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Here in America, you’d be forgiven for believing that things are on a downward spiral, as Donald Trump’s disturbing success in various primaries raises the real, and terrifying prospect that he will be the Republican nominee. So if constant media coverage of the primary season depresses you, you could do worse than consider recent developments in the Middle East, where something truly unusual has been happening in the last few weeks. With a fragile ceasefire in Syria and diplomatic negotiations in Yemen, things actually appear to be improving.

Though these developments are tenuous – and each has many problems - they show the value of diplomatic and even incremental approaches to resolving the region’s ongoing conflicts.

It’s technically incorrect to refer to the current situation in Syria as a ceasefire. For starters, it doesn’t actually prohibit attacks by any party against the conflict’s most extreme groups, ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. And unlike a true ceasefire, there is no official on-the-ground monitoring and compliance system. Instead, that role is filled in a more ad-hoc way by a communications hotline between Russia and the United States as members of the International Syria Support Group.

There are other problems with the agreement too, particularly its role in freezing the conflict in a way which is extremely advantageous to the Syrian government and its Russian backers. While this was perhaps unavoidable – Russia would probably not have agreed otherwise – it will reduce the bargaining power of the Syrian opposition in peace talks when they restart on March 14th.

Nonetheless, it’s estimated that the cessation of hostilities – which has held for almost two weeks – has dropped the level of violence and death toll inside Syria by at least 80 percent. Violence has dropped so much that anti-regime protestors were able to engage in peaceful protest marches in several towns. Likewise, despite delivery problems and delays, humanitarian aid is flowing into some areas of Syria for the first time in years.  These small advances are all the more astounding given how unthinkable they seemed even a few months ago.

Progress in Yemen is less spectacular, but still encouraging. Following negotiations mediated by northern Yemeni tribal leaders, the combatants arranged to a swap of Jaber al-Kaabi, a Saudi soldier, for the release of seven Yemeni prisoners. At the same time, a truce along the Saudi-Yemeni border is allowing much-needed humanitarian aid to flow into the country.

Again, these are at best a tiny step towards resolving the conflict, which has lasted almost a year and produced extremely high levels of civilian casualties. The truce is temporary and confined to the border region; Saudi airstrikes continue near the contested town of Ta’iz. Yet the negotiations mark the first direct talks between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which had previously insisted that they would deal with the Houthis only through the exiled Hadi government.

In both Syria and Yemen, observers are quick to point out the tenuous nature of these developments, and it is certainly true that any political settlement in either conflict remains an uphill battle. But I prefer to view these developments in a more positive light. As numerous post-Soviet frozen conflicts have demonstrated, ceasefires do not necessarily resolve the major disputes which precipitated the conflict originally. Yet even if the end result is not a more comprehensive peace deal, the lower levels of violence and improved access to humanitarian aid can dramatically improve life for civilians. In Syria in particular, this represents a small - but notable - victory for diplomacy. 

Last week, the Cato Institute held a policy forum on school choice regulations. Two of our panelists, Dr. Patrick Wolf and Dr. Douglas Harris, were part of a team that authored one of the recent studies finding that Louisiana’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. Why that was the case – especially given the nearly unanimously positive previous findings – was the main topic of our discussion. Wolf and I argued that there is reason to believe that the voucher program’s regulations might have played a role in causing the negative results, while Harris and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute pointed to other factors. 

The debate continued after the forum, including a blog post in which Harris raises four “problems” with my arguments. I respond to his criticisms below.

The Infamous Education Productivity Chart

Problem #1: Trying to discredit traditional public schools by placing test score trends and expenditure changes on one graph. These graphs have been floating around for years. They purport to show that spending has increased much faster than expenditures [sic], but it’s obvious that these comparisons make no sense. The two things are on different scales. Bedrick tried to solve this problem by putting everything in percentage terms, but this only gives the appearance of a common scale, not the reality. You simply can’t talk about test scores in terms of percentage changes.

The more reasonable question is this: Have we gotten as much from this spending as we could have? This one we can actually answer and I think libertarians and I would probably agree: No, we could be doing much better than we are with current spending. But let’s be clear about what we can and cannot say with these data.

Harris offers a reasonable objection to the late, great Andrew Coulson’s infamous chart (shown below). Coulson already addressed critics of his chart at length, but Harris is correct that the test scores and expenditures do not really have a common scale. That said, the most important test of a visual representation of data is whether the story it tells is accurate. In this case, it is, as even Harris seems to agree. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil in public schools has nearly tripled in the last four decades while the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been flat. 

Producing a similar chart with data from the scores of younger students on the NAEP would be misleading because the scale would mask their improvement. But for 17-year-olds, whose performance has been flat on the NAEP and the SAT, the story the chart tells is accurate.

Voucher Regulations Are Keeping Private Schools Away

Problem #2: Repeating arguments that have already been refuted. Bedrick’s presentation repeated arguments about the Louisiana voucher case that I already refuted in a prior post. Neither the NBER study nor the survey by Pat Wolf and his colleagues provide compelling evidence that existing regulations are driving out potentially more effective private schools in the Louisiana voucher program, which was a big focus of the panel.

Here Harris attacks a claim I did not make. He is correct that there is no compelling evidence that regulations are driving out higher-quality private schools, but no one claimed that there was. Rather, I have repeatedly argued that the evidence was “suggestive but not conclusive” and speculated in my presentation that “if the enrollment trends are a rough proxy [for quality], though we can’t prove this, then it would suggest that the higher-quality schools chose not to participate” while lower-quality schools did.

