Archive for October, 2014

The Next Congress

Democrats are increasingly pessimistic about holding the Senate. As Greg Sargent notes in the Washington Post:

with Democrats narrowly favored in New Hampshire and North Carolina, the route to 50 seats will probably also require Democratic wins in Colorado and Iowa at the outset, followed by a surprise pickup elsewhere. This is not impossible. But it’s difficult.

After the recounts, runoffs, and lawsuits have run their course, it looks like the GOP will control both chambers.

What then? The Editorial Board of the New York Times predicts a continuation of obstructionism.

It’s not just that they are committed to time-wasting, obstructionist promises like repeal of health care reform, which everyone knows President Obama would veto. The bigger problem is that the party’s leaders have continually proved unable to resist pressure from the radical right, which may very well grow in the next session of Congress.

The conclusion: “It’s hard to imagine a Congress less productive than this one, but obstructionism could actually get worse if a new majority took hold.”

Yet, imagine if a Democratic President and a Republican Congress could actually work together to produce meaningful reforms? Rather than obstructionism, perhaps it would feel a lot like the 1995-2000 period, one that brought an expansion of trade, entitlement reform, and a balanced budget. There is an interesting piece on Politico that asks several prominent scholars and past/present policymakers where there may be room for bipartisan agreements before the 2016 elections. Among the eleven “bipartisan ideas that might actually pass,” the most consequential would be:

  • Rehabilitate our prison laws (presented by Rand Paul, who provides a brief discussion of his REDEEM Act)
  • Stop bulk data collection (discussed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, coauthor of the USA FREEDOM Act)
  • Immigration reform (identified by Jon Huntsman and Lee Hamilton)
  • New Trade Promotion Authority ( presented by Robert Zoellick)

There are others that I am less enthusiastic about (e.g., increased military funding, advocated by—surprise, surprise—William Kristol) and a few I might have hoped for but were absent (e.g., progressive indexing in Social Security, the elimination of most tax expenditures). The key point: unified GOP control of the Congress could open the door to a productive period of significant reform. It has happened before.

Any predictions about Tuesday’s results and the long-term ramifications?

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Registration for the next New Hampshire Liberty Forum is now open. It will take place March 5-8, 2015 in Manchester, N.H. Sponsored by the Free State Project, the Forum is an excellent opportunity to find out what is going on in the burgeoning liberty movement in New Hampshire. At this year’s forum, in addition to headliners Patrick Byrne (overstock.com CEO), Jeffrey Tucker (FEE, Liberty.me), and Sheriff Mack, Liberty Forum will feature David Boaz (Cato), Walter Block (Loyola), former Pileite James Otteson (Wake Forest), and friend of Pileus William Ruger (CKI, Texas State). And that’s just the start – I’m helping to put together some of the workshops and panels, and we have some interesting and unusual speakers yet to be confirmed. Like the last PorcFest, this year’s Liberty Forum will focus on interactive events and workshops showcasing what’s happening now in New Hampshire and planning for the future.

This year’s event takes place at a new venue, the Manchester Radisson, which is the largest conference center in the state. We simply outgrew the Nashua Crowne Plaza. Expect 500-700 attendees this year. In some ways, it will feel like a much smaller, more intimate conference because of the breakout sessions and social mixers scattered throughout the schedule.

Hope to see you there!

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The New York Times had piece this weekend on the IRS and asset forfeiture:

Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

In the kind of logic that only passes as logic when backed with the authority of the state:

Under the Bank Secrecy Act, banks and other financial institutions must report cash deposits greater than $10,000. But since many criminals are aware of that requirement, banks also are supposed to report any suspicious transactions, including deposit patterns below $10,000.

So deposits of over $10,000 are suspicious. Since criminals know that, deposits of under $10,000 are also suspicious. And suspicion—not proof of a criminal act—is sufficient for a seizure warrant. You can prove your innocence, of course. But that can be a daunting challenge once you have been stripped of your resources.

The one consolation—as of today, the IRS doesn’t have drones.

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Friday Links

Federal revenues ($3.02 trillion) for fiscal year 2014 are above estimates and have set a new record. Another record: $4 billion spent in the 2014 midterms. Question: are there no limits to how much one might spend to earn the right to spend?

Republicans support entitlement reform, unless they don’t (which is the case as elections approach). Yet, there is hope for bipartisanship on one Social Security reform.

The return of the master? Not Keynes, but Alvin Hansen and secular stagnation, or at least that is one fear.

There is now Ebola in New York. Even though the number of cases of Ebola contracted in the US still lags behind the number of men who have married Kim Kardashian.

Rand Paul makes a major foreign policy speech on “conservative realism.” The text is here.

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Last week I was in Barcelona for two days, giving a talk at an event on “the right to decide,” sponsored by the Centre Maurits Coppieters (nonprofit arm of the European Free Alliance, the European Parliament group for ideologically mainstream minority nationalist parties) and by the Fundació Josep Irla (nonprofit arm of the Catalan Republican Left [ERC], largest pro-independence party in Catalonia). I also did some media interviews. You can see some excerpts of my interview with Catalonia’s TV3 evening news here (in Catalan).

I was interested in going to find out more about Catalonia’s independence movement and its prospects. For background on the Catalan movement, see my post here on Pileus from September 24, 2012, two weeks after the massive Catalan National Day demonstrations that kicked off the current process. (That post, including its forecasts, has held up pretty well, I’d say.)

Now that the Spanish Constitutional Court has invalidated the consulta (consultative plebiscite) that the Catalan Government had authorized with the support of over two-thirds of Catalan MP’s and three-quarters of the Catalan electorate, the way forward is murky. An official consultation will not now happen. Instead, tens of thousands of volunteer poll workers are signing up to help with an unofficial poll that will involve ballots and ballot boxes and occur on November 9.

