Steve H. Hanke
For months, the American public has received a steady stream of new information detailing the massive scale and scope of the United States’ spying activities. Of course, maintaining a surveillance state powerful enough to reach into the inboxes of world leaders, friend and foe, is not cheap. Indeed, as the Washington Post revealed when it released portions of the so-called Black Budget, this year’s price tag on America’s spook infrastructure comes out to a whopping $52.6 billion.
This is, of course, a tremendous sum – more than double the size of the Department of Agriculture, more than triple the size of NASA; the list goes on… But, what really puts this number into perspective is its average cost to each American taxpayer, or what I would call the NSA and associated agencies’ “rent.”
Yes, the NSA’s rent, charged to every taxpayer living under its web of surveillance, comes out to an exorbitant $574 per year. If this is the price the federal government is charging American taxpayers to have their own privacy invaded, then I say the NSA’s rent is too damn high.
Normally, at the end of one of these blogs, I would ask a rhetorical question like: “Washington, are you listening?” But, in this case, we know Washington is listening, and now we know how much we’re being charged for it.
Today, we look to some of the First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court this term.
· McCutcheon v. FEC: Mentioned earlier this week, the McCutcheon case is a challenge of the federal aggregate contributions limit imposed on individuals by federal campaign finance law. Mr. McCutcheon argues that he should be allowed to donate to as many candidates as he likes, so long as he abides by the individual contribution limits for each of them. He contends that the cap on his total contributions to all candidates cannot pass strict scrutiny because there is no anti-corruption interest at stake. Cato filed an amicus brief in support of McCutcheon. The case was argued October 8.
· McCullen v. Coakley: In this case out of the First Circuit, the petitioner is challenging a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot zone around abortion facilities within which only patrons or workers may remain—others must move along. The defenders of the law claim that the legislation is a valid time, place, or manner restriction, but the challengers say that the law constitutes a content-based prohibition of anti-abortion speech that does not pass strict scrutiny. Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the challenge. The date for oral argument has not been set.
· Harris v. Quinn: Pamela Harris and petitioners are challenging Illinois’s move to force personal in-home assistants to unionize and pay dues to a labor union, the SEIU. Despite the fact that the disabled person is the employer—with full control over hiring, firing, and supervision of the assistant—Illinois claims that because the personal assistants are regulated and receive money from Medicaid, they are public employees that can be compelled to unionize and pay dues to subsidize SEIU’s lobbying efforts. Petitioners challenge this as a violation of their First Amendment rights of association and free speech. Cato filed an amicus brief in support of the challenge. The date for oral argument has not been set.
· United States v. Apel: John Dennis Apel was arrested for trespassing after entering a designated protest zone in front of Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. He had been previously banned from the base due to past protests (one of which included defacing a sign at the base with his own blood); however, the Ninth Circuit vacated his conviction because the arrest occurred on a portion of the installation that was subject to a public roadway easement. The Court will decide whether to reinstate the conviction. Oral argument is scheduled for December 4.
· Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper: This case involves the application of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act’s defamation protections for airlines. Designed to promote airlines’ disclosure of potential threats, the law establishes a protective standard for defamation suits against airlines similar to the heightened standard for defamation suits against the media (requiring falsity or a reckless disregard for truth). In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a judgment against Air Wisconsin when the statements at issue were at least partially true. The Court is asked for an application of the heightened standard in a case where such allegedly defamatory statements are true or partially true. Oral argument is scheduled for December 9.
For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out www.FreeSpeechWeek.org.
K. William Watson
A new anti-patent troll bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Although it doesn’t really address the major cause of the troll problem—vague and overbroad patents—the bill’s litigation-focused reforms are clever and will likely be effective. Unfortunately, the bill suffers from one glaring omission: it completely ignores well-documented patent litigation problems at the International Trade Commission.
Why isn’t ITC reform included in the bill? In a speech yesterday, House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), directly answered that very question:
We very much agree that the ITC’s involvement in protecting intellectual property needs to be examined. Unfortunately, it is not primarily [within] the jurisdiction of the House Judiciary Committee…. We’re very open to collaborating with the Ways and Means Committee, and we are very open to ideas that would allow us to address any aspect of that.
First off, I’d like to point out that the congressional committee in charge of overseeing the patent system does not have jurisdiction to initiate legislative oversight of a uniquely independent, specialized patent court. This is just one more sign of how awkward and inappropriate it is to have a trade agency litigating patent disputes.
More immediately though, I would like to take this opportunity to implore the Republican leadership in the Ways and Means Committee and the Trade Subcommittee to accept Chairman Goodlatte’s invitation, jump heartily onto the patent reform bandwagon, and fix the ITC’s patent mess.
The reason patent trolls are a problem at the ITC is because of the agency’s excessive remedies. When the producer’s infringement involves one piece of technology worth a tiny fraction of the value of a high-tech electronic device, total exclusion of the product from the U.S. market is uncalled for. It would not happen in a court, and it should not happen at the ITC. The courts have ways to determine whether an injunction is appropriate, and ITC reform need only align the agency’s practice with the courts. The best way to do that right now is to reshape and strengthen the ITC’s public interest test.
But please, please don’t try to fight patent trolls by making the ITC’s patent procedures more protectionist. We do not need a stricter domestic industry requirement. Foreign trolls are not worse than domestic trolls. For that matter, foreign patent infringers are not worse than domestic patent infringers. There are ways to make the ITC less attractive to patent trolls without making it more attractive to protectionists.
In a perfect world, we would ditch the whole thing. There’s just no need to have a special patent enforcement mechanism for imports. But as long as they do it right—and there’s reason to think they will—Congress can fix some of the problems caused by having a dual-track patent litgation system if ITC reform gets included in the current bill.
