Congress Goes Nuclear

Republicans go about Washington infuriated these days. Their opposite numbers in Congress are proposing a little-used parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation to pass a final health-care reform bill. Reconciliation, say Republicans, isn’t supposed to be used for “regular” lawmaking. Right-wing commentators are similarly outraged and refer to reconciliation as “the nuclear option.”

Is it? Reconciliation can be used to expedite votes and was intended originally to facilitate the passing of budgetary law. It allows a bill to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, overruling a filibuster. The New Republic notes that, “As the filibuster has evolved from a rarely used signal of unusually strong dissent into a routine requirement for a supermajority, reconciliation has become a vital legislative tool, embraced by both parties.”

In spite of Republicans’ current dissatisfiction, they used reconciliation themselves several times. The magazine reminds readers that “President Reagan used reconciliation to pass a collection of tax and budgetary changes that constituted the heart of the Reagan Revolution.” Since, it’s been used to pass welfare reform, major health-care initiatives and allow the drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“What’s so strange,” according to The New Republic, “is that, not only has reconciliation been used for far more sweeping purposes than those contemplated by Democrats today, it has done so with hardly any controversy.”

The Republicans have a good case to make against collectivized health care. Physicians opposite it while there’s little reason to presume that more government can cure the system. They shouldn’t bother to criticize the Democrats for whatever tactics they entertain. They should criticize them for enacting a fiscally irresponsible and outright immoral health-care scheme.

US Must Be Consistent Toward China

After the Obama Administration announced that it would pursue a policy of “strategic reassurance” toward China last year, recent months saw a string of awkward encounters that left Sino-American relations more strained again.

For Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is fully aware of the necessity to maintain strong and peaceful ties across the Pacific, Asia has emerged “as a diplomatic hornet’s nest,” with something of a naval race complicating relations with Japan; traditionally the most gullible of American partners in the region. Although the discord with Japan was happily exaggerated by some media, it is becoming more difficult for the Americans to maneuver in East Asia today.

Add to that the recent arms sale to Taiwan and President Barack Obama meeting with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and it becomes quite apparent why the Chinese aren’t too pleased right now.

The need for consistency is real therefore, notes the Financial Times. The United States may state their disagreements with China frankly and openly but should at the same time “strive for partnership with China in their many areas of common interest.”

The important thing is to keep both elements of the relationship to the fore, rather than fluctuating from one to the other according to circumstances — dismaying first the Chinese leaders and then the human rights activists and victims of China’s abuses.

America doesn’t have the leverage to actually make a stance for Tibetan autonomy. To “pretend that it did would simply be counterproductive,” according to the British newspaper.

At his blog, Thomas Barnett, author of Great Powers: America and the World after Bush (2009), agrees and he adds that this pestering “won’t get us any respect from the Chinese, much less flexibility.”

How this administration went so quickly from “strategic reassurance” to all this tough-guy posturing in about three months was truly stunning. It said, “I chase my tail as circumstances demand it.”

There is ample reason to be more accommodating. While economically, the interdependence of China and the United States remains paramount, in geopolitical terms, the former is turning more inward, whether it be through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or by establishing a free-trade zone with neighboring ASEAN. This is unfortunate, because the United States can use China’s help, be in containing North Korea or Iran, or in getting Pakistan to pick up the pace in fighting the Taliban within its borders.

Will the Looted Just Shrug?

The statist reaction to Republican senator Jim Bunning’s temporary block of a welfare bill shows what the welfare state has done to the American people.

Everyone knows that federal spending is out of control. The feds are spending $1.4 trillion more than what they’re collecting in taxes. And that’s just for this year.

Where are they getting the difference? They’re borrowing it, adding to the massive and ever-growing debt of the federal government. How is that debt going to be paid off? By American taxpayers. Your individual, average share as of right now is about $40,000. It’s growing every day because the feds are running up your credit card, which has no limit.

