Who’s really at blame if the government defaults?

The battle over the federal debt ceiling that’s currently being fought by government officials and legislators is yet another example of the political posturing that’s so prevalent these days.

On one side, you have Democrats, who believe that the debt ceiling should be increased automatically or removed altogether, no matter what level of debt Uncle Sam accumulates, and that it should be done with the support of Republicans.

On the other side, you have Republicans, who occasionally remember that they are against big government spending, especially if they’re in the minority when the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

Consider Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, railing against Republicans for saying they won’t vote for a bill that funds the government until December and includes a debt ceiling suspension. He accuses them of wanting the federal government to shut down and to default on its debt.

Don’t fall for it. Yes, defaults are bad — which is why nobody wants that.

Thankfully, there’s a difference between refusing to raise the debt ceiling and defaulting on our debt. What’s more, as Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute reminds us, Democrats currently hold the White House, the House and the Senate, and they could have raised the debt ceiling all alone without the Republicans.

All they had to do, he writes, was to “include debt limit instructions in either of the two budget resolutions that they passed this year,” allowing them to increase “Washington’s borrowing authority to the reconciliation bills — which are not subject to filibuster and thus can pass the Senate with only the 50 Democratic votes.”

Yet they probably didn’t do that so their members wouldn’t have to cast a vote acknowledging all of the spending and borrowing they approved. But now they’re dragging Republicans into their mess, hoping to either get political cover for raising the debt ceiling or let the GOP get the blame for a government shutdown.

Incidentally, Republicans aren’t wrong to be outraged by the $3.5 trillion spending bill Democrats are pushing through reconciliation, most of it unpaid-for by those who will receive the benefits, piled on top of trillions of dollars for COVID-19-relief spending and an already vast deficit. Republicans argue that blocking this level of spending is another reason to oppose raising the debt ceiling.

Democrats correctly contend that there is a cost to not raising the debt ceiling immediately, though there’s also a cost to allowing this astronomical spending to go through. It’s just not as obvious because most of the costs will materialize in years to come. But it doesn’t make it any less immoral.

That’s why, back in 2011, I favored using the debt ceiling as a pressure point to extract some entitlement reforms. The political environment was completely different back then. Most Republicans seemed to be on board with the idea that some fiscal responsibility was prudent, and so were many Americans who made overspending a theme of the 2010 midterm elections.

However, the strategy failed when all we got were weak spending caps that Republicans and Democrats repeatedly lifted if they got in the way of their insatiable hunger for spending.

This is not an argument for giving up or getting rid of the debt ceiling limit. But it is an argument to remind readers that we wouldn’t be having these fights if it weren’t for the numerous expansions of the entitlement state (programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) approved by past Congresses and administrations. These provisions are impacting us today and will continue to impact us into the future, so long as both sides refuse to implement reforms.

Democrats have long said they won’t do it. However, those Republicans complaining about President Joe Biden’s spending spree are part of the problem, too. Just look at what happened when Republicans were in power.

Former President George W. Bush oversaw the creation of Medicare Part D. Under former President Donald Trump, Republicans refused to touch Social Security and Medicare, and they embraced the creation of a federal paid leave program and the equivalent of a universal basic income for kids. There’s no denying that Republicans are part of our fiscal problem, too.

Raising the debt ceiling without a strong commitment to entitlement reform is irresponsible, but empty political gestures accomplish nothing, either.

Short of a massive burst of growth triggered by some future innovation, our only option is to convince the American people that more spending will ultimately come to bite them and their children in the behind.

There is no better time than the debt ceiling showdown for that.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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The recall failed because the GOP lost its way

The recall was never going to be close.

It closed out election night losing by around 30 percentage points. As the days went by, that narrowed slightly.

I know what a few polls said, but many more said otherwise. Maybe it should have been closer, but still not close.

And that’s not because of voter fraud, not because of ballot harvesting, not because of the media or any of the other common scapegoats.

It’s because Californians loath Republicans.

Harsh, I know — I’m a Republican and I hate writing it. But don’t take my word for it, simply listen to our fellow Californians.

Republicans continue to get blasted in statewide elections. And in down-ballot partisan races, like congressional and legislative, the long-term trend shows Republican elected officials continuing to slip away. And as for Republican voters, the registration numbers speak for themselves.

Californians are talking loudly, why aren’t Republicans listening?

Republicans used to thrive in California. Republicans were governors for most of the 20th century and were elected statewide regularly.

Over time though, the state changed in many ways, few of which were helpful to the Republican cause, and instead of adapting and becoming a viable alternative to Democrats that works for California, Republicans have increasingly gone in the opposite direction of the state.

