Friday, September 23, 2011

Left, Right or Indifferent: Who Should Be Compromising Here?

When the hard Left or Right are not lambasting the libertarian-minded for being crazy or naïve, then they are trying to convince them that an alliance is needed, because one or the other speaks to “many” of their values, and the rest can just be worked out in the wash. Given it is Presidential election season, we see many connotations of this line of reasoning. This Libertarian blogger made an emphatic point that Barack Obama is just the worst possible thing that any Libertarian could possibly imagine, because he has continued or expanded many of George W. Bush’s most odious policies. The answer of course: Vote Republican. To be exact, so there is no misinterpretation: “We can deal with the other stuff later, one thing at a time. We may not agree with Republicans on every single issue, but they are far closer cousins to our ideology of freedom than the Obama/Democrat alternative.” I am more than a little concerned by the notion of “deal with the other stuff later”; when exactly would we be dealing with it, and who are we going to “deal” with? With Ron Paul, and thankfully last night, Gary Johnson, being an actual part of the discussion, there is quite a bit of courting going on for the Libertarian, but why exactly should we be dealing or compromising so as to make sure we get the “proper” candidate to take on Obama?

The notion that Libertarians move in a closer orbit with Conservatives, in the most general terms, is supportable, though not a truism. It is also true that no matter how many intersecting issues Libertarians share with today’s Liberals, what usually happens is that free-market ideology usually throws a monkey wrench into the works of alliances. It is also true that the Obama administration in general has not followed through on many things that it promised that moved Independents into his camp. But is defeating Obama the only consideration? Some are saying that the GOP establishment is concerned that Rick Perry is too appealing to primary voters, and it is hurting “their” choice of Mitt Romney, whom they see as being able to beat Obama. This should speak volumes to the problem of compromise. Why is it that we have to compromise to support one of these two? What are we going to be asked to compromise on exactly? Anything the “establishment” GOP wants should be rebuked out of hand. The establishment is, and has been, the problem for decades. Government of, for and by John Boehner and Mitch McConnell frightens the hell out of me. It is these clowns and their polices that paved the way for the train wreck we are living in today. Medicare Part D, do I get more of that? Do we get to invade some other piss-ant country? If Libertarians support Mitt and the establishment, does everyone get to go through the airport naked with a government approved bar code tattoo on their forehead? As to supporting Perry, what do we get if we compromise there? Didn’t we try this once already? If we line up with the Social Conservatives can we guarantee to stuff all the gays back in the closet, outlaw abortion even in case of Martian gang-rape and carve the Ten Commandments on Mt. Rushmore? Wouldn’t that be super? This is the problem with compromise. It is necessary to govern, for in this free country of ours there are very different ideas about policy, and no one group, thankfully, can ascend to impose whatever ideas they want.

In the primaries it is important to fire up the base, and you then need to moderate your positions for the general election, or so goes the conventional wisdom. This is when compromise comes into play: “Yeah, I said all these other things during the primaries, but now I am willing to speak to you and bring you under my ‘Big Tent’ so we can defeat the other guy.” Given that punditry and conventional political wisdom has not, and will not, be solving any of our present problems, maybe we should be demanding a little more compromise from the other guys. Why don’t the Neo-Cons and the Social Conservatives admit that all of their policy planks will never be (nor should ever be) completely implemented and that they need to be putting some things on the table? If we are going to be talking about compromise and the questions to be asked and answered of our candidates why not make them the tough ones that need to be answered:

National Defense: Given the budget hole we are in, what exactly are you going to do about the Defense Budget? Do we need to be spending 5% of our GDP or could we still take on all comers if we only spent 3%? Who exactly are we spending all this money to intimidate? Do we need troops all over the world? It should be blatantly obvious to any observer that Russian equipment and tactics cannot hold a candle to their western counterparts, so if NATO cannot defend itself against a non-existent Russian threat without thousands of American troops on the ground as a deterrent, what purpose does it serve?

