More Unwelcome Big-Think from Donald Kerr

Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of national intelligence, created a stir last year when he opined about “privacy” in a way that redefined the concept as congenially to the intelligence community as possible.

I put it this way in a critique at the time:

“If you’ve identified yourself to your ISP,” he appears to think, “you’ve identified yourself to me.” The folks in his world may think that way, but that’s not the way the rest of us look at it, and it’s not consistent with a sound interpretation of the Fourth Amendment or life in a free society.

Now he’s back at it with “cybersecurity.”

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reports on two recent Kerr speeches that have “called for a radical new relationship between government and the private sector” in this area:

One approach would have the government take equity stakes in companies developing technical products, in effect expanding the practice of In-Q-Tel, the CIA entity that invests in companies.

Another proposal is to provide the same protective capabilities applied to government Web sites, ending in .gov and .mil, to the private industry’s sites, ending in .com, which Kerr said have close to 98 percent of the nation’s most important information.
* * *
“We have a responsibility … to help those companies that we take an equity stake in or those that are just out there in the U.S. economy, to protect the most valuable assets they have, their ideas and the people who create them,” he said.

The government-ownership-of-private-assets train is rolling out of the station and Kerr wants his agency to be on board. But he’s wrong. It’s the responsibility of private owners to secure their assets.

This is big-think we do not need. Just like with his contortion of “privacy,” Kerr would upend the roles and responsibilities of government and the private sector by giving government an ownership stake, for “cybersecurity” reasons or any other.

Lula’s Heart vs Brazil’s Interests

Brazil’s president, Luiz Lula da Silva, has informed everyone whom he favors in today’s election: “This (financial) crisis, among other benefits it will cause, will get Obama elected as president of the United States. It will get a black man elected, which is no small matter.”

This is quite ironic. During Lula’s tenure as president of Brazil he has heavily focused his relationship with the United States on commercial issues, particularly two: the elimination of a U.S. tariff on Brazilian ethanol and the reduction of U.S. farm subsidies for which Brazil has refused to negotiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas. On both issues, John McCain favors Brazil’s interests while Obama opposes them.

McCain has said he would eliminate the tariff on Brazilian ethanol (which is probably costing him Iowa). Obama would keep it. McCain also voted against the farm bill which extended the agricultural subsidies that Lula complains so much about in international fora. Obama voted in favor of it.

It seems that Lula’s left-leaning heart has lead him to favor a candidate that goes against his country’s own interests.

Obama’s Pandering to Seniors

“Many seniors are struggling to keep pace with costs,” Senator Obama told a largely senior audience in Florida on September 18. Social Security benefits are adjusted for rising prices but not for rising taxes, including increased fees for Medicare. Using a line from his tax plan, Obama said, “This strain has been greater since 1993, when taxes on social security benefits were raised. Millions of seniors saw their net benefits go down.”

Thanks to Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax law, single seniors with incomes above $40,048 in 2007 had to pay income tax on 85% of a portion of their benefits, and those with income above $46,850 had to pay tax on 85% of their entire benefits. That 1993 tax increase hits couples with incomes above $54,278.

In retirement communities in key states like Florida and Arizona, Obama has cleverly tapped into senior resentment about the Clinton era, when “millions of seniors saw their net benefits go down.” But then he pulls a bait and switch trick.

Clinton’s 1993 tax hike reduced after-tax benefits for seniors earning more than $50,000—because they continued working after age 65 and/or because they saved for retirement.

Obama proposes to fix that by eliminating income tax for seniors earning less than $50,000. He says, “When I’m President, we’ll work to see that no retiree making less than $50,000 each year has to pay income tax. This will eliminate income taxes for about 7 million Americans, at a savings rate of roughly $1,400 each year. And 22 million seniors won’t even have to file a return and hire an expensive tax preparer.”

If Sally is 60 years old earns $49,000 by working, she would pay a higher income (and payroll) tax than Sam who is 66 and makes $49,000 from retirement income. Is there any rational explanation for that other than a shameless attempt to buy senior votes?

To help pay for such arbitrary tax favoritism, Obama wants to increase the tax rates on capital gains and dividends—two taxes that hit frugal seniors much harder than young people.

As I wrote in my Hillsdale College paper, “The argument for Obama’s tax plans is expressed in terms of fairness, rather than the impact on incentives and economic performance, yet the implied concept of fairness remains ambiguous. A single senior with a retirement income of $50,000 has the same per capita income as a two-earner family with $250,000 and three children. Yet the retired senior would be exempt from income tax, under this plan, while the large working family would be required to pay federal and state taxes of up to 46% on their next dollar of income while losing valuable deductions (e.g., for state income taxes and mortgage interest) and also losing five personal exemptions (which were supposed to be partial compensation for the added expense of supporting a larger family). The fairness of such a reallocation of tax burdens is, to put it mildly, not self-evident.”

