Tag: states

Debt Aggravates Spending Disease

USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon reports that ”state governments are rushing to borrow money to take advantage of cheap and plentiful credit at a time when tax collections are tumbling.” That will allow them to “avoid some painful spending cuts,” Cauchon notes, but it will sadly impose more pain on taxpayers down the road.

When politicians have the chance to act irresponsibly, they will act irresponsibly. Give them low interest rates and they go on a borrowing binge. The result is that they are in over their heads with massive piles of bond debt on top of the huge unfunded obligations they have built up for state pension and health care plans.

The chart shows that total state and local government debt soared 93 percent this decade. It jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to $2.3 trillion by the second quarter of 2009, according to Federal Reserve data (Table D.3).

Government debt has soared during good times and bad. During recessions, politicians say that they need to borrow to avoid spending cuts. But during boomtimes, such as from 2003 to 2008, they say that borrowing makes sense because an expanding economy can handle a higher debt load. I’ve argued that there is little reason for allowing state and local government politicians to issue bond debt at all.

Unfortunately, the political urge to spend has resulted in the states shoving a massive pile of debt onto future taxpayers at the same time that they have built up huge unfunded obligations for worker retirement plans.

We’ve seen how uncontrolled debt issuance has encouraged spending sprees at the federal level. Sadly, it appears that the same debt-fueled spending disease has spread to the states and the cities.

A Federal Ban on Texting While Driving?

text-messaging-while-drivingIn response to claims that texting-while-driving (TWD) causes traffic accidents, Congress is considering “a federal bill that would force states to ban texting while driving if they want to keep receiving federal highway money.”

This approach to forcing a particular policy on the states mimics the 1984 Federal Uniform Driving Age Act, which threatened to withhold federal highway funds unless states adopted a 21-year-old minimum legal drinking age. The justification for that law was reducing traffic fatalities among 18-20 year olds.

A federal ban on TWD is not compelling:

1. Federal imposition of the 21-year old minimum drinking age did not save lives.

2. A ban on texting might increase other distractions: adjusting the radio, putting on makeup, eating a sandwich, reading a map, and so on. Relatedly, the evidence that TWD causes accidents is far from convincing. Traffic fatalities per vehicle mile travelled have declined substantially over the past 15 years, despite the explosion in text messaging.

3. TWD has benefits, not just costs. Truckers, for example, claim that

Crisscrossing the country, hundreds of thousands of long-haul truckers use computers in their cabs to get directions and stay in close contact with dispatchers, saving precious minutes that might otherwise be spent at the side of the road.

4. If the benefits of banning TWD become clear, most states will ban on their own.

Thus laws that penalize TWD might make sense. But this is an issue for states, not the federal government.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z.

Tuesday Links

Preventive Detention: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Glenn Greenwald writes,

By all accounts, the White House is going to unveil its proposal for indefinite detention within the next four to eight weeks, and it has begun dispatching proponents of that scheme to lay the rhetorical groundwork. In The Washington Post today, one of the proposal’s architects – Law Professor Robert Chesney, a member of Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force – showcased the trite and manipulative tactics that will be used by advocates of indefinite detention to win support for their radical program [anyone doubting that detention without trials is radical should recall that Obama’s own White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law”; New York Times reporter William Glaberson wrote that “Obama’s detention policy “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself”; Sen. Russ Feingold warned that it “violates basic American values,” “is likely unconstitutional,” and “is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world”; The New York TimesBob Herbert said that “Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention”; and the Obama policy’s most vigorous Congressional proponents are Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham].

According to Chesney, though, the real extremists are those “on the left” who oppose preventive detention; those who believe that radical liberties such as criminal charges, trials and due process are necessary before the state can put someone in a cage for life; those who agree with Thomas Jefferson that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Chesney insists that such people (these “leftists”) are (as always) the mirror images of the extremists on the Right, who “carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.” These two equally partisan, radical, extremist sides (i.e., those who believe in due process and trials and those who oppose them) are – sadly – “shrink[ing] the political space within which reasonable, sustainable policies [i.e., Chesney’s preventive detention scheme] might be crafted with bipartisan support.”

