Is Madison More Like Cairo or Athens?

At the Britannica Blog I declare the college town -- and state capital -- Madison, Wisconsin, "the Athens of the West."
College towns used to call themselves “the Athens of the West.” In Nashville, home of my alma mater Vanderbilt University, they built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. But these days Madison, Wisconsin, has the best claim to the title. Lots of national media have been comparing the protests against Gov. Scott Walker in Madison to the protests that ended Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year reign.... The Greek journalist Takis Michas told a Washington audience last summer that the Greek political economy
is a form of capitalism where the bureaucracy and its allies consider the state their property, and use its mechanisms for personal enrichment. In Greece, the fundamental principle that has been dictating economic and political development since the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century is political clientelism. This is a system in which political support is provided in exchange for benefits. In this situation, rent-seeking — the attempt by various groups and individuals to influence the location of political benefits — becomes paramount.
That sounds a lot like the relationship between government employee unions and state governments. In Wisconsin, the state that first gave government unions the right to bargain collectively, the Greek disease has reached crisis levels. Wisconsin faces a deficit estimated at $2.2 billion or more. Wisconsin and Greece have both used accounting gimmicks and fiddled statistics to conceal the state’s real fiscal condition, though Greece’s fraud reached stratospheric levels. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are against tyrannical governments; the protesters seek freedom and democracy. The protests in Athens and Madison are against the long-suffering taxpayers; the protesters seek to continue a political system that allows them privileged access to the public fisc. Eat your heart out, Nashville and Lexington and Berkeley. Madison, Wisconsin, is truly the Athens of the West.

Posted on February 28, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

How Is LeBron James like Medicare?

Speaking to some 500 libertarian students at the International Students for Liberty Conference last weekend, Cato adjunct scholar Tyler Cowen noted:
Rep. Paul Ryan gave an alternative State of the Union address without mentioning Social Security or Medicare. That's like discussing the Miami Heat without mentioning LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, or Chris Bosh.

Posted on February 25, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Romney and Huckabee, What a Choice

You know you're really wrong when Mike Huckabee can call you out. But that's the situation Mitt Romney finds himself in, as Michael Cannon points out below.  Huckabee says Romney's government-run health care plan with an individual mandate is a bad idea, Romney says he's still proud of his plan, which is totally different from President Obama's government-run health care plan with an individual mandate. But really, what can he do? In 17 years of seeking high political office, he is known for two things: changing his position on a surprisingly large number of issues, and his Massachusetts health care program. Which was of course the forerunner of Obamacare, as Michael Cannon and I pointed out in the video that Michael linked. So Romney is still defending a position I think we've already refuted. Meanwhile, in speeches and interviews this week, Mike Huckabee continues to make the untenable connection between gay marriage and family breakdown that I discussed two weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times. Huckabee told reporters:
Huckabee opposes gay marriage on the grounds that, according to him, it destroys traditional families. "There is a quantified impact of broken families," Huckabee said. "[There is a] $300 billion dad deficit in America every year...that's the amount of money that we spend as taxpayers to pick up the pieces because dads are derelict in their duties."
But what's the connection? As I wrote:
One thing gay couples are not doing is filling the world with fatherless children. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that allowing more people to make the emotional and financial commitments of marriage could cause family breakdown or welfare spending.... Social conservatives point to a real problem and then offer phony solutions. But you won't find your keys on the thoroughfare if you dropped them in the alley, and you won't reduce the costs of social breakdown by keeping gays unmarried and preventing them from adopting orphans.
One might add that, as Huckabee knows very well, rates of divorce and unwed motherhood soared decades before anyone started agitating for gay marriage. If Huckabee and Romney are the Republican frontrunners, President Obama must be sleeping well these days.

Posted on February 25, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

My Favorite Constitutional Right

Both the Washington Post and NPR refer to the Tenth Amendment as a "tea party favorite." I would have thought that tea partiers -- and most of the rest of us -- liked all 10 of the Bill of Rights, and indeed the rest of the Constitution as well. Now, sure, I guess if the ACLU could publish (in the 1970s or 1980s) the poster below, an "illustrated guide to the Bill of Rights" featuring only the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth amendments (and only parts of those), along with the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth amendments, which are not part of the Bill of Rights -- well, then, I guess the Tea Party is entitled to have its own favorite parts of the Bill of Rights. But then, it was NPR and the Washington Post, not tea partiers, who suggested that the Tenth Amendment was perhaps uniquely a "tea party favorite." I would urge the ACLU, the Tea Party, and all other Americans who care about freedom to consider the entire Constitution a "favorite." Of course, the Tenth Amendment is pretty crucial, reminding policymakers that the federal government does not have any powers not delegated to it in the Constitution.

