Topic: Government and Politics

Climate Change and Health Care: Free Lunches?

In the debate over health care reform, advocates of expanded government health insurance suggest we can pay for this by making Medicare and Medicaid more efficient.

In Paul Krugman’s most recent column, he makes a similar claim about reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

The evidence suggests that we’re wasting a lot of energy right now. That is, we’re burning large amounts of coal, oil and gas in ways that don’t actually enhance our standard of living — a phenomenon known in the research literature as the “energy-efficiency gap.” The existence of this gap suggests that policies promoting energy conservation could, up to a point, actually make consumers richer.

Both claims of a “free lunch” are heroic, at best.

In the case of health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid are inefficient, but to make them more efficient we have to reduce government subsidy for health insurance, not expand it.

In the case of energy efficiency, more energy-efficient practices exist (e.g., replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs), but they are expensive: if they actually made consumers richer, most would be using them already.

Now the fact that expanded government health insurance and increased energy efficiency would cost more, not less, does not prove they are bad ideas (that’s a separate discussion). But it means society must evaluate a tradeoff, not just assert we can have something for nothing.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

Under Current Law, Can the Government Ban Books?

The Citizens United case currently before the Supreme Court may radically reshape campaign finance law for years to come. Former FEC commissioner Bradley A. Smith spoke at a forum on the case a day before the rehearing before the high court.

According to Smith, who is also the founder of the Center for Competitive Politics,  under current law, the government does have the power to ban certain books  if those books are published by a corporation, as ruled by the Supreme Court in 1990.

Watch:

The Seat-Warming Senate

With Gov. Deval Patrick’s appointment of longtime Kennedy courtier Paul Kirk to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in the U.S. Senate, there are now at least three close aides holding on to Senate seats while their states go through the formality of an election. The governor of Delaware appointed Joe Biden’s longtime friend and former chief of staff to fill the rest of his term in the Senate. Can you name him? It is generally thought that he is obligingly holding on to the seat until Biden’s son Beau gets back from National Guard service and is able to run to succeed his father. And in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist named his former chief of staff to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez until the 2010 election in which Crist is running for the seat. There are more seat-fillers in the Senate than at the Oscars.

Of course, Kennedy himself took his seat when he attained the age of 30, after it was kept warm for him by family retainer Benjamin A. Smith III.

Meanwhile, as of 2005 there were 18 senators who gained office at least partly through their family ties – sons, daughters, wives, nephews of former senators, governors, presidents, and so on.

The Founders envisioned the Senate as an assembly of wise and accomplished men, chosen for their experience and judiciousness. Political campaigns that favor the handsome, the glib, the panderers, and the best fundraisers are bad enough. But a Senate full of legacies and seat-warmers is especially unfortunate.

New Report: Honduras Acted Constitutionally

A new report by the non-partisan Law Library of Congress now publicly available reviews the legal and constitutional issues surrounding Honduran President Zelaya’s removal from office. The report concludes that both the Supreme Court of Honduras and the Congress acted in full accordance with the constitution in removing the president from power. The study, first reported by Mary O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal this Monday, is consistent with the point she, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, and others have made with regard to Washington’s unbelievable policy of undermining Honduras’ rule of law by insisting on Zelaya’s return to power, calling his removal a coup, and otherwise sanctioning the small nation’s Supreme Court by suspending the visas of its justices.

The “Read the Bill” Debate and Government Growth

There’s an interesting back-and-forth over at the Volokh Conspiracy about whether legislators should have to read the actual legislative text of bills they vote on. Most people’s intuitive reaction is: “Duh, of course!” But if you’ve ever actually spent time poring over legislative text, you know that reading the bill itself seldom leaves you with a very good sense of what it does. Legislation is typically a tangle of modifications along the lines of “Strike paragraph 2, replace the period with a semicolon, insert the word ‘reasonable’ in the following sentence…”—which is why legislators have staffers who prepare plain-English summaries of the effects of legislation. Now certainly it would be possible to render bills somewhat more readable to ordinary people. Saving paper is not a huge concern in the digital era, so there’s no good reason legislation couldn’t simply contain the full text of the statutory provisions it amended, perhaps including a side-by-side comparison highlighting the changes. Even this, however, wouldn’t necessarily be all that illuminating. I’ve got a reference book on my desk that contains the 80-or-so pages of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and then a few hundred pages explaining what it actually means. It’s not enough to know what the verbatim text says; you need to understand how it interacts with other statutes, how key terms are defined in the law, how courts have interpreted the law’s provisions, and so on.

Legislation could be written in a somewhat more transparent way, but in light of all these complex interactions, it can’t actually be that much more transparent, for the same reason computer programs are a lot longer and more impenetrable than a plain-English description of what the program does. Achieving a result in a complex rule-based system requires a level of precision and sensitivity to how terms are used within the system that’s at odds with colloquial description. Of course, for precisely the same reason that summaries will give an ordinary person a better understanding of a law than scrutiny of the verbatim text, they also give a very incomplete understanding. An ordinary language description will tell you what a computer program is supposed to do. If you want to know whether it’s going to crash or open up a security vulnerability under certain conditions, perhaps when it interacts with other software running simultaneously, you need to have a look at the source code. Again, if you’ve spent any time digging through legislation, you know that the staff summary of a bill often glosses over many interesting little details and ambiguities you can ferret out while reading the text.

Most legislators, of course—even those with legal training—cannot possibly have the kind of expertise needed to undertake meaningful scrutiny of the details of legislative text outside a tiny number of issue areas. So does it make sense to insist that every member of Congress literally “read the bill”? Probably not. The actual text will contain important details not captured in a summary, but only an expert will really understand what those are on the basis of the text anyway. Crucially, this is not a function of needless obscurantism on the part of Congress: it is a necessary feature of legislation in a legal system as complex as ours. Which means that there’s a pretty basic tension between the value of democratic transparency and a large, complex government. Past a certain point, it’s more or less impossible for any individual legislator—let alone ordinary citizens—to really understand the vast majority of bills Congress takes up in any detailed way.