Thursday, May 31, 2012

If I Were the King of the World

Last Friday, Kevin Grier (Angus) at Kids Prefer Cheese listed the 5 things he would do as Supreme Ruler of the United States. Grover Cleveland at Pileus (ht Cafe Hayek) and later Brandon Christensen at The Republic of Liberty made their own lists. All three lists have some good ideas, and this sounds like fun, so I made my own.

I've tried to focus on more radical and interesting structural ideas, instead of more common policy ideas like tax reform or cutting sugar subsidies. That means I'm not so much convinced that these are actually good ideas. At present, I think on balance they probably might be mostly good (is that enough qualifiers?), but the academic's motto of "more study is needed" definitely applies to all five. So without further ado, here they are, in approximate descending order of probability (or ascending order of ridiculousness, if you prefer):

1. Submit Supreme Court Justices to Re-election
The entire Obamacare fiasco has underscored just how ridiculous the Supreme Court system is. By most accounts, whether or not we keep one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the last few decades will be decided by just one man-- the unelected, unaccountable Anthony Kennedy. The Constitutional idea of checks and balances was supposed to prevent exactly that.

My proposal is simple. Supreme Court Justices will continue to be appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, but they will also be subject, on a rotating basis, to re-election. Every two years, put one Justice up for re-election on a straight yes-or-no vote. If the result is yes, they stay in office, but if the result is no, they step down and a new one is appointed. Re-elections would rotate so that we always vote on the Justice that has gone longest without being re-elected. Without retirements, this means Justices would face re-election every 18 years; with retirements, it would usually happen faster. Hopefully, that's long enough that purely political motives will still be discouraged, but short enough to introduce at least some measure of accountability.

2. Create a Fourth Branch of Government - The Delegislature
As it stands, two of the three branches of government are entirely focused on creating new laws and new regulations. The judiciary is the only branch that regularly considers whether old laws should be eliminated, but they can only eliminate a law for being unconstitutional. The problem is that there are many bad laws and bad regulations that are perfectly constitutional, including many that once were good laws but no longer are.

The fourth branch of government, the Delegislature, would have as its sole power the ability to strike down bad laws and regulations. In a way, it would be like a Supreme Court that could focus on whether a law was actually good or bad, not just whether it was constitutional. It would also, of course, be elected in a similar manner to the Congress, and would be able to take on any existing law rather than be limited to court cases like the Supreme Court is. Politicians seeking re-election to the Delegislature would have to campaign on how many bad laws they've overturned. Hopefully, the underlying question of political discourse would eventually shift from "How should we control people?" to "How should we free people?"

3. Turn the Presidency into an Issue-Based Triumvirate
Just as concentrated power is bad at the Supreme Court, the same goes for the Presidency. At the same time, the nature of political discourse means that government's focus seems to grow without end. Rather than asking government to make us better off in general, we should seek a government that fulfills only those social functions that we need it to fulfill.

With an issues-based triumvirate, we would have three Presidents at once. We could stagger their elections; maybe they would serve six-year terms, with a new one being elected every two years. But once elected, each President would not have carte blanche to set policy in every area he can imagine. The three Presidential offices would each set policy on certain predefined issues. Very broadly, I'm thinking maybe they would be foreign policy, economic policy and social policy, although there are probably better ways to split up the issues. Obviously, there are some overlapping areas, so conflicts would be settled by a vote between the three. Hopefully, each election would focus more on the issues, and even if they didn't, the ongoing mission creep of the federal government would at least be slowed down. 

4. Eliminate Elections in Favor of Democracy Markets
We see this time and again-- a politician is elected on promises of governing from the center, and then once in office immediately pushes through the most extreme parts of his agenda. Closer to the next election, he shifts back to the center enough to get re-elected, and the cycle starts over again. This works so often because voter memory is significantly shorter than terms of office. What if there was a way for voters to express their discontent and keep politicians in line all the time?

Enter what I call democracy markets-- think of a stock market, where the "stock" you own reflects which politician you support. You would get one vote per office, and at any time you could transfer that vote to anyone who had registered as a candidate. The system doesn't have to be any more complex than automated online or phone banking, and there's no reason it can't be just as secure. There's no need to wait 2, 4 or 6 years to have your voice heard, because you could change your vote at any time. No need to wonder if your ballot was actually counted, because you could check your current vote as easily as you can now check your bank balance. And most importantly, politicians would get active, real-time feedback. Hopefully, they would be forced to do what the people actually wanted.

5. Decouple Governance from Geography
For as long as there have been governments, they have been linked to and identified by geography. For most of human history, this was just a necessity, for reasons of defense if nothing else. But governments in general, and defense in particular, have changed a lot over the last century or so. Many, if not most, of the things governments now do have no direct relation to actual geography.

If I want to buy insurance, or save for retirement, or invest in an exciting startup, I don't have to be in a particular geographic area to do so, government restrictions aside. Living in a particular geographic area should not mean I have to join a particular government service provider either. If I don't like Washington state's laws, I have the right to move away. But why should I have to uproot my life, give up my home, my job, my friends in the area because I don't like what some doofus in Olympia is doing? Obviously there are some government services necessarily tied to geography, so leave those be. But for everything else goverunment does, we should encourage some healthy competition. Ideally, we should be able to switch governments as easily as we switch grocery stores. Hopefully, this would encourage existing governments to become more responsive to what people actually want, and maybe it would even allow new, more efficient, more competitive governments to sprout up wherever there was demand for them.

