Archives: 05/2012

The Federal Government Can’t Give Itself More Power Just By Signing a Treaty

With ObamaCare, immigration, affirmative action, gay marriage, and the other hot-button issues rolling through our courts this year, some of you may have overlooked a little case on the Treaty Power, United States v. Bond, which was at the Court last year and may well make it back next year.

I’ve covered Bond before, and Cato has filed two amicus briefs in the case (before the Supreme Court and then in the Third Circuit on remand). As I described it last year, Bond is “your typical sordid tale of adultery, toxic chemicals, and federalism.” It’s a bizarre scenario you can read about in the previous links, but the issue that has drawn Cato’s attention—and that of Paul Clement, who remains Mrs. Bond’s counsel—is whether Congress can regulate the conduct of something solely because the United States is party to a treaty regarding that subject.

That is, even though Congress does not have the power to pass, for example, general criminal statutes, if Congress ratifies a treaty calling for such statutes, the dominant reading of an old precedent called Missouri v. Holland is that its power increases beyond constitutional limits. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand congressional power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change congressional power by abrogating a previously valid treaty—thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws. Cato’s briefs have taken issue with such an interpretation of the Treaty Power, tracking the argument made by new Cato senior fellow (and Georgetown law professor) Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz in his magisterial Harvard Law Review article, “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Earlier this month, the Third Circuit upheld Mrs. Bond’s conviction because the statute under which she was convicted duly implemented the Chemical Conventions Act and a lower court can’t overrule Missouri v. Holland. The court cited Cato’s brief and Nick’s article, however, and a concurrence by Judge Thomas Ambro, after also citing John Eastman’s article about the case in the Cato Supreme Court Review, specifically called on the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of Missouri v. Holland.

The Court will have an opportunity to do so, with Paul Clement currently preparing a cert petition, which Cato will again support. In the meantime, you can listen in on a teleforum the Federalist Society is having about the case, featuring Prof. Rosenkranz (Fed Soc membership required, which costs $5-50 per year).

Market Structure & Barriers to Entry in Education Tax Credit Programs

I want to thank John Kirtley for his gracious reply to my criticism of his policy guidelines. He has spilled a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears on the ground fighting to establish, protect, and expand the largest private school choice program in the country, and I, quite simply, have not. I think this kind of policy debate is good for the health of the school choice movement, however, so on it goes …

Andrew Coulson posted a response to many of John’s points, but I think some areas deserve an expanded treatment. One of the primary issues in our discussion is centralization vs. diversification of scholarship organizations. I did not claim there was a “mandated” monopoly, which I take to mean government-mandated. Step Up for Students is, however, the only active scholarship organization in the state. It became the sole scholarship organization through hard work and good performance. John mentions Microsoft in his defense of market dominance, but Microsoft never fully monopolized any product or service. There is, however, a literal monopoly of the education tax credit system that was produced and is maintained by problematic provisions in the credit program that create a very high barrier to entry. The structure of the education tax credit in Florida all but ensures a monopoly in the education tax credit program.

For the first six years of the program, scholarship organizations were required to spend 100 percent of the credit funds they raised on scholarships. In other words, they had no money for overhead, which made establishing and running a scholarship organization difficult and expensive … a non-profit would need to seriously cannibalize its established charitable funding, likely already committed, and/or fundraise along two separate tracks for administrative and scholarship funding.

To put this in context, Charity Navigator, which rates non-profits, considers it acceptable for a charity to spend close to one-third of its revenue on non-program expenses. Even the 4-star rated Inner-City Scholarship Fund spends over 13 percent of its revenue on overhead expenses.

Scholarship programs, especially ones with relatively high compliance costs such as requiring detailed checks on a family’s income, require significant but entirely normal overhead spending. Furthermore, local scholarship organizations in a decentralized system act as more than a high-volume processor of financial applications. They act as community organizations that consider the needs and struggles of individual families and children, which requires spending more time and resources on each family. A 10 percent overhead allowance is eminently reasonable, indeed, within the bounds of best practices for such charities. Denying any overhead to non-profits ensured that few charitable organizations would be capable of fundraising and processing scholarships under the law.

Exacerbating this problem, scholarship organizations are not allowed to target the use of scholarship funds they raised to particular kinds of educational environments. What this means is that a non-profit would have to a) cannibalize money raised from other sources and for other purposes, and b) possibly fund educational environments that directly conflict with their conscience, mission, or best judgment. For instance, a Catholic charity would be required to fund an atheist, Wiccan, Protestant fundamentalist, Lutheran, Islamic, or any other school which met the basic requirements of the legislation. Even a non-sectarian scholarship organization is required to issue scholarships to any school, regardless of quality, as long as it meets the basic legal requirements.

In addition, the Florida tax credit applies only to corporate taxes, the vast majority of which are paid by large corporations based outside of the state of Florida. This means that fundraising is relatively difficult and time-consuming, not to mention extremely volatile, as large corporations shift revenue and expenses to minimize their tax burden year to year. It can take two years for a large corporation to begin disbursing funds after first being solicited. And fundraising requires expensive out-of-state traveling.

