Free Markets, Free People

Libertarian


Cap-and-Trade Bill: The Home Invasion

One of the single most important reasons we’ve been railing against the push for universal health care around here is because, at bottom, it will result in a massive loss of individual freedom. Aside from the physicians who will be treated like slaves (the only possibility if their services are considered a “right”), government will have every reason to control how we live our lives since, after all, if its paying for our health care then it has a vested interest in how we live our lives. Too much sugar, Tylenol or cigarettes? Well you’ll just have to quit or pay heavy fines or even go without health care altogether. Indeed, this is how virtually all bureaucracy works — i.e. once the state has responsibility for some part of your life, it starts taking over greater and greater portions thereof. As it turns out, cap-and-trade will be no different:

Let me introduce you to a little section of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill called the “Building Energy Performance Labeling Program”. It’s section 304 [ed. - It's actually Section 204] of the bill and it says, basically, that your house belongs to the state. See, the Federal Government really wants a country full of energy-efficient homes, so much so that the bill mandates that new homes be 30 percent more energy efficient than the current building code on the very day the law is signed. That efficiency goes up to 50 percent by 2014 and only goes higher from there, all the way to 2030. That, by the way, is not merely a target but a requirement of the law. New homes must reach those efficiency targets no matter what.

But what does that have to do with current homeowners like you? Well, I’m glad you asked. You’re certainly not off the hook, no way, no how. Here’s what the Democrats have planned for you. The program requires that states label their buildings so that we can all know how efficient every building (that includes residential and non-residential buildings) is and it requires that the information be made public.

First, a couple of corrections: (1) The “Building Energy Performance Labeling Program” is in Section 204 of the bill; (2) Section 304 of the Energy Conservation and Production Act (42 U.S.C. 6833) is amended by Section 201 of this bill to mandate the efficiency standards set forth above.

Taking these in order, the labeling program essentially coerces the states into adopting the federal standards set forth in the bill for identifying and reporting the energy efficiency of each structure, whether residential or commercial. Essentially this means that Uncle Sam will get all the information it wants about your energy use in the home by strong-arming the states into gathering it for them.

That’s bad enough, but it’s the amendment to Section 304 of the Energy Conservation and Production Act that really inserts the feds into your life. That’s where the efficiency mandates are laid out in Congress’ attempt to create a national building code:

(c) State Adoption of Energy Efficiency Building Codes-

‘(1) REQUIREMENT- Not later than 1 year after a national energy efficiency building code for residential or commercial buildings is established or revised under subsection (b), each State–

‘(A) shall–

‘(i) review and update the provisions of its building code regarding energy efficiency to meet or exceed the target met in the new national code, to achieve equivalent or greater energy savings;

‘(ii) document, where local governments establish building codes, that local governments representing not less than 80 percent of the State’s urban population have adopted the new national code, or have adopted local codes that meet or exceed the target met in the new national code to achieve equivalent or greater energy savings; or

‘(iii) adopt the new national code; and

‘(B) shall provide a certification to the Secretary demonstrating that energy efficiency building code provisions that apply throughout the State meet or exceed the target met by the new national code, to achieve equivalent or greater energy savings.

If states or localities fail to adopt measures implementing or exceeding the efficiency standards promulgated under this bill, then the federal standards simply become the law of that land:

(d) Application of National Code to State and Local Jurisdictions-

‘(1) IN GENERAL- Upon the expiration of 1 year after a national energy efficiency building code is established under subsection (b), in any jurisdiction where the State has not had a certification relating to that code accepted by the Secretary under subsection (c)(2)(B), and the local government has not had a certification relating to that code accepted by the Secretary under subsection (e)(6)(B), the national code shall become the applicable energy efficiency building code for such jurisdiction.

This is a massive arrogation of power to the federal government, and an intolerable invasion of individual property rights. In order to avoid a fairly blatant exercise of unconstitutional authority, the bill essentially denies federal funds to states that do not comply. However, it also leaves wide open just how compliance will be enforced:

‘(f) Federal Enforcement- Where a State fails and local governments in that State also fail to enforce the applicable State or national energy efficiency building codes, the Secretary shall enforce such codes, as follows:

‘(1) The Secretary shall establish, by rule, within 2 years after the date of enactment of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, an energy efficiency building code enforcement capability.

‘(2) Such enforcement capability shall be designed to achieve 90 percent compliance with such code in any State within 1 year after the date of the Secretary’s determination that such State is out of compliance with this section.

‘(3) The Secretary may set and collect reasonable inspection fees to cover the costs of inspections required for such enforcement. Revenue from fees collected shall be available to the Secretary to carry out the requirements of this section upon appropriation.

