The Main Business Of The Government Is Promoting Its Own Growth

On Monday May 18 the New York Times had an article on government self-promotion that has gotten at least some attention.  The article is "Critics Hear E.P.A.'s Voice in 'Public Comments,'" by Eric Lipton and Coral Davenport.

Seems that EPA administrator Gina McCarthy recently testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the subject of some new regulations relating to drinking water.  To demonstrate to the Committee how popular the regulations are, McCarthy cited some one million or so public comments, nearly 90% of which, she claimed, supported the rule:

“We have received over one million comments, and 87.1 percent of those comments we have counted so far — we are only missing 4,000 — are supportive of this rule,” Ms. McCarthy told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in March. “Let me repeat: 87.1 percent of those one-plus million are supportive of this rule.”

But it turns out that the supposedly supportive comments were in response to a social media lobbying campaign orchestrated by EPA itself:

Late last year, the E.P.A. sponsored a drive on Facebook and Twitter to promote its proposed clean water rule in conjunction with the Sierra Club. At the same time, Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group with deep ties to Mr. Obama, was also pushing the rule. They urged the public to flood the agency with positive comments to counter opposition from farming and industry groups.

Anything wrong with that?  It's just the latest example of a federal government with trillions of dollars of annual taxpayer money to play with, using the money for goal number one, which is promoting the ongoing growth in size and power of the federal government itself.  How can ordinary citizens possibly amass resources to push back in any meaningful way?  Over at Powerline, Steven Hayward cites this latest government abuse as one more example in what he calls "The Crisis Of The Administrative State."

[T]oday’s administrative state—the increasingly independent fourth branch of government—has transformed government into its own special interest faction, lobbying itself on behalf of itself—increasingly in partisan ways.

Good job New York Times and Steven Hayward.  But the problem I have is that this latest EPA gambit is just the tip of the iceberg, and there is very little systematic attention paid to the vast scope of government self-promotion in all areas.  As soon as you start looking at this, you start realizing how pervasive and revolting the whole enterprise is.  I have previously covered this, for example, here, here, here and here.  Examples are literally everywhere:

It would be easy to go on all day with this.  But I would like to remind readers that we once had a President who thought that shrinking the government was a good idea, and who actually forbade members of his administration from advocating for growing their budgets.  That President was Calvin Coolidge.



Skelos, Clinton, And The Inherent Corruption Of Politics

The fundamental premise of the progressive political vision is that fairness and justice in human affairs can be had by delegating to government-employed experts the job of making decisions for us and allocating society's resources.  And so every year in the ongoing quest to achieve perfect fairness lots of society's resources get channeled through the government, whether it be through "anti-poverty" programs, or "affordable" housing, or food stamps, or the takeover of the energy sector in the name of "climate justice," or whatever.

Did anybody ever stop to consider that there is no such thing among humans as a completely neutral, fair expert who never looks out for the interest of him/herself?  The allocation of resources by governments (all levels) in this country is above 40% of GDP, or around $7 trillion per year, which by the way is still well below where it is in Europe as a percent of GDP.  Obviously there is tremendous money to be had by currying favor with government officials and thereby getting some of that money directed your way.

So how to get your hands on some of the $7 trillion?  One idea would be to do an explicit trade with a sitting pol or bureaucrat.  "I'll give you $1 million if you get $10 million of state funds awarded to my 'anti-poverty' agency."  That kind of explicit quid pro quo with a sitting functionary is called bribery, and will end you in jail -- and appropriately so.  But there are a million fact scenarios in this world.  How about if you just make the mil a campaign contribution?  OK, they've put limits on that.  How about if you divide the mil up into smaller increments and give it to a hundred or two hundred pols?  How about if a pol has a year or two off between holding one office and running for the next -- Can you just give that person unlimited amounts?  How about if a pol you are lobbying asks for help in finding his son a job, and you make a few calls to your friends?

