Topic: Cato Publications

Romney Supports National ID, Government Pre-Approval of Working

Speaking at a town hall meeting at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney backed a national ID system and government pre-approval of all new hires in the country. It’s a stunning amount of power he wants the federal government to have.

Addressing a question about illegal immigration (starting at 30:40 in this video) he said:

You’ve got to crack down on employers that hire people that are illegal, and that means you have to have a system that identifies who’s here legally, with a biometric card that has: this is the person, they’re allowed to work here. You say to an employer, you look at that card, you swipe it in your computer, you type in the number, it instantly tells you whether they’re legal or not.

He’s describing an expanded E-Verify system, and the biometric national identity system that has been proposed for it. That system would not only be used for controlling employment, of course. Like the Social Security number did when it caught mission creep, the national ID Romney talks about would come to be used to control access to housing, to financial services and credit, gun ownership, health care and medicine, the list goes on and on.

It’s technically possible to have a biometric card that solely indicates one’s qualification to work under federal law, but as I wrote in my paper, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” there is almost no chance that the government would limit itself this way. E-Verify requires a national identity system, and Mitt Romney wants that national identity system.

Cato Study: Malpractice Insurance Markets Promote Quality Care, Mandatory Damage Caps Could Undermine Same

Today, the Cato Institute releases a new study:

Could Mandatory Caps on Medical Malpractice Damages Harm Consumers?

by Shirley Svorny

Shirley Svorny is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and professor of economics at California State University, Northridge.

Supporters of capping court awards for medical malpractice argue that caps will make health care more affordable. It may not be that simple. First, caps on awards may result in some patients not receiving adequate compensation for injuries they suffer as a result of physician negligence. Second, because caps limit physician liability, they can also mute incentives for physicians to reduce the risk of negligent injuries. Supporters of caps counter that this deterrent function of medical malpractice liability is not working anyway—that awards do not track actual damages, and medical malpractice insurance carriers do not translate the threat of liability into incentives that reward high-quality care or penalize errant physicians.

This paper reviews an existing body of work that shows that medical malpractice awards do track actual damages. Furthermore, this paper provides evidence that medical malpractice insurance carriers use various tools to reduce the risk of patient injury, including experience rating of physicians’ malpractice premiums. High-risk physicians face higher malpractice insurance premiums than their less-risky peers. In addition, carriers offer other incentives for physicians to reduce the risk of negligent care: they disseminate information to guide riskmanagement efforts, oversee high-risk practitioners, and monitor providers who offer new procedures where experience is not sufficient to assess risk. On rare occasions, carriers will even deny coverage, which cuts the physician off from an affiliation with most hospitals and health maintenance organizations, and precludes practice entirely in some states.

If the medical malpractice liability insurance industry does indeed protect consumers, then policies that reduce liability or shield physicians from oversight by carriers may harm consumers. In particular, caps on damages would reduce physicians’ and carriers’ incentives to keep track of and reduce practice risk. Laws that shield government- employed physicians from malpractice liability eliminate insurance company oversight of physicians working for government agencies. State-run insurance pools that insure risky practitioners at subsidized prices protect substandard physicians from the discipline that medical malpractice insurers otherwise would impose.

This study’s findings suggest that supporters of market-based health care reform should ditch their support of mandatory damage caps, and embrace better med mal reforms. It also suggests that government should abandon direct regulation of health care quality, such as through medical licensing.

This Month at Cato Unbound: A Little Foundational Theory

The October, 2011 issue of Cato Unbound tackles some of the foundational questions of political theory: how do we recognize justice? If it’s not utopia, is it still good enough to command our respect? Or allegiance? How do we know? Who are the members of the political community? How are they chosen? What counts as a “reason” for political action?

If all of this sounds abstract, rest assured that lead essayist Gerald Gaus is both lucid and engaging. He writes:

Liberalism’s founding insight was the recognition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that controversial religious truths could not be the basis of coercive laws and public policies. The task is now to apply this insight to philosophizing about justice itself. This is an extraordinarily difficult lesson for many. Can it really be that I should not endeavor to ensure that my society conforms to my “knowledge” of justice? (Compare: can it really be that my “knowledge” of God’s will should not structure the social order?)

Gaus argues for a “range of justice”—a range of theories that, while perhaps not perfect by anyone’s standards, are still close enough to demand our respect, especially given the large benefits that come from freely engaged social cooperation.

