Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 10, 2011

Why is This Question So Hard to Answer?

The colloquy last Sunday on ABC, in which neither Time’s editor-in-chief (who authored its cover story on the Constitution) nor professors from Harvard and Georgetown could answer George Will’s question — Can Congress require obese people to join Weight Watchers? — was not the first time the question had been asked and non-answered.

During Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, Senator Coburn asked if Congress could require Americans to eat fruit and vegetables every day. Kagan said courts cannot strike down laws just because they’re dumb, producing this exchange:

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The colloquy last Sunday on ABC, in which neither Time’s editor-in-chief (who authored its cover story on the Constitution) nor professors from Harvard and Georgetown could answer George Will’s question — Can Congress require obese people to join Weight Watchers? — was not the first time the question had been asked and non-answered.

During Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, Senator Coburn asked if Congress could require Americans to eat fruit and vegetables every day. Kagan said courts cannot strike down laws just because they’re dumb, producing this exchange:

COBURN: Well, I guess the question I am asking is: Do we have the power to tell people what they have to eat every day?

KAGAN: [long pause], Senator Coburn, [pause], um, [pause], I, I –

The inability of editors, professors, and Supreme Court nominees to articulate a limit on the individual mandate suggests there isn’t one, not a legal one, nor (once it becomes part of constitutional law) a logical one either. See “ObamaCare, ObamaCars, and Government-Mandated Broccoli” at Pajamas Media today. When the Supreme Court eventually considers ObamaCare, perhaps it will recall Justice Brandeis’s famous warning: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent.”

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PA Poll Boosts Romney, Bachmann

A new survey released on Friday by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm in the key swing state of Pennsylvania brought encouraging news for Mitt Romney. The poll showed Romney tied with President Obama in a head-to-head general election matchup while every other Republican contender trails the incumbent.

This bolsters the former Massachusetts governor’s status as the GOP frontrunner but the PPP’s latest numbers from the Keystone state also brought a mixed bag of news for both Romney and Obama. The president’s approval ratings in a state that he won by a large margin in 2008 continue to be terrible. And though Romney is clearly the Republican with the most support in the state, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s polling numbers show her to have moved up to the second place position in the GOP race even though blue-leaning Pennsylvania was not thought to be hospitable to the darling of the Tea Party.

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A new survey released on Friday by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm in the key swing state of Pennsylvania brought encouraging news for Mitt Romney. The poll showed Romney tied with President Obama in a head-to-head general election matchup while every other Republican contender trails the incumbent.

This bolsters the former Massachusetts governor’s status as the GOP frontrunner but the PPP’s latest numbers from the Keystone state also brought a mixed bag of news for both Romney and Obama. The president’s approval ratings in a state that he won by a large margin in 2008 continue to be terrible. And though Romney is clearly the Republican with the most support in the state, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s polling numbers show her to have moved up to the second place position in the GOP race even though blue-leaning Pennsylvania was not thought to be hospitable to the darling of the Tea Party.

The PPP results show Romney making the strongest showing against Obama of any Republican. Romney and Obama are tied at 44 percent in a theoretical general election showdown. Obama leads the rest of the GOP field by significant margins. Of the others, Michele Bachmann provides the next closest match-up though she still trails him by a 50-43 margin.

The good news for Bachmann is that she has the best net favorable/unfavorable popularity rating of all the Republican candidates. This is in no small measure the result of her largely successful campaign launch in June though skeptics will also note that is due to the fact that the negative coverage that is usually given to conservative women by the mainstream press is only just getting started. As Bachmann and her family are subjected to more intense scrutiny in the coming months, her unfavorable numbers may go up.  While Romney is the only Republican who seems to be able to attract enough Pennsylvania Democrats and independents to win a general election, Bachmann has much stronger support among conservatives, a factor that will make her a much tougher primary opponent even in this generally moderate state than anyone would have thought a few months ago.

As for the president, he can hardly be happy about the state of his popularity. By a 48-46 margin, Pennsylvanians disapprove of the job he is doing. When you consider that Obama must hold onto Pennsylvania if he hopes to be re-elected, the numbers here are hardly encouraging for the Democrats.

