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Archive for September, 2010

The President is holding a formal news conference today (a rarity in this administration). Josh Gerstein (Politico) has a piece entitled “Seven Questions for Barack Obama” that is definitely worth your time. Gerstein offers some serious questions. For example:

You’ve defended the constitutional right of Muslims to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero in New York, even though its deeply offensive to some 9/11 families. The Rev. Terry Jones in Florida has suggested he too has a constitutional right to burn the Quran to send a message, yet you’ve implored him not to – because it will anger and offend some Muslims. Do you worry some Americans might question why you don’t call for the same restraint on the part of the mosque developers?

Let us imagine that you had the opportunity to offer a question or two to the President. Furthermore, imagine that he was compelled to provide a complete and frank response (once again, a rarity for most presidents). What question would you ask?

I have several, but I will reserve the right to submit them later if need be.

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(First post here.) A temporary stay of execution has been granted. I will meet with the code inspector on Monday morning to talk about what he wants me to do. This morning, before he called, I hewed the elderberries in front down to 3 feet or less to remove the “sight obstruction” objection. The shrubs look pretty sad and spindly now. If the complainer’s goal was to force me to make my garden accord more with his or her tastes, I fear the effort has been in vain.

the first casualties

On the other side of the garden is a warehouse with a small parking lot. From the driveway and parking lot of that property, there is clearly no obstructed view of the street or the sidewalk, where it crosses paths with places where automobiles go.

great wall of switchgrass

The obstructed view complaint is rather silly, in my view, but at least it has some public safety justification. Anyone who has been to Vancouver, British Columbia has seen the streets lined with enormous, dense, Stavanger, Norway: Where the streets are lined with the bodies of the slain.evergreen hedges. It seems appropriate for local governments to set their own standards in gray areas such as these. As I mentioned in the first post, I will comply with any reasonable request to keep the vegetation low near my driveway. Whether or not this case is resolved amicably depends on what kinds of demands the inspector makes. The letter of the ordinance requires that the “ingress and egress” of a private driveway should have clear views of the sidewalk and street. Fine. That’s what cutting the elderberries accomplished. But I don’t think that I should have to cut the entire perimeter of the garden to a stubbly three feet or, worse, ten inches; there’s no public safety justification for that.

(*) Props to Grover Cleveland for the witticism.

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Jumping the Carp

Look how affectionate they are.

At what point does the appointing of federal government “czars” become just one too many? Perhaps when President Obama appoints an Asian carp czar? I know it’s getting bad with these lovable fish (see, for example, the discussion and pictures here), but must every problem get its own czar now?

That last question makes me wonder what other problems czars should be appointed to oversee. Any suggestions?

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The World Economic Forum’s  Global Competitiveness Report has been released. You can read a summary in the Washington Post or go directly to download the report and the fascinating data tables here. As one might expect, the US has slipped from first to fourth (of 139 nations) over the past several years. Some of the data on how the US is doing relative to its competitors is disturbing. For example,

  • Government budget balance relative to GDP (117th), placing the US between the UK and Romania
  • Size of the government debt relative to GDP (122nd ), placing the US between Côte d’Ivoire and Hungary.
  • National savings rate (130th ), placing the US between Burundi and Serbia

These are based on official data sources. What I find far most interesting  are some of the data tables that speak to corporate perceptions of the government. The data is collected as part of the World Economic Forum’s Executive Opinion Survey.

  • Protection of property rights (40th), placing the US between Gambia and Malaysia
  • Diversion of public funds to companies, individuals, or groups due to corruption (34th), placing the US between Botswana and Chile
  • Public trust of politicians (54th), placing the US between Estonia and the UK
  • Favoritism in decisions of public officials (55th), placing the US between Lithuania and Tajikistan.
  • Irregular Payments and bribes to public officials (40th), placing the US between Spain and Poland
  • Wastefulness of government spending (68th), placing the US between Ghana and El Salvador
  • Burden of regulation (49th), placing the US between Guyana and Jordan
  • Efficiency of  legal framework in settling business disputes (33rd), placing the US between Botswana and Ireland
  • Efficiency of legal framework in challenging regulations (35th), between Uruguay and Gambia
  • Transparency of government policymaking (41st), placing the US between Saudi Arabia and India
  • Taxation: Data table 6.04 presents the rank ordering of nations based on the question: “What impact does the level of taxes in your country have on incentives to work or invest?” The US falls 71st out of 139 nations (the better the ranking, the less the perceived impact of taxation).  Data table 6.05 rank orders nations based on the total tax rate on businesses. The US, with a total tax rate of 46.3 percent has a higher rate than 88 of the 139 nations.

