Archives: 09/2007

Cato Offers Home Study Course

The Cato Institute is now pleased to offer the Cato University Home Study Course, a self-paced, home study program, enabling you to spend time with brilliant minds in your home, office, or car; during a workout; while on vacation; or wherever and whenever you have an opportunity to listen and think. Immersing you in the thoughts and views of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Adam Smith, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Henry David Thoreau, Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others, the Cato University Home Study Course offers you the opportunity to deepen your perspectives, knowledge, and insight on the growth of human freedom – and with it science, culture, and capitalist prosperity.

SCHIP’s Perverse Incentives

Picking the worst government program would be a huge challenge, but picking the worst funding system is much easier. Programs involving joint federal-state funding contain built-in incentives to expand the size of government because politicians at either level can buy more votes by expanding the program, knowing that they only have to pay (depending on the formula) a share of the cost. In other words, lawmakers can promise $1 worth of goodies for, say, 50 cents. This is one of the reasons why Medicaid is a fiscal disaster. It’s also why welfare reform was a step in the right direction (the old system funneled more money to states when they added more people on the dole, creating a terrible incentive system). Unfortunately, politicians generally make things worse rather than better, and a Wall Street Journal editorial (sub only) shows how the SCHIP program is encouraging more government:

Schip was created in 1997 to help insure children from low-income families, but it has since become a stealth vehicle to expand government control of health care. Schip expires next week, and House and Senate negotiators are hashing out a “compromise” that would expand the program by about $35 billion over the next five years (plus a budget gimmick concealing at least $30 billion). … Many states like New Jersey have been taking advantage of Schip’s “flexibility” and covering more affluent children, their parents, and even childless adults. In a tardy response to this trend, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced in August that before states could further expand their Schip programs beyond 250% of poverty, they would have to enroll 95% of children below 200% of poverty. …For several years the number of uninsured New Jersey children under 200% has held steady, while New Jersey’s Schip rolls have grown by about 10% a year. One major reason is that the state continues to enroll families with incomes up to $72,275. … Governor Corzine could always tax his own residents to pay for this largesse. Then again, New Jersey already has one of the worst tax burdens in the country, and Trenton has raised taxes five times in the last six years. For the Governor, the political beauty of Schip is that it allows New Jersey to finance its spendthrift ways on the backs of more responsible states.

SCHIP’s Bootleggers and Baptists

Today’s Washington Post seems impressed that the State Children’s Health Insurance Program has made strange bedfellows:

A broad coalition – including liberal health policy advocates and their usual foes, the health insurance lobby – endorsed the SCHIP bill, urging House Republicans to get on board and the president to sign it…

The White House is looking increasingly isolated on the issue. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the largest insurance lobbying group, endorsed the measure yesterday, undercutting Bush’s contention that the bill is a step away from private insurance and toward government-run health care.

“It repairs the safety net and is a major movement toward addressing the problems that states and governors have been trying to address, which is how to get access for children,” said Karen Ignagni, the group’s president.

In a recent paper on SCHIP, I explain why the health care industry is lining up in support of a massive expansion:

Support for SCHIP (and Medicaid) expansion comes from an alliance of “bootleggers and Baptists.” Economists often explain support for government policies (e.g., restrictions on alcohol sales) in terms of those who truly believe in the merits of the policy (i.e., Baptists who oppose alcohol consumption) and those who benefit financially from the policy (i.e., the bootleggers who sell illicit alcohol).

The “Baptists” behind SCHIP expansion are those who believe that the way to increase health care quality and access is for government to finance and control the delivery of care. An example would be left-wing advocacy groups such as Families USA. Expanding SCHIP and Medicaid to enroll more and more Americans serves their goal of eventually enrolling all Americans in government health care programs…

The “bootleggers” behind SCHIP expansion include those who stand to gain financially from greater government subsidies for health insurance and health care. They include several lobbying groups: America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the insurers it represents; the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the drug manufacturers it represents; the American Medical Association and the physicians it represents; and the Federation of American Hospitals and the for-profit hospitals it represents. State officials who support SCHIP expansion, such as California’s Governor Schwarzenegger and the rest of the National Governors Association, also belong in the bootleggers category because increasing federal SCHIP spending benefits them politically: it enables them to provide new subsidies to voters at a fraction of the cost.

It would be nice if serious media outlets like the Post could acknowledge that the health insurance lobby has a financial interest in the legislation it supports.

Politicians and Retailers Conspire to Impose Sales Tax Cartel

As reported by Tax-news.com, a collection of trade associations is calling on Congress to impose the so-called Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement on all states. Their argument is that it is unfair to let online companies make tax-free sales to out-of-state consumers (states routinely choose not to tax their retailers who make such sales). There is an inequity in the current approach, to be sure, but politicians (with help from naive business groups) are picking the wrong solution. Creating a nationwide tax cartel - one that will require a massive invasion of privacy because of a database of online purchases – will insulate politicians from competition by making it extremely difficult for consumers to shop where taxes are lower. The right way to deal with the inequity is for states to apply their sales taxes (ideally at a low rate) on a non-discriminatory basis. In other words, the sales tax would apply to all sales made in a state, regardless of whether a good is sold in person or online, and regardless of whether the customer is an in-state resident or out-of-state resident. This would eliminate an inequity, preserve tax competition, and protect privacy.

