Topic: Government and Politics

A Breezy Slide From Vote Integrity to National ID

Writing at Slate, Richard Hasen makes the case for nationalizing voter registration.

Yglesias approves (as does Drum at Mother Jones) and he ultimately concludes - though “nobody’s supposed to say this” - that “implementing a National ID Card system would help solve a lot of problems at what looks to me to be an extremely low cost in civil liberties.”

Tell that to the dead in Rwanda. It never occurred to the Belgian government that the identity card system they put in place there would be used to administer genocide 60 years later, but it was.

Bruce Schneier calls it “bad civic hygiene” to build a technology infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state. That’s what a national ID system is.

It’s easy to arrive at facile conclusions about national IDs if you don’t think it all the way through. Joseph Eaton published a book in 1986 called Card Carrying Americans that did just that (and didn’t, as to the thinking through). My write-up of it in 2005 called it “full of ‘would’s and ‘could’s - an exercise in imagination with few tethers to real-world practicalities.”

Same with Hasen’s article:

The federal government could assign each person a unique voter-identification number, which would remain the same regardless of where the voter moves. The unique ID would prevent people from voting in two jurisdictions, such as snowbirds who might be tempted to vote in Florida and New York.

Except that it doesn’t work that way. Simply giving people a unique identifier gets you the Social Security number. To prevent people voting in multiple jurisdictions, you don’t give, you take - take a biometric identifier, database it, and use it at every polling place (leaving the door still wide open to absentee ballot fraud).

Voting issues can’t be solved consistent with our national values quite so glibly. If it were easy, it would already have been done. Thoughtful people should resist, not indulge, the temptation to stab at voting concerns with a national ID.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see a national voter registration system converted to lots of purposes that aren’t as congenial as regularizing voter registration. Citing the fate of Rwandans was overly dramatic, of course. It’s only the most recent example among apartheid South Africa, Stalinist Russia, and Nazi-occupied Europe, none of which can happen here … .

What we could expect in the near term would be more and more thorough data collection, tighter and tighter government monitoring of commerce, work, housing, health care, education, and communications - for illegal immigration control, at first. But new uses would accrue with each shift in public urgency.

The most concerning of what Hasen has to say is this:

There’s something in this for both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats talk about wanting to expand the franchise, and there’s no better way to do it than the way most mature democracies do it: by having the government register voters. For Republicans serious about ballot integrity, this should be a winner as well. No more ACORN registration drives, and no more concerns about Democratic secretaries of state not aggressively matching voters enough to motor vehicle databases.

It’s deeply concerning, the prospect of the major political parties uniting against the people to “mature” our democracy and give us a national ID.

Done Properly, Eliminating the Tax Preference for Job-Based Health Insurance Is a Huge Tax Cut

In a new oped at National Review Online, I ding the McCain campaign for not proposing a better tax credit – while making it sound like they had.  (My last NRO oped got me lots of hate mail.  Will this one??) 

It appears that McCain’s actual proposal, um, may lose some relevance by this Wednesday.  Thus, I’ll share an excerpt from my oped that has more enduring relevance.  The following explains how just about any revenue-neutral tax reform that levels the playing field between employer-sponsored health insurance and individual-market coverage would be a huge tax cut for everyone:

If employers no longer hold the keys to the tax break, workers would have the freedom to buy their own coverage and demand cash from their employers rather than health benefits. For workers with family coverage, that would shift an average of $9,000 of compensation from a form workers don’t control (health benefits) to a form they do control (wages). The labor market would force employers to fork that money over.

That shift would effectively cut taxes even for workers who see a nominal tax increase. Suppose a working mother’s health benefits cost $15,000 and her tax rate is 40 percent. Taxing her benefits costs her $6,000. After receiving McCain’s $5,000 credit, she would be among the very few who would pay more in taxes ($1,000).

If her employer gives her that $15,000 in wages instead of health benefits, however, then after taxes she would control $14,000 that she previously did not. Even if her employer continues providing health benefits, competing employers would offer her the $15,000 in cash, which likewise increases her control over her earnings, her health care, and her life.

Over 10 years, workers would control some $6.6 trillion dollars of their earnings that employers would otherwise control, which swamps the $3.6 trillion tax increase Obama claims is hidden in the McCain proposal.

Of course, that ain’t gonna happen under McCain’s proposal.  To learn why, read the whole thing.

Keep Virginia Red?

At John McCain’s rally Saturday in Springfield, Virginia, the audience chanted “Keep Virginia Red!” as McCain denounced Barack Obama for being a socialist. Say what?

