Archives: 02/2012

CPAC Panel on the Constitutionality of Obamacare Has No Lawyers

Some libertarians boycott CPAC because it’s “too conservative,” others embrace it to try to steer the conservative movement in a more liberty-minded direction (on which, see Reason.tv’s excellent interview of Sen. Jim DeMint).  I have no principled feelings on the subject.  I’ve never attended – wasn’t really on my radar in college, couldn’t make it to DC during grad/law school, then was too busy lawyering, and now it would feel odd just to hang out rather than be part of the program – but I know lots of folks who enjoy it.

One thing I noticed about this year’s program – other than that my colleague Neal McCluskey is on an education policy panel at 10:30am on Friday – is that there’s a panel on the constitutionality of Obamacare (1:25 on Friday).  Curiously, there aren’t any lawyers on this panel.  C’mon, CPAC, I know this isn’t a Federalist Society convention, but it would seem useful to have people actually grappling with the legal issues educating your attendees about it.  Not all of us have problems communicating with non-JDs; do I have to issue another Obamacare debate challenge?

Occupy Afghanistan

In an essay for Armed Forces Journal, Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis writes that after traveling across Afghanistan and speaking with more than 250 soldiers in the field,  “What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.” Further down he continues, “I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.”

It’s hard to disagree.

Davis’s essay comes weeks after the top-secret 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan finds that security gains in the Afghan war are unsustainable, and that pervasive corruption, government incompetence, and militant safe havens in Pakistan have undercut progress.

I’m reminded of a comment made recently by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee:

There have been gains in security … but the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with. They still occupy considerable land in the country.

“Occupy” is the operative word in that sentence. That gains in Afghanistan are “fragile and reversible” is the oft-repeated mantra of defiant optimists who invoke our inability to achieve key objectives—improve local governance, eradicate corruption, convince Pakistan to shut down safe havens, etc.—as reason to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Mind you, the opposite is also true: if such objectives are somehow reached, then we can never leave, since leaving would risk jeopardizing the gains we’ve won.

The intractable cross-border insurgency, of course, will outlive the presence of international troops. After all, a local district mullah who moonlights as a Taliban operative has nowhere else to go. Indeed, as the last 10 years have shown, insurgents can outlast coalition troops by merely re-emerging after we’ve left—that’s an endurable occupation.

In separate dissents appended to the report mentioned above—a report that reaches similar conclusions about the war made in the 2010 N.I.E.—the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, agreed in the judgment that the Taliban have shown no readiness to abandon their political goals. And, according to Col. Brian Mennes, who commands 3,300 troopers of the 4th Brigade: “The Taliban are going to have a role in post-war Afghanistan…They are Afghans. They are there—it’s just physics!’”

Coalition night raids and drones strikes have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators; however, a classified NATO report was quoted as saying, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.” And, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

From war fighters and trigger pullers to desk-bound spooks and armchair analysts, the conclusion reached is that after a decade of war we still haven’t won. The reason? All politics is local.

Remember that a key component of the Obama administration’s strategy for Afghanistan was winning over local people and luring them away from the Taliban. But the always perceptive Captain Cat, who has worked on Afghan peace building, offers insight into what went wrong:

As we talk and sip tea, the younger man’s brother arrives, wrapped in a patu. He keeps his hair long, jihadi style, and it pokes out of his pakool. He was a more senior commander than his younger brother, and only reconciled a few months ago.

I ask the commander what he does with his days. “The government doesn’t trust anyone who is reconciled, so no one will hire us. My other brother does small jobs, he owns a cart in town and he sometimes does delivery work. He gets calls from Miram Shah from the Taliban and they tell him “look at your life now, pushing carts. What kind of a man are you?”

“I really regret reintegrating with the government, I wish I hadn’t – but if I go back now, the Taliban will kill me”.

We shake hands and I leave them. Miserable, bored and ashamed, they will while away their days wondering how to feed their families, when the Taliban will come for them and why they put their trust in the government. It’s hard not to wonder the same thing.

Tragically, the vast majority of Afghans were initially happy with the foreign troop presence. They took a “wait-and-see” approach. But that spirit has largely deteriorated. Conversely, the Taliban are reviled but the general view among many Afghans toward the movement is either ambivalence or that the Afghan government is worse. Perhaps more importantly, as the Afghan government’s head of Rural Rehabilitation and Development insisted to me at his office in Kabul awhile back: “Taliban is part of our culture.”

The coalition’s deus ex machina is reconciliation with the Taliban. While such an outcome to the war is hardly a victory worth celebrating, it’s difficult to imagine a lasting solution that does not involve the war’s other occupying force, the Taliban.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

But, But…Price Controls Poll Well!

