Bush, McCain, and Prisoner Policy

Today’s Washington Post has an editorial entitled “Rush to Error.” The editorial says that Congress should not be pushed into approving the Bush-McCain accord with respect to the handling of prisoners. The Post is right.

The legal issues can get pretty complicated, but it may be useful to take a few steps back from the nitty-gritty to gain perspective. Last June, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in a case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. The Court ruled that President Bush’s plan for trials before military tribunals was unlawful and that Common Article III of the Geneva Convention applied to all prisoners in U.S. custody. Thus, as a result of Hamdan, this is the status quo:

1. There will be no trials before special military tribunals.

2. The CIA “program” of secret arrests, secret detentions, and secret interrogation tactics is shut down.

3. There is a chance that there might be a war crimes prosecution someday because the War Crimes Act made it a crime to violate Common Article III of the Geneva Convention.

The Bush administration abhors the status quo and that is why it has been seeking legislation from the Congress in recent weeks. The proposed legislation will do at least three things:

1. It will revive a policy of trying persons before special military tribunals. (The Supreme Court ruling simply said that Bush could not set up the courts on his own authority).

2. It will, in effect, revive the CIA “program” of “alternative interrogation procedures.”

3. It will immunize past actions of government agents from criminal prosecution.

Given all this, the best thing that can happen is for Congress to simply adjourn.

Federal Voucher Advocates Ignore the Risks

Conservative school choice advocates seem almost unanimous in their desire for federal vouchers. Writing in National Review Online, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli supports such a program on the grounds that it would save urban Catholic schools from insolvency. I couldn’t agree more that Catholic schools have been an invaluable educational lifeline for many families, and are eminently worth saving. But I am mystified by the right’s apparent lack of concern about the risks of federal school choice programs.

And I’m not just talking about the 10th Amendment’s proscription against federal education policymaking, which Bill Bennett and Rod Paige dismissed last week as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” I’m talking primarily about the sobering examples of national voucher programs in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.

While these programs are superior, in many respects, to education monopolies such as our own, they suggest that federal voucher programs bring with them stifling federal regulation. In Sweden, the regulation was there from the start, while in the Netherlands it built up inexorably over time. There are no examples anywhere in the world of federal governments extending funding to private schools without also extending federal control – whether immediately or gradually. The end result is that independent schools lose their independence, and any hope for the rise of a truly competitive education industry is lost.

Why are conservatives ignoring this risk? Perhaps they no longer see federal regulatory encroachment as a risk at all. Many have specifically advocated increased federal intervention in the content of instruction (see this debate on federal standards between Michael Petrilli and Cato’s own Neal McCluskey, or Neal’s current piece in NRO).

There are alternatives. State level school choice policies are preferable to federal ones, and funding universal school choice with private dollars (through non-refundable tax credits) is preferable to doing it with government dollars. Short version of this argument here. Long version here.

It’s Getting Better All the Time (contd.)

The Washington Post has a 12-inch story on Tuesday with this headline:

Freshman from Arlington

Comes Down With Mumps 

Is that news? When I was a kid back in the benighted 60s, everyone got mumps. Why is it news today? Because now we have vaccines, and kids don’t get mumps any more. So it’s actually news when somebody gets “the mumps, a highly contagious viral disease.” Sounds bad when you put it that like that, but it seemed a standard part of growing up a generation ago.

According to this timeline, a vaccine was licensed in 1967, and an improved one in 1971. And since then, I guess, nobody gets mumps. Another reminder of why paying a high percentage of our income for medical care is not exactly a bad thing.

Military Manpower Problem Solved!

Americans who worry that the U.S. military has been stretched to the breaking point to wage the endless war in Iraq and fulfill a vast and growing number of commitments around the world can rest easy.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has found a vast new pool of military personnel–in Montenegro.  Skeptics might point out that Montenegro has a population of 630,000, and may, therefore, not be much help on the manpower front.  But such people are just the chronic defeatists we hear so much about. 

Admittedly, it might seem a tad humiliating for the secretary of defense of the world’s sole remaining superpower to go, hat in hand, to a tiny country and ask for military assistance.  But when said superpower insists on fighting unnecessary and counterproductive wars, it can’t let pride get in the way of seeking aid.  With Iraq and Afghanistan both heating up, though, we need more realistic options than to court mini-states as strategic partners.

Tariff Bill Would Punish Millions of American Families

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription req.), Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threaten to demand a vote on their bill that would drastically raise tariffs on imports from China if the Chinese government does not move quickly to strengthen the value of its currency.           