In public polling, Republicans are usually on the wrong side of the top issues from the majority of Californians. COVID and the environment are perfect examples where Californians want one thing, and Republicans want something completely different.

Many of my fellow Republicans think things will snap back sooner or later once Californians get sick of one party rule.

Quaint, but probably not going to happen.

First, there’s the problem of voter registration — it doesn’t mean everything, but partisanship is one of the best predictors of voter behavior.

Republicans are around one quarter of the electorate. In 2003, a month before former Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, Republicans were 11 percentage points higher.

That’s a huge drop. But in raw numbers, it’s even more pronounced. Since 2003, the deficit has grown from approximately 1.3 million voters to almost 5 million — Democrats basically outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.

In other words, Republicans begin every statewide contest down 5 million votes.

If a statewide election were a basketball game — the average NBA team scores 111 points per game — Republicans would begin the game 111 points behind.

Instead of seeing the obvious math problem, many make up excuses like voter fraud.

But the truth is that California Democrats don’t need to commit voter fraud — they will almost certainly win regardless. But it’s easier for con artists to claim fraud because the alternative would be to admit Californians aren’t buying what they’re selling and that they need to do something different.

Yet Republicans don’t want to do something different; Republicans just want to YELL LOUDER!

The sad thing is that Californians agree the direction of the state needs to change. In a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, a plurality of voters said the state was headed in the wrong direction.

What’s the problem? As much as Californians don’t like Democrats, they really hate Republicans.

While a very slim plurality of voters have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party (49 percent), a whopping 69 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of Republicans.

To put it another way, fewer people believe in vampires (18 percent) than believe in Republicans, which is encouraging. But Republicans poll way behind the belief of the existence of alien UFOs (41 percent).

In theory, it’s a straightforward fix: Register more Republican voters, broaden our appeal by choosing great candidates and have the party dump a bunch of money in a charm offensive.

Except it’s not that simple. There’s a limited market for unsalable goods.

And even if there was an effective rebranding strategy, Republicans would never agree on it because what we think of as the Republican Party is actually two parties: The establishment and the populists (think: Sen. Mitt Romney and former President Donald Trump).

While these two groups have a lot in common, they are worlds apart on both substance and style, making cohesion nearly impossible.

It’s working in places like Ohio, but in California, where Republicans need to win independent voters and disaffected Democrats in order to compete statewide, the differences seem impossible to reconcile.

What excites the populists, repels persuadable voters — things like conspiracy theories, fealty to Trump, allegations of voter fraud, defying public health recommendations, opposing kneeling in the NFL and saying outrageous things to troll liberals.

And while the populists are running the show, centrist Republicans like me — who still read National Review and are more concerned with stable, solution-oriented governing, low taxes, good schools, opportunities for all and the Constitution and generally don’t read wack websites that condemn FDA-approved vaccines but support animal de-worming medication or whatever — are caught in the middle.

The late William F. Buckley famously said: “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.” That formula worked for a long time as Buckley and his brand of conservatism dominated American politics for around half a century.

But candidate viability is either something populists no longer value or it is not something they have any ability to determine.

Of course, establishmentarians get it wrong at times. But the establishment didn’t lose an unbelievably safe Alabama Senate seat by nominating an alleged pedophile.

I’ve been personally told by populist activists that the Republican Party would be better off if they could get rid of all the moderate Republicans. The populist delusion is that they’ll win with fewer voters.

If anyone wants to break the Democratic one-party rule that is objectively failing to solve many problems in the state, then the solution isn’t doubling down on unelectable candidates or another recall tantrum. The solution would be to become more electable.

Maybe that’s not possible. You can’t change what’s in people’s hearts. And you certainly can’t get them to stop talking about it.

But many of us are prepared for the hard work and compromise required to build a winning coalition that could succeed in California and improve this state we love so much.

Maybe a lot of people who call themselves Republicans aren’t up for that; maybe they should hurry up and Idaho and get out of the way.

Matt Fleming is a member of the Southern California News Group’s editorial board. You can follow him on Twitter @FlemingWords.

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California needs an alternative to the GOP

The outcome of the recall election was Gavin Newsom 64%, Donald Trump 36%.

A similar result can be expected next year as well. Donald Trump will be the Democrats’ opponent in every race in the state, from governor to United States senator to the California Legislature — and, as a result, the Democratic Party will keep its monopoly position over all statewide offices in California and its two-thirds control of both houses of the Legislature.

This is not healthy for California — especially for Democrats. The voices of reform within that party will be silenced by the decibels of anti-Trump noise.

Many California Democrats worry that their children have to move out of state to afford a home or to find a job whose pay can keep up with state taxes and cost of living.

Many Democrats are grateful for Prop. 13 so that the taxes on their homes don’t skyrocket, jeopardizing their retirement in California.