The US has long had an anti-statist culture and there has long been an adversarial relationship between business and the state. But I must admit, I find these figures striking. If we assume that economic recovery depends on corporate investment decisions, and these decisions are influenced by perceptions of the larger political-institutional environment, none of this can be good news.

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Will voters please remember this the next time a sports team threatens to leave town if the government doesn’t build it a stadium (from the NY Times):

With more than four decades of evidence to back them up, economists almost uniformly agree that publicly financed stadiums rarely pay for themselves. The notable successes like Camden Yards in Baltimore often involve dedicated taxes or large infusions of private money. Even then, using one tax to finance a stadium can often steer spending away from other, perhaps worthier, projects.

While these deals are bad for taxpayers and the local economy, they are boons to wealthy owners, wealthy players, politicians, unions, and other connected individuals.  No wonder they get built.

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Of Korans and Mosques

Why is burning the Koran any more offensive than building a mosque near Ground Zero?

I do not mean this question as mere provocation or as posturing. Advocates of building the mosque near Ground Zero believe that it will encourage interfaith harmony, illustrate to the world American tolerance, and be an instance of respecting private individuals’ rights to (a) free speech and (b) private property. They accuse opponents of racism and bigotry, and believe that sensitivity to the feelings or emotions of relatives, friends, and neighbors of those who were killed in the 9/11 tragedy do not outweigh the benefits. Indeed, the fact that the mere proposal of the mosque has led to such hostile reaction from a strong majority of all Americans indicates all the more that the mosque is needed.

For their part, the opponents of the mosque acknowledge and affirm their belief in religious tolerance and in the right to free speech. They claim, however, that building a mosque so close to Ground Zero would seem to them the equivalent of an Islamic Arc de Triomphe, outrageously insensitive to the still-deep wounds people feel from having had thousands of innocent people murdered in the name of that very religion. Just put it somewhere else, they say. (James Taranto of the WSJ says at least 1.3 miles away.)

Now comes the pastor of a small church in Florida who wants to burn the Koran. The reaction nationwide, and indeed in many places around the world, has been swift and nearly unanimous: This is an outrageous act of insensitivity. The President of Pakistan said that “anyone who even thought of such a despicable act must be suffering from a diseased mind and a sickly soul.”

There is an eerie reversed similarity here. Many of the same people who have condemned the opponents of the proposed mosque as mere racist bigots whose sensitivies thus deserve no respect are now claiming that the opponents of the proposed Koran-burning have sensitivies that must be respected.

But why is the one proposed act defensible and the other not? The proponents in both cases claim that they make important, even necessary, statements, that a tolerant American should allow them, and that opponents are suffering from an emotional malady or an incomplete understanding of what their reasons are for what they propose.

And in both cases opponents claim that the proposals are outrageously insensitive to people’s justified beliefs.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that both are indeed outrageously insensitive, and people of good faith should oppose them both. But is there a consistent principle among those who oppose the one but not the other? Or is it that some people’s sensibilities are more important than those of others? Or perhaps it is that, as General Petraeus suggested, Muslim outrage at burning Korans can lead to violent bloodshed, whereas New Yorkers’ outrage at a Ground Zero mosque will lead to little more than internalized hurt feelings.

If that last possibility is at work, consider what an incentive structure that establishes. It sounds a lot like “might makes right”: If you want people to start respecting your views, don’t try arguing or protesting; try threatening them with violence. Is that really a principle we want to let guide us?