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A Big Bloodless Win for Israel Over Flotilla

For years, soldiers and scholars have been talking about a phenomenon known as “lawfare”: the attempt by adversaries to use the legal system to tie up Western militaries, in particular those of the U.S. and Israel, into knots. The classic example is NGO’s trying to bring war crimes charges in European courts against Henry Kissinger, Ariel Sharon, and other notables. To make sure they comply with the letter of international law, the U.S., Israeli, and European armed forces have adopted restrictive rules of engagement that sometimes limit their freedom of action, while of course doing nothing to stop international condemnation.

But the saga of the second Gaza Flotilla shows two can play at that game. As David Frum notes in this column “How Israeli Lawyers Stopped the Second Flotilla,” legal action by Israelis has prevented the flotilla from leaving Greece. This was combined with effective diplomacy by Israel. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, the lawsuits filed by the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center gave Israel a big, bloodless win.

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For years, soldiers and scholars have been talking about a phenomenon known as “lawfare”: the attempt by adversaries to use the legal system to tie up Western militaries, in particular those of the U.S. and Israel, into knots. The classic example is NGO’s trying to bring war crimes charges in European courts against Henry Kissinger, Ariel Sharon, and other notables. To make sure they comply with the letter of international law, the U.S., Israeli, and European armed forces have adopted restrictive rules of engagement that sometimes limit their freedom of action, while of course doing nothing to stop international condemnation.

But the saga of the second Gaza Flotilla shows two can play at that game. As David Frum notes in this column “How Israeli Lawyers Stopped the Second Flotilla,” legal action by Israelis has prevented the flotilla from leaving Greece. This was combined with effective diplomacy by Israel. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, the lawsuits filed by the Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center gave Israel a big, bloodless win.

This is hardly the only example of lawfare being pursued by Western governments or pro-Western groups–there have been numerous examples of legal proceedings to deny terrorist groups financing, to knock them off the Web, etc. It stands to reason that, when facing groups like Hezbollah and al Qaeda, the West would have an obvious advantage in the legal department. The problem, of course, is that terrorist organizations do not ordinarily abide by international law–unlike Western militaries. But they do need access to the West to operate effectively–to our airlines, our banks, our web sites, and so forth. All of that can be limited with a skillful “lawfare” campaign.

As with all relatively new weapons, “lawfare” is a two-edged sword. If our enemies are going to make full use of it (and even if they’re not), so should we.

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Stop Obama’s Egyptian Tank Sale

While everyone in Washington was concentrating on the debt crisis this week, the Obama administration attempted to slip through a questionable arms deal that requires serious scrutiny. Though it got little attention, the Defense Department officially notified Congress on Friday that it was authorizing the sale of 125 M1A1 tanks to Egypt as well as other weapons, equipment, parts, training and logistical support. While most of the military sales to Egypt have sailed through without objection in the more than 30 years since it signed a peace deal with Israel, this is the first such sale since the fall of the Mubarak regime earlier this year. Which is exactly why the sale ought to be held up until the unsettled situation in the most populous country in the Arab world is better understood.

Congress has 30 days to register its formal objections to the proposed sale. That it should do so is imperative. The reasons for a delay are not complicated.

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While everyone in Washington was concentrating on the debt crisis this week, the Obama administration attempted to slip through a questionable arms deal that requires serious scrutiny. Though it got little attention, the Defense Department officially notified Congress on Friday that it was authorizing the sale of 125 M1A1 tanks to Egypt as well as other weapons, equipment, parts, training and logistical support. While most of the military sales to Egypt have sailed through without objection in the more than 30 years since it signed a peace deal with Israel, this is the first such sale since the fall of the Mubarak regime earlier this year. Which is exactly why the sale ought to be held up until the unsettled situation in the most populous country in the Arab world is better understood.

Congress has 30 days to register its formal objections to the proposed sale. That it should do so is imperative. The reasons for a delay are not complicated.

