Obama: ‘Nobody’ Considers Health Care Mandate a Tax Increase

President Obama argued on TV talk shows this weekend that his proposed mandate for everyone to buy health insurance - or face a large financial penalty - is not a tax increase:

In a testy exchange on ABC’s “This Week,” broadcast Sunday, Obama rejected the assertion that forcing people to obtain coverage would violate his campaign pledge against raising taxes on middle-class Americans.

“For us to say you have to take responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase,” Obama said in response to persistent questioning, later adding: “Nobody considers that a tax increase.”

Well, I consider it a tax increase, so I guess that makes me nobody.

The real question is whether this tax increase is a good idea. My answer is no. If others disagree, then fine, let’s have that debate. But denying plain truths suggests that advocates of Obamacare are trying to pass something that Americans would not endorse if it were structured and explained clearly.

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Prosecutors Should Not Be Allowed to Fabricate Evidence

In 1977, county attorney David Richter and assistant county attorney Joseph Hrvol worked side by side with police to investigate and “solve” the notorious murder of a former police officer in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. The prosecutors fabricated evidence and used it to charge and convict Curtis McGhee and Terry Harrington, sending them to prison for 25 years.

After the convictions were overturned for prosecutorial misconduct, McGhee and Harrington sued the county and prosecutors. The defendants in that civil suit invoked the absolute immunity generally afforded prosecutors to try to escape liability. After the Eighth Circuit ruled against them, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

On Friday, Cato joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU on a brief supporting the men unjustly imprisoned. We argue that prosecutors should be responsible for their role in manufacturing a false “case,” just as police officers would be under the same circumstances. As the Court has held, prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity only during the prosecutorial phase of a case, not its investigatory phase. Were prosecutors to receive absolute immunity here, citizens would have no protection from or recourse against prosecutors who frame the innocent by fabricating evidence and then using that evidence to convict them.

To read Cato’s brief in the case of Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, see here.

Pakistan: More Aid, More Waste, More Fraud?

Pakistan long has tottered on the edge of being a failed state:  created amidst a bloody partition from India, suffered under ineffective democratic rule and disastrous military rule, destabilized through military suppression of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by dominant West Pakistan, dismembered in a losing war with India, misgoverned by a corrupt and wastrel government, linked to the most extremist Afghan factions during the Soviet occupation, allied with the later Taliban regime, and now destabilized by the war in Afghanistan.  Along the way the regime built nuclear weapons, turned a blind eye to A.Q. Khan’s proliferation market, suppressed democracy, tolerated religious persecution, elected Asif Ali “Mr. Ten Percent” Zardari as president, and wasted billions of dollars in foreign (and especially American) aid.

Still the aid continues to flow.  But even the Obama administration has some concerns about ensuring that history does not repeat itself.  Reports the New York Times:

As the United States prepares to triple its aid package to Pakistan — to a proposed $1.5 billion over the next year — Obama administration officials are debating how much of the assistance should go directly to a government that has been widely accused of corruption, American and Pakistani officials say. A procession of Obama administration economic experts have visited Islamabad, the capital, in recent weeks to try to ensure both that the money will not be wasted by the government and that it will be more effective in winning the good will of a public increasingly hostile to the United States, according to officials involved with the project.

…The overhaul of American assistance, led by the State Department, comes amid increased urgency about an economic crisis that is intensifying social unrest in Pakistan, and about the willingness of the government there to sustain its fight against a raging insurgency in the northwest. It follows an assessment within the Obama administration that the amount of nonmilitary aid to the country in the past few years was inadequate and favored American contractors rather than Pakistani recipients, according to several of the American officials involved.

Rather than pouring more good money after bad, the U.S. should lift tariff barriers on Pakistani goods.  What the Pakistani people need is not more misnamed “foreign aid” funneled through corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies, but jobs.  Trade, not aid, will help create real, productive work, rather than political patronage positions.

Second, Islamabad needs to liberalize its own economy.  As P.T. Bauer presciently first argued decades ago–and as is widely recognized today–the greatest barriers to development in poorer states is internal.  Countries like Pakistan make entrepreneurship, business formation, and job creation well-nigh impossible.  Business success requires political influence.  The result is poverty and, understandably, political and social unrest.  More than a half century experience with foreign “aid” demonstrates that money from abroad at best masks the consequences of underdevelopment.  More often such transfers actually hinder development, by strengthening the very governments and policies which stand in the way of economic growth.