So, Bunning blocks a welfare bill on the ground that the federal government shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. If it can’t afford to be providing the welfare, Bunning said, then it shouldn’t be spending more money.

The statist crowd went ballistic. The attacks were the standard ones whenever anyone objects to any welfare state scheme: “He’s selfish, self-centered, and greedy. He hates the poor and loves the rich. He’s just grandstanding. The bill is only a small percentage of total spending and so it doesn’t make any difference in the larger scheme of things.”

But the statist reaction to Bunning’s move goes much deeper than that and is a perfect reflection of what the socialistic welfare state has done to the American people. Having been born and raised under the welfare state, American recipients of welfare largess, including those on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, education grants, mortgage guarantees, and bailout and stimulus monies, honestly believe that they are entitled to continue receiving it for as long as they “need” the money.

That’s why they call much of this junk an “entitlement.” What the entitlement crowd is saying is: “I am entitled to your money because I want it and I need it. If you object, my statist associates and I will go on the attack against you and expose you for being a vicious, no-good, selfish hater of the poor and lover of the rich.”

This is what the welfare state has done to America. It has produced a real war among the American people — between those who produce and own their wealth and those who are trying to get their hands on other people’s money through the force of the state. The nineteenth century French legislator Frederic Bastiat put it well when he indicated that under the welfare state, the government becomes a great fiction by which some people try to live at the expense of other people.

Almost as bad has been what the welfare state has done to the mindsets of the American people. It has made so many Americans dependent on the government, not just financially but also emotionally and psychologically. People are on the dole have convinced themselves that they could never survive without their dole. And they absolutely freak out whenever someone talks about ending their dole. Even worse, they look upon the government as their daddy or, even worse, as a beloved deity.

What is happening, not only here in the United States but in Greece, Portugal, Spain, England, and other welfare state countries, is that there isn’t enough wealth among the taxpayers to plunder to fund the massive, ever-growing number of people on the dole.

Meanwhile, panicky over the potential crack up of the welfare state, liberals are blaming the economic woes on “freedom, deregulation, greed, the bankers, and free enterprise,” and they’re proposing their standard statist solution — more socialism and Keynesianism. They’re saying that the feds should just keep spending, spending, and spending, no matter how much they have to borrow or inflate to do so. The notion is that more spending will put unemployed people back to work, whose taxes can then fund the voracious and ever-growing wants of the parasitic sector of society.

But as we libertarians have been saying for decades, ultimately the welfare state house of cards is going to crack apart, just as it did in Cuba and the Soviet Union. God has created a consistent universe, one in which immoral means will beget bad ends. The crack up has obviously already begun in such heavy-duty welfare state countries as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and England, where the base of wealth to plunder and loot is more limited than it is in the United States.

But even here in the United States there is a limit to how much socialism the private sector can bear. And don’t forget: there is always the possibility that those who are being plundered and looted might just decide to go on strike, refusing to produce any more wealth and just “shrugging.”

This story first appeared on Hornberger’s Blog, The Future of Freedom Foundation, March 4, 2010.

It Will Still Be an Asian Century

The economic turndown has cast some doubt on the rise of the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Especially Russia, in spite of President Dmitri Medvedev’s pledge to modernize, is still in deep trouble while analysts warn that inflation could hamper the recovery of emerging markets in Asia. Others expects cracks to develop within the BRICs. Brazil’s growth, for instance, might be much more sustainable due to sound economic policies and the abundance of resources.

There is reason to be optimistic for East Asia nevertheless. Katie Baker reports for Newsweek that the region far outperforms Europe and the United States, with China leading the rebound. This year, the Middle Kingdom is expected to enjoy a 10 percent growth while India, Taiwan and Vietnam follow with similarly impressive figures.

Driving the East’s recovery are its rapidly bourgeoning domestic markets. “Throughout the slump, household spending has held up well in China,” writes Baker, “thanks to tax breaks and Cash for Clunkers-type schemes.” In India and Indonesia, consumer confidence has already returned to pre-recession levels, “and retail sales growth remains strong thanks to rising incomes, low personal debt, and high household savings.”

