Tag: taxpayers

Wisconsin: Post-Mortem & Predictions

Last night’s vote by the Wisconsin-based portion of the Wisconsin Senate has received enormous attention. The scope of collective bargaining by school district and other government employees has been narrowed, and the state will no longer automatically garnish workers’ wages to pay union dues.

This was the right thing to do. But how much of a difference will these changes actually make to the state’s bottom line? As I’ve noted, the presence or absence of collective bargaining is not strongly correlated with school district spending. Instead, unions have won their massively (42%) above- market compensation through well-funded political action; which brings us to the question of automatic paycheck deduction of union dues.

Without automatic dues withdrawals, will public school unions still be able to afford their fantastically successful political activities? There’s no reason to doubt it. Given the huge compensation premium public school employees enjoy over their private sector counterparts, they have a powerful incentive to voluntarily keep funding the political action that helped win it.

Indeed, we can see this already in right-to-work states like South Carolina. Public school employees there have no collective bargaining rights and there is no automatic union dues withdrawal, but the Palmetto State nevertheless has a teachers’ union and an administrators’ association that have spent large sums of money on political action. It’s worked. Despite not being the wealthiest of states, South Carolina still spends roughly $12,000  per pupil on its public schools, and its public school teachers earn more than the state’s median household income. The teacher and administrator groups have also successfully defeated every legislative effort thus far to open up the state’s education system to private sector competition and parental choice.

The only way to rein-in out-of-control public school spending is thus to give both families and taxpayers an alternative to the government monopoly status quo. Cut taxes on folks who pay for their own children’s education, or who donate to non-profit scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition for the poor. Many states are doing this already on a small scale. By so doing so on a larger scale, families will have much greater choices and taxpayers will reap enormous savings.

Overwrought On START

It is unclear whether New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will make it to the Senate floor this year or if there are 67 votes for it if it does. According to the White House and arms control boosters, that uncertainty endangers us all by leaving Russia’s nuclear arsenal unmonitored and undermining our non-proliferation agenda. According to pundits, New START’s failure to pass in the lame-duck would be a grievous political wound for Obama adminstration, which is struggling to buy enough Republican votes for ratification.

In an op-ed out today on the National Interest’s website, Owen Cote and I say this talk is mostly hot air. New START just isn’t that big a deal. We write:

[New START] would provide minor increases in intelligence and Russian goodwill. But passing it means handing taxpayers a substantial new tab on top of what we already pay for our bloated nuclear weapons complex. And rather than reducing the arsenal’s size and cost, the treaty props it up…. The real impact of New START is distraction. By faking a drawdown, the treaty keeps Americans from noticing that deterring our enemies requires nothing like the force structure we plan to retain.

Enough Community College PDA

Yesterday, President Obama hosted the White House Summit on Community Colleges, and in-your-face love was in the air. President Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, couldn’t keep their hands off their signficant other, lavishing all sorts of praise on their favorite little schools.

Swooned Dr. Biden about the dreamy things community colleges do for their students:

They are students like the mother who shared her experience with us on the White House website of working towards a degree while raising three children and straddling financial challenges.  Now employed and the holder of a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, she wrote, “Community colleges didn’t just change my life, they gave me my life.”

Community colleges do that every day. 

Ick!

The President, too, couldn’t hide his affection:

So I think it’s clear why I asked Jill to travel the country visiting community colleges -– because, as she knows personally, these colleges are the unsung heroes of America’s education system.  They may not get the credit they deserve.  They may not get the same resources as other schools.  But they provide a gateway to millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life.

Like the guy with the locker next to Mr. and Mrs. Lovebird, all I can say is “oh, come on!”

Community colleges might be a good option for some people, but they are hardly paragons of educational success. Quite the opposite: According to the U.S. Department of Education, they have the worst graduation rates of any two-year sector of higher education. Only around 22 percent of public, two-year college students graduate within three years, versus roughly 49 percent of private, not-for-profit attendees and about 59 percent of private, for-profit students.

Wait! What’s that? Private, for-profit institutions outperform super-cute community colleges…by a lot? But they’re the ugliest, meanest, least popular kids in school!  Nobody likes them!

Oh, I know what’s going on here! For-profit schools cost a lot more than community colleges, right? That’s why they’re so disliked.

That’s true if you look at tuition prices. But community colleges get big subsidies from government, especially state and local taxpayers. So they might actually cost a lot, it’s just that they sneak the money out of your back pocket and then congratulate themselves for charging students so little.  

When you look at government expenditures per-pupil, including aid to schools and students, it becomes clear that community colleges are, in fact, just as mean and greedy as for-profits. Indeed, former Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro has calculated that they are actually more costly to taxpayers than for-profit schools (see table 24). According to his calculations, two-year public schools cost taxpayers $6,919 per student, while private, for-profits cost just $3,628. 

No wonder the summit turned my stomach! At the same time the administration and its allies in Congress are bashing for-profit schools, the President has a love fest with community colleges that are generally much worse. Unfortunately, it leaves you concluding that for-profits could walk on water and it wouldn’t matter: As long as they’re honest about trying to make a buck, they’ll be beaten up in the parking lot and never invited to any of the cool summits.

Did ObamaCare Get Medicare’s Price Controls Right?

Congress uses price controls to pay Medicare-participating providers.  Those providers invariably complain that Congress sets prices too low, but many are no doubt too high.

Congress chose to pay for ObamaCare’s new entitlement spending in part by ratcheting down many of those prices.  That suggests supporters either believe that Medicare’s controlled prices generally exceed the marginal value of the relevant services, or that those prices will begin to exceed marginal value as providers become more productive (i.e., as they learn to provide those services at a lower cost).

