Governmental “Reform” is an Oxymoron

beyondpolitics_updated_nf_180x270Pick your favorite scandal du jour:

Four employees of the Export-Import Bank recently were forced out of their jobs following allegations that they had solicited or accepted bribes from beneficiaries of the bank’s subsidies for foreign-based purchasers of U.S. exports or steered loans to politically powerful U.S. exporters.

The director of the Internal Revenue Service testified before Congress that “a dog ate his homework”: computer hard drives at the agency’s Cleveland, Ohio, office apparently had been destroyed, thereby precluding inquiries into selective delays in the agency’s reviews of applications for tax exempt status by organizations associated with the “Tea Party” and other libertarian groups.

Members of the U.S. Secret Service assigned to provide security for the president and his entourage reportedly paid women working in the world’s oldest profession during a trip to Columbia in April 2012.

Behind the veil of the “War on Terror”, an apparently out-of-control National Security Agency has been snooping on the telephone calls and emails of ordinary Americans and gathering information both on them and citizens of countries overseas not plausibly related to imminent national security threats, aided and abetted by a compliant federal intelligence service court.

Stimulated by the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, U.S. commercial banks and other mortgage lenders extended loans to home buyers who could not afford to repay because that risk was shifted to the taxpayers by guarantees against losses offered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two quasi-governmental (and now insolvent) agencies.

A new website ( is launched with disastrous defects in spring 2014, and Oregon later decides to abandon its attempt to create an online portal for uninsured citizens to enroll in its state-based health insurance “exchange.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs is accused of falsifying records about the waiting times for (and the outcomes of) the medical care received by the soldiers, sailors and aviators wounded or disabled in the nation’s incomprehensible interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other foreign battlefields.

The list could go on and on.

Within the news cycles triggered by stories of governmental incompetence, budgetary waste, ineffectiveness or corruption, public calls for reform are loud, politicians posture about “doing something,” and a few blameworthy bureaucratic heads sometimes roll. But those justifiable reactions are just sound and fury. All government agencies, whether at the local, state or federal levels of government behave exactly like the IRS, the NSA, or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Why is that so? Since no governmental agency on Planet Earth operates in ways anywhere like a private business entity, any politician who thinks that prior experience in the private sector (“I had to meet a payroll” is a common claim) prepares him or her to improve the public sector’s performance is living in a dream world. And so are the people who vote for him or her.

Modern public choice theories addressing the incentives of bureaucrats and the members of the congressional committees that oversee them teach us that everyone involved in the political process mainly is attuned to the goals of election or reelection to public office. One implication of those theories is that politicians and bureaucrats face irresistible personal payoffs from catering to the demands of special-interest groups and much weaker incentives to pay attention to the amorphous interests of the public at large.

It is impossible to reform the institutions of government. Indeed, the last time the charter of Export-Import Bank was up reauthorization, it was allowed to continue to operate, subject to complying with explicit congressional demands for changes in its loan-guarantee program.

It should be no surprise that none of those demands were fulfilled. The only sure solution to the public sector’s ever more evident failings is to abolish most of its executive branch departments (or downsize them drastically) and to constrain Washington to the powers constitutionally delegated to it in 1787.

A “Smart-Growth” Revolt in California

14817358_SOn June 18, the Larkspur City Council voted unanimously to kill a high-density “smart-growth” development plan for this community of 12,000 people 16 miles north of San Francisco.

The plan called for building 39,500 square feet of office space, 60,000 square feet of hotel space, 77,500 square feet of retail space, and up to 920 residential units in a half-mile radius around a proposed Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station in Larkspur. The goal was to jam future residents into high-density housing and high-intensity commercial space near a future rail station to purportedly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But local residents weren’t buying it.

According to the Marin Independent Journal, about 325 people attended the city council meeting, and all but a handful of speakers opposed the Station Area Plan, as it’s called, and cheered the city council for an “historic” no vote.

The plan was created after Larkspur received $480,000 in 2011 from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). The city of Larkspur and other agencies, such as the Transportation Authority of Marin, also kicked in $120,000 to complete the plan — money wasted to develop a rejected plan.