This is the fourth day of Free Speech Week, during which we will be celebrating freedom of speech by posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.
Today we will take a look at the threat to free speech posed by the IRS’s power over non-profit groups. As many will remember, Tea Party and small government advocacy groups were specifically targeted for harassment, audits, and delays when seeking IRS approval to operate as 501(c)(4) non-profit groups. This was one the bigger scandals of the several to hit the Obama administration in the last year or two, and for good reason. The use of executive agencies to harass and silence political enemies presents a threat to the freedom of political speech and is a smack in the face of the concept of representative government.
This kind of abuse of the IRS’s power isn’t really anything new, however, as the following Cato Institute video explains:The I.R.S. Abusing Americans Is Nothing New
For more on the IRS scandal, check out the briefing below, featuring Cato’s Trevor Burrus and John Samples:
For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out www.FreeSpeechWeek.org.
Ted Galen Carpenter
The United States has acquired the unfortunate habit of giving security commitments to small allies as avidly as American GIs distributed chocolate bars to European children during the waning days of World War II. But while the generosity of those American soldiers earned the gratitude of a war-weary population, Washington’s latest venture incurs serious risks. That is especially true when the United States supports a small client state in that country’s dispute with a much larger, more powerful neighbor.
In an article over at the National Interest Online, I discuss the latest example: the Obama administration’s increasingly blatant backing of the Philippines against China regarding conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea. Instead of remaining quiet on the matter, as prudence would seem to dictate, Secretary of State John Kerry ostentatiously weighed-in at the East Asia Summit on October 10 in Brunei, implicitly backing Manila’s position. That episode is merely the latest in a series of actions since 2011 indicating an escalating U.S. commitment not only to the defense of the Philippines under a long-standing bilateral treaty, but support for that country’s stance with respect to the South China Sea.
Chinese leaders no longer try to conceal their annoyance regarding Washington’s bias against Beijing’s position. When asked about Kerry’s remarks, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying contended that “non-parties to the dispute should respect the efforts by relevant parties involved to peacefully solve the dispute” through direct negotiations, “instead of doing things that could harm regional peace and stability.” She added that “if some country really wants to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea, it should stop stirring up waves.”
It is usually a bad idea for a great power to back a small, volatile ally in a dispute with a much stronger neighbor. Such allies then have a tendency to adopt a bolder stance—sometimes even an irresponsible one—confident that their powerful patron has their back. The Georgian government’s provocative military actions in 2008 against the Russian-protected secessionist regime in South Ossetia seemed motivated in part by the mistaken belief that the United States and NATO would deter Moscow from retaliating. Fortunately, Georgia was not a member of NATO, despite the Bush administration’s wishes on that score, so the United States was not obligated to get involved in the Russian-Georgian war.
Washington does not have the same luxury, however, if a confrontation erupts between Russia and any of the small East European members of NATO. That is not merely an academic concern, since there are some festering issues, especially between Moscow and the tiny Baltic republics. U.S. leaders foolishly put America’s security on the line to defend “allies” that provide little, if any, military benefit to the United States.
Washington has done the same thing in East Asia in an even more dangerous setting. In addition to the alliance with the Philippines, there is the bilateral alliance with South Korea and a less explicit but very real commitment to Taiwan’s defense under the Taiwan Relations Act. The former could entangle the United States in a war on the Korean Peninsula, while the latter has an even greater potential than the Philippines tie to embroil the United States in a nasty confrontation with China.
The United States should enter into alliances only when the benefits to American interests clearly outweigh any potential costs and risks, but most of Washington’s commitments to small allies don’t even come close to meeting that standard. National security should not be treated as if it were akin to collecting stamps or coins. Acquiring and supporting allies for the sake of acquiring and supporting allies is not only wasteful, it’s dangerous.
Right after Republican Rep. Darrel Issa (CA) announces that he’s introducing a bill to offer legalization for some unauthorized immigrants, President Obama gave a speech about how immigration reform is now his top priority. The President said: “This is not just an idea whose time has come, this is an idea that’s been around for years now.”
The President then blamed all recent political problems and failures to pass reform on Republicans – ignoring the gargantuan efforts of Republicans in the Senate like Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and others.
Republican support for immigration reform, especially in the House of Representatives, is vital to it becoming law. By stealing the spot light and making immigration a partisan issue, he is distracting from reform.
Does anybody else have déjà vu? How many times do we have to hear the President give a speech pleading for reform while his administration continues to deport record numbers of people? How many times will the President blame the Republicans for every problem with our immigration system in one sentence and then say we need bipartisanship in the next? How many times will the President blame everybody but his administration for our destructive immigration system?
President Obama is not in a position of moral authority to blame his political opponents for all of the problems with our immigration system, especially considering that sometime in the next few months, this administration will likely have deported its 2 millionth immigrant.
In his speech, the President also pointed to his record as a Senator in working with Republicans to pass immigration reform during the Bush administration. In fact, Obama was instrumental in killing immigration reform in 2007 when he voted for the Dorgan amendment, named after then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D), a known poison pill designed to gut the guest worker expansion and scuttle the entire reform along with it. Without a guest worker portion, much of the support from businesses and pro-reform Republicans evaporated – which is why so many anti-immigration reform Republicans voted for the Dorgan amendment too.
It passed 49 to 48 thanks to Obama’s unexpected support.
President Obama does deserve credit for some positive changes to our immigration system. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has limited deportation of some Dreamers, at least temporarily. President Obama could have deferred their deportations on his first day in office but instead he waited almost three and a half years – five months before the next Presidential election – to do so.
