Archives: 11/2009

Dollar Crisis

Over the weekend, Liu Mingkang, a senior Chinese official, blasted the economic policies of the Obama Administration.  He identified low interest rates in the U.S. as the cause of “massive speculation” that was inflating asset bubbles around the world. The U.S. dollar is being used in what is known as a carry trade and is borrowed cheaply to finance the purchase of real estate in Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. The easy money policies of the Fed are also fueling a boom in commodity prices.

The ordinary American, if not the political class, recognizes that neither the Fed’s monetary actions nor the trillions in spending have helped them. Unemployment is in double digits. Former senior Bush economic adviser Larry Lindsey is reported to have estimated that Americans’ net worth has dropped $13 trillion since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. Americans suffer while speculators profit.

We are on the cusp of a dollar crisis.  President Jimmy Carter faced a similar crisis in his presidency. Carter ousted his own choice for Chairman of the Fed and appointed Paul Volcker to that position. Volcker recognized that the dollar crisis needed to be ended and instituted painful but necessary sound money policies.  President Reagan re-appointed Volcker and together they restored American prosperity. Volcker advises President Obama and can explain to the president why he must act now.

How Is Sotomayor Doing?

I was one of those who opposed the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, mainly because the pick was based on race and gender rather than merit and she was disingenuous and obfuscatory at her confirmation hearings. Well, the Court still hasn’t decided any cases argued with Justice Sotomayor on the bench – and the first term isn’t always indicative of the kind of jurist a new justice will be – but we do have some early statistics about her performance.

It turns out that, unlike her next most junior colleague, Justice Alito – who hung back early in his tenure while learning the rhythms of the Court – Justice Sotomayor has not been a shrinking violet in her questioning of advocates. Indeed, according to a National Law Journal tally, during the 13 November arguments that just concluded, she asked 146 questions (or 11.2 per case), which is even ahead of where Chief Justice Roberts was at this point in his career.  And, because Sotomayor speaks more often than her more reserved predecessor, Justice Souter, she has made a “hot” bench even hotter.

By another indicator, however, Sotomayor ranks at the bottom of the Supreme Court table: Apparently her questioning has not yet generated a single laugh (as measured by such indications in the argument transcript).  Not surprisingly, Justice Scalia leads in that department – as he long has, both in absolute and per-question terms – with the Chief being the only other justice in double figures.  Joining Sotomayor with a goose-egg so far this year are Justices Ginsburg and Thomas (who hasn’t asked a question since 2006).  If you’re curious about last year’s final standings, see here.

For what it’s worth, all this accords with the sense I’ve gotten from the handful of times I’ve been to the Court for oral argument so far this term. To my mind, Sotomayor is still acting as a Court of Appeals judge – or maybe even a district judge – asking simpler questions about the factual record or procedural history rather than the broader issues the Court tends to grapple with.  And therefore I’ll go out on a counterintuitive limb here to predict that, as Sotomayor settles into her new role, her questioning will become less frequent but more substantive.

Federal Assumption of Medicaid Costs

From the standpoint of Americans who prefer less government, one of the worst developments of the 20th century was the federal subsidization of state and local spending. The result has been bigger government at all levels. Medicaid represents the largest portion of federal money to the states. The states administer their own Medicaid programs, but the federal government picks up 50 to 83 percent of the tab depending on a state’s income. The estimated price tag of the federal share for fiscal year 2009 is $260 billion.

One result of the federal government paying for half or more is that it encourages the states to expand enrollment and benefits. It also makes it politically difficult to cut state Medicaid spending because of the accompanying loss of federal dollars.

A 2007 analysis on the exorbitant future costs of Medicaid by Jagadeesh Gokhale illustrates how the program’s price tag has skyrocketed since its creation in 1965 (see chart here). Over the decades, the states expanded their programs whenever the economy was growing and the tax revenues were flowing. When the economy went into recession and the revenue dried up, the states generally didn’t scale-back benefits and sometimes they asked for bailouts from the federal government. The 2009 stimulus package provided an estimated $87 billion in federal Medicaid money for the states.

