Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hilary: The Movie

The Supreme Court is soon to hear a case that may drastically roll back campaign finance regulation in the United States:

The case involves “Hillary: The Movie,” a mix of advocacy journalism and political commentary that is a relentlessly negative look at Mrs. Clinton’s character and career. The documentary was made by a conservative advocacy group called Citizens United, which lost a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission seeking permission to distribute it on a video-on-demand service. The film is available on the Internet and on DVD. The issue was that the McCain-Feingold law bans corporate money being used for electioneering.

The right position for the Court is that McCain-Feingold, and all other campgain finance regulation, constitutes unconstitutional limitation on free speech. This means reversing the Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which held that government limits on campaign spending were unconstitutional but limits on contributions were not.

This distinction is meaningless. If it is OK for a millionaire to spend his own money promoting his own campaign, why can he not give that money to somone else, who might be a more effective adovocate for that millionare's views, so that this other person can run for office?

More broadly, campaign finance regulation is thought control: it takes a position on whether money should influence political outcomes. Whether or not one agrees, this is only one possible view, and freedom of speech is meant to prevent government from promoting or discouraging particular points of view.

It would be a brave step for Court to reverse Buckley, but it is the right thing to do.

Addendum: A nice youtube video from Cato on this issue.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Anti-Sex School for Johns?

In a novel approach to punishing men who attempt to hire prostitutes, Nashville and other cities are sending first-time offenders to a one-day class where they learn from former prostitutes, health experts, psychologists and law enforcement officers about "the risks of hiring a prostitute."

This is a waste of time.

Prostitution is "the oldest profession" for a reason: sex is a biological imperative. A day of anti-sex school will have no effect on the demand for prostitution.

The better approach is to legalize.

Under legalization, the vast majority of men would patronize legal establishments. This would also allow quality control, since competition would encourage prostitution services to certify their employees as free from STDs and above the age of consent. Legalization would help the women who serve as prostitutes by reducing the violence they suffer from johns and pimps. In particular, legalization would mainly eliminate forced prostitution.

The claim that prostitution encourages sexual assault does not pass the sniff test. Many countries, plus Nevada and Rhode Island, allow legal prostitution to varying degrees, but no evidence suggests they have a higher incidence of violence toward women.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Deficits, Spending, and Taxes

The White House and the CBO announced this week that

the nation’s fiscal outlook is even bleaker than the government forecast earlier this year because the recession turned out to be deeper than widely expected, the budget offices of the White House and Congress agreed in separate updates on Tuesday.

The Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget raised its 10-year tally of deficits expected through 2019 to $9.05 trillion, nearly $2 trillion more than it projected in February. That would represent 5.1 percent of the economy’s estimated gross domestic product for the decade, a higher level than is generally considered healthy.

What is the right reponse to these deficits?

One view holds that most current expenditure is desirable - indeed, that expenditure should ideally be much higher - so the U.S. should raise taxes to balance the budget. Taxes are a drag on economic growth, however, and unpopluar with many voters, so this view presents politicians with an unhappy tradeoff.

The alternative view holds that a substantial fraction of current expenditure is undesirable and should be eliminated, even if the revenue to pay for it could be manufactured out of thin air. To be concrete:

Medicare and Medicaid encourage excessive spending on health care;

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan encourage hostility to the U.S. and thereby increase the risk of terrorism;

Drug prohibition generates crime and corruption;

Agricultural subsidies distort decisions about which crops to grow, and where.

And much, much more.

So, under this view, the U.S. can have its cake and it eat it too: improve the economy and reduce the deficit without the need to raise taxes.

This approach is not, of course, politically trivial, since existing expenditure programs have constituencies that will fight their elimination.

But thinking about these two views of the deficits is nevertheless useful: it shows that discussion should really be about which aspects of government are truly beneficial, not just about the deficits per se.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Steroids in Baseball

In a victory for the baseball players' union,

A federal appeals court in California ruled Wednesday that prosecutors improperly seized the drug tests for the roughly 100 major league baseball players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003.

“This was an obvious case of deliberate overreaching by the government in an effort to seize data as to which it lacked probable cause,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in support of a 9-to-2 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.

The broader issue raised by the case is why steroid use in baseball is a concern of the federal government. The people potentially harmed by such use are the players themselves, non-using players who suffer a competitive disadvantage, and fans who want to watch sports contests not affected by "performance-enhancing substances."