Unsurprisingly, the MTC and ABAG bankrolled the Larkspur “stack-and-pack” blueprint. These two unelected regional-government bodies also approved Plan Bay Area in 2013, a master plan for high-density housing, rail-intensive transit, and restricted land use in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area through 2040. Larkspur City Councilman Dan Hillmer has called Plan Bay Area “fundamentally flawed.”

The resident outcry and vote by the Larkspur City Council point to the public’s unwillingness to passively accept Plan Bay Area and its vision of tomorrow, which unelected regionalists want to impose on local communities.

Hopefully, this vote is the opening shot of widespread revolts in the Bay Area and throughout California against similar “smart-growth” plans. But expect the MTC, ABAG, and other unelected regionalists to retaliate.

As reported by the Marin Independent Journal, during the city council meeting, Larkspur Councilwoman Catherine Way asked if “Larkspur could be at a disadvantage when seeking future transportation-project funding because of the council’s decision to stop the Station Area Plan.”

It is almost certain that the MTC will retaliate, withholding transportation funding for Larkspur and other communities that refuse to go along with Plan Bay Area. But preserving local control over communities is more important than accepting MTC bribes.

Gun Control Encore? Someone Picked the Wrong . . .

As an encore to their very successful, earlier video ads on personal self-defense, GLOCK Inc. has produced a new series of superb and humorous videos featuring R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey:

Someone Picked the Wrong Convenience Store:

Someone Picked the Wrong Taxi:

Someone Picked the Wrong Guy:

The series has also inspired a host of amateur “Wrong Pick” videos in the Gunny “Wrong Pick” Video Contest (“Wrong Mom,” “Wrong Block Party,” “Wrong Purse,” “Wrong Family,” “Wrong Tent,” “Wrong Hotel,” “Wrong Jogger”):

Here also are our books by Research Fellow Stephen P. Halbrook on the Second Amendment and the right to self-defense:

Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State”

The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms

Securing Civil Rights: Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms

That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right

NASA’s Children’s Climate Change Website, and the book 1984: Creating Spies One Child at a Time

NASA Climate Kids websiteFrom our friend Cal Beisner over at the Cornwall Alliance:

What would you say if your child accused you of a thought crime, and turned you in to the thought police?

Would you say it was ridiculous?

Perhaps you would say, “There is no ‘thought crime’ in the United States.”

Surely your children would never try to accuse you of a crime or try to change your behavior.

Well, think again, because that is exactly what websites like NASA’s Climate Kids intends to do, except they won’t accuse you of thought crime, they will accuse you of a climate crime.

This colorful, fun website has two serious flaws. First, it teaches “pseudo facts” about climate change in a childlike manner that is easy to understand. “Facts” such as

• Eleven of the last 12 years have been the warmest on record. Earth has warmed twice as fast in the last 50 years as in the 50 years before that. (Actually, there hasn’t been global warming in almost 18 years, and climate alarmist scientists know this.)

• Climate change is causing unusual, extreme weather, some places are suffering long droughts and others are getting far too much rain in a short period. (Actually, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is no evidence that global warming has increased the frequency or severity of extreme weather events.)

• “We don’t know enough about Earth’s ice to know just how many meters sea level is likely to rise as ice melts in various locations.” (Actually, sea-ice melt makes no difference in sea level, and land-ice melt doesn’t appear to have accelerated during the period of recent, allegedly manmade global warming. As a result, there’s been no increase in the rate of sea level rise, which has been happening ever since the end of the Ice Age.)

• All that carbon stored in all those plants and animals over hundreds of millions of years is getting pumped back into the atmosphere over just one or two hundred years. (Actually, there is good evidence that putting it there is not causing dangerous global warming, but it most certainly is causing improved plant growth all over the world, including of agricultural crops, adding $3.2 trillion worth of crop yield 1960–2011 and a projected $9.8 trillion more by 2050.)

