Grubergate, the Mini-Series

Remembering Georgia’s Freedom Fighter

Sometimes a person’s genuine significance can be assessed only after their passing. That seems to be the case of Kakha Bendukidze, Georgian entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist, who died unexpectedly early last month. While he was very well-known among libertarians in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the reactions of some of the world’s leading media outlets suggest that his influence extended far beyond narrow ideological lines, making him one of the most important voices on public policy in the region.

Kakha was a close intellectual ally of Cato and did more than his fair share to promote free-market ideas in countries of the former USSR. In the early 2000s, he pressed for the adoption of a flat tax in Russia. Earlier than others, he understood Vladimir Putin’s true motives, sold his Russian businesses and moved to his native Georgia. It was there that he spearheaded, as Minister for Economy, the ambitious program of fighting corruption and liberalizing the economy, which led to extraordinarily high growth rates for Georgia’s economy. In 2007 alone, the economy expanded by 12.3 percent. After leaving public office, Kakha helped establish the Free University of Tbilisi, a private university offering Western-style undergraduate and graduate education, and the Knowledge Fund, a charity providing funding for teaching and research, including scholarships for Georgian students from poorer backgrounds.

Impressive as this account is, few would have guessed that his passing would prompt a wave of tributes and appreciations coming from sometimes unexpected places. On Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, Anna Nemtsova called Kakha one of Georgia’s “most progressive reformers and corruption fighters.” The New York Times published a lengthy obituary, which highlighted Kakha’s involvement with the new leadership of Ukraine. The Independent, in turn, called Kakha a “businessman and statesman who fell foul of Vladimir Putin but rescued Georgia’s post-Soviet economy.”

Finally, the New Yorker magazine offers a carefully written appreciation, offering a lot of details on Kakha’s life and activities in Ukraine prior to his untimely death, as well as the directness with which he communicated his ideas:

Even though he was unsure whether Ukrainians would accept the changes that he wanted to carry out, he agreed to work with [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko, friends say, because he saw Ukraine as the frontline of the battle for liberal reforms in the former Soviet states. With the same tough love that he had inflicted on Georgians, Bendukidze urged Ukrainians to stop blaming others for their problems. “You have broken every world record in idiocy,” he told an audience at the Kyiv School of Economics, in July. “You keep electing populists, people who promise you more. This means you are electing the worst.” He advocated cutting government spending, reducing retirement benefits for public servants, and radically deregulating the economy. Ukraine, he said, in one of his last interviews, had too many ministries and agencies. “Who needs them when the government’s sole function these days is to take money from the International Monetary Fund and pass it on in payment for Russian gas?” he asked.

Under Proposed Rules, Government Could Choose Insurance Plans for Millions of People

The administration is considering a rule change that would allow the government to automatically change some people’s exchange plans to a cheaper alternative.

HHS recently proposed regulations that would let exchanges offer alternative default options for enrollees. Under current law, most enrollees who did not revisit the exchange website are automatically re-enrolled in their plans (a few states do not allow automatic renewal). The new proposed rules would let exchange enrollees choose whether their default option would be to automatically renew the same plan or to let the government switch them into a cheaper similar plan if theirs becomes more expensive. Under the proposed rules, state exchanges would be given the option to offer these alternatives in 2016, with the federally run exchange offering it in 2017.

For people that chose this option, the government would be effectively choosing their insurance plan, a far cry from the “if you like your plan you can keep it” pledge.

In one sense, it is not surprising that HHS is at least exploring this option. Automatic renewal presents a host of potential problems.

Due to the way the law designed the exchange subsidies, many of these people will end up paying significantly more if they automatically renew. An analysis by the New York Times found that people in the most popular plans would face an average premium increase of 9.5 percent. This could end up affecting millions of people, as a recent Gallup poll found that 68 percent of respondents said they planned to renew their current plan.

To some extent, the proposed rules could help alleviate the initial problem of unforeseen premium increases, but it creates other issues at the same time.  Enrollees might not understand the downsides of letting the government automatically switch them to a cheaper plan. People who chose this option fearing premium increases could find that they have lost their doctor, or a prescription they need is no longer covered by their plan. For even the most sophisticated exchange customers, there is a measure of uncertainty.  When they choose a default option, enrollees won’t know how much their premiums will increase next year or how the provider networks of cheaper alternatives compare.  Each customer’s priorities will be different, as will the variables affecting their decision. Obamacare has inadvertently created a very complex situation for the government to try to navigate.

