Topic: Government and Politics

Will Voters Commit Regicide against King Ethanol in Iowa?

Until now, conventional wisdom held that candidates of both major parties had to back ethanol welfare to win the Iowa caucuses. Like cotton was in the antebellum South, corn–in the form of ethanol–is king in Iowa.

Most of today’s candidates have fallen into line. However, Sen. Ted Cruz has broken ranks to criticize farmers’ welfare. He holds a narrow polling lead over Donald Trump leading up to the upcoming caucuses. (Sen. Rand Paul also rejects the conventional wisdom, but he remains far back in the race.)

Cruz’s political strength has dismayed ethanol makers. The group America’s Renewable Future, whose state director is the governor’s son, is deploying 22 staffers in the presidential campaign. The lobby doesn’t want to look like a paper tiger.

Ethanol subsidies once included a high tariff and generous tax credits, both of which expired at the end of 2011. However, the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires blending ethanol with gasoline, operates as a huge industry subsidy. Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute figured the requirement cost drivers more than $10 billion since 2007.

The Biggest Loser In The Democratic Debate Wasn’t Hillary or Bernie, It Was ObamaCare


Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders participate in a Democratic primary debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 17, 2016.

In their final debate before they face Democratic primary voters, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders traded sharp jabs on health care. Pundits focused on how the barbs would affect the horse race, whether Democrats should be bold and idealistic (Sanders) or shrewd and practical (Clinton), and how Sanders’ “Medicare for All” scheme would raise taxes by a cool $1.4 trillion. (Per. Year.) Almost no one noticed the obvious: the Clinton-Sanders spat shows that not even Democrats like the Affordable Care Act, and that the law remains very much in danger of repeal.

Hours before the debate, Sanders unveiled an ambitious plan to put all Americans in Medicare. According to his web site, “Creating a single, public insurance system will go a long way towards getting health care spending under control.” Funny, Medicare has had the exact opposite effect on health spending for seniors. But no matter. Sanders assures us, “The typical middle class family would save over $5,000 under this plan.” Remember how President Obama promised ObamaCare would reduce family premiums by $2,500? It’s like that, only twice as ridiculous.

Clinton portrayed herself as the protector of ObamaCare. She warned that Sanders would “tear [ObamaCare] up…pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate.” She proposed instead to “build on” the law by imposing limits on ObamaCare’s rising copayments, and by imposing price controls on prescription drugs. Sanders countered, “No one is tearing this up, we’re going to go forward,” and so on.

Such rhetoric obscured the fact that the candidates’ differences are purely tactical. Clinton doesn’t oppose Medicare for All. Indeed, her approach would probably reach that goal much sooner. Since ObamaCare literally punishes whatever insurers provide the highest-quality coverage, it therefore forces health insurers into a race to the bottom, where they compete not to provide quality coverage to the sick.  That’s terrible if you or a family member have a high-cost, chronic health condition—or even just an ounce of humanity. But if you want to discredit “private” health insurance in the service of Medicare for All, it’s an absolute boon. After a decade of such misery, voters will beg President (Chelsea) Clinton for a federal takeover. But if President Sanders demands a $1.4 trillion tax hike without first making voters suffer under ObamaCare, he will over-play his hand and set back his cause.

The rhetoric obscured something much larger, too. Clinton and Sanders inadvertently revealed that not even Democrats like ObamaCare all that much, and Democrats know there’s a real chance the law may not be around in four years.

During the debate, Sanders repeatedly noted ObamaCare’s failings : “29 million people still have no health insurance. We are paying the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, getting ripped off…even more are underinsured with huge copayments and deductibles…we are spending almost three times more than the British, who guarantee health care to all of their people…Fifty percent more than the French, more than the Canadians.”

Sure, he also boasted, repeatedly, that he helped write and voted for the ACA. Nonetheless, Sanders was indicting ObamaCare for failing to achieve universal coverage, contain prices, reduce barriers to care, or eliminate wasteful spending. At least one of the problems he lamented—“even more [people] are underinsured with huge copayments and deductibles”—ObamaCare has made worse. (See “race to the bottom” above, and here.)

When Sanders criticized the U.S. health care system, he was criticizing ObamaCare. His call for immediate adoption of Medicare for All shows that the Democratic party’s left wing is simply not that impressed with ObamaCare, which they have always (correctly) viewed as a giveaway to private insurers and drug companies.

Clinton’s proposals to outlaw some copayments and impose price controls on prescription drugs are likewise an implicit acknowledgement that ObamaCare has not made health care affordable. In addition, her attacks on Sanders reveal that she and many other Democrats know ObamaCare’s future remains in jeopardy.

Seriously, does anyone really think Clinton is worried that something might “push[] our country back into that kind of a contentious debate” over health care? America has been stuck in a nasty, tribal health care debate every day of the six years since Democrats passed ObamaCare despite public disapproval. Or that Republicans would be able to repeal ObamaCare over President Sanders’ veto?

Yes, Ted Cruz Can Be President

I’m not known for my clairvoyance – it would be impossible to make a living predicting what the Supreme Court will do – but as the latest round of birtherism continues into successive news cycles, I do have an odd sense of “deja vu all over again.” Two and a half years ago, I looked into Ted Cruz’s presidential eligibility and rather easily came to the conclusion that, to paraphrase a recent campaign slogan, “yes, he can.” Here’s the legal analysis in a nutshell:

In other words, anyone who is a citizen at birth — as opposed to someone who becomes a citizen later (“naturalizes”) or who isn’t a citizen at all — can be president.