Moreover, what Harris claims he refuted he actually merely disputed – and not very persuasively. In the previous post he mentions, he minimized the role that regulation played in driving away private schools:

As I wrote previouslythe study he cites, by Patrick Wolf and colleagues, actually says that what private schools nationally most want changed is the voucher’s dollar value. In Louisiana, the authors reported that “the top concern was possible future regulations, followed by concerns about the amount of paperwork and reports. When asked about their concerns relating to student testing requirements, a number of school leaders expressed a strong preference for nationally normed tests” (italics added). These quotes give a very different impression that [sic] Bedrick states. The supposedly burdensome current regulations seem like less of a concern than funding levels and future additional regulations–and no voucher policy can ever insure against future changes in policy.

Actually, the results give a very different impression than Harris states. The quote Harris cites from the report is regarding the concerns of participating schools, but the question at hand is why the nonparticipating schools opted out of the voucher program. Future regulations was still the top concern for nonparticipating schools, but current regulations were also major concerns. Indeed, the study found that 9 of the 11 concerns that a majority of nonparticipating private schools said played a role their decision not to participate in the voucher program related to current regulations, particularly around admissions and the state test.

Source: ”Views from Private Schools,” by Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith, American Enterprise Institute (page 19)

Nearly all of the nonparticipating schools’ top concerns related to the voucher program’s ban on private schools using their own admissions criteria (concerns 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 11) or requiring schools to administer the state test (concerns 6, 9, 10, and possibly 7 again). It is clear that these regulations played a significant role in keeping private schools away from the voucher program. The open question is whether the regulations were more likely to drive away higher-quality private schools. I explained why that might be the case, but I have never once claimed that we know it is the case.

Market vs. Government Regulations in Education

Problem #3: Saying that unregulated free markets are good in education because they have been shown to work in other non-education markets. […] For example, the education market suffers from perhaps the worst information problem of any market–many complex hard-to-measure outcomes most of which consumers (parents) cannot directly observe even after they’ve chosen a school for their child. Also, since students can realistically only attend schools near their homes, and there are economies of scale in running schools, that means there will generally be few practical options (unless you happen to live in a large city with great public transportation–very rare in the U.S.). And the transaction costs are very high to switch schools. And there are equity considerations. And … I could go on.

Harris claims that a free market in education wouldn’t work because education is uniquely different from other markets. However, the challenges he lists – information asymmetry, difficulty measuring intangible outcomes, difficulties providing options in rural areas, transaction costs for switching schools – aren’t unique to K-12 education at all. Moreover, there is no such thing as an “unregulated” free market because market forces regulate. As I describe below, while not perfect, these market forces are better suited than the government to address the challenges Harris raises. 

Information asymmetry and hard-to-measure/intangible outcomes

Parents need information in order to select quality education providers for their children. But are government regulations necessary to provide that information? Harris has provided zero evidence that it is, but there is much evidence to the contrary. Here the disparity between K-12 and higher education is instructive. Compared to K-12, colleges and universities operate in a relatively free market. Certainly, there are massive public subsidies, but they are mostly attached to students, and colleges have maintained meaningful independence. Even Pell vouchers do not require colleges to administer particular tests or set a single standard that all colleges must follow.

So how do families determine if a college is a good fit or not? There are three primary mechanisms they use: expert reviews, user reviews, and private certification.

The first category includes the numerous organizations that rate colleges, including U.S. News & World Report, the Princeton Review, Forbes, the Economist, and numerous others like them. These are similar to sorts of expert reviews, like Consumer Reports, that consumers regularly consult when buying cars, computers, electronics, or even hiring lawyers – all industries where the non-expert consumer faces a significant information asymmetry problem.

The second category includes the dozens of websites that allow current students and alumni to rate and review their schools. These are similar to Yelp,, Urban Spoon and numerous other platforms for end-users to describe their personal experience with a given product or service.

Finally, there are numerous national and regional accreditation agencies that certify that colleges meet a certain standard, similar to Underwriters Laboratories for consumer goods. This last category used to be private and voluntary, although now it is de facto mandatory because accreditation is needed to get access to federal funds. 

None of these are perfect, but then again, neither are government regulations. Moreover, the market-based regulators have at least four major advantages over the government. First, they provide more comprehensive information about all those hard-to-measure and intangible outcomes that Harris was concerned about. State regulators tend to measure only narrow and more objective outcomes, like standardized test scores in math and English or graduation rates. By contrast, the expert and user reviews consider return-on-investment, campus life, how much time students spend studying, teaching quality, professor accessibility, career services assistance, financial aid, science lab facilities, study abroad options, and much more. 

Second, the diversity of options means parents and students can better identify the best fit for them. As Malcolm Gladwell observed, different people give different weights to different criteria. A family’s preferences might align better with the Forbes rankings than the U.S. News rankings, for example. Alternatively, perhaps no single expert reviewer captures a particular family’s preferences, in which case they’re still better off consulting several different reviews and then coming to their own conclusion. A single government-imposed standard would only make sense if there was a single best way to provide (or at least measure) education, we knew what it was, and there was a high degree of certainty that the government would actually implement it well. However, that is not the case.

Third, a plethora of private certifiers and expert and user reviews are less likely to create systemic perverse incentives than a single, government standard. As it is, the hegemony of U.S. News & World Report’s rankings created perverse incentives for colleges to focus on inputs rather than outputs, monkey around with class sizes, send applications to students who didn’t qualify to increase their “selectivity” rating, etc. If the government imposed a single standard and then rewarded or punished schools based on their performance according to that standard, the perverse incentives would be exponentially worse. The solution here is more competing standards, not a single standard. 