Neither assumption is necessarily wrong.  Producers operating under price controls nevertheless have an incentive to improve productivity.  When costs fall relative to prices, producers get to keep the difference.  Ambulatory surgical centers saw a windfall because Medicare took two decades to update those price controls for productivity gains.

Medicare’s chief actuary and many others doubt that providers will realize the productivity gains assumed by Congress.  If the assumed productivity gains do not occur, those price reductions would reduce Medicare enrollees’ access to care.  Medicare providers and enrollees would likely persuade Congress to block the price reductions.  Medicare spending and the federal debt would rise.

Yet even if those productivity gains do occur, ObamaCare’s price reductions would still reduce access compared to a world without them, therefore enrollees and providers may still persuade Congress to eliminate them.  Regardless of what happens with productivity, as Tom Daschle notes, the patient-provider pincer movement usually carries the day.

This is an inherent defect of Medicare not found in markets.  Competitive markets automatically translate productivity gains into lower prices for consumers.  Medicare protects providers at the expense of enrollees and taxpayers.

(Cross-posted at National Journal’s Health Care Expert Blog.)

Topics:

Our Enemies or Our Allies?

The New York Times reports that congressional investigators have found mounting evidence that “American taxpayers have inadvertently created a network of warlords across Afghanistan who are making millions of dollars escorting NATO convoys and operating outside the control of either the Afghan government or the American and NATO militaries.”

The Financial Times broke this story back in March. But their most startling discovery was that after nearly a decade at war in Afghanistan, Washington still has no clue as to who its true enemies (and allies) are.

Many Americans would be surprised to learn that some prominent Afghan officials are in fact saboteurs of America’s presumptuous and dangerously quixotic nation-building endeavor, instituting policies that feed the insurgency’s momentum in order to get more economic assistance from the coalition. America’s Ambassador to Kabul, Karl W. Eikenberry, said as much last November. Eikenberry warned (of course, to no avail), that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden…He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further.” [Emphasis added]

Karzai knows very well that once the conflict ends, his open aid spigot will dry up. Indeed, Karzai has become notorious for replacing and undercutting people in his government who become too well-liked and “clean,” fearing these officials will become more popular than himself. Such double-gaming leads us to Karzai’s younger half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

He consolidates his power base by acting as the powerful chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, as well as relying on a mafia-like network of militias, many of whom demand bribes from security companies that benefit from U.S. contracts. The rise of these militia fiefdoms have profited handsomely with foreign taxpayer dollars. “You have about 30 oligarchs who have built little empires with ISAF money,” Carl Forsberg, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, told the Financial Times. “We are ultimately creating a shadow government.”

Lamenting America’s strategic paradox, Congressman John F. Tierney (D-MA), chair of the U.S. House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee said recently: “In this case, the U.S. appears to be inadvertently fueling the very warlordism and corruption that we are pressing President Karzai to curtail.”

U.S. officials say perceptions that power in Kandahar is concentrated in the hands of the Karzai family’s ethnic Pashtun Popalzai tribe fuel support for the insurgency. According to a Pentagon assessment released April 28, Afghan public perceptions of Karzai’s anti-corruption efforts are “decidedly negative” and extend to international forces and the international community. U.S. defense officials also find that the “exploitative behavior” of some Afghan officials contributes to the insurgency’s success.

For far too long, U.S. officials and analysts have concentrated their focus on Pakistan. As regional expert Steve Coll notes, “If you think about it, the United States is essentially waging a proxy war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban.”

But government officials in Kabul also fit into this equation; unfortunately, this is a government that Washington still endeavors to support.

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Robin Hood and the Tea Party Haters

What is it with modern American liberals and taxes? Apparently they don’t just see taxes as a necessary evil, they actually like ‘em; they think, as Gail Collins puts it in the New York Times, that in a better world “little kids would dream of growing up to be really big taxpayers.” But you really see liberals’ taxophilia coming out when you read the reviews of the new movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. If liberals don’t love taxes, they sure do hate tax protesters.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, writes in the Boston Globe that this Robin Hood is A big angry baby [who] fights back against taxes” and that the movie is “hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation.” You wonder what Professor Rotella teaches his students about America, a country whose fundamental ideology has been described as “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

At the Village Voice, Karina Longworth dismisses the movie as “a rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement” in which “Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about ‘liberty’ and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed.” Gotta love those scare quotes around “liberty.” Uptown at the New York Times, A. O. Scott is sadly disappointed that “this Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!” The movie, she laments, is “one big medieval tea party.”

Moving on down the East Coast establishment, again with the Tea Party hatin’ in Michael O’Sullivan’s Washington Post review:

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East – in this case, the Crusades – it’s the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who’s running the country into the ground.

Man, these liberals really don’t like Tea Parties, complaints about lost liberty, and Hollywood movies that don’t toe the ideological line. As Cathy Young notes at Reason:

Whatever one may think of Scott’s newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the “libertarian rebel” played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution….The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin’s chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs’ role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. [In other books and movies] Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

The reviewers are indeed tapping into a real theme of this Robin Hood, which is a prequel to the usual Robin Hood story; it imagines Robin’s life before he went into the forest. Marian tells the sheriff, “You have stripped our wealth to pay for foreign adventures.” (A version of the script can be found on Google Books and at Amazon, where Marian is called Marion.)  Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”

Dangerous sentiments indeed. You can see what horrifies the liberal reviewers. If this sort of talk catches on, we might become a country based on antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism and governed by a Constitution.