So the one remaining question is whether Ted Cruz was a citizen at birth. That’s an easy one. The Nationality Act of 1940 outlines which children become “nationals and citizens of the United States at birth.” In addition to those who are born in the United States or born outside the country to parents who were both citizens — or, interestingly, found in the United States without parents and no proof of birth elsewhere — citizenship goes to babies born to one American parent who has spent a certain number of years here.

That single-parent requirement has been amended several times, but under the law in effect between 1952 and 1986 — Cruz was born in 1970 — someone must have a citizen parent who resided in the United States for at least 10 years, including five after the age of 14, in order to be considered a natural-born citizen. Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Darragh, was born in Delaware, lived most of her life in the United States, and gave birth to little Rafael Edward Cruz in her 30s. Q.E.D.

We all know that this wouldn’t even be a story if weren’t being pushed by the current Republican frontrunner (though Cruz is beating Trump in the latest Iowa polls). Nevertheless, here we are. 

For more analysis and a comprehensive set of links regarding this debate, see Jonathan Adler’s excellent coverage at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Cato Scholars Respond to Obama’s Final State of the Union Address

Cato Institute scholars Emma Ashford‎, Trevor Burrus‎, Benjamin Friedman‎, Dan Ikenson,‎ Neal McCluskey‎, Pat Michaels‎, Aaron Powell‎, and Julian Sanchez‎ respond to President Obama’s final State of the Union Address.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Tess Terrible and Cory Cooper.

The NYT Reportage on Government Lands Forgets a Chapter

The recent “occupation” of government-owned lands in Eastern Oregon by disgruntled ranchers’ motivated Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times (NYT) to produce an edifying essay on January 6th. It was aptly titled “Why the Government Owns So Much Land in the West.” Curiously, the NYT essay fails to mention one of the most significant, recent, and contentious attempts to “dispose” of federal public lands.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president for his first term in 1980, he received strong support from the so-called Sagebrush Rebels. The Rebels wanted lands owned by the federal government to be transferred to state governments.Their champion was James Watt, a self-proclaimed Sagebrush Rebel who became the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

When I was operating as one of President Reagan’s economic advisers, an early assignment was to analyze the federal government’s landholdings and make recommendations about what to do with them. This was a big job. These lands are vast, covering an area six times that of France.

Unfair Postal Competition

With the rise of electronic communications, the volume of snail mail has fallen precipitously, and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been losing billions of dollars. The 600,000-worker USPS is an unjustified legal monopoly that is heavily subsidized. It is a bureaucratic dinosaur that Congress should put on the way to extinction.

In April, I highlighted an excellent study by Robert J. Shapiro that described USPS subsidies in detail. The subsidies include: exemption from taxes, low-cost government borrowing, monopoly protections, and other special benefits.    

Shapiro completed another study in October, which is a great addition to the postal debate. He details how government-conferred advantages have translated into cross-subsidies from USPS monopoly products to products sold in competitive markets. The USPS uses its monopoly over letters and bulk mail to unfairly compete with FedEx, UPS, and others on express mail and packages.

Shapiro finds that USPS raises prices on its monopoly products, and uses those extra revenues to artificially push down prices on its competitive products. For USPS, this makes sense because consumers are less price sensitive for the monopoly products than for the competitive products. Shapiro concludes, “USPS has strong incentives to cross-subsidize its competitive products with revenues from its monopoly operations,” and it does so by $3 billion or more a year.

A Round-Up of President Obama’s Gun Control Proposals

This week, President Obama announced a package of proposals with the ostensible goal of stemming gun crime in America.  Unfortunately, however, the proposals represent a mishmash of ideas that lack a solid logical nexus to the problems they’re being offered to solve.  President Obama even acknowledged this incongruity himself when he admitted that the tragic shootings he emotionally invoked would not have been prevented by his recommendations.

But faced with a Congress that fundamentally disagrees with the president’s views on gun control, his authority to act is limited, and these proposals are proof.   The full “Executive Action” plan released by the White House can be found here, but I thought it would be useful to sum up the major points.

“Engaged in the Business” of Selling Firearms

One of the primary goals of the Obama Administration has been expanding the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The president and his gun-control allies have long called for universal checks in order to close the (non-existent) “gunshow loophole,” but Congress has thus far refused to go along (and for good reason).

Still, the president gave the impression during his remarks that he would use his executive authority to expand the background check system by reconsidering what it means for people to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms.  For almost 50 years, the ATF regulations have interpreted this somewhat vague phrase by distinguishing those who sell guns commercially as a means of livelihood and those non-commercial sellers who transfer the odd gun every so often. Commercial sellers are required to perform background checks through the NICS system, while non-commercial private sellers are subject to a federal statute requiring that the transferor not know or have reason to know that the recipient of the weapon is prohibited from having it. Every transfer, in other words, is currently regulated by federal law.  The only difference is which law applies.

While President Obama’s announcement and the action plan released along with it suggested a move to broaden the category of transferors that are required to put customers through the NICS system, it’s not clear that there has been any change at all.

As Jonathan Adler writes at The Washington Post, there hasn’t been  a new ATF rule issued making any substantive change to the government’s interpretation of what it means to be “engaged in the business.”  The criteria President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave for how they would be assessing whether someone is engaged in the business of selling firearms closely mirror language the ATF included in a recently issued “guidance document.”