Cato Op-Eds

Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace
Subscribe to Cato Op-Eds feed

A recent report from the Social Security Advisory Board’s Technical Panel found that the 75-year shortfall could be 28 percent (roughly $2.6 trillion) larger than the estimate in this year’s Trustees Report due to changes in some of the underlying technical assumptions. This disparity is more the product of the difficulties related to projecting the trajectory of a program as large and complicated as Social Security so far into the future, with the chair of the Technical Panel taking pains to reiterate that “the methods and assumptions used by the Social Security actuaries and Trustees are reasonable.” Even so, the report reveals the uncertainty related to the long-term projections for Social Security, with relatively small changes to some of the underlying assumptions significantly changing the program’s financial solvency outlook. Social Security is the largest government program in the world, and changes in its fiscal outlook could have a large impact on the government’s overall finances.

The changes in the Technical Panel report that would have the largest impact are concentrated in a few variables:

  • Higher fertility rate
  • Higher life expectancy
  • Higher interest rates

Other changes to inflation and real earnings growth rate assumptions have a small negative impact, while changes to immigration assumptions slightly improve the program’s financial picture.  Some of the changes reflect developments that are good overall but have a negative impact on Social Security’s finances, like higher life expectancy.


Some of the panel’s recommendations focus on making the methodology of the Trustees’ Report more transparent and the degree of uncertainty more clear.  While it’s possible that unforeseen changes to underlying variables like the fertility rate could improve the program’s financial outlook, it is much more likely that the trillions in unfunded obligations published in the Annual Trustees’ Report understate the shortfall, if anything.

To some extent we don’t know what Social Security’s long-run shortfall is, but we do know that there will have to be significant reforms to make the program solvent, and the longer these changes are delayed the bigger they’ll need to be. Whether it is raising payroll tax rates or cutting benefits, delaying reform only makes the needed changes more severe.

Percent Change Needed for 75-Year Solvency


Source: Social Security Administration, The 2015 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, July 2015, p. 25.

One of the goals Social Security is to remove some degree of uncertainty related to life in old age, but this new report confirms that a high degree of uncertainty remains, both for the program’s overall solvency and for individual workers. Younger workers already get a worse deal than previous generations due to demographic change and the program’s structure. Even more troubling, they can’t know how much worse their deal will become as benefits are cut or taxes are increased in the future to try to address this shortfall.

One option that could remedy some of these inherent problems would be to allow workers, especially young workers, to divert some of their payroll taxes to individual accounts. Cato has explored this issue in the past. Chile, for example, has an elderly extreme poverty rate of 1.6 percent, and pension funds have seen a real annual return of 8.6 percent from 1981 to 2013. The United States should heed some of these lessons. Other countries, especially those in South America, have successfully introduced reforms along these lines.

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Iana Dreyer of the EU trade news service Borderlex marshals public opinion data to support a rather gloomy prediction about the chances for a robust and comprehensive TTIP outcome. Despite having “strong ‘Atlanticist’ instincts and the vision for Europe as a dynamic, globalized, economic powerhouse,” the EU’s business community and its cosmopolitan policy makers are likely to be thwarted by demographics: especially, by the aging German voter.

Iana concludes that the likely outcome will be a TTIP agreement that reflects the sensibilities of older, risk-averse Europeans who are unwilling to gamble with their social safety nets, even though those safety nets are not really on the negotiating table, which means a rather shallow and limited agreement at best.

The essay is offered in conjunction with a Cato Institute TTIP conference being held on Monday.  Read it. Provide feedback.  And register to attend the conference here.

Who isn’t nuts about fresh tomatoes plucked from a garden at the peak of ripeness? And who doesn’t bask in the adulation of those to whom we give them?

According to work recently published by Maria Sanchez-González et al. (2015), the more years you garden, the more tasty your tomatoes are likely to get, as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. And, if you add a pinch of salt to the soil, they’ll taste even better.

Here’s the story:

The authors note “the South-Eastern region of Spain is an important area for both production and exportation of very high quality tomatoes for fresh consumption.” This is primarily due to favorable growing conditions such as a mild climate, good soils and saline waters that promote “exceptional fruit quality of some varieties,” including the Raf tomato hybrid. However, Sánchez-González et al. additionally note that, “despite the high value of Raf tomatoes in the Spanish national market, their productivity is relatively low and the consumer does not always get an acceptable quality, often because the fruit growth conditions, mainly thermal and osmotic, were not adequate.” Against this backdrop, the team of six researchers set out to determine if they could improve the production value of this high value commercial crop by manipulating the environmental conditions in which the tomatoes are grown. To accomplish this objective, they grew hybrid Raf tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. cv. Delizia) in controlled environment greenhouses at two salinity levels (low and high) under ambient (350 ppm) and elevated (800 ppm) CO2 concentrations. Then over the course of the growing season, and at harvest, they measured several parameters related to the growth and quality of the hybrid tomatoes. And what did their analysis of those measurements reveal?

