Archives: February, 2008

Congress Ignores Fear-Mongering. World Doesn’t End

The Democratic leadership in the House has called the president’s bluff and stood up for the rule of law. Ryan Singel has the details:

The Protect America Act, a temporary but expansive warrantless spying bill passed by Congress last summer, will likely expire Saturday at midnight, a casualty of a battle between President Bush and House Democrats over amnesty for phone companies that aided his secret, warrantless spying program and how much of that program should be legalized. The House leadership announced there will be no more votes before the long President’s Day legislative break.

The bill’s expiration is largely symbolic, but demonstrates that House Democrats are willing to fight Bush on anti-terrorism policies, where fear-mongering rhetoric had previously cowed their opposition.

One of the most interesting things about the last 24 hours is the subtle shift in rhetoric. The New York Times wrote today that “The lapsing of the deadline would have little practical effect on intelligence gathering” — an accurate statement, but one that most people were missing a few days ago. Even conservative pundits such as David Freddoso started hedging their previously sweeping claims about the dire consequences of letting the PAA expire:

If the president does not sign the bill before Saturday, then we revert to the previous FISA law. The feds will be able to continue certain ongoing terrorist monitoring activities, but they cannot initiate new ones. (It becomes easier to start up a terror cell on Saturday.)

Freddoso is not insinuating, as his colleague did, that all surveillance everywhere in the world will grind to a halt after the PAA expires. But Freddoso’s version is still misleading. The Bush administration can initiate new terrorist monitoring activities after the PAA expires. It just has to get a FISA warrant, the same way it did in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Indeed, Bush himself praised the changes Congress made to FISA in the wake of the September 11 attacks, noting that they “will allow surveillance of all communications used by terrorists, including e-mails, the Internet, and cell phones” and makes the intelligences community “able to better meet the technological challenges posed by this proliferation of communications technology.” If we were able to get by with those provisions for nearly six years, surely we’ll be OK living under them again for a couple of weeks.

DHS Promoting Violation of State Law - and Fish Now Smell Good

The Department of Homeland Security is instructing Illinois businesses that they do not have to comply with a law called the Illinois Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act.

The state’s law bars Illinois employers from enrolling in E-Verify or any similar system until the Social Security Administration and DHS can make final determinations on 99 percent of their “tentative nonconfirmation notices” - findings that people aren’t authorized to work under the immigration laws - within three days.

But in a notice that would panic any lawyer advising Illinois clients, the DHS claims that the state “has agreed to not enforce this law” because of its lawsuit against the state. “Illinois has agreed that it will not penalize employers simply for participating in the program, at least until the lawsuit is finished.”

The notice asks people who have been asked to comply with the law to “please contact DHS immediately.” The worry, one supposes, is that a rogue state employee might ask an Illinois business to comply with the state’s laws.

Fascinating. Whatever’s happening here makes the smell of fish downright pleasant.

You’ll be able to learn why Illinois might not want its employers using E-Verify in my forthcoming study, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

Two-Fold Variation in Hospital Care among Privately Insured

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School have documented that Medicare patients receive dramatically different amounts of medicine in different parts of the country. Doctors in some areas just seem to do lots more stuff to Medicare patients than doctors in other areas, and that additional stuff doesn’t seem to make patients any healthier or happier. But does the same hold for patients under age 65?

According to an article just published by Health Affairs, the answer appears to be yes. The authors – Laurence C. Baker of Stanford University, and Elliott S. Fisher and John E. Wennberg of Dartmouth Medical School – write:

We studied variations across California hospitals in hospital resource use for chronically ill patients covered by Medicare health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and private insurers and found substantial variation in all of the coverage groups studied …

For example, for privately insured PPO or FFS patients, the number of hospital stays in the last two years of life averaged 2.4 at the least-resource-intensive hospital, compared to more than double that rate–a little more than 5.0 stays–at the highest hospital. The average number of days per hospital stay for these patients ranged from a low of 4.5 to a high of 12.5. Sizable differences between the hospitals with the highest and lowest rates of resource use could also be found in the other groups. In most cases, the magnitude of the variation across hospitals was as large for Medicare HMO and privately insured patients as it was for Medicare FFS patients.

The authors did not explicitly consider whether the high-use hospitals delivered better outcomes, though they did argue (consistent with previous studies) that this was unlikely:

For example, in the private PPO population we studied, patients cared for in hospitals with the highest resource-use levels tended to die at younger ages–opposite the view that more resource use might somehow prolong life.

Baker, Fisher, and Wennberg conclude, “Previous estimates of savings if the most resource-intensive hospitals more closely resembled less resource-intensive hospitals, based on just Medicare FFS spending, could underestimate possible savings when other payers are taken into account.”

Supporters of Medicare-for-All claim Medicare is more efficient than private health insurance. On the contrary, it may be that private health insurance is just as inefficient as Medicare.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth … What?

