Archives: 02/2013

Exposing the Absurdity of Washington’s Anti-sequester Hysteria

To save America from the supposedly “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts caused by sequestration, President Obama has instead asked Congress to approve an alternative fiscal package containing additional tax increases.

So why is the sequester so bad? Does it slash the budget by 50 percent? Does it shut down departments, programs, and agencies?

Sounds good to me. We need to reduce the burden of government spending, so some genuine budget cuts would be very desirable.

The pro-spending lobbies in Washington certainly are acting as if spending would be “cut to the bone.” As documented by my colleague Tad DeHaven, they’re claiming horrible things will happen.

So what’s the real story? Well, the Congressional Budget Office today released its annual Budget and Economic Outlook, and Tables 1-1 and 1-5 allow us to see the “brutal” impact of the sequester.

As you can see from this chart, the sequester will “cut” spending so much that the budget will grow by “only” $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Sequester 2013

Rather anticlimactic, I admit. No widows dying in snowbanks. No blood flowing in the streets.

So you can let the women and children back in the room. It turns out that all the hyperbole and hysteria about the sequester is based on the dishonest Washington definition of a budget cut—i.e., when spending doesn’t rise as fast as projected in some artificial baseline.

Yes, some parts of the budget are disproportionately impacted, such as defense. But even the defense budget climbs over the 10-year period and the United States will still account for close to 50 percent of global military outlays when the dust settles.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to worry about the sequester and there’s certainly no reason to go along with Obama’s plan to replace the sequester with a tax-heavy budget deal.

Federal Spending Has Always Been Wasteful

A new article by Ivan Eland describes how wars have stimulated growth in the American welfare state. I was interested in his discussion regarding the overexpansion of pensions following the Civil War:

In 1879, the Arrears Act caused many veterans, who hadn’t realized they were disabled until the government offered $1,000 or more for finding aches and injuries, to flood the Bureau of Pensions with claims.  Although, according to its commissioner, the bureau was the largest executive bureau in the world, it had few means to detect fraudulent claims, which were rampant. During election years between 1878 and 1899, Republicans used the bureau to dole out pensions rapidly and heavily in key electoral states.

In 1890, a quarter century after the Civil War ended, pension eligibility expanded to include any soldier who had served 90 days or more during the war and was unable to do manual labor—whether or not he was injured during the conflict, or even whether he had seen combat. Similarly, widows of soldiers serving in the war for 90 days or more got pensions, regardless of whether their husbands had died in the conflict.”

Republicans supported lavish pensions to groups in their political constituency (Union veterans) to justify continued high tariff walls to protect Northern industries, which were among the most influential supporters in their political coalition. The interests of such industrialists coincided with those of pensioner lobbies and the bureaucratic empire of the Bureau of Pensions to widen the program over time.

Politically driven overspending and waste is nothing new in Washington. In the 19th Century, there was tons of waste in federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was also a very troubled agency:

Fraud, corruption, and bribes were common in the BIA during some periods in the 19th century. One reason was because local BIA officials had substantial discretionary control over cash, goods, trading licenses, and other items handed out by the agency. In the years following the Civil War, “Indian rings” of government agents and contractors colluded to steal funds and supplies from taxpayers and the tribes. The New York Times railed against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau.” And the newspaper argued that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful. It has long been notorious that rascally agents and contractors have connived to cheat the Indians. … It now appears that a ring has long existed in the Indian Bureau at Washington for the express purpose of covering up these frauds and facilitating others.

ObamaCare’s Priceless Warm Glow

Ed Kilgore says ObamaCare opponents don’t care about cost-benefit analyses:

many of them just can’t bring themselves to even notice that…Obamacare with its Medicaid expansion, health care exchanges, and regulatory mandates [does] actually provide health coverage to people in exchange for the money and the “liberty” surrendered.

Speaking of, what is the exchange rate between liberty and “liberty”?

But about those benefits. What benefits do broad-based expansions of health insurance, like ObamaCare, actually provide? Aside from giving Kilgore a warm glow, that is.

It turns out there has been only one—one!—scientifically rigorous study of that question. The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment found Medicaid coverage confers modest improvements in self-reported health and financial security. The first batch of that study’s results appeared more than a year after Congress enacted ObamaCare. And there remains to this day absolutely zero evidence that Medicaid or other broad-based expansions of health insurance buy us the most health and financial security per dollar spent.

Then again, the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment did not attempt to measure the value of the warm glow that Kilgore and others derive from Medicaid and ObamaCare, one that appears to be worth trillions of dollars of other people’s money.

Migration Opportunities for Lower-Skilled Workers

Today President Obama is meeting with immigration reform activists, labor unions, and business leaders to discuss immigration reform. The House Judiciary Committee is also having a hearing about opportunities for legal immigration and enforcement of existing laws. Opening the House hearing, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said that any immigration reform “must prevent unauthorized immigration into the future.”

So far President Obama and the Senate blueprint for immigration reform have either not mentioned lower-skilled workers outside of agriculture and dairy or propose increasing the rules and regulations that currently make American guest worker visas unworkable. The 2007 immigration reform effort was stopped cold in the Senate when its guest worker provision was gutted because of union pressure—with help from then senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and then senator Jim DeMint (R-SC).

Unions and immigration restrictionists came together in 2007 to stop reform. If they cannot stop it again, they can certainly eviscerate much of the long term gains of a freer international labor market.

