Romney won’t be president, and other good news

It’s no secret that I greatly dislike both Obama and Romney, so my expectations were pretty low going into yesterday’s election. Thus it came as some surprise to me that I went to bed late last night feeling happier about the results than I have for any election in my lifetime, and that has nothing to do with who will or won’t be in the White House.

Yesterday morning I tweeted, “Hoped-for silver linings today: Marijuana legalization, marriage equality, no GMO labeling, good turnout for Gary Johnson.” Pretty much everything I could have reasonably hoped for came true.

Marijuana legalization — Two out of three states where marijuana legalization was on the ballot approved the measure. My own Oregon let me down, but Washington and Colorado succeeded. Voters also legalized medical marijuana in Massachusetts and decriminalized it in Detroit. By putting two states in direct conflict with the federal government, this is potentially a watershed year in the movement toward a more humane drug policy.

Marriage equality — Same-sex marriage was on the ballot in four states yesterday. In Maine, Maryland, and Washington, it was approved by popular majorities. In Minnesota, a majority rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Demographic shifts and growing social acceptance make it seem inevitable that more, perhaps all, states will eventually follow their lead.

GMO labeling — This is one issue on which I’m opposed to many of my peers in the food and drink industry, but I think that California’s proposal to require labeling of genetically modified foods was deeply flawed. The case that they are harmful to consume is very weak, labeling and liability would be costly, and the proposal itself was riddled with exemptions. If consumers and activists want to avoid GMOs I would rather see them push for more organic food or other explicitly GMO-free options than force mandatory labeling onto the entire food system. Cheers to California voters for getting this one right.

Eminent domain bonus — I wasn’t following Virginia’s referendum to further protect private property from Kelo-style takings for private development, but I’m heartened to learn that it was overwhelmingly approved.

Gary Johnson — His campaign never crystallized as I hoped it might, but Johnson nonetheless earned 1% of the vote and as of this writing a raw total of 1,139,562 votes, the most of any Libertarian Party candidate in history. More importantly, I think Johnson may have done more than any recent candidate to reach out to the left and make libertarianism cool. (Sorry, Bob Barr.)

Romney lost — Romney was just terrible. The flip-side is that Obama won, which is also terrible but marginally less so. Most importantly, yesterday was a straight-up beatdown for social conservatism and the last twelve years of Republican politics. This opens the door, at least, to a better GOP.

After all of this, watching Obama’s soaring acceptance speech at a bar in downtown Portland was simply anti-climactic. As my friend Conor Friedersdorf tweeted, “This speech would be more enjoyable if I didn’t already know what follows Barack Obama speeches like this. An imperial presidency.” Or as my friend sitting next to me summed it up, “I don’t even care about this shit. This is just bullshit.”

The electoral outcome of this presidential race was going to be dismal no matter what. On the economy, on foreign policy, on the Drug War, neither side offered the kind of changes we need. The inspiring story from yesterday is that in so many instances where voters had the option to expand freedom directly, they voted to do so. Given the opportunity to let gays marry the people they love, to let sick people access medical marijuana, to let ordinary citizens smoke a joint once in a while without fearing prison, they voted to live and let live. This bodes well for the future. We progress in spite of our politicians.

A case for Gary Johnson

gjlogo2

“Be Libertarian with me for one election,” suggests Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in a recent advertisement. I’ve voted Libertarian in every election in which I’ve been eligible, so it’s no surprise that I’m doing so again this year. But my previous votes weren’t always enthusiastic. The party’s track record nominating candidates is decidedly mixed and I’ve gone along with some of their selections not out of any real support for the candidates, but only to sustain the party until they nominated someone stronger.

This year they did. Johnson, a successful two-term former governor of New Mexico, is the most credible candidate the Libertarian Party has ever offered. And given the dismal competition from the two major parties, his timing couldn’t be better.

I never had high hopes for Obama on economic matters but on a few areas, such as civil liberties, there was some expectation that he would be better than his predecessor (though even then there were warnings to the contrary). Instead, he’s expanded some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration. To give only a brief summary:

Extrajudicial assassination via drone, even of American citizens, is now a routine part of the presidency.

Indefinite detention without trial has been signed into law and federal attorneys continue to defend the power in court.

Despite initial promise on medical marijuana, the administration has ramped up the pace of armed raids on clinics operating legally under their states’ laws.

The administration has declined to bring any charges in cases of torture perpetrated by the CIA.

It goes with saying that Mitt Romney would be even worse on these issues. It’s difficult to know his true position on anything, but one thing is certain: He is no skeptic of state power. He’s hawkish on foreign policy, has no qualms using force to regulate personal behavior, and in the 2008 debates had this to say about indefinite detention without trial:

“I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.”