The senators claim that China’s currency, the yuan, is 15 to 40 percent undervalued against the dollar, giving Chinese imports an unfair advantage in the U.S. market and discouraging U.S. exports to China. China revalued its currency by 2.1 percent last summer and it has appreciated another 2 percent since then, but the senators say this is not enough. They blame China’s currency for our large bilateral trade deficit with China and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Their bill would impose a hefty 27.5 percent tariff if China does not sharply revalue its currency within six months after the bill’s passage.

In a Cato Trade Briefing Paper, “Who’s Manipulating Whom?” published in July, I documented the fact that imports from China have not reduced America’s overall manufacturing output. In fact, since China fixed its currency in 1994, real output at U.S. factories has actually increased by 50 percent. The sectors where China is most competitive—lower-end, labor-intensive goods such as shoes, clothing, and toys—have been in decline in the United States for decades. Goods we used to import from other countries anyway are now imported directly from China. U.S. factories employ fewer workers than they did a decade ago not primarily because of imports from China but because remaining workers are so much more productive.

Imposing the steep tariff called for in the senators’ bill would surely hurt workers and producers in China, but it would also victimize millions of American consumers. More than three-quarters of what we imported from China last year were goods Americans use every day in their homes and offices—not only all those shoes, clothing items, and toys, but also sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers. The Schumer-Graham bill would be a direct, regressive tax on millions of low- and middle-income American families. It would also jeopardize tens of billions of dollars of sales American companies now make in China, our major, growing export market.

Chances are slim that the Schumer-Graham bill will become law anytime soon, but the fact that such a reckless piece of legislation would be considered on the floor of the Senate should be as troubling to Americans as to the Chinese.

Doctors without Borders

I have to join Ezra Klein in copying in its entirety this Dean Baker post to The American Prospect’s blog Tapped:

NPR had a piece this morning on the possibiity that Medicare reimbursements for doctors will be cut. It told listeners that if this cut went into effect, then there may be a shortage of doctors who are willing to serve Medicare beneficiaries.

In other contexts, such as supplies of farm workers, custodians, and restaurant workers, NPR has told listeners that shortages meant that the country needed immigrant workers. No one interviewed for this segment mentioned the possibility of more immigrant doctors, even though doctors receive much higher pay in the United States than they do in the developing world, or even Europe. Surely, if the United States worked to eliminate the barriers that make it difficult for foreigners to train to U.S. standards and practice in the United States, there would be large numbers of foreign physicians who would be willing to do the work that NPR tells us American workers do not want to do.

The great thing about economic models is that you can use the same models for almost anything, you just have to change the words that appear on the axis. If getting immigrants, who will accept low pay, to work in our farms and factories makes economic sense, then getting foreign doctors, who are willing to accept low pay, also makes sense. Maybe NPR will one day get reporters who know economics, if we elimiante [sic] barriers to trade among journalists.

Perhaps a cut in Medicare reimbursements could spark a conversation about liberalizing immigration and licensure restrictions on physicians and allied health professionals.

Tell Me That’s Not Your Final Answer

The congressionally chartered “Citizens’ Health Care Working Group” today released its final recommendations on how to reform America’s health care sector. (I commented on their interim recommendations here and here.)

As with many GOP-led health care reform efforts, this one began with leftist premises about the role of government. Recommendation #1 is that the federal government should “Establish Public Policy that All Americans Have Affordable Health Care.” Recommendation #2 is that the feds should “Guarantee Financial Protection Against Very High Health Care Costs.” (The group inadvertently neglected to cite any passage from the U.S. Constitution that actually grants Congress the power to do such things.)

Given those premises, there was little doubt that the group would recommend left-wing reforms. For example, the group claims to have developed both a “market–based model” and a “social insurance model” for achieving universal coverage. Yet the former is a mirror image of the statist Massachusetts health plan. What kind of “market-based model” increases taxes and government spending while forcing individuals to purchase government-defined insurance policies? Good grief.

I would give my right eye for a health care reform panel that would make this its charter:

To make health care of ever-increasing quality available to an ever-increasing number of people.

To me, that doesn’t just seem simple and non-controversial, it seems to be what everyone involved in health policy wants.

Moreover, a mission like that would force the panel to consider not just the goodness of its intentions, its knowledge of today’s health care sector, or its ability to do math, but also the incentives that its recommendations would create, and their long-term impact.

Let’s hope some enterprising panel-creator is reading this.