Topic: Government and Politics

No Surveillance Reform in Defense Policy Bill

As I predicted 72 hours ago, the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will not be a vehicle for reforming National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance authorities under Sec. 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). The twist is that while the House Rules Committee did disallow an amendment to prevent “back door” warrantless searches of the stored communications of Americans (the full NDAA amendment list is available here), the author of all three surveillance reform amendments to the bill, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) withdrew the other two before a Rules Committee vote. Lieu’s office offered the author the following statement on the decision:

Mr. Lieu has always been a strong advocate for protecting our civil liberties and our privacy. He introduced these NDAA amendments (which have been offered previously by other Members) to prevent warrantless searches of Americans’ data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Warrantless searches are just one of many problems with the law, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The House Judiciary Committee is currently negotiating a package that reauthorizes the necessary foreign surveillance authorities while adding sweeping reforms to protect Americans’ civil liberties. We were asked to withdraw our amendments this week to allow those reform discussions to continue in good faith, and we obliged because we are optimistic about achieving our goals. The amendment decision in no way changes the fact that a broad, bipartisan coalition of Member’s will fight any attempt to reauthorize Section 702 without serious reform.

So where does that leave FAA reform prospects? That will depend in no small measure on how determined reformers are to push the House GOP leadership on the question. As I write these lines, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) are working on competing FAA bills; while I expect the Conyers bill to offer more sweeping reform proposals, Goodlatte will no doubt not allow the Conyers bill to get a vote in committee. All of this means that unless at least 5-6 GOP House Judiciary members make it clear to Goodlatte that any FAA Sec. 702 reform bill brought up in committee must be amendable, what passes out of that committee and goes to the House floor for a vote may be just as anemic a reform measure as the 2015 USA Freedom Act

Is ObamaCare Conservative?

That’s the thesis of a Washington Post opinion piece titled, “Why replacing Obamacare is so hard: It’s fundamentally conservative” by Northwestern University professor Craig Garthwaite. A lot of ObamaCare supporters find this claim appealing. If true, then it makes them look moderate and open to compromise, and makes ObamaCare’s conservative opponents look duplicitous and partisan. But is it true?

No. Not by a long shot.

I’m not a conservative. (I was, once, in my youth, but I’m feeling much better now.) So I will let the editors of National Review explain what a conservative approach to health reform is, as they did in this unsigned 2007 editorial. Spoiler alert: it’s a far cry from ObamaCare.

Against Universal Coverage

By The Editors — June 21, 2007

The Democrats running for president are competing over whose health-care plan gets closest to “universal coverage.” The Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, have been mostly silent. Their inattention to the issue is a mistake. A great many voters are anxious about health care, and better government policies could alleviate that anxiety. The Republican candidates have an opportunity to present a distinctively conservative set of reforms.

Those reforms should begin with the rejection of the goal of universal coverage. Deregulating health insurance would make it more affordable, and thus increase the number of Americans with coverage. But to achieve universal coverage would require either having the government provide it to everyone or forcing everyone to buy it. The first option, national health insurance in some form or other, would either bust the budget or cripple medical innovation, and possibly have both effects. Mandatory health insurance, meanwhile, would entail a governmental definition of a minimum package of benefits that insurance has to cover. Over time, that minimum package would grow more and more expensive as provider groups lobbied the government to include their services in the mandate.

The health-care debate has centered on the uninsured. That so many people do not have health insurance is a consequence of foolish government policies: regulations that raise the price of insurance, and a tax code that ensures that most people get their insurance through their employer. If you don’t work for a company that provides health insurance, you’re out of luck. People locked out of the insurance system still have access to health care. But they often end up in emergency rooms because they did not receive preventive care.

For most people, however, it is another aspect of our employer-based health-care system that causes the most trouble: the insecurity it creates. People worry that if they switch jobs, they will lose their health insurance. They worry that their company will cut back on health benefits. Universal coverage is not necessary to address these worries. Making it possible for individuals to own their health-insurance policies themselves, rather than getting them through their companies, would solve the problem. It would also reduce the political momentum behind socialized medicine.

