New Congress, New National ID Proposals

The new Congress came roaring out of the gate yesterday, with more than 350 new bills introduced. That should be enough for an entire two years, but they’re not likely to stop there.

Among many other subjects, Congress will consider creating “a secure Social Security card.” The idea is to protect seniors from identity theft, and the author of this legislation no doubt intends not to create a national ID. But the reality is that this would be a nationally uniform card made secure with a nationally standardized biometric, and it’s very likely that it would be administered with a national biometric database. That’s a national ID system, and it is a profound threat to American liberty.

You can learn a bit about identification and identification policy in my book, Identity Crisis.

Congress has also already seen a bill to mandate electronic employment eligibility verification. That can only be done through a national identity system, as I articulated in my paper: “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

And here’s a bill that would do both.

Welcome new Congress! Now go home.

A New Surgeon General, Why?

It appears that Barack Obama will name CNN health reporter Sanjay Gupta as the next US Surgeon General. Although I strongly disagree with Dr. Gupta on many issues, such as his support for national health care, he is probably as good a choice as any. But the bigger question is why do we need a surgeon general in the first place? After all, can anyone name our current (acting) surgeon general?

In reality, the surgeon general is little more than the “national nanny,” hectoring us to stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and never ever go out without a condom. I’ve been flipping through my copy of the Constitution, and I can’t find the authorization for the federal government to take taxpayers’ money to establish an office to tell us how we should live our lives. There are plenty of private groups that are fully capable of instructing us on how to be healthy, wealthy and wise without the government’s getting involved. The American Lung Association can tell us not to smoke. Alcoholics Anonymous can preach sobriety. The American Medical Association can lecture couch potatoes on the benefits of losing weight and exercising more. Planned Parenthood and the Family Research Council can fight it out over when and how we should have sex.

The surgeon general does oversee the Public Health Service. But we have a Department of Health and Human Services that is supposed to be running the government’s health care programs. Why not let HHS take over any useful functions of the Public Health Service and dump the rest, including the surgeon general?

President-Elect Obama says he wants to be a different type of president.  Fair enough.  Why not start by letting people live the way they want, without a surgeon general looking over our shoulder and nagging us.

Welcome Stephen Walt to the Blogosphere

I’m sorry to be late to this party, but it’s really great to see Stephen Walt blogging for Foreign Policy magazine.  Walt is now clearly the most high-profile academic realist in the blogosphere, and it’s terrific he’s blogging.  A lot of people like to call themselves realists inside the Beltway, but they’re basically all liberals, in IR terms.  Actual realists have long been egregiously underrepresented in the American government, the American media, and basically everywhere in the U.S. outside the academy.  More people need to hear realist voices.  Realists wisely opposed the Iraq war, and have a host of ideas about how the world works that, if they gained greater sway in Washington, might help prevent the next couple of screw-ups the government is planning for us.

Here’s a good post from Walt on defense spending.  Walt writes that you’d think, since the United States enjoys a terribly benign threat environment, just elected a liberal Democrat president, and is facing an economic meltdown, the bloated defense budget ought to be on the chopping block:

Here’s why it won’t happen any time soon. As Cindy Williams, former director of the National Security division of the Congressional Budget Office and now a senior research scientist at MIT, points out in an as-yet unpublished paper for the Tobin Project, DOD is insulated from serious cuts by an array of impressive political advantages. First, its budget is more than 50 percent of all federal discretionary spending, and its sheer size gives it a lot of bureaucratic clout. Second, the Pentagon has a large domestic constituency: there are 1.4 million men and women in uniform, 850,000 paid members of the National Guard and Reserve, and 650,000 civilian employees. Forget GM, Ford and Chrysler: the Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the whole country. Now add the companies that provide goods and services for the military. Their employees amount to about 5.2 million jobs, which is a pretty impressive domestic constituency. And don’t forget those 25 million veterans, who are hardly shrinking violets when defense spending is concerned. Finally, a well-financed group of Beltway bandits and Washington think tanks stand ready to question the patriotism of any politician (and especially any Democrat) who tries to put the Pentagon on a diet.

Matt Yglesias responds to this with a note of surprise, and then an endorsement:

It seems unlike a realist to cite domestic political dynamics as the cause of national security policy, but clearly this is correct.

