Republicans for Big Brother

The Cato Institute has noted for some time that conservatives and Republicans have abandoned their limited-government principles when it comes to health policy.  Examples can be found here, here, here, here, and here

The New America Foundation just made our job a little easier, by producing a paper titled, “Growing Support for Shared Responsibility in Health Care.”  In this context, “shared responsibility” means allowing the government to force all Americans to purchase health insurance – a power the Left has craved but no government had dared assume until Massachusetts did so this year.

The paper helpfully compiles a list of comments that Republicans and Democrats have made in support of this new expansion of government power.  The Republicans included:

  • Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (no surpise there)
  • Former Bush HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson
  • California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

One might add to that list the Heritage Foundation (whose health policy scholars wrote the Massachusetts mandate) and Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine. 

Next to those, Schwarzenegger is probably the biggest disappointment, having once bragged that Milton & Rose Friedman’s PBS series Free to Choosehas changed my life,” and that “Being free to choose for me means being free to make your own decisions, free to live your own life, pursue your own goals…without the government breathing down on your neck or standing on your shoes.”  Now that he’s governor, “being free to choose” presumably means being free to choose for you.

This new expansion of state power would be less frightening if it delivered more affordable or higher-quality health care.  But as Mike Tanner demonstrates in two papers on the idea (here and here), it will do neither of those things. 

Unfortunately, there has been too little debate within the limited-government camp over this idea.  This is in part because Heritage Foundation scholars have repeatedly declined to debate Cato scholars or other free-market critics of their proposal.

Until we’re able to have that fuller debate, here’s a helpful algorithm for judging this and other health care proposals:

  1. Does it limit government power?
  2. If not, move on to the next proposal.

Ned Lamont, Fiscal Conservative?

A Washington Post feature says that Connecticut Senate challenger Ned Lamont’s website shows him to be “a fiscal conservative, a social liberal and a foreign-policy moderate.” (The Post also refers to Lamont’s 150-word statements on the issues as “elaborate position papers,” which seems to reflect low expectations for political discourse.) Since I expressed doubt a couple of days ago about the existence of fiscally conservative Democrats, I was intrigued.

So what does the website show? Lamont is indeed socially liberal, for better (opposition to gay marriage bans, creationism, the Terri Schiavo intervention, stem cell restrictions, and other schemes to impose conservative moral values on other people) and worse (support for hate crimes laws, affirmative action, and other schemes to impose his moral values on other people).

But “fiscal conservative”? Let’s go to the tape. On his website he promises to spend more money on national health insurance, universal preschool, all-day schools, “an overarching plan for clean energy and energy independence,” and “a serious, long-range infrastructure plan to upgrade our schools, public transportation, highways, our sewage treatment, and our levees in below sea-level areas [and] a transportation strategy which interconnects cities and suburbs, inner cities and jobs and affordable housing, and ports and airports.” Sounds expensive.

(As a good big-government liberal, he’s also opposed to school choice, private Social Security accounts, and free trade. But our subject today is taxes and spending.)

Virtually all the references to “budget” on Lamont’s site are boasts of how he increased various budgets as a city councilman. He has declared his opposition to earmarks, but of course earmarks – while notorious – are only a tiny part of the federal budget. Nowhere does he promise a balanced budget. He does promise to roll back Bush’s tax cuts – that is, to raise taxes – but that would hardly be sufficient to close the current deficit and pay for his sweeping spending plans, even if higher marginal tax rates did not reduce work, investment, and tax revenue.

Alas, the search for a fiscally conservative Democrat continues.

The Welfare Kings of Farming

There is an excellent op-ed in today’s LA Times on the special kind of corporate welfare given to farmers. David Boaz and I have both written blog entries (here and here) and done podcasts on the topic (mine on 05/30/06 and David’s on 07/25/06). As the farm bill comes up for extension/review/obliteration (okay, that last one was a bit optimistic), this topic is one to watch.

Transition in Cuba: How Would Raúl Rule?

