Economics, Politics

Cash For A Clunker Of A Policy

Law prof Richard A. Epstein has a withering look at the “Cash for Clunkers” program that gave car buyers a $4500 check to trade in an old car for a new one. As with any government program, the intentions of the program and the reality of the program were not quite at odds with each other:

Yet exactly what does the American people get for this expenditure? On the bright side, the beleaguered automotive industry gets yet another shot in the arm. But that cheery argument repeats the common mistake that I addressed two weeks ago: Using tax dollars to stimulate one industry necessarily impairs the recovery prospects of everyone else. To make matters worse, some stimulus payments are just outright gifts, because lots of last week’s eager sellers might have traded in their clunker in the near future anyhow. And no one has a clue as to how many miles would be put on these clunkers anyhow.

The problem with the “Cash for Clunkers” program is that it won’t provide much stimulus, but it will burn through billions in in taxpayer dollars. Is the possible increase in overall gasoline efficiency worth the $1 billion now spent and the billions more that may be spend reviving the program? It’s doubtful we’ll know, because the actual results don’t matter. Congress is essentially buying support by raiding the public fisc under dubious pretenses.

Two thousand years ago, the called it panem et circenses—but “Cash for Clunkers” seems to have much more consonance, even if the concept remains essentially the same.

Campaign 2008, Nerd-O-Rama, Politics

Obama’s Space Plans: A Study In Incoherence

Sen. Obama has released his plan for space exploration. As a case study, it demonstrates the lack of coherence or policy judgment that has marked the Obama campaign. Space policy expect Rand Simberg has a detailed analysis of Obama’s space plan and finds it lacking.

For example, Obama’s campaign can’t seem to make up its mind about NASA’s COTS program:

Obama will stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate spaceflight capabilities. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services is a good model of government/industry collaboration.

Which is all well and good, until one reads further down. Then Obama’s space plan says the opposite:

Obama will evaluate whether the private sector can safely and effectively fulfill some of NASA’s need for lower earth orbit cargo transport.

So, COTS is a “good model,” but Obama plans to “evaluate” it anyway. It’s the sort of muddleheaded stuff that Obama has been giving the electorate in just about every field. Simberg notes that this is a document clearly written by committee, and it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.

Simberg notes something else disturbing about the Obama campaign’s attitude towards ideas not their own:

This part struck me (and didn’t surprise me):

Lori Garver, an Obama policy adviser, said last week during a space debate in Colorado that Obama and his staff first thought that the push to go to the moon was “a Bush program and didn’t make a lot of sense.” But after hearing from people in both the space and education communities, “they recognized the importance of space.” Now, she said, Obama truly supports space exploration as an issue and not just as a tool to win votes in Florida.

I’m not sure that Lori helped the campaign here. What does that tell us about the quality and cynicism of policy making in the Obama camp? They opposed it before they were for it because it was George Bush’s idea? And does that mean that space policy was just about votes in Florida before this new policy? I know that there are a lot of BDS sufferers who oppose VSE for this reason, and this reason alone, but it’s a little disturbing that such (non)thinking was actually driving policy in a major presidential campaign.

Sadly, I think that’s exactly how the Obama camp thinks—or more accurately doesn’t think. Obama is not a dumb person, not by a longshot. But he doesn’t have a wide grasp of policy. He has an incisive legal mind, but when it comes to issues like taxes, foreign policy, trade, and other major issues, he’s utterly reliant on a cadre of advisors. That is not healthy for a President. A President needs good advisors, to be sure, but ultimately the job of President is the world’s toughest management job. Nothing in this document or anything else that Obama has done suggests that he has the management skills to be an effective President. A country can’t be lead by committee, it needs someone to provide leadership and direction. At least as far as space policy is concerned, Obama shows little leadership or direction.

To be fair, that doesn’t mean that Obama’s space plan is all bad. He says some of the right things. But he also is against the “weaponization” of space—something which has already begun and requires more than the typical feckless diplomatic overtures to contain. He is for more international cooperation in space—which is all well and good except that tensions with Russia already could cripple us. He’s for accelerating the timeline for the Shuttle replacement—which is an absolute necessity.

What would a truly bold space policy be? How about a government sponsored X-Prize to truly foster space exploration? A policy that ditches the overcomplicated Ares/Contellation program and goes with the better-designed DIRECT 2.0 launch system?

Obama says the right things, especially with the idea of having a better connection between the Oval Office and NASA and other interested parties. The problem is that Obama clearly hasn’t thought his space policy through enough to come to any clear policy conclusions. Even where he says the right things, there’s no guarantee that he’ll really enact them. A document drafted by committee is not the same as a bold policy, and when it comes to the future of humanity’s exploration of space, Obama gives us precious little change that anyone can truly believe in.