If the economy remains stagnant over the next few years and state tax revenues fail to rebound, further pressure will mount on the federal government to continue bailing out state Medicaid programs. The nightmare scenario would be for the federal government to assume the full costs of Medicaid under state pressure.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget director, Michael Genest, recently raised the idea:

Genest, who is retiring at the end of the year, warned that California’s budget problems will persist even after the state works its way through this recession. He singled out Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid health-care program for the poor, as unaffordable for the state. If the program’s costs continue to climb 8 percent a year, the state will have little money left for anything other than schools and debt service by 2040, he said.

The health-care reform proposals now before Congress could further strain state budgets because they would expand Medicaid, Genest said.

Genest said Congress should overhaul Medicaid, now funded jointly by state and federal governments but run by the states. The federal government should cover more of the costs, give states more flexibility or even make a drastic switch and let federal officials take over Medicaid completely, he said.

“If you want to imagine a crisis, as a thought experiment, imagine all 50 states writing a letter to the federal government saying, ‘We’re no longer providing Medicaid.’ That would get Congress’ attention. And that’s about the only real leverage we have,” Genest said.

Current health care legislation in Congress threatens to increase state Medicaid spending. In the House passed bill, the federal government would pick up 100 percent of Medicaid’s expansion until 2015 when it would drop to 91 percent. However, the future is unpredictable and it’s not hard to imagine a future Congress keeping it at 100 percent federal funding.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the House bill also contains a provision that could be intended to create a justification for greater federal assumption of state Medicaid spending:

H.R. 3962 would require GAO to study federal matching payments made to state Medicaid programs to make recommendations on the FMAP formula to Congress. By February 15, 2011, GAO would be required to submit a report based on this study assessing the effect on the federal government, states, providers, and beneficiaries of making the following changes to the FMAP formula: (1) removing the 50% floor or 83% ceiling, or both and (2) revising the current FMAP formula to better reflect state fiscal capacity, state efforts to finance health and long-term care services, and to better adjust for national or regional economic downturns.

See this essay on the need for a return to fiscal federalism.

Update: The Washington Post reports this morning that the House health care reform bill contains an additional $23.5 billion Medicaid bailout for the states. The provision would extend by an additional six months (through 2011) the stimulus legislation’s “temporary” increase in the federal government’s share of total Medicaid spending.

The Remnants of “War on Terror”

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox News Sunday this weekend to argue against the Obama administration’s plan to try some alleged terrorists in New York courts. He did not acquit himself well.

Giuliani argued, for example, that criminal defendants aren’t tried “at the scene of the crime.” Criminal defendants are almost always tried in the jurisdictions where their crimes took place (not at the actual crime scene, of course). Giuliani’s insistence on misstating basic criminal procedure showed that he was twisting to score points against the administration. This is inappropriate political use of terrorism issues.

But Chris Wallace roasted Giuliani—with quotes from Rudy Giuliani. Of prosecuting the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, Giuliani said: “[Y]ou put terrorism on one side, you put our legal system on the other, and our legal system comes out ahead.” Giuliani said that the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui shows “that we can give people a fair trial, that we are exactly what we say we are. We are a nation of law.”

As he did during his failed presidential campaign, Giuliani appears caught in a terror-warrior time warp. He criticized the Obama administration for eschewing the regrettable phrase “war on terror,” and he betrayed no awareness of what has dawned since 9/11 on the rest of the country: Terrorism seeks overreaction on the part of victim states. Cool, phlegmatic prosecution of terrorists deprives them of rhetorical victories that empower them by drawing others to their side.

If the Other Party Took Power

Maggie Mahar asks a good question in Sunday’s Washington Post:

If you’re a progressive like me, and you’re upset by the Stupak amendment, which bars federally subsidized insurance from covering abortions, consider this: What if we had a single-payer health-care system and someone like Jeb Bush or Sarah Palin were running the country?

