Archives: 03/2010

ObamaCare Cost-Estimate Watch, Day #265

Today, the Congressional Budget Office released what may be the penultimate cost estimate of ObamaCare. Or maybe it will be the 12th-to-the-last.  Whatever.

That document – unlike the CBO’s score of the Clinton health plan – includes no cost estimates of the legislation’s private-sector mandates.  As I have written previously, the private-sector mandates accounted for 60 percent of the cost of the Clinton plan.  The Obama plan is remarkably similar, which is probably why Democrats have systematically suppressed any such estimates this time around.

President Obama has implicitly acknowledged that the CBO estimates do not reflect the legislation’s full cost.  Yet it has now been 265 days since Congress saw the first version of the Obama health plan, and we’re still waiting for a full cost estimate.

And so, the ObamaCare Cost-Estimate Watch maintains its lonely vigil.  At least The New York Times is listening.

Slippery Standards Slope

The draft national curricular standards released yesterday, as I wrote earlier, will in all likelihood do little or no educational good if adopted. They’ll either be ignored or, if hard to meet, dumbed-down.

That said, the really troubling question is not whether the standards will do any good, but whether they will do much harm.

The answer: Oh, they’ll do harm. They’ll move us one step closer to complete centralization of education, which portends many potentially bad things, from total special-interest domination to even more wasteful spending.

Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that complete centralization – meaning, federalization – will lead to nationwide conflict over what the schools should teach, much as we are seeing in Texas right now and witnessed in the 1990s, the last time Washington tried to push “voluntary” national standards. Back then national standards in several subjects were proposed, and a national firestorm was set off over what they did, and did not, contain.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative folks clearly learned from the nineties experience, assiduously avoiding even the appearance of mandating the reading of specific literary works and focusing instead on skills. (The draft standards include a lot of reading exemplars but don’t require knowledge of any specific literary pieces). As a result, the response so far seems much less heated than occurred in the nineties, though critiques of the proposed standards certainly do exist. Once control over language arts skills and mathematics is fully centralized, however, can we really expect specific content standards in literature and other subjects to be left entirely to states and districts?

It seems unlikely: Once Washington connects receipt of federal funding to performance on national standards for some subjects, it is very likely to expand into others. After all, aren’t science, history, and other topics as important as reading and math?

“Promoting” science is a huge favorite of federal politicians, so it’s certainly hard to imagine science – and the freighted questions about human origins and climate change that go with it – not becoming a target for nationalization. Similarly, since many public schooling advocates argue that we must have government schools to create good citizens, it’s hard to envision the controversy-laden subjects of history and civics not entering the sites of federal politicians.  And when they do, we can either expect the sparks to fly, or the standards that are set to be so milquetoast as to be meaningless.

Wait. Am I being overly alarmist about this, trying to start a trumped-up slippery-slope scare to undermine the current national standards push?

Nope. National standards supporters are already talking about targeting science and history. For instance, in the forward to International Lessons about National Standards, a recent report from the national-standards-loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute, it is written about the CCSSI:

Our authors would prefer for science to be included in this first round, and we’d like to get to history sooner rather than later.

And Fordham is not alone. Indeed, the CCSSI folks have already been talking about creating national science and social studies standards!

When should all kids learn evolution, if at all? How much Hispanic history should students know? How many Founding Fathers should high school grads be able to identify? What caused the Civil War? Is global warming a major threat? Are we a Christian nation? How these and numerous other bitterly contested questions will officially be answered will suddenly have to be duked out by every American, and the winners will get to dictate to the entire nation.

So the language arts and math standards revealed yesterday are, almost certainly, just the camel’s nose under the tent.  Unfortunately, that means the whole destructive beast isn’t far behind.

Every Time I Say “Terrorism,” the Patriot Act Gets More Awesome

Can I send Time magazine the bill for the new crack in my desk and the splinters in my forehead? Because their latest excretion on the case of Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and its relation to Patriot Act surveillance powers is absolutely maddening:

The Justice Department won’t say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act’s fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law’s provisions weren’t directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker “Jihad Jane” is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That’s because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Sadly, this is practically a genre resorted to by lazy writers whenever a domestic terror investigation is making headlines. It consists of indulging in a lot of fuzzy speculation about how the Patriot Act might have been crucial—for all we know!—to a successful  investigation, even when every shred of available public evidence suggests otherwise.  My favorite exemplar of this genre comes from a Fox News piece penned by journalist-impersonator Cristina Corbin after the capture of some Brooklyn bomb plotters last spring, with the bold headline: “Patriot Act Likely Helped Thwart NYC Terror Plot, Security Experts Say.” The actual article contains nothing to justify the headline: It quotes some lawyers saying vague positive things about the Patriot Act, then tries to explain how the law expanded surveillance powers, but mostly botches the basic facts.  From what we know thanks to the work of real reporters,  the initial tip and the key evidence in that case came from a human infiltrator who steered the plotters to locations that had been physically bugged, not new Patriot tools.

