Sen. Jim DeMint offered what we’d like to think is a fittingly optimistic appraisal of The Heritage Foundation’s annual Resource Bank meeting. “All the pieces are here to win this battle,” DeMint told an audience of some 500 think tank leaders, activists, scholars, and journalists. This group—all part of the movement to return the United States to its Founding principles of individual liberty and constitutionally limited government—was about to tuck-in to dinner, one day’s worth of panel discussions and networking behind them, one day’s worth ahead. Were all the pieces to win the battle for liberty really there, in Orlando, Florida, last Thursday and Friday?
Maybe. There were certainly a lot of pieces there, in particular, ideas. Here’s some of what we saw and learned:
A Medicaid Victory. The buzz at dinner was optimistic. Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Will Weatherford was supposed to be the first keynote speaker of the evening. He had to cancel, but for a good reason: The Florida House was voting that night on whether to expand Medicaid eligibility in order to accept new federal subsidies created by ObamaCare. Medicaid, by the way, has problems. Some studies have found patients on Medicaid have worse outcomes than similar patients who have no insurance at all. And then, of course, there is the question of whether the states should be expanding a program that already eats a quarter of the typical state budget at a time when states are strapped for cash. The promise of federal funding to pay for the expansion has proven too enticing for some states to turn down, but there’s no guarantee that federal funding will continue indefinitely.
As you might expect, this crowd was acutely aware of these issues. Robert McClure, President of the James Madison Institute, filled in for Weatherford; when he relayed the news that the Florida House had just voted down Medicaid expansion, the entire room broke into sustained applause. Since the meeting, the Speaker has continued to hold the line, and the legislature has adjourned the session without taking any federal money for Medicaid expansion.
Care that Makes Sense for the Those Who Really Need It. Florida does have an alternative idea for how to fix Medicaid. At a panel the very next morning, Christie Herrera, of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability, detailed the success that Florida’s Medicaid pilot program has had since it was enacted in 2006. The pilot program, which operates in three Florida counties, shifts Medicaid from a fee-for-service setup to one that puts coverage choices in the hands of patients. The program has saved Florida money while improving patient satisfaction. Herrera told the story of several patients who are considered “medically complicated.” That means they have multiple conditions requiring specialist care that must be coordinated. Those covered under Florida’s new Medicaid have access to case managers; that kind of care coordination isn’t available under a system that simply pays doctors fees calculated by formula for their services. Florida is currently waiting to see if the federal government will OK its waiver application and allow the state to expand its Medicaid reforms to the entire state.
We Now Have Regulation by Tweet! At the panel on the rule of law, Hester Peirce of the Mercatus Center reminded us of just how unaccountable the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is. The director alone sets the budget, writes the rules, and decides when to bring enforcement actions. The current director, Richard Cordray, has now established the precedent of enforcement by Tweet. Yes, he has used Twitter to announce enforcement actions. The director cannot be removed from office, except by the President under narrow circumstances.
Cordray, you’ll remember, became director through a “recess appointment” that President Obama purported to make when Congress was not actually in recess. Panelist Todd Gaziano of The Heritage Foundation identified that action as one of the top five unilateral White House actions that were contrary to the rule of law.
The Higher Education Revolution Is Coming. At the panel on higher education, Michelle Rhee-Weise reminded us that disruptive technologies always enter the marketplace first as “just good enough” to compete. Yes, there may be some things that online learning can’t do as well as the traditional classroom model. But if online learning is already good enough to be an alternative for some students, then it is only going to get better over time. There should be no doubt, therefore, that online learning will transform higher education.
Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute cautioned, however, that the current accreditation system and federal aid setup will continue to be real barriers to innovation in higher education. Accreditation, he explained, looks at inputs, not outputs. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of federal aid gives colleges an incentive to capture that flow of funding by including a lot of frills in the campus experiences they offer and running as many warm bodies to graduation as they can. Short of ending federal aid, McCluskey suggests aid be tied to student performance, so as to give students an incentive to be smarter shoppers of higher education.
Broccoli Hypotheticals Are Always a Good Option. The idea that unions might have too much power can be tough to explain to some people; they figure that since unions represent workers and workers are a sympathetic lot, then whatever unions demand must be just and right. At the panel on labor reform, Joe Lehman of the Mackinac Center suggested the strategy of taking collective bargaining out of the context of labor. Ask: What if we had collective broccoli bargaining? What if everybody had to get their broccoli through collective bargaining with one supplier. And suppose we all had to buy (though probably not eat) as much broccoli as that collective bargaining agreement specified. What could go wrong with that system? Well, that’s the system we have for labor.
Many Teachers Disagree with the National Education Association. At the same labor panel, Gary Beckner talked about the work of the Association of American Educators, a non-union professional organization for teachers. Unlike the NEA, which tells its members what they think, the AAE regularly polls its members. Most of public school teachers who are AAE members support school choice programs.