The right entity to address these concerns is Major League Baseball, which can make steroid use rare by adopting a serious drug-testing policy (as it has). Federal intervention is unnecessary and a waste of resources.

Side-Note: Alex Kozinski, who wrote the opinion in this case, is a well-known libertarian.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Republican Hypocrisy on Health Care

In a move motivated by politics rather than good economics,

The Republican Party issued a new salvo in the health debate Monday with a "seniors' health care bill of rights" that opposed any moves to trim Medicare spending.

This "Medicare Manifesto" aims to rally seniors against Obamacare.

The problem is that Medicare spending is excessive and should be cut, with or without Obamacare. Medicare, like all subsidies for health and health insurance, encourages excessive use of the health care system by shielding patients from the full costs of the health care they consume.

One approach to reigning in Medicare is to phase in a higher age of eligibility, since life expectancy and health at older ages have increased substantially since Medicare was created in 1965.

A second approach is to expand co-pays and deductibles. This both reduces expenditure and encourages beneficiaries to think more about what care they really need.

Either way, Medicare should be reduced or eliminated. Opposing government health insurance by defending government health insurance is disingenuous, at best, and utlimately counterproductive.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is Torture Effective? How Can We Tell?

The Justice Department's release of a secret report on the interrogation techniques used by the CIA in its overseas prisons has renewed the public debate over torture.

The argument for harsh techniques is that the information obtained can prevent future terrorist acts. And this argument makes sense in principle: if imposing pain, suffering, and even the risk of death on one person can avoid pain, suffering and the risk of death for dozens, hundreds, or even thousands, it would seem hard to object.

Yet the case for torture is not convincing. The crucial issue is that the public has zero evidence that torture has in fact reduced terrorism. Those who defend torture have claimed it helps foil terrorist plots, but they have not provided hard data.

Now, one possibility is that revealing information about foiled plots would compromise ongoing national security efforts.

A different possiblity is that the information obtained from torture has had minimal value in preventing terrorism.

My hunch is with the latter explanation. If the CIA had convincingly foiled terrorists acts based on information from harsh interrogations, the temptation to shout it from the highest rooftops would have been overwhelming.

Thus the logical inference is that harsh interrogations have rarely, if ever, produced information of value.

In that case, the cost-benefit evaluation of torture is trivial: it has certain costs, such as inflaming antipathy to the U.S., and no benefits.

Monday, August 24, 2009

More Troops for Afghanistan?

The situation in Afghanistan shows no signs of improving. Indeed,

American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama’s chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders. ...

The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war.

The question raised by this story is why the administration is not withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan? Withdrawal would have two political benefits: generating applause from the liberal base, and freeing up tax dollars for other purposes. Yet while (slowly) withdrawing from Iraq, the administration has increased our involvement in Afghanistan. Why?

One possibility is that the administration actually believes the U.S. can install democracy and/or capitalism in Afghanistan. If that is the case, the administration is delusional; the Great Powers have been trying to impose their will on this part of the world for centuries, without success.

A second possibility is that the administration fears the political consequences of appearing soft on terrorism, especially in case of another attack on U.S. soil. If that is the explanation, the administration is miscalculating: the Republicans will blame Obama no matter what, so he might as well just do the right thing.

From every perspective, therefore, we should withdraw our troops from the Middle East. Now.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Organs for Sale

What do these three news items have in common?

An op-ed about kidney dialysis which notes that Medicare coverage for this procedure has extended thousands of lives.
The recent New Jersey corruption scandal, which includes the allegation that a NY man named Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum has been arranging sales of kidneys from donors in Israel.
A story in a Swedish newspaper claiming that Israeli soldiers have harvested organs from dead Palestinians.
No, it is not that they all involve people who are Jewish.

It is that they all miss the role played by government bans on organ sales.

If organ sales were legal, people with renal disease would enjoy longer and better lives, and governments would save expenditures on health care. Dialysis has been incredibly valuable and will in any case continue to serve many patients. But bans on organ sales are limiting the use of a newer technology - transplants - that works better for many people.

If organ sales were legal, the man from Brooklyn would have had no incentive to arrange kidney sales. This was a small part of the overall scandal, but it illustrates how prohibitions breed black markets and corruption.

If organ sales were legal, Israeli soliders would have little incentive to harvest organs from dead Palestinians (I take no position on whether this story is accurate).

