Archives: 04/2015

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

Making Sense of the Trade Negotiations Secrecy Debate

In Tuesday’s New York Times, law professor Margot Kaminski laid out a compelling case for increased transparency in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.  On Wednesday, John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered a fairly convincing response in defense of confidentiality.  The problem is that—as is common in trade policy “debates”—they’re not talking about the same thing.  That’s frustrating to me because I think they’re both right.

Kaminski makes the point that the U.S. Trade Representative has been overbroad in what it deems classified material, that the current approach improperly privileges business lobbying over public interest groups, and that as negotiations cover more non-trade issues negotiators need more exposure and guidance from different people.

Murphy responds by noting that trade agreements are successfully increasing U.S. exports, that confidentiality in negotiations is both appropriate and helpful in achieving this outcome, and that systems are in place to ensure that all interested parties have input. 

Murphy’s concern is that “public disclosure of confidential negotiating texts would mean a weaker hand for U.S. officials at the negotiating table.”  For Kaminski, “it’s a question of whose input we’re getting on decisions that reach far beyond trade — into questions on the price of generic drugs or whether websites will have to monitor users online.”

Murphy is right about the value of confidentiality.  Trade negotiations are negotiations, which means the final agreement is the result of some necessary compromise.  Compromise is politically difficult, and negotiators need to know that they’ll be evaluated on the final product regardless of their initial positions.  In any event, we don’t know what’s in the agreement until it’s completed, and there will indeed be time after the negotiations conclude to debate the package.  Murphy’s also justified in being generally defensive about secrecy complaints, which often simply mask general antipathy toward trade liberalization.

Bridging the Hatch-Wyden Divide Over Trade Promotion Authority

The eyes of the international trade community are fixed on Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), upon whom responsibility for crafting bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation has fallen. At last report, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hatch and Ranking Member Wyden were at an impasse over some important components of the bill, passage of which is widely considered necessary to concluding the long-gestating, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. That agreement must be concluded before the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations make any progress. Those negotiations will have far-reaching implications for the multilateral trading system, including China, India, Brazil and other countries not currently party to these mega-regional trade agreements. Hence, TPA’s outcome is of worldwide interest.

Trade Promotion Authority has been maligned as a congressional capitulation or executive power grab.  It is neither. The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” and to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises” and grants the president power to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate. Accordingly, the formulation, negotiation, and implementation of trade agreements require the involvement and cooperation of both branches. TPA is a compact between the branches that obliges these respective constitutional authorities, while guaranteeing an up-or-down vote by Congress, on an expedited basis, of any trade agreement negotiated by the executive branch with foreign governments, provided that the agreements meet the objectives spelled-out by Congress in the legislation. This conditionality is often ignored or brushed over by news reporters, who either spend too much time with trade skeptics or who are looking to economize on words.

Without such a compact, trade agreements would be nearly impossible to conclude because foreign negotiators – knowing that any agreement reached would be subject to congressional revisions – would never put their best offers on the table.  The process of negotiating and renegotiating with 535 officials (instead of one agency, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative) would make for an interminable process too cumbersome and costly to pursue.  For practical purposes, negotiations have to occur between small parties vested with the authority to speak on behalf of those whom they represent. Trade Promotion Authority is the solution.

The “Language of Privacy” Is Doing Well in Police Body Camera Discussions

In David Brooks’ latest New York Times column he explains that he is now a proponent of police body cameras, but adds that he did not come to his position “happily.” According to Brooks, the debate over police body cameras has revealed that an increasing number of people have lost “the language of privacy” and “an understanding of why privacy is important.”

It’s refreshing to read that Brooks does have concerns related to privacy. After all, Brooks said last June that the NSA’s snooping isn’t “particularly intrusive.”  But the rise of police body cameras is prompting a sensible conversation about privacy and why it is important.

Given the nature of their work, police officers regularly witness members of the public experience tragic and embarrassing moments, many times on private property. Police officers are often among the first at the scene of auto accidents or other life-threatening emergencies. They also talk to informants as well as victims of sexual and domestic abuse. In addition to sometimes entering private homes, police officers also occasionally visit hospitals and schools.

Brooks discusses some of the legitimate privacy concerns these kind of situations raise towards the end of his column:

When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives, and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.

Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online — as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser. The rules designed to keep the videos out of public view will inevitably be eroded and bent.

Even the most committed advocate of police transparency and accountability must concede that the unedited release of all police body camera footage could lead to devastating infringements on a citizens’ privacy and potentially compromise ongoing investigations. A sensible police body camera policy will exempt some footage from public release. If a police officer arrives at the scene of a fatal auto accident, interviews a young victim of sexual assault, or gives a presentation in an elementary school there are serious privacy concerns that police body camera policies ought to address.

