Econ 101 for Democrats

Executives from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley met with Democratic staff members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week to make the case that trading in energy contracts is not the reason that oil prices are rising. Judging by Jeff Birnbaum’s report in the Washington Post, it’s not easy to teach Democrats about economics:

But the executives were met with skepticism and occasional hostility. “Spare us your lecture about supply and demand,” one of the Democratic aides said, abruptly cutting off one of the executives.

Another aide “warned the executives that no matter what arguments they muster, it would be hard to prevent Congress from acting.” So much for fact-finding and economic sanity in an election year.

More on Medicare’s Stupid Strategies for Reducing Administrative Costs

A recent Government Accountability Office report highlights another way Medicare keeps its administrative costs down: sending checks to providers without bothering to check whether those providers owe back taxes.

According to today’s Washington Post:

Health-care providers are allowed to collect millions of dollars in federal Medicare payments each year despite owing the government more than $2 billion in back taxes, congressional investigators said yesterday.

The Government Accountability Office found that more than 27,000 nursing homes, hospitals, physicians and other providers flouted the tax system while collecting Medicare fees in 2006. That represented 6 percent of all providers [who participate in] Medicare….

Some cases cited in the new report were especially egregious. They included a nursing home operator with a history of asset concealment schemes who filed $15 million in Medicare claims while owing $7 million in unpaid taxes and establishing a charitable foundation that purchased luxury cars for the owner’s personal use.

And there was the hospital that collected $21 million in Medicare fees while owing $15 million in taxes, mostly for failing to forward to the Internal Revenue Service payroll taxes that were withheld from employees’ checks.

What’s that?  This seems more like the IRS’s responsibility than Medicare’s?  Perhaps.  But even taking that into consideration, Medicare is still delinquent:

The IRS has an automated system to hold back a portion of payments to contractors who are delinquent on their taxes. Medicare officials have been slow to join, but Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that all Medicare payments will be part of the program by October. “We take this issue very seriously,” he said.

Oh, indeed.  Medicare takes this issue as seriously as any government program whose raison d’être is to shovel money out the door.

REAL ID Grant Process Collapses, Money Goes to No-Bid Contract

Mickey McCarter at Homeland Security Today has the scoop on REAL ID grants that the Department of Homeland Security is doling out today.

Yes, REAL ID grants. Ten states have passed legislation to bar themselves from participating. (Arizona was the most recent.) And many more have registered their objections to the national ID law. But the Department of Homeland Security is still trying to revive it — this time, by spreading a little money around.

What’s “a little money”? The estimated $85 million in grants is about 0.5% of the $17 billion that it would cost to implement REAL ID, so it’s just a little. But that’s $85 million that taxpayers won’t be getting back.

It’s interesting to see where the money is going, of course.

The breakdown of awards, obtained by HSToday.us, signifies that AAMVA effectively gains a no-bid contract under the awards, as DHS designates it the sole national centralized database of driver’s license information under REAL ID through a grant award to the state of Missouri… . . A competitive grant process could have resulted in multiple hub awards instead of a sole-source contract to AAMVA, sources argue, decentralizing REAL ID information somewhat and encouraging the rise of the most effective database solution between competing vendors.

With enthusiasm for the program distinctly lacking, DHS abandoned its plan to award grants competitively and just divvied up the money state by state.

[A]lthough many states did submit proposals in response to the REAL ID guidance, according to a source knowledgeable of the evaluation process who requested anonymity, many of the state proposals for REAL ID grants were very poor. Evaluators who examined the proposals received by March 7 were surprised by the number that did not even request the funds for the specific program, instead asking for the money to spend on emergency response equipment and other needs.

No-bid contracts and funds for a program the states don’t want? Congress should not allow DHS to throw this good money after bad.

What Fordham Can’t Say, But Does Anyway

Yesterday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act has encouraged schools to focus on the lowest-performing students and neglect the highest-performing. This is not an unreasonable hypothesis: National Assessment of Educational Progress data suggest it could be true, though the results are mixed and Tom Loveless, the author of the report’s NAEP analysis (the report also includes some interesting survey results), makes it clear that it is impossible to say what, if any, test-score changes have been caused by NCLB.

