Questions for Political Candidates

These are questions I’d ask Presidential candidates if I were to moderate a debate:

1.  Do you know the oath of office for President?  If not, I’d recite it.

2,  What purpose do you believe the Constitution serves?

3.  How are changes to the Constitution made?  Article V: Amendment.

4.  What is your understanding of the role of the Office of the President, as it is defined in the Constitution?

I find it amazing that most folks cast their vote without giving these questions the faintest consideration.  And, yet we wonder why we get what we get.

I heard a local radio show host say it well recently.   He said something like (paraphrased from memory):

 We’ve come to expect that one candidate will tell us how he’s going to solve our problems.  Then the other candidate tells us how he’s going to solve our problems.  

What we don’t realize is that we should vote for the guy that tells us the truth — that it’s not the President’s job to solve our problems, it’s ours’.

Here’s more of my Questions for Politicians posts from the past.

What is a job?

Creating jobs is effective political rhetoric.  Who would be against creating jobs?

But a job is different than just giving someone money.  It’s a subtle difference that few people understand.

Allen Sanderson explains it in this article, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs (via Greg Mankiw’s blog).  In this paragraph Sanderson gives the typical economic refrain:

…pay 100,000 people salaries of $50,000 a year to dig holes in the ground every morning and another 100,000 folks  $50,000 annually to fill up those holes in the afternoons. That’s also $10 billion in spending—and 200,000 new jobs created. Of course, at the end of the day we will have the same level of output as before to show for our “shovel-ready” efforts.

Most people can clearly see that the effort of digging holes and refilling them produces no benefit.

But, much of government spending does produce visible benefits, like repairing roads or building bridges.  So, people view Sanderson’s example as extreme and discount it.

What they don’t consider is whether those visible benefits from government spending was worth the cost or whether there were better alternatives for the spending.

Several years ago in my hometown someone in local government got the idea to spruce up a couple houses in a blighted neighborhood to spur revitalization.

They city spent $1.1 million to renovate two homes in a blighted neighborhood and eventually put the homes on the market for about $160,000 each and they didn’t sell for anywhere near that. That project was not even close to be worth the cost.

I’ve been thinking about how to better differentiate between an activity that produces benefits in excess of costs, like a job, and an activity that doesn’t.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. A job is something you would willingly spend your own money on to have done.
  2. If charged with the financial accountability of an organization (which means you get fired if you do a poor job of making decisions that create value for the organization), it’s something you would willingly spend the organization’s money on.
  3. A job isn’t something that you would spend money on only if you have no direct accountability to it.  Most of public spending falls into that category.

When you willingly spend your own money, you consider two criteria:

  • Will the benefit exceed the cost?  In the business world, this is known as a cost-benefit analysis.  In economics this is known as evaluating consumer surplus.
  • Are there alternatives that will bring me more bang for my buck, that is, provide more benefits than this option?  In economics this is known as opportunity cost.

Private spending is not perfect. Like most things, it is trial and error. In many cases we misjudge potential benefits and later discover that the benefits were not worth the cost. But, we then use that as a learning experience for the future.

We  stop spending money on the things where the the benefits did not exceed the cost. We get better at knowing our options and projecting benefits. These simple feedbacks drive private spending to be an effective generator of value in an economy.

Public spending does not often have to satisfy these same two criteria.  In the public spending arena many other criteria come into play, and few of those have to do with whether the spending is generates benefits in excess of the cost.

Here are some of these criteria:

  • Will this create a multiplier effect to stimulate the economy? How much of a factor is the economic multiplier effect when you spend your own money? Not much.
  • Will I [politician] be able to claim that I was hero for spending other people’s money to solve some problem in order to encourage people to vote for me?
  • Will this spending of other people’s money please a special interest group enough to garner me campaign donations and other favors (like lobbying jobs in my post elected life) from that special interest group?
  • If I vote for this spending of other people’s money that politician B supports, will politician B vote for my ideas on spending of other people’s money so I can claim to be a hero?

So, the next time a politician pushes a big spending project, ask yourself if it would be something that you would be willing to put your own money into.

Who’s accountable to the spending and what happens to them if the spending doesn’t generate enough benefit to offset the cost?  If cost-benefit isn’t governing the spending, what is?

I should have failed civics

When I hear my local “fiscal conservative/social liberal” drive-time radio talk show hosts espouse the belief that the Constitution is malleable and left to be interpreted by the Supreme Court “for the times” and that the meaning of the Constitution changes with precedents set in Supreme Court decisions, I know we messed up somewhere.

