Federalism This Ain’t

According to Kaisernetwork.org:

Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) on Wednesday at a joint event by the Brookings Institution and Heritage Foundation encouraged lawmakers to back a bill (HR 5864) that would “allow states to act as laboratories where lawmakers could test methods to reduce the number of uninsured Americans,” CQ HealthBeat reports.

In an online debate with Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation (here, here, and here), I argued that this approach would favor government-expanding health care proposals.

Those in search of a free-market health care agenda should look elsewhere.

Chief of Pentagon Joint Staff Wary of “War” Rhetoric

President Bush likes to remind the country as often as possible that “we are at war.”  (Last night, though, he acknowledged, without irony, that “one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.”)  The few people who have balked at the rhetoric of “war” as the response to terrorism often have been derided as “unserious” about the threat of terrorism.  But it’s interesting to see that the latest person to reject Bush’s war rhetoric is Army Col. Gary Cheek, the chief of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff:

What is needed, said Army Col. Gary Cheek, is to recast terrorists as the criminals they are.

“It makes sense for us to find another name for the GWOT,” said Cheek. “It merits rethinking. I know our European allies are more comfortable articulating issues of terrorism as criminal threats, rather than war … It ought to be our goal to partner better with the European allies so we can migrate this from a war to something other than a war.”

The “war” moniker elevates al-Qaida and other transnational terrorists, giving them legitimacy as an opposition force to the United States. It also tends to alienate Muslim populations in other countries, who see the war as a war on Islam, and feel they need to support al-Qaida as a matter of defending their faith.

It also tends to frame the fight as one in which the Defense Department has the primary role, when it is becoming increasingly clear that the “long war” against global terrorism is going to be won on other fronts – economic, political, diplomatic, financial. Other government agencies and departments must become more engaged; only they have the expertise to help other countries take the actions necessary to defeat terrorists.

Whole story here.

College Aid Calculations Don’t Measure Up

Every other year, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (NCPPHE) – an organization run almost exclusively by politicians and higher education insiders – issues a report called Measuring Up, which typically declares that as a nation we provide far too little aid to students to help them afford college. Measuring Up 2006, released today, is no different.

Now, to be fair, the 2006 edition of the biennial woe-fest does make a good point about government-funded student aid, noting that it has increasingly targeted middle and even upper-class – rather than low-income - students. Of course, it fails to note the inevitability of that outcome given that aid to the poor must be accompanied by aid to the middle class to be politically viable.

Where Measuring Up 2006 deserves scorn, though – as have previous Measuring Up reports – is in how it calculates federal student aid, a critical part of the report’s determination of college affordability.

A reasonable person would, of course, consider federal aid to be any kind of financial assistance provided to students by the federal government. That would be both federal and aid, after all. But the folks at NCPPHE don’t see it that way. No, for them, only Pell grants count as federal aid. Why? Because, according to the Measuring UpTechnical Guide” – which is separate from the main report – “Pell grants are by far the largest component of federal grant aid.”

Oh, come on! According to data from the College Board, while it is true that Pell grants provide more aid than any other federal grant programs, Pell is still far from the only federal grant initiative, and not even close to the only federal aid program.

Here are the numbers: In the 2004-05 academic year, while the federal government doled out $13.1 billion in Pell grants, it provided an additional $6.3 billion through work study and grant programs other than Pell. Add to that the $8.0 billion that people received through federal higher education tax benefits, and the non-Pell total surpasses the Pell amount, hitting $14.3 billion. And then there are federal loans, which even when not technically subsidized (the feds pay the interest on the loans for a given amount of time) are still in reality subsidized because they are backed with taxpayer dollars, which helps keep their interest rates artificially low. Add those loans – a total of $62.4 billion – to the student aid pot and Pell grants are absolutely dwarfed, coming in at just 14 percent of all federal aid.

And so, the higher education establishment has struck again. Absurdly defining all federal student aid as just Pell grants, Measuring Up 2006 has ignored the vast majority of aid furnished by federal taxpayers and cried out for more money. It’s just the kind of accounting that could only measure up in a report intended to further rip off taxpayers and enrich the ivory tower.

So Should We Go Dutch, or Not?!?

A while back, Reason Magazine’s Julian Sanchez blogged about what he saw as an inconsistency in my position on the Dutch national school voucher program. Though I missed his post at the time, it’s worth responding to.

Julian pointed out that I have bemoaned the stifling regulatory encroachment  besetting private voucher schools in the Netherlands, while also touting the superior academic outcomes of those schools.

What gives?

The answer is relativity. While Dutch academic performance is among the best in the world, that does not mean it is anywhere near as good as it would be under actual market conditions. The Netherlands competes with nations (like our own) suffering from morbidly obese government school monopolies. Their own system, with its modicum of parental choice and competition, is merely fat and out of shape by comparison. When they race, the Netherlands invariably comes out at or near the front of the pack. That does not mean it is the Carl Lewis of school systems.

The same can be said of the Dutch school system’s impact on social harmony. While it has advantages in this area over state school monopolies, it still has shortcomings when compared to market systems that do not rely on government funding of private schools to ensure universal access.

So, when I talk about the Dutch voucher program, I try to point out its shortcomings while also noting that – even though it falls short of a true market – it outperforms our calcified centrally planned school systems.