In the wake of Mubarak’s fall from power, the Egyptian military seems to have retained a firm grip on power. But the army seems intent on sharing power with a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood movement that threatens the foundation of the relationship between the United States and Egypt. Since the 1979 Camp David Accords, the Egyptian military has gotten all the high-tech and expensive equipment it wanted so long as it was clear their new toys would not be used to threaten or attack Israel. But as Egypt lurches toward the election of a new government that will probably be made up of Islamist elements, that peace is in jeopardy.

This means this is not the moment to be strengthening the offensive capabilities of an Egypt that has opened its border with Hamas-run Gaza and is distancing itself from an already cold peace with the Jewish state. Egypt may not yet be ready to repudiate the peace treaty or engage in military adventures, but it must be reminded there is a price for the open-ended U.S. support it has received for decades. While the despotic Mubarak could be trusted to keep the peace in exchange for $2 billion a year in American baksheesh, there is no way of knowing whether the new masters of Cairo will be so reliable.

The United States should be encouraging the new Egyptian government to build democracy and invest in its economy so as to help its impoverished people and create a society based on the rule of law. But handing over advanced tanks to the Egyptian military is not the path to either democracy or prosperity for that country. Congress must act to halt this sale immediately.

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Don’t Raid the Defense Piggy-Bank

By my count during his Twitter Town Hall, President Obama mentioned defense spending 12 times during the course of an hour and eight minutes of conversation–each time the context being how much he would like to cut defense. One of those mentions was a particularly revealing slip. He said:

The nice thing about the defense budget is it’s so big, it’s so huge, that a 1 percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget.  Not — I’m exaggerating, but it’s so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of head room to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that.

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By my count during his Twitter Town Hall, President Obama mentioned defense spending 12 times during the course of an hour and eight minutes of conversation–each time the context being how much he would like to cut defense. One of those mentions was a particularly revealing slip. He said:

The nice thing about the defense budget is it’s so big, it’s so huge, that a 1 percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget.  Not — I’m exaggerating, but it’s so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of head room to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that.

Is 1 percent of the defense budget really equivalent to the entire education budget? Not quite. In fiscal year 2012 the government is slated to spend $708 billion on defense (including the supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). The Department of Education’s budget is slated to be $71 billion. One percent of the defense budget, then, is $7 billion — or less than 10 percent of the federal education budget. OK, Obama admitted he was exaggerating, but this is quite a massive exaggeration. What it indicates is that Obama sees the Defense Department as a piggy-bank to be raided to pay for his domestic priorities — e.g., the Department of Education (whose spending has a tenuous relationship at best with actual education).

The tragedy is that some Republicans are considering going along with this view which risks destroying our global military dominance without doing much to close the federal budget gap which is caused by out-of-control entitlement spending, not defense. Republicans ought not to head down this ill-advised course.

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Debt Deal Sunk by Untrustworthy Left Not Right-Wing Rigidity

The idea of using the debt ceiling crisis as the lever to enact both long-term entitlement reform as well as a simplification of the tax code was a good one. But the details of the deal House Speaker John Boehner tried to work out with President Obama along these lines turned out to be a bridge too far. While the failure of the talks to achieve a far reaching accord rather than a short-term solution to the debt ceiling is being blamed solely on GOP hardliners, the real problem may have been more a matter of President Obama’s unreliability than Boehner being sandbagged by political purists in his own party.

Boehner’s basic vision for a grand rather than a limited deal on the debt was sound. If the Democrats would agree to drastic cuts in spending on entitlements as well as tax reform, then the result would have been a serious plan to reduce the deficit without growth-killing tax increases. But, as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page stated succinctly on Saturday, the negotiations fueled suspicions among the Republican leadership, and not just the Tea Party caucus, that the Democrats could not be trusted to enact bold tax reform once they had already pocketed tax increases. Unless both parts of the deal were enacted simultaneously, there was no reason either President Obama or recalcitrant congressional Democrats would fulfill their part of the bargain. So rather than rabid right-wingers being to blame for the situation, it may have been liberal Democrats, who had no interest in a deal that would force them to give up their demagogic attacks on the GOP on entitlements, who were at fault.