‘(g) Enforcement Procedures- (1) The Secretary shall assess a civil penalty for violations of this section, pursuant to subsection (d)(3), in accordance with the procedures described in section 333(d) of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (42 U.S.C. 6303). The United States district courts shall also have jurisdiction to restrain any violation of this section or rules adopted thereunder, in accordance with the procedures described in section 334 of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (42 U.S.C. 6304).‘(2) Each day of unlawful occupancy shall be considered a separate violation.‘(3) In the event a building constructed out of compliance with the applicable code has been conveyed by a knowing builder or knowing seller to an unknowing purchaser, the builder or seller shall be the violator. The Secretary shall propose and, not later than three years after the date of enactment of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, shall determine and adopt by rule what shall constitute violations of the energy efficiency building codes to be enforced pursuant to this section, and the penalties that shall apply to violators. To the extent that the Secretary determines that the authority to adopt and impose such violations and penalties by rule requires further statutory authority, the Secretary shall report such determination to Congress as soon as such determination is made, but not later than one year after the enactment of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.

Subsection g above appears to empower the Secretary to assess civil penalties against individuals for noncompliance. I say “appears” because the italicized portion does not actually show up when you view the bill, only when you cut and paste it as I’ve done here (I never considered the idea that “transparency” in law-making meant “making the law transparent”). Of course, even without that italicized section, it’s pretty easy to see where this is going. If your home isn’t as efficient as the federal government wants it to be, then you will probably be facing some sort of civil penalty. How that could possibly be constitutional I have no idea.

In addition to the outrageous invasion of our homes represented by this bill, the mandates set forth are sure to drive up the costs of new homes in ways that will probably make them unaffordable for a great many people. For example, I would guess that if homes are to be 30% more efficient in just a few years, then they will likely be roughly 30% more expensive. It may be less, it may be more, but either way those prices are going up. That’s not exactly the best prescription for an ailing home market.

The bottom line of all this is that you had better be sure to tidy up your home because the federal government is coming to stay awhile and it’s bringing an awful lot of demands with it. It’s going to make having your mother-in-law over for a spell seem like a Bahamian resort vacation.


1776 Project

A friend has started an organization called the 1776 Project, which he’s kicking off today “hoping to inform and educate voters by promoting the values and principles of a Constitutional government.” Here’s press release explaining the motivation:

The 1776 Project stresses that our Constitution is the single most important civic document in governing our nation. Its provisions, protections and prescriptions are all that is necessary and sufficient to the operation of a good, just and efficient government.

Organizers of the 1776 Project reject the notion that rights are given by government, instead believing the Bill of Rights protects the basic, individual liberties that are derived from natural rights that promote the pursuit of happiness.

Further rejecting the idea that the Constitution can be interpreted and changed however any political party wants to suit their needs, the organizers of the 1776 Project believe the document that created this Republic can only be changed by the process specifically laid out in Article V of the Constitution.

“Government cannot provide happiness, that is not its purpose,” says Jorge Gonzalez, founder of the organization. “It is up to each one of us, as individuals, to pursue our own desires and versions of happiness. This is the only way that we can really be a country united in one purpose.”

The 1776 Project will be announcing more events and providing information, resources and offering solutions on how Americans can take back their government through peaceful revolution and community outreach. Organizers welcome anyone who agrees with these values, regardless of political party, to join the 1776 Project to bring back a Constitutional government.

Check out the organization’s website and get involved on Facebook and Twitter.


Conference on Health Care Reform

Cato Institute is hosting a conference on health care reform today that will be webcast live. It will feature the following speakers:

* Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)
* Rep. Michael C. Burgess, M.D. (R-TX)
* Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA)
* Karen Davenport, Director of Health Policy, Center for American Progress
* Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Former Director, Congressional Budget Office, and Director of Domestic and Economic Policy for the McCain presidential campaign
* Tom G. Donlan, Barron’s
* Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine
* Susan Dentzer, Health Affairs
* John Reichard, Congressional Quarterly

This represents a wide range of views and promises to be much more interesting and informative than the White House/ABC News infomercial scheduled for next week. so if you’re interested in this topic at all, take some time to check it out.


Miranda Warnings In The Battlefield?

This simply can’t be right, can it? That the Obama administration secretly directed the military to Mirandize combatants and terrorists when captured? Surely this is just crazy talk:

… the Obama Justice Department has quietly ordered FBI agents to read Miranda rights to high value detainees captured and held at U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan, according a senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “The administration has decided to change the focus to law enforcement. Here’s the problem. You have foreign fighters who are targeting US troops today – foreign fighters who go to another country to kill Americans. We capture them…and they’re reading them their rights – Mirandizing these foreign fighters,” says Representative Mike Rogers, who recently met with military, intelligence and law enforcement officials on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan.

Rogers, a former FBI special agent and U.S. Army officer, says the Obama administration has not briefed Congress on the new policy. “I was a little surprised to find it taking place when I showed up because we hadn’t been briefed on it, I didn’t know about it. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of it, but it is clearly a part of this new global justice initiative.”

