Chris EdwardsPhoto credit: House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
In my testimony last week to the House Oversight Committee, I focused on aid-to-state programs as a major source of waste in the federal budget.
The federal government spent about $560 billion on aid to the states in 2013, making it the third largest item in the budget after Social Security and defense. The aid system includes more than 1,100 different programs for education, housing, community development, and many other things.
The aid-to-state system is rife with waste and inefficiency. So I was not surprised to see that many of the 100 programs in Senator Tom Coburn’s new wastebook are aid programs. Federal aid stimulates overspending by state and local governments and encourages them to put money into dubious projects that they would not spend their own money on.
Here are some of the wasteful aid-to-state projects profiled by Coburn and his expert staff:
- $1 million for a gold-plated bus stop in Arlington, Virginia
- $50 million for a fancy parking lot (“transit center”) in Maryland that has quintupled in cost
- $65 million for New York and New Jersey to advertise that they are (supposedly) good places to do business
- $3.5 million for a New Hampshire airport to buy solar panels, which will save less than the cost of the project, and which are creating dangerous glare for pilots
- $67 million for the Alaska Bridge to Nowhere
- $195,000 from a substance-abuse program to throw a Hollywood party
- $8 million for an unfinished, unneeded, and overbudget transportation conference center—which is named after a congressman—at South Carolina State University
- $140,000 in housing aid to fix up some random house in Patterson, New Jersey, on which the city already spent $260,000, and which is only worth $171,000
- $3.9 million on a tiny airport in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which has no daily commercial service
- $1.25 million for the State of Florida to settle a lawsuit with one of its contractors
- $532,000 to beautify one block on main street in Rossville, Kansas (pop. 1,150), which Google streetview indicates is a rather empty place
- $30 million for “coastal conservation” in Mississippi, which is partly being spent on non-conservation items such as an art museum
- $800,000 for Las Vegas to award a prize to someone who has a good economic development idea
- $368,000 of “community development” money to an electric golf cart maker in Montana.
The money for all of these projects initially flows to Washington from taxpayers who live in the 50 states. It travels through the federal bureaucracies and funds generous salaries for many paper pushers, and then a reduced amount flows back to chosen state and local governments. Those governments treat the funding coming from the distant national capital as free, and they proceed to fritter it away on low-value and often hare-brained public and private schemes.
The bottom line is that the federal aid system is a roundabout and inefficient funding method for state, local, and private activities. Cutting aid programs would be a great way to reduce government waste.
Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger and Patrick J. Michaels
Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
The Federal Register has been brimming with announcements of government activities aimed to reduce/regulate carbon dioxide emissions emanating from the United States.
You may wonder why the government finds the need to pursue such action since 1) U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have already topped out and have generally been on the decline for the past 7-8 years or so (from technological advances in natural gas extraction and a slow economy more so than from already- enacted government regulations and subsidies); 2) greenhouse gases from the rest of the world (primarily driven by China) have been sky-rocketing over the same period, which lessens any impacts that our emissions reduction have); and 3) even in their totality, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have a negligible influence on local/regional/global climate change (even a immediate and permanent cessation of all our carbon dioxide emissions would likely result in a mitigation of global temperature rise of less than one-quarter of a degree C by the end of the century).
We wonder the same thing. Nevertheless, the government has lots of ideas for how to save ourselves from ourselves (with likely to opposite outcome).
Here is a summary of new announcements appearing in the Federal Register over the past month or so on actions aimed to curtail our carbon dioxide emissions (primarily the result of our desire for cheap and reliable energy—gasp!).
Posted November 26, 2013: The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced a call for review of the Technical Support Document currently justifying the Administration’s value of the social cost of carbon (SCC) used in federal cost/benefit analyses. We have discussed this announcement previously, and while it provides a glimmer of hope for injecting some new science and common sense into the government’s social cost of carbon, we are highly skeptical of a positive outcome. We mention the announcement again here, because the public comment period ends on January 27, 2014. Comments can be submitted here.
Posted December 6, 2013: The Department of Energy announced another in its seemingly endless string of intrusions into our personal choices through its energy efficiency requirement updates for all sorts of consumer products. These revised efficiency regulations rely on the SCC to offset the costs and enrich the apparent benefits of the new requirements. We have already submitted comments on several of these proposed regulations (from walk-in refrigerators to furnace fans), but they just keep on coming. The latest pertains to commercial and electric motors. Final comments are due February 4, 2014 and con be submitted here.
Posted December 31, 2013: The Department of Energy (DoE) announced that it has declined a Petition for Reconsideration of its rule updating the energy conservation standards for of microwave ovens. The Petition for Reconsideration was brought by the Landmark Legal Foundation which pointed out that the DoE used a social cost of carbon estimate in the cost/benefits analysis for the rule that had not been subject to public comment and which was some 50% higher than the value used in the C/B analysis that was available for public comment. In other words, the DoE pulled a pretty big bait and switch. We at the Cato’s Center for the Study of Science submitted comments on the Landmark Petition pointing out just how far afield from the actual science that the Administrations SCC estimate had become. The denial was disappointing, but the fight over the proper value for the SCC has now moved to the OMB (as described above).
Posted January 8, 2014: Last, but certainly not least, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its new proposed rule “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions From New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units.” This is the second iteration of the EPA’s rule which effectively seeks to prohibit the construction of any new coal-fired power plants. The Administration/EPA made a big splash back in September when they announced the details of the plan to the press, but it didn’t clear all the necessary hurdles to make it official until last week. The public comment period on the major piece of intrusive legislation is only open for 60 days, ending on March 10, 2014 (comments should be submitted here). The EPA’s initial proposal limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, announced back in April 2012, received more than 2.5 million comments. When the EPA announced the new proposed rule, the EPA withdrew the old one and announced that it was not going to consider any of the comments submitted on the original proposal. This despite the fact the new proposed rule is grounded in the same (faulty) science as the original and has effectively the same impact on coal-plants. Substantially nothing changed, but the EPA is requiring a redo of the substantial effort that it takes to file comments on such a broad proposal.
