Archives: 08/2014

Spinning the Core, Again

The annual Education Next survey is out, and its headliner is the Common Core. Unfortunately, it features basically the same incomplete, answer-skewing question it employed last year, and reports the same dubious finding of majority support. But even with that, the direction in which opinion has moved speaks volumes about the serious trouble the Core is in.

Just like last year, the question gives a misleading description of either the Core or national standards generically—pollsters asked a version that did not mention the Core by name—and got high rates of support. Here’s the question, with the parts that were omitted, for half the respondents, in brackets:

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Like last year, the question completely ignores major federal coercion behind states’ adopting the Core, as well as the fact that the Core itself is only part of what’s necessary to “hold public schools accountable.” Tests, and consequences for performance on them, are needed for accountability, and those are driven by federally demanded testing and sanctions. Oh, and Washington selected and paid for specific Core-aligned tests.  Meanwhile, generic common standards would in no way have to be used to hold schools accountable; they could just be toothless measuring devices. And how many people would come out against something as seemingly positive as holding schools “accountable”? The devil is in how, exactly, that would be done.

Medicare’s Scooter Scam

Yesterday’s Washington Post has an in depth—and very depressing—piece about Medicare fraud. The piece focuses on scammers taking advantage of Medicare’s payment systems to buy unnecessary motorized wheelchairs and scooters for Medicare enrollees and stick American taxpayers with the bill.

Medicare’s payment system is designed to pay bills within 30 days of receipt; the system receives 5 million claims daily. Due to the huge volume of payments, Medicare only reviews a very small percentage, 3 percent, before the payment is made. Instead, payments are reviewed after they are processed, but even then not all are subject to oversight and review.

That system design invites fraud and scammers are able to take advantage. The Washington Post describes it as an “honor system.” The lack of upfront investigations costs taxpayers billions annually in fraud and wasteful payments.

But even worse than Medicare’s lax oversight is that officials knew about the fraud regarding wheelchairs and still didn’t act. According to the Washington Post,

Now, the golden age of the wheelchair scam is probably over.

But, while it lasted, the scam illuminated a critical failure point in the federal bureaucracy: Medicare’s weak defenses against fraud. The government knew how the wheelchair scheme worked in 1998. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that officials finally did enough to significantly curb the practice.

This problem was widespread. Medicare has spent $8.2 billion on power wheelchairs since 1999 for an ever-increasing proportion of enrollees. Records suggest “that at least 80 percent of claims were ‘improper.’”

Before the fraud had taken off, the chairs were rare:  One study estimated that in 1994, only 1 in 9,000 beneficiaries got a new wheelchair.

By 2000, it was 1 in 479.

By 2001, it was 1 in 362.

By 2002, it was 1 in 242.

In 2012 up to 219,000 Medicare recipients received motorized wheelchairs, 1 in 235 patients, worse than in 2002. In 2013 only 124,000 individuals, 1 in 400 patients, received power wheelchairs from Medicare.

Medicare is slowly getting the issue under control; it is just 15 years too late.

Will Republicans Offer Alternative to Neoconservative Hillary Clinton in 2016?

U.S. foreign policy is a bipartisan fiasco.  George W. Bush gave the American people Iraq, the gift that keeps on giving.  Barack Obama is a slightly more reluctant warrior, but he is taking the country back into Iraq.

Hillary Clinton, the unannounced Democratic front-runner for 2016, supported her husband’s misbegotten attempt at nation-building in Kosovo and led the drive for war in Libya, which is violently unraveling.  Most of Clinton’s potential GOP opponents share Washington’s bomb, invade, and occupy consensus. 

The only exception is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.  He stands alone advocating a foreign policy which reflects the bitter, bloody lessons of recent years.

The Islamic State of Syria and the Levant is the latest result of Washington’s incessant and counterproductive meddling in the Middle East.  But the usual suspects are calling for more intervention, more war.  This time, they promise, everything will go well. 

This is the Obama administration’s position in Iraq and Syria.  However, Hillary Clinton has begun maneuvering for 2016 by running to Obama’s right.  While she mocked the president’s mantra of “Don’t do stupid stuff,” she spent her career doing just that.