Politico’s Jason Millman writes:

How much does Rick Santorum hate President Barack Obama’s health care law? So much that he even opposes the parts a lot of Republicans like.

The Republican presidential candidate, talking health care across the street from Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Monday morning, blasted parts of the Affordable Care Act that poll well even among Republican voters — like guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and making health insurers cover preventive care.

Santorum, who has touted free market health principles like health savings accounts as an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, defended insurance industry practices the law eliminates, like setting premiums based on people’s health status.

Sigh. I refer my right honorable friend to the smack-down I gave such silliness some time ago:

Asking people whether they support the law’s pre-existing conditions provisions is like asking whether they want sick people to pay less for medical care.  Of course they will say yes.  If anything, it’s amazing that as many as 36 percent of the public are so economically literate as to know that these government price controls will actually harm people with pre-existing conditions.  Also amazing is that among people with pre-existing conditions, equal numbers believe these provisions will be useless or harmful as think they will help.

But as the collapse of the CLASS Act and private markets for child-only health insurance have shown, and as the Obama administration has argued in federal court, the pre-existing conditions provisions cannot exist without the wildly unpopular individual mandate because on their own, the pre-existing conditions provisions would cause the entire health insurance market to implode.

If the pre-existing conditions provisions are a (supposed) benefit of the law, then the individual mandate is the cost of those provisions. If voters don’t like the individual mandate–if they aren’t willing to pay the cost of the law’s purported benefits–then the “popular” provisions aren’t popular, either.

Or, as Firedoglake’s Jon Walker puts it, ObamaCare is about as popular as pepperoni and broken glass pizza.

Even among Republican voters? Good grief.

Which Way Is Inflation Headed?

First let me admit I do not have a crystal ball, nor does anyone I know, so given the limitations of economic forecasting, one can only attempt educated guesses as to the direction of any economic variable.  That said, I found the chart below, taken from the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index release, to be interesting in terms of the clear trend.

The lower line is core CPI, the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the upper line is the full CPI, which includes food and energy prices.  The good news is that while still higher than I’d prefer, food and energy prices started to moderate in the fall of 2011.  That moderation in food/energy prices, however, did not translate into a lower core CPI.  In fact the core CPI continued its fairly steady increase.  Since September 2011, core CPI has been, on an annualized basis, above the Fed’s target of 2 percent (let’s set aside, for the moment, whether this is the right target or if it is even measured appropriately).  Remembering that monetary policy works with “long and variable lags” the time to worry about inflation is before it hits, not after.  Given the clear upward trend in the government’s own charts, I’d say we are already past the point where we should start worrying.

No Budget in 1,000 Days? No Budget Ever!

Around the time of President Obama’s State of the Union speech two weeks ago, Republicans and their allies came out arguing that the Democratic Senate hadn’t produced a budget in 1,000 days. Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) disputes the charge.

Is it true? The new budget season started Monday, so it’s a great time to examine that question.

Budget season really did start Monday. The Congressional Budget Act has a timetable in it (at section 300) that says the president submits his budget on or before the first Monday in February. We’re underway!

But I hope you weren’t holding your breath waiting to get a glimpse of the president’s budget. The White House has kicked back its release by a week—an unfortunate symbol of how both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue flout budget processes in ways large and small.

Now to the question: When was the last Senate budget?

Let’s start with a preliminary question: What is a “budget”?

The Congressional Budget Act defines it with reference to the document it appears in, known as a “concurrent budget resolution.” That definition is gobbledegook:

On or before April 15 of each year, the Congress shall complete action on a concurrent resolution of the budget for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of such year. The concurrent resolution shall set forth appropriate levels for the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of such year and for at least each of the 4 ensuing fiscal years for the following—
(1) totals of new budget authority and outlays;
(2) total Federal revenues and the amount, if any, by which the aggregate level of Federal revenues should be increased or decreased by bills and resolutions to be reported by the appropriate committees;
(3) the surplus or deficit in the budget;
(4) new budget authority and outlays for each major functional category, based on allocations of the total levels set forth pursuant to paragraph (1);
(5) the public debt;
(6) for purposes of Senate enforcement under this title, outlays of the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program established under title II of the Social Security Act for the fiscal year of the resolution
and for each of the 4 succeeding fiscal years; and
(7) for purposes of Senate enforcement under this title, revenues of the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program established under title II of the Social Security Act (and the related provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) for the fiscal year of the resolution and for each of the 4 succeeding fiscal years.

Take a look at the last budget the Senate passed, though, and you can see these things—not that it’s a clear, readable description of what the future holds for government activity.

Now, Senator Conrad objects to the charge that he hasn’t produced a budget, saying that the Budget Control Act, which passed just last August, is a budget. It’s “more extensive,” setting the budget for the current year and the next one; it’s not just a resolution, but a law; and it has caps on discretionary spending going forward ten years.

