Topic: General

Conservatives for Higher Taxes

Center for a Free Economy president Ryan Ellis writes in the Washington Examiner that President Trump “has caved to the socialists” by proposing to set the prices that Medicare pays for certain drugs at a percentage of the prices that foreign governments set for those drugs:

Unfortunately, rather than fighting the socialists, the president has decided to become one with them — at least when it comes to prescription drugs. After spending most of this year rightly condemning governments in Europe and elsewhere for ripping off Americans by imposing below-market price controls on drugs, Trump and [Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex] Azar basically surrendered to the price controls and announced we would be adopting them ourselves…

By letting the foreign price controls serve as a reference price control here, Trump has put us down the same path of scarcity and rationing all too often seen in the rest of the developed world.

The purpose of Trump’s proposal is indeed to reduce the prices Medicare pays for these drugs. Medicare currently pays much more for these drugs than government-run health systems in other nations.

Beyond that, Ellis’s oped crystallizes everything conservatives get wrong about drug pricing and Medicare purchasing in general. A few clarifications:

  1. No one knows what the “right” price is for any drug. We need market prices because they create incentives that naturally and always push prices in the right direction. 
  2. Medicare’s administered (read: ouiji-board) prices are indeed price controls, but not in the usual meaning of the term. They do not restrain prices anywhere but within the Medicare program.
  3. Medicare’s administered/controlled prices are not market prices, any more than other governments’ administered/controlled prices are market prices. 
  4. The Trump proposal would merely change the way Medicare comes up with the prices it pays for drugs. Those prices would not be any more “price-controlled” after the Trump proposal than they were before. They would just be lower–if the proposal achieves its stated goal, that is, which may or may not happen (more below).
  5. Conservatives who argue Medicare should not pay less than it currently does for drugs need to address the paradox inherent in their argument that, in order to restrain government and have a free economy, government must spend more. In order to fight socialism, taxes must be higher.
  6. One cannot import a price control. That’s not how they work. A government can either impose price controls on its own populace, or not. It cannot import the coercion another government exerts on its own citizens.

Ellis is correct when he writes, “Markets do a much better job reducing drug prices than government price controls do, and they do it while making prescription medicines widely available to patients, as opposed to rationed due to scarcity.” But the end result of these misunderstandings and misconceptions is that conservatives end up crowding out markets and/by opposing efforts to reduce government spending. This is why the Left believes, with justification, that when it comes to health care conservatives are just a bunch of cronyists.

Another irony: the more likely impact of Trump’s reference-pricing scheme is that prices in other nations would rise, which is exactly what Ellis says he wants.

Overcharged by Cato adjunct scholars Charlie Silver and David Hyman is the antidote to this strand of un-conservative conservative thinking. 

Unified by Public High?

If someone told you that public high schools have taken people with political and social power and brought them together, to the exclusion of other people, would you celebrate those schools? Probably not. But that is essentially what a new Atlantic article does in extolling public high schools and attacking school choice.

The piece, by English professor Amy Lueck, asserts that public schools—particularly high schools—have been crucial, unifying institutions. After criticizing U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for calling public schools a “dead end” (DeVos actually said monopolistic public schooling is a dead end for innovation) Lueck offers the following:

Far from being a “dead end,” for a long time the public school—particularly the public high school—served an important civic purpose: not only as an academic training ground, but also as a center for community and activity in American cities.

The public high school’s unifying importance, especially compared to private schooling, is very much wanting for proof. Lueck talks a lot about public high school football games, dances, yearbooks, and supporting the country in World War II to back her thesis, but says nothing about whether private schools did the same things. Of course, they did. She also says nothing about whether public high schools were especially effective in forming good citizens, while the research suggests that private schools and other schools of choice actually do better jobs than traditional public schools inculcating civic values such as voting, political tolerance, and volunteering in one’s community.  