Many Democrats want the public schools to focus on fundamentals that will train their children for quality careers, rather than a curriculum that checks off the boxes in a politically correct agenda.

Many Democrats want to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, in admission to state colleges or getting a job in state or local government.

Many Democrats want California’s roads fixed quickly, efficiently and permanently — whether or not by a union construction firm.

Many Democrats want the money we approved for water bonds to be used to build water storage as was promised.

Many Democrats see California’s windfall budget surplus squandered in one-time transfer payments to favored groups instead of replenishing the rainy-day fund to cushion the next economic downturn.

Many Democrats doubt they get the highest value for paying the highest taxes in the country.

Many Democrats care about the homeless living in unsanitary conditions along San Francisco’s Market Street and Los Angeles’ underpasses — and they care, as well, for the small businesses and law-abiding citizens whose daily life and work takes them by those encampments.

Many Democrats are concerned about the crime that causes neighborhood convenience stores to close up, raises worry about the security of their homes and causes them to look out on the street when a car alarm starts to sound.

California has been judged the most hostile of all 50 states (and even the District of Columbia!) by leaders of companies who decide where to expand and to hire people, in poll after poll over the last 20 years. Democrats care deeply about that. Without a healthy business environment, there is a shortage of good paying jobs, union and non-union.

All of these concerns will be submerged next year, as they were during the recall election.

The winning formula for the majority party, in California politics, is to ignore all of these issues because Donald Trump is such a perfect opponent. Unchallenged, the elites who run the Democratic Party will replicate the decisions they’ve made that have led us to our deep discontent. They have no reason to change because they’re winning.

As for the California Republican Party, its label is irretrievably tarnished. Elected leaders have cowered before the threat of losing in a primary. These timid souls deserve the characterization hurled at them: clones of President Trump. Against their better judgment, they have been silent or complicit in policies that have ballooned deficits, stifled international trade and withdrawn from alliances — positions that would have shocked Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan. The role of constructive critic has given way to uncivil, name-calling firebrand.

Grievance politics has taken over the Republican Party. Identity politics has taken over the Democratic Party. Californians need a new party, a party “for the rest of us,” the Common Sense Party. Our membership includes twice as many former Democrats as former Republicans. All who care more about solving problems than demonizing opponents are welcome to join.

Tom Campbell is a professor of law and of economics at Chapman University. He was a congressman, California state senator and finance director of California. He left the Republican Party in 2016 upon its nomination of Donald Trump. He is in the process of forming a new political party in California, the Common Sense Party.

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SCOTUS has wrongly usurped the state legislative process on key issues

A couple of years after the end of World War II, a U.S. Supreme Court justice expressed concern that the court was picking and choosing which parts of the Bill of Rights would be binding on state governments and which would not.

“Some are in and some are out, but we are left in the dark as to which are in and which are out. Nor are we given the calculus for determining which go in and which stay out,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter. “If the basis of selection is merely that those provisions of the first eight Amendments are incorporated which commend themselves to individual justices as indispensable to the dignity and happiness of a free man, we are thrown back to a merely subjective test.”

That was 1947, in a concurring opinion in the case of Adamson v. California. Adamson was appealing his murder conviction and death sentence, arguing that his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent had been violated at his trial, because state law allowed the prosecutor and judge to tell the jury that his refusal to testify might indicate guilt. By a vote of 5-4, the justices ruled against him.

“It is settled law that the clause of the Fifth Amendment, protecting a person against being compelled to be a witness against himself, is not made effective by the Fourteenth Amendment as a protection against state action,” the majority opinion declared.

At the time, it actually was settled law that the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution could be completely violated by state laws, except for the exceptions carved out by the Supreme Court. That’s what prompted Justice Frankfurter’s concern that the court’s rulings risked becoming “merely subjective.”

And here we are. In the past week or so, three U.S. Supreme Court justices have expressed concerns about the public perception that they are partisan politicians in black robes. Justice Amy Coney Barrett told an audience at the University of Louisville McConnell Center that media reports do not accurately depict “the court’s reasoning” as the basis for decisions, instead portraying the justices as “acting in a partisan manner.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, said the justices do not make decisions based on “personal preferences.” He, too, complained about the media, saying the characterization of the justices as being “like a politician” is a problem that is “going to jeopardize any faith in the legal institutions.”

Justice Stephen Breyer recently voiced similar sentiments. In an interview while on a book tour, he sought to push back against the view that the justices are “junior league” politicians.

The comments appear to be something of a campaign against proposals to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court, as a presidential commission studies the issue. Justice Thomas warned that “we should be really, really careful” before “destroying our institutions.”