Even military assistance has been misused.  Reported the New York Times two years ago:

After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over the money. The strategy to improve the Pakistani military, they said, needs to be completely revamped. In interviews in Islamabad and Washington, Bush administration and military officials said they believed that much of the American money was not making its way to frontline Pakistani units. Money has been diverted to help finance weapons systems designed to counter India, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the officials said, adding that the United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in inflated Pakistani reimbursement claims for fuel, ammunition and other costs.

Writing blank checks to regimes like that in Pakistan is counterproductive in the long term.  Extremists pose a threat less because they offer an attractive alternative and more because people are fed up with decades of misrule by the existing authorities.  Alas, U.S. “aid” not only buttresses those authorities, but ties America to them, transferring their unpopularity to Washington.  The administration needs do better than simply toss more money at the same people while hoping that they will do better this time.

Health Care - One Way to Reduce Costs

In a debate with Larry McNeely in the L.A. Times, Cato’s Michael Cannon suggested “eliminating barriers to competition by nurse practitioners and other mid-level clinicians.”

McNeely responded, “By ending all state licensing and monitoring of physicians…not only qualified nurses but also any quack with a scalpel and some drugs would be able to set up a shingle, call himself a doctor and start cutting.”

Does McNeely pick his doctors at random? How does he know his cardiologist has any relevant experience or training? Licensing creates the impression that all licensed physicians are adequate. Not true. Ask any medical malpractice insurance underwriter.

A state medical license does not restrict a physician’s practice to any particular specialty. If McNeely wants information about a medical professional, he will have to look elsewhere.

State regulation of medical professionals does not insure quality, but does limit access to care and make health care more expensive. Not all audiologists or advanced practice nurses need a doctorate. Physician assistants and advanced practice nurses have been shown to be fully capable of taking over the majority of primary care, yet many states restrict their scope of practice.

McNeely has faith in state licensing and monitoring of physicians that can’t be substantiated with facts. The majority of consumer protection comes from non-governmental entities. Consumers are protected by the annual evaluation and continuing oversight of medical professionals by hospitals, managed care organizations, and medical malpractice insurance underwriters. Malpractice underwriters verify a physician’s training and experience, limit what risky doctors can do, penalize physicians for negligent behavior, reward risk management, and go so far as to assess whether specific equipment and techniques are up-to-date). Consumers are also protected by brand name (as with hospital chains and retail clinics). Private organizations and boards offer certification of education and experience.

More than 80 percent of physicians in the U.S. are specialty board certified; a variety of national organizations certify physician assistants, advanced practice nurses, and other medical professionals.

Pat Tillman Saw the Iraq War as Folly

Pat_Tillman_NFLPat Tillman, who gave up a lucrative NFL career to join the Army after 9/11, was a true patriot:  he wanted to defend America, not conduct social engineering overseas.  That led him to oppose the Iraq war.

Reports the Daily Telegraph:

According to a new book, Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in 2004 and hailed as an all-American hero by the former president, was disillusioned by Mr Bush and his administration’s “illegal and unjust” drive to war.

In Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer, the author relates the strong views of Tillman - who gave up his NFL football career to serve his country - and his brother Kevin, who joined the same Rangers unit.

The war “struck them as an imperial folly that was doing long-term damage to US interests,” Krakauer claims.

“The brothers lamented how easy it had been for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to bully secretary of state Colin Powell, both the houses of Congress, and the majority of the American people into endorsing the invasion of Iraq.”

Tillman was a true citizen soldier.  Not only did he leave private life to serve in the military after his nation was attacked, but he believed it was his responsibility to look beyond the self-serving rhetoric of politicians to judge the wisdom of the wars which they initiated.  The rest of us should remember his skepticism when confronted with the willingness of politicians of both parties to continue sacrificing American lives in conflicts with little or no relevance to American security.

A Super-Majority of Economists Agree: Trade Barriers Should Go

Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade. The latest edition of Econ Journal Watch, published by the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Mass., reports the results [pdf] from a random survey of members of the American Economic Association.