Posted on February 22, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Honoring Our Greatest President

A new Gallup Poll shows that Americans are most likely to say that Ronald Reagan was our greatest president. Reagan had many good qualities, but this is not plausible. Following Reagan in the poll was Lincoln, who despite a devastating war and a vast expansion of government, did end slavery and preserve the union. Then come Clinton and Kennedy, about whom one can only bemoan the historical illiteracy of the voters. They were actually the top two picks among Democrats, followed by Obama. Only in fifth place do we find George Washington, the man who led the revolution that created the United States and then ensured that it became an enduring republic. Washington's accomplishments are the subject of my weekly column at the Britannica blog:
Had he been a Caesar, a Cromwell, a Napoleon, we know what he would have done. A French officer who wrote a book about the new country of America told us what he in fact did: “This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and that he has obeyed the Congress; more need not be said.” But one more thing was said: The Commander in Chief traveled to Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was meeting, returned his commission, and said, “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” And he created a new order for the ages.
It is appropriate that we still celebrate the birth of George Washington -- and in fact the actual federal holiday on the third Monday in February is Washington's Birthday.

Posted on February 22, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Government Unions — beyond Wisconsin

As Scott Walker in Wisconsin and other governors try to rein in the soaring costs of government employee pay and pensions, the Cato study "Vallejo Con Dios: Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government" takes on new relevance. Here's the executive summary:
High rates of unionization in the public sector have led to very high labor costs in the form of generous collective bargaining contracts. Now state and local governments are under increasing financial pressure, as a worsening national economy has led to decreased revenues for states and municipalities—many of which remain locked into the generous contracts negotiated in more flush times. Thus, as businesses retrench, governments find themselves in a financial straitjacket. In addition, as government unions grow stronger relative to private-sector unions, their prevalence erodes the moderating influence of the market on the demands that unions make of employers. Now, as an economic downturn threatens state and local government revenues, officials who want to keep their fiscal situations under control would do well to look skeptically at public-sector bargaining—especially since the existing political checks on it have proven ineffective. Public officials should eschew public-sector bargaining when possible, or at the very least, seek to limit its scope. As keepers of the public purse, legislators and local council members have an obligation to protect taxpayers' interests. By granting monopoly power to labor unions over the supply of government labor, elected officials undermine their duty to taxpayers, because this puts unions in a privileged position to extract political goods in the form of high pay and benefits that are much higher than anything comparable in the private sector. This paper shows how the unionization of government employees creates a powerful, permanent constituency for bigger government— one that is motivated, well-funded, and organized. It also makes some recommendations as to how to check this constituency's growing power—an effort that promises to be an uphill struggle.
Indeed it does. The study makes another point that is worth keeping in mind during these battles. Many discussions of government unions, such as this one on Friday's Newshour, tacitly or explicitly assume that we're talking about teachers, police officers, and firefighters. But the study notes:
Of course, while these “heroic” public servants are the ones who are most visible in public disputes over collective bargaining, a large number of unionized state and local employees fall into more mundane categories such as secretaries, middle managers, engineers, administrative law judges, school custodians, and cafeteria workers.

Posted on February 19, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Government Unions — beyond Wisconsin

As Scott Walker in Wisconsin and other governors try to rein in the soaring costs of government employee pay and pensions, the Cato study "Vallejo Con Dios: Why Public Sector Unionism Is a Bad Deal for Taxpayers and Representative Government" takes on new relevance. Here's the executive summary:
High rates of unionization in the public sector have led to very high labor costs in the form of generous collective bargaining contracts. Now state and local governments are under increasing financial pressure, as a worsening national economy has led to decreased revenues for states and municipalities—many of which remain locked into the generous contracts negotiated in more flush times. Thus, as businesses retrench, governments find themselves in a financial straitjacket. In addition, as government unions grow stronger relative to private-sector unions, their prevalence erodes the moderating influence of the market on the demands that unions make of employers. Now, as an economic downturn threatens state and local government revenues, officials who want to keep their fiscal situations under control would do well to look skeptically at public-sector bargaining—especially since the existing political checks on it have proven ineffective. Public officials should eschew public-sector bargaining when possible, or at the very least, seek to limit its scope. As keepers of the public purse, legislators and local council members have an obligation to protect taxpayers' interests. By granting monopoly power to labor unions over the supply of government labor, elected officials undermine their duty to taxpayers, because this puts unions in a privileged position to extract political goods in the form of high pay and benefits that are much higher than anything comparable in the private sector. This paper shows how the unionization of government employees creates a powerful, permanent constituency for bigger government— one that is motivated, well-funded, and organized. It also makes some recommendations as to how to check this constituency's growing power—an effort that promises to be an uphill struggle.
Indeed it does. The study makes another point that is worth keeping in mind during these battles. Many discussions of government unions, such as this one on Friday's Newshour, tacitly or explicitly assume that we're talking about teachers, police officers, and firefighters. But the study notes:
Of course, while these “heroic” public servants are the ones who are most visible in public disputes over collective bargaining, a large number of unionized state and local employees fall into more mundane categories such as secretaries, middle managers, engineers, administrative law judges, school custodians, and cafeteria workers.

