Democratic Deficit Hawks? by David Boaz

In a hagiographic profile of Obama budget director Peter Orszag, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker writes of the "pressure" he might get from congressional deficit hawks:
The respective heads of the House and Senate Budget Committees, John Spratt, Jr., of South Carolina, and Kent Conrad, of North Dakota, have spent years trying to control the deficit... Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has made eradicating the federal budget deficit his life’s work.
Now, you'd think that if the ranking Democrats on the congressional budget committees had made deficit reduction their life's work, the budget wouldn't have, you know, skyrocketed over the past decade and more. So let's go to the tape. The National Taxpayers Union has given Spratt an F for his votes on federal spending every year for more than a decade. (He had a couple of D's earlier in his career.) In the past two years, he voted with the taxpayers 5 and 6 percent of the time. He voted for spending bills more often than the average member of the House, and more often than the average Democrat. Some deficit hawk! Conrad has an almost identical record — almost all F's, with ratings of 5 and 6 in the past two years. By another measurement, in the 109th Congress (the most recent for which these calculations are available), Spratt voted for $184 billion in additional spending and voted to cut — drum roll, please — $4.8 billion in spending. Conrad voted to cut $8 billion, but he also voted to hike spending by $362 billion. In what world are these guys "trying to control the deficit"? NTU does have one analysis that makes Conrad and Spratt look a little better: the bills they have sponsored or cosponsored. Spratt introduced 32 bills that would increase spending and 2 that would cut spending. While that may not sound very thrifty, it compares favorably to, say, Hilda Solis's 110 bills to increase spending or Barney Frank's 112. And the total new spending in Spratt's bills — $7 billion — is positively Randian. Conrad's record is similar — 36 bills to increase spending by $8 billion, which compares very favorably to, for instance, Hillary Clinton and Thad Cochran. Apparently Conrad and Spratt don't introduce too many spending bills, but they vote for all the ones that get to the floor. Not exactly a strategy that holds the budget down. The search for a fiscally conservative Democrat continues.

Posted on May 29, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

California, Here We Come by David Boaz

Next week the Cato Institute will hold seminars in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The program is the same both places. Leda Cosmides, one of the world's leading evolutionary psychologists, will kick things off at 11 a.m. with a talk on our intuitive ideas about fairness and justice. Then Cato's Michael Tanner will warn about the horrors of Obamacare and Dan Mitchell will tell us that it doesn't matter because the country's going to be bankrupt anyway.  Former California congressman and Senate candidate, and potential governor, Tom Campbell will wrap things up after lunch with a  discussion of the state's fiscal predicament. A sobering program for sobering times. Sign up now!

Posted on May 28, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Richard Epstein on Sotomayor by David Boaz

Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago and New York University, finds much to worry about in Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court:
The treatment of the compensation packages of key AIG executives (which eventually led to the indecorous resignation of Edward Liddy), and the massive insinuation of the executive branch into the (current) Chrysler and (looming) General Motors bankruptcies are sure to generate many a spirited struggle over two issues that are likely to define our future Supreme Court's jurisprudence. The level of property rights protection against government intervention on the one hand, and the permissible scope of unilateral action by the president in a system that is (or at least should be) characterized by a system of separation of powers and checks and balances on the other. Here is one straw in the wind that does not bode well for a Sotomayor appointment. Justice Stevens of the current court came in for a fair share of criticism (all justified in my view) for his expansive reading in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) of the "public use language." Of course, the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment is as complex as it is short: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." But he was surely done one better in the Summary Order in Didden v. Village of Port Chester issued by the Second Circuit in 2006. Judge Sotomayor was on the panel that issued the unsigned opinion--one that makes Justice Stevens look like a paradigmatic defender of strong property rights. I have written about Didden in Forbes. The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined. Bart Didden came up with an idea to build a pharmacy on land he owned in a redevelopment district in Port Chester over which the town of Port Chester had given Greg Wasser control. Wasser told Didden that he would approve the project only if Didden paid him $800,000 or gave him a partnership interest. The "or else" was that the land would be promptly condemned by the village, and Wasser would put up a pharmacy himself. Just that came to pass. But the Second Circuit panel on which Sotomayor sat did not raise an eyebrow. Its entire analysis reads as follows: "We agree with the district court that [Wasser's] voluntary attempt to resolve appellants' demands was neither an unconstitutional exaction in the form of extortion nor an equal protection violation." Maybe I am missing something, but American business should shudder in its boots if Judge Sotomayor takes this attitude to the Supreme Court. 

