Topic: General

Feds Love Higher Ed Scapegoats

For-profit colleges. Accreditors. Endowments. Loan servicers. Debit card companies. Federal policymakers have blamed just about everyone associated with higher education but themselves for the Ivory Tower’s myriad problems. The most recent target just happens to be one specific accreditor: the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which accredits lots of those icky proprietary schools.

Now, ACICS might be as bad as its detractors say. I don’t know because, frankly, I don’t have the time or resources to launch a full and fair investigation into the group. Of course, that is itself a huge problem: Unless you have umpteen free hours on your hands, it is very hard to know whether “bad actors” are really bad, their accusers are jumping to conclusions or are political opportunists, or some combination of those things.

Here is what I do know: Washington gives out big sums of money to people to pay for college without meaningfully determining whether those people are prepared for higher education. That fuels rampant price, credential, and luxury inflation, and seriously mutes incentives for students to think critically about their higher education choices. In other words, “caring and generous” federal policy – policy that lets politicians telegraph how “concerned” they are with education, the poor, and the middle class – is very much at the self-defeating root of all of higher ed’s biggest problems.

So go after ACICS, the openly for-profit schools they accredit, and anyone else you think looks bad (while ignoring crucial context needed to see reality). But don’t expect doing so to fix higher ed. Expect it to just lead to other hunts when these scapegoats are dispatched, and the Ivory Tower getting no better.

Twenty Years after Whren: A Crisis of Police Legitimacy

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Whren v. United States. The case clarified the constitutionality of the practice of “pretextual” traffic stops. The Court ruled that so long as an officer can articulate that a driver violated some traffic law, the officer may stop a motorist in order to investigate potential and wholly unrelated criminal activity. The case has effectively become a blueprint for police officers to racially profile drivers without repercussion.

Last fall, I gave a talk at Case Western Reserve Law School in a symposium dedicated to Whren and its legacy. The school’s law review recently published the article that came from that talk. Instead of putting forth an argument to overturn Whren, I argue that police departments ought to curtail or end the use of pretextual stops as a proactive policing measure. The Supreme Court’s ruling that the tactic is constitutional does not make it an ethical or wise tactic to employ.

Simply put, pretextual stops undermine police legitimacy by turning public servants into antagonistic interrogators. In practice, pretextual motor vehicle stops—much like the pedestrian Terry stops used in New York’s infamous Stop-and-Frisk program—ensnare far more innocent people than criminals. And most of the people who are stopped are black or Latino, further eroding police support in those communities. Police departments must establish their legitimacy—through trust and positive interactions—to improve their effectiveness and public safety. Overly aggressive and implicitly discriminatory policing practices undermine that legitimacy.

You can read the whole article here. The rest of this issue of the Case Western Reserve Law Review can be found here.

Update: I also wrote a shorter piece over at Rare describing what happens during a pretextual stop and why it’s so resented by the people who experience them. 

Is Defending Tax Competition Akin to “Trading with the Enemy”?

When I was younger, my left-wing friends said conservatives unfairly attacked them for being unpatriotic and anti-American simply because they disagreed on how to deal with the Soviet Union.

Now the shoe is on the other foot.

Last decade, a Treasury Department official accused me of being disloyal to America because I defended the fiscal sovereignty of low-tax jurisdictions.

And just today, in a story in the Washington Post about the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (I’m Chairman of the Center’s Board of Directors), former Senator Carl Levin has accused me and others of “trading with the enemy” because of our work to protect and promote tax competition.

Here’s the relevant passage.

Former senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.)…said in a recent interview that the center’s activities run counter to America’s values and undermine the nation’s ability to raise revenue. “It’s like trading with the enemy,” said Levin, whose staff on a powerful panel investigating tax havens regularly faced public challenges from the center. “I consider tax havens the enemy. They’re the enemy of American taxpayers and the things we try to do with our revenues — infrastructure, roads, bridges, education, defense. They help to starve us of resources that we need for all the things we do. And this center is out there helping them to accomplish that.”

Before even getting into the issue of tax competition and tax havens and whether it’s disloyal to want limits on the power of governments, I can’t resist addressing the “starve us of resources” comment by Levin.

Not a “Better Way” on Education

Yesterday, the House GOP released a report called A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America. Alas, at least in education, only if you think doing basically the same thing we’re doing right now is a “better way” could this report please you. And there is little to suggest what we’re doing now is working.

Start with pre-k education. While acknowledging the undeniable—“gold-standard” research commissioned by the feds themselves has shown federal Head Start has no discernable, lasting benefits—the report does not call for even decreasing Head Start spending, much less eliminating the program. No, it proclaims that early-childhood programs are very important and what Washington should do—again, with no talk about actually decreasing funding—is “streamline” duplicative programs and fund more research into “what works.” Because states, or local governments, or philanthropists, could never fund such research!