Campaign 2008, Politics

It’s About Gravitas

This fan-made ad for Fred Thompson sends exactly the message that the Tennessee Senator needs to get out:

The Thompson campaign should take a good look at this ad, because it suggests a strategy that can distinguish him from the rest of the field. In short, it’s all about gravitas. What is propelling Mike Huckabee into the space that Thompson hoped to occupy is his good-old-boy charm. While most people wouldn’t mind having a beer with Huckabee, he’s a lightweight on policy. He has the same brand of “compassionate conservatism” that while attractive, has already been demonstrated to be neither particularly compassionate nor particularly conservative.

Fred Thompson has a great plan for Social Security. He has a strong plan to deal with America’s immigration concerns. He has a strong tax plan. On the issues—those things that actually matter—he’s head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Not only that, but he’s a principled conservative in a way that Huckabee is not.

Thompson made a mistake in not running an ad like this during the YouTube debate, and if the plan is to win by attacking Huckabee it won’t work. Instead, what Thompson has to do is establish himself as a candidate who is a solid alternative to Huckabee. Huckabee has the advantage of having flown under the radar for months now—now he’s actually being looked at as a serious candidate the skeletons in the closet are beginning to emerge. There’s no need to belabor Huckabee’s problems—what matters the most is being able to distinguish Thompson’s solid conservatism and real policy with Huckabee’s vague platitudes.

This race is completely up in the air. Romney and Giuliani are in trouble, while Huckabee is rising. However, both John McCain and Fred Thompson are well-positioned with voters who are tired of the state of the race now. McCain, while a true American hero and a genuine patriot, has the liabilities of age and immigration. Thompson does not, which gives him an opening.

Realistically, Thompson needs to do better. I’m a Fredhead because I care about policy far more than the average voter—what Sen. Thompson needs to do is show how having real policy positions matters to the average Republican primary voter. If he can do that, competing on substance rather than flash, he can win. But the time is running short.

This country doesn’t need another empty suit. Mike Huckabee is a very compelling figure, and he seems like a nice guy. He’s also poor on policy and his blending of a touch of sanctimony with a dash of big government does not make a great cocktail—when it comes right down to it, “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush/Huckabee style has failed—and this comes from someone who was genuinely receptive to the idea when it was first proposed. The problem is that if people think that government is the solution to their problems, they might as well vote Democratic, since that’s the Democratic mantra. Compassionate conservatism is essentially liberal methods used to try to reach conservative ends—the problem being that conservative ends can’t be achieved that way. Electing Huckabee would be like electing President Bush to a third term, and neither conservatives nor independents have much interest in seeing that come to pass.

Thompson just needs to sell himself more. He’s been campaigning much more effectively than before, but this fight will take money and effort. A decent place in Iowa and New Hampshire and a win in South Carolina could be enough, but even then this race is up in the air. Thompson has the policy chops, but he needs to get that message out. If he does, the dynamics of this race could look very different two months from now.


It’s Time For A Real Energy Policy

Jim Geraghty of NRO’s Campaign Spot blog notes a survey that show that global warming is a major political issue in New Hampshire. While much of the global warming issue is alarmist hype, that hype has sunk in. However, even for global warming skeptics the necessity for a smarter energy policy is clear. We can’t live off of fossil fuels forever, and whether the days of “peak oil” will arrive in one year or 100, it will happen some day.

The usual conservative answer is that the market will decide what technology becomes the fuel of tomorrow. Which is all fine and true, but people want some kind of plan now. We have the problem of needing fuel, yet having key fuel sources being in hands of places that are unstable or hostile. The reality is that our dependence on Middle Eastern, African, and Venezuelan oil is a problem of national security, and the Republicans are not sufficiently serious on how we will deal with this problem.

The next answer is to boost domestic production. That’s all fine and good, but that still isn’t enough. We can expand our percentage of domestic oil, but we can’t insulate ourselves from the world oil market. We can’t produce enough domestic oil to meet our needs, and countries like China and India expand, the demand for oil will keep pushing prices up regardless.

Geraghty suggests a couple of policy stances that will help the GOP on this issue:

I’m a big believer that the Republican candidate ought to have something to say on global warming and carbon emissions beyond “the science isn’t clear” and “the market will take care of this.” Find some deserving target of environmental scorn and pledge to crack down on polluters; turn environmental protection into a law-and-order issue. Mock the Democrats’ hypocrisy on this issue. Promise to build wind turbines off the coast of Ted Kennedy’s Nantucket estate. Point out that the GOP wants to finance innovation while the Democrats want to tax energy.