According to the researchers, the high salinity treatment “increased firmness, total soluble solids content, titratable acidity and the percentage of dry matter of the fruit,” leading them to conclude that the high salinity growth medium “is necessary to obtain high quality tomato fruits.” However, this benefit did not come without a price, as higher salinity decreased marketable yield (47% less), fruit numbers (9.5% less), and average weight of the fruits (19% less) when compared to tomatoes grown under low salinity conditions. With respect to CO2, elevated levels increased tomato yield, fruit numbers and average weight of the fruits in the low salinity treatment, and they reduced the deleterious effects of salinity on these measures in the high salinity treatment. Additionally, elevated CO2 shortened the time required for fruit development by two days and it had little to no effect on fruit quality. Consequently, the authors conclude by stating “the results of this work suggest that the utilization of a [high salinity] nutrient solution … is necessary to obtain high quality tomato fruits and CO2 application increases its production,” while adding “CO2 enrichment allows increase in the production of a high value commercial crop grown under saline conditions by reducing the time needed for complete fruit development without compromising organoleptic quality.”

In the future, therefore, the Spanish national market of hybrid Raf tomatoes will benefit thanks to the ever-increasing CO2 concentration of the atmosphere. And so will home gardeners.

In addition to what Sanchez-Gonzalez et al. recently published, research done by Joseph Heckman at Rutgers (the State University of New Jersey and the name of a popular and very tasty heirloom tomato) shows that tomatoes grown in sea water (or the commercially-available equivalent for aquarium use) taste better. Further research has shown that this effect isn’t just limited to commercial varieties. It’s been tested on Burpee’s widely grown Early Girl, which contains much of the genetic material from their “boy” series (Big Boy, Better Boy, Lemon Boy, Brandy Boy, etc…), so that it looks like the flavor enhancement will occur across a wide spread of varieties.

And, as has been shown repeatedly in crop and plant science, the additional CO2 is a cost-free enhancer of crop yields, including tomatoes. In combination with saline water, you’ll get more and even better tomatoes, and even more adulation for your tasty fruits.


Sánchez-González, M.J., Sánchez-Guerrero, M.C., Medrano, E., Porras, M.E., Baeza, E.J. and Lorenzo, P. 2015. Influence of pre-harvest factors on quality of a winter cycle, high commercial value, tomato cultivar. Scientia Horticulturae 189: 104-111.

Also, see:

SHANGHAI, CHINA—Shanghai is China’s financial capital. A former Western concession, the city today shows little sign of the many bitter political battles fought over the last century. Tourists throng the Bund along the Huangpu River while global corporations fill the skyscrapers in Pudong, across the water.

But politics in China today is a blood sport. President Xi Jinping has been taking down powerful opponents, so-called “tigers.” However, he has not revived propaganda posters, once a pervasive political weapon.

Yang Pei Ming, a tour guide, started collecting posters in 1995. He eventually set up the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. Explained Yang: “With the shift toward a more modern and forward-thinking China, it would be a mistake to forget our history.”

Now licensed by the government, the exhibit’s official name is the Shanghai Yang Pei Ming Propaganda Poster Art Museum. Yang accumulated 6000 different propaganda posters and a plethora of other tchotchke from Mao’s suffocating personality cult.

The earlier posters look more cartoonish or stylized. Soon the atrocious school of “socialist realism” took over, presenting the “reality” of the triumph of socialism—happy workers and farmers creating utopia on earth.

Whatever their form, the posters tell much about the politics of China. In one poster Mao towers over a crowd denouncing a profiteering capitalist. A 1951 poster shows a large Mao, arm outstretched, surrounded by scenes from the country, entitled “New China Under Leadership of Wise Chairman Mao.”

Not every poster had his visage. One shows members of the People’s Liberation Army being greeted by happy Chinese. Others show model families, community celebrations, happy workers building the new china, and people enjoying an abundance of food.

Some posters were more pointed politically. One entitled “Drive US Imperialism Invading Force out of China” shows a PLA soldier with a broom sweeping away the debris of a defeated foe. Many posters celebrated Beijing’s relationship with the Soviet Union.

Many posters were weapons in domestic political battles. Confronting “bandits and spies” was a common theme. Reactionaries, landlords, and other enemies also were targeted. So was the U.S.

Still, nothing beats the idyllic country scenes, of happy, well-dressed farmers planting fields of rice, leading healthy livestock, and picking fruit in bountiful orchards. Starting in 1957, however, noted Yang, “political movements started to mobilize public opinion.”

