Free Markets, Free People

Michael Wade

House Praises Irrational Number

No, I’m not referring to any stimulus bill, or deficit spending figures. This was no celebration of a CBO report or Obama budget figures. Instead, the House of Representatives decided that it needed to spend some time lauding that most infamous of all irrational numbers:

With the world swirling about it, the House took a moment Thursday to honor pi, the Greek letter symbolizing that great constant in mathematics representing the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

[…]

Rounded off, pi equates to 3.14, hence the designation of March 14 as Pi Day under the resolution. Informal celebrations have been held around the country for at least 20 years, but Thursday’s 391-10 vote is the first time Congress has joined the party.

“I’m kind of geeked up about it,” Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) told POLITICO. “It’s crazy, but I’m a whole lot more excited about that than congratulating the winner of last year’s Rose Bowl.

Well that’s reassuring. As long as the peoples’ representatives are happy, then we must all be happy, eh?

“It makes you realize how consequential you really are,” Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) said with a smile.

By “you” Delahunt meant himself (“consequential” being defined as “self-important”). Unless, of course, he meant to say “inconsequential” in which case he was referring to the voters, and he was exactly right.
pi-pie

“We were never good at math in my family,” said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). “I thought I was voting for p-i-e.”

Or reading and/or spelling? Hey, wait. Does Sara Lee have a factory in Murtha’s district?

That’s your congress-critters for you. only slightly less useful than Chia pets.

UPDATE: In the comments, Shark finds the silver lining: “It’s the least destructive thing they’ve done this year.”

Brooks On Capitalism

David Brooks had started down the road to Damascus when he was called back into the fold by Dear Leader. His Op-Ed in today’s NYT is the result.

Most of Brooks’ offering is a rather transparent attempt to shame congressional Republicans into supporting Pres. Obama’s agenda:

The Democratic response to the economic crisis has its problems, but let’s face it, the current Republican response is totally misguided. The House minority leader, John Boehner, has called for a federal spending freeze for the rest of the year. In other words, after a decade of profligacy, the Republicans have decided to demand a rigid fiscal straitjacket at the one moment in the past 70 years when it is completely inappropriate.

The G.O.P. leaders have adopted a posture that allows the Democrats to make all the proposals while all the Republicans can say is “no.” They’ve apparently decided that it’s easier to repeat the familiar talking points than actually think through a response to the extraordinary crisis at hand.

There are myriad problems with Brooks’ line of reasoning, including many in just to two foregoing paragraphs (e.g. How much input did Republicans have into the recent legislation? By “adopted a posture” is he referring to “not having control of either the House or the Senate”?), but I wanted to focus in on a couple of points in particular.

After some platitudinous admonitions, Brooks launches into his prescription for Republicans to save capitalism:

Third, Republicans could offer the public a realistic appraisal of the health of capitalism. Global capitalism is an innovative force, they could argue, but we have been reminded of its shortcomings. When exogenous forces like the rise of China and a flood of easy money hit the global marketplace, they can throw the entire system of out of whack, leading to a cascade of imbalances: higher debt, a grossly enlarged financial sector and unsustainable bubbles.

I really don’t know what point Brooks thought he was making, but he failed miserably on any score. First of all, “exogenous forces” cannot be “weaknesses” and/or “shortcomings” with capitalism since, by definition, they come from outside that system. At best, examining such forces can be used to understand better ways of protecting capitalism from them. In the context of the entire Op-Ed piece, however, it appears that Brooks is pitching the tired line that capitalism must be reigned in so that people don’t get hurt. That’s like diagnosing the problem with house, finding termites, and then thinking of ways to protect the termites from the house.

Furthermore, Brooks cites a “flood of easy money” (which, of course, is caused by government) as an example of an exogenous force, and then lists the following “shortcomings” of capitalism: “higher debt, a grossly enlarged financial sector and unsustainable bubbles.” What do any of those things have to do with capitalism? If anything, these are once again a failure of government skewing incentives.

In fact, when the government does its darnedest to make the cost of borrowing money historically low, people would be really stupid not to take advantage of that. We all know that rates fluctuate, and that the cost of money will be more expensive when they go back up. Logically therefore, it only makes sense to borrow when the Fed turns the money spigot on and then to find some sort of an asset to grow that money in. That, of course, is what leads to bubbles as everyone has barrels of money but not as many clear ideas of what makes a good investment. Instead of taking the time to really investigate what opportunities are available, and which ones fit a particular person’s portfolio, the herd mentality takes over and we all tend to keep up with the Jones and Smiths whether that means buying tulip bulbs or a run-down house we intend to flip.

The bottom line, however, is that these sorts of scenarios start with government intervention into the market place. In addition to turning on the money spigot, the federal government was also encouraging lenders to make high-risk loans, and for the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to buy them up, securitize them and sell them into the derivatives market. Again, that’s all fine and dandy (until it it all goes to hell), but it has nothing to do with “weaknesses” and “shortcomings” of capitalism, and everything to do with government sticking its big fat honker where it doesn’t belong.