But it’s the “merely subjective test” problem identified by Justice Frankfurter in 1947 that has put the institution at risk of destruction. A close look at American legal history reveals that the U.S. Supreme Court has spent nearly the last 100 years selectively “incorporating” parts of the federal Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars any state from denying liberty to any person. This process began in the 1920s, long after the Civil War. As recently as 1900, in the case of Maxwell v. Dow, the Supreme Court said the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, “were not intended to and did not have any effect upon the powers of the respective states.” That decision was not an outlier. “This has been many times decided,” the court pointed out.

Over the decades, the justices invented subjective balancing tests with names like “strict scrutiny” and “intermediate scrutiny” to determine when and how far a state law may infringe a particular provision of the Bill of Rights. The final effect of these decisions is to place the justices in the position of creating policy.

Whatever the merits of the policies so created, this process has had an extremely distorting effect on our politics. For example, confirmation hearings for federal judges are politically contentious because they are now the last chance for Americans to have any say at all about what the law will be on many issues that once were decided by elected, accountable state representatives.

Abortion is one of those issues. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Roe v. Wade and sharply limited state power to restrict abortion. There is no constitutional amendment protecting the right to privacy, which was interpreted into existence by the Supreme Court in the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut. Anything that’s interpreted into the Constitution can be interpreted out again.

That may happen. On September 1, by a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court said it could not order a temporary halt to a Texas law that bans abortion after approximately six weeks of pregnancy. The decision was portrayed by the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and nearly all media coverage as the certain death of Roe v. Wade.

When news of that September 1 ruling broke, people were voting by mail in California. It may have been a significant factor in energizing Democratic voters to turn out and defeat the recall.

Because the Supreme Court has usurped the state legislative process on so many controversial and important matters, politicians have had a free pass to go to the extreme edge of issues without worrying about building a coalition to pass legislation. This is great for fundraising and television appearances. It is also the untold story behind the deep partisan division in our country today.

Write Susan Shelley: Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.

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Republicans ignore hard recall lessons at own peril

SACRAMENTO – On the eve of California’s second-ever gubernatorial recall election, polls showed dire news for those hoping to bounce Gavin Newsom from office and replace him with someone with a more conservative mindset. Despite my issues with the governor, I was far more disappointed with the statements from recall supporters than from the polling data.

Before voting was even finished, Republican “leaders promoted unsubstantiated claims that the race was rigged or compromised by misconduct,” AP reported. It noted that leading replacement candidate, Larry Elder, said, “there might very well be shenanigans.” And Donald Trump asked, “Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged?”

Apparently, Republicans only trust election results when they emerge as winners. That poses a long-term problem for the health of our democratic system, but – in California, in particular – it poses an existential problem for the GOP. When a party refuses to live in the real world, it’s not going to make sensible decisions that help it get back in the political game.

I talked to some conservative activists in the weeks before the vote, and many of them were living in a fantasy world. Some were sure that the polls weren’t accurate because of liberal polling bias and the recall really was on track, while others believed the nonsense about fraud. After Newsom scored an impressive 64-percent to 36-percent victory, recall supporters were looking for everyone but themselves to blame.

Let’s see, a Democratic governor was victorious in a strongly Democratic state by margins that approximate the usual Democrat v. Republican breakdown, and the best people can do is claim voting irregularities. Sorry, but recall advocates ran one of the worst campaigns in memory. They failed to make a compelling case to non-Republicans.

I covered the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis, whose incompetence in the face of rolling electricity blackouts and budget deficits led to widespread voter frustration. The electorate was more Republican 18 years ago than it is today, but still was heavily Democratic. I’d argue that the list of Festivus-like grievances against Davis pales in comparison to the ones against Newsom.

The current governor has restricted charter schools, which are an educational bright spot. Violent crime is rising, homelessness is spreading civic disorder and wildlands are on fire. There’s the Employment Development Department scandal and much to critique in Newsom’s handling of COVID-19. The budget is in great shape (if we ignore the state’s unfunded liabilities), but there are myriad reasons for disgruntlement.

Yet in 2003, recall supporters built a broad-based coalition that focused on the key issues that upset Californians of all political persuasions. They recruited a candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who not only was a popular celebrity – but who carefully pitched a moderate, bipartisan and generally optimistic governmental reform message.

This time around, recall advocates made it perilously easy for Democrats to turn this into a partisan “Republican recall” race. I like Larry Elder and have admired his past years of libertarian-oriented punditry, but he and other GOP replacement candidates campaigned as if they were appealing to a mostly conservative electorate.

In my rural area, pro-Trump signs and those obnoxious blue-stripe flag desecrations accompanied virtually every recall-signature table. Doubling down on stridently conservative messaging in a state where conservatives are a dwindling and fleeing minority (and having insufficient resources to run compelling ads), doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. Maybe that’s just me.