• ...Since 1979, ice has been getting smaller and smaller and thinner and thinner. Check out the Climate Time Machine and watch the ice shrink. (Actually, both land and sea ice expand and shrink over time in cycles in response to largely natural influences.)
[Update, July, 2014: NASA's own National Snow And Ice Data Center show record ice levels at Antarctica currently.]

Climate Time MachineYes, why don’t we check out the Climate Time Machine!

This is a really interesting slideshow of images across time on various climate topics. The blue image represents 1885 (when humans supposedly weren’t putting out so much CO2), and the red, frightening image represents 2007 when humans have burned the dinosaurs (The CO2 section tells how dead dinosaurs are part of what created the fossil fuels we burn.) in their cars and caused anthropogenic global warming.

There is of course no mention of the fact that the prosperity made possible in large part by converting those fossil fuels into electricity and liquid fuels for transport has raised human life expectancy since that time from under 48 in 1885 to near 80 today. That would reveal to these impressionable children that there are tradeoffs involved. No, the message must be clear, simple, and hideously unbalanced. Fossil fuels are evil. And those who use them are evil.

The entire site is full of “facts” of climate alarmism, scaring children with lies while they have fun “learning” and playing games with NASA.

Of course these children will feel indignation once they learn that their space ship (the metaphor for the Earth) isn’t being properly cared for. “Whatever shall we do!?” They will say. “We must stop evil eco-terrorist man and his dinosaur burning machines!”

Thus we proceed to the “What Can We Do to Help?” section. This contains the second serious flaw, for instead of just teaching bad science, NASA here encourages children to act on that bad science in a way that brings to mind the specter of poor Mrs. Parsons and her two indoctrinated children.

There are, of course, the typical suggestions: plant a tree or a garden; unplug appliances, etc. but there are other suggestions as well.

NASA wants children to grow up and drive energy-efficient cars, put solar panels on their houses, and go into a green career to help prevent climate change. (“Green” careers are the way to help people now, not traditional careers like becoming a doctor or a nurse, or a pastor or a teacher, or a farmer or an inventor, or just a helpful person). Some of these suggestions are good things to do, while some aren’t helpful to the environment at all. But what are really disturbing are the suggestions that children should attempt to control the behavior of the adults in their lives (which means their parents).

According to NASA, a child who cares about the environment is encouraged to:

“... ask your driver to park the car and let you walk inside (at a fast-food restaurant), rather than sitting in a line of cars with the engine running and polluting.”

“Walk or ride your bike instead of taking a car everywhere.”

“Ask your parents to buy reusable grocery bags. Help them to remember to get them out of the car and take them into the store.” (Never mind the risk of disease from the contamination of these bags.)

“BYOM.” Bring your own mug. That’s what you can tell your parents when they stop to buy their morning coffee.”

At face value these suggestions may seem innocuous, but at their deepest level they suggest to the child that their parents are guilty of wrongdoing, and that it is the child’s responsibility to correct them. In effect, the government is attempting to coerce parents through their children to further this pseudo-science agenda, and it doesn’t mind driving a wedge between parent and child to accomplish its goal.

The environmental lobby and your government (this is a government website after all) want to use your children against you. They want to indoctrinate your children into envirospies watching your every move and harassing you until you change your behavior.

“Mommy, don’t forget the reusable grocery bags.”

“Daddy, how dare you use a paper cup for your coffee!”

“You are hurting our Space Ship!”

Just further evidence that no federal agency, once created, cannot continue to justify its need for greater and greater power and money, no matter how far removed from its original purpose.

Your tax dollars at work!

*Links other than those to the NASA Climate Kids Website were added by me.-MLGT

Understanding Waiting Times for Health Care

in-line-for-obamacareIn Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Elizabeth Rosenthal discusses evidence that that waiting times for medical care in the United States do not always compare favorably with those of other developed countries:

“I fully expect wait times to be going up this year for Medicaid and Medicare and private insurance because we are expanding access to care, but we’re not really expanding the system of providers,” said Steven D. Pizer, a health care economist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Unfortunately, the article evolves into an apologetic for waiting times as a good thing. I would also quibble with Ms. Rosenthal’s description of U.S. health care as “market-based,” which it certainly is not. I don’t think I’ve met anyone, pro- or anti-Obamacare, who does not expect waiting times to increase as long as Obamacare exists. So, we better get used to them. How to explain them?