More Brooks:

If the free market party doesn’t offer the public an honest appraisal of capitalism’s weaknesses, the public will never trust it to address them.

The “free market party”? Who does he think he’s kidding here? The Republicans haven’t acted like a free market party since … well … it’s been so long I can’t remember.

Moreover, I simply can’t fathom how Brooks thinks a “free market party” would ever be able to reconcile itself to joining hands with Obama on his completely anti-capitalist agenda.

Power will inevitably slide over to those who believe this crisis is a repudiation of global capitalism as a whole.

Earth to Brooks: that’s already happened. Look who the president is for crying out loud, or take the time to read your own newspaper. Each and every day we hear about how the excesses of capitalism caused this crisis, and how the “libertarian” policies of Bush (HA!) have landed us in this awful spot. Capitalism didn’t get a trial, Mr. Brooks, it was rounded up, convicted and summarily shot as soon as the latest grand experiment in government do-goodism failed (again).

Podcast for 08 Mar 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Bryan, Michael and Dale talk about the week’s events, and the indications the provide into the President’s apparent intellectual incuriosity.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

The “Deregulation” Bogeyman

As Dale has mentioned before, ginning up support for massive federal expenditures and deepening deficits was much easier for FDR because he had Nazis. Obama does not have any such luxury, so he has to invent an equivalent enemy. Luckily for him, decades of propaganda have cemented the idea into many heads that capitalism=rightwing=nazi, leading to the inexorable conclusion that anyone or thing whose primary purpose is to make profit is dangerous and must be controlled.

Dovetailing nicely with that need is the meme that deregulation is to blame for the current financial mess. Although it’s a fairly ridiculous claim (as I’ve pointed out before), that won’t stop “studies” like this from being published and reported on:

$5 BILLION IN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS BOUGHT WALL STREET FREEDOM FROM REGULATION, RESTRAINT, REPORT FINDS

Steps to Financial Cataclysm Paved with Industry Dollars

March 4 – The financial sector invested more than $5 billion in political influence purchasing in Washington over the past decade, with as many as 3,000 lobbyists winning deregulation and other policy decisions that led directly to the current financial collapse, according to a 231-page report issued today by Essential Information and the Consumer Education Foundation.

The report, “Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America,” shows that, from 1998-2008, Wall Street investment firms, commercial banks, hedge funds, real estate companies and insurance conglomerates made $1.725 billion in political contributions and spent another $3.4 billion on lobbyists, a financial juggernaut aimed at undercutting federal regulation. Nearly 3,000 officially registered federal lobbyists worked for the industry in 2007 alone. The report documents a dozen distinct deregulatory moves that, together, led to the financial meltdown. These include prohibitions on regulating financial derivatives; the repeal of regulatory barriers between commercial banks and investment banks; a voluntary regulation scheme for big investment banks; and federal refusal to act to stop predatory subprime lending.

The quote above comes directly from the report’s financial backers, Essential Information and the Consumer Education Foundation. The former is a non-profit that was created by Harvey Rosenfield, a lawyer who also controls the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, formerly known as the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. The latter is an entity created by Ralph Nader. None of that information is found either in the press release, or in the news stories reporting on (i.e. quoting) the release.

The Hill reports:

The organizations are a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy groups which push for stronger consumer protection laws and to curb “excessive corporate power.”

The report alleges that excessive deregulation of the financial sector combined with undue influence from the billions spent in lobbying and political contributions resulted in the current financial crisis.

And CBS’ Political Hotsheet finds:

The two men behind the report are California lawyer Harvey Rosenfield of the nonprofit Consumer Education Foundation and Robert Weissman of Essential Information, a Washington nonprofit “that seeks to curb excessive corporate power.”

The report argues that the lobbying and contributions kept financial derivatives from being regulated, led to the repeal of regulatory barriers between commercial banks and investment banks and kept the government from stepping into halt predatory subprime lending.

The remainder of the reporting is merely quoting and paraphrasing the press release. Absolutely zero analysis of the actual report is offered. Why would they report anything else? Well, just looking at the press release provides one clue:

Financial deregulation led directly to the current economic meltdown. For the last three decades, government regulators, Congress and the executive branch, on a bipartisan basis, steadily eroded the regulatory system that restrained the financial sector from acting on its own worst tendencies. “Sold Out” details a dozen key steps to financial meltdown, revealing how industry pressure led to these deregulatory moves and their consequences:

