Convergence at Last? by David Boaz

Back in the days of the Cold War, pundits used to talk about how the conflict between capitalism and communism would end with the "convergence" of the two systems, "blending the personal freedom and profit motive of Western democracies with the Communist system's government control of the economy." Well, it didn't happen, right? Instead, communism failed, and the communist countries moved rapidly toward capitalism. And then came the Bush-Obama era, and today we read in the New York Times that "the Kremlin seems to be capitalizing on the economic crisis, exploiting the opportunity to establish more control over financially weakened industries that it has long coveted." Ouch. That's a little too close for comfort.

Posted on December 8, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Obama’s Vast New Deal by David Boaz

Conservatives and libertarians seem to be reeling, as economic freedom takes another blow from both the outgoing and incoming administrations every day. Remember the good old days of the $1.5 billion Chrysler bailout? Heck, remember the good old days of the $700 billion financial market bailout? Barack Obama used to call for fiscal discipline and denounce "the runaway spending and the record deficits." Now it seems the sky's the limit. Pundits talk about whether Obama's first deficit will come in closer to $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion, and Republican opponents are nowhere to be seen. Throwing fiscal discipline to the winds, in his radio address Saturday Obama proposed the biggest expansion of government spending in history, ranging from roads and bridges to "a range of programs to expand broadband Internet access, to make government buildings more energy efficient, to improve information technology at hospitals and doctors’ offices, and to upgrade computers in schools." I just hope Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats were reading the New York Times on Sunday, which actually explained the argument against such programs in its front-page news story:
Mr. Obama’s plan, if enacted, would be in part a government-directed industrial policy, with lawmakers and administration officials picking winners and losers among private projects and raining large amounts of taxpayer money on them....
President Bush and many conservative economists have opposed such large-scale government intervention in the economy because it supports enterprises that might not survive in a free market. That is the crux of the argument against a government bailout of the auto industry.... Mr. Bush and other Republicans have resisted such an approach in part out of concern for the already soaring federal budget deficit, which could easily hit $1 trillion this year. Borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars today to try to fix the economy, they argue, will leave a huge bill for the next generation. Conservative economists have also long derided public works spending as a poor response to tough economic times, saying it has not been a reliable catalyst for short-term growth and instead is more about politicians gaining points with constituents. Alan D. Viard, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, told the House Ways and Means Committee recently that public works spending should not be authorized out of the “illusory hope of job gains or economic stabilization.” “If more money is spent on infrastructure, more workers will be employed in that sector,” Mr. Viard added. “In the long run, however, an increase in infrastructure spending requires a reduction in public or private spending for other goods and services. As a result, fewer workers are employed in other sectors of the economy.”
Such warnings don't carry much weight when they come from President Bush, the trillion-dollar man. But fiscally responsible Republicans and Democrats would do well to read the Times article and start actually making these points. And kudos to Times reporters Peter Baker and John Broder for including such balance in their story.

Posted on December 7, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Dynastic Politics in Delaware… by David Boaz

...or, "Here, hold this until my son gets back." Edward Kaufman is about to become the Benjamin A. Smith II of Delaware. Smith was a college roommate of John F. Kennedy. When JFK was elected president in 1960, he persuaded the governor of Massachusetts to appoint Smith to his Senate seat. Smith took the job and obligingly chose not to run in the 1962 special election, when brother Teddy was finally old enough to serve in the Senate. Now Kaufman is doing the same favor for Joe Biden. Biden persuaded outgoing governor Ruth Ann Minner to appoint Kaufman, his longtime friend and Senate chief of staff, to his Senate seat. Kaufman said he will not run for the seat in 2010, allowing Biden's son Beau, attorney general of Delaware and currently serving with the National Guard in Iraq, to claim the seat then. Like Alaska, Delaware has a relatively small population, so maybe there really aren't many people in the state qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate. But it's awfully nice of Kaufman to hold on to the seat until the Biden family can reclaim it.

