Archives: 03/2010

Discouraging Speech through Disclosure

David Price, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from North Carolina, has introduced a bill, the Stand by Every Ad Act,  to mandate disclosure of support for political speech by business and union officials.

Rep. Price cites three harms from such speech: “the opportunity for corporations, unions and associations to dominate the playing field, intimidating public officials and drowning out the candidates’ own messages.”

Notice that these alleged harms are caused by the speech itself and not by the fact that the speech might be anonymous. Notice also that Rep. Price provides no evidence at all that such harms will take place. Where would such evidence be found? Prior to McCain-Feingold, corporations and unions could fund speech. Several states also have permitted independent corporate expenditures. What happened in those years or those states to support Rep. Price’s extreme claims?

It is striking that two of the three harms cited by Rep. Price concern only members of Congress. He claims members will be intimidated or have their “own messages” drowned out. What Rep. Price does not say is how these problems for members of Congress would translate into problems for voters.  Of course, such arguments about the welfare of voters exist, but they are not obvious to most people. Rep. Price, however, saw no need to make the connection between an alleged harm done to a member and the interests of voters.  His argument is centered on the interests and concerns of incumbent members of Congress.  Apparently members consider first their own interests in thinking about campaign finance regulations.

Rep. Price also ignores the fact that voters are likely to receive more information about candidates for office after Citizens United since the hand of the censor has been lifted.

Rep. Price clearly believes mandated disclosure by business and union leaders will effectively discourage them from speaking out during elections.  Given that motivation behind the new disclosures laws, at what point does mandated disclosure translate into chilled speech?

One other disturbing part of Rep. Price’s case for his bill: he hopes to extend disclosure to the Internet.  Of course, disclosure of Internet speech may well lead to other restrictions on speech online.

Health Cost Projections to 2019: The Doc Fix Trick Again

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) takes the President to task for cooking the books on projected health care costs, most egregiously with the “doc fix” – namely, assuming Medicare slashes physician payments by 21.3% this year and subsequently lets them fall continuously in real terms.

What nobody seems to have noticed is that the same phony “doc fix” taints the new “Health Spending Projections Through 2019” from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, tries to downplay the CMS forecast “that the public sector will start paying more than half of the nation’s health care bill starting in 2012, and that government spending will grow faster than private spending from 2009 to 2019 (an average of 7.0% per year vs. 5.2%).”

Worrying about such spending trends is a foolish “ideological battle over the role of government,” says Altman, because rapid increases in government health spending is “just the byproduct of economic and demographic trends” (recession and an aging population).   “Is government health spending out of control?” he asks; answering “NO” in capital letters.  “The report simply underscores the need to control health care costs in the public and the private sectors alike.”

On the contrary, the reason government health care spending is projected to slow down to 7% a year is, the CMS explains, “due principally to the 21.3% reduction in physician payment rates … mandated in current law.”

Putting aside such “doctored” projections, “health spending by public payers ($1.2 trillion) is projected to have grown much faster in 2009 (8.7 percent) than that of private payers (3.0 percent).”

That was not because of high inflation in costs of medical goods and services (which should not differ much between government and private payers), but because the government has only in recent years been heavily subsidizing health insurance for the unemployed and drug insurance for seniors, and actively expanding the enrollment of Medicaid programs which (being “free”) often lure people out of employer-sponsored plans.

What Congressional Democrats call “reform” is, in fact, much more of the same—more non-poor people getting Medicaid and other subsidies that are yanked away if you work too hard.

No, It’s Not Health Inflation

Describing  runaway entitlement spending as “health inflation” is terribly misleading (even when Rep. Ryan does it), because doing so confuses rising prices with rising utilization of medical goods and services by people who are insulated from actual costs by taxpayer-financed subsidies.

Government subsidies also raise costs to those using private insurance.  The CMS notes that 2009’s 4.6% increase “private health insurance premium spending per employee … resulted in part from an increase in the proportion of high-cost claims—many of whom have temporary COBRA coverage” [emphasis added], which is 65% financed by taxpayers.

By contrast, health inflation per se is projected to be 2.8% this year – comparable to other labor-intensive service industries and also down from 3.2% in 2009 and 3% in 2008.     Morevoer, “out-of-pocket spending is projected to have grown 2.1 percent in 2009, down from 2.8% in 2008.”

What about all the uninformed media fuss about health insurance companies supposedly “asking for” premium increases of “up to” 39%?

If President Obama really wanted to find out how quickly typical health insurance premiums have been increasing, he could have a staffer call the Bureau of Labor Statistics and ask for Table 3A of the “Consumer Price Index Detailed Report Tables Annual Averages 2009.”  It turns out the consumer price index for health insurance premiums fell by 3.2% in 2009.

Thursday Links

Justices seemed afraid of the plain language of the Constitution.

Topics:

Our Little Scholars

As I mentioned a few days ago, today is the “Day of Action” in California – and, it turns out, elsewhere – when college students and just general protectors of public schooling are supposed to take to the streets and demand that taxpayers fork over not one less red cent to students and schools.