1. 1. In 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which had prohibited the merger of commercial banking and investment banking.
2. Regulatory rules permitted off-balance sheet accounting — tricks that enabled banks to hide their liabilities.
3. The Clinton administration blocked the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating financial derivatives — which became the basis for massive speculation.
4. Congress in 2000 prohibited regulation of financial derivatives when it passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.
5. The Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004 adopted a voluntary regulation scheme for investment banks that enabled them to incur much higher levels of debt.
6. Rules adopted by global regulators at the behest of the financial industry would enable commercial banks to determine their own capital reserve requirements, based on their internal “risk-assessment models.”
7. Federal regulators refused to block widespread predatory lending practices earlier in this decade, failing to either issue appropriate regulations or even enforce existing ones.
8. Federal bank regulators claimed the power to supersede state consumer protection laws that could have diminished predatory lending and other abusive practices.
9. Federal rules prevent victims of abusive loans from suing firms that bought their loans from the banks that issued the original loan.
10. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac expanded beyond their traditional scope of business and entered the subprime market, ultimately costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
11. The abandonment of antitrust and related regulatory principles enabled the creation of too-big-to-fail megabanks, which engaged in much riskier practices than smaller banks.
12. Beset by conflicts of interest, private credit rating companies incorrectly assessed the quality of mortgage-backed securities; a 2006 law handcuffed the SEC from properly regulating the firms.

The damning list offers only one instance of actual deregulation (the Glass-Steagall Act), at least seven instances of regulation that the authors simply disagree with (nos. 2-5, and 8-10), one claim each of “global regulators” and ratings agencies failing to do their respective duties (nos. 6 and 12), and two allegations that federal regulators didn’t pursue their jobs aggressively enough (7 and 11). So, despite the bold claim that “Financial deregulation led directly to the current economic meltdown,” the authors produce almost no evidence to support their conclusion.

It seems like that may have been a little more newsworthy than simply regurgitating the press release.

Then there is the fact that a Ralph Nader organization is partly responsible for the funding. Not only has the man run for president four times, one of those times perhaps leading to the election of George W. Bush, he’s notorious for his left-wing politics, including having a serious distaste for corporate America and capitalism.

Could be relevant, no?

But the real failure of journalism here was to take anything that Harvey Rosenfield has to say at face value.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR) [owned by Essential Information creator, Harvey Rosenfield] has decided to re-brand itself as “Consumer Watchdog.” Will a simple name change help shore-up the eroding reputation of this “consumer group?”

Few days pass without someone from FTCR pontificating in a newspaper story or TV report. Agents of this organization often are quoted — without explanation of their credentials — about auto, fire or health insurance, gasoline pricing, stem-cell research, or just about any public policy debate on the FTCR’s mind.

[…]

Behind the pithy quotes from FTCR’s leaders lies an organization with too much to hide and too many faults to be taken seriously anymore. It has survived by quietly pocketing millions of dollars in fees stemming from an initiative it wrote and sponsored nearly two decades ago. Along the way, it has engaged in hypocritical and speculative stock trading, enjoyed the secret patronage of wealthy trial donors, and either cozied up to or bullied politicians. All of this came despite operating under IRS rules as a “public-benefit” charity.

[…]

Of course, the public has no idea what is really motivating FTCR because its agents refuse to disclose their financial backers. Their reasons for hiding the facts are insulting to the average Californian’s intelligence.

FTCR declined to release a list of donors on its website by ludicrously equating their work to the civil rights movement in the South. It’s refusal to list details about its financial backers is particularly galling since FTCR spends a lot of time lambasting politicians for alleged corruption surrounding their own political donations.

One source of income is clear, thanks to some available public disclosure forms. Following the disastrous 1994 Northridge earthquake, founder Rosenfield extracted $5 million in a consumer-protection settlement with Allstate Insurance. The money was placed in a new group he controls, the Consumer Education Foundation, which was supposed to prevent the kinds of insurance disasters that followed the Northridge quake.

But nearly a decade after the group was formed, its biggest accomplishment appears to be paying Rosenfield a $100,000 salary and writing a few grant checks … including to Rosenfield’s own FTCR, to fund its operations. One wonders what the judge in the Allstate settlement would think about this cozy relationship, let alone why Northridge consumers have yet to see much benefit from the $5 million that was paid out supposedly for the public good.

It gets even more absurd.

Rosenfield’s Consumer Education Foundation invested some of its Northridge windfall in Enron stock — the Texas company that bilked California consumers out of billions of dollars. This laughable investment, which the CEF was forced to reveal in disclosure statements, is almost too incredible to believe. The “consumer” foundation put its money in one of the biggest consumer ripoff companies in U.S. history.

Enron wasn’t the only hypocritical stock purchase made by the Rosenfield’s Consumer Education Foundation. The group purchased stock in Abbott Labs, Amgen, Merck, Pfizer, Idec Pharmaceuticals, Johnson and Johnson, and Proctor and Gamble. Meanwhile, FTCR would soon get busy lambasting politicians for accepting campaign donations from these same companies. And while FTCR has lashed out at automobile and chemical companies, the “consumer” foundation has invested in Clorox, DuPont, General Motors, Ford Motors, and Toyota Motor Credit.

