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Archive for September, 2013

The politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and interest groups in Washington are hyperventilating that the federal gravy train may get sidetracked for a day or two by a shutdown fight between Republicans and Democrats.

I’m not sure why they’re so agitated. After all, the shutdown is really just a slowdown since only non-essential bureaucrats are sent home. And everyone winds up getting paid for those unplanned vacations, which is why the bureaucrats I know are crossing their fingers for a lengthy confrontation.

But that describes what may happen when the new fiscal year begins tomorrow. What’s been happening in recent days, culminating today, is a feeding frenzy of end-of-the-fiscal-year wasteful spending.

Here are some details from a Washington Post expose.

This past week, the Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork. In a single day, the Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges. And, in a single purchase, the Coast Guard spent $178,000 on “Cubicle Furniture Rehab.” …All week, while Congress fought over next year’s budget, federal workers were immersed in a separate frantic drama. They were trying to spend the rest of this year’s budget before it is too late. …If they don’t, the money becomes worthless to them on Oct. 1. And — even worse — if they fail to spend the money now, Congress could dock their funding in future years. The incentive, as always, is to spend. So they spent.

If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll be especially delighted to know that the “use it or lose it” spending orgy is so intense that federal contractors have to cater lunches for their sales staff. Can’t have them away from their desks, after all!

It was the return of one of Washington’s oldest bad habits: a blitz of expensive decisions, made by agencies with little incentive to save. Private contractors — worried that sequestration would result in a smaller spending rush this year — brought in food to keep salespeople at their desks. Federal workers quizzed harried colleagues in the hallways, asking if they had spent it all yet. …“Use it or lose it” season is not marked on any official government calendars. But in Washington, it is as real as Christmas. And as lucrative. …In 2012, for instance, the government spent $45 billion on contracts in the last week of September, according to calculations by the fiscal-conservative group Public Notice. That was more than any other week — 9 percent of the year’s contract spending money, spent in 2 percent of the year.

The IRS may win the prize for the most egregious example of last-minute waste.

In 2010, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service had millions left over in an account to hire new personnel. The money would expire at year’s end. Its solution was not a smart one. The IRS spent the money on a lavish conference. Which included a “Star Trek” parody video starring IRS managers. Which was filmed on a “Star Trek” set that the IRS paid to build. (Sample dialogue: “We’ve received a distress call from the planet NoTax.”)

But it’s not just tax collectors who flush our money down the toilet in creative ways.

One recent study, for instance, found that information technology contracts signed at year’s end often produced noticeably worse results than those signed in calmer times. …they listed dumb things they had seen bought: three years’ worth of staples. Portable generators that never got used. One said the National Guard bought so much ammunition that firing it all became a chore. “When you get BORED from shooting MACHINE GUNS, there is a problem,” an anonymous employee wrote.

Impressive examples of waste, though I confess I’m curious about the part about ammo and the National Guard. Does this mean bullets are like milk and have to be fired before an expiration date?

Beats me, but at least someone in the government acknowledged that (at least up to a point) it’s cool to fire a machine gun. Maybe that person should hook up with the Texas cop who likes tanks.

Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that spendaholic bureaucrats and crafty interest groups keep track of time zones so they can squander money until the very last second.

On Monday, Richer’s people will sell until midnight. Then they will keep selling. “Money rolls across the continent,” the feds say. Cash not spent in Washington might be spent by federal offices in California in the three hours before it is midnight there. When it is midnight in California — 3 a.m. in Washington — they will keep on. There are federal offices in Hawaii, after all. And it will still be three hours until midnight there.

Makes me think that we may need a slogan for the bureaucracy. Perhaps this modification of the Postal Service’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night – nor even different time zones – stays these bureaucrats from spending every possible penny of other people’s money.”

But let’s close on an upbeat note. Whether you give credit to the Tea Party, to Republicans, to gridlock, or to Obama, the good news is that the federal government in the past two years has been wasting money at a slower rate.

So taxpayers can smile…or at least not frown as much. The bureaucracy and contractors may be throwing a party today, but not with the same reckless abandon they displayed between 2001 and 2010.

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I haven’t written much about the budget fights over a government shutdown, Obamacare, the continuing resolution, and the debt limit for the simple reason that the battles are mostly about politics and strategy rather than policy.

At the risk of oversimplifying, here’s what’s happening.

On one side are those who want to use the debt limit (legislation allowing additional borrowing) and the continuing resolution (a spending bill for the fiscal year that starts October 1) as leverage to weaken Obamacare and restrain spending.

On the other side are those who say big confrontations are too politically risky, particularly since good changes are impossible with Harry Reid controlling the Senate and Obama in the White House.

