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When I talked to CNBC on Wednesday, I was very critical of Trump and other Republicans for promoting protectionism, Keynesian monetary policy, and wasteful spending.

Yes, I give Trump and the GOP credit for improvements in regulatory policy and tax policy. And I used to think that the pro-growth effect of those reforms was enough to balance out the anti-growth effects of the bad policies.

But I now think the net effect of the Trump presidency is to expand the overall burden of government.

In early July, my report card on Trump’s economic policy (based on the five key indices in Economic Freedom of the World) had him slightly above a C average.

Now, as you can see, he’s slightly below. And since Republicans in Congress are largely going along with Trump’s policies, they also deserve blame.

I realize that people also care about other matters, such as social issues, the judiciary, and foreign policy, so it’s not my goal to influence how anyone votes.

But I do want people to understand that economic policy matters. And for readers who like Trump (or at least think he’s a less-worse alternative than Sanders, Harris, Warren, etc), be forewarned that Trump’s big-government policies are increasing the probability of having Democrats win in 2020.

The lesson Republicans should have learned from Ronald Reagan is that good policy is good politics (my Fourth Theorem of Government).

George H.W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. George W. Bush didn’t learn that lesson. And now Trump is demonstrating that he didn’t learn that lesson.

P.S. Some of us knew ahead of time to expect bad policy from Trump.

P.P.S. Since my 2016 election prediction was wrong, feel free to ignore my political prognosticating.

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It’s difficult to be optimistic about some parts of the world.

When I look at Greece and Italy, for instance, I can’t help but think that economic renaissance is very unlikely, in part because of demographics, but even more so because voters have been conditioned to think that they have a right to live off the government.

This dependency mindset shows that societal capital has eroded, and it’s why I fear those nations have passed a tipping point.

Another example is Argentina. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is very discouraged that the Peronists may return to power in that country.

Does Argentina have a death wish? That’s the question going around after Peronist Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former President Cristina Kirchner, took first place in Sunday’s presidential “primaries” with 48% of the vote. President Mauricio Macri finished 16 points behind… Clearly investors don’t want to hang around if Mr. Fernández and Mrs. Kirchner—whose eight years as president (2007-2015) were marked by leftwing populism and corruption—get to power. Mr. Macri’s unexpectedly poor showing sent the peso and equities down and default risk for Argentine bonds up.

So why would Argentinians vote for statism and economic collapse, especially since there’s so much evidence that Peronists have done immense damage to the country’s economy?

In part, because they were choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The supposed center-right incumbent, Mauricio Macri, governed as a statist.

And he’s been doubling down on bad policy in hopes of staying in office.

…he fought back by promising to raise the minimum wage for the second time this year, freeze the price of gasoline for 90 days, increase welfare payments in September and October and give a bonus to federal bureaucrats, police and the military. Perhaps this half-baked populism will move voters, but it augurs poorly for the Argentine future. …Mr. Macri…sought to avoid confrontation. He ought to have set about shrinking the state and its subsidies. Instead he maintained lavish government spending. The kinder, gentler president has been unwilling to tell Argentines in stark terms what they are up against. …Argentine debt has shot up on Mr. Macri’s watch and as a percentage of GDP it is forecast to reach 100% this year. Deficit spending has put pressure on the central bank to print money, and there has been no effort to contain inflation expectations.

Ugh, Macri seems even worse than some of America’s big-government Republicans.

But there is a sliver of good news. If nothing else, Argentina serves as an example of why so-called “democratic socialism” is so misguided.

In some analysis for investors, Michael Cembalest of J.P. Morgan looked around the world for insights and evidence about the ideology championed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (h/t: James Pethokoukis).

He starts off by identifying the key criteria of democratic socialism.

This sounds like Elizabeth Warren’s platform, or perhaps the Green New Deal, so I think this is an accurate list.

Mr. Cembalest points out, though, that the Nordic nations don’t qualify as being socialist of any kind.