Discussing with him this month are a panel of three other prominent social theorists. Richard Arneson argues that we tolerate one another not because we’re all pretty close to rational (clearly a lot of us aren’t!)—but because intolerance breeds atrocity. Eric Mack argues that classical liberalism is no mere contending sect; it is the right approach to politics, because it offers the greatest leeway for individuals to choose their own ends in life. And Peter J. Boettke argues that any social system that neglects private property will fail to produce a cooperative society in any sense; without market exchange, individuals will fall into strife over scarce resources.

Obviously I won’t be able to do justice to their arguments here, so please do check out Cato Unbound, where discussion will continue through the end of the month.

Congress on Transparency: ‘Needs Improvement’

“Needs improvement” is the understated theme of a Capitol Hill briefing this morning entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress.” (Live-streamed starting at 9:00 am. If timely, check it out—the video will come up before too long also—and join the conversation on Twitter at the #RateCongress hashtag.)

Congress needs to improve its data publication practices if it’s going to be the transparent legislature that it should be.

How did we arrive at this conclusion? We’re doing more than stating the obvious.

A Cato Briefing Paper released today entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” goes through some technically challenging but essential concepts in data publication: authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. Together, these practices will allow computers to automatically generate the myriad stories that the data Congress produces have to tell. Following these practices will allow many different users to put the data to hundreds of new uses in government oversight.

At the event, we’re releasing informal grades that rate how each of the major parts of the legislative process are published as data. To produce the grades, we constructed a “data model” of formal federal legislative processes (HTML version, Word version).

Data modeling is pretty arcane stuff, but in this model we reduced everything to “entities,” each having various “properties.” The entities and their properties describe the logical relationships of things in the real world, like members of Congress, votes, bills, and so on. We also loosely defined several “markup types” guiding how documents that come out of the legislative process should be structured and published.

Then we compared the publication practices in the briefing paper to the “entities” in the model. Are data about the key entities in the legislative process well published? That’s what we graded on, with a little commentary pointing toward what is good and bad in current publication practices. The grades are listed on this report card, which you can use to cut to the chase, but the real story is in the assessment below.

Are we stating the obvious? Yes. But a little humility and grace is in order. This stuff is tough sledding. The data model isn’t the last word, and there are things happening in varied places on and around Capitol Hill to improve matters. Several pieces of the legislative process nobody has ever talked about publishing as data before, so we forgive the fact that this isn’t already being done. If things haven’t improved in another year, then you might start to see a little more piquant commentary.

Without further ado, here is the full listing of Congress’ transparency grades. As far as data publication for transparency, Congress needs improvement.

Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress

 

How well can the Internet access data about Congress’ work? In consultation with transparency experts, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, rated how Congress publishes key legislative data in terms of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.
These criteria envision a world where there is one authoritative source for each category of information. Unfortunately, today’s congressional data are published by a lot of sources that have grown up haphazardly. There might even be some sources we don’t know about. Future grades will undoubtedly reflect improvements in what researchers, reporters, websites, and the public at large can see and use, aided by their computers.

House and Senate Membership: B+

How does the public find out about who holds office in the House of Representatives and Senate? A couple of ways.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress is a compendium of information about all present and former members of the United States Congress (as well as the Continental Congress), including delegates and resident commissioners. The “Bioguide” website is a great resource for searching out historical information.

But there’s no sign that it’s Congress’ repository of record, and it’s little known by users, giving it low authority marks. Bioguide scores highly on availability—we know of no problems with up-time or completeness (though it could use quicker updating when new members are elected).

Bioguide isn’t structured for discoverability. Most people haven’t seen it, because search engines aren’t finding it. Bioguide does a good thing in terms of machine-readability, though. It assigns a unique ID to each of the people in its database. This is the first, basic step in machine-readability, and the Bioguide ID should probably be the standard for machine-identification of elected officials wherever they are referred to in data. Unfortunately, the biographical content in Bioguide is not machine-readable.

The other ways of learning about House and Senate membership are nothing if not ad hoc. The lists of members that appear on the House and Senate websites are adequate for some purposes. They’re authoritative, available, and discoverable due to their prime location on the top-level House and Senate domains. But the HTML presentation on the House side does not break out key information in ways useful for computers. The Senate includes a link to an XML representation that is machine readable. Good job, Senate.

The rest of the information flows to the public via congressmembers’ individual websites. These are non-authoritative websites that search engine spidering combines to use as a record of the Congress’s membership. They are available and discoverable, again because of that prime house.gov and senate.gov real estate. But they only reveal data about the membership of Congress incidentally to communicating the press releases, photos, and announcements that representatives want to have online.

So far there is no authoritative, really well-published source of information about House and Senate membership, but the variety of sources that exist combine to give Congress a pretty good grade on publishing information about who represents Americans in Washington, D.C.

