Archives: 07/2014

Hobby Lobby Demonstrates That Expansive Government Is Religious Liberty’s Worst Enemy

The federal government has taken over ever larger swaths of American life, most recently health care.  ObamaCare demonstrates that as state dictates expand, religious liberties recede.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was extremely narrow but also extremely important.  Religious liberty is the first freedom and must be protected from government.

The Founders chose not to create a church-based government.  Previous experiments had turned out tragically for both human liberty and religious faith. 

Religion’s relationship to politics has become more important as politics has swallowed more of American life.  In 1789, the new national government was minuscule.  Moreover, in America’s early days, there was a shared Biblical worldview, if not faith, and a common belief in the value of civil religion. 

However, that world has disappeared.  Today there is little government does not do, pushing ever more aspects of life into the public square.  Equally important, Americans have increasingly divergent views of the transcendent. The First Amendment simultaneously guarantees individuals the right to practice and denies government the right to impose.  There may be no more tortured area of federal jurisprudence. 

North Korea Threatens the World: Washington Should Talk to Pyongyang

North Korea has imprisoned one American since 2012 and announced its intention to try two other U.S. citizens recently arrested for “perpetrating hostile acts.”  Having no diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Obama administration cannot even inquire as to the prisoners’ welfare. The U.S. should open official ties with the DPRK.

Recognition confirms geopolitical reality rather than validates government policy. Nevertheless, politics long has dominated diplomacy surrounding the Korean peninsula.

Washington and Pyongyang never recognized each other. South Korea and Japan also do not have relations with the North. Throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China did not deal with the Republic of Korea. 

But after the end of the Cold War Russia and then China recognized the South. In contrast, two decades later the allied powers still have not formally acknowledged North Korea’s existence.

Equity vs. Excellence. Or…A Crank Phone in Every Home!

Education secretary Arne Duncan has just announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative to improve educational quality for low-income and minority students: pressure states to measure the distribution of “quality” teachers across districts; and then to make that distribution more uniform. The emphasis is on the pursuit of equity rather excellence. In fact, a state could make a massive leap forward on this scale by simply randomizing the assignment of public school teachers to schools. And if it turned out that some districts were badly managed and actually had a consistently negative effect, over time, on the performance of their teachers, well then the randomized teacher assignment process could be repeated every school year—or even every half-year!

But is a uniform distribution of today’s “quality” teachers really the best we can do for low-income and minority students (or, for that matter, everyone else)? Would they be better off today if Arne Duncan’s and Barack Obama’s equity focus had driven, say, the telelphone industry over the last century? Back around 1900, most telephones were hand-cranked, and not everyone had one. Would the poor, minorities, and others be better off today if we had achieved and maintained a perfectly equitable distribution of hand-crank phones?

The alternative, of course, is what we do have: a vigorously competitive phone market that has given rise to cell phones and then smart phones containing super-computers, global positioning satellite receivers, wireless networking, etc. But of course only rich whites have cell phones and smart phones, right? Not according to Pew Research. Based on 2013 data,

92% of African Americans own a cell phone, and 56% own a smartphone… blacks and whites are equally likely to own a cell phone of some kind, and also have identical rates of smartphone ownership.

In fact, Pew’s comparable smart-phone ownership figure for whites is 53%, but the difference is not statistically significant. With regard to income, Pew finds a 9 point difference in smartphone ownership between those making < $30,000 and those making between $30,000 and $49,999. Most of that difference seems to be accounted for by age, however. Among 18-24 year olds, 77% of those making < $30,000 own a smartphone vs. 81% for those making $30,000 to $74,999.

So pretty much everyone who wants one now has a cell phone which is rather more functional than the old hand cranked variety, and the majority of young people, at all income levels, even have smartphones. That’s a relatively high level of equity, coupled with excellence. Brought to you, again, by a competitive industry. Could the federal government’s Lifeline (a.k.a., “ObamaPhone”) phone subsidy programs be helping out? Certainly, to some extent. Though it’s far from true that every low-income American’s cell phone is paid for by Uncle Sam.

Ironically, many of the people who staunchly support subsidized access to the cell phone marketplace are dead set against programs that subsidize access to the educational marketplace. They’d much rather just redistribute teachers within our hand-crank-era public school systems, sentencing everyone—rich and poor alike—to more generations of academic stagnation. We can do better. We can encourage the same dynamism, choice, and entrepreneurship in education that have driven the fantastic progress in every other field, and we can ensure universal access to the educational marketplace via state-level education tax credit programs.