Some point to Nordic countries as democratic socialism in action, but…while Nordic countries have higher taxes and greater redistribution of wealth, Nordics are just as business-friendly as the US if not more so. Examples include greater business freedoms, freer trade, …and less of an impact on competition from state control over the economy. …while Nordics raise more taxes than the US, the gap usually results from regressive VAT/consumption taxes and Social Security taxes rather than from progressive income taxes. The bottom line: copy the Nordic model if you like, but understand that it entails a lot of capitalism and pro-business policies, a lot of taxation on middle class spending and wages, minimal reliance on corporate taxation and plenty of co-pays and deductibles in its healthcare system.

He’s right. The Nordic nations get relatively high marks for economic liberty in all areas other than fiscal policy. They’re no more socialist than the United States.

He did find a country, however, that is a very close match for democratic socialism.

I couldn’t find any country that ticked all…democratic socialist boxes, but I did find one that came close: Argentina.

Seems to me that Argentina does tick all the boxes. But since he doesn’t delve into methodology, I’m not sure of his definitions.

In any event, he looks at Argentina’s relative performance over a long period of time, which is the right approach to see if a country is converging or diverging.

There are two ways to look at Argentina’s decline relative to the rest of the world since the early 1900’s. The first shows the ratio of real per capita GDP in 2018 vs the same measure in 1913. Argentina’s ratio barely rose, and is the lowest ratio of all countries for which data is available for both years.

Here’s the relevant chart, and you can see that Argentina has the worst performance over the past 100 years.

He also slices the data using another approach.

The next method illustrates how Argentina used to be among the richest nations in the world, and how far it has fallen. The x axis shows percentile of per capita GDP in 1913, while the y axis shows the same measure in 2018. All countries below the diagonal line have seen their rankings fall, while those above the line have seen their rankings improve. The farther the distance from the diagonal line, the more things have changed; Argentina’s decline from the 83rd percentile in 1913 to the 40th in 2018 is the largest decline on the chart.

And here’s the accompanying chart.

Fast growing nations are above the line, so it’s hardly a surprise to see that the Asian Tigers of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore have done well.

And I’m also not surprised to see that South Africa is almost as bad as Argentina.

At some point, I’ll have to re-crunch the numbers showing the post-WWII era. I imagine that data also will show a very strong relationship between national prosperity and economic liberty.

P.S. One external reason for Argentina’s awful performance is that it keeps getting rewarded for bad policy with IMF bailouts.

P.P.S. Greece is another country that should be a warning sign about what happens with democratic socialism.

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A week ago, I wrote about the turmoil in Hong Kong and pointed out that a crackdown would be bad for China’s already-faltering economy.

I had a chance to again address the issue yesterday.

What made this interview different is that it included a discussion of what Trump should do.

My expertise is economics rather than diplomacy, but I speculated that public warnings and/or threats by Trump might backfire.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on this issue and they want Trump to be aggressive. Here are some excerpts.

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong, as clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the local government backed by China are escalating. The damage could be global if President Xi Jinping orders a bloody crackdown, and President Trump should be warning the Chinese President not to do it. …The protests began in June when the Legislative Council tried to ram through a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite anyone in Hong Kong to the mainland. Amid overwhelming public opposition, Ms. Lam has declared the legislation “dead” but refused to withdraw it. Police have responded to the protests with hundreds of arrests and increasing brutality. Hong Kong’s cause should be the free world’s… An invasion of Hong Kong would violate China’s treaty with Britain and poison U.S.-Chinese relations.

I agree that the Trump Administration should seek to deter intervention, but I think any warnings – at least at this point – should be conveyed behind the scenes.

In my fantasy world, Trump would strike a deal with China, and agree to drop his misguided trade taxes in exchange for China not messing with Hong Kong.

Sadly, my fantasies rarely become reality.

So I’ll close with a practical point. I mentioned in the interview that the people of Hong Kong are much richer than the people of China. Here’s the evidence, based on the Maddison database, as well as the numbers from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

My takeaway from these numbers, as I suggest in the title, is that China should send economists to Hong Kong rather than troops. They could learn important lessons about the benefits of free markets and limited government.

