Archive for the 'Politics' Category

A Choice, Not an Echo

There is at least one national candidate for President this year who you can be sure really understands economics. That’s Larry Kotlikoff, a professor of economics at Boston University with a long string of high professional honors and a history of great accomplishment in both academics and public service (more here). His running mate, Ed Leamer, is no slouch either.

Kotlikoff and Leamer are not on the ballot, but they are registered write-in candidates (the result of a long and arduous process) which means that their write-ins will be counted (unlike write-ins for, say, Daffy Duck). This is a great way to send the message that you prefer a president who is in the habit of making sense. Here is Kotlikoff practicing that habit:

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The Last Debate


Trump did very well, in the sense that if you hadn’t already known it, you might not have guessed he was a madman. But nothing could be more infuriating than to hear him pitch himself as the candidate of change.

For many decades, the federal government has become bigger and more intrusive. Hilary Clinton wants it to be even bigger and even more intrusive. So does Donald Trump. In this they do not differ. She more or less admits it; he flat out lies.

So let’s remind ourselves that Trump wants a government that is more dictatorial regarding who you can trade with, where you can locate your business, the wage contracts you can negotiate, and who you can invite into your living room. He has no problem with entitlement growth, and when asked what he would cut, has consistently answered “waste, fraud and abuse”, suggesting that he has no problem with any of the big ticket items — no problem with a federal government that maintains Departments of Commerce, Labor, Agriculture, Education, Energy, Transporation, and all the rest of it. Given ample opportunities, he’s never even been able to muster a word of opposition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Continue reading ‘The Last Debate’

Frequently Asked Questions About Donald Trump

trumpIs Donald Trump a racist? I am aware of nothing that would make me think so, but I am also aware that I am not the person most likely to be aware of such things. But I’m not sure it much matters anyway. Under our system of government, and in the current century, it would be rather difficult, I think, for even the most racist of presidents to erect signficant barriers to trade between people of different races. As long as the darkness in a man or woman’s heart does no material harm, I think we can live with it.

On the other hand, Donald Trump is certainly a xenophobe, which makes him as unlikable as a racist, and matters a hell of a lot more, given the ease with which our government routinely erects trade barriers between people of different nationalities.

So the answer to “Is Trump a racist?” is: I’d guess not, I don’t really care (except insofar as I wish nobody were a racist), and it’s the wrong question anyway. The right question is: “Is Trump a xenophobe?”, to which the answer is yes — and it matters.

Is Donald Trump a serial groper? The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, he seems to have lived several decades in the public eye without any visible complaints. On the other hand, we have the notorious Carpe Vulva tape, along with the flood of accusations that followed. The fact that those accusations gibe so closely with the words on the tape could be seen as evidence either for or against their veracity.

But again, who cares, really? The extent of Trump’s boorishness, whatever it may be, seems unlikely to be much different in or out of the Oval Office, and is therefore largely irrelevant to whether it would be a good idea to install him in that office.

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That Debate


They were both so dreadful in so many ways that I don’t have the heart to review it all.

But just because it came near the very end, this is what sticks in my mind.

I am paraphrasing from memory here, but I believe that Mrs. Clinton “accused” Mr. Trump of having said that:

  1. Pregnancy is inconvenient to employers.
  2. When a female employee is less productive than a male employee, it is reasonable for that female employee to be paid less.

Quite independent of the question of whether Mr. Trump did or did not say these things, in what sense are these accusations? Specifically:

  1. Does Mrs. Clinton actually not understand that pregnancy is frequently inconvenient for employers? If not, she is so thoroughly out of touch with the realities of running a business that this alone would be a good reason not to vote for her.
  2. Does Mrs. Clinton actually not understand that it’s a good thing for more effective employees to be paid more than less effective employees — not least because this sends a signal to those less effective employees that they might be more socially useful doing something different? If so, she is so thoroughly out of touch with how markets work (and should work), and so thoroughly oblivious to the importance of efficient resource allocation, that it should be almost unthinkable to vote for her.

Historical Perspective

Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?

