Archives: 01/2013

The Profit Motive in Education

I’ve finally had a chance to look over a book published last year by the London-based Institute for Economic Affiars: The Profit Motive in Education–Continuing the Revolution. It turns out to be a great overview of current developments from all over the world, and has a particularly useful chapter by its editor James B. Stanfield, development director at the E. G. West Centre at the University of Newcastle, founded by James Tooley.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding how genuine markets can and do work in elementary and secondary education. Delightfully, the whole thing is available on-line as a .pdf file (see link above). E-mail it to your Kindle!

Chuck Hagel Is Not Controversial

Chuck Hagel’s most vocal and persistent opponents failed to block his nomination to be the next secretary of defense, and most observers predict that he will be confirmed, despite additional unknown persons having spent untold sums to block his path to the Pentagon.

The most outrageous and unsubstantiated charges that were invented against the decorated Vietnam veteran and former senator have been demolished, but not before they crowded out a serious discussion of our national security priorities. 

Reports from his meetings with senators in recent weeks suggest that Hagel’s answers during Thursday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee will fit well within the boundaries of what the Beltway foreign policy elite deem acceptable. Chuck Hagel is not as controversial as he was made out to be, and the foreign policy consensus is likely to hold. 

I believed—and still believe—that Hagel will be a good secretary of defense, because he seems generally disinclined to support foolish wars. But he is no peacenik and he’s no radical. He may question assumptions here and there, or give President Obama honest advice that he might not want to hear. But the odds are long against Chuck Hagel being a truly transformative SecDef. 

First, the secretary of defense does not set the nation’s foreign policy; the president does. And on almost every subject where Hagel is—or was—viewed as controversial, President Obama has hewed to the establishment line. Obama expanded the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, even though he never seemed to believe that the so-called surge would work. He intervened in Libya, and reserves the right to do so elsewhere, without so much as a wave to the Congress. Obama has proved equally disinterested in congressional oversight (or any other oversight, for that matter), when it comes to assassinating suspected terrorists—including U.S. citizens—at will. On nuclear weapons, Hagel’s past statements in favor of downsizing the arsenal line up with Obama’s—and are similar to almost every other president before him, including Ronald Reagan. Finally, ahead of his hearing Hagel deftly associated himself with the president, and the status-quo, by explaining that the “window is closing” for diplomacy with Iran. 

The second factor in the way of a Hagelian transformation—were he so inclined—is the military-industrial complex. David Ignatius observed that Hagel likes to think of himself as an Eisenhower Republican, but he will have a devil of a time reining in the MIC that Ike warned about. It was difficult enough for Robert Gates to sell modest spending restraint (not actual cuts), and Leon Panetta was disinclined to even pretend, favoring instead the threat of defense cuts to cow Republicans into supporting higher taxes. Hagel has an even greater hill to climb because his predecessors wanted the public to believe that they had already trimmed the fat. By implication, any further reductions will cut into the military’s flesh and bones. 

In other words, additional cuts would require a rethinking of the military’s core missions, and might even force U.S. leaders to embark on a serious effort to shift and shed burdens from U.S. troops and U.S. taxpayers to wealthy, stable allies who benefit from global peace and security, but contribute little to the cause. 

But the president would have to lead such a foreign policy shift, and Barack Obama has shown no enthusiasm for such an undertaking. Given the interests aligned to preserve the status quo, it is clear that it will take much more than one truly committed reformer in the Pentagon to effect meaningful change in our national security strategy. 

All that said, I am happy that Hagel appears to have survived one of the nastiest nomination battles in recent memory, and I hold out hope, as Justin Logan wrote earlier this month, that his ability to prevail will encourage other aspiring leaders to abandon their fear of the small and shrinking pro-war faction. 

LaHood’s Legacy

Best known for admitting to the National Press Club that the Obama administration wants to “coerce people out of their cars,” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has announced his plans to leave office as soon as a replacement can be found. Aside from an admirable emphasis on transportation safety, the main legacy he leaves behind is a record of wild spending on ridiculous projects that do little to improve transportation but do much to add to the nation’s debt.

