Archives: 05/2011

Who’s Right on Medicare Reform, Ryan and Rivlin or Obama and Gingrich?

This new video, narrated by yours truly, discusses a proposal to solve Medicare’s bankrupt finances by replacing an unsustainable entitlement with a “premium-support” system for private insurance, also known as vouchers.

This topic is very hot right now, in part because Medicare reform is included in the budget approved by House Republicans, but also because Newt Gingrich inexplicably has decided to echo White House talking points by attacking Congressman Ryan’s voucher plan.

Drawing considerably from the work of Michael Cannon, the video has two sections. The first part reviews Congressman Ryan’s proposal and notes that it is based on a plan put together with Alice Rivlin, who served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton. Among serious budget people (as opposed to the hacks on Capitol Hill), this is an important sign of bipartisan support.

The video also notes that the “voucher” proposal is actually very similar to the plan that is used by Members of Congress and their staff. This is a selling point that proponents should emphasize since most Americans realize that lawmakers would never subject themselves to something that didn’t work.

The second part discusses the economics of the health care sector, and explains the critical need to address the third-party payer crisis. More specifically, 88 percent of every health care dollar in America is paid for by someone other than the consumer. People do pay huge amounts for health care, to be sure, but not at the point of delivery. Instead, they pay high tax burdens and have huge shares of their compensation diverted to pay for insurance policies.

I’ve explained before that this inefficient system causes spiraling costs and bureaucratic inefficiency because it erodes any incentive to be a smart shopper when buying health care services (much as it’s difficult to maintain a good diet by pre-paying for a year of dining at all-you-can-eat restaurants).  In other words, government intervention has largely eroded market forces in health care. And this was true even before Obamacare was enacted.

Medicare reform, by itself, won’t solve the third-party payer problem, but it could be part of the solution - especially if seniors used their vouchers to purchase real insurance (i.e., for large, unexpected expenses) rather than the inefficient pre-paid health plans that are so prevalent today.

Dear Journalists, Donations Are Not ‘State Money’

Oklahoma has just joined the ranks of a half-dozen other states by enacting a K-12 education tax credit program. Under the new program, individuals or businesses that donate to non-profit School Tuition Organizations receive a tax cut worth 50 percent of the donation. STOs then use the funds to help low income families afford private schooling.

Journalists for the Associated Press and countless other media outlets routinely refer to donations made under education tax credit programs as “state money.” According to the United States Supreme Court’s recent ACSTO v. Winn decision, “that is incorrect.” This is a matter of settled law. To call these private donations “state money” is to misrepresent the facts and mislead readers.

It would be bad enough if the journalists and wire services misrepresenting these programs were simply unaware that they were distorting the facts, but in at least some cases they continue to do so even after having been apprized of their error. Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, wrote to the AP last week to correct their earlier erroneous coverage. He received no reply and the errors continue.

I never cease to be amazed by this kind of behavior from an industry that is clinging for its life. The purpose of journalism is to apprize customers of the facts. Demonstrating indifference to the facts cannot be good for business.

Chief Seattle Declares Indiana’s Voucher Program Bad for Mother Earth

Educational freedom is nothing to trifle with, all the more so because we have so little of it left. And yet there is little serious discussion about it among school choice policy researchers and activists. All that seems to matter is the expansion of “choice” at nearly any cost.

A blog response, of sorts, to my recent piece explaining why the Indiana voucher law is a defeat for educational freedom, just came to my attention (curse ye, fickle gods of googlealerts). If it weren’t written by a respected researcher, Greg Forster, posted on Jay Greene’s blog, I’d ignore the bullet-point simulacrum of an argument.

We need more serious debate. Argument makes for better thinking and better policy. There are valid points on many sides of this issue, and everyone makes errors in fact or logic. So please, I encourage someone to tear into all of the arguments against the new Indiana voucher law and explain why my concerns are misplaced. Chief Seattle, as all good schoolchildren in Indiana know, proves that wise words can change the world.

