The Independent Institute


Politics and American Surveillance

american_surveillance_1800Editor: Today is the publication date of the Independent Institute’s newest book, American Surveillance: Intelligence, Privacy, and the Fourth Amendment, by Anthony Gregory (Research Fellow, Independent Institute). Published for Independent by the University of Wisconsin Press, this widely acclaimed new book traces the history of government surveillance in the U.S. that transcends party divides, urging us to look deeper into government policy and how best to protect individual privacy.


Whatever else it might be, November’s election won’t be a referendum on surveillance and privacy. Hillary Rodham Clinton voted as Senator for the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001 and 2006, and Donald Trump has approved its renewal, saying he tends to “err on the side of security.” In the Democratic debates, Clinton harshly criticized NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, insisting, probably wrongly, that he “could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower” and “raised all the issues” without breaking the law. Trump has called Snowden a traitor, promised to get Russian president Vladimir Putin to hand him over, and in the past even suggested him worthy of execution. Both candidates want to expand foreign intelligence. Clinton recently told Fox television host Bill O’Reilly that among her “priorities is to launch an intelligence surge” and more information-sharing to combat terror. Trump told CBS journalist Leslie Stahl that, to defeat ISIS, “we’re going to have unbelievable intelligence, which we need [and] right now, we don’t have.”

Both major political parties have nominated surveillance hawks for the highest office in 2016, but we could excuse the public for discerning partisan differences. In recent years, both sides have postured as disagreeing fundamentally. Barack Obama ran for president echoing fellow Democrats’ condemnation of President George W. Bush’s attempts to immunize telecoms implicated in NSA warrantless wiretapping. Under Obama’s presidency, the Republican National Committee denounced the NSA’s “dragnet program” as likely “the largest surveillance effort ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens” and its mass data collection as “contrary to the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment.” Inconsistent politicians have mirrored a shift among constituents. The Pew Research Center in 2006 found that 37% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans considered Bush’s surveillance program acceptable. In 2013, 64% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans approved NSA surveillance under Obama.

The Democratic Platform on Health Care: Bad, but Not Universally Bad

20802345_MLThe Democratic National Convention has produced a 51-page campaign platform that devotes five pages to health care. Leaving aside the promotion of abortion as a partisan wedge issue, the platform asserts the goal of “universal health care,” which is “a right, not a privilege.”

The notion of health care as a “right” is now widespread, although a banal platitude has dangerous implications. Whenever I am asked whether a person has a “right to health care,” I answer: “A person has the right to spend as much of his money on health care of his choice as he prefers.” This generally results in confused looks. I then describe how that right is infringed by Medicare payroll taxes, and government programs like Medicaid, the Veterans Health Administration, and Children’s Health Insurance Program. Taxes funding those programs are taken from people’s incomes, and cannot therefore be spent on health care which the earners prefer.

A “right” to health care is likely more dangerous than a right to food (which can result in severe shortages due to government confiscation and distribution). If worse comes to worst, at least you might be able to keep some chickens and grow some fruit and vegetables on your own plot of land. Modern health care, on the other hand, requires highly skilled practitioners and capital investment in medical innovation. Suppliers of both can go on strike in response to government control, and the ordinary person can hardly perform his own knee replacement or make his own hypertensive drug.

Should the Feds Regulate Physicians’ Scope of Practice?

33919068 - doctor typing on a computer keyboard at officeWriting in the Wall Street Journal, economics professor Shirley Svorny of California State University, Northridge, and the Cato Institute argues that Congress should use the power granted by the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause to pre-empt states’ historical power to regulate physicians’ scope of practice:

Telemedicine has made exciting advances in recent years. Remote access to experts lets patients in stroke, neonatal and intensive-care units get better treatment at a lower cost than ever before. In rural communities, the technology improves timely access to care and reduces expensive medevac trips. Remote-monitoring technology lets patients with chronic conditions live at home rather than in an assisted-living facility.

Yet while telemedicine can connect a patient in rural Idaho with top specialists in New York, it often runs into a brick wall at state lines. Instead of welcoming the benefits of telemedicine, state governments and entrenched interests use licensing laws to make it difficult for out-of-state experts to offer remote care.

(S. Svorny, “Telemedicine Runs Into Crony Doctoring,” Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2016)

Professor Svorny urges Congress to pass a law allowing interstate portability of licensure. The state where a physician practices, not where the patient stands (or sits or lies), would be the locus of regulatory control. That is, Idaho would lose its sovereign power to prevent New York-licensed physicians from providing telemedicine services to Idaho patients.

