Tag: consumer

Week in Review: Tax Day, Pirates and Cuba

Tax Day: The Nightmare from Which There’s No Waking Up

Cato scholars were busy exposing the burden of the American tax system on Wednesday, the deadline to file 2008 tax returns.

At CNSNews.com, tax analyst Chris Edwards argued that policymakers should give Americans the simple and low-rate tax code they deserve:

The outlook for American taxpayers is pretty grim. The federal tax code is getting more complex, the president is proposing tax hikes on high-earners, businesses, and energy consumers; and huge deficits may create pressure for further increases down the road…

The solution to all these problems is to rip out the income tax and replace it with a low-rate flat tax, as two dozen other nations have done.

At Townhall, Dan Mitchell excoriated the complexity of the current tax code:

Beginning as a simple two-page form in 1913, the Internal Revenue Code has morphed into a complex nightmare that simultaneously hinders compliance by honest people and rewards cheating by Washington insiders and other dishonest people.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The tax code also penalizes economic growth, distorts taxpayer behavior, undermines American competitiveness, invites corruption and promotes inefficiency.

Mitchell appeared on MSNBC, arguing that every American will soon see massive tax hikes, despite Washington rhetoric.

Don’t miss the new Cato video that highlights just how troubling the American tax code really is.

U.S. Navy Rescues Captain Held Hostage by Somali Pirates

gallery-somali-pirates-pi-003USA Today reports that the captain of a merchant vessel that was attacked by Somali pirates was freed Monday when Navy SEAL sharpshooters killed the pirates. The episode raises a larger question: How should the United States respond to the growing threat of piracy in the region?

Writing shortly after Capt. Richard Phillips was freed, foreign policy expert Benjamin Friedman explained the reasons behind the increase in piracy:

It’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

Appearing on Russia Today, Friedman discussed the implications of the increased threat and what ships can do to avoid future incidents with Somali pirates.

Since the problems at sea are related to problems on Somali land, what can Western nations do to decrease poverty and lawlessness on the African continent? Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, argued at a Cato Policy Forum last week that the best way to combat these issues is to halt government-to-government aid, and proposed an “aid-free solution” to development based on the experience of successful African countries.

Obama Lifts Some Travel Bans on Cuba

The Washington Post reports:

President Obama is lifting some restrictions on Cuban Americans’ contact with Cuba and allowing U.S. telecom companies to operate there, opening up the communist island nation to more cellular and satellite service… The decision does not lift the trade embargo on Cuba but eases the prohibitions that have restricted Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives and has limited what they can send back home.

In the new Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Ian Vasquez recommend a number of policy initiatives for future relations with Cuba, including ending all trade sanctions on Cuba and allowing U.S. citizens and companies to visit and establish businesses as they see fit; and moving toward the normalization of diplomatic relations with the island nation.

While Obama’s plan is a small step in the right direction, Hidalgo argues in a Cato Daily Podcast that Obama should take further steps to lift the travel ban and open Cuba to all Americans.

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Health Policy Death Match: Klein vs. Ponnuru

I count both Ramesh Ponnuru and Ezra Klein as friends.  (I’m so post-partisan.)  Why, oh why must they force me to choose between them??

Ponnuru had an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times where he reaffirmed his membership in the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.  Klein responded in a way that’s sure to satisfy his base, but I think he left the reality-based community wanting.  Are you ready for the fisk?

Klein suggests that if “80+ percent of Americans … think the system needs fundamental changes or a complete rebuild,” then 80+ percent of Americans must support universal coverage.  Hmmm, bit of a stretch.  In fact, I can recall one poll where nearly one-third of likely Democratic primary voters rejected universal coverage.

Klein suggests that giving consumers the freedom to avoid unwanted state health insurance regulations would mean that Arizonans wouldn’t get coverage for colorectal cancer screening, and that there would be no mammogram coverage in Idaho.  Mmm, that’s good crazy.  I refer my right honorable friend to the episode where The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn made a similar claim about mandates for prostate and cervical cancer screening.  I looked up the services covered by the plans made available to the Cohn family by the University of Michigan.  It turned out that six out of the seven available plans cover both prostate and cervical cancer screening — even though Michigan requires insurers to cover neither.  (I offered to wager Cohn a fancy dinner that his family has coverage for both, but I never heard back from him.  Foolish, really, to let me know where he gets his insurance. Klein would never give me such an opening … or would he?) What Ponnuru proposes is to let Arizonans and Idahoans and everyone else choose what their health plan covers.   Imagine that: people rationing medical care according to their preferences, rather than the preferences of employers, interest groups, bureaucrats, health policy wonks…  Why Klein clings to such regulations despite zero evidence that they actually increase access to the targeted services is beyond me.

Klein criticizes Ponnuru for proposing to replace the current tax preference for job-based coverage with a tax credit available to everyone, much like John McCain proposed during his (latest) presidential campaign.  Ponnuru cites a study estimating that tax credits would reduce the number of uninsured by 20 million.  Klein counter-cites one study estimating that tax credits would have zero net effect on the number of uninsured, and a second study estimating that those who transition from job-based coverage to the “individual” or “non-group” market would pay an additional $2,000 per year for an identical policy.   Klein’s criticisms sound persuasive – provided you know precious little about the topic.  For one thing, the two studies Klein cites are actually the same study.  Pity, really.  Had Klein found a second study to support his position, perhaps it would not have been quite so flawed as the one he did find.  Here’s what I wrote back in September about that study’s flaws:

Thomas Buchmueller et al. estimate that replacing the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) with Sen. John McCain’s proposed health insurance tax credit would have zero effect on the uninsured. Yet their estimates neither incorporate nor even acknowledge factors that would tend to increase coverage. First, workers who lose ESI would see their wages rise significantly as labor markets force employers to “cash out” those workers.