There’s not much to say in Romney’s favor on economics, either. His supposedly Ayn Rand-inspired running mate, intended to shore up his credentials, voted for TARP, auto bailouts, and Medicare Part D. Romney and Ryan likely offer to defenders of free markets what Obama offered to defenders of civil liberties: pleasing words followed by multiple stabs in the back.

Even by the usual low standards of presidential elections, the choices offered by the major parties this year are bleak. But unlike in past elections, the Libertarian Party has offered an alternative with legitimate credentials and appeal. A guy whom I think I could persuade some of my less explicitly libertarian friends to get behind. A guy whom I would actually be happy to see as president, if by some miracle he were to win.

Johnson, who governed as a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, has cross-party appeal that could siphon votes from both candidates. He’s an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, supports legalization of marijuana, calls for ending the War on Drugs and treating addiction as a medical issue, and recognizes an important role for government in protecting the natural environment from polluters.

On the American Civil Liberties Union’s candidate report card [PDF], Johnson scored higher than Obama and any of the Republicans. He endorses repeal of the Patriot Act, an end to indefinite detention without trial, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Johnson is a more credible opponent of economic cronyism than Romney and Ryan, criticizing the complexity of the current tax code and the incentives it creates for lobbying on behalf of special interests. He endorses free trade and expanded opportunities for legal immigration. He concluded his terms as governor with a budget surplus and vetoed more than 700 bills. Like Josh Barro, I think the drastic cuts he calls for are unnecessarily severe in the short-term and do him no favors appealing to a broader base. I’m also unpersuaded as of yet by his tax policy. However such changes would have to come from Congress, not the executive branch, which would enforce the moderation with which he actually governed.

Johnson winning the presidential race is obviously a long shot, but he needn’t win for his campaign to be worthwhile. Simply being allowed to participate in the presidential debates would dramatically alter their tone, which will otherwise be a race to the bottom on civil liberties, spending, and military intervention. The debate commission – closely tied to the major parties – excludes third party candidates polling under 15%, so for that reason alone it is worth supporting his campaign and raising awareness of it.

Polling suggests that with more awareness of his candidacy, Johnson could find more support. Voters have been fleeing affiliation with the major parties for decades. Poll analyses by the Cato Institute find that about 14% of voters fit a fairly strict definition of “libertarian.” Under a broader definition as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” more than 40% accept the label.

Nonetheless, convincing people to actually vote for a third party candidate is an uphill battle. There are two reasons I encourage them to do so, one practical and one principled.

First the practical reason: It’s extremely unlikely that either Romney or Obama will miss your vote. Even if this turns out to be a close race at the national level, the race for electoral votes in your state may not be. Oregon, where I now live, appears to be of little consequence in the national election. The conclusion from FiveThirtyEight:

[...] in over 99 percent of the model’s simulations, Oregon’s seven electoral votes prove either a given for a winning Mr. Obama or unneeded for a victorious Mr. Romney.

The pessimistic view of this is that Oregonians’ votes don’t matter. The optimistic view is that we are free to vote our conscience. Are you tired of voting for war, civil liberties abuses, and cronyism? Congratulations! You needn’t feel obliged to cast your lot with the lesser evil.

And that brings me to the principled reason to vote for Johnson. Politics necessitates compromise; rarely does one find a candidate that one agrees with on every issue. But there are some issues on which one should not compromise. Among these, I suggest, are imprisoning people without trial and overseeing a secret “kill list” of assassination targets.

This string of civil liberties abuses began under Bush but one thing you could say in Bush’s favor is that at least he inspired a vocal opposition. Obama has largely bought them off, cementing excessive executive powers and leaving them intact for the next Republican president, whomever he may be. Concerns about civil liberties that seemed vital under Bush have been erased from the Democratic platform now that the party is in power.

There’s a very good discussion of this recently between law professor Jonathan Turley and actor John Cusack. (John Cusack, who knew?) It’s long but I highly recommend it. Here’s one exchange:

CUSACK: Yeah, yeah. And so then it gets down to the question, “Well, are you going to vote for Obama?” And I say, “Well, I don’t really know. I couldn’t really vote for Hillary Clinton because of her Iraq War vote.” Because I felt like that was a line, a Rubicon line –

TURLEY: Right.

CUSACK: — a Rubicon line that I couldn’t cross, right? I don’t know how to bring myself to vote for a constitutional law professor, or even a constitutional realist, who throws away due process and claims the authority that the executive branch can assassinate American citizens. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it.