An article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine should be read by everyone who has ever believed that “investing” in preventive care would save money. After reviewing the evidence, the authors write:

Sweeping statements about the cost-saving potential of prevention … are overreaching. Studies have concluded that preventing illness can in some cases save money but in other cases can add to health care costs …

Our findings suggest that the broad generalizations made by many presidential candidates can be misleading. These statements convey the message that substantial resources can be saved through prevention. Although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not. Careful analysis of the costs and benefits of specific interventions, rather than broad generalizations, is critical.

The authors also note that actual (non-preventive) medical treatments often buy as much health for the money as preventive care.

Satellite Shooting

The U.S. Navy is going to shoot down a malfunctioning National Reconnaissance Office (spy) satellite that is due to hit earth in March. A missile fired from an Aegis cruiser will do the deed.

The official reason for doing this, according to Aviation Week, is that:

The spacecraft carries a full tank of hydrazine — a toxic propellant — that would have been used to reposition the satellite in orbit. Government analysts say the odds are that the tank will crack open during re-entry or that it will land in the ocean, which makes up 70 percent of the area where the breaking-up satellite might land.

Hydrazine, a widely used rocket fuel, is certainly hazardous. But suspicious minds are bound to wonder whether the motive behind this action is not what we are told, especially because satellites crash to Earth frequently without harm.

It could be, as Aviation Week speculates, that sensitive technology on the satellite might survive reentry, land in the wrong place, and reveal U.S. secrets.

Another possibility is that the safety concern may provide a rationale for those in the Pentagon who want to conduct an anti-satellite test, a business that the U.S. has been out of for decades. Even if that is not the case, observers in China and other foreign states may believe it anyway.

Organ Shortage Update

The United Network for Organ Sharing on its website provides a running total of the number of people waiting for an organ transplant. Today that number is at 98,059. Next Thursday, Cato is holding a policy forum “Human Organs for Sale?” where solutions for solving the U.S. organ shortage will be discussed by well known advocates both for and against the sale of organs. Also under discussion will be Iran’s organ vending system which some say is so successful that Iran has been without an organ waiting list for almost a decade. To join us, please register at events [at] cato [dot] org.

More Refutation of Protectionist Doctrine

The backlash against trade in the 110th Congress is fueled by three emotive but purely fictional assertions: (1) trade agreements have caused the trade deficit to rise, and an increasing trade deficit means we are losing at trade; (2) rising imports explain the decline in the U.S. manufacturing sector, including the loss of jobs; (3) the United States is losing at trade because the Bush administration doesn’t enforce our trade agreements and instead turns a blind eye toward the rampant cheating of our trade partners.

The Center for Trade Policy Studies  has produced numerous refutations of the first two fallacies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ), while a ruling yesterday from a World Trade Organization dispute panel adds to the growing list of refutations of the third. 

Mostly affirming the complaints lodged by the United States, Europe, and Canada in 2006, the panel ruled that Chinese tariffs on imported auto parts violate China’s WTO obligations.

China must now act to bring its practices into conformity with its WTO commitments (i.e., change the offending laws or regulations) or it can challenge the ruling before the WTO’s Appellate Body.  Yesterday’s decision constitutes the first ever WTO panel ruling against Chinese trade practices, but it doesn’t represent the first U.S. enforcement action taken against China.

The Auto Parts case is the second of five formal U.S. complaints against China in the WTO.  The first case was brought in 2004 and involved a Chinese value-added tax on integrated circuits for which domestic firms could get partial rebates—putting foreign suppliers at a disadvantage.  That dispute was resolved 19 months later during the consultation phase—without need of a dispute panel—when the Chinese agreed to change the tax rule.

The third case was filed in February 2007 and concerns other Chinese tax policies that grant refunds, reductions or exemptions from taxes to domestic firms only.  A memorandum of understanding to resolve and terminate the dispute was reached 10 months later, with China agreeing to change the discriminatory nature of the law.

Two other cases—both initiated in Spring 2007—are pending.  One concerns the alleged failure of China to protect and enforce intellectual property rights and the other concerns alleged barriers facing foreign traders and distributors of copyrighted materials, like books, videos, and DVDs.  A dispute panel was recently composed for the IP case, and the distribution barriers case is still in the consultations phase.

The administration has demonstrated its commitment to enforcement, not only by bringing WTO cases, but in myriad other ways that fly under the radar.  Dialogue is always ongoing between the United States and China, and the United States and other trade partners.  Contrary to the implications of the rhetoric that trade enforcement requires a bludgeon, the most effective enforcement entails quiet diplomacy, where problems are discussed and resolved outside of the shine of the spotlight.

When the foundations of the protectionist backlash are revealed to be made of silly puddy, you’ve got to wonder how long the backlash will endure.