Trim the Fat — with a Nano-Knife

John Boehner, the leader of House Republicans, responds to a Washington Post editorial challenging him to identify what he would cut out of the budget to avoid “an irresponsible tax increase” to offset a reduction in the Alternative Minimum Tax. Seeking to restore the GOP’s fiscally conservative image, publicly challenged to offer a plan, employing all the resources of the House Republican Caucus, these are the budget cuts that Minority Leader Boehner came up with:

* $3.2 billion to revive outdated programs, such as one funding exchanges “with historic whaling and trading partners.”

* $1 million for the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas.

* $300,000 for an “Exploratorium” in San Francisco.

* $100,000 for an educational program conducted aboard a catamaran in California’s Monterey Bay.

So out of the $2.9 trillion federal budget, the leader of the House Republicans manages to come up one $3.2 billion appropriation and three tiny earmarks that appear to be personal projects of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

Boehner is right when he goes on to say, “Moreover, the editorial missed the point. Congress doesn’t have a revenue problem. Revenue is at an all-time high after the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which have triggered economic growth that is ‘paying for’ an AMT patch many times over.” But he then notes, “Rather, Congress has a spending problem.”

Indeed. The Republican Congress of which Boehner has been a leader has increased spending by a trillion dollars in six years. And out of that massive gush of taxpayer dollars, Boehner can find only $3.2 billion in unnecessary spending. Which is perhaps why polls now show that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on the issue of cutting government spending.

Posted on November 12, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Republicans: Nothing Matters But the War

William Kristol, a top Republican strategist and editor of the Weekly Standard is pushing Democratic senator Joe Lieberman for vice president, on the strength of Lieberman’s full-throated support for the war without end. Pete Wehner, the leading intellectual in the Bush White House (OK, but still–that carries some weight in the Bush party), backs the idea in National Review. 

True, Lieberman is one of the few Americans still solidly behind Bush’s war. But that couldn’t be sufficient for Republicans to put himself a heartbeat from the presidency, right? He must share Republican values on other issues, right?

Not really. As Robert Novak pointed out back when Republicans were endorsing Lieberman for reelection,

Lieberman followed the liberal line in opposing oil drilling in ANWR, Bush tax cuts, overtime pay reform, the energy bill, and bans on partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage. Similarly, he voted in support of Roe vs. Wade and for banning assault weapons and bunker buster bombs. His only two pro-Bush votes were to fund the Iraq war and support missile defense (duplicating Sen. Hillary Clinton’s course on both).

Lieberman’s most recent ratings by the American Conservative Union were 7 percent in 2003, zero in 2004 and 8 percent in 2005.

I actually agree with him on a couple of those votes, though I wouldn’t expect that conservatives would. The National Taxpayers Union said that he voted with taxpayers 9 percent of the time in 2005, worse than Chris Dodd or Barbara Boxer. Maybe because of all the Republican love in 2006, he soared to a 15 percent rating.

In a previous speech, Lieberman called for a tax increase so that we could continue the war without “squeezing important domestic programs, as we have been doing”–his view of a period during which federal spending rose by one trillion dollars:

During the Second World War, our government raised taxes and we spent as much as 30 percent of our Gross Domestic Product to defeat fascism and Nazism. During the war in Korea, we raised taxes and spent fourteen percent of GDP on our military…Today, in the midst of a war against a brutal enemy in a dangerous world, we have cut taxes and are spending less than five percent of GDP to support our military…It is not an acceptable answer to push the sacrifice of this war against terrorism onto our children and grandchildren through deficit spending, as we have been doing. And it is not an acceptable answer to pay the costs of this war by squeezing important domestic programs, as we have been doing.

Only if you believe that continuing to support the war in Iraq outweighs all other issues combined–for the next five years–could a conservative reasonably support Joe Lieberman. And apparently some Republicans and conservatives are willing to toss aside his commitment to high taxes, higher spending, more regulation, and entitlement expansion in order to get a vice president firmly committed to long-term entanglement in Iraq.

Posted on November 11, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

Scholars argue about what Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI really means, but I prefer to think that the wise playwright understood that law is a protection for the people and a constraint on rapacious rulers. Which brings us to the situation in Pakistan, where President/General Musharraf must be contemplating Shakespeare’s proposition. The glamorous Benazir Bhutto gets the headlines, but the real conflict is between Musharraf and the judges and lawyers who uphold the rule of law.

