FEMA: For Ever Mis Appropriating

A new government auditor’s report finds that at least $1 billion out of $6 billion in one FEMA aid program for Hurricane Katrina was paid out fradulently. Examples of waste ranged from $300 spent on Girls Gone Wild videos to $20,000 in aid paid to a state prisoner calling FEMA over the phone with a fake property damage claim.
As I discussed today with Bill O’Reilly on his radio show, FEMA’s wasteful spending is deep-seated and long-standing. A year before Katrina, there was Hurricane Frances in 2004. FEMA rushed in with aid and auditors later found that 12,000 claims were paid to residents not even hit by the storm.

At the time, USA Today said, “The findings are the latest to point at questionable disaster relief payments made by FEMA. Audits dating back at least a decade have shown similar problems elsewhere.”

What to do? The answers are in Downsizing the Federal Government.

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The Libertarian Center?

Jonah Goldberg over at National Review Online cites David Boaz’s recent post on the Webb-Allen Senate race, agrees with its substance, but then objects to the notion of a “libertarian center.” “[S]omeone really needs to come up with a better analytical framework than the one(s) which always seem to claim the good guys are in the center,” Jonah writes. “Who says? Besides, if libertarians are in the center, everyone is and no one is.”

I understand Jonah’s distress, since centrism all too often boils down to muddled, sloppy thinking and compromise for compromise’s sake. But the fact remains that the center—i.e., where the swing voters reside—will always be prized territory in democratic politics. Accordingly, much of the action in politics consists of trying to define the relevant issues so that people in the center identify more with your side than with the other guys. That’s why the definitions of left and right change so much over time (compare the priorities of left-wingers and right-wingers a half-century ago with those of their counterparts today, and you’ll see there’s not much overlap)—ideologues in pursuit of power are chasing the ever-changing, ever-elusive center.

Another way to put this is that the location of the center depends on the alignment of the political axis. If the axis of politics at a particular time is the size and scope of government, the center consists of one group of constituencies. If the axis shifts to cultural issues, the center relocates and includes a very different set of voters.

When, from the 1930s through the 1980s, the role of government in the economy was a major, defining issue in American politics, libertarians clearly were not in the center. But how about now? In recent years, the axis has shifted to cultural “red” vs. “blue” issues. As Edward Glaeser and Bryce Ward note in an excellent recent paper entitled “Myths and Realities of American Political Geography,”

[An] important truth captured by the red state/blue state framework is that political parties and politicians have had an increasing tendency to divide on cultural and religious issues rather than on economic differences.

Glaeser and Ward are right. There is little principled difference between the R’s and D’s these days about the size and scope of government. On that score, the main disagreements now are about which favored groups get to feed at the government trough at the expense of the rest of us. By contrast, the really fundamental issues today, the issues that define ideological loyalties and drive voters to the polls, are cultural questions: abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, guns, immigration, nationalism. Church attendance is now a better predictor of voting patterns than income.

And so, whether Jonah likes it or not, libertarians are in the center of the American political debate as it is currently framed. In the red vs. blue culture wars, libertarians find themselves in the middle, along with that large, nonideological chunk of the electorate that is equally squeamish about the religious right and the countercultural left. This is a new and unaccustomed position for libertarians to be in, but I am coming to believe it represents a unique opportunity for us if we can figure out how to take advantage of it.

Stay the (Undefined) Course

The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman snarks President Bush’s Iraq press conference this morning:

We now have a clear distillation of his Iraq strategy: reducing violence in Iraq to the miraculously calibrated amount that will “enable us to achieve our objectives,” a figure larger than zero violence, since that’s “not going to happen.” It’s a brilliant, sublime concoction of a foreign-policy emulsion, a strategy that requires the sort of precision of measurement befitting the world’s greatest pastry chefs. Add a little too much violence and we “make the world a more dangerous place.” A touch less violence—well, that’s unfair to expect us to accomplish, but “obviously, we would like violence to go down.” Clearly, the only responsible policy in Iraq is to discern, and then achieve, the Magic Number.

Gene Healy and I complained about the empty rhetoric of “stay the course” back in November. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Long-Term Costs of a Minimum Wage

Greg Mankiw blogs an NBER study by David Neumark and Olena Nizalovaof on the minimum wage, including this finding by Neumark and Nizalovaof:

The evidence indicates that even as individuals reach their late 20’s, they work less and earn less the longer they were exposed to a higher minimum wage, especially as a teenager. The adverse longer-run effects of facing high minimum wages as a teenager are stronger for blacks. From a policy perspective, these longer-run effects of minimum wages are likely more significant than the contemporaneous effects of minimum wages on youths that are the focus of most research and policy debate.

