Tag: obama

Obama’s Budget Cuts

The Obama administration has issued a modest list of budget cuts for programs that are “duplicative” and “ineffective.”

That’s a good start for spending reforms, but a more substantial way to end “duplication” would be to terminate all $500 billion of federal subsidies sent to state governments each year, which duplicate properly state-level activities such as highway building.

Further, cutting some “ineffective” programs ignores the broader question of whether programs represent just and legitimate uses of government power. We can make farm subsidies more “effective,” for example, but that does not make it ethical to transfer $20 billion each year from hard-working taxpayers to often high-income farm businesses.

I’d like to see the Obama administration attack Washington’s overspending problem in a more dramatic and fundamental way.

For now, here’s a great place to start:

Mortgage ‘Safe Harbor’ Anything But Safe

After the Senate’s rejection last week of allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts, the so called “cramdown” provisions, it was starting to look as if the Senate cared about respecting private contracts. Sadly, such concern has been short-lived.

Tucked away in the mortgage bill is a provision that gives servicers of mortgages, that is, the entities that collect payments and perform modifications on behalf of the actual investors in mortgages, a “safe harbor” from any litigation by investors if the servicer chooses to follow the interests of the borrower or the government, rather than fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the investors.

Supporters of the safe harbor claim that too many foreclosures have taken place due to contractual restrictions on the ability of servicers to modify mortgages in a manner that would allow borrowers to stay in their homes. Most pooling and servicing agreements allow mortgage modifications without the investors’ approval if the modification increases the net present value of the mortgage. However, if the mortgage modification resulted in a loss to the investor, over what they would recover in a foreclosure, then they are not allowed under current contracts. The safe harbor intends to fix this “problem” by allowing the servicer to impose additional losses on investors, as long as that servicer follows President Obama’s foreclosure plan.

Allowing parties to a contract to ignore their contractual obligations as long as they sign-on to presidential initiatives is a dangerous precedent, and one that will ultimately raise the cost of entering into and enforcing contracts.

As these costs will have to be borne by someone, it is likely in the future that these efforts at undermining contracts in our credit markets will result in higher interest rates for all borrowers.

An attempt was made by Senator Corker to modify this provision, restoring some protections for basic contract rights. Rather than taking the opportunity to reduce the damage done to contracts from this provision, the Senate rejected Senator Corker’s amendment by a rather large margin.

After the President’s recent attacks on minority debt-holders in Chrysler, the President’s support for mortgage cramdown, and now the Senate moving on the so-called “safe harbor” provisions, it is becoming increasing clear that investors themselves will soon be in need of a safe harbor from Washington.

Pakistan Troops Pour into Swat Valley

The Associated Press reports that Pakistani troops have taken the fight to militants in the Swat valley, ending a three month truce between the government and Taliban forces.

As I argued in the Washington Times almost a year ago, Pakistani government peace deals with militants have a tendency to collapse. Thus, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the latest “Shariah for peace deal” in Swat already begin to fray.

With this in mind, U.S. policymakers and defense planners must keep in mind the constraints Pakistani leaders are operating under. After 9/11, Pakistan was caught in an unenviable and contradictory position: the need to ally openly with the United States and the desire to discreetly preserve their militant assets as a hedge to Indian influence.

For example, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistan’s Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, led large anti-US, anti-Muaharraf, and pro-Taliban rallies in major Pakistani cities after the U.S. began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan. JUI and other influential Islamist organizations fiercely criticized Musharraf and the military for aligning with the United States and Pervez Musharraf himself was condemned within Pakistan for aligning with America in the war on terror. This dynamic has not gone away.

As I argue here, Pakistan’s six-decade rivalry with India is the biggest impediment to success in Afghanistan. It’s an open secret that elements of Pakistan’s military-dominated national intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), assist the powerful jihadist insurgency U.S. and NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan; Pakistan’s objective is to blunt the rising influence of their rapidly growing nemesis, India, which strongly supports Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime. Thus far, the United States has been unable to encourage Pakistan to ignore its traditional rival and ultimately, Pakistan’s civilian leaders and defense planners must determine if insurgents or India poses a greater threat.

