Social Security Administration Bureaucrats Have a Party…and Taxpayers Pick Up a $700,000 Tab

With so much money being squandered in Washington, $700,000 does not even rise to the level of an asterisk. But when that much money is being wasted so that senior bureaucrats from the Social Security Administration can enjoy a party (oops, a training session) at a four-star resort in Arizona, it becomes a symbol of Washington profligacy. Kudos to ABC News for running a story on this travesty. Make sure to watch the embedded video of bureaucrats “reducing stress” at your expense:

… nearly 700 executives from the Social Security Administration (SSA) gathered for a lavish three-day conference in Phoenix, AZ last week, costing taxpayers about $700,000… . The conference, which included a performance by a motivational dance company that was captured on tape by Phoenix affiliate ABC15, was held at the Arizona Biltmore, a hotel described as the “Jewel of the Desert” with an oasis of 39 acres of lush gardens, swimming pools and a golf course. SSA executives were invited to join in the dancing.

Topics:

Sotomayor Playing Out the Clock

As she began to do more and more yesterday, the nominee has started today’s hearings with a series of painfully drawn-out non-answers to Senator Kyl’s questions.

Kyl is pointing out the conflict between Sotomayor’s claim that in Ricci she was simply following precedent and the Supreme Court’s finding that there was no precedent on point—and so Sotomayor’s panel summary disposition was improper.

Sotomayor’s responses have ranged from explaining again the procedural posture of the case, to references to irrelevant background cases (not binding precedent), to recounting en banc voting procedures in the Second Circuit. It is clear that, even as the Republicans reload and regroup at every break and recess, Sotomayor has been counseled to talk and talk—again, in an excruciatingly slow rate—without really saying anything.

CP Townhall

Congress Abolishes Health Care Scarcity?

Reading the New York Times’s coverage of a Senate committee’s recent vote on health care legislation, I was struck by the following statement from Sen. Dodd:

If you don’t have health insurance, this bill is for you,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, who presided over more than three weeks of grueling committee sessions. “It stops insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It guarantees that you’ll be able to find an insurance plan that works for you, including a public health insurance option if you want it.”

The bill would also help people who have insurance, Mr. Dodd said, because “it eliminates annual and lifetime caps on coverage and ensures that your out-of-pocket costs will never exceed your ability to pay.”

A basic understanding of economics should tell you this can’t be right. The federal government and the insurance industry have limited resources; the demand for health care is potentially unlimited. Therefore, no conceivable legislation can ensure that the demand for health care will never exceed the resources available to pay for it. All legislation can do is to shift who controls the allocation of scarce health care dollars—in this case away from patients and insurance companies and toward the federal government. Reasonable people can disagree about whether that’s an improvement, but it’s disingenuous to pretend that any legislation could “eliminate” caps on coverage or “ensure” that health care wants will never outstrip our ability to pay for them.

Back to the Bad Old Days of High Marginal Tax Rates

As Mike Tanner has written, the health care bill means a big tax hike – indeed, a lot of tax hikes.  It also means a reversal of one of President Ronald Reagan’s great achievements, bringing down the top marginal income tax rate. 

Reports the Washington Times:

Small-business owners are warning that the economy would suffer under a health care bill proposed by House Democrats, which would drive tax rates for high-income taxpayers to levels not seen since before President Reagan’s tax reform of 1986.

The top federal income tax rate, which Mr. Reagan and a bipartisan Congress lowered from 50 percent to 28 percent, would reach 45 percent in 2011 if Congress and President Obama enact the surtaxes that are part of the health care reform plan that House Democrats announced Tuesday.

Small-business owners, who would take a direct hit from the surtaxes, expressed dismay over the proposal, saying it would force them to curtail hiring and reduce wages amid the worst recession in a generation.

“If they institute a 5 percent surtax on income, it will have a severe impact on small businesses that are already hurting,” said Michael Fredrich, whose Wisconsin company, MCM Composites, molds plastic parts.

“We run maybe three days a week, sometimes four days a week, sometimes zero days,” he said. “I can tell you that at some point, people … running a small business are just going to say, ‘To hell with it.’ “

Individuals tend to focus on their tax burden.  After all, our overall tax bill reflects the amount of money we lose as legislators speed about the country allegedly “serving” us while promoting their own political ends. 

Marginal tax rates more directly affect decisions on saving, investment, business formation, work effort, job creation, and more.  Even politicians not enamored of the “rich,” whatever that term means, should recognize that we all benefit from an economic system which encourages entrepreneurship.

Proponents of big tax hikes might want to recall Aesop’s Fable, The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.  Wreck the economy, and the health care system will crash too.

We Can No Longer Afford an Education Monopoly

In an IBD op-ed today, I point out that we’re spending twice as much per pupil as we did in 1970, despite no improvement in achievement at the end of high school and a decline in the graduation rate over that same period.

