Learned Helplessness

Like many newer office buildings, Capitol Hill’s Hart Senate Office Building has automatic doors that make access for handicapped people much easier. They are activated by a pressing large blue button, which causes the glass double-doors to swing outward.

On several occasions recently, I have noted able-bodied Senate staff taking advantage of this convenience. Though they could open the doors themselves and enter more quickly, they press the button and pause a moment as the doors slowly open.

There is a lesson here for policymakers (including those Senate staff): Offered help, people of all abilities will accept it, whether they need it or not. Over time, their abilities to help themselves may atrophy.

So it goes with economic and social policies. A few years ago when Social Security reform was a hot topic, my father (who still wants to be a trucker when he grows up) observed casually that the truckers he talks to wouldn’t know what to do if they were responsible for their own retirement. The complexities of investing are too much for them.

I believe the contrary, that given responsibility for their retirement security, truckers would swarm over the problem and figure it out. The CB radios of the nation would crackle with investment advice. Like most cohorts, this group is fully capable of handling savings and investment. And just as able-bodied Senate staff can get through doorways more quickly on their own, truckers in aggregate would have more retirement security and more comfortable retirements. But they’ve been offered enough help (indeed - mandated to accept it) that they’ve ceded the field.

Assistive devices for the handicapped are a good thing, but I rue the day when able-bodied Americans come to expect automatic doors and regard it as an imposition or impossibility to reach forward, grasp a handle, and pull. Something to think about the next time you’re standing on an escalator because the stairs make you winded.

More on the Moving Goalposts of FISA

I’ve noted before that the current FISA debate is an example of the goalposts being repeatedly shifted in the direction of ever more executive power and ever less executive oversight. Glenn Greenwald documents just how far the goalposts have been moved over the last 30 years. Back in 1978, the venerable conservative columnist William Safire wrote this of the newly-proposed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act:

Predictably, opponents of warrantless wiretapping cheered; the act seems to require a court warrant before tapping can begin. But nobody is reading the fine print, which adds up to the most sweeping authorization for the increase and abuse of wiretapping and bugging in our history.

Conservatives like to assist law enforcement, and to curtail espionage; we do not like to make it harder for “our side.” But this natural inclination to help the law must be outweighed by a responsibility to protect the law-abiding individual from the power of government to intrude. And this bill would turn every telephone instrument in every home into a suspected household spy.

Huey Long once said that if fascism ever came to America, it would come in Democratic form; in this bill, Big Brother is on the way, and he is cloaked in the mantle of civil liberties.

Since Safire wrote those words, FISA has been repeatedly amended to further reduce judicial oversight of eavesdropping, most importantly with the Patriot Act in October 2001. The law on the books in early 2006 was even more permissive than the legislation Safire is blasted as an assault on civil liberties. Yet the Bush administration has been so successful at shifting the terms of the debate that even a lot of self-described civil libertarians are conceding that FISA still places too many restrictions on domestic wiretapping activities. The debate is now between a House bill that further waters down judicial oversight over Americans’ international communications and a Senate bill that virtually eliminates judicial oversight of international calls.

One of the lessons here, I think, is that civil liberties won’t be preserved through compromise. The partisans of ever-increasing executive power aren’t likely to go away any time soon. If Congress compromises and agrees to further expand executive wiretapping powers, a future president will come back to Congress and argue that the law is still too restrictive and still more compromises are needed. President Clinton did it in the 1990s. President Bush is doing it now. At some point, Congress just has to say no.

Anti-Universal Coverage Club in the NYT

Today’s New York Times features an article by Kevin Sack that mentions the Anti-Universal Coverage Club and addresses the very question that Club members raise:

The skirmishing between the Democratic presidential candidates over the mechanics of universal health coverage will soon give way to a quite different general-election debate — about whether universal coverage should even be a national priority.

Sack notes that “at least twice as many Americans are estimated to die each year from medical errors as from lack of access to care.”  He quotes economists Helen Levy and David Meltzer’s conclusion that there is “no evidence” that expanding coverage would be the best way to improve health and save lives.  And he cites polling data (which I discuss here) showing that the public is not necessarily on board with the idea of universal coverage.