The Hydrocarbon Is Our Friend. Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute gave us the good news in the energy sector: The United States is now a net exporter of oil and will soon be a net exporter of hydrocarbons. According to Energy Information Administration, 80 percent of all new energy for the next 20 years will come from hydrocarbons—about the same proportion as now. Fracking and horizontal drilling are part of the story here, but only part, said Mills. Those technologies have been around for four decades. What’s really changed is that new technologies tell us where the energy-rich deposits are so that we know where to drill. Mills calls it “smart drilling.” Who could be against that?
But shouldn’t we be in favor of clean energy? Panelist Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute provided a few choice points about clean energy: Whenever you hear clean energy hyped as the next growth sector, just remember that solar has been proclaimed ready to replace oil since the ’90s—1891 to be exact. No environmental rationale can ever make crony capitalism work. Taxing high-productivity sectors in order to subsidize low-productivity sectors and businesses leads to—wait for it—lower productivity. Europe has embraced clean energy. Europe has also lost manufacturing capacity in the last five years. And don’t buy the jobs argument for clean energy either, warned Horner. Just about everything creates jobs. Computer viruses create jobs. Natural disasters create jobs. Are we in favor of computer viruses and natural disasters?
An Intellectual Smorgasbord. The conference also featured discussions on delivering the freedom message, defending religious liberty, alternatives to the welfare state, what’s wrong with the Common Core curriculum and how states can resist federal encroachment in education policy, the changing media landscape, how to use social media to advance your message, and fundraising. This author couldn’t get to all the sessions, obviously, but heard great things about all the sessions, especially the session titled: “Confronting Common Core: Strategic Discussion.” We heard Michelle Malkin was there, tweeting about the session! The Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute co-hosted the discussion. For more about Common Core, see the institute’s Common Core Toolbox, or the work of The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke.
Embrace the Tools, but Don’t Forget What We’re Here to Do. National Review’s Jim Geraghty participated in the media session and wrote a short report on it. Here’s some of his food for thought on the role of social media:
[W]hile we need to be embracing social media and providing our news stories and arguments and ideas in ways that are more bite-sized, I have this nagging fear that we might lose, or perhaps slightly devalue, some of what we’re here to do. There is no such thing as investigative tweeting. A Facebook graphic is two sentences at most, a picture, and perhaps a hashtag. Theoretically, you can use Tweets and Facebook graphics as bait, designed to bring people to the long-form, meatier pieces, but I wonder how many people retweet a headline without actually clicking through to the story.
Good Work. A few folks won awards for their outstanding contributions to the cause of liberty. First, The Heritage Foundation awarded the 2013 Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship to the Claremont Institute. The $25,000 Salvatori Prize is named after late entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Salvatori. The Claremont Institute was founded in 1979. It’s mission is to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life” by “recovering a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life, and maintains a strong national defense.” Among the Institute’s notable projects are the Claremont Review of Books and the Publius and Lincoln Fellowships for rising young conservative leaders.
Also, The Heritage Foundation and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity awarded the 2013 Breitbart Award to Michelle Malkin for the tenacious truth telling she does through her websites MichelleMalkin.com and Twitchy.com. The Breitbart Award is named after social media pioneer Andrew Breitbart who died unexpectedly of heart failure last year at the age of 43.
Talk about “Dudes in Suits.” Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) was the keynote speaker at the closing lunch, and he introduced us to his favorite phrase “dudes in suits.” He has found the phrase helpful in explaining free market, limited-government positions to his constituents: Who do you want making decisions about your health care? About how to spend your money? About where you are going to get your education? A bunch of dudes in suits in Washington, D.C., or you? Essentially, he’s saying what Milton Friedman said in his classic Free to Choose, but in a slightly hipper manner. Oh, he’s also shown you can talk that way while running as a Tea Party candidate to upset the Republican establishment and win a seat in Congress.
Stay Loose and Conserve. Rep. Radel challenged conservatives to loosen up in order to connect with their audiences better. (Radel is fluent in Spanish and dances the salsa.) He should have checked out the Saturday strategy session that focused on the ideas of the American Conservation Ethic. Yes, there was plenty of serious discussion, primarily focused on the need for a better understanding of how free markets, private property, and the ingenuity of free individuals will solve environmental problems. All good and important stuff, but then the falcons and the albino crocodile showed up. Falconer Robert Miller and Sean Haflick, star of the TV show The Python Hunter, each generously gave some of their time so that we could get some face time with a few of nature’s more enigmatic creatures. Haflick left the snakes behind, which was just as well, since many of us were heading back to Washington, D.C.
(All the pictures in this post are ©2013 Shealah Craighead Photography.)