Stop Hiding the Stimulus Bill

Here’s Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation on the closed process being used to ram through the deficit-spending/economic stimulus bill:

[I]t is not just Republicans who are being denied access to the bill. Reporters, bloggers, and the general public are being denied an opportunity to review one of the most important pieces of legislation sent through Congress in a long time. Anyone who wants should express that, whatever the partisan reasons for denying access to the bill, the American people deserve a right to review this legislation. Slamming it through without letting anyone see, save for 7 or 8 congressmen and some staff, is not fair to the public or the legislative process.

This is a dangerous practice that the Democrats ran against in 2006 and now, in the majority, are unfortunately using to block their opposition’s attacks. The majority Democrats should maintain their previous position on running the most open and honest government by allowing the public to review this legislation. Anything less is unacceptable.

Nadya Suleman’s Octuplets & the Perils of Public Charity

The AP reports that you and I will be paying the cost of rearing Nadya Suleman’s newborn octuplets –  as well as her other six children – through various state and federal welfare programs:

Even before the 33-year-old single, unemployed mother gave birth to octuplets last month, she had been caring for her six other children with the help of $490 a month in food stamps, plus Social Security disability payments for three of the youngsters. The public aid will almost certainly be increased with the new additions to her family.

Also, the hospital where the octuplets are expected to spend seven to 12 weeks has requested reimbursement from Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, for care of the premature babies, according to the Los Angeles Times…

In California, a low-income family can receive Social Security payments of up to $793 a month for each disabled child. Three children would amount to $2,379.

The Suleman octuplets’ medical costs have not been disclosed, but in 2006, the average cost for a premature baby’s hospital stay in California was $164,273, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Eight times that is more than $1.3 million, and the average cost for just one cesarean birth in 2006 was $22,762 in California.

A reasonable person might ask, “So what?  Poor kids need help.  Would you rather let them die?”  That certainly does not seem to be the answer.  Yet there are perils inherent in having government come to the rescue. 

One challenge confronting both public and private charity is known as the Samaritan’s dilemma: any effort to help the needy inevitably discourages self-help.  People at the margins don’t work as hard, or even take deliberate advantage of others’ altruism, which increases the number of people “in need.”  That appears to have happened in Suleman’s case:

Word of the public assistance has stoked the furor over Suleman’s decision to have so many children by having embryos implanted in her womb…

Suleman received disability payments for an on-the-job back injury during a riot at a state mental hospital, collecting more than $165,000 over nearly a decade before the benefits were discontinued last year.

Some of the disability money was spent on in vitro fertilizations, which was used for all 14 of her children, Suleman said. She said she also worked double shifts at the mental hospital and saved up for the treatments. She estimated that all her treatments cost $100,000.

The First Peril of Public Charity is that government does a relatively poor job of discouraging such opportunistic behavior.  Food stamps, Social Security disability payments, and Medicaid benefits are entitlement programs.  So long as Suleman meets the statutory eligibility criteria, she is legally entitled to benefits no matter how much she may be milking the system.  It is extremely difficult to tailor government eligibility rules (whether statutory or regulatory) to prevent all the possible forms of abuse.   And even if some government bureaucrat tries to cut off welfare recipients who are abusing the system, those recipients can sue the government and there are legions of lawyers who will help.  Private charity is much better at discouraging opportunistic behavior by tailoring assistance to the truly needy.  Did Suleman and her children truly need all the public assistance they had been receiving?  Would she have been able to afford in-vitro fertilization had she not been on public assistance?  If the availability of additional charity were less certain, would she have tried to get pregnant again?  Maybe, but probably not.

The Second Peril of Public Charity is that taxpayers and politicians respond to the First Peril of Public Charity by insisting that government take away people’s rights.  Much of the crusade against smokers’ and restaurateurs’ rights is justified by the need to limit government spending on medical care for smoking-related illness.  Ditto the crusade to limit your right to eat fatty foods. 

Suleman’s case has led taxpayers to recommend some startling policy responses:

On the Internet, bloggers rained insults on Suleman, calling her an “idiot,” criticizing her decision to have more children when she couldn’t afford the ones she had, and suggesting she be sterilized.

“It’s my opinion that a woman’s right to reproduce should be limited to a number which the parents can pay for,” Charles Murray [not the American Enterprise Institute scholar] wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Daily News. “Why should my wife and I, as taxpayers, pay child support for 14 Suleman kids?”…

“From the outside you can tell that this woman was playing the system,” host Bryan Suits said on the “Kennedy and Suits” show on KFI-AM. “You’re damn right the state should step in and seize the kids and adopt them out.”

Emphasis added.

Those responses are a predictable consequence of government charity.  They reflect the same selfish rationale that the Church of Universal Coverage uses to argue for eliminating your right to choose health insurance. 

If somebody is abusing generosity, the appropriate response is not to take away their rights but to take away the generosity. (Some curtailment of parental rights can be justified if the children are in danger. But we don’t yet know if Suleman is going to get a reality-TV deal out of this.) Private charity can do that. Government is ill-equipped to do so, and so our rights come under attack.

