Whither the Budget Hawks?

Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona is on a crusade against wasteful pork barrel spending. During the consideration of Congress’s annual spending bills, he introduced dozens of amendments that would defund ridiculous pork projects such as swimming pools, retail markets, and aquariums. He even brazenly targeted a pet project in Speaker Denny Hastert’s Illinois district.

You’d think Flake’s efforts would attract the support of the many self-proclaimed budget hawks in both major political parties. But you’d be wrong; his efforts have failed miserably, sometimes barely garnering support from a tenth of the House. 

His amendments haven’t even consistently drawn the vote of his colleagues in the Republican Study Committee — a group of more than 100 supposed fiscal conservatives. For instance, only about a third of RSC members supported Flake’s recent amendment to cut funding for the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association.

The Blue Dog Coalition — a group of about 35 moderate to conservative House Democrats — has been even less frugal than the RSC. Though the coalition claims to advocate a balanced budget and fiscal restraint, only three of the Blue Dogs have consistently supported Flake’s efforts to cut pork spending.

Of course, pork only makes up a small fraction of the overall budget. But as Chris Edwards notes, it is illustrative of the reckless spending that pervades Congress, even amongst some of the supposed proponents of limited government.

Competitive Federalism Can Reform Health Insurance, Med Mal

In a previous post, I suggested that my brother and his family could save thousands on their health insurance if they moved in with his former college roommate’s family in Pennsylvania, rather than settle and buy coverage in New Jersey.

I thought that former roommate’s wife (Kristin, another college friend) would shoot me virtual daggers. Instead, she wrote:

Wow — guess we’re pretty lucky! Although, we can’t seem to keep our doctors here in PA due to high malpractice insurance costs. So maybe the best deal for everyone would be to buy their insurance in PA, then drive to NJ for their doctor’s appointments.

That’s one way to get around unwanted costs imposed by a state’s medical malpractice laws. In our book Healthy Competition, Mike Tanner and I suggest another: Let patients, doctors, hospitals, and insurers agree up front on the level of malpractice protection that patients receive.

 

You like caps on non-economic damages? Sign yourself right up. You want more malpractice protection than that? It might cost you more, but the choice is yours. The contracts that providers are willing to write could even tell patients something about the quality of care.

Patients can already choose a different level of malpractice protection by traveling out-of-state or out-of-country for treatment. Why not let them do so without leaving home?

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Buried in Eli Lake’s NY Sun story on Israeli jets buzzing the home of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is this quote from former Syrian vice president Farid Ghadry, now part of the exile group Reform Party of Syria:

“This is indicative that not only Israel is running out of patience with the terrorism that is planned in Damascus, but we believe the United States may not at all dislike what happened…. The message to Assad is, ‘Clear your plate of terrorism or we will come after you.’ This is very encouraging to the Syrian opposition.”

Lake goes on to report:

Mr. Ghadry met with Vice President Cheney on June 17 at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual retreat in Beaver Creek, Colo.

It’s remarkable that after the disastrous decision to start a war with Iraq — based in good part on false intelligence provided by exiles — the vice president is still finding new and creative ways to link up with exile groups. Mr. Ghadry once said of Ahmed Chalabi that “Ahmed paved the way in Iraq for what we want to do in Syria.”

God help us. There’s always room for more heroes in error, I guess.

Intelligence on Iran

Graham Allison had a smart piece in Monday’s Lebanon Daily Star warning us that our intelligence in Iran could be bad, and Iran might be closer to a bomb than we think.

That’s certainly true, and it’s made even more worrisome by the fact that NY Times reporter James Risen tells us that the entire US intelligence apparatus in Iran was “rolled up” when a CIA agent sent the roster of US assets there to an Iranian double agent.

At the same time, it’s important to have not just a grain, but a whole shaker of salt handy when dealing with Iran hawks.  Charles Krauthammer warned in January of this year that

Instead of being years away from the point of no return for an Iranian bomb…Iran is probably just months away.

Or for a really remarkable piece of bad intelligence, we can look to Michael Ledeen (who claims to have better intelligence on Iran than the CIA, yet who’s never set foot in Iran), who told the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in April 2003 of the “likelihood that Tehran will test nuclear devices by the end of this summer.”

To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, I think we’re in “known unknown” territory here.  What better time to offer the Iranians a grand bargain and get it over with, no?

Uncle Sam Wants to Sell You a Latte

In a college town like Madison, Wisconsin, I suspect you can’t throw a copy of Das Kapital without hitting a coffee shop or a drum circle.  But the federal government insists upon subsidizing that city’s grandé mocha makers.  (It hasn’t found a way to subsidize the drum circles … yet.)

First, some background:  Every year, the federal government socks taxpayer money into the Community Development Block Grant program.  According to the program’s website, the goal is to encourage “viable urban communities” and expand “economic opportunities” across the nation and, in particular, within “entitled communities.”   

This is done by funneling loan guarantees and direct grants to local businesses.  It’s considered a form of “economic development.”  Or, to translate from bureaucratese into plain English, it’s a form of grass-roots corporate welfare.   

