Archives: 03/2009

More on that Massachusetts ‘Model’

Amid reports that the Obama administration, congress, and some conservative groups still consider Massachusetts to be a model for health care reform, the New York Times reveals that despite assessing insurers and hospitals, raising the penalty on noncompliant businesses, increasing premiums and co-payments for consumers, and raising the state tobacco tax, the program’s financing remains unsustainable.

Massachusetts has significantly reduced the number of people in the state who lack health insurance. However, it has not achieved, nor does it expect to reach, universal coverage. (The best estimates suggest that more than 200,000 state residents remain uninsured). And, significantly, roughly 60 percent of newly insured state residents are receiving subsidized coverage, suggesting that the increase in insurance coverage has more to do with increased subsidies (the state now provides subsidies for those earning up to 300 percent of the poverty level or $66,150 for a family of four) than with the mandate.

The cost of those subsidies in the face of predictably rising health care costs has led to program costs far higher than originally predicted. Spending for the Commonwealth Care subsidized program has doubled, from $630 million in 2007 to an estimated $1.3 billion for 2009.

Now the state is turning to a variety of gimmicks to try to hold down costs, including possibly cutting payments to physicians and hospitals by 3-5 percent. However, the Times quotes health reform experts who have studied the Massachusetts system as warning “the state and federal governments may need to place actual limits on health spending, which could lead to rationing of care.”

The more one looks at the Massachusetts “model,” the stronger the argument for keeping the government out of health care.

Ed. Dept. Advisor Wary of Politicizing the Curriculum

Mike Smith, a senior education advisor to Ed. Secretary Duncan, expressed concern yesterday about the possible ill effects of federal government standards. In a Library of Congress presentation, Smith told the crowd that if common national standards are funded by the federal government, “you can’t keep ideology or politics out of the ball game.”

This is a pearl of empirically validated wisdom. The problem is that it has been empirically validated at the state and district levels as well as the national level, as Neal McCluskey demonstrated in “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.” And the U.S. is not alone in finding that official government schools cause social conflict over what is taught.

What can we do about it? How about real educational freedom that gives choice to both parents and taxpayers, eliminating the source of the problem?

Monday Podcast: ‘Challenging Domestic Military Detentions’

410px-ali_saleh_kahlah_al_marriAli Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the exchange student from Qatar who was detained by the FBI with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, sat for years in a military brig in South Carolina as the only domestically detained enemy combatant.

The Bush Administration used al-Marri to test a legal theory aimed at keeping suspected terrorists in military prisons indefinitely.

President Obama has reversed that ruling, and has moved al-Marri into civilian courts. The Supreme Court is no longer hearing al-Marri’s appeal.

In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Legal Policy Analyst David Rittgers says that there’s nothing that will stop future administrations from again reversing the policy.

This is creating this legal cul-de-sac where we can have military detention domestically…and the reason that they picked Al-Marri is, just as you would pick a sympathetic plaintiff to sue to overturn a law, if you want to keep a law…you would look for an unsympathetic defendant, and Al-Marri is as unsympathetic as you can get.

…He is the test case to keep this policy open.

The Cato Institute co-authored an amicus brief (PDF) at the Supreme Court supporting al-Marri’s challenge to the military detention.

Event This Week at Cato

Tuesday, March 16

The Politics and Science of Medical Marijuana

12:00 PM (Luncheon to Follow)

In the political realm, the debate over the legal status of medical marijuana continues to rage.

Since 1996, 12 states have legalized marijuana for medical use. What have medical scientists learned about marijuana over the past 10 years? And how have the politics on this contentious issue shifted at the federal and state level?

Join us for a lively discussion of the science and politics of medical marijuana.

Featuring Donald Abrams, M.D., Director of Clinical Programs, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, University of California; Robert DuPont, M.D., President, Institute for Behavior and Health; Rob Kampia, Executive Director, Marijuana Policy Project; Moderated by Tim Lynch, Director, Project on Criminal Justice, Cato Institute.

The event will be simulcast live online.