She worries that if Republicans were in charge of government-run health care, they might not stop with abortion. They might try to limit government-paid access to birth control, fertility treatments, or end-of-life care. They might even (gasp) try to require co-pays to get people to take some responsibility for their health-care decisions. She goes on:

I strongly support increasing our government’s involvement in the health-care system by including a public option in the reform package. I believe that if Congress passes legislation that includes a public option, that option will be stronger than many pundits suggest. Such a plan could help lower costs while lifting the quality of care, and would provide serious competition to private insurers.

But I’m also wary that in four or eight years, someone else – someone less sympathetic to my views – may be in the White House. And conservatives could once again control Congress. So I am relieved that we don’t seem to be headed toward a single-payer system. We simply cannot count on “good government” overseeing our health care. One never knows who the American people will choose to elect. As a progressive, I have been stunned by the people’s pick more than once in the past 30 years. Democracy offers choices but makes no promises.

So I want to hedge my bets. I want alternative insurance options, especially from nonprofits such as Kaiser Permanente. And I don’t want to find myself locked into an insurance plan run by conservatives – or Democrats – who feel they have a right to impose their religious beliefs on my access to care.

It’s a good point. I made the same point a week ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

If you still have warm feelings toward Obama and his good intentions, ask yourself this: Will you feel comfortable one day when the appointees of President Romney or President Palin are exercising unconstitutional, unauthorized, unreviewable authority to restructure the economy the way they see fit?

And Bob Levy made the same point to Republicans when they were in power:

advocates of expanded executive power remind civil libertarians that President Bush is an honorable man who understands that the Constitution is made of more than tissue paper. That argument is simply not persuasive - even to those who fervently share its underlying premise. The policies that are put in place by this administration are precedent-setting. Bush supporters need to reflect on the same powers in the hands of his predecessor or his successors.

Indeed, because Republicans are often known as the Stupid Party, and not without reason, I tried to warn them about giving more power to the government while President Clinton was in office:

Let’s not forget that if, say, Coats’s Maternity Shelter Act were implemented next year, Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, would be charged with implementing it. She might appoint HUD assistant secretary Andrew Cuomo to run it, or maybe unemployed ex-congressman Mel Reynolds, or maybe just some Harvard professor who thinks single motherhood is a viable lifestyle option for poor young women. One reason conservatives shouldn’t set up well-intentioned government programs is that they won’t always be in power to run them.

But they never listen. When the Republicans were in power, they brushed aside reminders that some day a Democratic president would be exercising the vast powers that Bush was accumulating in the White House. And when Democrats are in power, they ignore the risks of giving more power to a federal government that will one day be run by conservatives. And then both sides are appalled by the uses that are made of those powers when that day comes.

I guess that’s why the first section of The Libertarian Reader is titled “Skepticism about Power.”

George W. Bush: The Washington Times as the Onion

Yesterday I thought I was reading the Onion.  The Washington Times headlined its article “Bush Warns of Dangers of too Much Government”:

Former President George W. Bush said Thursday that America must resist the “temptation” to allow the government to take over the private sector, taking a subtle shot at his Democratic successor by warning that too much state intervention and protectionism will squelch the economic recovery.

As the Obama administration has made far-reaching moves into the auto, real estate, health care and financial sectors to fight the economic recession, Mr. Bush, without mentioning the president by name, said, “The role of government is not to create wealth but to create the conditions that allow entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive.

“As the world recovers, we will face a temptation to replace the risk-and-reward model of the private sector with the blunt instruments of government spending and control. History shows that the greater threat to prosperity is not too little government involvement, but too much,” said Mr. Bush, who has remained out of the limelight since leaving office and rarely criticizes his successor.

Mr. Bush has addressed private groups since leaving the White House in January, but Thursday’s speech, delivered at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was his first major public policy address since leaving office

Mr. Big Spender, aka George “ break the budget, expand Medicare, centralize control of education in Washington, bail out anyone and everyone, violate civil liberties, treat the president as an elective dictator, and initiate a needless war” Bush, is worried about government doing too much.

I can’t take it any more.  I’ve been working in Washington too long.