Laws that ban organ sales make no sense, as Alex Taborrok of Marginal Revoulation has argued compellingly. It is legal to sell blood. It is legal to sell eggs and sperm. Why should organs be different?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mexico's Decriminalization Might Backfire

Mexico announced yesterday that it is decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

Legalization advocates will likely regard this as good news, but it may be a hollow victory:

Mexican prosecutors say the law will help the war on drug gangs by letting federal prosecutors focus their attention on traffickers rather than small-time users.

That is, the Mexican authorities plan to increase enforcement on the supply side. This will be disastrous, since the criminalization of drug trafficking is what generates violence and corruption. Worse, these evils increase as authorities intervene more by generating turf wars and battles with authorities that spill over to everyone else.

If Mexico proceeds as announced, therefore, the most visible evil of prohibition will increase. Prohibitionoists will then say, "We told you decrim was a bad idea; it would have been worse if we had legalized."

The right policy toward drugs is legalization of both the supply side and the demand side, both in Mexico and in the United States.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Teachers Union Breaks with Obama on Education

The National Education Association has traditionally supported Democrats, including President Obama. Yet

The nation's largest teachers union sharply attacked President Obama's most significant school improvement initiative on Friday evening, saying that it puts too much emphasis on a "narrow agenda" centered on charter schools and echoes the Bush administration's "top-down approach" to reform.

The NEA is half right and half wrong.

The NEA's opposition to a "top-down" approach - that is, to federal control of education - is on target. Federal control squashes variety and innovation at the state level, which was occuring in the form of vouchers and charters before President Bush's enormous expansion of federal involvement via No Child Left Behind. The NEA's opposition is not principled, since they would support federal invovlement if it were good for teachers' unions, but their criticism is nonetheless correct.

The NEA's opposition to charters is appalling. Charters are not the panacea that some supporters claim, and they may have the unfortunate side effect of reducing support for vouchers. Charters nevertheless provide competition for public schools, and the demand for charters across the country suggests many parents and students find them appealing. The NEA opposes charters because they hurt teachers' unions; that is an unconscionable position from a group that purports to care about children.

The change in education policy that President Obama should support is repeal of NCLB. This would appeal to his base, and it is the right thing to do.

This GO BLUE Bud is for You!

Anheuser-Busch, which makes Bud Light beer, has initiated a new marketing campaign in which it sells cans of Bud Light that bear the colors of a local college or university. Administrators are outraged, arguing that this marketing approach will encourage underage drinking.

This concern is misguided. For starters, sales of the new cans will mainly substitute for sales of regular Bud Light, or for other beer brands. There is no evidence that students will drink more beer just because it comes in cans that are colored with Harvard Crimson, Yale Blue, or Princeton Orange.

The concern is also misplaced because it does not address the real issue related to underage drinking, namely, the minimum drinking ago of 21. This policy is impossible to enforce, so it breeds disrespect for the law.

Worse, a minimum drinking age of 21 probably contributes to binge drinking on college campuses, since students face pressure to drink to excess when they do get access to acohol. A less puritanical policy toward alcohol, that treated it as a normal part of adulthood, would undercut this pressure.

Pulling the Cord on Grandma

The recent claim by Republicans that Obamacare would lead to death panels has unleashed a firestorm of protest from Democrats. How could anyone suggest, they cry, that our system would mean pulling the cord on Grandma?

The term "death panel" is perhaps hyperbolic, but the underlying concern is exactly right.

The administration has asserted that Obamacare can slow the growth of government spending on health insurance by enough to cover health insurance for another 46 million people, all without limiting care for those who already have coverage.

This claim does not pass the sniff test; neither common sense, nor history, suggests that creating more government can reduce government expenditure!

The administration is right, of course, that the US system is inefficient: we spend money on unproductive tests and procedures, we use reimbursement policies that encourage excessive care, we waste money on litigation and malpractice, and we fail to adopt certain cost-effective treatment approaches on wide scale.

But it is one thing to say the system is broken, and another thing to fix it. Most of the inefficiencies result from insurance, especially government-subsidized insurance. The way to improve the system, therefore, is to reduce government subsidized insurance, not increase it.

It is possible, of course, to expand subsidized health insurance and spend less on health care: by rationing. This might even be better than just subsidizing insurance; sometimes, for example, it might be better to withhold costly measures that extend life only minimally and instead use those resources for other purposes. That is, it might be efficient, in some cases, to pull the cord on grandma.

