Hillary’s Experience

I wrote two months ago that I thought that Hillary Clinton “can credibly claim to be the best-prepared presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940: she spent eight years in the White House, seeing the way politics and policies work from the eye of the storm. ” But in the past couple of weeks her attempts to press this argument have not worked out very well. The Washington Post awarded her a full “four Pinocchios” for telling a real whopper about coming under sniper fire when she went to Bosnia.  David Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, scoffed at her claims to have been directly involved in peace negotiations there. And Gregory Craig, former Clinton White House counsel, also dismissed her claims to have played a leading role in any specific foreign policy issue.

Which is hardly surprising for a first lady. It was a mistake for Hillary to pick two minor foreign policy issues and claim to have been the key player, rather than to emphasize her experience in being at her husband’s side as he dealt with a whole range of issues. And that I do think is significant. It’s the kind of experience that makes Washington graybeards feel that people like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who have been both elected officials and White House chief of staff, would be admirably prepared to be president.

First ladies typically pursue a “first lady’s agenda” and of course talk to their husbands at night in the family quarters. I do think that more than any other first lady, Hillary was in the room when decisions were being made–more like Bobby Kennedy than Jackie. She saw the pressures on a president, the ways a president balances politics and policy, the consequences of decisions made under pressure. That’s valuable experience, far more significant than visiting 79 countries to tour historical sites and deliver prepared speeches on women’s rights.

Another Washington Post article manages to undermine most of her specific claims but does include this defense from Mike McCurry, which I think finally gets it right:

Yet she lived through those episodes with a vantage point few get. “I would not say she was sitting there planning cruise missile attacks,” said former White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who supports her candidacy. “But you’re there and you see and you understand the requirements of leadership. . . . Having lived through it even as a spouse, you absorb a lot.”

None of this should be construed as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Experience — or charisma — devoted to the wrong aims is not exactly an appealing prospect. But I think it’s valuble to focus on just what kind of experience Senator Clinton can really claim.

Posted on March 24, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Government & Politics

The Candidates and the Libertarian Vote

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch of Reason have a great cover story in Politics, the new and livelier update of Campaigns and Elections magazine.  Titled “Tuned Out,” the article says that “politics is a lagging indicator of American society,” so this year’s presidential candidates are “channeling shopworn agendas and tired identities to a body politic desperate for a new political era.”

They predict that today’s individualist, consumer-driven culture will eventually produce a politics to match. “Much of this new activity will be explicitly libertarian, since the decentralization of control and individual empowerment is so deeply embedded in Internet technology and culture…. The Long Tail future of politics just as surely belongs to the president and party that figures out the secret to success is giving away power by letting the voter decide more of what matters.”

We can only hope. The cover illustration for the article, showing a Fountainhead-reading, South Park-watching young voter impervious to the appeals of the two old parties, reminded me of this recent “Zippy the Pinhead” cartoon, which also contrasted two big-government parties with leave-me-alone independents (click for larger version):

For more on libertarian voters, go here and here.

Posted on March 18, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Government & Politics,Libertarian Philosophy

Who Serves the Public Interest?

The Washington Post refers to Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen as “a public-interest group” in an article on costly federal regulations that the group is defending. So I wondered: Does the Post think federal regulation is always in the public interest? Or that groups that defend regulation are really acting “in the public interest”? What about groups that work to reduce the burden of government on consumers or taxpayers? Are they “public interest groups”? Certainly, as a member of the public, I don’t really see bigger, costlier government and more expensive products as being in my interest.

So I went to Nexis to investigate. Sure enough, in the past year the Post has used the phrase “public interest group[s]” 41 times. In every case (except one Associated Press story), the groups were on the political left. They demanded more spending or regulation by the federal government, actions that some but not all people would say are in the public interest.

I don’t always disagree with these “public interest groups.” For instance, one story quoted the Media Access Project. They almost always support more regulation of media companies, except when the question is regulation of obscenity or profanity. In this story MAP, “a public interest group,” applauded a court ruling striking down an FCC ruling that the use of profanity on a Fox News broadcast was indecent. Hear, hear. Now if only MAP would defend the rights of media companies to make their own decisions on non-obscene broadcasting.

But how about the National Taxpayers Union, which works to eliminate wasteful spending and reduce the burden of government? Was it a public interest group? Not in the Post. How about the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which works for competition and more choice for consumers? Not a public interest group.

The Post seems to have a very consistent but arguably wrong-headed view about just what is in the public’s interest.

Posted on March 17, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Regulatory Studies

The Freedom Movement Surges on Broadway

Move over, George Clooney. Libertarianism is the hottest new thing among serious artists. One of our greatest living playwrights, David Mamet, has just announced that he has given up “brain-dead liberalism” for a new appreciation of capitalism and constitutionalism.

As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart….

The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long….

