Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality

The public discussion of inequality in the United States, and no doubt elsewhere, is marked by a lack of clarity and care. Few commentators — even among those who are professional economists — speak clearly about what the various measures of economic inequality do and do not tell us. In a new study, Cato scholar Will Wilkinson challenges many common assumptions about equality and political morality that appear again and again in textbooks, media reports, and public discussions.

Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality, Cato Policy Analysis No. 640

Sotomayor Waffles on Property Rights

The hearing began after lunch with Senator Grassley probing Sotomayor’s views on Kelo v. New London and the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property right—one of the questions I would ask her. The nominee apparently thought the senator (who’s not a lawyer) needed a lesson in what went on in Kelo and how the Court ruled. Grassley, having been briefed by counsel, didn’t seem to care for that, pushing Sotomayor on whether she thought Kelo was correctly decided and how she views constitutional property rights generally.

Sotomayor said Kelo was a judgment of the Court that she accepts, but that any future case she would have to judge on its own merits. Well, of course, but that wasn’t the question on the table. Exasperated, Grassley asked Sotomayor whether a taking with no compensation would be constitutional. The “wise Latina” couldn’t formulate a proper response, smiling and explaining that what constitutes a “taking” is subject to legal analysis. Well, yes, but that still doesn’t answer the question. Finally, Sotomayor concluded that if a taking violated the Constitution, she would have to strike it down.

In short, according to Sotomayor, if something is unconstitutional, a judge can’t allow it. The technical term we lawyers use for this kind of sophisticated reasoning is “circular”—with the judge here getting to decide based on no discernible criteria whether something is constitutional. For more on the outrageous takings Judge Sotomayor has allowed, see George Mason law professor Ilya Somin’s analysis of the Didden v. Port Chester case. (Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, will be testifying at the hearings later this week.)

Update: Sotomayor and “Secret Law”

Sotomayor didn’t have much to say in response to Senator Feingold’s inquiries regarding national security law and civil liberties post-9/11, but the Wisconsin lawmaker’s questions about “secret law”—on which he didn’t press the nominee’s non-answers—made me think of the following: Both Ricci (the infamous firefighters race discrimination case) and Didden were “unpublished” summary dispositions.

If Sotomayor had not been nominated to the Supreme Court, causing hundreds if not thousands of lawyers to comb through her judicial opinions, would anyone have uncovered these blatant attempts to sweep controversial legal issues under the rug?  Are Ricci and Didden Sotomayor’s secret law?

CP Townhall

Update on the Sotomayor Hearings

After yesterday’s bloviating—much reduced by Joe Biden’s departure from the committee—today we’ve gotten into some good stuff. Sotomayor is obviously well-prepared. She speaks in measured, dulcet tones, showing little emotion.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy gave her the opportunity to explain herself on Ricci and on the “wise Latina” comment—which she has repeated in public speeches at least six times going back 15 years—and then built up the nominee’s background as a prosecutor and trial judge. Ranking Member Sessions and Senator Hatch (himself a former chairman of the committee) pounded Sotomayor on Ricci, asking her how she reconciles a race-based decision with clear Supreme Court precedent—and how her panel decided the case in two paragraphs despite the weighty statutory and constitutional questions.

Sessions in particular pointed out the inconsistency between her statement yesterday that she was guided by “fidelity to the law” and her history of calling the appellate courts as being the place where “policy is made” and profession of inability to find an objective approach of the law divorced from a judge’s ethnicity or gender. Sotomayor’s responses were not convincing; rather than agreeing with Justice O’Connor’s statement that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come out the same way on the law, the “wise Latina” comment plainly means the exact opposite.

And so the back-and-forth continues. One refreshing thing I will note is that only twice has the nominee said she can’t answer a question or elaborate on a response: on abortion, saying Griswold, Roe, and Casey are settled law; and on guns, declining to discuss whether the constitutional right to bear arms can be used to strike down state (as opposed to federal) laws. The former is a clear—but not unexpected—cop-out because, unlike a lower court judge, the Supreme Court justice revisits the nature and scope of rights all the time. The latter is actually the correct response in light of the three cert petitions pending before the Court in the latest round of Second Amendment litigation. Still, her discussion of the Second Amendment left much to be desired given her ruling in Maloney; as Jillian Bandes pointed out recently, you can’t discuss incorporation without a solid understanding of Presser.

CP Townhall

$12 Billion: Coming to a Community College Near You

The Obama administration insists that we have to “educate our way to a better economy,” and in a proposal expected today will call for a $12 billion effort to graduate 5 million more students from community colleges over the next decade. The administration justifies this by noting that many of the jobs projected to grow fastest in coming years will require some postsecondary education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, projects (scroll down to “Education and Training” in the link) that the jobs that will have the highest overall growth will mainly require on-the-job – not college – training. Of course, it’s quite possible that the main goal of Obama’s proposal is not really to improve the economy (a highly dubious proposition regardless of motive) but to get more dollars to community-college employees, an interest group that seems to be growing in clout.

