Tag: Social Security

Don’t Leave Room for Desert

Duncan “Atrios” Black sums up and amplifies on a much longer post by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as follows:

Just adding on to Glenn’s post, much opposition to the government actually doing anything decent for people comes from the idea that the government is going to take my tax money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. The problem is that for decades the Dems have tried to get around this by making sure policies and programs were relatively small and incremental, everything targeted and means tested. But doing that effectively confirmed the critics’ point. The big (giant) government programs which are most popular are the ones which are universal - Social Security and Medicare - and other less controversial government programs, like highway spending, are also perceived to benefit people across the board.

There’s a couple of interesting things going on here that seem worth unpacking.  The first is actually a legitimate point about how valid arguments against various kinds of redistribution tend, with unsettling ease, to shade into unsavory demonization of the folks on the receiving end of the transfer. Suppose someone suggests that the government should, either by regulation or direct subsidy, ensure that the indigent are provided with health care or that insolvent homeowners are protected from foreclosure. Now, there are a few types of objections people might raise. There’s an argument from efficiency and incentives: To the extent that the risks associated with individual financial or lifestyle choices are borne by the public, there’s a familiar problem of “moral hazard” reducing incentives for prudence. And there’s an argument from property and autonomy, to the effect that even if people ought to help others in need, each person is entitled to decide whether and how to do so without compulsion. Neither of these implies any blanket judgment about the folks who find themselves in need of aid. The first argument does suggest that redistributive policy will make it rational for people to take more risks at the margin, but it does not follow from either that people who are having trouble meeting their mortgage payments, or people who get sick and cannot afford care, are bad or foolish or irresponsible or otherwise deserving of their fate. And it is a good thing for these arguments that no such conclusion follows, because it’s clearly not true.

Yet in popular political rhetoric, it’s disturbingly easy to find just such a leap being made. Think of Rick Santelli’s jeremiad against “losers” under foreclosure getting bailed out by government. Is it just that people are inherently spiteful or unkind? In fact, the tendency to assume that people who are badly off must deserve it may be a result of what social psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. In brief, faced with evidence that the world is often arbitrary and unfair, and that bad things often happen to good people, many of us prefer to preserve our faith in a basically fair and benevolent universe by assuming that the badly off must somehow deserve their fates—which is a stronger and (I think) rather morally uglier proposition than the more plausible notion that people are often significantly responsible for their fates.

There are at least three reasons to take some care to avoid this implication, given how easily human beings fall into it. The first is just that it’s an ugly and callous attitude to have toward people who will often deserve our compassion whether or not they ought to receive government aid. The second is that people will readily—and sometimes intentionally—misconstrue an argument about incentives as an argument about the moral worthiness or personal virtue of the proposed recipients, which does not make for a particularly fruitful conversation. Finally, there’s a paradoxically quite authoritarian implicit premise lurking behind this sort of argument—to wit, that it’s the job of the government  to determine who is or is not morally deserving of its largess, and that the central question is whether this or that particular class of prospective recipients qualifies. That’s a frame people across the spectrum ought to be uncomfortable with.

As Atrios points out, strategic response to this on the part of progressives has been to embed what are essentially welfare programs within an elaborate—and functionally, if not politically, superfluous—superstructure of universal social insurance. My colleague Will Wilkinson has pressed this point cogently in the context of Social Security. The rationale for the program is ultimately that we hope it will prevent people from being mired in poverty in old age. There is no sane reason, on this rationale, for cutting Bill Gates a check when he reaches the age of eligibility—but we do it this way because progressives believe, perhaps correctly, that a means-tested aid program for the indigent elderly would be more politically vulnerable to cuts. Which, I think, underscores the perverse effect of thinking in terms of the desert of the recipients, since there’s no actually-valid argument on which a universal need-blind benefit makes more sense than a narrow means-tested one. So one more reason to eschew desert-centered political discourse: It gives rise to policy that’s less intelligent whether your underlying commitments are progressive or libertarian.

Assessing the Claim that CDT Opposes a National ID

It was good of Ari Schwartz to respond last week to my recent post querying whether the Center for Democracy and Technology outright opposes a national ID or simply “does not support” one.

Ari says CDT does oppose a national ID, and I believe that he honestly believes that. But it’s worth taking a look at whether the group’s actions are consistent with opposition to a national ID. I believe CDT’s actions – most recently its support of the PASS ID Act – support the creation of a national ID.

(The title of his post and some of his commentary suggest I have engaged in rhetorical excess and mischaracterized his views. Please do judge for yourself whether I’m being shrill or unfair, which is not my intention.)

