Michigan and Special Interest

Everybody loves roads.

Elizabeth Warren likes to lecture about roads and President Obama loves speaking about investment in crumbling infrastructure. Get past the talking points and into the weeds and the MSNBC set will offer something about “rebuilding America” as their pet panacea for, well, everything. Even Rand Paul has teamed up with Barbara Boxer on a bill that would fill the coffers of the federal highway fund via revenue brought in by a lower corporate tax rate. Libertarians can hardly go five minutes without being condescendingly informed that our free market paradise could never happen because who would build the roads?!?!?!?!?

In Michigan this week, Republican governor Rick Snyder saw Proposal 1 – a ballot measure to hike sales taxes to finance road and highway improvement – go down by an 80-20 margin. The governor and his party supported this bill which would have increased the average household’s annual tax burden by as much as $545 a year. The key support for the measure came from a lobbying consortium representing several concrete, asphalt, paving and excavation interests in the state. They outspent the opponents of the tax hike by 30 to 40-1.

Proposal 1’s “sound defeat undermined the media assumption that Big Business and Big Government working together represents a public consensus,” says Tim Carney in a piece for The Washington Examiner. Carney ends his column urging conservatives to build on this and sees it as an effective way to make the case against cronyism more broadly: “This points towards the way to sell limited government: When government has more power, it empowers those with connections to government.”

It is naive to think special interest lobbies will ever be eliminated. As long as we put the people’s representatives forward, interest groups will be there to gain their favor. The only way to limit lobbyist influence is to limit the number of laws coming from Washington. Bastiat feared an overabundance of legislation would lead to “legal plunder” which would give incentive to special interests to use the legal system for its own advantage. Illegal plunder earns universal scorn whereas legal plunder is considered “democracy.” But because we are never going to convince self-interested politicians who think they are divas to curb their enthusiasm for passing laws, we might as well abandon the dream of a lobby-free zone in Washington.

Instead, we should focus our attention on the small instances where Big Government-Big Business collusion is exposed, as just happened in Michigan. And we should heed Carney’s advice to highlight how ballot measures such as Proposal 1 “undermine the common liberal trope that the push for lower taxes is the agenda of Big Money, and that higher taxes is the populist agenda.” This is a crucial point.

President Obama, that fierce populist champion and avatar of the working man, showed in his first major act in office just how comfortable Big Business is with the progressive agenda. The stimulus was nothing more than a massive special interest kickback to blue state governments, public unions and friends of the progressive left. The most infamous example is Solyndra, a solar panel firm granted half a billion dollars by the Obama administration for no other reason than the CEO was a huge Obama bundler. The federal bureaucracy is notorious for how it awards contracts to connected firms over more qualified bidders, a fact that became known to most Americans during the Obamacare website’s China Syndrome moment. CGI Federal, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm infamous for completely botching a Canadian gun registry, was given the insanely lucrative contract in part because a Princeton classmate of Michelle Obama’s was the Senior VP. Even Rick Perry was not immune to the special interest lure when he was governor of Texas. Despite presiding over the best economic record of all states since 2007, Perry routinely offered state subsidies to chic tech companies such as Tesla, Google and Apple to entice them to open plants in Texas. That many companies express interest in locating in Texas speaks to the favorable tax and regulatory climate, sure, but the subsidies certainly play a role too.

Conservatives are generally fans of federalism and celebrate the idea of states experimenting with distinct economic models. By foregoing uniform economic policies drawn up in Washington to be applied nationally, we encourage competition between states as they experiment in various ways. Illinois is probably going to have to walk back its progressive obsession with high taxes and oppressive regulations because they are bleeding jobs and capital to neighboring Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, all of whom have lowered taxes and cultivated friendlier business climates in the last several years. Unfortunately, state competition for business goes too far when it devolves into a circus of competing subsidies and special treatment, also known as the “Redevelopment Racket.” Cynics say this is the way the game is played, but Michigan offers hope for a brighter alternative.

