Topic: Government and Politics

Timeless Wisdom from Walter Williams

Back in the 1980s, the irreplaceable Walter Williams produced a documentary based on one of his more controversial books, The State Against Blacks. Someone has done a great service and posted the documentary on youtube. Everything Walter said back then is true today - and just as applicable. The only discordant note is that when Walter refers to “welfare reform,” it is important to understand that he is talking about the expansion of handouts and centralization in the 1960s and 1970s, not the pro-market welfare reform of the 1990s:

The Productivity Challenge: Is Health Care as Bad as Education?

Catherine Rampell, editor of the NYTimes Economix blog, has kindly relayed my challenge to her readers: “name a field with a productivity collapse worse than that in education.”

Ms. Rampell, like several Cato@Liberty readers, suggests health care as a possible “winner.” I haven’t yet spent enough time with the data to be absolutely sure one way or the other, but so far I have to disagree.

It’s true that health care costs have risen dramatically over the past 40 years. The CDC has a great digest of health statistics that puts per capita health care spending at $356 in 1970 and $7,026 in 2006 (table 124). Adjusting the earlier figure for inflation it comes to $1,851, meaning that per capita health spending has gone up by a factor of 3.6. Public school spending per pupil has gone up by about 2.3 times from 1969-70 to 2005-06. But while educational outcomes at the end of high school are stagnant and the graduation rate has declined, we’ve enjoyed incredible medical advances. After spending an hour or two with Google and the CDC stats book, here’s what I find:

  • Neonatal mortality was cut by 2/3 between 1970 and 2005, from 20 to 6.87 per 1,000 births
  • Fetal mortality rate (miscarriage) was cut by more than half: from 14 in 1970 down to 6.2 in 2003 (per 1,000 live births plus fetal deaths)
  • Life expectancy at birth was raised by 7 years
  • Limitation of activity caused by chronic conditions: 13.3 % in 1997, 11.6% in 2006
  • There’s now a nearly 90% cure rate for a childhood leukemia
  • Depression is far more treatable
  • Fertility treatments are greatly advanced
  • Prosthetics are dramatically better
  • Lasik eye surgery was invented
  • Gastric bypass surgery is now available for the morbidly obese
  • Joint replacements are far more common and effective
  • Reconstructive surgery is greatly advanced
  • We now have vaccines for rubella, pneumonia, hepatitis A and B, chicken pox, lyme disease, and meningitis
  • Smallpox was eradicated
  • Numerous technological advances have made diagnostic and surgical procedures less painful and easier to recover from, including: arthroscopy, laparoscopy, MRIs, CTs, SPECT and PET scans

It’s also important to consider that Americans have chosen to lead lives that seem more likely to engender health problems over the past four decades. Though we’ve cut down on smoking, which should make us healthier, Americans today are both less physically active and more gluttonous. Not surprisingly, obesity has more than doubled, rising from 14.6 to 34.1 percent of the population. You’d think that heart disease would have gone off the charts as a result, but it’s actually been more than cut in half, from 493 to 211 deaths per 100,000, thanks, presumably, to medical advances that have more than compensated for our couchpotatofication. [And lest anyone assume that students have become harder to teach over the past 40 years, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction.]

So far at least, the evidence doesn’t seem to support the notion that the health care sector has suffered a productivity collapse quite like education. It still looks as though schooling, and only schooling, has gotten both worse and substantially more expensive since 1970.

Obama’s Press Conference: Rush to Judgment

At the Politico I write:

It’s easy to find, as Gallup just did, that majorities of the public want everything – guaranteed health insurance, that covers all possible problems, that lets you choose your own doctor and the treatments you need, that lets you keep your current plan – and they want it cheap. Or they’re OK with letting someone else pay. So when President Obama promises health care that does all those things, he can find a receptive audience. Still, when you ask people whether they really believe the federal government can provide more health care to more people, and save money in the process, most of them don’t. And that’s the problem Obama faces. And the reason he’s so insistent on doing it NOW is that he fears that the longer people mull that conundrum, the more they will realize the unlikelihood of a vast new federal program bringing down the cost of anything.

Obama also said that his administration “inherited an enormous deficit….have not reduced it as much as we need to and we would like to.” That’s a half-truth at best. The Bush administration and the Republican Congress spent like drunken sailors. But driving the deficit into the stratosphere is Obama’s decision. If he thought the deficit was too high, he didn’t have to push a $787 billion stimulus bill and a $3.6 trillion budget. If he thinks the effects of the stimulus are worth the enormous, unprecedented, unimagined deficits, then let him stand up and say so instead of pretending that he’s been trying to “reduce it.”

Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying

There’s lots of outrage in the blogosphere over revelations that some of the biggest recipients of the federal government’s $700 billion TARP bailout have been spending money on lobbyists. Good point. It’s bad enough to have our tax money taken and given to banks whose mistakes should have caused them to fail. It’s adding insult to injury when they use our money – or some “other” money; money is fungible – to lobby our representatives in Congress, perhaps for even more money.

Get taxpayers’ money, hire lobbyists, get more taxpayers’ money. Nice work if you can get it.

But the outrage about the banks’ lobbying is a bit late. As far back as 1985, Cato published a book, Destroying Democracy: How Government Funds Partisan Politics, that exposed how billions of taxpayers’ dollars were used to subsidize organizations with a political agenda, mostly groups that lobbied and organized for bigger government and more spending. The book led off with this quotation from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

The book noted that the National Council of Senior Citizens had received more than $150 million in taxpayers’ money in four years. A more recent report estimated that AARP had received over a billion dollars in taxpayer funding. Both groups, of course, lobby incessantly for more spending on Social Security and Medicare. The Heritage Foundation reported in 1995, “Each year, the American taxpayers provide more than $39 billion in grants to organizations which may use the money to advance their political agendas.”

In 1999 Peter Samuel and Randal O’Toole found that EPA was a major funder of groups lobbying for “smart growth.” So these groups were pushing a policy agenda on the federal government, but the government itself was paying the groups to lobby it.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for the very lobbying that seeks to suck more dollars out of the taxpayers. But then, taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize banks, car companies, senior citizen groups, environmentalist lobbies, labor unions, or other private organizations in the first place.

Sotomayor Doesn’t Deserve a Supreme Court Seat

Having sat through the entire gavel-to-gavel coverage of last week’s confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.

It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.

But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.

Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee’s evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.

And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt “burden of proof” paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.

Obama’s New Numbers

A new ABC/Washington Post poll is out.  The trends are not comforting for the White House.  President Obama’s approval rating - probably the most important number for a president these days - continues to drop. Approval by independents has fallen by 9 points over his term.  Support for his handling of the economy now garners the approval of barely half of respondents.  The number of people who see him as an “old-style tax and spend” Democrat has risen by 11 percentage points; the number who see him as a new Democrat “careful with public money” has dropped by about the same number.

A majority of the public now rejects a second spending splurge. Most now give avoiding deficits a higher priority than increasing spending, even to fight the recession.

The number of people in the poll identifying themselves as independents is at a post-1981 high. Most of those people may well vote most of the time for one of the major parties. For now, neither party is attracting much loyalty.

Surely some Democrats in Congress must be starting to wonder how far they should follow the president and his desire for ever greater spending.

Gates Lays Down the Gauntlet on the F-22

Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t known for his stirring oratory, and his speech to the Economic Club of Chicago is representative of his understated style. But when it comes to the F-22, the SecDef’s ire shows through.

The overarching theme of the speech was the future of the U.S. military, a rather obvious topic. I don’t agree with all that Gates has done, and is preparing to do. I question his fixation on population-centric counterinsurgency and post-conflict reconstruction. I think he could have done more to cut unnecessary weapons systems, although he deserves credit for tackling the low-hanging fruit.

By the same token, much of the criticism leveled against Gates is unfair, and some of it is absurd. Gates demolishes the charge that he has slashed defense spending, by pointing out that the FY2010 budget is $534 billion, $19 billion more than in FY09. “Only in the parallel universe that is Washington, D.C.,” Gates noted, “would that be considered ‘gutting’ defense.”

But he hasn’t shied from making some cuts, and he has taken on some politically popular programs. And the F-22 is at the top of this list. Gates devoted nearly a third of the speech to the F-22, and the bottom line is this:

[I]f we can’t bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision [to terminate the program at 187 aircraft] — reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right — what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line is a veto.  And it is real.

No one reading this speech should have any doubts that Gates and President Obama are serious. We’ll know perhaps as soon as Monday — the Senate is supposed to vote on the McCain-Levin amendment to strip funding for the F-22 from the Defense Authorization bill — whether Congress is paying attention.