First I want to address an unusual claim of Ari’s – that we already have a national ID system. If that is true, his support for PASS ID is more sensible because it is an opportunity to inject federal privacy protections into the existing system (putting aside whether it is a federal responsibility to manage a state system or systems).

Do We Already Have a National ID?

I have heard a few people suggest that we have a national ID in the form of the Social Security Number. I believe the SSN is a national identifier, but it fails the test of a national identification card or system because it is not used for identification. As we know well from the scourge of identity fraud, there is no definitive way to tie an SSN to a person. The SSN is not used for identification (at least not reliably and not alone), which is the third part of my national ID definition. (Senator Schumer might like the SSN to form the basis of a national ID system, of course.)

But Ari says something different. He does not claim any definition of “national ID” or “national ID system.” Instead, he appeals to the authority of a 2003 report from a National Academy of Sciences group entitled “Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of Privacy.” That report indeed says, “State-issued driver’s licenses are a de facto nationwide identity system” – on the second-to-last substantive page of its second-to-last substantive chapter

But this is a highly selective use of quotation. The year before, that same group issued a report called “IDs – Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide Identity Systems.” From the beginning and throughout, that report discussed the many issues around proposals to create a “nationwide” identity system. If the NAS panel had already concluded that we have a national ID system, it would not have issued an entire report critiquing that prospect. It would have discussed the existing one as such. Ari’s one quote doesn’t do much to support the notion that we already have a national ID.

What’s more, CDT’s own public comments on the proposed REAL ID Act regulations in May 2007 said that its data-intensive “one person – one license/ID card – one record” policy would ”create a national identification system.”

If a national ID system already existed, the new policy wouldn’t create one. This is another authority at odds with the idea that we have a national ID system already.

Support of PASS ID might be forgiven if we had a national ID system and if PASS ID would improve it. But the claim we already have one is weak.

“Political Reality” and Its Manufacture

But the heart of Ari’s claim is that supporting PASS ID reflects good judgment in light of political reality.

Despite the fact that there are no federal politicians, no governors and no appointed officials from any party publicly supporting repeal of REAL ID today, CDT still says that repeal is an acceptable option. However, PASS ID would get to the same outcome, or better, in practice and has the added benefit of actually being a political possibility… . I realize that Harper has invested a lot of time fighting for the word “repeal,” but at some point we have to look at the political reality.

A “Dear Colleague” letter inviting support for a bill to repeal REAL ID circulated on the Hill last week. How many legislators will hesitate to sign on to the bill because they have heard that the PASS ID Act, and not repeal of REAL ID, is CDT’s preferred way forward?

The phrase “political reality” is more often used by advocates to craft the political reality they prefer than to describe anything truly real. Like the observer effect in experimental research, statements about “political reality” change political reality.  Convince enough people that a thing is “political reality” and the sought-after political reality becomes, simply, reality.

I wrote here before about how the National Governors Association, sensing profit, has worked diligently to make REAL ID a “political reality.” And it has certainly made some headway (though not enough). In the last Congress, the only legislation aimed at resolving the REAL ID impasse were bills to repeal REAL ID. Since then, the political reality is that Barack Obama was elected president and an administration far less friendly to a national ID took office. Democrats – who are on average less friendly to a national ID – made gains in both the House and Senate.

But how are political realities crafted? It has often been described as trying to get people on a bus. To pass a bill, you change it to get more people on the bus than get off.

The REAL ID bus was missing some important riders. It had security hawks, the Department of Homeland Security, anti-immigrant groups, DMV bureaucrats, public safety advocates, and the Bush Administration. But it didn’t have: state legislators and governors, privacy and civil liberties groups, and certain religious communities, among others.

PASS ID is for the most part an effort to bring on state legislators and governors. The NGA is hoping to broker the sale of state power to the federal government, locking in its own institutional role as a supplicant in Washington, D.C. for state political leaders.

But look who else was hanging around the bus station looking for rides! – CDT, the nominal civil liberties group. Alone it jumped on the bus, communicating to others less familiar with the issues that PASS ID represented a good way forward.

Happily, few have taken this signal. The authors of PASS ID were unable to escape the name “REAL ID,” which is a far more powerful beacon flashing national ID and all the ills that entails than CDT’s signal to the contrary.

This is not the first time that CDT’s penchant for compromise has assisted the national ID effort, though.

Compromising Toward National ID

The current push for a national ID has a short history that I summarized three years ago in a righteously titled post on the TechLiberationFront blog: “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil II.”

Briefly, in December 2003, a group called the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age recommended “both near-term measures and a longer-term research agenda to increase the reliability of identification while protecting privacy.” (Never mind that false identification was not a modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks.)