Ever since the Boumediene decision I’ve been warning that we’re turning legitimate military actions into law enforcement nightmares. No matter how badly we may want to achieve a world where transparency and the rule of law are the basis for all government action, the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of people out there who want to see the US destroyed regardless of the cost to themselves or their families. If we start dealing with these people as if they were common criminals, then we erode the very fabric that binds us as a nation. No longer does the word “jurisdiction” mean anything. Instead, we hand our enemies the keys to the castle.

Consider the following:

A lawyer who has worked on detainee issues for the U.S. government offers this rationale for the Obama administration’s approach. “If the US is mirandizing certain suspects in Afghanistan, they’re likely doing it to ensure that the treatment of the suspect and the collection of information is done in a manner that will ensure the suspect can be prosecuted in a US court at some point in the future.”

But Republicans on Capitol Hill are not happy. “When they mirandize a suspect, the first thing they do is warn them that they have the ‘right to remain silent,’” says Representative Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “It would seem the last thing we want is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or any other al-Qaeda terrorist to remain silent. Our focus should be on preventing the next attack, not giving radical jihadists a new tactic to resist interrogation–lawyering up.”

According to Mike Rogers, that is precisely what some human rights organizations are advising detainees to do. “The International Red Cross, when they go into these detention facilities, has now started telling people – ‘Take the option. You want a lawyer.’”

Rogers adds: “The problem is you take that guy at three in the morning off of a compound right outside of Kabul where he’s building bomb materials to kill US soldiers, and read him his rights by four, and the Red Cross is saying take the lawyer – you have now created quite a confusion amongst the FBI, the CIA and the United States military. And confusion is the last thing you want in a combat zone.”

Prosecution of any war, regardless of what your betters may think, is absolutely impossible in a law enforcement setting. Imagine having to “arrest” enemy soldiers instead of shooting them on sight. Or worse, think about the complications involved when a soldier shoots anyone, as compared to when a policeman is involved in a shooting. How would it work to take custody or extract intelligence from any enemy soldier if our soldiers have to apply mercurial Supreme Court precedent to each situation before risking their lives? Any cop will tell you that it’s hard enough keeping up with the norms as laid down by the high court (and interpreted by the administrators) in order to simply arrest common criminals. The idea that soldiers in the field of battle have the time or ability to “arrest” terrorists and the like, in places where English is not likely to be a common language (N.B. does that mean the military will be required to provide interpreters before apprehending anyone?) is simply ludicrous.

War is not pretty, and anyone who pretends to make it so is simply a fool. Ugly, unmentionable, outrageous and despicable things happen in war, as they do in any struggle for life. Creating an imaginary world in which there are breaks for tea and the enemy plays by the same (or any) rules is how the British lost North America. Subjecting ourselves to the vagaries or our enemy’s backwardness, by ignoring their complete denial of our moral superiority, will only serve to hasten our defeat.

For the foregoing reasons, I have to assume that Stephen Hayes is on the wrong end of some very bad information. As much as I may disagree with the Obama administration on a great many things, I have a hard time believing that they could be this naive and unconcerned about the future of our country that they would grant unprecedented gratuity to those who most wish us ill. The policies are most certainly wrong, but they can’t possibly be this misguided.


Socialism In America

Perhaps the time has come to be perfectly frank. We Americans live in a socialist country. In point of fact, we have for quite some time, even though private property has a long, continuing and still revered position in our society. To be sure, we aren’t an entirely socialist country, but instead a mixed one that teeters between the two extremes of collectivism and freedom (i.e. socialism and capitalism). In the past century or so, however, the scale tipped noticeably toward the socialism side, and we are now at the point where capitalism is not the dominant force. Of course, there are many who will disagree with my assessment.

Conor Clarke, for example, offers the following to dispel notions that we have become a socialist country:

Government vs. Private Ownership

Government vs. Private Ownership

Conor explains:

Have you heard that the United States is headed toward socialism? Jonah Goldberg says it is. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby says it is. Phyllis Schlafly says it is. Richard Viguerie says it is. The Republican National Committee says it is. We must be getting pretty close.

[...]

The hot-pink portion of this pie chart is the percentage of listed American business assets that have recently been nationalized by the American government (ie, General Motors). Obama’s version of socialism is so sneaky you can hardly see it!

(And there is some reason to think this actually overstates the portion of the corporate landscape that’s been nationalized, but more on that at the end of the post.*)

While the chart above would appear at first glance to be pretty dispositive of the issue (if the federal government owns so little, can we really be socialist?), it actually begs a huge question. If the segment of the economy effectively nationalized in the past several months is so vanishingly small, why is it necessary for taxpayers to fund trillions of dollars to save it? We’ll come back to that.

Next, Jon Henke observes:

NOTE: The fact is, American has always had a mixed economy, as do all modern, developed economies. The question is not one of category – capitalism or socialism? – but of degree.