Posted on December 3, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Pre-Public Choice View by David Boaz

I always thought the view that the private sector is full of greed and self-interest, while the public sector is all about selflessness and public service, was confined to 1950s civics books. But lo and behold, it turns out that view is still held by federal appointees interviewed by NPR:
"We've always thought of the government as motivated by a sense of service to the people," says Charles Tiefer, whom Congress appointed earlier this year to the new Commission on Wartime Contracting, which oversees Pentagon contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're getting away from that [by contracting out government services]."
After all, he says, federal employees take an oath to the Constitution, while private contractors are just motivated by their own economic interest. It's a lovely vision, and apparently some people actually believe it. But about 50 years ago the public choice economists, such as James M. Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and William Niskanen, began to suggest that people in government are still people, with all their good and bad characteristics. And also that analyzing the actions of government in the light of self-interest leads to pretty sound predictions and observations. As Buchanan put it in an interview:
I usually have a three-word description [of public choice economics] -- it is "politics without romance". Politics is a romantic search for the good and the true and the beautiful. "Public choice" came along and said, "Why don't we model people more or less like everyday persons? Politicians and bureaucrats are no different from the rest of us. They will maximize their incentives just like everybody else." By taking that very simple starting point, you get a completely different view of politics and its analysis.
Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for his insights, but obviously they haven't fully permeated Washington yet.

Posted on December 2, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

A Perfect Introduction to Congress by David Boaz

NPR reports on the new public entry to the U.S. Capitol:
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center formally opens to tourists Tuesday, over budget and behind schedule. At 580,000 square feet, it's the largest project in the Capitol's 215-year history. It was originally scheduled to open almost four years ago, and the $621 million price tag is double the initial estimate.
What a perfect introduction to Congress and its activities! I hope they have a display in the entryway about the construction of the Visitor Center. And maybe they could have interactive graphs and figures showing cost overruns in the Visitor Center, weapons systems, Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs. A sign of the times in the Bush-Obama New New Deal era. The Washington Post offers more details on the progress toward the Visitor Center:
The unveiling that will be marked with one Capitol Hill staple -- speechifying by politicians in an invitation-only morning ceremony -- already has achieved much else for which Congress is noted. Take, for example, spending. What was proposed as a $71 million project in the early 1990s became a $265 million endeavor a decade later. By the time work got underway in 2002, the price tag was up to $368 million. Tomorrow, the ribbon will be cut on a $621 million project. Then there was the congressional penchant for thinking big. The center's architects were ordered to include 150,000 square feet of "shell space" for some future day when Congress might need more office area. The finished center is about two-thirds the size of the entire Capitol. Then there have been delays, a malady common to many federal endeavors. The project once was expected to be finished in time for the presidential inauguration -- in January 2005. As that date neared, the center was about half done, so the completion date was bumped ahead to spring 2006. Six months after President Bushwas sworn in for a second term, the Government Accountability Office reported that the architects and contractors were making so many mistakes and facing so many unexpected problems that March 2007 was probably more realistic. When that target rolled around without a ribbon-cutting, project officials were summoned before a House subcommittee to explain why, and Rep. Jack Kingston(R-Ga.) scolded them for overseeing "a monument to government inefficiency, ineptitude and excessiveness."
Members of Congress did manage to achieve one thing with the timing:
Top lawmakers and Congressional officials have been fretting for months that the visitor center would finally open its impressive doors in the weeks before Election Day. They worried that it would inspire a raft of news stories and snide commentary about how Congress had erected another monument to itself, just in time to irritate voters already irked at Washington.

Posted on December 2, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Greenspan: The Debate Continues by David Boaz

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and David Henderson have responded to critics of their defense of Alan Greenspan's monetary policy. Answering particularly the criticisms of Cato adjunct scholar George Selgin, they provide further evidence for their contention that Greenspan was not pursuing an unduly loose monetary policy in the early years of this decade. As I noted before, in early November Cato published a paper by Henderson and Hummel with the now-controversial and counterintuitive thesis that “although Greenspan’s policies weren’t perfect, his monetary policy was in fact tight, and his legacy is one of having overseen low and stable inflation and a striking dampening of the business cycle.” A couple of weeks later we published a paper by Lawrence H. White with a very different perspective. White argued that after the dot-com bust, the Greenspan Fed held interest rates extremely low for several years, setting off what Cato senior fellow Steve Hanke called “the mother of all liquidity cycles and yet another massive demand bubble.” Back in May, Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. had also sharply criticized the Greenspan Fed in a Cato Briefing Paper. He wrote that the Fed had been creating asset bubbles and moral hazard by its implicit policy of intervening to keep asset prices high.

Posted on December 1, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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