Committees and Subcommittees: C

If you want to find out about the committees to which Congress delegates much of its work, and the subcommittees to which the work gets further distributed, you might have to form a commit— … a search party.

The Senate has committee names and URLs prominently available on its main website, and the House does too. But that would just be the starting point for researching what all these committees do and who serves on them. For that, you’d go to individual committee websites, each one different from the others.

With the data scattered about this way, the Internet can’t really see it. The Senate has a little known machine-readable listing of its membership and their assignments. More prominence, data such as subcommittees and jurisdiction, and use of a recognized set of standard identifiers would take this resource a long way.

Without a recognized place to go to get data about committees, this area suffers from lacking authority. To the extent there are data, availability is not a problem, but machine-discoverability suffers for having each committee publish distinctly, in formats like HTML, who their members are, who their leaders are, and what their jurisdiction is.

Until committee data are centrally published using standard identifiers (for both committees and their members), machine-readability will be very low. The Internet makes sense of congressional committees as best it can, but a whole lot of organizing and centralizing—with a definitive, always-current, and machine-readable record of committees, their memberships, and their jurisdictions—would create a lot of clarity in this area with a minimum of effort.

Meetings of House, Senate, and Committees—Senate: B+ / House: D+

When the House, the Senate, committees, and subcommittees have their meetings, the business of Congress is being done. Can the public learn easily about what meetings are happening, when, and what they are about? It depends on which side of the Capitol you’re on.

The Senate is pretty good about publishing notices of committee meetings. In addition to a webpage with meeting notices on it, it publishes an XML page with lots of good features, like distinct codes for each committee. (If only we knew whose codes they were, and if only they could be used consistently throughout legislative data….) If a particular bill is under consideration in a Senate committee meeting, this is a way for the public to learn about it. This is authoritative, it’s available, it’s machine-discoverable, and it’s got some machine-readable features. That means any website, researcher, or reporter can quickly use these data to generate more—and more useful—information about Congress.

The House doesn’t have anything similar. To learn about meetings of its committees, you might have to scroll through page after page of committee announcements or calendars. The House can catch up with the Senate in this area, and we are aware that they are working on it. This area is ripe for rapid improvement.

Meeting Records: C-

There is lots of work to do before meeting records can be called transparent. We have one thing, the Congressional Record. It is the authoritative record of what transpires on the House and Senate floors, but nothing similar reveals the content of committee meetings. Those meeting records are produced after much delay—sometimes an incredibly long delay—by the committees themselves. These records are obscure, not being published in ways that make things easy for computers to find and to comprehend.

The Congressional Record also doesn’t have the machine-discoverable publication or machine-readable structure that it could and should. Giving unique, consistent IDs in the Record to members of Congress, to bills, and other regular subjects of this publication would go a long way to improving it. The same would improve transcripts of committee meetings.

Another form of meeting record exists: videos. These have yet to be standardized, organized, and published in a reliable and uniform way, though the HouseLive site is a significant step in the right direction. Real-time flagging of members and key subjects of debate in the video stream would be a great improvement in transparency. Setting video and video meta-data standards for use by both Houses of Congress, by committees, and by subcommittees would improve things dramatically.

Committee Reports: D+

Committee reports are important parts of the legislative process, documenting the findings and recommendations that committees report to the full House and Senate. They do see publication on the most authoritative resource for committee reports, the Library of Congress’s THOMAS system. They are technically machine discoverable, but without good semantic information embedded in them, committee reports are barely visible to the Internet.

Rather than publication in HTML and PDF, committee reports should be published with the full array of signals that reveal what bills, statutes, and agencies they deal with, as well as authorizations and appropriations, so that the Internet can discover and make use of these documents.

Bills: A-

Bills are a “pretty-good-news” story in legislative transparency. Most are promptly published. It would be better, of course, if they were all immediately published at the moment they were introduced, and if both the House and Senate published last-minute, omnibus bills before debating and voting on them.

A small gap in authority exists around bills: people look to the Library of Congress rather than Congress or the Government Printing Office, which are better authorities for bill content, but this has not caused any problems. Once published, bill information remains available, which is good.

Publication of bills in HTML on the THOMAS site makes them reasonably machine-discoverable. Witness the fact that searching for a bill will often turn up the version at that source.

Where bills could improve some is machine-readability. Some information such as sponsorship and U.S. code references is present in the bills that are published in XML, and nearly all bills are now published in XML, which is great. Much more information should be published machine-readably in bills, though, such as references to agencies and programs, to states or localities, and so on, referred to using standard identifiers.