There’s more on Rosenfield’s endeavors here (scroll through the comments to the ftcrfollies.org stuff), but the original site is now defunct, so caution is warranted.

In any case, it seems that Rosenfield’s alleged background as an agent provocateur should raise enough red flags to warrant at least a mention that perhaps the report he’s funded (written?) should be taken with a grain of salt. Instead, we get news stories that basically repeat exactly little more than the juiciest allegations from the press release, absolutely zero analysis of the actual report (or the press release for that matter), and nothing more than the bare bones information regarding the provenance of the report.

With apologies to Mike Judge, “What would you say ya do here, MSM?”

Tax the Rich and What Do You Get?

Another day older and deeper in debt. Of course, that’s because you plan to spend $3.6 Trillion on budget over the next year.

WASHINGTON – President Obama laid out his first budget plan, a bold $3.6 trillion proposal that would transfer wealth from rich taxpayers to the middle class and the poor, and predicts a stunning federal deficit of $1.75 trillion this year – nearly four times last year’s record.

Obama blamed the expected federal deficit explosion on a “deep and destructive” recession and recent efforts to battle it, including the Wall Street bailout and the $787 billion stimulus plan.

[…]

Among the budget proposals, the plan would:

extend a $400 tax credit for most workers while letting expire former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for couples making more than $250,000 a year. The budget contains almost $1 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years on individuals making more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000;

close tax loopholes for the wealthy to raise $318 billion toward a down payment on Obama’s universal health care plan;

clamp down on the Pentagon budget, which would get a 4 percent boost next year, but would then get increases of 2 percent or less over the next several years;

make permanent the expanded $2,500 tax credit for college expenses;

spend more than $6 billion on cancer research at the National Institutes of Health next year, a 15 percent hike;

spend $3.9 billion to improve the nation’s sewage treatment plants and drinking water systems; and

raise $15 billion a year, beginning in 2012, from auctioning off carbon pollution permits to help develop clean-energy and renewable-energy technologies. The administration “will work expeditiously” to get Congress to approve an 83 percent reduction in global warming emissions by mid-century. There’s also more money at NASA for space-based monitoring of greenhouse gases.

sisyphus
After reviewing some of the comments from those intended to be taxed, as well as some of the criticisms of those taxpayers’ intelligence [as an aside, I think the liberals denouncing both the story and the interviewees are playing a little fast and loose with the assumptions, since the taxpayers displayed no misunderstanding of marginal rates, and voiced concerns solely based on principles], I got to thinking about how much money will this proposed tax hike really raise. This seems important, not only because of the size of proposed budget, but also since a common refrain from those in favor of letting the top rate snap back to 39.6% (from the current 35%) is that it will only cost those taxpayers 5 cents on the marginal dollar, which is very little to worry about much less enough to change behavior, or so the argument goes.

Before looking at the actual numbers, let’s get something straight first. While it is accurate to say that raising the top rate only costs these taxpayers a nickel per extra dollar earned, that is not all that is being proposed. These taxpayers will also be losing deductions and credits that they would otherwise have, as well as paying extra taxes on anything subject to cap-and-trade taxes, should that lovely piece of legislation be passed. Moreover, if you truly believe Obama when he says that those with incomes less than $250,000 per year will receive a tax cut, then it seems ludicrous to pretend that at least some, if not virtually all, of those taxpayers near the margin will change their working behavior so as to be in the benefit group rather than the extra-taxed one.

Nevertheless, for purposes of calculating the expected tax revenues generated under this plan, I’m going to assume that nobody changes their behavior in the slightest (i.e. everyone earns as much taxable income as possible), and that the number of taxpayers and the amount of taxes paid largely mirrors the 2006 numbers (which is the most recent data available).

According to IRS figures [xls], about 50% of all taxable income came from the $200,000 and above earners in 2006. By my calculations that came to $2.056 Trillion dollars in taxable income from 3,847,241 taxpayers (about 9% of all returns). This cohort paid approximately $522 Billion in taxes, or about 62.4% of the total $837 Billion in tax receipts. These are the people upon whom the new burden will be placed according to President Obama.

In order to figure out how much taxable income is above $200K (there is no breakout for $250K and above), I took all of the taxpayers in the $200K to infinity range (3,847,241) and multiplied it by 200,000 (= 769,448,200,000).

I then subtracted that number from the (rounded) total of taxable income for the same range (@ $2.056 Trillion), and got $1,286,551,800,000. If I thought about it correctly, then that should be the amount of taxable income above $200K.

I then took my above-$200K number and multiplied it by 5 cents, figuring that the increase in marginal rate of 4.6% would lead to about a nickel per taxable dollar earned in new revenues, if everything were to remain static.