Instead of offering an alternative leading Republicans are all in for war, more war, forever war.  Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, naturally have been advocating that America intervene more in both Syria and Iraq. 

Most plausible Republican candidates are running toward the interventionist sideline.  They blame Obama for Iraq even though it was George W. Bush who invaded that nation and failed to win Iraqi approval for a permanent U.S. garrison. 

New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie has ostentatiously joined the most hawkish GOP elements.  Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee accused President Obama of guessing wrong in Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Syria, even though the president acted on the traditional Republican script in all four cases.

Florida’s Marco Rubio advocated military action against ISIL, after supporting the usual plethora of interventionist disasters:  war in Libya, more involvement in Syria, and now combat in Iraq.  Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also pushes a strongly hawkish agenda, though he at least opposed bombing Syrian government forces. 

Last month Texas Gov. Rick Perry attacked Paul as an isolationist and advocating that the U.S. go back to war in Iraq.  Michael Goldfarb approvingly said of Perry “you have to assume he’d shoot first and ask questions later.” 

Dramatically misguided was the latter’s contention that “isolationism”—in contrast to the promiscuous interventionism of the last three decades which has spawned so many vicious attacks—threatened to increase terrorism. 

Underlying the torrent of Republican criticism of Paul is fear.  The American people are tired of incessant war-mongering by the Washington elite.  Paul rightly noted that “The country is moving in my direction.”  That’s scary if your political future is tied to policies that have failed so flagrantly and frequently. 

Paul is more cautious than his father, former Rep. Ron Paul.  Nevertheless, Paul fils recently noted that “The let’s-intervene-and-consider-the-consequences-later crowd left us with more than 4,000 Americans dead, over two million refugees and trillions of dollars in debt.”

In citing President Ronald Reagan’s maxim of “peace through strength,” Paul noted some Republicans “have forgotten the first part of the sentence:  That peace should be our goal even as we build our strength.” As I note in my latest Forbes online column, people are tired of young Americans “being treated as gambit pawns in an endless series of global chess games, to be sacrificed whenever folks in Washington dream up a grand new crusade.”

Hillary Clinton represents today’s foreign policy consensus—of constant intervention and war.  Nominating someone who advocates the same failed policy would seem to be the best way for Republicans to lose in 2016.  Will anyone join Rand Paul in charting a different course?

Is Hillary the Heir Apparent?

The New York Times reported Thursday:

Mr. Obama is fast becoming the past, not the future, for donors, activists and Democratic strategists. Party leaders are increasingly turning toward Mrs. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as Democrats face difficult races this fall in states where the president is especially unpopular, and her aides are making plain that she has no intention of running for “Obama’s third term.”

Which put me in mind of this statement famously attributed to another woman who had “the heart and stomach of a king” and the will to rule, Queen Elizabeth I:

I know the inconstancy of the English people, how they ever mislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon that person who is next to succeed. More people adore the rising sun than the setting sun.

Which is why Elizabeth never designated a successor. Every incumbent president probably wishes he had that power.

Maliki Turns the Page in Iraq

It is good news that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has decided to step down as Iraq’s prime minister. This means that, for the first time in Iraq’s modern history, there is the prospect of a peaceful transition of power, based on democratic principles and without the heavy hand of the U.S. military seeming to tip the scales to one party or group.

But don’t pop the champagne just yet. As the New York Times notes today, the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi—like Maliki, a Shiite and member of the Dawa Party—will likely face many of the same challenges that Maliki did. Abadi will need to find a way to form an inclusive coalition government, one that protects the rights of Sunnis and appeases the Kurds’ desire for autonomy, while maintaining support from Iraqi Shiites.

This is a tall order. Many in the Shiite community that was terrorized for so long by the Sunni minority harbor deep resentment toward their former oppressors. Meanwhile, the Sunnis who held power want desperately to get it back, or at least to be able to protect themselves from reprisals. Some Sunnis are so distrustful of the central government that they’ve thrown their lot with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose barabarism seems almost limitless. It is not clear how Abadi will bridge this trust gap.