With the work that the THOMAS system does to gather information in one place, bill data are good. This is relative to other, less-well-published data, though. There is yet room for improvement.

Amendments—House and Senate: C / Committees: I

Amendments are not the good-news story that bills are. With a few exceptions, amendments are hard to track in any systematic way. When it comes to the House and Senate floors, amendment text is often available, but the authoritative source is different if you want to see the text (GPO) and the status (THOMAS) of an amendment. It is very hard to see how amendments affect the bills they would change.

In committees, the story is quite a bit worse. Committee amendments are almost completely opaque. There is almost no publication of amendments at all—certainly not amendments that have been withdrawn or defeated. Some major revisions in process are due if committee amendments are going to see the light of day as they should.

Motions: I

When the House, the Senate, or a committee is going to take some kind of action, it does so on the basis of a motion. If the public is going to have insight into the decisions Congress makes, it should have access to the motions on which Congress acts.

But motions are something of a black hole. Many of them can be found in the Congressional Record, but it really takes a human who understands procedure reading the Congressional Record to find them. That’s not modern transparency.

Motions can be articulated as data. There are distinct types of motions. Congress can publish which meeting a motion occurs in, when the motion occurs, what the proposition is, what the object of the motion is, and so on. Along with decisions, motions are key elements of the legislative process. They can and should be published as data.

Decisions: I

When a motion is pending, a body such as the House, the Senate, or a committee will make a decision on it, often using votes. These decisions are crucial moments in the legislative process, which should be published as data. Like motions, these are not yet published usefully. Decisions made in the House or Senate are published in text form as part of the Congressional Record, but they are not published as data, so they remain opaque to the Internet.

Votes: A-

Voting puts members of Congress on record about where they stand. And happily, vote information is in pretty good shape. Each chamber publishes data about votes, meaning authority is well handled. Vote data are available and timely.

Both sides could sorely use an index that lists all votes, though, along with an indication of the last time the vote was modified (i.e., if corrections to the original data have been posted). But both the House and Senate produce vote information in XML, which is useful for computers and the Internet. Both houses also use unique identifiers for their members, though they’re not so good at indicating who those unique IDs refer to. (The House does not have a list-of-people database, and the Senate uses lis_member_ids rather than Bioguide IDs.) Overall, though, voting data are pretty well handled.

Communications (Inter- and Intra-Branch): I

The messages sent among the House, Senate, and Executive Branch are essential parts of the legislative process, but they do not see publication. Putting these communications online—including unique identifiers, the sending and receiving body, any meeting that produced the communication, the text of the communication, and key subjects such as bills—would complete the picture that is available to the public.

Al Qaeda: Never an ‘Existential Threat’

My Washington Examiner column this week celebrates 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil, and argues that the main reason the United States has been terror-free for a decade isn’t the unparalleled competence of the federal government’s terror warriors—it’s the fact that al Qaeda was never an “existential threat.”

I’ve written a number of columns and blogposts making the same point over the years, and yet, every time I write something that says “al Qaeda’s not so terrifying,” I feel compelled to knock wood, genuflecting to the superstition that merely saying ”we’re pretty safe” out loud will jinx us, and the moment a piece is published, the terrorists will morph into villains worthy of TV’s 24, moving from ineffectual gas-can bombs to nukes.

So far, though, it seems there wasn’t much reason to worry.

Last week, the Washington Post ran a piece entitled, “Who got 9/11 right, and who got it wrong? A pundit score card.” The Post erred badly by not including the distinguished political scientist and friend of Cato, John Mueller, who started making the case that the al Qaeda threat was overblown back when duct tape alerts were the “new normal.” I can’t think of any other prominent figure who got it right as early and as often as Mueller did.

As long as we’re giving credit for prescience, though, I’d like to toot my own horn (sure, it’s graceless, but nobody else is volunteering for the job).

As a larval pundit pecking away in obscurity through the early aughties, I suspected, before I’d ever read Mueller, that the al Qaeda threat was overblown—and I made that case wherever I could.

In September 2002, I reviewed Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc. for Liberty magazine:  “Osama bin Laden: Not as Scary as You Think” (.pdf ). In it, I asked whether al Qaeda was “as dangerous as federal powergrabbers have led us to believe.”

After recounting what Bergen reported about Mohamed Odeh, an al Qaeda operative involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania—who botched his own escape by trying to convince Pakistani immigration officials that terrorism was “the right thing to do for Islam,”—I ventured that “a lot of these folks don’t sound all that bright.” (Since then, I’ve become even more convinced that these guys were never the sharpest scimitars in the shed.)

