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July 26, 2006 11:59AM

FristBlog’s Rx: Focus on the Donut

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently launched a health policy blog. The latest post (by "Sailor") complains that people are focusing on Medicare Part D's donut hole rather than the tasty donut itself:

The most amazing criticism is that there is a donut hole. It is amazing that those who argue this is a defect in part D fail to understand there used to never be any donut at all -- and they just continue to focus on the hole rather than the enormous benefit (donut) that never previously existed for seniors.

I'm not sure that criticism of the 'donut hole' is all that amazing. As Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman explains in an upcoming book (Medicare Meets Mephistopheles), Democrats have made their careers by using Medicare to pass out donuts. What did Frist, Inc., expect Democrats would do once Republicans got in on the donut racket? Quit? Or up the ante?

Is this why Dr. Frist got into politics? To hand out donuts?

July 26, 2006 11:52AM

Talking to Bad Guys

In an interview with NPR, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wondered aloud why the United States was not engaged in direct dialogue with Syria concerning the ongoing crisis in Lebanon.

We're not...using all the levers that we have, such as having the Secretary of State talk to the Syrians. I think they want to get involved. I think they want to become more central to the solution. And you might as well give them the opportunity. If they step up to it, fine. If they don't, we'll know them for what they are.

NPR's Renée Montagne followed up:

The administration has made it pretty clear that they are not interested in talking directly to Syria. Why draw that bright of a line?

Armitage:

I don't know. I think they've talked themselves into this.

My own view is ... you have to have a dialogue....We have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians in this case, and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way.

We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies.

On Sunday, John McLaughlin, deputy director of central intelligence from 2000 to 2004, suggested much the same thing in a Washington Post op-ed entitled "We Have to Talk to Bad Guys":

Among the five lessons to be drawn from the recent fighting in the Middle East is this gem:

even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. The absence of a diplomatic relationship with Iran and the deterioration of the one with Syria -- two countries that bear enormous responsibility for the current crisis -- leave the United States with fewer options and levers than might otherwise have been the case....We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.

Makes sense to me.

Armitage and McLaughlin are now out of government. Do they still talk to people on the inside? Is anyone listening?

July 26, 2006 11:35AM

What Does it Say When the Sensible Voices Are “Former” Administration Officials?

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was typically brilliant on NPR this morning, discussing the limited options available in brokering a peace agreement in southern Lebanon. Here is a sampling:

I find a lot of chatter about this peacekeeping force, but I find very few people putting their hands in the air saying they've got troops who are willing to do it.

It all sounds like a great idea, but, sorry, each of us are busy with our own problems.

And what of the U.S. role?

If we had excess troops, which I don't believe we have..., we would be seen as much more partial to Israel and hence would not be acceptable [to the other side].

Armitage served in the Pentagon when President Reagan dispatched U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982, and he looks back on that period without a hint of sentimentality.

It was a very troubled time. Actually, sooner rather than later...we were seen as taking sides in someone else's civil war. Ultimately we lost 241 naval and marine personnel....in the October '83 bombing.

His experience in 1982 and 1983 conditions his view of the present and future. He was asked, "Are there parallels between that peacekeeping force and now?"

I remember with stunning clarity one of our Israeli interlocutors sitting in my office telling me that 'Don't worry about this peace in Galilee operation. We understand our neighbors very well. We understand them better than anyone. We know all the dynamics of the situation in Lebanon.' That turned out not quite to be the case. I suspect that people in government now are also hearing that from Israel.

Don't get me wrong. If I thought that this air campaign would work and would eliminate Nasrullah and the leadership of Hezbollah, I think we'd all be fine. But I fear that you can't do this from the sky, and that you're going to end up empowering Hezbollah.

The full interview is about eight minutes long, but well worth the time.

July 26, 2006 11:15AM

The Same Problem Up North

A report on the state of Canadian higher education has our northern neighbors in a bit of an uproar. It seems that to accumulate political support, policymakers in Canada have been taking college aid originally intended for truly poor Canadians and giving it in gobs to the not-so-needy middle class.

“Governments must stop treating student aid as a cheap forum for buying middle-class votes and once again treat it as a way to help those without means,” declare authors Sean Junor and Alex Usher in the Educational Policy Institute’s Student Aid Time-Bomb.