This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly there will be major federal announcement to come of rules and regulations aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions—in fact, the Administration has already promised a proposal to limit CO2 emissions from existing power plants. If you think the fight over regulations covering new power plants is contentious (with its 2.5 million comments and all), just wait until that one is proposed.
We see busy times for us ahead!
This month at Cato Unbound, we’re discussing the federal judicial nominations process: Is it broken? (Spoiler: Yes!) How did it get that way? And what can be done to fix it?
Our lead essayist is John R. Lott, Jr., author of the new book Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench. His lead essay charges that the growth of the federal government’s regulatory reach has raised the stakes in the judicial nominaitons process: Now it’s a much graver matter when the other party’s judges end up on the bench – particularly if the nominees in question are especially smart and persuasive. Lott writes:
Think that attending a top university and graduating at the top of the class is the key to your success? Not if you’re headed for a federal judgeship. In fact, today the most accomplished candidates are the most likely to be rejected. And this phenomenon has only gotten worse, with the quality of judges declining over the last four decades…
A smart, persuasive judge might convince other judges to change their votes on a case. Judges who can write powerfully worded decisions also are more likely to be cited more frequently in other judges’ decisions and to influence their decisions.
The president wants to nominate influential judges to successfully push the positions he values. His political opponents, however, naturally fear such judges—and, therefore, vehemently oppose their appointments.
Agree? Disagree? We’ll see some of each this month at Cato Unbound, and we invite you to follow the conversation as it develops. Coming up we’ll have essays by Professor Michael Teter of the University of Utah, on January 15; Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute, on January 17; and John O. McGinnis of Northwestern University, on January 20. A conversation among all four participants will then be held through the end of the month.
With most people focused on the coming of Christmas, the death of economist Walter Oi received little attention. Educated at the University of Chicago and appointed professor at the University of Rochester, Oi was an outstanding labor economist. He was no mere ivory tower advocate of liberty. He was a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American. At age 13 during World War II his family was interned in California.
Life didn’t get easier for him. His eyesight steadily deteriorated, and he could not read text upon entering college. He fully lost his sight in 1956. Yet he went on to gain a PhD, teach, research, serve on presidential commissions, and gain a long list of honors. His career should embarrass the rest of us.
Moreover, like Cato’s late chairman, Bill Niskanen, Oi stood on principle irrespective of cost. In warm tribute to the latter, economist David Henderson, a University of Rochester colleague and another Cato Institute friend, pointed to Oi’s criticism of the future prospects for agriculture when teaching at Iowa State University and opposition to proposals for government reparations for the internment of Japanese-Americans.
Oi’s research interests were many but, Henderson wrote: “If you are an American male younger than 66, you should take a moment and give thanks to economist Walter Oi. Walter died on Christmas Eve 2013. Even though you probably haven’t heard of him, he has had a profound effect on your life. He helped end military conscription in the United States.”
I am one of those who was able to choose my own way, rather than be subject to presidential diktat and sent off to fight in a stupid, unnecessary foreign war. Tens of thousands of Americans would have been alive had the draft not been available in the 1960s to provide a guaranteed supply of cannon fodder for Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s misadventure in Vietnam.
Many people played critical roles in causing this self-proclaimed free society to rely on a free people for its defense. Richard Nixon, who proposed the All-Volunteer Force. Martin Anderson, for whom I later worked in the Reagan White House, who convinced Nixon to tackle the issue. Milton Friedman, who served on the famous “Gates Commission,” which recommended the shift.
And Walter Oi, who served as a staff economist on the latter panel.
As Henderson, who now educates military officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, explained, Oi’s “passion for free labor markets was what motivated his work on the draft. His contribution was to point out—and estimate two costs. First, there was the hidden cost imposed on draftees and ‘draft-induced’ or ‘reluctant’ volunteers. … The second cost Oi estimated was the increased annual budget outlay needed to eliminate the draft.”
The AVF obviously was a moral triumph. It also turned out to be a practical achievement. The military did far better recruiting people who wanted to serve than impressing those who only wanted out. Today America has the finest military it has ever fielded, and the best in the world.
Indeed, a draft would degrade the military’s performance, requiring induction of less-qualified personnel, who are rejected today, and raising the rate of ‘indiscipline’ by filling the armed services with people who don’t want to serve. It comes as no surprise that the military leadership opposes conscription.
Walter Oi was sui generis. He personally suffered from tyrannical though democratic government. He overcame disability without complaint. He risked job and opposed government benefits because he valued honesty and principle. He backed his commitment to liberty with wide-ranging and quality economic research. And he made a huge difference in the lives of tens of millions of his countrymen.
Today, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.
Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools
First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.
During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:
As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year. In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.
But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:
A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.
By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.
In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.
Accountability Should Be To Parents
Fordham argues that school choice programs, including both vouchers and scholarship tax credits, should fall under the same accountability regimes as public schools because they utilize public funds. In Fordham’s words, “The taxpayer also needs assurances that schools are producing solid learning results for the children who participate in such programs.” This reasoning should not apply to scholarship tax credits which, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in ACSTOv. Winn, do not involve public funds at all:
Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.
But even in the case of direct government subsidies, it’s far from clear that accountability to government is necessary or even prudent, as Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas explains:
Most state funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely. For example, the largest domestic program, social security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing. But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their social security checks. They could blow it at the casino if they want. We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first.
Even in the area of education most government programs require no formal accountability. Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds. We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests. […]
Don’t parents need state testing requirements for consumer protection and to get information to make intelligent choices? Most markets generate consumer information without government mandates for them to do so. For example, I have more information than you can imagine to pick a hotel or restaurant through Trip Advisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, etc… GreatSchools.org and other market sources of information about education are already springing up as choice expands without government mandates. But if you still feel the need to require testing, why not just require choice schools to take any one of a large number of standardized tests? At least that way we place fewer restrictions on the curriculum schools could pursue.
Indeed, a recent Friedman Foundation report showed that parents actively seek out relevant information before choosing a school and are less likely to enroll their children in schools that will not provide them with the information they seek. However, barely more than half of the survey respondents said that standardized test scores are “important” and barely 10% listed “performance on standardized tests” as one of their top five reasons for choosing a school.
