Ohhhhhh! That ‘NEA’

Imagine my confusion when I saw this article summary in my inbox this morning: “Official Leaves NEA After Suggestions That He Used Agency To Further Obama Agenda.”

Uhhh, I thought to myself, the NEA has given 93% of its $30 million in federal political contributions since 1990 to Democrats, so wouldn’t somebody there get fired for NOT furthering the president’s agenda?

It turns out, there’s some other NEA that does something else. Phew! Apocalypse not on horzion after all.

Dalmia on Obamacare Speech

Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia offers a colorful visual in her take on President Obama’s health care speech:

For several months now, the American people … have been standing athwart the Democratic agenda of socialized medicine, yelling, “Stop!” But President Barack Obama showed them the policy equivalent of the middle finger Wednesday night.

If there was anything bipartisan about the speech it was that he embraced every bad big-government idea from both sides…

Perhaps the most striking – and disturbing – thing about the speech was the unblinking confidence Obama exuded while breaking key campaign promises he made to voters. He had raked poor Hillary Clinton over the coals for admitting that her road to universal coverage was paved with an individual mandate. “Everyone would be forced to buy coverage, even if you can’t afford it,” warned Obama in an ad. “You pay a penalty if you don’t.”

Yet, there he was last night scolding “individuals who can afford coverage but game the system by avoiding responsibility”…

The one Republican idea that Obama did endorse – caps on medical malpractice awards or tort reform – will actually hurt rather than help patient choice. Big medicine has long blamed the unnecessary tests and procedures these awards encourage for rising health care costs. But several studies have shown that this so-called practice of defensive medicine is a smaller driver of costs than excess physician salaries. By capping these awards, Obama will leave patients even less recourse against physician negligence – hardly the American way.

Obama lambasted the critics who claim his reform plan amounts to a government takeover of the health care system. But the plan he laid out Wednesday night will control every aspect of the medical transaction. It will tell patients when, what and how much coverage they must buy; it will tell sellers when, what and how much coverage they must sell. This is not a government takeover of health care? Then Tony Soprano is just a decent, hard-working businessman.

You had me at “middle finger.”

Preventive Detention: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Glenn Greenwald writes,

By all accounts, the White House is going to unveil its proposal for indefinite detention within the next four to eight weeks, and it has begun dispatching proponents of that scheme to lay the rhetorical groundwork. In The Washington Post today, one of the proposal’s architects – Law Professor Robert Chesney, a member of Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force – showcased the trite and manipulative tactics that will be used by advocates of indefinite detention to win support for their radical program [anyone doubting that detention without trials is radical should recall that Obama’s own White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law”; New York Times reporter William Glaberson wrote that “Obama’s detention policy “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself”; Sen. Russ Feingold warned that it “violates basic American values,” “is likely unconstitutional,” and “is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world”; The New York TimesBob Herbert said that “Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention”; and the Obama policy’s most vigorous Congressional proponents are Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham].

According to Chesney, though, the real extremists are those “on the left” who oppose preventive detention; those who believe that radical liberties such as criminal charges, trials and due process are necessary before the state can put someone in a cage for life; those who agree with Thomas Jefferson that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Chesney insists that such people (these “leftists”) are (as always) the mirror images of the extremists on the Right, who “carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.” These two equally partisan, radical, extremist sides (i.e., those who believe in due process and trials and those who oppose them) are – sadly – “shrink[ing] the political space within which reasonable, sustainable policies [i.e., Chesney’s preventive detention scheme] might be crafted with bipartisan support.”

…This is how political debates are typically carried out in Washington by the Serious Centrists and Responsible Adults. Chesney writes an entire Op-Ed defending the soon-to-be-unveiled preventive detention policy without describing a single aspect of it. To Serious people, the substance of the policy is irrelevant. What matters is that anyone who opposes it is a radical, partisan, shrill extremist. Conversely, as long as the Obama administration stays somewhere in the middle of the two sides – between Tom Coburn and Russ Feingold – then it proves they are being sensible, moderate and responsible, regardless of how extreme and dangerous their proposal actually is, and regardless of how close to Coburn and as far from Feingold as they end up.

No system of justice is perfect. But it’s no improvement to decide that in certain cases we can just do better without one.

All that such a policy does is to move the act of judging back one level – and to locate it at the point where someone, somewhere decides that this particular case doesn’t get judged in the usual way. And so the accused gets “detention” rather than “trial, followed possibly by prison.” But we are still putting a person, and perhaps a dangerous person, in a cage, are we not? The acts of judging and of punishing are still there, and we have hidden them only from ourselves.