The “yes” vote on the recall question received roughly the same percentage as Republicans routinely receive in statewide races. How surprising. Conservatives have long advocated for a take-no-prisoners campaign, but they couldn’t even reach John Cox’s dismal numbers. He lost to Newsom in 2018 by 24 percentage points, which is a nail-biter compared to Tuesday’s showing.

I’ve often criticized the largely unprincipled state GOP, but at least the establishment makes an attempt to woo Decline to State and Democratic voters. The problem started with the recall petition. Instead of focusing on broad concerns, it chided Newsom for favoring “foreign nationals, in our country illegally,” as if immigrants rather than homegrown politicians are the problem.

Recallers should have recruited the right candidate before they started collecting signatures. The campaign initially put pressure on Newsom to moderate some of his coronavirus restrictions, but as the race heated up and the GOP ran right, it pushed Newsom further to the left to shore up his base. The downside always was obvious. If the recall didn’t succeed, it would leave Newsom and the supermajority Democrats stronger than ever.

“Democrats have been sharpening their attacks on Republicans over the pandemic, former president Donald Trump and other polarizing topics, and now, emboldened by victory in California’s recall election, party leaders are seeking to further escalate hostilities ahead of the midterm elections,” the Washington Post concluded. It’s hard to disagree.

Go ahead and blame voting issues. As the midterms approach, I’m sure that will be a winner.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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Vaccine passports are an affront to liberty

One of the easiest ways to make a deadly error is to take action to address a problem without giving careful thought to whether the action you’re taking will solve the problem, or if will have dire unintended consequences without solving anything.

The latest example of the “we have to do something regardless of what it does to us” impulse is the impending mandate for vaccination passports, also known as vaccine verification. The idea is that people will be required to show proof that they are vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to enter an indoor space, such as a restaurant, retail store, office or venue, and even some outdoor spaces such as sports stadiums.

Legislation was floated in Sacramento to mandate vaccine verification. Proposals are pending in Los Angeles. San Francisco and New York City have already required it, and the president of the United States is reportedly considering a national program to restrict interstate travel.

Vaccination passports are a terrible idea and we’d better recognize the risks before we go any further down the path of “verification” by government as a condition of freedom.

This began with people receiving paper cards showing the date and the type of their COVID vaccination. Paper cards can be inconvenient to carry and are easily counterfeited. They are rapidly being replaced with an app that connects to a government database, so people can show their vaccination record on their phones. Next we’ll likely see tamper-proof ID cards with a magnetic stripe, so workers checking vaccination verification can use their own phone and an app to read the stripe and connect with the government database to verify vaccination status. Permission to enter will be determined by an instant red light or green light.

The next question will be, how many vaccinations does it take to change a light bulb?

Currently, the number is two, but it may soon be three. Maybe it will be once or twice per year. Incidentally, the White House announcement of the need for a third booster has already led to two high-level resignations at the FDA, reportedly because the White House jumped ahead of the FDA approval process. It suggests that the “we have to do something” impulse is separating from the careful determination of the value of what we are doing.

If the public accepts the idea of restricted entry to public places controlled by a government database, it’s a short step for the government to add or change the particular criteria used to determine who is allowed to go where.

You want to feel safe, right? There are many dangers. There’s seasonal flu, for example. What’s to stop the government from using that card you’re carrying or that app on your phone to “remind” you that you should get a flu shot, then to require a flu shot as a condition of entry to a public place?

What’s to stop the government from expanding the use of this automated system of controlling the movement of people? There’s a need for public safety. How long before the government’s verification database scoops up geolocation data from your phone for the purpose of contact tracing? If the database shows you’ve been in “close contact” with someone not “fully” vaccinated, will the app give you the red light when you try to enter a restaurant? A grocery store? A school?

Feel safe yet?

What about other types of threats? Will law enforcement records be merged with geolocation data in health records? How about gun and ammunition purchases? There’s no end to the helpful warnings the app can offer.

Vaccine verification systems are just one form of government control. Agencies can use their licensing power to coerce behavior. Legislation or regulations can offer a liability shield that is withdrawn unless there is compliance with edicts.

These control measures can quickly become their own universe, disconnected from their original purpose. The effort to create and implement enforcement mechanisms absorbs the attention of officials who can no longer be bothered to assess the efficacy or necessity of what they are doing.

If it goes far enough, you have a society like China, which last year introduced a QR code system that categorizes people into different colors for various reasons.

Think it can’t happen in the United States? Who’s going to stop it?

Do you have a mirror handy?

