeed, if I fail to take care of myself, I’m imposing costs on the collective. And as the collectivist-in-chief, Edwards wants to treat me as a national resource, not as a free adult individual.

This isn’t the first time such arguments have been made. What’s the argument for requiring adults to wear bicycle helmets and seat belts? That otherwise the taxpayers might have to pay for the costs of injury. Activists who want to restrict smoking, trans fats, and other unhealthy habits make the same argument: The collective is going to be paying for your health care, so you owe it to us to hold down our costs.

When we realize that socializing costs creates such unpleasant conflicts, we can respond in one of two ways: We can move away from socialization and allow people to make their own decisions and bear the consequences, or we can increasingly restrict freedom in order to hold down collective costs. Libertarians prefer the former approach, John Edwards the latter.

In One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched was a tyrannical nurse who forced medical care on people who didn’t want it. She was known as “Big Nurse,” which might be a better metaphor for our increasingly therapeutic state than “Big Brother.” Democrats love Hollywood celebrities (and vice versa). Maybe Edwards can get Louise Fletcher to do a health care tour with him. She could wear her state nurse’s uniform and sing “You Belong to Me.”

Posted on September 3, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Republicans’ Magic Budget Machine

In an article on the 2007 Virginia legislative elections, the Washington Post reports:

GOP candidates will also make the argument that if the party retains control, it would mean lower taxes, controls on development and more education spending.

Lower taxes AND more spending on good stuff — it’s hard to beat that combination. And it’s worked so well at the federal level. But it may be harder to deliver in a state that’s required to balance its budget.

Posted on September 2, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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