Fourth, as Dr. Howard Baetjer Jr. describes in a recent edition of Cato Journal, whereas “government regulations have to be designed based on the limited, centralized knowledge of legislators and bureaucrats, the standards imposed by market forces are free to evolve through a constant process of evaluation and adjustment based on the dispersed knowledge, values, and judgment of everyone operating in the marketplace.” As Baetjer describes, the incentives to provide superior standards are better aligned in the market than for the government: 

Incentives and accountability also play a central role in the superiority of regulation by market forces. First, government regulatory agencies face no competition from alternative suppliers of quality and safety assurance, because the regulated have no right of exit from government regulation: they cannot choose a better supplier of regulation, even if they want to. Second, government regulators are paid out of tax revenue, so their budget, job security, and status have little to do with the quality of the “service” they provide. Third, the public can only hold regulators to account indirectly, via the votes they cast in legislative elections, and such accountability is so distant as to be almost entirely ineffectual. These factors add up to a very weak set of incentives for government regulators to do a good job. Where market forces regulate, by contrast, both goods and service providers and quality-assurance enterprises must continuously prove their value to consumers if they are to be successful. In this way, regulation by market forces is itself regulated by market forces; it is spontaneously self-improving, without the need for a central, organizing authority. 

In K-12, there are many fewer private certifiers, expert reviewers, or websites for user reviews, despite a significantly larger number of students and schools. Why? Well, first of all, the vast majority of students attend their assigned district school. To the extent that those schools’ outcomes are measured, it’s by the state. In other words, the government is crowding out private regulators. Even still, there is a small but growing number of organizations like GreatSchools, Private School Review, School Digger, and Niche that are providing parents with the information they desire.

Options in rural areas

First, it should be noted that, as James Tooley has amply documented, private schools regularly operate – and outperform their government-run counterparts – even in the most remote and impoverished areas in the world, including those areas that lack basic sanitation or electricity, let alone public transportation. (For that matter, even the numerous urban slums where Tooley found a plethora of private schools for the poor lack the “great public transportation” that Harris claims is necessary for a vibrant education market.) Moreover, to the extent rural areas do, indeed, present challenges to providing education, such challenges are far from unique. Providers of other goods and services also must contend with reduced economies of scale, transportation issues, etc.

That said, innovations in communication and transportation mean these obstacles are less difficult to overcome than ever before. Blended learning and course access are already expanding educational opportunities for students in rural areas, and the rise of “tiny schools” and emerging ride-sharing operations like Shuddle (“Uber for kids”) may soon expand those opportunities even further. These innovations are more likely to be adopted in a free-market system than a highly government-regulated one.

Test Scores Matter But Parents Should Decide 

Problem #4: Using all this evidence in support of the free market argument, but then concluding that the evidence is irrelevant. For libertarians, free market economics is mainly a matter of philosophy. They believe individuals should be free to make choices almost regardless of the consequences. In that case, it’s true, as Bedrick acknowledged, that the evidence is irrelevant. But in that case, you can’t then proceed to argue that we should avoid regulation because it hasn’t worked in other sectors, especially when those sectors have greater prospects for free market benefits (see problem #3 above). And it’s not clear why we should spend a whole panel talking about evidence if, in the end, you are going to conclude that the evidence doesn’t matter.

Once again, Harris misconstrues what I actually said. In response to a question from Petrilli regarding whether I would support “kicking schools out of the [voucher] program” if they performed badly on the state test, I answered:

No, because I don’t think it’s a wise move to eliminate a school that parents chose, which may be their least bad option. We don’t know why a parent chose that school. Maybe their kid was being bullied at their local public school. Maybe their local public school that they were assigned to was not as good. Maybe there was a crime problem or a drug problem.

We’re never going to have a perfect system. Libertarians are not under the illusion that all private schools are good and all public schools are bad… Given the fact that we’ll never have a perfect system, what sort of mechanism is more likely to produce a wide diversity of options, and foster quality and innovation? We believe that the market – free choice among parents and schools having the ability to operate as they see best – has proven over and over again in a variety of industries to have better outcomes than Mike Petrilli sitting in an office deciding what quality is… as opposed to what individual parents think [quality] is.

Harris then responded by claiming that I was saying the evidence was “irrelevant,” to which I replied:

It’s irrelevent in terms of how we should design the policy, in terms of whether we should kick [schools] out or not, but I think it’s very important that we know how well these programs are working. Test scores do measure something. They are important. They’re not everything, but I think they’re a pretty decent proxy for quality…

In other words, yes, test scores matter. But they are far from the only things that matter. Test scores should be one of many factors that inform parents so that they can make the final decision about what’s best for their children, rather than having the government eliminate what might well be their least bad option based on a single performance measure. 

I am grateful that Dr. Harris took the time both to attend our policy forum and to continue the debate on his blog afterward. I look forward to continued dialogue regarding our shared goal of expanding educational opportunity for all children.

According to many politicians and pundits, new financial regulation adopted since 2008 means that financial crises are now less likely than before. President Barack Obama, for example, has suggested that 

Wall Street Reform now allows us to crack down on some of the worst types of recklessness that brought our economy to its knees, from big banks making huge, risky bets using borrowed money, to paying executives in a way that rewarded irresponsible behavior.

Simliarly, Paul Krugman writes that 

financial reform is working a lot better than anyone listening to the news media would imagine…Did reform go far enough? No. In particular, while banks are being forced to hold more capital, a key force for stability, they really should be holding much more. But Wall Street and its allies wouldn’t be screaming so loudly, and spending so much money in an effort to gut the law, if it weren’t an important step in the right direction. For all its limitations, financial reform is a success story.

