Archives: July, 2013

Bono: Only Capitalism Can End Poverty

This is a great day. For years, Bono has been something of a pain, banging on about the need for billions of dollars in Western foreign aid to Africa. I have criticized him for ignoring the real source of African poverty – lack of capitalism – on numerous occasions.

But, unlike many who hate capitalism without reservation, Bono is open to changing his mind. Here is Bono giving capitalism its due recognition during a recent speech at Georgetown University. As the musician put it, when it comes to poverty “free enterprise is a cure.”  

Indeed, the evidence is overwhelming.

According to the World Bank, global poverty is declining rapidly. In 1981, 70 percent of people in poor countries lived on less than $2 a day, while 42 percent survived on less than $1 a day. Today, 43 percent live on less than $2 a day, while 14 percent survive on less than $1. “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history,” wrote Brookings Institution researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz in a recent paper. “Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time.”

As far as Africa goes, inflation adjusted per capita incomes rose by an astonishing 97 percent between 1999 and 2010. That is good news for Africa and for humanity. More people should recognize it.

Atlas Bugged II: Is There an NSA Mass Location Tracking Program?

Way back in 2011—when “Snowden” was just a quiescent indie band from Atlanta—I wrote two posts here at the Cato blog trying to suss out what the “secret law” of the Patriot Act that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others were raising alarms about might involve: “Atlas Bugged” and “Stalking the Secret Patriot Act.” Based on what seemed like an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence—which I won’t try to summarize here—I speculated that the government was likely engaged in some kind of large scale program of location tracking, involving the use of the Patriot Act’s Section 215 to bulk collect cell phone location records for data mining purposes.

I remained reasonably confident in my guess until the disclosure of the Section 215 bulk call records program, which was soon followed by insistent public statements from NSA officials that they did not collect location records “under this program.” That ubiquitous qualifier certainly left some wiggle room, but naturally the government collects location information in some circustances for intelligence purposes—at the very least when it has a FISA warrant for full electronic surveillance of a specific target—and it seemed only natural that if the government was engaged in bulk location tracking and data mining, it would obtain that information in tandem with its bulk collection of call detail records. So, I concluded, I had probably guessed wrong: The secret Section 215 program did involve bulk collection of phone records—but not phone location records.

Then, last week, Wyden gave a barnburner of a speech on NSA surveillance at the Center for American Progress—one that makes me think I may have guessed correctly after all. Between his talk and the question and answer sessions that followed, Wyden explicitly mentioned location tracking no fewer than five separate times—discussing it far more frequently than the program we actually know about, involving bulk collection of call records:

[A]s you listen to this talk, ponder that most of us have a computer in our pocket that potentially can be used to monitor us 24/7. […]

 This is particularly true if you’re vacuuming up cell phone location data, essentially turning every American’s cell phone into a tracking device. We are told this is not happening today, but intelligence officials have told the press that they currently have the legal authority to collect Americans’ location information in bulk. […]

The piece of technology we consider vital to the conduct of our everyday personal and professional life hapens to be a combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker, and hidden camera. […]

Today, government officials are openly telling the press that they have the authority to effectively turn Americans’ smart phones and cell phones into location-enabled homing beacons. […]

These smartphones that everybody’s got in their pockets […] can be used as a tracking system for everyone in this room, 24/7.

This is not exactly subtle. Wyden’s constant references to location tracking in this context would be nothing short of bizarre unless he had reason to believe that the governments assurances on this score are misleading, and that there either is or has been some program involving bulk collection of phone records. Wyden, of course, would know full well whether there is or is not any such program via his role on the Intelligence Committee—and his focus on location tracking over the activities we know NSA is engaged in, such as monitroing of Internet communications and bulk collection of phone records, would be an inexplicable obsession if he knew that no such program existed.

There’s another hint along these lines early in the talk, when Wyden says that “secret rullings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have interpreted the Patriot Act as well as section 702 of the FISA statute in some surprising ways.” Wyden says that these rulings “can be astoundingly broad” and then adds: “The one that authorizes the bulk collection of phone records is as broad as any I have ever seen.” (Emphasis mine.) That’s a very specific word choice: not broader than any he has seen, or the broadest ruling he has seen—even though a ruling authorizing bulk collection of every American’s phone records would be the broadest anyone without access to classified information had ever seen—but rather as broad. As in: there are other rulings of comparable breadth, perhaps allowing bulk collection of other types of information about all Americans. Wyden gestures in this direction again later, calling it “especially troubling” that “there is nothing in the Patriot Act that limits this sweeping bulk colection to phone records.”