One poster shows a worker defending against a reactionary mob, declaring: “Smash the Attack from the Rightists to Defend Socialist Construction.” Many posters urged greater production and lauded “bumper harvests” in the midst of devastating famine.

The heyday of posters was the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966. During this period Mao used posters to take the personality cult to new heights while denouncing his enemies.

Mao almost always was pictured beatifically, looking out, sometimes clapping or with arm outstretched, over the beautiful countryside or adoring masses. In one poster a man holds Mao’s little red book aloft in front of a crowd doing the same: “Proletarian revolutionary rebels unite.” The posters attacked “Russian revisionism” as well as “US imperialism.”

After Mao’s death much of the Communist Party turned against the “Gang of Four,” whose members had most enthusiastically carried out his dictates. Posters stoked the campaign: “Strike Gang of four” declares one, while another insists “Smash ‘Gang of four’.”

The pragmatic Deng Xiaoping came to power, and abolished what he called the “big character poster.” He wanted no more political crusades or ideological campaigns, no more social chaos and economic disruption.

As I wrote in Forbes online: “What’s best for China is a loss for the rest of us, at least political junkies. But Shanghai’s poster museum thankfully preserves this unique art form.”

American politics has been ugly of late. But still, politics in the U.S. cannot compare with that in modern China. This tumultuous process is captured by changing Chinese poster art. The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center is a “must see” for anyone visiting the city—or going online.

The Washington City Paper asked “thirteen riders, advocates, and experts” how to fix the Washington Metro Rail system. Former Metro general manager Dan Tangherlini and former DC DOT director Gabe Klein offered banalities about “putting the customer first.”

Smart-growth advocate Harriet Trepaning thinks Metro “needs a different kind of leader,” as if changing the person at the top is going to keep smoke out of the tunnels and rails from cracking. She admits that “I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to [keep the rails in a] state of good repair.” But her only solution is to have “a dedicated source of revenue,” i.e., increase local taxes for a system that already costs state and local taxpayers close to a billion dollars per year.

Coalition for Smarter Growth director Stewart Schwartz and former APTA chair Rod Diridon also want to throw money at it. Others dodge the money question and suggest that Metro do all sorts of things that it can’t afford and doesn’t have any incentive to do anyway.

Only one writer–yours truly–dared to suggest that “rail was probably the wrong choice for D.C.” for the very reason Tregoning suggests: Metro planners and managers have deceived themselves and the public about how much it truly costs to keep it in a state of good repair. Moreover, in the long run–10 years–“shared, self-driving cars are going to replace most transit.”

In the short run, tnstead of building the Purple Line, completing the Silver Line, and rebuilding the other rail lines, Metro should “seriously consider replacing” some of its worn-out rail lines “with bus-rapid transit.” This way, it won’t be stuck paying for a bunch of white elephants when people discover that shared, self-driving cars are less expensive, more convenient, and more reliable than trains. Unfortunately, these suggestions are likely to fall on deaf ears even though they are the most affordable ones offered.

Cato Senior Fellow Dan Pearson is the author of today’s Cato Online Forum essay, which explains the value and limitations of the International Trade Commission’s economic assessments of trade agreements.  Too often, parties opposed to trade liberalization misappropriate the estimates in ways that raise doubts about the integrity of the models. Dan’s conclusion: 

Supporters of trade liberalization should be prepared to counter those who would misinterpret the economic analysis of trade agreements in order to advance anti-trade arguments.  Yes, trade liberalization will produce both winners and losers.  But credible analysis clearly indicates that making markets more open and competitive will lead to improved resource allocation, expanded international trade, greater economic growth, and higher consumer welfare.  Those objectives are genuinely worth pursuing. 

The essay is offered in conjunction with a TTIP conference being held at the Cato Institute on Monday, October 12. Read it. Provide comments. And please sign up to attend the conference.

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

The campaign is television gold for a regime which relies heavily on state media and propaganda to maintain popular support at home. Russia’s most recent escalation – the use of cruise missiles fired from ships in the Caspian Sea  against targets in Syria – was announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu in a live TV interview with Putin. A cynic would suspect that the strikes were strategically incidental and intended mostly for a domestic audience.  

The United States plays some role in the second motivation. But rather than seeking to directly confront the United States in Syria, it’s likely that Russia is seeking a diplomatic bargaining chip. Though Putin has strongly supported the Assad regime for some time, it has been unable to move the diplomatic needle on Western and Gulf state demands that Assad must go.

Direct intervention in the conflict gives it a larger stake and greater bargaining power in negotiations. And Russia’s intervention not only distracts from its involvement in Ukraine, it enables it to reengage with the international diplomatic community after a period of relative isolation.

The third of these motivations is Russian hopes of preventing the fall of a friendly authoritarian ally. Yet even this has some roots in Russian domestic politics. President Putin has long feared so-called ‘color revolutions,’ the popular uprisings that swept a number of post-Soviet dictators from power, which Russian media often attribute to U.S. meddling.