Libertarian Voters: Still Invisible in New Pew Study

The Pew Research Center recently issued a major study of political ideology in America, based on 10,000 interviews early this year. That’s far bigger than most polls, so it allows more detailed examination of diverse political opinions. Indeed, the study is titled “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” And yet, disappointingly, it continues to try to place Americans into red and blue boxes: different groups are characterized as “consistently” liberal or conservative, or as groups that “don’t hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views.” There’s no suggestion that there might be consistent views other than contemporary liberalism and conservatism.

Take the interesting discussion of the “Young Outsiders” group: 

Young Outsiders lean Republican but do not have a strong allegiance to the Republican Party; in fact they tend to dislike both political parties. On many issues, from their support for environmental regulation to their liberal views on social issues, they diverge from traditional GOP orthodoxy. Yet in their support for limited government, Young Outsiders are firmly in the Republicans’ camp….

Young Outsiders share Republicans’ deep opposition to increased government spending on social programs. About three-quarters of Young Outsiders (76%) say the government can’t afford to spend more to help the needy.

However, the Young Outsiders’ generational imprint on issues like homosexuality, diversity and the environment make the Republican Party an uncomfortable fit. In views of societal acceptance of homosexuality, for instance, Young Outsiders have more liberal views than the public overall, and are much more liberal than Republicans….

The Young Outsiders today are very different, as they share the GOP base’s deep skepticism of government programs, but favor a more limited foreign policy, and hold decidedly liberal social views.

As I read this, I keep thinking there’s a word at the tip of my tongue … wait a minute … Oh, I know: The Young Outsiders hold libertarian views. Was that so hard? 

Where’s the Annual Social Security Report?

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has announced his intention to sue President Obama for “failure to faithfully follow the nation’s laws” by taking extra-legal executive actions in some areas and failing to execute the laws in other areas such as immigration, judicial appointments, health care, foreign affairs, and so on.

One area where he’s failing to execute the law is Social Security. For instance, the President and his leadership have repeatedly failed to publish on time the Annual Report of the Social Security Trustees, the yearly description of the program’s finances and future outlook. The legal deadline for its publication is April 1—see section 201 (c)(2) of the Social Security Act. We’re now more than three months past that deadline and there’s no indication that it will appear soon.

Social Security’s ex-officio trustees include the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services, and the (currently acting) commissioner of the program. There are also two public trustees, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. (The two public trustees may not be from the same political party.)

It’s well known that Social Security benefits comprise the largest share of income for a majority of retirees—incomes that they could not do without. So the Trustees’ Report is a crucial document. The information it contains is important to millions of stakeholders—retirees, disability beneficiaries and applicants, financial planners, workers nearing retirement, and others.

Policymakers need to know this information so they can make timely decisions intended to ensure that the program remains on a sound financial footing. For example, the 2013 Report (which didn’t appear until the end of May last year) estimated that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund will be exhausted and the program will be unable to pay full benefits at some point in 2016. Not much time remains for lawmakers to consider and enact sensible reforms to DI—and the clock is ticking.

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Tax Notes Praises Law-Review Article that Got Halbig Cases Rolling

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which is often referred to as the second-highest court in the land, is expected to rule any day now on Halbig v. Burwell, a legal challenge that “may actually crush,” “kill,” and “wreck” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

The tax-law journal Tax Notes has chosen the law-journal article that got Halbig and similar cases rolling – Jonathan H. Adler and Michael F. Cannon, Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA, Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine 23, No. 1 (2013): 119-195 – as one of “the 10 law most noteworthy law review articles on employee benefits and executive compensation issues published in 2013 that a broad audience of employee benefits professionals would find relevant and worthy of attention.” Tax Notes calls the Adler-Cannon article “innovative and thought provoking” and one that “practitioners should have read” in 2013.

To read the Adler-Cannon Health Matrix article, click here. For more on the Halbig cases, click here.

Subsidies for the Seacoast

A June 24 article in the Washington Post looked at sea level rise in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the article followed a common template of portraying a battle of science vs. conservative politics and environmentalism vs. capitalism. But as I noted here about water and drought in the West, liberals and libertarians can agree on the benefits of cutting anti-environmental subsidies.

My Washington Post letter on Friday pointed to the newspaper’s omission of the government subsidy angle:

There is disagreement about rising sea levels on the North Carolina coast, but there is one reform that all policymakers should support: ending subsidies that promote building in high-risk places. For decades, the National Flood Insurance Program has allowed people on the sea coasts to buy insurance with premiums less than half the market level, and the program does not cut off people even after multiple floods. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers continually rebuilds beaches, thus encouraging development in areas that nature is trying to reclaim. Ending this wave of subsidies would be sound fiscal and environmental policy.