In this “insurgents” vs “establishment” fight, I think it’s possible for good people to have opposing positions, but my sympathies are with the former over the latter. Here are a couple of observations to illustrate why I think the insurgents are correct.

1. The biggest fiscal policy victory of the 21st Century – sequestration – was only possible because of hard-ball tactics on the debt limit in 2011.

2. It’s always better to be on offense. If folks like Senator Ted Cruz weren’t making the President’s unpopular healthcare law the focus of attention, the crowd in Washington might be busy right now trying to do something destructive such as class-warfare tax hikes. Or repealing sequestration.

3. It’s common sense in any negotiation to ask for more than you think you’ll get and to appear as inflexible as possible. While I think many of the “establishment” types are willing to do the right thing (as evidenced by near-unanimous votes for the Ryan budgets), they sometimes lead with their fallback position, which means the final result will be even further to the left.

4. The “political risks” of a shutdown fight or a debt limit fight are greatly overblown. As I explained in an article for National Review back in 2011, Republicans achieved a policy victory and – at worst – a political draw in the big shutdown fights of 1995-1996. And my recent testimony to the Joint Economic Committee explained why there’s no risk of default if there’s a fight on the debt limit.

All this being said, the insurgent strategy can backfire. The media serves as an echo chamber for proponents of bigger government, so expect story after story about how a government shutdown threatens the economy (even though we’ve had plenty of shutdowns in recent decades with no negative impact).

And expect stories about how a debt limit fight could mean default, even though that’s preposterously inaccurate.

But that echo chamber can be effective, particularly when statist GOPers such as Karl Rove mimic those left-wing talking points.

So the real issue is whether we can get some incremental progress – such as a one-year delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate – when a deal finally is reached.

The main thing to understand, though, is that no progress would be possible if the insurgents weren’t forcing the issue.

P.S. If you want to end on a lighter note, there are some good one-liners about the debt limit at the bottom of this post, and you can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

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I’m a big fan of school choice. If we bust up the government education monopoly and create a competitive education market, we’ll get a much better education system at much lower cost.

This isn’t just idle theorizing. The evidence shows that competition produces better results.

That will be especially good news for children from poor and minority neighborhoods, as even the Washington Post has admitted.

There’s even good evidence for school choice from other nations, such as Chile, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

And since we’re looking at international evidence, it’s worth noting that America spends more per student than any other nation, yet gets very mediocre results.

However, there’s also a non-educational argument for busting up the government school monopoly. Simply stated, we have to rescue kids from brainless school bureaucrats who impose crazy forms of anti-gun political correctness.

What am I talking about? Well, check out these excerpts from a Fox News report.

Natural Born Killers

Two seventh-grade students in Virginia Beach, Va., were handed long-term suspensions Tuesday that will last until the end of the school year for playing with an airsoft gun in one of their front yards while waiting for the school bus. WAVY-TV reports that 13-year-old Khalid Caraballo and Aidan Clark will face an additional hearing in January to determine if they will be expelled for “possession, handling and use of a firearm” because the guns were fired at two others playing in Caraballo’s yard. …Khalid claims he never took the toy gun to the designated bus stop or Larkspur Middle School, according to the report. Two other students who fired guns were also suspended.

Your eyes are not deceiving you. The kids were punished for playing with toy guns while on private property.

Yet apparently school bureaucrats don’t think their power is limited by school boundaries.

A neighbor saw Khalid shooting the airsoft gun in his yard and called 911, telling the dispatcher, “He is pointing the gun, and it looks like there’s a target in a tree in his front yard,” the station reported. …The school’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy on guns extends to private property, according to the report.

At least one of the parents has the right view of things.

If you outlaw Zombie Hunters, only outlaws will have Zombie Hunters

Khalid’s mother, Solangel Caraballo, said it’s ridiculous that her son and his friends were suspended because they were firing the airsoft gun on private property. “My son is my private property. He does not become the school’s property until he goes to the bus stop, gets on the bus, and goes to school,” Caraballo told the station.

Now let’s add some important caveats. Even though the toy guns only shoot little plastic pellets, it seems that the boys may have shot at some kids who weren’t part of their play. That’s something that should be punished.

And it’s also possible that the boys are troublemakers and the school was simply using this episode as an excuse to get rid of them.

So maybe there’s some sort of “rough justice” happening behind the scenes. Simply stated, there’s probably a back-story.

But there’s no question that we’re seeing a bad trend.

It’s almost to the point where sending your kids to a government school could be considered a form a child abuse.

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It’s always the right time to make fun of our overlords in Washington.

Sometimes we can laugh at cartoons, like this portrayal of a politician and lobbyist interacting.

In other instances, we can enjoy good jokes, such as the blind rabbit who finds a politician.

Or we can be amused by satire, such as these excerpts from Dave Barry.

