Topic: Cato Publications

That Other Lesson We’re Not Learning from Iraq

In the wake of last November’s election, there has been talk of a paradigm shift in American politics and a new public interest in “progressive ideas.” I’m not sure that a one-Senate-seat legislative advantage marks a “shift,” but there certainly is much chest-thumping on the left, and intense rallying on the right.

Both edges of the political spectrum are promising their adherents that they will redouble their efforts to molding the nation according to their “ideals.” Imagine: our decisions about our persons, our relationships, our children and their education, our health, our property, our political activity, our activities in the marketplace, etc., will be pushed toward even greater conformity with the preferences of Washington politicians. Meanwhile, those individuals with different preferences will suffer the eternal hostility of a Nancy Pelosi or a Trent Lott or a John McCain.

Doesn’t this sound just a bit (a nonviolent bit, yes, but still a bit) like the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds in Iraq? Why would we want to follow that model, and further erode the individual liberty model that once served us so well?

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read the Cato’s Letter abridged version of George Will’s remarks from last summer’s Friedman Prize dinner. One section is especially on point:

You go to spring training, and a baseball manager will tell you that his team is just two players away from the World Series. Unfortunately, they are Ruth and Gehrig.

Iraq is just four people away from paradise. They need a George Washington, a charismatic, iconic, talismanic figure, a symbol of national unity, above politics. They need an Alexander Hamilton, who could create a modern economy out of human dust. They need a James Madison, a genius of constitutional architecture, for getting factions to live together. And they need a John Marshall, a great jurist, to breathe life into a parchment. They need that and they need the astonishing social soil of the second half of the 18th century, from which such people sprank with profusion.

Which is to say that they’re not close.

And, it seems, we’re drifting further and further away, ourselves.

Enlightenment Thinking on the Move: Economic Freedom of the World Report Now in Arabic

Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues Fadi Haddadin and Ghaleb Hijazi, who run Cato’s Arabic website Misbahalhurriyya.org, an elegant Arabic edition of the 2006 Economic Freedom of the World Report has now been released. The Arabic version was unveiled at a recent meeting in Beirut organized by the Fraser Institute of Canada and the Friedrich-Naumann Stiftung of Germany that we attended with our colleague Andrei Illarionov.

The printing of the Arabic edition was gorgeous, as were the cool brochures and other materials that Fadi and Ghaleb had produced in Jordan. The entire report in Arabic is available online now for downloading in PDF format. The availability of such thorough-going comparisons should, I hope, introduce a greater degree of cause-and-effect thinking into discussions of policy, which would be a great advance over the conspiracy theorizing that is unfortunately so common in the Middle East. (Besides all the data, it includes William Easterly’s hard-hitting critique of “foreign aid,” “Freedom vs. Collectivism in Foreign Aid.”)

The printed edition of the report was also delivered to the economics and politics editors at An Nahar, Al Hayat, and other papers (many more are in the mail) and will be distributed at the upcoming meeting of Arab economists in Kuwait this weekend. Congratulations to Fadi and Ghaleb and their team for such a success.

Our colleague Andrei Illarionov gave a remarkable presentation, based on statistical data, on the roots of economic stagnation in the Arab Middle East. A condensed version will appear in the Arabic press, and — if I can cajole him — in English, Spanish, Russian, and other languages.

N.C. Police Shooting Results in Murder Charge — Or Not

Police shootings have come under sharp public scrutiny in recent weeks following incidents in New York and Atlanta that led to the deaths of, respectively, an unarmed bridegroom and an elderly woman. Not only have the involved officers been chastised for their actions, but so have internal affairs investigators whom critics claim are moving too slowly.

That criticism didn’t seem to apply to the investigation of a Dec. 1 police shooting of an allegedly unarmed community college student in Wilmington, N.C. Within two weeks, one of the involved officers was fired and charged with murder.

Or not.

Within 24 hours of the indictment, the foreman of the grand jury told the court that he accidentally checked the wrong box on the indictment form. The murder charge has since been rescinded.

For the latest developments in the N.C. shooting, visit Wilmington attorney Tom Kerner’s civil rights blog.

It is unclear what lesson should be drawn from the N.C. indictment/undo. Does it show that investigations need to move slowly to prevent errors? Does it mean the cops involved really were blameless? Or does it indicate that it’s difficult to hold law enforcement officers accountable for wrongful actions, even if those actions result in the death of one of the citizens that officers are forsworn to serve and protect?