The latest crisis began last March, when Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The rest of the Supreme Court then reinstated the chief justice. After questions arose about the legitimacy of Musharraf’s reelection, the general suspended the constitution and brought lawyers into the streets.

Lawyers. In the streets. In suits, as a Washington Post essayist noted. It’s not the usual image of a revolution. The people leading the rebellion against Musharraf’s undemocratic rule are not embattled farmers, or sans-culottes, or proletarian mobs, or even Buddhist monks. They’re lawyers, people normally committed to quiet meetings, legal briefs, formal argument, and decisionmaking processes both judicial and judicious.

But as Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to three Pakistani prime ministers, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Pakistan’s burgeoning civil society, led by lawyers and encouraged by judges ousted from the Supreme Court, is refusing to be cowed. Protests are spreading despite thousands of arrests and the use of tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. More than 1,700 attorneys have been jailed but still more are taking to the streets. University students have joined the lawyers, and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has vowed to violate a ban on public meetings by leading a rally on Friday.

There are a number of important reasons why Pakistan’s attorneys are leading the protests against Mr. Musharraf. They have a long tradition of activism for rule of law and human-rights issues. In 1968-69, the lawyers started the campaign that resulted in the ouster of Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. They also were at the forefront of the campaign against Mr. Zia-ul-Haq, whose 11-year military rule ended when he died in a 1988 plane crash.

The sympathies of Americans should be with the Pakistani people and the rule of law, not with any political player in the current struggle. It is not for the United States government to pick winners in Pakistan, but we should free ourselves of the belief that Musharraf is the only force capable of opposing radical Islamic terrorism in the country. Chief Justice Chaudhry, in Haqqani’s words, “has become a symbol of resistance to arbitrary rule — the man who refused to roll over and disappear, unlike earlier judges who cooperated with military rulers or simply went home when their conscience dictated otherwise.” He may one day be seen as the Joan of Arc or the George Washington of his country’s revival.

Haqqani writes, “Mr. Musharraf seems determined to put his own political survival before the rule of law — actions that warrant the label dictator. Pakistan’s attorneys, and increasingly the rest of its citizenry, seem equally determined to prevent this from happening.” Americans should wish them well.

Posted on November 9, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Libertarian Voters Hiding in the Post Poll

The headline on the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll was “Poll Finds Americans Pessimistic, Want Change.” And why would they not, with a floundering war, civil liberties abuses, soaring federal spending, and the prospect of four years under the rule of Hillary or Rudy? But there are some signs in the accompanying data that seem to confirm the existence of libertarian voters, voters who don’t fit into either the liberal or conservative box.

One of the questions was an old standby: “Generally speaking, would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with more services?” Smaller government won by 50 to 44 percent, but the Post noted that that was a much smaller margin than previous surveys had shown, indicating the damage the Bush administration and the congressional Republicans have done to the “smaller government” brand. Still, a six-point margin is better than Bush achieved in his two elections, and 50 percent is better than Bill Clinton ever did.

The next question in the survey was “Do you think homosexual couples should or should not be allowed to form legally recognized civil unions, giving them the legal rights of married couples in areas such as health insurance, inheritance and pension coverage?” Respondents said they should, by 55 to 42 percent, up from earlier surveys.

So if you take support for smaller government as an indicator of libertarian-conservative sentiment, and support for civil unions as an indicator of libertarian-liberal sentiment, then the libertarian position got a small majority on both questions.

I asked Post polling director Jon Cohen if it was possible to get crosstabs for those questions, and he generously supplied them. So we can use those two questions to construct a four-way ideological matrix. I categorize the responses this way: Roughly speaking, libertarians support smaller government and civil unions. Conservatives support smaller government and oppose civil unions. Liberals support larger government and civil unions. And the fourth group–variously called statists, populists, or maybe just anti-libertarians–support larger government and oppose civil unions. And thus we find:

A few other reflections on these questions: It’s often been noted that how you ask the question can shape the answers. For instance, if you offer three positions, people will tend toward the middle option. Polls usually show that a majority of voters oppose gay marriage, while a slimmer majority now support legal recognition for domestic partnerships or civil unions. But if you give respondents three options–marriage, civil unions, or no legal recognition–the opposition is reduced, and polls tend to show a strong majority supporting some form of recognition. In the 2004 exit poll, for instance, the results were 25 percent for marriage, 35 percent for civil unions, and 37 percent opposed to both.

