Archives: 07/2010

On Differentiating ‘Realists’

Jacob Heilbrunn wrote a piece recently wondering “where have all the serious Republicans gone [on foreign policy]?”  Heilbrunn observes correctly that the loudest Republican voices on national security these days are advancing a variety of zany views, taking as evidence Mitt Romney’s empirically-challenged attack on the new START treaty.

In a similar vein, Daniel Larison wonders whether a return to Republican “realism” is even anything to thirst for:

In practice, if the GOP “reclaimed its realist roots” I wonder how much would change for the better. Republican realism sounds good by comparison with what we have had for the last decade, but most actual Republican realists, especially those in elected office, did little or nothing to challenge the endless hyping of foreign threats and the frequent recourse to military intervention abroad in the ’90s…  How many realists not affiliated with the Cato Institute expressed serious reservations about NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia before the August 2008 war? As sympathetic as I am to many realist arguments, and as much as I appreciate the efforts of the most sober realists to try to steer Republican foreign policy thinking in a constructive direction, until Republicans reject confrontational and aggressive foreign policy goals it will not matter very much if they adopt realist means and rhetoric.

The answer to Larison’s question about NATO expansion is that it was quite unpopular among non-Cato realists.  John Lewis Gaddis wrote at the time [.pdf] that “historians – normally so contentious – are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”  He “could recall no other moment…at which there was less support, within the community of historians, for an announced policy position.”  That might have been putting things a bit too strongly when it came to realists, but not very much.  That is, actual realists, who don’t, by and large, get called to Washington.

This, I think, is the crucial distinction to make.  The bottom line here is that there is a big disconnect between people in the Beltway who call themselves realists and actual realists.  Ur-realist Kenneth Waltz once described himself as “a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”  John Mearsheimer points out that realists opposed the Vietnam War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger), and that realists opposed the Iraq War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger).  Since at least the Johnson administration, realists have tended to be dovish relative to the Beltway consensus as it has existed at any point in time, and active dovishness is not permitted in polite company in Washington.

Not only is it a mistake to hearken back to a Glory Day of Republican Realism, it is really a mistake to characterize any existing Beltway faction as “realist.”  Belligerent nationalists, Wilsonians, liberal imperialists…all those we have.  Realists, not so much.

RomneyCare Advocates: We Swear, This Time Centralized Planning Will Work

You know things aren’t going well in Massachusetts when supporters of RomneyCare write “there’s some evidence that the reforms signed into law by Mitt Romney in 2006 are struggling.”  That’s how The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein puts it in a post defending RomneyCare.  The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn offers a similar defense.

Klein mentions only a few of the difficulties confronting Massachusetts.  Here are a few more:

  • The Commonwealth Fund reports that even though Massachusetts already had the highest health insurance premiums in the nation, premiums rose faster post-RomneyCare than anywhere else; 21-46 percent faster than the national average.
  • A recent study estimates that RomneyCare has so far increased employer-sponsored health-insurance premiums by an average of 6 percent.
  • The success that Klein sees in Massachusetts’ individual market – which accounts for just 4 percent of the private market – is merely the product of shifting costs to workers with job-based coverage.
  • Contrary to Klein’s post hoc spin that RomneyCare “was never an attempt to control costs,” Romney himself promised that “the costs of health care will be reduced.”
  • Aaron Yelowitz and I find evidence suggesting that uninsured Massachusetts residents are responding to the individual mandate not by obtaining coverage but by concealing their insurance status.  Coverage gains may therefore be less than official estimates suggest.
  • Evidence is mounting that, despite stiffer penalties than ObamaCare will impose, increasing numbers of people are gaming the individual mandate by only purchasing health insurance when they need medical care. Such behavior could ultimately cause the “private” insurance market to collapse.

Nevertheless, the Klein/Cohn thesis is basically that costs have been climbing and employers have been dropping/curtailing health benefits for decades.  So you can’t blame that stuff on RomneyCare.  We should instead be thankful that Massachusetts enacted a new raft of government price controls, mandates, and subsidies to protect residents from those features of “the American health-care system.”

The only problem is that “the American health-care system” is the product of the old raft of government price & exchange controls, mandates, and subsidies.  The largest purchaser of medical care in the country (and the world) is MedicareMedicaid is second.  The Left complains so much about fee-for-service medicine fueling rising health care costs and reducing quality, you’d never know that their beloved Medicare program is the primary reason for its dominance.  Likewise, the reason why employers are dropping and curtailing coverage is that the government turned the private health insurance market into an unsustainable employment-based system that is doomed to unravel.  Cohn’s book documents the inhumanity of that system so well, you’d think it would sour him on the sort of centralized planning that created it.  I could go on…

RomneyCare and its progeny ObamaCare are attempts by the Left’s central planners to clean up their own mess.  If Klein and Cohn want to defend those laws, pointing to the damage already caused by their economic policies won’t do the trick.  They need to explain why government price & exchange controls, mandates, and subsidies will produce something other than what they have always produced.

Cato Fellow Defends Your Right to Gamble

My friend and Cato media fellow Radley Balko is currently participating in an online debate on the Economist website, the motion being that “This house believes there should be no legal restrictions on gambling.”  Radley is, of course, defending the motion. The first round of arguments is up and voting (and commenting) is open.