President Obama’s priorities will probably shift next week toward fixing the atrocious rollout of the healthcare.gov website or some other issue, but for this fleeting moment he’s focusing on immigration – because his political opponents are. I suspect that I will write something very similar to this in the next few months while suffering from déjà vu.
I was struck by the following from a recent news article about legalized marijuana in Uruguay:
[Uruguay’s] Marijuana sales should start in the second half of 2014 at a price of about $1 per gram, drug chief Julio Calzada told a local newspaper, El Pais
In the U.S., the states of Washington and Colorado have legalized marijuana and adopted rules governing its sale.
Unlike Uruguay, they will tax pot, seeing it as a revenue source, when it goes on legal sale next year.
In Washington, the state marijuana consultant has projected legal pot might cost between $13 to $17 per gram, though some people suggest that’s high.
Marijuana in the medical dispensaries typically ranges from $8 to $14 per gram in Washington depending on quality.
As with many products, it seems, marijuana will be much cheaper in developing countries than in the United States. This offers up opportunities for trade, as U.S. consumers would benefit from lower priced imports.
But I doubt that this trade will happen soon. I haven’t looked at the proposed Washington and Colorado rules, but I’m guessing that import is prohibited. And the article notes that Uruguay is only selling domestically: “Sales would be restricted to locals, who would be able to buy up to 40 grams per month.”
I can imagine that in the future, if the product becomes more widely accepted, trade between different jurisdictions that allow marijuana will be permitted and U.S. prices will come down. It may be a while, though.
But wait, there is one other problem: Is the price in Uruguay a market price? It may not be:
the idea is not to make money, but to fight petty crime and wrench the market away from illegal dealers.
“The illegal market is very risky and of poor quality,” he said. The State “is going to offer a safe place to buy a quality product and on top of that, it’s going to sell it at the same price.”
In August, he had estimated that the price would be around $2.50 per gram.
It may be that Uruguay is offering not just legal marijuana sales, but subsidized marijuana sales. So, if there is trade at some point, we will have issues about whether below market marijuana is being traded “fairly.” And I can imagine anti-dumping and countervailing duty complaints being filed against marijuana imports to drive those prices back up. This will be annoying if it happens, but at least it will make the cases more interesting than if it’s just another boring steel product.
Daniel J. Mitchell
Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. How to fix the mess at the IRS is a fiscal policy question, and that requires tax reform rather than spending restraint.
But allow me a bit of literary license. We just had a big debt limit battle in Washington and, after a lot of political drama, politicians kicked the can down the road.
So we need to ask ourselves whether that fight accomplished anything?
It did focus attention of the flaws of Obamacare, and I suppose there’s some value in that.
But the debt limit was not a vehicle - as has been the case in the past - for changes in fiscal policy. We didn’t get something good, like the sequester which resulted from the 2011 debt limit legislation. And we didn’t get something bad, like the tax hike in the 1985 debt limit legislation
Some are asking whether we should even have a debt limit. A number of critics have suggested we should get rid of the borrowing cap because it creates the risk of default. I think those concerns are very overblown.
I’m more persuaded by those who argue that the debt limit diverts attention from better options to improve fiscal policy.
Professors Gary Becker and Edward Lazear write in the Wall Street Journal that the debt ceiling is not a very good tool for restraining the growth of government. They look at evidence from the states to warn that fiscal rules that seek to limit borrowing are ineffective.
Many states are required to have “balanced” budgets, but the growth in spending and the size of state governments continues apace. During good times, when tax revenues are high, states “balance” their budgets by spending at the high levels consistent with large revenues. When times get tough, it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate programs that had been initiated during the fat years. Instead, the states resort to budgetary gimmicks, like delaying shortfalls until next year’s “balanced” budget.
Gimmicks are bad, of course, but politicians also respond to fiscal squeezes by raising taxes.
And that can be even worse as the prospect of more revenue leads to a ratchet effect, with periodic tax hikes used to maintain or expand the gravy train of spending. The fiscal mess in Europe is an obvious case study, but if you want a painful example from America, just look at data from Connecticut. The state did quite well without an income tax from the 1600s until 1991.
But then an income tax was imposed, in part to deal with the fiscal shortfall caused by an economic downturn. And, as critics warned, that new tax has produced dismal results. The top rate has jumped from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent and inflation-adjusted per-capita state government spending has doubled. And there have been zero net private-sector jobs created since the income tax was implemented.
So what’s the answer? Becker and Lazear explain that lawmakers should target the underlying problem of spending rather than the symptom of red ink.
Better than a debt-ceiling rule would be one that controls spending directly, not the debt that results from it. The specifics are less important than the general principle, which is that spending growth should be limited in a way that brings government outlays back down to historic ratios relative to GDP. This would place the attention where it belongs, on spending rather than on the difference between outlays and receipts. Increased spending, coupled with even larger increases in taxes, might bring the deficit down, but it would damage economic growth and well-being.
Well stated. Reducing the overall burden of government spending - measured as a share of economic output - should be the goal of fiscal policy. That’s simply another way of stating my Golden Rule. And there’s a growing body of academic evidence showing that reducing the size of government is a good way of improving economic performance.
I’ve been highlighting the example of Switzerland, which has successfully strengthened its economy and fiscal policy with a spending cap (which, ironically, is called a “debt brake” even though the real effect of the law is to limit how fast spending can increase over time).
Other countries that have limited spending also have achieved some very impressive results. The video at this link looks at evidence from nations such as New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s, and there’s a more recent data about the positive effects of spending restraint in the Baltic nations.