Krugman is right that, other things equal, forcing banks to issue more capital should reduce the risk of of crises.

But other things have not remained equal.  According to Liz Marshall, Sabrina Pellerin, and John Walter of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, the federal government is now protecting a much higher share of private financial sector liabilities than before the crisis:  

If more private liabilities are explicitly or implicitly guaranteed, private parties will at some point take even greater risks than in earlier periods.  And experience from 2008 suggests that government will always bailout major financial intermediaries if risky bets turn south.

So, some of the new regulation may have reduced the risk financial crises; but other government actions have done the opposite.  Time will tell which effect dominates. 

It may not seem necessary to say these two things, but here goes: (1) No person or group of people are omniscient, and (2) all people are different. Why do I state these realities? Because Common Core supporters sometimes seem to need reminders.

Writing on his New York Times blog, the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey takes Donald Trump to task for saying that if elected he would eliminate the Common Core. Fair enough, though just as Washington strongly coerced adoption of the Core – a reality Carey deceptively sidesteps by saying states “voluntarily” adopted it – the feds could potentially attach money to dropping it. But that would be no more constitutional than the initial coercion, and the primary coercive mechanism – the Race to the Top – was basically a one-shot deal (though reinforced to an appreciable extent by No Child Left Behind waivers).

Carey is also reasonably suspicious of Trump’s suggestion that local control of education works best. Contrary to what Carey suggests, we don’t have good evidence that state or federal control is better than local – meaningful local control has been withering away for probably over a century, and some research does support it – but it is certainly the case that lots of districts have performed poorly and suffer from waste, paralysis, etc. But then we get this:

But states and localities, in a sense, don’t actually have the ability to set educational standards, even if they choose to. The world around us ultimately determines what students need to learn — the demands of highly competitive and increasingly global labor markets, the admissions requirements of colleges and universities, and the march of scientific progress.

The only choice local schools have is whether they will try to meet those expectations. The Common Core is simply a way of organizing and articulating standards that already exist, for the benefit of students, parents and teachers, so that schooling makes sense when children move between different grades, schools, districts and states.

Oh, the Core hubris! While it is true that all people have to respond to the world around them – no man nor district is an island – it is confidence to a fault to suggest that the Common Core has captured exactly what labor markets, colleges, and “the march of scientific progress” demand. At the very least, proof of that would be greatly appreciated – some content experts certainly disagree – but even heaps of evidence about what exists now cannot demonstrate that the Core also anticipates the demands made by future progress. And is it truly realistic to imply that all people face the same demands? The student who wants to become a physicist? A welder? An accountant? A manicurist? A park ranger. A…you get the point.

The irony is that this sort of argument for the Core is perfectly in line with what a lot of people seem to like about Trump: He tells them he’ll just make stuff happen, no need to go deeper! Indeed, Carey even invokes “American greatness” in arguing for the Core. Sound familiar?

While I have my concerns about the content of the Core, I am not an expert on curriculum and think there may well be excellent components to it. I also, however, know enough about humanity to know that no one is omniscient, all people are unique individuals, and a single solution in a complex world is rarely as perfect as supporters would have us believe.

Today we are pleased to launch the Spanish-language Library of Liberty, a project of the Cato Institute—through our website in Spanish,—and Liberty Fund. The library will allow people in Latin America, Spain and beyond to have access to classic works on liberty in Spanish and in various online formats covering a range of topics including economics, law, history, philosophy and political theory.

The first books in the collection include:

  • Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic by Juan Bautista Alberdi
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek
  • Essay on the Nature of Trade in General by Richard Cantillon
  • Essays on Freedom and Power by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton
  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others
  • Freedom and the Law by Bruno Leoni
  • Selected Works by Frédéric Bastiat
  • Planning for Freedom by Ludwig von Mises
  • On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel
  • Theory of the Cortes or the Great National Congresses of the Kingdoms of Leon and Castile by Francisco Martínez Marina

This project is especially important in the Spanish-speaking world, where the predominant texts on the market and in academia promote ideas and interpretations of history that are hostile to free societies. The vast majority of students and lay persons in Latin America or Spain, for example, have never been exposed to classics such as The Road to Serfdom by Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek, much less had the ability to access the book. Indeed, even if one knew and wished to read these books, it is typically hard to find them in a Spanish-language bookstore. 

It should be no surprise that Spain and its former colonies, burdened with a centuries-long legacy of mercantilism and absolutism, would prove a difficult terrain for the dissemination of classic works on liberty. This is the case, for example, of the Essay on the Nature of Trade in General by Richard Cantillon and of many other texts that demolished arguments for mercantilism. Even the writings of many Latin American founding fathers are still unknown within the Spanish-speaking world, like those by the Argentinean Juan Bautista Alberdi. In his book Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic, Alberdi states:

“The Spanish colonies were formed for the Treasury, not the Treasury for the colonies. Their legislation was consistent with their fate: they were created to increase tax revenues. In the face of the fiscal interest, the interest of the individual was non-existent. Upon beginning the revolution, we wrote the inviolability of private law into our constitutions; but we left the enduring presence of the ancient cult of the fiscal interest. So, despite the revolution and independence, we have continued to be republics made for the Treasury.”

That text and others in this collection examine the challenge of liberty against power. As David Boaz states in his introduction to Libertarianism: A Primer:

“In a sense there have always been but two political philosophies: liberty and power. Either people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they respect the equal rights of others, or some people should be able to use force to make other people act in ways they wouldn’t choose.” 