It is no improvement to shift the fundamental problem of justice to a different location – out of open courtrooms, out of review, out of established legal tradition – and into a shadowy realm where potentially anything goes. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that it is a step forward or a refinement in the criminal law to have its work done somewhere else, by someone else. The work goes on, and with it all of the associated dangers. Western legal philosophy has spent centuries forcing these dangers out into the open, so that we may confront them directly.

But oddly, Professor Chesney is actually right in one respect:

The problem is twofold. First, the national dialogue has been dominated by a pair of dueling narratives that together reduce the space available for nuanced, practical solutions that may require compromise from both camps. On the one hand, critics of the government’s policies promiscuously invoke the post-Sept. 11 version of the Imperial Presidency narrative, reflexively depicting security-oriented policies in terms of executive branch power aggrandizement (with de rigueur references to former vice president Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, David Addington; or Justice Department attorney John Yoo, if not all three). On the other hand, supporters of the government’s policies just as carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.

Second, individual issues in the debate over detention policy are often framed in stark and incompatible terms. Take, for example, the Guantanamo detainees, who are portrayed in some quarters as innocent bystanders to the last man and in other quarters as the “worst of the worst.” While both extremes are misleading, their influence is pervasive.

True enough. A reasonable middle position? Give the detainees trials in which they can individually prove their guilt or innocence. Surely they aren’t all guilty, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone claim that they are all innocent, either. The truth really is somewhere in between, and it just so happens that we already have a mechanism for sorting out muddled cases like these.

Congressional Conflict of Interest

lincolnIt looks like farm subsidy reform is unlikely for another few years. Senator Blanche Lincoln has been selected the new head of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Dow Jones notes: “Lincoln is a two-term moderate Democrat who described herself Wednesday as a ‘farmer’s daughter.’”

Lincoln has been “a tireless advocate for the Arkansas rice industry” and a “champion for agriculture.” You can see what 20 or so other agriculture lobby groups say about Lincoln here. These are very laudatory remarks, but what about the taxpayers? What do taxpayers think about her support for the $20 billion or so in annual giveaways to farmers?

I’m guessing that Lincoln will put the interests of subsidy-receiving farmers in her state ahead of the interests of the nation’s taxpayers, given that Arkansas ranks seventh out of the 50 states in terms of farm subsidies received yet has a small population.

This sort of pro-spending bias on committees is common across Congress of course. I’ve argued that one step toward getting the House and Senate to make to more rational and frugal trade-offs on spending would be mandatory random committee assignments every two years. It’s absurd that generally the only people overseeing farm programs are people who are in the bag for farmers. It’s an obvious conflict of interest.

It would be much better if we had one of the senators from, say, Rhode Island chairing the Agriculture Committee, because that state receives less farm subsidies than any other. A Rhode Island senator would be more likely to dispassionately balance the trade-offs of the $20 billion or so of pain imposed by taxes to support farm subsidies with the benefits of farm subsidies (if any).

Nobel Laureate James Heckman Responds to Cato Stimulus Analysis

I received a letter this morning from Prof. James Heckman, in response to my post on the impact of the education stimulus. Prof. Heckman does not take issue with my thesis, which is that the $100 billion in new k-12 spending will likely slow U.S. economic growth. This doesn’t mean that he necessarily agrees, but no doubt he is well aware of the relevant evidence and econometric analysis showing that higher public school spending does not raise student achievement, and hence burdens the economy with higher taxes while failing to boost human capital.

Instead, Prof. Heckman argues that “[t]he question is not whether we should invest in human capital, it is when and where we get the most value for our investment—and whether the facts will guide our decisions.” He adds that “we should not let partisan or ideological biases cloud the facts or obscure the obvious opportunities.”

I agree with all of these points.

Prof. Heckman and I do part ways, however, when it comes to his analysis of who should be investing in what. He writes:

[G]overnment and private investment in effective early childhood development programs for disadvantaged children will increase student achievement, high school graduation rates and grow the U.S. economy…. Investment in zero-to-five early childhood education for disadvantaged children results in a 10% per annum return on investment in better education and health outcomes as well as reduced social costs.

The problem with Dr. Heckman’s prediction that government investment in early childhood education will pay huge dividends is that it is based on an untenable overgeneralization from a few tiny studies. My colleague Adam Schaeffer explains in his recent paper “The Poverty of Preschool Promises”:

Three programs—the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Carolina Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers—provide the foundation for claims of huge preschool benefits and provide most of the weight behind the push for massive expansions in state-run preschool.

