Free Markets, Free People

MichaelW

I'm a husband, father, and attorney living in Northern Virginia trying to make my way through this world like everyone else. Stay outta my way, and you can bet I'll stay out of yours ... and I'll even help keep others from bothering you as well.
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David Brooks: “Let’s Increase The Power Of The President, You Guys!”

It’s hard to describe this blinding stupidity as anything other than … well, blindingly stupid. I think this one sentence encapsulates the #Fail quite nicely:

This is a good moment to advocate greater executive branch power because we’ve just seen a monumental example of executive branch incompetence: the botched Obamacare rollout.

If you think Brooks is trying to get all counter-intuitive on you (a la Thomas Friedman’s wistful longing for Chinese authoritarianism), think again. It’s just full on stupidity.

Brooks’ argument is that Congress is too beholden to the “rentier groups” (i.e. moneyed interest groups and lobbyists) and that the judiciary is too involved in the process:

In the current issue of The American Interest, Francis Fukuyama analyzes this institutional decay. His point is that the original system of checks and balances has morphed into a “vetocracy,” an unworkable machine where many interests can veto reform.

First, there is the profusion of interest groups. In 1971, there were 175 registered lobbying firms. By 2009, there were 13,700 lobbyists spending more than $3.5 billion annually, and this doesn’t even count the much larger cloud of activist groups and ideological enforcers.

Then there is the judicial usurpation of power. Fukuyama writes, “conflicts that in Sweden or Japan would be solved through quiet consultations between interested parties through the bureaucracy are fought out through formal litigation in the American court system.” This leads to uncertainty, complexity and perverse behavior.

After a law is passed, there are always adjustments to be made. These could be done flexibly. But, instead, Congress throws implementation and enforcement into the court system by giving more groups the standing to sue. What could be a flexible process is turned into “adversarial legalism” that makes government more intrusive and more rigid.

In other words, because the power to form laws is relatively disbursed amongst constituents, elected officials and the court system, gridlock happens sometimes and that’s just totally unacceptable. Because, heaven knows that if Congress isn’t cranking out new laws at a fast enough pace, the world will end. (That seems to be the meme going around anyway.)

So what would be the benefits of more powerful Executive branch?

Here are the advantages. First, it is possible to mobilize the executive branch to come to policy conclusion on something like immigration reform. It’s nearly impossible for Congress to lead us to a conclusion about anything. Second, executive branch officials are more sheltered from the interest groups than Congressional officials. Third, executive branch officials usually have more specialized knowledge than staffers on Capitol Hill and longer historical memories. Fourth, Congressional deliberations, to the extent they exist at all, are rooted in rigid political frameworks. Some agencies, especially places like the Office of Management and Budget, are reasonably removed from excessive partisanship. Fifth, executive branch officials, if they were liberated from rigid Congressional strictures, would have more discretion to respond to their screw-ups, like the Obamacare implementation. Finally, the nation can take it out on a president’s party when a president’s laws don’t work. That doesn’t happen in Congressional elections, where most have safe seats.

Note the two “advantages” I’ve bolded. It’s as if things like Solyndra fiasco and the IRS targeting of conservatives never happened.

Lest there be any confusion about Brooks’ prescription, he sums it up as thus:

So how do you energize the executive? It’s a good idea to be tolerant of executive branch power grabs and to give agencies flexibility. We voters also need to change our voting criteria. It’s not enough to vote for somebody who agrees with your policy preferences. Presidential candidates need to answer two questions. How are you going to build a governing 60 percent majority that will enable you to drive the Washington policy process? What is your experience implementing policies through big organizations?

We don’t need bigger government. We need more unified authority. Take power away from the rentier groups who dominate the process. Allow people in those authorities to exercise discretion. Find a president who can both rally a majority, and execute a policy process.

At least he’s being honest about what the political and chattering classes truly want. As an added bonus, Brooks has inspired a better description of his cant than “blindingly stupid”: contemptible.

Why the GOP Shouldn’t Get Too Excited About The Polls

There’s been much discussion amongst the punditry about the precipitous decline in Pres. Obama’s poll numbers. The fact that his RCP average has dropped below 40% for the first time, or that Hispanics and white women have seemingly soured on Obama and the Democrats, is causing much buzz. Most alarming, are the numbers on millenials:

Young Americans are turning against Barack Obama and Obamacare, according to a new survey of millennials, people between the ages of 18 and 29 who are vital to the fortunes of the president and his signature health care law.

The most startling finding of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics: A majority of Americans under age 25–the youngest millennials–would favor throwing Obama out of office.

[...]

Obama’s approval rating among young Americans is just 41 percent, down 11 points from a year ago, and now tracking with all adults. While 55 percent said they voted for Obama in 2012, only 46 percent said they would do so again.