In December 2002, when my now-defunct blog was young and DC was waiting for the other shoe to drop after 9/11, I wondered “What if There Isn’t Another Shoe?”: “If the American Jihad/mullahs under the bed/the-country-is-riddled-with-sleeper-cells theory is correct, then why so quiet?” I suggested: “maybe there aren’t that many of them,” which turned out to be true. (Here’s a reference, and you can find the original if you go here and scroll down.)

Ten years later, it’s heartening to know that what was once a fringe position—and a marker of being “unserious” about terrorism—is fast becoming the conventional wisdom.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: Brain, Belief, and Politics with Michael Shermer

In recent years, brain science has converged on a surprising framework to explain how we believe the things we believe. It appears that the origin of belief is emotive, rooted in things like group allegiance or the affinities we may have for certain patterns of moral values. Only later does our rationality speak up. “Motivated reasoning” is the term psychology gives this process, although a cynic might possibly be forgiven for calling it “bias.”

Where does this leave our beliefs about politics? On the one hand, we may have some cause for despair, as our beliefs may not be as objectively justified as we like to imagine. On the other, the emerging science of mind may yield effective ways to correct our biases, or at least to understand their origins. If so, a new, more sophisticated political science may be in order, one rooted firmly in brain science.

This month’s Cato Unbound features libertarian science writer Michael Shermer , who leads things off with a taste from his new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. He will be answered by Artificial Intelligence expert Eliezer Yudkowsky, perhaps best known for his work at the group blog LessWrong.com; Christian blogger and cultural critic Joe Carter of First Things and Evangelical Outpost; and Reason magazine’s science columnist Ronald Bailey.

Discussion will continue through the month, so be sure to stop by often or subscribe to Cato Unbound via RSS.

Why Stop at $20 Billion, Senator?

Congressional Quarterly reported on Monday [subscription required] that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.) has called for $20 billion worth of increased lending to U.S. manufacturers through a new targeted program of the Export-Import Bank of the United States (“the Ex-Im Bank”).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called Monday for a new initiative to promote lending to U.S. manufacturers in an effort to spur job creation and shrink the U.S. trade deficit.

The California Democrat proposed authorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank to use $20 billion of unobligated authority to lend directly to domestic manufacturing companies that are competing with foreign competitors subsidized by their own governments…

Feinstein said her proposal would not be costly because of the offsetting collections priced in to the structure of the bank’s transactions.

To be eligible for the lending program, companies would be required to demonstrate the number of jobs that would be created; that they are competing directly with subsidized, foreign firms; that the project would contribute to the expansion of the domestic workforce and manufacturing capability; and that it would have a net positive impact on the U.S.trade balance.

“In today’s global economy, the federal government must more actively partner with the business community,” Feinstein wrote. “Manufacturing is a proven source of well-paying jobs for those of all educational levels and we must have a thriving manufacturing sector in order to address our chronic trade imbalance and return our economy to sustainable growth.” [emphases added]

Where to begin? First, there is no earthly reason why “we must have a thriving manufacturing sector in order to address our chronic trade imbalance.” We could bring our trade account into balance through services or agricultural exports if “addressing our chronic trade imbalance” is what keeps you awake at night. (Here’s more on the trade deficit from my colleague Dan Griswold.)

But let me turn to Senator Feinstein’s rosy view of the Ex-Im Bank. My recent trade policy analysis, “Time to X Out the Ex-Im Bank,” addressed many of the rationalizations that the bank’s supporters routinely trot out to justify the use and redirection of resources toward corporate welfare. I question why taxpayer dollars should be put at risk supporting some of America’s most profitable countries (does Boeing really need your money?) and draw attention to the inefficiencies and distortions caused by export credit programs. Senator Feinstein shows a narrow understanding about the “cost” of things when she suggests that because Ex-Im is “self-financing” (i.e., its activities are funded out of fees and collections from its previous loans) it is not costly. In theory the government could take 100% of the economy’s production and give all of it away again at “no net cost to the taxpayer” (just like the sugar program!). Could one seriously argue that such an approach would not be enormously costly in terms of economic prosperity  (not to mention, you know, personal freedom and stuff)?

I should point out here that Senator Feinstein is not alone in wishing to direct the activities of the bank toward ends that she deems worthy: the bank operates under various congressional mandates that have little if anything to do with strict financial criteria — for example, requirements that a certain percentages of the bank’s resources go to small- and medium-sized businesses, or toward exports of renewable energy products. Even the bank’s supporters will occasionally argue that the conditions Congress attaches to the bank’s activities sometimes run counter to the bank’s core mission of promoting exports and jobs (now there’s a surprise). I’ll have more on the Ex-Im Bank soon.