Marginal Steps to a Better World

44507860_MLI was recently asked to give a talk for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) on how we can improve society. Now, I’ve been asked to give my fair share of presentations. Most are things that fit nicely into the economist’s “wheelhouse.” Ask me to explain public choice, price controls, the economics of war, terrorism, drugs, etc. and I’m ready to go.

But this talk provided a challenge.

As an economist, I see my job as discussing patterns in society, using theory to explain general tendencies and directions. This is in contrast to point predictions, or making suggestions on specific things to do in particular magnitudes. To offer advice on such an important topic of “how do we improve society” seemed a task outside what economists (or anyone for that matter) are capable and qualified to answer. So after racking my brain, I did what I sometimes do when I’m stuck and asked the all-powerful entity known as “Facebook.” After gathering thoughts from friends and colleagues and collecting my own thoughts, I offered students the following (and a few others).

  1. Engage Ideas

Arkansas Medicaid Expansion Improved Access to Care—but at a Very High Price

60088810 - medicaid medicine doctor working with computer interface as medicalArkansas has a love-hate relationship with Obamacare. The previous (Democratic) governor, Mike Beebe, made a deal to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion but with an interesting twist. Obamacare significantly increased the number of Americans who could become dependent on Medicaid by increasing the income cut-off for eligibility. Many governors rejected the federal funds offered to expand this welfare dependency.

Governor Beebe took the money, but instead of using it to expand Medicaid for the newly eligible, he used it to subsidize beneficiaries’ purchase of private plans in Obamacare’s health insurance exchange. His successor, Republican Asa Hutchinson, and the Republican-majority legislature, decided to continue the program.

According to new research published by the University of Pennsylvania, this “private option” yielded dramatically improved access to care. In a “secret shopper” survey, callers identifying themselves as dependents on traditional Medicaid were able to make appointments with primary-care physicians in 55.5 percent of attempts. Medicaid dependents enrolled in exchange plans got appointments 83.2 percent of the time.

That is good news. Traditional Medicaid offers poor access to care because it does not pay physicians enough to see patients. The exchange plans pay more, so enrollees were able to get care. On the other hand, they cost more. According to the Government Accountability Office, the “private option” will cost an extra $778 million over three years. With 200,000 enrollees, that amounts to an extra $1,297 per person per year.

That is a lot of money. Maybe Arkansas and the federal government could think of another option. These appointments are for primary care. Why do we need insurers or a Medicaid bureaucracy in the middle? How about just giving a sum of money to the patients and allowing them to pay primary-care doctors directly?

* * *

For the pivotal alternative to Obamacare, see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, by John C. Goodman.

Trump’s Nomination and Backward Immigration Policy

55627344_MLA few months back, I wrote on Donald Trump’s run for the White House and his economic policies. At the time, I noted that, love him or hate him, he’d gone farther than pretty much anyone had anticipated.

I have to admit that I was surprised that Trump secured the Republican nomination for the Presidency, but the Republican National Convention last week left no more room for doubt. Trump is the GOP nominee.

Several people asked me what I thought of the RNC. Until the last night, I was honestly able to respond with, “I haven’t watched, but hear it’s been a show.” Alas, on the final night of the convention, my husband turned on the TV as Mr. Trump was speaking. What I heard him say made me both remarkably sad and incredibly angry.

He said,

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.

The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. She was 21 years-old, and was killed the day after graduating from college with a 4.0 Grade Point Average. Her killer was then released a second time, and he is now a fugitive from the law.

I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family. But to this Administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders. What about our economy?

Following his speech, Trump took some serious heat for his remarks. This criticism was wholly justified. In fact, Trump couldn’t’ by more wrong on immigration.

Alas, this is not the first time that Trump has accused immigrants of possessing inherent criminal tendencies. In the past, he’s referred to Mexican immigrants in particular as criminals, drug dealers, and “rapists.”

As I noted in my earlier blog, this narrative simply fails to match up with the statistics. Study after study after study has found that both illegal and legal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be put in jail than their native counterparts. (See here and here for additional examples and sources.)

In a similar way, Trump’s concern for the “resources” taken by immigrants once again doesn’t stand up to empirical investigation (or a two minute search of any internet search engine for that matter). Ku and Bruen, for example, found that when it comes to public benefits like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), low-income immigrants use these services at a lower rate than native-born individuals.

Moreover, a practical mountain of studies has found that immigrants, illegal included, pay far more in taxes than they receive in public assistance. In fact, according to the Department of Agriculture, the agency that administers food stamps, immigrants have poured into Tennessee, Alabama, the Carolinas, and other states with exceptionally low welfare benefits—but many jobs. In 2011, the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy released a study showing that undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010 alone. An 2013 study by the OECD found that documented and undocumented immigrants consistently add significantly more to the economy than they use in public services. The study found the average immigrant household in the U.S. made a positive annual contribution to the U.S. economy of about $11,000.