By intervening in Syria, Putin not only hopes to save an allied regime, but to undermine the idea of a successful popular uprising against an authoritarian leader. It says far more about his paranoia and insecurity than about Russian strength.

Ultimately, U.S. policymakers would be wise to remember these factors. Putin isn’t a strategic genius, matching up against the United States in some geopolitical game. Instead, he’s making a gamble in Syria, hoping for diplomatic and domestic gain.  It’s likely he’ll regret his decision. 

One of the most controversial and radical moves implemented during the populist rule of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina was the nationalization of private pension funds in 2008.

Not only did the government seize $29.3 billion in pension savings but, since the private pension funds owned stock in a multitude of companies, the government also seized that stock and used it to appoint cronies to their boards. This significantly increased the government’s control over the private sector.

Even though none of the opposition candidates has proposed peddling back the nationalization of the pension funds, the Kirchner administration is taking no chances. This week the government enacted a law that makes it extremely difficult for future administrations to sell the stock: from now on it will require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of Congress. Since kirchnerismo will likely remain a significant political force in Congress in the foreseeable future, it will enjoy a veto power over any future sale of the stock regardless of who wins the presidential election in late October.

Tellingly, the Argentine government has also drafted legislation that would limit the extraordinary executive powers that the presidency has accumulated since the Kirchner couple came to power in 2003 (Cristina was preceded by her husband Nestor). But don’t count on Cristina discovering her inner Montesquieu. The Kirchner administration has signaled that the bill would be approved only if an opposition candidate wins the election.

Thus, even though Cristina might have only few more months in power, much of her economic model will live on.

Last month, the upper house of Japan’s parliament approved legislation that shifted Japan’s defense policy away from traditional self-defense towards collective self-defense. The new law enables the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to come to the aid of allies in the event of armed conflict. It is the latest in a series of measures that represent Prime Minister Abe’s drive to increase Japan’s military power and burnish its status as a great power in East Asia.

Without a military capable of deploying abroad, Japan was seen as a kind of abnormal country, a second tier global player, despite its first-tier economy. In the wake of the recent legislation, it is tempting to believe that Japan will begin to exercise more power in its region. One optimistic commentator hopes by opening the door to collective defense, the JSDF might be used to shape and preserve international order. Taking a more aggressive and fearful tone, Chinese commentators warn against the resurrection of Japan’s old war machine and lambast Abe as a hawkish historical revisionist who wants to destabilize East Asia.

Such rhetoric about Japan’s growing military power paints a picture of a very strong country capable of exerting its will upon its neighborhood and beyond. Adherents to what I call the vanishing pacifism argument focus on how Japan’s military could play a more active role beyond its borders, but their assessments ignore or downplay the myriad challenges and potential roadblocks that are likely to prevent Japan from becoming a serious regional military power.

Most notably, the Japanese public remains opposed to an expanded overseas role for the JSDF. Shortly before the legislation was adopted, a poll showed that 54 percent of voters opposed it. Abe’s forceful support of the legislation has caused a nose-dive in his popularity, dropping his approval ratings to the lowest level since he became prime minister in late 2012. Abe had to expend considerable political capital on this controversial legislation. Public opposition could limit what the JSDF does in the field and make the use of military force unappealing as Abe tries to shore up popular support for his domestic policy agenda.

Additionally, demographic and military spending trends point to a JSDF that will be small and under-funded compared to its major rival, China. Japan’s shrinking population is getting older over time. Some estimates predict that 40 percent of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2060. The military will have to compete with pensions and other social services for a shrinking pool of tax revenue. The aging of the population will also reduce the pool of individuals that are eligible for military service. In the short term, a five-year plan proposed by Abe in 2014 called for the military budget to increase by three percent every year from 2016 to 2018. This would amount to a $9 billion increase over three fiscal years, a drop in the bucket compared to China’s defense spending.

It would be foolish to ignore the fact that the JSDF is a technologically advanced military that has the capacity to stand its ground in a conflict, but the recent legislation that enables the military to come to the defense of allies should not be seen as the harbinger of Japan’s return as a great military power in East Asia. Japan’s major challenges have deep, structural roots that will take a lot of time and political effort to change. Japan’s supposed vanishing pacifism will do little to alter the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific anytime soon. 

This week the World Bank released new data on world poverty, and projects it to fall to a record low of 9.6 percent in 2015. The graph below shows the dramatic decline of global poverty over the past few decades.