[...]

Obama is not socialist. But he is more comfortable with centralizing economic power. As that centralization proceeds, the focus of public interest will shift from “how do we fix the immediate economic problems?” to “how do we fix the problems we created when we tried to fix that temporary problem?” That is when the pendulum can swing back towards decentralization and individual empowerment.

Jon takes a more organic view of the subject. That is, he posits the governing structure of the US as subject to the tolerance of the polity for centralized control of the economy. In his view, just because Obama “is more comfortable with centralizing economic power” that does not mean that we have become a socialist nation. Instead, we are merely experiencing a swing of the political pendulum towards socialism that will inevitably swing back towards the capitalism node. Left unsaid is how often that pendulum has swung away from socialism in the past 100+ years. More importantly, Jon’s assertions beg their own question — i.e. how “comfortable” must a politician and/or the populace be with centralized power before we can safely label it socialism?

In addition to the above, another line of argument is sure to be made (if it hasn’t been already) that we cannot possibly be a socialist country because private property has not been outlawed and the people as a whole do not own and control the means of production. Truly, this is the argument that Conor attempts to support with his graph (not that Conor necessarily agrees with that argument, just that he is holding up evidence that would tend to suggest socialism is not at hand). Essentially, although socialism comes in many forms, a primary ingredient is that the state (on behalf of the people) have dominance over the means of production instead of private concerns. The most extreme form, of course, is where all private property is abolished and the state decides what will be produced, by who, when and how much. Much milder versions such as social democracy exist today that, while they allow private property and much more freedom than, say, Stalinist North Korea, maintain a firm grip over the economy as a whole. Is there any doubt that Germany is a socialist country for example? The question then is, where does America fit when it this spectrum of socialist possibilities, if it fits at all?

At bottom, the problem with these sorts of arguments is almost always definitional. If I start arguing that communism never works and use the Soviet Union as an example, someone is sure to pipe up “that wasn’t real communism” followed by a neat explanation how Lenin and Stalin perverted what the true communists wanted in order to seize power for their own means. In order to avoid that annoyance, let’s at least agree on the dictionary definition of socialism:

An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are [owned and] controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists.

The definition above comes from the The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, and I think sums up the idea nicely. The one thing missing is the word “ownership” which, I expect, someone will insist upon, so I’ve inserted the words “owned and” into the definition. As luck would have it, this is the very concept that I think is missed by almost everyone who discusses whether or not we are a socialist country.

Specifically, what is the difference between ownership and control? Looking again to the dictionary, here is a good legal definition of “ownership”:

“one’s exclusive right of possessing, enjoying, and disposing of a thing.” 72 So. 891. The term has been given a wide range of meanings, but is often said to comprehend both the concept of possession and, further, that of title and thus to be broader than either. See 139 N.W. 101. See fee simple.

The primary concept behind ownership is that of exclusivity, such that if I own real property, for example, I can by right exclude all others. Without the ability to exclude, my “ownership” is something less than complete and the use, enjoyment and alienation (a fancy word for selling, trading or giving away) of property is limited.

To illustrate the idea, consider that you own a piece of real property (Blackacre) which is rich with gold and silver mines, oil, and an abundance of flora and fauna. In short, it is a little slice of heaven and it is all yours. Or at least it would be if were not for the fact that the flora are mostly designated as protected, the fauna are all listed as endangered, and the mineral deposits are tightly regulated, all to the extent that you cannot make any real use of your land except to look at it from a neighbor’s yard in humble admiration for its splendor. Not only are you prevented from drilling or mining on your property, you cannot even build a house or structure of any kind because that might disturb the protected species. The rules and regulations governing Blackacre are so ominous, that you can’t even sell it without first offering it to the government for a price it will set in its own arbitrary discretion. Furthermore, just on the other side of Blackacre is the Pacific Ocean fronted by a lovely beach, to which the law declares access must be allowed for the public, and there is nothing you can do to prevent them from traipsing across your wonderland. In short, you may own Blackacre in title, but you have very little, if any, control.

Of course, at least here in America, the laws and regulations aren’t quite that strict. And the vast majority of people would agree to at least some controls over private property to prevent the owners from harming other property or people (e.g. pollution, building setbacks to prevent fire, etc.)[ed. - let's ignore Coasean bargaining for now, shall we?]. At some point, however, those restrictions on the owner’s use become so burdensome as to effectively deprive the owner of any real control. The same can be said for the ownership of capital, which can be anything from money to a large factory for building tractors. When the government sets up enough rules and regulations affecting the use and enjoyment of that capital, the fact that ownership is nominally in private hands does not somehow render that government as something other than socialist.

Now, getting back to our definition of socialism, which is more important, “ownership” or “control”? To my mind, this isn’t even a close call. Without control, ownership is next to meaningless. Therefore, if the state has the ability to control the means of production (a.k.a. capital), whether directly through ownership, or indirectly through law and regulation, I contend that such state should be deemed socialist.

