March 9, 2010 10:08AM

Tuesday Links

  • Why the line-item veto is no quick fix for massive spending.
  • Supreme Court Justice Scalia holds himself out as the patron saint of originalism, but is he abandoning the idea that judges should interpret the Constitution according to its original public meaning?
March 9, 2010 9:47AM

Poll Suggests Caution on Citizens United Response

The Center for Competitive Politics has just published a new poll measuring public views about the recent Citizens United decision. The poll provides a lot of interesting information.

About one in five said they were aware of the decision. Fully 60 percent of respondents said they were not aware of the case, and it is fair to say that almost all of the other 20 percent who responded "don't know" or refused to answer were also poorly informed about it.

Congress is now trying to write and enact legislation to overcome the strictures imposed on campaign finance regulation by the Citizens United decision. Members cite surveys supporting such legislation as a justification for the new restrictions.

At best, however, public opinion is immature on this issue. Congress should deliberate and give the public some time to foster a more informed view of this decision. Deliberation is all the more necessary since we are talking about First Amendment rights in this case. Congress itself may wish to know more about the likely consequences of intervening in complex matters like corporate governance.

The CCP poll is worth reading in detail. I don't remember a poll that asks so many objective and interesting questions about First Amendment issues.

March 9, 2010 9:14AM

The Washington Foreign Policy Elite’s Unspoken Assumptions and Norms

In a column for Foreign Policy, James Traub writes

The Powell Doctrine became received wisdom at precisely the moment it was being superseded by events, for the end of the Cold War produced a set of "complex emergencies" in Somalia, Haiti, Kurdistan, and the Balkans that required a combination of force and large-scale civilian presence.

In a better world, the editor of this piece would demand, amid all this "becoming" and "being superseded by" and "producing" and "requiring," some sort of agency.  Active voice!  Is it really true that the Powell Doctrine "became received wisdom"?  By whom?  Is it actually the case that "events" "superseded" the doctrine?  Why?  How, exactly, did the fact that the Cold War ended produce "complex emergencies" in Somalia, Haiti, or Kurdistan?  Why was it that these complex emergencies "required" anything?

The piece has other problems, namely that the author uses the anecdote of the U.S. deploying 500 civilian teachers to support its brutal occupation of the Philippines to make the case for building American nation-building capacity today.  (After all, the teachers "offered the most benevolent possible face to America's colonial enterprise"!)  But probably the biggest problem is that the above jumble of slogans and rhetoric is being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting in the piece without offering any clear analysis.

March 9, 2010 8:35AM

Sen. Schumer’s Immigration Reform Is a National ID

So reports the Wall Street Journal:

Lawmakers working to craft a new comprehensive immigration bill have settled on a way to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants: a national biometric identification card all American workers would eventually be required to obtain.

It's the natural evolution of the policy called "internal enforcement" of immigration law, as I wrote in my paper, "Franz Kafka's Solution to Illegal Immigration."

Once in place, watch for this national ID to regulate access to financial services, housing, medical care and prescriptions---and, of course, serve as an internal passport.

March 9, 2010 7:47AM

Reassessing FHA Risk

As the Federal Housing Administration edges closer to a taxpayer bailout due to the large number of risky mortgage loans it has insured, it continues to insist that no such bailout will be required. However, a new study from a group of economists at New York University finds that the FHA’s assurances might not be based in reality.

According to the study, the actuarial analysis FHA used to determine it won’t need a bailout seriously understates its exposure to risk:

  • More FHA mortgages are underwater than the FHA’s analysis identifies, and unemployment is naturally particularly high in areas where FHA borrowers are furthest underwater. Therefore, potential default costs are underestimated.
  • FHA’s analysis relies on house values that are inaccurate. Overvalued houses means the FHA could end up recouping less than expected on defaults.
  • Underwater FHA mortgages that were “streamlined” into new FHA mortgages are not properly accounted for, which further underestimates risk.
  • The FHA got clobbered on a previous no-downpayment assistance program. However, the current homebuyer tax credit can effectively eliminate downpayments on FHA loans, but its analysis doesn’t take this into consideration.