Uniform Testing Mandates Stifle Diversity and Innovation
While the benefit of Fordham’s proposal is dubious, the harm is more certain. By forcing every school to administer the same tests, states would induce conformity and stifle diversity and innovation. Fordham partially concedes that this is a concern, noting that if there is “a downside to this proposal, this is it.” However, they minimize the concern by claiming that the standards “only provide an endpoint” but do not prescribe a curriculum.
Though the tests do not dictate curriculum per se, they create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time. This would make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to meet the needs of individual children, rather than expecting that all children who happened to be born in the same year should progress at the same rate across subjects.
Common Core is already moving the nation’s education system toward greater uniformity. If states adopt Fordham’s proposal, they would almost entirely eliminate any viable alternative to the Common Core regime. As Professor Greene explained:
Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.
Financial Incentives Would Leave Private Schools Little Choice But To Conform
Fordham also downplays the likely effect of their proposed regulations by assuring that they “won’t scare away [private] schools,” citing a previous Fordham study which found that most private schools would participate in a school choice program even if that meant accepting such regulations. But Fordham’s finding actually reveals the gravity of the concern. Again, Coulson addressed this argument months ago:
The problem is not that private schools won’t participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. The problem is that they will. Hold-outs will be in the minority, and will gradually be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts due to the uneven fiscal playing field (much as America’s once-dominant private schools were marginalized by the spread of “free” state-run schools).
We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished.
If state governments follow Fordham’s advice and expand their authority over private schools, even Fordham will likely come to regret it. Ultimately, it won’t be Fordham’s friends who are always and everywhere in charge, but the teachers unions and other vested interests. As Professor Greene warned, “Minority religions shouldn’t favor building national churches because inevitably it won’t be their gospel being preached.”
The governor of New Hampshire just submitted an amicus brief in the lawsuit against the “Live Free or Die” state’s scholarship tax credit program. Last year, Governor Maggie Hassan unsuccessfully sought its repeal. The brief offers nothing new in the way of legal arguments. As with the ACLU and, unfortunately, the trial court judge, the governor’s brief tries to imagine a constitutional difference between tax credits and tax deductions and absurdly assumes that money that a private corporation donated to a private nonprofit that financially assists private citizens sending their children to private schools is somehow “public” money because the state could have collected it in taxes had the legislature so decided. This claim contradicts both logic and the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in ACSTO v. Winn:
Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.
The Cato Institute submitted an amicus brief defending the constitutionality of the program back in November.
What’s noteworthy here is not the legal reasoning, but the governor’s chutzpah. First, as the Union Leader noted, “Hassan is pushing state-funded, need-based scholarships for college students while trying to eliminate need-based scholarships for students in grades K-12.” The governor’s amicus brief does not explain why direct public expenditures that students can use at a Catholic college are perfectly constitutional but a low-income student using a tax-credit scholarships at a religious elementary or secondary school would, as her amicus brief melodramatically puts it, “jeopardize both the hallowed underpinnings of religious tolerance and freedom, and the prohibition against entanglement made sacred by [the] New Hampshire Constitution.”
Second, Hassan is a strong proponent of “research and development” tax credits that pick winners and losers among certain types of businesses and business activities, thereby distorting the market. Moreover, by the governor’s faulty logic, these tax credits constitute direct subsidies of public funds to profit-seeking entities. R&D tax credits clearly reduce state revenue to fund activities that businesses are generally doing anyway for their own financial self-interest.
By contrast, scholarship tax credits expand the market for private education without distorting it. Parents pick winners and losers among schools rather than the government. The corporations who receive the 85 percent tax credits do not benefit financially – indeed, they’d be better off financially had they not donated at all. Moreover, the Josiah Bartlett Center projected that, if fully utilized, the scholarship tax credits would save New Hampshire taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run by reducing state expenditures by more than they would reduce state tax revenue.
In short, Governor Hassan supports corporate welfare but opposes tax credits that assist low-income families seeking the best education for their children.
That Dennis Rodman is unconventional, even unbalanced, was evident when he played professional basketball. His athletic skills won him a lucrative contract, but his behavior suggested no interest in diplomatic protocol.
He has been much criticized for visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. There are no political freedoms or civil liberties.
Open Doors just released its latest World Watch List and the DPRK again is rated the globe’s worst religious persecutor. The government tolerates a little more private economic activity, but that free space remains painfully small.
Nevertheless, cultural and sports exchanges should be encouraged. Americans gain a small window into the Hermit Kingdom, as well as an equally restricted opportunity to share unscripted moments with individual North Koreans. When I visited years ago I was usually accompanied by a driver, interpreter, and handler. But there were moments when I was alone with one or another. And such opportunities are more frequent with larger groups which involve more local officials.
Private engagement of this kind may help influence North Koreans who might play a leadership role in the future. The family dynasty will not last forever and may implode sooner rather than later. It would be better for the U.S. if more North Koreans see Americans and realize that they do not match the demons of regime propaganda.
In fact, the U.S. government also would benefit from engagement. Washington should offer to establish consular relations, creating a window into the “Hermit Kingdom” and a presence that could intercede when Americans are arrested, as is becoming more common.
Thus, Rodman’s trips are not objectionable in the abstract. Let his team of washed up NBA players journey to Pyongyang. And then let the North send its team to America.
What Rodman got wrong was so shamelessly sucking up to the “young general.” Calling Kim his friend for life, singing happy birthday to him, and seemingly endorsing the dictator and dictatorial system were grotesque.
Rodman need not publicly denounce Kim. But he could go about his business, quietly polite to North Korean officials and restrained when responding to American journalists. He could simply say he went to the DPRK for sports, not politics, and then shut up—though, admittedly, that would be completely out of character for him.
The basketball great even glimpsed a small truth about l’affaire de Kenneth Bae. The Christian missionary obviously is a man of courage and conviction. And the government’s relentless persecution of religious believers is a human rights outrage. There was nothing wrong with “what Kenneth Bae did,” as Rodman suggested, that justifies the former’s imprisonment.