If this sounds like overreading, consider that actually it’s consistent with several Senators’ previous efforts to hint at the nature of their concerns without directly exposing classified programs. As Wyden noted at the outset of his talk, he and his colleague Mark Udall (D-CO) may not be able to “tap out the truth in Morse code,” but they have “tried just about everything else we could think of to warn the American people.” That means they have often, without explicitly disclosing classified information, given some very strong hints to what they were concerned about to those of us paying close attention. For instance, as I noted in one of those prior posts, Sen. Udall frequently explained his concerns using the same specific, and rather curiously worded example, warning that Section 215 gave the government “unfettered” access to “business records ranging from a cell phone company’s phone records to an individual’s library history.” (Emphasis mine.) The pointed contrast between “an individual’s” library records and “a cell phone company’s” phone records was, in retrospect, about as close as Udall could come to explicitly warning that phone records were being collected in bulk, not merely for specifically targeted individuals. Perhaps this talk was as close as Wyden can come to warning us—without coming right out and saying it—that there’s a bulk location tracking program yet to be disclosed.

CBO: One-Year Delay of Employer Mandate Increases Spending, Debt, and Dependence

The Congressional Budget Office has released its cost estimate of the Obama administration’s one-year repeal delay of ObamaCare’s employer mandate and anti-fraud provisions. The CBO expects the Obama administration’s unilateral rewriting of federal law (my words, not CBO’s) will increase federal spending by $3 billion in 2014 and reduce federal revenues by a net $9 billion, thereby increasing the federal debt by $12 billion. If President Obama keeps this up, Congress may have to raise the debt ceiling or something.

Where is that $3 billion of new spending going? The CBO estimates the administration’s action will lead to about half a million additional people receiving government subsidies, including through ObamaCare’s Exchanges:

All told, as a result of the announced changes and new final rules, roughly 1 million fewer people are expected to be enrolled in employment-based coverage in 2014 than the number projected in CBO’s May 2013 baseline, primarily because of the one-year delay in penalties on employers. Of those who would otherwise have obtained employment-based coverage, roughly half will be uninsured and the others will obtain coverage through the exchanges or will enroll in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), CBO and JCT estimate.

Which makes the president’s delay of the employer mandate and anti-fraud provisions consistent with his administration’s goal of hooking enough voters on government subsidies to affect electoral outcomes and votes in Congress.

Send This Napoleon Back, Waiter: Appeals Court Flunks NYC Soda Ban

Welcome news from New York: a unanimous four-judge appeals court has confirmed a trial court order striking down the New York Department of Health’s attempt to ban large soda portions. The decision is here, Newsday coverage here, and our earlier coverage here.

The appeals court ruled that in enacting the ban the NYC department of health had overstepped its legally granted powers. As I observed in this Commentary article in March, New York has its own distinctive body of law by which courts step in to prevent administrative agencies from claiming quasi-legislative powers not clearly delegated to them, the rules laid out in a 1987 case called Boreali v. Axelrod. The appeals court agreed with trial court judge Milton Tingling that Boreali was directly controlling, and that the department had clearly overstepped Boreali’s ban on essentially legislative action by an administrative agency. (Why, you ask, don’t federal courts apply as tough a standard to keep administrative agencies in Washington, D.C. from arrogating to themselves essentially legislative functions? Good question…)

Although the appeals court did not reach the issue of whether the Bloomberg rules were “arbitrary and capricious,” and although neither it nor Judge Tingling reached the underlying issues of individual consumer choice that are at stake, this was far more than just a “win on a technicality.” The rule that government agencies cannot overstep their lawfully granted powers is a vital one in protecting the liberty of the citizen. On this issue, and not this alone, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has acted more as a Napoleon issuing peremptory dictates than as an elected executive carrying out the will of legislators on the City Council and in Albany. 

Napoleons of the political class are a good bit more dangerous to us all than the sugar-laden Napoleons of the bakery shelf. We should rejoice that this one is getting sent back to the kitchen.

An Obamacare Prediction

Based on the White House’s past lawlessness and corruption in the service of Obamacare, I’m willing to venture the following prediction:

The Obama administration will announce in August, probably in a classic Friday news dump, that (1) it will offer Exchange subsidies to workers enrolled in multiemployer union plans, and (2) it will pay the FEHBP contribution toward the Exchange premiums for members of Congress and their staffs.

Here’s what makes this prediction interesting: neither of those things would be legal. So, for the record, I really hope this prediction does not come true.

The last time I made a prediction was this one from December 2012:

HHS maintains they’ll have these [Exchange] things up and running by October 2013. I don’t know anyone who is confident about that and I’m ready to predict that they will not.

That prediction proved true when the Obama administration announced the eligibility verification system for Exchange subsidies would not be ready on time, and took the not-legal step of delaying enforcement of the eligibility rules for a year.

Sprawl Does Not Reduce Economic Mobility

For the second time in a week, Paul Krugman has castigated urban sprawl. First, he blamed Detroit’s bankruptcy on “job sprawl,” when in fact many other factors are to blame and Krugman got his numbers wrong. Now he says Atlanta’s entrenched poverty is due to urban sprawl. “The city may just be too spread out,” he says, “so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

Krugman quotes the Equality of Opportunity Project, whose research found that one of many factors correlated with lower social mobility was “areas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals.” But income segregation is very different from sprawl, and can take place in communities of any density. New York City, for example, has pretty high economic segregation.