Most universal-coverage plans accept the least rational features of our health-care system — its reliance on employer-based coverage and on “insurance” that covers routine expenses — and merely try to expand that system to cover more people. Republicans should go in a different direction, proposing market reforms that make insurance more affordable and portable. If such reforms are implemented, more people will have insurance.

Some people, especially young and healthy people, may choose not to buy health insurance even when it is cheaper. Contrary to popular belief, such people do not cause everyone else to pay much higher premiums. Forcing them to get insurance would, on the other hand, lead to a worse health-care system for everyone because it would necessitate so much more government intervention. So what should the government do about the holdouts? Leave them alone. It’s a free country.

In Just Six Minutes, Everything You Need to Know about Spending Caps

Back in April, I shared a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that explained how poor nations can become rich nations by following the recipe of small government and free markets.

Now CF&P has released another video. Narrated by Yamila Feccia from Argentina, it succinctly explains - using both theory and evidence - why spending caps are the most prudent and effective way of achieving good fiscal results.

Ms. Feccia covers all the important issues, but here are five points that are worth emphasizing.

  1. Demographics - Almost all developed nations have major long-run fiscal problems because welfare states will implode because of aging populations and falling birthrates (Ponzi schemes need an ever-growing number of new people to stay afloat).
  2. Golden Rule - If government spending grows slower than the private sector, that reduces the relative burden of government spending (the underlying disease) and also reduces red ink (the symptom of the underlying disease).
  3. Success Stories - Simply stated, spending caps work. She lists the nations that have achieved very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint. She points out that the U.S. made a lot of fiscal progress when GOPers aggressively fought Obama. And she shares the details about the very successful constitutional spending caps in Hong Kong and Switzerland.
  4. Better than Balanced Budget Amendments or Anti-Deficit Rules - The video explains why policies that try to target red ink are not very effective, mostly because tax revenues are very volatile.
  5. Even International Bureaucracies Agree - Remarkably, the International Monetary Fund (twice!), the European Central Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (twice!) have acknowledged that spending caps are the most, if not only, effective fiscal rule.

I touch on some of these issues in one of my chapters in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers. The entire chapter is worth reading, in my humble opinion, but I want to share an excerpt echoing Point #4 that I just shared from Ms. Feccia’s video.

There’s a very practical reason to focus on capping long-run spending rather than trying to balance the budget every year. Simply stated, the “business cycle” makes the latter very difficult. …when a recession occurs and revenues drop, a balanced-budget mandate requires politicians to make dramatic changes at a time when they are especially reluctant to either raise taxes or impose spending restraint. Then, when the economy is enjoying strong growth and producing lots of tax revenue, a balanced-budget requirement doesn’t impose much restraint on spending. All of which creates an unfortunate cycle. Politicians spend a lot of money during the good years, creating expectations of more and more money for various interest groups. When a recession occurs, the politicians suddenly have to slam on the brakes. But even if they actually cut spending, it is rarely reduced to the level it was when the economy began its upswing. Moreover, politicians often raise taxes as part of these efforts to comply with anti-deficit rules. When the recession ends and revenues begin to rise again, the process starts over—this time from a higher base of spending and with a bigger tax burden. Over the long run, these cycles create a ratchet effect, with the burden of government spending always reaching new plateaus.

It’s not that I want to belabor this point, but the bottom line is that it is very difficult to amend a country’s constitution (at least in the United States, but presumably in other nations as well).

So if there’s going to be a major campaign to put a fiscal rule in a constitution, then I think it should be one that actually achieves the goal. And whether people want to address the economically important goal of spending restraint or the symbolically important goal of fiscal balance, what should matter is that a spending cap is the effective way of getting there.

Community Development Subsidies

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will spend $10 billion this year on “community development,” including Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs). The grants to state and local governments are for such things as repairing streets and subsidizing neighborhood businesses. There is no constitutional or practical reason why the federal government should be involved in such local activities.