You may have different views on whether some of these things are or should be criminal acts.  The law can prohibit explicit quid pro quos, but the fact is that it is not possible to stamp out the human reality of people in power using that power to benefit those who have somehow helped them along the way.  Or to put it another way, all politics is inherently corrupt.  You can criminalize the most blatant abuses, like explicit bribery, but the next-closest abuses that cannot be effectively criminalized are almost as bad.  And then there is the phenomenon that the processes of prosecuting and convicting the alleged bribe-takers are also inherently corrupt.  For example, if the current prosecutor is a Democrat, might he prosecute a Republican for corruption when a fellow Democrat who is simultaneously doing something as bad or far worse avoids investigation entirely?  Of course.  And I certainly don't mean to suggest that you couldn't reverse the parties there and have the statement be equally true.

And that brings us to the cases of Dean Skelos and Hillary Clinton.  I assume every reader here knows who Madame Hillary is, but for those outside New York, Dean Skelos, a Republican (in this very blue state) was until last week the Majority Leader of the New York State Senate.  As Majority Leader Skelos is the guy who has in recent years had the seemingly almost impossible task of keeping the Republicans in control of the State Senate, and who actually managed to win an increase in their precarious Senate majority in the 2014 elections.  Or to put it another way, Skelos is a guy the Democrats in New York would very much like to be rid of.  Skelos' career hit a stumbling block on May 1 when he was charged by the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, under the direction of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, with six counts of various sorts of corruption.  Here is the criminal complaint.  After briefly struggling to maintain his leadership position despite the charges, Skelos gave up and was replaced by another guy on May 11.  

It would be hard not to have noticed the recent record of federal prosecutors in New York of bringing flaky charges against high profile defendants and having the charges ultimately thrown out.  A notable example would be the case against Joe Bruno, Skelos' immediate predecessor as Majority Leader of the State Senate, whose conviction was reversed on appeal, after which a jury acquitted him on re-trial in May 2014, barely a year ago.    Then there are the 85 or so "insider trading" convictions obtained by Mr. Bharara's office, half or so of which are in a slow-motion process of falling apart now that the Second Circuit has determined that what the perpetrators were prosecuted for was not a crime.  For other examples of flaky high profile prosecutions here in New York, try clicking my "phony prosecutions" tag.  Nevertheless, there is a remarkable degree of lack of skepticism about the current charges against Skelos.  For example, the New York Post is the most reliable supporter of Republicans among the local press organs, and it promptly called for his ouster as soon as the charges were announced.  Aside from some of his Senate colleagues, it is hard to find anyone standing up for Skelos.

On the other hand, read the charges against Skelos and you will find them remarkably thin.  This is all about Skelos allegedly trying to help his son Adam get some paying work.  There is no allegation of any money improperly going to Skelos himself.  The total amount of money alleged to have improperly changed hands seems relatively trivial -- $218,000 if I am counting correctly, and over a period of four years.  Of the $218,000, almost all, $198,000, is from a consulting contract that Adam got with an unnamed and uncharged environmental technology company.  Supposedly the company gave Adam the consulting gig because the dad got the company a $12 million contract with Nassau County.  But wait a minute -- Skelos didn't have any position with Nassau County.  The contract was subject to approval by the County Legislature, and got that.  These legislators may well all be friends of Skelos (his State Senate seat is in Nassau County), but it can't possibly be that he controlled this decision in any real sense.  That's rather a large gap in this thing.  Throw that out and you have a big $20,000 remaining.  The 20K was supposedly a fee for real estate "title work" referred to Adam by a large campaign contributor to Skelos and Senate Republicans with interests in the rent regulation renewal and extensions of tax exemptions, and the allegation is that Adam didn't do any title work.  OK, but did he do anything compensable related to it, like maybe being the salesman for the work?  Then there's this: throughout the complaint are statements that Skelos "pressured" the subjects to throw fake work to his son.  In evaluating that I see that there are lots of quotes here of things said in meetings -- clearly they had people wearing wires and telephone lines tapped.  And yet I can't find any words quoted that allegedly constitute this "pressure."  Dozens of taped meetings over four years and not one single instance of words you can quote to show the "pressure"? 

Don't get me wrong -- I think politics in New York is thoroughly corrupt.  But as I said above, all politics is inherently corrupt.  It's the nature of the game.  That doesn't make it criminal.

