PFAW: “Well, We Did Do the Nose…”

Apparently People for the American Way thinks that the “American Way” was best embodied by Salem’s witch trials.

In a bizarre ad hominem breakdown, PFAW posted a hatchet piece on Alliance for School Choice president Clint Bolick yesterday.

It isn’t a news release as such. It contains no news. It’s simply a list of Bolick’s alleged crimes against the state school monopoly.  And I question the timing.

PFAW’s putative indictment seems intended to discredit Bolick in the eyes of the New Jersey media, due to a lawsuit the Alliance has filed on behalf of dissatisfied public school parents in that state. The parents are seeking choice – school vouchers to be precise – and there are few things that PFAW opposes more stridently than parental choice in education.

Fortunately for Bolick and for American children, PFAW’s attempted witch trial is less reminiscent of the real thing than of the Monty Python satire (whence comes the title of this post). Its most glaring error is to confuse the institution of government monopoly schooling with the ideals of public education.

Bolick, like most school choice advocates, is indeed critical of the bureaucratic school system that Americans inherited from the 19th century. But he is critical of it precisely because he is so committed to the ideals of public education. Our current system of schooling has failed to live up to our ideals and expectations for generations, and school choice advocates suggest introducing market forces because they will do a much better job of fulfilling those ideals and expectations.

I point all this out, moreover, as someone who does not support efforts, such as the New Jersey lawsuit in question, to encourage legislation from the bench.

New Uninsured Estimate, Same Old Story

Today, the Census Bureau reported that in 2005 the number of Americans without health insurance inched up yet again.  This annual ritual, repeated every August, gets old after a while. 

The Official Uninsured Estimate – now 46.6 million residents – comes from a survey that is not designed to measure insurance coverage.  The Official Uninsured Estimate includes people who are covered by Medicaid, who lack coverage today but will regain it tomorrow, and who make over $50,000 per year.  The Congressional Budget Office reports [.pdf] that the number of chronically uninsured (who lack coverage for a year or more) is more like 20-30 million – and still many of them are covered by Medicaid.

Part of this ritual is that Medicaid wins plaudits for “picking up the slack” when employment-based coverage falls.  Yet Medicaid encourages employers not to offer coverage, encourages workers to avoid private coverage, and makes private coverage more expensive for both employers and workers.  Medicaid doesn’t just catch people who fall off the economic ladder – it shakes the ladder.

Just about the only useful aspect of The Official Uninsured Estimate is the trend it displays over time.  When compared to the trend in the poverty rate (also released today), a stark contrast emerges.

  • Ten years ago, Congress reformed the welfare system.  It stopped the practice of just throwing more money at the problem of poverty.  What happened?  Poverty fell and remained lower in 2005 than at any point in the 17 years leading up to welfare reform. 
  • But Congress kept throwing more money at health care by expanding government programs (e.g., SCHIP).  The result?  Unlike the poverty rate, The Official Uninsured Estimate continues its steady climb.

Maybe we should stop throwing money at the problem?

Prepare to Be Shocked

ONDCP is a waste of money:

The government’s anti-drug ad campaign has not been proven to deter children from using drugs, and lawmakers should consider reducing funding for the $1.2 billion program, congressional auditors said Friday.

The Government Accountability Office based its recommendation on its review of an independent evaluation of the media campaign by Westat Inc.

The government has spent about $1.2 billion since 1998 on scores of television, print and radio ads designed to discourage drug use among youth. The ads also describe parents as the anti-drug. President Bush requested another $120 million for next year.

Westat found the ads had no “significant favorable effects” in deterring children from trying marijuana or in getting them to stop. Rather, it found that more 12 1/2- to 13-year-olds and girls were trying the drug after seeing the ads, the GAO said.

Apparently, comparing pot-smoking cancer patients to terrorist sympathizers isn’t resonating with the public. Whoda’ thunkit’?

Full report here [.pdf].

New Botched Drug Raids in NYC

Two more botched drug raids in New York (be sure to watch the video). This is the city that is supposed to have changed its ways since the death of Alberta Spruill:

Two Bronx families said the NYPD mistakenly raided their apartments Monday morning. But the department is defending its actions.