Heck, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send American economists as well. Indeed, since it gets the top score from Economic Freedom of the World, the entire world can learn from Hong Kong’s spectacular success.

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I religiously read just about everything from Thomas Sowell, John Stossel, Walter Williams, Tim Carney, and other libertarian-minded experts

But I also make a point to regularly read non-libertarians such as Desmond Lachman, Will Wilkinson, Dalibor Rohac, and Noah Smith even though I sometimes – or even often – disagree with their policy prescriptions.

What matters is that they generally have intelligent and thoughtful observations on issues that I care about.

But they’re not necessarily accurate. For instance, Noah Smith recently wrote an interesting column for Bloomberg about whether people are poor because of their own behavior or because of external factors.

Here are the passages that caught my attention.

…there is at least one rich country where people…work hard, avoid risky, self-destructive behavior and make wise life choices. That country is Japan. And it still has plenty of poverty. …Given all of this good behavior, conservatives might expect that Japan’s poverty rate would be very low. But the opposite is true; Japan has a relatively high number of poor people for an advanced country. Defined by the percentage of the population earning less than half of the median national income, Japan’s poverty rate is more than 15% — a little lower than the U.S., but considerably higher than countries such as Germany, Canada or Australia… This suggests that there is something very wrong with the conservative theory of poverty.

Fortunately, I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with Smith’s analysis.

Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson has already pointed out his errors.

Smith here relies on a useless measure of “relative” poverty, the share of the population earning less than half of the median income. You can see the limitations of that approach: A uniformly poor society in which 99 percent of the people live on 50 cents a day and 1 percent live on 49 cents a day would have a poverty rate of 0.00; a rich society with incomes that are rising across-the-board but are rising much more quickly for the top two-thirds would have a rising poverty rate… It would be far better to consider poverty in absolute terms, but our progressive friends are strangely resistant to that.

It is indeed strange that so many folks on the left have decided to use an artificial and misleading definition of poverty. One that depends on the distribution of income rather than any specific measure of poverty.

Which is insanely dishonest. It means that everyone’s income could double and the supposed rate of poverty would stay the same.

Or a country could execute all the rich people and the alleged rate of poverty would decline.

No wonder the practitioners of this approach often produce absurd data, such as the OECD’s assertion that there’s more poverty in the United States than in basket case economies such as Greece and Italy.

Shame on Noah Smith. He should know better.

I’ll continue to read his work, so he’s not being kicked out of my club of non-libertarian writers.

But I will add him to list of people and groups who are guilty of peddling fake poverty data. These “poverty hucksters” include the OECD, of course, and also the United Nations, the New York Times, the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, the Obama Administration, and the European Commission.

P.S. A “poverty pimp,” by contrast, is someone who personally profits from administering the welfare state.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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My collection of liberals who are honest on the issue of gun control is expanding.

  • In 2012, I shared some important observations from Jeffrey Goldberg, a left-leaning writer for The Atlantic. In his column, he basically admitted his side was wrong about gun control.
  • Then, in 2013, I wrote about a column by Justin Cronin in the New York Times. He self-identified as a liberal, but explained how real-world events have led him to become a supporter of private gun ownership.
  • In 2015, I shared a column by Jamelle Bouie in Slate, who addressed the left’s fixation on trying to ban so-called assault weapons and explains that such policies are meaningless.
  • Most recently, in 2017, Leah Libresco wrote in the Washington Post that advocates of gun control are driven by emotion rather empirical research and evidence.

Now we have another addition to the list.

Alex Kingsbury of the New York Times acknowledges that politicians who want to ban so-called assault weapons are engaging in a futile exercise.

There are currently around 15 million military-style rifles in civilian hands in the United States. …Acknowledging the grim reality that we will live among these guns indefinitely is a necessary first step…calling for military-style rifles bans — as I have done for years — may be making other lifesaving gun laws harder to pass. …Short of forced confiscation or a major cultural shift, our great-great-great-grandchildren will live side-by-side with the guns we have today and make tomorrow. …For context: In 2016 alone, more than one million military-style weapons were added to America’s existing civilian arsenal… America’s gun problem is far larger than military-style weapons, the mass killer’s rifle of choice. There are hundreds of millions of handguns in the country… The guns…are here to stay.