When asked if they would want to recall various elected officials, 45 percent of millennials said they would oust their member of Congress; 52 percent replied “all members of Congress” should go; and 47 percent said they would recall Obama. The recall-Obama figure was even higher among the youngest millennials, ages 18 to 24, at 52 percent.

To be sure, these numbers don’t bode well for the survival of Obamacare, or for the Democrats chances in 2014. But I don’t think they necessarily mean that the GOP will reap the benefits.

For example, with respect to younger voters, Kristen Soltis Anderson makes some interesting points over at The Daily Beast:

The way young voters feel about Obama doesn’t just matter in 2014 or even 2016. Despite the conventional wisdom that young voters don’t matter in politics, the way a voter first looks at politics when they come of age resonates throughout their voting behavior through their lifetimes. Just last month, Pew Research Center released a study showing that if you came of age under Nixon, you’re more likely to vote Democratic, even to this day. Came of age during the Reagan years? You’re still more likely to lean Republican.

[...]

Harvard rolled out a chart of party identification by age, which showed that in November 2009, some 43 percent of those aged 18-24 called themselves Democrats. Four years later, that has fallen to 31 percent. A huge drop to be sure, but that doesn’t mean people were necessarily changing their minds; it mostly means last election cycle’s bright-eyed kiddo has had a few birthdays. Our gender and race don’t change much year to year, but each of us is constantly moving up in our age bracket. And sure enough, when you look at the Harvard survey’s 25-29 year olds, they’re as Democratic as ever.

That doesn’t mean that this block of voters won’t ever change their minds and views, but it does suggest that, however low their opinion of the Democrats and their leader is now, they are more likely to remain loyal to that party and change it from within.

Another way to look at this is, those who voted for Obama because they wanted to see the ACA enacted and implemented, among other changes he promised, are going to suddenly change their minds about state vs. market solutions just because of a failed implementation. If anything, they are likely to seek out more capable technocrats as their political leaders, and to express greater interest in single-payer health care.

Even so, Anderson makes another great point, i.e. that not all millenials are the same:

To better understand what’s happening with today’s “youth vote,” first consider this fact: someone who turned eighteen on election day last year would have been just six years old on September 11, 2001. They would have been eighth graders during Obama’s first election.

I’ll violate some rules of decorum here by revealing my age: I am 29 years old. I’m a few short months away from aging out of “the youth vote” entirely. And I have about as much in common with today’s high school seniors as I do with my own parents. We researchers and pundits lump 18-year-olds and 29-year-olds into the same bucket when we talk about the “youth vote,” but the truth is that the back end of the “Millennial” generation has little memory of “hope and change” at all.

In short, provided that the GOP can deliver a compelling alternative to the Democrats, it’s possible that they can pick up some of those young voters. Of course, they aren’t called the stupid party for nothing, so don’t expect much on this front.

Lawless and Unbound

A primary reason for structuring our government with the checks and balances it has was to prevent a concentration of power. The POTUS was specifically limited because of the position’s duties, and the danger exercising them could mean to the freedom of the people. America didn’t want a king. Well, we may gotten one anyway.

The House of Representatives held a hearing yesterday on the Obama Administration’s exercise (or non-exercise) of it powers, and asked whether or not the Executive branch was properly following the “take care” clause of the Constitution. AllahPundit provides some commentary on the hearing, focusing Prof. Jonathan Turley’s testimony:

If you have time for only one snippet, though, skip to 2:33:00 for his list of Obama’s five most egregious violations of separation of powers. Some are familiar to you — declaring that he wouldn’t deport illegals who might qualify for DREAM, refusing to enforce the employer mandate, etc — but the ones about him shifting money around without regard to how Congress has appropriated it might not be. Turley makes two valuable points here. One: Courts tend to give the executive a wide berth in separation-of-powers challenges on the theory that Congress has the power of the purse and can defund any executive agency it likes. But that’s not true anymore, he says. Obama, by defying appropriations, has claimed some of that power for himself. What check does Congress have left? That brings us to point two: Even if Congress can’t stop Obama, the courts can. The problem there, though, says Turley, is that O and the DOJ have argued successfully in many cases that no one has standing to sue him because no one can show an injury from his power grabs that’s concrete enough to justify a federal lawsuit. So the courts can’t check him either.

The only check left, it would seem, is through elections. Which isn’t a check at all on a term-limited President. Of course, there’s always the impeachment route, but that doesn’t seem likely (despite what some in the media think). Turley thinks it’s not even being considered:

Now, I was the lead witness but I was testifying in through the haze of a raging flu. So I went back and checked. Impeachment was mentioned in passing but it was quickly discounted. Indeed, I specifically testified that, as someone who testified at the Clinton impeachment, I did not view such a measure as warranted given the ambiguity of past decisions. Indeed, the references to impeachment were made in the context of the loss of meaningful options for Congress to respond to such encroachments when the President reserved the right to suspend portions of laws and fought access to the courts in challenging such decisions. Yet, the Post simply reported that the word impeachment came up (not surprisingly) in a discussion of the options given by Framers to Congress in dealing with unlawful presidential conduct.