If you want to make a protest vote against Romney, go ahead, but I would think we’d be better putting our energies into local and state politics — occupy Wall Street and organizations and movements outside the system, not national politics, not personalities. Not stadium rock politics. Not brands. That’s the only thing I can think of. What would you say?

TURLEY: Well, the question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what’s left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System.”

CUSACK: Yeah, or that he did a good job with the auto bailout.

TURLEY: Right. I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes. We have to recognize that our political system is fundamentally broken, it’s unresponsive. Only 11 percent of the public supports Congress, and yet nothing is changing — and so the question becomes, how do you jumpstart that system? How do you create an alternative? What we have learned from past elections is that you don’t create an alternative by yielding to this false dichotomy that only reinforces their monopoly on power.

The big question of this election is not who whether Romney or Obama is marginally better than the other. The question is how to fight the abuses of power that have been fully embraced by both of them. Voting for Johnson is one small way to do so. Imagine if 5 million or 10 million people voted for a candidate running on a platform of civil liberties, ending the Drug War, non-interventionist foreign policy, and an end to cronyism. You don’t have to be a libertarian – you don’t even have to want Johnson to win — to think that this would have a beneficial long-term effect on policy as the major parties try to win those votes.

That will never happen if voters allow themselves to be held hostage by Romney and Obama. And, for once, a third party has offered a worthy alternative. This year the surest way for the constituency supporting civil liberties, economic freedom, and social toleration to express itself is with a good turnout for Gary Johnson.

A brewery in the White House

We are deep into that part of the election when it’s impossible to escape the flood of frivolous news articles about what the candidates ate, exaggerated gaffes, or pretty much anything except actual policy. This week’s example: the fervor about the homebrewed beer that Obama occasionally breaks out on the campaign trail. Crowds chant “four more beers,” reporters get to write punny headlines like “Obama plays up love of beer to ferment coalition of the swilling,” and beer lovers in my Twitter feed gush that the president makes and drinks beer just like them, so, like, who cares about all his Bush-esque civil liberties abuses?

I reacted to the story with my usual political cynicism, but on further reflection having a sitting president publicly boast of his homemade beer represents a real advance in freedom. Though it’s hard to believe as I sit here typing in Portland, Oregon, where making a batch of homebrew with friends is a wholesome afternoon activity, brewing beer at home continued to be against the law in the United States long after Prohibition.

Portland-based homebrew advocate and local legend Fred Eckhardt wrote in his seminal A Treatise on Lager Beers about the state of American beer in 1969:

After Prohibition, it remained illegal to make homebrew (it still is) and so even then there was no light to be shed on the subject. Now more than 35 years after the end of Prohibition we are just beginning to explore the possibilities of homebrewing… There are almost no quality beers made in this country, so if you want good old-country style beer you must make it yourself. Even the German beers imported into this country are being made to the so-called American taste. Pablum and pap for babies. You actually can make beer just as good as the great European master brews in your home. This book is only a start.

Indeed it was. Nine years later, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation allowing people to brew reasonable quantities of beer at home for their personal use, no permits or taxes required. Today American brewers make some of the best beer in the world and many of them got their start making small batches in their garages and kitchens. (The quote above is excerpted in Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch’s The Declaration of Independents, which should be on everyone’s election year reading list.)

Prohibition casts a long shadow, however, and there are still many regulations that can trip up homebrewers. Homebrewing is completely illegal in Alabama and Mississippi. In other states archaic laws have banned removing homebrew from the home, shutting down beer competitions. In Oregon, such a law was amended last year after public outcry. Perhaps seeing the nation’s top elected official drinking beer made at his home will give added legitimacy to the practice and help remove these remaining barriers.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that even Obama’s beer is completely legal. [Update: See below for a response from the TTB.] As Dan Todd pointed out to me on Twitter, the beer is made by White House chefs, not the president himself. According to Reuters:

The beer, which comes in both a light and dark variety, is made by the White House chefs who use traditional beer-brewing methods. [...] Taxpayers are not footing the bill for the beer, as both the cost of the equipment and the cost of brewing the beer is paid for by the Obamas personally, the official said.

Federal law states that homebrewed beer cannot be sold and that it cannot be produced by partnerships or corporations:

Any adult may produce beer, without payment of tax, for personal or family use and not for sale. [...]

Partnerships except as provided in §25.207, corporations or associations may not produce beer, without payment of tax, for personal or family use. [The exception referred to is for operators of licensed breweries, who may take some of their product home without paying taxes on it.]