Sack also quotes Len Nichols, director of health policy studies at the New America Foundation, in support of universal coverage.  According to Nichols:

The right question is: would coverage expansion add enough social and economic value to merit the investment? The literature suggests a resounding yes.

The literature suggests no such thing.  If there is no evidence that expanding coverage would deliver the biggest improvement in health for the money, then expanding coverage could actually increase death and disability compared to a superior policy.  I’ll be debating Nichols tomorrow at a meeting of the National Association of Business Economists.  Should be a good time.

Sack also quotes Joe Antos of the American Enterprise Institute as making skeptical comments about universal coverage.  I’ll have to ask Antos if he wants to be counted as a member of the Anti-Universal Coverage Club.

Midnight in the White House

That Hillary Clinton ad about the need for an experienced president – “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing…. Who do you want answering the phone?” – reminds some commentators of a very similar ad that helped former vice president Walter Mondale hold on to his lead over the dashing young senator Gary Hart in 1984. It reminded me of John McCain’s jibe at George W. Bush’s inexperience in 2000, recorded by Dana Milbank in his book Smashmouth (page 313):

But when the scouting reports come in, there is only one lonely man in a dark office.

Are They the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?

Barack Obama’s soaring campaign continues to roll, this time with the release of a bilingual music video by musician will.i.am. In it, celebrities such as Jessica Alba, George Lopez, Ryan Phillippe, Malcolm Jamal Warner, and Macy Gray sing the praises of Obama and repeate his line “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Certainly I know that I have been waiting for Jessica Alba and Ryan Phillippe to lead our nation at last.

Lies, Damned Lies, and FISA Polling

Newt Gingrich’s organization recently released a poll purporting to show that Americans overwhelmingly support renewing the Protect America Act. But as a blogger at the Economist painstakingly explains, the high levels of support might be because the poll blatantly misrepresented what’s at stake in the surveillance debate.

Amazingly, even the first four words of the story, “in July of 2007,” are inaccurate, as the Protect America Act was actually passed in August. And it only gets worse after that. Not surprisingly, if you repeatedly misrepresent the state of the FISA debate, it’s possible to get randomly sampled voters to come to the conclusion you’re looking for. I think it’s telling that they seem to believe this level of deception was necessary to get the result they were looking for.

In case you’re curious how voters respond to a less blatantly biased poll, 61 percent of voters believe that “the U.S. government should have to get a warrant from a court before wiretapping the conversations U.S. citizens have with people in other countries,” while only 35 percent believe that “the government should be able to wiretap such conversations without a warrant from a court.” Similarly, 31 percent of voters believe that “Congress should give the phone companies amnesty from legal action against the companies,” while 59 percent believe that “citizens who believe their rights have been violated should be free to take legal action against those phone companies and let the courts decide the outcome.” That poll is from the ACLU, so it may be worth taking with a grain of salt, but its questions are certainly more representative than those of Gingrich’s group.

Collins Still Working to Preserve REAL ID

No state will comply with the REAL ID Act’s requirement to begin issuing a national ID by the forthcoming statutory deadline, May 11th.

Because of that, the Department of Homeland Security is giving states deadline extensions just for the asking. Interestingly, it’s turning around and spinning the acceptance of those extensions as commitments to comply. Many of the states shown in green on this map have passed statutes outright refusing to implement the law. (For readers new to Planet Earth, the color green typically means “go.” Green is a strange choice of color for states that have legally barred themselves from issuing the DHS’s national ID.)

With her state — the first in the nation to pass anti–REAL ID legislation — considering refusing even the deadline extension, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is once again working with DHS in support of the national ID law.

She has written a letter to the governor of her state, asking him to go ahead and take the waiver, playing into the DHS strategy. Followers of REAL ID know that delaying implementation helps a national ID go forward by giving the companies and organizations that sustain themselves on these kinds of projects time to shake the federal money tree and get this $11 billion surveillance mandate funded.

The cumulative profit margin of the airline industry is less than 1%. Should even a single state refuse to accept this national ID mandate, the airline industry, airport operators (faced with reconfiguring their operations), and travelers groups would be on the Hill in an instant. The Congress would have to revisit the issue.

Evidently, Senator Collins doesn’t want to risk the chance of an up-or-down vote on whether the United States should have a national ID. Her work behind the scenes in favor of REAL ID reveals where she stands.