Today, though, we have a very good image. Fans of Star Wars will appreciate these words of wisdom from Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Star Wars Politicians

You can read about how these men and women spend their time screwing us and wasting our money.

And we have some examples of what people in Montana, Louisiana, Nevada, and Wyoming think about big-spending politicians.

This little girl is rather blunt about our political masters, here are a couple of good images capturing the relationship between politicians and taxpayers, and here is a somewhat off-color Little Johnny joke.

Last but not least, let’s not forgot to include this joke by doctors about the crowd in Washington.

P.S. If you want humor specifically targeting Obama, you’ll enjoy this Pope message, this Pennsylvania joke, this Reagan-Obama comparison, this Bush-Obama comparison, this sign, this video satire, and this bumper sticker.

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Sometimes you find support for capitalism and small government in some rather unexpected places.

I was surprised, for instance, when I found out that Gene Simmons, the lead singer for Kiss, stated that, “Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to human beings. The welfare state sounds wonderful but it doesn’t work.”

That’s pretty hard core.

Bad news for Denmark’s Lazy Robert?

Or what about the Finance Minister of Denmark’s left-wing government, who admitted that, “We live in a world of global competition for jobs… That requires a modernization of the welfare state.”

That’s not hard core, to be sure, but it certainly suggests that he understands the need to reduce the burden of government spending.

And my jaw hit the floor when I read that former KGB bigwig Vladimir Putin remarked that, “Many European countries are witnessing a rise of [the] dependency mentality when not working is often much more beneficial than working. This type of mentality endangers not only the economy but also the moral basics of the society.”

I’m not about to take lessons in societal morality from a strongman like Putin, but it’s nonetheless surprising that he recognizes that handouts can turn people into supplicants.

So after reading all these examples, perhaps you won’t be overly shocked to learn that Bono, head of the famous U2 band, is a supporter of capitalism. He’s no Milton Friedman, as you’ll see, but check out this quote from an interview in the Guardian.

My father was Labour, classic Dublin Northside household. And I still carry that with me. And though I believe that capitalism has been the most effective ideology we have known in taking people out of extreme poverty, I don’t think it is the only thing that can do it, and in some ways I wish it wasn’t.

Even with his caveats, it’s big news when one of the world’s leading anti-poverty campaigners acknowledges that free markets are the best tool for improving the lives of poor people.

“Please don’t use naughty words like capitalism in my presence”

Bono’s comments sort of remind me of when the former leftist president of Brazil remarked that, “…it was necessary to first build capitalism, then make socialism, we must have something to distribute before doing so.”

Neither Lula nor Bono are libertarians, of course, but at least their views are rooted in reality. Which is more than can be said for many of the people in Washington who have never produced anything and have no idea how markets actually work.

Perhaps even more stunning is the fact that Bono defends tax competition and fiscal sovereignty.

…at the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness. Tax competitiveness has taken our country out of poverty. People in the revenue accept that if you engage in that policy then some people are going to go out, and some people are coming in. It has been a successful policy. On the cranky left that is very annoying, I can see that. But tax competitiveness is why Ireland has stayed afloat.

Wow, there’s no ambiguity to that statement. I’d like to think he’s knowledgeable about the benefits of tax competition because he’s watched my videos or read my writings, but the real story is that he lived through and personally experienced the Irish miracle.

He saw his relatively poor country become very successful, in large part because of big improvements in tax policy. And he obviously understands the importance of maintaining Ireland’s low corporate tax rate (which I’ve also argued is very important to keep Ireland from sinking further into statist stagnation).

Let’s close with a couple of additional examples of folks on the left who have confessed some very un-PC thoughts, such as the New York Times columnist who bravely wrote that, “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. …Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.”

“We’ve learned from you that communism doesn’t work”

Perhaps most amazing is that a high-ranking official from China’s communist government stated that, “If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack.”

Last but not least, surely it’s big news that even Fidel Casto confessed that, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

P.S. Sometimes even Obama says reasonable things, such as the time he remarked that “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.” Or the time he said that it was best to ““let the market work on its own.” Unfortunately, when you read the fine print and look at the context, there’s no indication that the President actually has learned anything about economics.

P.P.S. My favorite examples of liberals crossing the ideological aisle are Justin Cronin and Jeffrey Goldberg, both of whom wrote very powerful anti-gun control columns.

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Maybe it’s because I have a bit of a old-fashioned moralistic streak to me, but I viscerally object to the notion that good people should pay bad people not to do bad things.

That’s why, a few years ago, I didn’t react favorably when the former dictator of Libya asked for several billion dollars per year to stop illegals from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

And this also explains why I don’t think American taxpayers should cough up $1 billion to bribe Syria’s dictator into giving up his chemical weapons.