Your Turn
What do you think? Would you support any of these ideas? Do you see any problems with them? What five things would you do if you were the Supreme Ruler?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Recent Reasons for Optimism Redux

Some more good news from this week:

1) Child mortality rates in Africa are falling rapidly, and the decline appears to be speeding up. Twelve African countries are seeing declines rapid enough to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting child mortality by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015. Child mortality in three countries, Senegal, Rwanda and Kenya, is falling twice as fast as needed to meet the MDG.

2) In Israel, human skin cells from patients suffering from heart failure have been turned into functionally young, beating heart cells which were "equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when he was just born." The cells were successfully grafted onto rat hearts; human tests are still a ways off.

3) A telomerase gene therapy, when applied to adult mice, extended their lifespans by 24%. Telomerase encourages the regrowth of telomeres, the DNA equivalent of the plastic nub at the end of shoelaces. Telomerase has been shown to increase cultured human cell lifespans; the successful tests on mice have taken the treatment to the next step.

4) In non-health news, a British company is building robotic fish that can automatically test the seas for pollution. The latest buzzphrase seems to be "the internet of things," but the Brits are pushing past that to bring nature itself online.

5) MIT has developed a more life-changing technology for some of us: a nanotech coating for the insides of glass and plastic bottles that lets you get all of the ketchup out of the bottle. And it's not just for fun-- they estimate their coating could help save one million tons of food from being thrown out every year.

6) This morning, the SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully berthed with the International Space Station, becoming the first privately-built spaceship to do so. In the images below, which I captured from NASA's live stream, you can see both the Dragon capsule and the CanadArm used to catch it.

7) It's not quite space, but two California men launched a balloon to about 27 km and took the picture below of the recent solar eclipse (ht). As technology and living standards improve, everyday people are now accomplishing feats for hobbies and even school projects that were once the sole domain of governments and well-funded academics.

8) Earth is often thought of as the solar system's watery planet, but Jupiter's moon Europa has 2-3 times more water than we do. On the surface it's all ice, but geothermal heat could mean liquid oceans under the ice dozens of miles deep. That's good news for extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

9) The provincial government of British Columbia decided this week that its mandatory vehicle emissions inspections had been successful. With the objective of cleaner vehicle emissions achieved, the government is now phasing out the program for non-diesel vehicles, which will save drivers $23 per year per vehicle, not to mention the hassle of the inspections themselves. That may not sound like much, but any time a government actually ends a program because it achieved its objective deserves celebration.

10) Finally, not really news per se, but a nice reminder in the form of Canadian graffiti. Photo courtesy of the Expected Optimist's better half on a trip to Tsawassen, BC.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Gary Johnson on the Issues

Last Sunday, I wrapped up my series of posts on Mitt Romney's positions in the debates. Now it's time to look at Gary Johnson, who initially ran as a Republican but has now secured the nomination for the Libertarian Party. Since Johnson was only in two debates, the first and the sixth, there's simply not as much material as there was for Romney, who was in 19 debates. While Romney got five entries, Johnson only gets this one.

National Security
In the first debate, he said he would withdraw from Afghanistan "tomorrow," was against the war in Iraq from the beginning, and was also opposed to intervention in Libya (Syria was not yet an issue at the time). He is solidly against war, saying in the 6th debate, "The biggest threat to our national security is the fact that we're bankrupt." As part of his promise to balance the budget, he supports a 43% cut to military spending.

Immigration and Trade
He said in the first debate that there was "very little, if any benefit" to securing the border, and that freer immigration would create "tens of millions of jobs." On trade, he said, "I'm a free market guy... I don't favor tariffs of any kind, whatsoever." In the two debates, he was only able to address trade with one country, Cuba, which he supports, because he believes that trade encourages friendship. 

Taxes and Spending
He supports the Fair Tax, a national sales tax that would replace the corporate and personal income taxes. On spending, he would balance the budget in his first year in office. Since he says current spending outpaces revenue by 43%, that's how much he wants to cut from all federal spending, including 43% each from the military, Medicare and Medicaid. To get it done, he would turn Medicare and Medicaid into block grants, veto any bill where expenditures exceeded revenue, completely eliminate the Department of Education and subject federal programs to cost-benefit analyses, then get rid of the ones that don't measure up.

The Economy
To get the economy growing again, he would restructure the tax code and greatly reduce federal spending as described above. He also sees freer immigration as a way to encourage "tens of millions" of new jobs. He would eliminate the federal minimum wage, and stop extending unemployment benefits.

Social Issues
He declined to describe himself as "pro-life," and said in the first debate that he supports abortion "up until viability." (While viability lacks a precise definition, that would allow abortions at least into the fifth month of pregnancy, and possibly later.) However, he opposes public funds for abortion, and favors parental notification and counseling. On drugs, he admits to having smoked marijuana, and supports legalization along with regulation and taxation of marijuana. While gay marriage didn't come up in the debates, on Twitter he often sells himself as the only candidate supporting "marriage equality" (at least, prior to Obama's recent conversion). 