As Julian no doubt saw, I wrapped-up my earlier piece trumpeting the academic superiority of the Dutch system with the following caveat:

All this might sound like a sales pitch for introducing a Dutch-style voucher program. It isn’t. As it happens, research suggests that there are even better ways to reintroduce the benefits of parental choice and competition in education.

When everyone else is moving backwards, the guy who’s standing still seems like a high-achiever.

Welcome to the Blackout Period! NOT

Today McCain-Feingold’s 60-day window on electioneering communications opens. Perhaps a better metaphor would be that the window slams shut.

An electioneering communication is a broadcast ad that mentions a candidate for federal office. Until election day you cannot sponsor an electioneering communication unless you meet certain conditions specified by federal election law.

Practically, this part of McCain-Feingold means business corporations, labor unions, many interest groups (which are incorporated), and groups that receive money from corporations or unions may not fund ads mentioning candidates for federal office. The same groups also may not sponsor ads urging citizens to contact their member of Congress about an issue if that member is running for re-election.

Defenders of McCain-Feingold (and a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court) have argued that the electioneering communication rules do not prohibit political speech. After all, these groups can simply form a political action committee or use other available alternatives to sponsor the advertising.

Maybe, maybe not. In 2000, a donor gave the NAACP a multi-million dollar gift that was used to fund ads criticizing a candidate for federal office, George W. Bush. Under McCain-Feingold, the NAACP would have had to raise that multi-million dollar donation under federal law including disclosure requirements and contribution limits. Raising money under those constraints is much harder than receiving a single gift from one donor. Given those difficulties, the NAACP might well have not raised as much money with a PAC as they did in 2000 from that one contributor. Of course, funds that are not raised cannot be spent on political speech.

Jim Bopp, Jr., a leading First Amendment lawyer, has recently noted other ways McCain-Feingold discourages speech:

 “As one who represents advocacy groups, I have seen first hand that the burdens and undesirability of each available alternative [for example, PACs]  is such that the vast majority of advocacy groups have abandoned issue advertising during the blackout periods… One of the key considerations is that to avail oneself of one of these alternatives requires (1) hiring expert legal assistance to design and implement such strategies and (2) exposing your organization to heightened scrutiny by the FEC, press, and offended public officials.  As a result, only the wealthiest, most sophisticated, and most insistent have assumed these burdens and risks.  The vast majority of advocacy groups have just dropped out – to the everlasting joy of incumbent politicians who face less scrutiny from the general public for what they do to us and for us in office.  A prohibition indeed!”

I am reminded of Frederic Bastiat’s essay on “The Seen and the Unseen.” Americans see the political world after McCain-Feingold. Electoral ads continue to run, and no one has been sentenced to a re-education camp. They conclude that nothing all that bad has happened to free speech.

Americans do not see the political speech that would have existed if McCain-Feingold had not been enacted. They thus discount the possibility that the speech that may not exist in the future may be their own and that blackout periods now may portend a longer night to come.

Big Day

Today the U.S. government hands over control of the Iraqi army to the Iraqis and takes control of American political debate.

Incredibly, the McCain-Feingold ban on independent broadcast advertising that mentions candidates by name, beginning 60 days before the election, is apparently not mentioned in any major media. The blackout period for free speech has been noted in newspapers by such civil libertarians as Ryan Sager, Jacob Sullum, and the D.C. Examiner. But no news stories warning people to stop talking about candidates. No editorials from major papers deploring this restriction on political speech before an election. Nor even any editorials hailing the new restrictions, which might be more likely since most major papers endorsed the McCain-Feingold legislation.

What would McCain, Feingold, and the New York Times say if the U.S.-backed government in Iraq banned any criticism of itself for the next 60 days? Would they say “one giant step toward democracy”? I doubt it.

Anyway, if you want to criticize a member of Congress, or just ask your neighbors to call him about an issue, you’re free to do that – starting November 8.

Gingrich’s Big Government Manifesto

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is reportedly planning to run for president in 2008, hoping to ride a wave of nostalgia for the Republican revolution of 1994 to the nomination.   Admittedly, the current Republican Congress is so bad on so many issues, that Gingrich’s tenure looks like the good old days.   But anyone who seriously believes that Gingrich is a small-government conservative in the mold of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, should look at the new Contract with America-style manifesto that Newt has proposed as the basis for Republicans to campaign on this fall.

Much of the proposal is simple pandering to various base groups.  Confronted with the many serious problems facing this country, Newt proposes that Republicans base their campaign on such crucial issues as declaring English to be the national language, forbidding the courts from considering cases involving the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, and creating a national voter ID card.   Many other proposals would explicitly increase the size of government.  For example, Gingrich would expand No Child Left Behind to create national teacher competency standards.

Gingrich does call for Congress to cut spending.  Well, not exactly.  He does not actually call for any specific spending cuts.  What he proposes is budget legislation that would lead to a balanced budget in seven years.  Perhaps balancing the budget takes so long because he wants to spend so much more on a national energy policy.  Gingrich proposes an array of subsidies to every conceivable energy interest group and project from ethanol to hydrogen-powered cars.  Of course, there’s nothing in Gingrich’s manifesto about reforming entitlement programs.  That’s hardly surprising—Gingrich supported the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Gingrich does embrace a couple of good ideas, such as making permanent the repeal of the death tax and overturning the Kelo Supreme Court decision.  But, in general, Gingrich seems to be calling for the Republican Party to continue its march toward big government conservatism.  Goldwater and Reagan must be spinning in their graves.