The 9/11 Commission, citing Markle, found that “[t]he federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses.” In December 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, including national standards for drivers’ licenses and identification cards, the national ID system recommended by the Markle Task Force. And in May 2005, Congress passed a strengthened national ID system in the REAL ID Act.

An earlier post, “The Markle Foundation: Font of Evil,” has more – and the text of a PoliTech debate between myself and Stewart Baker. Security hawk Baker was a participant in the Markle Foundation group, as was national ID advocate Amitai Etzioni. So was the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Jim Dempsey.

I had many reservations about the Markle Foundation Task Force and its work product, and in an April 2005 meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee, I asked Dempsey about what qualified people to serve on that task force, whether people were invited, and what might exclude them. A month before REAL ID passed, he said:

I think the Markle Task Force at least sought balance. And people came to the table committed to dialogue. And those who came with a particular point of view, I think, were all committed to listening. And I think people’s minds were changed… . What we were committed to in the Markle Task Force was changing our minds and trying to find a common ground and to try to understand each other. And we spent the time at it. And that, I think, is reflected in the product of the task force.

There isn’t a nicer, more genuine person working in public policy than Jim Dempsey. He is the consummate honest broker, and this statement of his intentions for the Markle Foundation I believe to be characteristically truthful and earnest.

But consider the possibility that others participating on the Markle Foundation Task Force did not share Jim’s predilection for honest dialogue and compromise. It is even possible that they mouthed these ideals while working intently to advance their goals, including creation of a national ID.

Stewart Baker, who I personally like, is canny and wily, and he wants to win. I see no evidence that Amitai Etzioni changed his mind about having a national ID when he authored the recommendation in the Markle report that ultimately produced REAL ID.

Other Markle participants I have talked to were unaware of what the report said about identity-based security, national identity standards, or a national ID. They don’t even know (or didn’t at the time) that lending your name to a report also lends it your credibility. Whatever privacy or civil liberties advocates were involved with the Markle Task Force got rolled – big-time – by the pro-national-ID team.

CDT is a sophisticated Washington, D.C. operation. It is supposed to understand these dynamics. I can’t give it the pass that outsiders to Washington might get. By committing to compromise rather than any principle, and by lending its name to the Markle Foundation Task Force report, CDT gave credibility to a bad idea – the creation of a national ID.

CDT helped produce the REAL ID Act, which has taken years of struggle to beat back. And now they are at it again with “pragmatic” support for PASS ID.

CDT has been consistently compromising on national ID issues while proponents of a national ID have been doggedly and persistently pursuing their interests. This is not the behavior of a civil liberties organization. It’s why I asked in the post that precipitated this debate whether there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Despite words to the contrary, I don’t see evidence that CDT opposes having a national ID. It certainly works around the edges to improve privacy in the context of having a national ID – reducing the wetness of the water, as it were – but at key junctures, CDT’s actions have tended to support having a U.S. national ID. I remain open to seeing contrary evidence.

Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying

There’s lots of outrage in the blogosphere over revelations that some of the biggest recipients of the federal government’s $700 billion TARP bailout have been spending money on lobbyists. Good point. It’s bad enough to have our tax money taken and given to banks whose mistakes should have caused them to fail. It’s adding insult to injury when they use our money – or some “other” money; money is fungible – to lobby our representatives in Congress, perhaps for even more money.

Get taxpayers’ money, hire lobbyists, get more taxpayers’ money. Nice work if you can get it.

But the outrage about the banks’ lobbying is a bit late. As far back as 1985, Cato published a book, Destroying Democracy: How Government Funds Partisan Politics, that exposed how billions of taxpayers’ dollars were used to subsidize organizations with a political agenda, mostly groups that lobbied and organized for bigger government and more spending. The book led off with this quotation from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

The book noted that the National Council of Senior Citizens had received more than $150 million in taxpayers’ money in four years. A more recent report estimated that AARP had received over a billion dollars in taxpayer funding. Both groups, of course, lobby incessantly for more spending on Social Security and Medicare. The Heritage Foundation reported in 1995, “Each year, the American taxpayers provide more than $39 billion in grants to organizations which may use the money to advance their political agendas.”

In 1999 Peter Samuel and Randal O’Toole found that EPA was a major funder of groups lobbying for “smart growth.” So these groups were pushing a policy agenda on the federal government, but the government itself was paying the groups to lobby it.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for the very lobbying that seeks to suck more dollars out of the taxpayers. But then, taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize banks, car companies, senior citizen groups, environmentalist lobbies, labor unions, or other private organizations in the first place.