Much of that spending came out of the 2009 stimulus bill. Prior to the stimulus bill, a Bush (II) administration rule required that most spending on transit projects meet certain measures of “cost effectiveness.” Streetcars, for example, had to be cost-effective relative to buses, which they never are, so no streetcar projects could be funded. The stimulus money was exempt from these rules, so LaHood immediately gave funds to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Tuscon for new streetcar lines. LaHood then announced that he was rescinding the Bush rule, an action that was formally completed on January 9 of this year.

Similarly, at the request of the Obama administration, the stimulus bill included $8 billion for so-called high-speed rail projects. But most of the projects funded are anything but high speed. Vermont, for example, spent $52 million speeding up a New York-to-Burlington train to an average of 38 miles per hour. Washington State is spending $590 million speeding up a Portland-to-Seattle train from an average of 53.4 to 56.1 miles per hour.

The main criteria for elibility for these funds was not whether a project was worthwhile but whether the environmental documentation had been written. Florida, for example, had written an environmental impact statement for high-speed rail that concluded that the environmental costs exceeded the benefits, but LaHood was happy to give the state $2.4 billion to build it anyway until the state had second thoughts.

As a result, cities and states all over the country are scrambling to write environmental impact statements for all sorts of inane projects so they will be ready the next time the floodgates of federal spending open. Reconnecting America, a pro-transit group, has cataloged more than 600 transit plans under way in more than 100 metro areas. These include 125 streetcar projects in at least 50 cities which may now be eligible for funding now that the Bush cost-effectiveness requirement has been eliminated.

Altogether, the nearly 500 projects for which costs have been estimated would require more than $250 billion in capital expenditures, which rail advocates lament mean that it would take more than 100 years of federal funding at the current rate to fund them all.

Goldwater Attorney: ObamaCare-Compliant Exchange Would Violate Idaho’s Health Care Freedom Act

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R), who added Idaho to the multi-state challenge that sought to overturn ObamaCare as unconstitutional, now supports helping the Obama administration implement the law by establishing and funding a health insurance “exchange.” Exchanges are new government bureaucracies that enforce ObamaCare’s many regulations, channel billions in deficit-financed government subsidies to private health insurance companies, and help the IRS penalize individuals and employers who fail to purchase government-approved insurance. So far, some 32 states have refused to establish an Exchange themselves. If Idaho’s legislature authorizes an Exchange, they will make Idaho the only state where a Republican legislature and governor acted together to implement this essential piece of ObamaCare.

One could argue this is a debate Idaho shouldn’t even be having. Establishing an ObamaCare compliant Exchange would violate Idaho state law.

In a letter sent to Idaho legislators today, Goldwater Institute attorney Christina Sandefur explains, “establishing a PPACA state health insurance exchange in Idaho would conflict with the state’s Health Care Freedom Act.” Idaho’s Health Care Freedom Act protects the “right of all persons residing in the state of Idaho in choosing the mode of securing heatlh care services free from the imposition of penalties” including “any civil or criminal fine, tax, salary or wage withholding, surcharge, fee or any other imposed consequence.” Sandefur explains (as I have explained elsewhere), “State exchanges that conform to PPACA are inconsistent with this safeguard because they are the key vehicles for implementing the individual mandate tax,” as well as the penalties ObamaCare levies on employers under the employer mandate. Idaho’s Health Care Freedom Act forbids state officials or state-created non-profits from doing anything that helps to enforce such penalties: “No public official, employee, or agent of the state of Idaho or any of its political subdivisions, shall act to impose, collect, enforce, or effectuate any penalty in the state of Idaho that violates the public policy set forth in [this Act].” As a result, Sandefur writes, “Idaho public officials who operate exchanges would be violating state law,” and “the Attorney General is charged with taking legal action against those who do so.”

Otter himself signed the Health Care Freedom Act into law in 2010, and was the first governor in the nation to do so. The purpose of that Act was to prevent state officials from doing what Otter is now trying to do. “What the Idaho Health Freedom Act says,” Otter boasted at the time, “is that the citizens of our state won’t be subject to another federal mandate or turn over another part of their life to government control.” Yet he is now trying to subject Idaho residents to those mandates, and violating his own law to help the federal government implement ObamaCare. The best spin I can put on this is that Otter is getting some very, very bad advice about the Health Care Freedom Act and ObamaCare’s Exchanges.

