Tag: federal government

President Obama’s ‘War on Fun’

My DC Examiner column this week focuses on Barack Obama’s transformation into our National Noodge, nudging, shoving, poking and prodding Americans into healthier lifestyles via the powers of the federal government.

A year ago, the New York Times got all excited about the “new age of regulation” the administration was busy ushering in. The president had elevated “a new breed of regulators”: folks like regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, who wants to “nudge” Americans toward healthier consumption choices, and CDC head Thomas Frieden, who, as NYC health commissioner, proclaimed ”when anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it’s my fault.”

Today’s column tracks how this killjoy crusade is playing out:

Quitting smoking was “a personal challenge for [Obama],” the first lady explained recently, and she never “poked and prodded.”

Of course not. It’s obnoxious to hector your loved ones. “Poking and prodding” is what good government does to perfect strangers. And that’s what the Obama administration has been doing, with unusual zeal, for the past 2 1/2 years.

You’re not a real president until you fight a metaphorical “war” on a social problem. So, to LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” add Obama’s “War on Fun.” Like the “War on Terror,” it’s being fought on many fronts…

Among them: graphic warning labels for cigarettes; a ban on clove cigarettes and possibly menthols; shutting down online poker sites; banning caffeinated malt liquor; mandatory menu-labeling and ratcheting down allowable sodium levels in food to “adjust the American palate to a less salty diet.” Even healthy “real food” aficionados can find themselves in the crosshairs, as Dan Allgyer, an Amish farmer selling raw milk discovered last month, when FDA agents and federal marshals raided his farm.

Last year, in a remarkably silly column entitled “Obama’s Happiness Deficit,” Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt wondered whether the president’s political difficulties stemmed from the fact that “he doesn’t seem all that happy being president.” I couldn’t care less whether Obama’s enjoying his job. He asked for it, he got it. But if he isn’t having fun, he shouldn’t take it out on the rest of us.

High-Speed Rail and Federalism

Florida Governor Rick Scott deserves a big round of applause for dealing a major setback to the Obama administration’s costly plan for a national system of high-speed rail. As Randal O’Toole explains, the administration needed Florida to keep the $2.4 billion it was awarded to build a high-speed Orlando-to-Tampa line in order to build “momentum” for its plan. Instead, Scott put the interests of his taxpayers first and told the administration “no thanks.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the administration is going to dole the money back out to 22 passenger-rail projects in other states. Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.

Here’s Randal’s summary:

Instead, the Department of Transportation gave nearly $1 billion of the $2.4 billion to Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to replace worn out infrastructure and slightly speed up trains in that corridor, as well as connecting routes such as New Haven to Hartford and New York to Albany. Most of the rest of the money went to Midwestern states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri—to buy new trains, improve stations, and do engineering studies of a few corridors such as the vital Minneapolis-to-Duluth corridor. Trains going an average of 57 mph instead of 52 mph are not going to inspire the public to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail.

The administration did give California $300 million for its high-speed rail program. But, with that grant, the state still has only about 10 percent of the $65 billion estimated cost of a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, and there is no more money in the till. If the $300 million is ever spent, it will be for a 220-mph train to nowhere in California’s Central Valley.

Why should Floridians be taxed by the federal government to pay for passenger-rail in the northeast? If the states in the Northeast Corridor want to pick up the subsidy tab from the federal government, go for it. (I argue in a Cato essay on Amtrak that if the Northeast Corridor possesses the population density to support passenger-rail then it should just be privatized.)

I don’t know if taxpayers in Northeast Corridor would want to pick up the federal government’s share of the subsidies, but I’m pretty sure California taxpayers wouldn’t be interested in footing the entire $65 billion for their state’s high-speed boondoggle-in-the-works. As I’ve discussed before, the agitators for a national system of high-speed rail know this:

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR rail is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans aren’t happy that the administration is taking Florida’s money and spreading it around the country:

Monday’s announcement drew criticism from House Republican leaders, who questioned both the decision to divide the money into nearly two-dozen grants around the country—instead of concentrating it into fewer major projects—and the fact that many of the projects will benefit Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger-rail operator.

