Who’s Scared of the Guantanamo Inmates?

Many debates in Washington seem surreal.  One often wonders why anyone considers the issue even to be a matter of controversy.

So it is with the question of closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.  Whatever one thinks about the facility, why are panicked politicians screaming “not in my state/district!”?  After all, the president didn’t suggest randomly releasing al-Qaeda operatives in towns across America.  He wants to put Guantanamo’s inmates into American prisons.

Notes an incredulous Glenn Greenwald:

we never tire of the specter of the Big, Bad, Villainous, Omnipotent Muslim Terrorist.  They’re back, and now they’re going to wreak havoc on the Homeland – devastate our communities – even as they’re imprisoned in super-max prison facilities.  How utterly irrational is that fear?  For one thing, it’s empirically disproven.  Anyone with the most minimal amount of rationality would look at the fact that we have already convicted numerous alleged high-level Al Qaeda Terrorists in our civilian court system (something we’re now being told can’t be done) – including the cast of villains known as the Blind Shiekh a.k.a. Mastermind of the First World Trade Center Attack, the Shoe Bomber, the Dirty Bomber, the American Taliban, the 20th Hijacker, and many more – and are imprisoning them right now in American prisons located in various communities.  

Guantanamo may be a handy dumping ground for detainees, but it has become a symbol of everything wrong with U.S. anti-terrorism policy.  Closing the facility would help the administration start afresh in dealing with suspected terrorists.

The fact that Republicans are using the issue to win partisan points is to be expected.  But the instant, unconditional Democratic surrender surprises even a confirmed cynic like me.

The Coburn-Burr-Ryan-Nunes Mandate-Price-Control Bill

Today, Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Richard Burr (R-NC), along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Devin Nunes (R-CA) announced that they will introduce a health care reform bill. If my reading of the bill summary is correct, their bill would:

  • Mandate that states create a new regulatory bureaucracy called a “State Health Insurance Exchange,”
  • Mandate that all plans offered through those exchanges meet federal regulatory standards,
  • Mandate “guaranteed issue” in those exchanges,
  • Mandate “uniform and reliable measures by which to report quality and price information,”
  • Impose price controls on those plans by prohibiting risk-rating,
  • Launch a government takeover of the “insurance” part of health insurance, by means of a “risk-adjustment” program intended to cope with the problems created by price controls, and
  • Fall just short of an individual mandate by setting up (mandating?) automatic enrollment in exchange plans at “places of employment, emergency rooms, the DMV, etc.” – essentially, trying to achieve universal coverage by nagging Americans to death.

Needless to say, I am troubled.

The bill summary is self-contradictory. On the one hand, it lists “No Tax Increases” as a core concept. Do its authors not know that imposing price controls on health insurance premiums imposes a tax on healthier-than-average consumers? And where do they think the money for “risk-adjustment” payments will come from? Heaven?

The bill sponsors seem to want to cement in place the monopoly regulation that currently exists at the state level – when they’re not encouraging Congress to take over that function. Have they abandoned their colleague Rep. John Shadegg’s (R-AZ) proposal to allow for competitive regulation of health insurance?

And if Massachusetts created an “exchange” on its own, why do other states need federal legislation?

The bill includes some ideas for which I have more sympathy, like its tax-credit proposal and expanding health savings accounts.

But the above provisions would sow the seeds of a government takeover of health care – so much so that The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is salivating:

The word of the day is “convergence.” That – and that alone – is the definitive message of the conservative health reform alternative developed by Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). For now, some of the key provisions are about as clear as mud. The plan’s changes to the tax code, in particular, are impossible to discern. So I’ll do another post when I can get some clarity on those issues. The politics, however, are perfectly straightforward.

A superficial read of the Patients’ Choice Act – which I’ve uploaded here – would make you think you’re digging into a liberal bill. A fair chunk of the rhetoric is lifted straight from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office. “It is time to publicly admit that the health care system in America is broken,” begins the document. “Health care is not a commodity in the traditional sense,” it continues. “States should provide direct oversight of health insurers to make sure they are playing by fair rules,” it demands. The way we pay private insurers in Medicare “wastes taxpayer dollars and lines the pockets of insurance executives,” it says. Elsewhere, it praises solutions that have worked in several European countries.”

And though it’s still too early to say how the policy fits together, it’s clear that many traditionally Democratic concepts have been embraced. To put it simply, the plan wants to encourage a version of the Massachusetts reforms – which it calls a “well-known, bi-partisan achievement of universal health care” – in every state. There are some differences, of course. The plan doesn’t have an individual mandate. It doesn’t have an obvious tax on employers. But it strongly endorses State Health Insurance Exchanges. And that, for Republicans, is a radical change in policy.

