Archives: 05/2008

Hungry for Program Expansion

Yesterday I blogged about a Washington Post column by Shankar Vedantam that began: “About 35 million Americans regularly go hungry each year, according to federal statistics.” I looked up the federal data, and the real number appears to be about 9 million.

I queried the Post about the discrepancy, and Shankar kindly pointed me to this study produced by academic health scholars and the Sodexho Foundation. (I appreciate the prompt replies by both Shankar and the Post’s ombudsman).

The Sodexho study is a classic example of program advocates apparently inflating the size of a problem in order to prompt “Congress to expand existing programs,” as it proposes. I am not a health specialist, but it seems to me that Sodexho using 35 million for the number of Americans going hungry is a huge exaggeration. 

On page 10 and 11 of the Sodexho study, the authors admit that they are including both those people who occasionally go hungry and those who are “food insecure,” which is a far larger group. As I noted yesterday, the USDA puts the narrower group (those sometimes going hungry) at only about 9 million people.

While the Sodexho authors admit that they are using the broader group, they do not tell readers how vastly narrower the actual hunger group is. (The table on page 11 only shows the broader measure).

Also, the authors use “hunger” in the title, and they frequently claim that they are measuring the “economic cost of hunger.” On page 13 and 21, they say that 35 million people do not “get enough to eat.” But again, not getting enough to eat best describes 9 million people, not 35 million.

The Sodexho study takes the 35 million and calculates a cost of hunger in the United States of $90 billion. Obviously, the cost would be much less if the narrower and more accurate definition of hunger were used. 

To top it off, the authors of the study (page 21) have the chutzpah to claim that they are being “conservative” in their approach.

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Prevention Is Better than Cure: More on That Veto Override

As I should have mentioned in my previous post, the House and Senate are likely to vote on the Farm Bill conference report tomorrow.

The bill, an abysmal one that carries a price tag of roughly $300 billion, will likely pass easily in the Senate, where an earlier version of the bill sailed through the chamber last year in a 79-14 vote.

So the questions over the possibility of an override center mainly on the House, which will likely see a closer vote, but not by much.

If House Republicans are unable to secure enough votes to sustain a veto, it would signify a remarkable failure of their leadership, especially of House Minority Leader John Boehner. Boehner has publically opposed the bill, but - along with House Minority Whip Roy Blunt - has refused to actively push his Republican colleagues to do the same.

An article in today’s The Hill notes:

[L]obbyists said members were being told to “vote their districts,” meaning they could support the measure without fearing any consequence from leadership.

What’s worse is that the bill probably could have been improved upon, much earlier in the process. The Republican leadership has full discretion over committee assignments. Instead of seating on the Agriculture Committee a balanced array of viewpoints, the House GOP leadership has chosen a collection of members that hail almost universally from farm-heavy districts and are greatly predisposed to support an increase in agricultural spending.

In fact, an informal vote count compiled by the office of Rep. Jeff Flake suggests that every single Republican member of the House Agriculture Committee is likely to support the Farm Bill tomorrow.

What would the bill look like if Rep. Flake or another critic of current farm policies was a member of the committee? Sure, one member can have only so much impact on a committee of 46. But at least that would give taxpayers a voice at the table.

Veto Override Possible for Farm Bill

Further to my quasi-post on the farm bill Friday, I may have been premature in my enthusiasm. According to an article [$] today in Congress Daily, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee Charles Grassley (R, IA) is confident that Congress will be able to override the President’s threatened veto:

Grassley expects the White House will not push Republicans to sustain the expected veto. If Bush does push support for the veto, cautioned Grassley, he should expect “very weak loyalty in the Congress from his own party.” Bush has said that some Republicans in safe seats who represent districts without agriculture might not worry about offending anti-hunger advocates by turning down the bill’s $10 billion increase in nutrition programs. Grassley said today that such a scenario is the only way he could envision the White House getting enough House support to sustain a veto.

The full conference report, in all its glory, available here for the strong-of-stomach.