The Stimulus Bill, Rebranded

A while back I noted that the administration had helpfully developed a special symbol to brand its wonderful stimulus program.  The purpose is to ensure that the people will be eternally grateful and thus will reward the president with their votes, er, no, that would be partisan and run contrary to everything the new administration stands for.  The purpose is to educate people about what the government is doing on their behalf.

As one would expect, with a symbol so ridiculous have come some wonderful parodies.  Several focus on what is being done to the taxpayers.  There’s even a funny poster to go along with some other entries.

The strongest defense of individual liberty today is going to come from entrepreneurial activists around the country like these, who have harnessed the power of ridicule, not politicians on Capitol Hill who, after voting for bloated federal budgets for years, now claim to realize that government spending is a bad thing.  The latter are “the summer soldier and sunshine patriot” who Thomas Paine spoke of back in 1776.  It is up to the rest of us to carry the heaviest burden of the battle for liberty.  The the fight is worth it as the price of freedom always has been high.  As Paine noted in “The Crisis”:   “it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

Threats to a Free Society, Small and Large

Limited government and individual liberty are under such a sustained attack today that it’s easy to miss some of the small but truly nefarious assaults on the most basic freedom to be left alone.  After all, when the federal government seems determined to socialize much of the economy and control the rest of it, who cares about some local nanny-state restrictions?

Yet the willingness to override individual liberty in seemingly “small” matters reflects the same statist philosophy behind large assaults on the free society.  It’s important to fight the battles, both small and large.

One of the latest political fads is setting public dress standards.  Writes Greg Beato for Reason online:

What else is the law but a metaphorical belt designed to uphold proprietary and keep us from exposing our inherent baseness to each other? This, at least, is what an epidemic of legislative tailors seem to believe: Each month brings news of the latest effort to crack down on saggy pants. In December, the Jasper County Council in South Carolina passed an ordinance making it illegal to wear your britches three inches below your hips and expose your underwear—or worse—to innocent bystanders. In January, South Carolina State Senator Robert Ford introduced a bill that would make saggy pants a crime throughout the entire state. Earlier this month, Joe Towns, Jr., a state representative from Tennessee, took up the call against the surprisingly long-lived fashion crime, which started in the early 1990s and continues to be popular despite—or perhaps because of—repeated efforts to criminalize it over the years.

Sag-bashers object to the style on more than just aesthetic grounds. A hallmark of hip-hop culture, saggy pants are considered an homage to prison garb, where belts aren’t allowed because of their potential utility as noose or weapon. To wear saggy pants, critics maintain, is to reject authority, embrace criminality, and visually assault the world with the garish plaids and bold patterns of fashion boxers. Also, critics assert, saggy pants make it easy to conceal knives and guns within their droopy, voluminous folds.

The ascension of President Obama may be one reason for the surge of anti-sagging evangelism in recent months. “You know, some people might not want to see your underwear—I’m one of them,” he exclaimed during a November 2008 interview with MTV. But while Obama made it clear he wasn’t interested in trying to criminalize the style, calling laws against pants-sagging as “a waste of time,” politicians like Robert Ford and Joe Towns, Jr., apparently don’t watch much MTV; the former even presented his anti-sagging legislation as a kind of tribute to the new president. “You’ve got an African-American president,” he told the Associated Press. “You don’t have to emulate prisoners no more. You can emulate somebody like Barack Obama.”

According to the Associated Press, Ford doesn’t believe his bill will pass—apparently he “just wants a spirited discussion” on the taxpayer’s dime. And even in cases where such political theater blossoms into genuine law, it often remains, well, political theater. In Delcambre, Louisiana, for example, saggy pants have been punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail since June 2007. When I called Delcambre’s mayor, Carol Broussard, to ask him how many people the town has cited for that offense since the ordinance went into effect, he said he didn’t believe any had. “There have been some warnings, though,” he offered.