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I’m a native plant gardener. I’ve removed all of my back lawn and replaced it with native trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, and grass and grass-like species, and I’ve removed most of my front lawn and done the same, apart from some mown paths. Why? Because native plants are better for the environment. Our wildlife, from insects to birds, coevolved with these plants and are well adapted to using them for survival. Alien plants often require special help to survive (watering, fertilizing, spraying with pesticides, none of which I do), or else they take over because they lack their natural predators to keep them in check. My native garden has attracted many species of birds, including things like flycatchers that one rarely sees in cities. The garden is awash in bees, moths, and butterflies the entire summer. Here are some pictures of the gardens:

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Today I received a notice of code violations. Supposedly someone complained about my front yard, and now the town is giving me two days (!) to remedy the violations, or the town will come and mow the garden down and bill me for the pleasure.

The first violation is straightforward and easily dealt with. The town prohibits trees and shrubs from obstructing vision from private driveways and requires them to be no more than three feet in height. No problem – I try to keep the shrubs by the sidewalk trimmed for public convenience, but some of them are as tall as five feet. I’ll give them a bad haircut now, and then in the fall, as per usual, I will cut them to the ground (these species respond well to this kind of hard pruning).

It’s the next citation that I find very troubling:

According to the notice, “weed and plant growth” in excess of 10 inches is prohibited. Well, that would prohibit pretty much any garden, wouldn’t it? But they clearly misrepresented the text of the ordinance, the definitions in which read as follows:

GRASS, WEEDS or PLANT GROWTH
All grasses, annual plants, trees or vegetation that are harmful to the public welfare, including stumps, roots, filth, garbage, or trash. The term “grass, weeds and plant growth” shall not include cultivated flowers, healthy trees, shrubs, or gardens.

NOXIOUS WEEDS
Plant growth deemed by the Town of Tonawanda Code Enforcement Officer as potentially dangerous to the public welfare, or such plant growth that is an unattractive public nuisance or grows in an undesirable location.

In short, my garden is fully exempted from this ordinance. Furthermore, the code enforcement officer followed the wrong procedure in citing my property. From the ordinance:

B. Written notice may be given by registered mail addressed to the owner of the parcel of real property in question together with posting at the parcel of real property in question or by personal delivery to the owner. Service shall be deemed complete upon the deposit of the registered mailing in a postpaid envelope and the posting at the real property in question and, if by personal delivery, upon the delivery of notice in person to the owner of the parcel of real property.

C. Such notice shall specify the violation(s) as determined by the Code Enforcement Officer and shall direct the owner of the parcel of real property in question to remedy the violation(s) and bring the parcel of real property into compliance with the provisions of this chapter within 10 calendar days of service of notice.

The notice did not come by registered mail; it came by regular mail. The letter does not give me 10 days from the date of service; it gives me 7 days from the date on the letter (just 2 days from the date I received it).

I believe I am on firm legal ground. The concern, however, is that the town will come and mow down my gardens without due process. This has happened all over the country and in Canada. Here’s one example from Illinois, and here’s another from Toronto. The Environmental Protection Agency even provides advice to homeowners on fighting their town governments!

From a utilitarian perspective, government should probably be subsidizing my work rather than prohibiting it. I’m providing benefits to the community and the environment. I’m still optimistic that this will end well, that I’ll be able to get in touch with either the inspector or the mayor, and the town will come to their senses. If not… watch this space.

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Incohesive States Have More Secessionism!(Obligatory disclaimer: I like most of the work these authors do, and this new dataset they’re presenting looks very promising. I just couldn’t help remarking on this.)

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The Obama administration’s new wave of economic proposals is a curious mixture of revenue-neutral spending and modest tax cuts. On Labor Day, President Obama mounted the stage in Milwaukee to offer a $50 billion in new infrastructure spending (combined with the creation of an infrastructure bank and renewal of the surface transportation infrastructure bill).  (see WSJ coverage here).

According to Jackie Calmes (NYT), the President will introduce additional measures at a scheduled Wednesday speech in Cleveland. They will include changes in the tax code “allowing businesses to deduct from their taxes through 2011 the full value of new equipment purchase, from computers to utility generators, to increase demand for goods and create jobs” and “a provision to expand and make permanent a tax credit for corporations’ research and development expenses.”