One thing that is clear is that reports of questionable police shootings are becoming far too frequent, as followers of Radley Balko and Tim Lynch’s work already know. Here’s Radley’s excellent report on the militarization of American police units. And here is Cato’s map of botched police raids, which apparently may soon include new pushpins for Atlanta and Wilmington.

Customize Your Cato@Liberty RSS Feed

The Cato@Liberty blog is pleased to now offer you the ability to customize your @Liberty RSS feed by Category.  So, for example, if you’d like your feed to only contain posts that deal with Civil Liberties, Foreign Policy, and Health Care, you can go to our customization page and select those topics. We will then provide you with a personalized URL that you can enter into your feed reader or aggregator which will contain only the Cato@Liberty posts that relate to the topics you’ve selected.

That all having been said, we do hope (and recommend!) that you’ll continue to read all the Cato@Liberty posts.

“Data Mining Doesn’t Catch Terrorists”

That’s the quickest summary of a paper the Cato Institute issued today, which I co-wrote with Jeff Jonas, distinguished engineer and chief scientist with IBM’s Entity Analytic Solutions Group.

Data mining is the effort to gain knowledge from patterns in data.  A retailer can use data mining to sift through past customer interactions and learn more about potential new customers, but it can’t figure out which customers will actually come into a new store.  Terrorism is so rare in society that there are no patterns to search for.  Data mining has no capability to ferret out terrorists. 

It appears that the Automated Targeting System, which made news last week (because of its previously unknown focus on American travelers), uses data mining.  It sifts through information about border-crossers to assign them a “risk score.”

In a National Journal article published last week, Secretary of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff discussed ATS, revealing the need for government officials to get more clear about what they are doing, what works, and what doesn’t work.  According to NJ, Chertoff called ATS “the process by which we collect that information and analyze it to see what are the patterns and the relationships that tell us, for example, that a particular telephone number is associated with a terrorist, or something of that sort.”

Comparing the number of a traveler to phone numbers of terrorists is data matching and it is not what ATS does - or at least not the interesting part of what ATS does.  Data matching, link analysis, or “pulling strings” is a proven investigative method and, as we discuss in our paper, it’s what could have prevented the attacks of 9/11.

There should be forthright public discussion about whether a program like ATS, or any data mining program, can catch terrorists.  Such a program might help fight ordinary crime, where suitable patterns may be detectable.  But whether the public would countenance mass surveillance for ordinary crime control is a different question than whether it would accept such methods to prevent terrorism.

Be Wary of Late-Night Legislating

SANTA FE – I’ve received a few reports now that the bill Congress passed in the wee hours of this morning would increase the amount that most people can contribute to a health savings account (HSA). 

Most reports claim that the bill would let all those who qualify for an HSA (i.e., those with a high-deductible health insurance policy) contribute the maximum amount to their HSA ($2,850 for individuals and $5,650 for families; figures are for 2007), rather than set a lower contribution limit for those who have insurance deductibles lower than those maximum contribution limits. That’s probably a good idea, and moves HSAs in the direction we should be taking them.

However, the Washington Post reports this morning something different, and alarming.  Lori Montgomery writes:

The package also would repeal a $5,450 limit on contributions to health savings accounts, allowing taxpayers to shelter an unlimited amount of money as long as they choose certain insurance plans with high deductibles.

I doubt that description is accurate. But Thomas and the Government Printing Office don’t have copies of the full bill online yet, so you and I can’t check it out. 

If it is accurate, that means taxpayers would be able to put all their income into an HSA and only pay taxes on it when they withdraw funds for non-medical purposes. They would pay income taxes and a 10 percent tax on non-medical withdrawals. (That 10 percent tax would disappear after the account holder turns 65.) In many cases, they would pay no payroll taxes on those funds. Less money would flow into Social Security and Medicare, and many workers would accumulate fewer benefits under those programs.

All that sounds like good news to a libertarian. But it would be a messy change that would further complicate the tax code. And it would have been enacted with no public debate, which would make HSAs a prime target for the incoming Congress when Democrats might have otherwise ignored them.

But maybe what the Washington Post reported was inaccurate. I don’t know. And right now, I can’t find out. A populace that’s kept in the dark is just one of the perils of late-night legislating.

(In other health care news, that same bill would cancel a scheduled pay cut for doctors under Medicare, a prospect over which I’ve been unable to muster anything but, “So what?”)