That effect would help all workers afford health insurance — but particularly older and sicker workers, because they would get cashed-out more.

Second, the authors estimate that non-group enrollment would double, yet they ignore that administrative costs would fall in a thicker non-group market.

So that $2,000 mark-up really wouldn’t be $2,000.  Even if some mark-up remained, workers could reduce their premiums by purchasing less coverage.  Not all that crazy a concept, considering that the tax treatment of job-based insurance encourages people to buy too much coverage.

Then there’s this effect, which would further reduce premiums for healthy workers:

Third, the authors acknowledge that employment-based insurance forces the healthy to subsidize the sick, yet they ignore that the non-group market would reduce premiums for a majority of workers by allowing them to avoid that hidden tax.

The study’s authors also ignored the premium-lowering effects of McCain’s proposal to allow people to avoid unwanted regulatory costs (e.g., mandated benefits):

Fourth, though the Congressional Budget Office estimates that state health insurance regulations increase premiums an average of 13 percent, the authors ignore that McCain’s proposal to let consumers shop nationwide for insurance would further reduce premiums by allowing consumers to avoid that hidden tax as well.

A few random clarifications.  Klein fears living “in a space where insurers could still discriminate based on pre-existing conditions.”  That’s Church-of-Universal-Coverage-speak for, “I want price controls on health insurance.”  Government can outlaw the practice of charging higher premiums to the sick, but it cannot outlaw the reasons behind those higher premiums.  So when government prohibits insurers from competing on price, insurers respond to those underlying reasons by competing to avoid the sick.  Yes, yes, it’s that pious preference for price-controlled premiums that unleashes the beast of adverse selection — and prevents the market from developing innovative insurance products that help sick people pay those higher premiums. Klein fears a world “where millions of Americans will still lack access to health insurance,” because to the devout, access to insurance matters more than access to health care.  Klein fears that when people move from ESI to the individual market, risk pools will get smaller and insurers will get stronger.  Yet risk pools would get bigger, and insurers weaker relative to consumers.  Klein believes we can “ensure that all Americans have health coverage, [and] that their coverage is comprehensive,” and that we can do all that without rationing “access to health services.”  How?  Just “bring down costs in the system.”  Riiiight.

To cap things off, Klein claims that Ponnuru and I think the U.S. health care sector as it exists is “fine.”  I really can’t blame him for arguing with straw men.

In the end, Klein’s case against Ponnuru boils down to the same absurdity I found in Buchmueller and colleagues’ case against McCain:

The McCain plan would eliminate forced subsidies: of the sick by the healthy (via ESI and community rating) and of particular providers by unwilling consumers (mandates for chiropractic coverage, etc.). Buchmueller et al. would have us believe that if we stop robbing Peter to pay Paul, not even Peter would benefit. A more balanced critique might have been more persuasive.

Klein spends a lot more time thinking about health policy than Ponnuru does. But you’d never know it.

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

Not-so-COOL Rules Stoke Xenophobia

Come Monday you can thank the federal government for making food more expensive by requiring retailers to provide useless information.

On March 16, federal regulations will finally kick in that require perishable food at the grocery store to sport “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL. The rules were originally passed by Congress as part of the 2002 farm bill, but are only being implemented now because of understandable resistance from retailers.

The COOL regulations will require that all perishable food products be labeled at retail to indicate the country of origin. The regulations cover beef, pork, lamb, goat, chicken; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables; peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and ginseng.

In a recent statement announcing final implementation, Obama administration agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said, “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling — it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.”

This is nothing but a form of regulatory harassment designed to play to anti-foreign prejudices. COOL provides zero health or safety information; foreign meat and produce must conform to exactly the same health and safety standards that apply to domestic-made goods.

In the past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had estimated that COOL regulations will cost $89 million to implement in the first year and $62 million annually. (My Cato colleague Dan Ikenson wrote the definitive critique of COOL not long after Congress first mandated the rules.)

The fact that a piece of meat or a fresh vegetable comes from a foreign country tells us nothing about its quality or safety. In the past three years, Americans have been sickened and even killed by baby spinach from California and ground beef from Nebraska tainted by E. coli bacteria, chicken from Pennsylvania tainted with listeria, and peanut butter and peanut products from Georgia tainted with salmonella. Would Americans have been any safer if those products had been labeled, “From California” or “From Georgia” or “From Nebraska”?

Country-of-origin labeling was not meant to serve the public but instead to provide yet another unfair advantage to domestic producers at the expense of the public.

Obama Administration Agrees with Cato on Auto Fuel Efficiency

Well, sort of.  The Obama administration signaled last week their belief that it would be better to have one national fuel efficiency standard than a multiplicity of different state fuel efficiency standards.  Now, we have long maintained that fuel efficiency standards — federal or state — are a bad idea.  Consumers should be free to buy whatever sort of car they want without government economic coercion.  But if we must do violence to consumer sovereignty, better to do so via one national standard rather than via a hodge-podge of differing state standards.

This is the very argument I made late in January over at The New York Times when asked about California’s petition to establish its own fuel efficiency standard as a means of addressing greenhouse gas emissions.  Alas, I was pilloried on the NYT comments board at that time for all sorts of sins against man and nature.  Now it appears that President Obama has come over to the dark side.  Welcome to my world, Mr. President.