Clearly, the administration is attempting to salvage the midterm elections by creating the impression that it is focused like a laser beam on the economy. At the same time, it is attempting to design programs that could potentially win the favor of Republicans and deficit-weary Democrats facing a tough November. Thus, the infrastructure initiative is to be deficit neutral, funded through the elimination of various corporate tax deductions and the depletion allowances for oil and gas companies. And the other measures are tax cuts for business. As Calmes reports:

Though liberal and labor groups have been agitating for public works spending, Mr. Obama and his advisers are emphasizing business tax cuts in hopes of drawing Republican support — or, failing that, to show that Republicans are so determined to thwart Mr. Obama that they will oppose even ideas that they and most business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, advocate.

Will any of this matter? To begin with, there is little to suggest that Republicans are going to support any economic  proposal made by the administration (if you have any doubt, consult the WSJ piece cited above). President Obama might as well right off the Right.

Hypothetically, the Left—currently dispirited—could be mobilized in greater numbers if the administration embraced a larger stimulus. But a revenue-neutral infrastructure project (so much for the embrace of Keynesianism) and a scattering of business tax cuts are likely to have little effect  and only fuel the criticisms of Left intellectuals. Consider Paul Krugman, who argues that the $50 billion package is too small and won’t pass anyway. “My response to the administration plan, at least as best as I can respond given a massive case of jet lag, is a big eh.”

Voters, already skeptical of Washington and convinced that the administration is incapable of managing the economy will likely view the administration’s proposals as transparently political, if they notice any at all.

Corporations, sitting on cash and unwilling to invest under conditions of uncertainty will be unlikely to reverse their positions on the even of an election.

So what is to be gained?

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Bruce Caldwell makes the case for teaching the history of economic thought.  I agree – and as Sven can attest, I have made such a case for studying classics since the mid-1990′s.  As Peter Boettke has argued (if I am remembering correctly), intellectual markets do not perfectly clear – so there is something valuable (in the purely instrumental sense) about going back and reading dusty old books.     

Here is one paragraph of Caldwell’s argument:

“Studying the history of economic thought allows students to see where current theories and ways of thinking came from. In itself that’s a useful exercise, but one with further benefits—for as one learns more about the history of one’s discipline, a whole new set of insights arise. Despite the alleged “progress” in economic thinking over the past two centuries, it is remarkable how many old ideas (both good ones and not so good ones) keep resurfacing. Students need to understand that the idea that we have nothing to learn from the past– a belief too often expressed by economists – is just a scientistic prejudice.”

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Toxin-Free Education?

Everything I’ve seen about the $75.5-million Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences public school in California focuses on the toxins apparently in the soil beneath it.  However, if I were a parent with a student attending the school, I’d be more worried about the potential for toxins within the school.  Specifically, it is difficult to imagine that the place will provide a real education for students rather than political indoctrination given “the school will be devoted to environmental themes.”  I can only imagine what will go on inside its walls; I doubt it will be a focus on the basics.  And that is a shame as college professors like me are faced with more and more new students who lack sound writing and reading comprehension skills, let alone all of the other foundational skills and knowledge necessary for a successful college experience.  Let’s hope the Carson-Gore school will at least teach students to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the use of DDT and how to measure the carbon footprint of a 10,000 square foot mansion (the size of Gore’s “house” in Nashville) or smaller residential mansions (like Gore’s new seaside villa in Montecito, California).

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Whenever I’m at a loss for blog material, I can just check out the latest Krugman column. This Sunday’s pleasure was entitled “1938 in 2010,” and I’ll just quote the silliest bit:

From an economic point of view World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise… But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity.

But the GDP figures during World War II were essentially made up, being based substantially on administratively determined “prices.” It turns out that Americans’ living standards were at best flat during the war (and that’s not counting the soldiers, of course). Someone, please let Dr. Krugman know about Robert Higgs’ research (here and here).