Even if enforcement is rare, however, the number of places in America where, say, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton might end up with lifetime sentences just for walking down the street is somewhat alarming. Along with Jasper County and Delcambre, Lynnwood, Illinois, Mansfield, Lousiana, and who knows how many other municipalities now have specific ordinances that make it illegal to expose anything more than a three-inch swath of underwear. In addition, as Radley Balko has documented at Reason, zero-tolerance vigilantes like Flint, Michigan police chief David Dicks and Jackson, Mississippi mayor Frank Melton seem more inclined to follow the strong arm tactics of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-style bullies than our Founding Fathers when it comes to making over their fellow citizens. “I certainly respect the Constitution, but we have some issues that are much bigger than the Constitution,” the mayor declared, as he announced his intention to issue an executive order against saggy pants even after the Jackson city council voted against such a measure on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Yes, some things “are much bigger than the Constitution.”  That’s certainly the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C.!

I’ll admit that I just don’t understand the style of wearing one’s pants nearly down to one’s thighs, and I’d prefer not to see some young person’s underwear.  It’s an obvious issue for parental dictates as well as social pressure.  But should the government be prepared to prosecute – after all, that’s what the law is all about – people with low-riding pants?  The fact that these measures are considered seriously demonstrates how far we have fallen away from the ideal of a limited government committed to protecting individual liberty.

What’s New in Pakistan?

200903_innocent_blogThis weekend, protesters supporting Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) clashed with police in riot gear in downtown Lahore. The sight of lawyers being tear-gassed is shocking to many Americans. But what should be more shocking—yet extremely more complicated to work through as explained below—is America’s continued backing of Pakistan’s unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari, who continues to obstruct his democratic opposition and (until recently) the reappointment of ousted Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudrhy.

It’s easy for people in the West to dismiss these demonstrations as the outgrowth of the country’s petty political infighting. But Americans must recognize that historically, U.S. policy and assistance has either enhanced the position of Pakistan’s military at the expense of its civilian leaders, or has helped domestic civilian leaders more popular within Washington than within their home country. Throughout the Cold War and up to the present day, these domestically unpopular figures devoted more government resources toward themselves, their own political parties, and their own bureaucratic expansion rather than toward economic and social reforms to modernize and better educate Pakistan’s population. Consequently, Pakistani citizens began to blame American aid and support for their own deteriorating situation.

Certainly Pakistan’s domestic power struggles and ceaseless political infighting will continue to overshadow a menace more sinister than legislative rivals—i.e.-the Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant groups sweeping through large swaths of Pakistani territory.

But for long-term stability, U.S. policymakers must jettison the idea that a foreign leader’s denunciation of America means that leader poses a direct threat to U.S. interests. What America should want most is stability and continuity, particularly within Pakistan if we want to prevent the convergence of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Thus, in a perverse way, Sharif’s condemnation of the United States, coupled with his unwavering support for restoring judges sacked by Musharraf, has shored up his support within Pakistan, and his rise to power may actually bring solidity to the country.

The question of whether the military will step back in is much more complicated. Last August when the military backed away from politics, that move was based on political expediency (a desire to repair its tarnished image) rather than on political principle (a desire to restore the country’s democratic rights). If people in the military begin to feel that the country is slipping out of control they would attempt to retake power. There are, however, two main reasons why the military would not try to reassert its authority: 1) political pressure from Washington (the belief that with the military focused on governing, it would take its focus off combating the insurgency); and 2) pragmatism (after all, if Pakistanis are in an uproar over Sharif, imagine the protests that would ensue if army generals tried to impose martial law).

But when it comes to foreign policy, anything is possible, and Pakistan’s government has swung like a pendulum between military dictators and electoral democracies throughout its 61-year history. Because civilian leaders do not have a monopoly on government decision-making, U.S. policymakers must cultivate relations with both the civilians and the military, as civilians may be in power one day and the military in power the next.

Pakistan’s army is on standby ahead of today’s planned sit-in by lawyers in Islamabad, and authorities warn that such a protest would paralyze the government. The best U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can do is work with both Zardari and Sharif to arrive at a negotiated settlement to restoring judges and ending the political deadlock. But overall, Pakistan’s long-term success depends on the strength of its civilian institutions and the public’s repudiation of extremism. In this respect, America must be committed to strengthening cooperation not only with the Pakistani Government but with the Pakistani people.

Update: Sharif this morning calls off protest