However, Bae knew the risks he was taking. He chose to visit the North and, apparently, violate North Korean law by engaging in evangelism. He knew arrest and imprisonment would result if he was caught. Unlike the hapless 85-year-old American tourist who found himself detained and accused of war crimes more than six decades ago, Bae intentionally though bravely put himself at risk.
Thus, Rodman’s response when pressed on the issue, “that’s not my job,” was callous, not outrageous. Still, basic decency should have caused the player to make an effort on the missionary’s behalf.
An indirect approach likely would have been most effective. Rodman could have cited his obvious commitment, despite significant criticism at home, to draw the U.S. and North closer together, but explained that Bae’s continued imprisonment impeded that effort. He then could have advocated Bae’s release as a good will gesture.
Rodman is a convenient lightening rod. But he isn’t completely wrong.
North Korea is a great human tragedy. And we should hope that the next informal ambassador to the DPRK is someone less prone to inane outbursts. Nevertheless, Dennis Rodman is (a little) better than nothing.
A second-term American president begins a diplomatic opening with a long-time adversary. Neoconservatives, citing the adversary’s interpretation of the agreement, suggest that diplomacy harms US interests and tips the balance of power, perhaps irreversibly, in favor of the other party. They cultivate a sense of growing threat and a weakening America. The president responds by suggesting that those opposed to diplomacy seem to believe war is inevitable, and that they fail to appreciate that diplomacy provides an opportunity to avoid such a war, benefiting US interests. His opponents counter by accusing him of appeasement and a lack of will, calling him a “useful idiot for [enemy] propaganda.”
It’s 1988, and Ronald Reagan has just negotiated the INF treaty.
The parallel, of course, is to the current garment-rending over the interim deal negotiated between the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran. There is absolutely no plausible interpretation of this deal that puts Iran with or closer to a nuclear weapon at the end of the six month period covered by the deal. At worst, it either puts 4-6 weeks onto the breakout time frame, or else Iran cheats and that cheating is detected, given the increased inspection schedules in the deal. As the New York Times’ account notes:
The interim agreement is, in effect, an elaborate pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord. It adds at least several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb if it decided to pursue a military option, but it can be reversed if either side changes its mind.
Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that is sufficient for energy production but not for a bomb. The country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons-grade fuel, will be diluted or converted to oxide so that it cannot be readily prepared for military purposes.
Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. The agreement does not, however, require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.
Increasing Iran’s more highly enriched stockpile of uranium is a necessary condition for their acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This deal either will reduce that stockpile, or the deal is off. Those are the possible outcomes.*
Objections to this interim agreement are really hard to understand on the merits. Supporters of the current Menendez-Kirk bill, which would preemptively hang more sanctions over the Iranians’ heads, insist they support diplomacy, but given that the Iranians have said repeatedly they’ll walk if the bill passes—and given that if they do walk, there are going to be a lot more calls for military strikes—that’s tough to believe. Only two Senate Republicans have yet to sign onto the bill–Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky–both of whom had supported previous sanctions legislation but are exhibiting the conservative values of caution and prudence while diplomacy (and diminution of Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium) ensues.
Then again, it is also hard to understand on the merits the neoconservative objections to the INF treaty (and to diplomacy with the Soviet Union altogether), and that turned out okay. Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail. Again.
* Some observers have worried about a nuclear facility whose location we don’t know at present. This is indeed a concern, although it is the same concern with or without the nuclear deal.
Caleb O. Brown
The Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) spends more than $908 billion each year (nearly a third of the federal budget) in various redistribution programs, the most important ones being Medicaid and Medicare.
Medicaid helps low-income citizens getting healthcare. It matches state spending, encouraging them to spend more than they otherwise would – their spending increased from $ 118 billion in 2000 to $ 275 billion in 2010, and is projected to double in the next decade. Ten to twenty percent of Medicaid funds ($ 180 billion) are wasted in various frauds.
Medicare, which helps seniors over 65 getting healthcare, is the third largest expenditure for the federal government. It is estimated that its unfunded liabilities could reach $30 trillion (in other words, $30,000 billion) in the next 75 years.
In order to stop hemorrhaging so much money, serious reforms need to be enacted. For Medicare, freedom of choice in coverage should be given back to citizens, along with private competition and personal savings. And for Medicaid, states should ultimately be the only ones spending money of the program, keeping them from overspending. In the end, this would save hundreds on billions of dollars each year. To that end we’ve created a short video which makes these and other points, which you can watch below:Downsize the Department of Health and Human Services
If one questions the old-school Keynesian orthodoxy, one risks being accused by Paul Krugman of being complicit in an “anti-scientific revolution” in macroeconomics:
[w]e had a scientific revolution in economics, one that dramatically increased our comprehension of the world and also gave us crucial practical guidance about what to do in the face of depressions. The broad outlines of the theory devised during that revolution have held up extremely well in the face of experience, while those rejecting the theory because it doesn’t correspond to their notion of common sense have been wrong every step of the way.
Yet a large part of both the political establishment and the economics establishment rejects the whole thing out of hand, because they don’t like the conclusions.
While there is no question of the importance of Keynesian models in 20th-century economic thinking, the current pluralism of modeling and empirical strategies in macroeconomics is a fact of life. The existence of divergent views on macroeconomics should not be surprising, given by the difficulty of doing clean empirical tests. Krugman does his discipline a disservice by elevating one narrow subset of models to the status of a well-established scientific truth and presenting the views of a large part of what he calls “the economics establishment” – i.e. of numerous other academics – as somehow obviously false and irrelevant.
So when it comes to economic journalism, one can – and should – do better than Krugman. To see a living example, come next Thursday to Cato and listen to Tim Harford (or watch live here if you can’t make it). Harford may disagree with libertarians on many issues but, unlike Krugman, he has always been the epitomy of civility. What is more, his writings demonstrate that one can communicate complicated ideas to wide audiences without falling into tired ideological clichés and self-righteousness.