Obama’s Tax Deceptions

Senator Obama famously claims, “I’ll give a tax break to 95% of workers and their families.”  The Obama team never explained that figure, because they made it up.  They always cite the friendly Tax Policy Center (TPC), when it suits their purposes, but not this time. That is because the Tax Policy Center concludes that under Obama’s plan, “about 81 percent of households would owe less tax while only [only?] about 10 percent would owe more.”  Compared with current tax policy, says the TPC “those in the top fifth of the income distribution would face and average tax increase of 3.4 percent of income, or $7,727.” The TPC adds that “married couples filing jointly would fare worst” because “married couples have much higher average incomes ($125,155 in 2009).”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 3, however, Obama said, “If you work, pay taxes, and make less than $200,000, you’ll get a tax cut.” That too is flatly false. Single workers who make more than $80,000 (or joint returns above $155,000) would not get a tax cut under Obama’s plan.

The centerpiece of the Obama redistribution scheme is a refundable “Making Work Pay Credit” (MWPC) of 6.2% up to a maximum of $8,100 of earnings, or about $500 per earner. This credit alone would cost $710 billion over ten years, according to the TPC, about half the cost of his entire $1.32 trillion package of assorted tax credits and exemptions.

The Making Work Pay credit results in a $500 check for those who pay no income tax, but it phases-out quickly once income exceeds $75,000. A two-earner family could get as much as $1000 from two tax credits, but that disappears as income exceeds $150,000. That is what Joe Biden meant when he said—correctly—that the plan is designed to help those earning less than $150,000.

University of Maine accounting professor Jeff Gramlich created a website which (like the Obama campaign) relies on Tax Policy Center estimates. It shows that a single worker earning $80,000 would get a $132 tax cut in 2010, but a single worker earning $85,000 would get nothing. A joint return with $155,000 of salary income would get a $270 tax cut, but a joint return with $160,000 would get nothing.

None of the other Obama tax cuts would be available to anyone earning anything close to $200,000. His child care credit phases out as incomes rise from $30,000 to $58,000; his exemption for seniors phases out as income rises from $50,000 to $60,000; his 50% savers credit ends at $75,000; his $4000 college tax credits (which pays $40 an hour for community service work) phases out as family income rises from $100,000 to $120,000. Robert Carroll of the Tax Foundation notes that, “The combination of the phase-out of the EITC, the “Making Work Pay” credit, and the child and dependent care credit pushes the effective marginal tax rate to as high as 51.7 percent. That is, the taxpayer who benefits from all these provisions at a lower income discovers that he gets to keep less than one half of every additional dollar of earnings in the roughly $30,000-to-$43,000 range.”

I recently demonstrated  that Obama’s repeated claim about McCain’s alleged $200 billion corporate tax cut is a total fraud. Amazingly, it turns out that Obama is also unable to tell the truth about his own tax plan.

Should Women Pay More for Health Insurance?

Women pay higher health insurance premiums than men.  The New York Times reports that some activists and politicians believe this is due to unfair discrimination against women.  Presumably, the remedy is to force insurers to charge women and men identical premiums, which would reduce premiums for women by increasing premiums for men.

First of all, is this unfair discrimination?  As I wrote to the Times:

If health insurers charge women higher premiums, and those premiums cannot be justified by the fact that women file more claims than men, then that would indeed carry the odor of sexism.  But to prove that those higher premiums are indeed sexist, one must first explain why competition hasn’t eliminated sexist surcharges.

If insurer A quotes my sister an actuarially fair premium plus a sexist surcharge, then insurer B can profit by quoting her a premium with no sexist surcharge.  To prove sexism, activists and politicians must explain why insurers are not maximizing profits – which is the opposite of what activists and politicians usually claim. 

Unfortunately, your article did not broach this glaring omission.  Thus we don’t know if those who want men and women to pay the same health-insurance premiums are truly battling sexism or just desperately seeking subsidies.

Second, if charging different premiums based on sex is wrong, why only look at health insurance?  Men pay higher premiums for life and auto insurance.  While we’re at it, young drivers pay higher auto insurance premiums than older drivers.  Are those premiums evidence of sexism and ageism?   Should we tax female drivers to subsidize males?  Should we tax older drivers to subsidize young speed demons?  Women’s higher health-care costs may be driven by biology, but so are males’ higher life and auto insurance premiums (e.g., men are biologically programmed to be more aggressive).  So where’s the outcry on behalf of young men?

Third, risk-based insurance premiums are an essential tool for containing health-care costs.  High health-insurance premiums create profit opportunities for insurers and providers who can deliver insurance and medical care to women at a lower cost.  As my colleagues Peter Van Doren, Tom Miller, and John Samples write (altered to fit this context):

Free markets work best if they include all costs and benefits to market participants. No one likes the added costs and anxieties created by [women’s higher medical consumption], but we can’t pretend they don’t exist or that the government can magically make them disappear. Our markets for risk are not failing, they are simply telling us news we don’t like hearing…

If fewer insurance policies are written and fewer [women obtain health insurance], then that is the best we can do under the circumstances – until we find a way to change those circumstances…

Change the risk.  Don’t hide its cost.

In health care, changing the risk means encouraging the most frequent consumers of medical care (e.g., women) to be more economical.  It also means deregulating medical professionals and health insurance, so that the market can meet women’s needs at a lower cost. 

Throwing subsidies at the problem will only make it worse.