What difference does that make? If public schools had just managed not to get any less efficient over the past 40 years, we’d be saving $300 billion annually.

Our education monopoly is a luxury we can no longer afford. When the economy was booming, it didn’t matter that it cost us more and more every year for the same or even inferior results. These days, it’s becoming imperative that we find ways for our education system to enjoy the same relentless increases in efficiency that we take for granted in every other field.

This, for instance, would be a good start.

Economic urgency isn’t the only good reason to bring education back within the free enterprise system, but when the school monopoly starts bringing entire states to their financial knees, it’s certainly one we should take seriously.

Randal O’Toole Takes on Smart Growth in the NYT

The New York Times has a long profile today of Cato’s Randal O’Toole, scourge of urban planners.

But O’Toole doesn’t fit the portrait of a corporate advocate. On visits to Capitol Hill, he blends in as a middle-aged, middle-height man in a dark suit – but his beard gives him away, its shaggy twists seemingly fitting for a forest dweller. He wears a string tie that most Americans would only recognize on Colonel Sanders. His lapel doesn’t carry the standard-issue flag pin but a bronze bust of his dog, Chip. The Belgian tervuren won it in a dog show.

O’Toole routinely hikes and bikes dozens of miles, and he proudly announces that he has never driven a car to work. Far from living on a luxurious Virginia manor, he left his last Oregon town when it added a third stoplight.

Now, from his home computer in Camp Sherman, Ore., population 300, O’Toole rails against smart-growth policies as money sponges that never calm traffic, fill seats on trains, or help the environment.

The story ends with Randal on his way to a conference in Las Vegas, which I also attended. There in the 80-degree early morning heat, he biked 50 miles each morning, on a folding bicycle that he could fit into a suitcase – and still got back to the hotel in time to fix my Powerpoint before my speech. He’s a Renaissance man.

Review of the Big REAL ID Hearing

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing yesterday on the REAL ID Act and the REAL ID revival bill, known as PASS ID. I attended and want to share with you some highlights.

Good News!

Little good came from the hearing, as it was primarily focused on how to get the states and people to accept a national ID. But there is some good news.

First, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared REAL ID dead (much as I did in my testimony two-plus years ago). “DOA” is how she referred to it.

She also said that no state will be in compliance with REAL ID by the current December 31, 2009 deadline. This is important because a lot of people think that states doing anything about the security of drivers’ licenses and ID cards are complying with REAL ID.

Another highlight was the commentary of Senator Roland Burris (D-IL). He is a beleaguered outsider to the Senate and evidently wasn’t coached on the talking points around REAL ID and PASS ID. So he flat out asked why we shouldn’t just have “a national ID.”

Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) nervous smile was particularly noticeable when Burris asked why the emperor had no clothes. No one was supposed to talk about national IDs at this hearing! But that’s what PASS ID is.

REAL ID and PASS ID are two versions of the same national ID system, and nobody is denying it. That’s good news because the effort to rebrand REAL ID through PASS ID has failed.

A Fake Crisis

Some other issue-framing is worth pointing out. Chairman Lieberman and Secretary Napolitano took pains to point out the importance of acting on PASS ID soon, claiming that the TSA would have to seriously inconvenience travelers with secondary searches at the end of the year if nothing was done.

But this is the same “crisis” that the DHS navigated a little over a year ago. States across the country were refusing to implement REAL ID. The DHS Secretary rattled his saber about inconveniencing travelers. And the DHS Secretary ended up giving all states a deadline extension. Secretary Napolitano will do the same thing if PASS ID fails - saber-rattling included. There is no crisis.

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas Supports a National ID

As I noted above, PASS ID is a national ID, just like REAL ID.

By testifying in support of PASS ID, Vermont governor Jim Douglas (R) put himself on record as supporting a U.S. national ID. He can pretend it’s not a national ID, of course, and he did his best to paper over the issue when Senator Burris asked about it. But Governor Douglas supports a national ID.

There was a time when Republicans stood for resisting federal incursions on state power. In the 104th Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a subcommittee that focused on federalism and the preservation of state power (the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights). But the National Governors Association, with Douglas at the helm, is now in the process of negotiating the sale of state power over driver licensing and identification policy to the federal government.

Rampant Security Ignorance

The reason why he supports this national ID law, Governor Douglas said, is that he, like every governor, “is a security governor.”

With so many Senators and panelists conjuring security and the 9/11 Commission report, it would be a delight if someone actually examined the security benefits of a national ID. The information is there for them. Again, my testimony to the committee two years ago supplied at least some. Then, I said, “Implementation of REAL ID would impose more costs on our society than it would provide in security or other benefits,” and I articulated how and why a national ID fails to secure.