As Rick Perry and other conservative governors prove, conservatives can also be guilty of catering to special interest lobbies. However, a conservative politician engaging in crony capitalism is straying from established principle whereas a progressive doing the same is adhering to the only principle he knows: grow government. And despite the myth progressives maintain about high tax policy equaling populism, Michigan reveals the truth of the matter. Special interests representing road construction lobby the Michigan government for more spending and more taxes to pay for it, all so they themselves can get rich off the exclusive bid grant. The government – in this case a nominally conservative one – agrees that improved roads are desirable and does the bidding of the special interest by insisting that the voters agree to a pretty stiff tax hike. Perhaps voters would be more open to the measure if they thought the deal wasn’t riddled with corruption and back-scratching to begin with? At the end of the day, governments rarely look for ways to get what they want on the cheap. Why bother being frugal when powerful lobbies are there to suggest a simple tax increase?

Corruption and cronyism know no ideology, but government itself is the engine that drives them. Therefore, the party of government needs to come to terms with this reality and perhaps reconsider their dogma surrounding the benevolent Leviathan. Until then, let us hope for more Michigan-style tax proposals being met with boisterous thumbs down and that they serve to show the public exactly how deals are made in politics and what always lies beneath calls for more “populist” tax increases.

The Year in Ridiculous

puffyshirt

“But I look ridiculous!”

The unbound progressive id unleashed on the country this year was truly something to behold. No faction of the identity politics left went without aggressive advocacy and not a small number of the population was subjected to the inchoate and nauseating “agitation” that characterizes the activist method. From the false “war on women” to the cynical highjacking of a burgeoning cross-partisan police reform movement by race-baiters (and then subsequently by police unions) to the bald-faced lie repeated by every progressive that the child migrant surge at the Texas border was due to anything other than direct incentives created by Obama’s Deferred Adjudication of Child Arrivals (DACA) executive action to the execrable and absurd on its face notion that the president finished the year strong and in fact the the year was actually a success for him and for liberalism.

Unreal.

It is also tempting to declare that because there is only so much ridiculousness and farce a respectable society will accept, and that eventually lies and propaganda are exposed as such by the cold nature of reality, the progressive strain of leftwing politics is nearing its sell-by date. Just glance at some of the thoughtful midterm election postmortems by some left pundits and marvel at their nearly unanimous conclusion that the party’s decision to go all-in on divisive cultural issues at the expense of an employment focused campaign targeted at the working class is responsible for the Democrats’ lowest representation in Congress and across statehouses and state legislatures in about a century. This is no small observation. This is a blanket repudiation by people on their side of the Democratic Party’s cynical identity politics platform. Whether we’re talking about blacks, Hispanics, gays, or women, the politics of victimhood and grievance have worn increasingly thin. Throw climate change into the mix as well because it is the identity politics issue for coastal white liberals and it is something to which all right-thinking millennials give as much thought as the New Testament Gospels. The point of being a hip progressive is not to know the truth but to possess the right opinions. Far better to tow the climate change line on pure faith than be deemed a “denier.”

Why is it more important for the left to hold the correct stances on issues rather than the truth? Jonah Goldberg offers this explanation:

If you work from the dogmatic assumption that liberalism is morally infallible and that liberals are, by definition, pitted against sinister and — more importantly — powerful forces, then it’s easy to explain away what seem like double standards. Any lapse, error, or transgression by conservatives is evidence of their real nature, while similar lapses, errors, and transgressions by liberals are trivial when balanced against the fact that their hearts are in the right place.

