Archives: January, 2007

Those Who Sell Out Will Eventually Be Punished

In a sick way, I’m enjoying the debate over price controls for prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. Of course, I don’t want Congress to dry up the stream of drugs that will keep me alive and vigorous when I’m a geezer. It’s just … what were the Republicans and the drug companies thinking when they created Part D? What did they think would happen? Did they really believe that, if they’d create this program, Congress would never impose price controls?

As I argued on TV today, Part D has Congress buying — through the middleman of the private drug plans — a product with high research and development costs and low marginal costs. And Congress buys those drugs for a politically powerful group of citizens (the geezers). That kind of setup cannot last. The temptation for Congress to pay nothing more than the marginal costs will be inexorable, because doing so pleases constituencies that are paying attention (seniors and current taxpayers) and harms only those constituencies that are either unpopular (drug manufacturers) or else aren’t paying attention (future seniors, including those not yet born).

The writing is on the wall. It may not happen this year, but unless we scrap Part D, sooner or later we will get price controls on seniors’ prescription drugs.

So let’s scrap Part D.

What? You’re a Republican who voted for Part D, against conscience and better judgment?? And now you’re afraid to scrap Part D for fear of (gasp!) flip-flopping or offending the geezers?? Then start talking about fundamental Medicare reform, buddy. And start now.

Next Up: Democrats’ Plan for Tax Augmentation

The Washington Post reports:

[Sen. Chuck] Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, angrily condemned the “escalation” of the [Iraq] war. “To ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives to be put in the middle of a civil war is … morally wrong. It’s tactically, strategically, militarily wrong.”

“I don’t see it, and the president doesn’t see it, as an escalation,” [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice replied.

Hagel looked stunned. “Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?”

“Escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in,” Rice ventured.

“Would you call it a decrease?” Hagel pressed.

“I would call it, Senator, an augmentation.”

The War Decider

I can answer the question Senator Webb put to Secretary Rice yesterday. The answer is, yes, it is “the administration’s position that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran in the absence of a direct threat without congressional approval.” They haven’t yet directly said “we can launch a war with Iran and we don’t need anyone’s permission,” but it’s not hard to read between the lines:

In April 2002, John Yoo, then with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, testified  before the Senate Judiciary Committee that ”the President has the constitutional authority to introduce the U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities when appropriate, with or without specific congressional authorization.” In an internal memorandum prepared shortly after September 11, 2001, Yoo had put it even more starkly: “In the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the President’s decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.” 

That is consistent with Vice President Cheney’s long-held view of the president’s powers, as can be seen in this Frontline interview in which Cheney discusses his role as secretary of defense during the Gulf War:

Q: The Congressional vote. Do you recall discussing with the President what he would have done if he’d lost the votes. 

Cheney: It was my view at the time [that] we were absolutely committed to getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait one way or the other, no matter what we had to do. We had to have the Saudis as allies in that venture, but if no one else had been with us, if it had just been the United States and Saudi Arabia, without the United Nations, without the authorization of the Congress, we were prepared to go ahead. I argued in public session before the Congress that we did not need congressional authorization…. I was not enthusiastic about going to Congress to ask for an additional grant of authority. I was concerned that they might well vote NO and that would make life more difficult for us, or that even if they voted YES and then we had a disaster on our hands and it didn’t work, they’d still be against us….

Q: But if you’d lost the vote …?

Cheney: If we’d lost the vote in Congress, I would certainly have recommended to the President we go forward anyway.

If and when Secretary Rice provides her promised written answer to Senator Webb, I doubt that it will say: “The president has the constitutional authority to launch wars at will, anywhere in the world, at any time of his choosing, without anyone’s permission. So yes, of course he can start a war with Iran.” But that is the administration’s view.

(Hat tip: Matt Yglesias

Health Plan Hubris

Jacob Hacker writes:

[E]very legal resident of the United States who lacks access to Medicare or good workplace coverage would be able to buy into the “Health Care for America Plan,” a new public insurance pool modeled after Medicare. This new program would team up with Medicare to bargain for lower prices and upgrade the quality of care so that every enrollee would have access to either an affordable Medicare-like plan with free choice of providers or to a selection of comprehensive private plans.

It seems to me that if a plan “bargains for lower prices,” then many providers would prefer not to participate. In that case, “free choice of providers” would require forcing doctors to join.

I was pointed to this plan by Matthew Yglesias, who praised it. I got to Yglesias via Tyler Cowen, who is more skeptical.

I am very pessimistic about the outlook for health care policy. It seems to me that wonks are engaged in a bidding war for politicians, in which the guy with the most hubris (Great health care for all! At half the cost!) wins. 

I think that the best that libertarians can hope for is to see some of these ideas tried in state laboratories and have their outcomes measured against their promises. My fear is that we will get the former but without the latter.

Subsidies Fail to Save French Farms

French farmers harvest billions of euros every year in government support through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Yet those lavish subsidies and trade barriers have failed to achieve one of their primary objectives: saving the French family farm.

According to a study just released by the French Statistical Institute (INSEE), and reported in today’s Financial Times, an average of 100 French farms have gone out of business EVERY DAY for the past 50 years. The number of farm workers in France has dropped by two-thirds in the past 25 years. France’s farm exports have been declining by 3.4 percent per year since 1999, and farm household income has actually fallen during the past decade, while the incomes of non-farm households in France have been going up.