Posted on May 26, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

O Canada! by David Boaz

So not only is Canada economically freer than the United States, with government spending and taxes about to be lower than ours, now the Canadian navy has saved an American ship from a pirate attack off Somalia. It may be time to play "The World Turned Upside Down" again.

Posted on May 22, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Bailout Nation by David Boaz

The four top business headlines in the Washington Post the other day were:
More Homeowners Getting Aid, but Demand Keeps Rising AIG Could Repay U.S. in 3 to 5 Years, Chief Tells Congress Treasury Clarifying Rules for Bailed-Out Firms Small Auto Suppliers Seek Help in Wake of Giants' Woes
It's certainly true, as BBC and other journalists have noted, that the center of American business and finance is now Washington, not New York.  The headlines above (in the paper edition, but some of them can be found here) indicate that all sorts of businesses and individuals are looking to the Obama administration for bailouts and loans and "capital injections." And one could find similar stories about federal money for states, cities, big insurance companies, and more. Money and credit were once allocated by owners of capital, who stood to gain or lose on the strength of their decisions. Now capital is being allocated by politicians and bureaucrats, who have none of their own money at risk and who may well see their own power enhanced by an economy that remains slow. Back in September, as the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ushered in a new era of federal help for failing companies, I wrote a blog post titled "Bailout Nation." I didn't know the half of it; still to come were the AIG bailout, TARP, federal subsidies to banks and automobile companies, and more. But I warned then:
Capitalism is a system of profit and loss. It works because each person and each company, in seeking its own interest, is led “as if by an invisible hand” to supply goods and services that others want. Companies that satisfy consumers prosper. Companies that can’t produce goods that consumers want–like Chrysler, repeatedly–suffer and sometimes go out of business. The failures are often painful. But as Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie wrote in their book Failure and Progress (or at least in this column based on the book), “Economic failure is to the economy what physical pain is to the body. No one enjoys pain, but without it the body would lack the information needed to maintain its health.” Government subsidies to prevent business failure simply keep pouring money into businesses that are relatively unsuccessful at satisfying consumer desires. They are, among other things, censorship of vitally needed information. Employees, entrepreneurs, and investors need to know where their money and talent are most valuable. Profits and losses are key indicators of that.
Turns out that David Ignatius had warned of a "Bailout Nation" in a column a few months before that:
As every parent knows, the danger of cutting a special break for one child is that all the other children will demand the same thing. "It's not fair," goes the inevitable refrain. "You said Susie could eat ice cream and watch TV until midnight, so why can't I?" The parents start caving, and family discipline is shot.
We're now in a comparable cycle of bestowing special economic favors on members of the national family who have been hurt by the credit market crisis. "It's not fair," argue the housing interests and consumer advocacy groups. "Bear Stearns got a financial bailout, so why shouldn't we?" And they're right, by the simplest schoolyard definition of fairness. So the line grows of people demanding breaks on financial obligations they can't afford.
Neither of us is very happy about being so prescient. And what no one seems to discuss is, Where is all this bailout money coming from? Much of it is just being created on the balance sheets of the Federal Reserve, which portends rising inflation. Certainly it's too much to be paid for in taxes, even in the fondest dreams of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.  Is Bernie Madoff advising the Treasury these days? How much money is it? CNNMoney estimates that the federal government has now committed $10.5 trillion. Christopher Barker at the Motley Fool concludes that "the combined total of existing, announced, and potential outlays from the Federal Reserve and U.S. government agencies that are directly attributable to the financial crisis will breach $13 trillion!" This is nuts. Would Paulson and Bernanke have acted differently last April if they'd known where we would be in a year? They'd have known if they'd read David Ignatius's column. Or if they'd read some history; when governments start handing out money to troubled institutions, there will be no limit to the number of troubled institutions. And in barely a year, you get small auto parts companies coming to Washington saying that if automakers and large suppliers are getting government help, they should too. President Bush and his Treasury secretary started this process, but Obama and the Democrats own it now. Do they have a plan that doesn't end in inflation and bankruptcy?