First, it is surely the case that a little waiting might be beneficial. This is often alluded to in articles like Ms. Rosenthal’s, but only conceptually. Seldom do surveys actually compare experienced waiting times with medically appropriate waiting times. One that does is the Fraser Institute’s survey of waiting times in Canada, which finds that experienced waiting times do, indeed, exceed medically appropriate waiting times in that single-payer system. The Fraser Institute has also detected a negative effect on mortality.


Rags to Riches (to Rags Again)

EconomicFactsandFallacies_2Most income statistics present a snapshot picture as of a given moment—and their results are radically different from those statistics which follow the same given individuals over a period of years.” —Thomas Sowell

Last week, CNNMoney carried a fascinating report on how rich families end up squandering their wealth:

Nearly 60% of the time a family’s money is exhausted by the children of the person who created the wealth, according to Roy Williams, president of wealth consultancy The Williams Group. In 90% of the cases it’s gone by the time the grandchildren die....

Perhaps the most famous example is the Vanderbilt family. Cornelius, the patriarch, built a fortune on railroads and shipping during the mid-1800s. Adjusted for the size of the economy, he was the second richest American ever, worth over $200 billion — well above Bill Gates.

Yet his children — and especially, his grandchildren — lived lavishly, building huge mansions in New York City, Newport, R.I., and elsewhere, and did little to preserve the fortune. By the 1970s, the family held a reunion with 120 members attending, and there wasn’t a millionaire among them, wrote Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther in their book The Wealthy 100.

Besides the tendency of the heirs to indulge and live lavishly, experts interviewed in this story stated that the main reason why family fortunes ended up evaporating is because the original wealth creators do not give clear instructions on how to handle the money after they’re gone. As a result, surviving family members often engage in bitter infighting, leading to an eventual loss of fortune.


Another Cover-Up? IRS and Social Security Administration Not Cooperating with Obamacare Fraud Investigation

10936452_SIn early June, we learned that over two million (of a total of eight million) Obamacare applications lacked income, citizenship, or immigration data to verify eligibility for Obamacare’s tax credits. In the middle of the month, the Obama administration began contacting “hundreds of thousands of people with subsidized health insurance to resolve questions about their eligibility, as consumer advocates express concern that many will be required to repay some or all of the subsidies.”

Now, the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed that the agency was lax in preventing ineligible enrollments: “The deficiencies in internal controls that we identified may have limited the marketplaces’ ability to prevent the use of inaccurate or fraudulent information when determining eligibility of applicants for enrollment...”

That’s putting it mildly. Far worse is that the IG is unable to investigate eligibility based on income or residency because the IRS and Social Security Administration appear not to be cooperating with the investigation (pp. iv-v):

During our fieldwork, questions arose concerning OIG’s access under the Internal Revenue Code to Federal taxpayer information that IRS provides to marketplaces. We sought authorization from IRS to access that information. Because the request was still pending when we had completed our data collection, we did not review supporting documentation for certain eligibility requirements, such as annual household income and family size, for the purpose of this report.3 As a result, we could not evaluate whether each marketplace determined the 45 sample applicants’ eligibility for advance premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions according to Federal requirements.

Further, we did not determine whether information submitted by the 45 sample applicants at each marketplace was inaccurate or fraudulent because we could not independently verify the accuracy of data stored at other Federal agencies, e.g., IRS and SSA. Instead, we focused our review on determining the effectiveness of internal controls for processing that data and addressing inconsistencies in eligibility data when identified by the marketplace.