The problems associated with automatic renewal are serious and could affect millions of people, but they might not have a clear solution. In one sense, the proposed default option could help people avoid unforeseen premium increases. This could be the most important factor for many enrollees, but comes at the risk of losing access to provider networks they might like. At the same time, the proposed rules would significantly increase government authority and decision-making power. No longer would the individual mandate, the controversial requirement to obtain health insurance, be enough. For many people, the government would actually choose and enroll them in a specific health insurance plan. The new rules would extend government reach into health care even farther. This is the same government that oversaw the disastrous rollout of the exchange website and inflated enrollment numbers. Given its performance so far, we should be wary of giving the government an even bigger role.

Cato’s Online Growth Forum

Here are today’s new essays in the Cato Institute’s special online forum on reviving growth:

1. Richard Florida says that cities are our future.

2. Megan McArdle takes aim at regulatory complexity.

3. Dane Stangler wants more immigration and better teachers.

4. Scott Winship focuses on expanding opportunity for the disadvantaged.

5. Michael Mandel calls for hacking the regulatory state.

6. Brad DeLong waves his magic wand three times.

Harvard’s Asian-American Problem Has a Solution, Chapel Hill’s Does Not

In his op-ed at the New York Times yesterday, Yascha Mounk, a fellow at New America, asked “Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?” A century ago, Harvard had a problem, he writes: “Too many Jews.” Today it’s Asian-Americans. Euphemistic admissions criteria like “character and fitness” solved Harvard’s problem back then. Today, numbers do the job. To get into the top schools, Mounk writes, Asian-Americans “need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers.” And that’s brought on a suit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions.

If this case is decided eventually under current law, as is likely, the result will be less than clear or satisfying in several respects. To see why, just follow Mounk’s argument. One reason this “new discrimination” is tolerated, he notes, is that “many academics assume that higher rates of admission for Asian-Americans would come at the price of lower rates of admission for African-Americans.” But the two issues are unrelated, he continues:

As recognized by the Supreme Court, schools have an interest in recruiting a “critical mass” of minority students to obtain “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This justifies, in my view, admissions standards that look favorably on underrepresented groups, like African-Americans and Latinos. But it can neither explain nor justify why a student of Chinese, Korean or Indian descent is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one.

Then what does explain why an Asian-American student is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one? Mounk continues:

Conservatives point to Harvard’s emphasis on enrolling African-Americans (currently 12 percent of freshmen) and Hispanics (13 percent) but overlook preferences for children of alumni (about 12 percent of students) and recruited athletes (around 13 percent). The real problem is that, in a meritocratic system, whites would be a minority—and Harvard just isn’t comfortable with that.

Ah! There we have it, Mounk believes. But notice that this “explanation” mentions, almost in passing, “a meritocratic system,” as if that were what we had. If we did—at least one based heavily on SAT scores—the aforementioned academics would be right: Harvard would admit far more Asian-Americans and far fewer African-Americans and Hispanics—and perhaps fewer legacy and athletic applicants as well.

Regulation Could Hamper Uber Privacy Reforms

UPDATE: Following the publication of this blog post I received an email from the deputy commissioner for public affairs at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, who writes that there is no “TLC” regulation requiring that passenger information be included in trip data. The email reads (in part):

There is no such regulation.  We did, just this past week, approve a package of rules that will routinize the flow of required trip data, but it is—and always HAS been—limited to pick-up location, date/time, the dispatching base and affiliated base … no passenger information whatsoever.

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Original post:

Uber has not had a good month. In the wake of an Uber executive’s worrying remarks regarding a possible smear campaign against critical journalists, the company has been on the receiving end of unflattering reporting related to its privacy policy and what one commentator has referred to as its “[something stronger than “jerk”] problem.” While it is certainly the case that Uber does have legitimate privacy issues to address, it should not be forgotten that existing regulations could hamper some of the privacy reforms many Uber passengers would like to see implemented.

For many, Uber is more convenient than taxis because of its ease of use. Once a passenger creates an account a ride that is paid for automatically is only a push of a button away. Drivers and passengers are rated by each other, providing an incentive for both parties to behave well. However, while the Uber platform’s simplicity is a major attraction, there have been disturbing reports of Uber drivers accessing passengers’ information.