And I began to question my hatred for “the Corporations”—the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live…

What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow….

I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

David Mamet. In the Village Voice. Ouch. Limousine liberals must be crying in their Pellegrino.

But he’s not the only one. Tom Stoppard, another candidate for the title of greatest living playwright, recently admitted to being a “timid libertarian” in an interview with Time:

Stoppard has always stood apart from many other British playwrights of his generation, like David Hare, for avoiding an overtly political (usually left-wing) point of view. He describes his politics as “timid libertarian.” Yet he can rev up a pretty bold rant on Britain’s “highly regulated society,” which he thinks is “betraying the principle of parliamentary democracy.” There was the garden party he threw recently, for example, where because there was a pond on the property, he was required to hire two lifeguards. “The whole notion that we’re all responsible for ourselves and we don’t actually have to have nannies busybodying all around us, that’s all going now. And I don’t even know in whose interest it’s supposed to be or who wishes it to be so. It seems to be like a lava flow, which nobody ordered up. Of course, one does know in whose interest it is. It’s in the interests of battalions of civil servants in jobs that never existed 10 years ago.”

This was no surprise to fans–such as the British political theorist Norman Barry–who had seen themes of freedom, responsibility, morality, and anti-communism (he was born in Czechoslovakia, though his family left before the communists replaced the Nazis in power) in his plays.

Poor Hollywood. Still mired in old, outmoded left-liberalism as high culture moves toward an embrace of freedom.

Posted on March 12, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Libertarian Philosophy

Obama Appeals for Libertarian Voters

Sen. Barack Obama resumed his winning streak by beating Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Wyoming caucuses after a brief full-court press by both sides. The Wall Street Journal noted one of Obama’s themes in the rugged-individualist Cowboy State:

Tailoring his message to the state’s antigovernment streak, Sen. Obama put new emphasis on his criticisms of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps and other heightened law-enforcement activities implemented as antiterror measures. “You can be liberal and a libertarian, or a conservative libertarian,” Sen. Obama told a crowd of about 1,200 at a recreation center here. But “there’s nothing conservative” about President Bush’s antiterror policies. “There’s nothing Republican about that. Everybody should be outraged by that,” he added. 

He may have been reading some of the articles David Kirby and I wrote about the libertarian vote and the Mountain West:

In the Goldwateresque, “leave us alone” Mountain West, Republicans not only lost the Montana Senate seat; they also lost the governorship of Colorado, two House seats in Arizona, and one in Colorado. They had close calls in the Arizona Senate race and House races in Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Dick Cheney’s Wyoming. In libertarian Nevada, the Republican candidate for governor won less than a majority against a Democrat who promised to keep the government out of guns, abortion, and gay marriage. Arizona also became the first state to vote down a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman….

If Republicans can’t win New Hampshire and the Mountain West, they can’t win a national majority. And they can’t win those states without libertarian votes.

Jeffrey Rosen has praised Obama’s civil libertarian record. Lest we get too excited about Obama’s new libertarian appeal, though, we should note that in his speech he also said he would undermine trade agreements and promised enough goodies from the Treasury to make Ted Kennedy happy.

Posted on March 8, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,General,Government & Politics

Midnight in the White House

That Hillary Clinton ad about the need for an experienced president — “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing…. Who do you want answering the phone?” — reminds some commentators of a very similar ad that helped former vice president Walter Mondale hold on to his lead over the dashing young senator Gary Hart in 1984. It reminded me of John McCain’s jibe at George W. Bush’s inexperience in 2000, recorded by Dana Milbank in his book Smashmouth (page 313):

But when the scouting reports come in, there is only one lonely man in a dark office.

Posted on March 1, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Government & Politics

Thanks, Mayor Bloomberg

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s continuing crusade to manage every aspect of his constituents’ lives has generated another perverse consequence: Customers of Wendy’s in New York will now get less information on nutrition than they did before the newest regulations. Wendy’s has posted this notice “For NYC Customers” on its Nutrition website:

Special notice to inquiries originating from New York City:

We regret that Wendy’s cannot provide product calorie information to residents or customers in New York City. The New York City Department of Health passed a regulation requiring restaurants that already provide calorie information to post product calories on their menu boards — using the same type size as the product listing.

We fully support the intent of this regulation; however, since most of our food is made-to-order, there isn’t enough room on our existing menu boards to comply with the regulation. We have for years provided complete nutritional information on posters inside the restaurant and on our website. To continue to provide caloric information to residents and customers of our New York City restaurants on our website and on our nutritional posters would subject us to this regulation. As a result, we will no longer provide caloric information to residents and customers of our New York City restaurants.

We regret this inconvenience. If you have questions about this regulation, please contact the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and refer to Health Code Section 81.50.