That’s not a better way. That is a way, maybe, to mute attacks that Republicans “don’t care” about little children or the poor. So maybe it’s a politically better way. But it isn’t a better way on policy.

At the elementary and secondary level, the report says nice things about choice, including the DC voucher program, which is all well and good. It also touts the Every Student Succeeds Act—the replacement for No Child Left Behind—before, frankly, we know what it is going to look like in practice. More and more, it seems the law may have given too much power to the U.S. Secretary of Education, which the report warns against in only the broadest terms.

A better way? We’ll see.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the report’s higher education discussion. Basically, the better way is—of course—to “streamline” stuff, including federal regulations, while failing to even mention the mountain of evidence that federal student aid—all $161 billion of it—fuels rampant price inflation and student debt; encourages massive noncompletion; finances credential inflation; and abets demand for on-campus water parks and other extreme amenities.

While we’re on the subject, the report falls all over itself to tout Pell Grants, but it would sure be refreshing if someone, in looking for a better way for everyone—taxpayers included—were to at least note how fundamentally unfair Pell Grants are. A huge benefit of completing college is to greatly increase one’s lifetime earnings—to use a term some people find distasteful, to profit—and what Pell says is you should be able to make that profit with other people’s money and no obligation to pay them back. How’s that fair?

There is one more omission from the report: any mention of the Constitution, and whether it gives the federal government authority to do any of these things. But if whether the programs work doesn’t matter, probably no one is going to care about a minor, abstract thing like the rule of law.

The “better way” on all these issues would be to be frank about the effects of federal policies, what the federal government is constitutionally permitted to do, and act accordingly. But that seems to be asking way too much.

Members of Congress Introduce Cato ‘Large HSAs’ Concept

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: (L-R) Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) speak at a press conference on Cuba at the U.S. Capitol January 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. Flake is introducing legislation with bipartisan support that would lift a longstanding ban on U.S. citizens traveling freely to Cuba. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), and other members of Congress have introduced legislation based on the “Large HSAs” concept I first proposed here and developed herehereherehere, and here.

The “Health Savings Account Expansion Act” (H.R. 5324S. 2980) would expand the availability and benefits of tax-free health savings accounts (HSAs) in several ways. It would nearly triple existing HSA contribution limits from $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families to $9,000 and $18,000. It would allow tax-free HSA funds to purchase health insurance, over-the-counter medications, and direct primary care. It would eliminate the mandate that HSA holders purchase a government-designed high-deductible health plan. And it would repeal ObamaCare’s increase of the penalty on non-medical withdrawals. Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks have endorsed the bill.

I’m sure I will have lots to say about Flake-Brat, but here are a few initial impressions.

  1. Flake-Brat would free workers from the government program we call employer-sponsored insurance—but only if that’s what workers want. The federal tax code currently tells the average worker with family coverage she can either surrender $13,000 of income to her employer and let her employer choose her health plan, or surrender a huge chunk of that money to the government by paying income and payroll taxes on it. The Flake-Brat bill would allow her to keep that money and either save it, use it to stay on her employer’s health plan, or use it to purchase better coverage somewhere else, all tax-free. The choice would belong to her, not to Congress or the IRS.
  2. Flake-Brat is a bigger tax cut than you’ve ever seen.  Large HSAs would be the largest-ever scaling back of the federal government’s role in health care. The Flake-Brat bill is effectively a $9 trillion tax cut. That’s how much money the current tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance will divert from workers to their employers over the next decade. Flake-Brat would return that money to the workers who earned it. Flake-Brat is thus an effective tax cut equal to all of the Reagan and Bush tax cuts combined. It is nine times the size of the tax cut associated with repealing ObamaCare.  Unlike health-insurance tax credits, Large HSAs involve no government spending and would not mandate that taxpayers purchase health insurance, as existing HSAs and health-insurance tax credits do. (The bill and its sponsors describe that requirement as a “mandate.”)
  3. Flake-Brat would make health care better, more affordable, and more secure. It would do so by dramatically reducing government’s influence over the health care sector. By shifting from employers to consumers nearly a quarter of the $3 trillion Americans spend annually on health care, Large HSAs would begin to make the health care sector and health policy respond to the needs of patients. Large HSAs are also less restrictive than existing HSA law or health-insurance tax credits. As a replacement for ObamaCare, Large HSAs would encourage innovative products like pre-existing conditions insurance that make coverage more affordable and secure.
  4. Flake-Brat shows Congress could create Large HSAs with or without repealing ObamaCare. Large HSAs are the most promising ObamaCare replacement plan to date, but Congress can create them before it repeals ObamaCare. The Flake-Brat bill would create Large HSAs even with ObamaCare still on the books. In fact, Flake-Brat would build support for repealing ObamaCare by exposing consumers to the full cost of its hidden taxes.
  5. Flake-Brat is a marker. The Flake-Brat bill defers consideration of a number of issues. All else equal, expanding tax breaks for HSA contributions would reduce federal revenues and increase federal deficits and debt. Like any proposal to level the playing field between employer-sponsored coverage and other coverage, the bill creates the potential for employer plans to unravel as (healthy) people choose better options. Were Congress to enact Flake-Brat with ObamaCare still on the books, there could be even more complicated interactions. The bill doesn’t totally level the playing field, either. Everyone would get an income-tax break, but only those with an employer who facilitates HSA contributions would get the payroll tax break. (Large HSAs can completely level the playing field with a simple tax credit that mimics that exclusion for such workers.) The authors don’t address these issues in the bill, or their supplemental materials. They will have to address them at some point. Fortunately, there are solutions. (For more on those solutions, see the “developed” links in the second paragraph.)