During the hearing, not only did I discount impeachment as an option, but a Democratic member specifically asked the panel about the references to impeachment. No one could remember how it came up but it was clear that no one thought it was a substantial issue — or significant part of the hearing.

[...]

In a discussion of checks on the presidency, impeachment is one of the enumerated options given to Congress. Notably, past judicial opinions involving such separation of powers controversies have also discussed impeachment with the power of the purse as devices given to the Congress. In discussing impeachment with these other powers, courts were not advocating impeachment or suggesting that it was a viable solution in that given case.

In the end, since the Senate is held by the same party as the President, impeachment isn’t a serious option. But the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress remains a serious issue. At this point, the only options left would seem to be either shutting the government down, or refusing to pass any new laws since the POTUS won’t execute them anyway. And whither goes the Republic.

Governing By Expert

On last night’s podcast, Dale and I discussed the rise of a soft tyranny and expansion of the regulatory state in this country. Pres. Obama has, on more than one occasion, unilaterally declared the power to pick and choose what laws to enforce, or to simply change the way they are enforced, without any consequences (i.e. checks and/or balances). He’s not the first POTUS to act that way (albeit the most brazen about it), and probably won’t be the last.

The primary reason he, or any other POTUS, is even able to act this way is because of the massive regulatory apparatus at the disposal of the Executive branch. An apparatus created by Congress; one it seems strangely reluctant to rein in. As Kevin Williamson notes, “Barack Obama did not invent managerial liberalism,” and while his agenda is painfully horrendous, it’s “a good deal less ambitious than was Woodrow Wilson’s or Richard Nixon’s.” However, Obama has used the leeway provided by Congresses past and present to further expand the regulatory state. Williamson characterizes this as Obama’s “utterly predictable approach to domestic politics: appoint a panel of credentialed experts.”

His faith in the powers of pedigreed professionals is apparently absolute. Consider his hallmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act, the centerpiece of which is the appointment of a committee, the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), the mission of which is to achieve targeted savings in Medicare without reducing the scope or quality of care. How that is to be achieved was contemplated in detail neither by the lawmakers who wrote the health-care bill nor by the president himself. But they did pay a great deal of attention to the processes touching IPAB: For example, if that committee of experts fails to achieve the demanded savings, then the ball is passed to . . . a new committee of experts, this one under the guidance of the secretary of health and human services. IPAB’s powers are nearly plenipotentiary: Its proposals, like a presidential veto, require a supermajority of Congress to be overridden.

IPAB is the most dramatic example of President Obama’s approach to government by expert decree, but much of the rest of his domestic program, from the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law to his economic agenda, is substantially similar. In total, it amounts to that fundamental transformation of American society that President Obama promised as a candidate: but instead of the new birth of hope and change, it is the transformation of a constitutional republic operating under laws passed by democratically accountable legislators into a servile nation under the management of an unaccountable administrative state. The real import of Barack Obama’s political career will be felt long after he leaves office, in the form of a permanently expanded state that is more assertive of its own interests and more ruthless in punishing its enemies. At times, he has advanced this project abetted by congressional Democrats, as with the health-care law’s investiture of extraordinary powers in the executive bureaucracy, but he also has advanced it without legislative assistance — and, more troubling still, in plain violation of the law. President Obama and his admirers choose to call this “pragmatism,” but what it is is a mild expression of totalitarianism, under which the interests of the country are conflated with those of the president’s administration and his party.

(emphasis added)

I likened the expansion and independence of the regulatory state to 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Terminator in that these things that were created to ostensibly serve in the aid of their users developed a life, mind and interests of their own, and eventually turned on the users. A perfect example would be if the IRS scandal of targeting conservatives turns out to be completely divorced of any political direction, and instead was completely self-initiated from within the department. As James Taranto often points out, that is the far scarier scenario than the one where the White House directed the agency to target its political enemies. Corrupt politicians are bad, but they are expected and can be dealt with in a summary manner. An unelected, unaccountable and extremely powerful organization exercising its own political agenda is orders of magnitude worse.

