Is the Economy Booming Again? by David Boaz

The lead headline in Friday's Wall Street Journal proclaims
Economy Snaps Long Slump
But buried on page C10 is a more skeptical view:
If the Obama administration were managing a company, it might have hoped the latest gross-domestic-product numbers would be greeted with cries of "great quarter, guys!" At least the stock-market obliged, rising on the back of better-than-expected GDP data Thursday morning. But then bulls have become used to looking to Washington for inspiration. Zero rates and stimulus programs boost economic data as well as nudge money toward riskier assets. Fully 2.2 percentage points of the third quarter's 3.5% growth figure related to vehicle purchases and residential construction, both juiced by government support. Federal spending added 0.6%. If these GDP data were company earnings, they would be what analysts euphemistically call "low quality." Investors buying into the market off the back of them are ignoring weekly unemployment-claims data that came in above 500,000 again on the same day. The danger is that all these short-term fixes leave the economy dangerously addicted to taxpayer-funded steroids. The circularity in the housing market, whereby Washington provides tax breaks to first-time buyers, guarantees most of the mortgages written, and then buys most of those, beggars belief, and suggests a worrying case of amnesia following the bursting of the housing bubble. (emphasis added)
Johan Norberg warned about the dangers of repeating the very mistakes that created the bubble and bust in the first place in Financial Fiasco: How America's Infatuation with Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis (available in hardcover, e-book, or Kindle).

Posted on October 31, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Battle for Libertarian Voters in Virginia by David Boaz

Almost two months ago I quoted a Washington Post op-ed that said that this fall’s gubernatorial race in Virginia would depend on
the all-important independent voters — the disproportionately moderate, young, prosperous, suburban and libertarian-leaning people who typically decide Virginia contests.
It looks like Frank B. Atkinson, a high-powered Richmond lawyer who served in the Ronald Reagan and George Allen administrations and has written two books on Virginia politics, knew what he was talking about. At least on my television here in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the race has been dominated by two kinds of ads: Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds tells us over and over again that his Republican opponent Bob McDonnell is a reactionary social conservative. McDonnell counters with endless plays of Deeds's stumbling admission that he'd like to raise taxes. Judging by the polls, it looks like people are more worried about taxes and the overreach of the Obama administration than about McDonnell's career-long ambition to roll back social change. Of course, the bad news is that both candidates are right: McDonnell is a reactionary social conservative, and Deeds will raise taxes. The even worse news: Deeds voted for the anti-marriage constitutional amendment in the Virginia legislature, though he later flipped his position; and as a legislator and attorney general, McDonnell backed transportation tax increases. So if you're a pro-tax, anti-gay Virginia voter, you have a wealth of choices on Tuesday. Freedom-loving, "leave us alone" voters, a tougher day.

Posted on October 31, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Our Libertarian Future by David Boaz

Brink Lindsey described a "libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right" in his book The Age of Abundance. Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie said that right now is a "libertarian moment." I saw a "civil liberties surge" in public opinion polls on marijuana laws and gay marriage. And now Jacob Weisberg foresees the imminent end to various kinds of prohibition in these United States:
Within 10 years, it seems a reasonable guess that Americans will travel freely to Cuba, that all states will recognize gay unions, and that few will retain criminal penalties for marijuana use by individuals. Whether or not Democrats retain control of Congress, whether or not Obama is re-elected, and whether they happen sooner or later than expected, these reforms are inevitable—not because politics has changed but because society has.
For good measure, he adds that we're not going to prohibit either abortion or gun ownership. "Conservatives would be wise to give up on the one, liberals on the other. In each of these cases, popular demand for an individual right is simply too powerful to overcome." Sounds like libertarian heaven:
The chief reason these prohibitions are falling away is the evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness.... Republicans face a risk in resisting these new realities. Freedom is part of their brand; if the GOP remains the party of prohibition, it will increasingly alienate libertarian-leaners and the young. But the party as presently constituted has very little capacity to accept social change. Democrats face a danger in embracing cultural transformations too eagerly. Nearly four decades after George McGovern became known as the candidate of amnesty, abortion, and acid, cultural issues are still treacherous territory for them. Why get in front of change when you can follow from a safe distance and end up with the same result?
Of course, if the Democrats raise taxes and the deficit high enough, and do what they're threatening to do to health care, marijuana may be the only medicine you don't have to get on a waiting list for, but you won't be able to afford it. And the marriage penalty may make everyone decide they can't afford to get married. And flights to Cuba may be too expensive on our dwindling after-tax incomes.