This morning’s oral argument couldn’t have gone any better for those challenging President Obama’s recess appointments (see previous commentary and Cato’s brief for background on NLRB v. Noel Canning). Not only were Justices Scalia and Alito sticklers for constitutional text and structure, but the more liberal justices joined in to express extreme skepticism about the government’s theories. Justice Kagan pointed out that modern presidents don’t face congressional absences—the reason for the president’s power to appoint federal officials without the Senate’s “advice and consent”—but merely congressional “intransigence.” And the Recess Appointments Clause doesn’t exist to solve those kinds of political problems, noted Justice Breyer. Justice Breyer also pointed out that, if you follow the government’s argument that so-called “pro forma” Senate sessions don’t count, then the Senate repeatedly violates the Constitution by not having a “actual” sessions on January 3 (as the 20th Amendment requires) and by recessing for more than three days without the House’s consent (as Article I, Section 5 requires).
Solicitor General Verrilli’s suggestion that the Senate has to be engaging in business to deny the president the recess-appointments power didn’t seem to satisfy anyone. As Justice Kagan put it, any such test can be easily evaded by a clever Senate (that could name post offices by unanimous consent, for example, or, in Chief Justice Roberts’s example, note in the Senate Journal for “pro forma” sessions that “no business is anticipated to be [rather than will be] conducted”). Justice Kennedy said that he was “in search of a limiting principle” to the government’s position—so as not to simply give the president sole discretion to determine when the Senate is or isn’t in recess. Justice Kagan was left asking both sides how the Court should rule given that the presidential practice—whose history prior to the Truman administration the parties dispute—seemed to so clearly contradict the constitutional text and structure.
And indeed that is the question: If it’s true, as an overwhelming majority of the justices seemed to think, that the president was only supposed to have the power to make recess appointments during intersession recesses, and only for vacancies that arose during such recesses, what does it mean that this correct interpretation has never been followed? The challengers had several ready answers: (1) The Court hasn’t hesitated to make significant rulings upsetting existing practice based on separation-of-powers concerns (for example regarding the authority of criminal sentencing guidelines); (2) Past nominations won’t be unduly disturbed because of various finality rules, statutes of limitation, and agencies’ ability to ratify past decisions; (3) Given the changed modern context, with Congress in session for much longer periods and senators able to fly back to Washington on a moment’s notice, recess appointments are less important; and (4) Regardless of the correct interpretation of the recess-appointments power, it is the Senate that gets to determine when it’s in session or in recess, not the president.
While it’s unclear how exactly the Supreme Court will write its opinion in this case and where its focus will lie, it’ll be a real shock if the government wins this case. The justices recognized that the battle over executive and judicial nominations is a political one and that in cases of impasse, the Framers designed a system encouraging either political compromise or a final decision by the voters—not endless constitutional brinksmanship.
In the picture, I am swearing to tell the truth about wasteful spending to the House Oversight Committee last week. And the truth is that the government does huge amounts of it.
In my testimony, I described why the federal fiscal outlook is worse than shown in official long-range projections. And I discussed why federal “waste” is a broader problem than simple screw-ups, such as an unused $300 million Pentagon blimp.
The federal government has been wasting money since the beginning of the Republic, and I listed 15 reasons why that is the case. I concluded with some proposed reforms, including privatization and chopping aid to the states.
Senator Tom Coburn also testified at the hearing. Coburn’s staff puts together a very nice annual compilation of wasteful projects, and it publishes many detailed reports on proposed reforms to federal agencies.
Why is Coburn just about the only member of Congress who uses his staff to dig into the budget, critique programs, and inform people about where savings can be found? Every congressional office should be doing that. If they did, Congress might finally be able to put together a package of major budget savings.
Also testifying was Tom Schatz of CAGW, Brandon Arnold of NTU, and Jaimie Woo of PIRG. For years, Tom’s group has been informing the public about thousands of wasteful projects buried in the massive federal budget.
Brandon and Jaimie have released a study describing billions of dollars of savings from cuts that should appeal to both liberals and conservatives. Brandon is a former director at Cato, and so Cato’s small-government views were well-reflected at the hearing.
My homework assignment for members of Congress is to task their staffs with digging through the budget and producing lists of, say, 20 substantial cuts to spending. Publish those proposed savings, and use media opportunities to highlight them, as Coburn does. That would at least start a dialog about budget trade-offs.
All federal programs impose burdens on taxpaying families, and so members of Congress have a duty to weed out low-value agencies, programs, and activities on an ongoing basis.
(I completed the homework assignment here).Downsize the Department of Education
James A. DornMao Yushi accepts the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty
All lovers of liberty and limited government should celebrate Mao Yushi’s 85th birthday on January 14. He was a signatory to Charter 08 and the recipient of the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. As chairman of the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, Mao Yushi has been instrumental in spreading classical liberal ideas in China. In 1998, he commissioned the first Chinese translation of F. A. Hayek’s classic text, The Constitution of Liberty. Unirule (Tianze or “Universal Rule”) conveys the fundamental principle of liberty under the law.
Mao was educated as a mechanical engineer but later became interested in economics and how China could make the transition from central planning to a market economy. In 1957, he was purged from the Chinese Communist Party during the Anti-Rightest Campaign, and he lost his job as a railroad engineer. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he lost his property when Mao Zedong outlawed private ownership.
After Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the outside world in 1978, Mao Yushi was invited to rejoin the CCP but refused. Instead, he became a leading critic of the Party’s monopoly on power and an advocate of free markets and civil society.
In a recent essay, “Returning Mao Zedong to Human Form,” he argued that Chairman Mao should be subject to open criticism and not be viewed as a god—and called for removing Mao’s picture from Tiananmen Square and from the Chinese currency. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has said, Mao Yushi’s “bravery is worth our respect.”
At Unirule, Mao Yushi has attracted many younger scholars to discuss the institutions necessary for a market economy, particularly private property rights and a legal system that protects basic human rights. He holds that the state should protect the people who should be free to choose—an idea that goes back to Lao Tzu.
In addition to drawing from the work of Hayek, Mao Yushi and his colleagues at Unirule have developed the ideas of Nobel Laureate economists Douglass North and Ronald Coase, focusing on the “new institutional economics.” Peaceful development requires nurturing the right institutions and, in Coase’s words, requires a “market for ideas,” not just for goods and services.