The US National Retail Federation and nearly 100 retailers and trade associations are urging Congress to approve legislation making it easier to require internet merchants, mail-order houses and other “remote sellers” to collect sales tax across state lines. Coalition members are hoping to see action this fall on the Sales Tax Fairness and Simplification Act, which is pending in both the House and Senate. The measure would allow states that have implemented the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement to require that out-of-state merchants collect sales tax on merchandise sold to residents of their states. …While the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement went into effect on a voluntary basis in 2005, the coalition says that passage of federal legislation is needed before sales tax collection can become mandatory. Thus far, 22 states have passed legislation implementing the agreement. In addition, more than 1,000 companies have participated in the agreement voluntarily, and have collected more than $125 million in state and local sales tax that would otherwise have gone unpaid. The NRF helped draft the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, and has long argued that remote sellers enjoy an unfair price advantage in situations where they are not required to collect sales tax. The NRF wants a level playing field where all retailers are subject to the same tax rules when their merchandise is sold from a store, through a catalog or over the internet.

Potemkin School Reforms

Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, has a piece on New Orleans education reform in the current issue of Time. In describing a system of increased public school choice and charter schools he writes that it is “a voucher system in all but name that blows up the monopoly.”

If by “voucher system,” Mr. Isaacson means a system in which:

  • there are no market-determined prices (schooling is paid for entirely by the state and spending does not vary based on quality, demand, or any other market factor)
  • there are substantial barriers to the entry of new schools (the need to for a state charter)
  • schools can be closed for other than market reasons (charters are temporary and revocable)
  • for profit enterprise is inhibited (non-profit charter boards can contract out to for-profit management firms, but do so solely at their discretion, inhibiting expansion)
  • devotional religious school options are foreclosed

then, yes, you could call the N.O. model a “voucher system.” But to do so is to blur the distinction between a weak public school choice reform with only modest prospects and genuine market reforms which could spark the kind of innovation and excellence we have seen in every other sector of the economy over the past century.

Blurring that distinction is toxic to the school choice movement. If readers of Mr. Isaacson’s article take him at his word, and, five or ten years hence, fail to see dramatic results N.O., what will they conclude? They will conclude, mistakenly, that market reforms were tried and failed. In essence, Isaacson has built a straw man and given it to school choice critics to attack at their leisure.

So let us not use the word “voucher” to describe a hobbled public school choice program that does not even vaguely resemble the sort of free educational marketplace Milton Friedman had in mind when he wrote “On the Role of Government in Education” more than fifty years ago.

Trade Telltale

Since the “Great Compromise” on trade policy between the administration and Congress last spring, I have been outspokenly skeptical about prospects for further trade liberalization before 2009.  In that deal, the administration bowed to the wishes of Congressional Democrats to include enforceable labor and environmental provisions in pending and prospective trade agreements. 

For that accommodation, the Congressional leadership was supposed to help secure passage of the pending bilateral agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia, and Korea.  Almost immediately, though, the leadership voiced additional concerns about Colombia and Korea, which are widely considered to be very long-shots at best.

But after visiting Peru last month and getting his own fingerprints on the final details of the deal, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York returned home and voiced his support for the agreement.  And, it appears, there is support for the Peru agreement among members of Ways and Means and Senate Finance.  Several Congressional staffers have suggested that if the Peru vote garners relatively strong Democratic support, there may be hope for the others.

The problem, however, is that the House Democratic Caucus may not be prepared to follow.  Remember all of those freshman Democrats who campaigned in ’06 on an anti-trade message?  It seems they won’t go quietly into the night.  Whereas the veteran Democratic trade leadership may be inclined to use protectionist rhetoric to shift the terms of the trade debate in their favor, the new blood in their caucus is more inclined to believe it.  In that regard, the Rangels and Levins and Baucuses on the Hill (guys that probably know better) have helped create a potential Frankenstein.

On Friday, rank and file Democrats addressed a letter ($) to their Caucus Chairman, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, asking that the next caucus meeting be devoted to the U.S.-Peru Agreement.  The letter notes that there isn’t much support for the agreement among Democrats and that the Ways and Means Committee markup scheduled for tomorrow will prove divisive.

There were only seven signatories to the letter and it is unclear how representative it is of Democratic sentiments.  But if the topic proves divisive and rancorous – a development Nancy Pelosi wants to avoid – it will be interesting to see which side the House Speaker chooses to rein in.  The outcome of this potential impasse will tell much about the direction Democrats want to go on trade.