Government Hypocrisy, Thinly Disguised

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SAN FRANCISCO—Last week, the headlines defied parody. In Washington, the U.S. Census Bureau conceded that it has changed its annual survey questions to make it impossible to determine whether Obamacare is succeeding in increasing the number of Americans who have health insurance.

“Ideally,” an unnamed agency bureaucrat wrote, “the redesign would have had at least a few years to gather base line and trend data.” Gee, you think?

Meanwhile, City University of New York has offered liberal columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman $225,000 to join a new center focusing on “income inequality.” The obvious irony was somehow lost on administrators at CUNY, where the salary—for nine months’ work—is double what the highest-paid professors receive. Krugman’s contract is also vastly more than the $3,000 the school pays adjunct professors to teach one course. Then again, Krugman’s new position doesn’t involve any actual teaching, according to a letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

“I admit that I had to read it several times to be clear,” Krugman wrote to administrators at the taxpayer-financed institution. “It’s remarkably generous.”

Generosity of spirit was on display in Moscow where Vladimir Putin staged his annual call-in show with the Russian people. In an unexpected twist—unexpected by the audience, that is—American fugitive Edward Snowden was looped in via video-conferencing.

Snowden’s question was what is known in journalism as a softball: Does Russia snoop on its citizens the same way the United States government does? Earlier in the week, The Washington Post and The Guardian shared a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on Snowden’s leaking of data on the vast U.S. spying program and his subsequent defection. This award put the Pulitzer board in tacit concurrence with those who see Snowden less as a traitor than as a whistle-blower who provided a valuable service.

Putin ratted out this conceit himself. “Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy,” the former KGB official said to his cyber-guest. “I used to work for an intelligence service. We can talk one professional language.”

That “professional language” evidently includes spewing transparent whoppers with a straight face (not unlike those U.S. Census bureaucrats). Spying? No way, Putin said. Russian law forbids it. Those who listened for a follow-up question about the Gulag Archipelago waited in vain.

Here in my hometown of San Francisco, two political events unfolded last week that illustrated the street theater quality of big city American politics. This first one literally took place in the street: a demonstration organized by the Service Employees International Union against Twitter.

The janitors, nurses, and others said they were marching to protest tax breaks that San Francisco officials gave to Twitter to keep the company in the city. The marchers’ own route betrayed their cause: In the place of the once-dangerous and unsightly mid-Market Street slum stood a 754-unit condominium development, several new artistic venues, 18 technology companies and 17 small businesses—including a craft beer hall.

“We welcome the tech industry coming in,” one local labor leader told the San Francisco Chronicle, “but there is also a downside to the revitalization of a certain part of the city.”

He’s right, of course. If the city’s notorious Tenderloin district is revitalized, where will tourists go to take in the smell of stale urine or watch idle men smoke on street corners? And who needs those union jobs created by the city’s tax abatement efforts anyway?

San Francisco is also wrestling with a kerfuffle over vacation home rentals. Airbnb, an online networking website, has been helping residents rent out their abodes to visitors. Landlords have complained that cumbersome laws prevent them from evicting tenants who violate their leases by subletting through Airbnb. Obviously, the landlords have a point—especially since so many are burdened by San Francisco’s stringent rent control regulations—but what really animated local officials was that the city is “losing” the 15 percent tax it charges on each hotel room rented in the city. New rules proposed last week would fix that issue.

The underlying issue is more basic. Rent control warps real estate markets, consigning local officials to ever-more regulations to address various inequities that crop up from time to time. What all of these foul-ups have in common, from the Census Bureau to San Francisco’s real estate woes, is government overreach.

Thirty miles down the freeway at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, any number of economists could explain the problem. Hoover is often described as “conservative,” but this characterization is so imprecise as to be misleading. For starters, Hoover scholars are not social conservatives. What they do is champion the idea of free markets while pointing out the pitfalls of giving government too much power over the economy.

Hoover fellow John F. Cogan, a veteran of the Reagan administration’s Labor Department and Office of Management and Budget, is currently researching a book on the history of entitlement programs. What he is discovering is that today’s pattern has existed since the formation of the United States itself: An entitlement program with a noble purpose is proposed—say, to aid wounded combat veterans of the Revolutionary War—and Congress enacts it.

Then other claimants emerge, with compelling reasons why they, too, are deserving of relief. Soldiers, for instance, who weren’t wounded, but who served in wartime and couldn’t find employment in peacetime. Politicians cannot resist such entreaties, so the program grows, and keeps growing. Constituencies arise around these programs, along with special interests with fiduciary interests in perpetually expanding them.

And so it goes. Peter Berkowitz, another respected Hoover scholar (and an RCP contributor), has urged conservative candidates and office-holders to go beyond platitudes about repealing entitlement programs. “Big government is here to stay and it’s not going away in the foreseeable future,” he says. “So we abandon talk of small government and talk instead about limiting government, and making government more efficient – and smarter.”

We could start with the Census Bureau. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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