Entitlements: Grandma votes, you can’t ignore that fact, and the only thing I can give Perry credit for is holding to his guns on Social Security reform. The establishment GOP does not like talking about these things because they see poor election metrics, but the problem is real, and it is out there. Pandering for votes is not going to solve that, and neither are vague answers. You need to actually address the real problems with these programs and how they are going to be solved.

The National Security State: Every candidate should have been asked “Have we traded too much freedom in the name of security, and if you believe so what will you do to rectify that?” Anyone who answers “No” to that question should be ignored by Libertarians and the electorate in general. Freedom and liberty are easy concepts to cherish and defend in good times. It is the in the hard, troublesome, dangerous times that a country’s mettle is tested, and we have for the most part failed. Homeland Security and the accompanying expansion of government power has come at a great cost, most of which we are not even aware of, and it was easy, because we were scared, and “those” people were so very different from “us.” We spend a tremendous amount of money and human resources on a myriad of things, with little or no reflection on utility, efficacy or necessity. Going forward we need to be more and more vigilant and more demanding of accountability. We need to remember there was a reason Intelligence agencies and the Justice Department were banned from doing many of the pre-PATRIOT Act practices we take for granted now; they proved themselves untrustworthy, and there is little reason to believe they have changed that much.

Government: All the Republican candidates are “small government” guys now, and it is easy to pick something like the Dept. of Education or the EPA and point to their failings and say “get rid of them”. While they do have a multiplier effect on productivity and outcome well beyond their line items, they are for the most part small potatoes in budget terms. The follow-up to that debate question should have been “After saving that almost insignificant 3% or less of the budget, what next? Exactly what will you be cutting, when and how much?” Republicans have been the party of small government until it suits them, then they are just as big spendthrifts and busy-bodies as Democrats. If Ron Paul has to be specific about what he is going to do, why not everyone else?

When we are done asking these and a hundred other questions, then maybe we can look at compromise in a different light. Maybe the Establishment GOP, Neo-Cons and Social Conservatives can look at the landscape and say, “Those Libertarians and their ideas line up with us in regards to X, Y and Z, so maybe we should compromise on a few of these things and support Paul/Johnson/some unnamed future candidate so we have the best chance to beat Obama and deal with the other stuff later.” There is a chance that a synthesis of ideas and cause could come from a real dialogue about all of the issues facing this country. Maybe the compromise could be a two-way street in which Libertarians did not feel like they lost too much of their soul in order to elect what seemed to be the lesser of two evils. Of course if I believed any of that, I would actually be a crazy, naïve person instead of just playing one on the Internet. The compromise/alliance they seek is one of convenience, one they will play at to court Libertarians and other Independents as a means to an end - power. That is the motivation, plain and simple. While Obama and his polices are antithetical to many Libertarians, there is nothing to say Republicans won’t be just as bad as they have always proven themselves in the past. If support is needed, then there should be some up-front concessions on their part. Giving in on certain ideas, without receiving anything in return is not compromise or an alliance, its simply giving in. Ideological consistency might not win any elections, but it is easier to sleep at night, and who knows, maybe the American people will get fed up enough to stop the Two-Party swinging pendulum and demand something more. Let’s hope that is less of a crazy idea in the long run.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Progressive's Defense of the Constitution: What the...?

