The Growing Welfare State

Unemployment is low, the stock market is booming, we’ve had 10 years of welfare reform – and “America’s welfare state is bigger than ever,” reports the Associated Press.

The number of families receiving cash benefits from welfare has plummeted since the government imposed time limits on the payments a decade ago. But other programs for the poor, including Medicaid, food stamps and disability benefits, are bursting with new enrollees.

The result, according to an Associated Press analysis: Nearly one in six people rely on some form of public assistance, a larger share than at any time since the government started measuring two decades ago.

Note that this story only looks at the welfare state for the poor. Far more than one in six Americans are dependent on such government programs as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and so on, as Sen. Jim DeMint has been warning for years. More than 48 million people received a Social Security check last year, for instance.

But the AP investigation does show the weakness of welfare reform after 10 years. As Cato scholars have noted, many people have left the “welfare rolls” only to remain dependent on Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, and other means-tested transfer programs.

The AP report was printed on many newspaper websites, but it didn’t appear in the nation’s largest papers. It should get more attention. Presidential candidates should be asked whether they think it’s bad that almost 50 million Americans are on welfare or welfare-related programs. What would they do to reduce dependency? And how long can a nation remain free if half its citizens are dependent on government hand-outs?

Pots & Kettles at the RNC

Somehow, I’ve found myself on an email distribution list for the Republican National Committee’s opposition research team.  Every couple of days or so, I get something documenting how the Democrat of the moment is out to lunch on this or that issue, speaking or acting hypocritically about some matter, or is an all-around crook or ne’er-do-well.  These packaged emails - intended primarily for the press - are the equivalent of political drive-by shootings with footnotes.

Today’s edition, however, is exquisite.  Titled “Hillary’s Kerryaoke on Energy,” it purports to document Hillary Clinton’s crazy statements and votes on energy policy.  Here’s what we learn:

  • Hillary Clinton is a big proponent of energy independence and calls for a big Manhattan-style project to get us there.  “ ‘If we landed a man on the moon and brought him back safely to Earth within a decade as President Kennedy had promised in 1961, we know we can do this,’ said Clinton to the AP the other day in the course of promoting her $50 billion program to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.  The RNC’s complaint?  She sounds just like John Kerry did in 2004.  My complaint?  She sounds just like President Bush, who proposes to spend at least that much to jack-up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve - and that’s before we even begin tallying up the costs associated with his ethanol madness, his clean coal, nuclear power, and renewable energy subsidies, and a plethora of related costly interventions.  
  • Hillary Clinton wants to impose special taxes on oil company profits to help fund this $50 billion initiative of hers.  Can’t complain with the RNC attack here.  But someone ought to remind these young operatives that George Bush is likewise happy to levy special taxes on oil companies to fatten government coffers.
  • Hillary Clinton voted 17 times against ethanol subsidies and even once dared to cast a procedural vote against an energy bill containing clean coal subsidies.  The RNC is outraged - OUTRAGED! - that the New York Senator would eschew federal attempts to rig energy markets and intervene in private investment decisions.
  • Hillary Clinton has voted eight times to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  I’m not sure that the “free market” position is to drill, but I am pretty sure that drilling there would have no appreciable impact on U.S. energy security.

You’ll probably hear some echoes of this RNC hit-piece on right-wing talk radio shows over the next week or so.  The point the RNC is trying to make is that she TALKS a good game regarding energy independence, but hasn’t always voted that way.  Well, if I have to choose between someone who means the crazy rhetoric he is dishing out and one who really doesn’t, I’ll take the latter. 

Government Identity Programs in Collapse?

Government Computer News has had a number of articles recently about the problems besieging the Transportation Worker Identity Card (or TWIC), one of a number of government identification systems nominally responding to the post-9/11 threat environment.  It should be no surprise to government watchers that a service provider for TWIC, viewed by many as unqualified, happens to be in the district of the former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee.

The REAL ID Act is a bigger government identity control project, by far, which attempts to force states to convert their drivers’ licenses into a national ID card.  Regulations implementing REAL ID are widely expected to be released this week.  