On Forster’s Point 1, he and the Indiana Non-Public Education Association are simply incorrect … less than 40% of known private schools are accredited, and they remain less than a majority even when you remove the Amish ones. This is not an opinion, it is a fact based on good data available on the state DOE website, and I have found a number of very friendly and helpful DOE employees (they don’t all respond like the finance folks) who can give further context and slight revisions to these published numbers. Beyond that fact, Indiana’s voucher law actually imposes some regulations not currently imposed even on accredited schools.

On Point 2, Forster doesn’t even attempt to engage the point I make in my article for why the freedom not to participate is no argument against the destructiveness of the regulatory framework. Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate. Over time, many of those who refuse to submit to state control will be driven out of business by competition from the highly regulated, but voucher-funded schools. Andrew Coulson has demonstrated this process of expanding state control with voucher programs outside the US, and regulatory burden and creep here at home.

In Point 3, Forster dismisses the slew of new private school regulations as unimportant without, apparently, knowing precisely what they entail. You can read through the bill that was signed here. The most concerning requirements are not a part of state accreditation, they are new to schools participating in the Indiana voucher program. For instance, voucher schools in Indiana are required to stress the importance of “respecting the rights of others to have their own views and religious beliefs.” What does this mean for religious private schools teaching that one can only be saved by belief in Jesus Christ? Would a school wherein a teacher discusses the recent federal healthcare legislation violate the provision mandating respect for authority should she criticize the law, or perhaps violate a respect for property if she speaks favorably of the individual insurance mandate in that law?

And the law expects enforcement, reading, “The department shall, at a minimum, annually visit each eligible school and charter school to verify that the eligible school or charter school complies with the provisions of [the voucher law].” Furthermore, “Each eligible school, public school, and charter school shall grant the department full access to its premises, including access to any points of ingress to and egress from the school’s grounds, buildings, and property for observing classroom instruction and reviewing any instructional materials and curriculum.”

There is more to mull over in my article and in Indiana’s new voucher law.

Forster’s Point 4 is a ridiculous non sequitur. The state can regulate curriculum in any way it wants to, therefore it doesn’t matter if it does so or not. Here is in full:

“The state already has virtually unlimited authority to regulate private school curricula, especially in the name of ‘good citizenship.’ The Supreme Court has given states more or less a blank check to control private school curricula, and the state has especially strong authority to require, and control the content of, “citizenship” education. The existence of a voucher program changes little in this regard.”

I wonder if Forster feels the same way about healthcare; “The state can require whatever it wants for health insurance, so it doesn’t matter whether or not they have a state agency review them for adequacy or impose detailed coverage requirements.” What’s the big fuss?

It would be wonderful if everyone who pays lip service to concerns regarding educational freedom and the expansion of state control would take the matter seriously enough to familiarize themselves with the basic, relevant facts. We might just have a good and productive argument.

Top NSA Mathematician: ‘I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights.’

If you’re a telecommunications firm that helped the National Security Agency illegally spy on your customers without a court order, Sen. Barack Obama will happily vote for legislation he once promised to filibuster in order to secure retroactive immunity. If you’re implicated in the use of torture as an interrogation tactic, you can breathe easy knowing President Barack Obama thinks it’s in the country’s best interests to “look forward, not back.”  But if you were a government official spurred by conscience to blow the whistle on government malfeasance or ineptitude in the war on terror?  As Jane Mayer details in a must-read New Yorker article, you’d better watch out! This administration is shattering records for highly selective prosecutions under the espionage act—and the primary criteria seems to be, not whether national security was harmed in any discernible way by your disclosures, but by the degree of embarrassment they caused the government.

The whole thing is fascinating, but I’m especially interested in the discussion of how electronic surveillance tools that came with built-in privacy controls were tossed in favor of more indiscriminate programs that, by the way, didn’t work and generated huge cost overruns. The most striking quotations come from disillusioned Republican intelligence officials. Here’s Bill Binney, a top NSA mathematician and analyst, on the uses to which his work was put:

Binney expressed terrible remorse over the way some of his algorithms were used after 9/11. ThinThread, the “little program” that he invented to track enemies outside the U.S., “got twisted,” and was used for both foreign and domestic spying: “I should apologize to the American people. It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.”