Fidel Castro’s transfer of power to his brother Raúl is beginning to look like a test run for an eventual transition. As I wrote Tuesday (here, and in this op-ed in the Chilean newspaper La Tercera), the real question is whether the eventual permanent transfer of power will simply be a transition to new leadership or whether it will be a transition to a different kind of regime.

That’s a question to which probably nobody, even in Cuba, knows the answer. The Castro brothers have in fact been planning the transition to Raúl’s rule for some time. Given Raúl’s prominent treatment in the Cuban press recently, Cuba expert Brian Latell asked two months ago whether the transition has already begun.

Raúl has led the armed forces since the beginning of the revolution. The fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of massive subsidies to the island transformed Raúl’s role and that of the military. In the 1990s Raúl advocated policy changes that opened up the Cuban economy to foreign investment in a few sectors, such as tourism and mining, that earn foreign exchange. The Cuban economy also became dollarized. (Several years ago I asked the head of Cuba’s central bank why Cuba had become dollarized and whether he thought that was a good thing or bad thing. His response was a long one. He didn’t answer the first question, but did say they were not happy with the development and intended to dedollarize—something they began to do two years ago). As it happened, the military began running all sorts of businesses in Cuba in the 1990s including hotels, gas stations, travel services, and import-export agencies that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

When I visited Havana four years ago, I saw how retired military officials also play a prominent role. They are the ones entrusted to run the major state-owned enterprises. They produce a certain level of revenue for the state, beyond which they engage in what appears to be quasi-private business activity, all of which amounts to a strange mixture of socialist statism with entrepreneurship.

Foreign exchange and increased economic activity have helped spread the informal economy, another factor that may affect Raúl’s rule. Thousands of Cubans now conduct business or other activities independent of the state in all manner of areas (taxis, messenger services, restaurants, libraries, etc.).

Two other observations struck me during my visit to Cuba: 1. I don’t think I met anybody who truly believed in communism. I met with high officials at ministries and top people at the University of Havana and official think tanks, some of whom were very intelligent and quite sophisticated, and all of whom left me with an impression that cynicism about the revolution was widespread. 2. Discontent with the status quo among the general population was also widespread. To this day, the economy has probably not yet bounced back to the income or consumption levels that existed in 1989 or 1990. Food rations are skimpy and clinics cannot afford to provide basic medicines or supplies (patients must finance those goods themselves). Why put up with the lack of freedom if the revolution can’t even guarantee basic necessities?

Since Venezuela began to provide massive subsidies to Cuba a few years ago, Havana has backtracked on its limited reforms. The subsidies have not significantly improved living conditions in Cuba, however, and have made doing business more cumbersome. For all of the above reasons, whoever follows Fidel, including Raúl, will have a difficult time maintaining the status quo. I believe that Raúl will be willing to compromise on socialist principles if only to benefit certain constituencies such as the military and shore up his power. Limited economic reform, not political reform, would be on the agenda. My guess is that that will be the beginning of more fundamental policy changes. My hope is that those changes will also lead to political change and (this part is most unlikely) that the transition to a more open society happens as swiftly as possible.

New Milestone for Federal Pay

New data was released today by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis on federal employee wages and benefits. The data for 2005 shows that compensation for the average federal civilian worker ($106,579) is now exactly double the average compensation in the U.S. private sector ($53,289).

(See Tables 6.2D, 6.5D, and 6.6D here, www.bea.gov/bea/dn/nipaweb/index.asp).

The federal pay advantage has been soaring in recent years. The ratio of average federal to average private compensation increased from 1.51 in 1990, to 1.68 in 2000, to 2.00 today.

Both federal wages and benefits have been galloping ahead. The new data shows that the average federal civilian worker earned $71,114 in wages in 2005, compared to an average $43,917 in the private sector.

I discussed the federal pay advantage based on data for 2004 in a recent bulletin. I thought that new data for 2005 would show the federal advantage narrowing due to strong private sector growth. Instead, the federal advantage increased once again. Average federal wages rose 5.8 percent in 2005 compared to an increase of 3.3 percent in the private sector.

See the full details in a summary spreadsheet here [.xls].