Washington Should Make Foreign Policy for Americans, Not Foreign Liberals

Washington’s actions abroad affect the size and power of Washington at home. “War is the health of the state,” declared social critic Randolph Bourne.

The more active America’s foreign policy, the more the United States has to spend on the military: the “defense” budget is the price of Washington’s foreign policy. American military personnel and contractors die. Enemies are created, some of whom become terrorists. A national security state develops.

Thus, Americans committed to limited government and individual liberty should support a foreign policy based on humility and restraint. An imperial foreign policy like that today inevitably inflates–indeed, requires–a Leviathan state.

Nor should anyone who understands government believe the American state to be capable of competently fulfilling more expansive foreign policy objectives. At times, war is an unfortunate necessity and government must rain down death and destruction on other peoples.

Far more often, however, policymakers turn the military into just another government tool intended to achieve complicated ends that often aren’t even important, let alone vital. Attempts at so-called humanitarian intervention and nation-building, for instance, almost always turn out badly, even disastrously.

A Tax Day Review

Today is Tax Day. Federal tax returns are due to the Internal Revenue Service with a postmark before midnight. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the federal government will collect $3.2 trillion in revenue this year.

Revenue comes from five main sources:

  • Individual Income Taxes ($1.5 trillion). The largest source of federal revenues, individual income taxes are imposed on labor and capital income, with statutory rates that vary from 10 to 39.6 percent.
  • Payroll Taxes ($1.1 trillion). These taxes finance Social Security and Medicare. Employees and employers split the 15.3 percent tax assessed on wages, but economists agree that the entire burden ultimately lands on workers in the form of lower wages.
  • Corporate Income Taxes ($328 billion). These taxes are assessed on the worldwide earnings of corporations.
  • Excise Taxes ($96 billion). Excise taxes are consumption taxes on specific goods. At the federal level, excise taxes are charged on such things as gasoline and tanning salons.
  • Other ($206 billion). This category includes the remaining sources of federal revenue like federal tariffs and the death tax.  

The amount of money collected by the federal government ebbs and flows depending on economic growth, but the overall trend is upwards. Federal revenue decreased in 2008 and 2009 due to the Great Recession, but has since rebounded strongly for two reasons. First, the return of economic growth increases revenue collection. Second, the federal government has passed several large tax increases since 2010. In 2015, the federal government will collect the largest amount of revenue in its history, even after adjusting for inflation.

Taxpayer Democracy, for Each Taxpayer

Today, the day American taxpayers wonder if the federal government is really worth all the money and hassle, I have an article at the Washington Post on how to give taxpayers more control.

Why shouldn’t taxpayers make direct decisions about how much money they want to spend on other government programs, like paying off the national debt, the war in Iraq or the National Endowment for the Arts? This would force the federal government to focus time and resources on projects citizens actually want, not just efforts that appeal to special interests.

To do this, we’d have to expand the concept of the campaign financing checkoff to all government programs. With this reform, the real expression of popular democracy would take place not every four years but every April 15. A new final page of the 1040 form would be created, called 1040-D (for democracy). At the top, the taxpayer would write in his total tax as determined by the 1040 form. Following would be a list of government programs, along with the percentage of the federal budget devoted to each (as proposed by Congress and the president). The taxpayer would then multiply that percentage by his total tax to determine the “amount requested” in order to meet the government’s total spending request. (Computerization of tax returns has made this step simple.) The taxpayer would then consider that request and enter the amount he was willing to pay for that program in the final column–the amount requested by the government, or more, or less, down to zero.

A taxpayer who thinks that $600 billion is too much to spend on military in the post-Cold War era could choose to allocate less to that function than the government requested. A taxpayer who thinks that Congress has been underfunding Head Start and the arts could allocate double the requested amount for those programs….

Real budget democracy, of course, means not just that the taxpayers can decide where their money will go but also that they can decide how much of their money the government is entitled to. Thus the last line on the 1040-D form must be “Tax refund.”  The form would indicate that none of the taxpayer’s duly calculated tax should be refunded to him; but under budget democracy the taxpayer would have the right to allocate less than the amount requested for some or all programs in order to claim a refund (beyond whatever excess withholding is already due him).

I regret that space considerations required the loss of my historical context:

Ever since Magna Carta, signed 800 years ago this spring, the Anglo-American tradition of fiscal policy has been that the people would decide how much of their money they would give to government. Parliament arose as a representative body to which the Crown would appeal for funds. The monarch had to explain why he or she was seeking more funds–and Parliament frequently rejected the request as frivolous, wasteful, or actually injurious to the commonweal.

Today, of course, we can’t count on the legislative branch to guard our tax dollars, and technology makes it easier for us to direct them ourselves.

More on taxes – and Magna Carta – in The Libertarian Mind. Find ideas for government programs that are unnecessary or too big at Downsizing the Federal Government.