UPDATE: The myth of World War 2′s economic benefits is of course bipartisan, as evidenced in today’s vituperative post on rightist site Redstate.com.

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By now, virtually everyone knows about the corruption in Bell, California, a small city of 40,000 residents where the median household income is $40,000, and the city manager made more than $800,000 a year and the part-time city councillors around $100,000 a year, while raising property taxes and overcharging their residents for sewage services. The reason that Bell officials were exempt from state salary limits was that they had adopted an ordinance turning Bell into a “charter city,” which enjoys a measure of home rule that other localities lack, including autonomy over setting the salaries of public officials.

More generally, local governments are often corrupt. Several Connecticut mayors have gone to jail, and cities like New Orleans and Chicago have made the news for the wrong reasons plenty of times. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that Americans generally thought of local government as least corrupt and the federal government as most corrupt. If perceptions matched reality, why did that reality change?

Over at Front Porch Republic, Pete Peterson fingers Bell’s citizens’ disengagement from the process as the culprit. Fewer than 400 people voted in the special election that made Bell a charter city, and they overwhelmingly approved the measure, 336-54, which made no mention of the salary issue. The political class generally advocates consolidation as the solution.

As a political scientist, I don’t see much to gain from blaming Bell’s citizens for their disengagement. That’s a choice they’ve made, and I don’t think it differs much from the norm across most of America’s cities and towns. How many people vote in those school board and budget elections? Local elections tend to be dominated by people with conflicts of interest (public employees). The real question is: Why are citizens so disengaged from their local governments?

Part of the problem is the lack of local control. Apart from exceptional moments like the revelations about the corruption in Bell, local government seems low-salience to most people. Why bother to get out and vote when the issues don’t get anyone excited? If local governments had more control over setting policy rather than merely administrating, more people would be interested in having say in how the local governments govern.

Another problem is that local elections seem designed to be low-turnout affairs. They’re often held in odd-numbered years in months like March. Who’s thinking about voting then? And who has the time on a busy work day?

Here’s a package of electoral & institutional reforms I would like to see state & local governments embrace:

1) Move all state and local elections to the same day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November – every odd-numbered year. Since state and local governments are symbiotic, it makes sense to elect all these candidates together. Furthermore, state autonomy is enhanced when state elections are de-linked from federal elections. One of the failings of today’s American federalism is the fact that people vote in state elections based on what they want to happen at the federal level. This November, many good Democrats at the state level will be swept out of office because people are mad at Democrats in the U.S. Congress. In 2006 and 2008, it happened to Republicans.

2) State elections should be partisan, and local elections should be non-partisan. Local elections should not be about ideology, and partisan labels in local elections probably cause more confusion about candidates’ positions than they dispel. At the state level, it should not be easy to vote a party line.

3) Every voter in state/local elections should receive a ballot-by-mail several weeks before election day. (S)he can return this ballot up to a week before election day, and the vote will be counted, or can vote on election day instead. This reform raises turnout but also makes voters think of themselves more as stockholders with a right and duty to participate in the governance of their community.

4) Allow the formation of functional overlapping competing jurisdictions (FOCJs) through neighborhood participation. These are special-purpose administrations responsible for managing service delivery over a particular geographic area. There is no reason why water & sewer and garbage pickup have to be handled by the same entity. Allow neighborhood precincts to fluidly opt in and out of different service-providing jurisdictions. Those that provide the best service at lowest cost will tend to attract the most neighborhoods. Again, this is a process that should be citizen-driven, with all of the above electoral reforms in place.

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This photo probably wouldn’t catch your attention unless you knew that the rider is a 13-year-old kid, a boy who was killed this past week racing his motorcycle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  He was killed when he fell from his motorcycle and was struck by another biker–a 12-year-old.  Naturally, a bulk of the cyber-comments on this story seem to be along the lines of “How could any parent let their child take on this kind of risk?”  I can’t say I disagree with those comments.  This seems like a highly risky activity not appropriate for children.

But kids do risky things quite regularly.  Yesterday evening I went to our local high school football game.  It was an enjoyable game, but there were injuries, as there usually are at football games.  I wondered to myself what kind of society allows its children to play games that require an ambulance to be parked near the end zone, with paramedics on hand?  What kind of parents allow this?  Apparently parents like me, since my boys have played tackle football.