Ironically, the mindless, property-destroying, absurd goings-on that have surrounded past such demonstrations in Cali – and are already in evidence today – brilliantly illustrate one major reason we need to cut higher education subsidies, not increase them. Clearly, too many college students have both far too much time on their hands, and far too little self control, to justify spending hard-earned taxpayer dough on their “education.”

But at least the ostensible motivation behind recreational rioting in California has been slightly related to a principle – namely, the principle that taxpayers owe students stuff. That’s actually a better excuse for taking to the streets than what set off last night’s student riots in College Park, Maryland: a victory in a basketball game. (To be fair, University of Maryland students also riot after losses – they’re no fair weather fans!)

And to think – one of the reasons we’re supposed to support massive subsidies for students is that it serves the common good. Go figure.

Will Taxing Foreign Visitors Promote Tourism?

President Obama is taking a break today from promoting a more federalized health-care system to sign a bill creating a federalized tourist promotion campaign.

In a closed ceremony at the White House, the president signed the Travel Promotion Act. After gaining final passage by the Senate last week, the bill will raise an estimated $200 million a year by imposing a $10 tax on visitors to the United States from countries where they are not required to obtain a visa. The revenue will be used to create and fund a new agency, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, that would work with the U.S. tourism industry to promote the United States as a global travel destination.

I’m all for promoting tourism to the United States. Tourism is an important “service export” that generates more than $100 billion a year in earnings from foreign travelers to the United States. But a new federal agency and a new tax on travel are not the right way to drum up more tourism business.

First, just on principle, promoting a particular industry should be the business of that industry, not the business of government. Americans also export billions of dollars worth of farm goods, semiconductors, machinery, aircraft, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals, along with financial, education, insurance, and other services. None of those industries deserves their own tax-financed promotion board either. If the payoff from promotion is so huge, the industry should be willing to bear its cost without the aid of the government.

More practically, it goes against basic economic logic to promote tourism to the United States by imposing new costs on tourists. Granted, $10 is not a large amount, but the demand curve for tourism is downward sloping - as it is in every other market. A higher price will lead to less demand, not more. As a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association told ABC News:

It’s absolutely counterintuitive. To us, we’re saying we’d love to see more people visit the United States, but we’re going to charge you more for the privilege of entering the country. We are in favor of increased tourism and visitation… but let’s look at our priorities. We don’t think that videos and billboards are necessarily a priority. Instead, we should be focusing on how to make customs and immigration easier for people.

As I argued in a previous post, the U.S. government should be doing more to keep dangerous people off  flights to the United States instead of making it even more difficult for perfectly harmless tourists and business travelers to get on those same flights.

Ray LaHood as Santa Claus

U.S. News & World Report’s columnist Paul Bedard reports that Transportation secretary Ray LaHood told him that it’s fun playing Santa Claus to states and cities around the nation.

So let’s take a look at some recent examples of DOT gift-giving with federal taxpayers’ money:

  • DOT’s Federal Highway Administration helped restore an old brewery in Petosi, Wisconsin with a $450,000 gift. That should make taxpayers want to drink.
  • Dolgeville, New York intends to use DOT stimulus money to repair sidewalks even though the village acknowledges that the new sidewalks will have to be torn up and replaced again due to impending water and sewage line upgrades. Keynes would be particularly proud of this one. Last year the city received a $1 million gift from DOT for the “installation of period street lights, trees, accent pavers, street furniture and sidewalk improvements” on the city’s Main Street.
  • The Michigan Department of Transportation plans on spending $5 million in federal DOT money on a bunch of projects that are of unquestionable national importance: cobblestone streets in Grand Rapids; exhibits at the Detroit Science Center; rehabilitating the historic Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad Engine House in the Upper Peninsula; a bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians over the Clinton River in Utica and bike racks at several locations in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

These projects might be worthwhile, but they should be paid for by the local interests who can best judge their worth.

In his 1932 book, Congress as Santa Claus, constitutional scholar Charles Warren offered a prescient warning on the dangers of federal subsidization of state and local affairs:

The continuance of this practice of shifting to the National Government responsibility for payment for matters which formerly were dealt with by individual initiative, by community cooperation, by voluntary organizations, or by local or State governments – the continuance of this practice of making drafts on the National Treasury to carry out purposes not within the enumerated or implied powers of the National Government will inevitably have two results.

So far as these Government donations consist of direct appropriations for private or local interests, they will deaden and finally destroy the eagerness or willingness of State Governments and local communities to pay for their own needs. So far as they take the shape of the so-called Federal Aid laws for local projects to be matched by local appropriations, they will have ‘a tendency to induce excessive expenditures by State and municipal governments, with top-heavy bond issues and oppressive local taxation.’

I doubt in Warren’s worst nightmares could he have envisioned the examples of DOT spending above, let alone the existence of a $90 billion federal Department of Transportation.

A Clash of Worldviews on Free Trade

If you want to witness the clash of two worldviews on trade, check out the online debate I’m having with Ian Fletcher of the U.S. Business and Industry Council. A self-described protectionist, Fletcher has written a new book with the unambiguous title, Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace it and Why. In the opposite corner, I argue for eliminating barriers to trade, drawing on my own recent book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.

The debate is being hosted by the International Economic Law and Policy Blog. We’ve already filed two 600-word posts each, with a third to come at the end of this week and concluding arguments early next week.