Ron Paul
When directly asked in the sixth debate what made him a better choice for libertarian Republicans than Ron Paul, Johnson said, "I'm not going to presume to make that assumption." When asked who his running mate would be if it had to be someone at the sixth debate, he said Ron Paul. On Twitter, many of his public tweets are also directed towards Ron Paul. While I haven't seen anything explicitly laying this out, I suspect he looks at Paul's age and wants to be the next Ron Paul once Paul himself leaves public life. It will be very interesting to see how much support Johnson gets from Paulites once Paul eventually quits the race.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Recent Reasons for Optimism

A few optimism-inspiring stories from the past week or so:

1) Researchers at UBC have taken the first step towards a universal flu vaccine.

2) Claire Lomas, paralyzed from the chest down, completed a full 26.2-mile marathon with the help of a bionic suit (video here).

3) Cathy Hutchinson, a tetraplegic who cannot move her arms or legs, was able to lift a bottle to her mouth for a drink with a robotic arm controlled through a brain implant (video here).

4) I've heard of wearing your heart on your sleeve, but how about carrying your pancreas in your hand? A new device billed as a "hand-held artificial pancreas" could soon be improving life for diabetics (ht Innovations).

5) Moving away from bionics, Bob Murphy highlights the case for energy optimism, focusing on proved oil reserves that have continued to grow even as we use more oil than ever before.

6) On the same topic, Mark Perry at Carpe Diem shares some data showing global oil production has now surpassed 75 million barrels per day, and after a few years of apparent stagnation, is now higher than ever before.

7) Randal O'Toole, aka The Antiplanner, recently took a ride inside Google's self-driving car, which I've covered before.

8) From The Economist's Free Exchange blog, researchers in India and Bangladesh have found that sometimes what the poor need most is optimism and hope. The belief that they can improve their lives gives them the ability to actually do so. Small interventions that provide hope, such as providing an $8 bus ticket, decreased depression and spurred the poor to take more action on their own.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The SpaceX Launch

Tomorrow, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, will, if all goes well, launch the first private cargo ship to the International Space Station. Many, including me, are hailing the upcoming launch as a triumph for the private space industry. To be fair, however, it's not exactly an entirely private enterprise. SpaceX has, to date, received $381 million in taxpayer money from NASA. Success tomorrow means another $15 million from NASA in their current contract, as well as another contract worth about $1,600 million to deliver future NASA payloads to the ISS.

Given the costs involved, and the public-private nature of what SpaceX is doing, some on the right have begun to criticize the company and even the NASA program under which they're operating. The Republican-led US House Appropriations Committee recently released a report comparing SpaceX and other NASA-funded private space companies to Solyndra, the failed, government-backed solar power company.

As someone who leans libertarian yet also supports the NASA-SpaceX partnership, I think it's important to confront this criticism. While SpaceX is, effectively, a government-sponsored enterprise, it's important to remember the direction of movement here. Compare space exploration to other government-dominated industries, and you'll see what I mean.

Prior to government spending on renewable energy in the past few years, solar power got some government help in the form of individual tax credits, but it was primarily a private industry. In the last few years, solar production has been growing exponentially, driven almost entirely by government subsidies. Solyndra was just one example of a general move from a small, private industry to a large, government-supported industry.

Housing finance through mortgages was a private industry from America's founding until the New Deal created Fannie Mae in 1938. Freddie Mac came along later in 1970, and both remained government-backed privately-owned companies until the 2008 financial crisis. The current federal government conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie completes a decades-long move from a wholly private to a government-run mortgage industry.

Despite licensing requirements and safety regulations, auto companies have been wholly private enterprises for many decades. That came to an end with the 2008 financial crisis and the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, in which the US and Canadian governments became minority stockholders of both companies. Since there have been efforts to back these governments out of ownership roles since then, and since Ford and indeed the Asian auto companies never went bankrupt in the first place, this is hopefully not part of a general movement from private to public. However, it is at least a temporarily public ownership of a typically private industry.

In contrast to the solar, mortgage and auto industries, space has never been a private industry. The first launch into space was done by the Soviet government. Until 2004, every human being who had ever gone to space had been sent by one government or another. Far from taking over a previously private industry, NASA's partnership with SpaceX is part of a general move from public to private.

While conservatives and libertarians are right to criticize the movements from private to public in the solar, mortgage and auto industries, it's a mistake to lump in with those the space industry's movement from public to private. It's true that the space industry continues to be almost entirely public, and it will be years or possibly even decades before private sources of revenue outpace public sources in space. However, the NASA-SpaceX partnership is the next, necessary step down the road to an independently profitable private space industry. It is in this context that we should view SpaceX-- not as a private contractor feasting on government largesse, or a crony capitalist waste of taxpayer dollars, but as a necessary step in the privatization of space.

EDIT: I just came across this quote from Phil McAlister, NASA Commercial Spaceflight Development Director, that I think is appropriate to add: "Once we get the private sector out there, there will be no turning back. [Spaceflight] will no longer be subject to the prevailing political winds. It will just push further and further out, no more looking backwards, only looking forwards."

Monday, May 14, 2012

All I Have is This Hammer...

The great Lee Doren on Saturday put out a video about a Government Accountability Office study about a 2010 Pentagon study about the fact that the Pentagon had too many studies. Apparently, the ridiculousness is only obvious to those outside the government. This reminded me of one of my own entries from 2010. Democrats in Ohio thought the state had too many boards and committees, and wanted to create a new committee to deal with the problem. Republicans objected that there was already a nine-member committee doing exactly that, which was slated to release its findings later that year.