More important than ignoring what private schools have done, though, is what Lueck concedes in a few welcome but quick admissions: public high schools have a highly discriminatory history. This is not just with egregious segregation of African Americans, which Lueck mentions, but also in some places Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Public schools have also been demeaning places for immigrants, and from early on in the history of public schooling numerous Roman Catholics felt that they had no choice but to stay out of the often de facto Protestant—and sometimes openly hostile—public schools. Indeed, by 1970 more than 1 million students attended Catholic high schools. But Lueck somehow doesn’t mention Catholics at all, including the recent evidence that Catholic schools are powerful forces for community cohesion. And Catholics have hardly been the only religious dissenters to the coerced uniformity of public schooling.

It is easy to say that public schools are essential unifiers, and that choice threatens cohesion. But what one says, and reality, are not always the same.

Fat Cats in the New Yorker

Fat Cats in the New Yorker

This cover image in the New Yorker, titled – obviously – “Fat Cats,” is brought to you by Gucci, Fidelity Investments, Gemfields, Northern Trust, Big Pharma, Mastercard Black Card, First Republic Private Wealth Management, Ocean Reef Club, Swann Auction Galleries, Suntrust Private Wealth Reserve, Ike Behar, Wells Fargo, and other purveyors of goods and services to … well, fat cats.

And most especially, on the flip side of this cartoon mocking rich men in suits, as economist Lawrence H. White noted on Facebook, is a two-page spread advertising made-to-measure suits from Giorgio Armani. 

Who was it who first said, “Think left, live right”?

 

 

Impeach Justice Kavanaugh?

If the Democrats take the House, they’ll impeach Justice Kavanaugh, President Trump warned at a mass rally in Iowa last week. “Impeach, for what? For what?” Trump demanded. For perjury, most likely: “If we find lies about assault against women,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D.-Ill.) one of several House Judiciary Committee members calling for renewed investigation, “then we should proceed to impeach.” 

I’m not the newly-minted Justice’s biggest fan. From the start, I thought Kavanaugh was a lousy pick for the Court: weak on the Fourth Amendment and unreasonably fond of extraconstitutional privileges for the president. I’ve also argued, at great length, that we ought to impeach federal officers more frequently than we do. That goes for Supreme Court Justices as well. The Framers thought impeachment could serve as a valuable check on abuses of judicial power: that we’ve managed to impeach just one member of the “high court” in 230 years is pretty anemic. 

All that said, I find the case for impeaching Justice Kavanaugh uncompelling, for the reasons that follow.

It’s true that there’s ample precedent for impeaching federal judges for perjury. Our last five judicial impeachments were based on charges of lying under oath. 

Here’s a brief rundown of each case: in 1986, the House impeached, and the Senate removed, Judge Harry E. Claiborne (D. Nev.) for filing false tax returns under penalty of perjury (Claiborne had been convicted of those offenses earlier that year, becoming the first sitting federal judge to be incarcerated). Three years later, the Senate removed two more judges for lying under oath. One, the inauspiciously surnamed Walter L. Nixon (S.D. Miss.), was serving five years in prison for lying to a federal grand jury about his attempt to influence a drug smuggling prosecution. The other, Alcee L. Hastings (S.D. Fla.), had been prosecuted for soliciting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for reducing the sentences of two mob-connected developers who’d robbed a union pension fund. He beat the rap in court, but lost his post when the Senate voted to remove him for the bribery scheme and perjuring himself at trial. (Hastings bounced back pretty quickly, however, winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. He currently represents Florida’s 20th congressional district.)

More recently, we have the grotesque behavior of Judge Samuel Kent (S.D. Tex.), impeached in 2009 for sexually assaulting two court employees and lying about it to federal investigators. (Kent resigned before completion of his Senate trial.) Finally, there’s Judge G. Thomas Porteous (E.D. La.), impeached and removed in 2010 for “a longstanding pattern of corrupt conduct,” including kickbacks from attorneys, perjury in his personal bankruptcy filing, and “knowingly ma[king] material false statements about his past” to the Senate Judiciary Committee “in order to obtain the office of United States District Court Judge.” 

