Friday, June 24, 2011

Conservatives and Liberals Overlap on Libya

Democrats and Republicans have sharply divergent views about most political issues today. The proper role of government and how expansive a welfare state there should be are but two examples. Foreign policy though has turned out to be an exception to this rule in recent weeks.

That much has been evident in the debate over American intervention in Libya. Republicans led by John Boehner have been openly skeptical about American involvement. Of course, Republicans are the party that supported the invasion of Iraq wholeheartedly, at least partly on the rationale that Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant who needed to be removed to free the oppressed people of Iraq. Interestingly, Boehner has been joined by several Democrats in his criticism of the administration’s involvement in Libya.

Unlike domestic policy, there is not a clear liberal or conservative answer in many foreign policy issues. Take the idea of nation-building in Afghanistan. A hawkish conservative might support it on the grounds that a democratic, prosperous Afghanistan will be an ally in the war on terrorism and in the region. Since this conservative wants to project American influence, nation-building might make sense as an investment. A liberal could support nation-building too on a humanitarian basis to uplift previously oppressed people. Of course, a mix of both motives could cause the liberal and the conservative to support the nation-building effort.

Conservatives have traditionally opposed social engineering, at least in their rhetoric. They also do not want the government doing things that people should (in their view do for themselves). It would be perfectly understandable for small government conservatives to oppose taking on a costly nation-building effort in another country. Liberals have traditionally been wary of imperialism or assuming that western nations have a right to impose their beliefs or value systems on other countries. That could easily explain a liberal’s unease with nation-building.

This all has the potential to leave us confused. What is the liberal answer to the problems in Libya? What is the conservative one?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Leave it to the States?

Mitt Romney had an interesting moment in this week’s debate. When asked about the role of the federal government he said that the government should ask itself what it must do, and then leave the rest to the states, or even better the private sector. Such a policy would improve the debt outlook for the United States.

Or would it? The federal government would benefit as it spent less money on priorities like healthcare, education etc. It would have to borrow less money. But the burden of debt would simply be shifted to the states. This is something the states can scarcely afford at this juncture. For example, the states have more than $1 trillion in pension and healthcare liabilities. And that’s just the beginning. California’s debt may be 37% of the economy. In order to save money, Hawaii instituted a four day school week last year. Asking states to carry an even greater burden would cause some to default.

Moreover, having states with such high debt loads is arguably worse than the federal government having one. The states do not have the same borrowing capacity as the federal government, and do not have the same respectability with foreign creditors who are doing a lot of the lending to America. This means the states can borrow a lower amount before they risk default, and that they may not be able to command as favorable an interest rate, thereby increasing their burden of debt. Since the United States consists of both states and the federal government, what happens in the state matters a great deal. So the country’s overall debt picture will likely not improve simply by telling the states to pay for more programs.

The way that shifting functions to the states would help the overall debt situation is if voters choose not to fund certain things at the state level. But remember that the biggest drivers of the federal debts are entitlements. As it happens, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are the most popular. Even if conservatives managed to outsource these to the states (unlikely), voters would probably choose to continue these benefits at the state level. On the margins, certain states might not fund certain environmental programs or discretionary programs, but again, those aren’t what is bankrupting us.

There may well be good reasons to leave more to the states. Saving money isn’t one of them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Struggles

It’s difficult to see how Newt Gingrich remains in the race much longer. He was already in trouble going as far back as several weeks ago.

First, he insulted the Paul Ryan plan by saying “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.” Most of the House Republican caucus is behind the Ryan plan, so he upset many Republican congressmen. In order to have a chance to win them back, he probably needed a full throated apology, or explain that his position was mischaracterized. He could have said that he thinks the Ryan plan is reasonable, not right wing social engineering. Instead, Gingrich apologized for the way he made his critique, but not for making the critique in the first place.

Second, Gingrich just had most of his campaign staff quit, including his campaign manager and important workers in early states. They all cited “irreconcilable differences over the direction of the campaign.” In the past days pundits have said that Gingrich wanted to show up at debates and run a social media campaign while aides wanted him to commit to a more traditional campaign, which he refused to do. Regardless, of what these irreconcilable differences are, the mass resignation is a stunning vote of no confidence in him as a candidate.

In some sense, it was always difficult to take Gingrich seriously as a candidate. He has been out of office for more than ten years which is now unusual for someone aspiring to the presidency. Before the campaign began, he was poised to alienate important constituencies in the Republican Party. He had supported cap and trade, as well as a mandate for healthcare that would have upset economic conservatives, and which would have had the added effect of making him look like a hypocrite in the general election for criticizing President Obama’s positions on these issues. His messy personal life—he has had three wives and has admitted to adultery-- could only hurt him with social conservatives. It is not possible to win the nomination without solid support from at least one of these two factions.

I actually worry that Gingrich risks diminishing himself in the campaign. For example, he became the first major politician to sign the sigma six pledge. The pledge goes like this:

First candidates must promise, “to eliminate spending deficits and start paying down the national debt by 2017 by deploying Lean Six Sigma waste reduction methods to detect and eliminate 25 percent of spending per year across the federal government.”

Then “to attend two days of training on the Lean Six Sigma method and complete a waste reduction project prior to my inauguration.”

Signing a pledge like this makes Gingrich look like a desperate panderer, not the intellectual leader of the right that he has sought to become. Gingrich plans to forge on in the campaign. His chances of winning are not 0, but neither are they very high at this point.