The irony is that the Left’s adamant support for government charity is eroding smokers’ rights, property rights, dietary rights, medical rights, and now even the Left’s cherished reproductive rights – making the Left less and less liberal by the day.

A Simple Way to Enrich Everyone, Instantly

Hey Slate! I can commit the broken window fallacy too. Can I write a business column? Pretty please?

The economy of the Washington, D.C., area has boomed in recent decades not so much because the federal government has expanded its payrolls massively but because private government contractors have been thriving. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, in January, “the large areas with the lowest jobless rates in December were Oklahoma City, Okla., and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W.Va.” – a capital city, and the capital city.

I have a modest proposal, then.

Washington, DC is only one city, but what we really want is to enrich the whole country. I therefore propose that we increase all federal taxes by a factor of sixty, so that federal spending, which now only enriches the 5 million in the DC area, will be enough to enrich all 300 million Americans.

We can spend it on a proportionate number of “private” government contractors if it helps. That’s fine with me – you know how we free-marketers love anything calling itself “private.” All that matters is that we keep borrowing, taxing, and inflating ourselves into the wealth that Washington so obviously has. That, you see, is the power of private enterprise.

Looking Back: Cato Scholars Critical of Bush’s Big Government Policies

In selling his big-spending ideas for reviving the U.S. economy, President Obama has chastised “the same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled our national debt, and threw our economy into a tail spin.”

We couldn’t agree more with the president.

Unfortunately, he seems unaware that exploding the size of government, as he is proposing to do with this stimulus package, is a remarkably Bush-esque ideal.

While Bush was in office, scholars at the Cato Institute were critical of his big government policies. In a new section on, you can find some of our research and commentary throughout the Bush years, including:

$800 Billion Is a Lot of (Other People’s) Money

Even though Keynesian theory does not make sense, President Obama wants a so-called stimulus that will increase the burden of government spending by about $800 billion (including the additional interest on government debt, more than $1 trillion). This is not pocket change. In this short video, Michelle Muccio of the Acton Institute explains how this amount of money would be enough to abolish the payroll tax for the rest of the year.

Why don’t politicians choose tax relief? As John Kerry stated, people can’t be trusted to spend their own money.

A Terror Warrior: Wildly and Carelessly Wrong

A few days ago, Nile Gardiner of the Telegraph (U.K.) took Vice President Biden and the Obama Administration to task for abandoning the “War on Terror” metaphor. It’s empty-headed, fear-based pap.

President Obama’s decision to abandon the phrase “war on terror” sends the wrong signal to al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists groups. America and her allies are engaged in a long-term global war against a vicious enemy that seeks the free world’s destruction, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or in the cities of Europe and the United States. This is hardly the time to be engaging in a cynical PR exercise which will only serve to soften America’s image in the eyes of its worst enemies.

The relevant audience is not al Qaeda and terrorists groups. It’s the people near them ideologically and physically. These people are deciding whether or not to join them or support them.

Communicating that the United States is war-mongering and fearful of al Qaeda makes us look bad to these audiences, and it makes al Qaeda look like a worthy opponent of ours. We could do terrorism no better favor than continuing to claim a “war” on terror featuring al Qaeda.

Gardiner also seems to have no grasp - perhaps no awareness that he should have a grasp - of the actual goals and capabilities of al Qaeda or anyone using the name. Most terrorists don’t “seek[] the free world’s destruction.” The ones who say they do just … might … be trying to terrorize! What a concept. They have about the same chance of succeeding as I do of earning $1 billion by publishing this post. Terrorists might occassionally succeed with an attack, but exaggerated fears of terrorism will drive us to do much worse to ourselves year over year than the sporadic attack could ever accomplish.

Is dropping “war on terror” a “cynical PR exercise”? No. It’s a hard-headed, strategically sound PR exercise - again, to bring terrorists’ ideological and physical neighbors toward our side.

Sound counterterrorism strategy thinking was on full display at our recent conference on counterterrorism strategy. Video and audio recordings of every panel are available for download. Perhaps Mr. Gardiner can review the proceedings on his home computer while he launders his shorts.

Government-Funded Comparative-Effectiveness Research: a Fool’s Errand

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Victoria Colliver explains:

  1. Why the Left and insurers want the government to fund comparative-effectiveness research (CER),
  2. Why conservatives and the health care industry oppose government-funded CER,
  3. Why the opponents of CER will prevail,
  4. That the Left is going to keep pursuing this fool’s errand anyway, rather than better ways to generate CER, and
  5. Why I want to knock all their heads together.

All that in a rather short article.  Here are the best parts:

“The intent is to use that information to ration care. Why else would you come up with the research to help people choose what provides a lot of value for the money and what doesn’t?” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank…

“It is perfectly legitimate for Congress to ration care in government programs,” said Cannon, who believes any government effort to conduct comparative-effectiveness studies will quashed by industry. “That’s exactly why you don’t want government paying for medical care.”