Follow the Moving Goalpost

Over on the Bloggingheads website, New Republic writer Michael Crowley asks pro-war pundit Eli Lake of the New York Sun to define “victory” in Iraq for us. Here’s Lake:

“avoiding a competitive, confessional genocide.”

Lake concedes mildly that this is a “fairly low standard.” (What would a really low standard be?) In that case, sounds like we won before we got in.

The Roberts Court

Doug Bandow has a terrific article about the Roberts Court and judicial philosophy over at the American Spectator.  Excerpt:

Washington is rife with awful arguments, shameless demagoguery, and flagrant hypocrisy, of course. But Smith’s concern lest “a majority of Supreme Court justices adopt a manifestly ideological agenda” and plunge “the court into the vortex of American politics” is almost too hilarious to repeat. Apparently the Warren and Burger Courts were merely following popular values when they overturned decades and even centuries of precedent to transform sizable areas of constitutional law. When they turned the law into a matter of judicial preference rather than constitutional interpretation, they presumably did so in a nonideological and nonpolitical fashion. …

Judicial philosophy obviously matters. Here the right long has gotten the argument much more correct than the left. Conservatives can and do argue about exactly what “original intent” should constitute – I believe that constitutional and legislative provisions must be understood in terms of the political compromises from which they sprang. What did the voters and ratifiers as well as drafters believe to be true? That may not always be easily discoverable, of course. Nevertheless, constitutional (and legal) understandings must be rooted in what the provisions meant when enacted. Otherwise there is little to prevent courts from becoming mini-legislatures, enacting their preferences through shameless sophistry disguised as judicial opinions.

Learned liberal treatises on jurisprudence abound, justifying judicial activism on behalf of any number of ends. But all of these arguments lead to the same basic result: a much-expanded state built on the tenets of modern liberalism. Once the official meaning of law is cut loose from what its specific provisions were originally expected to mean, the only restraint on judges is their personal temperament. If the Constitution means what judges say it does, it means nothing at all. A court that can eviscerate the property takings clause, for instance, can eviscerate the First Amendment guarantees for free speech and religious liberty, and the Fourth Amendment’s bar on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Although unbridled judicial activism is an unsatisfactory jurisprudential principle, the left has nowhere else to go because the Constitution is fundamentally, though not purely, a libertarian-conservative document. The nation’s basic law is meant to constrain politics, to put many issues, centered around an expansive and expensive national government, out of bounds of the democratic process. In short, to be a liberal and believe in original intent is to be eternally frustrated.

Read the whole thing.

I Got Hooked on the White Stuff Back in the ’70s

disco-stu.bmpNo, not that white stuff. And not the white stuff that Disco Stu bought from Garth Motherloving. The white stuff I got hooked on (growing up on the family dairy farm) is raw milk — milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Today’s NYT has an article on the growing black and gray markets in raw milk, which the Food and Drug Administration and 15 state legislatures want to shut down.

Yes, that’s right — Uncle Sam and 15 state governments prohibit consumers from buying milk fresh from the cow. And in the nannies’ defense, milk was responsible for much food-borne illness in the era before universal pasteurization. Most consumers likely prefer protection from nasty bugs like E. coli and salmonella.

But others are willing to risk exposure to those illnesses. Some raw milk enthusiasts claim the white stuff is more healthful than processed milk. Others (I count myself among these) say simply that it tastes better that the milk you buy at the store — people who try raw milk for the first time often comment that it tastes more like melted ice cream than the stuff that comes in cartons.

So why should raw milk fans be prohibited from buying the product they want?

That question also underlies Tim’s post, yesterday, about another FDA prohibition — keeping terminally ill patients from accessing experimental medicines. There is no public health issue with these products (my drinking raw milk might make me sick, but it’s not going to make sick the people I interact with on the street). And there is no fraud and abuse issue — these consumers know that they’re buying raw milk; indeed, they want raw milk. Consumers of raw milk (or experimental drugs to fight their cancers or HIV) realize that there is risk to these products but, given their medical conditions and their preferences, they’re willing to bear that risk in exchange for the products’ (possible) benefits.

Government prohibition of the sale of these products is nothing more than bureaucracy’s blanket imposition of its own risk preference on a large, heterogenous population that includes many people with differing preferences. One of the chief virtues of a free market is that it does a far better job of satisfying the heterogenous preferences of a population of consumers than a central planner ever could. Unfortunately, government often intervenes in markets and diminishes that virtue.

As Tim writes in his post, the FDA and its state-level imitators put a happy face on that intervention, claiming they are looking out for the public’s health. But in these cases, why aren’t members of the public permitted to look out after their own health?

Cohn Misrepresents the Effects of (and His Opposition to) a Standard Health Insurance Deduction

In a recent article for The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn uses old estimates about different proposal to mislead readers about the effects of a standard health insurance deduction:

A year ago, after Bush first floated an embryonic version of his proposal, economist Jason Furman wrote in the National Tax Journal that “Empirical estimates show that eliminating the tax incentive for employer-provided insurance, without creating another pooling arrangement, could increase the number of people without insurance–even in a relatively limited proposal like that of President Bush.”