The situation in Idaho is a replay of Arizona, which enshrined a similar Health Care Freedom Act in its Constitution. As Arizona officials were wrestling with whether to establish an Exchange, Sandefur and her Goldwater Institute colleagues threatened legal action if Arizona did so. That threat was likely a major factor in Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R) decision to oppose an Exchange.

The Tyranny of Confusion: A Response to Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani on Iran

In October 2012, I first reported that Iran had experienced hyperinflation. My diagnosis of Iran’s inflation woes has since drawn the ire of Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, who has written a series of blogs and articles disputing my analysis. Prof. Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, has employed a confused (and confusing) mix of half-baked methodologies and selected data to yield unfounded, preposterous claims. Specifically, he claims that Iran never experienced a brief bout of hyperinflation and that Iran’s inflation rate is much lower than the estimates reported by virtually everyone except Iran’s Central Bank. To borrow Jeremy Bentham’s phrase, Prof. Salehi-Isfahani’s claims constitute a series of “vulgar errors.”

What has puzzled me for the past few months is why Prof. Salehi-Isfahani has been so hell-bent on denying Iran’s inflation problems. But finally, in his most recent article in Al Monitor, he showed his hand, revealing his underlying thesis – the same claim propagated by the Iranian regime – that the sanctions imposed by the West have not inflicted economic damage on Iran to the extent that has been reported.

In his most recent blog, Prof. Salehi-Isfahani finally abandons his own confused attempts to calculate Iran’s inflation rate. For his readers, this is a relief, as the variety of methods with which he attempted to calculate inflation in Iran amount to nonsense – and not even good nonsense.

The Great Hillsdale College Debate: Flat Tax or Fair Tax?

I’m at Hillsdale College in Michigan for a conference on taxation. The event is called “The Federal Income Tax: A Centenary Consideration,” though I would have called it something like “100 Years of Misery from the IRS.”

I’m glad to be here, both because Hillsdale proudly refuses to take government money (which would mean being ensnared by government rules) and also because I’ve heard superb speeches by scholars such as Amity Shlaes (author of The Forgotten Man, as well as a new book on Calvin Coolidge that is now on my must-read list) and George Gilder (author of Wealth and Poverty, as well as the forthcoming Knowledge and Power).

My modest contribution was to present “The Case for the Flat Tax,” and I was matched up - at least indirectly, since there were several hours between our presentations - against former Congressman John Linder, who gave “The Case for the Fair Tax.”

I was very ecumenical in my remarks.  I pointed out the flat tax and sales tax (and even, at least in theory, the value-added tax) all share very attractive features.

  • A single (and presumably low) tax rate, thus treating taxpayers equally and minimizing the penalty on productive behavior.
  • No double taxation of saving and investment since every economic theory agrees that capital formation is key to long-run growth.
  • Elimination of all loopholes (other than mechanisms to protect the poor from tax) to promote efficiency and reduce corruption.
  • Dramatically downsize and neuter the IRS by replacing 72,000 pages of complexity with simple post-card sized tax forms.

For all intents and purposes the flat tax and sales tax are different sides of the same coin. The only real difference is the collection point. The flat tax takes a bite of your income as it is earned and the sales tax takes a bite of your income as it is spent.

That being said, I do have a couple of qualms about the Fair Tax and other national sales tax plans.

First, I don’t trust politicians. I can envision the crowd in Washington adopting a national sales tax (or VAT) while promising to phase out the income tax over a couple of years. But I’m afraid they’ll discover some “temporary” emergency reason to keep the income tax, followed by another “short-term” excuse. And when the dust settles, we’ll be stuck with both an income tax and a sales tax.

As we know from the European VAT evidence, this is a recipe for even bigger government. That’s a big downside risk.

I explore my concerns in this video.

To be sure, there are downside risks to the flat tax. It’s quite possible, after all, that we could get a flat tax and then degenerate back to something resembling the current system (though that’s still better than being France!).

My second qualm is political. The Fair Tax seems to attract very passionate supporters, which is admirable, but candidates in competitive states and districts are very vulnerable to attacks when they embrace the national sales tax.