–Henry II, 1170

Nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

–Donald Trump, 2016

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Fox News reports that senior Republicans, including Reince Preibus, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuiiani, are planning an “intervention” to try to talk Donald Trump down from putting his psychopathy quite so visibly on display. The psychopathy itself is presumably intervention-proof.

Which raises the question: Why intervene? Presumably the answer is: To get this man elected as President of the United States, from which venue the psychopathy will have free reign. The very necessity of the intervention implies that if the intervention is successful, it must be disastrous. We intervene with drunkards to begin the slow process of returning them to a normal life. We do not intervene with drunkards to get them to hide their drinking so they can be hired as jet pilots in three months’ time.

I realize that there are still a few scattered people who think (or at least hope) that Trump’s whole idiot-manchild schtick is just some kind of an act, and that there is some substance beneath the lunacy. Presumably those who believe that an intervention is necessary are not among those scattered few. This makes it their responsibility, at a minimum, to stop trying to elect him.

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Pretty Good Ad

This blog does not endorse any candidate for anything, and will never be shy about decrying nonsense, no matter the source. That said, this is an ad worth watching:

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The All-Purpose Defense

President Obama, defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just said something very like the following (I heard this on the radio and am quoting from memory):

And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where we get to sell things all over the world and never buy anything.

Oh. I assume, then, that he’ll be defending his jobs program in terms something like this:

And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where we get to work all day and never get paid.

For that matter, this also works as a defense of Obamacare:

And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where get to spend all our time in hospitals and never get well.

Continue reading ‘The All-Purpose Defense’

In Praise of Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Nancy Patton Mills, David Wecht, Christine Donohue, Heather ArnetIn 2016, one of the country’s two major political parties was rocked by an insurgent demagogue who prospered by pandering to ignorance, xenophobia, blind hatred and outright stupidity. So was the other one. One party fought back. The other didn’t.

I am aware that many people, and especially even readers of this blog (including myself at times) believe that the vast majority of polticians prosper by pandering to ignorance, xenophobia, blind hatred and outright stupidity. But the Trump/Sanders phenomenon took this to a whole new level. Never before in my memory have politicians with a real shot at the presidency been so aggressive in their refusals even to try making sense, or in their denials that making sense is a virtue. Never before have they been so forthright in their insistence that as long as we all hate the right people, everything will be alright.

For roughly 40 years now, the Democrats and the Republicans, in their highly imperfect and frequently corrupt ways, have offered competing visions for the country and have, in their highly imperfect and frequently dishonest ways, fostered debate about the merits of those visions. Highly imperfect, frequently corrupt and dishonest — but still with at least some nods toward the value of rational discourse, and, though less often than I’d like, sometimes with considerably more than nods. Politicians in both parties have been known to demonstrate by example that it is possible to be spirited without being mean-spirited, that there is a difference between an argument and an insult, and that your opponents need not be your enemies.

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The Dream Ticket

She hasn’t asked me, but I know who Hilary Clinton should choose as a running mate.

She should choose Jeb Bush. Then she should immediately issue this statement:

Continue reading ‘The Dream Ticket’


trumpFollowing the latest round of drivel from Donald Trump, this might be a good time to review the standard textbook case for free trade. (You’ll also find this spelled out in The Big Questions .)

Suppose American manufacturers sell 1000 widgets a year to American consumers at a price of $9 each. Now, thanks to a new free trade agreement, foreign manufacturers can sell widgets to American consumers at $6 each. Let’s try to account for all the different ways that Americans are affected.

1. American manufacturers have two choices: They can match the foreign price of $6, or they can go do something else. If they match the foreign price, they lose $3 per widget (compared to what they were making before). If instead they go do something else, they lose at most $3 per widget. We know this, because they always have the option of matching the foreign price and therefore won’t choose any option worse than that. Therefore, the loss to American manufacturers is at most $3000. (In fact, under very mild assumptions, which almost always hold, the loss is surely less than $3000, but we won’t need to know that here.)

2. Existing American consumers — the ones who were going to buy those 1000 widgets anyway — pay $6 per widget instead of $9 per widget, and therefore collectively save $3000.

3. Some Americans who were unwilling to buy widgets at $9 will happily buy them at $6, and will be happy with their purchases. This is an additional gain to Americans.