Williamson continues:

Democracy never lasts long,” [John] Adams famously said. “It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” For liberal regimes, a very common starting point on the road to serfdom is the over-delegation of legislative powers to the executive. France very nearly ended up in a permanent dictatorship as a result of that error, and was spared that fate mostly by good luck and Charles de Gaulle’s patriotism. Long before she declared her infamous state of emergency, Indira Gandhi had been centralizing power in the prime minister’s office, and India was spared a permanent dictatorship only by her political miscalculation and her dynasty-minded son’s having gotten himself killed in a plane wreck. Salazar in Portugal, Austria under Dollfuss, similar stories. But the United States is not going to fall for a strongman government. Instead of delegating power to a would-be president-for-life, we delegate it to a bureaucracy-without-death. You do not need to install a dictator when you’ve already had a politically supercharged permanent bureaucracy in place for 40 years or more. As is made clear by everything from campaign donations to the IRS jihad, the bureaucracy is the Left, and the Left is the bureaucracy. Elections will be held, politicians will come and go, but if you expand the power of the bureaucracy, you expand the power of the Left, of the managers and minions who share Barack Obama’s view of the world. Barack Obama isn’t the leader of the free world; he’s the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.

(emphasis added)

I would add that, if the politics were reversed (i.e. “the bureaucracy is Right, and the Right is bureaucracy”) we would still have the same issue: an unaccountable power structure that invades every aspect of our lives. Coupled with a President who exercises that power based on political whims, and we have a serious issue:

The job of the president is to execute the law — that is what the executive branch is there to do. If Barack Obama had wanted to keep pursuing his career as a lawmaker, then the people of Illinois probably would have been content to preserve him in the Senate for half a century or so. As president, he has no more power to decide not to enforce the provisions of a duly enacted federal law than does John Boehner, Anthony Weiner, or Whoopi Goldberg. And unlike them, he has a constitutional duty to enforce the law.

So, one might ask (as Dale did last night), why isn’t the President being impeached for dereliction of duty? Partisan politics is one answer (see, e.g., the failure of the Clinton impeachment). A lack of will is another. Perhaps the simplest answer, however, is that Congress is quite complicit in this expansion and abuse of the regulatory state:

Congress’s supine ceding of its powers, and the Obama administration’s usurpation of both legal and extralegal powers, is worrisome. But what is particularly disturbing is the quiet, polite, workaday manner with which the administration goes about its business — and with which the American public accepts it. As Christopher Hitchens once put it, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law; it is capricious law.”

[snip]

Barack Obama’s administration is unmoored from the institutions that have long kept the imperial tendencies of the American presidency in check. That is partly the fault of Congress, which has punted too many of its legislative responsibilities to the president’s army of faceless regulators, but it is in no small part the result of an intentional strategy on the part of the administration. He has spent the past five years methodically testing the limits of what he can get away with, like one of those crafty velociraptors testing the electric fence in Jurassic Park. Barack Obama is a Harvard Law graduate, and he knows that he cannot make recess appointments when Congress is not in recess. He knows that his HHS is promulgating regulations that conflict with federal statutes. He knows that he is not constitutionally empowered to pick and choose which laws will be enforced. This is a might-makes-right presidency, and if Barack Obama has been from time to time muddled and contradictory, he has been clear on the point that he has no intention of being limited by something so trivial as the law.

I agree with Williamson that Obama has pushed the limits, but I think he lets Congress off the hook too easily. Every POTUS presses the limits. Indeed, Williamson provides the example of Nixon’s abuses, and even compares Obama favorably: “… it is impossible to imagine President Obama making the announcement that President Richard Nixon did on August 15, 1971: ‘I am today ordering a freeze on all prices and wages throughout the United States.’” Williamson notes that Nixon was able to make that announcement because of power invested in him by Congress. Just as Obama has been entrusted with incredible power via such instruments as the IPAB which requires a super-majority of Congress to override its decisions. While Obama is bad, clearly the issue here is that Congress isn’t doing its job either.

Recall that in Federalist #51, James Madison explained that the way the Constitution controls the new federal government, such that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights”, was to divide the different departments in a way that each had interests sufficiently distinct from one another so as to provide an incentive for each to jealously guard those interests and maintain their power. This system of checks and balances was meant to prevent consolidation of power in any one part of the government.

The problem we seem to have run into since then is when the two most powerful departments combine their interests and secret away their combined powers in an unaccountable regulatory apparatus, safe from the will of the electorate. That the office of POTUS would be willing to do this is to be expected, and indeed is a large part of why there was much resistance to its creation. However, that Congress has done so much to aid and abet the effort is contemptible. Unless and until Congress rights the balance, and vigorously pursues its checking role, the problem will only worsen.

Liberals Don’t Understand How Agricultural Subsidies Work

To be fair, they don’t understand how most things work, especially when there’s math involved, but this particular quirk is quite annoying.

I remember the first time I came across this general ignorance (see the comments), in a West Wing episode:

Actual dialog from a recent West Wing rerun:

Josh: What do I say to people who ask why we subsidize farmers when we don’t subsidize plumbers?
Farmer’s daughter 1: Tell ’em they can pay seven dollars for a potato.

