Archives: 06/2011

That’s Not Healthy: ‘They Said What?’ Edition

Some quick hits from today’s health care news:

  • As I predicted, the physicians lobby balks at ObamaCare’s accountable care organization (ACOs) program, saying, obliquely: “Give us more money.”
  • GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty left AHIP members and some reporters confused about how a person can support ACOs but still want to repeal ObamaCare. He and they should have read my column on ACOs.
  • Pawlenty also endorsed a public option when he said his Medicare reform proposal would preserve Parts A, B, and D.  He should have read my papers on a public option and Medicare reform (with Chris Edwards).
  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) says he will fight “to the end” to keep low-income Americans dependent on lousy government health care programs.
  • Turns out, potential GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has endorsed an individual mandate after all: “I wouldn’t shy away from mandates.  I think if you’re going to get it done and get it done right, [a] mandate has to be part of it…I’m not sure you get to the point of serious attempt without some sort of mandate.”
  • Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) gushes over ObamaCare’s rationing board.
  • Ezra Klein enlightens Washington Post readers by telling them Medicaid could save money someday if the government somehow became really, really smart.  Klein, too, should read my column on ACOs.
  • According to one mother of a diabetic child, Washington state’s death panel members “knew nothing about type 1 diabetes. And they’re making this huge, important decision that affects all these people. It was mind-boggling,” while a death-panel defender non-ironically laments, “That’s what’s been driving health care — the whiteness of the hair, the more bravado, the more clout you have in politics — that’s what’s making health care not healthy.”

Are Unions Really Good for Democrats?

Charles Krauthammer’s latest column is titled “The Union-Owned Democrats.” In it, he recounts a litany of economically ruinous actions being pursued by unions around the country, from blocking free trade agreements to hobbling Boeing’s efforts to compete with Airbus. He writes that “unions need Democrats — who deliver quite faithfully,” and that “Democrats need unions.”

Like a hole in the head.

Yes, it’s been a politically and financially symbiotic relationship for many decades. Unions get rents, Democrats get elected. But, as I argue in a cover story for The American Spectator this month (now on-line: “A Less Perfect Union”), it can’t last.

The biggest unions of all are the public school employee unions—the AFT and the NEA—with well over 4 million members between them. As I point out in my Spectator piece, these unions have become too successful for their own good—and for the good of the Democratic party.

In their game of Monopoly with American kids and taxpayers they have created staggering bloat in public school employment (which has grown 10 times faster than student enrollment over the past 40 years), and they have wheedled total compensation packages worth $17,000 more per year than those of their private sector counterparts (who, according to most of the research, outperform them in the classroom).

But the union-led public school spending spree has nearly bankrupted states all over the country. If California’s public schools had just maintained the same level of efficiency they’d had in 1970 (not gotten better, as other fields have, just stagnated), it would turn the state’s $26 billion deficit hole into a surplus.

Americans are rapidly running out of money to pay for their states’ school monopolies, and they are rapidly introducing school choice bills (42 states have done so this year), to give families alternatives. But as families escape the highly unionized monopoly and send their kids to school in the largely non-unionized private sector, teachers union power will implode. And resentment at having been gored for so long by the now bankrupt and discredited system will focus on the party that fought to preserve it until the bitter end… Democrats.

In my Spectator piece, I explain why that would be a bad thing, and what Democrats could do to avoid that fate. “Public schooling” is just a tool, and an ineffective, unaffordable one at that. Public education is a set of goals and ideals that can be advanced much more effectively by other policy mechanisms. The sooner Democrats realize that, the less likely they are to be dragged to the bottom of the political sea by the sinking union-helmed school monopoly.

Huntsman Right to Rethink Afghanistan

Jon Huntsman’s recent comments about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the need to reduce our military footprint have drawn a good amount of media coverage this week. Huntsman, who will announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination next week, is the latest among the field to call for rethinking our strategy in Afghanistan. Huntsman is advocating a reduced presence in the country, in the area of 10 to 15,000 troops, to fight a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission. Coincidentally, a just-released Cato paper makes a similar recommendation.

Today, ForeignPolicy.com examines Huntsman’s comments and the “Drawdown Debate” in a round table of opinion pieces. My contribution: “Huntsman’s Right: Bring ‘em Home:

Jon Huntsman is on the right track with his call for a much smaller U.S. military presence and a more focused mission in Afghanistan. His suggestion makes sense for at least three reasons. First, the current nation-building mission is far too costly relative to realistic alternatives, particularly at a time when Americans are looking for ways to shrink the size of government. Second, nation-building in Afghanistan is unnecessary. We can advance our national security interests without crafting a functioning nation-state in the Hindu Kush. And third, the current mission is deeply unconservative, succumbing to the same errors that trip up other ambitious government-run projects that conservatives routinely reject here at home.