The Tax and Trade Bureau also has strict regulations for brew-on-premises facilities (BOPs), businesses that provide equipment and space to homebrewers, and the assistance they are allowed to provide to clients:

Proprietors and employees of BOPs may not:
Provide assistance to, or on behalf of, customers in the production, storage, or packaging of beer, such as:
– Fermenting mash,
– Adding sugar, CO2, or any other ingredients to beer,
– Filtering or bottling beer, or
– Providing physical assistance in the production, tank transfer, racking, or the bottling or kegging of beer.

I don’t know the specific arrangement the White House beer is brewed under, but having employees brew beer for one’s personal use seems possibly problematic. The president may also be stretching the meaning of “personal use.” When Obama gives his beer away to potential voters while running for office, does that still qualify? It would take one hell of a gutsy TTB agent to levy fines against his ultimate boss, but it sure would be amusing to watch the attempt.

Having a brewery in the White House also provides an opportunity to raise the question of why home distilling, which essentially requires only the additional steps of boiling one’s beer and collecting portions of the condensate, remains an illegal offense that can land one in prison. Merely owning a still in this country is suspect: It must be low in volume, can only be used for making purified water, essential oils, fuel, etc., and the TTB can demand from sellers of stills the name and address of any customer, no warrant required.

Our first president, George Washington, had a distillery on his property and underground distillers continue the tradition of making quality spirits at home. Unfortunately, making craft spirits legally requires leaping some major hurdles. Darek Bell, owner of Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, discusses this in his extremely interesting book on distilling, Alt Whiskeys:

Unfortunately, only a few countries in the world allow legal home distilling. New Zealand, for example, is one of them. In the United States, distilling whiskey without a federal permit is a felony. This is no parking ticket. It is life destroying: five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Bell compares craft distilling today to craft beer in the 1980s. Small distillers are making excellent products but they’ve not yet achieved their full creative potential, hampered as they are by high start-up costs and regulatory requirements. Bell’s beer-inspired recipes provide a glimpse of what the future of small-scale whiskey might look like: Chamomile Wheat Whiskey, Huckleberry Moonshine, Bavarian Helles Whiskey. But trying these at home or experimenting with them before going commercial is forbidden, so the path that led to full-time careers for many homebrewers is closed to would-be spirits makers. Legal changes to bring home distilling into the open would help unleash this creativity.

This week’s many articles about Obama’s taste for craft beer have been inane, but they do show how far we’ve come destigmatizing and legalizing alcohol. If thirty years from now we have a president stirring Manhattans made with his special White House Whiskey, that will be an even greater sign of progress.

Update 8/23/12: I’ve been trying to reach the TTB for clarification on the legality of having paid employees brew beer for one’s personal use. I haven’t received a response, but I will update if and when I do.

Update 8/27/12: The Tax and Trade Bureau has responded to my request for clarification about the legality of hiring employees to make tax-free beer for one’s personal consumption. Short answer: This is an issue for which the TTB has never issued a ruling, but the law doesn’t preclude it.

Here’s the question I sent to Tom Hogue, who handles congressional and media inquiries for the TTB:

I’m curious if the TTB has ruled on the legality of having paid employees brew beer for one’s personal consumption. Without necessarily commenting on the White House beer specifically, would this qualify as legal homebrewing? If so, can ordinary citizens hire personal chefs to brew beer for them without paying taxes on it?

And here’s Tom’s response:

The answer to your question is generally speaking, yes. We have not issued a ruling on this issue, however, the regulations do not preclude a person from hiring a personal chef to brew beer for them, provided that they adhere to the regulatory provisions relating to personal or family use.

This is interesting for a couple reasons. First is that the White House brewery has brought up an issue that the TTB has never had to rule on before. Second is that while it’s illegal to sell homebrewed beer, one can apparently sell the labor that goes into making it. This opens up potential business opportunities. For personal chefs it’s an additional service they can offer and one more way they can differentiate themselves from the competition. It might even be possible to work as a “professional homebrewer,” traveling from house to house making beer to clients’ specifications. Who knows if there’s enough demand for that, but it’s an intriguing possibility. (There is at least one “Homebrew Guru” offering something like this in the form of home instruction.)

A caveat to the above: With no official ruling on the subject, these ideas are purely speculative. If more people start earning money making homebrew, the TTB may decide to rule and the selling beer vs. selling labor distinction might not hold up. But for now, at least, an enterprising brewer can claim a sitting president and former University of Chicago law professor as an example in his favor.

No Peace Prize for Moon bombers

The Oregonian is comedy gold this week. Though honestly, if I edited its letters page I would have printed this too.

The addict in chief?

