New Health Care Reading

David Hogberg has joined the blogosphere with Health Hog.  One of his first posts links to a debate between David Gratzer and Jonathan Cohn.  Gratzer’s opening salvo mentions a book by Robert J. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider, which is among three books reviewed here.  Gratzer writes,

Robert L. Ohsfeldt and John E. Schneider factor out intentional and unintentional injuries from life expectancy statistics, concluding that this non-injury group of Americans outlive similar groups in other countries.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you did this sort of calculation.  I can’t say that I am entirely shocked that if you adjust longevity data for things like murders or car accidents, the U.S. comes out ahead.

Europe’s Dismal Fiscal Future

Nations such as France and Germany already are over-burdened by excessive taxes and spending, but things are going to get worse. A column in the Wall Street Journal notes that the number of potential workers per retiree is going to shrink dramatically. This helps explain, of course, why so many European politicians are opposed to tax competition. Mobility of labor and capital undermines their ability to keep Ponzi schemes afloat:

A shrinking population in itself is not necessarily a problem. But the rise in the “old age dependency” most definitely is. Fewer and fewer younger workers will have to finance the retirement of more and more elderly people in need of a range of support services from pensions to health care. European Commission forecasts suggest that the number of people aged 65 and older as a percentage of the working population (aged 15-64) will more than double between now and 2050 to 53% from 25%. …A continuation of the current pay-as-you-go pension systems, where employee contributions are used to pay for the pensions of those already retired, seems unsustainable. It would require an almost superhuman willingness among the shrinking pool of workers to pay ever rising payroll taxes for the increasing ranks of the older generation. It would overstretch the solidarity between generations and would only accelerate an already observable brain drain. Many of the most talented Europeans are already looking for higher salaries and lower taxes abroad.

But Americans should not gloat. Entitlement programs are pushing the United States in the same direction.

To Fix Student Lending, Government Must Go

There’s been a lot of unflattering news lately about the student loan industry: Revelations about schools and lenders in revenue-sharing deals; college financial aid officers holding stock in companies on their schools’ “preferred lender” lists; a U.S. Department of Education official owning shares in a lending company he was supposed to be overseeing; and just yesterday, revelations that some lending companies have had largely unfettered access to a federal database stocked with Social Security numbers, email addresses, loan balances, and other sensitive information belonging to tens-of-millions of student borrowers.

To many people, these revelations are just further evidence of the immoral, rapacious greed of for-profit lenders. As Generation Debt author Anya Kamenetz explained recently on the Huffington Post blog:

When I wrote my first piece about the student debt crisis in the Village Voice in June 2004, the future looked grim. Average student loan burdens doubled in the 1990s to nearly $20,000, and in February 2006, barely a year ago, Congress passed the largest cuts to student aid in history.

I never would have guessed that the tide would turn so quickly and that the loan industry, with its fat profits, billions in government subsidies, private jets and baseball teams, would be on the defensive. But here we are.

Kamenetz and others like her are right to be angry about the cushy arrangements lenders have secured through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which guarantees student loans with federal tax dollars. Her solution to the overall student loan mess, however, would do little to attack the root cause of the scandals and graft:

The Direct Loan Program. Switching [to it from FFELP], as described in the reintroduced STAR Act, would save billions we could then use for much needed grant aid. And a “single payer” Direct Loan program would save on marketing costs and limit the potential for scandals like the current one.

The federal Direct Loan Program – which currently furnishes about a quarter of all federal student loans – cuts out private lenders and sends loans directly from the U.S. Treasury to college kids. Now, that might be cheaper to run – though that is itself hotly debated – but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which is just what we’d be doing if we decided to solve the current student loan disaster by giving the federal government even more student lending power. The government, you see, is the root cause of the current problems, not the solution:

  • The subsidies that have enriched lenders were created by federal policymakers, not loan companies.
  • Massive federal aid – which according to the latest inflation-adjusted data from the College Board exploded from $48.3 billion to $94.4 billion over just the last decade – has helped fuel skyrocketing tuition, creating ever-bigger federal and private loan markets.
  • Some of the biggest problems unearthed so far directly involve federal breakdowns, including a federal official owning over $100,000 worth of stock in a company he was supposed to be overseeing, and federal bureaucrats giving some lenders almost free rein to comb over highly sensitive student data. (Which, by the way, also ought to make even the most trusting person very dubious of federal promises to fully protect student privacy if allowed to maintain a proposed “unit record database” containing detailed information on every college student in America.)

Unfortunately, many of the student lending industry’s antagonists aren’t actually all that concerned with maximizing efficiency or saving taxpayers money. What they’re primarily interested in is getting as many cheap dollars to students as they can. In other words, its not outrageous subsidies they’re especially angry about, but that the wrong special interests are getting them.

Michael Dannenberg, Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and editor of its Higher Ed Watch blog, recently made this abundantly clear:

The ultimate success of these student loan investigations will be measured by the degree to which they result in cheaper college loans for students and families. Right now, students are paying interest rates for college loans that are simply too high.