It’s true that a lot people believe that. It’s also true that some Supreme Court Justices believe that (while others have not), as well as some constitutional scholars (while others have not) and many people who have served in government.

But, no matter how esteemed those are who believe it, the belief itself does not make it true. In order to prove their belief correct, they would need to produce evidence. Evidence would be specific passages from the Federalists papers or passages from the writings by the authors of the Constitution.

I agreed with the drive time radio hosts long ago in my life and I earned an A in my high school civics class.

But, on further reflection, that belief doesn’t make much sense.

Why separate government power into three branches — executive, law making (congress) and law enforcing (courts), but also give the law enforcing branch (courts) the power to make law (which is the power reserved for Congress)?

That’s the result of allowing courts to broadly “interpret the Constitution for times”.  That doesn’t sound like a power separation to me.

This makes even less sense when you consider the authors of the Constitution put a specific representative process in place to amend the Constitution if need be: Article V: Amendment.

I recommend for anyone who agrees with my local drive time hosts to read this week’s column from Walter Williams, What Our Constitution Permits.  Here’s an excerpt (emphasis added).

You might think, for example, that there’s constitutional authority for Congress to spend for highway construction and bridges. President James Madison on March 3, 1817 vetoed a public works bill saying: “Having considered the bill this day presented to me entitled ‘An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements,’ and which sets apart and pledges funds ‘for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense,’ I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States and to return it with that objection to the House of Representatives, in which it originated.”

Madison, who is sometimes referred to as the father of our Constitution, added to his veto statement, “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”

Here’s my question to any member of the House who might vote for funds for “constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses”: Was Madison just plain constitutionally ignorant or has the Constitution been amended to permit such spending?

I’m adding Walter’s final question above to my list of questions the media should ask political candidates.  They should also ask it of Supreme Court candidates as well.

Double team

Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are double teaming the electorate.

Heres’ the opener from Walter Williams’ column this week, Changing America.

Dr. Thomas Sowell, in “Dismantling America,” said in reference to President Obama, “That such an administration could be elected in the first place, headed by a man whose only qualifications to be president of the United States at a dangerous time in the history of the world were rhetoric, style and symbolism — and whose animus against the values and institutions of America had been demonstrated repeatedly over a period of decades beforehand — speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our educational system and the degeneration of our culture.” Obama is by no means unique; his characteristics are shared by other Americans, but what is unique is that no other time in our history would such a person been elected president. That says a lot about the degeneration of our culture, values, thinking abilities and acceptance of what’s no less than tyranny.

And the closer:

Fighting government intrusion into our lives is becoming increasingly difficult for at least two reasons. The first reason is that educators at the primary, secondary and university levels have been successful in teaching our youngsters to despise the values of our Constitution and the founders of our nation — “those dead, old, racist white men.” Their success in that arena might explain why educators have been unable to get our youngsters to read, write and compute on a level comparable with other developed nations; they are too busy proselytizing students.

I was disappointed with both tickets in the last presidential election. I didn’t think any of the candidates were yet qualified for the highest offices. When I pointed that out to folks, I got an assortment of non-sense responses.

One popular response: “He ran a great campaign.”  That’s a qualification for President?  Would you hire a head football coach for the NFL based solely on a good job interview?

Another popular response:  “I want an articulate President.” To which I’d respond, can you listen to his last speech and explain what he said?  I could rarely make out what he was saying. Everybody was in awe of his style, not his substance.

Maybe that ties back to Williams’ comment about our education system. We can no longer differentiate between style and substance. Don’t get me wrong, not many politicians actually deliver much substance. But that’s our fault. We have such low expectations of them.

More common responses:  “He seems like a good guy. I’d like to have a beer with him.”   That’s how you choose your President? In that case, most of my buddies should be President! Again, what are we learning in our education system?  The sad thing is that a lot of people would let that pass as an acceptable answer, when they should let that person know that he should not vote until he he becomes an adult.

Here’s a short list of what I would like to know when considering who to vote for President:

  1. What’s their view on role of government and how does that fit with the Constitution?  It’s amazing to me that we let people in office when we’re not entirely clear on this.
  2. What does freedom mean?  Of the two following statements, which best matches their view of freedom?  The ability for individuals to make decisions that suit their needs and preferences…
    • …free of coercion from others.
    • …free of negative consequences that might result from such.
  3. What do they think of the Constitution?  What is its purpose?
  4. What is the process for changing the Constitution from it’s original intent?
  5. What actions have they taken in the past that support or contradict their stated views?
  6. What makes for a good federal judge and Supreme Court justice?
  7. What does “uphold the Constitution” in their oath of office mean to them?
  8. Where does the candidate think government has overstepped it’s boundaries in the past?
  9. What do they like about the U.S. and dislike about it?
  10. Why do they think Rome fell?
  11. How have they led in the past against politically unpopular things?
  12. What do they think about capitalism?  Property rights?
  13. Why do they think the U.S. is the wealthiest country ever?