Interestingly, he acknowledges that civil disobedience is widespread, which I wrote about last month.

Not only is confiscation politically untenable — the compliance rates of gun owners when bans are passed are laughably low. The distribution of these weapons across society makes even their prohibition nearly impossible. In 1996, Australia launched a mandatory gun buyback of 650,000 military-style weapons. While gun ownership per capita in the country declined by more than 20 percent, today Australians own more guns than they did before the buyback.

Though he seems puzzled by the fact that more gun ownership is associated with less crime.

The only way to cut the half-life of guns is to convince Americans that they’re safer without them. Yet with violent crime at historic lows and Americans still buying up semiautomatic rifles by the bushel.

Maybe Mr. Kingsbury belongs in the Fox Butterfield club as well as the honest liberals club?

Since we’re writing about the left and guns, let’s look at a Washington Times report about an unusual response to a gun ban in Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder’s newly enacted “assault weapons” ban is meeting with stiff resistance from its “gun-toting hippies,” staunch liberals who also happen to be devoted firearms owners. Only 342 “assault weapons,” or semiautomatic rifles, were certified by Boulder police before the Dec. 31 deadline, meaning there could be thousands of residents in the scenic university town of 107,000 in violation of the sweeping gun-control ordinance. …Current owners were given until the end of the year to choose one of two options: Get rid of their semiautomatics by moving them out of town, disabling them, or turning them over to police — or apply for a certificate with the Boulder Police Department… Judging by the numbers, however, most Boulder firearms owners have chosen to do none of the above, albeit quietly. …“The firearms community in Boulder — they may be Democrats but they love their firearms,” said Ms. Hollywood, herself a former Boulder resident.

Kudos to these citizens.

By the way, I also want to share this blurb from the story.

City Attorney Tom Carr has acknowledged that enforcing the ordinance will be a challenge, telling the Boulder Daily Camera that “there’s no circumstance where we go door-to-door and ask people if they’ve violated the law.”

Reminds me of the great video from Reason about the utter impracticality of actually trying to impose a gun ban.

Let’s close with some excerpts from a story in the Washington Free-Beacon.

They may not like Trump & McConnell but they love Smith & Wesson. …members of the Liberal Gun Club…traveled around central Florida shooting sporting clays, steel challenge matches, and even a few machineguns while planning how they’ll expand the club and use it to lobby against new gun bans… They were welcoming and friendly. They’re definitely liberals and they’re definitely gun lovers. …Pattie Hall, a member from rural Kentucky… “I wanted to be able to find other people who think like I do… I’m a very unusual shooter in the sense that you don’t find many liberals, many lesbians, or many vegetarians, and I’m all of those, but I still like guns.” …Pattie, Sean, and Keith all said they’d faced more backlash from the average liberal who found out they owned guns than from gun owners who found out they were liberals. In Pattie’s case, she said gun owners tended to be far more tolerant of her being gay than liberals are of her being a gun owner. …the club is hoping to show liberal gun owners are out there, they don’t want their guns taken away, and there are more of them than you probably think.

I guess all of these people should be honorary members of the honest liberals club.

Sadly, they’re presumably just a tiny minority of folks on the left.

Though hopefully they can act as missionaries and gain more converts.

You would think, for instance, that decent people on the left would look at the unsavory history of gun control – especially the way it was used to deny civil rights to minorities – and put individual rights ahead of government power.

Or that they would look at how various tyrants have disarmed their populations before launching genocides, and understand the value of an armed citizenry.

Heck, maybe they can look at the inverse relationship between crime and gun ownership over the past few decades and draw the logical conclusion.

Though if they were wise enough to recognize all these points, they’d presumably be libertarians!

Addendum: Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn.

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Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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