Flexton Young said he, his wife, and their four children were asleep when police broke down the door of their apartment on the fourth floor of 974 Anderson Ave.

“They ripped through my front door, they tore off my closet door, ripped both of my kids’ rooms to pieces,” Young said. “It brought me to tears, and I just didn’t want my kids to get hurt.”

Young said police made a “big mistake” believing they’d find illegal drugs and guns in his apartment.

The raid, around six Monday morning, left the family’s apartment a shambles. Belongings were pulled off shelves and out of drawers, and tossed on the floor. Officers upended a sofa and slashed out the lining, and also dumped out box after box of dry goods in the kitchen.

Upstairs, a similar raid was made on the apartment of the Pastrana family. Police turned several rooms upside down and pepper-sprayed the family dog. Family members said one officer punched a hole in a wall, grabbed an egg beater, and started to poke around inside the wall, looking for hidden drugs and guns.

Nothing was found in the Pastrana apartment, and no one was arrested.

Downstairs, Flexton Young said police gave him a summons for marijuana possession after discovering half a joint in an ashtray.

Note the “new professionalism” on display:

“I had one officer tell me that he was sorry this happened, and everybody else just looked at me and walked away,” Young said.

A spokesman for the NYPD said police had good information they would find drugs and guns in the apartments, and the raid was justified.

If you think terrorizing two families over half a joint is an appropriate use of police tactics, then I suppose the NYPD spokesman is right.

The article ends with a sentence that’s both interesting and misleading:

According to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, more than 300 allegations of improper searches of homes and businesses have been investigated and ruled on this year. Less than five-percent of the complaints were found to be “substantiated.”

This is interesting in that it means the CCRB has confirmed 15 cases of improper drug raids in New York City alone. To my knowledge, these are the first two to have received any coverage in the media. More evidence that the raid map, alarming as it is, doesn’t even begin to tell the entire story.

But it’s likely quite a bit worse than that. As I explained in Overkill, the CCRB’s jurisdiction only extends to the actions of police officers at the scene, after they’ve served the warrant. It has no power to look into the circumstances leading up to the raid. I’ve talked to the CCRB’s spokesman several times. He has confirmed to me that this is still the case today. If a botched raid took place because of a bad tip from an informant, or because someone wrote the the wrong address on the search warrant, the CCRB is powerless to do anything about it, and won’t investigate.

Which means that the CCRB’s failure to “substantiate” claims of improper searches in those 285+ other cases in no way means that the people making the complaints were wrong, or that a “wrong door” raid didn’t take place. In fact, in most wrong door raids, the problem occurs well before the police actually force entry.

Perhaps some small percentage of those 300+ complaints are people intentionally filing a false claim of a botched search. But I have a hard time believing a large number of people would go to the trouble.

I have an op-ed pending on New York City’s use of SWAT teams, but the truth is, after promising the public after the death of Spruill that they would drastically reform the way they use SWAT teams and paramilitary police tactics, city officials have since reneged on most of those promises.

And so the mistaken raids and terrorizing of innocent people continues.

Returns to Labor Belabored

In case you were born yesterday, just fell off the back of a turnip truck, and have lived in blissful ignorance of the possible abuses of economic data, let me direct your attention to yesterday’s New York Times front-pager by Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt, titled “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity,” and the blog aftermath. George Mason economics professor Russ Roberts is none too pleased.

I shouldn’t be upset when the New York Times news division writes a intellectually dishonest story that plays to the biases of its readership base. But today’s front-page above the fold story on wages depresses and surprises me anyway. Maybe it’s because one of the authors, David Leonhardt, is a good reporter with good economic intuition. (I can’t speak for the other author, Steven Greenhouse.) But I suspect the source of my dismay is simply the knowledge that this article, despite its inadequacies will be met with nods of agreement around the breakfast tables of America.

Even around the breakfast tables of famous economists! Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong–a vociferous, self-appointed arbiter of the quality of economics journalism–gives Greenhouse and Leonhardt a total pass, excerpting their article, and simply calling them “thoughtful and reliable.”

Here’s Roberts again:

Let me repeat the key sentence [from the article]:

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation.