All in all, the Flake-Brat bill is a much-needed addition to the debate over the future of American health care.

Johnson and Weld Are Right, Clinton Is Wrong: Congress Should Privatize the VA

Listening to Hillary Clinton put her big-government ideology before the needs of veterans (see below video) brings to mind an email exchange I had recently with a correspondent who had questions about privatizing Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Health Administration.

The video is an interview with Libertarian presidential and vice presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Bill Weld into which MSNBC interjected a telephone interview with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Clinton protests (starting at 4:20) that Congress should not privatize the VHA, while Bill Weld, a former two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts, gives one of the best explanations I’ve seen of why it should (10:00).

The email exchange follows the video.

Wanna Fight Superbugs? Stop Overprescribing Government

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 15: Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel speaks onstage at the Klick Health Ideas Exchange on June 15, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Klick Health)

Ezekiel Emanuel notices that inflated demand for antibiotics has led to overuse, and that antibiotic-resistant infections may be killing 23,000 Americans per year. He notices the pharmaceutical industry is focusing more on expensive non-cures for cancer that only extend life by months than on new antibiotics. But he hasn’t noticed that government intervention is causing these problems, so he thinks the solution is—you guessed it—even more government.

Government Inflates Demand for Antibiotics

In the Washington Post, Emanuel warns that “high patient demand leads to overprescribing” of antibiotics, which “breeds resistance” and can lead to superbugs against which we humans have no defenses.

Yet the main reason patient demand is so high is that the federal government—through Medicare, Medicaid, the tax code, Emanuel’s beloved ObamaCare, and other measures—have anesthetized patients to the cost of antibiotics and everything else. We would have less antibiotic overuse and resistance if government just let people keep their own money to spend on health care.

Government Distorts Pharmaceutical Research

Emanuel then complains pharmaceutical manufacturers are spending far more money to research and develop cancer treatments that only add a few months to cancer patients’ lives (and cost more than $100,000 a pop) that they spend developing lower-cost antibiotics.

If this state of affairs fails to reflect patients’ preferences, perhaps the reason is that Medicare offers to make drug companies and oncologists fantastically wealthy by paying for cancer treatments regardless of value.

Overprescribing Government

Rather than admit that government can be incompetent to the point of contributing to the problems it is trying to solve—as his fellow Obama-administration alumnus Larry Summers does—Emanuel doubles down on the Big Government ideology. He proposes requiring hospitals to track antibiotic (over)use as a condition of receiving Medicare subsidies.

Does it occur to Emanuel that a Medicare program stupid enough to subsidize five decades of antibiotic overuse might not be competent enough to track, much less solve that problem?

Next, Emanuel illustrates why the passive voice should be unconstitutional: “every antibiotic prescription should be electronically reviewed to be certain it meets national guidelines.” Like many devotees of the passive voice, Emanuel employs it to hide what he means, which is: “The federal government and its agents should review every antibiotic prescription you and your family receive, even when the government isn’t paying for it.”

What could possibly go wrong? I mean, can you imagine any reasons why people might want a little privacy when it comes to their use of antibiotics? Emanuel can’t—or he doesn’t care.

Finally, he proposes to have the federal government award $2 billion prizes to anyone who secures FDA approval for a new antibiotic. A system of prizes might actually do a better job than the federal government’s patent system of encouraging antibiotics R&D. But Emanuel does not address such thorny questions as who gets to define which new antibiotics will qualify; who sets the amount of the prize; what sort of complications financing the prizes would create; how this award would affect the FDA, and lobbying of the FDA; or whether the net effect of this system would be positive or negative.

Ezekiel Emanuel has no time for such trifles. He’s got himself a hammer, and by God he’s found a nail.

Conclusion 

Government is like antibiotics. Some amount is necessary. But overprescribing it makes things a lot worse.

A good indication you’ve overdosed on the statist Kool-Aid is when you make dismissive comments like this one Emanuel levels at current antibiotic-tracking programs: “Unfortunately, they are voluntary.”