In China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat? (Cato Institute, 2000), Mao Yushi wrote, “”The major obstacle to developing market institutions in China is the special privilege rights that lie beyond, and conflict with, human rights.” That obstacle is still present, and Mao is still fighting for the people’s rights. His courage in advancing freedom and civil society in China—through his writings, Unirule, Fuping Development Institute, and, most recently, the Humanism Economics Society—deserves our admiration and respect.
Jeffrey A. Miron
Economist Nicholas Bloom (Stanford) has produced a nice summary of his work on uncertainty and economic fluctuations:
This review article tries to answer four questions: (i) what are the stylized facts about uncertainty over time; (ii) why does uncertainty vary; (iii) do fluctuations in uncertainty matter; and (iv) did higher uncertainty worsen the Great Recession of 2007-2009? On the first question both macro and micro uncertainty appears to rise sharply in recessions. On the second question the types of exogenous shocks like wars, financial panics and oil price jumps that cause recessions appear to directly increase uncertainty, and uncertainty also appears to endogenously rise further during recessions. On the third question, the evidence suggests uncertainty is damaging for short-run investment and hiring, but there is some evidence it may stimulate longer-run innovation. Finally, in terms of the Great Recession, the large jump in uncertainty in 2008 potentially accounted for about one third of the drop in GDP.
The crucial unanswered question is why uncertainty increased in 2008.
One possibility is that consumers and firms could not readily judge the severity of the financial crisis.
A different possibility is that consumers and firms were confused by the federal government’s aggressive new policies (e.g., bailouts) and uncertain about whether the incoming Obama administration would emphasize fiscal responsibility (e.g., scaling back entitlements) or expanded redistribution (e.g., Obamacare and higher tax rates).
The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. But it matters a great deal which is quantitatively more important. With luck, Bloom’s future work will address this issue.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains sui generis, a communist monarchy wrapped in mystery, prone to sporadic brinkmanship and violent spasms. The young leader’s surprise execution of his uncle suggests regime instability, which might spark new international provocations for domestic political purposes.
The latest events have rekindled predictions of a possible North Korean collapse. In a recent study the Rand Corporation’s Bruce Bennett argued that “There is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future.”
Of course, DPRK has outlived the Soviet Union by more than two decades. Pyongyang may continue to surprise the West with its resilience.
Nevertheless, the system is under increasing stress. Columnist Steven Metz observed: “The execution could be a sign that the cohesion of the North Korean elite is crumbling.” Jang’s elimination suggests weakness, not strength.
Any future political battle could turn even more violent, including possible civil war. The resulting hardship could exceed that resulting from the 1990s famine, which killed a half million or more North Koreans. We should not expect a peaceful German-style resolution.
Although most people presume reunification would follow a North Korean collapse, Bennett warned that “China could take political control of much of the North, likely in cooperation with one or more North Korean factions.”
What should Washington do? Analyst John Guardiano advocated unilateral American military intervention: “we likely will have to occupy and rebuild the country.” Seoul might not approve of the Pentagon turning the North into an American colony. More likely, the South would lead any Western military effort.
However, Beijing also would be tempted to act militarily. Its incentive to act would be even stronger if U.S. forces entered as well.
The DPRK military might resist. Worse would be a clash between allied and Chinese forces. Worried Bennett: “The forces of both sides would have significant incentives to advance rapidly into the North, leading to a risk of accidental combat between them.”
In short, a North Korean implosion could be an explosion as well. Concerned governments should begin pondering likely contingencies.
South Korea has the most to do. It should adopt reunification legislation, since under its constitution North Koreans currently are considered ROK citizens.
However, consultations should not stop in Seoul. So far China has been reluctant to enter talks regarding its ally, but relations between the two states have frayed. The execution of Jang, a friend of Beijing, introduced new tensions in the relationship.
Desirable would be regional cooperation, including providing forces for reconstruction duties.
However, the U.S. should limit its role. Humanitarian aid should primarily come from multinational agencies and the North’s neighbors, especially South Korea, China, and Japan, which have the most at stake.
America should reject any direct military role. In no case should the U.S. be involved in occupying and pacifying the North. The U.S. could provide logistical aid for any South Korean military move, though by now Seoul should be able to support its own forces.
Washington also might consider limited operations to secure nuclear materials and other WMDs. However, even this mission would be complicated: China is closer to many facilities, such the Yongbyon nuclear complex, and might quickly occupy them. Moreover, the ROK might decide that reunification was a convenient opportunity to augment its own military capabilities.
Most important, the U.S. should ease Chinese fears about America’s role in a reunified Korea. Although troops along the Yalu might seem minor compared to air and sea forces in the Asia-Pacific, the former would be a potent symbol and resurrect memories from the Korean War. Beijing would see less need for a buffer state if there were no U.S. ground forces against which to buffer.
Kim Jong-un celebrated Jang’s execution as demonstrating national unity. More likely, however, the regime’s foundation is cracking.
The North’s neighbors should prepare for “what if?” Washington’s most important role would be to limit expectations as to what the U.S. would do. Ultimately Pyongyang is a South Korean and Asian rather than an American responsibility.
As Andrew Coulson explained, the federal Justice Department and Department of Education have sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter discouraging schools from pursuing strict discipline policies against student misbehavior, especially against “routine” or “minor” infractions; Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited tardiness and disrespect as examples of the latter.
Assuming that the federal government has somehow acquired the legitimate constitutional authority to begin dictating the fine points of disciplinary policy to local schools in the first place—a big if—it might seem at first that much of this is innocuous. Some early press coverage, for example, makes it sound as if the letter is mostly aimed at obtaining a reconsideration of zero-tolerance policies (long criticized by libertarians) as well as the sorts of suspensions and expulsions that are based on far-fetched dangers like finger guns or forbidden hugs.