I was reading Lucy Steigerwald’s Hit & Run post over at Reason about the effort by Progressives to rebrand themselves as the true guardians of the constitution, its original meaning and the true intent of the Founding Fathers. These individuals have obviously seen the Tea-Party as gaining traction with their call for a return to a limited Federal government bound by the Constitution. I spent part of the weekend reading through their articles and blog posts which are attempts to paint the Tea-Party as idiots who do not actually understand the Constitution, but also to show Progressives as the “true believers” guarding the real intent of the Framers, and this website is supposed to be some sort of guide for refuting the notion of being able to limit the grand construction of the Progressive welfare state with the Constitution. It seems to them that if the Founders were magically transported to the present day, given the opportunity to look around and learn about all the special and unique problems we face today they would all sound out in unison: “Yeah, you guys got it right, this is what we intended the Federal government to look like”. While I will agree that many within the Tea-Party need to have external fact checking on some of their notions of the Constitution, this site’s attempt to rebrand the argument so that Progressives are the true defenders of the faith and protectors of the original intent of the constitution is more than a little ridiculous given their history.
In reading through their “Strange Brew” section you see quite a few attempts to refute Tea-Party notions of limiting government power through the constitution. Most all of the articles use a sort of circular logic to state that the Progressive version of the state is proper and fundamentally constitutional simply because Progressive members of the Supreme Court have said so. In attempting to refute that the 10th Amendment should impose some sort of limit on the power of the Federal government they quote the court as saying that the 10th is “a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered”. For whatever reason (a simple mistake?) they attribute this quote to the wrong case. They cite UNITED STATES V. SPRAGUE, 282 U. S. 716 (1931) which does speak to the 10th, in so much that it does not change the specifics of the amending provisions of the constitution. The quote actually comes from UNITED STATES V. DARBY, 312 U. S. 100 (1941), from Harlan F. Stone’s written opinion that finally removed the barriers to the New Deal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. As most should know, the Supreme Court had been a constant thorn in FDR’s side, overturning most all of the New Deal based on a century’s worth of precedent. It was not until his attempt to destroy the court with the Court Packing Scheme that they relented, making way for the Progressives to implement what they thought were the proper set of policies. See the argument here: the 10th Amendment is a meaningless truism that cannot impede the implementation of Federal law, because a Progressive justice, on FDR’s 1941 Supreme Court, said it was a meaningless truism that cannot impede the implementation of Federal law. Not really a sound foundation to build your case on. This is the way most of the articles run.
Over and over you keep seeing something along the lines of “To be sure, the powers of the federal government under our Constitution are not unlimited” but nowhere in any of these article do they define these limits, or what they would actually be. They continually repeat the logic of the “necessary and proper”, Supremacy Clause and the Commerce Clause to reinforce the notion that everything done and proposed by Progressives is in fact constitutional and within the intent of the Founders. These three clauses have always caused the most debate within the conversation about what limits the Federal government actually faces (if any). Once again the logic seems very circular in their constitutional defense. One of my favorites is of course the defense of the Health Care overhaul in which they state: “The crucial power to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” (art. I, §8) for carrying out all constitutional powers granted to the federal government, which means, for example, that Congress can require individuals who can afford it to obtain health insurance in order to carry out its authority to regulate the interstate health insurance industry and ensure affordable, non-discriminatory health care.” So, in essence, the Federal government’s power under “necessary and proper” is unlimited because we get to the same age old problem of defining “necessary” and ignoring “proper” They spend some time refuting the broccoli question, which comes down to commerce and necessary and proper, but that is what is laughable about the argument (Robert A. Levy’s article on the health insurance mandate, which should