Krugman adds that Atlanta’s sprawl “would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t.” He obviously doesn’t know the history of mass transit in Atlanta, which had a great transit system until regional leaders decided to build an expensive rail transit system. Since they aimed the rail lines at suburbanites and sacrificed bus service to inner-city neighborhoods to pay for rail construction, transit’s share of commuting has fallen by more than 60 percent and per capita transit ridership has fallen by more than two thirds.

Only 7 percent of Atlanta households lack a motor vehicle, and only 3.7 percent of Atlanta-area workers live in households that lack cars, which are both less than the national average. So jobs are not really out of reach to most people regardless of income. Krugman might argue that low-income people in Atlanta are forced to own cars because of sprawl, but for most people cars cost less and provide far better mobility than transit, so this is irrelevant.

The Equality of Opportunity Project found that economic mobility is low throughout the South (except Texas), not just in Atlanta. But the differences in the unit measured—the percentage of children in the bottom fifth of incomes who end up in the top fifth–are small, ranging from 4 percent in Atlanta to 11 percent in San Jose. Moreover, what differences there are appear to be unrelated to sprawl: Chicago, a fairly dense area, is almost as low as Atlanta, while Pittsburgh, a fairly low-density area, is almost as high as San Jose.

The study lists a lot of factors that seem to correlate with low economic mobility, but none of them are related to population density or sprawl. The most important factors appear to be tax rates, racial residential segregation, K-12 school quality, and the percentage of single-parent families. The South scores particularly high on racial residential segregation and low on K-12 schools, which together go much further toward explaining its relatively low economic mobility than urban sprawl.

Residential income segregation, which Krugman focuses on, is only one of several other factors mentioned by the study, and far from the most important one. Even if sprawl were one of the factors, the study itself notes that “all of the findings in this study are correlational and cannot be interpreted as causal effects.” By blaming low economic mobility on sprawl, Krugman is relying on fabricated evidence while ignoring the real problems.

As it happens, the Daily Beast has just published a report by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox on Aspirational Cities, which they describe as cities with economic growth and a high quality of life. The majority of cities on their list are in the South, where people are moving to take advantage of new economic opportunities.

It is sad that some local residents, who may be victims of historic racial segregation, poor schools, and one-parent families, aren’t able to take advantage of these opportunities. But these problems did not result from urban sprawl. On the other hand, the factors that Kotkin & Cox say provide a higher quality of life and economic growth–minimal land-use regulation, low traffic congestion, and high housing affordability–are in fact positively correlated with sprawl.

Why is Krugman suddenly pandering to the anti-sprawl community? Back in 2005, Krugman correctly identified anti-sprawl policies as the cause of the housing bubble. He must be aware of research showing that minority homeownership rates are higher in sprawling regions than compact ones (mainly because housing is more affordable in the former than the latter). All else being equal, including quality of schools and racial segregation, sprawling areas are likely to have more social mobility than more expensive, compact areas.

‘Stupid’ ObamaCare Provision Offends America’s Highest Caste: Congress

ObamaCare’s gravest sin may be that it has offended America’s highest caste: members of Congress and their staffs. Thanks to an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the law provides:

the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are created under this Act…or offered through an Exchange established under this Act…

In effect, ObamaCare throws members of Congress out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (where most members and staff obtain health insurance) and offers them no other choice but to enroll in coverage through one of ObamaCare’s Exchanges. But here’s the kicker: though the federal government currently pays thousands of dollars of the cost of the congresscritters’ FEHBP coverage, neither ObamaCare nor any other federal law authorizes the feds to apply that money toward a congresscritter’s Exchange premiums. Today’s New York Times reports:

David M. Ermer, a lawyer who has represented insurers in the federal employee program for 30 years, said, “I do not think members of Congress and their staff can get funds for coverage in the exchanges under existing law.”

So ObamaCare essentially delivers a pay cut to members and staff in the neighborhood of $5,000 for single employees and $10,000 for families. 

Even congressional Democrats who voted for ObamaCare are freaking out (and pointing fingers). Again, the New York Times:

Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, said the Senate was responsible for the provision requiring lawmakers and many aides to get insurance in the exchanges.

“We had to take the Senate version of the health care bill,” Ms. DeGette said. “This is not anything we spent time talking about here in the House.”

Another House Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “This was a stupid provision that never should have gotten into the law.”

You’d never know they had a choice, and voted for this provision anyway.

Finally, the Times notes, “The issue is politically charged because the White House and Congress are highly sensitive to any suggestion that lawmakers or their aides are getting special treatment under the health law” and, “Aides who work for Congressional committees and in leadership offices, like those of the speaker of the House and the majority and minority leaders of the two chambers, are apparently exempt — though neither Congress nor the administration has said for sure.” That creates the potential for a sneaky, backdoor way that ObamaCare supporters — say, the Senate Democrats who set budgets for congressional offices — could shield their staff from ObamaCare: shift staff from personal to committee and leadership offices.

Or, the White House could just decide to make the same contribution to their Exchange coverage, statute be damned. It wouldn’t be the first time this White House tried to protect ObamaCare by spending money that Congress never authorized.

Congressional watchdogs, be on the lookout.