Covering Obama’s signature of the misguided FDA tobacco bill, columnist Marie Cocco refers to the president as a “poster addict” for the anti-smoking movement:

Obama should be neither annoyed nor embarrassed that he keeps getting asked — about “once every month or so,” he says — about his struggle with cigarettes. He happens to be, hands-down, the best possible spokesman for the new FDA regulation. He should embrace the role.

The president should make public service announcements describing his addiction to cigarettes, which he began smoking as a teenager, and his so-far-failed efforts to completely snuff them out. Because after all, if such a smart, smooth and incontestably successful man is having such trouble quitting, what hope is there for the average American who has no worries about a prying press or the negative aura of a nicotine-stained image?

What hope indeed. Never mind the fact that there are about as many former smokers in the United States (45.9 million) as there are current smokers (45.4 million) according to the CDC. Somehow millions of Americans lacking Obama’s superpowers have managed to kick the habit. So what are we to make of Obama’s continued smoking? Cocco has one explanation:

Recovering his equanimity, the president explained that he’s “95 percent cured” from smoking, doesn’t smoke in front of his family and doesn’t light up every day. In short, he is a closet smoker — just like millions of Americans who are trying to quit, whose families are dismayed that they haven’t, and who risk public opprobrium when they admit they’re still tethered to tobacco.

This is the line political correctness, and perhaps his wife, forces Obama to go along with. Is it any wonder he gets snappy with reporters who keep asking him about his habit? As a famously cool and collected president, this constant portrayal as a weak-willed addict must be terribly grating.

But what if he’s not an addict? He’s reportedly not smoking every day despite having one of the most stressful jobs in the world. When he takes those occasional furtive smoke breaks, is he racked with guilt and shame? Or does he secretly enjoy it, a welcome respite from the demands of being president? Perhaps rather than being a model addict, he is a model of moderation, a man who has successfully reduced his consumption to a level he personally finds appropriate. I don’t pretend to know, but if having a smoke every few days does make him happy, in today’s environment he couldn’t possibly tell us.

Priorities

Selected tweets from my friends in the last 24 hours:

Discussions of Obama being “Good for a beer” and regular White house cocktail parties makes me happy on many, many levels.

ZOMG. Obama says he’d “go for a beer with Hannity”. Obama’s like 500000% better a person than I could ever be.

Has a man crush on Obama

These soon after the administration cited state secrets to block the Binyam Mohamed case. Obama’s a swell guy and all, but he’s not a better person than you. He wouldn’t go for a beer with Hannity because he’s so wonderful. He’d do it because that kind of glad-handing chumminess is what makes a person appeal to more than 50% of American voters. You, my friends, couldn’t put up with two years of that campaign bullshit. You wouldn’t try to cover up the previous administration’s complicity in rendition cases either. That’s why I like you. Snap out of it.

The honeymoon is over

I have nothing to add to what Greenwald, Sullivan, and Thoreau have written, but I think the Obama Administration’s invocation of state secrets to cover up torture cases deserves the widest possible coverage. It’s unfortunate that the stimulus debate will likely overshadow it. To those of you who enthusiastically supported Obama for his promise of change: Are you going to accept this?

No disagreement?

Damn. Cato took out full page ads this week in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Roll Call objecting to Obama’s claim that “There is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jumpstart the economy.” The ad is signed by some 200 economists and reads:

With all due respect Mr. President, that is not true.

Notwithstanding reports that all economists are now Keynesians and that we all support a big increase in the burden of government, we do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance. More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s. More government spending did not solve Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990s. As such, it is a triumph of hope over experience to believe that more government spending will help the U.S. today. To improve the economy, policy makers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, saving, investment and production. Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth.

On the other hand, Obama’s plan persuaded Cato to inject much-needed revenues into the struggling print journalism industry, so he’s got that going for him.

Credit where due

I’m still catching up on the news, but Radley’s impressed with Obama’s self-limiting first acts in office:

Yes, it’s only been one day. But this is mighty impressive. Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to sign orders rolling back his predecessor’s expansion of executive power. Put another way, Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to institute limits on his own power.

Check Radley’s post for specifics. Keep in mind too that this is all just a week after AG nominee Eric Holder had no expectation of reversing course on the telecom immunity Obama initially opposed but eventually caved and voted in favor of. But still, bravo for a good beginning.

Vilsack, for reals this time

On November 13 I lamented speculation that Obama would name corn-loving former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. On November 25 I mentioned that Vilsack said no, actually, that’s not going to happen. So for the sake of completeness, here’s today’s news:

President-elect Barack Obama, a backer of tighter farm subsidy rules and new-generation biofuels, selected Tom Vilsack from the major U.S. farm state of Iowa to be agriculture secretary, said a Democratic official on Tuesday.