From all of that I figured that approximately $64.3 Billion in new taxes would be raised by the new tax hike … to cover a $3.6 Trillion budget.

I sent my calculations to Dale, who became so engrossed in the matter that he put together an entire spreadsheet figuring the numbers in not one, not two, not three, but in six different ways. I realized later that asking Dale to check out my math was rather like standing on one foot and excitedly calling attention to my “skill” while in the midst of an acrobat convention.

Anyhoo …

After Dale played with the numbers [xls] for awhile, he arrived generally at the conclusion that the absolute most that could be raised was in the neighborhood of $85 Billion, and at worst around $55 Billion. On average, Dale calculated that approximately $65 Billion was the likely amount of new tax revenue that could be expected if all payers in the 2006 cohort behave exactly as they did then. Sticking with the metaphor, “Yes, Michael, that’s a decent one-legged stand you have there.”

In short, a complete klutz has a better chance of joining the Flying Wallendas than the bottom 95% of taxpayers do of getting a tax cut. Instead, they will all see a significant tax hike, whether in their marginal rates, in excise taxes, corporate taxes, fuel taxes, or other forms of indirect taxation. And as those taxes begin to mount up, and the national debt does it’s best imitation of the Challenger, people will work and produce less and less, and tax revenues will dry up.

That is the plan for our recovery. Read it and weep.

Successful NYC Trip …

I just barely beat the global warming home. Otherwise, I had a great trip up to New York City. Here’s some of the highlights:

The Empire State building as seen from the roof of my sister's apartment building.

The Empire State building as seen from the roof of my sister's apartment building.

Looking across the East River into Queens

Looking across the East River into Queens

I made it a point to go take pictures in Central Park. These are from the Bethesda Terrace which is Mid-Park around 72nd Street.

Angel of the Waters at Bethesda Terrace, Central Park

Angel of the Waters at Bethesda Terrace, Central Park


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Transparency Redefined

Perhaps you’ve heard about Joe Biden’s latest gaffe regarding his task of overseeing the Recovery Act:

How can the public know that the money is allocated correctly? That’s the question CBS’s Maggie Rodriguez asked.

“We’re going to put every bit of this transparently up on a website. You’re gonna know. You’ll be able to go on a website. Every single bit of this will be on a website,” he explained.

What website?

“You know, I’m embarrassed. Do you know the website number?” he asked looking offstage. “I should have it in front of me and I don’t. I’m actually embarrassed.”

He was able to get the website “number” from someone off camera.

“Recovery.gov. It’s Recovery.gov. It’s up and running,” he said with newfound confidence.

If that doesn’t inspire confidence, then maybe you should just go visit the “number” VP Joe suggested. Before you do, however, keep in mind that, from far to wide and low to high, the Obama administration has been touting not just the need for transparency,

Orzag said the two goals are to spend stimulus money “quickly” and “wisely,” adding, “We have to go beyond normal procedures to a higher level of transparency.”

But also on the determination and ability of the administration to deliver it:

“I [Pres. Obama] am also proud to announce the appointment of Earl Devaney as Chair of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board. For nearly a decade as Inspector General at the Interior Department, Earl has doggedly pursued waste, fraud and mismanagement, and Joe and I can’t think of a more tenacious and efficient guardian of the hard-earned tax dollars the American people have entrusted us to wisely invest.”

Apparently, the whole point of Recovery.gov is to show where your tax dollars are going, and what they are being spent on. So let’s have a gander.

On the front page, my eyes were immediately drawn to the large graph dominating the left side of the page:

Recovery.gov breakdown of what the $787 Billion is going to

Recovery.gov breakdown of what the $787 Billion is going to

Wow! According to that chart, the largest expenditure by far ($288 Billion) is going to tax relief. Heck it’s twice as much as the next category of State and Local Fiscal Relief which is only get a paltry $144 Billion. That’s fantastic news. I feel so bad now for thinking that the bill was nothing more than a huge wealth transfer and goodies giveaway. Tax relief is always a good idea when it comes to pulling ourselves out of a recession.

But wait? What’s that asterisk? I click on the chart and am taken to a lovely bubble graph that displays the same information. But with more bubbles, which are always nice. And bubble are transparent too, right?

Recovery money.  Now in bubble form!

Recovery money. Now in bubble form!

Yep. There it is again, that $288 Billion in tax relief, dwarfing all the puny spending bubbles. Of course, being an intelligent person, I know that you have to add all of the spending bubbles together to see how they compare to the tax relief, but it’s strangely comforting to see that giant, transparent bubble named Tax Relief making all the other bubbles seem, somehow, insignificant.

Unfortunately, that asterisk is still there as well. I follow it down to the bottom of the page where, in tiny print, I see these words:

* Tax Relief – includes $15 B for Infrastructure and Science, $61 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $25 B for Education and Training and $22 B for Energy, so total funds are $126 B for Infrastructure and Science, $142 B for Protecting the Vulnerable, $78 B for Education and Training, and $65 B for Energy.