Looking at the text of the bill, a government-budget novice like myself can’t see this. It doesn’t look like other congressional budgets, and it doesn’t fit with the definition in the Congressional Budget Act.

But why do we have to accept the government’s definition of what a budget is? It’s our government, and we get to decide when we’re seeing a budget.

I went to a handy resource, called a “dictionary,” to look up the word “budget.” The first two definitions are helpful:

1. an estimate, often itemized, of expected income and expense for a given period in the future.
2. a plan of operations based on such an estimate.

Now we have something we can use! And it can help us sort out what’s going on in federal ‘budgeting.’

The president’s budget, laying out not only gross spending numbers but the agencies and bureaus where the money will be spent, is a budget, under the more extensive, second definition.

What the House and Senate do, when they do their “budgeting,” is put out gross numbers and then some detail based on functional categories like amounts to be spent on “national defense” and “community and regional development” and stuff. That … almost meets the first definition, but it certainly isn’t itemized. Congress doesn’t actually do budgets.

My conclusion—as a human being and not a budget wonk—is that the Senate has not produced a budget in more than 1,000 days. I also conclude that the Congress doesn’t really produce budgets ever.

I investigate all this because of my work on transparency. If there is going to be a transparent federal budget and transparent spending processes, they have to have some relationship to what the public expects to see and some consistency among them (such as between the president’s budget and Congress’s).

If the political charge sticks—that the Senate has failed to budget—so be it. But the problem goes deeper. Congress basically doesn’t budget. It is owned by the complexity of the federal government and incapable of budgeting in a meaningful way. Congress just spends money in the appropriations process—which it flouts just as often as its so-called “budgeting.”

The Irony of the President’s STEM Initiatives

The media tide of the past two days has carried in a great flood of stories on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. ABC, NBC, AP, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor, Politico, the Detroit News, and others joined in. This torrent of attention is due to a White House science fair at which the president announced several initiatives to boost student achievement in those fields. Details are scant, but based on the administration’s press release it seems that $100 million or so would go to encourage particular kinds of teacher’s college programs. Various extracurricular STEM programs funded by non-profit foundations were also touted in the release.

The obvious irony in the president’s plan to tweak teachers’ college programs is that those programs are themselves a key part of the problem. The nation’s state school monopolies typically require most or all of their teachers to either have a degree from a government-approved college of education or to be pursuing such a degree during evenings and weekends. Few of those studying or working in STEM fields are willing to sit through a teachers’ college program—with good reason. Not only are these programs often pointless according to their own graduates, they are not associated with improved student performance. They are a requirement without a function–at least without a function that benefits students. The one thing they do accomplish is to erect a barrier to entry that protects incumbent teachers from competition, allows the specter of “teacher shortages” to be floated at regular intervals, and thus to justify above market wages [state school teachers receive compensation that is roughly $17,000 per year higher than their private sector counterparts].

As a result, many of the most promising teaching candidates in these fields are weeded out from the start. President Obama’s plans to “improve” this barrier to entry into the profession amounts to reupholstering the deck chairs on the sunken Titanic.

But how to ensure that only effective teachers lead the nation’s classrooms given that the government certification process is not just useless but counterproductive? Here, again, there is irony. Somehow, in the thousands of different fields in which scientists and engineers work every day, the competent are distinguished from the incompetent. And somehow, those who underperform are either helped to improve or cut loose to seek work in a field (or with an employer) to which their talents are better suited. It is ludicrous to suggest that managers can effectively evaluate the work of the scientists and engineers they employ in every field _except_ education.

The media would do us all a favor if they would look past the Obama administration’s marshmallow launcher for a moment and contemplate the effect that our massive barrier to entry into the teaching profession has on recruiting scientists and engineers.

The World Bank Backs African Trade Liberalization

The World Bank has come out with a wonderful short video explaining the benefits of trade liberalization among African countries:

Cato has addressed that topic in a 2005 paper:

[Accordingly,] in 1997 SSA countries levied an average applied tariff of 34 percent on agricultural exports from other SSA countries. Industrial countries, by contrast, imposed an average applied tariff of 24 percent on SSA agricultural exports. Similarly, SSA countries maintained an average applied tariff of 21 percent on nonagricultural exports from other SSA countries. Industrial countries imposed an average applied tariff of 4 percent on SSA non-agricultural exports.

According to the WTO, only 10 percent of African (including sub-Saharan African) exports were intraregional (i.e.: traded to other African countries). In contrast, 68 percent of exports from countries in Western Europe were exported to other Western European countries. Similarly, 40 percent of North American exports were to other countries in North America.