There has been some interest in spending caps on Capitol Hill. Congressman Brady of Texas has proposed a MAP Act that is somewhat similar to Switzerland’s debt brake and Senator Corker of Tennessee has introduced a CAP Act that also would restrain annual spending increases.
Perhaps if some of their colleagues read today’s Becker-Lazear column, they’ll also understand why it’s better to focus on the underlying problem of government spending rather than getting distracted by the symptom of red ink.
Ilya Shapiro and Timothy Sandefur
Last year’s Supreme Court decision holding that Obamacare imposes a “tax” on people who don’t buy health insurance came as a surprise to most Americans. The law doesn’t call it a “tax,” but a “penalty,” and the law’s authors and supporters never called it a “tax” when it was enacted. But Chief Justice Roberts and the four liberal justices held that unlike the penalty in the 1922 case of Bailey v. Drexel Furniture – which was disguised as a tax – what the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act imposed looked like a penalty but was really a tax.
One of the problems with that – left unaddressed in the NFIB v. Sebelius ruling – is that the Constitution requires “all bills for raising revenue” to “originate” in the House of Representatives. If the PPACA imposes a tax, then it fails this requirement because it originated in the Senate.
That’s the argument being made in the case of Matt Sissel, a veteran and small business owner represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation (including one of us, Sandefur). In a brief filed yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Sissel’s lawyers argue that the Obamacare “tax” originated in the Senate in violation of Constitutional standards.
There’s little case law interpreting the Constitution’s Origination Clause. The leading case is 1911’s Flint v. Stone Tracy Corp., which held that the Clause wasn’t violated when the Senate amended a House-passed bill to add a tax to it. The Court held that the Senate – which has the constitutional authority to “propose or concur with amendments” to House-passed revenue bills – was allowed to do this because that Senate amendment “was germane to the subject-matter of the bill.” It’s hard to see how the “germaneness” requirement was satisfied in the PPACA’s case, though. That law originated in the Senate, which took a House-passed bill on a completely different subject (providing incentives for veterans to buy their first homes), deleted its entire text, and replaced it with the bill that became Obamacare. This “shell bill” tactic is not uncommon in legislatures, but the Supreme Court has never held that it satisfies the origination requirement. A federal trial court threw Sissel’s case out in June, on the grounds that the Senate’s “amendment” satisfied the “germaneness” rule because the original House bill had something to do with taxes. But if the standard is that lax, the Origination Clause would mean nothing: the Senate could originate taxes at any time when they have some extremely broad similarity with some other bill the House has passed. In an age of boxcar-sized omnibus bills, that would be easy to do.
That trial court also said that the Origination Clause doesn’t apply to the Obamacare tax anyway, because, while it’s a tax, it isn’t a “bill for raising revenue.” There are precedents that have exempted certain kinds of taxes from the Origination Clause because they’re not revenue measures, but are instead earmarked for some specific fund, or are actually just enforcement penalties meant to ensure compliance with another law. But funds raised by the PPACA aren’t earmarked – they go into the general Treasury, to be spent as Congress chooses. And in NFIB, Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion specifically held that the provision at issue is not a penalty, but only a tax. It’s the reverse of Drexel Furniture.
These are reasons why the judge-made exceptions to the Origination Clause shouldn’t apply here. But there’s a broader reason why the courts should be reluctant to exempt Obamacare. In their decision last year, the majority of justices expressed a desire to preserve what they saw as democratic lawmaking. “We possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments,” wrote Roberts. “Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” Whatever you might think of this idea, if the courts are concerned about our democratic process, they should not hesitate to enforce a constitutional provision designed to preserve democratic accountability.
The Origination Clause was written to ensure that the power to tax – government’s most pervasive, dangerous, and easily abused power – was kept close to the people’s chamber: the House of Representatives, elected every two years directly by local districts. Had Obamacare been properly proposed in the House as a tax on not buying insurance in the first place, it wouldn’t have survived more than a few days – and as it stands the backlash against the law’s enactment swept out the House majority that supported that law. If the courts are concerned with empowering the will of the voters, that’s all the more reason that procedural requirements like the Origination Clause – that help ensure accountability and transparency, and keep the taxing power as close to the people as possible – are fully enforced.
This is the third day of Free Speech Week, during which we will be celebrating freedom of speech by posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.
Today we will highlight the First Amendment right of citizens to record on-duty police officers. This has been a controversial topic over the past few years, as police officers have in many instances reacted negatively, unprofessionally, or even illegally to being recorded by bystanders. While federal courts have now acknowledged the inherent First Amendment right of citizens to record public officials performing their duties, many officers still side-step the law and make arrests based on trumped up charges, like obstruction or delay of an officer.
The following Cato video featuring Radley Balko, Clark Neily, and David Rittgers gives a good overview of the importance of the right to record the police:Cops on Camera
Also, a couple years back, I hosted a panel discussion at Cato on laws that prohibit recording the police. The video can be found here.
Being able to record the police is important because of the much needed accountability that it provides. Many of the stories and accounts I’ve written about on Cato’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project have only come to light because concerned citizens have stood up against police misconduct by recording it—sometimes resulting in further abuse to themselves or their family. The ability to record and then speak out when something wrong happens goes to the heart of the First Amendment, which makes the fight over recording the police a good topic to remember on Free Speech Week.
For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out www.FreeSpeechWeek.org.
Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger
Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”
Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States from the production and consumption of energy have been on the decline since about 2005, after generally being on the rise ever since our country was first founded.