Think of a scale that measures the owner’s rights in her own property and how, with each new government missive, that ownership indication drops a little more. Where the state’s intervention becomes intolerable will be different for each person, but from a definitional standpoint, that intervention represents socialism. When the scale registers a significant enough intervention into the owner’s rights, socialism becomes the prevalent factor in the control of property, and private, capitalist “ownership” is either dulled or altogether neutered. Again, without the ability to control that capital, ownership is a meaningless concept that should be left out of the conversation.

Accordingly, when Conor suggests that we are not a socialist nation because the government only owns an almost immeasurable portion of the corporate assets of this country, I suggest that he use a new measurement. Specifically, one that measures the amount of control that “owners” have over their property/capital/etc. That graph would look significantly different in my estimation.

Furthermore, when Jon states that Obama is not a socialist, he’s just comfortable with centralizing economic power, I ask that he consider what ways centralizing power (i.e. control over the means of production) is not socialist, and that he provide a few examples for clarification. Also, if the pendulum is going to swing back towards more decentralization (i.e. less control over capital), how far back would it have to go before most people could be reasonably certain that we are not, in fact, a socialist nation? How far back does he think it would have to go, or is his contention that the pendulum simply hasn’t swung into socialist territory? In considering those questions, I’d ask that the concept of control, rather than titular ownership, be the dominant factor in deciding where the state stands vis-à-vis socialism.

As I see it, we’ve been living with socialism in this country for a very long time. The only difference has been one of degree and magnitude. Its pervasiveness has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but American’s tolerance for it has grown substantially, even if many of us don’t like to call the governance we desire “socialism.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s only going to become more prevalent and intrusive. After all, why would anyone who is comfortable with centralizing economic power stop it? They’ll just call it something else and move on with asserting they’re control until one day you’ll be gazing longingly at Blackacre from the public beach, because that’s the only place where you can legally see it.


Right Policies: Opting Out

Yesterday Jon Henke challenged the Right to come up with policies that are popular, viable, workable, transformational and sustainable. (Follow the link to see what he means by each of those.) I’ve previously suggested a broad-based agenda that I thought could be sold as an alternative to the Democrats’ agenda, but I think a few of the specific policies are particularly strong, and they stick to a consistent theme.

Libertarian paternalism — which means that certain initial decisions are made for you, but you are left a way to opt out — can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the status quo. If the status quo is freedom, I’d just as soon not add in an element of paternalism in virtually any case. But if the status quo is paternalism, then libertarian paternalism is a step in the right direction.  Fortunately, giving people more options is much more popular than changing their status quo decision.

I propose that the Right should target existing paternalism and offer as many opportunities to opt out as we can devise. My main two examples are education and entitlements.

Education

I consider education to be any political coalition’s #1 long-term priority. If your opponents control education, chances are you will eventually lose on everything else. So, what policies should the Right pursue on education?

Vouchers aren’t a new idea, but we on the Right could be pursuing them in much more creative ways than we are now, to build a broad working alternative to state schools.  With variable-cost vouchers and pilot programs that target the “victim classes”, the Right can play full court press on vouchers in every school district.

Variable-Cost Vouchers

In every school district across the country, we should have vouchers at least equal to the variable cost of sending one extra child to public school. Democrats have argued for a long time that we need more spending per student to give kids smaller class sizes and better materials such as textbooks, and have used that to justify countless bond measures and tax increases to increase public school funding.

If a voucher just covers the variable cost of an extra student, then a voucher helps create smaller class sizes and increases the amount of money the public school can spend on each student.

You can see how a voucher for variable costs puts the Left in a Catch-22: Every extra dollar they want to spend per student is an argument for a bigger voucher, and an opportunity for the private sector to spend the dollar more efficiently than the public sector.

Make Friends in Low Places

We can do even better: pilot voucher programs should very openly target kids who are performing worst in the current system, in part because proposing vouchers for them undercuts the argument that vouchers just skim the cream of the crop.

Voucher proponents have already focused on several low-income and minority populations, using needs-based criteria and simple geography; the Right should be pushing this smart strategy much more aggressively – it undercuts Democrats’ arguments against vouchers beautifully, and makes a direct play for the Left’s base. The apparent success of the DC voucher system has made attempts to cut the program very embarrassing for Democrats; we need more of that.

Moreover, the Right should propose vouchers that help children who score on the bottom half of the test-score distribution. The research I’ve read indicates that these children show the greatest gains from voucher programs.  For the same reason, target kids with histories of disciplinary problems and special-needs children (paging Sarah Palin).

It would be a bridge too far for the Democrats to argue that these kids enhance the performance of public schools after using the opposite argument to fight vouchers for so long.