Cavalcade of Risk #14

Greetings, risk-seekers. We’ve got a smorgasbord of entries for the 14th occasional Cavalcade of Risk blog carnival. I received 24 entries, many of them actually related to the topic of risk.

Lacking Confidence in Confidentiality

Leon Gettler at Sox First reports on a study concerning the risk that companies will compromise confidential data about their customers. That study found that “one-third of senior executives don’t trust their own companies to handle this kind of information.” Tune in to see which industries are trusted least.

In a later post, Gettler looks at the “private equity frenzy,” whose risks he likens to that of the dot-com bubble.

Sympathy for the Investor

Long or Short Capital blogger Mr. Juggles — fresh from a signing ceremony with the Prince of Darkness — explains the profitability of the infotainment industry in four easy-to-understand squares.

Born to Insure

In an interview at RDoctor Medical Portal, Dr. Aleksandr Kavokin gets InsureBlog host Hank Stern to bare his soul (sort of) about “testing positive for insurance sales,” employer-sponsored health benefits, and government regulation of insurance premiums, among other things. Watch Stern give a shout-out to his “brilliant, trophy wife and equally brilliant and lovely chillun.”

Then watch the warm fuzzies continue as Stern, this time from his home base of InsureBlog, shrugs at technology that would allow him to monitor the driving habits of his two trustworthy teenage daughters. Insurers apparently haven’t started offering discounts to families that use these chips — but my guess is that as the market evolves, the discount will be greater for families with teenage sons.

Who’s Your Agent?

Jay of Colorado Health Insurance Insider fame picks up on two themes raised by Stern: that health insurance is about managing risk, not prepayment of care, and that employer-sponsored coverage is nutty. He argues that health savings accounts (HSAs) can help end the madness. I mostly agree. But if Jay can find a health insurance policy that “cost[s] the employer more than 2x what a similar individual/family health insurance plan will cost,” he either must be suuuuper healthy or have really sick co-workers.

Thanks, Pal

As a guy who’s about to undergo surgery (albeit minor), I just don’t need reminding about the rates of medical error in the United States. Nevertheless, Healthcare Economist Jason Shafrin is all too happy to remind me anyway, noting that medical errors kill an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 patients per year. He discusses one organization’s efforts to promote medical practices that will reduce some of the most common forms of medical error.

I’ll See Your HSA Deductible, and Raise You …

My Cato Institute colleague Arnold Kling takes on fellow blogger Ezra Klein’s argument that HSAs won’t do much to reduce health care spending. Arnold draws from his book Crisis of Abundance, where he argues for some real catastrophic coverage.

Insurance Is Dead. Long Live Insurance.

In what I found the most intriguing submission to this Cavalcade, Jon Coppelman of Workers’ Comp Insider writes that we may be seeing a fundamental change in the nature of insurance since insurers now have the data mining tools to limit their risks dramatically. He foresees that as the concept of pooling evaporates, the number of losers is likely to exceed the winners.

This echoes a phenomenon I see frequently in the area of health insurance. (You might want to read Coppelman’s post before continuing here.) Insurance is a tool for dealing with uncertainty (i.e., by subsidizing uncertain losses). How do we know that? Because people generally don’t buy actuarially fair insurance to pay for certainties. When additional information moves a potential loss from the “uncertainty” to the “certainty” end of the spectrum, people understandably decry the loss of that subsidy. But I find it bewildering when some call that “the end of insurance” or a market failure. First, unless we’re close to eliminating uncertainty, we will always have insurance. Second, in cases where uncertainty is reduced, insurance markets are doing exactly what they should: replacing the subsidy with some very valuable information. Finally, just because the insurance subsidy is gone, that does not prevent society from subsidizing those losses in other ways. I’d be interested to hear from Coppelman and others on this.

Okay, off my soapbox.

Hard to Joke about This One

Meanwhile, Joe Paduda of Managed Care Matters provides evidence that the insurance industry is not heartless.

GRxvy Train

In (at?) the wake of torcetrapib, Wenchypoo prescribes a serious dose of cynicism for those seeking to understand clinical trials for pharmaceuticals. Wenchypoo provides my favorite quote from this week’s submissions: “I suppose when you’re dying, the last thing you worry about is who’s profiting from keeping you alive a few more weeks.”

Libertarian Roundup

And finally, here at my home of Cato@Liberty, you may peruse my colleague Sigrid Fry-Revere’s libertarian perspective on genetic engineering, as well as Arnold Kling on why libertarians have a lot of work to do on health policy.