The fight to defend freedom begins with an understanding that freedom is a condition that exists under a government of limited power. It’s up to us, all of us, to enforce the boundaries of that power.

Even in a crisis, do not accept “we have to do something” as justification for initiating policies that are burdensome but useless. Demand to see evidence that the policies actually work. Demand an end to emergency powers when conditions no longer meet the legal definition of an emergency. Demand accountability for reckless and grievous policy errors that cause irreversible damage.

It’s insanity on steroids to say something like “Screw your freedom” and allow the government to mandate and enforce the use of an app, card and database to monitor and control the actions and movements of every person living within its jurisdiction. It’s even more insane to think that a system like that will keep us safe.

Write Susan Shelley: Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.

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When government’s foolish errands turn into fiascoes

Another government failure, another outrage. This time the scandal is brought on by the less-than-orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the realization that 20 years of military presence in the country achieved nothing but death and chaos. Observing another instance of large-scale mismanagement, I can’t help being surprised that anyone is still surprised.

One needn’t be a foreign policy expert to recognize that something in Afghanistan went terribly wrong. While many will blame the Biden administration for a fiasco that will have horrifying humanitarian consequences for the Afghan people, the failure also belongs to those who made the decision to go and remain there for two decades. These American officials argued that a continuing U.S. military presence there was important for achieving several goals, like training the Afghan army to resist the Taliban. Yet, today, the almost-immediate collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government makes it clear that whatever our strategy was, it failed.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that those who believed in nation building in the first place will realize from this dreadful episode that it never works as well as planned, even though the tragic scenario now unfolding before our eyes isn’t the first U.S. government foreign policy disaster. And it won’t be the last. People never seem to learn. Making matters worse is the fact that this sad state of affairs isn’t limited to foreign policy. It exists everywhere and throughout all levels of federal, state and local government.

During the pandemic, for instance, I was baffled to see Congress put the Small Business Administration in charge of dispensing unprecedented disaster relief. This agency has a disastrous record of extending the suffering of small business owners after disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Having written extensively on that issue, I knew that this time around would be no different. It wasn’t.

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an investigative piece about the performance of the SBA’s COVID-19 disaster loan program. The conclusion is that it was terrible. The report is packed full of examples of the ordeal that small business owners went through, many of which were carbon copies of stories that I reported about during other disasters. One of the recipients of the loans described dealing with the SBA: The agency “puts you in a state of confusion and doesn’t allow you to focus on what you should be doing, and that is to continue to rebuild your business after a pandemic.”

The article also includes an admission by a former SBA regional administrator who helped with the agency’s response. “On the disaster side,” he admitted, “we did a terrible job.” However, it doesn’t quite matter, as there will be no consequences for the agency. And the next time around, whether for a pandemic or a hurricane, the SBA will be called to the front lines yet again. And when it fails again, people will be outraged and wonder how this could have happened again.

I’m picking on the SBA, but the same criticism applies to other agencies and many other government efforts. Remember the flaw-filled rollout of the Obama-era Healthcare.gov? Remember the invasion of Iraq and discovering that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction there after all? Remember former President Donald Trump’s trade war, which was supposed to bring jobs back to the United States?

Books will be written for years to come about the utter failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to perform the most basic of responsibilities, such as preparing for a COVID-19-like pandemic. Authors will comment on all the CDC’s well-documented fiascoes, like the unwillingness to use existing COVID-19 tests and the failure to recommend that schools be opened like they are, successfully, in many other countries. Similar books will be written about the Food and Drug Administration’s poor handling of the crisis. The best of these books will even examine the agencies’ pasts and note that the recent mismanagements are just more of the same.

Unfortunately, the incentives within government are such that this pattern won’t change. After all, the same institution that’s unable to run the Postal Service or Amtrak without being in the red orchestrated the withdrawal from Afghanistan and our previous stay there for 20 years. The only thing that will make a difference is if we, the American people, start demanding accountability and reform.

That may include the termination of a few, or perhaps many, agencies and programs.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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Let’s spend now to avoid traffic later

Many moons ago, there was a small-town mayor named Harry Reed who managed to wring a lot of wisdom out of his eighth-grade education. “Nobody wants to build sewers,” said Harry. “On Election Day, it’s easier to point to a library or park or post office than a hole in the ground.”

Harry Reed was my great uncle. And he was great.

While there might not be a lot of votes to be had building sewers, we need sewers every bit as much as we need parks and libraries, schools and social programs. Has anybody wanted to buy new tires for their car? It’s something you simply have to do. So are sewers.

In Washington, the Senate is opening debate on a ginormous infrastructure deal pushed through the House by President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So far, it appears Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will not stand in the way as it works its way through the Senate, which is saying a lot.