All of this is to say nothing of another common “fact” raised time and again by the Trump campaign—the idea that immigrants “steal” jobs from native workers. Once again, this assertion is simply false. Consider, for example, an April 2015 symposium on the effects of illegal immigration in the Southern Economic Journal. It found illegal immigrants raise the wages of documented and native workers. Other studies have found that illegal immigrants significantly boost the wages of low and medium-skill native workers. (You can read more about this and find links to other sources here.)

The truly wretched part of all of this is that, despite decades of data to dispute the claims made by Trump and others, they have become remarkably popular. Instead of recognizing all of the incredibly good things immigrants, both legal and illegal do for the US economy and US citizens (not to mention the positive impact on things like global poverty), these people are used as easy scapegoats for people displeased with modern America.

In total, I watched about three minutes of the RNC.

It was three minutes too much.

Trump’s Talk: Aspirations, Not Policies

55272640_MLDonald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was a list of aspirations, without any explanation of the policies he had in mind to meet those goals. That’s not surprising, because that is the nature of political campaign rhetoric. Politicians rarely say what they plan to do. Rather, they talk about perceived problems that exist now, and say they will make things better. This isn’t a criticism of Trump. All politicians do that, and I fully expect Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech to be much the same.

Trump said he would make America safe again. He didn’t say how. He said he’d hire the best people to get the job done, but he didn’t say who they are, or how he would find them.

Trump said we had bad trade deals, and he’d renegotiate them to get better deals. He didn’t say what was wrong with the deals we have, and he didn’t say what terms he’d include in any renegotiated deals.

The Republican Platform on Health Care: Good, Bad, and So-So

8571668 - uncle sam holding a stethescopeThe Republican National Convention churned out a 58-page campaign platform that did not ignore health reform. The committee that drafted it was co-chaired by Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, and U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. Whatever the likelihood of its enacted, it represents some kind of consensus among Republicans about what post-Obamacare health reform should look like.

Overall, the proposals are good, although there are some weak points, too. Let’s start with praise.

The platform recognizes Medicare’s unsustainable financial condition, and would reform it for people aged 55 and younger by giving them the choice of moving from traditional Medicare to “premium support.” What this means is giving Medicare beneficiaries would get a fixed credit which they could use to buy health insurance of their choice. This proposal first came from U.S. Representative Paul Ryan a few years ago. The devil is in the details. Nevertheless, it is a very positive sign that this is now broadly accepted within the Republican Party.

Mere Optimism Is Not a Good Substitute for Sound Theory and Far-reaching Evidence

thinking_MLAs elderly people get older they tend toward feeble-mindedness. Not in every case, of course, but as a general rule applicable to any given cohort. I am acutely aware of this tendency whenever I express an opinion or explain a conclusion: I may simply be losing my grip. Moreover, older people tend to become stuck in their ways. So they may often fail to see how the world is changing, not to mention why it is changing as it is.

With the foregoing declarations as my preface, you may wish to disregard what I now have to say, which is—if you’ve decided to stick with me—that I find many people’s outlooks, especially my fellow libertarians’ outlooks, touchingly sweet, innocent, and cheerful. Oh, they complain bitterly about all sorts of injustice and destruction, especially the instances perpetrated by the people who fancy themselves fit to rule the rest of us, but nevertheless my fellow libertarians, the younger ones in particular, tend to see the future as turning out much for the better. For them the present is akin to the situation that Wordsworth described more than two centuries ago:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

Clinton Cash Film Premieres

sb6The powerful, new, documentary-film version of Peter Schweizer’s bombshell, New York Times-bestselling book on the massive corruption, cronyism and hypocrisy of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, has premiered on YouTube for selectively timed viewings. According to the film received 500,000 views in the first 48 hours and all on the eve of the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Philadelphia. The film is receiving massive support in social media across the political spectrum, as both conservatives and liberals are recommending it for its bold coverage of the massive self-dealing of the Clintons to enrich themselves by using government power to reward those who “pay to play”: private gain at public expense., whose Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon produced the film, modestly notes that:

Clinton Cash exposes the disturbing pattern of record-high speaking fees to Bill Clinton and donations to the Clinton Foundation from foreign contributors, which conspicuously coincided with favors for those closest to the Clintons and their foundation donors while Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State.

Here is the official trailer, here is the film, and here is the director’s cut of the film that begins with a 14:56 minute discussion with Bannon and Schweizer.

In addition, the Clinton Cash: A Graphic Novel version of the book is scheduled for release on August 8th.