For your viewing pleasure, Doren's video is below. The study story starts shortly after the one-minute mark.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mitt Romney on Other Issues

This is the fifth and last in a series of entries revisiting Mitt Romney's policies as stated in the debates. Upcoming entries will address Gary Johnson's and Barack Obama's policies. The first in this series covered foreign policy; the second covered economic policy. The third covered social issues, and the fourth covered health care. This entry wraps up the series by covering a few things that didn't fit into any other areas-- in particular, space, flip-flopping and a few general quotes.


In the 18th debate, Romney said space exploration "should certainly be a priority," and criticized Obama for destroying jobs on the space coast. He later mentioned science, commercial and military benefits from space exploration, but the outsized emphasis he placed on jobs made clear that he sees NASA as a jobs program for Floridians.

In the 19th debate, he said he did not have a plan for space, but would develop one after he got into office. He opposed Gingrich's plan for a moon base, and said he liked manned spaceflight. 


Throughout the debates, there were many times Romney was accused of changing his positions or actually did change his positions. These range from the inconsequential that can be written off as having misspoke, to the minor that can be reconciled with a bit of effort, to the major that are nearly impossible to reconcile with any consistent underlying belief. While I pointed out the inconsequential flips within the original debate analyses, I will not list them here. I have tried to find ways to reconcile different positions, and I am only including in this list positions that cannot be reconciled or where the reconciliations imply something Romney might object to if stated directly.

Reconcilable Inconsistencies:

In the 6th debate, he said, "[Romneycare] is a state plan for a state. It is not a national plan... please don't try and make me retreat from the words that I wrote in my book. I stand by what I wrote. I believe in what I did." However, as was widely reported at the time, the hardcover edition of his book included the line "We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country," referring to Romneycare, while the paperback removed that line. This line does not necessarily imply a national plan; it may just imply that he wanted the other 49 states to adopt plans similar to Romneycare, which is consistent with his constant defense of that program.

He wants to block grant Medicaid to the states, and then restrict how quickly the block grants grow. In the 8th debate, he wanted to grow them at 1-2% per year, while in the 10th at inflation-plus-one-percent. Reconciling these two numbers requires an inflation rate of 0-1%, which is possible, but implies a persistently stagnant economy during a Romney administration.

In the 15th debate, he said he did not run for re-election in Massachusetts because he had set out a list of 100 things he wanted to accomplish and had accomplished them, so he didn't need to run again. If he was elected as President, however, he said, "of course I'll fight for a second term." Does this imply he expects not to accomplish very much with his first term?

In the 16th debate, Romney was attacked by Gingrich for ads run by a SuperPAC working to elect him, but successfully got Gingrich to admit that exercising any influence on the SuperPAC would be a violation of federal law. He then criticized Gingrich himself for not exercising any influence on his SuperPAC. This can only be reconciled if Romney believes it is appropriate to attack someone for not violating a federal law that he himself chooses not to violate.

In the 18th debate, a moderator pointed out that Romney in the 17th debate had wanted to focus on Obama instead of the other Republicans, but in the intervening time had dramatically upped his negativity towards Gingrich. He justified it by saying he learned "something" from losing to Gingrich in South Carolina, apparently that voters like negativity.

Irreconcilable Inconsistencies:

In the 9th debate, the moderator accused Romney of being for the automaker bailout before he was against it before he was for it again. In that debate, and others, Romney took a position against the bailout and especially against the government-managed bankruptcy process, which he likened to Obama "put[ting] his hands on the scales of justice." Earlier this month, Romney switched back to supporting the bailout and managed bankruptcy, saying, "I pushed the idea of a managed bankruptcy, and finally when that was done, and help was given, the companies got back on their feet... So, I'll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry has come back."

Also in the 9th debate, he claimed that the problem with health care is that "government is playing too heavy a role." However in that debate and many others, he repeatedly defended the individual mandate at the core of both Romneycare and Obamacare, and even championed the individual mandate as a conservative solution for health care. When directly asked about this inconsistency, he instead talked about how he did not want to eliminate Medicaid.

In the 11th debate, he said on immigration, "I'm not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go," then immediately said that illegal immigrants should not "get to stay." Whether or not that's an appropriate line to draw, it is drawing a line.

Also in the 11th debate, he complained that Obama wants to cut "a trillion dollars" from defense and spend it on Obamacare, and that this would amount to spending us into bankruptcy. Spending the same amount of money on defense, however, would not be spending us into bankruptcy.

In the 18th debate, he said, "We're still a great nation, but a great nation doesn't have so many people suffering." To formalize, a ∈ B, a ∈ C and B ∪ C = ∅

Collected Quotes:

"There are a lot of reasons not to elect me, a lot of reasons not to elect other people on this stage, but one reason to elect me is that I know what I stand for, I've written it down." (From the 6th debate.)

"I don't try and define who's rich and who's not rich. I want everybody in America to be rich... I want people in America to recognize that the future will be brighter for their kids than it was for them." (From the 6th debate.)

"We are a patriotic people. We place our hand over our heart during the playing of the national anthem. No other people on Earth do that." (From the 6th debate.)

"I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals." (From the 8th debate.)

In the 9th debate, he called himself "a man of steadiness and constancy."

