Archives: November, 2010

Things to Be Thankful For

Not long ago a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America. Now, I spend most of my time sounding the alarm about the freedoms we’re losing. But this was a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history – and why immigrants still flock here.

If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world – and still  different from much of the world – a few key elements come to mind.

Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man – a king, a priest, a communist party boss – take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard-earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.

Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status – clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmans, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.

Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men.

Self-government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “governments are instituted” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that those governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God’s will and passed along from father to son. In a few places – Athens, Rome, medieval Germany – there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America’s example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent.

Freedom of speech. In a world of Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and cable pornography, it’s hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China and Africa and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we’ve realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we’re all better off for it.

Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom.

Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings–from the design and construction of airplanes to worldwide computer networks and ATM systems. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don’t have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to MP3 players. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman’s World magazine that America is “heaven.” Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times in 2004 and was included in my book The Politics of Freedom.

ObamaCare’s ‘Medical Loss Ratio’ Regs Encourage Fraud, Unnecessary Medical Services

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations implementing ObamaCare’s rule mandating that health insurers maintain minimum “medical loss ratios.”

Opponents of private health insurance have made a fetish of  MLRs – a statistic that insurers developed to show investors the share of premiums they spend on claims.  (“See? They call it a ‘loss’ when they pay for medical care – that proves they’re evil!”)  So the opponents of private health insurance who crafted ObamaCare included a rule requiring carriers to spend at least 80 percent of premium revenue (large employers must spend 85 percent) on “your health care.”  What could possibly go wrong?

The folly and false compassion of ObamaCare are on full display in the MLR regs, where government bureaucrats have evidently determined that unnecessary and harmful medical services, and even insurance fraud, are in fact good for patients. Okay, HHS bureaucrats don’t actually think that. But ObamaCare’s MLR regs include fraud prevention and utilization review among the administrative expenses on which carriers may spend no more than 20 percent of revenue (15 percent for large employers). That will effectively discourage insurers from policing fraud and conducting utilization reviews that protect patients from the expense and risks of unnecessary medical tests and procedures.

ObamaCare’s fatal conceit is that government bureaucrats can determine and deliver what is good for patients. Consumers will continue to feel the pain – costs will continue to rise and more insurers will flee the marketplace – until Congress gives up that conceit and repeals this law.

Secrecy or Privacy? The Power of Language

My friend Kelly Young notes (on Facebook) this Washington Post article on guns used in crimes:

I am awed again by the power of language. The Washingt0n Post today claims that government protection of the identity of lawful purchasers of legal weapons is “secrecy” to be “penetrated” for the sake of the paper’s reporting. It is not “privacy” that is “violated,” as with release of airport scans of travelers, gathering names of minors seeking abortions, and warrantless searches of homes. And how about those secret journalistic sources?

(Language cleaned up slightly, as the original was typed Blackberry-style.) He’s right. The word “privacy” doesn’t appear in the article. Maybe a cynics’ dictionary would read, “Privacy is the ability to keep facts about myself hidden from you. Secrecy is your keeping facts about yourself hidden from me.”

Washington Post-ABC News Push-Poll on Strip-Search Machines

In public opinion research, “salience” is the word often used to describe what is at the forefront of people’s minds. Salience influences people’s responses to polls: If they’ve just thought about something, their responses will reflect what they’ve just thought about.

It makes sense, and it’s one of the theses of Jonathan Zaller’s public opinion reference book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Most people don’t hold fixed views on most matters of public debate. They merely improvise, when asked, based in part on what issues are salient for them.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll out today finds that most people support the body scanning machines the Transportation Security Administration is installing in airports. The new “enhanced” pat-downs don’t fare so well.

How do strip-search machines get the level of approval they do? The poll itself pushes terrorism to the forefront before inquiring about TSA security measures. The first question goes to frequency of travel. The second two are:

2. Are you personally worried about traveling by commercial airplane because of the risk of terrorism, or do you think the risk is not that great? (IF WORRIED) Would you say you are very worried or only somewhat?

3. What do you think is more important right now - (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?

Before being asked about strip-search machines, poll-takers hear cognates of “terror” three times, “privacy” once.

Thinking about the taste of a dirty worm squishing around in your mouth when you bite into an apple, do you think pesticide use should be increased or decreased?