Add to that the continued demand for cheap products from Asia and the investments that flow back to the West, and there is ample reason to presume that the twenty-first century will indeed turn out to be an Asian one.

Right Wing on the Rise in Dutch Elections

Dutch voters went to the polls on Wednesday to elect city councils in almost four hundred municipalities. In the wake of the government’s collapse two weeks ago, the local elections were closely watched as an indicator of which way the country will swing this summer.

Both of the resigning ruling parties, the Christian Democrats and Labor, suffered in the polls although the latter has managed to improve its poll numbers somewhat compared to when it was in government.

The opposition is emerging with vigor. Nationwide, both the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Geert Wilders and his nemesis, Alexander Pechtold, of the center-left Democrats are on the rise. Locally, the right-wing liberal party is expected to come out with most support.

The liberals, in part, have Wilders to thank for their comeback. His party competes in only two major cities. Many of his supporters in other parts of the country opt for the liberals because their immigration and security policy is similar to his, if less Islamophobic.

The progressive Democrats are also indebted to Wilders. Pechtold has positioned himself as the right-wing foreman’s staunchest critic in parliament, emphasizing the Netherlands’ traditionally open and cosmopolitan character as opposed to the nationalism of Wilders and his party.

Since he ran and won on his own ticket in 2006, Wilders has made a series of dramatic proposals to curb what he calls the Islamization of the Netherlands, including banning of the Quran and taxing Muslim women for wearing headscarfs. Wilders is awaiting trail for accusations of hate speech.

According to the polls, the Socialist Party will have to give up over half of its seats. The more moderate Green Party instead would nearly double its support.

The Summit of Fantasy

The president’s summit on health care revealed major schisms between public policy and reality. Those who feel that they must keep repeating to Americans that their health care is “broken” overlook a more fundamental problem.

Most Americans, based on a lifetime of experience, don’t think the medicine practiced by their own physician is broken. So they don’t believe surveys conducted by the United Nations claiming health care is better in other countries. But more importantly, most Americans — 86 percent, in a recent CNN survey — indicate that they think government is broken. So whatever they think of their medical care, they are unlikely to think that a broken government can fix it.

Yet, at the summit, the president and majority leaders behaved as if medical care would be best improved by a hundred or so new government agencies, boards and commissions to micro-manage most health-care decisions — from requiring physicians to administer patient treatments dictated by government protocols to requiring medical equipment manufacturers to pay fees for daring to invent new technologies.

Additionally, prior to the summit the president had to propose the creation of a new “Health Insurance Rate Authority” to tell insurance companies what premiums they can charge after fifty states already tell them the same thing. (No thought was given to how eliminating some agencies would improve costs.)

Not since Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged has anyone thought up more wasteful and destructive government agencies to control every aspect of the economy and our daily lives. At least Atlas Shrugged was fiction. Or in 1957 it was.

Fiscal fantasy from the Senate, House of Representatives, and now from the White House, is evident with the claim that spending one or two trillion dollars (depending on how you don’t count it) will reduce the deficit. Of course the only way that this largest increase ever in the size and cost of government could reduce the deficit is by the largest tax increase in history. Americans don’t think that huge increases in the size of government are the best way to reduce deficits.

The most amusing departure from reality was the idea that the president can proceed (and risk the political consequences) without bipartisan support. That assertion is nothing new — nothing has been bipartisan in Congress in the past year, not the bills passed by the Senate and House, nor the president’s recent proposals. That bipartisan ship sailed long ago. But the reality is that the president has not been able to proceed with Democratic support, which is more precarious than ever in the House of Representatives. When you have a large majority in the House — which requires only a simple majority to pass any bill — you cannot blame the Republicans if you fail. But they hope to force everything through, ignoring the meaning of recent elections as well as the next one.