Bottom line: American producers lose at most $3000. Existing American consumers gain $3000. New American consumers gain something too. Therefore the gains to Americans must exceed the losses to Americans.

Continue reading ‘Trumponomics’


Hillary Clinton Campigns In Iowa, Meeting With Small Business OwnersAre you a corporate employee who wishes that your income were tied more closely to your employer’s profits?

I have good news for you: There’s an easy way to make that happen. Take 10% (or 5% or 20%) of your wages, and use them to buy corporate stock.

Are you a corporate employee who *doesn’t* wish that your income were tied more closely to your employer’s profits?

I have good news for you, too. You don’t have to buy additional stock if you don’t want to.

Hilary Clinton, however, wants to change all that. She wants to force you into a profit sharing arrangement that is, for all practical purposes, equivalent to forcibly converting part of your salary into corporate stock. If you were planning to do that anyway, this will make no difference to you. If you weren’t planning to do it anyway — if, for example, you preferred to diversify your risks by investing your wages in some other industry — then, of course, this will make you worse off.

(I trust that none of my regular readers is silly enough to respond that Clinton’s plan is much better than buying stock, because you get the profit-sharing in addition to your existing salary. But for the benefit of the occasional drive-by reader, this is not possible. Market pressures insure that your total compensation is equal to the value of what you produce for the company, and if one facet of that compensation goes up, then another must go down.)

Continue reading ‘Clintonomics’

Promise Keeping

So apparently last week, while my attention was directed elsewhere, Donald Trump attempted to attract the support of conservatives by promising to choose all of his Supreme Court appointments from a short list of candidates who he believes conservatives will find appealing.

Regardless of what you think of those individual candidates, there is absolutely no reason this gambit should garner support from conservatives for the simple reasont that the promise is not enforceable. This would be a problem with any politician, but particularly with Trump, who has never felt any qualms (or even, as far as I can see, any embarrassment) about shifting his positions 180 degrees from one day to the next.

But there’s a way to fix that problem, and it’s available not just to Trump but to any politician with credibility issues. Let him issue a list of specific promises (such as “All of my Supreme Court appointments will come from this list”) and then put the bulk of his personal wealth in an escrow account, to be returned to him if he loses the election or if he serves and keeps his promises — and to be paid to someone else if he’s elected and breaks those promises. The named beneficiary could be, for example, the U.S. Treasury, or — if the candidate is particularly concerned about attracting the votes of traditional Republicans — the Republican National Committee.

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Political Strategy

It now seems likely that:

  • In order for either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to become the Republican nominee, he must first consolidate the anti-Trump vote, which is to say that either can succeed only if the other drops out.
  • Cruz and Rubio have approximately equal chances of driving each other out.
  • Each would prefer to drive the other out sooner rather than later — i.e. before Trump wraps this whole thing up anyway.

Given that, it seems like one of the following two things should happen at tonight’s debate:


  1. Cruz, after making an eloquent case against Trump and explaining why he thinks it’s important to keep Trump out of the White House, turns to Rubio and offers to flip a coin right on the spot. The loser drops out of the race and the winner takes on Trump.
  2. or

  3. Rubio, after making an elegant case against Trump and explaining why he thinks it’s important to keep Trump out of the White House, turns to Cruz and offers to flip a coin right on the spot. The loser drops out of the race and the winner takes on Trump.

This gives each of them only a 50% chance of survival. But if they’ve already each got only a 50% chance of survival, that’s no loss. And it substantially increases the value of survival, because it gets things over with now instead of a month from now.

If I’m wrong in saying that each currently has a 50% chance — if instead, say, Cruz has a 60% chance and Rubio a 40% chance or vice versa — then they can flip an appropriately weighted coin.

Continue reading ‘Political Strategy’

Advice for Ted Cruz

I’m typing this a few hours before the Iowa Republican Debate. By the time you read it, you might know whether Ted Cruz chose to ignore this advice.

Cruz’s opposition to ethanol subsidies is apparently a problem for him in Iowa. It shouldn’t have to be. The whole point of opposing inefficient subsidies is that if we eliminate enough of them, we can all be better off.