Using updated methodology, the World Bank recalculated poverty figures back to 1990. The new data track closely with previous Bank figures, which I use in the graph to show the fall in poverty since the early 1980s when 43 percent of the world’s population was extremely poor. The record on poverty reduction is consistent with the unprecedented progress that humanity has made around the world in the whole range of indicators of well-being, and which researchers and others can explore at

The drop in poverty also coincides with a significant increase in global economic freedom, beginning with China’s reforms some 35 years ago and the globalization that followed the collapse of central planning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As we celebrate this achievement and strive for further progress, we should not lose sight of the central role that voluntary exchange, freedom of choice, competition and protection of property play in ending privation.


Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website, we have identified the worst case for the month of September.  This one goes to the Chicago Police Department, and, in particular, to the officers responsible for arresting George Roberts.

Here’s the background: CBS Chicago reports on a lawsuit filed by Roberts against the City of Chicago.  According to Roberts, he was falsely arrested and roughed up by the police following a traffic stop.  Roberts says the abuse of power began once the officers discovered that he worked for the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police misconduct.  Mysteriously, several police cameras were shut down, contrary to department policy.  Here is an excerpt from the news story:

Roberts said he was initially stopped for a minor traffic violation, but was then pushed in the back by one of the officers and forced to the ground. He said in the lawsuit that an officer shouted, “Don’t make me [expletive] shoot you.”

But “when the (officers) turned off the dash camera, things got worse,” his attorneys write in the lawsuit.

Roberts, who was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle, complained that the handcuffs were too tight, according to the lawsuit. The 6-foot-3, 315 pound man says that, instead, it would have have been appropriate for officers to use multiple handcuffs strung together for someone of his size.

He says in the lawsuit that one of the officers responded to his complaints: “What are you going to tell me next, you can’t breathe?” — an apparent reference to Eric Garner, a New York City man who died in 2014 as a result of a police choke hold.

Roberts also says he was told “that’s your fault,” when he pointed out that his weight made the single set of handcuffs painful.

Read the whole thing.  Roberts was suspended from his job while criminal charges were pending, but after his acquittal, he was able to return to work.  The Chicago Police Department had no comment on Roberts’ acquittal or his lawsuit.


Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Science hasn’t yet advanced as far as Woody Allen imagined in the movie Sleeper. But the Washington Post does report on its front page today, as the House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on the government’s official Dietary Guidelines, that decades of government warnings about whole milk may have been in error. 

In fact, research published in recent years indicates that the opposite might be true: millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk.

Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease.

By warning people against full-fat dairy foods, the U.S. is “losing a huge opportunity for the prevention of disease,” said Marcia Otto, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas, and the lead author of large studies published in 2012 and 2013, which were funded by government and academic institutions, not the industry. “What we have learned over the last decade is that certain foods that are high in fat seem to be beneficial.”

The Post’s Peter Whoriskey notes that some scientists objected early on that a thin body of research was being turned into dogma:

“The vibrant certainty of scientists claiming to be authorities on these matters is disturbing,” George V. Mann, a biochemist at Vanderbilt’s med school wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine [in 1977].

Ambitious scientists and food companies, he said, had “transformed [a] fragile hypothesis into treatment dogma.”

And not just dogma but also government pressure, official Dietary Guidelines, food labeling regulations, government support for particular lines of research, bans on whole milk in school lunches, taxes and regulations to crack down on saturated fats and then on trans fats and salt. Earlier today Walter Olson noted numerous past examples of bad government advice on nutrition.

It’s understandable that some scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Science is a process of trial and error, hypothesis and testing. Some studies are bad, some turn out to have missed complicating factors, some just point in the wrong direction. I have no criticism of scientists’ efforts to find evidence about good nutrition and to report what they (think they) have learned. My concern is that we not use government coercion to tip the scales either in research or in actual bans and mandates and Official Science. Let scientists conduct research, let other scientists examine it, let journalists report it, let doctors give us advice. But let’s keep nutrition – and much else – in the realm of persuasion, not force. First, because it’s wrong to use force against peaceful people, and second, because we might be wrong.

This last point reflects the humility that is an essential part of the libertarian worldview. As I wrote in The Libertarian Mind:

Libertarians are sometimes criticized for being too “extreme,” for having a “dogmatic” view of the role of government. In fact, their firm commitment to the full protection of individual rights and a strictly limited government reflects their fundamental humility. One reason to oppose the establishment of religion or any other morality is that we recognize the very real possibility that our own views may be wrong. Libertarians support a free market and widely dispersed property ownership because they know that the odds of a monopolist finding a great new advance for civilization are slim. Hayek stressed the crucial significance of human ignorance throughout his work. In The Constitution of Liberty, he wrote, “The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends…. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable.” The nineteenth-century American libertarian Lillian Harman, rejecting state control of marriage and family, wrote in Liberty in 1895, “If I should be able to bring the entire world to live exactly as I live at present, what would that avail me in ten years, when as I hope, I shall have a broader knowledge of life, and my life therefore probably changed?” Ignorance, humility, toleration—not exactly a ringing battle cry, but an important argument for limiting the role of coercion in society.