…This is how political debates are typically carried out in Washington by the Serious Centrists and Responsible Adults. Chesney writes an entire Op-Ed defending the soon-to-be-unveiled preventive detention policy without describing a single aspect of it. To Serious people, the substance of the policy is irrelevant. What matters is that anyone who opposes it is a radical, partisan, shrill extremist. Conversely, as long as the Obama administration stays somewhere in the middle of the two sides – between Tom Coburn and Russ Feingold – then it proves they are being sensible, moderate and responsible, regardless of how extreme and dangerous their proposal actually is, and regardless of how close to Coburn and as far from Feingold as they end up.

No system of justice is perfect. But it’s no improvement to decide that in certain cases we can just do better without one.

All that such a policy does is to move the act of judging back one level – and to locate it at the point where someone, somewhere decides that this particular case doesn’t get judged in the usual way. And so the accused gets “detention” rather than “trial, followed possibly by prison.” But we are still putting a person, and perhaps a dangerous person, in a cage, are we not? The acts of judging and of punishing are still there, and we have hidden them only from ourselves.

It is no improvement to shift the fundamental problem of justice to a different location – out of open courtrooms, out of review, out of established legal tradition – and into a shadowy realm where potentially anything goes. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that it is a step forward or a refinement in the criminal law to have its work done somewhere else, by someone else. The work goes on, and with it all of the associated dangers. Western legal philosophy has spent centuries forcing these dangers out into the open, so that we may confront them directly.

But oddly, Professor Chesney is actually right in one respect:

The problem is twofold. First, the national dialogue has been dominated by a pair of dueling narratives that together reduce the space available for nuanced, practical solutions that may require compromise from both camps. On the one hand, critics of the government’s policies promiscuously invoke the post-Sept. 11 version of the Imperial Presidency narrative, reflexively depicting security-oriented policies in terms of executive branch power aggrandizement (with de rigueur references to former vice president Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, David Addington; or Justice Department attorney John Yoo, if not all three). On the other hand, supporters of the government’s policies just as carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.

Second, individual issues in the debate over detention policy are often framed in stark and incompatible terms. Take, for example, the Guantanamo detainees, who are portrayed in some quarters as innocent bystanders to the last man and in other quarters as the “worst of the worst.” While both extremes are misleading, their influence is pervasive.

True enough. A reasonable middle position? Give the detainees trials in which they can individually prove their guilt or innocence. Surely they aren’t all guilty, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone claim that they are all innocent, either. The truth really is somewhere in between, and it just so happens that we already have a mechanism for sorting out muddled cases like these.

Virginia Bureaucrats Look to Extort Yoga Instructors

Last month I blogged about attempts by various state governments to regulate yoga instructors by forcing them to obtain a costly government license.  Today the Washington Post has a story on Virginia’s efforts to place the government boot on the necks of its yogis:

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia recently declared that studios offering yoga teacher instruction must be certified. That involves a $2,500 fee, audits, annual charges of at least $500 and a pile of paperwork.

Let’s call this what it is: extortion.  And if you still harbor the illusion that bureaucrats don’t sit around thinking up ways to pilfer more money from productive members of society, think again:

In Virginia, yoga teacher training first hit the state’s radar late last year after a state employee conducting school audits happened upon an advertisement, said Linda Woodley, the higher education council’s director of private and out-of-state postsecondary education.  Before that, Woodley said, ‘I was not aware they existed, and they were not aware we existed.’

Well congratulations, Ms. Woodley – the yogi community now knows you exist.

Studios can teach lotus poses to as many clients as they like, state officials said. But teacher training programs, which the state views as similar to dog grooming, massage therapy or other classes intended to prepare someone for a job, must be certified under state law. (For instance, Simply Ballroom Dance Teachers Academy, Danny Ward Horseshoeing School and Jiggers Bartending School are certified.)