In principle and in practice, then, perjury is an impeachable offense. That obviously includes lying under oath to gain confirmation to higher office. In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, David Rivkin and Lee Casey insist that “Justice Kavanaugh cannot be impeached for conduct before his promotion to the Supreme Court,” including “any claims that he misled the Judiciary Committee.” But that’s nonsense. Misleading the Judiciary Committee about prior conduct was precisely what was at issue in the Porteous impeachment. 

And yet, the cases outlined above differ from Brett Kavanaugh’s in at least one crucial respect: in each of them, Congress had overwhelming evidence of impeachable falsehoods. Claiborne, Nixon, and Kent were already in federal prison when the House voted to impeach. Hastings and Porteous were removed after exhaustive investigations pursuant to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act convinced their colleagues impeachment referrals were warranted. Indeed, despite Hastings acquittal in his criminal trial, a Judicial Investigating Committee concluded there was “clear and convincing evidence” he lied and falsified documents in order to mislead the jury.

Another Jones Act Absurdity

Cape Ray

As North Carolina grapples with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, transportation officials in the state are attempting to secure the use of a U.S. government-owned vessel, the Cape Ray, to transport supplies to the port of Wilmington. With the city temporarily transformed into an island by recent flooding, the roll-on, roll-off ship—or “ro-ro” in maritime parlance—will enable trucks filled with needed goods to drive aboard.

It’s a good thing the ship is government-owned—under private ownership the Cape Ray’s provision of relief supplies would be illegal. This absurd situation is due to a nearly 100-year-old law called the Jones Act. Passed in 1920, the law mandates that ships transporting goods between two points in the United States be U.S.-owned, crewed, flagged and built. The Cape Ray, however, was built in Japan.

Even if officials sought the private sector’s help and a Jones Act-compliant ro-ro ship to transport the trucks, none are available. According to data from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) there are only seven ro-ro ships in the entire Jones Act fleet. The closest one to North Carolina, the Delta Mariner, isn’t even an ocean-going vessel but rather operates on the Tennessee River. The other six vessels ply routes between the West Coast and Alaska or Hawaii.

The picture is little improved if Jones Act containerships and general cargo ships are also included, with a total of six such vessels currently on the East or Gulf Coasts (MARAD shows five but does not include the recently commissioned El Coquí). The closest one to the North Carolina flood victims is a 47-year-old general cargo ship, the Coastal Venture, which is currently moored near Charleston.

One reason behind the dearth of ships is the fact that U.S.-built vessels cost up to eight times as much as those built overseas. Such exorbitant prices mean that fewer are purchased, with fewer available for both general commerce and emergency situations. 

In contrast, there is little difficulty locating foreign-flagged ro-ro vessels in the mid-Atlantic region. The Marshall Islands-flagged Morning Pride, for example, is making its way up the East Coast toward Philadelphia, while the Norwegian-flagged Höegh Asia is bound for Baltimore. A combination cargo/ro-ro vessel, the Saudi-flagged Bahri Tabuk, is currently off the coast of North Carolina.

But because of the Jones Act, none of these ships are eligible to take on relief supplies at a U.S. port and speed them to Wilmington.

The Jones Act’s stated purpose is to ensure that the United States “shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency.” But when faced with a genuine emergency, such as Hurricane Maria in 2017 or Hurricane Florence today, the Jones Act fleet is often found wanting.

By its own terms, the law is a failure that actually impedes the realization of its goals. It’s time for the Jones Act to go. 

Cost and Abuse Problems in Low-Income Housing

A new Government Accountability Office report on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit echoes some of the concerns expressed in this 2017 Cato report. Vanessa Brown Calder and I suggested that the $9 billion program was vulnerable to abuse and that the costs of projects may be inflated.

Under the program, the IRS hands out tax credits to state agencies, which in turn give them to favored developers. We argued that the program had little oversight and that developers and contractors may inflate their claimed costs.

The GAO found that “no federal agency monitors or assesses LIHTC development costs, which are key to evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of the tax credit program.” At the state and local levels, “few agencies have requirements to help guard against misrepresentation of contractor costs (a known fraud risk).” Because the IRS and many state agencies do not require detailed cost certifications, “the vulnerability of the LIHTC program to this fraud risk is heightened.”