And might I briefly mention Madame Hillary?  Seems that Skelos managed to get his son a consulting gig that paid about $200K over four years, $50K or so a year.  Chelsea Clinton somehow got a $600K per year job at NBC News -- a job that even loyal Clinton supporter New York Magazine called "fake."  Of course, nobody took the trouble to tape every phone conversation that Bill or Hillary may have had with NBC or affiliates over the last several years to see if there was any "pressure."  Oh, and Bill and Hillary have also been paid some $30 million over just the past year or so making "speeches."  The prices run from about $200K to $500K each.  Who pays for these things?  Of course, every "speech" with this kind of price tag is paid for by someone with interests before the U.S. government.  It almost goes without saying, because the U.S. government has its fingers in literally everyone's life today -- hey, that's how you achieve perfect justice and fairness!  But wasn't it all OK because it happened while neither Bill nor Hillary had a job with the U.S. government or was running for any office?  Well, Skelos didn't have any job with Nassau County either.  And wasn't it completely obvious to everybody that Hillary was going to run for President and would be the leading contender to win?  Can you really give the prospective candidate $30 million the day before she announces (not even to the campaign -- personally) when the limit is $4800 the next day, and even then only to the campaign?  And I haven't even started on the Foundation, that somehow pays for all the Clintons' expenses and lifestyle.  And by the way, it's tax exempt!

Really, this Skelos guy is just so small time!  Also, of the wrong political party relative to the federal prosecutors of the moment.  Other from that, which is the worse corruption?




Are "Trade Deals" Really The Problem In Galesburg, Illinois?

I don't mean to be overly bashing the New York Times lately -- there are plenty of other media outlets that are just as bad -- but sometimes it's unavoidable.  Yesterday they had a big front-page article titled "Town's Decline Illustrates Peril Of Trade Deals," by Binyamin Appelbaum.  The article is about Galesburg, Illinois, its long decline, and the causes of that decline.  Or I should say "cause" (singular), because exactly one cause is discussed, namely "increased foreign trade."  Does that really explain anything at all about what is going on here?

Now there is no doubt that Galesburg has declined.  Wikipedia here helpfully collects decennial census data, showing that Galesburg reached a peak population of 37,243 in the 1960 census, and was down to 32,195 by 2010.  Much discussion in the Times article concerns a large Maytag factory in Galesburg that closed in 2004, when a large part of its production moved to Mexico:

In 2004, Maytag shut down the refrigerator factory that for decades was Galesburg’s largest employer and moved much of the work to Mexico. Barack Obama, then running to represent Illinois in the Senate, described the workers as victims of globalization in his famous speech that year at the Democratic National Convention.  A decade later, many of those workers are still struggling. The city’s population is in decline, and the median household income fell 27 percent between 1999 and 2013, adjusting for inflation.

Permit me to point out a couple of problems with the thesis that Galesburg's woes have been caused by "trade deals" and "globalization."

  • Which "trade deal" are you blaming for Maytag moving these jobs to Mexico?  NAFTA?  That was 10 years earlier in 1994.
  • Even if the closing of this factory could be directly attributed to some "trade deal," or to "globalization" more generally, the problem is that lots and lots of places have lost lots of manufacturing jobs without declining overall.  Exhibit A of course is New York City.  Here in New York we had over 1 million manufacturing jobs in the 1950s.  Today there are about 75,000.  But the total number of jobs is up significantly, recently setting all-time records of around 3.6 million.    So all of the manufacturing jobs and then some have been replaced by other jobs, and in fact much better jobs, mostly much cleaner and cushier white collar and office jobs.  I'm certainly not meaning to hold up New York City as a model of a good business climate to attract jobs.  But New York City is definitely a complete disproof of the thesis that loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign competition dooms a city to economic decline.  Los Angeles would be another such example if any were needed.