It was very clever of the TV networks back in 2000 to insist on red for Republicans and blue for Democrats; it had often been the reverse in earlier elections. David Brinkley spoke of Ronald Reagan’s “sea of blue” in 1980, and Time wrote in 1984, “On NBC’s national map, a spreading sea of blue represented Reagan’s triumph, and little islands of red symbolized Mondale’s meager winnings; on ABC and CBS maps, the color symbolism was reversed.” NBC that year – like other networks in previous years – was in keeping with the worldwide use of political colors, where typically red represents communism, socialism, and social democracy and blue is associated with conservative parties. But when the dominant U.S. media all decided to paint the Democrats blue and Republicans red, they got rid of that pesky, lingering association of red with socialism.

And it’s worked so well that Virginia Republicans chant “Keep Virginia Red!”

Anti-Socialism = Racism ?

At Salon.com, Michael Lind asks and answers, “Is Barack Obama a socialist?  If he is, then so is John McCain.“ I have to agree.  McCain so often plays the class warrior that his “desperate use of the socialist smear is particularly shameless.” I might add that McCain is giving anti-socialism a bad name by associating it with hypocrisy, anger, piety, trigger-happiness, etc.

But I can’t go as far as Lind, who doesn’t really seem interested in the answer to his own question. Indeed, it appears Lind’s purpose is to teach McCain the true meaning of shameless. Lind writes:

McCain and Palin claim that Obama’s proposed healthcare system is socialist. It is nothing of the sort. It is a variant of the employer-friendly, insurance-friendly “play-or-pay” scheme discussed in the 1990s. Employers will be given the choice of providing tax-favored health insurance to their employees or being taxed to support a public insurance system. Over time the latter might expand, but for the foreseeable future our dysfunctional private insurance system will survive.

I’m sorry, but the fact that Obama would preserve private health insurance says absolutely nothing about whether his health-care plan is socialist. (If your jaw just hit the space bar, you probably need to read my paper, “Does Barack Obama Support Socialized Medicine?”) The Church of Universal Coverage loves pointing to the presence of “private” health care because it distracts attention from what they’re really doing.

Lind further attempts to innoculate Obama from the charge of socialism by associating the candidate with that great anti-socialist Friedrich Hayek. Lind describes Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as “the bible of free-market libertarians,” and refers to the part where Hayek writes:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness…neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are, as a rule, weakened by the provision of assistance — where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks — the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supercede [sic] it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state’s providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.

When Hayek wrote that in 1943, the world had little experience with health insurance at all, much less with market provision of health insurance. Today, we have lots of experience with the former and enough experience with the latter to know that markets “can make adequate provision” of health insurance for more than just a “few individuals.” In 1943, Hayek and his contemporaries also knew little about how health insurance affects the incidence of health “losses.” Today, we have lots of evidence to show that moral hazard is real and — as Hayek would predict — governments have only the bluntest of tools for dealing with it. Finally, universal-coverage schemes have come to consume such considerable shares of workers’ earnings, as well as other aspects of individual self-determination, that it is implausible to suggest that socialized medicine is compatible with individual freedom.

In short, Hayek was wrong here. (So much for the whole “bible” thing.) Even if Hayek were right, that wouldn’t make Obama’s health plan any less reliant on centralized planning — i.e., any less socialist.

“Another champion of healthcare socialism,” writes Lind, ”was the late Milton Friedman, [who] proposed that major costs be paid for by mandatory catastrophic healthcare coverage run by the federal government.” Lind cites Friedman’s support of a Negative Income Tax as further evidence of Friedman’s socialist tendencies. 

Unlike Lind’s claims about Hayek, this is just silly. Friedman offered those ideas as second-best alternatives to prominent proposals that were far more socialist — some of which had already been enacted (socialized medicine for the elderly, the expanding welfare state) and some of which merely seemed inevitable (socialized medicine for all). Anyone looking for Friedman’s true preferences need only consult Free To Choose (which he coauthored with his wife Rose):

In our opinion, there is no case whatsoever for socialized medicine. On the contrary, government already plays too large a role in medical care. Any further expansion of its role would be very much against the interests of patients, physicians, and health care personnel.

Since Obama would vastly expand the federal government’s role in health care, I think we can guess where the Friedmans stand.

Lastly, Lind gets nasty:

McCain’s last-minute clarion call is really a racial “dog whistle.” The McCain campaign may appear to be debating public philosophy, when in fact it is making a disguised appeal to white racism. If that is the case, then “redistributionist” and “socialist” may be intended to be understood by white swing voters as code words that function the way that “welfare queen” did for the Reagan campaign. A “socialist” or “redistributionist” is a politician who taxes white people like Joe the Plumber and gives money to … you know who.

Does Lind mean to suggest that voicing opposition to “socialist” policies, “redistribution,” and “spreading the wealth around” is necessarily racist? If not, then is there any way an anti-socialist could say such things without Lind suspecting him of racism? Or of race-baiting?