The decline in emissions between 2012 and 2011 was 3.8 percent, which, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) was the largest decline in a non-recession year since 1990 and the first time that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell while the per capita economic output increased by more than 2 percent. In other words, we are producingmore while emitting less carbon dioxide.
The big player in 2012 was the continued switch from coal to natural gas for electrical generation. It is generally accepted that gas-fired generation results in about half as much carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour as coal-fired.
While some would glibly say this is a result of increased regulation of greenhouse gases, it’s much more just good-old economics and the profit motive that are responsible. Hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and inherently less expensive physical plants mean it is cheaper to produce electrical power from gas than from coal. In fact, as the figure below shows, there’s been pretty much a one-for-one switch between the two sources, with coal-fired down by 215 billion kilowatt-hours (kwh) and gas up by 212.
Despite the fact that “renewable” electricity generation declined in 2012, carbon dioxide emissions per kwh still went down, by 3.5 percent, thanks to the overwhelming effect of natural gas substitution.
In 2012, the CO2 reductions from the combination of a more energy-efficient economy and a lower carbon-intensity energy supply were larger than the combined increase in gross domestic output and growth in population.
One signature of greenhouse-effect driven climate change is that winters (and especially the lowest temperatures of winter) should warm preferentially to summers. According to the EIA, “much more energy is needed for space heating than for air conditioning” and the very warm winter of 2012 saved much more energy than was cost by the warmer-than-average summer.
The combination of fuel switching, weather, and some incremental increase in vehicular fuel efficiency produced the largest drop in carbon intensity since 1949, the year the EIA data compilation begins. “Carbon intensity” is the emission of carbon dioxide associated with the production of a constant dollar of gross domestic product.
And while all of this should make President Obama happy as the U.S. carbon dioxide emissions decline is ahead of the pace needed to meet his goal of reducing emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, little of this is actually from his doing.
This means that the majority of it is being achieved without governmental interference. The fact is that capital is required for investment in technologies that produce things more efficiently (like new gas-fired power plants) or produce more efficient things (such as stingier gasoline engines and [maybe] hybrid cars, though life-cycle analyses of them are somewhat conflicting).
Which should make you wonder, why is the government intervening at all? We wonder the same thing.
Aaron Ross Powell
Today’s kind of a big deal over at Libertarianism.org.
To start with, the Cato Institute’s resource on the theory and history of liberty unveiled a completely new look, one designed from the ground up to work great on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. And we created a new way to browse all of Libertarianism.org’s content from within a single, intuitive interface.
We’ve also launched Libertarianism.org’s first podcast, “Free Thoughts.” Hosted by Trevor Burrus and me, it’s a bi-weekly discussion show about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it. The first episode is on politics and community and the relationship between them. In the coming weeks, we’ll have episodes on money and political speech, commodication, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and much more. You can subscribe in iTunes—or via RSS.
Finally, today we published the 100th Excursions essay from George H. Smith. Smith is an authority on libertarian intellectual history and author of the new book The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. Every week for the last two years, Libertarianism.org has published a new essay from Smith. His 100th looks at Adam Smith, standing armies, and competition in education.
It’s an exciting day for Libertarianism.org. And we’ve got much more to come.
Today Cato continues its celebration of the freedom of speech on day two of Free Speech Week. Throughout the week we will be celebrating freedom of speech by posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.
Today’s highlight focuses on one of Cato’s recent efforts to promote free speech in the context of campaign finance. Campaign finance laws generally attempt to reduce “corruption” in politics (or achieve some other end goal of varying legal validity) by curtailing the First Amendment rights of those who attempt to participate in the electoral process by speaking out or contributing money to candidates or parties. Shawn McCutcheon is one of these people whose First Amendment rights are being curtailed by federal campaign finance laws, but not for any legally valid purpose. In addition to the limits on contributions to any individual candidate or political party per election, federal campaign finance law also places a cap on the overall amount that can be donated to all candidates and parties combined in any two-year period. Mr. McCutcheon has been waging a legal battle to vindicate his First Amendment right to support however many political candidates he pleases, so long as his contributions remain within the various individual limits. The case is now before the Supreme Court (oral arguments were last week) and stands to be one of the bigger First Amendment cases the Court hears this year.
Cato has supported Mr. McCutcheon’s fight by filing an amicus brief in the case and by spreading awareness of the issue. Our brief asserts the unworkability of the contribution-expenditure distinction that lets the government treat political contributions as less than fully-protected speech. The Supreme Court will announce its decision in the case later in the term.
To read Cato’s amicus brief in McCutcheon v. FEC click here.
Andrew J. Coulson
I’ve had some feedback on my review of Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World, and How they Got that Way. A key question: Dude, why so harsh?
I did spill less ink than I could have discussing the book’s good qualities. I find disagreement more interesting than agreement in book reviews, though, so when pressed for time in writing one I tend to give the latter short shrift. For the record, my list of its strong points was not exhaustive. For instance, Ripley is entirely right that children must be taught that learning new things can be challenging, requires effort, and that failures are an integral part of the process. She is right that teacher acumen and subject-area expertise are vitally important. She is right that when both school and home place a high value on learning, children learn more.
But this is not new information. There is an “effective schools” research dating back to the 1970s that has repeatedly found the same things. The real promise of Smartest Kids in the World was in its subtitle: and How they Got that Way. And that is where we encounter the book’s fundamental flaw. Ripley states at the outset that she is fascinated by differential educational outcomes across countries, but isn’t interested in the role that policy might play in them. True to form, the book ignores an enormous swath of research conducted in that area over the past generation.
