Archives: June, 2011

Sweet Commerce

A study on anti-Semitism in Germany offers the disturbing finding that “communities that murdered their Jewish populations during the 14th-century Black Death pogroms were more likely to demonstrate a violent hatred of Jews nearly 600 years later,” during the Nazi era. But cities

with more of an outward orientation—in particular, cities that were a part of the Hanseatic League of Northern Europe, which brought outside influence via commerce and trade—showed almost no correlation between medieval and modern pogroms. The same was true for cities with high rates of population growth—with sufficient in-migration, the newcomers may have changed the attitudes of the local culture.

Free trade helps lead to peace, prosperity, and the erosion of prejudice.

The (Beginning of the) End of the Shameful U.S. Cotton Deal?

Heartening news from the Appropriations Committee yesterday: they voted to cut aid to farmers generally, and to make significant changes to an egregious cotton program. But first, some background.  You’ll recall the embarrassing deal made by the Obama administration last year to head off Brazil’s right to impede American exports in retaliation for WTO-illegal cotton support. The United States is, in other words, now sending almost $150m worth of “technical assistance” and “capacity building” funds to Brazil, just so we can continue to subsidize American cotton growers without penalty (so much for U.S. promotion of the rule of law in international commercial relations). Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) tried to end that deal earlier this year, but to no avail. Big Ag’s friends in Congress argued, unfortunately successfully, that any changes to the cotton bribes should be dealt with in the context of the 2012 Farm Bill, and by the agriculture committees (good luck with that).

But yesterday, the Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to take the fiscal 2013 payment to Brazil from funds that would normally go to supporting U.S. cotton growers. According to an article [$] in the Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Flake argued that “American cotton growers should pay the bill since the United States was making the payment on their behalf.” Well played, sir.  Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) filed an amendment that would send the FY2012 cotton payment to the Women’s, Infants and Children nutrition program instead.

The Committee also voted to lower the income eligibility cap to $250,000 AGI.

The CQ article did contain this worrying footnote, however:

Support for the amendments may be tenuous — especially if lawmakers cannot hide behind the anonymity of a voice vote. After winning the voice vote in committee, Flake sought a roll call, prompting appropriators of both parties to suggest that he did not need the recorded vote. Flake took their advice and demurred.

 Leglislators are usually shy about publicizing their positions only when they think it could get them in political hot water, so let’s not uncork the champagne yet.

Herman Cain and Individualism

Many political pundits have dismissed presidential hopeful Herman Cain as a long shot. However, coinciding with a Washington Post exclusive of the recently announced presidential candidate, a new IBOPE Zogby Interactive Poll shows Herman Cain, businessman and radio talk show host, edging out other leading GOP presidential candidates among Republican primary voters. Cain garnered 19% of vote, the plurality response, finally surpassing Governor Chris Christie who received 16% of the vote. A new Gallup poll shows Herman Cain with the leading Positive Intensity Score among potential GOP contenders at 25%, among those who recognize him. His name recognition has jumped from 21% in March to 37% in May.

Cain began receiving substantial media attention due to his popularity with the Tea Party; he recently won a Tea Party Patriots convention straw poll and has garnered 25% of voters most likely to vote for the Tea Party presidential candidate, with Chris Christie at 18%. In addition, GOP pollster Frank Luntz found Cain to be the winner of the first Republican presidential debate in the FOX News-sponsored focus group.

Cain’s recent popularity has brought to the forefront controversial statements he made earlier this year starting with an interview discussing the role of Muslims in American Society with ChristianityToday. ThinkProgress followed up with Cain during the Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines, IA, asking him whether he would be comfortable appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet or as a federal judge. Herman Cain responded that he would not:

CAIN: No, I will not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government. This is what happened in Europe. … and now they’ve got a social problem that they don’t know what to do with hardly….I get upset when the Muslims in this country, some of them, try to force their Sharia law onto the rest of us.

In a subsequent Fox interview, Cain clarified his statement:

CAIN: …I did say no. And here’s why…I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this United States, and many of the Muslims … are not totally dedicated to this country or our Constitution and many of them are trying to force Sharia law on the people of this country. …I don’t have time to be watching someone in my administration if they are not totally committed to the Declaration and the Constitution of the United States and the laws of this country.