Federal Education Tax Credits. So Close, and yet…

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) has introduced a federal education tax credit bill (“America’s Class Act”) modeled on a program in his home state. The Pennsylvania program is indeed an excellent concept, allowing businesses to make tax-creditable donations to private scholarship funds that in turn help low income families gain access to independent schools. Donation tax credit programs such as this are one of the two critical components in an ideal market education policy (the other being a personal tax credit for parents who choose independent schools for their children).

Unfortuntalely, the unmitigated merits of this policy at the state level are heavily mitigated at the federal level. First, because the Federal government is accorded no role in education whatsoever by our Constitution (“oh, that old thing?!”). And second, because any regulatory encroachment of the independent education sector by the federal government will suffocate schools from sea to sea, leaving nowhere for truly independent schools to thrive.

I’ve already made this case with respect to vouchers, and while I’m more fond of tax credits as a market education reform, federal involvement in this area is still problematic.

ID-Based Security Is Broken - and Can’t Be Fixed

The Government Accountability Office testified to the Senate Finance Committee today that investigators were easily able to pass through borders using fake documents. Indeed, sometimes documents were not checked at all.

“This vulnerability potentially allows terrorists or others involved in criminal activity to pass freely into the United States from Canada or Mexico with little or no chance of being detected.”

That’s true, but shoring up that vulnerability would add little security while devastating trade and commerce at the border.

Identity-based security works by comparing the identity of someone to their background and determining how to treat them based on that. To start, you need accurate identity information. That’s not easy to come by from people who are trying to defeat your identity system.

Here’s a schematic of how identification cards work from my book Identity Crisis.

As you can see, proof of identity involves three steps: Info goes from the person to the card issuer; info goes from the issuer to the verifier via the card; and the verifier checks to make sure the person and the card match.

Each of these steps is a point of weakness. Let’s take them in reverse order:

Obviously, as the GAO found, if nobody looks at the ID card, the “verifier check” can’t be done and the system fails. If the verifier is careless, the system will also fail. This weakness can be fixed with machine-read biometrics, but that is time-consuming and it typically subjects everyone to monitoring, tracking, surveillance – whatever you prefer to call it.

If the card can be forged or altered, this compromises card security, the second point of weakness in the process. Weakness in card security (non-obvious forgery) is what GAO sought to expose when it stumbled across the fact that border agents weren’t checking IDs at all. Card security can also be fixed various ways, though the best, such as encryption, will also tend to increase monitoring, tracking, and surveillance of every card-holder.

The first step is the hardest by far to fix: getting accurate information about people onto cards. For anyone wanting to defeat the current U.S. identification system, there is a substantial trade in documents that are false but good enough to fool Department of Motor Vehicle employees into issuing drivers’ licenses and cards. Criminals also regularly use the option of corrupting DMV employees to procure false documents. Can this problem be curtailed? Yes. Solved? No.

For the sake of argument, let’s fix all these things with a cradle-to-grave, government-mandated, biometric tracking system. Enough to make even the irreligious think “mark of the beast.” Even then, we will not have effective security against serious criminals and terrorists. The greatest weakness of identification-based security remains.

Knowing who a person is does not reveal what they think or what they plan to do. Examples are legion in terrorism, and routine in crime, of people with no record of wrongdoing being the ones who act.

For example, Al Qaeda selected operatives for the 9/11 attacks who had no known records of involvement in terrorism. (See 9/11 Commission report, page 234.) It was operating in a mode to defeat watch-listing well before the spasm of watch-listing that underlies identification-checks like the ones GAO has found so flawed.

If we were to have a comprehensive, mandatory, biometric identification system, it would help find bad people after they are identified, but do little to secure against attackers who are not already known. Al Qaeda planners would have to continue factoring in a risk they have already accounted for.

And having such a system should be a big “if.” Subjecting all Americans to increased monitoring, surveillance, and tracking, then delaying their lawful trade and travel at the borders, would do a lot of damage to liberty and commerce. It would provide only a tiny margin of security – almost no margin against sophisticated threats.