We hope that this Library of Liberty, to which we will continue to add works, will contribute to the spread of the ideas of liberty in the Spanish-speaking world so that societies pursue, in words of Lord Acton, freedom as “the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.”  

The Spanish-language Library of Liberty can be accessed through and

On April 1st, the federal government will begin accepting petitions for hiring workers on the H-1B visa–a temporary visa for skilled workers.  H-1B visas for highly skilled workers are annually limited to 85,000 for private firms.  There is no numerical limit for H-1Bs employed at non-profit research institutions affiliated with universities.  The numerical cap for private firms was reached in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 within seven days after applications could be submitted.  During poor economic times, the visa cap can take months to fill, but it does do so without fail except for the years 2001 to 2003 when the cap was increased to 195,000 annually during a poor economy.[i] 

There are obvious economic benefits from adding more skilled workers so the numbers should be expanded greatly, preferably without government-created limits. Taking a page from the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill (S. 744), one way to expand the numbers and adjust them annually based on market conditions would be through a formula that takes into account labor market conditions.  The formula could be a big improvement to the current system but it also carries several risks. 

There are some rules of thumb the government should follow if it chooses to create such a formula.  It should be simple and based on publicly available economic data like the unemployment rate.  The formula should not include variables such as the opinions of various stakeholders or appointed officials.  For example, unions or technology firms should not be able to pull a number from their respective black boxes to influence the outcome: any decision should be purely based on publicly available economic data.  Finally, if guest worker visas are assigned to sector- or occupation-specific areas of the economy, the economic data applicable to that sector of occupation should be the only data relevant in calculating the number of visas issued. 

Learning from S. 744

S. 744 included a formula that would adjust the number of W-visas issued each year beginning four years after it was created.  The formula was complex and included:

  • The number of applications for the W-visa in the previous year,
  • The number of job positions open for the visa,
  • The number of currently unemployed Americans,
  • The number of unemployed Americans last year,
  • The current Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) job openings,
  • The number of BLS job openings from last year, and
  • Numerical recommendations of the Commissioner, or Migration Czar, of the newly-created Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research. 

The formula is a manageable improvement over the current restrictive system except for the last two points.

Migration Czar

A Migration Czar’s decisions would be very important in setting the number of W-visas because his decision is heavily weighted.  His input increases economic uncertainty because it could change without regard to any external factor. In a Democratic administration, the appointed Migration Czar could be a supporter of organized labor and, thus, likely recommend lower numbers.  In a Republican administration, the Migration Czar could be a supporter of employers and, thus, likely recommend higher visa numbers.  Far from creating an objective means of determining future visa flows, the Migration Czar could skew the number of visas toward political considerations and away from economic ones. 

Under the formula, if the number of current BLS job openings was as high as it was in January 2001 (its peak according to historical data) and the number of unemployed Americans falls to 5.5 million (the lowest number recorded on an annualized basis since 1980), then the formula would still not grant the maximum number of W-visas unless the Migration Czar recommends that maximum for two consecutive years.  If the Migration Czar recommends that only 100,000 visas should be issued annually during the same prosperous economic conditions described above, then the number of W-visas issued would actually decline for two years before climbing (assuming the number of applications increased by 25 percent per year). 

Previous Years Have Too Much Influence

The formula is too dependent upon the previous year’s number of W-visa positions and applications.  Including previous year’s numbers slows the growth in the number of visas available during times of economic expansion, precisely when the number of visas needs to increase rapidly in response to a growing economy.  If the visa numbers don’t expand fast enough, then illegal immigration will likely increase to fill any gap, undermining one of the best arguments for a large market-based guest worker visa program.  


The W-visa’s method of adjusting the number of visas was a good start and probably the best that could have arisen from the acrimonious negotiations that birthed it.  The coming petition storm for H-1B visas will likely exhaust all of the available visas (for businesses) within a week.  S. 744 W-visa provides some helpful ways to think about redesigning the quota system for H-1B or other visas along the lines of a formula.  However, before any similar visa adjustment program is created in the future, two big changes should be made:

  • The Migration Czar position at the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research should be eliminated.  The formula is complex enough without adding in the possibility of further regulatory capture and rent-seeking.  The immigration system is already political enough.  Adding a political appointee whose recommendations have an enormous amount of power to set the W-visa quota will only intensify the partisan political influence on our migration system. 
  • The previous year’s number of W-visa applications and positions should not be counted as variables.  The future growth of the program during periods of expanding economic activity should not be constrained by previous year’s applications.   

If the goal is to create a market-based migration system, then that system should rely on the market to set the number in an uncapped program where the workers can switch jobs without seeking ex ante government permission. Prices are a far better regulator of the numbers rather than numerical quotas imposed by macro-level economic indicators.  It’s far better to rely on the market than a clunky formula that masquerades as a market-based mechanism.


A new piece of scientific research hit the presses last week. It reported finding more warming in one of the (several) satellite-observed temperature histories of the earth’s lower atmosphere than had been previously reported. As these satellite-measured temperatures were the recent subject of comments made by presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a lot of scrutiny and interest surrounds these new findings—findings which seemed to refute some of Cruz’s assertions.

In researching his story on the new study, the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein solicited my opinion about them and how they may alter climate change skeptics’ way of thinking about the satellite-observed temperatures—temperature datasets which had previously shown precious little warming over the past nearly two decades.

I was happy to offer my thoughts, and equally happy to see some of them reflected in Seth’s AP story. Given topical and length constraints, understandably, Seth had to be selective.

But I do have a bit more to say about the new research finding besides that it “shows ‘how messy the procedures are in putting the satellite data together.’”