Cain’s blanket condemnation of Muslims as generally unpatriotic is troubling. For starters, Cain’s view of Islam as a disqualification for public office runs contrary to the very Constitution that he claims to cherish: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (Constitution Article VI)

Second, Cain’s public statement of his prejudice—and the fact that such a statement is not widely condemned by both sides of the political spectrum—perpetuates stereotypes, increases religious tension, and contradicts the notions of freedom and individualism upon which this country was founded. People are more than the religion they profess. Individuals are a complex combination of environmental factors, choices, personal experiences, will, and culture. Prejudice such as Cain’s emphasizes the group over the individual. In a prejudiced society, individuals are not held accountable for their own actions, but instead are responsible for the actions of other members of the group with which they are identified—irrespective of the fact that these actions are entirely out of their control.

Individuals pursue their ambitions with hopes of happiness and success. Individuals face the costs and benefits of their decisions, and individuals take risks and reap the losses or rewards of those risks. Individualism unlocks an engine of innovation and prosperity, as people—as individuals—are incentivized and motivated to seek out new ventures. Collectivism in all its forms—from communism to racism—is antithetical to individualism and supplants an individual’s drive to better herself with a sense of hopelessness, since her opportunities are not determined by her own merits, but her group identity.

Cain’s remarks about Muslims are a regrettable perpetuation of religious stereotypes and an affront to the founding principles of this country. Such a worldview runs counter to the conditions under which opportunity and prosperity may flourish. Cain should have known better. More importantly, none of Cain’s Tea Party supporters—if they truly understand the principles behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—should support such statements.

Plaintiffs Should Be Cautiously Optimistic about Latest Obamacare Appeal

CINCINNATI – Now for something completely different, and not just because the spirited Sixth Circuit judges were much more skeptical of the government’s position than the Fourth Circuit was last month. Unlike the panel in Richmond – Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli probably started outlining his cert petition as soon as court adjourned – here there will be at least one vote to strike down the individual mandate, and maybe even all three. And this panel should produce one or more opinions in which there will be much for the Supreme Court to grapple with.

The appellate argument didn’t even begin until after a skirmish over standing provoked by the motion to dismiss the government filed last week. That mini-argument – what Judge Martin likened to his time in Jefferson County (KY) circuit court – will likely not prove decisive. Nor will the Anti-Injunction Act, the tax statute on which the court requested supplemental briefing but which the government conceded didn’t apply.

Not surprisingly, this case, brought by the Thomas More Legal Center, will almost certainly be decided on the issue of whether the federal government can compel people to engage in commerce – “regulate inactivity.” The government’s theory that “health care is unique” came under harsh attack from Judges Graham and Sutton because it didn’t seem to offer a constitutional (as opposed to factual) limiting principle for federal power. Judge Martin was more circumspect, but he’s considered among the most liberal circuit judges in the country, so all things being equal would probably try to uphold the law (or find a way to decide the case on procedural grounds so as to avoid losing on the merits). Judge Sutton – one of the more conservative jurists nationwide – was also scrupulously neutral, picking at weaknesses in both sides’ presentation and appearing open to a narrow technical decision.

All in all, it was a fascinating day in court that proved again that no matter how much one studies the Obamacare challenges, there’s always something new to learn. Be sure to read Cato’s amicus brief in this case for more background.

The New—-Cardless!—-National ID

Your chance to comment on a Department of Homeland Security plan to tap into state drivers’ license databases and create a new national ID system expires next week. It’s the groundwork for a cardless national ID, which threatens liberty even more than card-based schemes like REAL ID.

The E-Verify program’s move to merge federal background checks and state driver license data sets the stage for satisfying all three elements of a national ID. (Two years ago, I discussed what constitutes a national ID in some detail.) E-Verify has not satisfied these criteria up to now, but the pieces are coming together quickly.

First, it is national. That is, it is intended to be used throughout the country, and to be nationally uniform in its key elements. If its proponents have their way, E-Verify will indeed soon go national, a requirement on every employer to vet new workers past the federal government’s databases.

Second, its use is either practically or legally required. This is a judgment call, but in two diferent ways, E-Verify appears to meet this element. First, not having data in the E-Verify databases means not having legal work, so “participation” in E-Verify can be fairly called practically required. Second, try to opt out of the system and you will meet a dead end. The program includes no opportunity I know of to refuse participation. It’s legally required if the state or federal governments have got your identity data.

I could be wrong, of course. Interested researchers should try contacting their state motor vehicle bureaus (cc: your state legislators) and ask not to have data about you transferred to the federal government for E-Verify. Please let me know what you learn.

The final “element” of a national ID is that it is used for identification. Up to now, E-Verify has  largely worked by comparing identifiers. (I.e., Does this name match this Social Security number?) The current plan is to tap into state databases for more identifiers: name, date of birth, driver’s license/permit number, and so on. From there, it’s a short ride to gathering drivers’ license photos and biometric descriptors. (E-Verify already uses federally acquired photos in its “Photo Screening Tool.”) With the inclusion of your driver’s license photo, the E-Verify system will be able to display your picture on the screen of anyone who looks you up, allowing for positive identification.

