Government Giveaways

Most Americans are appalled by pork spending, corporate welfare, and other congressional waste. But at least one man relishes federal giveaways. He extols the government freebee. The July 4 Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press notes:

“Mothers, lock up your daughters, because Matthew Lesko, the so-called ‘crazy Free Money Guy,’ will be camping out in front of the U.S. Capitol from August 14-17. Famous for his question-marked suit, Lesko will be answering questions during his campout as part of a program he calls: One Man, 72 Hours, 100,000 Government Freebies.”

So folks, don’t leave the taxpayer rip-offs to the expert Washington lobby firms such as Cassidy and Associates. If you are vacationing in D.C. this August, you can teach yourself how to drain the U.S. Treasury from the Free Money Guy.

(These days pilfering from federal taxpayers has been raised to a fine art form. Indeed, here’s Lesko immortalized in a D.C. art gallery.)

Takeover Accomplished!

Yesterday, Democrats made good on their promise to transform the U.S. House of Representatives from what they said had been a wholly-owned subsidiary of student lending companies under Republicans, into a wholly owned subsidiary of middle- and upper-middle-class freeloaders under them.

By a 273 to 149 vote, the House passed the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007. Its good side is that it would cut several subsidies to lenders in federal loan programs, supposedly saving about $19 billion. The bad part is how it would use those savings. If enacted, the bill would modestly increase Pell Grants – which is not good news if you dislike taxpayer-dollar giveaways, though at least Pell is somewhat geared toward the truly needy – but would focus most benefits on loan programs utilized much more by the financially able. (See table 5 of this report to see loan utilization by family income.)

Indeed, the bill would cut in half – to a tiny 3.4 percent in five years – interest rates on subsidized student loans, and offer $5,000 in loan forgiveness to public servants ranging from police all the way to – get this – prosecutors! That is, it would offer $5,000 until those people had been in their jobs for ten years, at which point the entire remainder of their loans would go bye-bye, eaten by taxpayers who themselves get, approximately, nothing out of this bill.

Needless to say, professional advocates for college kids with huge senses of entitlement – like these guys, these folks, and this gal – are ecstatic about this transfer from one group of thieves to another. As for me, I’m just sorry that it’s too late for poor, common-good-obsessed prosecutors like this guy to have his loans forgiven. Oh, and this famous public servant, too.

Food Safety and Imports

Unhealthy products from China have been in the news lately. First it was poisoned pet food, then contaminated toothpaste, toy trains with lead paint, and now farmed fish containing unauthorized chemicals. For skeptics of trade, the news offers yet another reason to beware of imports in general but especially those “Made in China.”

Consumers have every right to be concerned about the safety of the products they buy, but the problem of potentially harmful products is not unique to China or even imports. As a New York Times story points out today, U.S. customs officials routinely intercept more potentially harmful food imports from Mexico and India than they do from China. Federal inspectors have turned away hundreds of shipments of produce from the Dominican Republic and even candy from Denmark.

Safety concerns are not confined to imports. Americans have been poisoned by beef from Nebraska, spinach from California, and peanut butter from Georgia. The same safety standards apply to imported food as to domestic food. The right response is not wholesale restrictions on imports, but to find better ways of keeping harmful products out of stores no matter where the products originate.

The large majority of food products imported to the United States, like those grown domestically, are safe and healthy. In fact, imports improve our health by making fresh produce available year around. Imports also keep prices down at the grocery store, which benefits low-income families most of all. Raising tariffs on imported food would certainly do more harm than good.

A Cautious Cheer for French Tax Cut Package

President Sarkozy’s Finance Minister has unveiled a set of tax cuts. Some of the tax cuts, such as lower death taxes and reducing the income tax so that it never exceeds 50 percent, are well designed. But the pacakge also contains gimmicky proposals such as eliminating tax on overtime (one wonders whether every French worker will seek to work 80 hours one week and zero hours the following week, though the government will probably have a plethora of rules restricting the definition of overtime). The government also wants a tax preference for some mortgages, a silly policy that will probably undermine long-term growth by misallocating capital. While Sarkozy’s package leaves something to be desired, the fact that the French government is seeking to cut taxes rather than the other way around is worth applauding. But before popping champagne corks, the Tax-news.com story includes a worrisome mention that these tax cuts may be accompanied by offsetting tax hikes:

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has presented an EUR13.6 billion package of tax cuts to the national assembly… The measures, which will cost up to EUR11 billion in 2008 alone, include the removal of taxes on overtime, reducing taxes on inheritances, capping income tax at 50% and the introduction of tax deductibility on some mortgages. …The package places much emphasis on reducing taxes on the wealthy, a measure sure to spark debate that the government is putting the interests of the rich before looking after its more vulnerable citizens. Lagarde however, argued that such measures are vital if France is to be a place of wealth creation. “All you have to do is go to Gare du Nord on Friday night to Eurostar and Thalys arrivals to understand that these French bankers, who have gone to work in the City, those tax exiles in Belgium, want one thing, to come back to France,” she told lawmakers. …However, it remains unclear from the government’s plans whether some or all of the cost of the tax cuts will be recouped with tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere.

Hearing on the Drug Enforcement Agency

This morning there is a congressional hearing about the DEA’s campaign against pain doctors.  The drug war is a disaster in so many ways–but this aspect of the war is particularly cruel.  Siobhan Reynolds of the Pain Relief Network will give members of Congress an earful as to what the government is actually doing.

