Archives: April, 2009

The President’s Make-Believe Fiscal Conservatism

At first, I thought the calendar was wrong and it must be April 1 and the White House was playing an April Fool’s joke. That seemed like the only logical explanation for a story in today’s Washington Post stating that the President wants all government departments to identify $100 million in supposed budget cuts. With 14 cabinet-level departments, that adds up to $1.4 billion of savings – and those savings almost certainly be measured against an ever-increasing budget baseline, which means that they would merely be reductions in planned increases. This is a shallow and insincere stunt to trick taxpayers. This is the same President, after all, that just squandered nearly $800 billion on a so-called stimulus bill. And this is the same President that just rammed through a $3.5 trillion budget. This chart provides a useful comparison.

For those who appreciate irony (or perhaps a late April Fool’s joke), the Washington Post story makes for interesting reading:

President Obama plans to convene his Cabinet for the first time today, where he will order members to identify a combined $100 million in budget cuts over the next 90 days, according to a senior administration official. Although the cuts would account to a minuscule portion of the federal budget, they are intended to signal the president’s determination to trim spending and reform government, the official said. …In his radio and Internet address Saturday, Obama repeated his vow for his administration to scour the federal budget “line by line” to reduce spending.

Update: Some people have written to say that Obama is asking his team to come up with a combined $100 million, not $100 million from each department. So my initial post gave him 14 times too much credit. This is almost beyond parody.

Obama’s Recycled Moderate-Speed Rail Plan

The Obama administration believes in recycling, as shown by the so-called high-speed rail plan it announced last week. Below is a map of the plan, and below that is a map of the Federal Railroad Administration’s 2005 high-speed rail plan. As you can see, the proposed routes are identical. (The grey lines on the first map represent conventional Amtrak routes.)

map of the plan

2005 map

Of course, this is a time-honored practice. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was really the Bureau of Public Roads’ Interregional Highway System. There is no doubt that the Federal Railroad Administration is thrilled that Obama has adopted its plan.

Yet there are several problems with Obama’s plan. First, it is important to understand that most of Obama’s plan is not bullet trains or TGVs. Instead, it is conventional Amtrak Diesel-powered trains running a little faster – up to 110 mph, but averaging only 60 to 70 mph – than Amtrak runs today. Based on this, here are my most important objections to Obama’s moderate-speed rail plan.

1. Less than 1 percent will ride, more than 99 percent will pay

More than 4 percent of federal transportation spending goes to Amtrak, yet Amtrak carries only 0.1 percent of passenger travel. Moderate- and high-speed trains will significantly increase the subsidies but have little effect on the total travel. Why is it fair for 99.8 percent of people to pay for the rides enjoyed by the other 0.2 percent?

Even with subsidies, high-speed rail fares will be about 50 percent higher than ordinary Amtrak fares. For example, passengers pay $69 to ride conventional trains from New York to Washington, and $99 to ride high-speed train. (By comparison, an unsubsidized bus is $20 and unsubsidized airfares are $99.) This means only the wealthy and those whose employers pay the fare will ride high-speed rail. All taxpayers will end up paying for rides of bankers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists.

2. Moderate-speed rail is dirty

Obama’s claims that trains are better for the environment are pure speculation. Amtrak today is only a little more energy-efficient than cars and planes. While cars and planes are expected to get far more energy-efficient in the future, running trains at higher speeds will make them less energy-efficient.

True high-speed rail, which generally powered by electricity, is dirty too. Even if the electricity comes from renewable resources, the energy and environmental cost of construction will be enormous. It will take decades for the trivial annual savings to pay back that cost.

3. It doesn’t work in Europe

High-speed trains in Europe are convenient for tourists, but the average European rarely uses them. Even in France, which has more high-speed trains than any other European country, the average resident rides heavily subsidized high-speed trains just 400 miles per year. Despite punitive fuel taxes, they drive 7,600 miles per year, a number that is increasing faster than high-speed rail travel.

4. It doesn’t work in Japan

The Japanese drive less than French or Americans, but they don’t ride high-speed rail more than the French. The average resident of Japan drives 4,000 miles per year and rides high-speed trains 400 miles per year. The Japanese ride trains more than the residents of any other country – nearly 1,900 miles per year including subways and other urban rail – but due to premium fares, nearly 80 percent of train riding is on conventional trains.