And what’s with this eagerness to impute evil motives to those who disagree with you? That’s so … McCain-esque.

Bush’s Midnight Regulations?

The lead story in today’s Washington Post — above the economy, above the election — is a warning that the Bush administration may deregulate something before it leaves office. Here’s the online headline and subhead:

White House Makes a Last Push to Deregulate

New regulations, which would weaken rules aimed at protecting consumers and environment, could be difficult for next president to undo.

The story begins:

The White House is working to enact a wide array of federal regulations, many of which would weaken government rules aimed at protecting consumers and the environment, before President Bush leaves office in January.

The new rules would be among the most controversial deregulatory steps of the Bush era and could be difficult for his successor to undo. Some would ease or lift constraints on private industry….

Once such rules take effect, they typically can be undone only through a laborious new regulatory proceeding, including lengthy periods of public comment, drafting and mandated reanalysis.

OK, that’s news. A fair story. Although of course the reporter quotes no economist critical of regulation — just a couple of White House flacks and a business lobbyist — though he does quote at least three pro-regulation “public interest” activists issuing dire warnings of impending doom.

But I was curious: Did the Post run a prominent story a few days before the 2000 election about the Clinton administration’s push to impose sweeping regulations before they left office? You know the answer: of course they didn’t. Before election day, according to a Nexis search, there was one reference at the tail end of the jump of a Post story in the Business section to the Mercatus Center’s Midnight Regulations website. So they knew about the problem — Mercatus was publicizing it, and the Houston Chronicle ran a front-page story — but the Post didn’t think voters needed to know.

Even though, as today’s story mentions after the jump,

[T]he last-minute rush appears to involve fewer regulations than Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, approved at the end of his tenure. …

“Through the end of the Clinton administration, we were working like crazy to get as many regulations out as possible,” said Donald R. Arbuckle, who retired in 2006 after 25 years as an OMB official.

Maybe they didn’t quite grasp the problem back in 2000. We’ll see whether there are such stories toward the end of the Obama administration in the Post — and on Diane Rehm, and on ABC News, and in the New York Daily News, and all the other places that are very concerned about “midnight deregulation.”

Does Harper Support Regulation of Gambling and Financial Services?

My post yesterday regarding Members of Congress who voted to exempt financial derivatives from state gambling laws created a firestorm of controversy. Well, two people asked me about it, anyway …

(A new WashingtonWatch.com post on the presidential candidates who didn’t help create our economic problems is available for your perusal, by the way.)

“Why would a libertarian think it’s bad to exempt anyone from regulation? Do you support gambling laws? Do you support financial services regulation?”

These are all fair questions, given my objection to preempting state gambling laws in this case. So let me expand on this observation from my earlier post:

Many gambling laws are nanny-statism, of course, but if they’re going to go away, they should be repealed by the legislatures that wrote them. This federal preemption gave special permission to certain parts of the financial services industry to run a huge gambling operation masquerading as a market in real assets.

I’m quite a bit less a fan of preemption than many of my colleagues. There are fair-minded people who believe that national markets call for national regulatory regimes to replace the states’. As commerce has become national, the Commerce Clause has become a grant of authority to regulate national markets, they appear to believe.

I’m not convinced. Given the nation’s experience under the Articles of Confederation, the Commerce Clause was included in the Constitution to prevent states from regulating parochially - that is, for the benefit of local interests over out-of-staters. The Constitution gave Congress authority to regulate commerce “among the states” - which, if words have meaning, is something narrower than just regulating all commerce.

So when state gambling laws interfere with an interest capturing the sympathy of a majority in Washington, D.C., that doesn’t necessarily empower Congress to withdraw state authority. Congress is supposed to prevent only state parochialism, not every bad idea coming out of a state legislature.

If we are to have a healthy political economy, debates about state gambling regulations should be taken to each state that enacted them. The merits of freedom and personal responsibility should be made clear there so they win majorities once again.

The alternative preferred by many is a shortcut: trumping states by moving power to the federal level. This is not a felicitous trend, and its end-point - a remote national government with plenary power - is not good for liberty.

Gambling regulation is nanny-statism, but I wouldn’t go and kick the legs out from under state anti-gambling regulation through federal preemption - especially not for one narrow part of the financial services industry. This is not a game, where any loss for regulation is a gain for liberty.

If responsibility for self-protection against gambling is going to be restored to people in a given state, the legislature of that state should repeal the anti-gambling laws, signaling people that they are once again responsible for themselves. What happened here was that Congress trumped state power and withdrew the protection of state anti-gambling regulation without signaling to anyone that there were risks to be encountered. What looked like asset-based financial services to all but a few was in fact gambling.

The Congress helped perpetrate a deception about what was going on with financial derivatives - and just because some regulation went under the tires, that isn’t a victory for liberty.