Archives: 02/2013

Will Debate Constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act — Anytime, Anywhere

Three years ago, some law professors were having a hard timing finding someone to debate the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate.  I naively stepped up to the plate, which resulted in over 100 debates, speeches, panels, and public events (and, as we know, an invalidation of the mandate but salvage of the relevant provision in the form of a tax).

Now we see a similar predicament with respect to Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, the provision that effectively makes the federal government a proconsul with respect to election administration in a seemingly random assortment of states, counties, and towns around the country.  As I’ve blogged and written in a Supreme Court brief, Section 5’s extraordinary powers were justified only under Jim Crow’s exceptional conditions; the Voting Rights Act’s success in eradicating those conditions has happily obviated Section 5’s constitutional legitimacy.  (As I noted more recently, and wrote in another brief, Section 2 has its problems as well.)

Yet my view isn’t shared in legal academia – surprise, surprise – and a leading election law scholar posits that “the case for Section 5’s constitutionality is so clear that the liberal election law professors simply have the better of the argument!”  Three weeks before the Supreme Court hears argument in the pivotal case of Shelby County v. Holder, there is apparently a dearth of scholars willing to speak out against this egregious violation of federalism and equal protection.

Well, in the words of How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, challenge accepted!

I may not be full-time faculty anywhere – is that a negative? – but I hereby announce that I will travel anywhere at anytime to debate the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Whoever sets up the debate has to pay my travel expenses and take me out to a nice dinner, but that’s it.  Any takers?

Prez to Double Down on pre-Kindergarten Flop?

According to the latest buzz, President Obama may suggest dramatically expanding federal government preschool programs in his State of the Union address next week. That, at any rate, is the recommendation of a new report from an institute closely associated with the admnistration.

There are just two problems with this plan: 1) it’s already been tried; 2) it doesn’t work.

We now have 45 years of experience with, and two top-quality randomized studies of, the national Head Start pre-school program, and the results are disappointing. Head Start was meant to close the gap in student achievement between the children of advantaged and disadvantaged families. But, at the end of high school, the gap in achievement between the children of college graduates and those of high school dropouts has remained essentially unchanged since the program was introduced. We have even more direct evidence from two large national studies of the program commissioned by the very agency that administers it: the Department of Health and Human Services. These studies find no significant benefits to Head Start at the end of the third grade–or even at the end of the first.

So why double-down on a failed program? The most plausible (and charitable) explanation is a bad case of wishful thinking. Many people make the mistake of improperly generalizing from two or three tiny pre-school programs of earlier decades which did show some lasting benefits. Sadly the federal government’s nationwide Head Start program has not replicated those benefits despite generations of unrelenting effort. And there is no reason to imagine that it will suddenly start doing so if expanded even further.

Trying to fix failed federal preschool programs by dumping more money on them is like trying to make up per-unit losses by increasing sales volume. Sadly, that’s about the level of economic acumen demonstrated by recent administrations.

Cato Scholars Speaking at Students for Liberty Conference — Join Us

The 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference, now in its sixth year, will bring over a thousand students and young liberty activists to Washington, D.C. to talk about ideas, hear from leading policy experts, and network with organizations and each other. I’m proud to have been the first speaker at the first ISFLC conference, in New York in 2008.  This year, the conference will be hosted at the Grand Hyatt Washington Hotel, just three blocks from the Cato Institute.

I will be presenting two lectures that weekend, a session with Young Americans for Liberty on “The Ten Ways to Talk about Freedom” and a luncheon keynote in Cato’s Yeager Conference Center on Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics. Plus I’ll be on a special taping of the “Stossel” show.

Other Cato scholars will be speaking on policy issues throughout the conference.  All of the below sessions will be taking place in the Hyatt’s Constitution room B.

Saturday, February 16
10:00-10:45am Restoring Constitutional Liberty Roger Pilon
11:15-12:00pm Privacy Under Attack Jim Harper
12:10–1:20pm Reclaiming Freedom: The Case for Libertarian Ideas in Mainstream Politics *Luncheon @ the Cato Institute* David Boaz
1:30-2:15pm The Clone Wars: Fighting to Educate Free Individuals Neal McCluskey
2:45-3:30pm A Foreign Policy for Advancing Liberty Abroad (without Undermining It at Home) Christopher A. Preble
4:00-4:45pm Economic Growth and the Future of Liberty Brink Lindsey
5:15-6:00pm How the Government Uses “Science” to Take Away Your Stuff Patrick J. Michaels
Sunday, February 17
10:00-10:45am How to Win Every Libertarian Argument Jason Kuznicki
11:15-12:00pm Why Libertarians Should Care Much More about Immigration Alex Nowrasteh

To attend the student luncheon event, please register online or sign up for your ticket at the Cato booth at the conference exhibit hall.

Because Nothing Promotes “Social Peace” Like Favors to Special Interests

Big Ag’s friends in Congress are no dummies. Even they sense that farm subsidies are distinctly on the nose in these straightened fiscal times. So they are wheeling out that old chestnut about farm subsidies being essential for “national security.” With a dash of social harmony thrown in for good measure. From the Brownfield site yesterday:

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, [Senator Charles Grassley, R, IA] said a farm bill won’t happen if the legislation is put only in the context of a subsidy to farmers. “We have to start talking in terms of a sure supply of food to make sure that we have social peace in our country,” said Grassley, during the conference call. It is also important for people to know that food is a national security issue, said Grassley, because “an army marches on its stomach.” “All you have to do is look at Germany and Japan,” he added. “Why do they protect their farmers? Because they found out during World War II that if you don’t have food, you can’t fight; and so they’re very protective of their farmers for national defense.” [emphasis added]

Don’t buy what these folks are selling, America. Appeals to national defense are often the third-to-last refuge of the scoundrel (the last being patriotism and the second-to-last “for the children”) and in any case are a red herring when it comes to farm subsidies. No one is going to starve in this country if we get rid of farm subsidies. The Germans and Japanese subsidize their farmers for the same reason we do: because they’re a powerful political force. And as for claims that farm subsidies preserve “social peace”? What absolute rot. Favoring special interests at others’ expense fuels resentment and undermines social harmony.  

