Archives: 01/2010

The Way We Were

Conservatives and even libertarians often view history through the prism of “the road to serfdom,” believing that there was some golden age of liberty in the past that is progressively being eroded. Two recent articles remind us of some of the problems with that thesis.

An obituary in today’s Washington Post told of what happened to American-born May Asaki and her family after the outbreak of war between the United States and her parents’ home country of Japan:

On May 8, 1942 – May Asaki’s 23rd birthday – she and her family were loaded into the back of an Army truck and sent to a detention center. They were allotted one suitcase each.

May, who was the second oldest of 11 children, spoke only rudimentary Japanese and had known no home but California. Her older brother volunteered for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but his patriotism didn’t help her family. U.S. authorities considered Americans of Japanese descent to be potential enemies during World War II, and the Asaki family eventually ended up at an internment camp in a snake-infested swamp in Arkansas. Within six months, May’s mother was dead at 48.

“My older brother was serving in the U.S. Army while our family was incarcerated as criminals,” May wrote in her memoir, “the stress of which was too great for our mother to bear.”

The only good thing to be said for May’s two years of captivity was that she met Paul Ishimoto, whom she married in April 1944. Three months later, when their internment camp was closed, they moved to Washington. The federal government gave them $25 apiece to start a new life.

We can only hope that census data will never again be used to round up American citizens and imprison them on the basis of their race. Meanwhile, at the Independent Gay Forum, David Link writes about a historian who was frustrated in trying to find stories in the Los Angeles Times archives about homosexuality in L.A. during the mid-20th century. His searches kept coming up empty. Had they simply never covered such stories?

Then he realized that he was searching for words and phrases he was used to using: “homosexual” and “gay” and “sexual orientation.”  But those were not the words journalists would have used prior to our own time.

Try it for yourself.  If you have access to any database of news stories up to about the 1960s, see how many articles you can find about homosexuality using the words you know to describe sexual orientation.

Than try using these: “deviant;” “degenerate;” “pervert.”

That is the way homosexuality was both understood and reported (when it was reported at all) in days gone by.

Those are the words, and the preconceptions, that would have been dominant, if not exclusive in the minds of the single demographic we can most reliably count on to vote against us today – seniors.  Those who grew up in the 1930s and 40s and 50s would have, first, avoided any possible discussion of such an unpleasant and impolite subject as homosexuality.  That is how the closet – the don’t ask, don’t tell of its day – accommodated the times.

But denial on such a wide scale has to begin fraying at the edges.  And when homosexuality did come up, as Chauncey so vividly described – in criminal trials, bar raids, and mass arrests – the reporting had a condemnatory force built-in.  The police arrested a dozen sexual perverts; a high-profile degenerate was found in a love nest; a bar owner lost his license because his business catered to deviants.

Taxes may have been lower in the 1950s (though come to think of it, the marginal rate was 91 percent). Regulation may been less burdensome (except for the New Deal-derived microregulation of finance, transportation, and communications). The labor market may have been freer (unless you got drafted into the armed services, like Elvis and millions of other young men). But stories like this remind us of how many people were excluded from the promises of the Declaration of Independence – the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – throughout American history. Liberalism has always campaigned for a society of merit, not of status. That meant in the first place the dismantling of the privileges of nobility and aristocracy. Over the centuries it has also meant extending liberty and equality to people of other races and creeds, to women, to Jews, to gays and lesbians. And current historical trends are certainly more complicated than worries about a road to serfdom, or nostalgia for “the world we have lost.”

Obama’s Other Massachusetts Problem

Even if Democrat Martha Coakley wins 50 percent of the vote in the race to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (ahem) term, there are other numbers emanating from Massachusetts that present a problem for President Obama’s health plan.

On Wednesday, the Cato Institute will release “The Massachusetts Health Plan: Much Pain, Little Gain,” authored by Cato adjunct scholar Aaron Yelowitz and yours truly. Our study evaluates Massachusetts’ 2006 health law, which bears a “remarkable resemblance” to the president’s plan. We use the same methodology as previous work by the Urban Institute, but ours is the first study to evaluate the effects of the Massachusetts law using Current Population Survey data for 2008 (i.e., from the 2009 March supplement).  Since I’m sure that supporters of the Massachusetts law and the Obama plan will dismiss anything from Cato as ideologically motivated hackery: Yelowitz’s empirical work is frequently cited by the Congressional Budget Office, and includes one article co-authored with MIT health economist (and Obama administration consultant) Jonathan Gruber, under whom Yelowitz studied.

Among our findings:

  • Official estimates overstate the coverage gains under the Massachusetts law by roughly 50 percent.
  • The actual coverage gains may be lower still, because uninsured Massachusetts residents appear to be concealing their lack of insurance rather than admit to breaking the law.
  • Public programs crowded out private insurance among low-income children and adults.
  • Self-reported health improved for some, but fell for others.
  • Young adults appear to be avoiding Massachusetts as a result of the law.
  • Leading estimates understate the cost of the Massachusetts law by at least one third.