Posted on February 14, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Health Care,Regulatory Studies

Cheney’s Secret Failure

The Washington Post has been running a huge series on the power and influence of Vice President Cheney. The first two parts examined his immense influence on the administration’s response to 9/11, “pushing the envelope” of presidential power (not to mention vice-presidential power) and crafting the administration’s position on the use of torture –or rather “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning.

But the third part, although written with the same sinister soundtrack, tells a very different story. The Post reporters seem to want us to be alarmed by Cheney’s power over fiscal policy and by his relentless push to reduce the burdens of taxes and spending on the American people. But there’s a problem with that story: not only is fiscal conservatism a good thing — unlike, say, secret authorization for domestic surveillance — but if Cheney’s goal was to constrain spending, he failed utterly.

Jo Becker and Barton Gellman report on Cheney’s power over the budget:

Cheney has changed history more than once, earning his reputation as the nation’s most powerful vice president. His impact has been on public display in the arenas of foreign policy and homeland security, and in a long-running battle to broaden presidential authority. But he has also been the unseen hand behind some of the president’s major domestic initiatives….

And it was Cheney who served as the guardian of conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters….

The vice president chairs a budget review board, a panel the Bush administration created to set spending priorities and serve as arbiter when Cabinet members appeal decisions by White House budget officials. The White House has portrayed the board as a device to keep Bush from wasting time on petty disagreements, but previous administrations have seldom seen Cabinet-level disputes in that light. Cheney’s leadership of the panel gives him direct and indirect power over the federal budget — and over those who must live within it….

Cheney often stepped in if he sensed the administration was softening its commitment to Republican “first principles,” Bolten said, and he was “a pretty vigorous voice for holding the line on spending and for holding the line on tax cuts.” Longtime Cheney adviser Mary Matalin said the vice president brings a “spine quotient” to internal debates.

To a fiscal conservative, this all sounds just fine: The most powerful vice president in American history, known as a strong conservative, is put in charge of fiscal policy and forces bureaucrats and Cabinet officers to “live within the budget.”

But we know the rest of the story: President Bush has increased federal spending at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson — or indeed faster. (And it is by no means all defense and homeland security spending.)

The Post reporters never quite tell us that, though there are some hints:

Cheney shared conservative trepidations about the president’s signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government more control over K-12 education. He has griped privately to confidants, such as economist and CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow, about the administration’s failure to control spending. And in robust internal White House discussions, he raised concerns about the cost of the administration’s decision to expand Medicare to include a new multibillion-dollar drug entitlement, but bowed to the political reality that the president had to fulfill a campaign promise….

“Dick once told me that our president is a ‘big-government conservative,’” said former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), in a recollection disputed by Cheney’s office. “Now, Dick keeps his opinions to himself whenever he disagrees with the administration, as he should. But I believe that Dick is a small-government conservative.”…

In a way, Cheney’s story is the story of the Bush administration: Where they pushed bad policies, policies that dramatically expand the power of the federal government and infringe on our liberties, they have had much success. When Cheney and occasionally Bush backed good policies, policies that would constrain government, they failed miserably. Indeed, if Vice President Cheney is indeed a “small-government conservative” who used his unprecedented power to “hold the line” for “conservative orthodoxy on budget and tax matters,” he has been a failure of Carteresque proportions.

Maybe taxpayers would be better off if Cheney had had his own staff prepare a secret federal budget and implement it without input from Bush’s staff, relevant Cabinet officers, Congress, or the courts.

Posted on June 27, 2007  Posted to Budget & Tax Policy,Cato@Liberty,General,Government & Politics

Liberals, Conservatives, and Free Speech

Libertarians sometimes say that they are “liberal on free speech but conservative on economic freedom,” or that “liberals believe in free speech and personal freedom, while conservatives believe in economic freedom.” That proposition got another test in the Supreme Court yesterday. Conservatives and liberals split sharply on two free-speech cases.

And let’s see . . . in two 5-4 decisions, the Court’s conservative majority struck down some of the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaign speech and upheld a high-school principal’s right to suspend a student for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. Liberals disagreed in both cases.

So the liberals strongly defend a student’s right to engage in nonsensical speech that might be perceived as pro-drug, but they approve a ban on speech criticizing political candidates in the 60 days before an election.

Now I’m for free speech in both these cases. But if you had to choose, which is more important–the right of a high-school student to display silly signs at school-sponsored events, or the right of citizen groups to criticize politicians at the time voters are paying attention Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and conservatives are more inclined to protect it than are liberals. That’s a sad reflection on today’s liberals.