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The idea of using the debt ceiling crisis as the lever to enact both long-term entitlement reform as well as a simplification of the tax code was a good one. But the details of the deal House Speaker John Boehner tried to work out with President Obama along these lines turned out to be a bridge too far. While the failure of the talks to achieve a far reaching accord rather than a short-term solution to the debt ceiling is being blamed solely on GOP hardliners, the real problem may have been more a matter of President Obama’s unreliability than Boehner being sandbagged by political purists in his own party.

Boehner’s basic vision for a grand rather than a limited deal on the debt was sound. If the Democrats would agree to drastic cuts in spending on entitlements as well as tax reform, then the result would have been a serious plan to reduce the deficit without growth-killing tax increases. But, as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page stated succinctly on Saturday, the negotiations fueled suspicions among the Republican leadership, and not just the Tea Party caucus, that the Democrats could not be trusted to enact bold tax reform once they had already pocketed tax increases. Unless both parts of the deal were enacted simultaneously, there was no reason either President Obama or recalcitrant congressional Democrats would fulfill their part of the bargain. So rather than rabid right-wingers being to blame for the situation, it may have been liberal Democrats, who had no interest in a deal that would force them to give up their demagogic attacks on the GOP on entitlements, who were at fault.

There’s no question many on the right were skeptical about Boehner’s proposal. Some purists believe the expansion of the debt ceiling for any reason is illegitimate since it means continuing to live beyond our means and that any deal would just feed the government monster. Others thought any rise in government revenues was immoral. But were the two ends of this compromise enacted together rather than in a staggered fashion, I think Boehner would have been able to carry the vast majority of his caucus with him.

But since the deal is so complicated, doing it all at once was improbable if not impossible. And that meant that tax reform would have gone last. That meant trusting not only Obama but also House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to help push it through after everything else was done. Given that the Democrats don’t believe in this vision and have partisan reasons for sabotaging a deal that would prevent them from ranting about evil Republicans throwing grandma over the cliff, the GOP had good reason to be distrustful.

Sooner or later, Congress will have to enact the sort of far reaching entitlement cuts and tax reform that Boehner wanted. It would have been better for the country if it had happened now rather than in the future. But the blame for this delay deserves to be pinned as much, if not more, on untrustworthy Democrats as on hard line Republicans.

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Democrats’ Incoherent Push to Cut Defense

It’s mindblowing that Democrats simultaneously push for $700 billion in defense cuts while demanding  government retain its expansionary spending programs. Those Republicans willing to trade robust national security to avert tax hikes have deeply flawed priorities, but at least these are identifiable priorities that can be debated.

But Democrats are pushing for cuts in military spending while insisting we need more overall spending. They support increased spending because they believe large government outlays – in the Keynesian sense, where we should pay people to dig holes rather than let scared money remain on the sidelines — are good. That belief borders on sheer incoherence. And they’re doing it just as a Democratic President has embraced a doctrine that advocates the use of force, permitting open-ended unilateral warfare, based solely on humanitarian grounds. The president now decides on Tuesdays to go to war on Fridays. So we may actually need some weapons sooner or later.

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It’s mindblowing that Democrats simultaneously push for $700 billion in defense cuts while demanding  government retain its expansionary spending programs. Those Republicans willing to trade robust national security to avert tax hikes have deeply flawed priorities, but at least these are identifiable priorities that can be debated.

But Democrats are pushing for cuts in military spending while insisting we need more overall spending. They support increased spending because they believe large government outlays – in the Keynesian sense, where we should pay people to dig holes rather than let scared money remain on the sidelines — are good. That belief borders on sheer incoherence. And they’re doing it just as a Democratic President has embraced a doctrine that advocates the use of force, permitting open-ended unilateral warfare, based solely on humanitarian grounds. The president now decides on Tuesdays to go to war on Fridays. So we may actually need some weapons sooner or later.

If only due to argumentative decency, Democrats will need to make a choice on spending. Either military cuts or continued expansionary spending, but not both. “Spending is expansionary except when the money goes to something I don’t like” shouldn’t serve as a compelling argument. Moreover, because defense spending is typically vastly more efficient than whatever projects Democrats want to throw money at, the contemplated defense cuts appear particularly illogical.