That’s a very strange sentence for many reasons:

1. Why would you use a measure of compensation that ignores benefits, an increasingly important form of compensation?

2. Why would you use 2003 as your starting point when the recession ended in November of 2001?

3. There are no government series that I know of on median earnings. Where did those data come from?

There’s a chart accompanying the article. It tells the reader that the median hourly pay data are from the Economic Policy Institute. The Economic Policy Institute has a policy agenda. Their main issue is the alleged stagnant or falling standard of living of American workers. They support a higher minimum wage and the strengthening of labor unions.

… for every year since the recession of 2001, real hourly compensation has actually increased. It’s up since 2003 as well. And this year it’s up quite dramatically…

As I have mentioned here before–the standard claims you hear about labor’s share declining come from using wages without other forms of compensation. When you include benefits, labor’s share is virtually a constant at 70% of national income and has been steady since the end of World War II …

Greenhouse and Leonhardt thoughfully and reliably rely on the Economic Policy Institute! But they could have thoughtfully asked other people, too. For instance, they could have asked David Altig, vice president and associate director of research at the Cleveland Fed Bank. Altig signs on to Roberts’ criticism, and adds his own, noting that a decrease in labor’s share of growth does not necessarily imply an increase in capital’s share, and that a lot turns on which Bureau of Labor Statistics data series you look at.

Harvard’s Greg Mankiw reinforces Roberts’ and Altig’s diagnosis of the main error: failing to recognize that total compensation–cash wages plus benefits–is the relevant measure of real wage growth. Mankiw also relates the importance of using the correct price index, and of not comparing average productivity to median wages.

I wonder if DeLong truly thinks Greenhouse and Leonhardt were adequately thoughful and reliable in this piece. If so, I wonder what, if anything, he thinks is wrong with Roberts’, Altig’s, and Mankiw’s analyses.

Cato Unbound - Migrating Toward National ID?

The current Cato Unbound, Mexicans in America, is the usual provocative and wide-ranging fare.  There’s no lack of issues - or passion - in the debate about immigration.

One item in the current discussion that piques my interest - indeed, concerns me - is the formative consensus that “internal enforcement” of the immigration laws is a good idea. 

University of Texas at Austin economics professor Stephen Trejo writes:

Given that most illegal immigrants come to the United States to work, why don’t we get serious about workplace enforcement? Retail stores are able to verify in a matter of seconds consumer credit cards used to make purchases. Why couldn’t a similar system be put in place to verify the Social Security numbers of employees before they are hired? …  I suspect that we could do much more to control illegal immigration by directing technology and other enforcement resources toward the workplace rather than toward our porous southern border.

Doug Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at the Office of Population Research, Princeton University, has interesting information and ideas for reform to which he would adjoin ”a simple employment verification program required of all employers to confirm the right to work.”

It does sound simple - until you step back and realize that the simple idea they’re talking about is giving the federal government the power to approve or reject every Americans’ job application.  Does anyone think that this power, once adopted - and the technology put in place to administer it - will be limited to immigration law enforcement?

To do this, all people - not just immigrants, all people - would have to be able to prove their identity to federal standards, likely using some kind of bullet-proof identity document (even more secure than current law requires).  That will soon be in place thanks to the REAL ID Act.  Once we’re all carrying a bullet-proof identity document, do you think that its use will be limited to proof of identity for new employees?

It’s easy to see how facile acceptance of internal immigration law enforcement adds weight to arguments for expanded government control and tracking of all citizens.  There are plenty of reasons to be concerned with internal enforcement, and the national ID almost certainly required to make that possible.  Many of them are discussed in my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

How Well Does the Swedish Welfare State Serve Its Poor?

The American Left romanticizes the benefits of Scandinavian welfare states – to the point that one is sometimes reminded of Minnie the Moocher’s dream about the King of Sweden (“he gave her things that she was needin’…”).

Tim Worstall dispels that dream in today’s TCS Daily, pointing out that:

In the USA the poor get 39% of the US median income and in Finland (and Sweden) the poor get 38% of the US median income…. Which is really a rather revealing number don’t you think? All those punitive tax rates, all that redistribution, that blessed egalitarianism, the flatter distribution of income, leads to a change in the living standards of the poor of precisely … nothing.