The president’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill will undoubtedly contain more pork than every Jimmy Dean sausage ever made, including crazy pet projects that will light up the phones on talk radio when the ugly details finally come to light

A trillion is a million millions, a thousand billions, a one followed by twelve zeros, which is even more zeros than are currently serving in Congress. The bill includes $110 billion for roads and bridges, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, $65 billion for broadband, $55 billion for water projects and another $39.2 billion for public transportation.

Deficits, schmeficits!

It’s a guarantee huge amounts of money are going to end up getting flushed down the sewers Harry Reed built all those years ago. And I’m OK with that. In the depths of the Great Depression, FDR threw billions at the problem, hoping some of it would stick.

Some of it did.

Today, there are parks, libraries, dams, roads and airports still in use nearly 90 years after FDR’s spending spree, including local landmarks such as the Hollywood Bowl fountains, the Burbank Post Office, Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, the Mosaic Wall in Inglewood, Arcadia Park and the Naval and Marine Training Center on Stadium Way, among others.

Investing in concrete and rebar and fiber optic cables is an investment in America’s future.

Recently, the MTA board signed contracts with Bechtel, Meridiam Infrastructure and American Triple I Partners, along with L.A. SkyRail Express, to develop plans for a light rail (or in SkyRail’s case, a monorail) link through the perpetual gridlock in the Sepulveda Pass, aka the 7th Circle of Traffic Hell. These projects are big-ticket items: the combined design/development tab alone is $133 million. The actual construction costs will be north of $10 billion.

“That’s a lot of money, McIntyre!” It is. And it’s unlikely I’ll live to enjoy a gridlock-free 405.

By the time the environmental impact reports are done, the NIMBY lawsuits are settled and the usual labor/community activist/political shenanigans play out, The Wife will have already taken my car keys away.

Still, Los Angeles desperately needs a comprehensive rail system that gives commuters a practical alternative to stuffing more cars onto roadways that will never be wide enough to accommodate an ever-growing population.

In the future, taking a train to the airport will be a given, with our kids and grandkids rolling their eyes when we tell them for the thousandth time how it used to be when we burned up thousands of hours of our lives pounding on the steering wheels of our cars while sitting in traffic.

Finally, there is a way forward, but it will require spending a lot of dough to dig a very big hole through the Sepulveda Pass.

Harry Reed would approve.

Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. He can be reached at: Doug@DougMcIntyre.com.      

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It pays to be related to people in power

In his book, “A Magician Among the Spirits,” Harry Houdini relates the story of the life and career of a sketchy spiritualist named Daniel Dunglas Home. He was “outwardly a lovable character with a magnetic personality” as well as a fondness for jewelry, Houdini wrote. “In his later years, he set up a studio in Italy and gave his attention to sculpture between seances and ‘sold busts at prices quite out of proportion to their artistic merits.’”

Houdini cited a report in an 1864 London newspaper, but you don’t have to be a Fleet Street reporter or a fraud-busting illusionist to see how easy it is to materialize cash in an art gallery.

After all, the value of a painting is whatever someone will pay for it. Why they will pay that much is entirely another question.

“The variety of frauds in the art world is almost infinite and that is facilitated by the fact that the art world operates with a secrecy that no other investor would dream of operating in,” Herbert Lazerow, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, told the New York Times back in June.

The Times was reporting on the potential uses of the art market for money laundering. In January, Congress passed legislation that subjects antiquities dealers to the same type of anti-money laundering regulations that are imposed on banks. The law also requires the Treasury Department to study whether these regulations should be expanded to the wider art market. New laws in Europe are already moving in this direction.

In February, the then-president of the Art Dealers Association of America told an industry group that the art world is in the “paranoid-terrified phase of what’s going to come down the pike,” predicting “a whole lot of paperwork and a whole lot of compliance.”

The Times reported that the dealers’ association and auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s have spent almost $1 million since 2019 quietly lobbying to prevent new regulations that risk blowing up the secrecy, privacy and tax opacity that are the treasured traditions of the art world.

And then Hunter Biden came along and ruined it for everybody.

In February 2020, the New York Times profiled then-candidate Joe Biden’s son and wrote this about his artwork: “Mr. Biden set out late last year to find gallery representation with the help of Lanette Phillips,” described as a longtime Biden family friend who had recently hosted a star-studded fundraiser for the former VP. “Biden did not sign with a gallery, and Ms. Phillips said this week that she is no longer advising him, but Mr. Biden is still setting his sights on exhibiting his work.”

At that time, Hunter Biden’s dad was in something of a political slide, but the Times reported, “Democrats worry that [Hunter’s] curious overseas dealings could pose a threat to his father’s presidential campaign, should he rally back to front-runner status in the March primaries.”

