Archives: 12/2007

Unfunded State Health Costs: Still $1.4 Trillion

The New York Times and Washington Post report today on a new study by the Pew Center on the States regarding unfunded state and local pension and health costs for retirees.

Let’s just look at the health costs. Pew finds that state governments have promised their workers $370 billion of retiree health care that they have not put money aside for. Unless those benefits are cut, that figure represents the looming hit on future taxpayers.

But Pew only looks at state governments, which employ 4.3 million people, according to Census data. Local governments employ 11.8 million people. If the local health care problem is as big as the state problem, the total state/local unfunded amount would be $1.4 trillion.

Interestingly, that is precisely the figure that Jagadeesh Gokhale and I came up with when we looked at this problem last year. We estimated that state and local governments have racked up about $1.4 trillion in unfunded retiree health costs.

Our study and the Pew study highlight two fundamental problems. First, governments have been irresponsible in making huge promises to workers regarding future benefits, but then not funding them as private benefit plans would.

Second, “public sector employees are far more likely to receive retirement benefits [than private sector employees] and the gulf between private and public sectors continues to grow,” according to Pew. For example, 82 percent of government workers receive retiree health benefits, compared to just 33 percent of private sector workers.

The solution is to cut back sharply on the gold-plated benefits received by government workers, while privatizing as many state and local activities as possible.

Prior posts: here, here, and here.

The Democrats’ Distorted Take on trade and the 1990s

The debate among the Democratic presidential candidates has become stuck in the past. When they are not debating the alleged shortcomings of the 15-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, they have been sparring over the economic record of the 1990s.

Not surprisingly, front-runner Hillary Clinton touts the economic success of the previous decade, when her husband Bill Clinton was president and she was exercising influence down the hall in the West Wing.

“Sometimes an opponent of mine [read Barack Obama] says we talk about the 1990s too much,” Clinton said recently on the campaign trail, according to this morning’s Financial Times. “That is because in the 1990s we had the greatest economic performance in decades. I like to talk about what works because I want to get back to doing what works.”

Yet candidate Clinton and her fellow Democratic candidates also routinely trash NAFTA, which the former President Clinton shepherded through a Democratic Congress in 1993. They blame the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico for costing the U.S. economy million of manufacturing jobs.

So what was the real record of the 1990s? Was it a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity presided over by a generally pro-trade, Democratic president? Or was it a time of stagnation and job losses caused by a trade agreement that now, according to Hillary Clinton, must be reopened and revised?

The right answer is that the 1990s were a good time for the U.S. economy, and expanding trade and globalization—including NAFTA— were among of the reasons.

As I noted in a recent study for Cato, titled “Trading Up,” the economic record of the U.S. economy during the past decade, including the late 1990s, offers yet another reason to support further trade liberalization:

Rising real wages and compensation during the past decade pose a serious challenge to the “trade is making us worse off” thesis. If we are to believe that expanding trade and competition with low-wage countries have eliminated high-laying manufacturing jobs and depressed the earnings of U.S. workers, how do the critics of trade explain the remarkable labor-market gains of the past decade? Since 1997, during a period of rapidly increased trade and globalization, the number of workers employed in the U.S. economy jumped by more than 16 million, while the unemployment rate is now slightly below what it was a decade ago at a similar stage in the business cycle. And those employed workers, as we’ve seen, are earning significantly higher real hourly compensation than workers a decade ago when the U.S. economy was less globalized. That record is not an indictment of more liberal trade but a vindication.

What works is a more open, efficient and competitive U.S. market.

DHS: And We Even Obey the Law!

The Department of Homeland Security’s Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, Daniel W. Sutherland, explains here the great pains DHS is taking … well, not to embarrass itself as American Muslims return from the Hajj. Well and good.

But he goes a little far in touting the department’s efforts: “For the first time in the federal government, a Cabinet-level Secretary has placed two civil libertarians in senior leadership positions – Hugo Teufel, our Chief Privacy Officer, and me.”

The Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Privacy Officer are statutory positions. I’m not sure self-congratulation is in order for following the law.

Defeat Terrorism

Terrorism is a strategy used by the weak to goad the strong into self-injurious overreaction.

DownsizeDC has a campaign underway that I think is critical to defeating terrorism. It’s described on their site this way: “We’re looking for a few brave Americans to start a real war on terror — by not being afraid!”

The “I am Not Afraid” campaign is not about passing or killing any legislation. It is just to get Washington, D.C.’s consistent overreaction to the threat of terrorism under control. The sense of proportion this campaign seeks to create really makes it worth a visit, but here’s a taste:

Nearly 800,000 people have died in car accidents in the last twenty years. During that time there have been exactly two Islamic terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, with less than 3,000 total fatalities. That’s more than 200 TIMES as many Americans dying in their cars as at the hands of Islamic terrorism. And yet …We’ve turned the whole world upside down in response to the two terrorist attacks. We’ve launched invasions, created vast new bureaucracies, shredded the Bill of Rights, compounded regulations, spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and disrupted travel and commerce. But no one is suggesting that we do 200 times as much to address the driving risk, which is 200 times greater.

Terror warriors, keep your straw men in the barn. This is not a pacifist, terrorism-denial campaign. It seeks proportional responses to threats, and acceptance of harms that cannot reasonably be prevented. The message to legislators:

“I am not afraid of terrorism, and I want you to stop being afraid on my behalf. Please start scaling back the official government war on terror. Please replace it with a smaller, more focused anti-terrorist police effort in keeping with the rule of law. Please stop overreacting. I understand that it will not be possible to stop all terrorist acts. I accept that. I am not afraid.”

This is good, important work to defeat terrorism.

Evangelicals and Libertarians

A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal features this chart:

It shows, as the Washington Post bannered after the 2006 election, that evangelicals moved a bit away from the Republicans in 2006. Indeed, there was a 7-point decline in the Republican margin among evangelicals.

But if you want to see a real shift, the Post and the Journal could run this chart:

In other words, among libertarians, the margin for Republican House candidates dropped from 47 to 8 points, a 39-point swing. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large. Strategists in both parties should take note.

Virginia’s National ID Tax

The Washington Post had a story yesterday on whether Virginia would implement the REAL ID Act, the national ID law that has been rejected by other states across the country. They object to its formidable costs, bureaucratic burdens, insoluble privacy problems, and ineffectiveness as a security tool. Why might Virginia go along?

“The vast majority of 9/11 terrorists used Virginia licenses,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said. “I think that’s why you haven’t seen as much of a push back.”

It’s the hairshirt theory of policymaking - never mind whether making the driver’s license into a national ID will add to our protections.

Noting the governor’s proposal for a $10 increase in the fee to renew a Virginia driver’s license, the Roanoke Times editorializes today with a little more clarity:

Americans should not have to wait weeks for a driver’s license. They should not have to worry about a massive database tracking their every move. They should not have some wannabe national ID card sloughed onto states.

If you think a national ID tax and all this nonsense somehow adds to the country’s protections, then, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Lipstick on a Pig

The Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely Redress Act of 2007 is a recently introduced bill that would establish a dedicated agency within the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate and streamline the appeals of people who believe they have been wrongly watch-listed by DHS or the Department of Justice. This office would maintain a “Cleared List” of names that have been identified as not representing a risk.

This is not an answer. As I’ve written before, watch-listing is alien to our system of justice and law enforcement. And because of the potential for opening holes in the pseudo-security watch-listing provides, getting “cleared” by this office would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

This proposal is lipstick on a pig. The pig is watch-listing.