I guess we can take comfort in the fact that subsidies will only go to “new-generation biofuels,” which won’t be wasteful and counterproductive like the old-generation biofuels of, say, right now.

[Via Maureen Ogle.]

The steady erosion of freedom

Nick Gillespie’s excellent new video for Reason.tv examines how in the course of a decade smoking bans went from Californian absurdity to national trend:

In related news, Michael Kinsley raises the question of whether Barack Obama has truly quit smoking or not, rightfully concluding (after a bit too much fawning) that’s it’s the president’s business if he hasn’t. But I have to wonder: When Obama feels like lighting up, does he have to step outside? The White House is a public building, after all. It would be fitting to see the most powerful man in the country reduced to huddling beside a doorway like the rest of us common folk, forced out of comfortable surroundings by meddling bureaucrats.

And out of hope, cynicism

Ezra Klein notes disapprovingly that Obama will likely appoint former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to Agriculture Secretary:

If the Department of Agriculture sees large farmers and farm producing states (like Iowa), rather than individual eaters, as their primary constituency, then we’ll have a farm policy geared towards those interests. But eaters have interests here too, as do taxpayers, and parents, and energy advocates, and the public health community. They, however, are not well represented in Iowa politics. The fact that Obama is already signaling that his chief agricultural appointment will hail from the land of corn, and whose agricultural experience will mainly have been keeping powerful corn interests happy with him, is not a good sign. Vilsack could surprise, of course. But the indication here is that Obama will not upend the ag subsidy apple cart.

This is not surprising. All you had to do was look at Obama’s consistent support for subsidies, his campaigning in the Midwest, or the prominent New York Times article discussing his advisors’ ties to the ethanol industry to know that his mantra of change is not going to extend to our wasteful agricultural policies. Klein, to his credit, was not unaware of this, though he hoped for better once the pressures of the election were removed. But why? The fact that Obama reads Michael Pollan and buys arugula at Whole Foods doesn’t mean he’s going to pursue the kinds of policies preferred by people who also read Michael Pollan and buy arugula at Whole Foods.

If Vilsack is indeed the nominee, that doesn’t bode well for Obama’s willingness to challenge conventional politics. A week after the election we’ve already seen signs of continued subsidies to corn growers, support for corporate welfare for automakers, and a more conservative approach to halting intelligence and civil liberties abuses than many were hoping for. I never had high hopes for Obama, but even I’m surprised at how quickly he’s managing to show that, however inspiring he may be, he’s still just another damn politician.

That said, I’ll forgive the rocky start if he throws us civil libertarians a big bone to chew on sometime soon.

Blue state bartender

A few months ago I was fighting for liberty at the Cato Institute. Tonight I’ll be tending bar for the Oregon Democratic Party’s election celebration. Oh, how far I have fallen. If IHS finds out I’ll never be invited to another seminar.

Will tonight’s crowd be filled with tears of joy or disillusionment? Meh, I don’t really care anymore. As long as the ruling party falls short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and Prop. 8 fails in California, that’ll be good enough for me. As you revel or mourn, just remember to tip your bartender. His drinks may be less intoxicating than an Obama rally, but he’s honest and he delivers. We’ll see if we can say the same about the president in four years.

I’ll be back tomorrow at the dawn of a new age of hope and change and ponies. Enjoy the evening, and come the morning let’s tear down the posters and start showing a little skepticism toward the guy you just made the most powerful man in the world, ok?

Disenfranchised

I’m sitting in a typically Obama-friendly Portland coffee shop trying to fill out my Virginia absentee ballot. I need a No. 2 pencil do so. I could get up and ask if anyone can loan me one so I can vote for Bob Barr in a swing state, but I don’t expect that will inspire anyone to help.

Struggling to identify the lesser evil

I’m not going to endorse anyone in this election. As with the previous two presidential races in which I’ve been eligible to vote, I’ll be throwing my ballot to the Libertarians on the theory that my vote has a vanishingly small chance of affecting the outcome and its marginal value is greater for a small third party than for the Big Two. I’m also glad to have a respectable candidate on the LP ticket this year; I won’t have to hold my nose voting for Bob Barr as I did voting for the insane Michael Badnarik. I expect McCain and Obama both have the potential to be disastrously bad presidents and I won’t take an affirmative act in favor of either of them. The question then isn’t so much which of them I’d rather see in office as it is whose victory will drive me to the fewest shots of bourbon on election night and beyond.

One of my friends recently pointed out that this site has an anti-Obama bias. He’s right, but it’s not because I think Obama is substantially worse than McCain. It’s because so many intelligent people seem to be under Obama’s spell, taking it on faith that he’s going to be a fantastically transformational president. The few McCain supporters I know are more grounded. They don’t particularly like the guy or what he stands for, but they soberly think him the lesser of two evils, especially given Democrats’ control of Congress. (There are plenty of stupidly enthusiastic McCain supporters as well, but I don’t think they read this blog.)