That last sentence is key. What the GOP needs to do is back a 21st Century energy policy. The best analogy is the stock market: you’d be an idiot to hold all your money in one stock. Right now our portfolio is almost entirely based on oil, with a few alternative holdings. What we need is a diversified energy portfolio. Ethanol is one solution (although it’s economically inefficient, it’s politically popular). Biodiesel is one. Wind power is one. Hydroelectric power is another.

But there’s one issue that could significantly impact America’s energy independence, and that’s nuclear energy. The GOP needs to get behind the policy of removing the governmental roadblocks to safe, clean nuclear energy. It’s fundamentally conservative in that it involves removing governmental barriers to private enterprise. It’s also environmentally conscious in that modern nuclear technologies produce minimal waste and product significant amounts of power. As this excellent book points out, there is a strong case that nuclear energy needs to be a key part of America’s 21st Century energy agenda.

There isn’t a “magic bullet” to fix all of our energy woes. Instead, the GOP needs to be aggressively pushing a package of reforms that includes expanding domestic sources of energy, pushing for more efficiency through tax credits and other incentives, and bolstering several different alternative energy sources and letting the market determine which ones work and which ones don’t.

There’s no reason why one can’t have solid conservative principles and still be environmentally conscious, and there is a real need for a more aggressive stance on environmental and energy issues by Republican candidates. Energy is a national security issue, and while the GOP doesn’t have to charge headlong into the politics of fear surrounding global warming, they do need to have a coherent and competitive energy and environmental agenda.

The “progressives” aren’t progressive on energy—they want more big-government solutions that will slow down the development of real alternatives. But in order to win on this issue, conservatives can’t be afraid to take a stand. Again, the GOP candidate who can get conservatives for conservation on their side will have an edge against those others who no real plan to preserve America’s energy independence and the environment at the same time.


Shrinkage Of A Different Sort

U.S. News‘ Capital Commerce blog notes the Democrats’ radical plan to skyrocket American tax rates. The Rangel plan would not only repeal the Bush tax cuts, but would create the largest tax hike in history, adding increased transaction costs to nearly every activity. The effect of such a reckless plan would be disastrous for the American economy. As economist and former White House advisor Lawrence Lindsey notes:

What’s more, if you eliminate the income cap on Social Security taxes—as some Democrats have proposed—Lindsey explains that “then we’re 60 percent.” The top tax bracket when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 was 70 percent. Reagan then cut it down to 50 percent with the 1981 tax cuts and then to 28 percent with the 1986 tax reform package. “And remember,” Lindsey continued, “$200,000 was the cutoff for the 70 percent bracket back then, which would be like $400,000 today. And they would be taking the 60 percent bracket to income levels well under half that number.” Lindsey, who once wrote a fascinating book while at Harvard University about the Reagan tax cuts called The Growth Experiment, went on to joke that Dems were planning to run the “Shrinkage Experiment.”

The Rangel tax plan demonstrates the Democrats’ pathological love for raising taxes. It returns the death tax, it removes capital gains tax cuts, it raised taxes from the cradle to the grave. If it moves, the plan adds more taxes on it. (If it does nothing, there’s probably a subsidy involved somewhere.) It repeals over a quarter-century of growth-sustaining economic progress to return the country back to the days of stagflation and moribund economic growth.

Cutting the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is not in itself a bad idea. Replacing it with equally misguided alternatives isn’t any better. The AMT phase-out can easily be offset by reductions in spending, corporate welfare, and subsidies. Unfortunately, Congress runs on spending, corporate welfare handouts, and wasteful subsidies.

America does not need higher taxes, it needs government that stops consuming all it sees. It needs less bureaucracy and more innovation. It needs an education system that actually works. It needs fewer roadblocks to saving and investment. Raising taxes not only doesn’t provide for those needs, it actually contradicts them. We don’t need more government spending, we need fiscal discipline in Washington. Giving Congress more money to play with is about as responsible as having Mark Foley lead a Boy Scout troop.

The Democrats keep proving that they’re one-trick ponies. The Rangel tax plan has been described as a wonderful gift for the GOP, which it would be if the GOP were smart enough to capitalize on it by tying the abolition of the AMT to reductions in wasteful spending and entitlement reform. However, that would take a measure of political courage, and no one in Congress seems to have that anymore.

We need a saner tax system in this country, one that does not punish productive economic activity. Saner does not equate to “more,” no matter what Rep. Rangel would think. The Democrats are once again showing their cards, and this is a warning sign to the country of what we could expect if the Democrats dominate in the 2008 election. The GOP needs to get a plan out there, push it hard, and set the tone for a more responsible fiscal agenda. Not only would that be good politics, but good policy as well.