be the basis of every opening statement in all future court hearings, expertly refutes this necessary and commerce argument from a constitutional law perspective.) For the entire Progressive era the plan has been to stretch and redefine “commerce” as broadly as possible. The commerce clause is the basis for almost all Progressive action, and it became a punch line: make a law, any law, call the activity to be regulated somehow tangentially attached to commerce, and there we go, new Federal power! Through this whole period the Supreme Court simply stood by, refusing to define commerce, so the Federal power continued unabated. It is not until the Court steps into its proper role as arbiter instead of rubber stamp that we see some truly ridiculous Federal encroachments rolled back. Everyone who has studied the Constitution is aware of the problems with the vague notion of these clauses and the problems they have caused throughout our history, but these articles gloss over that issue. They keep stating that there are enumerated powers that limit the power of the Federal government, but then they turn around and use the same old statist arguments about commerce, necessary and Supremacy. What are the actual limits then? We are somehow supposed to divine them, and when a court steps in and places an actual limit on Federal power, they are somehow misreading the constitution or one of those evil “strict constructionists” flying in the face of judicial precedent. Many of these articles bring in the specter of the Founders, how they were looking to create a strong national government with real power to compensate for the failings of the Articles of Confederation, and this is quite true. They also believed that they created a perfectly limited government, one that could never infringe on the liberties of the people and there was no need to have something as silly as a Bill of Rights. No one bought that at the time, and we should not be able to use that defense today. Specific provision were put in place to further limit the power of government (and I would say that includes the 10th) and there has been a 200+ year discussion about the proper role of, and the limits of power on, the Federal government.
Progressives have a vision of the state, one that has flourished for almost a century. They believe that they have guided the course of this country in the proper direction and we continually hear this reaffirmed in their talking points. “THIS” we are told, be it Social Security or Medicare or any other program they are defending, is the way a civilized society operates, and it is not to be questioned. That is the way everyone has been taught for decades, unquestioning allegiance to the plan, for it “protects” the people. The Constitution was never really a consideration in these discussions, it was usually an obstacle, and that is relatively obvious because we had to keep stretching and changing the definitions of things like “commerce”. Generations of people accepted these changes, and they watched the Federal government continually expand its power and influence. Does that by extension bind all future generations to forever march on never questioning their forefather's ideas and acceptance? If that was the case we would have never had the Progressive Era, because how could they have questioned 100 years of acceptance by their forefathers of a limited Federal government? While this is a pretty smart P.R. campaign on the part of Progressives, it really holds no water. There are people today who question the utility, necessity, and yes, even the constitutionality of many aspects of the Federal government, and in our system that is allowed. This is, for the most part, another attempt to stifle debate. Wrap the Constitution and the Founders in the warm, all encompassing happy glow of a Progressive, centrally planned state that will tend to all your needs, and the evil and uneducated corporate lackeys of the Tea-Party will have no leg to stand on. The Constitution is not perfect, and there will always be disagreement over the proper role of the Federal government in our lives. For Progressives the rallying cry has always centered on a “living constitution” that evolves to meet the circumstances of the times. Given this line of reasoning, seeing the huge bloat and massive deficits incurred by the Progressive state (and to be fair Republican mismanagement) a new generation may like to see the state evolve into something less intrusive and costly. Either way you want to term it, evolution or strict constructionism, the system has to change or we are all in store for an unpleasant future, and Progressive attempts to defend either proposition as their sole purview should be seen for what they are, hollow attempts to defend their creation against legitimate debate and criticism.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Obama and Jobs: The Song Remains the Same

