Saturday, June 06, 2009

Powell, Bastiat, a Republican Resurgence?

I have no idea how many editorials and columns were written by Chris Powell, Managing Editor and former Editorial Page Editor of the Journal Inquirer, during the course of his long and eventful career in journalism; certainly more than a thousand which, to date, is the number of blog entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State. Most of the entrees here were columns printed in one or another of Connecticut’s small but vigorous and independent minded papers.

Shortly after he started in the journalism business, Powell became the youngest Managing Editor in Connecticut. I can testify from my own personal experience that he is a) unflappable, b) very much the hound of heaven in pursuit of a story and c) of indeterminate political persuasion.

But Powell’s most endearing characteristic may be his jolly spite, which keeps him going to the office every day with a dagger in his hand and bounce in his step.

I suppose if one has to force Powell into a procrustean formulation, radical democrat (with a small “d”) might do. But I like to think of him as Fredrick Bastiat updated, with a touch of Bitter Bierce thrown in to spice the mix.

Bastiat was an economic journalist, a no nonsense free marketer, who loved a joust and had a devilish way with words.

Only 21 in 1846, Bastiat established the Association of Free Trade in Paris and started his own weekly newspaper to beat the hides of the socialist and protectionist phonies of his day.

Calling himself the French Cobden -- after Richard Cobden, an English pamphleteer who campaigned against the British Corn Laws -- Bastiat wrote “The Petition of Candlemakers,” a jewel of rakish commentary that begins:

“We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light, that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price.... This rival ... is none other than the sun....

‘We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights and blinds; in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures…”

Bastiat forever blew the dust off economic commentary, and there were few in France while he was writing who did not feel his lash.

In Connecticut, if you are of a certain temperament, there is always something to write about; the well never runs dry, though it does take a bit of courage to bring up the water and blow it in the faces of smug politicians-for-life-who have never been made uncomfortable by a critical word. The good journalist, if there is such a creature, is supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Here in Blueville, most of the comfortable are entrenched Democrats. Were Bastiat alive and writing today in this the land of steady bad habits, he would be a Republican journalist with a knife in his teeth. If the grain is Democrat, those who go against the grain must risk the charge of being thought too Republican.

It’s a small price to pay for liberty.

At one point, Powell ran for office on the Republican ticket against a popular Democratic Rep., now retired and living the good life as a fixture in one of the too many offices in state government where donkeys and elephants go to die.

Had he won, Powell very likely would have set Connecticut’s political house on fire; not hard to do, as there is much kindling in the legislature. But he lost, gave up his berth as Editorial Page Editor of the JI and then took up cudgels as the paper’s chief political columnist.

The Democrat Party this year has been pummeling the Republican governor for having underestimated the deficit. At the present time, Gov. Rell thinks the deficit is about 8 billion, while Democrat leaders insist it is 9 billion, if not more.

What’s a billion or two among friends?

The present deficit, if Democrat figures are right, is about one billion more than the state’s last pre-income tax budget, a whopper of a black hole, though not quite as crippling as California’s.

Faced with a gargantuan deficit, Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature by a veto-proof margin, this year punted on presenting a rational budget. Democrat leaders put forth a budget that fills the 8 or 9 billion gap by raising the business killing corporation tax 30%, a move that left Republicans scratching their heads and muttering darkly, “Corporations? We still have corporations in Connecticut?”

Bastiat, had he been alive, might have called the Democrat solution to the deficit politicide, state suicide.

However, before the legislature shook the dust of the Capitol from its feet, it passed, puffing out its collective chest as it did so, a bill apologizing for slavery, which provided Powell with a column titled, “Will a future legislature apologize for this one?”

Powell dove into this ironic compost pile with his usual alacrity.

“Shortly before the mandatory adjournment of the General Assembly's regular session,” Powell wrote, “the state Senate followed the House in approving a resolution apologizing for the days of slavery in Connecticut. Maybe in another century or two some future legislature will apologize for the failure of the current one to deal with the here and now by passing a state budget.