Yes, I know it’s a TV show, but do people actually think like this? I always assumed that the reason we couldn’t get rid of farm subsidies was rent seeking by the farmers, but if people actually believe this, that could be part of the problem.

Yes, people actually do believe this. Indeed, here is David Sirota spouting the same ignorance:

GOP meat eaters aren’t free market – they want everyone to subsidize their eating via taxes that fund meat subsidies.

Among best ways to reduce meat consumption is to end ag subsidies so that the cost of meat is a true free market price – think: $9 burgers

David also makes the correct point that some GOP congressmen vote to keep these subsidies in place (particularly those in states with farms that benefit the most from them), but that doesn’t alleviate the complete misunderstanding of what these subsidies do.

In short: agricultural subsidies don’t reduce consumer prices, but instead raise them.

In fact, the entire point of these subsidies is to set minimum price levels (often called “price supports”) or trade barriers that create an artificial monopoly. The entire milk industry, as an example, is propped up with such subsidies. Why else do you think it costs about as much for a gallon of milk as does for a gallon of gas?

Although there had been several different forms of subsidies in the U.S. prior to the 1930′s, most were simple tariffs. When the Great Depression began, the Roosevelt Administration sought to prop up the nation’s farmers by raising their incomes. How did they propose to do that? Mainly by setting minimum prices and production quotas (remember Wickard v. Filburn?):

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president in 1933, he called Congress into special session to introduce a record number of legislative proposals under what he dubbed the New Deal. One of the first to be introduced and enacted was the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The intent of the AAA was to restore the purchasing power of American farmers to pre-World War I levels. The money to pay the farmers for cutting back production by about 30 percent was raised by a tax on companies that bought farm products and processed them into food and clothing.

The AAA evened the balance of supply and demand for farm commodities so that prices would support a decent purchasing power for farmers. This concept was known as “parity.”

AAA controlled the supply of seven “basic crops” — corn, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco, and milk — by offering payments to farmers in return for farmers not planting those crops.

The AAA also became involved in assisting farmers ruined by the advent of the Dust Bowl in 1934.

In 1936 the Supreme Court, ruling in United States v. Butler, declared the AAA unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Owen Roberts stated that by regulating agriculture, the federal government was invading areas of jurisdiction reserved by the constitution to the states, and thus violated the Tenth Amendment. Judge Harlan Stone responded for the minority that, “Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern.”

Further legislation by Congress restored some of the act`s provisions, encouraging conservation, maintaining balanced prices, and establishing food reserves for periods of shortages.

Congress also adopted the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which encouraged conservation by paying benefits for planting soil-building crops instead of staple crops. The rewritten statutes were declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in Mulford v. Smith (1939) and Wickard v. Filburn (1942).

During World War II, the AAA turned its attention to increasing food production to meet war needs. The AAA did not end the Great Depression and drought, but the legislation remained the basis for all farm programs in the following 70 years.

The entire point of these subsidies is to increase the incomes of farmers. It has never had anything to do with making the price of a potato or a hamburger cheaper for consumers. By design, these programs intend to raise the price for agricultural products, as well as to transfer dollars from taxpayers to farmers.

How liberals like David Sirota and Aaron Sorkin came to think the exact opposite is puzzling. As Ronald Reagan said: “It isn’t so much that liberals are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.”

Dorner and the Wallets (plural)

Deranged serial killer, Christopher Dorner, may be blossoming into a cause celebre of the moronic and ill-informed, but the official manhunt leading up to his alleged death is spawning plenty of conspiracy. There’s plenty of overlap to be sure. However, one aspect of this case that spurs skepticism is that Dorner’s wallet was found in three different places: San Diego’s Lindbergh Field; the San Ysidro Point of Entry near the US-Mexico border; and in the rubble of the cabin he apparently burned to death in.

So how could this be? Cord Jefferson at the Gawker hazards a guess:

Though he botched a number of things in the course of his warpath—a bungled boat robbery, wrecking his truck and smashing its axle, etc.—Dorner seemed better prepared than most spree killers, which might explain why he had multiple wallets and multiple IDs (perhaps he was trying to throw authorities off his track). Another possibility is that press outlets made mistakes during their reporting, thus leading the public to wrongly believe that Dorner’s wallet was in three places at once.

That sort of seems plausible, except if you’re going to go through the trouble of manufacturing several ID’s and carrying several wallets, why would you have all of them bear the same name, much less your own name? Carrying an ID for “Christopher Dorner” during this manhunt would not be much of an advantage, would it?

No, the more simple explanation (also suggested by Jefferson) is that the media screwed up.