One GOP staffer on the House Intelligence Committee recounted an exchange with then-NSA head Michael Hayden:

[Diane] Roark, who had substantial influence over N.S.A. budget appropriations, was an early champion of Binney’s ThinThread project. She was dismayed, she says, to hear that it had evolved into a means of domestic surveillance, and felt personally responsible. Her oversight committee had been created after Watergate specifically to curb such abuses. “It was my duty to oppose it,” she told me. “That is why oversight existed, so that these things didn’t happen again. I’m not an attorney, but I thought that there was no way it was constitutional.” [….] She asked Hayden why the N.S.A. had chosen not to include privacy protections for Americans. She says that he “kept not answering. Finally, he mumbled, and looked down, and said, ‘We didn’t need them. We had the power.’ He didn’t even look me in the eye. I was flabbergasted.”

Remember, these aren’t hippies from The Nation,, or ACLU attorneys, or even (ahem) wild-eyed Cato libertarians. They’re registered Republicans appalled by the corruption of the intelligence mission to which they’d devoted their professional lives.

El Salvador’s Unfortunate Lesson

Two years ago in a Cato study I documented El Salvador’s remarkable liberalization process and the significant progress in economic and social indicators that resulted from those free market reforms. I also warned then about how those achievements were threatened by the likely victory of the former Marxist guerrilla group, FMLN, in the presidential election of 2009.

Even though Mauricio Funes, the then FMLN candidate now turned president, has proven to be a relatively moderate figure when compared to his radical left-wing party, El Salvador is reversing many of the gains of the past decade. Mary O’Grady’s column in the Wall Street Journal today, which describes how “the wheels came off” of the “once thriving Salvadoran economy,” is a reminder to all countries not to take progress for granted.

Ron Paul on the General Welfare Clause

Now that Rep. Ron Paul is again a presidential candidate, his constitutional views will come under increasing scrutiny, as happened yesterday when he was interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Not surprisingly, critics immediately leapt on Paul’s “crankish view” that Social Security, Medicare, and other such programs are unconstitutional. Even Wallace seemed taken aback, citing the document’s General Welfare Clause:

The Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes … to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.

“Doesn’t Social Security come under promoting the general welfare of the United States?” Wallace asked, incredulously.

One does not have to agree with everything Paul has said or stood for over the years to grant that he has a point, and a very important one. It’s a mark of how widespread our constitutional misunderstanding is that so many Americans take it for granted, at least until the Tea Party came along, that most of what the federal government does today is constitutional.

In a nutshell, the Constitution was written and ratified to both authorize and limit the government created through it. It was designed to do the latter not through the Bill of Rights – that was an afterthought, added two years later – but through the doctrine of enumerated powers. Article I, section 8, grants the Congress only 18 powers. Nothing for education, or retirement security, or health care: Those responsibilities were left to the states or to the people, as the Tenth Amendment makes clear.

So what about the General Welfare Clause, the first of Congress’s 18 powers? To be sure, the clause was inartfully drafted, like several other provisions in the Constitution. But it was understood by nearly all as granting Congress the power simply to tax (in limited ways: see the full text). The terms “common Defence” and “general Welfare” were meant merely as general headings under which the 17 other specific powers or ends were subsumed.

In fact, the question came up almost immediately, during the ratification debates, and in early Congresses as well, so we have a rich record of just what the General Welfare Clause meant. Here, for example, in Federalist #41, is James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution:

Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction…. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it…. But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon?

Indeed, as was often asked: What was the point of enumerating the 17 other powers if Congress could do anything it wanted under this single power? The Framers could have stopped right there. They didn’t because they meant for Congress to have only certain limited powers, each one enumerated in Article I, section 8. And taxing for the general welfare limited Congress even further by precluding it from providing for special parties or interests.