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–”more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points. That suggests that adding “higher taxes” to the Post question would have widened the margin from 6 to 15 points, or perhaps a response of 55 percent for smaller government and 40 percent for larger government. (Note that Jon Cohen and the Post are not responsible for any of this speculation.)

And when you adjust the four-way division on the basis of our Platonic ideal of the two questions, then we get slightly more libertarians and conservatives and fewer liberals and anti-libertarians:

Yet more evidence that there is a libertarian vote that is indeed different from liberals and conservatives.

Posted on November 8, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Media Bias around the Nation

Here’s the Salem, Oregon, Statesman-Journal’s lead on an election story today:

Oregon’s working poor will have to wait a while longer to get health-care coverage for their children.

Voters easily defeated Measure 50, a plan to raise tobacco taxes to provide universal health care for children after a record-shattering negative ad campaign financed by cigarette companies.

Gee, ya think this journalist supports the tax?

You have to read down to paragraph 11 to find out that it was a massive 85-cent-per-pack increase.

And you’d have to switch to the Oregonian to find a comment from an anti-tax organizer:

Opponents downplayed the amount of money they spent to defeat the measure, saying voters didn’t like sticking a tax in the constitution and weren’t convinced bureaucrats needed the money.

“The primary reason is there’s not an appetite out there for more taxes,” said Russ Walker, Oregon director of the anti-tax group FreedomWorks.

Posted on November 7, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

How Cheap Are Politicians?

Dan Morgan has another excellent Washington Post report on our tangled web of farm subsidies, tariffs, government purchases, and so on. This time he examines the sugar industry’s political contributions–”more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million to candidates, parties and political funds” in 2007 alone. Most of the money went to Democrats, apparently, which might explain why Democrats opposed more strongly than Republicans an amendment to strike the sugar subsidy provisions from the bill. Morgan delights in pointing out members of Congress such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Queens and Manhattan and Rep. Steven Rothman of bucolic Hackensack and Fort Lee, New Jersey, who received funds from the sugar magnates and voted to protect their subsidies despite the fact that they would seem to have more sugar consumers than sugar growers in their districts.

One wants to be careful here. The assumption that contributions drive congressional votes is often exaggerated. Party, ideology, region, religion, and other factors may have much more influence on how a member votes than contributions, and contributions often reflect a member’s votes rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the sugar subsidy is so manifestly a bad policy, and support for it seems so obviously an odd position for urban northeastern Democrats, that it is hard to resist the suspicion that contributions play a role in getting 282 members of the House of Representatives to support it.

So $1.5 million is a lot of money, and it seems to have done the trick. But . . . is it really so much money? According to Morgan, the sugar provisions in the farm bill are worth $1 billion over 10 years. That’s a huge return on investment. In what other way could a business invest $1.5 million to reap $1 billion? And look at the contributions–”more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million.” That is, the average contribution was less than $1700. Morgan writes that a fundraiser for Maloney raised $9,500, and she also received $5,000 from a union that represented sugar workers. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) received $5,500 from sugar interests. That’s not very much money.

So the really interesting question is why we don’t see more such investments. If indeed, as Morgan’s article would lead us to believe, an investment of $1.5 million in political contributions can ensure a payoff of $1 billion, why doesn’t everyone do it? Congress hands out some $2.8 trillion a year. There aren’t many pots of money in our society bigger than that. Getting one percent of that, or one-hundredth of one percent of that, would be worth a lot. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this, lest politicians start raising their prices and lobbyists persuade even more industries to invest in Washington.

Posted on November 4, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Tales from the Clinton Dynasty

Nina Burleigh, who covered the Clinton White House for Time and who once said of President Clinton, ”I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” reviews a new biography of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Washington Post. She writes, “The details are riveting as ever. Who can get enough of POTUS sweating on the phone at 2 a.m. with a love-addled 24-year-old woman, placating her with job promises, knowing his world is about to explode as surely as a Sudanese powdered-milk factory?”

It seems a cavalier way to refer to the bombing of a factory in a poor country, a factory that was not in fact making nerve gas, and a bombing that happened suddenly, just three days after Clinton’s traumatic speech to the nation about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Critics suggested that he wanted to change the subject on the front pages. Bombings aren’t funny, and Burleigh’s jest does nothing to put to rest the cynical, “Wag the Dog” interpretation of Clinton’s action.

Posted on November 2, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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