Radley was leading by a landslide this morning, but there has been a curious development. Reports Radley:

Interesting. Support from my side went from 85% to 46% in a little over three hours, during which no new arguments were posted. Wondering if a Baptist convention just let out.

The debaters will close their arguments on Wednesday, with the winner announced Friday. Please show your support for civil liberties and for Radley by voting.

Also, the Economist had a terrific special report on gambling last week. Their leader article made a good case for legalizing online gambling in America, but curiously (for a newspaper proudly associated with the free trade cause) did not mention the compelling trade-related reasons to allow Americans to gamble freely online.

The National Standards Delusion

As Massachusetts nears decision time on adopting national education standards, the Boston Herald takes state leaders to task for their support of the Common Core standards, which some analysts say are inferior to current state standards. But fear not, says Education Secretary Paul Reville. If the national standards are inferior, the Bay State can change them. “We will continue to be in the driver’s seat.”

If only national standardizers – many of whom truly want high standards and tough accountability – would look a little further than the ends of their beaks.

Here’s the reality: Massachusetts will not be in the drivers seat in the future. Indeed, states aren’t in the driver’s seat right now, because it is federal money that is steering the car, and many more DC ducats will likely be connected to national standards when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is eventually reauthorized. And this is hardly new or novel – the feds have forced “voluntary” compliance with its education dictates for decades by holding taxpayer dollars hostage.

With that in mind, let’s stop focusing on whether the Common Core standards right now are good, bad, or indifferent, and talk about their future prospects, which is what really matters. Oh, wait: Most national standardizers avoid that discussion like the plague because they know that the overwhelming odds are the standards will end up either dismal, or at best just unenforced. Why? Because the same political forces that have smushed centralized standards and accountability in almost every state – the teacher unions, administrator associations, self-serving politicians, etc. – will just do their dirty work at the federal rather than state level. Indeed, those groups will still be the most motivated and effectively organized to control education politics, but they will have the added benefit of one-stop shopping!

The tragic flaw in the thinking of many national-standards supporters is not the desire to create high bars for students to clear, but the utter delusion, or maybe just myopia, that allows them to assume that they will control the standards in a monopoly over which, by its very nature, they almost never hold the reins. It’s fantastical thinking that would actually be pitiable were it not for the fact that, to realize their delusional dreams, they have take us all down with them.

Judiciary Committee Approves Big-Government Advocate

Elana Kagan has just sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote (except Lindsey Graham, of course, who maintained his respectable but – to my mind – overly deferential “elections have consequences” line).  This vote comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been keeping half an eye on the Kagan nomination.  The only senator whose position wasn’t obvious after the confirmation hearings was Arlen Specter, who continued his self-serving ways in criticizing the nominee for the majority of an op-ed before announcing that her approval for televised Supreme Court hearings and Thurgood Marshall constituted “just enough” to win his vote.  (This is clearly an attempt to curry favor with the administration and become an envoy to Syria—call it a conversion on the road to Damascus.) 

The statements made by those opposing Kagan show that this opposition is based not on petty partisanship or the politics of personal destruction but on principled concerns over the nominee’s being a rubberstamp for any assertion of congressional authority.  Senator Hatch particularly stands out as someone who’s struggled with the choice before him and honorably decided that Elena Kagan was a bridge too far.  Senator Coburn also continued the sound line of reasoning that led his “fruit-and-vegetable” questioning to be the highlight of the confirmation hearings. 

Kagan is eminently qualified but it is not at all clear that she sees any constitutional limits on government power.

The Information Economy Stops Evolving Today

That would be the message if a bill introduced in Congress this week were to pass. H.R. 5777 is the “Building Effective Strategies To Promote Responsibility Accountability Choice Transparency Innovation Consumer Expectations and Safeguards Act” or the “BEST PRACTICES Act.” If acronyms were a basis for judging legislation, it should be widely hailed as a masterwork.

But its substance is concerning, to say the least. The bill’s scope is massive: Just about every person or business that systematically collects information would be subject to a new federal regulatory regime governing information practices. By systematic, I mean: If you get a lot of emails or run a website that collects IP addresses (and they all do), you’re governed by the bill.

There’s one exception to that: The bill specifically exempts the government. What chutzpah our government has to point the finger at us while its sprawling administrative data collection and surveillance infrastructure spiral out of control.

Reviewing the bill, I found it interesting to consider what you get when you take a variety of today’s information “best practices” and put them into law. Basically, you freeze in place how things work today. You radically simplify and channel all kinds of information practices that would otherwise multiply and variegate.

I spoke about this yesterday with CNet News’ Declan McCullagh:

Harper says it reminds him of James C. Scott’s book, “Seeing Like A State.” Governments and big corporations “radically simplify what they oversee to make it governable,” he said. “In things like forestry and agriculture, this has had devastating environmental effects because ecosystems don’t function when you eliminate the thousands of ‘illegible’ relationships and interactions. This is Seeing Like a State for the information economy.”

Give people remedies when they’re harmed by information practices, and then leave well enough alone. There’s no place for a list of “must-do’s” and “can’t-do’s” that choke our nascent information economy—especially not coming from a government that doesn’t practice what it preaches.