Today’s scientific hypotheses may be wrong. Better, then, not to make them law.

Humanity’s excitement about space exploration is evident, from the reaction to the recent announcement of potential water on Mars, to the box office success of The Martian–a movie about a manned mission to the red planet.  Given the public interest in space travel, why hasn’t a man or woman actually stepped foot on Mars yet? Let’s consider some key factors affecting the pace of progress.

First, there is the obvious: appropriate technology takes time to develop. The journey from rudimentary hot air balloons and gliders to supersonic jets did not happen overnight. There is good news on this front, however.  Thanks to better communications and computing, human knowledge has the potential to expand at an exponential rate.

Second, competition is a major driver of progress, and the space industry has not been subject to intense competition since the Cold War’s end. Increasing private sector involvement may change that. For example, even after civil aviation took off, flight was a luxury enjoyed by few. But as deregulation opened up the industry to more intense competition, flight rapidly became more accessible. Today, more people fly than ever.

Competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Space Race fueled most of humanity’s spaceflight achievements, but the Cold War’s conclusion brought this competition to an end. Today, governments have limited incentive to push the boundaries of the final frontier. As a result, space exploration has stagnated.

Fortunately, a new era of private space exploration may be dawning, enabling competition to once again flourish as profits drive a new space race. The conditions have never been better. There exist potential customers eager to pay large sums for the chance to go to space for a few minutes, and still others willing to leave Earth for a lifetime on Mars. Private enterprises like SpaceX, while still in their early phases, could rekindle competition and help spark a renewed sense of urgency in the realm of spaceflight.

Humanity has dreamt of space travel for as long as we have gazed up at the stars, and increased competition could help bring those dreams to fruition. This short video beautifully depicts some of the possibilities of human space exploration. You need only look back on how far humanity has come since 1915 to gain perspective on how far we may go in the next century.

According to Peter Whoriskey’s Washington Post report this morning, the latest conventional wisdom to reverse in the nutrition world is on whole versus low-fat milk:

U.S. dietary guidelines have long recommended that people steer clear of whole milk, and for decades, Americans have obeyed. Whole milk sales shrunk. It was banned from school lunch programs. Purchases of low-fat dairy climbed.

…[But] research published in recent years indicates that the opposite might be true: millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk.

Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease.

Readers of this space will be familiar with the pattern. Previous advice from Washington about the supposed hazards of eggs and other cholesterol-laden foods, the advantages of replacing butter and other animal fats with trans fats, and the gains to be made from switching from regular to diet soda, have all had to be re-evaluated and sometimes reversed in later years. And yet some in the public health establishment — including a few who are quoted in today’s Post article— still aspire to use the power of government to coerce changes in citizens’ diet. They seem to imagine that with people like themselves in charge, next time will be different.

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, George Washington University Professor of Foreign Affairs Susan Ariel Aaronson argues that the “TTIP provides an opportunity to think differently about how policymakers in advanced industrialized economies can protect labor rights, encourage job creation, and empower workers.”  After describing some of the concerns workers have about the TTIP and explaining why certain parts of the agreement could serve to undermine labor rights, Susan provides some fresh recommendations for making the TTIP more appealing to workers.

Read it. Provide feedback.  And register for Cato’s October 12 TTIP conference.


Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck has a new study favoring partial privatization of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Her study comes on the heels of a solid study by Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro, who looked at the subsidies and regulatory protections enjoyed by the USPS.

Conservative and libertarian scholars have discussed the advantages of USPS privatization for years. Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries have privatized their systems. But the mainstream media and leaders in Congress have taken little notice. Kamarck’s study generated a respectful news story in the Washington Post, so hopefully the addition of centrist scholars to the debate will generate momentum for reform.

Kamarck discusses the rise of the Internet, the plunge in snail mail volume, and the postal system’s endemic red ink. She discusses the increasing concerns about the USPS competing against private firms in areas such as package delivery.

Kamarck advocates splitting the USPS into two pieces: a government piece that fulfills the “universal service” mandate for delivering mail to every address, and a private piece that would handle activities that compete with other companies.

With due respect, I think her discussion in favor of retaining a universal service mandate is rather weak and internally inconsistent. She says, “the concept of ‘binding the nation together’ seems to be as strong in the information age as it was in the beginning of the republic.” But if that is true about the “information age,” it is because Americans use all the new electronic tools, such as email and Facebook, to bind themselves together with friends and family—without any government mandate.

Kamarck talks about how people hardly receive personal letters in the mail anymore, even Christmas cards. And she points to polls showing that two-thirds of people would be just fine with ending Saturday delivery. So given all this, why should the government force any postal organization to spend money on delivery that people are increasingly ambivalent about?