Many of my additional thoughts were included in my broader email response to Seth’s initial inquiry and, with his permission, I am reproducing our correspondence below.

To Seth’s summary of my thoughts, I’d add “but even considering the new findings, the complete collection of satellite- and weather balloon-observed temperature histories of the earth’s atmosphere  indicate that climate models are projecting too much warming in this important region.”

Again, my thanks to Seth for reaching out to me in the first place. Here is out question and answer exchange:


Seeing that the climate doubter community has hinged so much on RSS and saying there has been no warming post 1997 _ despite NOAA heat records in 1998, 2005, 2010, 2014 and 2015 _  you’ve seen the RSS update that shows there has been warming in the last 18 years. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on it. Will you and those in your community keep using RSS, even if it shows no warming. Add to that the UAH record warming in February. Are satellites now contradicting the climate doubter community?




Thanks for soliciting my opinion.

I can’t speak for the climate doubter community, however that is defined.

Personally, my doubts are not that human-caused climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is not occurring and that a temperature rise as a result is not detectable in large spatial averages, but I have doubts that the change is taking place at the rate projected by the collection of climate models and that its effects are currently detectable on most smaller scale climate/weather metrics.

So with that out of the way, I’ll give some opinions as to the new RSS results and their importance to my way of thinking…

First off, as I have tweeted (, the overall 1979-2014 trend in the RSS v4 MT data is still pretty far beneath the climate model expectations…far enough to continue to indicate a sizable discrepancy that needs further scientific attention.

Second, the trend in the new RSS v4 MT now makes it the mid-tropospheric (MT) dataset (including other satellite based and weather-balloon based) that has the greatest trend over the 1979-2014 period (see the same tweet mentioned above, as well as this one, which shows the old and new RSS data in comparison to weather-balloon compilations).

Given these two things, I don’t think it helps settle any questions regarding the temperature behavior of the mid-troposphere.

But what it does do is shed more light on just how messy the procedures are in putting the satellite data together.  Decisions, guided by science but not specifically defined by it, occur at many points in the procedure. The new RSS paper, again highlights how sensitive the final results are to those decisions. It is good that we have many different groups involved in assembling both the satellite history and the weather-balloon history. That these different groups provide answers that are pretty close to each other helps not to lower the uncertainty in any single result, but that the general result is not indicative as to what is going on in the MT.  The new RSS v4 now lies outside the old envelop of these collective findings. It’ll either prove to move the science in a bit of a different direction, or prove to be an erroneous result.  Time will tell. 

As to the impact on the “pause,” IMO there was too much being made about the “pause” in the first place. No serious student of climate science thought that it would last forever.  The important thing about it was that it provided a challenge to climate science and prompted enhanced research into natural climate variability, climate sensitivity, and other important aspects of climate science. So that it’s now over comes as no surprise.  But, once the El Nino warming subsides, I think we’ll probably see a continuation of the modest (below model mean) rate of warming.

I hope this is useful.  If you have any further questions, I’d be more than happy to try to answer them.


In addition to Seth’s story for the AP, more reactions about the new satellite-study can be found at Watts Up With That, Climate Etc., and at Roy Spencer’s blog, among others.

Henry James, T.S. Elliot famously remarked, “Had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”  Similarly, more than a few economics papers involve formal models so fine that no facts can violate them.

Two recent examples purport to demonstrate the instability and inefficiency of “private money.”  One, on “Private Money and Banking Regulation,” appeared in the September 2015 Journal of Money, Credit and Banking (JMCB).  Its authors are Cyril Monnet, a Professor at the University of Bern, and Daniel Sanches, an economist at the Philadelphia Fed.  The other, by Sanches alone, is called “On the Inherent Instability of Private Money,” and is about to be published in the Review of Economic Dynamics (RED, for short).

That the models in these papers are indeed “fine,” meaning first-rate, from a strictly analytical point of view, can’t be gainsaid.  They meet all of the exacting requirements of  those economists who insist that a model’s institutional features should be “essential” in the sense Frank Hahn had in mind when he argued that monetary GE models should provide an essential role for money.  The features must, in other words, overcome frictions inherent in the model environment that would otherwise condemn optimizing agents to lower levels of utility.  In particular, the models in question supply “essential” roles for indirect exchange, banks, and banknotes.  Yet they are tractable enough to allow their authors to draw inferences from them concerning both the stability and the efficiency of private currency.  So far as the realm of formal economic modeling is concerned, these are highly impressive achievements.

As the two papers are similar in their arguments and conclusions, I won’t bother to distinguish between them except when necessary.  The gist of the argument in each case is that, assuming perfect competition, private money (meaning competitively-supplied, redeemable bank notes) won’t work, because people will have good reason to distrust the banks that issue it.  That’s so because the bankers’ willingness to redeem their notes depends on how profitable the banking business is.  If it is profitable enough, they can be trusted to redeem their notes, because they’re better-off staying in business than reneging on their promises.  The trouble is that, with perfect competition, the continuation or “franchise” value of staying in the currency business could well end up being so low that banks are tempted to drop out.  Consequently, prospective note-holders aren’t able to rule out the possibility that private money will become worthless.  To put it in Sanches’s more technical language, under perfect competition “there exist multiple equilibrium allocations characterized by a self-fulfilling collapse of the value of privately issued liabilities that circulate as a medium of exchange.”  A competitive, private currency system is, Monnet and Sanches conclude, “inherently unstable.”