This is a pretty common objection when realists talk about foreign policy, as opposed to international politics, but it belies a misunderstanding of the theory.  Realists talk a lot about structure in the international political context: various structures of the balance of power push states in one direction or another.  If Mexico were twice as powerful as the United States, different structural forces would be acting on us.  Realists note that structures “shape and shove” but don’t determine foreign policies.  Kenneth Waltz memorably wrote in 1997 that states “are free to do any fool thing they care to, but are likely to be rewarded for behavior that is responsive to structural pressures and punished for behavior that is not.”

One of the things that’s really curious about today’s world (and another about which Walt has written) is the strange condition of unipolarity.  Given the size of the power disparity between the United States and, well, everybody else, there are few structural constraints acting on American policymakers.  So one major input, structure, that should play a powerful role in constraining statesmen’s options, isn’t really working.

Thus far the results have been pretty disappointing.  American policymakers have tended to expansionism, to recklessness, and to grand strategies based on trying to dominate the world.  A (hopefully) interesting theoretical question I’m kicking around is, Under unipolarity, what constraints are acting, given that structure really isn’t, and is there any reason to believe that any of these constraints will start limiting American strategic options any time soon?  If there are no binding constraints in sight, aren’t we very likely (destined?) to continue with the primacy strategy we’ve followed more or less since 1991?

Thus far, it seems like the domestic inputs that Walt and Cindy Williams point to have provided policymakers a completely blank slate to do anything they wish–except choose grand strategies based on restraint.  A lot of us yearn for a strategy of restraint, but it seems to me that it’s going to take some pretty serious tinkering with domestic politics to get us there, given the factors described above and the absence of meaningful structural constraints.  As it is, we’re dealing with fundamentally unchecked power.  Which both realists and libertarians ought to be wary of.

The Timely Lesson of the “Bud Shuster Highway”

A bit over a week ago the New York Times ran a piece on the recent completion of the final 18-mile leg of Interstate 99 in central Pennsylvania.  I-99 is known as the “Bud Shuster Highway” in honor of the legendary pork-barreling congressman responsible for securing the federal largess to build it.  Federal budget hawks have more derisive labels for it such as “Bud Shuster’s Rollercoaster” and “The Road to Nowhere.”  The latter nickname stings me personally as I grew up in Bud Shuster’s “Nowhere” district.

Nonetheless, critics of the highway who question why taxpayers in the other 49 states should pay for the powerful former House Transportation Committee Chairman’s vanity plate are correct.  I recently traveled Bud Shuster’s highway for the umpteenth time over the holidays and often went a mile or two before seeing another vehicle. The fact of the matter is that had Bud Shuster not been the powerful chairman of said transportation committee, this road does not become interstate-anything.

It strikes me that I-99 is a perfect example of what happens when politicians and bureaucrats, rather than private enterprise, are tasked with economic development.  I’ll just point out three illuminating bites from the Times piece, but a google search on Bud Shuster or his highway will provide plenty more sordid details for those interested.

First, more evidence for Edwards’ Budget Law:

At $631 million, including $83 million to clean up toxic pyritic rock that was the result of a 35-million-year-old meteor impact, this section of I-99 was nearly twice as expensive as anticipated and took at least four years longer than expected to finish.

Second, a lesson in the arrogance and disregard for the rules so commonly displayed by politicians:

…[W]hen he [Shuster] was told that the highway would officially be considered a “spur” connecting I-76 and I-80 and would have to be named something like Interstate 876 or Interstate 280, he resisted because, he said, it was not “catchy.” So, reaching into his childhood memories of the old rickety street car, No. 99, that took people from his hometown of Glassport, Pa., to McKeesport, he wrote into law that it would be called I-99, believed to be the first time that was ever done. That violated the highway numbering protocol the federal government usually uses for Interstates, which requires north-south highway numbers to rise from lower in the west, like Interstate 5, to higher in the east, like Interstate 95.

Third, no need to worry about the details when taxpayers are footing the bill:

By deciding to go over the mountain, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation cut into an acidic pyrite rock formation. The department had anticipated that, but its studies had failed to accurately calculate how much pyrite there was, and how “hot,” or acidic, it was…so acidic that when exposed to air and water, the runoff had the pH level of battery acid. The state spent two years and $83 million digging up more than one million cubic yards of the pyrite-laden rock and created a lined landfill next to the highway, mixing a larger-than-normal amount of limestone in to neutralize it and then covering it over with more fill.