In 2004 the CDBG program funded loan guarantees for projects such as the Tempe Market Place project in Arizona (described as “a retail facility anchored by six nationally known retailers”) to the tune of $7 million.  It gave guarantees in the amount of $1.9 million to the Noah Hotel project in Kingston, New York, to build a 50-room “boutique hotel,” with a 16,500-square foot ballroom, a restaurant, meeting rooms, and commercial retail space.  $2.5 million went to a downtown parking garage in Watsonville, California, and $2.2 million to the redevelopment of the 427-acre Colorado Industrial Park in Lorain, Ohio.

Now back to Madison, Wisconsin.  As the Mercatus Center’s Eileen Norcross explained today in testimony to Congress, last year the feds spent roughly $1.5 million on loan guarantees to help underwrite two coffee shops, a bakery, and a restaurant in that city, just to name a few. 

How do the HUD managers justify this sort of thing?  They claim the money helps “create” jobs for low- and middle-income residents.  And who do those residents happen to be?  As Norcross notes, they are college students who are classified as below the poverty line because the money they receive from their parents while attending school in Madison doesn’t count as income. 

So, if you’re a local business owner it sounds like a pretty good deal, eh?  Now you can open your doors in a college town and get loan guarantees from the government to hire the kind of employee (read: college students) you would have probably hired anyway.

Many members of Congress will ask, “How can we fix this program?”  Only a handful – including Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the head of the subcommittee that held the hearing on CDBG this afternoon – ever ask, “Why do we even fund this stuff in the first place?” 

Are We Reading the Same Report?

I have to disagree with Arnold Kling’s surprisingly upbeat assessment of the draft report from the Secretary of Education’s higher education commission. While some of the recommendations he likes may be tolerable in an ideal world, it’s critical to remember that we’re talking about politics here.

First, Arnold applauds the report’s call for colleges to improve data collection on student persistence in order to help inform prospective students and parents. That’s fine, and I would encourage consumers to avoid schools that wouldn’t furnish such information. Unfortunately, it’s not supply and demand that the report says should make schools publish the data. It’s government:

Federal and state policy should focus on improving persistence and sealing the leaks in the educational pipeline at all levels: K-12, post-secondary and workforce education. Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit. Improved collection of data on student persistence will allow consumers of higher education to evaluate institutional success and identify best practices.

What a terrific tool for government control! Once they collect persistence data, opportunistic politicians can declare that schools must graduate very large percentages of their students in order to receive government funds. If grade inflation seems bad now…

Next, Arnold blesses the report’s recommendation that states and schools “review and revise” their credit transfer policies. Again, this is a fine thing for consumers to require, but if government mandates it, credit transfer policies will end up being based on political calculations, not academic merits.

The same problem applies to Arnold’s next point, in which he supports reorienting student aid from “broad-based” to “need-based.” That sounds good at first, but the reality is that in order to build enough political support to give more aid to the “needy,” politicians will define “needy” to include almost everyone. Just look at the current system, which directs oodles of cash to aid programs in the name of the poor, yet somehow always ends up putting a bunch of it in the hands of upper-middle-class kids.

Finally, Arnold approves of the recommendation that all 50 states encourage “the collection of data allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning.”

Now, I’m not so sure I want state governments encouraging colleges to implement standards and testing regimes, which is what this would ultimately require. I’m positive, though, that I don’t want the feds doing it, because federal “encouragement” invariably leads to federal “control.” Just look at elementary and secondary education, where the No Child Left Behind Act has given Washington unprecedented control over local schools.

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, say hello to NCLB:

The federal government should provide incentives for states, higher education associations, systems, and institutions to develop outcomes-focused accountability systems designed to be accessible and useful for students, policy makers, and the public….

In the end, like Arnold, I encourage people to read the Commission’s draft report for themselves and reach their own conclusions. As far as I’m concerned, though, one recommendation alone completely sums up the report’s frightening, command-economy thrust:

The Secretary of Education should take the lead in developing a national strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the knowledge revolution, creating a system that encourages knowledge and skills to be obtained and continuously updated on a regular basis through a lifetime of learning.

I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds like a bad thing to me.

If It Tastes Good, It’s Evil

This Washington Post op-ed from career Nanny Statists Joe Califano and Louis Sullivan reads like your standard public health talking points:  Unless adult-oriented products taste nasty, bitter, and disgusting, the companies who manufacture them will forever be accused of “marketing to children.”

Here’s my favorite part:

Buoyed by its success in pushing candy-flavored cigarettes, Reynolds has now introduced alcohol-flavored smokes. To make them appealing to our kids, Reynolds has marketed them with names based on gambling lingo as well: ScrewDriver Slots, BlackJack Gin, Snake Eyes Scotch and Back Alley Blend (a bourbon-flavored cigarette).

Color me befuddled.  So R.J. Reynolds is guilty of preying on kids because it’s marketing cigarettes (which can only be purchased by people over 18) that taste like alcohol (which can only be purchased by people over 21) with gambling-themed names (only people over 18–and 21, in some states–are permitted to gamble)?

Everything about these products is adult-oriented!  Yet for Califano and Sullivan, this is evidence that R.J. Reynolds is targeting youngsters.

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