I think my bubble has burst. But that’s how government works now I guess: making bubbles bigger than they ought to be.

On Deck: Universal Health Care (Updated)

According to Ezra Klein, the Obama administration intends to finagle universal health care coverage out of its budget proposal, including an individual mandate:

I’ve now been able to confirm with multiple senior administration sources that the health care proposal in Obama’s budget will have a mandate. Sort of.

Here’s how it will work, according to the officials I’ve spoken to. The budget’s health care section is not a detailed plan. Rather, it offers financing — though not all — and principles meant to guide the plan that Congress will author. The details will be decided by Congress in consultation with the administration.

One of those details is “universal” health care coverage.

Some of you may recall that Obama, while in campaign mode, consistently denied that he wanted to introduce mandates as part of his health care package. Paul Krugman cited that opposition as the major difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton:

Let’s talk about how the plans compare.

Both plans require that private insurers offer policies to everyone, regardless of medical history. Both also allow people to buy into government-offered insurance instead.

And both plans seek to make insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. The Clinton plan is, however, more explicit about affordability, promising to limit insurance costs as a percentage of family income. And it also seems to include more funds for subsidies.

But the big difference is mandates: the Clinton plan requires that everyone have insurance; the Obama plan doesn’t.

Mr. Obama claims that people will buy insurance if it becomes affordable. Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise.

Now that he’s been elected it’s presto hope’n change-o, and voila! Mandates!

Ezra Klein notes that the difference between the pre- and post-election plans is based on one word in the budget — “universal”:

That word is important: The Obama campaign’s health care plan was not a universal health care plan. It was close to it. It subsidized coverage for millions of Americans and strengthened the employer-based system. The goal, as Obama described it, was to make coverage “affordable” and “available” to all Americans.

But it did not make coverage universal. Affordability can be achieved through subsidies. But without a mandate for individuals to purchase coverage or for the government to give it to them, there was no mechanism for universal coverage. It could get close, but estimates were that around 15 million Americans would remain uninsured. As Jon Cohn wrote at the time, “without a mandate, a substantial portion of Americans [will] remain uninsured.”

In essence, unless everyone is forced to buy insurance, there is no “universality,” and the benefits of large participation in the insurance pool cannot be realized. An even shorter version is, if healthier people opt out, then sicker people can’t sponge off them.

The budget — and I was cautioned that the wording “is changing hourly” — will direct Congress to “aim for universality.” That is a bolder goal than simple affordability, which can be achieved, at least in theory, through subsidies. Universality means everyone has coverage, not just the ability to access it. And that requires a mechanism to ensure that they seek it.

Administration officials have been very clear on what the inclusion of “universality” is meant to communicate to Congress. As one senior member of the health team said to me, “[The plan] will cover everybody. And I don’t see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate.” That language almost precisely echoes what Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said in an interview last summer. “I don’t see how you can get meaningful universal coverage without a mandate,” he told me. Last fall, he included an individual mandate in the first draft of his health care plan.

The administration’s strategy brings them into alignment with senators like Max Baucus. Though they’re not proposing an individual mandate in the budget, they are asking Congress to fulfill an objective that they expect will result in Congress proposing an individual mandate. And despite the controversy over the individual mandate in the campaign, they will support it. That, after all, is how you cover everybody.

So it looks like you better start scarfing down those cheeseburgers, eating transfats, smoking cigarettes, or whatever it is you do that’s not considered healthy, because once the federal government pays for health care (which is what individual mandates essentially works out to), then it also has the power to determine what “healthy” means. After all, since everyone will be pulling from the same health care pot, and since each claim on that pot diminishes what someone else can get, then each claim must be a legitimate one as weighed against all the competing interests. Because the viability of the system depends on healthy people making much fewer claims than sick people against the collective health care resources, the government now has a vested interest in making people healthier, whether they like it or not.

Another way to put it is that we will have entered a Pareto optimal world where no one can change their position for the better (i.e. receive more of the pooled benefits) without hurting someone else. Whereas in a competitive market system, each person can get at least as much health care as he or she wants to buy and can afford, in a Pareto optimal world, we are competing for the same scarce resources (health care dollars), and our claims are granted based on a a third party’s (the government’) determination of worthiness. No longer can we get what we can afford, we get a predetermined portion of what the government decides to pay for. That, of course, is why there are 6+ month waiting lists for routine health care in places like Canada and the UK.

Possibly the most depressing result of yoking America with universal health care, is that we can pretty much kiss medical and pharmaceutical innovation good bye.