Helmetless Non-Fatal Motorcycle Accident Causing No Permanent Injuries Proves the Need for Helmet Laws

Ben Roethlisberger’s unfortunate motorcycle accident this week has editorial boards and pundits calling once again for mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. The Cincinnati Post went so far as to put the word freedom in sarcasm quotes.

I’m not exactly sure how Roethlisberger’s accident demonstrates the need for such laws. Roethlisberger is more than capable of paying for his treatment, so the “cost to taxpayers” argument doesn’t fly. It may cost the Pittsburgh Steelers some money, but they could have headed off those losses by stipulating a helmet requirement in Roethlisberger’s contract (he has been outspoken about riding without a helmet). And despite being thrown from his bike and leaving an imprint in the windshield of an oncoming car in the shape of his skull—all while not wearing a helmet—Roethlisberger is expected to make a complete recovery.

That’s not to say it’s wise to ride without a helmet. But Roethlisberger is a grown-up. He knows the risks. He decided to assume them. He was seriously injured, and now he’s recovering. I wish him the best, of course. I’m just having a hard time understanding how his accident provides conclusive evidence that we need a federal helmet law, or why it merits sneering commentary about an excess of “freedom.” The answer is “yes,” you should have the freedom to make your own decisions about what risks you take. Even foolish ones. But you should also assume responsibility for those decisions, and not expect taxpayers or anyone else to bail you out when poor decisions catch up with you. Seems to me that’s exactly what’s happening here.

If we’re really concerned about the safety of motorcycle riders, we should probably just ban motorcycles altogether. USA Today, for example, notes that wearing a helmet would prevent 37 percent of motorcycle fatalities. But the paper also points out that motorcycle riders are 32 times more likely to die on the roadways than drivers or passengers in automobiles. So the paper is advocating a law preventing people from assuming the low-level risk associated with riding without a helmet versus riding with one, but still advocating allowing people to assume the exponentially higher risk of riding a motorcycle in the first place (as opposed riding in a car or truck). Just think of all the lives and health care costs we could save if we banned motorcycles!

My favorite diatribe comes from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. It’s always fun to watch sportswriters comment on issues that spill out beyond the playing field. They seem to savor the chance to dress up as real journalists. And so they tend to come out swinging. King writes:

And while we’re at it, how dumb does Pennsylvania look for not making helmets mandatory? I heard a state legislator on the radio this morning say that this accident wouldn’t cause him to change his mind. It’s about human rights, he said. Riders should not be forced to wear a helmet.

I’ve got one for you, Mr. Politician. Let’s repeal seat-belt laws, and gun laws, and minimum drinking ages, and let’s just let America be the Wild, Wild West. Do what you want, when you want.

Actually, all of that sounds pretty good to me (in truth, the minarchist “wild, wild west” wasn’t all that wild). Here’s the punchline:

Laws are made to protect people, even when they think they don’t need protecting. Wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is about as basic as one can get in terms of human safety. It’s irresponsible to argue the other side.

Empahsis mine. “Irresponsible” would be one word for it.

“Principled” would be another.

House Faces the Dumbest Bill of the Year (So Far): A $2.10 Increase in the Minimum Wage

House Republicans have one last chance to demonstrate that they have any remaining intelligence or principles. On June 13, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour over the next three years. This bill, with the support of seven Republicans on the committee, would implement one of the highest priorities of the congressional Democratic leadership.

An increase in the minimum wage is one of the dumbest possible policies for the following reasons:

  1. The employment of the least-skilled members of the labor force—often new entrants—would be reduced.
  2. The non-wage benefits and working conditions of those who keep their jobs at the higher wage would probably be reduced.
  3. Most of those who keep their jobs at the higher wage would be secondary workers in non-poor families.

An increase in the minimum wage has long been a symbolic issue for the Democrats, however inconsistent with their other professed political values. House Republicans should challenge the Democrats on this issue, pointing out that an increase in the minimum wage would most hurt those that they claim to help. To do this, the House Republicans should split off the minimum wage provision from the appropriation bill, allow a separate floor vote on this provision, and demonstrate the absurdity of this proposal by a defeating this measure by a large margin. I’m waiting for a demonstration of good sense, in part, to determine whether there is any remaining reason to favor a Republican majority in the House.