Good intentions are more important than objective reality. In normal times this would be an outrageously controversial claim, but these are not normal times. While many feminists with a conscience have done noble and searching work in the wake of the Rolling Stone campus rape story debacle, still many others are digging in and insisting that it matters not that the story accusing a UVA fraternity of systematic and brutal gang rape is a fabrication, what matters is the narrative and the important spotlight being shined on the “epidemic” of campus sexual assault. Then, almost like mana from Heaven, the Justice Department released updated statistics on criminal sexual assault, which committed the public service of dumping ice cold water all over the favored falsehood of the president and feminists that “one in five” women will be sexually assaulted in their time on campus (the stat is closer to 6 out of 1,000, which is still too high, but nowhere near an epidemic or a crisis and certainly not one in five. That a segment of the radical left still insist on their narrative even after ideologically sympathetic outlets have suggested that this has all gone too far is pretty strong evidence that their agenda trumps the truth. If feminists are actually interested in rooting out rape cultures, they should look to Syria or, closer to home, Rotherham, England.

Though I am at odds with the majority of conservatives on the issue of immigration, I am not a full “open-borders” libertarian either. As a Texan, I tend to think the model here works pretty well, far better at any rate than my other home state of California, which has a vast and bloated public employee system over which uncontrolled immigration holds a Sword of Damocles. In Texas, where we eschew the public employee model as much as we can, Hispanics are much more likely to vote Republican than their counterparts on the West Coast. This past November, Governor-elect Greg Abbott got 44% of the Hispanic vote and Senator John Cornyn was re-elected with 49%. Whatever else can be said about the farce that is Battleground Texas, the idea that their modus operandi is to “turn Texas blue” is surely in the running for most ridiculous conceit of the year, especially in light of those Texas Hispanic voting trends. Meanwhile, California public debt and pension obligations are on a one-way ride to fiscal calamity and the people who are going to bear the worst of that reckoning are the poor and immigrant populations.

The border surge of child migrants from three countries in Central America was among the more ridiculous scenes of American politics in my lifetime. The actual line parroted by the left – extensively – was that this was all due to rising tides of violence in the region. As if Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador had never experienced cartel or gang violence before. No, what happened was obvious to anyone with a shred of decency or honesty: Obama issued the DACA order in the Spring which allowed child arrivals from non-contiguous countries (i.e. everywhere but Mexico) to avoid deportation. Leave aside for now this blatant instance of legislating from the executive branch and just connect the dots. Obama issued an order, either indirectly or directly got the word out in Central America that any children able to make it into the United States interior would be granted a “permiso,” which in turn would mean their parents would be subject to legal immigration at a later date. The sheer volume of children sent on that crazy sojourn through Mexico to the Rio Grande means the message was received. The incentive duly laid by the American government, rational people in want of a better life understandably jumped at the chance and sent their kids packing, even if it meant putting them in extreme danger by handing them over to the “coyotes” who were ably gaming the new system. The backlash by the right was too harsh, or at least not on point enough, because it focused more on the tangible reality of poor migrant children here illegally rather than the ungodly level of cynicism, deception and outright fraud perpetuated by the White House, Democrats and media nationwide.

The border surge was by design, yet we were loudly and assuredly told otherwise by the media chorus who understood it was their job to distort and confuse the issue until it went away, like all Obama scandals eventually do. Great tomes on the subject of stonewalling are still to be written about this administration and his enablers.

The piece de resistance of progressive ridiculousness is the national conversation on race. Rarely has such a broad coalition of left-right interests coalesced behind as seminal a reform effort as criminal justice and over-incarceration. Not just libertarians but conservatives, from Rick Perry to Chris Christie to governors across the South, are embracing initiatives like “Right on Crime” that aim to reduce prison populations and that carry the additional and (for some) counter-intuitive benefit of continued decline in crime rates. Had the left not been so wedded to its alternative reality narrative of America as an irredeemably racist society and instead been sober about picking its battles, it’s likely we never would have heard of Ferguson and would have instead concentrated on Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other instances where police misconduct was far more concrete. Real consensus and coming together would have been possible, though far from assured, had the conversation remained on police conduct and the need for reform exclusively. New York’s Benjamin Wallce-Wells places his finger on it:

But something strange has happened during the past month, both in the politics of New York and those of the country. In the debates over policing that followed the tragedies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and officers Ramos and Liu, race has assumed the central role, displacing crime. This has brought about a more direct confrontation with our remaining national sickness around race, but it has also surfaced an atavistic, tribal strain in our politics, reminiscent of the racialized fights of an earlier era. It is probably no accident that some of the central figures of New York’s recent past returned to the public stage last week, and that their view diverged from de Blasio’s. Instead of a reasonable, technocratic decision to adjust policies of policing and punishment to a place where there is much less crime, they saw the debate as a declaration of allegiances — of whose side you were on.