Boy could we stand to learn that lesson down here! Look no further than the Democratic Leadership Council’s American Dream Initiative to see how American politicians barter for middle-class votes with promises of free-flowing aid. Who cares that huge government giveaways just keep driving up the price of college – we need votes, and we need them now!

Unfortunately, as much as we might like it to be different, such is the nature of the student aid game. You just can’t get aid for the poor without giving a lot more away to the “middle class,” a group that is always defined broadly enough that a critical political mass of Americans will get a piece of bribery pie, whether they need it or not.

Be warned, then, Americans (and Canadians) who intend to help the poor through government “charity” (like, say, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education): You may honestly want to expand aid only for “the truly needy,” but politics will inevitably ruin your plans.

July 26, 2006 11:03AM

Presidential Finger‐​Crossing

Over at the Guardian blog I offer some thoughts about presidential "signing statements," with this challenge to conservative defenders of the administration:

When the Bush administration claims some power and promises to use it wisely, conservatives should ask themselves: would you want Hillary Clinton to have this power?

July 26, 2006 9:43AM

Must Voucher Programs Include Religious Schools?

That's the question that several Maine families and the Institute for Justice have put before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maine has had a voucher-like "tuitioning" program for well over a century. During most of that period, it allowed participating famillies to choose either a secular or religious school. Then, in 1980, the state decided it had been acting unconstitutionally. Maine's Attorney general told the legislature that its tuitioning program violated the First Amendment's proscription against establishing religion. Quick to obey, the legislature passed a law ending the right of voucher-receiving parents to choose religious schools.

A number of court cases have since tried to undo the legislature's actions. These efforts gained momentum in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do NOT violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.

From that point on, it clearly has been legal for Maine to once again allow the participation of religious schools, but the state has elected not to do so. A group of Maine parents have thus joined with the Institute for Justice this week and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to force the state to permit religious schools to participate.

Their legal argument is that, if a state operates a voucher program, the equal protection and free exercise clauses require it to treat religious and non-religious schools equally, allowing parents to choose either.

That argument has merit. It is discriminatory to exclude religious schools simply because of their religiosity.

But the plaintiff's solution is not without problems of its own.

If they are successful, parents who object to funding religious schools will nevertheless be compelled to do so. While this sort of compulsion has not been ruled to constitute a federally unconstitutional infringement of taxpayers' rights, it is nevertheless a bad idea. Compulsion to fund instruction that some taxpayers find objectionable is a recipe for social conflict -- a conflict that can currently be seen in the Netherlands over the funding of some conservative Islamic voucher schools.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: The use of education tax credits instead of vouchers to ensure universal access to the public or private schools of parents' choice. These programs can avoid virtually all of the compulsion that makes public schools a social battleground, and that remains a concern under government voucher programs. See the link above for a short explanation of the tax credit advantage, or this paper for a more substantial one.

Furthermore, even if the parents' suit prevails, it does not mean that all will be rosy for state-level school voucher programs. All but three states (and Maine is one of those three) have their own constitutional provisions against government funding going to religious institutions. If the U.S. Supreme Court forces all voucher programs to include religious schools, some states may be obliged by their state constitutions to shut down or forego voucher programs rather than allow them to operate with the participation of religious schools.

This, in other words, is a messy, and unnecessary, road to travel. There is a better option: education tax credits.

July 25, 2006 4:51PM

Trust Me, It’s Just Not Fair

Apparently, if your subject is how you are being victimized by the nation’s higher education system, personal anecdotes and unsupported assertions are all it takes to get in the Washington Post. At least that’s what can be surmised from “Put Grad School Within My Grasp,” a one-woman pity party in which Sui Lang Panoke, an American University graduate student, grieves over having to pay too much of her own education bill, and declares that "a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created."

Ordinarily, when discussing such low-fact, high-emotion articles as Miss Panoke’s, I would put together one argument rather than tackling individual points. Unfortunately, there’s just too much worthy of comment in Miss Panoke’s piece to let any little bit slip by. I hope, therefore, you’ll pardon my dealing with her lament one piece at a time… 

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