Archives: 07/2009

For Financial Stability, Fix the Tax Code

There seems to be near universal agreement that the excessive use of debt among both corporations, particularly banks, and households contributed to the severity of the financial crisis.  However, other than the occasional refrain that banks should hold more capital, there has been little discussion over why corporations choose to be so highly leveraged in the first place.  But then such a discussion might lead us to the all too obvious answer – the federal government, via the tax code, encourages, even heavily subsidizes corporate leverage.

Cato scholar and banking analyst Bert Ely has estimated that the subsides for debt have historically resulted in an after tax cost of debt of 3 to 5 percent, compared to an after tax cost of equity of 12 to 15 percent.  With differences of this magnitude, it should not be surprising that financial companies and corporations in general become highly leveraged.

For corporations, this massive difference in cost between debt and equity financing results primary from the ability to deduct interest expenses on debt, while punishing equity due to the double-taxation of dividends along with taxing capital gains. 

If we are going to use the tax code to subsidize debt and tax equity, we shouldn’t act surprised when firms load up on the debt and reduce their use of equity – making financial crises all too frequent and severe.

Senate Panel Endorses Sotomayor

The judiciary committee’s vote to endorse Sonia Sotomayor is not surprising. None of the Democrats are from red states and so have little to fear from voters, while the quixotic Lindsey Graham—in what can only be described as a triumph of hope over experience—was the only Republican to have set aside legitimate qualms and voted for the “wise Latina.” But voting on a Supreme Court nomination is more than a matter of deciding whether a nominee is “qualified”—even if Sonia Sotomayor had been a leading light of the judiciary rather than just the best available Hispanic woman—or deferring to the president. Instead, Senator Dick Durbin had it right when he said during John Roberts’s confirmation hearings that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.”

Given Sotomayor’s repeated rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective or discernible from written text, her inability in oral and written testimony to even state a position on important cases and legal doctrine beyond an acceptance of precedent—by which she would no longer be bound in her new role—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably on the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings and on using foreign law to inform constitutional interpretation. Because of her evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like Sotomayor less now than when she was first nominated.

And so, in following the “burden of proof” paradigm and also respecting the logic of Senator Arlen Specter, who curiously evoked Scottish law at President Clinton’s impeachment trial to vote “not proven,” I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.

Assessing the Claim that CDT Opposes a National ID

It was good of Ari Schwartz to respond last week to my recent post querying whether the Center for Democracy and Technology outright opposes a national ID or simply “does not support” one.

Ari says CDT does oppose a national ID, and I believe that he honestly believes that. But it’s worth taking a look at whether the group’s actions are consistent with opposition to a national ID. I believe CDT’s actions – most recently its support of the PASS ID Act – support the creation of a national ID.

(The title of his post and some of his commentary suggest I have engaged in rhetorical excess and mischaracterized his views. Please do judge for yourself whether I’m being shrill or unfair, which is not my intention.)

First I want to address an unusual claim of Ari’s – that we already have a national ID system. If that is true, his support for PASS ID is more sensible because it is an opportunity to inject federal privacy protections into the existing system (putting aside whether it is a federal responsibility to manage a state system or systems).

Do We Already Have a National ID?

I have heard a few people suggest that we have a national ID in the form of the Social Security Number. I believe the SSN is a national identifier, but it fails the test of a national identification card or system because it is not used for identification. As we know well from the scourge of identity fraud, there is no definitive way to tie an SSN to a person. The SSN is not used for identification (at least not reliably and not alone), which is the third part of my national ID definition. (Senator Schumer might like the SSN to form the basis of a national ID system, of course.)

But Ari says something different. He does not claim any definition of “national ID” or “national ID system.” Instead, he appeals to the authority of a 2003 report from a National Academy of Sciences group entitled “Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy.” That report indeed says, “State-issued driver’s licenses are a de facto nationwide identity system” – on the second-to-last substantive page of its second-to-last substantive chapter

But this is a highly selective use of quotation. The year before, that same group issued a report called “IDs – Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide Identity Systems.” From the beginning and throughout, that report discussed the many issues around proposals to create a “nationwide” identity system. If the NAS panel had already concluded that we have a national ID system, it would not have issued an entire report critiquing that prospect. It would have discussed the existing one as such. Ari’s one quote doesn’t do much to support the notion that we already have a national ID.

What’s more, CDT’s own public comments on the proposed REAL ID Act regulations in May 2007 said that its data-intensive “one person – one license/ID card – one record” policy would ”create a national identification system.”

If a national ID system already existed, the new policy wouldn’t create one. This is another authority at odds with the idea that we have a national ID system already.

Support of PASS ID might be forgiven if we had a national ID system and if PASS ID would improve it. But the claim we already have one is weak.

“Political Reality” and Its Manufacture

But the heart of Ari’s claim is that supporting PASS ID reflects good judgment in light of political reality.