All in all, Kamarck’s study raises the right issues, and is a great addition to the debate. That debate needs a shot in the arm, because, as Kamarck notes, a stalemate over reforms has persisted in Congress for years, despite the steady downward spiral of the government’s postal system.

Indeed, if you want an example of a dysfunctional Congress and a lack of pro-market leadership by House and Senate Republicans, this is it. Look at Britain: moderate David Cameron was able to privatize the 500 year old Royal Mail in 2013 under a coalition government with a liberal party. So whoever the new Republican speaker of the U.S. House is, this would be a great issue to move forward and demonstrate some boldness to the party’s voters.    

For more on postal privatization, see here.  

Last week a bipartisan group of senators, led by conservative Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

The bill clearly represents a compromise between criminal justice reformers and more conservative law-and-order legislators, but the aggregate effect on the criminal justice system would be a substantial improvement.

On the positive side, the bill reduces several mandatory minimums relating to non-violent drug and firearm offenses (notably reducing the “three strikes” life sentence to 25 years), adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes.  Further, the bill would require the federal government to compile and publish a database of all federal crimes, their elements, and their potential penalties.  In addition, the bill would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders, create a new system for assessing the risk level of federal prisoners, among several other corrections changes.

On the other hand, the bill creates brand new federal mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence crimes that result in death and for providing prohibited support to terrorist organizations. It’s unclear why legislators feel that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently by the current sentencing structure, and taking discretion away from judges to impose sentences based on the particular facts of the cases before them is a step back.  Also on the negative side, the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years.  There are nearly 6 million convicted felons in the United States, a great many of them having been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Once again, it is unclear why legislators, rather than judges and juries, should determine the proper punishment for a felon who is caught with a firearm, or why the current 10 year mandatory prison sentence is considered insufficient.

Overall, however, the bill would surely reduce many more sentences than it would extend. Thousands of current non-violent inmates and countless future inmates will have years or even decades taken off of their excessive sentences.  While the bill stops well short of putting an end to mandatory minimums, as the Justice Safety Valve Act would do, and still imposes harsh sentences on many categories of non-violent offenders, many of its provisions are steps in the right direction and serve as further proof that now is a ripe moment for criminal justice reform on both sides of the aisle.

For the full text of the proposed legislation, click here.

For a section-by-section summary of its provisions, click here.

And for further analysis from the excellent Families Against Mandatory Minimums, click here.

Arne Duncan announced Friday that he is resigning as Secretary of Education, effective sometime in December. He will be replaced – sort of – by Deputy Education Secretary John King, who will not be put up for the permanent job but will be kept until the end of the administration in an “acting” – and Senate confirmation-less – capacity.

Of course, what Duncan has done as Secretary reflects what the Obama administration wanted, not what Duncan did on his own. Regardless who was ultimately calling the shots, though, Duncan presided over a period that has fulfilled some of the worst fears of anyone who has ever said, “It might be a bad idea to have a federal education department. They might start trying to run things.”

The overarching theme under Duncan has been huge consolidation of power not just at the federal level – alone blatantly unconstitutional – but in the Department itself.

What’s the distinction? Basically, the Obama administration started making policy unilaterally. First it was with the massive “stimulus” at the beginning of the term, which included the infamous $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) program. Then, even more dubiously – at least Congress passed the stimulus – it offered waivers out of the No Child Left Behind Act’s most hated provisions, but only if states agreed to conditions set by the administration. (Go ahead and check NCLB. The secretary does not have authority to unilaterally set waiver conditions.) RTTT and waivers together helped drive adoption of the Common Core national curriculum standards; funded and pushed adoption of PARCC and SBAC tests aligned to the Core; prescribed a lot about how teachers would be evaluated; and more.

How did Duncan and the administration justify all this, especially the waivers? By declaring they couldn’t wait for Congress to pass legislation. They had to act now!

It hasn’t only been in K-12 education, of course, that Duncan has presided over huge increases in federal power. In higher education, Duncan has led the department as inflation-fueling student aid has been greatly expanded; for-profit colleges have been unfairly demonized in both word and deed; and the department’s Office of Civil Rights has conducted a crusade against campus sexual assaults that, while likely well-intentioned, has disregarded basic rights of the accused and been based on dubious information. Duncan has also pushed for greatly expanding government preschool programs despite the dearth of evidence that they work, including depressing findings from some of the federal government’s own, sometimes very quietly released, studies.

While again, Duncan likely didn’t call most of these shots himself, when he has spoken he has indicated enthusiasm for them. This is perhaps no better captured than when he insulted “white suburban moms” in order to suggest Common Core opponents were largely blinkered suburbanites or goofy fringe types. And then there was his cajoling states to either do what he said, or keep letting their kids suffer.