Posted on May 19, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

What Caused Atlas Shrugged Sales to Soar? by David Boaz

Sales of Atlas Shrugged have risen sharply this year, and various observers from the Ayn Rand Institute to the Economist have attributed the jump to "uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day," in the words of ARI's Yaron Brook. The Economist writes,
Whenever governments intervene in the market, in short, readers rush to buy Rand’s book. Why? The reason is explained by the name of a recently formed group on Facebook, the world’s biggest social-networking site: “Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life”.
Brook told CNN:
"So many people see the parallels with actually what's going on, with the government taking over the banks, with the government kind of taking over the automobile industry, a president who fires the CEO of a major American corporation. These are the kind of things that come out of 'Atlas Shrugged.' "
But is this story right? Do news headlines generate book sales? How did people who read about TARP or bank nationalizations know that those events were reminiscent of a novel published in 1957? Maybe their friends told them "It's just like Atlas Shrugged," and they ran out and bought the book. Read more...

Posted on May 18, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Obama’s Unerring Instinct for Aides with Authoritarian Instincts by David Boaz

President Obama has appointed New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden to head the Centers for Disease Control. Public health is an important issue, but as Jacob Sullum points out at Reason, Frieden has a weak grasp of what's "public" in the world of health:
Frieden, an infectious disease specialist who is known mainly as an enthusiastic advocate of New York's strict smoking ban, heavy cigarette taxes, trans fat ban, and mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menu boards, embodies the CDC's shift from illnesses caused by microbes to illnesses caused by lifestyle choices. "Dr. Frieden is an expert in preparedness and response to health emergencies," Obama said today, "and has been at the forefront of the fight against heart disease, cancer and obesity, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, and in the establishment of electronic health records." Some of these things are not like the others. When it comes to justifying the use of force, there is a crucial difference between health risks imposed by others (such as bioterrorists or TB carriers) and health risks that people voluntarily assume (by smoking or overeating, for example). In the former case, even those who believe that government should be limited to protecting individual rights can see a strong argument for intervention; in the latter case, intervention can be justified only on paternalistic or collectivist grounds. Frieden either does not recognize or does not care about this distinction.
Frieden told the Financial Times in 2006 that "when anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it's my fault." That's a breathtaking vision of the scope and power of government. If you eat butter or salt, or smoke, or climb mountains, or ride a motorcycle, or bungee-jump, or run with the bulls in Pamplona, Dr. Frieden feels that he and the government are personally responsible. This isn't paternalism; your parents usually let you make your own decisions along about the age of 18. And it isn't fair to nannies to call it "nanny state" regulation: after all, nannies are paid to take care of children until they can care for themselves; they don't barge into your home or your bar or your restaurant uninvited, issuing orders to adults. Maybe the right term is food fascism, for the attempt to use force to tell adults what they can and can't eat, smoke, or purchase. More on the distinction between public health problems and health problems that are merely widespread here. And more about Obama's appointment of "a bunch of statist ideologues who have been waiting years or decades for an election and a crisis that would allow them to fasten on American society their own plan for how energy, transportation, health care, education, and the economy should work" here.

