Archives: May, 2009

Politicians in Thrall to Terrorism

Doug Bandow aptly finds the debate about Guantanamo detainees surreal. For my part, I see it as an exhibition of politicians put “on tilt” – and unwittingly executing the terrorism strategy.

The leadership of both parties appears not to understand that terrorism is designed to elicit self-injurious overreaction. Fear-mongering is a cog in the overreaction machine.

If they did understand this, they would see it as both a civic duty and politically rewarding leadership to exhibit bravery. Messages of indomitability and calm are the appropriate strategic response to terrorism.

Instead, what we have is a bidding war about who can be the most fearful of Guantanamo detainees – a group that is well under control itself and whose transportation and housing in U.S. prisons is entirely manageable.

Both parties are playing to a “base” of caterwauling Islamophobes while the bulk of the American public looks on bewildered and disappointed. Meanwhile, people around the world see that terrorism is a great way to express opposition to U.S. power and U.S. policies. Oops.

Obamacare to Come: Seven Bad Ideas for Health Care Reform

President Obama has made it clear that reforming the American health care system will be one of his top priorities, and congressional leaders have promised to introduce legislation by this summer.

In a new study, Cato scholar Michael D. Tanner breaks down the key components of any plan likely to emerge from Congress, and explains how those proposals would “dramatically transform the American health care system in a way that would harm taxpayers, health care providers, and — most importantly — the quality and range of care given to patients.”

At National Review online, Tanner explains the different aspects to Obama’s plan, all of which could be coming to a hospital near you.  In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, he expands on his paper, describing what health care will look like in years to come.

GOP Health Care Alternative: Drinking the Massachusetts Kool-Aid

Earlier this morning, my colleague, Michael Cannon, blogged a devastating critique of the Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez alternative to the Obama health plan. As he shows, while the bill has some good features (changing the tax treatment of health insurance, expanding HSAs), the good is swamped by a bizarre collection of regulation, mandates, and hidden taxes.

In fact, the bill appears to be based, in large part, on what its sponsors call “the well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care through a private system in Massachusetts.” But the Massachusetts model has failed to either achieve universal coverage or control health care costs. Rather, as I noted in this recent blog, it has led to more regulation, less consumer choice, and increased insurance premiums, while running huge budget deficits that have already led to one tax increase and are now causing the state to consider premium caps and global budgets. One wonders why congressional Republicans would want to head down that road.

Notably, Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez abandons Rep. John Shadegg’s proposal to allow Americans to buy insurance across state lines in favor of a requirement that states establish Massachusetts-style connectors. But the Massachusetts Connector has been one of the worst aspects of that state’s reform, acting as a super-regulatory body, adding new mandated benefits, restricting consumer’s choice of plans, and adding both regulatory and administrative costs to insurance. (In fact, the Connector adds its own administrative costs, estimated at 4 percent of premium costs, for plans that are sold through it.) What the Connector has not done is live up to its promise of breaking the link between employment and insurance, giving workers personal, portable insurance that they could take with them from job to job, and which they would not lose when they lost their jobs. Unfortunately, the Connector has not lived up to its promise in the latter regard. In fact, as of May 2008, only 18,122 people had purchased insurance through the Connector. That’s very little gain for so much pain.

Since there is virtually no chance that the Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunez will actually be enacted, perhaps one shouldn’t get too excised about its failings. No doubt it is far superior to Obamacare. And, it is understandable that congressional Republicans want to appear as more than the “party of no.” Still, this looks like a sadly missed opportunity.

The President’s New Cars

I had an op-ed yesterday in USA Today about President Obama’s proposed new fuel-economy standards. Don’t like ‘em. Unfortunately, an editing snafu over at the newspaper inadvertently left out the fact that there are four models at present that meet the proposed new standard — the 2010 Honda Insight (41 mpg) and the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid (39 mpg) were left off the list.

Space prohibited me from making an additional point. Even if there is no rebound effect, my colleague Pat Michaels finds that global temperatures will only be reduced by 0.005 degrees Celsius by 2050 and 0.0078 degrees Celsius by 2100 once you plug those emissions reductions into the computer models used by the IPCC. Of course, proponents contend that U.S. action on fuel efficiency will lead to like action abroad. Well, good luck with that. But even if all of the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol adopted Obama’s proposed fuel-economy standards, global temperatures would be reduced by only 0.038 degrees Celsius by 2050 and 0.071 degrees Celsius by 2100. If you tried to monetarize those benefits, you would be hard pressed to come up with an defensible number of consequence.

So what should be done instead? Nothing. At the risk of sounding politically irrelevant, there is no good case for the government to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption via fuel economy standards or fuel taxes; an argument I made at length in a study I co-authored almost two years ago with my colleague Peter Van Doren.

[Cross-posted at The Corner]

Who’s Scared of the Guantanamo Inmates?

Many debates in Washington seem surreal.  One often wonders why anyone considers the issue even to be a matter of controversy.

So it is with the question of closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.  Whatever one thinks about the facility, why are panicked politicians screaming “not in my state/district!”?  After all, the president didn’t suggest randomly releasing al-Qaeda operatives in towns across America.  He wants to put Guantanamo’s inmates into American prisons.