One of the study’s authors, Prof. Andrew Caplin, writes the following on his website:

Rather than looking to structure the markets of the future, they [policymakers] have stumbled along in business as usual mode, waiting for kind fate to save them. It may. Then again, it may not. Either way, this is not a good way to run a business, or a government for that matter.

How does he see this story playing out?

My best guess is that it will end with a crash in the housing finance sector, with the federal government forced by popular revulsion at mushrooming losses to remove itself almost entirely from the housing finance equation. The Resolution Trust Corporation will look like an amateur warm-up act…

The bottom line is simple. The continuation of “business as usual” is re-creating the essential problem that made the sub-prime crisis so disastrous. Once again, taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the private purchase of massive amounts of residential housing, and to offer guarantees against future losses, without any effort to reduce costs should their funding help turn some markets around. Warren Buffett made huge profits for his shareholders by investing in under-valued assets. By contrast, our leaders are making massive losses for taxpayers by investing in over-valued assets.

See this essay for more on the problems with housing finance and government intervention.

March 9, 2010 7:46AM

Annals of Unhelpful Polling: Internet Access Edition

A new BBC poll is garnering plenty of press attention for its striking finding that 78% of global respondents believe that Internet access "should be a fundamental right of all people." Fascinating!  Except... what exactly does that mean?

The obvious problem here is that, at least as it's worded in English, the question is ambiguous between two equally plausible readings.  Especially when juxtaposed with another question about whether the Internet should be regulated by government, it could be understood as asking whether there's a fundamental negative right to be free to use the Internet -- to read and communicate free of government censorship or other onerous barriers.  That's probably how we'd interpret a parallel question about whether people had a "fundamental right" to "access" information via newspapers or books.

Many folks, though, seem to be reading it as a measure of support for a fundamental positive right to be provided with (broadband?) Internet access. And that just seems a bit silly, frankly. There's a decent case to be made that it's desirable for governments that can afford it to make some kind of public Internet access available to citizens who can't.  You can even imagine that, a few years down the line, some states in the developed world might have moved so heavily toward interacting with the public online that it would become more or less necessary for full political equality.  But a basic human right? Something that governments are "violating fundamental rights" if they don't do? It's not just that I don't believe this; I have trouble imagining that much of anyone literally thinks so.  A few of my friends at Free Press, maybe, but 4/5 of the world's population?  Color me dubious.

I'll confess being startled at the response to a much less ambiguous question: A global majority agreed that "the Internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere." While I find this pattern of responses congenial enough, I can't take it much more seriously.  After all, what falls under the category of "regulation of the Internet"?  Censorship, of course, which I expect is what most people immediately thought of.  But in reality, of course, there are a whole panoply of laws and rules that at least arguably "regulate" the Internet in some sense, some of which even I would approve of. I have many, many issues with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for instance, but there's nothing wrong with the idea that there should be a basic protocol that provides both a safe harbor for service providers hosting user content and a mechanism for complaining about copyright-infringing or libelous or otherwise tortious material.  Probably there are other "regulations" I'd approve too, but I'd have to sit and think about it for an hour to even enumerate all the different kinds of rules that might be considered to "regulate the Internet" in one way or another.

Because it's at least not susceptible to such dramatically divergent readings, this response might be more useful as a kind of big-picture attitude check. But the reality is that almost none of the respondents can really mean it because even someone steeped in tech policy would have to sit and think about the question for a half hour to really get a grip on what it entails. Or might entail. If the BBC were engaged in some kind of serious social science, they probably would have worked up better questions.  But of course, that's not the business they're in.  They're in the business of asking the sort of question that will let them run exciting headlines that get re-tweeted and drive page views. And 100% of respondents in my poll of myself agree they've succeeded.

March 8, 2010 3:56PM

Question for the President

The rationale for your proposed tax on high-cost health insurance plans is that it would encourage people to purchase less-comprehensive coverage and thereby reduce health care spending.

If that's a good idea, then why is it bad when insurers raise premiums?