“While the Democrats have a potentially veto-proof majority in both houses and while they proposed to raise taxes by any amount necessary to feed the ravenous machine of government, they declined to put their own budget to a vote. They wanted political cover by getting Governor Rell, a Republican, to agree to tax increases first.”

Among politicians and Mafiosi, this stratagem is called “dipping the handkerchief in blood.”

Whoever is involved in the crime owns the crime. In past times, Republican governors have been only too happy to implicate themselves in overspending. It was, after all, a former long time Republican, Lowell Weicker, who graced the state with its income tax, known in Republican quarters as “a license to spend.”

And spend the Democrats did, assisted by weak-kneed Republican governors. Throughout the administrations of one faux Republican governor, Weicker, and two moderate Republicans – John Rowland, whose peculations landed him in jail for a year, and Jodi Rell, demeaned by the Democrat loyal opposition as “Snow White” – the state budget nearly tripled.

And then something happened that helped to stiffen Connecticut Republican spines: The nation’s economic underpinnings collapsed; Democrats nationally and in-state captured political offices and a decisive fork appeared in the road. What might be called moderate Republicanism in the Northeast had been thoroughly routed with the loss of a seat held for many years by Rep. Chris Shays, Weicker lite.

Having hit bottom, some state Republicans decided there was no where to go but up.

They began to resist; blood once again began to course through palsied limbs.

This time around, Rell may offer something more than a token resistance to ruinous Democrat spending, though it is always possible that at the last moment she may surrender to her old habits, consort with her opposition and achieve yet another ruinous compromise that will contribute further to the beggaring of her state.

If that is the case, leading Republicans will and should bid her a fond farewell, and continue their course.

The slavery issue, as we all know, was decided ultimately in a brutal Civil War in the course of which Connecticut’s sons offered up that “last measure of devotion” that figures so prominently in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.

Apology comes easy, Powell notes, to a generation oblivious of history and suckled on its own self importance.

“Of course apologizing for the offenses of people who are long gone and unable even to put themselves in the context of their times is a lot easier than writing a state budget. It is also wonderfully more self-righteous than acknowledging the apologies that were delivered by, say, the sacrifices of the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Antietam in 1862 or the state's ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It is also a lot easier than doing something about the grotesque racial disproportions in Connecticut's prison system.”

But the self-importance of a legislature that flees its responsibilities while patting itself on the back for its own historical rectitude does not end there.

“Another sin of the present for which an apology is being left to the future is the eagerness of this legislature to run everyone else's business while remaining oblivious to its own. This legislative session may be most celebrated for passing a bill to require certain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, on the premise that it is the people of Connecticut who are too fat, not their government.”

Are the priorities of the legislature in good order? It would seem not.

“Responding to the horrible incident in Stamford in February, the legislature outlawed making pets of large primates and other animals considered dangerous. But the legislature has yet to respond to the horrible incident in Cheshire two years ago, in which a woman and her two daughters were murdered, purportedly by two career criminals on parole. Not only did the legislature refuse again this year to pass a "three strikes" law or even a "20 strikes" law; it again declined to inquire into why the defendants in Connecticut's worst atrocity in living memory have not even been brought to trial after two years. Apparently it is enough that Connecticut is now a bit safer from rogue chimpanzees.”

In the absence of a new budget, Powell notes, “the legislature just appropriated $10 million to bail out insolvent dairy farms. The bailout will be financed with a $40 surcharge on municipal property record filing fees. What obliges property registrants particularly to underwrite dairy farms? Maybe only the absence of the real estate industry's lobbyist when the bill was voted on.”

And finally, with a curtsey to Bastiat: “Maybe most amazing about this session was that even with their supermajority the Democrats still could not pass most of their committee chairmen's important bills, which were delayed until the session's last day, when the mischievous Republican minority could run out the clock by prolonging debate. Having watched his own big bill, providing tax breaks for economic development near Bradley International Airport, die for lack of time, state Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, noted, ‘The governor says we are a do-nothing legislature -- and the Republicans are making sure we are one.’ But then the Democrats had found time for the calorie-counting bill. Maybe economic development just wasn't meddlesome enough.”

Not a bad pull at the udders of indifference, complacency, bad judgment and self promotion.

Bastiat would be proud.
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