Unfortunately, the spin put on the “good news” in the report by Fordham president Chester Finn and vice president Mike Petrilli is not nearly as measured as Loveless’ caveat about NCLB. On National Review Online today, Finn and Petrilli write with total certainty that government-driven “standards and accountability” regimes have produced gains for low-performers.

“NCLB and state-level efforts to impose standards and accountability on the schools are plainly boosting the kids who need it most — surely a good thing,” they pronounce.

Rising achievement surely is a good thing. That government standards and accountability produced it, however, is far from sure.

First, compare the period that contains NCLB, which was passed in 2002, to score changes in the period preceding it. In reading, the lowest 10 percent of 4th grade performers saw a much bigger increase in scores immediately before 2002 than after, and 8th graders saw their scores drop under NCLB. In math, we have to start with 2003, the earliest testing year within the NCLB timeframe. Again, for the lowest performers, in both 4th and 8th grades scores increased faster in the period right before NCLB — 2000 to 2003 — than after.

Loveless notes in the report that it is impossible to be sure what effect NCLB had on math in the 2000 to 2003 period — where the fastest gains are seen — since NCLB was passed in 2002. He’s right. However, in light of long delays in issuing NCLB regulations, and the unlikelihood of a huge jump in just one year of NCLB, it is more reasonable not to ascribe improvements to the law than to give it credit. More importantly, one definitely cannot say, as Finn and Petrilli nonetheless do, that the law “plainly” has something to do with rising low-achiever scores.

To be fair, Finn and Petrilli say NCLB and “state-level efforts” — not just NCLB — boosted those scores. On what basis do they split credit?

In his analysis, Loveless examined states’ NAEP score changes for the highest and lowest performers, controlling for whether or not states had their own standards and accountability regimes before NCLB. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t list which are considered “accountability” and which “non-accountability” states, so it is impossible to search for other common characteristics — charter schools, private-school-choice programs, increasingly affluent populations, new curricula — that could have driven states’ performances. Even more damaging to Finn and Petrilli’s pronouncement, the data the report does make available simple cannot support their all-too-firm-sounding conclusion.

For one thing, for the four subject-grade combinations presented, only between 34 and 37 states are analyzed, leaving out one-third of the country. More important, while in three of the four subject-grade combinations the lowest performers in states with accountability regimes did see greater score increases than low perfomers in states without them, when you only have four comparisons you simply cannot declare uncontestable victory, much less when only three of the comparisons support your conclusion. Change one, and you’ve got a coin flip. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Petrilli and Finn.

In the end, Fordham’s new report doesn’t tell us anything definitive about the effect of NCLB or any other standards and accountability regimes. It offers some reason to believe that NCLB might help low scorers and leave high scorers behind — and it’s well worth reading just for that — but it provides nothing close to proof. It also suggests that standards and accountability regimes might help raise low-performers’ scores, but again has far too many holes and far too little information to support what Finn and Petrilli declare: that government-imposed standards and accountability “plainly” help low-achieving kids.

The Dangers of Dilettantism

I’m sometimes amazed at the ability of generalist pundits in Washington to inveigh on a host of issues ranging from gay rights to foreign policy to constitutional law. I find it hard enough to keep track of the various facets of my own field, American foreign policy. But sometimes there are instances where the presence of the dilettantes is damaging to the discourse. For example, here is The New Republic’s James Kirchick sneering at Matthew Yglesias’ suggestion that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map,” he might not have envisioned the genocide of the Jewish people.

I don’t like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I think he is a dangerous simpleton who should not be in charge of anything more portentous than perhaps municipal garbage collection in Shiraz. But he does enough repulsive things that he need not be accused of additional ones.

French television followed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad, doing an interview with him in 2007, in which the reporter asked him about this controversial remark. (Clip is in French, exchange begins about 6:00 into the clip.) In it, the interviewer references the quote and asks Ahmadinejad about whether he can understand why people are afraid of Iran’s nuclear program in its context. Ahmadinejad responds:

Why are you worried? Where is the Soviet Union? It has disappeared, has it not?