Last night I decided that instead of relying on what other pundits had to say about Obama's new jobs proposal I would read it myself, and boy did that suck (for those who have never actually read a bill and the horribly drawn out double speak involved you can check this one out here). The pundits are for the most part correct, there are 199 pages of the same old stuff. Nothing innovative, nothing new: rebuild schools and roads, keep teachers and police on the job, tax the evil rich and their corporate jets (seriously it is in there) and do it all green, union and American made. The last one is what got me initially thinking and bouncing around the internet today.
The bill, like everything the Federal government does, has "Buy American" provisions when it comes to the steel and the products to be used on projects. Now, it gets a little murky, the difference between "Buy America" in this and the previous stimulus bill and the everyday “Buy America" provisions of FHWA contracts, but the gist is essentially that if you are using Federal money then all the steel used on construction projects must come wholly from the U.S., soup to nuts, and there are only three exceptions (under "Buy American"): 1. applying subsection (a) would be inconsistent with the public interest; 2. iron, steel, and the relevant manufactured goods are not produced in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality; or 3. inclusion of iron, steel, and manufactured goods produced in the United States will increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent. The last one is pretty consistent with most Federal programs, and that really started to get me thinking. The logic seems sound, if you are spending taxpayer money, on American projects, then it should be spent on American products and jobs. But 25%? You really write that into law? How often does anyone think that bids from American steel companies come in at adding 25% to the overall project? And that is the important part here, the overall project. You are not saying the foreign steel has to be 25% cheaper to get a waiver, you are saying that the use of American steel over foreign would have to add 25% to the overall project cost. By that metric on many types of projects American steel can be three or four times more expensive than foreign and not meet that threshold, for steel might only account for 20 or 30% of an overall project. More importantly, and this is the bigger one, how often do they come in at say only 4% overage on the project? You have written into law this 25% provision that gives the American steel industry not only a competitive edge, but at the same time stifles any possible market pressures on the industry. They do not need to get better, or leaner or become more productive companies, so long as they can keep within this 25% buffer. While it is true that the American Steel industry faces many challenges we need to examine this effect in total. The American taxpayer, by the defined terms of these laws, must pay as much as they possibly can for any Federally funded construction project, so long as they don’t exceed a 25% overall project cost differential. Is this truly the best use of the money? If the percentage was lower or applied to the cost of the steel, isn’t it possible that those market pressures could induce the American steel industry to become more competitive? Would there be a loss of jobs and folding of outfits? Yes, you can’t get around that in the global economy, but in examining these laws we should be asking “long term” questions. With this 25% buffer there is an automatic incentive not to maximize labor or costs, but only do what is necessary to fall into this artificial bracket. This makes for an industry that becomes dependent on this buffer and reticent to do what is necessary to compete not only at home but globally. Protecting jobs is a nice notion, but it has very large consequences. Having some benchmark notion of how many individuals should be working in an industry and an accompanying government policy to ensure this outcome prevents firms from consolidating or automating to become more competitive. In all industries and endeavors technology and competition will eventually cost people jobs in said industry, government intervention in this regard only keeps people working longer in an essentially meaningless job, not adding a dollar value for their labor. When competitive pressures eventually outweigh government intervention you then see whole industries collapse because they have not been incrementally improving their operation, and the excess employment and lack of up-to-date technology and processes is far too much to overcome. Wouldn’t it be better to have the best possible steel industry market forces can provide, able to meet future challenges, or a bloated government supported industry that will eventually collapse under its own weight?
The other part of the jobs bill of course is the political dynamic of the whole affair. The President is traveling around the country trying to sell this bill. It is now becoming the center piece of his administration, and working into next years electioneering. According to this story the White House is over the moon with the prospect of the fight over this jobs bill, and they seem not to even care if it passes. If it passes they believe that jobs will come roaring back, unemployment will fall and the people will happily re-elect Obama after his brilliant management of the crisis. If the bill does not pass then the President can use that loss as his magic bullet to defeat all Republican comers, saying that “they” don’t believe in America and they want to see people suffer to serve their super-rich masters. It sets up a nice strategy to be sure: pass my bill because it is the only possible plan or stand against America. It is also fraught with problems. The administration somehow sees this as putting Republicans over a barrel, and they believe they can short-circuit debate over the efficacy or utility of these programs. The Republican response should be easy and straight forward though, pass the bill. All the Republicans need to do is take the entire bill, just as written and change two things to completely flip around the debate. Pass the bill without the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage section and change the Buy American provision to 25% of the cost of the item, not the overall project. Every dollar stays the same (what’s another $400 Billion between friends), all the projects and policies (but please leave out the ridiculous discriminating against the unemployed provision, so I suppose three tweaks), and even put the tax increase triggers in there, because you would see everything around this bill grind to a halt in the Senate and administration. After initially saying the whole bill had to pass “as is” the administration has changed it’s tone and said it would take it in pieces if it created jobs. Here the Republicans could give him the whole bill, with these two (three) tweaks and really throw a wrench in everybody’s plans. Removing/changing these two things would send the Democrats and their pundits into an apoplectic fit, but the Republican response should just be “jobs”. Say to all those who complain “do we want jobs for all Americans suffering in this economy, or jobs only for union members?” The administration has said it would not throw away a chance to employ a million people over their wish to employ 2 million, so respond by saying removing “prevailing wage” has the potential to employ even more people. Force the White House to stand by their Keynesian principles, make them defend why the maximum number of people who could be employed shouldn’t be employed. The response will be boilerplate, the need to create “good” jobs, which by definition for them is only union jobs, but for the vast majority of people who were not in a union before this crisis it should obviously ring hollow. Paint the administration as not being concerned about jobs and the economy, but only their donors and base. Simple fix to a complex problem. If the economy rebounds (which it really wouldn’t) everybody can take credit. If the bill dies the Republicans can claim they tried and the administration killed the bill to please their rent-seekers. And when the dust settles maybe they can all try and come up with a real plan, trying things that might actually work, and everyone can stop playing for the election. That of course is the least likely outcome, but it is nice to dream.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ron Paul, the Debates and Stupid, Stupid Questions