5. Every car off the road means more new trucks on the road

Obama’s moderate-speed trains will run on the same tracks as existing freight trains. Since many of America’s rail lines are near capacity today, there is a real danger that moderate-speed trains will push freight onto the highways.

Europe’s rail network carries 6 percent of passenger travel, while ours carries only 0.1 percent. But European trains carry less than 17 percent of freight, while 73 percent goes by highway. By comparison, American trains carry 40 percent of our freight, while only 28 percent goes on the highway. In other words, to get 6 percent of passengers out of their cars, Europe put nearly three times as many trucks on the road.

Personally, I love trains. But Obama’s plan is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment. We would be better off ending all subsidies to transportation than piling on subsidy after subsidy for transport that is supposedly environmentally friendly but in fact hardly anyone will use.

In English Learning Case, Families Will Lose Either Way

The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in a case that will affect how and at what cost English is taught to non-native speakers in U.S. public schools. On one side are Hispanic parents from southern Arizona who sued their school district for failing to properly teach their children English, and on the other are district and state officials who want the courts to butt out and let them teach students in whatever way, and at whatever cost, they choose. I understand what these parents are going through – I grew up in an English-speaking family in the French-speaking province of Quebec – but it really doesn’t matter who “wins” this case: the families will lose either way.

Even if the parents “win,” and the Court orders their public school district to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on English instruction, it won’t do any good. A 1985 federal court order compelled the state of Missouri to spend an additional $2 billion over 12 years to desegregate Kansas City schools and improve the achievement of African American students. Neither goal was achieved, and even the presiding judge eventually admitted his order was a failure. Extra spending and court pressure do not improve public school performance, because public schools don’t have to show improvement to get the money and because courts can’t dismiss ineffective administrators or teachers.

The real solution is to empower families to _leave_ the schools that are failing them and move their children to more effective ones. Fortunately, Arizona has an education tax credit program that makes scholarships available to defray private school tuition. Whatever the court’s verdict, these parents should be banding together to create a local scholarship fund that can accept tax-credited donations so their children can attend the private schools of their choice. They can then pick whichever schools demonstrate the most success at teaching English instead of spending their time in court.

Appointees Are Like Astronauts

Did you ever notice how astronauts are praised simply for being astronauts? They have heroism imputed to them simply for what they might do in the future.

So it is with political appointees, such as the chief technology officer President Obama named Saturday morning during his weekly radio and Internet address. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Silicon Valley execs and tech bloggers sounded genuinely excited about Obama’s choice Saturday morning and tech industry lobbying groups TechNet and the Business Software Alliance quickly released statements of support, as did several tech heavyweights.

Would any group with business before the government, hoping for influence and goodies from the White House, not praise an appointee? We learn from these paeans precisely nothing.

To me, Aneesh Chopra is an empty vessel. He looks like a nice person and appears to have suitable experience for the job he’s been named to. My substantive comments about him will wait until there is something on which to comment. I look forward to his first space-walk.

Miron, Calabria Join Cato Institute

Jeffrey Miron, Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard’s Department of Economics, has joined the Cato Institute as a Senior Fellow.

“I am delighted to be working with Cato,” Miron said. “This is a crucial moment in our nation’s history, and Cato’s mission - increased understanding of the virtues of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace - has rarely been more important.”

Miron will help Cato’s economic team promote dynamic market capitalism and economic freedom through media appearances and policy analyses, in addition to speaking engagements and outreach to the academic community.  He is the author of Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition (Independent Institute, 2004) and The Economics of Seasonal Cycles (MIT Press, 1996), in addition to numerous opeds and journal articles.

Miron will retain his affiliation with Harvard.  Prior to joining Harvard, he served as chairman of the Department of Economics at Boston University.  Miron received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mark Calabria, a veteran staff member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs, has joined the Cato Institute as Director of Financial Services Regulation.

“I join Cato with a great sense of excitement and urgency,” Calabria said. “Cato has long been a strong, and sometimes the only, voice for expanding and protecting individual choice.  We are confronted with stark choices regarding the regulation of our financial markets: whether to expand the role of politics in deciding who will get credit and what institutions will fail.  In a time when markets and freedom are being questioned and attacked, Cato’s mission of understanding the impact of government proposals is all the more necessary.”