Of Mr. Wallace-Wells, I have just one question: who made this about race?

Based on the grand jury evidence aired to the public, one can say with 99% certainty that Michael Brown did not have his hands up and did not say “don’t shoot.” That does not make what happened any less of a tragedy, or any less of a reason to talk about the need for police reform, such as the need for body cameras which would have saved the country a whole lot of grief since this case would have been clear one way or the other. But somehow, within hours of the incident, the “hands up, don’t shoot” meme emerged in the streets of Ferguson and since that train left the station… it has barely slowed. While there is no reason to excuse the agitators for stoking ire and running with false narratives, the blame and the ridiculousness of it all lies with enablers in media and progressive politics. There are simply too many progressives in East Coast media willing to ignore facts and context so long as the existing narrative serves their interests, and it most definitely does serve the left’s interests to see America permanently mired in 1960’s racial strife, because nothing sustains power like a good grievance.

The corrosive effects on family and dignity imposed on poor inner city black and impoverished rural white alike are among the proudest achievements of the institutional left. Their policies trap the impoverished in their station, leaving them with little recourse but to look to government, while simultaneously feeding grievance and laying the blame at the feet of “the man.” What continues to escape them in this reasoning is the indisputable reality that in today’s America the left is the man. “Despite controlling the commanding heights of the culture — journalism, Hollywood, the arts, academia, and vast swaths of the corporate America they denounce — liberals have convinced themselves they are pitted against deeply entrenched powerful forces and that being a liberal is somehow brave,” says Goldberg. “Obama, the twice-elected president of the United States, to this day speaks as if he’s some kind of underdog.”

Progressives would bristle at the charge but it is no less true. They are ever so proud of the welfare state they erected, not because it works, but because they built it, and conservatives don’t like it. Liberals are responsible for any well-intentioned program gone bad because theirs is the philosophy that holds good intentions above truth in the heirarchy of virtues. Theirs is the vision of government that insists all social problems be adjudicated from on high. The vice grip that the left has on our culture is so tight that any objections are considered blasphemous rather than just wrong. Don’t believe me? Argue with a lefty about biological distinctions between sex and gender. Actually, for your own sake, don’t do that.

Why then, is the left allowed to avoid accountability for their failures? Going back to Goldberg, it is because their hearts are pure, and ours are not.

Peaceful, law-abiding tea-party groups who cleaned up after their protests — and got legal permits for them — were signs of nascent fascism lurking in the American soul. Violent, anarchic, and illegal protests by Occupy Wall Street a few years ago or, more recently, in Ferguson, Mo., were proof that a new idealistic generation was renewing its commitment to idealism.

When rich conservatives give money to Republicans, it is a sign that the whole system has been corrupted by fat cats. When it is revealed that liberal billionaires and left-wing super PACs outspent conservative groups in 2014: crickets.

When Republicans invoke God or religious faith as an inspiration for their political views, it’s threatening and creepy. When Democrats do it, it’s a sign they believe in social justice.

When it comes to progressives my sentiment is the same as Nick Frost’s frustration with Simon Pegg in the excellent The World’s End: “it’s pointless arguing with you.” Nowhere is that more on display than in the media’s attempt to put some kind of sheen on Obama’s 2014. All that they are left with is the spectacle of an unhinged president acting outside his constitutionally delegated authority to impose on the country his idea of what America should be. And most ridiculous of all is the fact that Obama genuinely believes he had a good year. He would look less ridiculous in the puffy pirate shirt.