And finally, the Right should propose voucher programs to target the many minors who have already dropped out of school.  Kids who have outright given up on the public school system, or who rarely show up, aren’t doing anything to improve the performance of those schools.  If Democrats want to keep up the pretense that they care about these kids, they shouldn’t have any problem with helping these kids become part of a new private education market.

Those are just a small number of ways we can turn the Left’s most popular arguments against them and start to build a real market in education. In the meantime, the Right would be demonstrating that markets can work better than state-administered programs, and help the “little guy” who’s been screwed by the public system.

Where necessary to make the policy viable, the Right could be flexible on the matter of vouchers for church-founded schools (like Catholic schools); the first priority is building a broad education market outside of the state.

Entitlements

Here’s another place where reform would be truly transformational. The Right should push for an opt-out for the major entitlements – Medicare and Social Security. A reform doesn’t have to be a full privatization to accomplish a great deal of good.

Many people are currently collecting benefits from Medicare and SocSec, and we can assume that they will turn out to vote against anything that takes away those benefits. The Right can start making progress on reducing our crushing long-term obligations by (once more for effect) giving everyone as many opportunities to opt out as possible.

Social Security

Why not allow people to adjust their expected benefits, with higher or lower individual taxes to compensate for the change from the “standard” level?  The SSA could set a minimum level of contributions to guarantee its promised benefits, so that the legislation becomes non-threatening to beneficiaries, and thus politically viable.  To get the greatest tax cut, you opt out of all retirement benefits; you can change your mind later, but your benefit and/or tax level must be adjusted appropriately.  And the more people who opt out, the lower the minimum tax rate can go; that rate could be adjusted at periodic intervals, perhaps once a year.

Similarly, why not allow people to adjust their expected retirement age, again paying higher or lower taxes to compensate?

Both of these adjustments would introduce flexibility along with a price mechanism.

Yes, this means that some people might choose to pay the minimum tax and find themselves at age 67 regretting their earlier decisions, but everyone would know that they made a conscious choice to change from the status quo.  And in the meantime, those who opt out don’t feel like such direct stakeholders.

Medicare and other state medical benefits

To get more people off the rolls, allow them to opt out of Medicare eligibility and other state medical benefits in exchange for some mix of:

    • lower payroll taxes
    • tax-free health savings accounts
    • a tax cut on their individual health insurance
    • vouchers for private insurance and private disability coverage

… as long as the total cost of the mix is lower than the expected cost of Medicare benefits.  This way, the Right can not only cut into the massive expected costs on the near horizon, but also get fewer people to feel like stakeholders in the future of the state-administered system.

Conclusion

The most effective arguments against reform are allegations that people will lose the benefits they have now. Psychologically, we regret losing a dollar more than we regret not acquiring that dollar in the first place. That’s a big part of how the Right beat universal health care under Clinton: by telling the American people that they would lose their current insurance, with which most of them were satisfied.

Whether we like it or not, it is stupid to do a frontal assault on a hardened position. Instead, we should apply libertarian paternalism to divide and conquer by giving our opponents as many chances to defect as possible.


Newspeak Update: Spending Cuts = Dictatorship

Bizarro world continues unabated. The logic behind this assertion is … uh, “subtle” to say the least (my emphasis):

First, on “constitutional dictatorship,” there is, somewhat surprisingly, Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a favorite of the Repblican right wing (assuming there is anything else than a right wing in the GOP these days) is apparently going to use all of his powers under the Minnesota have exercised such powers, but Pawlenty’s exercise in unilateral government seems to be of a different magnitude. Perhaps we should view Minnesota as having the equivalent of a Weimar Constitution Article 48, the “emergency powers clause” that allowed the president to govern by fiat. Throughout the 1920s, it was invoked more than 200 times to respond to the economic crisis. Pawlenty is sounding the same theme, as he prepares to slash spending on all sorts of public services. The fact that this will increase his attractiveness to the Republican Right, for the 2012 presidential race that has already begun, is, of course, an added benefit, since one doubts that he is banking on a political future within Minnesota itself (which didn’t give him a majority at the last election; he was elected, as was Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, only because of the presence of third-party candidates). One might also look forward to whether he will refuse to certify Al Franken’s election to the Senate even after the Minnesota Supreme Court, like all other Minnesota courts, says that he has won. Whoever thought that Minnesota would be the leading example of a 21st-century version of “constitutional dictatorship” among the American states?

I don’t know who Sandy Levin, the author of the above screed, is but I have to believe he has become lost in his own rhetoric. We are honestly being asked to accept the premise that a Governor, using his constitutionally-approved and legislature-granted powers, is somehow a “dictator” for … slashing spending in a time of budget shortfalls?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty promised Thursday to bring Minnesota’s deficit-ridden budget back into balance on his own if the session ends Monday without an accord, using line-item vetoes and executive powers to shave billions in spending.

[...]

