Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fed Deliberations, Continued

In an earlier post, we discussed a proposal to open Federal Reserve deliberations to greater congressional scrutiny. Fed chair Ben Bernanke reacts to this proposal in The Washington Post:
Independent does not mean unaccountable. In its making of monetary policy, the Fed is highly transparent, providing detailed minutes of policy meetings and regular testimony before Congress, among other information. Our financial statements are public and audited by an outside accounting firm; we publish our balance sheet weekly; and we provide monthly reports with extensive information on all the temporary lending facilities developed during the crisis. Congress, through the Government Accountability Office, can and does audit all parts of our operations except for the monetary policy deliberations and actions covered by the 1978 exemption. The general repeal of that exemption would serve only to increase the perceived influence of Congress on monetary policy decisions, which would undermine the confidence the public and the markets have in the Fed to act in the long-term economic interest of the nation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Volunteering

In chapter 5, as we mentioned on Thanksgiving, we discuss the role of volunteering in American civic culture. Gallup has some new data on the topic:

During the economic downturn of late 2008 and the first half of 2009, Americans continued to volunteer their time to others. According to a recent Gallup survey, more than one-third of Americans reported volunteering recently in each month from September 2008 to July 2009.

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Service through volunteering increased slightly during the early months of the recession, October and November of 2008, decreasing through December 2008 and January 2009 and stabilizing over the course of 2009. The findings extend the stable volunteering trend from 2002 through 2008 reported by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Volunteering varies by age, with Americans aged 30 to 44 consistently the most active, or tied as the most active. Seniors (aged 65 and older) and young adults (18- to 29-year-olds) tend to be the least active.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

In chapter 5, we discuss America's civic culture. Among the wealthy countries, the United States is unusual in its religiosity, which has helped shape national symbols and observances.

Thanksgiving is an example. Official Thanksgiving proclamations have often had a deeply religious tone. In 1777, the Continental Congress issued the following in response to the patriot victory in the Battle of Saratoga:
FORASMUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of JESUS CHRIST, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth "in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost."
And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.

Another element of our civic culture is service. President Obama's 2009 proclamation gives a good example:
As we gather once again among loved ones, let us also reach out to our neighbors and fellow citizens in need of a helping hand. This is a time for us to renew our bonds with one another, and we can fulfill that commitment by serving our communities and our Nation throughout the year. In doing so, we pay tribute to our country's men and women in uniform who set an example of service that inspires us all. Let us be guided by the legacy of those who have fought for the freedoms for which we give thanks, and be worthy heirs to the noble tradition of goodwill shown on this day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Still So Many Laws

We earlier discussed the sheer volume of American law as a problem for deliberation and good citizenship. Observing that many liberals and conservatives are reaching consensus on the issue, The New York Times reports the comments of two former attorneys general, Dick Thornburgh and Edwin Meese:

“The problem of overcriminalization is truly one of those issues upon which a wide variety of constituencies can agree,” Mr. Thornburgh said. “Witness the broad and strong support from such varied groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the A.B.A., the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society and the A.C.L.U.”

In an interview at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group where he is a fellow, Mr. Meese said the “liberal ideas of extending the power of the state” were to blame for an out-of-control criminal justice system. “Our tradition has always been,” he said, “to construe criminal laws narrowly to protect people from the power of the state.”

There are, the foundation says, more than 4,400 criminal offenses in the federal code, many of them lacking a requirement that prosecutors prove traditional kinds of criminal intent.

“It’s a violation of federal law to give a false weather report,” Mr. Meese said. “People get put in jail for importing lobsters.”