Let's face it, trade deals or no, globalization or no, every factory sooner or later is going to close.  Even if the Chinese can't make the stuff cheaper, eventually someone will come up with a better product, or a cheaper way of making the same product, or the equipment in this factory will wear out, or this company will hire incompetent managers who run the place into the ground, or something else.  No town can maintain itself over the long pull by just hoping to hang on to the exact same set of factories forever.  To maintain yourself and grow, it is essential to attract new businesses.  And that requires one very simple thing, which is a good business climate.

Does Illinois have that?  No.  What are the problems?  There's nothing very complicated about this:

  • Overall state/local tax burden.  The most recent (2011) Tax Foundation data put Illinois at #13 out of 50 states, which is bad but not disastrous.  (Numbers 1 through 4 are NY, NJ, CT and CA respectively).  But perhaps more relevant to Illinois's situation is that almost all the states around it are lower, including Ohio (#18), Michigan (#21), Indiana (#22), Kentucky (#23), Iowa (#29) and Missouri (#33).  The only neighboring state ranked higher is Wisconsin (#5), and there they have been cutting taxes aggressively under Republican leadership of recent vintage.
  • Pension burden.  By this time almost everybody knows that Illinois has the worst unfunded pension problems of all 50 states.  And just last week the Illinois Supreme Court basically declared unconstitutional any effort to fix the problem short of massive tax increases or firing all state employees en masse.
  • Illinois is not a right to work state.  Neighboring Michigan, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin are right to work states.

So if you have an idea for a new factory and money to build it, are you going to invest it in Galesburg, Illinois, where you will be a sitting duck for high current taxes, big coming tax increases and predatory unions?  When you could just as easily go to any of those neighboring states and avoid all those problems?

Sorry, New York Times, but "trade deals" and "increased international trade" have next to nothing to do with the woes of Galesburg, Illinois.     



Will Pope Francis Join The Reprehensible Campaign To Keep The Poor Poor?

If you think for a few moments about the incentives facing the many so-called "anti-poverty" agencies and bureaucrats out there, you will quickly realize that the last thing they would ever want would be a big reduction of the population living in poverty.  "Do you mean that the problem is solved?  Then they may not need me any more!  In fact, what we need is to grow this place so that I can hire five people to work for me and get a promotion!"  The population in poverty must remain high in order to justify more and yet more spending, growing bureaucracies, and increased pay and promotions for the bureaucrats.

In the U.S. this perverse game plays out largely in the maneuvering to define "poverty" so that the metric doesn't count any of the government anti-poverty spending and can't ever go down no matter what the government does.  That's bad enough.  But at least in the U.S. some of the "anti-poverty" money is actually spent on the intended beneficiaries, albeit mostly in counter-productive ways.  In the international arena, the game is yet far more reprehensible and sinister.  Here we're not talking about the soft American-style poverty of public housing and food stamps, but, in many cases, real grinding poverty -- hunger, disease, carrying your water home on your back, no electricity, no heat, no light, no air conditioning, no automobiles, no internet, etc.  Surely, you would say, it can't be that the international bureaucrats actively seek to keep people in this type of poverty.

Wrong.  The U.N. aid game is filled with examples of intentional infliction of extreme poverty upon subject populations.  Today, let's just consider the single most egregious example of that, namely the U.N. campaign for "climate justice."  Oh, and did I mention that there is an intense effort going on right now to get Pope Francis and the Catholic Church to back this reprehensible campaign?

I have previously written here about the U.N.'s "climate justice" campaign, where I called it a "looking glass" world, where the U.N. advocates for exactly the opposite of what would make any sense if the goal was to enable the poor to escape poverty.  We have a situation where hundreds of millions of people are in real poverty, meaning that they lack sufficient food, electricity, heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, lighting at night, automobiles, refrigeration, mechanized agriculture, clean water, the internet, and on and on and on.  All of these things result in large part from insufficient access to energy, and the cheaper and more reliable the energy the more quickly and plentifully the missing items can be had.  Meanwhile predictions that global temperatures would rapidly rise as mankind burned more fossil fuels have been disproved by a period now approaching 20 years where atmospheric CO2 has increased but temperatures have not, not even by a little bit.  And in this situation the U.N. of course advocates that the greatest crisis facing less developed countries is "climate change" caused by CO2 from fossil fuels.  The U.N.'s proposed solution is that the developed countries must send lots of money to the governments (and elites) in less developed countries, while also preventing the poor in less developed countries from getting access to cheap energy from fossil fuels.  In other words, the official U.N. program is that money is to go to the rich people in poor countries while the poor are kept in their grinding poverty and are intentionally prevented from getting out.