The crucial question, however, is who decides: government panels or indivduals, families, and their doctors. Obamacare will require rationing to avoid burgeoning expenditures, so it will mean more and more decisions made by government.

If advocates of Obamacare want to argue for death panels, that is their right. But they cannot avoid having that debate.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cash for Clunkers and Retail Sales

The administration has just announced that the Cash for Clunkers program will end on Monday at 8:00 PM, rather than in November as previously announced. Apparently the program is about to run out of money (again).

The program received huge praise from politicans and the media for stimulating car sales in late July. Yet retail sales for July were down slightly, and below expectations. Perhaps the two events are related. That is, people with clunkers took advantage of the temporarily low prices on new cars to buy in late July, but they offset these expenditures with reduced purchases of other durables like washing machines or computers.

For more on the silliness of the Cash for Clunkers program, see my earlier op-ed at

Heroin versus Methadone

A new study from Canada finds that treating heroin addicts with heroin is more effective than treating them with methadone (a synthetic opiod). Effectiveness is defined as how long participants stay in treatment.

Well, of course! If heroin users can get free heroin from a clinic, and avoid the risk of arrest, they will do so. These users will be more likely to continue heroin treatment than methadone treatment because heroin is regarded as the better drug. If clinics offer free, single-malt scotch, then "users" will stay in "treatment" more than if offered rot-gut.

The study does have an important result; it confirms again that people can use heroin for extended periods and still function normally, if they have access to a legal supply with known purity. This fact was widely accepted before the U.S. prohibited opiates in 1914; the favored treatment for opiate addiction then was maintenance, meaing legal provision of opiates.

The best way to give heroin users access to cheap, high-quality heroin is to legalize. This eliminates both the need for government clinics and the adverse consequences of prohibition.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Strange Bedfellows in the Gay Marriage Debate

Ted Olson, formerly solicitor general in the Bush Administration and conservative icon, is leading the legal challenge to California's ban on gay marriage. His position has both liberals and conservatives confused:
“For conservatives who don’t like what I’m doing, it’s, ‘If he just had someone in his family we’d forgive him,’ ” Mr. Olson said. “For liberals it’s such a freakish thing that it’s, ‘He must have someone in his family, otherwise a conservative couldn’t possibly have these views.’ It’s frustrating that people won’t take it on face value.”
To libertarians, Mr. Olson's position on gay marriage just tells us that he is really a libertarian, not a conservative. Libertarians oppose government intrusions and restrictions in all aspects of life, both social and econonic. Conservatives claim to oppose big government, but they are hopelessly inconsistent in their application of this position.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Support for Legalizing Drugs ...

from two former Baltimore police officers. They correctly emphasize that the U.S. federal government is the key obstacle to progress:

We simply urge the federal government to retreat. Let cities and states (and, while we're at it, other countries) decide their own drug policies. Many would continue prohibition, but some would try something new. California and its medical marijuana dispensaries provide a good working example, warts and all, that legalized drug distribution does not cause the sky to fall.
And they quote my study on the budgetary savings of legalizing drugs.

Stimulus Bill and Federalism

The federal stimulus money for public education is apparently creating conflict between the Obama administration and the states:

Holding out billions of dollars as a potential windfall, the Obama administration is persuading state after state to rewrite education laws to open the door to more charter schools and expand the use of student test scores for judging teachers.

That aggressive use of economic stimulus money by Education Secretary Arne Duncan is provoking heated debates over the uses of standardized testing and the proper federal role in education, issues that flared frequently during President George W. Bush’s enforcement of his signature education law, called No Child Left Behind.

This illustrates perfectly the pitfalls of both the stimulus and of federal involvement in education. The stimulus gives the federal government new opportunities to intervene in state policies. The federalization of education that No Child Left behind engendered means that variety and experimentation at the state level will be far less common.

Advocates of charters and testing might believe the current federal interventions are a good thing. But they should remember that no administration lasts forever. So, the same control that they like today can be used for purposes they will oppose in future.

My own assessment on the specifics is that charters are fine as far as they go; they increase competition to some degree. Testing undoubtedly makes sense in some instances, but its benefits have been vastly oversold.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Introduction to this Blog

This blog is intended to be a precursor to, and will eventually become the continuation of, a book that I am writing about libertarianism. The book will contain a number of short entries - rouhgly op-ed length - that present the libertarian perspective on major government policies. The book should be available in Spring, 2010.