201003

March 26, 2010 4:55PM

Fidel Castro Endorses ObamaCare

As Dave Barry would say, I swear I am not making this up.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Western Hemisphere's last unreconstructed communist dictator endorsed President Obama's new health care law:

HAVANA (AP) — It perhaps was not the endorsement President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress were looking for.

Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Thursday declared passage of American health care reform "a miracle" and a major victory for Obama's presidency, but couldn't help chide the United States for taking so long to enact what communist Cuba achieved decades ago.

"We consider health reform to have been an important battle and a success of his (Obama's) government," Castro wrote in an essay published in state media, adding that it would strengthen the president's hand against lobbyists and "mercenaries."...

"It is really incredible that 234 years after the Declaration of Independence ... the government of that country has approved medical attention for the majority of its citizens, something that Cuba was able to do half a century ago," Castro wrote...

Cuba provides free health care and education to all its citizens, and heavily subsidizes food, housing, utilities and transportation, policies that have earned it global praise. The government has warned that some of those benefits are no longer sustainable given Cuba's ever-struggling economy, though it has so far not made major changes.

In recent speeches, Raul Castro has singled out medicine as an area where the government needs to be spending less, but he has not elaborated.

I'm sure the Obama administration and its echo chamber will nonetheless continue to claim that this is not socialized medicine.

March 26, 2010 4:54PM

Stunner: Strip‐​Search Machine Used to Ogle

An airport security staffer faces discipline after using a whole-body imaging machine to ogle a co-worker, according to this report. It's another signal of what's to come when the machines are in regular use. (In a previous post, I aired my doubts about the veracity of reports that a famous Indian movie star had been exposed, but the story foretells the future all the same.)

I've written before that whole-body imaging machines in airports create risks to privacy despite TSA's efforts to minimize those risks with carefully designed rules and practices.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

Rules against misuse of whole-body imaging are fine, but they are not a long-term, effective protection against abuse of "strip-search machines."

March 26, 2010 2:56PM

New Obama Mortgage Plan: A Backdoor Bank Bailout

Today President Obama announced an expansion and modification of his Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).  While one can debate the merits of incentives to keep unemployed families in their homes while they search for jobs — I personally believe this will more often than not keep those families tied to weak labor markets — what should be beyond debate is the various bailouts to mortgage lenders contained in the program's fine print.

Several of the largest mortgage lenders, including some that have already received huge bailouts, carry hundreds of billions worth of second mortgages on their books.  As home prices have nationally declined by almost 30 percent, these second mortgages are worthless in the case of a foreclosure.  Second mortgages are usually wiped out completely during a foreclosure if the price has decreased more than 20 percent.  Yet the Obama solution is now to pay off 6 cents on the dollar for those junior liens.  While 6 cents doesn't sound like a lot, it is a whole lot more than zero, which is what the banks would receive otherwise.  Given that the largest lenders are carrying over $500 billion in second mortgages that may need to be written down, we are looking at tens of billions of taxpayer dollars again being funneled to the very banks behind the mortgage crisis.

If that bailout isn't enough, the new plan increases payments to lenders to not foreclose, all at the expense of the taxpayer.  While TARP was passed under Bush's watch, and he rightly deserves blame for it, Obama continues these bailouts in the name of avoiding a much needed correction in our housing market.

March 26, 2010 2:52PM

Your Medical Records Aren’t Secure

I have one observation about, and one minor difference with, the very good---and very concerning---Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Deborah Peel of Patient Privacy Rights. The piece announces PPR's "Do Not Disclose" campaign around health information, which will soon be pouring into promiscuous, government-designed "electronic medical records."

In a January 2009 speech, President Barack Obama said that his administration wants every American to have an electronic health record by 2014, and last year's stimulus bill allocated over $36 billion to build electronic record systems. Meanwhile, the Senate health-care bill just approved by the House of Representatives on Sunday [now signed into law] requires certain kinds of research and reporting to be done using electronic health records. Electronic records, Mr. Obama said in his 2009 speech, "will cut waste, eliminate red tape and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests [and] save lives by reducing the deadly but preventable medical errors that pervade our health-care system." But electronic medical records won't accomplish any of these goals if patients fear sharing information with doctors because they know it isn't private...

Describing how the Health Insurance Portability and Accoutability Act (HIPAA) undermined health privacy, Peel says, "In 2002, under President George W. Bush, the right of a patient to control his most sensitive personal data---from prescriptions to DNA---was eliminated by federal regulators..." Other than the quibble about whether federal law ever gave patients anything that could be genuinely called a right, this is correct and concerning.