The standard health insurance deduction is a pretty serious departure from the proposals that Furman criticized.  And there are more recent estimates of a standard deduction’s likely effect on the uninsured.  Cohn cites but one, which he qualifies:

Even the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is part of the administration, strained to put an attractive gloss on this idea when Bush trotted it officially out this year. Its own evaluation, under favorable assumptions, suggested the proposal would reduce the number of uninsured by 3 to 5 million–meaning around 40 million people still wouldn’t have coverage.

Unfortunately, Cohn does not cite the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that the standard deduction would reduce the number of uninsured by nearly seven million. 

It is fair for Cohn to question whether the Bush administration’s projections were just self-serving exaggerations.  But now that Peter Orszag’s CBO has torpedoed that suggestion – actually, the CBO issued its estimate a day before TNR posted Cohn’s article – why hasn’t TNR taken notice of Cohn’s misleading claim?

Cohn also misrepresents his opposition to a standard deduction.  He suggests that he opposes it because it wouldn’t cover all of the uninsured.  But if that were his reason, he also would have to oppose the House bill to reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which would cover only 5 million of the 9 million children that (Democrats claim) lack health insurance.  I think his real objection lies elsewhere. 

If Cohn wants to retain private health insurance at all, it is because he wants to take from some Americans to give to others, and laundering those subsidies through “insurance” markets helps to obscure such redistribution, as does letting employers control workers’ health care dollars.  A standard deduction would let workers control their health care dollars by eliminating the tax penalty that currently makes individual ownership impossible.  It would give workers the agility to avoid – and an incentive to block – politicians’ efforts to redistribute that portion of their income. 

Cohn opposes a standard deduction precisely because it would frustrate his desire to separate the American worker from her money.

A Tragic Legacy

Bestselling author Glenn Greenwald spoke here at Cato on Tuesday on his latest book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs.  Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.  There was a sharp, but civil, exchange with guest commentator, Lee Casey, who has published many articles in defense of Bush administration policies.  C-SPAN was here to tape the event and it will be airing soon.  Of course, all Cato events are archived on the website, so you can watch or listen to this event at your convenience.  For a sneak preview, check out today’s podcast interview with Greenwald.

Greenwald’s blog posts can be found over at Salon.  For related Cato work on the legacy of the Bush administration, read this and this.

A Challenge to Jesse Larner

Over at Huffington Post, Jesse Larner has a lengthy piece on Michael Moore’s film SiCKO and the right-wing reaction to it. Larner calls SiCKO “a clumsy piece of propaganda” and thoughtfully explains how Moore is dead wrong when it comes to the health care systems (and the overall economies) of France and Cuba. Larner concludes that SiCKO is so irresponsible that Moore ultimately injures his own cause.

Unfortunately, Larner stumbles quite a bit. He claims that people don’t die on waiting lists in Canada’s health care system. Canada’s Supreme Court disagrees. He claims that America’s relatively high infant mortality rates make our system obviously worse than other nations. That claim is dubious, since we tend to try to save premature infants that other nations don’t. He makes the same claim about our mediocre life expectancy statistics; but once one controls for fatal injuries and homicides, our life expectancy stats come out better than all other advanced nations’. (If life expectancy really is a “measur[e] of international health care quality,” then does that mean our health care system is the best? I’m not sure, but Larner must think so.) He repeats persistent myths about administrative costs in Canada and America. And he speaks of the bureaucratization and rationing in Canadian and British versions of socialized medicine as if these were unfortunate choices rather than inevitabilities.

Larner also misrepresents the perspectives of Cato scholars. Setting aside whether libertarians are part of the right wing, here are the two places where Larner mentions Cato health policy scholars:

  1. “[T]he trends that emerge show that the American free enterprise system of health care is doing worse than the folks at the Cato Institute would like you to believe, and that socialized medicine systems are doing better.”
  2. “The free enterprise people at Cato and the Heritage Foundation are always moaning about the enormous cost of preventive medicine.”

I am somewhat familiar with Cato’s health policy work, and those depictions do not ring true. I challenge Larner to show where a Cato scholar either (1) describes America’s as a “free enterprise system of health care,” or (2) “moan[s] about the enormous cost of preventive medicine.” I could be wrong, but I suspect he will have difficulty substantiating either claim.

Finally, Larner writes, “these issues [that Moore raises] are important and deserve a better hearing than either Moore or the reactionary right is willing to give them.” Cato has been giving those issues a good hearing. See here and here. (Another reason not to lump libertarians in with the right-wingers.)

Recessed Enlightenment

With Congress adjourned for its August recess, Americans can enjoy a brief respite from the steady stream of bad legislation that typically emanates from the Capitol.

But wouldn’t it be nice if Congress stayed out of Washington for a bit longer?

Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) recalled a conversation with former Senator Jim Eastland (D-Miss.) about the way Congress used to deal with the summer heat:

“‘Before we had air conditioning,’ he said, ‘that sun would beat down on that dome, heat up that place,’ he said. ‘It would get too hot and we’d leave Washington, and we’d leave for the year,’” Biden quoted Eastland as saying.

“‘Then we got air conditioning, stayed year-round and ruined America.’”