Archives: 12/2014

A Practical (and Semi-Optimistic) Plan to Tame the Federal Leviathan

Like a lot of libertarians and small-government conservatives, I’m prone to pessimism. How can you be cheerful, after all, when you look at what’s been happening in our lifetimes.

New entitlement programs, adopted by politicians from all parties, are further adding to the long-run spending crisis.

The federal budget has become much bigger, luring millions of additional people into government dependency.

The tax code has become even more corrupt and complex, with more than 4,600 changes just between 2001 and 2012 according to a withering report from outgoing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

And let’s not forget the essential insight of “public choice” economics, which tells us that politicians care first and foremost about their own interests rather than the national interest. So what’s their incentive to address these problems, particularly if there’s some way to sweep them under the rug and let future generations bear the burden?

And if you think I’m being unduly negative about political incentives and fiscal responsibility, consider the new report from the European Commission, which found that politicians from EU member nations routinely enact budgets based on “rosy scenarios.” As the EU Observer reported:

EU governments are too optimistic about their economic prospects and their ability to control public spending, leading to them continually missing their budget targets, a European Commission paper has argued. …their growth projections are 0.6 percent higher than the final figure, while governments who promise to cut their deficit by 0.2 percent of GDP, typically tend to increase their gap between revenue and spending by the same amount.

Needless to say, American politicians do the same thing with their forecasts. If you don’t believe me, just look at the way the books were cooked to help impose Obamacare.

But set aside everything I just wrote because now I’m going to tell you that we’re making progress and that it’s actually not that difficult to constructively address America’s fiscal problems.

First, let’s look at how we’ve made progress. I just wrote a piece for The Hill. It’s entitled “Republicans are Winning the Fiscal Fight” and it includes lots of data on what’s been happening over the past five years, including the fact that there’s been no growth in the federal budget.

Republicans in Congress Really Like the Cuba Embargo

President Obama made a number of spot-on arguments yesterday for why the United States should end the ineffective trade embargo that has helped impoverish the people of Cuba for over fifty years.  However, the core components of the embargo are statutory law that will require an act of Congress to overturn.  While it’s very encouraging to see the president take a leadership role in pursuit of a good policy, getting Republicans on board is going to be difficult to say the least.

Over the last 20 years, there have been 11 votes in the two houses of Congress seeking to eliminate or amend the Cuba embargo.  In all of those votes, loosening the embargo got majority opposition from Republicans.  According to Cato’s trade votes database, it wasn’t even close.  Republican support for the embargo has ranged from 61% (in support of travel ban) to 91% (in support of import ban) with the average level of support at 77.5%.  Indeed, in 2005 more Republicans voted to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization than voted to end the Cuba embargo.

That’s not to say that positive movement on the embargo in a Republican congress is impossible.  There are encouraging signs as well: shifting opinion among Cuban Americans alters the electoral politics of the embargo in favor of opposition; resurgent emphasis on free markets may temper the Republican party’s reflexive love for belligerent foreign policy; and long-time Republican opponents of the embargo will now have renewed energy. 

In practical terms, embargo opponents will need to persuade House leadership to schedule a vote and find enough support in the Senate to overcome an inevitable filibuster from Marco Rubio and others.  It may not be impossible, but there’s a lot of heavy lifting left to do.  Hopefully, the President’s actions will be enough to get the ball rolling toward more reform of this antiquated and harmful policy.

The Failure of the Americanization Movement

Introduction

Last week I was on an immigration panel discussing my new booklet Open Immigration: Yea & Nay, coauthored with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.  The other panelists were Michael Barone, George Will, Andrew McCarthy, and John Fonte.  They all had interesting comments about the booklet and the issue of immigration broadly.  However, I do want to take issue with some comments by John Fonte about the assimilation of immigrants and his view that the United States needs a modern version of the Americanization movement – an early 20th century initiative that sought to assimilate newcomers rapidly into American civic life.  Fonte claims that modern immigrants just aren’t assimilating as well as previous waves of immigrants, especially in their patriotism, because there is no modern equivalent of the Americanization movement to help them. 

During the event, I challenged Fonte’s claims about both the assimilation rates of today’s immigrants as well as the effectiveness of the Americanization Movement.  On the former point, research by Jacob Vigdor and others shows solid and sustained assimilation of immigrants over the generations that is comparable to the assimilation rates of previous immigrant groups.  On the latter point about the effectiveness of the Americanization movement, I mentioned that there were no data available from the early 20th century to confirm or disconfirm that it was responsible for the assimilation of immigrants in those groups.  Fonte countered by saying [2:44:15]: “It’s true we don’t have data on how well assimilation worked, but I think we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that Americanization did help.”  Elsewhere Fonte writes “assimilation of the Ellis Island generation succeeded only because American elites (progressive at the time) insisted upon ‘Americanization.’”  The success of the Americanization movement is an empirical question but there is precious little data from that time period.  There may be some anecdotes available that support his position so I will list some others below that question the effectiveness of the Americanization movement.    