The decline of the French farm has occurred despite, or perhaps because of, the generous support of the CAP. France’s farmers receive the equivalent of $11.6 billion a year in handouts, more than one fifth of total European Union spending on agriculture. Those subsidies have arguably kept French farms from becoming more competitive and thus contributed to their long-term decline.

When the EU’s farm commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, warned that French farmers should seek second incomes outside the farm sector to survive, the French farm minister denounced her comments as “an insult to the social model to which European citizens are profoundly and legitimately attached.”

Is an agricultural “social model” that costs billions of euros a year and only adds to the decline of the French farm worth holding on to?

‘Net Wars

It’s a politician’s dream:

Congress is about to embark on new policymaking that will make some of America’s largest and wealthiest corporations into big financial winners and others into big losers. Given the money at stake, firms are dispatching lobbyists, armed with perks and campaign contributions, to D.C. to ensure that their clients end up on the good side of the legislation.

Making the dream even more wonderful is that the issue is obscure and complex. Most Americans will be affected, but few Americans will understand the issue and thus be able to hold politicians accountable for bad policymaking.

Welcome to the Net Neutrality fight.

To understand the fight, think of how the Web is increasingly making use of video and audio content, e.g., YouTube’s video streams, Internet radio’s audio streams, even Cato’s webcasts and podcasts. And now, on the technological horizon, is the ability to receive whole movies over the Internet. The flow of all of that data places considerable strain on high-speed Internet service providers (ISPs), who have to maintain and upgrade their portions of the Internet in order to keep the streams moving quickly.

Notice the economic asymmetry that results: content providers benefit from the upgrades, but high-speed ISPs like Comcast and AT&T pay the cost. Such asymmetries open the way for consumer-harming inefficiency and mischief.

The ISPs have responded to this situation by threatening to charge content providers for priority access. That is, a modest, text-driven website like Cato@Liberty, which doesn’t use much bandwidth, would likely go uncharged because it wouldn’t need priority service, but YouTube, with its bandwidth-consuming media streams, would need priority service and thus have to pay fees to the high-speed ISPs.

The content providers would prefer to avoid those fees, of course. They’re asking Congress to prohibit the ISPs’ proposal, and instead mandate “net neutrality” — ISPs giving equal priority to all Internet content, regardless of uneven bandwidth demand.

The New York Times nicely summarizes this fight:

Beyond the debate, the fight over net neutrality is, like most regulatory political battles, a fight over money and competing business models. Companies like Google, Yahoo and many content providers do not want to pay for the kinds of faster Internet service that will enable consumers to more quickly download videos and play games.

There are interesting arguments for both neutrality and non-neutrality. For a good argument for neutrality, read this article [pdf] by Stanford Law School’s Larry Lessig that appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Regulation. Lessig’s Stanford colleague Bruce Owen makes a good argument for non-neutrality in this article [pdf] from the Summer 2005 issue.

Why Support for the Minimum Wage Persists in Congress: A Thought Experiment

It might seem obvious why support for the minimum wage persists in Congress. Politicians always want to be seen as helping the little guy. So they would naturally support an increase of the minimum wage to $7.25, as is currently being proposed.

Let’s assume that everyone who supports an increase in the minimum wage also knows – and perhaps even agrees with – the fundamental economic insight that such an increase would lead to either lower-skilled workers being laid off or prices for goods going up or both. It’s conceivable that someone could still support a minimum wage increase after being convinced of that. It’s a price worth paying, they might say. Or they could argue, as some supporters of the current proposal do, that an increase to $7.25 – phased in over three years, no less! – won’t do that much damage. After all, it’s not a $15 increase.

Now let’s try a little thought experiment. Assume support for a minimum wage increase is conditional and dependent upon the proposal offered. A call for a $20 minimum wage, for instance, would arguably be greeted with much less enthusiasm. Evidence of this is the fact that even supporters of the minimum wage aren’t willing to go so far as to propose such a thing.

What follows, then, is a workable assumption about the politics of this issue: How adversely affected by the policy a congressman’s district would be is the main determinant, all other things being equal, of that congressman’s enthusiasm for a minimum wage increase. A congressman representing a rural district with many small businesses that the proposed minimum wage would burden most heavily would be a less enthusiastic supporter than one from a big city with many large businesses, the employees of which make far more than the minimum wage.

But the cost of living differs dramatically in different parts of the country, too: $7.25 doesn’t buy the same amount of stuff in Manhattan as in Kansas City. And there’s the rub. It’s easy for a congressman from Manhattan to support a $7.25 minimum wage since it might have only imperceptible economic effects in his district. In Kansas City, however, the effects would be relatively greater.

Now consider what might happen if Congress were required to adjust the federal minimum wage by the cost of living in each congressional district. In areas where the cost-of-living is close to the national average, the minimum wage would be around $7.25. In Manhattan – where it costs twice as much to live when compared to other areas, like Kansas City – the minimum wage would be at least $14.

This would set off all sorts of protests from congressmen in districts in which the upward adjustment is greatest. Now the businesses in their districts would feel a pinch they wouldn’t feel under a non-adjusted minimum wage. Those formerly enthusiastic congressmen might even start to question why it’s the federal government’s business to meddle in the often complex process – going on all around the country within hundreds of companies and cities, each of which are faced with vastly different economic situations – by which an employer and employee come to their own agreement on compensation for employment. And isn’t that the sort of debate we should be having?