Posted on October 31, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Wisdom of the Anti-Federalists by David Boaz

Everybody reads the Federalist Papers. (I hope!) Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, they are generally regarded as the most profound collection of political theory ever written in America. And since they deeply inform our understanding of our fundamental law, they are essential to understanding the American version of limited, constitutional government. But the ratification of the Constitution was a close thing in 1787–89, and the Anti-Federalists (who said that actually they were the federalists, while their opponents were nationalists) also had some insightful things to say about liberty and limited government. Now the invaluable Liberty Fund has made available a collection of anti-federalist writings, The Anti-Federalist Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle. The publisher says:
The Anti-Federalist Writings of the Melancton Smith Circle makes available for the first time a one-volume collection of Anti-Federalist writings that are commensurate in scope, significance, political brilliance, and depth with those in The Federalist. Included in this volume as an appendix is a computational and contextual analysis that addresses the question of the authorship of two of the most well-known pseudonymous Anti-Federalist writings, namely, Essays of a Federal Farmer and Essays of Brutus. Also included are the records of Smith’s important speeches at the New York Ratifying Convention, some shorter writings of Smith’s from the ratification debate, and a set of private letters Smith wrote on constitutional subjects at the time of the ratification struggle.
One reason it's important to study the ideas of the Anti-Federalists was offered by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism:
Most of the Amendments comprising the Bill of Rights restricted the national government’s direct authority over its citizens. Only one section dealt with the relationship between the state and central governments; the 10th Amendment “reserved” to the states or the people all powers not “delegated to the United States by the Constitution.” Nothing better illustrates that, whereas the Anti-Federalists had lost on the ratification issue, they had won on the question of how the Constitution would operate. The Constitution had not established a consolidated national system of government as most Federalists had at first intended, but a truly federal system, which is what the Anti-Federalists had wanted. In simpler terms, the Federalists got their Constitution, but the Anti-Federalists determined how it would be interpreted.
In a world where it's easy to find a "Dirty Dozen" of Supreme Court decisions that have expanded government and eroded freedom, that may be hard to believe. But it's important to read both halves of early American debate over the Constitution in order to understand the foundations of our system.

Posted on October 30, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

This Week in History: Reagan Backs Goldwater by David Boaz

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as "The Speech" and launched his own, more successful political career. And a very libertarian speech it was:
This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves. You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man's age-old dream -- the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order -- or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, "The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits." The Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.
Video versions of the speech here. Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan's values and talents. More on Reagan here and here.

Posted on October 28, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Your Tax Dollars at Work by David Boaz

The National Park Service announced Friday that it has removed its superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park and reassigned him to work in a cultural resources office as an assistant to the associate director. His job duties have not yet been determined.
John A. Latschar said Thursday that his demotion was in response to the public disclosure of Internet activity in which he viewed more than 3,400 "sexually-explicit" images over a two-year period on his government computer -- a violation of department policy. The misconduct, which Latschar acknowledged in a sworn statement, was found during a year-long investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general and was documented in an internal Aug. 7 report obtained by The Washington Post. The reassignment came after a Post report Monday about the results of the investigator's forensic analysis of Latschar's computer hard drive, which showed "significant inappropriate user activity" and numbered the "most sexually-explicit" images at 3,456.... David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service, said Latschar's annual salary of $145,000 and his pension will not be affected. The cultural resources office is based in Washington, but Latschar will commute from his home in Gettysburg to a Park Service office about 30 miles away in Frederick, Barna said.
Hey, can I get that deal? If I download 3,500 pornographic images on my office computer, can I get reassigned to a telecommuting job with no defined duties at my current salary and pension? As superintendent of a very visible national park, Latschar had a job with a lot of pressure, lots of criticism, management challenges, etc. Now he's going to be some sort of undefined "assistant to an associate director in a cultural resources office," but he won't have to actually go to the cultural resources office, and he'll still get the same pay and benefits he was getting for doing a real, stressful job. Does anyone in the federal government ever get fired?