Despite the fact that there are no federal politicians, no governors and no appointed officials from any party publicly supporting repeal of REAL ID today, CDT still says that repeal is an acceptable option. However, PASS ID would get to the same outcome, or better, in practice and has the added benefit of actually being a political possibility… . I realize that Harper has invested a lot of time fighting for the word “repeal,” but at some point we have to look at the political reality.

A “Dear Colleague” letter inviting support for a bill to repeal REAL ID circulated on the Hill last week. How many legislators will hesitate to sign on to the bill because they have heard that the PASS ID Act, and not repeal of REAL ID, is CDT’s preferred way forward?

The phrase “political reality” is more often used by advocates to craft the political reality they prefer than to describe anything truly real. Like the observer effect in experimental research, statements about “political reality” change political reality.  Convince enough people that a thing is “political reality” and the sought-after political reality becomes, simply, reality.

I wrote here before about how the National Governors Association, sensing profit, has worked diligently to make REAL ID a “political reality.” And it has certainly made some headway (though not enough). In the last Congress, the only legislation aimed at resolving the REAL ID impasse were bills to repeal REAL ID. Since then, the political reality is that Barack Obama was elected president and an administration far less friendly to a national ID took office. Democrats – who are on average less friendly to a national ID – made gains in both the House and Senate.

But how are political realities crafted? It has often been described as trying to get people on a bus. To pass a bill, you change it to get more people on the bus than get off.

The REAL ID bus was missing some important riders. It had security hawks, the Department of Homeland Security, anti-immigrant groups, DMV bureaucrats, public safety advocates, and the Bush Administration. But it didn’t have: state legislators and governors, privacy and civil liberties groups, and certain religious communities, among others.

PASS ID is for the most part an effort to bring on state legislators and governors. The NGA is hoping to broker the sale of state power to the federal government, locking in its own institutional role as a supplicant in Washington, D.C. for state political leaders.

But look who else was hanging around the bus station looking for rides! – CDT, the nominal civil liberties group. Alone it jumped on the bus, communicating to others less familiar with the issues that PASS ID represented a good way forward.

Happily, few have taken this signal. The authors of PASS ID were unable to escape the name “REAL ID,” which is a far more powerful beacon flashing national ID and all the ills that entails than CDT’s signal to the contrary.

This is not the first time that CDT’s penchant for compromise has assisted the national ID effort, though.

Compromising Toward National ID

The current push for a national ID has a short history that I summarized three years ago in a righteously titled post on the TechLiberationFront blog: “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil II.”

Briefly, in December 2003, a group called the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age recommended “both near-term measures and a longer-term research agenda to increase the reliability of identification while protecting privacy.” (Never mind that false identification was not a modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks.)

The 9/11 Commission, citing Markle, found that “[t]he federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses.” In December 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including national standards for drivers’ licenses and identification cards, the national ID system recommended by the Markle Task Force. And in May 2005, Congress passed a strengthened national ID system in the REAL ID Act.

An earlier post, “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil,” has more – and the text of a PoliTech debate between myself and Stewart Baker. Security hawk Baker was a participant in the Markle Foundation group, as was national ID advocate Amitai Etzioni. So was the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Jim Dempsey.

I had many reservations about the Markle Foundation Task Force and its work product, and in an April 2005 meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee, I asked Dempsey about what qualified people to serve on that task force, whether people were invited, and what might exclude them. A month before REAL ID passed, he said:

I think the Markle Task Force at least sought balance. And people came to the table committed to dialogue. And those who came with a particular point of view, I think, were all committed to listening. And I think people’s minds were changed… . What we were committed to in the Markle Task Force was changing our minds and trying to find a common ground and to try to understand each other. And we spent the time at it. And that, I think, is reflected in the product of the task force.

There isn’t a nicer, more genuine person working in public policy than Jim Dempsey. He is the consummate honest broker, and this statement of his intentions for the Markle Foundation I believe to be characteristically truthful and earnest.

But consider the possibility that others participating on the Markle Foundation Task Force did not share Jim’s predilection for honest dialogue and compromise. It is even possible that they mouthed these ideals while working intently to advance their goals, including creation of a national ID.

Stewart Baker, who I personally like, is canny and wily, and he wants to win. I see no evidence that Amitai Etzioni changed his mind about having a national ID when he authored the recommendation in the Markle report that ultimately produced REAL ID.

Other Markle participants I have talked to were unaware of what the report said about identity-based security, national identity standards, or a national ID. They don’t even know (or didn’t at the time) that lending your name to a report also lends it your credibility. Whatever privacy or civil liberties advocates were involved with the Markle Task Force got rolled – big-time – by the pro-national-ID team.

CDT is a sophisticated Washington, D.C. operation. It is supposed to understand these dynamics. I can’t give it the pass that outsiders to Washington might get. By committing to compromise rather than any principle, and by lending its name to the Markle Foundation Task Force report, CDT gave credibility to a bad idea – the creation of a national ID.