As it happens, researchers from around the world have found that policy is important, but it’s not the error in the book’s conclusion that strikes me as fatal, but rather the the error in its methodology. Its approach is not simply unscientific, it is anti-scientific. You cannot hope to learn how the world really works if you fix blinders to the sides of your head before you begin. You cannot exclude potentially important explanatory factors just because you don’t personally care about them. Doing so is akin to a detective trying to solve a murder but refusing to interview anyone whose name ends in a consonant, or to visit any building with an odd-numbered address.
If my review sounded harsh, that’s why. Despite its fine points, the book’s approach struck me as a repudiation of science… and I rather like science.
On NPR’s Morning Edition today you’ll find the story “West Point Women: A Natural Pattern or a Camouflage Ceiling?” Reporter Larry Abramson leaves us with the impression that, in the words of Col. Ellen Haring (class of ’84), “women are being excluded from a taxpayer-funded educational opportunity”—or, as Abramson puts it:
The Army says it wants more women in the officer corps. The question is whether more will join an organization where their [sic] are still perceived limits on their numbers.
Col. Haring has a point, or would have one if the aim of West Point were simply to afford young men and women an “educational opportunity.” But the American people, through their representatives, presumably had a more precise goal in mind when they created West Point in the first place. National defense is a quintessential public good, defined as economists do, so we don’t need to argue about whether the government should be in that business. To be sure, the purpose of an army officer corps, pursuant to that goal, may change as technology changes. But for the present and the foreseeable future, there are certain limits on the composition of the corps that are set by its very function. By virtue of that function, the Army, at least at the officer level, never has been and, one hopes, never will be a come-one-come-all equal opportunity employer. The American people would be ill-served were that to happen.
And so we come to the question of women at West Point. Let us stipulate that men and women are different, absent which we would not be having this discussion. Given that, our question reduces to whether that difference makes a difference. For nearly two centuries we thought it did, but times are changing, and so is technology, which means that for drone warfare, and much else, gender makes no or little difference. But it may make a difference over the vast range of army activities—and that is the debate we are currently having, concerning which others are better situated to judge.
In doing so, however, much of our modern equal protection nonsense—and “diversity,” in particular—should play no part, not if we are to have the best army we can have, as surely we should. Yet diversity is the thrust of this morning’s NPR piece. Early on Mr. Abramson tells us “that the overwhelming majority of the graduating class will be white, and 84 percent male,” adding that “some say those rates are due to natural patterns of matriculation.”
“Women will naturally matriculate – or, they have naturally matriculated – into the Academy at about the 16 to 17 percent rate,” says West Point admissions director Col. Deborah McDonald.
But that’s about to change, we’re told. With women now permitted in combat roles, “the new superintendent of West Point, Gen. Bob Caslen, says he’s been told to enroll a class that is more diverse.” And what is the right number of women? “We don’t know yet,” he says. “It could be 25 percent. Heck, it could be 50 percent.”
Really? How, if women “naturally” matriculate at a rate of 16 to 17 percent? Calling that rate into question, Mr. Abramson tells us that some faculty members claim there’s a “goal” for women at West Point “that actually functions as a ceiling.” But Col. McDonald answers that, since she’s been with the admissions department, “there hasn’t been a ceiling on any applicant member that’s coming, on any demographic.”
But if it is true that qualified women “naturally” matriculate at a rate far lower than men—and self-sorting by gender would hardly be unique to West Point—then making the academy “look like America” will be achieved only by dipping more deeply into the female applicant pool. As I have written elsewhere, because government belongs to all of us, it may rightly discriminate against any of us only on grounds narrowly tailored to serve the function of the institution at issue—which is to say that government may discriminate on grounds that are relevant. Diversity may be a laudable goal, but not when it requires discrimination on forbidden grounds like gender—to say nothing of compromising the mission at issue, about which, again, it is for others to decide.
Mayor Bloomberg says New York City’s lack of affordable housing is a sign of a vibrant economy, because it proves people want to live there. Despite his reputation in the business world, he obviously doesn’t understand the laws of supply and demand.
“Somebody said that there’s not enough housing,” Bloomberg said on a radio show. “That’s a good sign.” Housing is only scarce, he said, because “as fast as we build, more people want to live here.”
In fact, as I showed in chaper 10 of my book, American Nightmare, as well as in this blog post, high housing prices do not prove that lots of people really find an area desirable. Instead, they are more a sign of government barriers to housing. In a nutshell, downward sloping demand curves means a few people may be willing to pay a high price for any good, but that doesn’t mean the public in general finds that good to be particularly valuable.
As reported by Virginia Postrel on Bloomberg’s own news service a few months ago, America’s elites have built an economic wall around places like New York City and California in order to make these areas more exclusive. Rent control in the city combined with New Jersey’s and Connecticut’s smart-growth policies have turned New York from a fairly affordable place to live as recently as 40 years ago to one that is completely unaffordable today.
Yes, Bloomberg’s city may be building some housing. But it obviously isn’t building enough to meet demand. In 1969, median housing prices in the New York urban area (including northern New Jersey) were just 2.6 times median family incomes, and 3.3 times in 1979. By 2005, they were 8.4 times. Thanks to the recession more than new housing, they were down to 5.3 by 2012–still way too high. But in New York City alone median prices were still 8.7 times median family incomes.
Here’s the surprise: Median family incomes in New York City were just 15 percent greater than in the city of Houston in 2012. But home prices were 284 percent greater. That’s not a sign that people are demanding to live there; it’s a sign of acute shortages.
Houston frets when its median home prices approach $150,000 and price-to-income ratios come close to 2.2. With New York City median prices approaching $480,000 and median values nearly nine times median incomes, Mayor Bloomberg should do more than pat himself on the back; he should recognize that the city is suffering from a major housing crisis.