Fonte and I clearly disagree over how successful current immigrant assimilation is in the United States, but this blog will focus on the little-researched and less understood Americanization movement of last century.  Contrary to Fonte’s claims, the Americanization movement had no discernible impacts on immigrant assimilation at best and, at worst, it may have slowed down assimilation.  The Americanization movement was not a benevolent government program that sought to assimilate immigrants into American society so much as it was an avenue for American opponents of immigration to vent their frustrations about immigrants.  Such an atmosphere of hostility could not produce greater assimilation.  The Americanization movement, however, did create an air of government-forced homogeneity similar to the government policies of Russia, Hungary, and Germany that tried to forcibly assimilate ethnic and linguistic minorities with tragic consequences – an experience many immigrants came to America to avoid.  The Americanization movement replaced the tolerant cosmopolitanism (for the most part) that defined America’s experience with immigration up to that point, and represented a low-water mark of American confidence in the assimilationist power of her institutions.  Below I will lay out the history of the Americanization movement, how it worked, and why it was likely ineffective.

Time to Trade with Cuba: Regime Change through Sanctions Is a Mirage

President Barack Obama used negotiations over a couple of imprisoned Americans to refashion the entire U.S.-Cuba relationship. He aims to reopen the embassy, relax trade and travel restrictions, and improve communication systems.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida charged the administration with appeasement because the president proposed to treat Cuba like the U.S. treats other repressive states. But President Obama only suggested that government officials talk to one another. And that peoples visit and trade with one another.

More than a half century ago Fidel Castro took power in Havana. In the midst of the Cold War the Kennedy administration feared that Cuba would serve as an advanced base for the Soviet Union. Having tried and failed to overthrow the regime militarily, Washington saw an economic embargo as the next best option.

But that didn’t work either. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow ended subsidies for Cuba, sanctions achieved nothing.

Today Cuba’s Communist system continues to stagger along. The only certainty is that economic sanctions have failed.

Failed to bring down the regime. Failed to liberalize the system. Failed to free political prisoners. Failed to achieve much of anything useful.

After more than 50 years.

But that should surprise no one. Sanctions are most likely to work if they are universal and narrowly focused. For instance, the Institute for International Economics found that economic sanctions did best with limited objectives, such as “modest” policy change.

AGU 2014: Quantifying the Mismatch between Climate Projections and Observations

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Pat Michaels is in San Francisco this week attending the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and presenting a poster detailing the widening mismatch between observations of the earth’s temperature and climate model projections of its behavior. Since most global warming concern (including that behind regulatory action) stems from the projections of climate models as to how the earth’s temperature will evolve as we emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (as a result of burning fossil fuels to produce energy), it is important to keep a tab on how the model projections are faring when compared with reality. That they are faring not very well should be more widely known—Pat will spread the word while there.

We don’t want those of you who are unable to attend the conference to think you are missing out on anything, so we have reformatted our poster presentation to fit this blog format (it is available in its original format here).

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Quantifying the Lack of Consistency between Climate Model Projections and Observations of the Evolution of the Earth’s Average Surface Temperature since the Mid-20th Century

Patrick J. Michaels, Center for the Study of Science, Cato Institute, Washington DC

Paul C. Knappenberger, Center for the Study of Science, Cato Institute, Washington DC

INTRODUCTION

Recent climate change literature has been dominated by studies which show that the equilibrium climate sensitivity is better constrained than the latest estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) and that the best estimate of the climate sensitivity is considerably lower than the climate model ensemble average. From the recent literature, the central estimate of the equilibrium climate sensitivity is ~2°C, while the climate model average is ~3.2°C, or an equilibrium climate sensitivity that is some 40% lower than the model average.

To the extent that the recent literature produces a more accurate estimate of the equilibrium climate sensitivity than does the climate model average, it means that the projections of future climate change given by both the IPCC and NCA are, by default, some 40% too large (too rapid) and the associated (and described) impacts are gross overestimates.

Senate Leaders Demand Treasury, HHS Inform Consumers About Risks Of HealthCare.gov Coverage

The Obama administration is boasting that 2.5 million Americans have selected health insurance plans for 2015 through the Exchanges it operates in 36 states under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and that they are well on their way to enrolling 9.1 million Americans in Exchange coverage next year. But there’s a problem. The administration is not warning ObamaCare enrollees about significant risks associated with their coverage. By mid-2015, 5 million HealthCare.gov enrollees could see their tax liabilities increase by thousands of dollars. Their premiums could increase by 300 percent or more. Their health plans could be cancelled without any replacement plans available. Today, the U.S. Senate leadership – incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD), Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), and Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) – wrote Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell to demand the administration inform consumers about those risks.