Posted on May 16, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Patching up the Education Monopoly by David Boaz

The Eli and Edythe Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations have sponsored a report, "Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success," on how to spend $100 billion of "stimulus money" on improving America's schools, according to Jay Mathews in The Washington Post. Ideas include national standards, better teacher evaluations, special help for struggling students, and more. But let's try a thought experiment. Bill Gates made his money in software. Eli Broad made his money building houses. Imagine a slightly different universe, say one in which Henry Wallace and Al Gore had become president, and we had monopoly providers of both software and housing. How good do you think the software and the housing would be? And if the U.S. Department of Technology and the U.S. Department of Housing announced that they would be spending another $100 billion, what would happen? minitelIt seems clear that the way to improve housing and software in that world would be to open the fields up to competition, or even to privatize them. A government monopoly provider of software would be lucky to have given us Minitel by now. And monopoly provision of housing was tried in much of the world during the 20th century, with poor results. So if we were afflicted with these albatrosses, surely we'd recognize that deregulation, competition, and privatization would produce better results by far. So then why don't we realize it when we're afflicted with a virtual government monopoly on the provision of education? Why are zillions of smart people studying and debating how to improve the performance of a sluggish, stagnant, tax-funded government monopoly? Maybe we shouldn't be so sure that we'd see the failure of the software or housing monopoly either. Whatever enterprise the government chooses to monopolize -- and there's really nothing inherent or inevitable about which enterprises that will be -- will most likely become a massive bureaucratic undertaking, and we will find it difficult to imagine how the enterprise could be privately run. But Bill and Melinda, Eli and Edythe, Jay, Barack -- the evidence on monopoly vs. competitive provision of services is out there. To a great extent it's the history of the 20th century. Check it out.

Posted on May 11, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Why Egypt? by David Boaz

President Obama will give a speech in Egypt on June 4 about America's relations with the Muslim world. Why Egypt? I suspect many Americans think that Egypt is the largest Muslim country, but the White House and the State Department surely know that it's not even in the top 5. I think White House press secretary Robert Gibbs touched on the reason when he was asked "Why Egypt?" and he responded that Egypt "represents the heart of the Arab world, and I think [the trip will be] an opportunity for the President to address and discuss our relationship with the Muslim world." Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia. Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism. Obama has received some criticism for giving his speech in a repressive country and seeming to embrace Hosni Mubarak's autocracy. But the criticism ought to go deeper: He should give his speech on U.S.-Islamic relations in the region of the world where most Muslims live, and where Muslims are successfully joining the modern world. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam. According to this chart based on the CIA World Factbook, Egypt is the seventh-largest Muslim country. Another chart shows Egypt fifth, but still far behind the Asian countries. Americans should take a close look, as we tend to associate Islam with the Arab world and its discontents. 
Country Muslim Population
1 Indonesia 182,570,000
2 Pakistan 134,480,000
3 India 121,000,000
4 Bangladesh 114,080,000
5 Turkey 65,510,000
6 Iran 62,430,000
7 Egypt 58,630,000
8 Nigeria 53,000,000
9 Algeria 30,530,000
10 Morocco 28,780,000
Source: CIA World Factbook

Posted on May 9, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Happy Hayek’s Birthday by David Boaz

Today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of F. A. Hayek, who honored the Cato Institute by serving as a Distinguished Senior Fellow, and in whose honor the F. A. Hayek Auditorium is named. "It is hardly an exaggeration to refer to the twentieth century as the Hayek century," John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker. If we're lucky, the 21st century will also be a Hayek century. Hayek spoke at Cato several times.  Before his 1982 Distinguished Lecture, he sat down for an interview with Cato Policy Report.  Here's another interview by our late board member Jim Blanchard that appeared in Cato Policy Report. Senior fellows Tom Palmer and Gerald O'Driscoll have offered appreciations of his work. O'Driscoll more recently applied Hayek's business cycle theory to the current financial crisis. Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin ponders Hayek's continuing relevance in this essay from just before the crisis announced itself last fall. Somin notes that Hayek's critique of socialism gets most attention from scholars, but his critique of conservatism is also worth pondering. As the world suffers from the aftereffects of another Federal Reserve-created bubble, it's a good time to reread Hayek on the boom-and-bust cycle. But it's also a good day to reflect that Hayek lived just long enough to see the demise of the totalitarian socialist system that he spent his life analyzing and criticizing. The world is freer today, partly because of Hayek's great work.

Posted on May 8, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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