CDT helped produce the REAL ID Act, which has taken years of struggle to beat back. And now they are at it again with “pragmatic” support for PASS ID.

CDT has been consistently compromising on national ID issues while proponents of a national ID have been doggedly and persistently pursuing their interests. This is not the behavior of a civil liberties organization. It’s why I asked in the post that precipitated this debate whether there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Despite words to the contrary, I don’t see evidence that CDT opposes having a national ID. It certainly works around the edges to improve privacy in the context of having a national ID – reducing the wetness of the water, as it were – but at key junctures, CDT’s actions have tended to support having a U.S. national ID. I remain open to seeing contrary evidence.

DC Residents Want Private School Choice

As Adam Schaeffer mentions below, a new poll commissioned by the Friedman Foundation and others reports that the vast majority of DC residents are in favor of the DC opportunity scholarships voucher program and are critical of the decision of congressional Democrats, President Obama, and ed. sec. Arne Duncan to phase out the program.

Many on the city council have already voiced their support for the program as well.

This begs a question: Why doesn’t the DC government just create its own private school choice program and save itself a boatload of money in the process?

DC spends about $28,000 per pupil on k-12 education right now. The federal vouchers, at an average of $6,600 each, are rather more cost effective, in addition to producing much better academic achievement after students have been in the program for a few years. 

So most folks in DC want it. It would save the city massive amounts of money. And it would do great things for kids.

What are the mayor and the city council waiting for?

It’s Dangerous For Pols to be on the Wrong Side of Overwhelming Support

Any City Council members who aren’t vocally supporting the DC voucher program need to take a good long look at these numbers:

Nearly 75 percent of District residents support the city’s federally funded school voucher program, according to a rigorous, independent poll released today. Widespread support for the program crosses party lines—with 74 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Independents backing the program—and extends across each of the District’s eight wards…

Two previous polls have demonstrated local support for the program; in 2007, a Greater Washington Urban League poll demonstrated almost 70 percent support for the federal funding creating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. A 2008 poll by the national nonprofit Education Reform Now demonstrated equally strong support for the voucher initiative, with 63 percent of D.C. residents supporting school vouchers in general and 77 percent voicing supporting for parental choice in education.

Why Mortgage Modifications Aren’t Working

As covered in both today’s Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, the Obama administration has called 25 of the largest mortgage servicing companies to Washington to try to figure out why the Obama efforts to stem foreclosures has been a failure.

The reason such efforts, as well as those of the Bush Administration and the FDIC, have been a failure is that such efforts have grossly misdiagnosed the causes of mortgage defaults.  An implicit assumption behind former Treasury Secretary Paulson’s HOPE NOW, FDIC Chair Sheila Bair’s IndyMac model, and the Obama Administration’s current foreclosure efforts is that the current wave of foreclosures is almost exclusively the result of predatory lending practices and “exploding” adjustable rate mortgages, where large payment shocks upon the rate re-set cause mortgage payment to become “unaffordable.”

The simple truth is that the vast majority of mortgage defaults are being driven by the same factors that have always driven mortgage defaults:  generally a negative equity position on the part of the homeowner coupled with a life event that results in a substantial shock to their income, most often a job loss or reduction in earnings. Until both of these components, negative equity and a negative income shock are addressed, foreclosures will remain at highly elevated levels.

Sadly the Obama Administration is likely to use today’s meeting as simply an excuse to deflect blame from themselves onto “greedy” lenders.  Instead the Administration should be focusing on avenues for increasing employment and getting our economy growing again.  Then of course, this Administration has from the start been more focused on re-distributing wealth rather than creating it, which explains why it views mortgage modifications as simply a game of taking from lenders (in reality investors - like pension funds) and giving to delinquent homeowners.

Education Has Diminishing Returns!?

Inside Higher Ed features a terrific essay today by economist Michael Rizzo. Rizzo takes issue with President Obama’s goals to have all Americans complete at least one post-secondary year of education or job training, and for the nation to have the world’s highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. I’ve opined about this before, but Rizzo does it much more comprehensively, noting especially that - surprise! - education can suffer from “diminishing returns.”

Here’s the meat of Rizzo’s piece, but you really should read the whole thing:

More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.

While investing in each of these likely generates enormous benefits when starting from scratch, at some point each additional unit invested generates fewer benefits than the one before it – just as eating that fourth doughnut brings you less satisfaction than did the second. What if these so-called “diminishing returns” never set in for education? In a world of scarce time and resources, they must, albeit indirectly. Dedicating more resources to the production of educated workers must come at the expense of resources dedicated to creating other important capital goods, institutions, or consumption goods. An individual cannot dedicate 24 hours in a day to everything, nor can society dedicate all of its resources to everything. Put another way, if merely leading the world in educational attainment is desirable, why not aim to have every American receive a college degree? Better yet, why not aim to have every American earn a Ph.D.?