What's interesting is that the policy is routinely ascribed to President Bush (not only by Peel). My suspicion is that blaming President Bush props up the dream that privacy can be maintained in a system that centralizes control of health care---if only the right party is in power.

In fact, the passage of HIPAA in 1996 (under President Bill Clinton) set the course for this outcome. The fact that HIPAA privacy was undone during the Bush administration is a coincidence convenient for his ideological and political opponents. If I'm mistaken, the proof will be the reversal of the policy during the current administration. I'm not aware of any plan for that to happen.

"Electronic record systems that don't put patients in control of data or have inadequate security create huge opportunities for the theft, misuse and sale of personal health information," says Peel. I agree, but more importantly, I think, public policies that don't put patients in control create the same---or at least parallel---problems.

Transferring control of health care to the federal government transfers control of health information to the federal government. The government has interests distinct from patients, and no matter how hard one fights to protect patients' privacy interests, the government's interests in cost control, social engineering, and such will ineluctably win out.

Public policies that restore power to patients will restore health privacy to patients. A decade or two of exploring alternatives to patient empowerment may drive the lesson home.

March 26, 2010 2:37PM

Comparing Military Spending

As a follow-on to my post yesterday, I've been working on two charts using data from the International Institute of Strategic Studies to compare U.S. military spending with that of our European allies. I'm grateful to Charles Zakaib for his help crunching the numbers.

I think that the charts are pretty evocative.

The chart below combines data showing the growth of U.S. defense spending (DoD only) as a share of GDP, and a corresponding decline among all other NATO countries. Please note that NATO member states are supposed to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.

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The second chart shows changes in defense spending per capita over the same period. I've always thought this figure more instructive than spending as a percent of GDP. You can see that Americans are spending much more on our military over the past 10 years, whereas most of our European allies have made only modest increases.

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March 26, 2010 2:24PM

Citizens United Goes to Work

This post was co-authored with John Samples.

Another good day for free speech, and a bad day for campaign finance zealots. Following on the heels of the Supreme Court’s stunning decision two months ago in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and applying that holding, all nine active judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously today that government restrictions on the right of citizens to pool their money for independent political ads are unconstitutional.

Individuals have long been able to spend unlimited funds on independent political ads. But if two or more people joined together and pooled their money for the same thing, they were considered a “political committee” and were subject to numerous burdensome regulations, including limits on how much they could contribute to fund the group’s political speech. Today’s ruling removes those restrictions. Citing the fundamental rationale for campaign finance restrictions, Chief Judge David Sentelle wrote, “the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to an independent expenditure group.”

The case, SpeechNow.org v. FEC, was brought by the Institute for Justice and the Center for Competitive Politics. Although a major First Amendment victory, the decision was not a complete win. The court upheld regulations requiring SpeechNow to disclose its contributors and their contributions and to organize itself as a committee. The court concluded such requirements would not be much of a burden on the speech of the group. We shall see. Experience may indicate otherwise, especially if disclosure leads to retaliation against groups like SpeechNow.

For today, however, the First Amendment is once again vindicated. Take a moment to pause and smile at the achievement.

March 26, 2010 2:05PM

Reactions to al Qaeda Terrorism Have Opened a Flank

Excellent recent posts by my colleague David Rittgers have covered the legal (and practical) issues involved in terrorist detention. Take a look at "The Case against Domestic Military Detention" and his follow-up, "Playing Chicken Again." He has also lectured on the Hill about terrorism strategy, relating themes I used to open our 2009 and 2010 counterterrorism conferences.

The gist is that terrorism seeks overreaction on the part of the victim state. Lacking power of their own, terrorists try to goad states into overzealous and misdirected responses that serve their aims.

A prominent aim among members of the al-Qaeda franchise is mobilization of others, one of five strategies that U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin lays out in a chapter of the forthcoming Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix it. Writes Cronin:

Mobilization has been al Qaeda's most effective strategy thus far. A global environment of democratized communications has increased public access to information and has sharply reduced the cost...  If a group is truly successful in mobilizing large numbers, this strategy can prolong the fight and may enable the threat to transition to other forms, including insurgency and conventional war.

Chances are extremely remote that al Qaeda will ever make this transition. But a recent AP story illustrates how groups in the weakened al Qaeda network may be stumbling onto a strategic option that our political leaders opened to them with their reactions to the Fort Hood shooting and the 12/25 bombing attempt:

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