Now that the government shutdown is over, Congress’ attention will turn to other issues. There is a possibility that a series of immigration reform bills will be voted on in the House of Representatives before the end of the year. One bill will certainly include mandatory E-Verify.
As my colleagues and I have written over the last several years, E-Verify is bad for businesses, taxpayers, the privacy of all Americans and residents, economic growth in general, and it won’t stop unlawful hiring. Don’t believe me on the last point? Just look at Arizona. Here is a table of the number of all new hires in the state and the number of E-Verify queries run per quarter:
All New Hires
Source: U.S. Census and Department of Homeland Security
Although all hires in Arizona are supposed to be run through E-Verify, an average of just over 50 percent of hires actually were from 2008 to the end of 2012. These numbers actually overstate E-Verify’s enforcement record because multiple E-Verify queries could be run on the same hire. The numerator could be a lot smaller than is reported above.
If a state like Arizona will not enforce E-Verify, what chance is there that the federal government will do it everywhere? Thankfully, lax enforcement of E-Verify in Arizona is a good indicator that this harmful system will not get the chance to be as destructive as many of us fear if it is ever mandated nationally.
Despite these terrible numbers, some continue to push E-Verify as a magic bullet that will put an end to the hiring of unauthorized immigrants and make our country’s byzantine and restrictive immigration laws enforceable.
A major problem with E-Verify is that the system is unreliable. The Westat report, the last major study of E-Verify, noted that the tentative non-confirmation rate (TNC) error rate declined from 0.7 percent to 0.3 percent from 2009 to 2012. TNCs are issued when a prospective employee’s information raises a red-flag with the system. On the surface, the low rate seems impressive and the improvement is certainly commendable.
But with a pool of 10,000 employees, that error rate would produce 30 erroneous TNCs. Apply those rates to a mandatory, national pool of 150,000,000 workers and it would result in 450,000 erroneous TNCs. That is a substantial number of legal workers who would be forced to jump through regulatory hoops while exposing themselves and their employers to additional costs in order to prove their legal status and get permission from the government to work.
Similarly, the Westat report notes that final non-confirmations (FNCs are issued when a TNC appeal fails) are issued correctly 94 percent of the time, with 6 percent issued wrongly to those who would otherwise be eligible to work. The report noted that, for FY2009 (the year of data used by the report), 190,165 total FNCs were issued, with 178,193 (approximately 94 percent) issued correctly, and 11,972 (approximately 6 percent) issued incorrectly to legal workers.
Applied to the national pool at large, the numbers would be huge. One estimate puts potential job losses from FNC problems in a national system at a maximum of 777,000 under worst case scenario. Those numbers should give E-Verify’s cheerleaders some pause.
When E-Verify shut down along with the government, employers enrolled in the system relied on the I-9 as an alternative way to verify employee work eligibility. The Legal Workforce Act would mandate E-Verify if it passes but it would also eliminate the I-9 requirement – likely the only good provision of that bill. But if this bill becomes law and the government shuts down at any time in the future, there would be no way for them to verify the work eligibility of employees until the government reopens and a backlogged agency issues new rules.
E-Verify will not stop the hiring of unauthorized immigrants and will not be an enforcement magic bullet despite the technocratic wishes of its supporters. What it will do, however, is put legal American workers through the proverbial wringer and likely force enormous numbers of currently legal hires into the black market – just as it has in Arizona. That is not a preferable policy outcome.
Andrew J. Coulson
In the author’s note to Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley writes: “I didn’t care deeply about charter schools, vouchers, tenure, or other policy hang-ups…. So, I thought, I’ll just slip out the back door and go investigate this other mystery for a while.” That other mystery was the apparent ability of some countries to educate their children unusually well.
Ripley’s note captures both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses. She is a talented writer with a sense of adventure, and her prose is a pleasure to read. By setting aside the leading education policy questions of our time, she is able to focus on telling the personal stories of children from very different parts of the world, and there is much to be learned from them.
But there is a cost to ignoring virtually all of the evidence on how education policy affects educational outcomes: you’re much less likely to find the needle in the haystack if you decide not to look at the hay. When Ripley concludes that the effect of policy is marginal, the reader can only wonder: how would she know, when she didn’t study the evidence?
Even in selecting her “smartest” countries, Ripley seems not to have done her homework. Her sole performance metric is PISA—the Program on International Student Assessment. PISA tests 15-year-olds on their ability to apply basic knowledge of math, science, and language to everyday problems. Ripley, who took the test, described it as “more like a test of life skills than school skills.” Typical questions might include interpreting a picture of a gas-gauge or a simple bar chart.
It’s interesting to know how well 15-year-olds in various countries perform on PISA, but it’s not clear why anyone would use it as the exclusive metric for identifying educational quality. There are other outcomes worth measuring.
Even within the realm of international academic tests, PISA is not alone. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) focuses less on word problems and more on the subject-specific knowledge and skills that schools teach. It includes more technical questions that measure how well-prepared students are for further study in those subjects.
Critics of TIMSS argue that it doesn’t test whether or not students can apply their mathematical and scientific knowledge to everyday problems, while critics of PISA allege that it doesn’t measure the skills needed to succeed in college or technical professions. Since these perceived deficits are complementary, examining the results of both tests seems more useful than looking at just one.
