Brito on E-Government Transparency

One of the most important tools for limited government is transparency. Transparency keeps government accountable by giving citizens the ability to monitor what government officials are doing and publicize instances where government officials abuse their authority.

Of course, government officials dislike transparency for precisely that reason, and they have often worked hard to limit the amount of information they make available. The Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 1966 and given teeth in 1974, required government agencies to disclose information upon request from voters.

Some government officials have taken the opposite tack: instead of withholding information, they’ve released enormous quantities of poorly organized information, making it difficult for voters to sift through the material and find what they’re looking for.

Former Catoite Jerry Brito, now at the Mercatus Center, has written a fantastic paper describing the remedy for this tactic of government obfuscation. Jerry argues that government agencies should be required to release their data in structured formats suitable for easy manipulation by software tools. That would allow computer geeks to use software tools to organize the information and make it easily searchable. And that, in turn, would make it much easier for citizen-activists to sift through the available information and unearth relevant information about government activities.

Jerry points to several excellent examples of how structured data can improve government accountability. One is Washington Watch, a side project of our own Jim Harper, which gives voters a user-friendly way to keep track of what Congress is doing and discuss pending legislation with other voters. Another is opensecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, that provides well-organized, searchable access to the FEC’s campaign contributions database. Creating opensecrets.org would have been prohibitively expensive if the FEC hadn’t made the raw information available in a reasonable electronic format.

Many more projects like this would be possible if government agencies made more public data available. I encourage you to check out Jerry’s paper to learn how it can be done.

When Protectionists Meet Welfare Kings

Yesterday the House Ways and Means Committee approved by a margin of 26-14 a bill (H.R. 3920) to expand and extend (until 2012) the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which provides extra welfare and training to workers who lose their jobs as a consequence of import competition or outsourcing. The new bill would expand trade adjustment assistance to cover more workers beside those who work in the manufacturing industry, including service employees, who currently cannot get benefits under TAA if their jobs are moved overseas. It also increases the benefits and training available to trade-displaced workers, and the “incentives” for states to increase unemployment insurance coverage. It is still unclear just when this bill will face the full House, or what any alternatives will be.

I have a trade briefing paper, forthcoming soon, on this topic and I wrote an op-ed yesterday, arguing that TAA should be cancelled rather than extended. Here’s why: first, fewer than 1 in 30 unemployed people can point to import competition or outsourcing as the reason for their unemployment. Changes in consumers’ tastes, changes in technology and increasing productivity is far more likely to be a cause of unemployment (more from my colleague Dan Griswold here). So TAA is yet another example of special interests receiving special treatment.

Second, while TAA for workers cost a “mere” $800 million or so in 2006, we can expect that cost to rise as more workers are included (more than 80 percent of American workers work in the services sectors, although many of those are non-tradeable) and Congress sees fit to spend more of your money on wage insurance, training and the like.

Third, although hints have been made that the preferential trade agreement with Peru is predicated on passage of TAA extention, the historical bargain between free-trade advocates and workers–that any trade liberalization would be accompanied by extra welfare benefits for those who lose their jobs– is no longer certain. For sure the bilateral deal with the most to offer economically, that with South Korea, looks all but doomed.

The moral case for TAA is dubious at best. A lack of prospects for commercially meaningful trade liberalization tips the balance.

Police ‘CYA’ Reports

Police force pregnant woman to the pavement at gunpoint.  When they realize there will be no arrest because the woman is innocent, one officer is overheard saying that he’ll prepare a report to “cover their asses.”  Listening to the audiotape, one gets the impression that this is not the first time the officer has filed a CYA report.  The truth is that police misconduct and deception are much more common than most people realize.  Something to keep in mind when you encounter the ‘ol “well, if haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.”  Also something to keep in mind if you are called for jury service.  Be skeptical.  Look for strong evidence.  Be fair.

Yet Another Reason to Reject Universal Coverage

Today, National Review Online published an article by Kent Masterson Brown that argues:

Among the dangers of universal coverage is that when the system fails, patients may find they no longer have freedom to spend their own money to get the medical care they need. This threat to patient autonomy exists right here at home in the U.S. Medicare program…

In 2006, the California legislature passed a universal coverage plan that provided, “No health care service plan contract or health insurance policy, except for the [state] plan, may be sold in California for services provided by the [state-run] system.” Only a veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R.) prevented the California legislature from outlawing private health insurance for most medical services…

When [Hillary] Clinton and others claim that their proposals for universal coverage would expand patient choice, they should explain whether that includes the choice to spend their own money on medical care.

The article is based on a study Brown authored for the Cato Institute titled, “The Freedom to Spend Your Own Money on Medical Care: A Common Casualty of Universal Coverage.” 

Yet another reason why Americans – and especially conservatives – should reject the goal of universal coverage.

Heck of a Job, Smokey!