Unfortunately, there’s much more. The letter represents the culmination of a years-long drive toward imposing tighter Washington oversight on school discipline policies that result in “disparate impact” among racial or other groups. Policies that result in the suspension of differentially more minority kids, or special-ed kids, will now be suspect—even if the rate of underlying behavior is not in fact uniform among every group. (Special-ed kids, for example, include many placed in that category because of emotional and behavioral problems that correlate with a higher likelihood of acting out in misbehavior. Boys misbehave more than girls.)
In 2012 Senate testimony, Andrew Coulson noted:
- Compared with the alternatives, the use of out-of-school suspensions appears to improve the learning environment for other (non-disciplined) students by protecting them from disruption.
- Zero-tolerance policies were adopted in the first place in part as a way for administrators to try to defend themselves against disparate-impact charges. In other words, the new supposed remedy (disparate-impact scrutiny) helped cause the disease to which it is being promoted as the cure.
If the policy helps speed the correction of some overly harsh, mechanical school policies (both under the zero-tolerance rubric and otherwise), it may have some positive side effects. But the disparate-impact premise is a pernicious one that’s sure to create many new problems of its own.
C/P and adapted from Overlawyered.
Any American who travels deals with the Transportation Safety Administration. The Bush administration made many mistakes in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; creating a government monopoly to handle air transportation security was one of the worst.
Government’s most important duty is protecting its citizens, but others can share that role. After all, no airport or airline wants a plane hijacking, and no airline (or railroad) passenger wants to die in a terrorist incident.
Unfortunately, the TSA is a costly behemoth that is better at bureaucracy than safety. Created in 2001, the TSA spent $7.9 billion and employed 62,000 employees last year alone. The agency’s main job is to protect the more than 450 commercial airports, and two-thirds of the agency’s budget goes for airport screening.
Unfortunately, as my Cato Institute colleague Chris Edwards has documented in a recent Policy Analysis, the TSA has lived down to expectations. Notes Edwards: “TSA has often made the news for its poor performance and for abusing the civil liberties of airline passengers. It has had a troubled workforce and has made numerous dubious investments.” For all the agency’s spending and effort, “TSA’s screening performance has been no better, and possibly worse, than the performance of the remaining private screeners at U.S. airports.”
The TSA has had an abundance of problems, as I listed in a Freeman column:
Wasteful spending of all sorts. “Unethical and possibly illegal activities,” according to the agency Inspector General. “Costly, counterintuitive, and poorly executed” operations, according to the House oversight committee. Employee misconduct. Ranking 232 out of 240 federal agencies in job satisfaction.
Worst, though, is the TSA’s failure to do the job for which it was created: secure America’s airports and other transportation hubs. Reported Edwards, “There were 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports during TSA’s first decade, despite the agency’s huge spending and all the inconveniences imposed on passengers.” In tests, the agency failed to catch as much as three-quarters of fake explosives.
The problem is not just operational inefficiency. The TSA doesn’t think strategically, or at least, it does not do so effectively. The agency has been criticized for failing to follow “robust risk assessment methodology” and undertaking “little or no evaluation of” program performance.
No planes have been hijacked since 9/11, but, wrote Edwards, “The safety of travelers in recent years may have more to do with the dearth of terrorists in the United States and other security layers around aviation, than with the performance of TSA airport screeners.”
The alternative to the TSA monopoly is privatization. Entrust airport security to airports, which can integrate screening with other aspects of facility security and adjust to local circumstances. It’s not a leap into the unknown; Canadian and most European airports use private screening.
Even the 2001 legislation setting up the TSA allowed a small out for American airports. Five were allowed to go private, and another 11 have chosen to do so in the intervening 12 years. However, the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole complained that the TSA “micromanages” even private operations, “thereby making it very difficult for screening companies to innovate.” Worse, a House oversight committee charged the agency with “a history of intimidating airport operators that express an interest in” effectively firing the TSA.
Shifting security to private operators would not eliminate problems. But expanding airport flexibility and, more important, creating security competition would encourage increased experimentation.
Americans started to innovate on that tragic September day a dozen years ago. When passengers on the fourth hijacked flight learned what their hijackers had in store, the former ended the mission. Passengers later took down the shoe and underwear bombers.
Obviously, dangers remain. But the best way to protect people would be to end the TSA, limiting Washington to general oversight and tasks such as intelligence activities. Travel would be safer, security would be cheaper, and Americans would be freer.
If you live anywhere but Washington, D.C., you probably believe that the federal government spends too much. Today the national debt is more than $17 trillion. CBO figured that existing budget plans would add between $6.3 trillion and $8.8 trillion in red ink over the coming decade.
Social Security and Medicare alone account for more than $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, promised benefits for which no revenues are set. Counting a multitude of other debts and obligations, American taxpayers are on the hook for more than $220 trillion in unfunded liabilities.
However, denizens of Washington see things very differently. Policymakers recently approved a bipartisan budget that increased discretionary spending, theoretically the easiest outlay to control, over the next two years. Legislators ignored so-called entitlement outlays, which threaten to consume the entire federal budget.
It really doesn’t matter which party is in charge in Washington. Most Republicans have little desire to cut federal outlays. One man’s waste is another man’s vote-winning special interest hand-out.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) has issued a second “Wastebook” which contains 100 of the dumbest uses of taxpayers’ money. Explained the Senator: “While the president and his cabinet issued dire warnings about the cataclysmic impacts of sequestration, taxpayers were not alerted to all of the waste being spared from the budget axe.”
For instance, the National Endowment for the Humanities devoted almost $1 million to the Popular Romance Project to “explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and internet fan fiction, taking a global perspective—while looking back across time as far as the ancient Greeks.” The National Science Foundation spent a quarter of a million dollars to study “attitudes toward the Senate filibuster among the American public.”
The Army spent nearly $300 million on a blimp for surveillance in Afghanistan—only to drop the project after its inaugural U.S. flight, selling the airship back to its maker for $301,000. The International Trade Association devoted nearly $300,000 to send Indi Rock music executives on a tour to Brazil.