First of all, the only official mention of Dorner’s ID and wallet being found is in the criminal complaint and affidavit filed by the US Marshal Service (see paragraph 7(b)):

“Detective Anschick later found DORNER’s personal belongings, including his wallet and identification cards, near the U.S./Mexico border at the San Ysidro Point of Entry.”

Yet, according to the most recent reports from the scene of the final conflagration, after being cornered in a cabin near Big Bear Lake, California:

He never emerged from the ruins and hours later a charred body was found in the basement of the burned cabin along with a wallet and personal items, including a California driver’s license with the name Christopher Dorner, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

Did you notice that this info was from an anonymous source? Again, the only official report about a wallet and/or ID being found is the one cited in the federal complaint.

How about the claim that his wallet was found at Lindbergh Field? Well, that seems to come from this NBC San Diego report:

An LAPD badge and a wallet with the suspect’s personal identification were discovered Thursday by an airport shuttle driver near San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.

This particular nugget of info is unsourced, and doesn’t really make much sense. Would a cop who was fired in 2008 still have a badge in 2013?

Even if he did, there is still only one official report of Dorner’s ID/wallet being found, and that’s contained in the federal complaint filed on February 7th.

Ergo, the flowering conspiracy theories are almost entirely fed with media fertilizer. Once again, our intrepid press, with its professional journalists and layers upon layers of fact checkers, have proven themselves the modern equivalent of a sewing circle.

Ukraine and the Upcoming Elections

As we quickly approach our own election here in the US, a first of sorts will occur this weekend in Ukraine.  Shaking off the soviet chains has proved difficult, but through fits and starts a truly representative democracy is developing in Eurasia.  The next big step will be the parliamentary elections (to the Verkhovna Rada) held this weekend.  Ukraine has held free elections before, but this time they will occur under the watch of thousands of international and domestic election observers:

On October 22nd the Central Election Committee of Ukraine registered the final batch of 666 international observers for the parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which will take place on October 28th. The total number of foreign monitors reached 3,797 persons – they represent 28 countries and 35 international non-governmental organizations. Moreover, more than 130,000 domestic observers will also work at the elections.

A major impetus for the observers being present is that Ukraine is seeking to possibly join the European Union, a prerequisite for which is to improve the election process.

… the current government has expressed great interest in being integrated into the European Union, going so far as to ink an Association Agreement in March:

The Association Agreement creates a framework for cooperation and stipulates establishing closer economic, cultural, and social ties between the signees. Moreover, Brussels officials expect the document to promote the rule of law, democracy, and human rights in Ukraine.

This first step to entering the EU (which still needs to be ratified) requires a concrete demonstration from Ukraine that it is moving towards “an independent judicial system, free and fair elections and constitutional reform.”

The other potential option is for Ukraine to strengthen its traditional alliance with Moscow by entering Russia’s Customs Union:

… for the past several years, both the EU and Russia have courted Ukraine to form long-lasting trade partnerships. The EU wants to include Ukraine in its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) while Russia is pushing to join its Customs Union. Because of the way these agreements are set up, Ukraine has to choose one or the other, placing the country in a pitched economic battle between East and West.

Ukrainians are apparently quite ambivalent about which partnership to join, although the current leadership and most major parties have expressed greater interest in aligning with Europe:

The Party of Regions, which is the current party in power, is led by President Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.  Originally, the party was supported Russian President Vladimir Putin but, to his disappointment, the Party of Regions has turned out to be more pro-Ukraine than pro-Russia.  As previously noted, Yanukovych and Azarov have been working hard to achieve energy independence that is more beneficial to the people of Ukraine.

[…]

The United Opposition party is led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (who is currently in jail for the gas deal she brokered with Russia) and Arseniy Yatsenyuk from the Front for Change party.  Despite the fact that the party can be seen as being largely pro-Russian, they recently joined forces with the more pro-Western Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) in the hopes of increasing their chances of winning against the popular Party of Regions.  UDAR is the newest political party in Ukraine and is led by heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.

As it turns out, these three parties (Party of Regions, United Opposition and the UDAR) are leading in the polls (which haven’t changed dramatically over the past month) as we head into this weekend’s vote:

The latest opinion polls now show Yanukovych’s Regions Party finishing first with between 23% and 33% of the ballot, which would require the formation of a new coalition to lead parliament.  That could make a kingmaker out of Udar (Punch), a brand-new party started by political novice and heavyweight boxing superstar Vitali Klitschko as an agent for change that has no obvious links to past incidents of corruption.  Udar appears to have caught on with the more opposition-minded voters and has edged ahead of Tymoshenko’s block in some polls with 16%-17% of the vote.  “My methods in politics are the same as in sport: teamwork and confidence in yourself. And they work,” the 41-year-old Klitschko told AFP in an interview.  The election rating for Tymoshenko’s coalition varies from 15% up to 24% — still ahead of the fourth-placed Communist Party (9% to 13%) and the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) group (3% to 6%).