The GAO compared the costs of 1,849 projects in 12 jurisdictions. They found a wide variation, as shown in the chart below.

Whether it is taxes, gasoline, or housing, everything seems to cost much more in California than Texas. The cost of low-income housing units are two and half times higher in the Golden State than in the Lone Star State. GAO found that both the hard costs of construction and the soft costs (such as architect fees) were much higher in the former than the latter.

The median per-unit cost of the new construction LIHTC projects was $218,000, of which the land cost was just $9,400. I’m not an expert, but that seems high given that you can buy a really nice tiny house for $80,000 or so.

Vanessa and I call for repeal of the LIHTC program.

To tackle housing affordability, she has suggested a deregulatory approach, which was recently embraced by HUD secretary Ben Carson.

Thank Goodness for Thomas Jefferson and 1800

Not long after the limited-government U.S. Constitution was ratified and the new government resumed operation, numerous political leaders began pushing to expand federal power. Leading politicians of the 1790s did not agree with each other about the proper scope of federal authority, either legally or practically.

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed ideas for top-down manipulation of the economy. And fellow Federalist President John Adams signed into law the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which among other things outlawed any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government, the Congress, and the president.

An article in the Washington Post the other day discussed some interesting details regarding the enforcement of the sedition statute:

Adams and his Federalist Party supporters in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts under the guise of national security, supposedly to safeguard the nation at a time of preparing for possible war with France. The “Alien” part of the law allowed the government to deport immigrants and made it harder for naturalized citizens to vote. But the law mainly was designed to mute backers of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson, who also happened to be the vice president. Jefferson had finished second to Adams in the 1796 presidential election and again ran against him in 1800.

An early target of the new law was Rep. Matthew Lyon, who had accused Adams of “ridiculous pomp.” In the fall of 1798 the government accused the Vermont congressman of being “a malicious and seditious person, and of a depraved mind and a wicked and diabolical disposition.” He was convicted of sedition, fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in prison. Lyon campaigned for reelection from jail and won in a landslide. On his release in February 1799, supporters greeted him with a parade and hailed him as “a martyr to the cause of liberty and the rights of man.”

… Another target was James Callender, a pro-Jefferson journalist for the Richmond Examiner and the man who had exposed Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s extramarital affair. In 1800, Callender wrote an election campaign pamphlet that said of Adams: “As President he has never opened his lips, or lifted his pen, without threatening and scolding; the grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties … and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.” Callander was convicted of sedition, fined $200 and sent to federal prison for nine months. He continued to write from his prison cell, calling Adams “a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.”

… The government also came after critics of some members of the Adams administration, such as Treasury Secretary Hamilton. In 1799, Charles Holt, editor of the New London Bee in Connecticut, published an article accusing Hamilton of seeking to expand the U.S. military into a standing army. He also took personal jabs at Hamilton, asking, “Are our young officers and soldiers to learn virtue from General Hamilton? Or like their generals are they to be found in the bed of adultery?” The government promptly charged Holt with being a “wicked, malicious seditious and ill-disposed person — greatly disaffected” to the U.S. government. He was fined $200 and sent to jail for three months.

The speech crackdown extended even to private remarks, as Luther Baldwin, the skipper of a garbage boat in Newark, discovered. In July 1798, while passing through Newark on his way to his summer home in Massachusetts, Adams rode in his coach in a downtown parade complete with a 16-cannon salute. When Baldwin and his buddy Brown Clark heard the cannon shots while drinking heavily at a local tavern, Clark remarked, “There goes the president, and they are firing at his arse.” Baldwin responded that he didn’t care “if they fired thro’ his arse.” The tavern owner reported the conversation, and both drinkers were fined and jailed for sedition.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the opposition to the big government Federalist policies of the 1790s, and “in the end, widespread anger over the Alien and Sedition Acts fueled Jefferson’s victory over Adams in the bitterly contested 1800 presidential election.” Free speech was restored and the incoming president would focus on cutting the excess spending, taxes, and debt built up by the prior Federalist administrations.

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