I heartily agree with the Amtrak complaint, but I’m not sure why as a federal taxpayer I should feel better about instead “concentrating [the money] into fewer major projects.” Subsidizing passenger-rail is no more a proper role of the federal government than education or housing. Unfortunately, for all the criticisms of the Obama administrations and the constant talk about spending cuts, Republicans don’t appear to possess much more desire to limit the scope of the federal government’s activities than the Democrats.

See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.

No Profile in Courage Here, Either

Yesterday, speaking at Facebook headquarters, President Obama assessed the guts of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other congressional Republicans and concluded that their deficit reduction plan isn’t “particularly courageous.” That might be accurate – their plan lacks specificity and could target a lot more for elimination – but it’s pretty rich for the President to throw out such a conclusion. After all, his whole strategy appears to be the bankruptingly lame-but-safe crying of doom for cute kids and other supposedly defenseless people no matter what the size of the proposed cut to a social program or how ineffective the program has been. That, and the constant lamentation that “the rich” – a small and therefore electorally weak group of voters – don’t pay their fair share. (And the constitutionality of federal programs? That doesn’t even get a mention.)

Representative of this cowardly course is the President’s mantra about “investing” more in education-related programs despite blaring evidence that the programs don’t work or, as is the case with federal student aid, actually make the problem they’re supposed to solve much worse. But the President wants votes – like most politicians, he wants lots of people to think he’s giving them great stuff for free – so he’s not doing the mildly courageous thing and telling people “look, these programs don’t work, we have a titanic debt, and I’m going to cut things that might sound good but aren’t.” No, he’s doing things like going to community colleges and, in front of cheering groups of students, talking about mean Republicans and how he wants to protect students just like them by keeping the federal dollars flowing.

That’s no profile in courage, nor is it a responsible way to deal with the federal government’s gigantic problems.

Let’s Not Lose Sight of a Real Education Market

Over the last few days Jay Greene, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, and several other edu-thinkers have been arguing about whether national curriculum standards would destroy a competitive market in education, and a market that already provides the uniform standards Fordham wants Washington to impose. But let’s be very clear: We haven’t had a real market – a free market – in education for a long time.

Sadly, I’m afraid Jay started this whole mess, though he certainly knows what a free market in education would look like and I don’t think he intended to confuse the issue.  Indeed, he doesn’t use the term “free market,” but mainly writes about the “competitive market between communities.” His argument is that Americans over time picked standardized curricula and schools by moving to districts that provided such things. He is no doubt at least partially right, though the case is hardly open and shut. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that district consolidation and uniformity was often pushed on small districts from outside, especially in urban areas. It is also quite possible that many people moved to districts with uniform offerings not in search of such offerings, but in search of something else that happened to coincide with them. Most notably, industrialization brought many people to cities in search of employment, and school uniformity often came with that. Finally, the economist whose work inspired Jay’s post notes that while he believes small rural districts died largely due to residents abandoning them, he concedes that there is a “lack of direct evidence connecting rural property values with local decisions about consolidation.”

Those caveats aside, Jay’s point is a still good one that I have made before, most notably when discussing schooling and social cohesion: People will tend to have their children learn many ”common” things because that is the key to personal success. People will learn what they need to in order to work effectively and successfully in society.  Moreover, people will simply tend to gravitate toward things that work.

So the main problem in the Greene-Fordham debate is not that Jay’s points are necessarily wrong, it’s that “competitive market between communities” is too easily misconstrued as “free market,” and it fails to acknowledge the gigantic inefficiencies that come from government monopolies, whether controlled at the district, state, or federal level. Those include the massive, expensive waste that fills the pockets of special interests employed by the system; constant conflict over what the schools will teach; and at-best very ponderous competition – if you want a better school you have to buy a new house – that quashes crucial innovation and specialization. Worse yet, it leads to the following kind of crucial, damaging misunderstanding by Porter-Magee:

For more than a decade we have been conducting a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting at the state level. The result? A swift and sure race to the bottom. A majority of states had failed to set rigorous standards for their students—and had failed to create effective assessments that could be used to track student mastery of that content. In fact, the whole impetus behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to address what was essentially a market failure in education.

This is wrong, as they say, on so many levels!