Alas, although many rank and file Republicans agree with Huntsman, many GOP leaders do not. Perhaps that will change when they realize that, at least in this instance, good policy and good politics go hand in hand. We should bring most of our troops home, and focus the attention of the few thousand who remain on hunting al Qaeda. The United States does not need to transform a deeply divided, poverty-stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive, and stable electoral democracy, and we should stop pretending that we can.

Read the full piece here.

40 Years of Drug Prohibition

It was 40 years ago today that President Richard Nixon said the “drug menace” had reached the dimensions of a “national emergency.”  Nixon asked Congress to allocate $155 million to fight drug abuse and requested a new central office in the White House to coordinate governmental efforts on the problem.  Thus began the modern drug war.  It’s true that criminal laws were already in place in many jurisdictions, but it was Nixon’s call for a “new, all-out offensive” that really started to ramp things up.  Each year brought calls for more money–and that  meant more police, more raids, more wiretaps, more arrests, and more prisons.  And more foreign intervention.

The Associated Press ran a good article that examined the 40 year policy and the trillion dollars that went into the policy.   Here’s an excerpt:

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where [all the] money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs. In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than:

— $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico — and the violence along with it.

— $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.

— $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.

— $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.

— $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.

Read the whole thing.

I hosted a debate this week to mark this unfortunate policy milestone.  Cato senior fellow Jeff Miron squared off against Dr. Robert DuPont, who was one of the key policy staffers in the Nixon White House in 1971.  Dr. DuPont remains convinced that the present policy approach is essentially correct.   Watch the event and decide for yourself.

In my 2000 book, After Prohibition, Milton Friedman noted that America’s drug war policy had dozens of negative consequences.  One consequence that he believed received too little attention was the policy’s effect on other people around the world.  Friedman said the policy was responsible for the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad by fighting a war that should never have been started.”   The violence in Mexico confirms Friedman’s analysis.  The Los Angeles Times recently reported that more than 34,000 people have been killed during the government’s crackdown over just the past four years.

Ending the drug war is one of the signature issues for the Cato Institute.  The other think tanks in Washington, DC–Brookings, AEI, and Heritage–support the drug war.  We believe the drug war will eventually be widely recognized as a tragic mistake in much the same way as we presently look back upon the days of alcohol prohibition.

For additional Cato work related to drug policy, go here.

Spending Transparency Gets a Head of Steam

It has been a promising week for spending transparency.

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), to promote spending transparency in the federal government. Among other things it would establish standardized reporting requirements for recipients of money from the federal government, with that data to be collected in and distributed from a central, independent database. It would collect all agency expenditure data, as well, and combine it with the recipient-reported data.

Think of it as double-entry bookkeeping: you collect spending data from agencies, you collect receipt data from recipients, and if the numbers don’t match up, you go look there. There’s a lot more complexity to it than that, of course, but this is a significant bill from a Republican House leader who is working to follow through on his caucus’s commitment to transparency.

Not to be outdone (but really I don’t know whether it was coincidental or inspired by Representative Issa’s bill), Vice President Biden issued a statement mid-week about spending transparency and the Recovery.gov Web site’s new “Recovery Explorer” feature, which allows users to create and customize charts and graphs with the recipient-reported data. The more information, the better, though raw data about government deliberations, management, and results is the ideal.

The DATA Act turned bicameral and bipartisan yesterday with its introduction in the other house by Senator Warner (D-VA). It simply makes sense that the government’s books should be legible to the public, and Senator Warner obviously recognizes that.

Kudos to Senator Warner, Vice President Biden, and Representative Issa for focusing the light on spending transparency this week.

Shining a light is one thing, of course. We’ll look forward to the follow-up to this promising week in transparency—the week when federal spending in transparency in once-and-for-all delivered.

Fordham Institute Reviews ‘The Other Lottery’

Gerilyn Slicker, of the Fordham Institute, offers a brief review of my study of charter school philanthropy in the latest “Education Gadfly” mailing, including the following observation:

Note, though, that this analysis is not without fault. The report doesn’t break down spending by pupil (only reporting aggregate grant-giving), nor does it account for student growth over time or for how long the charter networks have been operational.