This past summer my two oldest boys (18 and 16) went on a river rafting trip with a church youth group.  Apparently the water was high, and it was quite a harrowing experience for some of the boys.  I wasn’t really enthusiastic about my boys going on the trip.  I have to say I don’t see a lot of difference between dodging bolders in white water and dodging cars on the freeway, but we usually don’t approve of youth activities to dodge cars on the freeway.  I’m not sure why we approve of river rafting.  Yes, it’s fun and exciting, and there is something to be said for facing fear and risk.  But is that sufficient?

I think this is a really tricky question from a political perspective.  I really don’t want the state telling me whether or not I can let me kids play football or go on river trips.  On the other hand, if there were a law prohibiting children from motorcycle racing, I would support it.  I don’t have any idea what kind of principle can be applied that would tell us when the state can appropriately step in and prohibit children from taking certain risks.  It does seem to be a weird outcome that pre-teens are allowed to race motorcycles at over 120 miles per hour, but required to wear a seat belt in a car they are not allowed to drive.

Young underdeveloped minds are not very good at making decisions about risk.  I used to live on a hill where young men would race their long boards down the hill in front of my house without helmets, demonstrating the human brain’s lack of capacity to protect itself.   Some of these same people never grow up, turning into adults who are constantly craving something dangerous to do.  I can understand enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes from undertaking active, risky activities (I have on many occasions gone downhill skiing faster than I should and without a helmet), but doesn’t maturity mean we realize there are other ways to find happiness in life than by putting one’s life at risk just for enjoyment?  Doesn’t allowing one’s children to take on these types of risks constitute a particularly harmful type of immaturity, and doesn’t it make sense for the state to play an active role in protecting children from the immaturity of their parents?

But to what extent?  Anyone have an answer?

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The new jobless figures are out. The US lost another 54,000 jobs, pushing unemployment from 9.5 percent to 9.6 percent. There should be no real surprises here. (See the WSJ coverage). Following the release of the job numbers, the President remarked the economy is moving in “the right direction; we just have to speed it up” and promised  “a broader package of new ideas next week.”

The “broader package of new ideas” has been under consideration for some time. According to Glenn Thrush (Politico): “Administration officials have been huddling almost continuously during the past week, brainstorming for ideas that would boost employment without hiking the massive federal deficit.” Regardless of the outcome, Thrush predicts: “the administration will have a tough time selling nearly any package to terrified, Obama-phobic Hill Democrats who increasingly blame the president – and his ambitious, expensive legislative agenda – for their dismal prospects this November.”

A piece by Anne E. Kornblut and Lori Montgomery in yesterday’s Washington Post conveyed a similar sense of crisis. As the administration weighs its options—including a pay-roll tax holiday—“panic is setting in among many Democratic candidates who fear it is too late for Obama to convince voters that he understands the depth of the nation’s economic woes and can fix them.”

Yet, even if the administration can steer additional stimulus through the Congress, it is doubtful that it will make a difference by the elections.

If administration officials can agree on a policy path, it is not clear that it would be approved in the current environment on Capitol Hill. And even if Congress did approve new measures to bolster the economy, they would probably come too late to make a difference in the lives of recession-weary voters before the midterms. “Substantively, there is nothing they could do between now and Election Day that would have any measurable effect on the economy. Nothing,” said the Brookings Institution’s William Galston, who was a domestic-policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Regardless of the administration’s “broader package of new ideas,” all of this may be moot. At this point, there would seem to be few incentives for House and Senate Republicans to cooperate with the administration given their rather stunning lead in recent polls.  Absent some exogenous shock, the GOP seems on a glide path to electoral victory.

Of course, two things should temper Republican elation. First, there is evidence that current voter preferences are best interpreted as being as much a rejection of incumbent Democrats as they are an embrace of the GOP.  As a new Gallup Poll reveals: “Among voters backing Republican candidates, 44% say their preference is ‘more a vote against the Democratic candidate,’ while 48% say it is ‘more a vote for the Republican candidate.’” The implications: “negative voting may be the pivotal factor.”