The “curious overseas dealings” included a big-money role with Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, and a business venture in China, both at a time when his father was vice president and access to him was a thing of value that could be monetized.

Today, with his father in the Oval Office, Hunter Biden’s artwork is curiously worth a tremendous amount of money. He is now represented by the Georges Bergès Gallery. Two art shows have been scheduled where the newly professional artist will meet with prospective buyers. A private showing will take place in Los Angeles this fall, and then a larger exhibition will be held in New York. The gallery expects the paintings to sell for as much as $500,000.

He might as well have painted a brown paper bag and invited favor-seekers to fill it with unmarked bills in small denominations.

The pathetic White House press team has gamely defended this transparent conduit for influence-peddling as part of “the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history.”

Maybe they don’t remember that when newly elected President Barack Obama was considering Hillary Clinton for the job of Secretary of State, he insisted on a written ethics agreement that put new limits on foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and gave the White House approval over former president Bill Clinton’s paid speeches.

You don’t need a degree in fine arts to see the value of Hunter Biden’s paintings.

Influence-peddling and the sale of access to powerful public officials is a form of corruption that enriches people in government and their families. An awful lot of it is perfectly legal, and the U.S. Supreme Court has made it more difficult to prosecute bribery and extortion in politics. Before the courts will see any illegality, the cash-for-favors agreement virtually has to be in writing, in a 36-point font.

On July 22, reporters asked if the agreement between the younger Biden and the New York gallerist is in writing and can be shared publicly. “I can check and see if there is more detail,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded.

“The universal truth is that everything is connected,” Hunter Biden told a reporter, “and that there’s something that goes far beyond what is our five senses and that connects us all.”

He’s right about one thing. The Biden family has turned connections into an art form.

Write Susan Shelley: Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.

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Could the crime surge give Newsom recall a push?

Those who want voters to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom joined crime victim advocates at the state Capitol last Tuesday to accuse the governor of being too lenient on lawbreakers as the state experiences a new wave of crime.

They castigated him for unilaterally suspending executions of murderers and making it easier for felons to win release from state prisons.

“The thing that really alarms me about what the governor did, is that it’s a continuation of policies to undermine the criminal justice system, and to put dangerous people back out onto the streets,” said Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, was murdered 25 years ago by a recently released felon. The killer, Richard Allen Davis, is one of 737 murderers benefiting from Newsom’s death penalty suspension.

A few hours later, Newsom’s office announced that he would hold a press conference in Los Angeles Wednesday “on state action to address crime and reduce retail theft in communities across California.”

Newsom devoted much of the event to signing Assembly Bill 331, which extends an effort to crack down on organized shoplifting that has plagued California retailers in recent months. But he attributed the sharp increase in violent crime, particularly murders, to “a proliferation of guns on our streets” and noted that “There is not a state that’s been spared.”

The back-to-back events imply that crime may be a new front in the recall campaign and that Newsom feels the need to defend himself.

“In 2020, California saw a troubling rise of more than 500 homicides, the largest jump in state history since record-keeping began in 1960,” the Public Policy Institute of California says in a recent report. “Victims were predominantly Black and Latino, male, and killed by guns on our streets, parking lots, or in vehicles.”

Newsom’s comments about “a proliferation of guns on our streets” echoes declarations by gun control advocates that California’s surge of homicides results from a big jump in gun ownership. Californians legally bought a record 686,435 handguns in 2020 — a nearly 66% increase from the year before — and sales of rifles and shotguns also shot upward.

However, Newsom and other gun control advocates offer no proof of the connection. In fact, a new study by University of California-Davis researchers found no evidence that increases in legal gun sales resulted in more violent crime, seemingly refuting Newsom’s assertion.

“Nationwide, firearm purchasing and firearm violence increased substantially during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic,” the study by UCD’s Violence Prevention Research Program, concluded. “At the state level, the magnitude of the increase in purchasing was not associated with the magnitude of the increase in firearm violence.”

“Results suggest much of the rise in firearm violence during our study period was attributable to other factors, indicating a need for additional research,” the researchers added.

A more likely scenario is that Californians are buying more guns because their fears of becoming violent crime victims have increased. In recent weeks, the residents of three Northern California homes, one in Solano County and two in Stanislaus County, have shot and killed violent home invaders.

The surge in crime, both violent assaults and thefts, is real. The videos of brazen daylight raids on pharmacies and other stores, particularly in San Francisco, by thieves unafraid of either arrest or prosecution, have become cable television and YouTube staples.

While rising crime might not sink Newsom in the recall election a few weeks hence, if it continues to rise, he could feel the backlash when he runs for re-election in 2022.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary

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