Wednesday Podcast: ‘Turning a Corner on the War Metaphor’

Since President Bush’s “War on Terror” began in 2001, the use of a war metaphor has come with assertions of broader powers by the president. But the U.S. may be turning a corner on how terms like “war” are used, says Cato scholar David Rittgers.

In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast,  Rittgers argues that President Obama’s choice to do away with the war metaphor is a step in the right direction.

When the Government Takes Your Money, It Takes Your Property

When Daniel and Andrea McClung applied for a permit to build a small business on their property in Sumner, Washington, the city charged them nearly $50,000 to pay for improvements to the city’s entire storm drainage system.

The McClungs sued the city under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, whose Takings Clause prohibits the government from “taking” private property for public use without just compensation.  They argue that the city cannot force them to pay fees for off-site pipes absent proof that their development would have a specific detrimental effect on the existing drainage system–and without any evidence that the impact was worth $50,000.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the city, reasoning that money is not property (so there could be no unconstitutional taking) and that because the fees were imposed by ordinance (so the city’s determination that the pipes needed upgrading was justification enough for the fees).  The McClungs have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case.

Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Building Industry Association of Washington, argues that this case is a perfect vehicle for the Court to revisit the scope of Fifth Amendment protections.

Our brief highlights the deep divisions among state and federal courts over several important issues, such as whether the Takings Clause applies to legislative (as opposed to bureaucratic) exactions and whether it applies to monetary exactions (not just burdens on land use).  The Court should take this case to ensure that the standard for reviewing development conditions is uniform across the country and make clear that property right protections do not depend on ill-defined distinctions such as the form of property demanded by the government or the manner in which a condition is imposed.

Should Immigration Agents Target Businesses Knowingly Hiring Illegal Immigrants?

The Obama Administration plans to shift immigration enforcement from workers to employers, but the whole policy of “internal enforcement” of immigration law is the problem, says Cato scholar Jim Harper.

According to Harper, aligning legal immigration rates with the demand for new workers in the country is the only solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

He appeared on Fox News this week to debate this issue.

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Democrats Agree on Health Plan Outline: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The New York Times reports that key congressional Democrats have agreed on the basic provisions for a health care reform bill.  And while many details remain to be negotiated, the broad outline provides a dog’s breakfast of bad ideas that will lead to higher taxes, fewer choices, and poorer quality care.

Among the items that are expected to be included in the final bill:

  • An Individual Mandate. Every American will be required to buy an insurance policy that meets certain government requirements.  Even individuals who are currently insured – and happy with their insurance – will have to switch to insurance that meets the government’s definition of acceptable insurance, even if that insurance is more expensive or contains benefits that they do not want or need.  Get ready for the lobbying frenzy as every special interest group in Washington, both providers and disease constituencies, demand to be included.
  • An Employer Mandate. At a time of rising unemployment, the government will raise the cost of hiring workers by requiring all employers to provide health insurance to their workers or pay a fee (tax) to subsidize government coverage.
  • A Government-Run Plan, competing with private insurance.  Because such a plan is subsidized by taxpayers, it will have an unfair advantage, allowing it to squeeze out private insurance.  In addition, because government insurance plans traditionally under-reimburse providers, such costs are shifted to private insurance plans, driving up their premiums and making them even less competitive. The actuarial firm Lewin Associates estimates that, depending on how premiums, benefits, reimbursement rates, and subsidies were structured, as many as 118.5 million would shift from private to public coverage.   That would mean a nearly 60 percent reduction in the number of Americans with private insurance.  It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances, putting us on the road to a single-payer system.
  • Massive New Subsidies. This includes not just subsidies to help low-income people buy insurance, but expansions of government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Government Playing Doctor.   Democrats agree that one goal of their reform plan is to push for “less use of aggressive treatments that raise costs but do not result in better outcomes.”  While no mechanism has yet been spelled out, it seems likely that the plan will use government-sponsored comparative effectiveness research to impose cost-effectiveness guidelines on medical care, initially in government programs, but eventually extending such restrictions to private insurance.

Given the problems facing our health care system-high costs, uneven quality, millions of Americans without health insurance–it seems that things couldn’t get any worse.   But a bill based on these ideas, will almost certainly make things much, much worse.

Or maybe it’s all just a massive April Fool’s joke.

Social Security Is Running a Surplus…Oops

For years, opponents of Social Security reform have told us that there is no need to rush into changing the program because, after all, Social Security is running a surplus today. Well, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, not so much.

CBO reports that the Social Security surplus, originally expected to be $80-90 billion this year and next will shrink to $16 billion this year and just $3 billion next year (essentially a rounding error) as a result of the recession and rising unemployment. And those estimates may be far too optimistic. In February of this year, for example, Social Security actually ran a deficit—spending more than it took in through taxes and interest combined.