All three of these concerns are worth raising, and the first two of them were actually addressed in the paper itself. The aggregate vs. per-pupil grant funding question is discussed in endnote 15:

Note that total grant funding, rather than grant funding per pupil, is the correct measure. That is because enrollment is endogenous—it is a product, in part, of earlier grant funding. So, controlling for enrollment (which dividing by enrollment would do) would control away some of the very characteristics we are trying to measure: the charter network’s ability to attract funding.

Student growth over time, as noted on page 5, cannot be measured using the California Standards Tests, because it reports results as averages of subgroups of students at the classroom level, not as individual student scores. And since the CST is the only source that has broad-based performance data for all charter and traditional public schools in the state, it is the only dataset that can be used to measure the performance of all California charter school networks. Fortunately, good controls for both student factors and school-wide peer effects are available, and the study’s results are consistent with earlier research, where it overlaps with that research.

The final concern, network age, is not one that I directly addressed in the study. There are a couple of reasons to expect it would not have much of an impact on the findings, however. First, a cursory look at the age of some of the top networks shows no particular pattern. American Indian and KIPP are both a decade old, and rank #1 and #7, respectively, out of 68 networks. Oakland Charter Academies and Rocketship are just a couple of years old, and rank #2 and #4, respectively. Similarly, some of low performing networks are brand new, while others, like GreenDot (ranked 42nd), are also over a decade old.

Second, in Appendix E, I show that network size and network academic performance are not significantly linked to one another. And since network age and network enrollment are likely to be strongly positively correlated with one another, it would be surprising if network age were correlated with performance when enrollment is not. That said, I’d probably include network age as a control in future, if I repeat the study, just to be on the safe side.

White House: ‘We Have Never Been at War in Northafrica!’

Pardon the somewhat trite Orwell reference in the title to this post. But sometimes this administration’s wordgames make it hard to resist invoking our keenest analyst of politics and the English language.

Some months ago, the Obama team began telling us that the Libyan War wasn’t a war—it was a “kinetic military action.” (Go here to watch Defense Secretary Robert Gates try—and fail—to maintain a straight face selling that line to Katie Couric on 60 Minutes).

In April, the president’s Office of Legal Counsel made the (bogus) argument that the president hadn’t violated the War Powers Resolution because the WPR recognized his authority to engage in hostilities for at least 60 days without congressional approval.  We’re now coming up on 90.

Yesterday, in response to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) request, the president issued a new explanation for why he isn’t in violation of the WPR, which requires the president to terminate US engagement in “hostilities” after 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. And it turns out that, per Obama, not only is the Libyan War not a “war,” what we’re doing in Libya—supporting, coordinating, and carrying out attacks—doesn’t even rise to the level of “hostilities.”

The president’s report states that he hasn’t violated the WPR, because “U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of ‘hostilities’ contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision”:  they don’t “involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.”

As Jack Goldsmith explains, “The Administration argues that once it starts firing missiles from drones it is no longer in ‘hostilities’ because U.S. troops suffer no danger of return fire.”  ”The implications here,” Goldsmith notes, “in a world of increasingly remote weapons, are large.”

I’ll say: this is an extraordinary argument: The president can rain down destruction via cruise missiles and robot death kites anywhere in the world. But unless an American airman might get hurt, we’re not engaged in “hostilities.”

Put aside the strange argument that acts of war don’t rise to the level of “hostilities.” Given that outrage over the illegal bombing of Cambodia was part of the backdrop to the WPR’s passage, it would have been pretty strange if the Resolution’s drafters thought presidential warmaking was A-OK, so long as you did it from a great height.

As legal arguments go, this is the national security law equivalent of the Clinton perjury defense. It’s the type of thing that gives lawyers an even worse name. Or maybe law professors, because, speaking of Bill Clinton, Obama’s the second former constitutional law professor in a row to violate the War Powers Resolution.

And yet, Obama continues to insist he’s in full compliance with the WPR, and he has no objection to the resolution on constitutional grounds.

God help me, I think I just felt a twinge of nostalgia for John Yoo.  Say what you will about the legal architect of Bush’s “Terror Presidency,” at least he had the courage of his bizarre convictions. When the statutes couldn’t be tortured into complete submission, Yoo would make the case that—whatever the law said—the president had the constitutional power to do as he pleased.  That’s clearly what Obama believes as well, but you’re not going to catch him admitting it.