Throughout this campaign I’ve wavered about which of the two I think would be least destructive in office. I initially favored Obama, if for no other reason than to kick the reigning bastards out. I later drifted toward McCain based on the superiority of many of his policy ideas. Then he nominated Palin for VP and it got really hard to be a self-respecting McCain defender. Ever since the convention the McCain campaign has been an intellectual disaster. Perhaps there is no way McCain could have won this election, but he could have at least forced Obama into a more substantive discussion. If he had, he could have made a respectable play for the politically secular, socially tolerant, economically literate voter. It’s extremely disappointing that he didn’t, because he could have made a good case for himself on a number of issues:

Trade: McCain boasts an admirably long career of promoting free trade. According to Cato’s trade vote tracker, since 1997 he’s voted 88% of the time against trade barriers (35 of 40 votes) and against subsidies 80% (8 out of 10 votes). Obama has a thinner record, but it’s consistently anti-trade: Out of 18 opportunities to vote in favor of free trade, he did so only 4 times. This matches his rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he stokes resentment toward foreign trade by blaming outsourcing for our economic woes. McCain’s the clear favorite here.

The popular line among Obama-leaning libertarians right now is that Obama is only appearing anti-trade to get elected and that he’s clever enough to implement better policies once he’s in office. Maybe, but that’s not the way his record points. It strikes me as equally likely that he’ll be true to his word on restricting trade and waver in his support of civil liberties, as he in fact has a record of doing. Counting on Obama to stand up against his own rhetoric, Democratic interest groups, and an anti-trade, pro-regulation Congress is a thin reed on which to place one’s hopes.

Climate change: The best way to cut carbon emissions is to tax them directly or institute a system of cap-and-trade. Ideally no candidate would propose anything besides these ideas and some highly targeted grants to basic research. In the real world politicians invariably support handouts to special interests, too.

Obama and McCain both support cap-and-trade, though Obama’s targets are slightly more ambitious and therefore more costly. They both support subsidies to coal and renewable power. Obama has his own grab bag of other subsidies and handouts to promote. Though you won’t hear them say much about it now, Obama and Biden both have a long history of boosting ethanol, subsidies McCain has had the guts to call out as wasteful sops to farm states that don’t actually help the environment. McCain would advocate subsidies for the construction of nuclear plants and offer prizes for research; there are reasons to be dubious of the nuclear idea and thankfully he may not be able to win support for it.

On an issue where both candidates spout a lot of nonsense, McCain’s plan has an edge for likely being less expensive. If you’re against throwing money at reducing carbon emissions, McCain’s your man. If you’re in favor of doing that, he’s still your man because he’ll waste less money in the process. A major obstacle to addressing climate change is getting the system of cap-and-trade instituted in the first place; if McCain doesn’t reduce emissions to the degree you prefer you can tighten the restrictions four years later. Whatever reasonable position you may have on climate change, there’s a good argument for McCain being the smarter pick.

Subsidies and spending: Speaking of subsidies, remember that $300 billion farm bill from this past spring? McCain has consistently opposed farm subsidies, preferring to defend the interests of US farmers by opening foreign markets to trade. Obama staunchly supports the handouts, with the exception of opposing our notorious sugar protectionism. Until he had to win the Florida vote, that is. Now he supports that too.

Predictably neither candidate is addressing the true causes of uncontrolled government spending: entitlements and the military budget. They both want to expand the military and neither is likely to meaningfully reform entitlements, though McCain does have a decent fiscal record. McCain at least will be better at resisting new government largesse. I worry about the new entitlements a liberal Democratic supermajority will put into place — spending programs that will be practically impossible to reverse once they’ve been implemented.

Health care: I don’t pretend to know how to “fix” the US health care system. I am convinced that decoupling health insurance from employment and bringing more market pressures to bear on health care costs would be worthwhile approaches to reform. McCain’s plan would transfer the tax credit from employers to individuals, free up the insurance market by allowing plans to compete across state lines, and open group plans to new kinds of associations. These all strike me as steps in the right direction.

Taxes: Making sense of tax policies is a struggle even for experts and I don’t pretend to be one. Neither candidate is pushing comprehensive reform. Clive Crook argues that McCain has undersold his plan since after accounting for his refundable health insurance credit it will arguably make middle class Americans better off than they’d be under Obama’s. This issue, along with long-term deficits, has received too little attention in the campaign.