This failure to recognize realities has two major causes, both of which eliminate real and appropriate reform of health care. The first is ideological. Many in the majority cannot conceal their contempt for insurances companies, physicians as “profiteers,” drug companies (whose profits pay for new medications), for all business activity as such. Better no medical care than medical care fueled by a return on investment.

The second cause is feeding the spoils systems of politicians who push for growth in government as the primary objective, for which health care is only the excuse. More government is good, but more specific pay-offs to your own political clients is better.

The president’s summit was a perfect case of form without substance. But it did cast light on the root of our problems in health care.

Consumer Protection With Fed “Bad Joke”

Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is “very disappointed” with the suggestion that a new consumer protection agency might be placed under supervision of the Federal Reserve.

The Senate Banking Committee has been working on a financial regulatory reform bill for several months now. A new agency is to be established with this bill that has the power to regulate mortgages, credit card policies and consumer loans. Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut anticipated last month that such an agency would be independent, even from the congressional appropriations process “so it can’t be harmed by lawmakers bent on taking away its power.”

In the wake of Ben Bernanke’s warning last week that, “Stripping the Federal Reserve of supervisory authorities in the light of the recent crisis would be a grave mistake,” a proposal was floated by Senate negotiators to place the consumer protection agency inside the Fed.

Frank wasn’t impressed. “After all the Fed bashing we’ve heard?” he told Politico on Tuesday. “The Fed’s such a weak engine, so let’s give them consumer protection? It’s almost a bad joke.”

Although 47 Democratic senators voted to confirm Bernanke for a second term last January, according to Politico, many Democrats are no less skeptical than Frank is.

“I am very leery of any consumer regulator being placed inside the Fed,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer. “In my twenty years of trying to get the Federal Reserve to properly protect consumers, it has been an uphill, and very often unsuccessful, battle.” Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina agreed that “there is justified skepticism about giving the authority to the Fed.”

Conservatives for Freer Schools

A novel idea from British Conservatives: allow schools to set their own standards. Tory Politico reports that the party intends to put an end to government interference with so-called A Level certificates: the internationally-recognized standard for entry into British universities.

The A Level’s reputation has been on the decline in recent years, leaving the prestige and performance of academics in Britain frustrated. In order to reverse the trend, the Conservative Party promises to take power away from the Department for Children, Schools and Families as well as the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority to allow experts with colleges, research institutes and exam boards to decide on the content and structure of exams. According to Shadow Secretary Michael Andrew Gove, they represent the “institutions with the greatest interest in maintaining standards at A level.”

The individuals with the keenest interest in ensuring A levels require the depth of knowledge necessary to flourish at university are our teaching academics.

You Must Sacrifice

In an article entitled “We The Problem,” Evan Thomas, editor at Newsweek, is trying to establish what’s wrong with his country. The problem isn’t the political system, he writes. “It’s us.”

For decades now, Americans have lived “as if there is no tomorrow,” according to Thomas. “They have racked up personal debt, spending more than they save and borrowing heavily.” People have grown fatter; their sexual morals have loosened; “self-restraint and self-denial are antiquated values.”

Thomas traces the problem back to the 1960s. “The triumph of individual and civil rights,” he claims, “was too often perverted into an ‘I got my rights’ sense of victimhood.” This “got mine” culture of entitlement has paralyzed politicians who won’t dare “asking their constituents to make short-term sacrifices for long-term rewards.”

Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on March 1, Thomas added that the United States is now a “selfish country.” People are only thinking of themselves, lack any sense of personal responsibility while their leaders are afraid to demand the sacrifices that are necessary.

To an extent, Thomas is right. Americans — indeed, Westerners in general — are much infested with an entitlement mentality, believing that government (which means, other people) is responsible for their wellbeing. Unfortunately, he confuses the causes of the phenomena and therefore prescribes the wrong treatment.

Not the rise of individualism but the growing pervasiveness of collectivism is to blame. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, employer-based insurance, unemployment benefits; they all stem from a collectivist ethos that frees people of personal worry but denies them personal choice in the name of society.