In a video released today, I discuss how immigration reform could severely reduce immigration problems going forward, including unauthorized immigration.  My three points in the video are:

  1. Increasing lawful migration opportunities for lower-skilled workers will funnel potential unauthorized immigrants into the legal market.
  2. Welcoming highly-skilled immigrants regardless of where they were educated jumpstarts innovation, entrepreneurship, and allows for firms to expand production in the United States while also increasing employment opportunities for native-born Americans.
  3. Pursuing border and immigration enforcement without a lower-skilled guest worker visa program is a waste of resources. The economic allure to immigrants of coming here is so great that many of them will knowingly and intentionally defy America’s international labor market regulations immigration laws if they are too restrictive. A legal avenue for lower-skilled workers to come to the United States in sufficient numbers to satisfy economic demand and eliminate the supply of unauthorized immigrants is essential.

Legalizing unauthorized immigration will be good for the United States and good for legalized workers. However, without a guest worker visa program going forward this reform will just be an improvement on President Reagan’s 1986 law, but with highly-skilled worker visas.

Students Have Free Speech and Due Process Rights Too

This past Friday, a federal jury in Atlanta sent a powerful message to university administrators across the nation: you cannot violate students’ free speech and due process rights with impunity. The jury found Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 in damages for expelling former VSU student Hayden Barnes, who peacefully protested a planned $30-million campus parking garage. The trial and award followed a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Zaccarri could not claim the immunity given to public officials acting in their official capacities because he should have known that Barnes was entitled to notice and a hearing before being expelled.

Barnes’s saga began in 2007, when Zaccarri announced, and Barnes protested, the proposed garage construction.  Barnes’s activities included sending emails to student and faculty governing bodies, writing letters to the editor of the VSU student newspaper, and composing a satirical collage on Facebook. In retaliation for these acts, Zaccari ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU, without any hearing before his expulsion in May 2007.

Barnes sued Zaccarri in 2010, and the federal district court quickly ruled that that Zaccarri had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process and that the administrator could not avail himself of qualified immunity because he had ignored “clearly established” law. When Zaccarri appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, Cato joined an amicus brief filed on behalf of 15 organizations, successfully asking the court to affirm on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.” The immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights.  In this case, Zaccarri even rejected the advice of in-house counsel concerning the process required before Barnes could be deprived of his enrollment at VSU and neglected to abide by the procedures set forth in the VSU Student Handbook.

This verdict is cause for celebration for those concerned with individual rights.  It will encourage students to exercise and defend their freedom of speech and due process, serving as a warning to administrators that they may not willfully disregard those rights. Perhaps most importantly, it vindicates Hayden Barnes, who has endured a grueling three years of litigation in order to earn, in his own words, “a victory for students everywhere.”

Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for orchestrating this case, including finding longtime Cato ally Robert Corn-Revere to be Barnes’s counsel and asking Cato to join its amicus brief.  Read FIRE’s press release on Barnes v. Zaccari.

The 100th Anniversary of the Income Tax…and the Lesson We Should Learn from that Mistake

What’s the worst thing about Delaware?

No, not Joe Biden. He’s just a typical feckless politician and the butt of some good jokes.

Instead, the so-called First State is actually the Worst State because almost exactly 100 years ago, on February 3, 1913, Delaware made the personal income tax possible by ratifying the 16th Amendment.

Though, to be fair, I suppose the 35 states that already had ratified the Amendment were more despicable since they were even more anxious to enable this noxious levy.

But let’s not get bogged down in details. The purpose of this post is not to re-hash history, but to instead ask what lessons we can learn from the adoption of the income tax.

The most obvious lesson is that politicians can’t be trusted with additional powers. The first income tax had a top tax rate of just 7 percent and the entire tax code was 400 pages long. Now we have a top tax rate of 39.6 percent (even higher if you include additional levies for Medicare and Obamacare) and the tax code has become a 72,000-page monstrosity.

But the main lesson I want to discuss today is that giving politicians a new source of money inevitably leads to much higher spending.

The Long Run Decline in Actual Homeownership

It would be far more accurate to label U.S. federal homeownership policy, U.S. mortgage policy.  For the primary means of “extending” homeownership, via federal policy, has been the massive increase in mortgage debt.  Sadly the actual trend increase in homeownership has been close to nothing since 1960. 

If the ultimate intent of housing policy is to help build wealth and enable families to have something to pass along to future generations, then the right measure should be home equity.  Even better measure would be the percent of homeowners who own their homes free and clear, that is without any mortgage.  As long as there is any mortgage, even a small one, the bank has some ability to foreclose if you are in default.  Setting aside the fact that the government can come take your home, with or without a mortgage, it’s hard to say you really “own” it unless it’s all yours.

Homes Owned Free and Clear

Currently the percentage of homeowners that own without any mortgage is just under 30 percent.  Prior to 1960, an actual majority of owners held their homes with no mortgage at all.  For most of American history, the typical homeowner did not have any mortgage, not having to answer to a bank and also having some wealth to pass along to future generations.  The primary impact of US homeownership policy has not been to increase homeownership, but to increase debt along with driving up house prices.  Not a bad outcome if you’re a mortgage banker or a real estate agent.  But not exactly a good deal for home buyers.  Yes this has also helped increase the average size of homes, but helping everyone live in a McMansion hardly seems like a compelling public policy goal.  And yes, reducing our reliance on debt for purchasing a home would result in lower prices, a huge win for renters.