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Federal Reserve and Its Deliberations

In chapter 18, we discuss the deliberations of the Federal Reserve. The House Financial Services Committee just voted for a measure to allow the Government Accountability Office to scrutinize these deliberations. Former Fed chairs Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker wrote the committee to oppose the measure and express support for current law. The Wall Street Journal explains:
A 1978 statute excludes from GAO oversight the Fed’s monetary policy deliberations, loans to banks from its discount window and related activities to, in the words of a congressional report issued at the time, permit the Fed to “independently conduct the nation’s monetary policy.” A provision adopted by the committee Thursday would undo that. “We can assure you that this protection of internal deliberations in reaching decisions that will affect market conditions and could expose sensitive information about particular institutions is indispensible in the Federal Reserve’s conduct of monetary policy,” Greenspan and Volcker said.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"In God We Trust" at the Capitol Visitors Center

In chapter 5, we discuss the role of religion in American public life, including the presence of religious language and symbolism on public property. Roll Call reports a relevant development:
More than 40 Republicans have signed a legal brief opposing a lawsuit that aims to remove the engravings of “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegiance from the walls of the Capitol Visitor Center. The Freedom From Religion Foundation — the nation’s largest group of atheists and agnostics — filed the lawsuit in July, soon after Congress passed a bill approving the engravings. The project, they claim, is unconstitutional because Congress is using taxpayer money to endorse religion. But in their amicus brief, the Members argue that “In God We Trust” and the Pledge “accurately reflect the historical fact that this nation was founded upon a belief in God.” The friend-of-the-court brief also calls the lawsuit a “crusade” that “serves no purpose other than to waste judicial resources at a time in our Nation’s history when those resources are needed in cases involving real threats to American liberties.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Recovery.gov and Dubious Statistics

In chapter 15, we note that a major role of bureaucracy is to gather and publish statistics. It is a difficult job, and sometimes the bureaucracy makes mistakes. Consider, for example, measurements of the effects of economic stimulus legislation. ABC reports:

Here's a stimulus success story: In Arizona's 15th congressional district, 30 jobs have been saved or created with just $761,420 in federal stimulus spending. At least that's what the Web site set up by the Obama administration to track the $787 billion stimulus says. There's one problem, though: There is no 15th congressional district in Arizona; the state has only eight districts. And ABC News has found many more entries for projects like this in places that are incorrectly identified.
Other news organizations have found additional problems.

The Chicago Tribune:

More than $4.7 million in federal stimulus aid so far has been funneled to schools in North Chicago, and state and federal officials say that money has saved the jobs of 473 teachers. Problem is, the district employs only 290 teachers. "That other number, I don't know where that came from," said Lauri Hakanen, superintendent of North Chicago Community Unit Schools District 187.

The Boston Globe:

While Massachusetts recipients of federal stimulus money collectively report 12,374 jobs saved or created, a Globe review shows that number is wildly exaggerated. Organizations that received stimulus money miscounted jobs, filed erroneous figures, or claimed jobs for work that has not yet started.

The Sacramento Bee:

Up to one-fourth of the 110,000 jobs reported as saved by federal stimulus money in California probably never were in danger, a Bee review has found. California State University officials reported late last week that they saved more jobs with stimulus money than the number of jobs saved in Texas – and in 44 other states. In a required state report to the federal government, the university system said the $268.5 million it received in stimulus funding through October allowed it to retain 26,156 employees. That total represents more than half of CSU's statewide work force. However, university officials confirmed Thursday that half their workers were not going to be laid off without the stimulus dollars. "This is not really a real number of people," CSU spokeswoman Clara Potes-Fellow said. "It's like a budget number."

The Associated Press:

The AP reviewed a sample of federal contracts, not all 9,000 reported to date, and discovered errors in one in six jobs credited to the $787 billion stimulus program - or 5,000 of the 30,000 jobs claimed so far. Even in its limited review, the AP found job counts that were more than 10 times as high as the actual number of paid positions; jobs credited to the stimulus program that were counted two and sometimes more than four times; and other jobs that were credited to stimulus spending when none was produced.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lobbying and Congressional Speeches

In chapter 9, we discuss interest group lobbying. Perhaps the most important job of lobbyists is to supply information to lawmakers. Sometimes they supply legislative language. And asThe New York Times reports this morning, sometimes they supply speeches:

In the official record of the historic House debate on overhauling health care, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident. Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that the lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans. The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Opposition to Government Growth

In chapter 5 of our book, we discuss America's civic culture, including its tradition of individualism. In The New Republic, John Judis develops a similar theme:
Americans have supported, or have come to support, specific governmental remedies, such as Social Security, the minimum wage, and environmental and consumer protections. But, when a new program that expands government is proposed, they have displayed a general ideological predisposition against the power of government. As Obama tries to get his reform agenda through Congress, this predisposition is already proving to be a formidable obstacle.