This idea – present in every Democratic proposal but absent in Arizona Sen.John McCain’s plan – would empower states to create heavily regulated marketplaces of insurers. The plans offered would have to “meet the same statutory standard used for the health benefits given to Members of Congress.” Cherrypicking would be discouraged through risk adjustment, which the PCA calls “a model that works in several European countries.” The government would automatically enroll individuals in plans whenever they interacted with a government agency and states would be able to join into regional cooperatives to increase the size of their risk pool.

In essence, Coburn, Burr, and Ryan are abandoning the individual market entirely. Like Democrats, they’re arguing that individuals cannot successfully navigate the insurance market, and they need the protection of government regulation and the bargaining power that comes from a large risk pool. This is literally the opposite approach from McCain, who attempted to unwind the employer-based insurance and encourage families to purchase health coverage on the individual market. The core elements of this plan, in other words, make it the same type of plan Democrats are offering. A plan that enlarges consumer buying pools rather than shrinks them. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect a Blue Dog Democrat to propose. And it’s further evidence that the argument over health reform is narrowing, rather than widening. And it’s narrowing in a direction that favors the Democrats.

UPDATE: After discussions with Sen. Coburn’s staff, I happily issued a few corrections. Still, concerns remain.

The Courts Are Right to Intervene

daniel-hauserThe Daniel Hauser standoff, in which a child’s parents are refusing chemotherapy to treat their son’s cancer,  is a classic case pitting the right of parents to oversee the religious practices of the family against the interest of the state in the well-being of children.

The presumption is with parents, but it is not irrebuttable. Just as the state may interfere in family matters in the case of spousal or child abuse, so too it may in a case like this, where the scientific evidence is overwhelming that the long-term interests of the child are being ignored by a parent.

Will there be close calls in such cases? Of course. But on the facts presented here, this case does not appear to be a close call.

Does Congress Know Media Markets Better Than Media Markets Do?

No. But some members of Congress think they do.

In the section of Tim Lee’s “Durable Internet” paper titled Customers Gone Wild: Why Ownership Doesn’t Mean Control, he showed how powerful online consumers are. They can surely decide whether media markets are forming up contrary to their interests, and they can punish providers who get on the wrong side of their demands.

New at Cato

For more articles, subscribe to Cato’s op-ed RSS feed:

  • In USA Today, Jerry Taylor argues that Obama’s plan to require new  vehicles sold in 2016 to get an average of 39 miles per gallon or better is likely to result in all cost no benefit.
  • In The American Spectator, Doug Bandow says that while it is important for the U.S. to encourage dialogue with Muslim nations, we must not shy away from serious discussions about religious persecution.
  • Randal O’Toole argues in USA Today that Obama’s plan for high-speed rail will cost taxpayers billions of dollars and do little to reduce traffic congestion or improve the environment.
  • In The Washington Examiner, Gene Healy discusses why President Obama’s approach to terrorism is virtually identical to Bush/Cheney’s.
  • In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, James Bartholomew argues that the welfare state in Britain has resulted in a generation of badly educated citizens and has undermined its original intent.

IRS Commissioner: Obama Used False Numbers to Attack Low-Tax Jurisdictions

During the campaign, President Obama asserted that tax havens “cost” the Treasury $100 billion per year (see, for instance, 8:07 of this video), echoing the assertions made by demagogues such as Michigan’s Democratic Senator, Carl Levin. Many gullible journalists proceeded to disseminate this number, even though I repeatedly warned that it was a blatant fabrication. Indeed, it was the first falsehood that I punctured in my video entitled, Tax Havens: Myths vs Facts.

So it was with considerable interest that I read about the recent testimony of IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman, who acknowledged that the Obama-Levin numbers are “wild estimates” that “don’t have much basis.” Here is the key passage from a report from Bloomberg:

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman said projections that the US loses $US100 billion annually to offshore tax havens are “wild estimates” that “don’t have much basis”. …”Those numbers are pretty broad numbers,” Shulman said. The $US100 billion figure, a compilation of private-sector estimates, is often cited by Michigan Senator Carl Levin… North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan also frequently cites the $US100 billion figure.

This, of course, raises an interesting question. If politicians are willing to use dishonest numbers to push a certain policy, what does that suggest about the merits of the policy?