And in the past several months there has been a huge push to try to get Pope Francis to sign on to this disgusting and immoral campaign.  Back in January, Kishore Jayabalan of the Acton Institute reported on the efforts of activists within the Vatican to get an encyclical issued on environmental issues, and particularly signing on to the "climate justice" campaign:

I (very reluctantly) worked on these issues at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for five years, so I have some insight into how Vatican officials tend to think about the environment. . . .  General indifference to environmental issues among clerics may mean that more strident activists may get their way simply because they are more committed to their cause. In my work at the Vatican and travels around the world attending Catholic conferences on the environment, I heard countless calls from activists for a papal encyclical on the environment, so the news of such a document must warm the hearts of my former fellow conferees.

A draft papal encyclical has been making the rounds for months.  In late April the Vatican held a climate conference, featuring U.N. advocates including Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  No voices from the non-climate-alarmist camp were invited.  However, the Heartland Institute got wind of the event and sent a delegation to hold counter-events in Rome at the same time.  The Heartland delegation included both people of science (like former NASA engineer Hal Doiron and Tom Sheahen of SEPP) and people of religion (like Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Coalition).  Here is a report from Heartland on its activities.  Heartland describes the focus of its press conference on April 27 as "why the Pope should not put his moral authority behind the U.N.'s climate work."

The globe is not dangerously warming, and the poor of the world should not be kept in poverty in service to that myth.

As of the late-April climate conference, the word was that the encyclical would be coming out in June.  But on May 13 came word from the Vatican that the encyclical was being postponed and would be revised.  Here is a report from Radical Catholic via Climate Depot. 

According to Vaticanist Sandro Magister, Pope Francis has decided to postpone the publication of his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. The reason, according to Magister, is that the Pope realized that the document in its current state had no chance of receiving the approval of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under the leadership of Cardinal Gerhard Müller.

So there was some last-minute push-back within Vatican circles, and now we have at least a temporary reprieve.  But this fight is by no means over.  The Radical Catholic report has many details on the ongoing efforts of activists within the Vatican to get an encyclical to their liking.

It's easy to understand the U.N.'s motivation for the "climate justice" campaign:  it's just great cover to get a big pile of money to send to their client strongmen and dictators, while they all enhance their collective power and control; and meanwhile keeping the poverty population up is always good when you go back for the next round of money.  But the Pope?  Surely he should care at least a little about the immorality of keeping the poor poor, shouldn't he? 





The Latest Scam From The New York Times

If you read this blog you know that I think you can't trust anything that is printed in the New York Times.  But last week they hit a new low with back-to-back long articles on Thursday and Friday about supposed exploitation of workers in the nail salon industry.  The articles are "The Price of Nails" from May 7 and "Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers" from May 8, both under the by-line of Sarah Maslin Nir.

These stories have "gone viral" as they say.  Commentary on them is everywhere.  And literally everyone has fallen for the scam.  Of course the Times Editorial Board chimed in Monday with a clarion call for "Justice for Nail Salon Workers."   Of course Governor Cuomo immediately announced emergency state measures to protect the nail salon workers.  Of course the likes of Time ("exploitation . . . severely underpaid"), and NBC News ("underpaid . . . physical and verbal abuse"), and Jezebel ("appalling working conditions"), etc., etc., etc., parroted the Times story without a hint of critical thinking.

Much more surprising is that some who would normally show at least a little skepticism toward the propaganda coming out of Pravda seem to have bit on this hook.  For example, libertarian law professor Richard Epstein, while providing a theoretical defense of the industry's practices in a lengthy article at the Hoover Institution journal, still begins his article by saying that the Times "describes in painful and accurate detail the trials and tribulations in the manicurist trade in New York City and elsewhere."   What possible basis could he have for thinking that the Times reporting is "accurate"? -- certainly not their past record on reporting stories such as these.  Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, had an op-ed in yesterday's New York Post in which he called the stories of the nail salon workers "heart-wrenching."