This is a national identification system. If every employer has to use E-Verify—or even every major employer—it will become the all-purpose security device, used for cashing checks, confirming the name on credit cards, and looking you up at the prescription counter. Of course, it will be used at airport checkpoints. You’ll be screened through E-Verify at entrances to government buildings—maybe private buildings, too. And why not for random, “instant” checks at the subway or bus station? 

Just remember: If you have a tax dispute with the government, the Department of Homeland Security might flag you in the database—or it might de-identify you entirely—until you get right with the government.

Because it’s a database system, you won’t be able to argue your case like you can in the familiar card environment. With a card, at least, you can say, “No, look. This is me. This is my ID card. This is my picture. Give me my prescription.” With E-Verify, the answer will be, “Sorry, you have to talk to DHS or Social Security.” For good reason, I named my paper on electronic employment eligibility verification, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

Arguments for the E-Verify system sounding in practicality and common sense do not hold up, but there are also principled reasons to oppose having a government background check system. Using E-Verify, the Department of Homeland Security is rapidly assembling a national ID system that can be converted to boundless uses. In addition to controlling employment, E-Verify can be put to use in regulating access to health care and housing, in gun control and registration, in monitoring travel and lodging—the list goes on and on.

I went through the arguments against having a national identification system in my book, Identity Crisis. In brief, a national ID would strip us of privacy even faster than is already happening, producing formal dossiers and increased surveillance. A national ID would transfer power en masse from individuals to governments. They would administer our rights by controlling the tools we need to navigate a “papers, please” society. A national ID would also be insecure, as it centralizes and homogenizes information assets (identity data) that are more secure if widely dispersed and heterogeneous.

As I noted last week, the federal government cannot and will not implement the REAL ID Act. So it’s on a new tack: E-Verify will soon be the new national ID.

Family Friendly DISCO Moves

I like the nightlife, and I’ve got to boogie, so I’m pleased to hear of a new organization called DISCO: Democrats Impatient for School Choice Organization.

There are many ways to shake, shake, shake that education policy booty, however, and if DISCO really wants to be family friendly, they would be better off skipping the voucher element of their choreography.

The organization’s goal is to extend real school choice to low income families. A crucial element in achieving that goal is to ensure that parents, not influential lobby groups or entrenched interests, get to decide the kinds of education they can choose.  Based on both my review of the historical evidence and my recent regression study of modern school choice programs, vouchers are prone to regulatory proliferation. They centralize authority over what a voucher can buy, so that parents who need financial assistance cannot escape whatever limits the politically powerful wish to impose on them.

Tax credits are different. Scholarship donation tax credit programs, such as the one that already exists in Pennsylvania (and which the state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand) create a proliferation of different sources of financial assistance for low-income families. So if one of those sources decides to impose a particular set of rules on how the money is used, it doesn’t affect any of the others. Parents can choose to seek financial assistance from whichever scholarship granting organization most closely matches their own values and preferences, thereby preventing them from being forced into a particular set of choices.

I made this argument in a little more detail in Cato’s amicus brief in the ACSTO v. Winn case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program.

Harkin to Continue Ignoring that He’s the Problem

What an enigma American higher education is! It produces simultaneously far too many graduates and far too few. It gets hundreds-of-billions in taxpayer subsidies – subsidies that have almost constantly risen – and yet its main problem is said to be too little public support.

What interesting questions these problems raise!

Don’t, though, ask Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) about any of them. Even though he chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, which has jurisdiction over such huge laws as the Higher Education Act, all he cares about is one thing: slaying for-profit schools. Which is why he has scheduled yet another hearing – the fifth in a seemingless endless series – that will focus solely on for-profit institutions, and will almost certainly feature more lopsided testimony, self-serving speechifying, and, if we’re really lucky, more apparently dirty dealing masquerading as selfless public service.  

Why is Harkin seemingly obsessed with for-profit schools while ignoring the really interesting – and urgent – questions about the entire Ivory Tower? Sadly, that is not a great riddle. It is because what ails higher education is Senator Harkin himself, and all the politicians who, for decades, have bought votes with massive aid to schools and students while taking no responsibility for the outrageous price inflation and waste that has fueled. In other words, Sen. Harkin is ignoring the problem because, to deal with it, he’d be the one who’d have to answer the tough questions.