When Obama campaigns for Martha Coakley, he is really campaigning for his health plan, which means he is really campaigning for the Massachusetts health plan.

He and Coakley should explain why they’re pursuing a health plan that’s not only increasingly unpopular, but also appears to have a rather high cost-benefit ratio.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

Growing Support for Smaller Government

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that respondents favor “smaller government with fewer services” over “larger government with more services” by 58 to 38 percent. Reporter Dan Balz notes:

The poll also shows how much ground Obama has lost during his first year of trying to convince the public that more government is the answer to the country’s problems. By 58 percent to 38 percent, Americans said they prefer smaller government and fewer services to larger government with more services. Since he won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved in Post-ABC polls from five points to 20 points.

I’ve noted previously that

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government – “more services” – but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. A similar poll around the same time, without the information on taxes, found a margin of 59 to 26 percent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that if you remind respondents that “more services” means higher taxes, the margin by which people prefer smaller government rises by about 9 points.

In fact, Rasmussen has continued to ask just that question, and found a month ago that voters preferred “smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes” by a margin of 66 to 22 percent. That’s a larger margin for the alternative wording than I had previously estimated. I know some people are skeptical of Rasmussen’s polling. (A Republican consulting firm recently found results very similar to the Rasmussen poll.) So I invite Gallup, Harris, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other pollsters to ask this more balanced question and see what results they get.

But Wait, There’s Less! [Head Start Unravels Further]

I’d missed something about the new Head Start Impact Study until this morning. It reports 44 cognitive test results, only one two of which were statistically significant at the end of 1st grade. The thing is, a certain number of apparently significant results are to be expected merely by chance, and the probability of these false positives grows in proportion to the number of tests you report.

Statisticians use a variety formulas to control for the expected proliferation of false positives when multiple results are reported, and even if we apply a very forgiving control (the Dubey and Armitage-Parmar procedure with an assumed average correlation among results of .8), the two marginally “significant” Head Start result become, you guessed it, insignificant. (If we were to apply the very conservative Bonferroni correction, these marginal results would be savagely beaten, buried in concrete, and dropped into the Mariana Trench.)

In short, this very high quality study of a very large national sample of students reveals absolutely no evidence of statistically significant cognitive benefits to Head Start at the end of first grade. None.

To their considerable credit, the authors acknowledge this issue in footnote 99 on page 6-2 of the full report, linked above, and in the notes to their results tables in section 4 of the report, on cognitive outcomes. Indeed when they apply their own choice of control for false positives due to multiple tests (Benjamini-Hochberg), they, too, find that none of the cognitive effects holds up. Kudos.

Hijacking Neutrality

Perhaps he’s too demure to say “I told you so” himself, but events are bearing out the concerns about net neutrality and regulatory capture that  Tim Lee expressed in his excellent Cato paper “The Durable Internet.” The content industry is lobbying not just to ensure that neutrality rules permit filtering of Internet traffic by ISPs to block copyrighted material, but wants the FCC to positively encourage it.  As a brief from the Motion Picture Association of America suggests:

In fact, if the Commission wants to see a meaningful and long-term reduction in the amount of bandwidth consumed by illegal content, it should foster an environment in which innovation itself is able to flourish and new tools are not only permitted, but encouraged, to develop. The government should create incentives for this investment by clarifying that industry efforts will be rewarded with open and flexible regulations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been out of step with some of their usual allies on this front, arguing that however desirable the open Internet might be, the broad assertion by the FCC of authority to control network architecture sets a dangerous precedent. The implicit threat to ISPs here is: “Go along with our wish list for intrusive filtering or we’ll find a way to use the rules to make trouble for you.”

The telecoms, meanwhile, are pressing for the applicability of neutrality rules to all sorts of other application-level service providers, such as Google. An AT&T filing argued that “the commission cannot rationally impose rules on one set of providers based on hypothetical concerns while exempting other providers that act as Internet gatekeepers and have engaged in actual misconduct.” They specifically called out Google, which they assert “shapes how consumers actually experience the Internet more than any given broadband provider possibly could.”

It would, to be sure, be perverse if industry players managed to use regulations designed to promote openness and innovation as a cudgel with which to whack innovative competitors. But in the world of regulation, no less than in the domains studied by Alfred Kinsey, it turns out that the perverse is perfectly normal.

Is Government Transparency Headed for a Detour?

With a year in office, and perhaps under some pressure to deliver on promises of transparency and change, the White House went on a little PR offensive this week. It rolled out a blog post and a video claiming the transparency successes of the administration’s first year. A lot has gone on, and it’s worth a review. It’s also worth noting some signals that the government transparency project could be heading for a slight detour.

In the video — a little infomercial-y, but tolerable and interesting — federal chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra cites several examples of government use of technology. A system called ISDS Distribute helps the government monitor flu outbreaks, for example, akin to Google.org’s Flu Trends. Chopra touted the benefits of machine readability and the Agriculture Department’s release of data about a thousand most commonly eaten foods. (I’m not sure if this is it, but if not it’s probably something similar. Someone like Mike could use it to build a site that is further along than 1996’s state-of-the-art.) And Chopra discussed the platforms they are building at apps.gov to help agencies draw on the participation and engagement of the public. Putting aside how these illustrate the federal government’s distended role, these are all fine things.