Virginia citizens should sleep sound at night knowing ballroom dance teachers, horseshoers, and bartenders are government certified.

Woodley said it’s also about ensuring that students who plunk down cash for training programs that can run a few thousand dollars are getting their money’s worth. Plus, she said, being listed on the government registry will give schools a marketing tool, like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Good Housekeeping seal of approval?  Ladies and gentleman, this is the mentality of the state bureaucrats that the federal government has tasked with “stimulating” the economy with YOUR money.

Bringing the States Back In

afghanistanIt’s an annoying, hackneyed trope of foreign policy types to say “if you want to understand X, you have to understand Y.”  That said, let me engage in a little bit of it.

What’s going on in Afghanistan, we’re supposed to believe, is about terrorism, failed states, economic development, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, human rights, and some other stuff.  And to an extent, it is about each of those things.  But to my mind, if you want to get a handle on what’s driving events over there, and on its historical status as a plaything of regional and extraregional powers, you ought to read this article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The themes that permeate the article are familiar: States as the primary actors in international politics, their uncertainty about other states’ intentions, the fundamental zero-sumness of security competition…somebody should cook up a theory or two on this stuff.

Eventually–although in fairness, God only knows when–we’re going to leave Afghanistan.  When that happens, India and Pakistan are still going to live in the neighborhood.  They’d each prefer to have lots of influence in Afghanistan, and to preclude the other from having too much.  Accordingly, they’re both trying to set up structures and relationships that would, in the ideal scenario, let them control Afghanistan.  In a less-than-ideal scenario, they’d like enough influence to undermine the other’s control of the country.  Until you grasp that nettle, you’re really just fumbling around in the dark.

Find a solution for that in your COIN manual.

False Accounts of Massachusetts’ Health Reforms

Recent editorials in both the Boston Globe and The New York Times contained some staggering falsehoods about the cost of Massachusetts’ health reforms.  Here is a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Globe:

The editorial “Mass. bashers take note: Health reform is working” [Aug. 5] states that “the cost to the state taxpayer” of the Massachusetts health reforms is “about $88 million a year.”  That claim is unquestionably false.  The cost to state taxpayers is 19 times that amount, while the total cost is 24 times that amount.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation explains that the $88-million figure represents not the total cost to the state government, but the average annual increase in the state government’s costs.  Worse, the editorial completely ignores new spending by the federal government and the private sector, which account for 80 percent of the law’s cost.

According to Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates, health reform will cost at least $2.1 billion in 2009.  The total cost to state taxpayers is at least $1.7 billion and growing.  (The fact that other states’ taxpayers bear the balance should not be a source of pride.)

One wonders how such a falsehood comes to appear on a leading editorial page.

And one I sent to the Times:

The Massachusetts Model” [Aug. 9] understates the cost of the Massachusetts health plan.

The editorial claims, “the federal and state governments each pa[y] half of the added costs, or about $350 million” in 2010.  The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which generated that estimate, assumes that Massachusetts will eliminate $200 million in subsidies to safety-net hospitals next year.  Given that those hospitals are currently suing the Commonwealth and exerting political pressure to increase such payments, those assumed cuts are hypothetical.  More certain is the foundation’s estimate that the on-budget cost will reach $817 billion in 2009.

Yet the foundation’s estimates also show that the law (1) pushes 60 percent of its cost off-budget and onto the private sector; (2) costs about three times the $700 million that the editorial suggests, and (3) is covering 432,000 previously uninsured residents at a cost of about $6,700 each, or $27,000 for a family of four.  That’s more than twice the average cost of family coverage nationwide.

The editorial admonishes that “the public should demand an honest assessment, from critics and supporters” of the Massachusetts health plan.  Indeed.

A fuller response to these spurious claims may be found here.

I wish I could run a newspaper, so I could print false stuff and then not correct it.  Oh wait, I do blog…