Archives: July, 2009

Bernie Madoff and Government Fraud

In an op-ed Chris Edwards and I wrote for National Review Online yesterday, we shed light on the $100 billion or more in government subsidies pilfered by recipients through fraud and abuse:

Every year, criminals and cheats pilfer over $100 billion — that’s $40 billion more than Bernie Madoff scammed off his investors — in federal benefits to which they are not legally entitled. Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, refundable tax credits, and many other programs are targets for looting.

Chris and I focused on fraud and abuse perpetrated by the recipients of taxpayer largesse, and Bernie Madoff made for a good comparison. But as the great economist and Cato adjunct scholar Robert Higgs also pointed out yesterday, “Bernie Madoff Was Only a Petty Crook Compared with Uncle Sam.”  Typically, Higgs doesn’t mince words when it comes to comparisons between private and public Ponzi schemes:

Madoff, in contrast to the government, carried out his fraud in a civilized way: he merely misrepresented what he was doing, purporting to invest his clients’ money and to obtain a high rate of return on these investments. People dealt with him voluntarily. Those who suspected something was fishy did not do business with him, and some people went so far as to give substantial information to the SEC to show that Madoff’s business had to be fraudulent (which information the SEC ignored for years on end, of course).

The leaders of the U.S. government have carried out their Social Security fraud—essentially a Ponzi scheme, in substance exactly the same as Madoff’s scheme—since 1935… . The U.S. government, however, does not bother to claim any prowess in investing the money it forces people to surrender to its scheme. It admits that the ‘client’s’ return is now close to zero (varying a bit according to the client’s age and other factors). Nor does it carry out its admitted Ponzi scheme in a civilized way. Not only is participation in the scheme involuntary, but the government threatens violence against anyone who fails to participate as it commands him. Thus, the government operates its Ponzi scheme in a markedly more thuggish manner than Bernie would ever have dreamed of. He might have been a crook, but he was not a thug.

Obama Is Right to Stare Down Congress Over the F-22

If Congress votes to build even more F-22s in the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, it will be a sad example of parochial interests overriding our nation’s security. The move would defy the wishes of the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Gates, who have wisely called for the program to come to an end.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag—$356 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs to more than $44,000 per hour of flying, which is well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

If Obama is serious about getting a handle on the enormous federal budget deficit, confronting Congress over the clear wastefulness of the F-22 is certainly a good place to start.

Trapped Inside the Mime’s Box

Kevin Carey, policy director at the think tank Education Sector, asserts that when it comes to higher education libertarians are boxed in, unable to find a solution to out-of-control college costs that won’t violate at least one, basic libertarian principle:

This puts libertarians in somewhat of a box. On the one hand, they tend to be hostile toward the tens of billions of public dollars that flow into colleges every year. The more colleges cost, the greater the claim on the average citizen’s hard-earned money and thus reduction in their precious liberty etc., etc.

But the best way to bend down the long-term higher education cost curve and thus reduce government spending is to increase government regulation in the form of mandatory reporting. So it’s a pick your poison situation for the Cato folks — would you rather have Big Brother’s hand in your wallet or his eye on your business? You really can’t avoid both.

Now, I don’t want to seem obnoxious about this. After all, in the same piece that produced this quote, Carey notes that “while my politics are pretty far from Cato’s and I often think they’re wrong, they tend to be wrong in interesting ways.” I thank him for that (I think), though I should note that the impetus for his piece is a paper that comes from the John William Pope Center – the same paper I discuss here – not from Cato. So it might not even be Cato that Carey finds interesting. Regardless, here’s my potentially obnoxious-sounding reply:

Without even discussing the extremely dubious assumption that more regulation will lead to lower college costs, wouldn’t the best, most direct way to “reduce government spending” obviously be to, well, reduce, or even stop, government spending?

Of course it would, and that is the obvious solution for libertarians! It would get Big Brother out of our wallets and kill whatever justification subsidies might give him to gaze into our business. And it wouldn’t just make libertarians feel better – the benefits would accrue to almost everyone. If students and donors, rather than taxpayers, were to cover much more of colleges’ costs, taxpayers would save money, colleges would be unable to charge as much as they currently do, and schools would have to focus much more on their customers and patrons.

So there is no either-more-regulation-or-higher-costs box. Indeed, the only box that libertarians could possibly be trapped in is a mime’s box – a purely illusory one that someone has to really, really want to believe in for it to have any sort of existence at all. 