Furthermore, a new city-by-city analysis by Politico shows that CDBG spending is disbursed with little regard to actual “need” or “fairness.” 

San Francisco will get $19-a-person in community development block grants this year, while Allentown, with twice the poverty and less than half of the median income, will draw a per-capita allotment of $17.53….Community development block grants rely on outdated, 1970s formulas that have increasingly shuttled dollars to wealthy places like Newton, Mass., while other locales in need, such as Compton, Calif., go wanting.

Tad DeHaven found similar problems with the program. He noted, “CDBG spending has gradually shifted from poorer to wealthier communities over time…It should not be the role of the federal government to redistribute income between regions, but even if it was, the CDBG program is not very good at it.”

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposes to eliminate the CDBG program, saying “the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.” Good for the president.

There is no sound reason for the federal government to fund the CDBG program or hundreds of other local subsidy programs. As I discuss here, these programs generate bureaucratic waste, undermine political accountability, and stifle policy innovation in the states. 

The federal aid system generates no net value—it is simply a roundabout way of funding local activities. Taxpayers in San Francisco mail checks to the IRS to fund the CDBG program. Their money flows through the HUD bureaucracy, and then is dished out to bureaucracies in Harrisburg and Allentown, with some trickling down to local residents and businesses. Meanwhile, taxpayers in Allentown are also mailing checks to the IRS to fund the CDBG program. Their money flows through the HUD bureaucracy, and then is dished out to bureaucracies in Sacramento and San Francisco, with some trickling down to local residents and businesses.

What is the point of that?

There is none—other than to empower the well-paid political and bureaucratic elites in all three levels of government, and in the derivative lobby groups. The federal aid system thrives not because it benefits the American people, but because it benefits governments and lobbyists.

For more information, see herehere, and here.

An All-Too-Common Misunderstanding of How Health Insurance Markets Work

I receive lots of daily health-policy newsletters. This morning, one of them exhibited an all-too-common misunderstanding and bias about how health-insurance markets work.

The setting is the “Consumer Freedom Amendment” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has offered to the Senate GOP’s bill to rewrite ObamaCare. Contrary to what the Republican Party has pledged for seven yearsa pledge that presidential candidate Donald Trump even put in writingthe Senate bill would not repeal the health-insurance regulations that are behind ObamaCare’s rising premiums, race-to-the-bottom coverage, and collapsing insurance markets. The Cruz amendment would keep those regulations on the books, but allow consumers to purchase insurance that does not include all of ObamaCare’s hidden taxes and coverage mandates. In effect, it would separate the market. Currently healthy enrollees would opt for the lower-cost “Freedom Option” coverage, which would stay with them once they developed expensive illnesses. Currently sick enrollees would opt for ObamaCare-compliant plans. Premiums for ObamaCare-compliant plans would rise even more than they already have, essentially turning ObamaCare’s Exchanges into high-risk pools that would require lots of government subsidies to keep afloat.

Enter one of my daily newsletters, which matter-of-factly reported:

Of course, everyone paying into the system for those who most need care is the way insurance is fundamentally supposed to work.

Of course! I hear this sort of thing all the time. Now, there is a charitable interpretation that would render this particular phrasing just barely true, but I am fairly sure that interpretation is not what the author intended to convey. Instead, the sentence glosses over a distinction so crucial that entire insurance markets hang in the balance. And it does so in a way that presents the (legitimately disputed and controversial) pro-ObamaCare ideology as an of-course-this-is-fundamentally-true fact.