Asked why he was not planning on releasing his tax returns until near the end of the primaries, Romney answered, "Because I want to make sure that I beat President Obama." (From the 17th debate.)

When asked in the 20th debate to describe himself in one word, Romney answered, "Resolute."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mitt Romney on Health Policy

This is the fourth in a series of entries revisiting Mitt Romney's policies as stated in the debates. The first covered foreign policy; the second covered economic policy. The third covered the social issues of religion, gay marriage, contraception, abortion, and guns. This entry covers health care, including Obamacare, Romneycare, Medicare, Medicaid and other health reform ideas.

Obamacare vs Romneycare:

Romney often highlighted differences between the Massachusetts health care reform commonly called "Romneycare" and the national Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare." While he supported and throughout the debates continued to defend Romneycare, he opposed Obamacare to the extent that he promised to grant waivers to all 50 states on his first day in office and to press Congress for full repeal. Claimed differences include:
  • Obamacare raises taxes; Romneycare didn't
  • Obamacare takes money from Medicare; Romneycare didn't
  • Obamacare is a national program; Romneycare is a state program
  • Similarly, Obamacare is unconstitutional for the national government; Romneycare is constitutional because it's at the state level
  • Obamacare includes "a panel that ultimately is going to tell people what kind of care they can have," referring to the Independent Payment Advisory Board; Romneycare does not include such a panel
  • Obamacare applies to 100% of the citizenry; Romneycare supposedly only addressed the 8-9% who were uninsured (he said 9% in the 5th debate, 8% in the 6th, 7th and 17th debates)
  • Obamacare leads to regulations like the contraception mandate; Romneycare had a provision that people did not have to buy coverage for treatments or medical devices which violated their religious beliefs
  • Obamacare was 2,700 pages long; Romneycare was 70 pages long
Note that these are differences claimed by Romney; whether or not you find them believable is up to you. Also, some of these were repeated (a lot) more than others. Throughout the debates, Romney often returned to Obamacare's cuts to Medicare and to the federalism defense that states can adopt individual mandates but the national government cannot. On the other hand, the IPAB point was, to my knowledge, only mentioned once.

Medicare and Medicaid

As mentioned above, Romney often criticized Obamacare for cutting Medicare. In fact, almost every time Romney mentioned Medicare, it was either to criticize Obamacare for cutting it, or defending Romneycare for not cutting it.

Regarding actual reforms to Medicare, he wants a shift to a premium support model like the Ryan plan. He also favors means testing for Medicare, where the rich would receive lower benefits and everyone else would receive higher benefits. Finally, he would not repeal Medicare Part D.

He would send Medicaid to the states as a block grant and only allow it to grow at either 1-2% per year (in the 8th debate) or inflation-plus-one-percent (in the 10th debate). He never mentioned any other reform to Medicaid, but repeated this block grant plan in several debates. 

Other Health Reforms 

Individual Mandates: While Romney opposes Obamacare, including its national individual mandate, he often defended the individual mandate itself as a good policy to carry out on the state level. In the 3rd debate, he compared it to states' ability to require children to attend school. He sees individual mandates as ways to provide the uninsured with what he called in the 6th debate "market-based, private" insurance. In the 8th debate, he said about the individual mandate in Massachusetts, "A lot of people were expecting government to pay their way. And we said, you know what? If people have the capacity to care for themselves and pay their own way, they should." Romney disagrees with Obama on what level of government should impose the individual mandate, but he agrees that it's a good policy in the first place.

Health Savings Accounts: In the 5th debate, Romney said health care "isn't working like a market," but rather is "working like a government utility" because consumers are separated from the cost of health care. He advocated health savings accounts to fix this problem, mentioning HSAs in the 5th and 9th debates.

Employer-based Insurance: In the 9th debate, Romney said we should treat individually-purchased insurance the same as employer-purchased insurance in regards to the tax code. He also mentioned this in the 19th debate.

Tort Reform: In the 9th debate, he advocated tort reform as part of the package of reforms he would replace Obamacare with. 

Health Issues Covered Elsewhere

Romney's positions on contraception and abortion were covered in the third entry in this series, on social issues. In addition to the section above, Obamacare was also covered in the second entry in the context of regulations and fiscal responsibility.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mitt Romney on Social Issues

This is the third in a series of entries revisiting Mitt Romney's policies as stated in the debates. The first covered foreign policy, including immigration, trade and defense, as well as policies toward some specific countries and regions. The second covered Romney's seven-point plan for economic growth and connected policy areas, including taxes, regulations, energy, the rule of law, education and fiscal responsibility. This entry covers the social issues of religion, gay marriage, contraception, abortion, and guns.


As is well known, Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Along with the other Mormon in the race at the time, Jon Huntsman, Romney declined to participate in the Thanksgiving Family Forum, which was by far the most religiously-oriented of the debates and the only one to take place in a church.

In the 2nd debate, Romney took a strong position on religious tolerance, saying "People of all faiths are welcome in this country. We treat people with respect regardless of their religious persuasion." In later debates, he said we should not elect people on the basis of their religion or where they go to church. While he would seek God's guidance on critical decisions, for the most part his religious beliefs would not affect his Presidential decisions. In the 20th debate, he said, "I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama."