Burgeoning Regulations Threaten Our Humanity

19666985_SInsofar as mainstream economics may be said to make moral-philosophical assumptions, it rests overwhelmingly on a consequentialist-utilitarian foundation. When mainstream economists say that an action is worthwhile, they mean that it is expected to give rise to benefits whose total value exceeds its total cost (that is, the most valued benefit necessarily forgone by virtue of this particular action’s being taken). But nearly always the economists make no attempt to evaluate as part of their benefit-cost calculus any costs that might be incurred as a result of how and by whom the action is taken.

Often they verge on the assumption that benefits and costs exist apart from those who take the action, even though this assumption clashes with the foundational principles of their science. Thus, in benefit-cost calculations, economists often attach a value to certain expected benefits (e.g., the dollar value of lives saved as a result of a safety regulation) and compare this value to the dollar outlays by the government that imposes and enforces the regulation and by the private parties who are compelled to comply with it, often at great private expense.

I cannot recall, however, ever seeing a benefit-cost computation that attaches any cost valuation to the loss of freedom by the regulated parties. It is as if it matters not at all that an action is mandated, as opposed to freely chosen. Freedom itself is, in effect, considered worthless, and hence its loss entails no sacrifice regarded as worthy of receiving weight in the calculation.


Do Private Prisons Make Financial Sense for States?

changingtheguard_180x270Most states use contract prisons for some of their corrections needs, often in the hope of saving money, but is contracting out really all that worthwhile for states? The current debate about prisons and the private sector has often generated more heat than light. Fortunately, a new study from the Independent Institute answers the question by offering a new and improved method for calculating the fiscal benefits of breaking free of the public-prison monopoly.

Authored by two leading experts on public-private partnerships, economists Simon Hakim and Erwin A. Blackstone, Prison Break: A New Approach to Public Cost and Safety finds that using contract prisons often results in cost savings two or three times as large as the 5 to 10 percent minimum that some states require. In some cases, the long-run savings is much higher, such as in California (savings of 58.61% at one prison), Oklahoma (up to 36.77%), and Texas (up to 44.95%).

“Our study found that contracting out inmates to private prisons saved state governments money while maintaining performance at least at the same quality as public prisons,” Hakim and Blackstone write. “Indeed, public-private competition and cooperation could even be extended to further these fiscally responsible goals.”

Although thirty states used contract prisons in 2010, Hakim and Blackstone found it helpful to focus on ten: Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Employing state and federal cost data, as well as interviews with corrections officials, they compare the short-run and long-run avoidable costs of contract prisons with the costs of public prisons. In doing so, they raise the bar for studies on the economics of prisons. Interestingly, they note that states that contract for correctional services tend to employ a variety of alternatives to incarceration, such as sentencing reform, community-based corrections and reentry programs, and that private operators often partner with government agencies to provide such services.


Why Hobby Lobby Is Not an Assault on Women

8775595_SThe reactions from the progressive side of the fence to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. was stunning. The spin is that American women have been stripped of fundamental constitutional protections. Sandra Fluke at The Washington Post’s blog claimed that “[t]he Hobby Lobby case is an attack on women.” The White House lamented that the decision “jeopardizes the health of women employed by these companies.” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, according to CBS News, opined that “[t]his ruling goes out of its way to declare that discrimination against women isn’t discrimination.”

So in what nefarious way did Hobby Lobby and other Christian-owned businesses conspire with five members of the Supreme Court to discriminate against women and impair their health? The business owners simply objected to paying for health insurance coverage for four birth control methods that prevent a fertilized egg from developing by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. Because they believe that life begins at conception, the Christian business owners felt that they would be aiding and abetting the murder of unborn children if they funded these methods. The owners are not against all contraception and voiced no objection to the 16 other FDA-approved birth control methods that health insurance plans must provide under Obamacare. In essence, these Christian villains simply objected to being forced to provide what they viewed as abortifacients.

In interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), the Court simply held that the Christian business owners do not have to pay for the four methods that they believe induce abortion. The Court assumed that the government had a compelling interest in providing cost-free contraceptives but found that the mandates of Obamacare were not the least restrictive means in furthering that interest. This is that statutory test that Congress requires in a RFRA analysis.