So what Cruz ought to do is introduce a bill eliminating a long list of subsidies, ethanol among them — together with Planned Parenthood, NPR, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to find another hundred or so — and then emphasize to Iowans that the net effect of the entire package, which takes away their ethanol subidies but also relieves their tax burden, will be to make them richer. A collateral benefit is that he can then argue that the same bill makes New Hampshirites, Nevadans and South Carolinians richer, and if he succeeds in getting the nomination, that it makes Americans generally richer.

As a general rule, I do not understand why politicians take politically risky stands without this kind of bundling. It seems like good politics, and I’m sure it’s good policy.

Ethanol and NPR are of course small potatoes. One could of course do the same sort of bundling with big issues, and politicians of course sometimes do this. But why don’t they do it with both the small stuff and the big stuff?

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A Voter’s Guide to Thinking

Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) offers a Voter’s Guide to Thinking that is so good I am going to reproduce it in its entirety:

  1. If you are comparing Plan A to Plan B, you might be doing a good job of thinking. But if you are comparing Plan A to an imaginary situation in which there are no tradeoffs in life, you are not thinking.
  2. If you see quotes taken out of context, and you form an opinion anyway, that’s probably not thinking. If you believe you need no further context because there is only one imaginable explanation for the meaning of the quotes, you might have a poor imagination. Sometimes a poor imagination feels a lot like knowledge, but it’s closer to the opposite.
  3. If a debate lends itself to estimates of cost (in money or human suffering) and you aren’t willing to offer an estimate in support of your opinion, you don’t yet have an opinion.
  4. If you are sure you know how a leader performed during his or her tenure, and you don’t know how someone else would have performed in the same situation, you don’t actually know anything. It just feels like you do.

    Continue reading ‘A Voter’s Guide to Thinking’

Family Values

Followup to last night’s debate:

Didn’t Rubio essentially disqualify himself when he said he’d prioritize his job as a parent over his job as President of the United States?

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Debate Blog

Heard only a little of the undercard, but I do have some comments on it. But I’ll add those later.

Re the main debate (I’ll add to this every twenty minutes or so till the debate is over): (Note this is live-blogging, hence not always carefully thought through).

Continue reading ‘Debate Blog’

Party of the Rich

I did not watch the debate. I chose to go to my aerial silks lesson instead.

When I got home, the debate was half over. I turned it on for about a minute, during which Marco Rubio managed to turn my stomach to the point where I just couldn’t go on.

Apparently he’s all worried about American tech companies “taking advantage” of relaxed immigration laws to hire foreigners who can work more efficiently than Americans. Any firm that does this should be subjected to strict regulations on who they can hire going forward, etc. etc. And there should be a 180 day waiting period before they can hire that foreigner in the first place, etc. etc.

So let’s be clear about this: Rubio cares enormously more about American engineers than about American consumers, American investors, and low-skilled American workers, all of whom benefit from more efficient engineering. Who do you suppose is richer to begin with — the average engineer, or the average consumer/investor/low-skilled worker?

I cannot stand this stuff.

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Bad Planning

ppIn a bid for ongoing taxpayer support, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards will be appearing before Congress today. It’s reported that as part of her testimony, she will admit that only 1 percent of Planned Parenthood’s affiliates currently harvest fetal tissue, and that even those affiliates charge only modest fees of $60 per tissue specimen.

Which raises the question: Why should we give money to an organization that has access to a valuable resource but can’t be bothered to sell it to the highest bidder?

When your brother-in-law is out of work, you might be inclined to help him out. When your brother-in-law is out of work, deluged with job offers, and refusing even to consider them, you’ll probably be less inclined. Planned Parenthood is that brother-in-law.

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Politics As Usual

paulTo me, the biggest disappointment of this camapaign season has been Rand Paul. I’m sure there will be others.

I just saw Senator Paul on Fox News, where he made four substantive statements, one nonsensical, one innumerate, one economically illiterate, and one evasive to the point of dishonesty.

