Archives: October, 2010

Johan Norberg: The Left and Vargas Llosa

The award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to liberal writer Mario Vargas Llosa engendered much praise from libertarians and very little criticism that I’ve noticed. But I wasn’t reading the Swedish newspapers, where, according to Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg, lefties went ballistic at the awarding of the prize to a non-leftist:

In Sweden’s biggest newspaper, Aftonbladet, three writers ripped him to pieces on the first day after the announcement of the Nobel Prize. One wrote that the prize was a victory for the Swedish right; one said it was a victory for the Latin American authoritarian right; one accused him of being not just ‘neo-liberal’ but also ‘macho’ (what Vargas Llosa did not know is that it is only acceptable for female authors to write about sex nowadays; when men do it, apparently, it is chauvinist and distasteful).

Aftonbladet’s Martin Ezpeleta even claimed that the prize was a victory for racists, because Vargas Llosa once wrote an essay attacking the ideology of multiculturalism. That the same essay also called for a more open immigration policy meant nothing to Ezpeleta – until others called his bluff and he quietly omitted the charge of ‘racism’ from his article and pretended that it had never been there….

The attempts to portray Vargas Llosa as a supporter of the authoritarian, conservative right in Latin America are just embarrassing. The only piece of evidence in the Aftonbladetarticle was that he supported Sebastián Piñera in Chile’s last presidential election – which doesn’t make sense in any way since Piñera is a moderate, democratic politician who has attacked the authoritarian tradition of Chile’s right and voted against Pinochet in the referendum on his rule in 1988.

Vargas Llosa’s attempt to hold all rulers to the same standards is what makes the claim that he betrayed the left so revealing. A lot of intellectuals have condemned rightist dictatorships in Peru and Chile, and a lot of intellectuals have condemned leftist dictatorships in Cuba and Nicaragua, but few have, like Vargas Llosa, condemned them both….

The Court Tackles a Hard Case: Implications for ObamaCare?

The Supreme Court hears oral argument today in an important pre-emption case, Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, which asks whether the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986 pre-empts state law “design defect” suits brought against vaccine manufacturers. I’ve discussed this complex case more fully in an op-ed at the Daily Caller, but in a nutshell, Congress passed the Act to address the risks inherent in vaccinations through a federal no-fault ”Vaccine Court” rather than through the vagaries of state tort law. It did so because the inability to make vaccines entirely safe, plus uncertainty surrounding causation, coupled with the penchant of state juries to discount those issues in favor of sympathetic plaintiffs, had rendered most manufacturers unwilling to produce needed vaccines at reasonable costs.  

In drafting the statute, however, Congress left things unclear, to put it charitably. Thus, the Court will have to make sense of this language:

No vaccine manufacturer shall be liable in a civil action for damages arising from a vaccine-related injury or death associated with the administration of a vaccine… if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.

Although the Act allows victims to sue over manufacturing defects, conduct that would subject a manufacturer to punitive damages, and a manufacturer’s failure to exercise due care, nowhere does it define “unavoidable”—and there’s the nub of the matter. In the case before the Court, a three-judge Third Circuit panel decided unanimously for Wyeth, as did the district court. But in another case five months earlier, a nine-member Georgia Supreme Court, facing similar facts, decided unanimously for the plaintiff.

And behind it all is the question whether Congress should have pre-empted state law in the first place. It probably should have here, but that’s a close call. And the implications for ObamaCare are not absent in this case, which could be a portent of the complex and uncertain litigation that lies ahead if the scheme is not repealed. As I say at the outset of my post, hard cases make bad law, but bad law too makes hard cases, and this is one. Does anyone think that ObamaCare is anything but bad law? We’ll know once we figure out “what’s in it,” as the lady said.

The ‘Communitarian’ Defense of Strip-Search Machines

What’s most interesting about Amitai Etzioni’s defense of airport strip-search machines is how rootless his approach to privacy problems is.

[O]ur public-policy decisions must balance two core values: Our commitment to individual rights and our commitment to the common good. Neither is a priori privileged. Thus, when threatened by the lethal SARS virus, we demanded that contagious people stay home—even though this limited their freedom to assemble and travel—because the contribution to the common good was high and the intrusion limited. Yet we banned the trading of medical records because these trades constituted a severe intrusion, but had no socially redeeming merit.

I disagree with this formulation, and I don’t know that he has accurately depicted the law on ”trade” in medical records or the merits on that question. But more important here: these value-balancing precedents don’t guide his analysis of strip-search machines. Rather, he just concludes in favor of them using his own assessment of “the common good.”

At least Etzioni is consistent. I wrote in my 2005 Privacilla.org review of his book, The Limits of Privacy: “[T]he book amounts to little more than bare assertion—one man’s argument—that privacy is not as important as other things. The argument appears unrooted in anything more than Etzioni’s opinions. “

We have a long tradition of protecting individual rights. And we have processes for discovering the common good, such as markets, in which individual preferences agglomerate to sort it out for us. On the rare occassions when markets fail, political legislation and regulation may be a necessary substitute for natural processes. Somewhere quite a bit further down the list falls the technique “ask Amitai Etzioni.”

How to Profit by Expanding Freedom

That’s the title of this week’s column by Steve Chapman:

Here’s an excerpt:

Spending huge sums of money and getting no results to justify the expense: That’s the relentless, and accurate, Republican critique of President Barack Obama’s efforts to revive the U.S. economy. But it also describes a policy staunchly supported by Republicans as well as Democrats decade after decade: the war on drugs …

None of the [data is] new, but it has fresh relevance because of budgetary pressures that have forced citizens to ask what on earth the drug war is accomplishing. Californians, whose state government is in a bottomless fiscal hole, will vote next month on an initiative to legalize cannabis. One big selling point is that it could yield a $1.4 billion windfall to state coffers.