Posted on February 19, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

R.I.P. Bill Monroe, a First Amendment Champion

Bill Monroe, who was moderator for NBC's Meet the Press for about 10 years, has died at 90. The Washington Post does a fine job with his long career, from his pro-civil-rights journalism in Lousiana in the 1950s to his years with NBC and Meet the Press.   I want to draw attention to his longtime advocacy of extending the First Amendment to broadcasting. Actually, I'm sure he thought that the First Amendment did cover all forms of the news media — but he knew that Congress and the courts didn't see it that way, so he wanted an explicit amendment to make that clear. Because his articles on this topic were published in the pre-Internet Dark Ages (yes, children, there are great ideas not online), I can't link to any of them.  He spoke at the Cato Institute in 1984 on the topic:
The First Amendment sets up a clear-cut independence of press from government as the journalistic principle most vital to the American people.  But the existing regulatory approach to broadcasting offers exactly the opposite formula:  government guidance and government rules to protect the American people from independent journalism. The First Amendment idea and the regulation idea are mortal enemies.
And in 2007 he briefly reprised the argument in the letters column of the Washington Post, concluding:
Broadcasters are also open to government pressure through the Federal Communications Commission, whose members are appointed by the president. Newspapers are specifically protected against government interference by the granite wall known as the First Amendment. When the present form of broadcast regulation was set up early in the previous century, nobody understood what powerful instruments of news and information would evolve from the primitive radio stations of that day. Now that we do understand it, we can repair that historic mistake. We can extend the clear, stirring language of the First Amendment to equal protection for freedom of the electronic media. The problem of allocating broadcast licenses does not have to cost the American people the benefit of free broadcasting.
R.I.P.

Posted on February 18, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Two, Three, Many Wisconsins

Newly elected Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has introduced what he calls a "budget repair" plan that would, among other things, require state employees to pay about 5.8% toward their pension (about the private sector national average) and about 12% of their healthcare benefits (about half the private sector national average) and restrict the collective bargaining powers of government-employee unions. In response, as many as 25,000 state workers and their supporters have been protesting in and around the state Capitol. Today the Washington Post reports in a banner headline,
Obama joins Wisconsin budget battle
Yes, the president of the United States is inserting himself into a medium-sized state's battle over how to balance its budget. And not just the president, but his entire political machine and its national labor union allies:
President Obama thrust himself and his political operation this week into Wisconsin's broiling budget battle, mobilizing opposition Thursday to a Republican bill that would curb public-worker benefits while planning similar action in other state capitals. Obama accused Scott Walker, the state's new Republican governor, of unleashing an "assault" on unions in pushing emergency legislation that would nullify collective-bargaining agreements that affect most public employees, including teachers. The president's political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to mobilize thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.... By the end of the day, Democratic Party officials were working to organize additional demonstrations in Ohio and Indiana, where an effort is underway to trim benefits for public workers. Some union activists predicted similar protests in Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.... The White House political operation, Organizing for America, got involved Monday, after Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine, a former Virginia governor, spoke to union leaders in Madison, a party official said. The group made phone calls, distributed messages via Twitter and Facebook, and sent e-mails to its state and national lists to try to build crowds for rallies Wednesday and Thursday, a party official said.
It's always easier to organize special interests than unorganized taxpayers. It wouldn't be easy to get 25,000 taxpayers, who have lives and jobs and a variety of concerns, to rally at the state capital for budget reform. And it won't be easy for one governor and Wisconsin's Republican legislators to fight the entire national Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO and other giant unions, and the Obama machine. But maybe if other governors took up the same battle, if Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey and Gov. Rick Scott in Florida and Gov. Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania -- and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gov. Jerry Brown in California, both of whom are smart enough to know why their states are running multi-billion-dollar deficits -- take on the government unions, then maybe the Washington-based political machines won't have the capability of responding everywhere at once. Two, three, many Wisconsins! By the way, the strikingly uncivil posters comparing Governor Walker to Hitler and Mubarak, and the classic "Don't Retreat, Reload" slogan along with Walker's picture in cross hairs, take on greater relevance with the revelation that there's so much support and organization of these protests coming from sophisticated national politicos.

Posted on February 18, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Conservatives and Civil Rights

In my latest weekly posting on the Britannica blog, I take a brief look at conservative resistance to civil rights, from the early days of National Review to the latest CPAC kerfuffle:
In the 1960s and 1970s conservatives were bitter opponents of the feminist movement. . . . Phyllis Schlafly organized women to Stop the Equal Rights Amendment. But in 2008 conservatives adamantly insisted that a mother of five, one of them a special-needs infant and another a pregnant teenager, could easily serve as vice president of the United States. “It’s a slam dunk. I think that people who are concerned about ‘How conservative is Mr. McCain’ are now going to say, ‘If he can make a choice of Sarah Palin, then he can be trusted with our conservative ideals,’ ” said Cathie Adams, Republican National Committeewoman-elect and president of the Texas Eagle Forum (founded by Schlafly), to the Houston Chronicle. Young conservative pundit Amanda Carpenter said it was sexist to question the ability of a busy mother to handle the White House, too. Now the battle is over gay rights . . .

Posted on February 14, 2011  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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