Sell Crazy Someplace Else. We’re All Stocked Up Here.

Homo sapiens evolved to deal with a natural world governed by consistent, predictable physical laws—so it stands to reason that when we fill our days studying public policy, we might occasionally become overwhelmed by all the crazy. It seems I was thus overhwelmed yesterday, when I blogged about the savings from Washington, DC’s private school choice program, forgetting about a backroom deal that was required to secure its passage.

While the vouchers only cost $14 million per year over the course of the initial five year trial, school choice advocates had to commit to spending an extra $13 million on DC public schools each year, as a palliative to local public school and political leaders. Some might consider this political payoff an additional “cost” of the voucher program, thereby reducing the program’s net savings. That would be a mistake. This payoff was just yet another cost of operating a state school monopoly whose rent-seeking masters demand to be financially appeased if even a few of “their” students are emancipated. It is at that system’s feet that these costs should be laid.

So, after reflecting on this particular bit of crazy, I’ll stick with the DC voucher savings estimate I offered yesterday.

Should We Compensate the Losers from Free Trade?

Writing at Foreign Policy, economist Daniel Altman does a good job explaining the benefits of free trade:

basic economics teaches that two people who trade with each other always end up better off. Why else would they trade in the first place? … the idea is that there are gains from trade to both sides whenever a transaction occurs. Realizing those gains by buying and selling goods, services, assets, and labor is one of the keys to economic growth.

However, he then expresses some concerns with the impact of free trade.   He says it does not affect everyone equally:

Though two countries that trade with each other will also achieve gains from trade, their people won’t necessarily share those gains equally. Indeed, both countries will be better off overall, but inside each country there will be winners and losers

In his view, we should follow a policy of free trade, and, in fact, we could do so if only we would compensate the losers:

But free trade needn’t be such a divisive issue. At the national level, the benefits from free trade always outweigh the losses; this has to be true, since each new transaction creates its own gains from trade. Put another way, a country that opens its markets is always richer as whole. And so here’s the genius part: It should be possible for the winners to compensate the losers so that everyone is better off, or at least no worse off than they were before. … [This] is an essential part of the process of opening markets. Done right, it practically guarantees that everyone in a country can and will support free trade.

We already do compensate the losers, of course, but he says we don’t compensate them enough:

Sure, there are programs such as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) in the United States and the Globalization Adjustment Fund in the European Union. But they’re tiny and relatively ineffective.

He proposes the following:

One idea would be to identify the prospective winners of a new trade agreement and ask them to contribute lump sums to a fund that would compensate the losers. The trade agreement would go forward much as buyouts do in the stock market; if enough of the winners signed up and contributed, the rest of them would be compelled to pay, perhaps on their annual tax bills. Then the fund – likely to hold a lot more than $1 billion for any major agreement – would be divvied up between the losers.

I appreciate his efforts to get the public on board with free trade. It’s always nice to find allies in this fight!  But I have doubts that his approach is a good one.  (I’m going to put aside any general issues related to compensating people who have lost jobs or otherwise suffered from a bad economy.  I’m not really qualified to weigh in on this.  Let me just focus instead on the trade related issues.)

Defense Spending Hasn’t Been Cut by $600 Billion

Beltway politicians like to pretend that smaller spending increases amount to spending “cuts.” As Dan Mitchell has pointed out numerous times (see here for one example), that’s baseline budgeting baloney. Now that the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending caps are in place, politicians are making an even more ridiculous claim: the so-called “cuts” have already occurred.

The caps apply to spending over ten fiscal years – the last year being 2021. We are obviously not in the year 2021, so it’s impossible for the so-called “cuts” to have already been implemented. Yet here are two examples from a recent Politico article where politicians suggest that to be the case:

“There are people that think we need to cut more,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) acknowledged in an interview. McKeon said he’s been pushing back against budget hawks in the GOP conference by pointing to the nearly $600 billion in spending cuts that the Pentagon has already absorbed in recent years — and that’s before sequestration would even begin.

“I think there’s spending that can be taken out of all departments,” said freshman Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). “And I’ve talked to people from the Pentagon. There’s just areas that, yeah, we can pull back a little more, even though they did their $470 billion already. They said it hurt, but we possibly could.”

I’ll cut Rep. Yoho a little slack because the article indicates that he’s open to cutting defense. Rep. McKeon, on the other hand, deserves no such leniency. (Why McKeon said $600 billion and Yoho $470 billion I have no idea.)

The following chart illustrates why it is ridiculous to act as if smaller future increases in projected spending amount to realized spending cuts. The chart shows the Congressional Budget Office’s August 2001 baseline estimate of defense spending from 2002 to 2011 versus the actual outlays:

The combined difference turned out to be $1.8 trillion.

But, you might respond, those estimates were published a month before the attack on September 11th, 2001, so of course they turned out to be way off!

And that’s my point. With the exception of Keynesian economists, no one can predict the future. All it will take is another major terrorist attack or another war and it’s adios spending caps. I would argue that such unfortunate scenarios are a distinct possibility given the Beltway crowd’s love for empire, but I’ll leave that topic to Cato’s foreign policy experts.