Gay Marriage

Romney believes that gay people forming "loving, committed, long-term relationships" is "a wonderful thing to do," and they have the right to do so as long as they don't use the word marriage to describe it. (Quote from the 14th debate.) He supports amending the US Constitution to ban gay marriage, and thinks DADT should have been kept in place. He was the first governor of Massachusetts to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but said he only did so because the state Supreme Court told him to. After saying in the 15th debate that he supported laws banning sexual orientation discrimination, he was asked when was the last time he advocated expanding gay rights, and he responded, "Right now."


The issue of contraception arose first in the 14th debate, before the national contraception mandate controversy broke out. At the time, Romney called it an "unusual topic," and expressed disbelief that anyone would be talking about banning contraception. He said states should not be allowed to ban contraception, but also said none were trying to.

Regarding the contraception mandate, Romney said he included in Romneycare a provision that Massachusites did not have to buy insurance coverage for treatments or medical devices which violated their religious beliefs. His opposition to the contraception mandate was based not on a belief that the mandate was wrong in general, but rather that it applied to those who had religious objections to contraception. He seemed to agree with Santorum in the 20th debate that contraception leads to children being born out of wedlock and undermines the institution of the family, saying "Rick is absolutely right."


In the 13th debate, Romney said he was only ever pro-choice to the extent that he did not want to actively change the laws in Massachusetts. He says he became pro-life while governor, and now wants to "protect the sanctity of life." In the 16th debate, he said he had always been pro-life, and said, "I thought I could go in that narrow path between my personal belief and letting government stay out of the issue," but ultimately decided while governor that he couldn't. As governor, he vetoed a bill defining life as starting at implantation rather than conception.

He says he would appoint judges who would follow the constitution, and he does not use abortion as a "litmus test" for judicial appointments. In a later debate, he said he did not believe the constitution contained a right to privacy.


Romney thinks rather than enacting new gun laws, we should just enforce the laws we already have. In Massachusetts, he signed a bill that was supported by both the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies that banned assault weapons and raised gun fees 400%, but also opened up the right to cross a road with a gun while hunting, among other gun rights. When asked in the 13th debate about his changing positions of gay marriage, abortion and guns, he ignored the guns part of the question.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mitt Romney on Economic Policy

This is the second in a series of entries revisiting Mitt Romney's policies as stated in the debates. The first covered foreign policy, including immigration, trade and defense, as well as policies toward some specific countries and regions. This entry covers Romney's seven-point plan for economic growth (which he outlined in whole or in part in the 3rd, 6th, 7th, 17th and 19th debates) and the connected policy areas.

1: Taxes

Romney's position on taxes changed from debate to debate. For example, in the 3rd debate, he said, "I don't believe in raising taxes" and indicated he would walk away from a deal with Democrats offering a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes. But in the 4th debate, he said taxes should be "part of the American experience," so he was not concerned about raising taxes on those who do not pay federal income taxes. In the 8th debate, in Nevada, he advocated a state-level redistribution tax tied to acceptance of a nuclear waste facility. The state that built the facility would receive the money while the other 49 would pay the tax.

In the 16th debate he said the top tax bracket should be 25%, while in the 20th debate, he wanted to cut all marginal rates by 20%. Taken at face value, that would turn the current tax brackets of 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33% and 35% into brackets of 8%, 12%, 20%, 22.4%, 26.4% and 28% (assuming the Bush cuts are kept in place and the 2013 tax cliff is avoided), with two brackets higher than 25%.

He would cut the corporate tax rate to 25% to make it more competitive with other countries. When combined with state corporate taxes, this would move us from the highest rate to the 8th highest rate among the 34 OECD countries. He would also eliminate taxes on savings for people with incomes less than $200,000.

2: Regulations

He said he wants to improve the regulatory climate, and specifically mentioned Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and NLRB actions such as going after Boeing as regulations that are hurting businesses and preventing job creation.

He also wants to require every business to prove the legal immigration status of new hires through a national identification card connected to the federal E-Verify database. Any business that hires someone without the card or that accepts a counterfeit card would be "severely sanctioned."

3: Trade

I covered Romney's trade policy in the first entry in this series. It primarily consists of "cracking down on China," but he also advocated expanding our exports.

4: Energy

Romney said in the 8th debate, "We're an energy-rich nation that's acting like an energy-poor nation." He focuses on energy security-- getting our energy from domestic sources rather than importing them. In the 4th debate, he said he wanted to "make sure we stop sending about $500 billion a year outside our country, in many cases to nations that are not real friendly with ours." However, he does support the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.

To accomplish his goal of increased domestic production, he wants to reduce regulations on energy companies, especially oil and gas. At the same time, he has criticized Obama for subsidies to Solyndra and other alternative energy programs, indicating a general laissez-faire approach to energy. On the other hand, in line with his focus on domestic energy sources, he said he was willing to accept more expensive gasoline if that was the result of the "crippling sanctions" he wanted to place on Iran.

5: Rule of Law

While Romney often spoke of the fifth point as reinstating the rule of law, his focus with this point early on was labor policy. He viewed pro-union actions by the Obama administration as violations of the rule of law, in particular citing the GM bankruptcy and the NLRB case against Boeing. Romney believes the auto companies should have gone through the normal legal bankruptcy process from the beginning, saying in the 2nd debate that the GM bankruptcy allowed Obama to "put his hands on the scales of justice." However, in the 20th debate, he indicated he would be willing to bail out the auto companies after they've gone through a normal bankruptcy process, saying, "If they need help coming out of bankruptcy, the government can provide guarantees and get them back on their feet. No way would we allow the auto industry in America to totally implode and disappear." (Note that these positions on the auto bailout have apparently already been Etch-a-Sketched.) He also supports a federal right-to-work law.