Unfortunately, aerial drone strikes and other stop-gap measures do little to address the strategic drift between Washington and Islamabad. Unless President Obama can reassure hawks within Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus that India no longer poses an existential threat to their country (a promise impossible to guarantee) then the U.S.-NATO stalemate in Afghanistan will persist.

Questions for Heritage: REAL ID

The Heritage Foundation’s “The Foundry” blog has a post up called “Questions for Secretary Napolitano: Real ID.”

Honest advocates on two sides of an issue can come to almost perfectly opposite views, and this provides an example, because I find the post confused, wrong, or misleading in nearly every respect.

Let’s give it a brief fisking. Below, the language from the post is in italics, and my comments are in roman text:

Does the Obama Administration support the implementation of the Real ID Act?

(Hope not … .)

Congress has passed two bills that set Real ID standards for driver’s licenses in all U.S. jurisdictions.

REAL ID was a federal law that Congress passed in haste as an attachment to a military spending bill in early 2005. To me, “REAL ID standards” are the standards in the REAL ID Act. I’m not sure what other bill the post refers to.

Given the legitimate fear of REAL ID creating a federal national ID database, section 547 of the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2009 barred the creation of a new federal database or federal access to state databases with the funds in that bill. (Thus, these things will be done with other funds later.)

The Court Security Improvement Act allowed federal judges and Supreme Court Justices to withhold their addresses from the REAL ID database system, evidently because the courts don’t believe the databases would be secure.

And in the last Congress, bills were introduced to repeal REAL ID in both the House and Senate. Congress has been backing away from REAL ID since it was rammed through, with Senators like Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calling REAL ID unworkable.

It’s unclear what the import of the sentence is, but if it’s trying to convey that there is a settled consensus around the REAL ID law, that is not supported by its treatment in Congress.

The Real ID legislation does not create a federal identification card, but it does set minimum security standards for driver’s licenses.

This sentence is correct, but deceptive.

REAL ID sets federal standards for state identification cards and drivers’ licenses, refusing them federal acceptance if they don’t meet these standards. Among those standards is uniformity in the data elements and a nationally standardized machine readable technology. Interoperable databases and easily scanned cards mean that state-issued cards would be the functional equivalent of a federally issued card.

People won’t be fooled if their national ID cards have the flags of their home states on them. When I testified to the Michigan legislature in 2007, I parodied the argument that a state-issued card is not a national ID card: “My car didn’t hit you — the bumper did!”

All states have either agreed to comply with these standards or have applied for an extension of the deadline.

It’s true that all states have either moved toward complying or not, but that’s not very informative. What matters is that a dozen states have passed legislation barring their own participation in the national ID plan. A couple of states received deadline extensions from the Department of Homeland Security despite refusing to ask for them. Things are not going well for REAL ID.

Secure identification cards will make fraudulent documents more difficult to obtain and will also simplify employers’ efforts to check documents when verifying employer eligibility.

It’s true that REAL ID would make it a little bit harder to get - or actually to use - fraudulent documents, because it would add some very expensive checks into the processes states use when they issue cards.

It’s not secure identification cards that make fraudulent documents harder to obtain - the author of this post has the security problems jumbled. But, worse, he or she excludes mentioning that a national ID makes it more valuable to use fraudulent documents. When a thing is made harder to do, but proportionally more valuable to do, you’ll see more of it. REAL ID is not a recipe for a secure identity system; it’s a recipe for a more expensive and invasive, but less secure identity system.

Speaking of invasive, this sentence is a confession that REAL ID is meant to facilitate background checks on American workers before they can work. This is a process I wrote about in a paper subtitled “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.” The dream of easy federal background checks on all American workers will never materialize, and we wouldn’t want that power in the hands of the federal government even if we could have it.

Real ID is a sensible protection against identify fraud.

The Department of Homeland Security’s own economic analysis of REAL ID noted that only 28% of all reported incidents of identity theft in 2005 required the presentation of an identification document like a driver’s license. And it said REAL ID would reduce those frauds “only to the extent that the [REAL ID] rulemaking leads to incidental and required use of REAL ID documents in everyday transactions, which is an impact that also depends on decisions made by State and local governments and the private sector.”

Translation: REAL ID would have a small, but speculative effect on identity fraud.