Notes an incredulous Glenn Greenwald:

we never tire of the specter of the Big, Bad, Villainous, Omnipotent Muslim Terrorist.  They’re back, and now they’re going to wreak havoc on the Homeland – devastate our communities – even as they’re imprisoned in super-max prison facilities.  How utterly irrational is that fear?  For one thing, it’s empirically disproven.  Anyone with the most minimal amount of rationality would look at the fact that we have already convicted numerous alleged high-level Al Qaeda Terrorists in our civilian court system (something we’re now being told can’t be done) – including the cast of villains known as the Blind Shiekh a.k.a. Mastermind of the First World Trade Center Attack, the Shoe Bomber, the Dirty Bomber, the American Taliban, the 20th Hijacker, and many more – and are imprisoning them right now in American prisons located in various communities.  

Guantanamo may be a handy dumping ground for detainees, but it has become a symbol of everything wrong with U.S. anti-terrorism policy.  Closing the facility would help the administration start afresh in dealing with suspected terrorists.

The fact that Republicans are using the issue to win partisan points is to be expected.  But the instant, unconditional Democratic surrender surprises even a confirmed cynic like me.

The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunes Mandate-Price-Control Bill

Today, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) announced that they will introduce a health care reform bill. If my reading of the bill summary is correct, their bill would:

  • Mandate that states create a new regulatory bureaucracy called a “State Health Insurance Exchange,”
  • Mandate that all plans offered through those exchanges meet federal regulatory standards,
  • Mandate “guaranteed issue” in those exchanges,
  • Mandate “uniform and reliable measures by which to report quality and price information,”
  • Impose price controls on those plans by prohibiting risk-rating,
  • Launch a government takeover of the “insurance” part of health insurance, by means of a “risk-adjustment” program intended to cope with the problems created by price controls, and
  • Fall just short of an individual mandate by setting up (mandating?) automatic enrollment in exchange plans at “places of employment, emergency rooms, the DMV, etc.” – essentially, trying to achieve universal coverage by nagging Americans to death.

Needless to say, I am troubled.

The bill summary is self-contradictory. On the one hand, it lists “No Tax Increases” as a core concept. Do its authors not know that imposing price controls on health insurance premiums imposes a tax on healthier-than-average consumers? And where do they think the money for “risk-adjustment” payments will come from? Heaven?

The bill sponsors seem to want to cement in place the monopoly regulation that currently exists at the state level – when they’re not encouraging Congress to take over that function. Have they abandoned their colleague Rep. John Shadegg’s (R-AZ) proposal to allow for competitive regulation of health insurance?

And if Massachusetts created an “exchange” on its own, why do other states need federal legislation?

The bill includes some ideas for which I have more sympathy, like its tax-credit proposal and expanding health savings accounts.

But the above provisions would sow the seeds of a government takeover of health care – so much so that The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is salivating:

The word of the day is “convergence.” That – and that alone – is the definitive message of the conservative health reform alternative developed by Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). For now, some of the key provisions are about as clear as mud. The plan’s changes to the tax code, in particular, are impossible to discern. So I’ll do another post when I can get some clarity on those issues. The politics, however, are perfectly straightforward.

A superficial read of the Patients’ Choice Act – which I’ve uploaded here – would make you think you’re digging into a liberal bill. A fair chunk of the rhetoric is lifted straight from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. “It is time to publicly admit that the health care system in America is broken,” begins the document. “Health care is not a commodity in the traditional sense,” it continues. “States should provide direct oversight of health insurers to make sure they are playing by fair rules,” it demands. The way we pay private insurers in Medicare “wastes taxpayer dollars and lines the pockets of insurance executives,” it says. Elsewhere, it praises solutions that have worked in several European countries.”

And though it’s still too early to say how the policy fits together, it’s clear that many traditionally Democratic concepts have been embraced. To put it simply, the plan wants to encourage a version of the Massachusetts reforms – which it calls a “well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care” – in every state. There are some differences, of course. The plan doesn’t have an individual mandate. It doesn’t have an obvious tax on employers. But it strongly endorses State Health Insurance Exchanges. And that, for Republicans, is a radical change in policy.

This idea – present in every Democratic proposal but absent in Arizona Sen.John McCain’s plan – would empower states to create heavily regulated marketplaces of insurers. The plans offered would have to “meet the same statutory standard used for the health benefits given to Members of Congress.” Cherrypicking would be discouraged through risk adjustment, which the PCA calls “a model that works in several European countries.” The government would automatically enroll individuals in plans whenever they interacted with a government agency and states would be able to join into regional cooperatives to increase the size of their risk pool.

In essence, Coburn, Burr, and Ryan are abandoning the individual market entirely. Like Democrats, they’re arguing that individuals cannot successfully navigate the insurance market, and they need the protection of government regulation and the bargaining power that comes from a large risk pool. This is literally the opposite approach from McCain, who attempted to unwind the employer-based insurance and encourage families to purchase health coverage on the individual market. The core elements of this plan, in other words, make it the same type of plan Democrats are offering. A plan that enlarges consumer buying pools rather than shrinks them. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect a Blue Dog Democrat to propose. And it’s further evidence that the argument over health reform is narrowing, rather than widening. And it’s narrowing in a direction that favors the Democrats.

UPDATE: After discussions with Sen. Coburn’s staff, I happily issued a few corrections. Still, concerns remain.

The Courts Are Right to Intervene

daniel-hauserThe Daniel Hauser standoff, in which a child’s parents are refusing chemotherapy to treat their son’s cancer,  is a classic case pitting the right of parents to oversee the religious practices of the family against the interest of the state in the well-being of children.

The presumption is with parents, but it is not irrebuttable. Just as the state may interfere in family matters in the case of spousal or child abuse, so too it may in a case like this, where the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the long-term interests of the child are being ignored by a parent.

Will there be close calls in such cases? Of course. But on the facts presented here, this case does not appear to be a close call.