In this interview with Neil Cavuto on Fox News, I make the basic libertarian argument that we shouldn’t be involved in Syria’s civil war, but I also make a practical argument that – if you accept that American tax dollars should be spent – it would be much cheaper to bribe a few high-level people in Assad’s government.

Since I’m not a foreign policy expert, I don’t think I said anything particularly memorable in the above segment.

But one line apparently did resonate. Here’s Senator Rand Paul, speaking later that day.

I have to admit that made my day. Sort of like when Chairman Brady mentioned Mitchell’s Golden Rule in his opening statement when I testified last week to the Joint Economic Committee.

Of course, I’d like it even better if some of the ideas I support (like the flat tax or smaller government) actually wound up being implemented, but at least it’s nice to be noticed.

Fighting for freedom is often a thankless task in DC

Being a libertarian in Washington, after all, is not the easiest job. To quote former Senator Phil Gramm, it’s like trying to do the Lord’s work in the Devil’s city.

P.S. Any time I begin to get cocky and think I’m some sort of hot shot, something happens to pull me back down to earth. In my Syria interview, you may have noticed that my mouth looked a bit red. That’s because I made the mistake of eating some red candies that were in the car that took me to the interview.

As the old saying goes, you can dress me up, but you can’t take me out. That’s why I’m glad Senator Paul picked up on my line (which I stole from somebody, so I can’t really take credit) about threatening Syria with Obamacare. Otherwise, I probably would have been reluctant to even post the interview.

P.P.S. As I intimated in the interview, the best way to learn more about foreign policy is to read the scholarly writings of my colleagues from the Cato Institute. You also can’t go wrong by perusing these columns by Mark Steyn, George Will, and Steve Chapman.

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The English are an interesting tribe. There is much to like about their country, including the fact that voters repeatedly elected Margaret Thatcher, one of the world’s best leaders in my lifetime.

On the other hand, the United Kingdom has veered sharply to the left in recent decades, and Thatcher must have been very disappointed that her Conservative Party now is but a hollow shell, controlled by statists who actually think people should voluntarily pay extra tax to support wasteful and corrupt government.

And the politicians openly pursue Orwellian tax-collection tactics!

No wonder the country now faces a very grim future.

But the thing that most irks me about the British political class is the fanatical embrace of anti-gun policies. Consider some of these examples.

Given these example of anti-gun zealotry, you won’t be surprised to learn that some English pundits think America is primitive and backwards for retaining an individual right to bear arms.

You may be thinking, “so what, they have their bad laws and we have our good laws.” But it seems at least some Brits want to disarm not just their own citizens, but Americans as well.

Writing for the UK-based Guardian, Henry Porter asserts that it is time for the United Nations to somehow undermine private gun ownership in the United States.

…what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis – a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention? … If this perennial slaughter doesn’t qualify for intercession by the UN and all relevant NGOs, it is hard to know what does.

Mr. Porter doesn’t specify how the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations are supposed to accomplish this task.

Does he want Obama to ram through the U.N. treaty that leftists hope would trump the Second Amendment?

If so, all I can say is good luck trying to enforce gun bans. The American people would engage in widespread disobedience if our own politicians tried to take away our constitutional freedoms.

I’d like to see UN bureaucrats try to disarm these great Americans

And if a bunch of U.N. bureaucrats tried to do the same thing…well, that’s such a ridiculous notion that I’m reminded of my fantasy about what might have happened if the United Nations had tried to stop Texas from executing a child murderer who originally was from Mexico.

But the call for UN intervention is not the most absurd part of the article.

What could be sillier, you ask? How about the fact that Mr. Porter implies that gun owners are akin to slave owners. It’s not an explicit accusation, but you can see in this excerpt that he wants readers to draw that conclusion.

Half the country is sane and rational while the other half simply doesn’t grasp the inconsistencies and historic lunacy of its position, which springs from the second amendment right to keep and bear arms, and is derived from English common law and our 1689 Bill of Rights. We dispensed with these rights long ago, but American gun owners cleave to them with the tenacity that previous generations fought to continue slavery.

So if you “cleave” to your guns, you’re on the same level as the people who defended slavery. I guess this is the U.K. version of Obama accusing some Americans of “clinging to guns.”

Ironically, Mr. Porter self identifies as a “journalist specialising in liberty and civil rights.” But he doesn’t specify what side he’s on, so I guess we can assume – based on this column – that he specializes in undermining liberty and curtailing civil rights.

P.S. The Guardian is known as a left-wing newspaper, but I’ve always had a special place for them in my heart ever since one of their writers accused me of being “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism.” He meant it as an insult, of course, but I think of it as the nicest thing ever written about me. Even better than this.

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