In later debates he broadened the "rule of law" point to an opposition of "crony capitalism," citing Solyndra and the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline as examples. Since I think it's appropriate, I'll include here a few positions from even broader interpretation of "the rule of law."

Judicial Oversight: Romney does not want Congress to oversee judges directly in most cases, but he does believe Congress has the ability to "rein in excessive judges" (from the 13th debate) either through direct impeachment or by clarifying statutes or, of course, Constitutional amendment.

Extrajudicial Killings: In the 11th debate, he said there is "a different form of law" for those who "attack the United States" compared to those who merely commit crimes against American citizens. In the 10th, he said that anyone who joins a force we are at war with is "fair game" even if they are an American citizen. In the 16th debate, he said, "Let me tell you, people who join al Qaeda are not entitled to rights of due process under our normal legal code."

Indefinite Detention: In the 16th debate, he not only said he would have signed the NDAA, which authorized indefinite detention of American citizens, but also defended indefinite detention itself. He would have signed the NDAA not just as a flawed bill that would still get funding to the troops, but because he believes indefinite detention of American citizens is, in itself, a good policy.

Eminent Domain: In the 2nd debate, he said he believed in eminent domain for "a public purpose" but not for property that would end up going to private organizations.

SOPA: He opposed SOPA and considered opposition to SOPA to be "standing for freedom" in the 17th debate. 

6: Education

In the 6th debate, he said, "We need to get the federal government out of education." He supports school choice and standardized testing. When accused by Perry of supporting Obama's Race to the Top program, which uses funding incentives to reward school systems for meeting certain goals, Romney said he did not support Race to the Top, but did support teacher evaluations and encouraging schools to hire better teachers and get rid of bad teachers. In the 20th debate, he supported No Child Left Behind because it stood up to the teachers unions and promoted school choice by establishing testing standards.

He also supports allowing illegal immigrant children to gain citizenship through military service, but not through attending college. He also frequently cited his policy requiring English immersion in Massachusetts schools as an example of how conservative he is.

7: Fiscal Responsibility

In general, Romney believes government should not spend more than it takes in. He frequently talked about the Cut, Cap and Balance plan-- cutting current spending, capping federal spending at 20% of GDP and thus balancing the budget through spending cuts rather than tax increases-- mentioning it in the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 20th debates.

He often cited repealing Obamacare as a way he would cut spending, but also complained that money was being cut from defense to pay for Obamacare, and that he wanted to spend the money on defense instead. As mentioned in the previous entry on Romney's positions on foreign policy, he wants to increase defense spending.

Other ways he proposed to cut spending include returning discretionary spending back to its 2008 level, cutting federal employment by 10% through attrition, linking public sector compensation to private sector wages, eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, including public broadcasting, and block granting several programs, such as Medicaid, housing and food stamps, to the states. However, he would walk away from a deal with Democrats offering a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes.

He gave the impression that he would support spending-based stimulus, saying that the recovery was slow partly because we had "a stimulus plan that was not as well-directed as it should have been."

On Social Security, he said in the 4th debate, "Under no circumstances would I ever say, by any measure, it's a failure," because there are "tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security." He made similar points again in the 5th and 6th debates. In the 16th debate, he said he would keep Social Security the way it is for those 55 and older. For the rest of us, he would apply two different inflation adjustments, a lower one for the rich and a higher one for everyone else. He would also raise the retirement age "a year or two," but for the most part would keep the system in place the way it is today.

Other Economic Policies

The Fed: He would not reappoint Bernanke, and believes the Fed should be less independent and have more Congressional oversight. But contrary to Ron Paul, he argued in the 5th debate that "we need to have a Fed… because if we don't have a Fed, who's going to run the currency, Congress?"

Housing: He wants to block grant federal housing programs to the states. In the 9th debate, he said we have a housing crisis because government was too involved in housing, and that when government is the problem, more government is not the solution. However, in the 18th debate, he added that he wanted to "help people see if they can't get more flexibility from their banks," although he didn't say how he would use government to make that happen.

Poverty: He wants a personal unemployment account system rather than the current unemployment benefits system. He wants most anti-poverty programs to be run at the state level through block grants, specifically mentioning food stamps, Medicaid and housing programs. 

Pro-Market Quotes

In the 13th debate, asked what industries will create the most jobs in the next few years, he says, "The free market will decide that; government won't."

In the 17th debate, he said, "My view is, capitalism works. Free enterprise works."

Anti-Market Quotes

In the 18th debate, he said, "Markets have to have regulation to work-- you can't have everybody open up a bank in their garage."

In the 20th debate, he said, "That's the nature of what it is when you lead an organization or a state. You come to Congress and you say, these are the things we need."

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mitt Romney on Foreign Policy

Now that Newt Gingrich has officially dropped out of the race, only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul remain. Paul up to this point has only gotten about 80-90 delegates depending on who's counting, while Romney has some 840. For all that I dislike Mitt Romney, the Republican nomination is now pretty much settled.