All of which begs the question: When are we going to see the change in education that this president promised, instead of the same old, simplistic bromides about more degrees and more money that ultimately takes valuable resources away from taxpayers and gives it to ivory-tower types? When are we going to stop seeing the easy money and access policies that have fueled the out-of-control tuition skyrocket; severely watered down what a college degree means; and led the nation to produce many more college graduates than we have jobs for? And couldn’t employers provide the on-the-job training that will be crucial for most new jobs a lot more effectively if they didn’t have to send their money to Washington, where politicians will waste it in pursuit of worthless degrees?

Of course they could. But if that were to happen, it would be much harder for politicians to appear to care – to be “doing something” – and that is what really matters in Washington.

“Cyberattack” in Perspective

Two very welcome articles skewer breathless reporting and commentary on the recent cyberattack against U.S. government Web sites, among other things.

In a “Costs of War” column entitled “Chasing Cyberghosts,” intrepid reporter Shaun Waterman turns up the excesses that blew the story out of proportion and easily enticed congressional leaders to overreact.

[M]edia coverage of the attacks almost universally attributed them to North Korea, initially on the basis of anonymous sources in the South Korean intelligence services.

“There’s not a shred of technical evidence it was North Korea,” said [Internet Storm Center director Marcus] Sachs… . [M]any lawmakers, apparently anxious to polish their hawkish credentials, were swift, as Sachs put it, “to pound their fists and demand retaliation.”

The North Koreans “need to be sent a strong message, whether it is a counterattack on cyber, [or] whether it is more international sanctions,” said Republican Rep Peter Hoekstra, a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “The only thing they will understand is some kind of show of force and strength.”

Security guru Bruce Schneier puts it all in perspective:

This is the face of cyberwar: easily preventable attacks that, even when they succeed, only a few people notice. Even this current incident is turning out to be a sloppily modified five-year-old worm that no modern network should still be vulnerable to.

Securing our networks doesn’t require some secret advanced NSA technology. It’s the boring network security administration stuff we already know how to do: keep your patches up to date, install good anti-malware software, correctly configure your firewalls and intrusion-detection systems, monitor your networks. And while some government and corporate networks do a pretty good job at this, others fail again and again.

I testified on cybersecurity in the House Science Committee late last month. This episode was a perfect illustration of one of my points to the committee: “Threat exaggeration has become boilerplate in the cybersecurity area.”

Waterman’s and Schneier’s pieces are shorter and eminently more readable so I’ll give them a “read-the-whole-thing.” All three of us participated in the Cato’s January conference on counterterrorism strategy.

Can a Story about Government-Run Health Care Have a Happy Ending?

Fox News recently reported about how Oregon’s government-run health system gives people advice on how to kill themselves. The statist system in the United Kingdom has a different approach, relying instead on people dying as they languish on waiting lists. But the bureaucrats across the pond are not a bunch of joyless robots. They managed to divert some of their budget to produce leaflets telling kids about the cardiovascular benefits of orgasms. The Telegraph reports on this innovative use of taxpayer funds:

NHS guidance is advising school pupils that they have a “right” to an enjoyable sex life and that regular sex can be good for their cardiovascular health. The advice appears in leaflets circulated to parents, teachers and youth workers and is meant to update sex education by telling students about the benefits of enjoyable sex. The authors of the guidance say that for too long, experts have concentrated on the need for “safe sex” and committed relationships while ignoring the principle reason that many people have sex. …The leaflet carries the slogan “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”. It also says: “Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?”

Good News: Health Care Express Slows

Health care “reformers” (meaning those who want to effectively nationalize America’s medical system) have long understood that their best hope in the new political environment is to ram through legislation with the claim that it is an emergency and won’t wait.  The longer the American people think about the increased cost, decreased choice, and other negative impacts of a a government takeover, the less likely they are to support it.

Thankfully, the government health express has slowed noticeably in recent weeks.  Even supporters are coming to doubt that legislation can be approved before Congress goes home in August.  Reports Politico:

Health care reform proponents are growing pessimistic that they can meet President Barack Obama’s August target for passing a bill — saying the next four weeks must fall together perfectly, without a hitch or a hiccup.

The number of weeks that’s happened recently? Zero.

A series of setbacks has made the task of completing floor votes in both chambers virtually insurmountable, given the plodding pace of the Senate. The official line from the White House and the congressional leadership is it’s possible, but privately, there are a dwindling number of aides who would put money on it.

And without a deal by August, the ripple effects could start to endanger the prospect of health care reform this year altogether — chief among them, the closer it gets to the 2010 midterm elections, the harder it will be to get members to make the toughpolitical decisions needed to vote on a bill.

This is good news.  The U.S. health system needs fixing.  But the more rushed they are, the less likely policymakers are to do the right thing.  We need a medical system that is more responsive to consumers and market forces rather than to political forces and government dictates.