On the subject of collecting cellphone data without warrants, the host posed a hypothetical situation where a foreign terrorist is identified and we want to know which Americans he’s been talking to for the past six months. Paul’s answer: Get a warrant. The problem, of course, is that not even the US government, even newly armed with a warrant, is powerful enough to gather calling data that vanished into the ether six months ago. When the host pointed this out, Senator Paul ignored it.

On the subject of his tax plan, when presented with estimates that he’d be cutting taxes by 3% for the poor and by 13% for the rich, the senator could either have denied those numbers or defended them. Instead, he patiently explained that if you cut everyone’s taxes by 10%, then of course the rich will get bigger cuts (in absolute terms) than the poor. True, but to think that this was in any way relevant to the question requires a complete abandonment of all knowledge of arithmetic.

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The Second Debate in Real Time

This thread is your opportunity to post comments on the second (9PM eastern time) Repbulican candidates’ debate, in real time as the debate occurs. I might or might not find the stomach to participate.

Keep in mind the guidelines I posted yesterday:

I will have zero tolerance for comments that contribute nothing to the enterprise. In other words, anything of the form “Ha ha! I knew so-and-so was an idiot” will be deleted as soon as they appear. Ideally, all comments will contain food for thought. Bonus points for pointing out subtle self-contradictions. If you insist on posting pure insults, they should at least be hilarious.

Now have at it.

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The First Debate in Real Time

This thread is your opportunity to post comments on the first (5PM) Repbulican candidates’ debate, in real time as the debate occurs. I might or might not find the stomach to participate.

Keep in mind the guidelines I posted yesterday:

I will have zero tolerance for comments that contribute nothing to the enterprise. In other words, anything of the form “Ha ha! I knew so-and-so was an idiot” will be deleted as soon as they appear. Ideally, all comments will contain food for thought. Bonus points for pointing out subtle self-contradictions. If you insist on posting pure insults, they should at least be hilarious.

Now have at it.

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Goin’ To the Candidates’ Debate

I might regret this, but…..

Thursday evening (August 6) there will be two debates among the Republican candidates for president, the first beginning at 5PM eastern time and the second at 9PM eastern time.

Shortly before each debate, I plan to open a thread and invite readers to post comments in real time as the debates progress. Each thread will appear on this site ten minutes before the debate’s starting time.

I will have zero tolerance for comments that contribute nothing to the enterprise. In other words, anything of the form “Ha ha! I knew so-and-so was an idiot” will be deleted as soon as it appears. Ideally, all comments will contain food for thought. Bonus points for pointing out subtle self-contradictions. If you insist on posting pure insults, they should at least be hilarious.

I might or might not join the fray myself.

The first post will appear slightly before 5 and the second shortly before 9. I am heading out now to stock up on junk food.

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News Flash

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the president of the United States can do any damn thing he wants to, regardless of the law. Where were these guys when Nixon needed them?

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Those Clinton Emails

Hillary ClintonIf Jeb Bush is elected president and appoints me Secretary of State, the first thing I will do is set up a private server to handle my official email correspondence. This is not because I expect to have anything to hide, but because I expect my email to be important, and I do not want my service to depend on the whims of the sorts of aggressively incompetent nincompoops who, in my experience, tend to populate the IT departments of large institutions.

The University of Rochester, where I work, provides email services to all its employees. I do not use those services. Instead, I own several Internet domains and manage my own email For all I know, the University IT center might currently be 100% nincompoop-free, but all past experience suggests that it’s unlikely to stay that way very long.

Yes, I realize that one is still at the mercy of one’s upstream providers. But I am here to tell you from experience that the frequency of outages and other disasters is now about 10% of what it was in the years when I was at the mercy of the IT managers.

Continue reading ‘Those Clinton Emails’

Trey Gowdy Thinks You’re Stupid

Here we have six and a half minutes of Representative Trey Gowdy badgering Jonathan Gruber while studiously avoiding any form of substance.

There’s a lot Gowdy could have asked, like “So, is it actually the case that a tax on insurers is equivalent to a tax on the insured?” or “Can you explain why those taxes are equivalent?” or “Are there any important ways in which the two policies are not equivalent?” or “Why do you think a tax on `Cadillac plans` was good policy in the first place?”