Not a day goes by now that politicians and their willing accomplices don’t cry out for billions of dollars in taxpayer-financed “stimulus” to deal, in part, with “our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”  Yet, the Bud Shuster Highway provides a timely lesson on how we can expect our legislators to “invest” our money on the nation’s infrastructure.  As Cato’s Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren recently put it:

The main problem with current government infrastructure spending is not its magnitude but its lack of efficiency. More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

PBS in Action

I got a fundraising letter at home, an all-green envelope with a silhouetted tree and the stark message:

This is no time to fool with our planet… AN URGENT OFFER INSIDE

An environmentalist organization, of course.

But not exactly. In fact, it was a fundraising letter from MPT, which did not quite tell me anywhere that that stands for Maryland Public Television, a television network owned and operated by the State of Maryland. The letter continued in that vein: “no time to take our planet for granted … understand the stakes … cannot afford a community and nation ignorant of science.” Sounds like Maryland Government Television knows which side is right in the heated scientific, economic, and political debates over environmental issues.

True, they do promise to use their “unique ability” to “bring our community real science with no political agenda, news reporting with diverse perspectives, and programs that teach kids conservation values.” But has anybody ever seen a PBS/MPT documentary on the high costs of environmental regulation? Or the fact that the globe hasn’t warmed for the past 10 years? Or the way that markets lead to better environmental amenities? Not really a lot of diverse perspectives, as the general tenor of the letter would suggest.

MPT’s fundraising letter seems to acknowledge clearly its function: To raise money from liberals, to supplement the tax money raised from people of all political perspectives, to advance one side of controversial issues. In a world of 500 channels, why are we taxing people to support one side in a broad political debate?

“Friendly” Health Care Debate on PBS

As I blogged last fall, I had the opportunity to participate in a Fred Friendly Seminar on the future of health care reform. Hosted by NYU law professor Arthur Miller, the program featured — in addition to me — AARP CEO Bill Novelli, former U.S. Comptroller General Dave Walker, Washington Post Bureau Chief T.R. Reid, and Harvard Business School professor Regina Herzlinger, along with family doctors, business owners, hospital administrators, and health policy experts in a lively debate over how to control health care costs, expand access, and improve the quality of care. That debate will be broadcast by PBS the week of January 18. For information on when it can be seen in your area, click here.

How Should Developing Nations Regulate Health Care?

The latest issue of the journal Health Affairs publishes a letter I wrote to the editors concerning articles on health care regulation in China and India.  The entire letter follows (links added):

Recent articles on China and India (Jul/Aug 08) share the assumptions that markets for medical care and health insurance require extensive government regulation and that each nation should focus on universal coverage.

I am unfamiliar with the history of regulation in those nations. But the track record of clinician and insurance regulation in the United States is not encouraging. Both have been used by incumbents to block competition, leading to higher costs and lower quality. Gerald Bloom and colleagues worry that unless India imposes clinician licensing, “the natural process of competition is expected to force each insurer to come up with its own accreditation policy and reimbursement procedures.” Does that mean that prepayment would compete openly with fee-for-service? And that physicians could not increase costs by blocking health plans from employing mid-levels when appropriate? Dear God—not that.

Ashoke Bhattacharjya and Puneet Sapra write, “It is encouraging to note that notwithstanding the myriad issues and challenges discussed above, both countries are developing a constructive working framework to balance the interests of government, providers, employers, the insurance industry, and patients, en route to the goal of universal coverage and fairness in health care financing.” That’s just the problem: a policy of universal coverage puts too much power in the hands of elites. It inevitably “balances” those interests, when patients’ interests should trump all others. Does not the fact that “these countries lack the fiscal resources required for universal coverage because of their…low average wages” suggest that many residents have more pressing needs than health insurance? For things that might just deliver greater health improvements? In a profession where universal coverage is a religion, such questions are heresy,I know.

China and India are in the process of a slow climb out of poverty. It is entirely possible that the best thing those governments could do to improve these markets and population health would be to enforce contracts, punish torts, contain contagion, and nothing else.

Michael F. Cannon
Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.