Pawlenty held out the possibility of a negotiated agreement, but said he was prepared to use vetoes, payment suspensions and so-called unallotment to cut the two-year budget to $31 billion. That’s about $3 billion smaller than the slate of spending bills sent to him.

The move infuriated Democrats who run the Legislature. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis dubbed Pawlenty “Governor Go It Alone.” Pawlenty shot back that without the step Kelliher would be “Speaker Special Session.”

“There will be no public hearings. There will be no public input. There will just be a governor alone with unelected people whispering in his ear of what to cut and what not to cut,” Kelliher said, calling it “bullying.”

Apparently this is exactly what Levinson and the Minnesota left want us to believe — i.e. that using duly constituted powers is the equivalent of behaving as a dictator. How utterly ridiculous.

If this were a situation where the governor was unilaterally deciding to burden the taxpayers more, or he was singling out a particular group of people to bear the brunt of arbitrary government rules, I could see where the dissenters here would have a point. If the executive branch suddenly declared, without any legislative input, that English was the official language of Minn. and no other languages would be recognized anywhere in the state upon penalty of law, then, legally granted powers or not, I would understand and support Levinson et al.

Instead, the perfectly preposterous idea that balancing a state budget, using the very powers granted the governor to accomplish the task, is now deemed the equivalent of the Weimar Republic emergency powers (you know, the ones that allowed Hitler to declare himself supreme dictator over Germany).

To be sure, the focus of this vitriolic (and, I’d say, hysterical) attack on Pawlenty stems from his threatened use of “unallotment” powers:

The procedure exists under state statute, and “the first prerequisite to unallotment is that the Commissioner of Finance ‘determines that probable receipts for the general fund will be less than anticipated, and that the amount available for the remainder of the biennium will be less than needed.”

Then the ball is in the governor’s court:

“After the Commissioner of Finance determines that the amount available for the biennium is less than needed, the governor must approve the commissioner’s actions before the commissioner can either reduce the amount in the budget reserve or reduce allotments.”

The Legislature is consulted but does not have any power or ultimate say in the governor’s actions. The process starts at the beginning of the next fiscal biennium, which means that Pawlenty won’t enact anything until July 1. And what he’ll do is anyone’s guess.

“Depending on what he does with line-item vetoes, I figure we’ll see anywhere from a half a billion to $2 billion in unallotments,” Schultz said. “It’s unprecedented in dollar amount and in willingness to use it.”

Is it good policy or politics?

Schultz points out that unallotment is on the books for “emergency conditions” in which “the Legislature can’t do its job,” such as a budget forecast that comes out when lawmakers aren’t in session.

But in Schultz’s opinion, Pawlenty is “creating the emergency conditions that allow him to use it.”

“He appears to not want to negotiate in good faith,” Schultz offered. “Working with the Legislature is supposed to be a cooperative venture, not a take-it-or-leave-it one.”

The problem, of course, is that the legislature keeps sending a bill that proposes more spending than Minnesota’s revenues will allow. Because the governor and the legislature can’t agree on identifying new revenue sources (e.g. Leg. wants to tax the rich, Gov. wants to borrow against tobacco settlement), then the two sides are at an impasse. Despite what some might say, a proposed $3 billion deficit with no budget alternative in place does represent a fiscal emergency. After all, the money has to come from somewhere, or the services (giveaways, or whatever) will have to be cut, and the government may be forced to shut down. Why that doesn’t represent a fiscal emergency of the very type contemplated by the unallotment statute remains a bit of mystery for us less hysterical folks.

Jumping out the weeds, and regardless of how one might view the necessity of spending more or less via the Minnesota budget, I am simply flabbergasted that anyone could possibly suggest that forcing the government to spend less is in anyway, shape or form equivalent to dictatorship. To accept such premise is accept the idea that government spending is the sole source of freedom. I categorically reject any such notion. And if dictatorship is to be defined as standing in firm opposition to it, then sign me up.


Car Czar Thuggery (Updated)

rattner

Steven Rattner, the Obama administration’s “Car Czar,” was recently accused of acting, well, rather czar-ishly by White & Case attorney Tom Lauria. Those accusations were later corroborated by others privy to the meetings. Now comes a rather disturbing (and presently unsubstantiated) account of exactly what was said1:

Confronting the head of a non-TARP fund holding Chrysler debt and unwilling to release it for any sum less than that to which it was legally entitled without compelling cause, this country’s “Car Czar” berated the manager of said fund with an outburst of prose substantially resembling this:

Who the f*** do you think you’re dealing with? We’ll have the IRS audit your fund. Every one of your employees. Your investors. Then we will have the Securities and Exchange Commission rip through your books looking for anything and everything and nothing we find to destroy you with.

Faced with these sorts of threats, in this environment, with valued employees in the crosshairs and AIG a fresh, open wound upon the market, the fund folded.