Posted on October 28, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Church of Global Warming by David Boaz

Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: "Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday." I never took such claims entirely seriously. But then I heard this statement from a Montana writer, Jim Robbins, interviewed by the "sustainability reporters" of government-funded Marketplace Radio:
There's a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I think there's something along that line happening here. I mean, there are still some people who refuse to believe it. But I think there's been an erosion of that disbelief and it's changed pretty dramatically.
Darned if he isn't using terms like "atheists" and "disbelief" in a discussion of global warming. Almost as if he were, you know, a theologian. Reporter Sarah Gardner, by the way, says that "in my own lifetime, average temperatures in this country have gone up more than 2 degrees." That doesn't sound like that much -- maybe like moving from Washington to Richmond? But anyway, unless Sarah is about 200 years old, she seems to be exaggerating. For a different view of global warming -- not that of an atheist or even a skeptic, just a non-fundamentalist or non-apocalyptic -- see this short paper or this book by climatologist Pat Michaels.

Posted on October 28, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Gallup’s Conservatives and Libertarians by David Boaz

In today's Washington Post, William Kristol exults:
The Gallup poll released Monday shows the public's conservatism at a high-water mark. Some 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared with 36 percent who self-describe as moderates and 20 percent as liberals.
Gallup often asks people how they describe themselves. But sometimes they classify people according to the values they express. And when they do that, they find a healthy percentage of libertarians, as well as an unfortunate number of big-government "populists." For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup Poll has been using two questions to categorize respondents by ideology:
  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?
Combining the responses to those two questions, Gallup found the ideological breakdown of the public shown below. With these two broad questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian. libertarianchart The word "libertarian" isn't well known, so pollsters don't find many people claiming to be libertarian. And usually they don't ask. But a large portion of Americans hold generally libertarian views -- views that might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, or as Gov. William Weld told the 1992 Republican National Convention, "I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom." They don't fit the red-blue paradigm, and they have their doubts about both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. They're potentially a swing vote in elections. Background on the libertarian vote here. And note here: If you tell people that "libertarian" means "fiscally conservative and socially liberal," 44 percent will accept the label.

Posted on October 27, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Slipping Support for Government Health Insurance by David Boaz

Here's a striking graphic of the results of continuing New York Times/CBS News polling on the question, "Do you think the federal government should guarantee health insurance for all Americans, or isn't this the responsibility of the federal government?" 200910_blog_boaz1 Support for a government guarantee of health insurance starts dropping sharply as the country starts debating the topic. It's not clear from this graphic, provided by Gallup, but support is at 64 percent in June, 55 in July, and 51 in late September, well after the Long Hot August and just after President Obama's health care blitz that included his primetime speech to Congress and highly publicized rallies in Minnesota and Maryland. Note also that the question doesn't mention any downsides of the government guarantee; respondents apparently had figured those out for themselves. Oddly enough, if you search the New York Times site for this question, nothing comes up. And if you Google the question, the Times isn't in the search results. It's almost as if they didn't want to publicize their very interesting finding. You can find a reference to it here and documentation here. Another interesting take on support for health care "reform" can be found here -- a graph of all the polls on health care plans offered by the president or in Congress, from January to present, showing opposition rising. Also from pollster.com: President Obama's slipping approval numbers on health care.

Posted on October 27, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Talking about Ayn Rand by David Boaz

Two new books about Ayn Rand are just hitting the bookstores: Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns. As Janet Maslin writes in the New York Times, reviewing the two books, the 1970s were "one Rand moment. This seems to be another." Brian Doherty, historian of libertarianism, agrees. Sales of The Fountainhead are soaring in India. The chairman of BB&T was inspired by her work to renounce lending to eminent-domain projects and to spread her ideas in schools and colleges. She's being blamed for the financial crisis on government TV, but the takeovers and bailouts have caused sales of Atlas Shrugged to soar. Both the books are getting good reviews, though reviewers have varying perspectives on the subject of the bios. Rand has been denounced in the New Republic (yet again), and defended against TNR's criticisms by our own Will Wilkinson. Embattled governor Mark Sanford declares her prophetic in Newsweek. New York magazine calls her "Mrs. Logic," not without irony. Caroline Baum of Bloomberg says Rand would tell us to stop blaming capitalism for problems caused by regulation and cronyism. Conor Friedersdorf can't believe how wrong Hendrik Hertzberg gets her in the New Yorker. Find out for yourself next Wednesday when Burns and Heller speak at a Cato Book Forum, "The Life and Impact of Ayn Rand." If you can't get to Washington, watch it on the web.

Posted on October 23, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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