Bernie Madoff and Government Fraud

In an op-ed Chris Edwards and I wrote for National Review Online yesterday, we shed light on the $100 billion or more in government subsidies pilfered by recipients through fraud and abuse:

Every year, criminals and cheats pilfer over $100 billion — that’s $40 billion more than Bernie Madoff scammed off his investors — in federal benefits to which they are not legally entitled. Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, refundable tax credits, and many other programs are targets for looting.

Chris and I focused on fraud and abuse perpetrated by the recipients of taxpayer largesse, and Bernie Madoff made for a good comparison. But as the great economist and Cato adjunct scholar Robert Higgs also pointed out yesterday, “Bernie Madoff Was Only a Petty Crook Compared with Uncle Sam.”  Typically, Higgs doesn’t mince words when it comes to comparisons between private and public Ponzi schemes:

Madoff, in contrast to the government, carried out his fraud in a civilized way: he merely misrepresented what he was doing, purporting to invest his clients’ money and to obtain a high rate of return on these investments. People dealt with him voluntarily. Those who suspected something was fishy did not do business with him, and some people went so far as to give substantial information to the SEC to show that Madoff’s business had to be fraudulent (which information the SEC ignored for years on end, of course).

The leaders of the U.S. government have carried out their Social Security fraud—essentially a Ponzi scheme, in substance exactly the same as Madoff’s scheme—since 1935… . The U.S. government, however, does not bother to claim any prowess in investing the money it forces people to surrender to its scheme. It admits that the ‘client’s’ return is now close to zero (varying a bit according to the client’s age and other factors). Nor does it carry out its admitted Ponzi scheme in a civilized way. Not only is participation in the scheme involuntary, but the government threatens violence against anyone who fails to participate as it commands him. Thus, the government operates its Ponzi scheme in a markedly more thuggish manner than Bernie would ever have dreamed of. He might have been a crook, but he was not a thug.

What’s a Trillion Dollars Among Friends?

If you’re Barack Obama, money is no object. The national debt exceeds $11 trillion. We’ve had about $13 trillion worth of bail-outs over the last year. The deficit this year will run nearly $2 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office warns of a cumulative deficit of some $10 trillion over the next decade.

Now Obama-style health care “reform” will add another $1 trillion in increased spending over the same period. And the ultimate cost likely would be higher, perhaps much higher. Reports the Congressional Budget Office:

According to our preliminary assessment, enacting the proposal would result in a net increase in federal budget deficits of about $1.0 trillion over the 2010-2019 period. When fully implemented, about 39 million individuals would obtain coverage through the new insurance exchanges. At the same time, the number of people who had coverage through an employer would decline by about 15 million (or roughly 10 percent), and coverage from other sources would fall by about 8 million, so the net decrease in the number of people uninsured would be about 16 million or 17 million.

These new figures do not represent a formal or complete cost estimate for the draft legislation, for several reasons. The estimates provided do not address the entire bill—only the major provisions related to health insurance coverage. Some details have not been estimated yet, and the draft legislation has not been fully reviewed. Also, because expanded eligibility for the Medicaid program may be added at a later date, those figures are not likely to represent the impact that more comprehensive proposals—which might include a significant expansion of Medicaid or other options for subsidizing coverage for those with income below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—would have both on the federal budget and on the extent of insurance coverage.

Then there is the more than $100 trillion in unfunded Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Just who is going to pay all these bills?

Don’t worry, be happy.

E-Verify: The Surveillance Solution

The federal government will keep data about every person submitted to the “E-Verify” background check system for 10 years.

At least that’s my read of the slightly unclear notice describing the “United States Citizenship Immigration Services 009 Compliance Tracking and Monitoring System” in today’s Federal Register. (A second notice exempts this data from many protections of the Privacy Act.)

To make sure that people aren’t abusing E-Verify, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Verification Division, Monitoring and Compliance Branch will watch how the system is used. It will look for misuse, such as when a single Social Security Number is submitted to the system many times, which suggests that it is being used fraudulently.

How do you look for this kind of misuse (and others, more clever)? You collect all the data that goes into the system and mine it for patterns consistent with misuse.

The notice purports to limit the range of people whose data will be held in the system, listing “Individuals who are the subject of E-Verify or SAVE verifications and whose employer is subject to compliance activities.” But if the Monitoring Compliance Branch is going to find what it’s looking for, it’s going to look at data about all individuals submitted to E-Verify. “Employer subject to compliance activities” is not a limitation because all employers will be subject to “compliance activities” simply for using the system.

In my paper on electronic employment eligibility verification systems like E-Verify, I wrote how such systems “would add to the data stores throughout the federal government that continually amass information about the lives, livelihoods, activities, and interests of everyone—especially law-abiding citizens.”

It’s in the DNA of E-Verify to facilitate surveillance of every American worker. Today’s Federal Register notice is confirmation of that.