Even while the architects of the surveillance state gather to talk about implementation, the Washington Post has an article out today that is probably best taken as the first post mortem on REAL ID

The headline (“As Bush’s ID Plan Was Delayed, Coalition Formed Against It”) wrongly attributes REAL ID to the Bush Administration, which was not a proponent of REAL ID, though the President did accept it as part of a military spending bill.  The article correctly attributes responsibility to Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the former Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Though the Bush Administration has room to distance itself from this colossal unfunded national surveillance mandate, a prominent member of the Administration appears to have consumed the REAL ID Koolaid - in quantity.

“If we don’t get it done now, someone’s going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 commission why we didn’t do it,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 13.

Secretary Chertoff’s shameless terror-pandering is matched only by his ignorance of identification’s utility as a security tool.  People who understand identification know that it does not provide security against committed threats.

It’s unfortunate that government works by trial and error, but this trial may soon show that a national ID is error.

Market Education Could End the Culture War

Over at SayAnythingBlog, Rob notes a case of two Boston families complaining that their children were taught about homosexuality in elementary school. The parents, apparently religious conservatives, objected to the lesson being taught without parental consent. A federal judge has just told them: tough luck.

Yet another skirmish in the culture war. We’ve gotta keep fighting it, and we’ve gotta keep racking up winners and losers, right?

Wrong. Rob notes:

this is exactly the sort of thing school vouchers would solve.  School crossing the line and teaching your kid about things you find morally offensive?  Or things that should wait until they’re a little older?  Take your kids to a different school.

While I’ve argued that education tax credits do a better job than vouchers of avoiding such conflicts (scroll down the linked page to “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict”), this is essentially the same argument that Cato’s ed. staff has been making regarding all the values battles that arise due to our official government school system.

A free market in education can allow families to obtain the sort of education they value for their own children without forcing them to impose those values on their neighbors. Our existing school system, by contrast, creates an endless battle over what will be taught in the schools.

Rob gets it, and a lot of other people are starting to get it, too.

Europeans Want More Tax Harmonization — Which Means Higher Taxes

There already is a minimum fuel levy in the European Union, but governments are allowed to impose higher taxes (but never lower taxes, of course). This tax difference is causing some truckers to drive longer distances to buy fuel where diesel taxes are lower. The proposed response to this alleged problem is to reduce the difference in the tax among jurisdictions. Needless to say, the Euro-crats have decided that the solution is higher tax rates for all nations.

The EU Observer reports on the latest evidence that tax harmonization is always a scheme to increase government power:

EU tax commissioner László Kovács is set to table a proposal to harmonize the minimum level of excise duties at €359 per 1000 litres of diesel in 2012 and subsequently at €380 in 2014, a move which would see most EU states increasing their current rates.

According to Mr Kovács’ paper — seen by EUobserver — such a rise would stamp out so-called fuel tourism, as big trucks now make detours from their routes to tank in a state where it is the cheapest, generating more greenhouse gas emissions as well as losses to some EU states’ coffers. Germans, for example, are willing to drive two to four additional kilometres for each euro cent price differential compared to a neighbouring country in the case of gas oil. Fuel tourism cost Germany €1.9 billion in 2004.

…[O]ne Lithuanian diplomat [is now] saying the Brussels proposal should be scrapped as it would translate into an overall increase in prices and inflation. “It could freeze Lithuania’s euro hopes”, a diplomat told EUobserver, adding “taxes remain one’s competitive edge and countries with high rates have taken a voluntary risk”.

Sunstein, Hayek, and Wikipedia

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein may not be among libertarians’ favorite thinkers, but Sunstein is, in his own way, a strong advocate of individual liberty and free markets.

Hayek fans will enjoy Sunstein’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, in which he describes how individuals are using computer-age technology to aggregate information. A snippet:

Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the “dispersed bits” of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. The magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.

Wikipedia’s entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity that have been made possible by new technologies.

Sunstein’s op-ed goes on to discuss intriguing experiments with events futures, which should delight Cato friend Robin Hanson:

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

Fairly Ridiculous

A Maryland legislator has introduced an absurd bill that would allow the state to seize unused funds on gift cards. 

From WJLA-TV’s website:

Democratic Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk testified Thursday before a House committee that after four years, the state should take money on old gift cards as abandoned property. She argued that companies are unfairly keeping money paid for gift cards and gift certificates.

To Delegate Pena-Melynyk, “fairness” apparently means confiscating money from individuals and businesses and spending it on her priorities, in this case public education.

If I learned one thing during my 13 years in Maryland’s public education system, it’s that taking people’s stuff isn’t fair.