Schaeffer notes that the gains seen in these programs dating back to the 1960s and ’70s, which Prof. Heckman has reviewed, are not apparent in large scale government preschool programs such as the ones Prof. Heckman seems to endorse. Schaeffer continues:

Preschool activists consider Georgia and Oklahoma model states because they have long running, fully implemented, universal preschool programs that proponents consider to be high quality…. The real-world evidence demonstrates that, at the same time [these] preschool programs have been massively expanded and their quality… has supposedly improved, the test scores of children in Oklahoma have eroded significantly compared to the national average. And while Georgia’s reading gap narrowed, its math gap stagnated or widened.

In fact, a highly respected economist has cautioned policymakers about overgeneralizing from the tiny preschool programs of two generations ago, stating that:

A much more careful analysis of the effects of scaling up the model programs to the target population, and its effects on costs, has to be undertaken before these estimates [of their impact] can be considered definitive.

Prof. Heckman will recognize that as a quote from his own study, linked above.

If further evidence is required of the need for caution, consider the results of the hundreds of billions in federal spending on compensatory preschool programs dating back to the 1960’s (total federal ed. spending since 1965 is about $1.8 trillion). True, these are not precisely identical to the programs Prof. Heckman might recommend, but they are close enough that, if his policy contention is true, we should have seen some noticeable closing of the academic gap between the children of college graduates and those of high-school dropouts, by the time those children reach the end of high school. As I have previously documented, no such closing has occurred. The chart below, of NAEP reading test scores for 17 year olds, is fairly typical of the subject area results (they are marginally better in math and marginally worse in science).

naep gap by parents ed

Given Prof. Heckman’s obvious interest in raising graduation rates and narrowing other educational outcome gaps, and his belief that we should seek out the best evidence and verify scalability of findings, I am surprised he focuses on the results of a handful of tiny 1960s preschool programs rather than on, say, the nationwide research of his University of Chicago colleague Derek Neal. Neal has found that urban African Americans attending Catholic schools are 26 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to graduate from college as comparable students in public schools. Similar results have been found by others, as I note in a recent literature review.

Prof. Heckman?

Thursday Links

The DNC’s Pure Uninformed Demagoguery

The other day, Sarah Palin cited my work in an oped for the Wall Street Journal.  So when the Democratic National Committee savaged her for it, ABCNews.com asked me for comment.  Here’s an excerpt from George Stephanopoulos’ blog:

“Instead of poll-driven ‘solutions,’ let’s talk about real health-care reform: market-oriented, patient-centered, and result-driven,” wrote Palin. “As the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon and others have argued, such policies include giving all individuals the same tax benefits received by those who get coverage through their employers; providing Medicare recipients with vouchers that allow them to purchase their own coverage; reforming tort laws to potentially save billions each years in wasteful spending; and changing costly state regulations to allow people to buy insurance across state lines.”

Cannon, the Cato expert referenced by Palin, has not had any direct contact with the former Alaska governor or any of her advisers.

He did, however, come to her defense on the Medicare issue.

‘Vouchers would not make seniors less secure, it would make them more secure,’ Cannon told ABC News. ‘Everyone agrees that Medicare cannot go on spending as much money as it does now. The voucher idea allows individual consumers to make their own decisions about what they need and what they don’t need.’

‘Giving Medicare seniors a voucher is the most rational, the most humane way to contain Medicare spending,’ he added.

Asked about the DNC’s charge that Palin’s proposal would leave seniors with pre-existing conditions vulnerable, Cannon, the director of health policy studies at Cato, called it ‘pure uninformed demagoguery.’

Cannon says that under proposals he has developed, bigger vouchers would be given to people with pre-existing conditions as well as to people with low incomes.

Actually, I think what I said was that DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse was engaging in pure ignorant demagoguery.  But whatever.

The DNC is even running an ad claiming that Republicans are trying to “cut” and “kill” Medicare, presumably with vouchers.  Never mind that President Obama proposes to “cut” (i.e., slow the growth of) Medicare spending too.

If Republicans were smart – hey, where are you going? – they would be running ads that say:

President Obama wants government bureaucrats to decide whether seniors get health care.  Republicans are fighting to control health care costs and preserve seniors’ ability to make their own health care decisions and choose the benefits that they value most.  Support Medicare vouchers!

For more on reforming Medicare the right way, click here.