The liberal attitude toward speech is also on display on the front pages of our leading liberal newspapers. A banner headline in the Washington Post reads “5-4 Supreme Court Weakens Curbs on Pre-Election TV Ads/Ruling on McCain-Feingold Law Opens Door for Interest Groups in ‘o8.” This long headline mentions “TV Ads” and “Interest Groups” but never uses the words “speech” or “First Amendment.” But the sidebar on the high-school case is headed “Restrictions on Student Speech Upheld.” For that issue, a straightforward understanding that speech is involved. And the New York Times website leads with “Justices Loosen Ad Restrictions in Campaign Finance Law,” while the sidebar on the school case reads, “Vote against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools.” Though I should note that the old-fashioned, tree-destroying version of the Times does have a subhead reading “Political Speech Rights.”

Maybe libertarians should try to describe their philosophy by saying “libertarians believe in the free speech that liberals used to believe in, and the economic freedom that conservatives used to believe in.”

Posted on June 26, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,General,Law & Legal Issues

Google Gets Sucked into the Parasite Economy

The Washington Post reports that Google “does not intend to repeat the mistake that its rival Microsoft made a decade ago.”

Microsoft was so disdainful of the federal government back then that it had almost no presence in Washington. Largely because of that neglect, the company was blindsided by a government antitrust lawsuit that cost it dearly.

Mindful of that history, Google is rapidly building a substantial presence in Washington and using that firepower against Microsoft, among others.

This story just keeps repeating itself. People build companies, and then activists, competitors, and politicians notice that they have deep pockets. It happened to Microsoft, then to Wal-Mart. When the parasite economy first started lapping at Google last year, I wrote this:

Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and many other wealthy officers of the company got rich the only way you can in a free market: by producing something other people want. A lot of brilliant people worked long hours producing computer software that hundreds of millions of people chose to use, in the midst of a highly competitive market that offered lots of other options.

But in our modern politicized economy — which National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch called the “parasite economy” — no good deed goes unpunished for long. Some people want to declare Google a public utility that must be regulated in the public interest, perhaps by a federal Office of Search Engines. The Bush administration wants Google to turn over a million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from a one-week period. Congress is investigating how the company deals with the Chinese government’s demands for censorship of search results by Chinese users.

So, like Microsoft and other companies before it, Google has decided it will have to start playing the Washington game. It has opened a Washington office and hired well-connected lobbyists. One of the country’s top executive search firms is looking for a political director for the company.

What should concern us here is how the government lured Google into the political sector of the economy. For most of a decade the company went about its business, developing software, creating a search engine better than any of us could have dreamed, and innocently making money. Then, as its size and wealth drew the attention of competitors, anti-business activists, and politicians, it was forced to start spending some of its money and brainpower fending off political attacks. It’s the same process Microsoft went through a few years earlier, when it faced the same sorts of attacks. Now Microsoft is part of the Washington establishment, with more than $9 million in lobbying expenditures last year.

Google has become a brilliantly useful company. We can’t imagine how we got along with it. I can’t even imagine how I got along without Google Desktop. Some of us appreciate that; others believe that becoming indispensable imposes obligations on a company. Google has started to find out how it feels to be the most flagrantly successful company in America.

Alas, Google seems to have taken to Washington all too enthusiastically. As the Post notes,

In its first major policy assault on a competitor, Google’s Washington office helped write an antitrust complaint to the Justice Department and other government authorities asserting that Microsoft’s new Vista operating system discriminates against Google software. Last night, under a compromise with federal and state regulators, Microsoft agreed to make changes to Vista’s operations.

So Google’s brilliant staff are now spending some of their intellect thinking up ways to sic the government on Microsoft, which is once again forced to give consumers a less useful product in order to stave off further regulation. The Post’s previous story on Google’s complaint called it ”allegations by Google that Microsoft’s new operating system unfairly disadvantages competitors.”

Bingo! That’s what antitrust law is really about–not protecting consumers, or protecting competition, but protecting competitors. Competitors should go produce a better product in the marketplace, but antitrust law sometimes gives them an easier option–asking the government to hobble their more successful competitor.

Recall the famous decision of Judge Learned Hand in the 1945 Alcoa antitrust decision. Alcoa, he wrote, “insists that it never excluded competitors; but we can think of no more effective exclusion than progressively to embrace each new opportunity as it opened, and to face every newcomer with new capacity already geared into a great organization, having the advantage of experience, trade connection and the elite of personnel.” In other words, Alcoa’s very skill at meeting consumers’ needs was the rope with which it was hanged.

I look forward to more competition between Microsoft and Google–and the next innovative company–to bring more useful products to market. But I’m saddened to realize that the most important factor in America’s economic future — in raising everyone’s standard of living — is not land, or money, or computers; it’s human talent. And some part of the human talent at another of America’s most dynamic companies is now being diverted from productive activity to protecting the company from political predation and even to engaging in a little predation of its own. The parasite economy has sucked in another productive enterprise, and we’ll all be poorer for it.

Posted on June 20, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Economics & Economic Philosophy,General,Tech, Telecom & Internet

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