In fact, the news for fans of private money is even worse, for the conclusion doesn’t just apply to the special case of perfect competition.  Although allowing for banking industry concentration and associated market power makes for a greater likelihood that bankers will honor their promises, by increasing banker’s expected profits, it doesn’t necessarily rule out a collapse.   And even if returns were high enough to avert a collapse, in the absence of further regulation banks would earn monopoly profits rather than pay a return on currency sufficient to guarantee an “optimum quantity of money” in the sense made famous by Milton Friedman.  Private money would, in short, be either unstable or inefficient.

If unregulated private money won’t work, what will?  The obvious solution is a government currency monopoly, regulated so as to assure a return on currency sufficient to achieve an optimum money stock.  But it’s also possible, according to Sanches and Monnet, to achieve an optimal and stable outcome by having the government guarantee bankers a minimum after-tax income regardless of the demand for banknotes, using a subsidy financed by a lump-sum tax on currency users.  The guaranteed minimum income rules out the panic equilibrium.

So much for a summary.  The question is, do these models really make a persuasive case that unregulated private currency won’t work, and that governments can do substantially better?  Like many economists, I subscribe to the old-fashioned view that a theory, if it’s any good, will yield conclusions that are, or at least appear to be, consistent with relevant experience, meaning, in this instance, the empirical evidence, so far as we are aware of it, concerning arrangements — and unregulated or lightly-regulated ones especially — in which currency did in fact consist of redeemable notes, supplied by competing, private banks.  Alas, judged against such experience, rather than for their ingenuity,  Sanches and Monnet’s models must be considered failures, comparable to André Sainte-Laguë’s demonstration that bumblebees cannot fly.

One might well wonder how such clever model-building could go so awry.  One might suppose that Sanches and Monnet, themselves believing that theories should agree with facts, consulted relevant empirical work in constructing their theories.  But that supposition is, to judge by what their papers reveal, not correct.  Between them those papers hardly refer to relevant empirical cases at all, or (despite containing sections labeled “Related Literature”) to other works addressing those relevant cases.

To be precise, the papers’ only references to historical evidence consists of tangential ones, in the JMCB paper, to studies of antebellum U.S. experience.  Yet even the evidence to which these few studies point isn’t generally consistent with Sanches and Monnet’s theory.  Instead of illustrating the instability of private money, or of the tendency of the value of private notes to collapse, the Suffolk System, which is referred to by one of the cited papers (albeit one that merely comments on another theoretical work), was famous for keeping the notes of all New England banks circulating at par, that is, at their full specie values, throughout the region.  The Suffolk did this, moreover, for more than three decades.  During that time only one temporary system-wide suspension of New England bank notes took place, following the Panic of 1837; and even then New England notes continued to be received at par at the Suffolk Bank.  (During the 1857 panic, the banks of Maine alone suspended payments temporarily.)  In short, banking historian and former Comptroller of the Currency John Jay Knox appears to have been fully justified in regarding the Suffolk episode as proof “that private enterprise could be entrusted with the work of redeeming the circulating notes of the banks, and it could thus be done as safely and much more economically than the same service can be performed by the Government.”  To say that this conclusion appears inconsistent with one of the main implications of Sanches and Monnet’s models is putting things mildly.

As for antebellum “free banking” episodes, to which the other cited works refer, although it’s true that large numbers of banks failed in several (but by no means all) U.S. “free banking” systems, these failures were mainly due, not to the public’s sudden loss of confidence in their notes, or to the bankers’ decision to voluntarily close-up shop because their business no longer seemed profitable enough, but to the depreciation of securities they were compelled by law to purchase as a condition for issuing notes.  And, although some fly-by-night or “wildcat” banking also took place, here, too, the trouble was usually traceable to ill-designed bond-deposit requirements that allowed banks to operate with little if any capital, while simultaneously assuring people that those banks’ notes were entirely secure and backed by the state.  Because Michigan’s first, disastrous free banking experiment occurred during the post-1837 suspension of specie payments, the problem of wildcatting was compounded by the fact that Michigan’s free bankers could, as Hugh Rockoff notes in one of the cited papers, “issue bank notes with practically no cost to themselves and unchecked by the need to redeem the notes in specie.”

Though it was exceptional, the Michigan episode is nevertheless significant, for if the inferences that Sanches and Monnet draw from their private money model can be said to fit any actual private money episode, Michigan’s first “free banking” episode is it.  And no wonder, because on close inspection, the  “banks” and “banknotes” in the Sanches and Monnet models, and in Sanches’ RED model especially, involve features of that unique episode that were absent from other  past private money systems.

Although Sanches and Monnet refer to the “private money” in their models as “bank notes” and “privately issued liabilities,” and also to bankers’ willingness (or lack thereof) to “keep their promises” by “redeeming” their notes, such language masks the fact that the “bank notes” in their models differ from most of their historical counterparts in not being fixed-value claims to any definite quantity of real goods, let alone instantly redeemable ones.  This is particularly evident in the RED paper, which states that “A banker who issues a note at date t is expected to retire it at date t + 1 at the current market value” (my emphasis), and that the note in question “is equivalent to a debt instrument with a market-determined real return of Φt+1/Φt,” where Φt+1/Φt is the ratio of the note’s redemption value to its initial value.  The same paper then goes on to observe that, although “it is possible to construct an equilibrium with the property that the value of privately issued notes is stable over time…it is also possible to construct other equilibrium in which the exchange value of notes is not constant over time.”  Specifically, an equilibrium path exists along which notes’ purchasing power declines monotonically.  Because a bank’s franchise value depends on the purchasing power of its notes, this equilibrium path must eventually result in notes ceasing to be convertible.  The only sustainable equilibrium is therefore the stationary one.  It is, nevertheless, not the case that that the notes in question have a contractually-fixed redemption value.  The model is therefore, strictly speaking, not a model of “redeemable” bank notes in the generally-understood sense of the term, but of something much more like irredeemable private fiat money:  like the notes in the RED model, actual fiat monies may be “redeemable” in the sense that they have some positive but variable exchange value, but they are certainly not redeemable according to the conventionally-understood meaning of that term.*