What is true for the Golden State is true for the other 49. In a new study for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron and research associate Katherine Waldock estimate that, nationally, legalizing and taxing marijuana would save $8.7 billion in enforcement costs and harvest $8.7 billion in revenue.

Read the whole thing.  The Cato study can be found here.

Obama and Infrastructure

The President is continuing his push for the federal government to go deeper into debt in order to fund infrastructure projects. While nobody disputes that the country has infrastructure needs, the precarious nature of federal and state finances indicate that policymakers need to starting thinking outside the box. Specifically, policymakers should be looking to make it easier for the private sector to fund and operate infrastructure projects.

As my colleagues Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren have explained, the main problem with government infrastructure spending is the lack of efficiency:

More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

A lot of what the the president wishes to spend taxpayer money on – for example, high-speed rail – is of questionable economic value. Unfortunately, policymakers all too often allocate resources on the basis of politics rather than economics.

For more on this topic, interested readers should check out our essays on the Department of Transportation. Also, an essay on privatization argues that “The benefits to the federal budget of privatization would be modest, but the benefits to the economy would be large as newly private businesses would innovate and improve their performance.”

iCato: Liberty on the Go

We are very proud and excited to announce today the release of the official Cato Institute iPhone application, available for FREE download in the iTunes Store.

The application will be your way of staying absolutely up to date, from wherever you are, with everything that’s happening at Cato Institute. From being able to access the Cato@Liberty blog, or op-eds penned in major publications by our experts, to gaining instant access to the latest Cato Daily Podcast or cable TV news clips, you can now have Cato Institute information resources in the palm of your hand or on your iPad.

Here are some screen shots from the application:

We are currently still working to develop applications for other devices, and we will announce them as soon as they become available. For the time being, head on over to the Apple Store to download your copy of the official Cato Institute iPhone application, or search for “Cato Institute” in the iTunes store.

Additionally, in case you missed it, check out our brief catalog of new media offerings - how connected are you to the Cato Institute?

Remember to use the #Cato20 hashtag on Twitter to send us feedback on our new media efforts, or to let us know what you think about the new iPhone application!

President Obama and Education Politics As Usual

President Obama has seemingly made an entire mountain range out of his Race-to-the-Top reform molehill, while he’s gotten more or less a free pass on all he’s done to enrich the status quo. And now, with big midterm losses looming for his party, he appears to be resorting to one of the easiest political ploys in the book: Claim the GOP will cut funding to education and, in so doing, hurt innocent children and cripple the nation’s economic future. As the President opined in his weekly address:

[I]f Republicans in Congress had their way….We’d have a harder time offering our kids the best education possible. Because they’d have us cut education by 20 percent – cuts that would reduce financial aid for eight million students; cuts that would leave our great and undervalued community colleges without the resources they need to prepare our graduates for the jobs of the future.

Now, it is true that when it comes to our budget, we have real challenges to meet. And if we’re serious about getting our fiscal house in order, we’ll need to make some tough choices. I’m prepared to make those choices. But what I’m not prepared to do is shortchange our children’s education. What I’m not prepared to do is undercut their economic future, your economic future, or the economic future of the United States of America.

Where did the President get the 20 percent number? It most likely stems from the promise in the House Republican’s “Pledge to America” to return federal spending unrelated to defense or senior citizens to pre-stimulus levels. Presumably, that means education spending would be reduced to the level it was at before passage of the stimulus. Considering that the stimulus was supposed to be a one-shot thing, that hardly seems like a draconian move.

That said, the much more important consideration is that based on decades of evidence – not to mention the strictures of the Constitution – federal education spending should not only be reduced, it should be phased out completely. Looking at the evidence since the feds started delving deeply into education in the mid-1960s, it’s clear that we’ve gotten very little for our money. 

Start with K-12 education, where we have results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a consistent measure of performance since the early 1970s :

As you can see, Washington has spent steeply increasing amounts of money and not moved the needle at all for the 17-year-olds that constitute the “final products” of our elementary and secondary schools.

How about higher education?

Here the main focus has been providing stduent financial aid to increase college access, and in defense of the feds we have seen big increases in college enrollment since the mid-1960s. Enrollment, however, had been increasing substantially for many decades prior to 1965 or the post-World War II G.I. Bill, suggesting that Washington might have just caught an enrollment wave that was coming in anyway. There is also strong evidence that federal student aid has helped fuel rampant tuition inflation, largely negating the aid’s value. And while we have no consistent, long-term measure of learning outputs, we can at a minimum see that literacy among holders of at least a bachelor’s degree dropped between 1992 and 2003. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, forty percent of people whose highest educational attainment was a bachelor’s degree were proficient prose readers in 1992 . By 2003, only 31 percent were. For Americans with graduate degrees, 51 percent were proficient in 1992. Eleven years later, only 41 percent were.

Unfortunately, for decades federal politicians have expended taxpayer money either in goodhearted – but misguided – efforts to improve education, or more selfishly, to appear to “care about the children” and make political hay. Regardless of the motivation, at this point it must no longer be ignored: Washington ‘s spending on education has gotten us little of demonstrable value.  For President Obama to not even acknowledge the powerful evidence of this, but instead trot out the old canard that less spending is synonymous with worse education,  signals that he’s more than willing to play bankrupting education politics as usual.