Thomas misinterprets a misguided, and immoral, notion of righteousness for selfishness. He longs for the times when people “realized that they had to sacrifice a little bit for” — what? Thomas doesn’t say, but it doesn’t matter. Whether it is “society”, “the common good”, “their fellow men”, the rationale is the same: that people must not think of themselves but surrender in substance and in virtue in favor of others. Left to their own devices, these selfish souls will only attempt to satisfy their most primal of instincts; get themselves fat, in the red and sleep around with similarly unenlightened creatures. No, best to give more of your money to the politicians who, as Thomas puts it, “have always been cowards.”

The contradictions in Thomas’ argument are rampant. His very premise is flawed. No matter his disapproval of consumerism, the pursuit of rational self-interest is moral and individual liberties exist because it is. Man is no sacrificial animal with unchosen obligations toward others. “The casting off of conformity and explosion of free expression” did not contribute to peoples’ impetuous claims to the charity of others; it did give rise, in smaller circles, to the sort of paternalistic disdain as expressed by Thomas who tut-tuts as he sees people living to the fullest.

The entitlement mentality is the real problem. Raising taxes and making people pay all the more for the mistakes of their leaders is no justifiable option. Cutting social security programs is the only way to restore peoples’ sense of personal responsibility.

Forgotten in the Health Care Debate

Proponents of health-care reform in the United States obviously have the patients’ interests at heart. For millions of Americans today, medical treatment is impossible to pay for while the system altogether is growing evermore expensive. The needs of those who can’t afford care are at the forefront, but the wishes of doctors and nurses are often overlooked — or ignored.

That the position of medical professionals is typically excluded from the public debate is telling. Proponents of regulated or public health care, perhaps unwittingly, promote the view that medical care is a citizen’s right. If that is true, someone must provide for it and their rights must be considered too.

Both the Democratic Party and the American Medical Association, which is supposed to lobby for doctors’ interests in Washington DC, claim that the medical profession at large is in favor of reform. A nationwide poll conducted in September of last year however shows that two out of every three practicing physicians opposes the overhaul as proposed by the ruling party. So much as 45 percent of them would even consider retirement if the Democrats get their way while 72 percent does not believe that their plans could cover America’s uninsured with better care at lower cost.

Of course, this is one poll and it might not fully and accurately reflect the opinion of medical professionals throughout the United States. Unfortunately, no similar research has been undertaken recently to allow for a more balanced view. What doctors want is apparently of little concern.

In light of this issue there is a fine paragraph from Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged which quotes a minor character, a surgeon by the name of Dr Hendricks, who explains why he refused to practice under socialized medicine.

“I quit when medicine was placed under State control some years ago,” said Dr. Hendricks. “Do you know what it takes to perform a brain operation? Do you know the kind of skill it demands, and the years of passionate, merciless, excruciating devotion that go to acquire that skill? That was what I could not place at the disposal of men whose sole qualification to rule me was their capacity to spout the fraudulent generalities that got them elected to the privilege of enforcing their wishes at the point of a gun. I would not let them dictate the purpose for which my years of study had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward. I observed that in all the discussions that preceded the enslavement of medicine, men discussed everything — except the desires of the doctors. Men considered only the ‘welfare’ of the patients, with no thought for those who were to provide it. That a doctor should have any right, desire or choice in the matter, was regarded as irrelevant selfishness; his is not to choose, they said, but ‘to serve.’ That a man’s willing to work under compulsion is too dangerous a brute to entrust with a job in the stockyards — never occurred to those who proposed to help the sick by making life impossible for the healthy. I have often wondered at the smugness at which people assert their right to enslave me, to control my work, to force my will, to violate my conscience, to stifle my mind — yet what is it they expect to depend on, when they lie on an operating table under my hands? Their moral code has taught them to believe that it is safe to rely on the virtue of their victims. Well, that is the virtue I have withdrawn. Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce. Let them discover, in the operating rooms and hospital wards, that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of man who resents it — and still less safe, if he is the sort who doesn’t.”