Those are a few of the questions I would like to know the answer to before casting my ballot.

Government: The Millionaires’ Charity

In the video below, Senator McCaskill flexes her political skill of making unreasonable things sound almost reasonable.

There’s much wrong with what Senator McCaskill says in the press conference.

For example, at the :45 second mark, McCaskill claims that since 70% of Americans do not itemize taxes, the tax code was written for wealthy Americans.  That’s a difficult claim to make in light of the facts Don Boudreaux highlights and links to in this blog post yesterday on Cafe Hayek.

As Boudreaux points out,

…the top 1 percent of income-earning households – surely “the wealthy” – they paid a whopping 38 percent of federal personal income tax revenue.

A reasonable question is what percentage of the income did that 1% of taxpayers earn?  According to the link Boudreaux provides in his post, that 1% earned 20% of the income.  So, the super wealthy pay taxes nearly double the proportion of the income they earn.  If the tax code has been written for them, as McCaskill claims, it seems like that proportion would be much less.

Advice to reporters:  I’d be interested to know what proportion of taxes McCaskill thinks the top 1% should pay, that way we can see how far from her mark we are and we can prevent ourselves from getting stuck in this arbitrary quagmire of her saying the “rich should pay more” no matter how much they are already paying.  Please ask her.

At the 1:30 mark McCaskill says:

…because they’re [Republicans] going to pout if we don’t give more money to millionaires

Emphasis added.   Letting millionaires keep money they earn and already pay substantial taxes on is not the same as giving money to millionaires.   I’d appreciate honesty here.  If McCaskill can’t be honest voluntarily, I’d appreciate it if reporters held her accountable.

Good reporter question:  Senator, You said Republicans want to give more money to millionaires.  Is that what you meant?  It seems you are really talking about letting them keep more of what they earn.

I recommend the following revision to McCaskill’s remark:

…because they’re [Republicans] going to pout because we want to take more money from millionaires…

Addendum:  Thomas Sowell covers the same topic today in his column, Rhetoric Rises Again.  Sowell’s words:

When you refrain from raising someone’s taxes, you are not “giving” them anything. Even if you were actually cutting their tax rate– which is out of the question today– you would still not be “giving” them anything, but only allowing them to keep more of what they have earned.

Is the government doing any of us a big favor by not taking even more of what we have worked for? Is it not an insult to our intelligence to say that the government is “giving” us something by not taxing it away?


Two recommended segments from Chris Stigall

If you have 20 minutes, please take the time to listen to two recent podcasts from Chris Stigall’s 710 AM KC radio show.

1.  Go to 710 AM podcast site

2.  Listen to podcast titled “Proposition C and How the Press Covers It…”  About 10 minutes.

3.  Listen to podcast titled “Stark Townhall Blowup (Interview)” where Stigall interviews Kymberleigh Korpus, who held Congressman Pete Stark accountable to powers enumerated in the Constitution at a town hall meeting a few days ago.  Also about 10 minutes in length.

Go Kymberleigh.  If only more of us were as versed on the Constitution and could hold others accountable when they support the continual extension of the government beyond its specifically defined role.

New Threads – Questions for Politicians and Questions for Managers

I’ve seen enough clueless elected officials and business managers in my day to make me wonder what questions were asked of these people before they got their jobs.  I thought it would be a good idea to add categories to this blog to list questions to ask political candidates and managers along with answers that I would like to see.  Hopefully some reporters or board members will find these questions valuable and ask them.

Here’s an example of how these categories will work.

Question for Political Candidate for President

If elected President you will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  Can you briefly explain what that means to you?

An acceptable answer for me to this question would be something like:

The Constitution of the United States defines the powers of each branch of government to maintain checks and balances on power.    The authors of the Constitution were concerned about government power becoming concentrated at the expense of the liberty of our citizens.  As colonists, they saw firsthand the ill effects on liberty of unchecked power by the arbitrary decisions made by the King of England.

To me, protecting and defending the Constitution means ensuring that the powers I exercise as President are those that are specifically defined in Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution and I will use those powers to ensure that other branches of government only exercise authority in which they are empowered by the respective sections of the Constitution.

Protecting and defending the Constitution means that when my replacement assumes power through the peaceful election process, as defined in the Constitution, that the source of the power of government will still be the consent of the governed and nothing else.