It remains to be seen how successful the November 9 consultation will be. The pro-independence parties and civil society organizations are trying hard to mobilize voters and volunteers for the event. The anti-independence parties are boycotting the vote, as indeed are some far-left types who hate Artur Mas, such as the leader of the ex-communist, ecosocialist party ICV-EUiA, which otherwise supports the “right to decide” and remains agnostic on independence.

If the November 9 consultation is successful, then the pro-independence parties will try to negotiate a “unitary party list” for early elections to the Catalan Parliament. They will treat this election as a plebiscite-by-proxy, and if an absolute majority of seats and votes go to the pro-independence list, Artur Mas will take it as a mandate for independence.

However, several difficulties remain. The more radically independentist party, ERC, wants to declare independence right away after a successful “plebiscitary election.” Artur Mas’ party, Convergence and Union (CiU), is divided between independentists and those favoring a solution like confederation. (Technically, the party is a long-standing alliance between two separate parties, the now-independentist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and the autonomist Democratic Union of Catalonia.) Generally, the last few days have seen more division and acrimony among secessionist leaders than the previous two years, and if it continues, that division will alienate voters. Civil society groups continue to call for unity among the pro-independence leaders.

Another difficulty is that while a majority of Catalans with an opinion on the matter favor independence (a recent El Mundo poll had the anti-independence side ahead within the margin of error, but their polls have always been biased in an anti-independence direction), polls suggest the pro-independence parties would not together gain a majority in early elections. The reason for this is that many independentists are not in the secessionist parties. For a successful result, the “unitary list” will need to contain important leaders from civil society and non-secessionist parties.

If the Catalan process stumbles now, it will be a shame, because it will show the Spanish government that they can face down demands for more autonomy simply by standing pat and threatening to arrest politicians. Spanish autonomous communities like Catalonia enjoy far less autonomy than American states (they are not allowed, for instance, to vary the overall tax burden from a central standard).

The most likely outcome of the process now seems to be (more…)

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The Continuing “Crisis”

Things are moving rapidly as the nation continues to respond to the Ebola “crisis.” Schools are closing (NYT). The military is in on the action, as CNN reports, “forming a 30-person “quick-strike team” equipped to provide direct treatment to Ebola patients inside the United States.” Most significant, President Obama has named an Ebola czar, Thomas Klain, whose qualifications include serving as an aide to Vice President Biden. Hopefully, Klain (who was also a top lawyer for the 2000 Gore Recount Committee) will not take responsibility for counting the number of Ebola “victims.” It remains stubbornly stable at 3: Eric Duncan, “patient zero,” who contracted the disease in Liberia and died, and two nurses (Nina Pham and Amber Vinson) who appear to be recovering.

This number–three–is not the number that matters. The web is ablaze with stories, as a Google search reveals:

  • US Ebola crisis: 27.4 million hits
  • Eric Duncan: 86.1 million hits
  • Nina Pham: 18.3 million hits
  • Amber Vinson: 1.26 million hits

And then there are the polls. Opinion polls reveal little faith in the Centers for Disease Control and the President’s handling of the “crisis.” A new Politico poll reveals a larger percentage of respondents believe that George W. Bush “was more effective at managing the basic functions of the federal government” (38 percent) than Barack Obama (35 percent)…26 percent see them as equally (in)effective.

All of this is a concern for a simple reason. As the Washington Post reports, Democratic strategists “fear President Obama’s response to Ebola in the United States could become a political liability in the midterm election and Republicans see an opportunity to tie increasing concerns about the disease to the public’s broader worries about Obama’s leadership.”

With the election in two weeks, one can only imagine that the government response to the continuing “crisis” will only escalate.

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The Risk of Ebola

Chairman Mao once remarked “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” It would appear that we are in a period of “utter chaos.” First, ISIS dominated the news. Now we have the Ebola “outbreak.” The situation is “excellent” from a political perspective precisely because crises (real or constructed) provide windows of opportunity for offering explanations and policy proposals that may have little direct connection to the underlying reality.

It remains to be seen whether Ebola will become a genuine risk in the US. Given everything I know about risk regulation, I have been a bit skeptical about the media coverage of the Ebola “outbreak,” although when fundraisers are cancelled, it gives me pause (unless polling mysteriously entered the calculus).

Regardless of risk, Ebola may continue to attract attention precisely because it creates an opportunity to revisit key arguments about policy and the role of the state in society. As Megan McArdle notes:

You might find this surprising. The Ebola virus is not running for office. It does not have a policy platform, or any campaign white papers on burning issues. It doesn’t even vote. So how could it neatly validate all our preconceived positions on government spending, immigration policy, and the proper role of the state in our health care system? Stranger still: How could it validate them so beautifully on both left and right?

Drawing on McArdle: the problem is the Ebola “outbreak” (or more precisely, two cases of Ebola contracted in a single hospital). The explanations include (1). A failure to protect our borders; (2) A failure to fund adequately the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control; (3) The inadequacy of anything short of a single-payer system of health care; (4) Obama’s failures as president or the austerity policies of the Republican Congress (5) Our failure to deal with climate change; and (5) The growing trends in income inequality).

In some ways, the “crisis” of Ebola seems to resemble the current concerns over ISIS-ISIL. The real nature of the risk to national security is far less important than the multiple ways in which a situation can be framed as a means of supporting pre-exiting political arguments and solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions rarely involve a reduction in the role of the state or an expansion of civil liberties.

Bottom line: the greatest risk posed by Ebola may be the political response.


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