Also alarming: the conference report apparently includes language that would nullify a federal appeals court decision under the Freedom of Information Act that has done so much (via the great Ken Cook at the Environmental Working Group) to shed light on these egregious subsidies. See here.

Wisconsin Governor Defunds REAL ID

WisPolitics.com reports that Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) plans to take more than $20 million out of the state’s REAL ID account and transfer it into the state’s general fund.

Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R) objects:

When I shepherded the REAL ID bill through Congress 3 years ago, it was in response to one of the key recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, that ‘fraud in identification documents is no longer just a problem of theft.’ As we saw in 2001, in the hands of a terrorist, a valid ID accepted for travel in the US can be just as dangerous as a missile or bomb.

Congressman Sensenbrenner is correct to claim responsibility for REAL ID, but less accurate in other parts of his statement. The 9/11 Commission’s ‘key’ recommendation wasn’t key. (Indeed, Congress’ effort to follow the Commission’s recommendation was repealed by REAL ID.)

Nobody - not the 9/11 Commission, not Congressman Sensenbrenner, not Stewart Baker, nor anyone else - can explain the proximity between false ID and terrorist attacks, or how REAL ID cost-effectively secures the country against any threat.

Wisconsin’s governor has issued a mighty well-placed snub to the creator of the “Sensenbrenner tax.”

50 Years On, Some Common Sense

Steve Clemons posts a heartening little video of Bush père’s National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft responding to Steve’s question “What do you think about Cuba?” It’s a rare occasion for foreign policy folks to take heart and ponder whether the forces of reality may not be making progress on some issues, at least:

More common sense on Cuba here.

Measuring the Cost of E-Verify Red Tape

A recent story in the Arizona Republic describes the rising practice of using “registered agents” to take care of the paperwork associated with the E-Verify system, which is mandatory for employers in Arizona. Registered agents know how to navigate this system, which requires employers to submit information about their new hires to the federal government for an immigration-status background check. Registered agents are there to step in and reap the rewards when employers throw up their hands.

The story reports that registered agents charge from $7.50 to $10.00 per new hire. There are about 50,000,000 new hires per year in the country (according to Labor Department statistics), and let’s assume that average employer is a little more efficient than those who use a registered agent - so make it $5.00 per new hire. That’s $250,000,000 per year, just on basic administration of the E-Verify system.

There are plenty of other costs to electronic employment elgibility verification, which I wrote about in my recent paper, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

At a recent hearing, Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) reportedly said, “There are certain interests that simply do not want employment verification.” He was referring to an internecine fight with a human resources group. But I found in my paper that “successful internal enforcement of federal immigration law requires an overweening, unworkable, and unacceptable identity system.”

Freedom-loving Americans do not want employment verification. They think it’s doubly or triply foolish to spend taxpayer dollars and burn employers’ time on policies that reduce our economic growth.

Markets Beat Government on Medical Errors

Last year, the federal Medicare program announced that – after 40 years of financially rewarding providers who harm patients – it would no longer pay the added costs of treating patients who fell victim to a list of medical errors known as “never events.”  In other words, the providers – doctors, hospitals – will have to eat the costs of their own mistakes. 

As they often do, private health insurance companies are following Medicare’s lead.  WellPoint, Cigna, and other fee-for-service plans have announced that they too will stop paying the added costs that come from “never events.”

In the race to improve health care quality, is government beating the market?  Hardly.

As noted health economist Alain Enthoven and I explain in a recent oped, the market long ago developed payment mechanisms that punish medical errors:

If anything, government prevents markets from improving patient safety. A raft of government interventions favor fee-for-service medicine and inhibit competition by plans with greater incentives to reduce errors. Medicare, the nation’s largest purchaser of medical services, is almost entirely fee-for-service. Federal and state tax laws give larger tax breaks to people or groups that choose more costly care, and favor employer-based coverage, which usually denies workers the ability to choose their health plan.

Government regulation of health insurance and medical professionals further inhibit competition by such plans.

If you want to know why medicine isn’t better, cheaper, and safer, look no further than your own government.