Radley Balko’s thesis that the media are more statist than liberal finds validation in a sampling of opinion pages, finds Matt Welch. You just might find it by sampling poll designs as well.

Tech Lobbying, Entrepreneurship, and the Innovation Economy

Adam Thierer’s lead article in the most recent Cato Policy Report is called “The Sad State of Cyber-Politics.” It goes through so many ways tech and telecom companies are playing the Washington game to win or keep competitive advantage.

It’s a nice set-up to a Washington Post opinion piece from this weekend in which TownFlier CEO Morris Panner talks about the growing riches accruing to Washington influencers:

We are creating so much regulation - over tax policy, health care, financial activity - that smart people have figured out that they can get rich faster and more easily by manipulating rules on behalf of existing corporations than by creating net new activity and wealth. Gamesmanship pays better than entrepreneurship.

Thierer sees some hope for the tech sector, for a few reasons:

Smaller tech companies have thus far largely resisted the urge [to engage with Washington]. Hopefully that’s for principled reasons, not just due to a shortage of lobbying resources. Second, the esoteric nature of many Internet and digital technology policy discussions frustrates many lawmakers and often forces them to lose interest in these topics. Third, the breakneck pace of technological change makes it difficult for regulators to bottle up innovation and entrepreneurialism.

Panner’s broader piece calls for “a national campaign to create transparency in our legislation and a national moratorium on the creation of commissions, regulators and czars. It is time for Congress to do the hard job of saying what lawmakers mean in clear and easy-to-understand language.” He continues, “We should reject bills that are thousands of pages or that delegate vast authority to unelected regulators.”

That would be a start.

Tax Loopholes Are Corrupt and Inefficient, but They Should only Be Eliminated if Every Penny of New Revenue Is Used to Lower Tax Rates

There’s been a lot of heated discussion about various preferences, deductions, credits, shelters, and other loopholes in the tax code. Some of this debate has revolved around whether it is legitimate to refer to these provisions as “tax expenditures” or “subsidies.”

Michael Cannon vociferously argues that subsidies and expenditures only occur when the government takes money from person A and gives it to person B. On the other side of the debate are people like Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute, who argues that tax preferences are akin to subsidies or expenditures since they can be just as damaging as government spending programs when looking at whether resources are efficiently allocated.

Since I’m a can’t-we-all-get-along, uniter-not-divider kind of person, allow me to suggest that this debate should be set aside. After all, we all agree that tax preferences can lead to inefficient outcomes. So let’s call them “tax distortions” and focus on the real issue, which is how best to eliminate them.

This is an important issue because both the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force and the Chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles Commission have unveiled plans that would reduce or eliminate many of these tax distortions and also lower marginal tax rates. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that their plans result in more revenue going to Washington. In other words, the tax increase resulting from fewer tax distortions is larger than the tax decrease resulting from lower tax rates. To put it bluntly, the plans would increase the overall tax burden.

Some argue that this is an acceptable price to pay. They point out, quite correctly, that lower tax rates will help the economy by improving incentives for productive behavior. And they also are right in arguing that fewer tax distortions will help the economy by improving efficiency. Seems like a win-win situation. What’s not to like?

The problem is on the spending side of the fiscal ledger. The Simpson-Bowles Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force were charged with figuring out how to reduce red ink. We already know from Congressional Budget Office data, however, that we can balance the budget fairly quickly by limiting the growth of government spending. As the chart illustrates, the deficit disappears by 2016-2017 with a hard freeze and goes away by 2019-2020 if spending increases by two percent each year (and this assumes all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent).

If tax revenue is increased, that simply means that the budget gets balanced at a higher level of spending. And since government spending, at current levels and composition, hinders economic growth by diverting labor and capital to less productive (or unproductive) uses, any proposal that enables higher levels of government spending will further undermine economic performance.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that this analysis is overly optimistic since it assumes that politicians actually will balance the budget. In all likelihood, as explained in today’s Wall Street Journal, any tax increase would probably be followed by even more spending. So if politicians raise the tax burden, we might still have a deficit of $685 billion in 2020 (CBO’s most-recent estimate assuming  all programs are left on auto-pilot), but the overall levels of both spending and taxes would be higher. This modified cartoon captures this real-world effect.

This is why revenue-neutral tax reform, like the flat tax, is the only pro-growth way of eliminating tax distortions.