But Senator Lieberman said he “assumes” REAL ID provides national security benefits. Assumes? He and his staff apparently haven’t familiarized themselves with the level of national security that a national ID would create, taking into account the counterattacks and complications of such a system.

Five years after the vaunted 9/11 Commission report - and the three-quarters of a page it devoted to identity security - Senator Lieberman, the chairman of a committee dealing with domestic security, has yet to look into the merits.

In case Senator Lieberman needs some help …

I’m So Sick of the 9/11 Commission Report!

Speaking of the 9/11 Commission, it has been five years since that report came out, and people continue to parrot the line that REAL ID was a “key 9/11 Commission recommendation.”

The 9/11 Commission dedicated three-quarters of a page to the question of identity security, out of 400+ substantive pages. Its entire treatment of the subject is on page 390.

The 9/11 Commission did not articulate how a national ID system would defeat future terror attacks. It did not even articulate how a national ID would have defeated the 9/11 attacks had it been in place. A minor shift in behavior by the 9/11 attackers, such as using their passports to board planes, would have defeated REAL ID and PASS ID, were we somehow allowed “do-overs.”

We are not allowed “do-overs,” and the problem we face is not 9/11, but securing against current and future threats - including people who might shift their behavior in light of security measures we take.

These shifts in behavior might include taking a few extra steps to get the documentation they need, for access to the country or targets. These shifts in behavior might include attacking targets that do not require documentation. Identity-based security is a Maginot Line.

The 9/11 Commission report was written at a time when little research on identity-based security had been done. It was written by fallible humans who knew little about identity-based security, and who got it wrong. The report is not a religious text.

The report did say something important, though: “For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons”! (page 384) It’s a terrific turn of phrase because it shuts down the logic centers in the brain - eek, terrorists! - and ends the discussion.

The “travel documents” the report was talking about, though, were passports and visas, not drivers’ licenses and birth certificates - the things foreign terrorists use to get into the country. If we’re going to turn the driver’s license into an internal passport - and TSA checkpoints are the beginning of such a policy - then perhaps these are travel documents. Just, please, Secretary Napolitano, train your TSA agents to not say, “Your papers, please.”

Even as to international travel documents, though, the 9/11 Commission got it wrong. Weapons are the only things as important as weapons. And the 9/11 terrorists didn’t actually use weapons any more substantial than box cutters. They “weaponized” a non-weapon. (Security is complicated, you see.)

Denying terrorists travel documents, drivers’ licenses, and IDs simply presents them some inconveniences - such as using people with no record of terrorism. Seventeen of nineteen 9/11 attackers were unknown to U.S. officials as threats, so it’s obviously not that much of an inconvenience.

Evading identity-based security is so easy. People do it all the time. And it won’t stop under anyone’s version of a national ID. But the 9/11 Commission said … !

Something New to Worry About

Much of the national ID battle happens at the federal level with these national ID laws, of course, but it’s important to realize that federal officials, state officials, companies, and non-profit groups are working to knit together a cradle-to-grave national ID system no matter what happens with REAL ID and PASS ID.

Here’s one worth highlighting: Thirteen states apparently are already scanning, or have scanned, their birth certificates into databases for use in the national ID system. The effort is being led by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems in Silver Spring, Maryland. This group will undoubtedly have access to your private health information should federal e-health records be implemented, so you might want to familiarize yourself with them.

Is your state one of them? How many copies of your birth certificate can be found in how many places around the country? You might want to ask your state legislators about that. The future of this effort is to collect biometrics at birth, of course. This is a privacy problem.

But maybe all the privacy concerns have been taken care of. The proponents of REAL/PASS ID found themselves a fig leaf on that score.

Token Cover on Privacy Issues

Ari Schwartz from the Center for Democracy and Technology testified in favor of PASS ID. (Senator Akaka noted in his opening statement that CDT endorses PASS ID.)

He characterized opponents of REAL/PASS ID as wanting to “do nothing.” It’s a classic ploy - but cheaper than we’re used to seeing from Ari and CDT - to mischaracterize opponents as wanting to “do nothing.” As Ari knows well, I have advocated endlessly for a diverse and competitive identification and credentialing system that would provide all the security ID systems can, without government surveillance.

But Ari testified imaginatively about how PASS ID makes a national ID okay. He has concerns with it, of course, yadda yadda yadda - the privacy fig leaf obliged to wear a fig leaf himself.

And this is the unexpected bad news from the hearing. The Center for Democracy and Technology supports having a national ID in the United States.

Many would find this inexplicable, but it’s not. Though the people who work at CDT personally want very much to do the right thing, there are no principles to the organization beside compromise and having a seat at the table (neither of which are actually principles, of course).

CDT plays a wonderful convening role on many issues, and the name of the organization implies that it reconciles technology programs with fundamental societal values. But here it has given political cover to the push for a national ID in the United States. One can’t help wondering if there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.