Government run health centralizes the risks of exploring new technologies, medicines, techniques, etc. Centralized risk translates into (i) observing a very cautious approach to advances, and (ii) the politicization of research … From a purely capitalist point of view, opportunites that might have been pursued otherwise, are foregone since those who accept the risks of pursuing them do not get to maximize their reward, so instead those advances must come from the government. With government as the sole innovator, there are now two types of risk (1) the risk of failure (i.e. spending gobs of money on something that does not deliver as promised, or that costs significantly more than the benefit), and (2) the political risks (i.e. what politicians face for advocating spending on projects that either fail or that don’t disproportionately benefit favored voters). The result is that risk is increased overall, and fewer innovations are realized.

America is pretty much the last industrialized nation to still have a (semi) private health care system, which should be understood to include the pharmaceutical industry (as a supplier of that health care system). What would happen to the growth and advances we’ve realized over the past few decades if (when?) we adopt universal health care? Where will the innovation come from? Who will take the risks? Without the proper incentives, and indeed with some of the worst possible incentives as the only driving force to creation, I fear that the scientific and medical Atlas will shrug.

I don’t mean to say that there will be no breakthroughs ever again, but the pace will be slowed dramatically. That’s because, one the government is in charge of paying for health care, it will also be in charge of paying for medicines. As we’ve already seen around the world, drug companies will be forced to sell their wares for much less than the (legal) monopoly prices they charge now. The result, therefore, will be much less risky and expensive research into new drugs that may never come to market, and much more emphasis on improving old drugs so as to continue to pay for further research.

Surely the federal government will pony up money for research into some diseases. But then the government will be in charge of picking winners and losers when it comes to whose diseases will get cures and whose won’t. To imagine what this would look like, just think back to how AIDS and breast cancer research dollars were successfully lobbied for, despite neither affecting anywhere near as many people as other deadly diseases.

In the end we will be left with less individual freedom, worse health care, and fewer prospects for any improvement in either. That is not the change I was hoping for.

UPDATE: Tom Maguire helpfully reminds us of how the health care debate progressed during the Democratic primary season:

For folks whose memories have blessedly erased any recollection of the endless Democratic candidates debates, let me toss in a brief reminder. Obama claimed that he would offer health insurance subsidies so generous that most folks would volunteer to sign up. Hillary mocked that, insisting that the young and healthy would decline to subsidize the rest of us, especially since they could not subsequently be denied coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions; her plan included a mandate obliging everyone to buy health insurance, like it or not (as in Massachusetts). Hillary then diligently ducked the “or else” question of what penalties she would inflict on the young, helathy and recalcitrant who would prefer to hold off on buying insurance until they were sick. As a nostalgia piece here is a link to a lefty wondering why his party was so committed to forcing young, healthy members of the working class to subsidize the rest of us on health care; that seems like a good question but I am long resigned to not being smart enough to be a lefty.

Aww, Tom. You’re plenty smart enough. Just not angry, bitter or jealous enough.

As for the “or else” question, Obama and the Congress won’t be able to duck that one. I can only imagine what sort of sword they intend to dangle of recalcitrant ,comrades citizens who refuse to sign up for the program.

D.C. Voting Rights Bill — Still Unconstitutional (Updated)

I‘ve written about this issue before, and said all I think there is to say about it. The fact is that any bill coming out of Congress granting voting rights to D.C. sua sponte is plainly unconstitutional. What’s more, Congress is already well aware of this fact. The Congressional Research Service, the legislative analysis advisors to Congress, deduced the following about H.R. 328 (the most recent precursor to current D.C. voting rights bill):

… it is difficult to identify either constitutional text or existing case law that would directly support the allocation by statute of the power to vote in the full House to the District of Columbia Delegate. Further, that case law that does exist would seem to indicate that not only is the District of Columbia not a “state” for purposes of representation, but that congressional power over the District of Columbia does not represent a sufficient power to grant congressional representation.

In particular, at least six of the Justices who participated in what appears to be the most relevant Supreme Court case on this issue, National Mutual Insurance Co. of the District of Columbia v. Tidewater Transfer Co., authored opinions rejecting the proposition that Congress’s power under the District Clause was sufficient to effectuate structural changes to the federal government. Further, the remaining three judges, who found that the Congress could grant diversity jurisdiction to District of Columbia citizens despite the lack of such jurisdiction in Article III, specifically limited their opinion to instances where the legislation in question did not involve the extension of fundamental rights. To the extent that the representation in Congress would be seen as such a right, all nine Justices in Tidewater Transfer Co. would arguably have found the instant proposal to be unconstitutional.

Can Congress vote itself more members?

Can Congress vote itself more members?


During hearings before Congress on the constitutionality of the D.C voting rights bill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John P. Elwood provided an excellent breakdown of how legal authorities had consistently found that the only way to grant D.C. citizens the right to congressional representation was through a constitutional amendment or by admitting D.C. as a state. Simply passing a law would not suffice.