Ahmadinejad goes on to demagogue the issue, talking about democracy across all of Palestine, which for obvious reasons would cause Israel to be “wiped off the map.” But the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union did not involve the genocide of the Russian people, or even any military action against the USSR. Instead of haranguing about analogies to Poland, Kirchick would be better served researching what analogy Ahmadinejad himself has used on the matter.

Now, maybe Ahmadinejad is lying. That’s a fair debate to have. But since the discussion is about what Mr. Ahmadinejad said, it seems relevant to pay attention when someone asks “hey, what did you mean by that remark?” and the speaker responds.

I think this is the danger of having generalists parachute into all manner of debates over national policies. As I said, it’s hard just to keep track of my little world. I can’t imagine thinking I had the breadth to contribute to the debate on many more issues than my own.

Certifiably Misleading

The FISA “compromise” I alluded to earlier today has now been released. I haven’t yet had time to analyze the text of the bill, but one thing that’s clear from the accompanying summary is that the immunity provisions are as bad as civil libertarians feared. Here’s Steny Hoyer’s summary of the “improvements” to the immunity language:

This new standard [for granting immunity] provides for meaningful review by the District Courts, where the cases are currently pending, of whether companies received written directives from the government requesting post‐9/11 assistance.

It seems to me that this misses the point rather badly. Under our system of government, searches are conducted pursuant to warrants or other court orders. This is an important check on the executive branch’s surveillance powers because it ensures an independent magistrate will review any surveillance activity and block those that aren’t conducted pursuant to the law.

To treat a “written directive from the government” as a substitute for a court order is to abandon this fundamental principle. Once we accept the premise that the executive branch can “authorize” surveillance without judicial oversight, the standard of review for analyzing the resulting “written directives” is entirely beside the point. I don’t care if the Bush administration wrote letters to telecom companies “certifying” that participation in the warrantless spying programs was legal. That’s not how the law works. These are large companies with plenty of lawyers on staff who know this area of law as well as anyone in the executive branch. They could and should have done what Qwest’s former CEO says he did and told the Bush administration to come back when they had a relevant FISA warrant.

It’s a safe bet that no matter what “standard of review” is chosen, the courts will find that the companies did, indeed, act pursuant to a “certification” from the executive branch. Therefore, directing the courts to dismiss the lawsuits if the companies can produce such a “certification” is functionally no different from no-questions-asked immunity. It will mean no real consequences for breaking the law, and no real incentive for companies to be more careful about following the law in the future.

Foreign Policy without Foreign Policy Theory

In a post seemingly designed to enrage academic realists, Atlantic Monthly blogger Ross Douthat says the war in Iraq tells us nothing about theories of foreign policy:

The chief lessons of the war have to do with issues of prudence and practicality, and more specifically with the question of when the costs of war, in lives and treasure, are worth the risk involved and the gains that might be won. Put another way, I don’t think the lessons of Iraq necessarily discredit liberal internationalism, or realism, or neoconservatism, or any of the many theories of U.S. engagement with the world that were invoked to justify support for the war.

The trouble here is that efforts to weigh the costs of war inevitably involve theories of how the world works. As my Professor Steve Van Evera likes to point out, foreign policy makers can use good or bad theories to guide their actions, but if they attempt the slightest foresight, they cannot have none. In other words, there is no such thing as foreign policy without foreign policy theory.

Beyond that, the idea that the war tells us nothing about the relative merits of realism and the brand of idealism we call neoconservatism is just silly.

Neoconservatives weighed the costs and benefits of the war using their theory of how the world works – how democracy spreads, how states react to conquest, the efficacy of military force in social transformation, and so on. Realists weighed the costs and benefits differently because realism contains competing ideas about how the world works. Realists were right; neoconservatives were wrong.

Liberal internationalists, I’d submit, were confused about the war because their school of thought is largely another brand of idealism – one that substitutes the question of whether a war involves what they want, which is multilateral cooperation, for more probing questions about whether it is wise.