And, while CBO expects a return to modest surpluses after 2010, as the recession ends and unemployment falls, that is betting on the success of the unproven Obama economic program. If unemployment stays at current levels, Social Security will begin running permanent cash flow deficits in 2011 (eight years earlier than previously predicted).

Opponents of personal accounts have pointed out recent declines in the stock market as a reason why private investment should no longer be considered an option for Social Security reform. The evidence suggests that, even with recent market declines, private investment would still produce higher returns than Social Security. The new surplus numbers provide yet another lesson: if the economy is in such a mess that it hurts private investment, traditional Social Security isn’t going to be in any better shape.

The case for personal accounts remains as strong as ever.

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Conservatives, Public Schools, and Pedagogy

I’ve received a fair bit of e-mail in response to my commentary yesterday on the recent defunding of the Bush administration’s Reading First program. Several people questioned my assertion that the program failed to yield a significant nationwide improvement in literacy. I cited a 2008 federal government report in support of that assertion, but questions were raised as to the validity of that study and other research seeming to contradict it was presented.

Taking the latter point first, it was pointed out that an EDS study of California found a positive impact to the program, as did an NWREL study of 5 other Western states. Note that there is not necessarily any contradiction between the federal study and the California and Western states studies. It’s possible that, nationwide, Reading First was associated with academic improvements in some schools, no effect in others, and lower performance in still others, resulting in the overall lack of impact reported by the federal government study. If so, it could be that schools in which Reading First proved effective are unevenly distributed around the country, and happen to be concentrated in the West.

Another possibility is that the federal study was so flawed that it failed to find a significant positive effect to Reading First when there actually was one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this is true and that Reading First is actually working, overall, at improving student literacy nationwide. If so, what confidence should we have that it would continue to be effectively implemented in the long term, and not displaced by something else, or altered so as to become ineffective?

The answer is: not much. As I’ve noted in the case of the Follow Through experiment of the 60s and 70s, which is typical, even when a proven method is adopted in public school classrooms and yields great success it tends to be discarded for one reason or another. Since nothing fundamental has changed in the incentive structure of public schooling since the 1970s, there is no reason to believe that Reading First would buck the trend and somehow survive in perpetutity.

But all of this is of course academic, because Congress has already defunded the program. Democrats were not interested in continuing to evaluate the program to make absolutely sure of its impact. They killed it almost immediately because it is a traditionalist pedgaogical program that appeals to conservatives rather than “progressives.”

And that was the second point of my commentary: even when effective methods are implemented in public schools they remain subject to the inconstant winds of politics. If you want to find fields where better methods roiutinely displace worse ones rather than vice versa, you have to look to the free enterprise sector of the economy. Without the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace, stagnation and declining productivity are the norm. Education is no different in this regard from any other field.

And just to be clear, I am convinced by the earlier research that the pedagogical ideas behind Reading First are sound, and that when properly implemented its systematic use of phonics is superior to most of what it would have displaced. I’m simply pointing out that there was never good reason to expect a government-protected monopoly consistently implement it effecitvely, and that even if it did for some period of time Reading First would eventually have fallen victim to shifting political winds. While some may choose to disagree on the first point, the second has already come to pass.

If we want schools around the country to continually adopt and refine the best methods available, we must create the freedoms and incentives that will cause that to happen… or get used to disappointment.

So Much for the Promise of Financial Transparency

President Barack Obama promised transparency and accountability for how the federal government spends the trillions – or is it quadrillions (I’ve lost count)? – in bail-out money, stimulus outlays, and expanded government programs.  Alas, his administration doesn’t seem interested in living up to his promises.

Reports ABC News:

The watchdog for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s financial rescue plan, said today that the Treasury Department has not been cooperating with oversight efforts up to this point.

“We do not seem to be a priority for the Treasury Department,” the Congressional Oversight Panel’s Elizabeth Warren told a Senate Finance Committee hearing today.

“We have sent letters. We have requested that there be someone named so that we can get technical information. And so far, we have not been a first priority,” Warren said. “We use what you give us, and we will exercise the leverage given to us by Congress. In part, that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to talk to you about what’s happened so far, what we have discovered so far, the inquiries that we have in mid-stream and for which we continue to await responses.”

Warren, visibly frustrated with a lack of cooperation from the administration, emphasized, “This problem starts with Treasury.”

Obviously, this isn’t the first time that a presidential commitment has gone aglimmering.  But given the extraordinary opportunity for pervasive waste, fraud, and abuse in the tsunami of new federal spending, few presidential commitments have been as important.