Apparently it doesn’t matter that total, inflation-adjusted federal aid doubled over the last decade; that inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student rose from $6,700 to $10,113 in that same time, or that the interest rate on subsidized federal loans is fixed at 6.8 percent while the prime rate is currently 8.25 percent. For Dannenberg and others like him, when it comes to federal policy college students never get a fair deal.

In light of the reality that the special interests most heavily involved in the student aid debate want as much money for themselves as they can get, and that the government has almost always been happy to provide it, it’s clear that what would be best for taxpayers would neither be to maintain FFELP nor to switch completely to Direct Lending, but to eliminate federal aid altogether. Then, the people who would be enriched would be taxpayers – well, maybe “unharmed” would be a more accurate description – while both lenders and students would finally have to earn an honest buck.

Upside-Down Budgeting in Europe

Politicians in Washington are quite adept at wasting money and coming up with clever excuses for new programs, but they are rank amateurs compared to their counterparts across the ocean. In Europe, politicians and bureaucrats have become so adept at twisting words that the European Commission actually announced that it “protected taxpayers’ interests” by spending almost every penny it received. The EU Observer reports on this Kafka-esque abuse of language:

The European Union has become better at spending money resulting in EU capitals getting back less of their annual membership fee, the European Commission has announced. …Out of the €107.4 billion EU spending finally agreed on for 2006 only €950 million was left unused - down from €1 billion in 2005. “Improved budget management and better planning help protect taxpayers’ interests,” said EU budget commissioner Dalia Grybauskaite in a statement. …the European Union is not allowed to make any profit and any surplus is therefore channelled back to EU member states’ coffers by way of a rebate on the year’s EU fee.

Freeing the Farm

Today Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies released a new study, “Freeing the Farm: A Farm Bill For All Americans”, as part of our efforts to promote serious and permanent reform of farm policy in the United States. We will be holding a forum to discuss the study on April 26 (register here).

For too long, American consumers and taxpayers have been supporting farmers, many of whom run successful agribusinesses (for more information on subsidies and who receives them, see the excellent work of the Environmental Working Group here). Removing price supports, import barriers and subsidies will save taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars and will expose farmers to the 21st century economy. To the extent that reforms help to achieve a successful conclusion to the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations, American businesses (including farmers) and consumers will gain further.

How would we propose to achieve all this, given the notorious power of the farm lobby? A one-time, limited buyout of commodity support coupled with legislative changes and contracts.

With any luck, the 2007 Farm Bill will be the last.

Growing Pains in the U.S.-China Trade Relationship

What do I think about Red China?  Looks fabulous on a white, satin tablecloth!  

For more serious thoughts about China (in particular, its trade relationship with the
United States), please check out my interview with People’s Daily, a large Chinese newspaper.  Morgan Stanley Chief Economist Stephen Roach was asked the same questions.  His responses can be found here.

Montenegro Joins the Flat Tax Club

The International Monetary Fund published a discredited attack on the flat tax last year, which concluded that, “the question is not so much whether more countries will adopt a flat tax as whether those that have will move away from it.” The IMF’s powers of prediction are perhaps even worse than its economic analysis. Since that paper was published, four new nations have a flat tax and several others are about to implement a flat tax. The latest to join the club is Montenegro. Alvin Rabushka, intellectual Godfather of the flat tax movement, explains:

In December 2006, Montenegro’s parliament approved a 15% flat tax on personal income. Effective July 1, 2007, it replaces the previous system of three rates… The new law sets the flat rate at 15% in 2007 and 2008, reduces it to 12% in 2009 and 9% in 2010. Montenegro has set the corporate profits tax rate at 9%, reduced from the previous two-rate system of 15% on taxable profit up to 100,000 and 20% on the gain exceeding 100,000. In 2010, Montenegro will have a unified flat tax of 9% on personal and corporate income. This will be one percentage point less than the 10% unified rate in Macedonia.

Rabhushka’s article also comments on the likely adoption of the flat tax in Albania and East Timor (where the IMF, not surpisingly, is advocating a higher-than-necessary tax rate):

Prime Minister Sali Berisha of Albania secured approval of the Strategic Planning Committee that he chairs for a unified 10% flat tax on personal and corporate income. The proposal has been sent to Albania’s parliament for its consideration. If enacted in a timely manner, the 10% tax on personal income would take effect on July 1, 2007. The proposed 10% flat tax on would slash Albania’s corporate 20% tax in half effective January 1, 2008. …Ramos-Horta plans to transform East Timor into a free-trade nation, with no tariffs, sales tax, or excise taxes save on dangerous substances. He proposes to set personal and corporate income tax rates at the same flat rate between 5 and 10%. His proposal is being drafted into law based on consultations with the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, academics, and the International Monetary Fund. Although the IMF had pushed for a flat rate between 15 and 20% to prevent East Timor from becoming a tax haven.