What Do You Give to a Failed Candidate?

Just three months after his campaign to become the Vice President of the United States ended, former Senator John Edwards has been given a new job that seems designed to keep him, at least occasionally, in the public eye.

Edwards is going to become the Director of a new organization called the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity (CPWO for short) that will officially be a part of the Law School at UNC-Chapel Hill. His title will be University Professor. He will give occasional guest lectures and do whatever directing the CPWO entails. For that work, he’ll be paid $40,000 annually. That’s a lot less than a senator is paid, but money is really no object for the millionaire lawyer.

According to UNC’s press release, CPWO is going to bring together “UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and other national public policy experts to examine innovative and practical ideas for moving more Americans out of poverty and into the middle class.” The problem here is that the kinds of ideas that all those “public policy experts” are apt to find innovative are not practical. Moreover, ideas that are practical are likely to be of no interest to the CPWO experts because they don’t involve government, except to shrink it.

Take a close look at the language here – “moving more Americans out of poverty.” It is perfectly consistent with the leftist view that poverty isn’t something that individuals need to overcome through their own efforts, but a condition that cruel society has imposed on some and which they can be moved out of with the right sorts of government policy. Innovative ones, naturally.

And John Edwards is full of such ideas. As the press release informs us, “Edwards spent six years in the U.S. Senate. In that time, he championed policy initiatives such as raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned income tax credit, creating matching saving accounts for low-income families, and providing incentives for teachers to teach in low-income schools.”

Good grief. Appointing someone who believes that raising the minimum wage is a way to “move people out of poverty,” is about as sensible as appointing someone to head the National Institutes of Health who believes that bleeding the patient is a good way to cure disease. Economists have known for at least a century that if the government artificially raises the price of labor, less labor will be demanded. The minimum wage is one of those feel-good nostrums that politicians fall back on when they need some way of professing their deep compassion for the poor, but it’s actually counterproductive.

The CPWO is supposed to be “nonpartisan,” but I’ll bet that it won’t be non-ideological. Would Director Edwards consider for a second any study exploring the possibility that government is the obstacle to success for many of America’s poor? There are mountains of evidence that the only way to stimulate economic growth and job creation is for government to reduce its drag on the economy with tax and spending cuts, deregulation, and freer trade. John Edwards, however, has never had anything good to say about any of those policies, which don’t fit in with his populist image.

Praising the selection of Edwards to direct the CPWO – I wonder if anyone else was considered?—Law School Dean Gene Nichol said that Edwards is “one of the best lawyers in America.” Whether that’s true or not, lawyers don’t have any particular expertise in the policy issues the CPWO is supposed to analyze. All that Edwards brings to the party is high name-recognition and a penchant for pushing pie-in-the-sky ideas that sound nice to voters who mistakenly believe that any problem can be solved as long as the government has good intentions and spends enough money.

On the off chance that John Edwards is really interested in policies that will help reduce poverty and give people greater opportunity to improve their circumstances, I recommend that he start by reading Henry Hazlitt’s classic book The Conquest of Poverty. He should then proceed to Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, which explains how the federal government’s great “War on Poverty” actually made things worse.

Edwards loves to say that poverty is a “moral issue.” I’m inclined to agree with him in this way: It’s immoral for politicians to continue policies that harm poor people. If the CPWO ever advocates the repeal of any such policies, I’ll be amazed.