Americans should wish Iraq’s new leader well, but policymakers should resist the urge to try to micromanage political events in Iraq. Even the appearance of U.S. influence over Abadi will undermine his legitimacy and thus could be counterproductive. Besides, it isn’t obvious that U.S. action—and only U.S. action—is essential to turning things around in Iraq. One suspects that the most vocal critics of President Obama’s Iraq policy have broader concerns. As I explain in today’s Orange County Register:

[W]hen the hawks screech that Obama isn’t doing enough, what they really worry about is that others might actually be able to do without us, or with only minimal assistance. A newly energized Kurdish militia already appears to have reversed some of ISIS’s recent gains. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad might begin rolling back ISIS fighters there. And a new government in Baghdad might finally be able to fashion a credible military force. At a minimum, even modest political reforms—or the prospect of them—could convince more Sunni Iraqis to fight against ISIS instead of for them.

Transparency Is Breaking Out All Over!

On Monday, Cato is hosting a briefing on Capitol Hill about congressional Wikipedia editing. Over a recent 90-day period, there were over 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. If congressional staff were to contribute more to those articles, the amount of information available to interested members of the public would soar. Data that we produce at Cato go into the “infoboxes” on dozens and dozens of Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress.

A popular Twitter ‘bot called @congressedits recently created a spike in interest about congressional Wikipedia editing. It puts a slight negative spin on the practice because it tracks anonymous edits coming from Hill IP addresses, which are more likely to be inappropriate. But Congress can do a lot of good in this area, so Cato intern Zach Williams built a Twitter ‘bot that shows all edits to articles about pending federal legislation. This should draw attention to the beneficial practice of informing the public before bills become law. Meet @Wikibills!

Also, as of this week, Cato data are helping to inform some 26 million visitors per year to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute about what Congress is doing. Thanks to Tom Bruce and Sara Frug for adding some great content to the LII site.

Let’s say you’re interested in 18 U.S. Code § 2516, the part of the U.S. code that authorizes interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. Searching for it online, you’ll probably reach the Cornell page for that section of the code. In the right column, a box displays “Related bills now in Congress,” linking to relevant bills in Congress.

Those hyperlinks are democratic links, letting people know what Congress is doing, so people can look into it and have their say. Does liberty automatically break out thanks to those developments? No. But public demands of all types—including for liberty and limited government—are frustrated now by the utter obscurity in which Congress acts. We’re lifting the curtain, providing the data that translates into a better informed public, a public better equipped to get what it wants.

The path to liberty goes through transparency, and transparency is breaking out all over!

Washington Post Half-Heartedly Seeks Clarity About Export-Import Bank Jobs Claims

It was good of the Washington Post Editorial Board to raise questions yesterday about the veracity of the “jobs-created-by-Export-Import-Bank-policies” claims proffered by the Bank’s supporters. I just wonder whether the editorial pulled its punches where a reporter on assignment or a more inquisitive journalist would have delivered an unabashed blow to the credibility of the Bank’s primary reauthorization argument: that its termination will lead to a reduction in U.S. exports and jobs.

Kudos to the Post for raising an eyebrow at the Bank’s claims of “jobs created” or “jobs supported” by Ex-Im financing:  

[W]hen it comes to jobs, well, just how rigorous are [Ex-Im’s] estimates, really? Congress ordered a study of that very question when it last reauthorized Ex-Im in 2012. In May 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced its verdict: Meh.”

“GAO noted that Ex-Im must speak vaguely of “jobs supported,” rather than concretely of jobs created, since its methodology cannot really distinguish between new employment and retained employment. To get a number for “jobs supported,” which includes both a given firm and that firm’s suppliers, Ex-Im multiplies the dollar amount of exports it finances in each industry by a “jobs ratio” (calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Using that approach, Ex-Im estimates an average of 6,390 jobs are “supported” by every billion dollars of exports financed. The Post is right to note the GAO’s conclusion:

These figures do not differentiate between full-time and part-time work and, crucially, provide no information about what might have happened to employment at the firms in question, or others, if the resources marshaled by Ex-Im had flowed elsewhere in the economy.