Second, if the GOP prevails in the elections it will have to do something other than rely on worn talking points.  It will have to prove that it is capable of governing and delivering a set of policy outcomes that are superior to those provided by the current Democratic majority. Those of us who remember the last  GOP majority might find this  to be a tall order. Unfortunately for the GOP, the most detailed proposals to date have focused on serious entitlement reform that will be

(1) difficult to sell in the midst of a deep recession, and

(2) all  too easy to portray as part of a “reckless privatization  plan” designed to force old people to eat dog food while favoring big business (I can already imagine Krugman’s columns).

Absent serious progress on the economy, the same fickle majority that votes against the Democrats in 2010 may well vote against the Republicans in 2012.

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Overhaul: A Must Read

Marcus Baram at Huffington Post has an extensive discussion of the forthcoming book by Obama’s former auto industry czar Steven Rattner, Overhaul.  The book, due to be released in October, should be quite interesting insofar as it provides some accounts of the administration’s internal dynamics.

President Obama does not come off to well, asking insightful questions like: “Why can’t they make a Corolla?” when first confronting the problems in the auto industry and refusing to coordinate actions with the outgoing Bush administration. In Rattner’s words: “if his team had linked arms with the outgoing administration, as President Bush’s advisers had proposed, billions of dollars could well have been saved.”

Rahm Emanuel does not come off too well either. He is portrayed as dictating much of what went on at Treasury:

“And Rahm never hesitated to seize command, as he did after Tim’s rocky start as Treasury Secretary — Rahm had stepped in and effectively started supervising Tim on a daily basis. Such aggressiveness is fine when all is going well, but it breeds resentment that can turn into sniping when the tide recedes, as it did briefly for Rahm in early 2010 when health care reform bogged down.”

And the following may not prove endearing to the union leaders who placed so much faith in the new administration (remember card check?):

Emanuel could also be spectacularly blunt, once telling Rattner during a meeting about GM and Chrysler’s massive problems and potential bankruptcies: “Why even save GM?” When Rattner adviser Ron Bloom noted that tens of thousands of autoworker jobs were at stake, Emanuel huffed, “F*ck the UAW,” referring to the United Auto Workers union.

Overhaul sounds like a must read. Until its release, go to Baram’s piece and enjoy the excerpts. I am sure UAW President Bob King will be enjoying them.

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In a recent comment on Pileus (see here), Mark LeBar made the following point:

The beauty of the libertarian formula is that it parses real cases into tidy categories. The problem is that the tidiness is an artifact of oversimplifying a complex moral reality…

Mark has made versions of this point before, and I basically agree with it.  But where I might differ from Mark is that I think that this “tidiness” is the great strength of libertarianism.  In my mind, libertarian ideology has some real bite to it because of this tidiness.  I think there is a common tendency, when confronted with a situation in public life that is annoying or disturbing to think, “there ought to be a law against that,” or “government should do something to correct that.”  Both those on the left and the right succumb to this tendency all too often.  The tidy moral categories of libertarian thought force people to ask, “but is that really the role of government.”

Put another way, libertarians are much more likely to exercise moral reasoning over moral intuitions.  Is this a good thing?  On balance, I think it is.  On an abstract level, most people are very fond of freedom, but when it comes to actual real-world issues, they usually follow their intuitions and end up sacrificing freedom in favor of some other moral end.  Maybe these intuitions can handle the nuance of the real world better than libertarian thought, but I would not conclude that based on the kind of oppressive policies we get from both the left and the right.

Of course non-libertarians can exercise moral reasoning as well.  Certainly a variety of moral philosophies are worth our consideration.  In every day practice, though, a libertarian ideology makes people pay close attention to foundational principles and causes them to support policies that allow activities they find, on a personal level, immoral.  I believe that this is generally healthy for society.

Having overly tidy categories is a charge often made against economics as well–with respect to both normative and positive claims.  But the tidiness of economics is what gives it so much influence across the intellectual world.  It is the reason economic reasoning has infiltrated so many other social sciences.  Some say this infiltration is not good.  But tidy categories with explanatory power are more useful than messy categories with little power, in my mind.