Ripley’s exclusive use of PISA led her to choose Korea, Finland and Poland as the homelands of the best-educated kids in the world. Poland is chiefly included because its PISA performance improved substantially in the past decade, placing it on par with the U.S., despite its vastly lower level of economic development. Korea and Finland make the cut because they are high-flyers. Korea, in fact, is a top performer on both the PISA and the TIMSS, scoring far above the international average in every subject and grade. But the picture for Finland is quite different. It performs comparably to Korea on the PISA test, but lags well behind it on the TIMSS.
In 4th grade math, Korea is essentially tied with Singapore for the number one spot on TIMSS, scoring an amazing 605 versus an international average of 500. Finland’s score of 545 is far lower—statistically indistinguishable, in fact, from that of the United States (which scored 541). In 8th grade math, Korea and Singapore are again at the top, scoring 613 and 611, respectively, versus the international average of 500. At the same grade, Finland scores only 514—statistically indistinguishable from the 509 earned by the United States and a staggering 99 points below Korea. Moreover, Finland’s scores on the TIMSS declined significantly over the past decade.
As the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless has observed, Finnish mathematics professors have noticed a discrepancy between their country’s high PISA math scores and their students’ actual ability to do math. In 2005, two-hundred of them signed a petition bewailing the mathematical under-preparedness of their country’s college and technical-school freshmen—consistent with its middling and declining TIMSS performance.
Though Ripley neglects to discuss the limits of her PISA litmus test in light of TIMSS scores or the concerns of Finnish math professors, there are some areas in which the book cites and comports with the relevant scientific research. It correctly notes, for instance, the lack of any consistent relationship between levels of per pupil spending on public school systems and the performance of their students.
There are other cases, though, which are more problematic. In a section titled “Gifted and Talented in America,” Ripley states that “tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried.” This, according to the endnotes, is a reference to a comparison of PISA results between countries that permanently assign students to different academic tracks as early as age 10 (often to entirely different schools) versus countries that introduce permanent tracking no earlier than age 16, if ever (Hanushek and Woessmann, 2005).
Despite the narrow focus of that study, Ripley goes on to make broad claims and implications about student grouping practices, without examining what the literature has to say about them. For instance, Ripley writes that kids placed in gifted classes “at age eight probably tended to see themselves that way.” As it happens, this claim is precisely backwards. When Kulik and Kulik reviewed the self-esteem effects of grouping students by ability they found that children placed in higher-performing classes came to think of themselves as less gifted while those placed in lower-level classes came to think of themselves more positively. When surrounded by children who achieved at a level similar to their own, whatever that level happened to be, students came to realize that they were not so special after all. Lower achievers felt less stigmatized, while higher achievers were sobered by the presence of similarly capable peers.
Nor does Ripley seem aware of the distinction that researchers have found between the permanent, across-the-board tracking studied by Hanushek and Woessman and flexible grouping and re-grouping of students based on their performance in particular subjects, at particular times. In the midst of her negative discussion of tracking, Ripley seems incredulous that the United States not only “divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track” [italics in the original]. In reality, targeting the content and rate of instruction to students grouped by performance shows some of the most powerful positive effects in the education literature. In a systematic review of that literature, Kulik and Kulik found that
Programs of enrichment and acceleration, which usually involve the greatest amount of curricular adjustment, have the largest effects on student learning. In typical evaluation studies, talented students from accelerated classes outperform nonaccelerates of the same age and IQ by almost one full year on achievement tests.
This only stands to reason. Children allowed to progress through the curriculum at their own pace learn more than those compelled to continue studying topics they have already mastered.
Even when the curricular adjustments are more modest, students in flexible, performance-based classes, “outperform equivalent control students from mixed-ability classes by two to three months on a grade-equivalent scale.” And this applies to students in every performance group, not just to the highest performers.
So while Ripley is justified in scorning the “ghetto effect” of permanently tracking students across all subjects, she misleads her readers by overgeneralizing and by failing to discuss the substantial benefits of flexible performance-based grouping.
In short, the Smartest Kids in the World, is not the sort of systematic and thorough work that could identify the students referred to in its main title, or that could explain their performance as promised by its subtitle. It is a work of journalism, and it suffers the same problem that journalism usually faces when grappling with vast, complex subjects: the author cannot become an expert in the time available. That is why the great works popularizing such topics are generally written by experts who have a gift for communication—the Carl Sagans of the world—rather than by journalists.
Despite these caveats, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommend it to those who study education policy. It offers animated and interesting stories about the lives of students with widely varying educational experiences. Those stories have value, and they are well told. Readers who work in this field will be able to pick out the book’s errors or at least easily double-check questionable claims.
General readers may come away misinformed on a variety of topics, however, unless they focus on the book’s personal stories and treat the rest with a grain of salt.
Cato has always been a faithful advocate for a robust freedom of speech. As such, we are proud this week to participate in Free Speech Week, a celebration of the freedom so important they put it first in the Bill of Rights.
As part of this week’s ongoing celebration of free speech, we will be posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.
Today’s highlight focuses on an event held here at Cato last week, in which author Jonathan Rauch discussed his recently re-released and expanded book Kindly Inquisitors. In the book, Rauch, an openly-gay advocate for gay marriage, argues that government suppression of discriminatory language and “hate speech” does more harm to gays and minorities than it helps. Rauch’s book, originally published in 1993, contributes a number of valuable insights to the dialogue on free speech and the consequences of curtailing it to protect certain groups.
Rauch was joined by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Brian Moulton of the Human Rights Campaign & Cato’s John Samples. Please check out the video below:
On October 16, the Republican Liberty Caucus announced its endorsement of South Carolina Senator Lee Bright to replace US Senator Lindsey Graham in the upcoming 2014 election. Here is video of the press conference on the steps of the South Carolina State House in Columbia.