White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen cited the release of visitor records as “one of the big innovations in the White House” over the past year. (Good, yes. But “big”?) Eisen dodged the question about why health care negotiations are not on C-SPAN.

In response to a question about putting federal advisory committees online, Chopra told of a recent meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology, which was telecast live on the web and archived.

Finally, Chopra touted the planned January 22nd roll-out of data feeds from every federal agency under a recent open government memorandum — three “high-value data sets” per agency. In working toward this, Chopra said, “the conversation is all about what would help you do what you do better.  How can we advance our shared goals of reducing disparities in health care, improving our commitment  to renewable energies, advancing our collective educational results?”

This language and some of the examples cited in the video cause me to worry that the transparency effort may be heading for a detour. Rather than substantive insight into government management, deliberations, and results, we might get a lot of data-oriented play-toys.

According to the memorandum:

High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation.

That’s a very broad definition. Without more restraint than that, public choice economics predicts that the agencies will choose the data feeds with the greatest likelihood of increasing their discretionary budgets or the least likelihood of shrinking them. That’s data that “further[s] the core mission of the agency” and not data that “increase[s] agency accountability and responsiveness.” It’s the Ag Department’s calorie counts, not the Ag Department’s check register.

The kind of substance the transparency community expects is well represented in a  report issued jointly by the Center for Democracy and Technology and OpentheGovernment.org in March of last year. It’s called “Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents,” and it asks for access to important research and governmental process information with the capacity to generate real insights into government and its operations.

Interesting data that the agency has collected or produced may be just that — interesting — but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. Once we have these core elements of transparency captured, other data are absolutely good to have. But let the starting point be the workings of agencies themselves.

To help focus agencies on releasing the data that is high-value for genuine government transparency, I plan to examine the three data-streams each agency releases and grade the agencies on whether their releases provide insight into agency management, deliberations, or results.

As I examine the agency’s data feeds, I’ll use their proximity to true government transparency to assign them a letter grade, awarding them three points for each feed that has to do with management, deliberation, or results. These numerical scores — 9, 6, 3, or 0 — I’ll translate into grades: A, B, C, or D. (Nobody fails when the criteria only came out a week in advance.) F is reserved for agencies that don’t produce feeds.

This rubric for rating the data that agencies release seems reasonably objective, and a decent measure of which agencies are really responding to the demand for transparency and change, and which are pushing interesting data out as a smokescreen against deeper insights and reform. Hopefully, this effort at focusing agencies on true high-value data will see some uptake among my colleagues in the transparency community (if I haven’t alienated them with my endless harping on President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise). Watch this space for agency grades shortly after the release of the feeds.

Is Russia’s Gas Behavior Driven by Targets’ Domestic Politics?

Back when Russia was turning off the spigots to pipelines running through Ukraine, Official Washington was in a panic.  Just a few years after the Orange Revolution was supposed to have heralded a new era of freedom and democracy in Ukraine, Russia was using its economic muscle to stifle the growth of that freedom because of the threat it felt a democratic Ukraine posed to the Putin regime’s grip on power.  It was a lot like the “democratic dominoes” argument the neoconservatives deployed in promoting the Iraq war.

As Washington Post editorialist Jackson Diehl stated the case in 2007,

Putin sees the fragile new democracy in Ukraine, and an allied government in the tiny Black Sea nation of Georgia, as dire threats. If Western-style freedom consolidates and spreads in the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe, his own undemocratic regime will be isolated and undermined. What’s more, Ukraine and its neighbors are likely to integrate with Europe rather than remaining economic and political vassals of Russia.

Secretary of State Rice warned that Russia’s behavior on energy constituted “politically motivated efforts to constrain energy supply to Ukraine” as punishment for the former Soviet republic’s pro-Western orientation. In short, the argument was that Ukrainian democracy threat to the Russian regime  Russian gas cutoffs.

Others argued that Russia’s increasingly nasty behavior was less about the internal political contours of its neighbors and more about power politics and making sure the neighbors would be compliant with Russian interests, much like the United States has sought in the Western Hemisphere since at least the Monroe Doctrine.

Fred Hiatt: Lukashenko’s domestic reforms a threat to Russia

So if fear of democracy and liberalism were driving Russia’s behavior back then, then what is causing the current cutoff dispute with non-democratic and unfriendly-to-Washington Belarus?  It’s radio silence from most of Washington, with a notable exception: the exquisitely Russophobic Washington Post op-ed page.  Fred Hiatt and the Gang are sticking to their story, offering the ridiculous argument earlier this week that in fact Moscow was acting to suppress Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko’s incipient liberalism, which was evinced by Lukashenko’s having “released a few political prisoners” and “refusing to recognize the two puppet states that Moscow is backing in Georgia.”

A less ornate explanation would be that perhaps Russia is more fixated on material factors and less on ideology.