Calabria will lead Cato’s efforts in developing solutions to what ails the U.S. financial markets that do not include more oppressive government regulation.  He will also help educate the public, via media appearances and other outreach, as to how the government itself contributed heavily to the disruptions now occurring in the financial sector.

In addition to his work on Capitol Hill, Calabria served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, and was also senior economist at the National Association of Realtors. Calabria earned his  Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University.

“We are delighted to have two of the nation’s most effective proponents of free markets and individual liberty on board now at Cato,” said Cato founder and president Ed Crane. “Mark Calabria and Jeff Miron are distinguished economists who will play an important role in advancing Cato’s mission in the months and years ahead.”

Topics:

The CIA Is Not the Nation’s Security

Michael Hayden went on Fox News Sunday this week, fiercely objecting to the Obama administration’s release of Bush-era memos regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He and three other former CIA directors objected to the release.

That common front might draw the memo release into doubt if it wasn’t a given that CIA directors are always going to defend the interests of the CIA.

Hayden trotted out the tired “war” on terror metaphor. This framing may be exciting to him and his colleagues, but it is strategic error to address terrorism this way, and the American public chose a presidential candidate last November who campaigned to emphasize hope over fear. Intoning about war did not help Hayden’s case.

The heart of his argument was that release of the memos would allow our enemies to train for “enhanced interrogation techniques” and that we would lose the benefits of those techniques. But a telling moment came when he shifted his argument:

There’s another point, too, that I have to make, and it’s just not the tactical effect of this technique or that. It’s the broader effect on CIA officers. I mean, if you’re a current CIA officer today - in fact, I know this has happened at the agency after the release of these documents - officers are saying, “The things I’m doing now - will this happen to me in five years because of the things I am doing now?”

Moving from tactical considerations to the “broader effect,” Hayden spoke of how the memo release would chill CIA activity. That’s not irrelevant, but it’s not the broader effect that matters: the strategic effect of using torture in counterterrorism activity. Like the myopic critic I wrote about in my post last week, Hayden is not focused on countering the strategic logic of terrorism, but on defending the interests of the agency he headed.

Chris Wallace showed a brief clip of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs criticizing “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a strategic level: “It is the use of those techniques … in the view of the world that [has] made us less safe.” Being a secretive torturer drives allies away from the United States.

Hayden didn’t get it, answering, “Most of the people who oppose these techniques want to be able to say, ‘I don’t want my nation doing this,’ which is a purely honorable position, ‘and they didn’t work anyway.’ That back half of the sentence isn’t true.”

Against the argument that the use of torture is strategic error, Hayden responded, “But it works!” Arguing its tactical utility does not meet the strategic case against torture.

And Hayden was well back on his heels when asked whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month.

Hayden is a fierce defender of the CIA. The CIA provides some elements of the nation’s security. But the CIA is not the nation’s security.

The Wonders of Socialized Dentistry

As we all know, the American health care system is less than perfect.  An inefficient amalgam of government spending, federal tax incentives, employer-based insurance, and private providers, the U.S. system costs us more than it should for the services provided.  Nevertheless, medicine in America remains far more directed by and for patients, in contrast to nationalized systems, which are usually organized by and for bureaucrats.

The results sometimes are horrific.  Indeed, the best way to understand the consequences of Britain’s National Health Service is simply to read stories in British newspapers.  Consider this one in the Daily Mail about  the lack of adequate dental care:

Like so many young women, Amy King always took great pride in her appearance.

Standing in front of the mirror to check her make-up before a night out, the 21-year-old would always try a smile - friends told her they loved the way it lit up her face.

Eight weeks ago, all that changed. The student from Plymouth was admitted to hospital where, in a single operation, she had every tooth in her mouth removed.

Obviously, not all foreign systems do so little for their patients.  France, Germany, and Switzerland all provide care differently, and in all of these nations people receive better treatment than in Britain.  But no where is turning health care over to government the best way to ensure quality yet affordable medical care.  Instead, control over health care should be placed back in the hands of those who have the most at stake:  patients.