What I can't understand is why everybody gives the Times total credit for accuracy in reporting on the pay and working conditions of these workers.  Can anybody ask the simple question of whether this can possibly be true?  I haven't found it.  So let me do it:  Can any of this possibly be true?  The answer is no.

I'll focus on what is reported as to the pay of the workers.  Here's what the Times reports:

Tucked in her pocket was $100 in carefully folded bills for another expense: the fee the salon owner charges each new employee for her job. The deal was the same as it is for beginning manicurists in almost any salon in the New York area. She would work for no wages, subsisting on meager tips, until her boss decided she was skillful enough to merit a wage.  It would take nearly three months before her boss paid her. Thirty dollars a day.

$100 fee to get a non-paying job; after three months of no pay, $30 per day; and nothing to subsist on but "meager" tips (no dollar amount specified).  Do you believe it?  Here's my problem with it.  I live in Manhattan, I regularly use the services of service people and I know lots of other people who do too.  And in a general way, I know what the market is.  And I know that the market starts at $15 per hour, and if you have someone who's any good and you want to keep them for more than a few months, you'll very quickly have to go to $20, and then up from there.

Don't believe me?  The obvious kinds of jobs available to young women in the country illegally and with limited English language skills are nannies and housekeepers.  Kindly google the subject of jobs for such people in Manhattan and you will see that I am correct:  lots of postings for jobs at $15 per hour (but not below), and with experience or more than one kid to watch it can easily be $20; and even substantially more for larger numbers of kids and/or difficult hours.  And by the way, do you think you can hire an attractive young Asian woman for those prices?  Forget it!

So what is it with these nail salon workers?  Can they really be this stupid?  You can believe that if you choose, but no, people are not this stupid.  I'm sorry, but these young women work in the nail salon industry because the jobs are substantially better than the alternatives of nanny and housekeeper that pay $15 and up.  Some of that may be that it's easier work, but a lot of it is that the pay is also better.  How is that possible?  The answer is tips.

Go through this whole endless May 7 Times article, and try to find any quantification of how much money these workers make in tips.  You won't find it.  There is the one statement that the tips are "meager," but after that it's all about the "pay" and the "wage."  Didn't they even ask any of these people how much they make in tips, let alone try to find out how much top people can make in tips?  Really, this is insulting to our intelligence.  Actually, I have no doubt that they are very aware of how much is made in tips in this industry, and they are intentionally suppressing it because as soon as that information is out the whole story goes poof.  It's completely obvious to anyone who thinks about it that experienced and skilled people in this business can make several hundred dollars a day.  Which would you rather do:  make $50,000 or even $60,000 in a quiet air-conditioned nail salon, or $40,000 lugging a vacuum around somebody's house while you try to watch a kid at the same time?

And if I might take this one step farther:  Where did the New York Times get this story from?  If you've read enough of these expose stories from Pravda with even a mildly inquisitive mind, you have figured out that such stories are fed to them by activists with some agenda.  Also, those activists typically want to be quoted somewhere in the story (since the idea is to promote themselves and their agenda) but don't want to be fingered as the source of the story.  So go through this article with that in mind, and you will find this:

“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen,” said Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.”

It's an ambitious young litigation lawyer from Yale Law School with a bunch of contingency-fee cases pending against struggling small businesses.  Any surprise there?  Those businesses will never be able to prove how much their workers made in tips, so Nicole is confident that she has them on the ropes.  And with the Times story bringing in the New York State government on her side, now it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

So a couple of years from now Nicole will be richer by a few mil, and a few dozen (or a few hundred) small struggling nail salon owners, who maybe could have hoped to make one to two hundred thousand dollars in a good year, will now be broke and out of business.  Oh, and a few thousand young nail salon workers will have to get jobs doing something else.  The something else is by definition worse from their perspective than what they are currently doing, or they would already be doing it.  Congratulations New York Times!  And congratulations also to all of its readers who bought into this journalistic drivel.