So I’m inclined to like tidy categories.   But as I’ve said before, I’m not a good libertarian.  My basic rule is that the role of government should be severely limited, except when there is a compelling reason to extend those limits.  In most cases, the “compelling reason” I would give is not at all intellectually tidy or even coherent.  However, being committed to a libertarian starting point, gives us a clear sense of when we are crossing important boundaries and that we should do so with considerable caution and trepidation.

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Encouraging the adulteration of products. Free the Chinese honey!

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Crazy Environmentalists

I’d be surprised (and dismayed) if someone else in the vast blogosphere has not already made this point, but I think it is important to say:

James Lee (the Discovery building hostage taker and crazy environmentalist) no more represents left-wing environmentalists than do violent “right-wingers” (such as Timothy McVeigh) represent those people who are conservative, libertarian, or anti-government.  I can see conservative demagogues using Lee to bash left-environmentalists, but I think this is quite unfair even if liberal/progressive demagogues have done similar things to those of us who are largely opposed to the actions of the federal government and the recent trajectory of American politics. 

Of course, it is fun to note that Lee was apparently inspired by Al Gore’s loony manifesto.  But there is no straight line from Gore to hostage taking.  Lee and other environmental activists who have turned to personal violence are the extreme (pun intended) tail of the distribution in the environmental movement.  So let’s keep our eye on those who want to, via the political process, use the coercive power of the state to infringe on our liberty in the name of the environmental faith – and avoid demagoguery related to individual nuts.

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Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had an interesting bipartisan health care bill with the now-ousted Bob Bennett of Utah that, unfortunately, never got anywhere. But apparently he sneaked into the bill that did pass a provision that will allow states to set up their own universal insurance systems. While conservative states are backing a legal challenge to Obamacare, Wyden proposes that Oregon go through the bill’s provisions to establish its own, more flexible program:

Oregonians have demonstrated again and again that a one size fits all approach from Washington is not the best approach for the Northwest, and they have come up with innovative solutions that the Federal government has never had the flexibility or will to implement. For these reasons, I wrote Section 1332 specifically with Oregon in mind.

Section 1332 is scheduled to go into effect in 2017. I intend to introduce legislation shortly to accelerate that date to 2014. Moreover, if the bipartisan legislative leadership and the executive branch were in support, I would like to explore the possibility of Oregon moving forward with a Federal waiver even earlier.

How refreshing to see a Democrat speaking in federalist, localist terms. Of course, it is an election year, and the details of what Wyden is proposing for Oregon are yet to be seen.

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Hope and (Party) Change?

There has been more than enough bad news for Democrats lately. The other day, a new Gallup poll gave Republicans a historical 10 point lead over Democrats in the generic ballot for Congress.

Today Gallup released more dire news. “Americans saying the Republicans in Congress would do a better job than the Democrats in Congress of handling seven of nine key election issues. The parties are essentially tied on healthcare, with the environment being the lone Democratic strength.”

After spending more than a year (and a fair amount of political capital) on health care (remember the “big f’ing deal,” to quote the vice president), the Democrats’ lead on the issue is 44 to 43 percent.

Those of us who remember the circumstances surrounding entry into Iraq, might find it interesting that the GOP holds a thundering lead over Dems (55 to 33 percent) on the issue of terrorism.  Those of us who remember the dramatic post-2000 expansion of federal spending and the introduction of Medicare Part D might find it odd that the GOP also leads on the issue of controlling spending (50 to 35 percent).

Do voters suffer from amnesia or is the recession-induced hatred of incumbents and the controlling party so great that they are hoping that this time will be different?

Unless there has been something of a conversion experience in the past few years, can we reasonably expect the GOP to exhibit a level of responsibility and a fidelity to foundational principles that was sorely lacking when they held the reigns of power?

If the November midterms go the GOP’s way and there has not been some serious reflection on the mistakes of the past, my guess is that many of these numbers will quickly flip by 2012.

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