Fundamentally, insurance markets are a system of subsidies. People with the same ex ante (i.e., before-the-fact) risk of needing medical care pay into the system to subsidize the few in that group who will develop expensive medical needs. We know insurance is supposed to work this way, because of what happens when you try to pool together people with different ex ante health risks at the same premium: the system of subsidies collapses. (See: state-level experiments with community rating, ObamaCare’s CLASS Act, the child-only market under ObamaCare, U.S. territories under ObamaCare, and Exchanges in dozens of counties). Risk-based premiums, exclusions for preexisting conditions, and other measures that ObamaCare supporters hate are actually consumer protections. They exist to keep that system of subsidies stable, so it can keep doing the most good possible by subsidizing people who become sick.

The idea that everyone should pay the same premium regardless of risk arises because left-of-center folks want to cram additional, hidden subsidies into the insurance system. They want to do this rather than create explicit taxes and transfers because, as Jonathan Gruber taught us, there is not sufficient political support for explicit taxes and transfers. But again, when you force insurers to cover unlike risks at the same premium, insurance markets collapse. So ObamaCare throws tons of money at insurers—with everything from the individual mandate to risk-adjustment—in the hope of preventing a collapse. Sometimes it prevents a collapse. Sometimes, not so much.

The above sentence therefore amounts to saying, “Insurance is fundamentally supposed to work exactly like ObamaCare supporters want, with mandates and lots of government subsidies, not like its opponents say.”

That’s what the news tells me, anyway.

Should the Federal Government Give a Stamp of Approval to Art?

Broadway Journal reports that theater professionals are very concerned about the Trump administration’s no-doubt-idle threats to defund the National Endowment for the Arts:

“It’s important money for us,” said Jeffory Lawson, the managing director of the Chelsea-based Atlantic Theater Co. As with any lost funding, replacing those grants would be challenging, he said. And beyond dollars, the NEA confers a stamp of approval for a project, which is appealing to other donors. It’s “a highly competitive grant application,” he said, that’s reviewed and rated largely by theater professionals. “It’s not just a bureaucrat making a decision.” (The NEA claims that $9 in private donations follow every $1 it grants.)

I don’t know why people who prize their independence, and are very proud these days to be defying the government in their plays and public comments, are so eager for a “stamp of approval” from that very government. In fact, I’ve written about that problem before, such as in this 1995 speech to the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts:

Government funding of anything involves government control. That insight, of course, is part of our folk wisdom: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” “Who takes the king’s shilling sings the king’s song.”

Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the NEA be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?”

In 1981, as conservative factions battled for control of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice explained the consequences this way:

The NEH has a ripple effect on university hiring and tenure, and on the kinds of research undertaken by scholars seeking support. Its chairman shapes the bounds of that support. In a broad sense, he sets standards that affect the tenor of textbooks and the content of curricula….Though no chairman of the NEH can single-handedly direct the course of American education, he can nurture the nascent trends and take advantage of informal opportunities to signal department heads and deans. He can “persuade” with the cudgel of federal funding out of sight but hardly out of mind.

I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have….

On NPR this morning, an activist complained …  saying, “My ancestors didn’t fight for the concept of official history in official museums.” But when you have official museums, or a National Endowment for the Arts serving as a “seal of approval” for artists, you get official history and official art—and citizens will fight over just which history and which art should have that imprimatur.

“Stamp of approval,” “ripple effect,” “ ‘persuade’ with the cudgel of federal funding”—all of this is asking the federal government to pick winners, not just in automobile or energy companies, but in art and literature. Is that really a model for independent artists?

 

Goats Are Doing Our Job, Says Union

Great moments in public employee unionism, as recorded in the Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer

A battle is brewing at Western Michigan University this summer between a group of hungry goats and a labor union.

The 400-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has filed a grievance contending that the work the goats are doing in a wooded lot is taking away jobs from laid-off union workers.

A spokeswoman said the university had brought in a crew of the nimble-footed ruminants “to clear undergrowth in a woodlot, much of it poison ivy and other vegetation that is a problem for humans to remove….Not wanting to use chemicals, either, we chose the goat solution to stay environmentally friendly.”

The goats are already ahead of schedule in their task of clearing 15 acres before the fall semester – unless the National Labor Relations Board gets mad and decides to charge in.