Nor does it change anything to note, as Wallace did yesterday, that the Supreme Court upheld the Social Security Act in 1937 – as if that settled the question. As a practical matter it settled things, of course, just as Plessy v. Ferguson settled the “separate-but-equal” issue in 1896, only to be reversed in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and Bowers v. Hardwick settled the issue of homosexual sodomy in 1986, only to be reversed in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. It’s well understood that the 1937 Court, cowed by Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous Court-packing threat, simply reversed 150 years of understanding and precedent concerning the doctrine of enumerated powers. And that removed the Constitution’s main restraint on federal power – not by constitutional amendment but by judicial fiat.

But it’s not been “extreme liberals” alone, Wallace went on to say, who’ve read the Constitution as the 1937 Court did, noting that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia recently told a congressional gathering: “It’s up to Congress how you want to appropriate, basically.” To be sure, from fear over “judicial activism,” many conservative judges have bought into the New Deal’s constitutional revolution. Perhaps the most that can be said on their side is that the Court cannot alone, this late in the day, reverse these mistakes.

In fact, this unconstitutionality cannot be undone overnight even by the Congress. Here again there are practical concerns, as Paul has recognized. Vast numbers of people have come to rely on these welfare schemes, however unsustainable they are in the long run, as has become increasingly clear. If constitutional fidelity can serve to spur fiscal discipline, however, we may yet slowly work our way out of our present and long-term fiscal dilemma. But that felicitous result will not happen until we admit both our infidelity and our indiscipline – the two are intimately connected.

By reading the General Welfare Clause in isolation, therefore, Wallace and others turn the Constitution on its head. Rather than a document aimed at limiting government, it becomes a document authorizing unlimited government. And let’s be clear: The basic issue here is nothing more – nor less – than legitimacy. Do we live under the Constitution, or don’t we? If Ron Paul’s views on this fundamental question are “cranky,” so too were those of Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and the rest of the Founders we revere.

As Used-Car Prices Soar, ‘Clunkers’ Are Missed

Cato scholars have been appropriately scathing about the federal government’s 2009 “cash for clunkers” program, which paid several billion taxpayer dollars to have older cars scrapped and their engines destroyed, with owners getting vouchers toward new vehicles. When Chris Edwards nominated cash-for-clunkers as the “dumbest government program ever,” he listed among its effects: “Low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.”

Guess what’s the newest trouble to hit the car business? As news outlets around the country are reporting, the price of used cars has lately soared to a modern-day record, with some cars commanding more used than they sold for when new. News accounts commonly finger the Japanese earthquake and high gas prices as reasons, but there are some problems fitting either reason to the case. While the earthquake affected the supply of new cars, it’s the previously driven kind that has scored the more impressive price jump. And while the rise in gas prices would explain a relative shift in buyer demand from SUVs and trucks toward smaller vehicles – which has indeed happened – the strength of the used-vehicle market lately has been such that even the thirstier vehicles have advanced in price, $4 gas or no.

No doubt there are multiple reasons for the price spike, including the severe general slump in new-auto sales in recent years, which has reduced the volume of newer cars coming onto the resale market. But – as Washington scrambles to take undeserved credit for whatever passes for normalization in the auto business these days – it’s worth remembering that an artificial scarcity of used cars isn’t just bad for the poor as a group: it’s bad in particular for the upwardly mobile poor, since in most of the country landing a job means needing to line up transportation to get to that job. When it suddenly costs $6,000 instead of $3,000 to get wheels, the move from unemployment to a paying job faces a new and discouraging barrier.

There’s a further irony too. Just as the federal housing stimulus lured many buyers into unwise house purchases at a time when home prices still had a good distance to fall – leaving them worse off in retrospect – so many owners who jumped for the cash-for-clunkers program would have been better off holding on to their cars a while longer. At least that’s what one might conclude from what Frederick, Maryland used-car dealer Robert Cox told his local paper, the News-Post:

People who got $3,500 for the cars they turned in would probably get $5,000 to $7,000 for the same trade today, Cox said.

Nice going, Washington.