Americans’ skepticism about government dates at least from the Revolution. In The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955, political scientist Louis Hartz described the Americans of 1776 as “Lockean liberals.” He was using the term “liberal” in its classic connotation--more like today’s free-market conservative or libertarian. Americans, he perceived, envisaged the state as strictly limited to protecting property relations among equal producers. They saw strong government--which they identified with the British crown--as a threat to economic and political freedom. Government, in Thomas Paine’s words, was a “necessary evil.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Promises

One feature of our book is a repeated box on "Pledges and Promises." The box in chapter 11 explains that broken campaign promises can severely damage politicians, which is why they usually try to keep them. And yet a new poll suggests that the public perception is different. From Rasmussen:

Some folks may be surprised that the number is this high, but only four percent (4%) of U.S. voters say most politicians keep their campaign promises.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 76% say the majority of politicians do not keep the promises they make on the campaign trail. Nearly one-out-of five voters (19%) aren’t sure.

Voters are evenly divided, however, over why the politicians break their promises. Forty-five percent (45%) believe it’s because they deliberately made a false promise to get elected. Forty-three percent (43%) take a more charitable approach and say unforeseen events after they took office forced the politicians to break their promises.

Monday, November 9, 2009

President Obama and the Pardon Power

In chapter 14, we discuss presidential powers, including the ability to issue pardons. The Chicago Tribune reports that President Obama has been sparing in his use of this power:
A lot of things have moved pretty quickly in the Obama administration. Presidential pardons are not among them.

In two and a quarter centuries, only four presidents have been slower than President Barack Obama in exercising their authority of executive clemency -- granting either pardons or commutations of sentences to the convicted -- with thousands of applications pending at the Justice Department.

By the count of pardon expert P.S. Ruckman Jr., associate professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Obama early this month passed Richard Nixon, moving into fifth place, and could overtake John Adams for fourth about 250 days from now.

George Washington was by far the stingiest with the power -- it took him more than 1,800 days to grant his first pardon.
More at http://pardonpower.com/

Sunday, November 8, 2009

White House v. Fox

In chapter 12 of our book, we discuss ways in which political leaders try to influence the media. Under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, tactics have sometimes taken a hard edge. The Los Angeles Times reports on a recent example:
At least one Democratic political strategist has gotten a blunt warning from the White House to never appear on Fox News Channel, an outlet that presidential aides have depicted as not so much a news-gathering operation as a political opponent bent on damaging the Obama administration.

The Democratic strategist said that shortly after an appearance on Fox, he got a phone call from a White House official telling him not to be a guest on the show again. The call had an intimidating tone, he said.

The message was, "We better not see you on again," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to run afoul of the White House. An implicit suggestion, he said, was that "clients might stop using you if you continue."

White House Communications Director Anita Dunn said that she had checked with colleagues who "deal with TV issues" and that they had not told people to avoid Fox. On the contrary, they had urged people to appear on the network, Dunn wrote in an e-mail.

But Patrick Caddell, a Fox News contributor and former pollster for President Carter, said he had spoken to Democratic consultants who said they were told by the White House to avoid appearances on Fox. He declined to give their names.

Caddell said he had not gotten that message himself from the White House.

He added: "I have heard that they've done that to others in not too subtle ways. I find it appalling. When the White House gets in the business of suppressing dissent and comment, particularly from its own party, it hurts itself."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Media Bias

In chapter 12 of our book, we tackle the difficult question of media bias. Observes John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times:
The Obama White House’s decision to challenge Fox News appears driven equally by strategy and frustration. It is also a test case for politicians in both parties.

That is because partisan fragmentation throughout America’s news media and their audiences has grown significantly. Future Republican presidents will have to decide, as Team Obama has, how to buck or accommodate that trend.

Fox News has attracted the most attention because of its “fair and balanced” challenge to its competitors and its success. But the audiences of its competitors have tilted sharply in the other direction.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press offers some new data on media polarization.