For Cato work on this DEA campaign, read this and this.

This Could Be the End of 007’s Aston Martin

Motivated primarily by climate change hysteria (with a bit of hate-the-rich envy probably in the mix as well), a British member of the European Parliament wants to ban cars that go more than 101 miles per hour. A Bloomberg columnist dismisses this silly notion and makes a more serious point about how limits on energy consumption are a threat to people in poor nations:

driving a sports car anywhere but on a racetrack might be relegated to history’s dustbin. Fast, powerful cars within a few years may be outlawed in Europe, an idea that has been raised ostensibly because Ferraris and Porsches produce too much carbon dioxide. … Chris Davies, a British member of the European Parliament, is proposing one of the most-extreme measures – a prohibition on any car that goes faster than 162 kilometers (101 miles) an hour, a speed that everything from the humble Honda Civic on up can exceed. … The folks against sports cars in Europe and big sport utility vehicles in the U.S. often are same ones who hate McMansion-sized homes, corporate jets, jumbo freezers, yachts, 60-inch flat-screens TVs, overnight-delivery services and other trappings of Western-style wealth and energy use. … Outside of a handful of command economies, few today would agree that a central authority ought to regulate who owns what. … Calls for limits on carbon dioxide ignore a basic point. People are likely to be better judges of the benefits of fast cars, TVs, air conditioners, and jets than government planners. Besides, the brunt of government limits on energy use may well fall on the world’s poorest nations, which need more energy – thus generating more carbon dioxide – to provide lighting, refrigeration, harvesting, water purification and transportation. What right do environmentalists in rich countries have to deny residents of poorer ones the benefits of higher living standards?

Topics:

Science, Values and Politics

Today’s NYT features a front page, above-the-fold story about former surgeon general Richard Carmona’s charge that the Bush administration interfered with his office by (in the words of the NYT) ”repeatedly [trying] to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.” He made the charge yesterday in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Carmona described Bush administration behavior that ranged from petty (urging him not to attend Special Olympics events because of the Kennedy family’s connection to the program) to outright worrisome (directing him, again in the words of the NYT, “to put political considerations over scientific ones”). His claims add to the image of a Bush White House in which political considerations and ideology trump all others.

However, Carmona’s prepared statement suggests that the Bushies aren’t the only folks caught up in ideology.

Carmona considers himself a person of science, and scientists have an important role in policymaking. They try to determine the existence of various empirical relationships (e.g., certain emissions trap heat in the atmosphere; exposure to tobacco smoke increases the risk of cancer) and use those determinations to make predictions about the future (e.g., ongoing emission of greenhouse gases at certain levels will affect the climate; reduced tobacco use will decrease the incidence of cancer). In this way, science informs policymaking by predicting the outcomes of various policy choices.

But though science informs policy choices, it cannot make those choices. Science is a non-normative endeavor, and cannot answer such questions as whether climate change should be avoided, and whether reducing tobacco use should be used as a means to reduce the incidence of cancer. Those are the subject of value judgments — and, for public decisions, of politics.

Many “people of science” do not appreciate this limit on science’s role in policymaking. They assume that once a relationship is established scientifically, policy choices cogently follow. In making this assumption, they enter their own value judgments as suppressed premises in their analyses. Many doctors see bad health outcomes as not just undesirable, but so undesirable that they should be avoided even at high costs; many environmental scientists have the same opinion about environmental damage. Hence, they would argue that “objective, nonpartisan science” calls for policies to limit greenhouse emissions and reduce smoking. In fact, science can do no such thing; value judgments call for (or against) various choices.

To better understand this, consider the role of a doctor. Five separate times in his testimony, Carmona refered to the surgeon general as “the nation’s doctor” (conjuring the image of 300 million Americans sticking out their collective tongues and saying “ahh”). I trust my doctor to make a scientific determination of the state of my health and to lay out various courses of action concerning my health (e.g., lose weight, take medication, exercise more, quit smoking). But I am the one who sets policies concerning my health — I decide whether the costs of some course of action (e.g., the side effects of some drug, or the pleasure forgone by dieting) is worth the health benefits. Likewise, public health policy should be set by elected representatives who are directly accountable to the citizenry, not by “the nation’s doctor.”

But Carmona apparently wants the surgeon general to become a policymaker. He told the House committee:

[T]he Surgeon General [should] speak and act openly and as often as necessary on contemporary health and scientific issues so as to improve the health, safety, and security of the nation.

Indeed, that role may be too modest for Carmona’s surgeon general; he repeatedly argued that the surgeon general should “serve the people and the world.” He offered lawmakers a five-point plan for the U.S. Public Health Service that included the following:

  • Recognize and plan for the fact that tomorrow’s best hope to achieve millennium goals, extinguish asymmetries, eradicate social injustices, and make the world [a] healthier, safer and more secure place may be the newer, softer force projection of health diplomacy via prospective ongoing sustainable missions globally.

So, instead of just being the nation’s doctor (with policymaking power), Carmona’s surgeon general would be a force projector for the world.

Carmona is correct that politicians should not interfere with the scientific analysis of the surgeon general — the surgeon general should follow an empirical question wherever the science leads. And he may even state his personal opinion — couched as such — on the value judgments that ensue from the science. But the surgeon general should not supplant the politicians in making public policy decisions, nor supplant private individuals in making personal health decisions. And, of course, the surgeon general should not doctor scientific findings to conform them to his own value judgments.