Congress is set to introduce legislation next week that could largely repeal the Real ID.

The bill I’ve seen is structured just like REAL ID was, and it requires states to create a national ID just like REAL ID did. REAL ID is dying, but the bill would revive REAL ID, trying to give it a different name.

Some groups oppose this version of REAL ID because it takes longer to drive all Americans into a national ID system and frustrates their plans to do background checks on all American workers. But it’s still the REAL ID Act’s basic plan for a national ID.

The Administration should put pressure on Congress to ensure that this legislation does not effectively eliminate the Real ID standards.

Why the administration would pressure Congress to maintain the national ID law in place - by any name - is beyond me. REAL ID is unworkable, unwanted, and unfixable.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed legislation as Arizona’s governor to reject the REAL ID Act. Her predecessor at DHS, Michael Chertoff, talked tough about implementing the law but came up just shy of lighting the paper bag in which he left it on Napolitano’s doorstep.

The REAL ID revival bill that is being so widely discussed is likely to be both the national ID plan that so many states have already rejected and deeply unsatisfying to the anti-immigrant crowd. Congress rarely fails to grasp a lose-lose opportunity like this, so I expect it will be introduced and to see it’s sponsors award themselves a great deal of self-congratulations for their courageous work. You can expect that to receive a fisking here too.

Obama Taking on ‘Tax Havens’

Jeff Zeleny at the New York Times Caucus Blog reports, “President Obama will present a set of proposals on Monday aimed at changing international tax policy, calling for the elimination of benefits for companies and wealthy individuals that harbor their cash in offshore accounts.”

Cato scholars have long made arguments in defense of tax havens. In The Wall Street Journal, Senior Fellow Richard Rahn outlined the policy the federal government should be taking instead:

The correct policy for the United States to follow is to reduce its corporate tax rate to make it internationally competitive, and to move toward a tax system that does not punish savings and productive investment so severely. We know from the experiences of many countries that reducing tax rates and simplifying the tax code improve both tax compliance and economic growth. Tax protectionism should be rejected because it is at least as destructive to economic growth and job creation as are tariffs on goods and services.

Cato scholar Daniel J. Mitchell narrated a three part video series on the subject, presenting the economic and moral cases for tax havens, and a final video that punctured myths associated with the practice.  

Mitchell spoke on Capitol Hill last month about the role of tax havens and in Foreign Policy magazine, Mitchell explained why tax havens are a blessing.

New at Cato

New articles, videos and Podcasts today:

  • In the Chicago Tribune, David Boaz questions whether Arlen Specter’s party change will take the Senate further to the left.
  • Watch Brandon Arnold discuss Obama’s first 100 days in office on BNN Canada.
  • For  more on Obama’s first 100 days, watch Gene Healy’s interview on AP TV.
  • Chris Preble will be on Capitol Hill again on May 11 with Jim Harper to explain why overreaction and misdirection play into the strategy of terrorism.
  • In Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast, legal scholar Ilya Shapiro discusses how a Supreme Court decision could change racial preference hiring laws in the United States.

In Ensuring Credit Card Holders’ ‘Rights,’ Congress May Actually Take Away Their Credit

With a vote expected today on the so-called Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights, the U.S. House is poised to follow up on President Obama’s finger-wagging rhetoric about fees and other perceived sins of the credit industry.

But Congress should keep in mind that credit cards have been a significant source of consumer liquidity during this downturn. Now is the worst time to push measures that would curtail the availability of consumer credit, and that is exactly what the Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights will do.

While few of us want to have to cover our basic living expenses on our credit card, that option is certainly better than going without those basic needs. The wide availability of credit cards has helped to significantly maintain some level of consumer purchasing during this downturn.

It was the massive under-pricing of risk, often at the urging of Washington, that brought on our current financial market crisis. To now pressure credit card companies not to raise their fees or more accurately price credit risk, will only reduce the availability of credit while undermining the financial viability of the companies, ultimately prolonging the recession and potentially increasing the cost of bank bailouts to the taxpayer.

The Federal Reserve recently issued regulations targeting practices in the credit card industry. While this regulation was itself overkill, it should be given an opportunity to work, and be modified if it results in significant contraction of credit. It is far easier to go back and change harmful regulations than legislation.