First, we do not have real market forces anywhere at work in the current, NCLB-dominated regime. Using the quick list of market basics that John Merrifield lays out in his Policy Analysis on school choice research, a truly free market needs ”profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation.” None of these are meaningfully at work in public schooling, with profit-making providers at huge tax-status disadvantages; public schools artificially “free” to customers; high legal barriers to starting new institutions that can meaningfully compete with traditional public schools; and requirements that all public schools teach the same things, at least at the state level. 

Moreover, if you want to talk about competition between states – which is more in line with what Jay was discussing – under NCLB all states have faced the same, overwhelming incentives to establish low standards, weak accountability, or both: If they don’t get their students to something called “proficiency” – which they define – the federal government punishes them! In light of that, of course they have almost all set very low “proficiency” bars. But that is about as far from “a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting” as you can get! Indeed, it is a brilliant example not of market failure, but government failure!

Ultimately, Jay’s point is right: People on their own will tend to select educational options that are unifying, as well as gravitate to what appears to work best, so there is no need for the federal government to impose it. Moreover, as Jay points out, there are huge reasons to avoid federal standardization, including that special interests like teachers unions will likely capture such standards. But that problem has been at work with state and local monopolies, and it, along with myriad other government failures, will not be overcome until we have a real market in education – a free market in education.

End Federal Welfare - Don’t Mend It

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, recently introduced “The Welfare Reform Act of 2011.” The legislation’s two key components are the imposition of work requirements on food stamps recipients and the capping of total spending for 77 welfare programs at 2007 levels (adjusted for inflation going forward) when unemployment drops below 6.5 percent.

From the RSC press release:

Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton enacted reforms in 1996 that required beneficiaries of a new welfare program (TANF) to either work or prepare for a job. President Clinton triumphantly declared these reforms would “end welfare as we know it,” and in fact millions of families have since moved off the TANF rolls and begun to provide for themselves.

Still, TANF is only 1 of 77 federal programs that provide benefits specifically to poor and low-income Americans. Despite the success of these reforms, combined state and federal welfare spending has almost doubled since 1996. Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, Americans have spent around $16 trillion on means-tested welfare. We will spend another $10 trillion over the next decade based on recent projections. Even with all these resources devoted to assistance for the poor, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s.

The bold text is my emphasis. I emphasized it because I have a hard time calling the reform of one welfare program a “success” when dozens of other federal welfare programs more than took its place. In my opinion, it’s analogous to winning a battle but losing the war – badly. Or, in keeping with the military theme, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The aftermath of TANF is one reason why I’m not enthusiastic about the RSC’s legislation. Assuming the bill becomes law (it won’t anytime soon), will the scope of federal government’s powers have become more limited? Will the now commonplace attitude that the federal government exists to provide for us at our neighbor’s expense begin to recede? Will the tangled mess that is the relationship between the federal government and the states be unsnarled?

While I don’t take issue with the House conservatives’ desire to rein in welfare spending and limit the pathologies that the food stamp program engenders, it’s disappointing that the propriety of the federal government’s role in providing welfare remains virtually unchallenged on Capitol Hill.

The designers of the Constitution gave the federal government a tidy, defined list of powers – everything else was to be left to the states or to the people. Yes, that set-up has gradually been eviscerated. Yes, the federal government isn’t going to return to its more constrained origins in the near future. However, across the country there is renewed interest in reinstituting limits on federal power. Thus, there is hope for the long-term.

Policymakers who claim to share that interest would better serve this long-term hope by introducing legislation that returns powers the federal government has assumed to the states. Instead of tinkering with federal welfare programs, let’s have the public discussion and debate over the fundamental justness and desirability of letting Washington dictate how to meet the needs of the less fortunate.

[See these Cato essays (here, here, and here) for more on federal welfare programs and why both taxpayers and those in need would be better off if they were abolished. See this Cato essay for more on the desirability of fiscal federalism.]

The Non-Defense of DOMA

The Obama Administration’s decision to stop defending DOMA in the courts has provoked some widespread commentary. Jim Burroway hints that Obama’s strategy here is both deep and cynical. Obama’s locked in a losing fight with Republicans over the budget, because Americans really do want to cut federal spending. This remains true even if, notoriously, nearly the only specific program they want to cut is our negligible foreign aid.

The mood is anti-spending, and it’s just possible that a government shutdown scares Obama even more than it scares the Republicans. The remedy? Change the subject. Make Republicans in Congress defend their stance on gay marriage, which is so not the discussion they’d like to be having.