Keep in mind that the non-TARP creditors in the bankruptcy have been forced to lump their fates in with the TARP recipients (emphasis added):

As of last night’s deadline, we were part of a group of approximately 20 relatively small organizations; we represent many of the country’s teachers unions, major pension and retirement plans and school endowments who have invested through us in senior secured loans to Chrysler. Combined, these loans total about $1 billion. None of us have taken a dime in TARP money.

As much as anyone, we want to see Chrysler emerge from its current situation as a viable American company, and we are committed to doing what we can to help. Indeed, we have made significant concessions toward this end — although we have been systematically precluded from engaging in direct discussions or negotiations with the government; instead, we have been forced to communicate through an obviously conflicted intermediary: a group of banks that have received billions of TARP funds.

Rattner’s alleged threats should give everyone some pause. Is it really the case that private companies will be forced to do the President’s bidding or face the full brunt of the state’s police power? Because that’s exactly what’s being alleged. I share the concern of the reporter of Rattner’s comments in that I certainly hope the accusations are inaccurate/misstated/outrageously untrue.

It is my deepest wish at this point that there is nothing about this latest bit of Car Czar thuggery even remotely based in fact- as this would mean that this country has truly and unarguably descended into fascism.

I use this term, “fascism,” quite deliberately. I also use it well aware that many will consider it needlessly inflammatory. Be this as it may, I submit there is simply no other term that properly describes the style and tenor of government emerging both in public and behind once closed doors.

The corporatist model — i.e. where unelected government officials and industry “leaders” fashion economic policy for the benefit of the state as whole, and in complete disregard of, and often quite hostile to, individual liberty — has never died, and is used more often than you might think (e.g. in the creation of energy policy, environmental policy, financial market rules, etc.), albeit in less radical form. That does not mean that Jews or any other disfavored groups will be marched off to concentration camps (opponents of gay marriage not named “Barack” can be forgiven for thinking otherwise). But it does mean that the preconditions necessary to ease the way for totalitarian control are already present. If enough people buy the “myth” presented by those in charge, then more and more power will eventually be ceded to a central authority, who will then have the ability to steamroll any opponents to the collective will. The accusations presented above suggest that Rattner (and one has to presume Pres. Obama), believes that enough Americans have bought the myth as to allow for such bullying. If so, that is a truly disturbing thought to contemplate.

UPDATE: In an article at the WSJ essentially chiding the MSM for failing to dig into this story, Tom Blumer notes the following (my emphasis):

The New York Times, in a report by Michael J. de la Merced and Jonathan D. Glater, does note the threats and Gonzales’s ruling, and has the following at its second-last paragraph.

When the debtholders, calling themselves the Committee of Non-TARP Lenders, made their first public statement last Thursday, they said their group consisted of about 20 investment firms holding about $1 billion. According to their motion to file under seal, the group now claims about $300 million in holdings.

de la Merced and Glater were apparently not curious about the possible reasons why the amount involved, and presumably the number of holders, is significantly lower than it was just a few days ago.

Maybe it’s because the threats are real, guys.

Maybe.

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1 Edited to make SFW.


NYT: Spectacularly Wrong … Yet Again

Will someone please buy these people a subscription to Google or something? In trying to compare TANF and TARP spending, Nancy Folbre makes a rather glaringly error:

Robert Rector and Katharine Bradley of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization, estimate that federal welfare spending amounted to $491 billion in fiscal 2008. (They don’t explain what specific programs they included in this estimate, and I’ll try to unpack it in a future post.) Even their extremely high estimate remains far below estimates of the total of $2.5 trillion spent on financial bailouts this year. The libertarian Cato Institute often emphasizes the issue of corporate welfare, but it’s remained remarkably quiet so far on the topic of bailouts.

David Boaz begs to differ:

Excuse me?

Since she linked to one of our papers on corporate welfare, we assume she’s visited our site. How, then, could she get such an impression? Cato scholars have been deploring bailouts since last September. (Actually, since the Chrysler bailout of 1979, but we’ll skip forward to the recent avalanche of Bush-Obama bailouts.) Just recently, for instance, in — ahem — the New York Times, senior fellow William Poole implored, “Stop the Bailouts.” I wonder if our commentaries started with my blog post “Bailout Nation?” last September 8? Or maybe with Thomas Humphrey and Richard Timberlake’s “The Imperial Fed,” deploring the Federal Reserve’s help for Bear Stearns, on April 14 of last year?

Boaz goes onto reproduce a video compilation of Cato scholars denouncing bailouts on “more than 90 radio and television programs.” He also produces an impressive list of papers, articles and media appearances which seriously challenge Folbre’s notion of “remarkably quiet.”

Folbre doubles down here:

You’re right. The Cato Institute website has not been silent. It just didn’t meet my expectations of adequate noise.

Yeah. Too bad her post didn’t meet reality’s expectations for factual.