Based on questionnaires returned by more than 100 members, all with Ph.D.s in economics, the survey’s author, Robert Whaples, reports:

  • The economics profession continues to show a consensus in favor of unfettered international trade, as 83 percent agree and only 10 percent disagree that the United States should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers.
  • Other issues in which the economists reached a strong consensus:
    • 82 percent disagreed that the U.S. government should ban genetically modified crops; only 7 percent agreed.
    • 78 percent agreed that U.S.-government subsidies for ethanol should be eliminated or reduced, compared to 10 percent who want them increased.
    • 72 percent agreed that “A Wal-Mart store typically generates more benefits to society than costs,” versus 15 percent who disagreed.
    • 72 percent disagree with the proposition that “Employers in the U.S. should be required to provide health insurance to ALL their employees”; 20 percent agreed.
    • 70 percent believe the typical American saves too little; 0 percent believe we save too much.
    • 70 percent agreed that “The U.S. should allow payments to organ donors and their families,” while 16 percent disagreed.

To learn more about why the economists are right about free trade, see my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.

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Pork Politics

Last night I received a press release from the National Republican Senatorial Committee entitled “Lincoln Votes to Protect Millions in Taxpayer Funds for Little-Used Pennsylvania Airport.”  Lincoln would be Arkansas Democrat Senator Blanche Lincoln.  According to the NRSC press release:

In a remarkable vote on the Senate floor this afternoon, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) made clear that despite rising federal deficits and a record national debt, she still stands firmly on the side of more wasteful Washington spending.  Lincoln today helped defeat an amendment, offered by U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), to the annual transportation appropriations bill that would end taxpayer subsidies for the John Murtha Airport, a little used 650-acre facility in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that has received at least $200 million in taxpayer funding.  U.S. Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), who the airport was named after and who has been the subject of a number of ethics-related stories in recent months, has personally directed $150 million in federal funds to the facility even though it only has 3 flights daily to one destination: Washington, D.C.

When I went to the NRSC’s website I noticed similar press releases for other Democrat senators who I’m assuming are on the outfit’s election hit-list.  Having never received an NRSC press release before, I’m assuming I received this one because I ripped Senator Lincoln in a blog post last week.  If that’s the case, I’m impressed with the NRSC’s resourcefulness.  Regardless, it made me curious to find out if any Republican senators voted with Lincoln and the other Democrats.

In fact, yes, two Republicans did vote to keep the federal money flowing to Murtha’s airport:  George Voinovich of Ohio and Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri.  Both are members of the third party in Congress: Appropriators.  Given that he is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, it’s not a surprise that Bond voted against an amendment unfriendly to a larded-up transportation appropriations bill.  Both are retiring at the end of their terms in 2010, so the NRSC apparently wasn’t too worried about charges of hypocrisy.

With the exception of the aforementioned, all Republican senators voted for the amendment, including appropriators like Murkowski, Collins, Cochran, and Bennett.  None of those folks are exactly known as fiscal tightwads.  So what gives?  Will these senators be headlining tea parties in the near future?

The truth is it’s just politics.  The Republicans are in the minority and got kicked out of the majority by voters due in part to years of fiscal profligacy.  I’m sure more than a few believed this was the type of vote that will help them curry favor with the growing swarms of voters upset with Washington’s out-of-control spending.  It probably helps a smidgen (sarcasm intended) that the airport in question is located in Pennsylvania, home to two Democrat senators, one of which is recent Republican defector Arlen Specter.  Oh, and it’s Democrat John Murtha’s airport.

I’m wondering where these Republican votes to eliminate pork were when I was working with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) several years ago to kill funding for the Bridge to Nowhere and other assorted congressional slop.  At the time, Republicans were in the Senate majority. For example, on the Bridge to Nowhere vote, our amendment went down 15-82.  Only 11 Republicans supported the amendment.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m pleased to see almost all Republicans (and five Democrats) vote to stop funding Murtha’s airport.  But their votes were driven by political considerations and not a new-found zeal for reigning in federal spending.  And let’s face it, defunding the Murtha airport is merely symbolic given that it would save peanuts.  So let’s see what happens on a vote to strip funding for the entire transportation program that subsidizes the other small airports in this country, many of which probably wouldn’t exist were it not for the federal cheese.  Of course, someone would have to actually introduce such an amendment first.  Senator Coburn or DeMint?