Now that we're entering the general election phase of the campaign, with Romney as the Republican standard-bearer, I think it would be useful to revisit the positions he took during the primary debates. My vote, at this point, is far from certain, and just as I used this blog to decide my vote in the primary, I will also be using it to decide my vote in the general election. While it's possible some or all of Romney's positions in the primary will be Etch-a-Sketched away soon, I think this is a good enough place to start.

My original coverage of the debates can be found under the debate tag and the 2012 primaries tag. Romney attended most of the debates, with the exception of the first, the Thanksgiving Family Forum and of course the one-on-one Gingrich debates with Cain and Huntsman. All my coverage of Mitt Romney himself, which is mostly just the debates so far, can be found under the Mitt Romney tag.

Over the 19 debates, Romney took lots of positions on lots of different issues, so I'm splitting this up into multiple entries. This one covers foreign policy, including immigration, trade, defense and policies toward some specific countries and regions.


In the 3rd debate, he said, "We are a nation of immigrants. We love legal immigration." In the 8th debate, he said, "I think every single person here loves legal immigration." But only twice in 19 debates did he talk about encouraging legal immigration, once in the 3rd debate and later in the 11th, both in the context of high-skilled immigrants. For the most part, when Romney talks about immigration, he talks about discouraging illegal immigration. Unfortunately, discouraging illegal immigration by making legal immigration easier doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He focuses entirely on securing the border with a fence and lots of federal agents, and making it harder to hire illegal immigrants.

As for illegal immigrants who are already here, he says in the 19th debate, "Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have." In early debates he held that any kind of path to legality, never mind citizenship, amounts to amnesty; later, in the 18th debate, he supported allowing illegal immigrant children to gain citizenship through military service. He would encourage self-deportation by requiring immigrants to present legal-status cards to be hired (and, since the absence of such a card would imply you're an illegal immigrant, the requirement for such a card would also necessarily extend to citizens). He mentions this card multiple times, in the 13th, 17th, 18th and 19th debates.


Mitt's trade policy leaves a lot to be desired. In the 3rd debate, he called our trade partners our "opponents," and I wasn't the only one to notice. In the 5th and later debates, he substituted "the other guys" for "opponents," but the sentiment still clearly remained. His primary trade policy is to "crack down on cheaters like China," which he mentioned, often with those exact words, in the 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 14th, 16th, 17th and 19th debates.

He did talk about expanding trade, but far less often than cracking down on China, and always in the context of "open[ing] up markets for our goods," as he said in the 14th debate. He seems to hold a typical mercantilist philosophy, where exports are good but imports are bad. Anything China or other countries do to encourage American imports should be punished, and the only goal of free trade agreements is to encourage American exports.


He opposes all cuts to defense spending, preferring cuts to entitlements and Obamacare. In fact, he wants to increase military spending, in particular by building more ships for the Navy (which he mentioned in the 13th, 18th and 20th debates) and recruiting an extra 100,000 troops (which he mentioned only once, in the 13th debate).

Specific Countries/Regions

China: Most of Romney's policy towards China focuses on trade, particularly "cracking down" on them for cheating. He promised in the 7th debate to issue an executive order on "day one" labelling China a currency manipulator, and to initiate action against China at the WTO.

Afghanistan: His Afghanistan policy is most charitably described as continually evolving. In the 2nd and 3rd debates, he preferred a timetable for withdrawal established by the generals in Afghanistan. In the 10th, he was fine with Obama's 2014 timetable for the general withdrawal, but not the September 2012 withdrawal of the surge troops. In the 11th, he said he wanted to keep the surge troops in Afghanistan until December 2012, and keep "ten thousand or so" troops in Afghanistan after 2014. In the 14th debate, he said he didn't yet have enough information to say when he would withdraw the troops from Afghanistan.

Iran: He is absolutely opposed to Iran getting nuclear weapons, going so far as to say in the 20th debate that re-electing Obama would lead to Iranian nukes being used against Americans, and that a Romney Presidency was the only way to prevent that. He said he would "of course" go to war "if all else fails" (in the 10th debate) and that Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz would "of course" be an act of war (in the 18th debate). He also wanted "crippling sanctions" against Iran in the 10th and 11th debates, and in the 14th criticized Obama for not supporting the Iranian protestors in 2009.

Iraq: Before going back into Iraq, he would want to "require significant, dramatic American interests" to be at stake, and said he would outline a specific endgame in terms of what would qualify as success.

Syria: In the 10th debate, he said, "Of course, it's time for the Assad dictatorship to end," but in the 11th said, "This is not the time for a no-fly zone over Syria."

Israel and Palestine: In the 19th debate, responding to a question from a self-identified Palestinian-American Republican, Romney said, "The best way to have peace in the Middle East is not for us to vacillate and to appease, but is to say, we stand with our friend Israel. We are committed to a Jewish state in Israel. We will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally, Israel."

Europe: In the 7th, 9th and 16th debates, he opposed a direct bailout to Europe, saying they are big enough to solve their own problems. He would, however, be willing to provide assistance through the IMF and World Bank, and hinted he would bail out American companies affected by Europe's problems.

Canada: In 19 debates, Romney mentioned our largest trading partner and the country with which we share the world's largest land border once, and even that was indirectly through his support for the Keystone XL pipeline in the 17th debate.