In March of this year, Olivia Nuzzi, a reporter for The Daily Beast, wrote about two creepy interactions with Uber drivers in New York City. In her writing about the first incident, Nuzzi describes her driver showing her a photo he had taken of her before the ride began. Nuzzi was understandably upset and rated the driver poorly. Uber deactivated the driver, who later emailed Nuzzi, The Daily Beast, and a journalist who had written about Nuzzi. After this incident Nuzzi was told by an Uber employee there was no way the Uber driver could have accessed her full name and that he must have recognized her. 

Yet the second incident reveals that Uber drivers can discover the full names of their passengers, thereby making them easier targets for stalking. Months after Nuzzi’s first disturbing incident, one of her friends was contacted by an Uber driver over Facebook. The driver asked whether Nuzzi was single. When Nuzzi asked an Uber spokeswoman for comment regarding this incident she was informed that Uber drivers could in fact access the full names of their passengers. The Uber spokeswoman went on to explain that this data collection is possible because:

The New York City and Limousine commission, along with the vast majority of jurisdictions across the country, do require first and last names on what is commonly called a waybill or trip record. It’s intended to prevent gypsy cabbing in the taxi and livery industry… So Uber does provide trip sheets to drivers so that they can comply with those regulations that exist in most cities. 

Some readers might be wondering why Uber cannot simply anonymize passenger information in order to prevent the sort of stalking Nuzzi endured. The reason that passenger names are not made anonymous is that New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) regulations prevent such information from being hidden, as Polly Mosendz explained this month in Newsweek:

While a user’s Uber profile only shows the first name and a small picture, the driver does have access to the full name as soon as the ride is ordered. Showing the full name opens up a number of issues, such as drivers Facebook messaging their riders or finding their homes, but Uber is unable to anonymize this unless the TLC changes its regulations.

In New York City, it seems that Uber must find a way to tackle TLC regulations in order to prevent the sort of awful behavior Nuzzi reported.

Of course, there are other complaints related to Uber and privacy, such as the tracking of journalists and “known people.” Uber is investigating the improper use of its so-called “God View” tool, which allows corporate employees to view the current location of Uber cars and users looking for rides. According to Uber, a New York executive’s use of “God View” to track a journalist on her way to Uber’s New York headquarters was in violation of the company’s privacy policy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Uber announced last week that it was working with the law firm Hogan Lovells in order to strengthen its privacy policy. It is welcome news that Uber is addressing the legitimate privacy concerns that have been raised by some passengers, but those watching Uber’s attempts to reform its privacy policy should keep in mind that regulations make that task considerably more difficult.

Just in Time for Thanksgiving, Another Turkey from the Obama Administration

The shameful Obama Administration practice of proposing dreadful environmental regulations on or near national holidays continues. Last year they were on global warming, and this year it’s low-level ozone. Neither regulation will have a detectable “benefit,” but both impose enormous costs. Perhaps President Obama’s placing this announcement in the news cycle just before Thanksgiving and Black Friday is indicative of how popular he thinks these regulations will be.

So it goes. The lessons of November 4 remain unlearned, with the administration doubling down in the service of all of its green friends that didn’t vote. The fact is that the ground zero of the thermonuclear electoral explosion three weeks ago was in the coal mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell was supposedly in a close race with Alison Grimes and instead won by a whopping 18 points. Nick Rahall, a 19-term (!) Democratic congressman from West Virginia saw a similar swing: he won his seat by eight points in 2012 and lost by 10 in 2014, with the net change in two years totaling 18. 

The proposed ozone rules are yet another example of what happens when good ideas go bad. Pretty much everyone agrees that EPA, along with the states, have done a remarkable job in cleaning up our air. The eye-stinging smogs of Los Angeles are history. Pittsburgh was once so dirty that masonry turned black, causing people to wonder what was happening in their lungs. We have done great things and enjoy air that is cleaner than that of any economic superpower in the history of this planet.

Environmental protection is what systems engineers call a “heuristic device,” defined as “a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal, but is good enough for a given set of goals.” The problem, of course, is that heuristic devices don’t tell you when to stop. Instead they keep being applied, in this case by the bureaucracy-for-life known as the Environmental Protection Agency, producing massively diminishing returns for massively increased costs. And, at President Obama’s urging, it will never hear the word “stop.”

Millions of people are increasingly disenchanted with the administration’s high-handed approach to command-and-control regulations imposed when we aren’t supposed to be looking.  If enough people remain grumpy about this, Barack Obama may yet again stand in the way of a Hillary Clinton presidency.