Although we don’t really know what the resulting administration will look like, or what concessions will have to be made in order to form a governing coalition, it at least appears that, whatever the result, a more pro-EU Ukraine will emerge.  And that would be a very good thing:

So why care about the Ukraine?

The simple answer is because Ukrainians have had a taste of freedom, and liked it, and we should encourage that journey towards liberalization to continue. We have an interest in such development – via free and fair elections, open markets and greater legal protections in its reformed court system – because this is how individuals become personally invested in the growth of the nation, and thus how liberty spreads. As President Reagan emphasized in 1981, “only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success — only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free.” The more societies like that in the world, and especially in the Eurasian region, the better. And this is exactly where Ukraine is poised to go.

Hopefully, that journey will continue this Sunday.

Look West, Young Ukraine

“Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuous revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions.”

Ronald Reagan — Address to students at Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

Remember the Orange Revolution? Believe it or not, it’s still pretty darned important.

We’re knee-deep in a presidential election. The European Union is witnessing a slow-motion meltdown. Syria is quickly becoming a bloody nightmare, while North Africa seethes under the vicissitudes of the Arab Spring. Iran marches closer to nuclear arms, and perhaps war with Israel. And Sino-Japanese relations threaten to simmer out of control. So why care about the Ukraine?

The simple answer is because Ukrainians have had a taste of freedom, and liked it, and we should encourage that journey towards liberalization to continue. We have an interest in such development – via free and fair elections, open markets and greater legal protections in its reformed court system – because this is how individuals become personally invested in the growth of the nation, and thus how liberty spreads. As President Reagan emphasized in 1981, “only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success — only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free.” The more societies like that in the world, and especially in the Eurasian region, the better. And this is exactly where Ukraine is poised to go.

Unfortunately, we may be taking steps to discourage further liberalization in the form of a Senate resolution essentially demanding that Ukraine act exactly like a western democracy immediately or face consequences. The reality is that the former soviet republic of nearly 50 million souls is at a crossroads. Will they continue to move towards alignment with the West, or turn back towards familiar haunts in Moscow?

To be sure, the current government has expressed great interest in being integrated into the European Union, going so far as to ink an Association Agreement in March:

The Association Agreement creates a framework for cooperation and stipulates establishing closer economic, cultural, and social ties between the signees. Moreover, Brussels officials expect the document to promote the rule of law, democracy, and human rights in Ukraine.

This first step to entering the EU (which still needs to be ratified) requires a concrete demonstration from Ukraine that it is moving towards “an independent judicial system, free and fair elections and constitutional reform.”

These are exactly the sorts of reforms that serve to expand liberty. Indeed, as Ukraine has liberalized over the past two decades since independence, it has since fits and starts of great economic growth and expanded prosperity. For example, between 2001 and 2008, the economy expanded at an average rate of 7.5%, and despite a severe downturn in 2009, it has continued to grow with exports increasing by 30% in 2010 alone. Indeed, Ukraine is ranked by CNBC.com as the second best country for long-term growth in the world, right behind the Philippines. Ukraine has also begun to institute judicial reforms that promise to train better judges, hold them accountable, and strengthen the fairness of the system that has long been burdened with rampant corruption and cronyism. And for the first time ever, outside election observers will be allowed to monitor the parliamentary elections this month.

Yet, these necessary and welcome reforms lie on a fragile bed.

Ukraine has been moving toward a market economy since it declared independence in 1991. The way has been extremely difficult and bumpy. Twenty years after the beginning of market reforms, Ukraine is still struggling to build a strong, transparent, and sustainable economic system that can provide the Ukrainian people with economic prosperity and social security.

Moving towards greater integration with the West, via the EU, will strengthen that bed. Demanding that Ukraine act as a long-established western democracy right now, today, only serves to further weaken it :

Economics 101 defines the problem of scarcity as unlimited wants with limited resources, and, to paraphrase George Shultz, the laws of economics apply as much in foreign policy as they do at home. While it may be rhetorically satisfying and politically convenient for Americans to assert an equal commitment to every priority in Ukraine, ranging from democratic development to removal of weapons-grade uranium, the reality is that some priorities are achievable, at an acceptable cost and within a realistic timeframe, while others are not.

If we cannot advance all of our values and all of our interests all of the time, then we are left with the necessity of ranking our national priorities. While it is clearly important that Ukraine put an end to politically motivated prosecutions, it bears asking whether resources and attention from Washington that have been focused exclusively on this issue are crowding out other compelling U.S. national interests.

The Orange Revolution was not a battle or a war. It was, and is, a movement. Our national interests will always be aligned with fostering greater liberty, which is what the Orange Revolution movement is all about. Instead of throwing up roadblocks in the Senate, we should be helping build road signs that lead towards further peace, prosperity and freedom.