The corporate-only credit acts as an additional barrier to entry that grows over time and with centralization. Step Up for Students entered this constrained market efficient and well-capitalized, and spent the next decade bringing on the biggest corporate taxpayers in Florida as donors. A new entry into the credit scholarship realm would need to raise very substantial funds for fundraising for years before they saw a return in credit donations. Even should the very high quality of Step Up decline in the future, its relationships with the biggest donors, scale, and general dominance would pose a very formidable wall to climb for any non-profit. Indeed, it is far more likely that the state government would intervene long before any non-profits entered the market to impose the discipline of competition.

With extremely high start-up costs, low return for many non-profit missions, a fully established monopoly, and no profit motive or access to investment funding, the Florida education tax credit scholarship organization opportunities are all but nonexistent under current law.

Feds Delay ADA Pool Lift Rules Again

Did anyone think the U.S. Department of Justice was really up for a flood of “pool closes for fear of ADA liability” stories over Memorial Day weekend? So instead they’ve announced another delay in their rules, this time carrying them until safely after the election, specifically Jan. 31. The Department is murmuring about being “flexible” when it eventually gets around to enforcing the mandatory permanent-lift regulations, which have raised a storm of criticism (more here and here) as unreasonably burdensome to pool operators. The House has passed a rider cutting off funds for the enforcement of the regulation, over objections from Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and others, but the fate of the rider in the Senate is considered less promising.

The Constitution, Gridlock, and American Politics

University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson has an op-ed in today’s New York Times on the thesis of his new book, Framed. He makes the observation that too many Americans “have seemingly lost their capacity for thinking seriously about the extent to which the Constitution serves us well.  Instead, the Constitution is enveloped in near religious veneration.” That’s a fair point. I have no doubt that if, say, podcast interviews were around in the 1790s, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison, and the other leaders of that time would tell us very frankly what they disliked about the Constitution and what improvements they thought would be beneficial. Such discussions are pretty rare nowadays and that is lamentable. A few weeks ago, Professor Levinson  stopped by Cato for an informal luncheon to discuss his book and reform proposals.

Professor Levinson and Cato scholars tend to disagree about his view of political  ”gridlock” and whether it is responsible for the electorate’s low opinion of the Congress and of the federal government more generally. Speaking only for myself, I agree with Professor Levinson that the Article V amendment procedure has proven to be a defect and I explain why here (pdf).

Related material here and here.

MANPADS Myths in Libya

C.J. Chivers’s excellent post for the New York Times’s “At War” blog dispels the widely-reported contention that the Libyan weapons stockpiles looted amidst last year’s fighting included shoulder-launched SA-24 air-defense missile systems. The post explains that while Libya did acquire SA-24s, they were not the shoulder-launched or MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) variety. Because vehicle-launched SA-24s like Libya’s are harder than MANPADS to surreptitiously transport and operate, they are a smaller proliferation risk, especially where terrorists are concerned.

Libya did have SA-7 MANPADS, some of which appear to have been looted from weapons stockpiles. These are less reliable than SA-24s due to age, and far less capable even when young. Last spring, U.S. officials began to say that Libya had acquired 20,000 SA-7 missiles. I complained about that estimate here. No U.S. official has ever said where that figure comes from, and it vastly exceeds prior published estimates.

As Chivers explains on his own blog, if Libya had 20,000 missiles, it likely acquired far fewer reusable components and had far fewer complete systems. It’s like how you buy fewer cannons than cannon balls. But as the 20,000 claim has been widely repeated, reporters have often replaced the “missiles” part with “MANPADS,” which means the whole system. A quick Google search gives countless examples. Even Andrew Shapiro, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said 20,000 lost Libya MANPADS in prepared remarks in February.

What all this amounts to is underreported good news. At least, the news is far better than even careful newspaper readers have realized. Rather than 20,000 MANPADS, including some high-end types, floating around Libya and who knows where else, the number is almost certainly far lower and consists of less capable or even unusable components.

That good news makes the already dubious case for paying to protect commercial aircraft against MANPADS even worse. Someone tell Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Few security reporters have C.J. Chivers’s experience with weapons and military organizations. But there is nothing preventing them from having stronger BS detectors and approaching scary official claims with more skepticism.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Dimon on NY Fed Board a Distraction, Solution Is to Remove the Fed from Bank Regulation

It is not surprising that the recent losses at JP Morgan have resulted in calls by current and would-be politicians to remove bankers from the boards of the regional Federal Reserve banks, as JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon currently sits on the board of the New York Federal Reserve. There’s even a petition for the “public” to demand Dimon’s resignation. Setting aside the irony of having senators call for keeping bankers off the regional Fed boards just days after they voted to place a former investment banker on the Federal Reserve board, the real question we should be debating is: Should the the Federal Reserve even be involved in banking regulation?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, a recent paper by economists Barry Eichengreen and Nergiz Dincer suggests that separating monetary policy from banking supervision would yield superior outcomes, both for banking stability and the economy more generally. While there is a very real conflict-of-interest when bankers sit on the boards of their regulators, there is an even bigger conflict-of-interest when those setting monetary policy are also responsible for bank safety. Rather than let institutions they supervise fail, and face public criticism, there exists a strong incentive for the monetary authority to mask bank insolvency by labeling such a liquidity crisis and then injecting easy and cheap credit. The result is that the rest of us are left paying for the mistakes of both the bank and regulator. A far better alignment of incentives would be to separate the conduct of monetary policy from bank supervision.