Helpfully, the U.S. military has long had a shopping list of programs it would like to see bundled into stimulus packages. But they didn’t receive the funding they needed last time. Instead, they saw massive cuts that hollowed out our national defense – while stimulus funds were diverted to inefficient liberal pet projects.

In fact, everything else being equal, Democrats are politically and institutionally inclined to divert resources to the least efficient sectors of the economy, which is where their permanent constituencies have quite literally set up shop. Those groups — construction unions, green tech companies, etc. — not coincidentally, require government intervention to remain financially viable. That’s the deal they have with the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians insulate uncompetitive constituencies from the market via onerous regulations and the occasional wave of government fiat. In turn, those groups mobilize electorally for Democratic politicians. So we end up in a situation where progressive groups targeted for Democratic largesse are in sectors that have been most distorted by government intervention. Maybe that’s justifiable on social grounds — unions are the bedrock of the middle class, green tech will save us from rising oceans, whatever — but it’s flawed economic policy.

To take one nearly perfect example, see Mickey Kaus’ unpacking of how Davis-Bacon wage regulations, inserted into the stimulus lest union companies get outbid, detonated any chance for successful “shovel-ready” projects. Obama hoped to have people “immediately put to work.” Instead, a year was wasted because expansionary fiscal policy was secondary to protecting uncompetitive Democratic interest groups.

Also under the stimulus, bogus energy-efficient products were purchased by the hundreds of millions of dollars because Democrats liked the idea of green tech. Cities that couldn’t utilize airports got airport funds because their states had powerful Democratic senators. Teachers unions retained lavish benefits without making cuts, something the White House actually bragged about, despite studies from 2009 to 2011 showing that education funds cause at best zero expansion. Deep Blue California was especially brazen, using stimulus funds to cover unemployment benefits and pay exorbitant public sector salaries, before turning around and outright making up 25 percent of their “saved or created jobs.” Even Project Gunrunner was a stimulus project, because someone in the Executive branch wanted it that way. Why not?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. The chagrin of casual libertarians aside, there are scenarios under which Keynesianism theoretically makes sense. When private investment is totally frozen, as was arguably the case after the credit collapse in 2008, there’s no intrinsically economic reason why the government can’t confiscate money and get it moving through the economy again. There are plenty of ethical arguments against redistribution and, in theory, distortions may result from expected future tax hikes. In reality, there’s no such thing as totally frozen investment. There’s something not quite right with the notion that businesspeople don’t recognize the opportunities into which their idle capital could be usefully invested. In purely theoretical terms, under this idealized (but practically impossible) scenario, the devastating “crowding out” arguments – and this recent study from the Harvard Business School shows just how devastating they can get – don’t apply. We’re already assuming that investment is frozen.

But academic Keynesian economists don’t direct stimulus funding. Elected big government liberals, beholden to permanent Democratic constituencies, are those who actually make the decisions. So as a matter of policy, if not economic theory, money ends up getting diverted into progressive causes rather than into expansionary programs.

Depending on parameters and elasticity, expansionary fiscal policy might be a good or a bad thing. It might work or it might not. But Democrats have ensured that all of the places where they want to spend money are places where that money would be wasted. If you want successful Democratic fiscal policy, you have to squeeze Democratic political priorities from spending decisions.

The defense sector isn’t completely efficient and defense procurements are notoriously Byzantine. But at least it’s not a part of the economy that’s designed by regulation to be economically inefficient. The defense spending multiplier is usually pegged at somewhere between .05 and 1, which isn’t great but is a lot more than the zero we get from funding education and plugging up state budget shortfalls. And we can be certain that defense appropriations will be spent quickly on stuff, which is what Keynesians are looking for anyway. In the worst case, we can just ship weapons over to our NATO allies, who — thanks to decades of propping up their welfare states at the expense of their militaries — are now running out of bombs to drop on Libya. At least they’re guaranteed to be used.

That’s more than we can say for the Democrats’ bureaucratically suffocating pet projects.

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