Randy Barnett on Drug Prohibition

For a libertarian blog, this is a subject that we rarely opine about. Probably because its a rather dead horse that just doesn’t need any more beating. Even so, we do all too often have occasion to discuss the ill effects of the War on (Some) Drugs, such as the asset seizure case Bruce highlighted.

In that vein, Randy Barnett offers up his latest law review on the subject “The Harmful Side Effects of Drug Prohibition” and this abstract:

Some drugs make people feel good. That is why some people use them. Some of these drugs are alleged to have side effects so destructive that many advise against their use. The same may be said about statutes that attempt to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and use of drugs. Advocating drug prohibition makes some people feel good because they think they are “doing something” about what they believe to be a serious social problem. Others who support these laws are not so altruistically motivated. Employees of law enforcement bureaus and academics who receive government grants to study drug use, for example, may gain financially from drug prohibition. But as with using drugs, using drug laws can have moral and practical side effects so destructive that they argue against ever using legal institutions in this manner.

This article will not attempt to identify and “weigh” the costs of drug use against the costs of drug laws. Instead, it will focus exclusively on identifying the harmful side effects of drug law enforcement and showing why these effects are unavoidable. So one-sided a treatment is justified for two reasons. First, a cost-benefit or cost-cost analysis may simply be impossible. Second, discussions by persons who support illegalizing drugs usually emphasize only the harmful effects of drug use while largely ignoring the serious costs of such policies. By exclusively relating the other side of the story, this article is intended to inject some balance into the normal debate.

The harmful side-effects of drug laws have long been noted by a number of commentators, although among the general public the facts are not as well known as they should be. More importantly, even people who agree about the facts fail to grasp that it is the nature of the means — coercion — chosen to pursue the suppression of voluntary consumptive activity that makes these effects unavoidable. This vital and overlooked connection is the main subject of this article.

It’s a pretty interesting read. You can download the entire article by visiting Randy’s post linked above.

To My Friends In Maryland

Q: Why doesn’t Delaware fall into the ocean?
A: Because Maryland sucks.
Q: Why doesn’t California fall into the ocean?
A: Because Maryland really sucks.

Dear Marylanders:

I see that your financial picture is looking rather dicey again. Sorry to hear that. Who could have guessed that high taxes, profligate spending and a general hostility to business would lead to such things? No worries, though. I’m sure political leaders will continue to work hard at righting the ship and get Maryland sailing along smoothly again (how is that plan to repeal the laws of economics coming anyway?).

On a related note, I understand that the Maryland legislature, in collaboration with Gov. O’Malley, has passed a new tax on all six-figure income earners in Maryland. Well, bully for you! That’ll teach those nasty capitalists to stop being so productive. And Gaia knows that they really need to pay their fair share (I mean, how is it that the top 20% of earners only pays about 68% of the income taxes? How’s that “fair”?). So, here’s hoping that works out for you (fingers crossed!).

Of course, I seem to recall that the last time you all did something like this (with that “Millionaires Tax” thingy), we here in Virginia experienced a bit of an influx of former Marylanders. Not too many that we couldn’t handle it, mind you, and probably fewer than some thought. But it does raise an issue, especially since the latest tax scheme stands to affect a much larger portion of Maryland’s population. While we’re always happy to welcome you all into the Commonwealth, we’d really appreciate it if you’d leave things here the way you found them.

You see, all too often when Virginia takes in refugees of high tax and high regulation states, they tend to bring a lot of those policies with them. They seem to really like our neighborhoods, schools and business environment, but for some reason they get all worked up about the fact that our government doesn’t spend as much money as they’re used to (in fact, we’ve actually had a budget surplus the past couple of years, and look to do so again this year!). They also tend to push for more state intrusion into our lives. Thing is, we really don’t like that. (In fact, it’s a fairly common complaint in the South.)

You see, before they came, we were doing just fine. Sure, some of us moved to places like New York and California so that we could enjoy that wonderful embrace of the Nanny State, but for the most part it’s been the other way around: people moving from high-tax/high-regulation states to places like Northern Virginia. We completely understand why you would want to leave a place whose policies increase your costs of living, impair your livelihoods, and generally intrude on your lives in unwanted ways. That’s why we try not to do that sort of thing here (albeit, with some annoying exceptions). Problem is, when you all move in, you start enacting all the same policies that made the place you left so bad. We’d all really appreciate it if you wouldn’t do that.

So, like I said, I really hope that whole tax-the-hell-outta-the-rich thing works for you. If it doesn’t, and your looking for change of scenery, you’ll always be welcomed with open arms on this side of the Potomac. Come on over, make yourselves comfortable and set a spell. Just don’t go touching anything.

Yours Truly,

Michael J. Wade

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