Instead, all he can think of to ask — over and over and over and over and over and over and over again — is, “Why did you call the American people stupid?”, as if there were anything useful to be learned from the answer.

I see one possible explanation here. Apparently Gowdy believes his constituents prefer mindless bullying to policy enlightenment. In other words, he acts on the assumption that the American voters are fundamentally stupid. Maybe someone should spend six and a half minutes asking him why.

Edited to add: I said this in a comment, but want to add it to the post. It either is or is not important to determine the truth of the matter regarding the issues on which Gruber spoke deceptively — e.g. in what sense are these two taxes equivalent, etc. If these questions are not important, why are we having this hearing in the first place? If these questions are important, then why is Gowdy so uninterested in them?

Edited to add further: I said this also in a comment, but want to add it here. Gruber is lying. Gowdy has a chance to question him. Gowdy can use that chance either to chant the equivalent of “Liar, liar, pants on fire” or to pin him down on the substance of what he’s lying about, e.g. “Do you or do you not stand by the statement that a tax on insurers is equivalent to a tax on the insured?”. I assure you that Gruber prefers the former, and that’s what Gowdy is giving him. Presumably that’s because he thinks voters are too stupid to appreciate the latter.

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Two Questions for Bob Murphy

Bob Murphy objects to my recent defense of Jonathan Gruber. I have two questions for Bob.

Suppose a newly elected Republican president wants to exempt all investment income from taxation. There are two ways to do this:

1) Retain the income tax, but exempt all interest, dividends, and capital gains (while also abolishing the corporate and estate taxes).

2) Scrap the income tax and replace it with a national consumption tax.

The president’s chief economic advisor, like all economists, is well aware that these two policies are essentially equivalent in the sense that, once prices, wages and interest rates adjust to the new policies, each individual taxpayer is burdened exactly as much by policy 2) as by policy 1). More precisely, at least following an initial adjustment period each individual taxpayer enjoys exactly the same lifetime stream of consumption under policy 2) as under policy 1).

Let’s suppose also that the chief economic advisor believes that policy 1) is vulnerable to scurrilous class-warfare-themed attacks and therefore cannot be sold to the American people. Policy 2), however, stands a chance of passage. He therefore goes around honestly touting what he perceives to be the clear virtues of policy 2), choosing not to mention that it’s equivalent to policy 1).

Continue reading ‘Two Questions for Bob Murphy’

Now What?

It was the election of 1994 that knocked the idealism out of me. Republicans ran on a national platform of reform, they won — and nothing happened. My recollection (someone correct me if I have this wrong) is that a series of substantial reform bills passed the Republican house in short order, and all of them died in the Republican senate. My guess (without having thought too hard about it) is that this is the natural order of things because Senate campaigns are so expensive that no matter what legislation the House sends up, there’s always some committee chairman with a large donor who opposes it.

There is no reassurance to be had from the identities of the likely new chairmen-to-be: Thad Cochran at Appropriations, Pat Roberts at Agriculture, Jeff Sessions at Budget, Orrin Hatch at Finance. Even aside from the question of what you can or can’t get past the White House, these are not the sort of people I want rewriting the tax code; they are not the people I want setting agricultural policy; they are not the people I want in charge of immigration reform.

Continue reading ‘Now What?’

The Goldwater Standard

goldwaterFifty years ago this Labor Day weekend, the presidential campaign of 1964 got underway in earnest. It is often said that Barry Goldwater “lost the election but won the Republican party” or even “lost the election but won the future” by nudging the center of either the party or the country several notches to the right.

I don’t see it. Where is the contemporary mainstream politician — Republican or otherwise — who would repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or at least those provisions (Titles II and VII) that authorize Federal regulators to override private business decisions about whom to serve and whom to hire? Where is the contemporary mainstream politician who would sell the Tennessee Valley Authority? Or end all agricultural supports? If Goldwaterism is in fact ascendant, then how did entitlement spending, as a percentage of GDP, manage to grow for most of the past 20 years — even though Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for 16 of those 20? For that matter, how is it that after all those years of Republican control, the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities — two of the more noxious weeds to arise from the soil of the Goldwater defeat — continue to thrive?

Continue reading ‘The Goldwater Standard’