The National Institutes for Health dropped $335,525 on a study which determined that “marriages that were the happiest were the ones in which the wives were able to calm down quickly during marital conflict.” The $1.9 million Senate Office of Education and Training provides classes for staffers on such subjects as sleeping well and making small talk. The National Endowment for the Arts used $10,000 to underwrite the PowerUP Project, which featured choreographed (utility) pole dancing.
Housing and Urban Development used $1.2 million to create an apartment designed for the deaf in Tempe, Arizona, only to then decide that three-quarters of the residences should be occupied by people with normal hearing. The Agriculture Department gave an Oklahoma winery $200,000 to purchase new equipment.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services gave a New York museum $150,000 to create an exhibit on play. NSF spent $2.9 million to create sites “where arts and science will be used to educate the public about Indianapolis’s water system.”
The Commerce Department provided Las Vegas with $800,000 to think about economic development. The U.S. Marshals Service dropped nearly $800,000 on promotional “swag,” including Christmas ornaments.
Sen. Coburn’s 100 programs cost about $30 billion total. While that’s a lot of money for most anyone except Bill Gates, it is small change for the federal government, less than 1/700th Uncle Sam’s current unfunded liabilities. Even eliminating the many wasteful projects that litter the federal bureaucracy would not balance the budget.
But Congress should start by killing the Coburn 100. Americans then need to have an adult conversation about the budget. Too many people expect to live at someone else’s expense through Washington. Which is why the nation faces financial ruin.
Bruce Stokes has a piece up at Foreign Policy describing the disconnect between public opinion on US foreign policy and elite opinion. The point has been made many times before. Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton wrote a book arguing that there is a disconnect in that the public wants more liberal foreign policies—focusing on multilateral cooperation, protecting weak nations from one another, improving foreigners’ standards of living, and promoting democracy abroad—but elites are more realist, focused on power and dominance. Dan Drezner, on the other hand, argued that there is a disconnect, but in exactly the opposite direction: the public is more realist, focused on power and security, and cool to the liberal views and policies of America’s foreign-policy elite.
Tabling who is right and who is wrong about what the public wants, everyone making this sort of argument is at least implicitly acknowledging that the foreign-policy elite defies public preferences on foreign policy. This is pretty easy to explain. Since the United States is so safe, foreign policy isn’t salient to voters in the way that their proximate interests—getting a tax credit or transfer payment—are. Some scholars have pointed out that public opinion on foreign policy has a lot to do with voters’ identity: right-thinking sorts of people hold these sorts of foreign policy views: “I am a right-thinking person, therefore I will hold these sorts of views.” This is why you hear foreign policy elites bleating endlessly about leadership, American exceptionalism, strength, et cetera. Those concepts zap the public in ways that wonky arguments about how extended deterrence or alliance politics work don’t.
As Ben Friedman and Chris Preble recently wrote in the LA Times, the public is moving closer to the views of Cato’s defense and foreign policy scholars. A disastrous decade of foreign policy brought to them by the foreign-policy elite, combined with an economic slowdown and growing concerns about our domestic economy and politics, have created a come home, America sentiment among the public. Academic scholars, as well, have become more Cato-ish. As three academic proponents of the status quo recently admitted with alarm, “According to…most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy,” restraint’s time has come.
But public opinion, and certainly academic opinion, isn’t enough. The insular foreign policy elite, and the politicians who employ them, can regularly defy public opinion because voters generally don’t use the tools they have at their disposal—votes and campaign contributions—to get rid of the pols and policymakers whose foreign policies they don’t like. Foreign policy just doesn’t affect them enough to keep their attention. Moreover, the few interested parties in US foreign policy generally push for a more interventionist policy, not a less interventionist one. As Ben Friedman wrote:
In current national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are on one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive U.S. national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former defense secretary Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side. No one alarms us about alarmism. Hitler and Stalin destroyed America’s isolationist tradition. Everyone likes lower taxes, but not enough to organize interest groups against defense spending. A scattering of libertarians and anti-war liberals confronts a bipartisan juggernaut. The information about national security threats comes to Americans principally from people driven by organizational or electoral incentives toward threat inflation.
In light of this, it’s remarkable that Americans have grown as sensible as they have. And there are obvious exceptions where politicians pay a price for their reckless policies—President George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and the foreign policy brain trust that dreamed it up did political damage to the individuals most closely associated with the policy—but these exceptions prove the rule.
Chris Layne, a leading opponent of America’s bipartisan interventionist strategy, put it well in his book Peace of Illusions:
Unless it undergoes a Damascene-like intellectual conversion, as long as the present foreign policy elite remains in power the United States will remain wedded to a hegemonic grand strategy. It probably will take a major domestic political realignment—perhaps triggered by setbacks abroad or a severe economic crisis at home—to bring about a change in American grand strategy.
Experts tell Monica Hesse of the Washington Post that closing a few bridge lanes is pretty thin gruel as far as punishing your enemies goes. Journalism professor and scandal-culture expert Mark Feldstein scoffs, “If he’s not willing to be thinking of unauthorized wiretaps . . .”
Hesse asks, “In the grand scheme of diabolical political paybacks, how does this vision stack up?”
Take FDR, Feldstein says. During World War II, after the Chicago Tribune published news of broken Japanese codes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to order troops to take over the newspaper’s building. (He was eventually talked down from this martial plot.) The publisher was an old nemesis from prep school.
Take President Richard M. Nixon — always with Nixon — who tried to get the IRS to conduct field audits against people he perceived as political foes in the early, pre-Watergate 1970s. “It was really a matter of trying to destroy people personally” by using the governmental means available, says Joseph Cummins, the author of dirty tricks encyclopedia “Anything for a Vote.” “That was the way Nixon felt about things.”
FDR knew the rule, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” He wasn’t so squeamish when it came to retailers who defied his preferences. Sewell Avery, chairman of the big catalog company Montgomery Ward, opposed labor unions, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Roosevelt’s re-election. In 1944 Avery refused FDR’s order to extend his company’s labor contracts to avoid a strike. Roosevelt ordered the War Department to seize the offices of Montgomery Ward. Attorney General Francis Biddle flew to Chicago to oversee the army’s physical removal of Avery from his office, as the photo shows.
When Christie does that, he’ll be ready for the political big leagues.