What has all this done for schooling outcomes? While it is very hard to attribute ups or downs to just one – or even several – policies, there’s little evidence all this top-down control has translated, ultimately, into better outcomes. Yes, high school graduation rates are up, but that may well be a function, at least partially, of bureaucratic workarounds more than increased student desire to stay and thrive in school. Supporting this, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been pretty darn stagnant, sitting at the same level for 17-year-olds – the schools’ “final products” – that we’ve seen for decades, and SAT scores have declined. Meanwhile, higher education is all too empty a shell, with skyrocketing prices, terrible completion rates, huge underemployment for graduates, and major credential inflation.

The promotion of John King to acting Secretary suggests that the administration, at least rhetorically, will be maintaining its “we know best” approach. King was the most high-profile and vocal supporter of Common Core in New York as that state rushed, and fumbled, implementation, and he helped kick off the Core defense of belittling opponents – often parents just learning about the Core – rather than dealing with the numerous substantive objections they and others offered. This may be why the administration does not plan to nominate King for the full Secretary position: it wants to avoid a confirmation fight that would bring the ongoing Core war to DC, while keeping a true-believer in Duncan’s old chair.

And, of course, that is fitting: The hallmark of this administration has been doing and saying what it wants while avoiding Congress and public debate. It looks like that will continue.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has generated quite a lot of opposition – or at least pockets of very loud opposition – especially in Europe. Among the major points of contention is the matter of investment protection and, specifically, the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, which gives foreign investors the option to bypass the domestic legal regimes of host governments and go straight to third party arbitration panels with claims concerning domestic policies, laws, regulations, or actions that have a discrimintory effect and adversely affect the value of their investments.

Like my colleague Simon Lester and I, Axel Berger of the German Development Institute is skeptical of the need and propriety of ISDS provisions.  In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Axel raises some important points and makes a good case for excluding ISDS provisions from the TTIP.  Read it. Provide feedback.  And register for Cato’s October 12 TTIP conference.

After six years of negotiations, a final Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement has been reached in Atlanta.  Check your pacemakers, trade policy wonks. This is about as exciting as it gets in our world.

First, congratulations are in order for the TPP negotiators, who worked extremely hard over the past several years in an environment of profound public skepticism – much of it driven by pervasive scaremongering – to arrive at this moment. Reaching accord on a broad array of subjects between 12 countries at different levels of economic development with disparate policy objectives is not a task for the faint of heart.

Second, there is still quite a bit of work to be done on the domestic front. Even with the deal “concluded,” the president cannot sign the agreement until 90 days after he officially announces his intention to do so.  During that period, there will be intensive consultations between the administration and Congress over the details; the legal text of the agreement will be made available to the public on the internet; the USTR advisory committees will submit their assessments of the deal to Congress; and there will be ample opportunity for informed, robust domestic debate about the deal’s pros and cons.

After the 90-day consultation period, the president can return to the TPP partners with input from Congress, which may or may not warrant modifications to the deal to improve its chances of ratification. Once the deal is signed, the administration then has a maximum of 60 days to prepare a list of all U.S. laws that will need to be changed on account of TPP; the U.S. International Trade Commission will have a maximum of 105 days to do an analysis of the likely impact of the TPP on the U.S. economy; the congressional trade committees will perform mock markups of the implementing legislation; and, then, the final TPP implementing legislation will be introduced in both chambers.  After the legislation is introduced, the House will have 60 days and the Senate will have 30 days to hold votes.

These requirements stem from the Trade Promotion Authority legislation enacted over the summer. If the TPP is going to be ratified by this Congress under this president, the timelines suggest that there isn’t much room for delay. Although it has become an article of faith that trade bills don’t move during election years, there is simply no avoiding the TPP landing in Congress’s lap and animating the presidential debates and primary elections. Expect a vote anytime after July 2016, including, possibly, during the lame duck. (And watch to see whether and how Hillary Clinton contorts her position to come back around to supporting the deal she helped launch as Sectretary of State.)

As to substance, I’m not offering any endorsements until I have a chance to review the text.  In fact, my trade center colleagues and I intend to do a chapter-by-chapter assessment of the deal, rating each on a scale of 0 (protectionist) to 10 (free trade), and providing an aggregate TPP grade.  We expect the scores for some chapters will be pulled down by certain terms that amount to baked-in protectionism.  For example, apparently the United States “secured” a 25 year phase-out period for our 2.5% auto import tariffs and a 30 year phase-out for our 25% pick-up truck tariff.  Gee, thanks for that shot glass of economic freedom.

Like most legislation that comes before Congress, there will be both good and bad terms in the TPP.  If the agreement is net liberalizing, I will likely offer my endorsement.  And, as I like to say about these trade deals, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.