Of course, it may well be that National Security Letters or other Patriot powers were invoked at some point in this investigation—the question is whether there’s any good reason to suspect they made an important difference. And that seems highly dubious. LaRose’s indictment cites the content of private communications, which probably would have been obtained using a boring old probable cause warrant—and the standard for that is far higher than for a traditional pen/trap order, which would have enabled them to be getting much faster access to more comprehensive cell records. Maybe earlier on, then, when they were compiling the evidence for those tools?  But as several reports on the investigation have noted, “Jihad Jane” was being tracked online by a groups of anti-jihadi amateurs some three years ago. As a member of one group writes sarcastically on the site Jawa Report, the “super sekrit” surveillance tool they used to keep abreast of LaRose’s increasingly disturbing activities was… Google. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the FBI could’ve handled this one with pre-Patriot authority, and a fortiori with Patriot authority restrained by some common-sense civil liberties safeguards.

What’s a little more unusual is to see this segue into the kind of argument we usually see in the wake of an intelligence failure, where the case is then seen as self-evidently justifying still more intrusive surveillance powers, in this case the expansion of the “lone wolf” authority currently applicable only to foreigners, allowing extraordinarily broad and secretive FISA surveillance to be conducted against people with no actual ties to a terror group or other “foreign power.” Yet as Time itself notes:

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

Which, of course, is a big part of the reason we have a separate system for dealing with agents of foreign powers: They are typically trained in counterintelligence tradecraft with access to resources and networks far beyond those of ordinary nuts. What possible support can LaRose’s case provide for the proposition that these industrial-strength tools should now be turned on American citizens?  They caught her—and without much trouble, by the looks of it. Sure, this domestic nut may have invoked to Islamist ideology rather than the commands of Sam the Dog or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories… but so what? She’s still one more moderately dangerous unhinged American in a country that has its fair share, and has been dealing with them pretty well under the auspices of Title III for a good while now.

ObamaCare Will Include Taxpayer-Funded Abortions

According to MSNBC, Democratic leaders have given up on trying to appease pro-life House Democrats:

House leaders have concluded they cannot change a divisive abortion provision in President Barack Obama’s health care bill and will try to pass the sweeping legislation without the support of ardent anti-abortion Democrats.A break on abortion would remove a major obstacle for Democratic leaders in the final throes of a yearlong effort to change health care in America. But it sets up a risky strategy of trying to round up enough Democrats to overcome, not appease, a small but possibly decisive group of Democratic lawmakers in the House…

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee…predicted some of the anti-abortion lawmakers in the party will end up voting for the overhaul anyway.

Pro-life Democrats will vote for taxpayer-funded abortions?  Without even a fig leaf of a compromise?

The Senate Bill Would Increase Health Spending

Ezra Klein quotes the Congressional Budget Office’s latest cost estimate of the Senate health care bill when he writes:

“CBO expects that the legislation would generate a reduction in the federal budgetary commitment to health care during the decade following 2019,” which is to say that this bill will cover 30 million people but the cost controls will, within a decade or so, leave us spending less on health care than if we’d done nothing.  That’s a pretty good deal. But it’s not a very well-understood deal.

Indeed, because that’s not what the CBO said.

First, the CBO said the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” would rise by $210 billion between 2010 and 2019 under the Senate bill.  Then, after 2019, it would fall from that higher level.  And it could fall quite a bit before returning to its current level.

Second, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” is a concept that includes federal spending on health care and the tax revenue that the federal government forgoes due to health-care-related tax breaks, the largest being the exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance premiums.  If Congress creates a new $1 trillion health care entitlement and finances it with deficit spending or an income-tax hike, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” rises by $1 trillion.  But if Congress funds it by eliminating $1 trillion of health-care-related tax breaks, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” would be unchanged, even though Congress just increased government spending by $1 trillion.  That’s what the Senate bill’s tax on high-cost health plans does: by revoking part of the tax break for employer-sponsored insurance, it makes the projected growth in the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” appear smaller than the actual growth of government.

Third, the usual caveats about the Senate bill’s Medicare cuts, which the CBO says are questionable and Medicare’s chief actuary calls “doubtful” and “unrealistic,” apply.  If those spending cuts don’t materialize, the “federal budgetary commitment to health care” will be higher than the CBO projects.

Fourth, Medicare’s chief actuary also contradicts Klein’s claim that the Senate bill would “leave us spending less on health care than if we’d done nothing.”  The actuary estimated that national health expenditures would rise by $234 billion under the Senate bill.

And really, Klein’s claim is a little silly.  Even President Obama admits, “You can’t structure a bill where suddenly 30 million people have coverage and it costs nothing.”

Jay Greene Minces No Words on National Ed. Standards

Jay makes a number of good points in his blog post on the subject, but particularly effective is his likening of “voluntary” education standards to “voluntary” state speed limits tied to federal highway funding.

When someone takes your money and will only give any of it back if you do as he says, are your actions really voluntary? That’s what the Obama administration and other “voluntary” standards advocates are proposing.

More soon on the folly of imposing a single set of age-based education standards on the entire nation. Stay tuned.