First, some background.

  • The PPACA directs states to establish health-insurance Exchanges and requires the federal government to establish Exchanges in states that fail to do so.
  • The statute authorizes subsidies (nominally, “tax credits”) to certain taxpayers who purchase Exchange coverage. Those subsidies transfer much of the cost of ObamaCare’s many regulations and  mandates from the premium payer to the taxpayer. For the average recipient, Exchange subsidies cover 76 percent of their premium.
  • But there’s a catch. The law only authorizes those subsidies “through an Exchange established by the State.” The PPACA nowhere authorizes subsidies through federally established Exchanges. This makes the law’s Exchanges operate like its Medicaid expansion: if states cooperate with implementation, their residents get subsidies; if not, their residents get no subsidies.
  • Confounding expectations, 36 states refused or otherwise failed to establish Exchanges. This should have meant that Exchange subsidies would not be available in two-thirds of the country, and that many more Americans would face the full cost of the PPACA’s very expensive coverage.
  • Yet the Obama administration unilaterally decided to offer Exchange subsidies through federal Exchanges despite the lack of any statutory authorization. Because those (illegal) subsidies trigger (illegal) penalties against both individuals and employers under the PPACA’s mandates, the administration soon found itself in court.
  • Two federal courts have found the subsidies the administration is issuing to 5 million enrollees through HealthCare.gov are illegal. The Supreme Court has agreed to resolve the issue. It has granted certiorari in King v. Burwell. Oral arguments will likely occur in February or March, with a ruling due by June.
  • If the Supreme Court agrees with those lower courts that the subsidies the administration is issuing through HealthCare.gov are illegal, the repercussions for enrollees could be significant. Their subsidies would disappear. The PPACA would require them to repay the IRS whatever subsidies they already received in 2015 and 2014, which could top $10,000 for many enrollees near the poverty level. Their insurance payments would quadruple, on average. Households near the poverty level would see even larger increases. Their plans could be cancelled, and they may not be able to find replacement coverage.
  • The Obama administration knows it is exposing HealthCare.gov enrollees to these risks. But it is not telling them.

Senator Coburn’s Final Report

One the best U.S. senators of recent decades is leaving. No one has spotlighted the ongoing waste in federal spending more than Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. In his farewell address, he advised his colleagues: “Your whole goal is to protect the United States of America, its Constitution and its liberties … it’s not to provide benefits for your state.” As if to underline Coburn’s point, the Washington Post yesterday described how Senator Roger Wicker helped pour $349 million down the drain on an unused NASA facility in his home state of Mississippi.

One of Coburn’s strategies has been to use his expert staff to write investigative reports on federal activities. The huge collection of reports his staff has produced is remarkable. Each one is a big fat indictment of malfunctioning government.

Seeing this stream of high-quality and fun-to-read reports over the years has made wonder what the staffs of the other 99 senators do with their time. Every senator ought to be using his taxpayer-funded staff to try to save taxpayer money. Every senator ought to be digging into the giant $3.6 trillion spending empire that they have collectively created and trying to cut out some of the fat.

Coburn’s final report released last week is another impressive document. Coming in at 320 pages, Tax Decoder digs through the massive federal tax code and highlights hundreds of special deals, carve-outs, and illogical breaks. Tax Decoder’s findings are too voluminous to summarize here, and even seasoned tax wonks will find interesting stuff that they did not know.

Consider the chapter on nonprofit organizations, which spans 42 pages and is buttressed by 462 endnotes. This part of the tax code is a complex mess rife with abuse. Coburn’s staff found that Lady Gaga’s charity raised $2.6 million and handed out just $5,000 one year in benefits, while spending the rest on salaries, promotions, and parties. The Kanye West Foundation spent $572,383 one year, but not a dime on charity.The Cancer Fund for America raised $80 million, but handed out just $890,000 to cancer patients.

While the GAO—an arm of Congress—investigates federal activities, its reports are usually dry and timid. The agency’s role is not to upset its political masters. Similarly, most members of Congress don’t want to upset their colleagues, and so they shy away from criticizing wasteful spending directed to any state, not just their own. It’s easier for them to follow the herd, play the game, grab benefits, and hopefully cruise to safe reelection. Many outside groups and reporters do a great job investigating the government, but senators are in a uniquely powerful and privileged position to lead the charge. 

That’s why Senator Coburn and his staff filled a void with their reports. They uncovered idiocy in the budget, and they informed the public with the juicy details. Many members of Congress say that the government spends too much, but they shy away from specifics. But now that Tom Coburn is going, which members are willing to step up to the plate?   

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