Having broken free of the invisible, intangible box, let me address one other thing that Carey brought up both in the discussion held at Cato, and his latest commentary:

The problem is that colleges aren’t just going to unilaterally release lots of new information on their own. Nor would it help matters much if they did; for data to matter it has to be standardized in a way that allows for comparison. That’s why companies report one set of quarterly financial results to the SEC, not 50 different sets to each state. Given that higher education is a national market this leads to a similar national solution: The federal government should compel colleges to release much more information about success as a condition of receiving direct or indirect federal aid.

The idea that a market that happens to be national in scope somehow requires federal control is both very common, and very inaccurate, simply equating “national” with “federal” and moving on from there. Even worse, though, is the even more basic assumption that to get something good, or just standardized, government control is required.

Whether it’s McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris, an item on the menu in Beverly Hills is going to be essentially the same as in New York City. Why? Not because Washington says it must be, but because that keeps the customers coming. Or consider the QWERTY keyboard: It became the national standard by free-market, not government, forces. And how about the Model T, which was driven by Americans from Maine to San Diego? It was standardized not because the federal government said “this is a national car, so we must make it the national standard,” but because one company produced it and it was freely chosen by customers from sea to shining sea. And how do we choose automobiles today? Not by going to some federal report on what a car should be (though perhaps that day is coming) but, often, by consulting such trade mags as Road and Track.

Clearly, we don’t need government to set standards or inform consumers – markets will do those things themselves. But that markets will set their own standards is just part of the story. Sometimes – indeed, almost all of the time – you simply don’t want a single standard: Vegetarians don’t want a great steak. Many people would rather click than type. The English major fascinated by Chaucer doesn’t need a cyclotron. The working mom often doesn’t want the same education as the parentally funded 18-year-old.

And then there is the gigantic – but usually ignored – problem of government failure: Government regulation and standardization is very costly. It can be used to crush the opponents of the politically well-connected rather than advance the common good. It can have crippling unintended consequences. And, as former Dickinson College president, Clinton-era Department of Education assistant secretary, and current George Mason University professor A. Lee Fritschler made clear at the discussion of the Pope Center’s paper, it also simply fails – a lot. Indeed, based on his experience at the Department of Education, Fritschler is adamant that the feds are simply incapable of effectively regulating higher education.

So once again, Carey sees a mime’s box. This time, though, it’s not one he imagines entrapping libertarians, but one he thinks Washington can drop on the ivory tower to make it work right. It’s a different box, but just as illusory.

CBO: Democrats Bend Health Care Cost Curve — in the Wrong Direction

This is too good.  Directly from the ABC News blog post, “CBO Sees No Federal Cost Savings in Dem Health Plans:”

Here’s a blow to President Obama and Democrats pressing health care reform.

One of the main arguments made by the President and others for investing in health reform now is that it will save the federal government money in the long run by containing costs.

Turns out that may not be the case, according to Doug Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Answering questions from Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota at a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee today, Elmendorf said CBO does not see health care cost savings in either of the partisan Democratic bills currently in Congress.

Conrad:  Dr. Elmendorf, I am going to really put you on the spot because we are in the middle of this health care debate, but it is critically important that we get this right.  Everyone has said, virtually everyone, that bending the cost curve over time is critically important and one of the key goals of this entire effort.  From what you have seen from the products of the committees that have reported, do you see a successful effort being mounted to bend the long-term cost curve?

Elmendorf:  No, Mr. Chairman.  In the legislation that has been reported we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount.  And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs.

Formatting in original.

Rory Stewart on the Deep Confusion Underpinning Our Afghanistan Strategy

Rory Stewart has a terrific piece in the London Review of Books arguing that Beltway foreign-policy thinkers are “minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals” when it comes to Afghanistan:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state…

Stewart’s prognosis is at once dispiriting and fortifying.  On the one hand, “it is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban.”  More sharply, “30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan.  But Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”  On the other, “the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole.”  Why not?

It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?

So what on earth are we doing?  “No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t;’ soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible.”

A Better Way to Reform Health Care

From my oped in today’s Investor’s Business Daily:

As it turns out, “universal coverage” may not be so inevitable after all. Much to the chagrin (and apparent surprise) of President Obama and congressional Democrats, squabbling has erupted in earnest over who will spring for the exorbitant cost.

Fortunately, Obama has an exit strategy: “If there is a way of getting this done where we’re driving down costs and people are getting health insurance at an affordable rate, and have choice of doctor, have flexibility in terms of their plans, and we could do that entirely through the market, I’d be happy to do it that way.”

Well, there is a way: Let individuals control their health care dollars, and free them to choose from a wide variety of health plans and providers. If Congress takes those steps, innovation and market competition will make health care better, more affordable, and more secure.