Despite all the analysis presented, however, Congress continues to press forward with an unconstitutional bill:

Debate opened Monday on a bill to give the 600,000 people of Washington D.C. a full vote in the House. A new Democratic president, Barack Obama, and heftier Democratic majorities in Congress have improved the prospects for the decades-long effort that would certainly ensure another Democrat lawmaker in Congress.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 4-to-1 in the capital.

In a bit of horsetrading to offset the Democratic pickup, the bill would award a fourth House seat to Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed getting that extra seat after the 2000 national census. With the two new seats, the House would have 437 representatives.

The time is ripe, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, to end a situation where “we are the only capital of a democracy on the planet that denies voting representation in the national legislature.”

The time is ripe because Democrats have a huge majority in both houses of Congress, and control of the White House. The fact that D.C. votes reliably, and overwhelmingly, for Democrats is the real reason for the bill’s support amongst that party, and one of the main reasons for many Republicans being against it. To overcome the opposition, therefore, Democrats have thrown a sop to Utah in the way of an extra representative, which would also appear to be unconstitutional without a census. Either way, the fact that the bill is plainly contrary to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution seems to be merely a convenient excuse for some Republicans and a minor inconvenience to some Democrats.

Jonathan Turley has consistently echoed the above, and eloquently explains why Congress should not pass this law, and why the President should not sign it:

Like many, I believe that it is a terrible injustice for the District residents not to have a vote in Congress. As Justice Black stated in Wesberry v. Sanders: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” However, the great wrong done to the District residents cannot be righted through the violation of the Constitution itself.

This is not a debate about the ends of legislative action but the means. In a nation committed to the rule of law it is often as important how we do something as what we do. This is the wrong means to a worthy end.

[…]

[Our Constitution] is the world’s most successful constitutional framework because it is carefully balanced with limited powers between the three branches. It is a design that can be frustrating at times when injustices demand quick action. Yet, the very stability and integrity of our system demands that we remain faithful to its provisions, even when our principles stand in the way of our passions.

Just as there is no debate over the need for a vote for the District, there is no debate that such a vote can be obtained by other means. Indeed, there is no longer any claim to be made that the District (or the Democratic Party) lacks the votes needed to take a constitutional course. The political realities and expediencies that gave raise to this idea no longer exist. With control of both houses and the White House, the sponsors can secure a lasting and unassailable vote in the House of Representatives through either retrocession or a constitutional amendment. Indeed, some republicans have expressed their support for a constitutional amendment that would allow a voting House member for the District.

Like Turley, I am in favor of D.C. residents having a vote in both the House and the Senate. And also like him, I am fervently opposed to any extra-constitutional means of accomplishing that goal. Instead, let’s draft an amendment, or begin the process of retroceding D.C. back to Maryland. Let the Maryland officials be accused of wanting to oppress D.C.’s denizens for a while, instead of those of us who simply want to uphold the Constitution.

We know how to make it happen, and yet Congress insists on doing it the wrong way. Much of it, of course, is sheer laziness and want of expediency. But that is no excuse for elected officials to blatantly disregard their roles as stewards of the contract between the people and their government, and the very source of those officials’ power. Minor as some of these indiscretions may be, when Congress takes it upon itself to decide which parts of the Constitution are worth following and which are not, then we become a rudderless ship of fools.

However it’s done, I heartily agree that we start the process of welcoming our D.C. brothers and sisters to the circus known as Congress. In order to make that welcome worth something, however, I recommend that we go about it in the way that passes constitutional muster.

UPDATE: As it turns out, a bill has been introduced by Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX, 1st Dist.) to retrocede D.C. back to Maryland. Funny how this bill hasn’t received any news attention.

NYT Asks: “Why Can’t Cerberus Foot the Bill?”

Welcome to the club. I’ve been asking that question for some time now. Better late than never, I suppose:

Chrysler said the only reason it was back asking for more money so soon was that the car market was worse than it had expected two months ago.

This cavalier approach to the public purse raises a very big question. If Chrysler is really on track for a turnaround and all it needs is some financing to get over a bad patch in sales and debt markets, why doesn’t Cerberus Capital Management, which owns 80 percent of the company, put up the money itself? Why should taxpayers have to take the risk? That’s what private equity funds like Cerberus are supposed to do.

Cerberus and Daimler, which retained a stake in Chrysler, have promised to convert $2 billion in loans to Chrysler into equity, which should help reduce its debt. But Cerberus said giving fresh money would violate its fiduciary duty to investors, breaking company rules limiting how much it can commit to any given investment.

We suspect these rules would be more pliant if Cerberus deemed Chrysler to be a good deal.

It seems the secretive private-equity fund is willing to gamble on Chrysler’s survival with the taxpayer’s dime, but not its own.

The real question is, if it is violative of Cerberus management’s fiduciary duty to bail out its own company, why is it fiscally responsible for the federal government to do so?

And what does it say when the leader of liberal opinion has more qualms about a bailout than the federal government? Nothing good I would think.