Like anything, such a separation would not be without its costs. I am the last to go around claiming a “free lunch” when it comes to banking and monetary policy. The current Boston Fed President made a strong case over a decade ago for keeping the two combined. The Richmond Fed has also offered a useful discussion of the pros and cons of such consolidation, as well as consolidating regulators more generally. These costs aside, I believe having the Fed focus solely on monetary policy would improve both.

Education Tax Credits Aren’t New and Aren’t Just a Work-Around for Voucher Failure

Among the many things that were wrong or at least grossly misleading in Stephanie Saul’s hit piece on education tax credits is her claim that credits were invented in the late 1990s as some underhanded work-around for political and constitutional problems with vouchers. Here’s Saul’s creation myth for tax credits:

Vouchers … were unpopular among many voters and legislators, and several state courts had found them unconstitutional. Proponents decided to reposition themselves, and in 1997, Arizona’s Legislature adopted the first tax-credit scholarship program.

Credits are much more popular and legally protected than vouchers, but these characteristics are the result of important differences in function and principles. Moreover, the credit concept goes back more than forty years (more for deductions) and dominated the school choice landscape for over a decade. What changed in the late 1990s was an equity-focused twist on the concept, bringing the benefits of education tax credits to families without significant tax liabilities.

Reporters often mistake this relatively recent policy innovation for the origin of the credit approach and overlook credit advantages in policy principle and function in favor of the practical/cynical drivers of support for the policy. Sadly, Saul and many other reporters skip serious research in favor of collecting anecdotes that help drive their predetermined narrative.

So, a bit on the origins of education tax credits that Saul and even many school choice proponents miss entirely. (Note: Much of this material comes from my dissertation, which relies heavily on an excellent chapter in The Future of School Choice by Martin West, 2003.)

Despite the pedigree of vouchers as the first school choice proposal and the preferred mechanism of Milton Friedman, and despite the rise of progressive voucher plans in the late sixties and early seventies, education tax credits were arguably the dominant school choice policy from the 1970s through the mid-1980s.

Education tax credits first entered the federal agenda during the Nixon administration, during which he assigned the problem of the struggling private school sector to be studied by a panel within the President’s Commission on School Finance. The attention came in response to growing financial problems among the private school sector—in particular, among Catholic schools pressed by the rapidly declining numbers of priests and nuns who had traditionally provided a quality, low-cost labor pool.

Voucher policies, despite their libertarian lineage, were typically framed in progressive equity terms. Tax credits were typically been framed as a fiscal matter, a way to bring tax relief to the middle class. In taking up a proposal for a federal education tax credit, Nixon explicitly framed the issue as a matter fiscal prudence in support of middle-class families, placing “particular emphasis on the dire fiscal consequences should the nonpublic sector be allowed to collapse” (West 2003, 161). A subsequent panel report released in 1972 included a recommendation for a Federal income tax credit for private school tuition, but legislation would not be introduced until four years later. In 1976, a maximum $1,000 education tax credit for tuition at any school from elementary school to college and vocational school was defeated in the Senate by a surprisingly close 52-37 vote that included support from over a third of the Democrats and half of the Republicans. The fiscal argument for tax credits lacked the power it might hold at the state level, as the overwhelming burden of financing education was shouldered by state and local governments.

Efforts at the state level during this period were sporadic and uncoordinated. The attention of school choice supporters was directed toward federal policy and nothing approaching a school choice “movement” had yet developed.  Many of the state-level efforts throughout the 1970s attempted to enact tax credit and voucher policy through ballot initiatives and referenda (Catterall 1984).

The tax credit issue came back at the federal level during the Carter presidency with a bill introduced amidst discussion of a similar proposal for higher education. Although the bill passed narrowly in the House, it was defeated 56-41 in the Senate and faced a veto by Carter in any case. It was during this battle over k-12 tax credits that opposition from the government education establishment coalesced and began to flex to full extent its considerable power. Literally hundreds of lobbyists descended upon Capitol Hill to argue the interests of the recently formed National Coalition to Save Public Education and the National Education Association (West 2003).

The school choice issue was a relatively stable fixture on the national education agenda during the 1980s, first in the form of tax credits and shifting back to vouchers again in the mid-1980s. The hopes for school choice success at the national level peaked with Reagan’s arrival in the White House. Reagan and the Republican Party gave strong and explicit support for education tax credits throughout the 1980’s—with tax credits, but not vouchers, mentioned specifically in the Republican Party platforms of 1980, 1984, and 1988. Tax credits were the primary focus for the conservative policy world as well. The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think-tank, published a book in 1983 assessing the failures and accomplishments of the Reagan administration that had an education chapter proposing tax credits to help the middle-class supplemented by vouchers to help low-income parents (White 1983).