A couple of weeks ago, the Secretary of Agriculture proudly gave the Chief of the Forest Service an award for “exemplary leadership and accomplishment in reducing the risk of catastrophic fire to both the wildland and Wildland Urban Interface areas through the U.S. Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Program supporting the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.”

This award would be ironic even if fires in California had not burned hundreds of homes and hundreds of thousands of acres this week. Prior to the southern California inferno, wildland fires had already burned well over 1,800 structures and more than 8 million acres in 2007.

In fact, President Bush’s signing of the Healthy Forests Act in 2003 seemed to signal a huge increase in fires. In the decades prior to 2003, an average of about 4 million acres burned each year and only one year had topped 8 million. Since then, the number of acres burned has never been less than 8 million.

The real problem is too much money: Congress has given the Forest Service a virtual blank check for fire suppression. The agency – perhaps subconsciously realizing that it needs a sustained number of homes burned each year to keep Congress’ interest in giving it money – has not adopted policies aimed at cost-effectively protecting homes. Instead, it merely promises that it will save homes through fire suppression – a promise that it cannot keep.

The result is that homeowners – expecting that the Forest Service will apply massive resources to save their homes – do not make the efforts needed to protect their structures from fires. Those efforts are not very much: mainly applying a nonflammable roof and keeping flammable vegetation to a minimum within 100 to 150 feet of their homes. Those efforts are really all that is needed. In fact, some housing developments have been treated to be so safe from fire that residents are advised to stay in their homes during a fire rather than to evacuate.

For a thorough analysis of Forest Service fire policy, read my Cato policy paper, The Perfect Firestorm. For a review of the recent fires, see my Antiplanner blog.

The Massachusetts Canary

Maggie Mahar reports on how things are going in Massachusetts, with its much-touted health reform:

Uninsured citizens earning more than 300% of the poverty level are expected to buy their own insurance. Here, the state hoped that 228,000 of its uninsured citizens would sign up. So far, just 15,000 have enrolled. Apparently, they’ve done the math and decided that it would be cheaper to pay the penalty. But their premiums are needed to keep the program going. If more in this group don’t sign up, it is not at all clear how the state will be able to continue subsidizing the poor.

Yesterday’s first speaker, Robert Blendon, a professor of Health Policy in Harvard’s Department of Health Policy and Management, talked about what Massachusetts experience might mean for the national health care debate: “Massachusetts is the canary in the coal mine,” Blendon declared bluntly. “If it’s not breathing in 2009, people won’t go in that mine.”

See also this post, where Mahar writes,

But the underlying reason people in Massachusetts have become accustomed to such lavish care is not that they are naturally more demanding than people in other states. Rather, high consumption of care is driven by the fact that the state is a medical Mecca, crowded with academic medical centers, specialists and the equipment needed to perform any test the human mind is capable of inventing.

In December of 2005, in The Weekly Standard, I wrote

if I were going to pick a state in which to attempt an experimental health care financing reform, it would not be Massachusetts. Massachusetts, with its outstanding medical schools and world-class hospitals, is rich in the suppliers of premium medicine, and abundant supply has been shown to drive up usage.

Mahar and I are almost exactly in alignment on health care policy. We agree on the diagnosis–Americans make extravagant use of medical procedures with high costs and low benefits. Mahar and I only differ in our prescriptions. Go figure.

Go read both of Mahar’s posts.  There is more worth reading than what I excerpted.

Although Government Revenues Are at Record Levels, New York Times Complains About a “Dearth of Taxes”

In a remarkable editorial, the New York Times complains that revenues in America are too low. This is a stunning claim since a cursory look at budget numbers shows that revenues are at an all-time high in both nominal dollars and inflation-adjusted dollars. But the most remarkable part of the editorial is that the Times actually argues that low taxes mean that America is “ill prepared to compete”:

…the taxes collected last year by federal, state and local governments in the
United States amounted to 28.2 percent of gross domestic product. That rate was one of the lowest among wealthy countries - about five percentage points of GDP lower than Canada’s, and more than eight points lower than New Zealand’s. …the meager tax take leaves the United States ill prepared to compete. From universal health insurance to decent unemployment insurance, other rich nations provide their citizens benefits that the U.S. government simply cannot afford. …revenue will prove too low to face the challenges ahead.

The editorial conveniently forgets to explain, though, how America is less competitive because of supposedly inadequate taxation. Is it that our per capita GDP is lower than our higher-taxed neighbors in Europe? No, America’s per capita GDP is considerably higher. Is it that our disposable income is lower? It turns out that Americans enjoy a huge advantage in this measure. Is our economy not keeping pace? Interesting thought, but America’s been out-performing Europe for a long time. Could higher rates of unemployment be a sign of American weakness? Nice theory, but the data show better job numbers in the United States.

But give the New York Times some credit. It is not easy to argue that higher taxes are good for growth. So if you’re going to make a fool of yourself, you may as well cast evidence to the side and jump into the deep end of the pool.