Between the Palmetto Freedom Forum and the Reagan Library Presidential debate the question rattling around my head is why exactly does Ron Paul have to explain his positions while no one else does? Granted, Paul has some positions outside of the Republican mainstream, but it seems ridiculous that he has to explain his questioning of Republican “orthodoxy” while everyone else gets to thump a talking point drum to make a nice little sound bite.
Paul (and once again this is not an endorsement) has to justify his stance on the drug war. For some reason it is just an unquestionable fact that we need a war on drugs, and Paul is a crazy loon that needs to justify a position that says adult, free Americans should be able to intoxicate themselves however they see fit, and the drug war can not be “won”. Why are no candidates asked what they are going to do to win the war on drugs? Ask them what they will do: More laws? More lives wasted in prison? More billions on interdiction? Is all we need another 50,000 dead Mexican citizens and the war will be won? I would like to see an intelligent blind question where one of these other candidates is given the option to ban an intoxicant. Ask them about a product that causes thousand of deaths every year, ruins families, can cause birth defects, makes addicts out of thousands every year, can lead to violence and a host of other social ills. Ask them if it would be appropriate for the government to ban this product, and then tell them it they have been talking about alcohol. It would be nice to see the look on one of these other clown's faces after that one. Banning alcohol was probably the most monumental failure of policy that this country has ever undertaken, and everyone is well aware of that unquestionable fact, and no one would advocate returning to that policy. Why is that not obvious when it comes to the Drug War? Why is it crazy to question that policy knowing what we know about our own history with Prohibition? Why do we tolerate a jackass moderator with his smug little smirk asking “what about this crazy notion of legalizing drugs?” and not demand he ask the other candidates the flip side of that question to the others?
The other crazy notion is about Iran and nuclear weapons. This is meant to halt any notion of questioning America’s role as the world policeman. The Neo-Cons especially love this one to discredit Paul as unfit from a foreign policy stand point, he is an isolationist after all, and everyone knows that the most dangerous thing in the whole world since the Nazis/Commies/Hippies is the notion of an Islamic Atom bomb. While you can credibly debate the notion of a destabilizing effect of an Iranian nuke in the region, why are no other candidates asked what they would do to stop it? Paul comes at it from a principled position of international sovereignty and the limits of American power. How are the other candidates going to address the problem once realized though? They can simply stand up and pound the podium and say that they won’t allow Iran to have the bomb, but how exactly would they stop it? Sanctions have not moved Iranian policy in any way over the last 30 years. Air strikes? Can anyone say that air strikes could reliably destroy the entire nuclear program? Once destroyed what keeps the program from restarting? Will there be a decapitation strike against the leadership at the same time? Invasion to ensure the program is completely destroyed? Does that come with regime change and nation building too? If the Iranian regime is so dangerous and mentally unstable what are the consequences of any planned action? A wider Middle Eastern war? Given our position in the region and the economic realities we face shouldn’t these questions be asked and answered? North Korea has (it is believed) the bomb right now, should all candidates be asked what they are going to do to reverse that? Pakistan has the bomb, if the Islamo-fascist should take over Pakistan what would these candidates do? Is that not a reasonable extension of the Iranian question?
We keep hearing how tumultuous and unique the times we live in are and that we need “adult” conversations about the future direction of our country. Isn’t about time then that orthodoxy is questioned? Why not reexamine the long held beliefs and policies and say “maybe there is another path”. If the debate moderators, journalists and pundits are simply going to call Paul’s policy prescriptions crazy or naïve then we should insist that they and the other candidates explain how the status quo should continue on unquestioned, and how that is going to appeal to any voter outside the hardcore Republican base. They are going to vote Republican, that is a given, but the Independent voter is going to decide this election. The Independent voter is looking to see who is going to do things differently, because orthodox has not been working as of late. We should all be questioning the orthodox and whether or not we should continue on and on with the same policies, or should we be trying something different to actually change the direction of this country.