Foreign policy: No, McCain doesn’t have an advantage here, but Obama’s not as superior as people think. He is not principally opposed to committing US troops to foreign intervention; he’ll just commit troops to presumably nicer, smarter wars than McCain would. He may prove dangerously hawkish on Iran if diplomacy fails to prevent it from moving forward with nuclear projects. He and McCain seem equally reckless regarding Georgia. But a key difference is this: When a President McCain proposes sending our troops into a new arena, he’ll face skepticism from the media and a Democratic Congress who will accuse him of continuing failed policies from the Bush years. President Obama will get a free pass since he’s by definition smart and nice and doesn’t fight stupid wars like Bush did. When Obama proposes deploying US troops, who will step up to counter his ambitions? And why does he want to add 90,000 troops to the military unless he foresees a use for them?

Divided government: The most compelling reason to vote for McCain is that he’ll face a Democratic Congress. Though it’s hard to run a pro-gridlock campaign, for advocates of limited government it’s the best thing McCain’s got going for him. If we have learned one thing from the post-9/11 Bush Administration, it is that we should be wary of trusting a charismatic president whose party controls both houses of Congress in time of perceived crisis. This year the crisis is financial rather than military, the presumptive president even more charismatic than before, and Congress potentially even beyond the reach of filibuster by the minority party. That’s a hell of a lot power to trust in one man. Would President McCain, or even President Palin, be so terrible as to make this the preferred alternative?

A counter to this argument is that Republicans need to spend some time in the wilderness to renew their small government credentials. I agree, and for that reason I’m glad to see that they’ll lose even more seats in Congress and that they’re sweeping George Bush under the rug as thoroughly as possible. But I’m not sure that handing the levers of power entirely to the Democrats is worth the long-term cost or that exiled Republicans wouldn’t look instead to culture warriors like Palin to redefine the GOP. Hoping they’ll return with a new Goldwater or Reagan or Gingrich is taking a big risk for a very uncertain payoff.

On a related note, a last argument in McCain’s favor is that there’s a decent chance he’d be a one-term man. He even flirted with the idea of making a one-term pledge. Obama will likely enjoy two. Except in the unlikely event that there’s been no economic recovery or a foreign policy disaster four years from now, he’ll be in a position to win re-election. So what’s worse, eight years of Obama, or four of McCain followed by a potentially open contest?

That’s the best case I can make for McCain. I don’t find it compelling; the specter of McCain-Palin foreign policy looms too large over any prospect of them assuming office, especially in the worst possible scenarios. If McCain hadn’t chosen such an obscenely unqualified vice presidential nominee I could feel more confident in preferring him. If Republicans could maintain control over just one house of Congress I could rest easier about Obama’s big government ambitions. We’re left instead with two atrocious choices. For all the reasons given above, I can’t join in the chorus of libertarians half-heartedly rooting for Obama. I can’t root for McCain either, but I confess I’ll feel more relief than I perhaps should if by some miracle he wins on Tuesday. Luckily, it appears there’s little chance he’ll have the opportunity to prove me wrong.

The God-touched president

Radley’s been posting the YouTube videos of John Stossel’s recent special on American politics. Since I don’t have a TV in Portland yet, I’m grateful. Here’s my favorite segment, a look at how the complex campaign finance laws backed by McCain and other progressives confound political outsiders.

The opening sequence is good as well.

In a related vein, here’s Cato’s Gene Healy discussing the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, in which a hack president is touched by an angel and transforms into a benevolent dictator finding solutions to all the country’s problems.

No one’s expecting Obama to round up and execute his opposition, but “the God-touched president” is an apt metaphor for how high expectations of his leadership have risen. Perhaps the most distressing thing about Obama is how he’s taken a generation attuned to the knowing irony of The Colbert Report and South Park and brought them back to the earnest belief in salvation through politics seen in this Roosevelt-era movie.

My fantasy election

After a long conversation with several oh-so-earnest Portland Obama supporters last night — the kind of group in which predicting the existential end of the United States within 20 years if he loses doesn’t cause anyone to bat an eye — I was reminded of my fantasy election. As much as I dislike Hillary Clinton, I harbor a secret wish that she were the Democratic nominee. She has no cult of personality. She’s not fooling anybody. Most normally intelligent people’s brains don’t turn to mush when they envision her in office. Even with Democratic control of Congress, another President Clinton would have at least ensured that the partisan rancor and distrust of government Bush has worked so hard to achieve would not be squandered.

And on the Republican side, as long as they’re going to tank the election anyway, couldn’t they have thrown Ron Paul on the ticket? Never mind that he’d be crushed, at least the debates would have been interesting.