On dozens of occasions over the past 15-plus years, I’ve had to explain to reporters that why anti-sales tax demagoguery is wrong.

So I hope it’s clear that I’m not opposed to the concept. Heck, I’ve testified before Congress about the benefits of a national sales tax and I’ve debated on C-Span about how the national sales tax is far better than the current system.

I would be delighted to have a national sales tax, but what I really want is a low-rate, non-discriminatory system that isn’t biased against saving and investment.

Actually, what I want is a very small federal government, which presumably could be financed without any broad-based tax, but that’s an issue for another day.

Returning to the issue of tax reform, there’s no significant economic difference between the flat tax and the sales tax debate. What we’re really debating is how to replace the squalid internal revenue code with something worthy of a great nation.

And if there are two paths to the same destination and one involves crossing an alligator-infested swamp and the other requires a stroll through a meadow filled with kittens and butterflies, I know which one I’m going to choose. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but I think you get my point.

Sequestration Cuts Will Lead to Floods, Plagues, and Pestilence

The odds that $85 billion in “unthinkable, draconian” sequestration spending cuts will go into effect in March as scheduled are looking better. The odds must be getting better because, as if on cue, the horror stories have commenced. 

A perfect example is an article in the Washington Post that details the angst and suffering being experienced by federal bureaucrats and other taxpayer dependents over the mere possibility that the “drastic” cuts will occur. You see, the uncertainty surrounding the issue has forced government employees to draw up contingency plans. Contingency plans? Oh, the humanity! 

From the article: 

Sequestration, as the law is known, has sent agencies scrambling to buffer themselves, spending time and money that ultimately may be for naught. Even if cuts take effect, it might not be for long — making the hiring freezes, canceled training, deferred projects, and lengthy planning for furloughs and other contingencies an exercise in inefficiency. 

I certainly believe that Washington’s bouncing from one manufactured fiscal crisis to the next is detrimental to the economy, but my sympathy lies with the private sector – not the federal bureaucracy. It’s the private sector that has been suffering under the constant uncertainty surrounding federal tax and regulatory policy. And let’s not forget that there is no public sector without the private sector – the former existing entirely at the latter’s expense. 

Yet, what follows in the Post article is boo-hoo after boo-hoo without the slightest regard to those who are paying for it or whether the whiner’s agency could use some belt-tightening: 

“There will be impacts for every decision we make,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said. The service is deferring maintenance to conserve money “so we can train a pilot to go to Afghanistan” if cuts of up to 10 percent go through. “Eventually we will have to fix that roof, but at that point it won’t be maintenance.” 

The United States military shouldn’t be in Afghanistan. There, problem solved. Disagree? Well, then take a look at this report from Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) staff on how the Pentagon spends your money. 

This time around, a frustrated senior executive at the Department of Homeland Security said he and his staff have spent countless hours remaking budgets for every contingency. “First we were told not to develop plans” for sequestration, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly. “Then we spent seven days a week coming up with them and [the cuts] got postponed. Now we’re doing it all over with new targets. It’s taking away from what we need to get done.” 

“Need to get done” as in molesting innocent people at airports? Preparing locals for a zombie apocalypse?  

Agencies may be frustrated with all the back-and-forth, but companies and researchers in line for government funding are fuming. “All they can say when I check with them is, ‘You’re still being considered for funding, but we can’t move forward at this time,’” said Stephen Higgins, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Vermont awaiting about $19 million in two grants from the National Institutes of Health to study chronic disease and smoking. “When [Congress] punted on sequestration, I knew I just took it on the chin.”

Prof. Higgins is taking it on the chin? A lot of people who will be filing a federal tax return in the coming months are about to do the same. And although I can’t comment on the merits of Prof. Higgins’ study, the NIH is the same outfit that has financed studies on chimpanzee feces flinging and how cocaine enhances the sex drive of Japanese quail. 

The article goes on to supply quotes from whiner after whiner: a defense contractor, an employee from a Social Security office, a spokesman for the federal courts system, a reservist with the Air Force, and, finally, a director at the National Weather Service. 

That raises a question: where did the author of the piece find all of these people to supply her with quotes that just happened to perfectly fit the narrative?

Hmmmm….