It could be one of the first instances in which gay marriage counts as a wedge issue against Republicans, rather than for them. Opposing same-sex marriage appeals strongly to a smallish base. To the center, the whole subject is distasteful either way, and they don’t mind if Obama drops it. Finally, more and more people just find the conservatives embarrassing here. Obama sees no need to do their dirty work for them, especially when the work really is that dirty.

Meanwhile, Orin Kerr is worried about executive power:

By taking that position, the Obama Administration has moved the goalposts of the usual role of the Executive branch in defending statutes. Instead of requiring DOJ to defend the constitutionality of all federal statutes if it has a reasonable basis to do so, the new approach invests within DOJ a power to conduct an independent constitutional review of the issues, to decide the main issues in the case — in this case, the degree of scrutiny for gay rights issues — and then, upon deciding the main issue, to decide if there is a reasonable basis for arguing the other side. If you take that view, the Executive Branch essentially has the power to decide what legislation it will defend based on whatever views of the Constitution are popular or associated with that Administration. It changes the role of the Executive branch in defending litigation from the traditional dutiful servant of Congress to major institutional player with a great deal of discretion.

If that approach becomes widely adopted, then it would seem to bring a considerable power shift to the Executive Branch. Here’s what I fear will happen. If Congress passes legislation on a largely party-line vote, the losing side just has to fashion some constitutional theories for why the legislation is unconstitutional and then wait for its side to win the Presidency. As soon as its side wins the Presidency, activists on its side can file constitutional challenges based on the theories; the Executive branch can adopt the theories and conclude that, based on the theories, the legislation is unconstitutional; and then the challenges to the legislation will go undefended. Winning the Presidency will come with a great deal of power to decide what legislation to defend, increasing Executive branch power at the expense of Congress’s power. Again, it will be a power grab disguised as academic constitutional interpretation.

Liberals: If you think declining to defend DOMA is the right decision, how will you feel when a Republican administration declines to defend in a school prayer case? Or an abortion case? Or on Obamacare itself?

There are two very, very distinct issues here. One concerns gays and lesbians. The other concerns the proper relationship among the three branches of the federal government. One is about policy; the other is about procedure. Deciding a procedural question based on what it means for a one-time policy outcome is just bad governance. The questions we should be asking are – How much power would this really give the president? Is this a particularly new power? (Arguably it’s not.) And in any case, are we comfortable with the president having it, even if he or she has radically different views about policy?

When we look at it that way, there’s a near-perfect parallel to the perennial debate over the filibuster. Everyone hates it when they’re in the majority. Everyone loves it when they’re in the minority. Politics really is the mind-killer.

Secretly Happy Colleges Should Mean Overtly Angry Taxpayers

Yesterday, House Republicans introduced their preliminary list of spending cuts, cuts that were, they declared, ”to go deep.” Unfortunately, coming in at just $74 billion, they were about as deep as onion skin. After all, the total federal budget is well over $3 trillion, and the national debt now exceeds $14 trillion

The relatively lilliputian size of the proposed cuts should give any taxpayer major queasiness over Republicans’ desire to truly rein in government. But if that doesn’t scare you, this report from Inside Higher Ed absolutely should:

Shhh. Don’t tell, and they’ll never admit it publicly. But college officials are (very quietly) feeling okay – at least for now – about how Congressional Republicans would treat the programs that matter most to higher education in their first whack at the federal budget.

Why should ivory tower denizens be secretly peppy, and taxpayers openly upset? Because the House GOP pretty much left higher ed funding untouched, despite the fact that the ivory tower is soaking in putrid, taxpayer-funded waste. Quite simply, the federal government pours hundreds of billions of dollars into our ivy-ensconced institutions every year, but what that has largely produced is atrociously low graduation rates; at-best dubious amounts of learning for those who do graduate; ever-fancier facilities; and rampant tuition inflation that renders a higher education no more affordable to students but keeps colleges fat and happy.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: If federal politicians won’t significantly cut ”education” spending – spending that has done next to nothing to increase actual learning – then they are not serious about reining in the deficit or cutting government down to size. They are still, sadly, much more concerned about appearing to “care” about education than doing what needs to be done.