The finding that a system of private fiat money may not succeed in winning the public’s confidence, let alone in achieving an “optimum” quantity of money, is neither surprising nor new.  A substantial literature now exists on the topic, dating back to Benjamin Klein’s pioneering work.  (Chapter 12 of Larry White’s Theory of Monetary Institutions supplies an excellent review.)  And though some contributions to that literature suggest that a competitive fiat money system can work under special conditions, the general consensus — and one to which we free banking theorists have long subscribed — is that such a system is unlikely to command any confidence.  Indeed, Larry and I have argued that it is precisely for that reason that private banking systems of the past have had to rely, occasional suspensions aside, on “goods-back guarantees,” meaning offers to convert paper money into fixed amounts of real goods, to make private notes acceptable.

Nor do the terms “reneging” and “defaulting” mean the same thing in the Sanches-Monnet models as they do in real-world banking systems.  Bankers in these models renege, not because they are unable to meet their obligations, but because, judging it no longer worthwhile to go on being bankers, they decide to quit the banking business.  A sort of “liquidation” does occur, but it is one in which the bankers themselves consume the goods they acquired in exchange for their notes.  The result is much as if the bankers absconded, wildcat style, taking any assets they’d acquired with them.  Noteholders, in any event, have no recourse to retiring bankers’ assets, for if they did their notes would not become worthless.  The notes, in other words, do not even qualify as meaningful (in the sense of enforceable) claims to some positive but variable quantity of real goods.  Banking crises happen, in the Sanches-Monnet model economies, not because note holders believe that their banks are in danger of becoming insolvent, but because they believe them to be in danger of becoming insufficiently profitable.  Insolvency doesn’t enter into it because, strictly speaking (and unless I’m missing something), it isn’t possible for a Sanches-Monnet bank to become insolvent.

This last observation brings me to a second feature of most real-world private financial  firms, though not of Michigan’s wildcats, that is conspicuously absent from Sanches and Monnet’s models, namely, bank capital.  When a Sanches-Monnet banker, finding that the franchise value of his business has fallen below a critical level, “makes a decision to renege on his promises as the dissolution of his note-issuing business,” he sacrifices nothing apart from that franchise value itself, having no other “skin in the game”: no initial investment, and certainly no double or unlimited liability, to which bank owners were subject in many historical private currency arrangements.  (See also here.)

Think about this.  A “banker” offers you a note, which he promises to “redeem,” not whenever you like, but at a future date, and not in a definite quantity of goods, but (in the RED model) in some uncertain amount.  If the banker chooses to renege, that is, to offer nothing at all for the goods, he loses nothing save whatever profit he might have earned by staying in business.  The banker promises to invest the proceeds obtained in exchange for the note, but you have no idea how.  The bank has no capital, so that any adverse change to the value of its assets must affect the value of its liabilities by a like amount.  Finally, no court will find the banker obliged to pay you, or other note-holders; and no other government agency even pretends to protect you from any loss you might incur should your bank close-up shop.

Will you trade valuable goods for such a note?  Neither would I.  Nor, I suppose, would any sane person.  (In Michigan in 1837 people did accept similar notes because state government authorities assured them that the notes were fully secured by good collateral, and also because there were no other notes to be had.)  That the sort of “private money” we’re talking about won’t fly seems, in fine, self-evident, once its basic features are set forth in plain language.  To go to the length of developing a fully-articulated model economy for the sake of reaching the same conclusion hardly seems necessary.

It’s a shame that Sanches and Monnet didn’t make more than a cursory effort to familiarize themselves with the actual nature and performance of past private currency arrangements, for had they done so they presumably would have constructed a very different sort of model, and reached very different (and perhaps more interesting) conclusions.  Instead of confining themselves to a few desultory references to banking in antebellum U.S., they might have read some portion of the heaps of books and articles concerning those historical banking systems that came closer than any U.S. episode did to representing genuine monetary “laissez faire.” They might, for starters, have familiarized themselves with the famously stable pre-1844 Scottish free banking episode.  They might also have gotten to know the pre-1935 Canadian system, which was almost as stable.  They might even have gleaned a clue or two about unregulated private currency from the less well-known, and less long-lasting, free banking episodes of Australia, Switzerland, Ireland, Colombia, France, or Chile.  They would have noticed how bank capital and (in some instances) extended liability served in these arrangements to win prospective note holders’ trust.  What they certainly could not have done was to write the papers they’ve written, while still imagining that by so doing they were shedding light on what typically happens when currency provision is left to the private marketplace.

So far I’ve emphasized the matter of stability, concerning which the predictions of the Sanches and Monnet models are most glaringly at odds with experience.  While free banking systems were often stable, it doesn’t follow that they supplied “optimum” quantities of money in Milton Friedman’s sense.  To the extent that they didn’t, their performance agrees with one of the main conclusions Sanches and Monnet draw from their models.  But if free banking systems did not fully meet Friedman’s ideal, it’s unlikely that they veered very far from it, or that any regulated system could do better.

One obvious respect in which historical private money systems departed from Friedman’s ideal was in not paying explicit (that is, nominal) interest on circulating banknotes.  In The Theory of Free Banking,  I acknowledged that, although competition will tend to drive free banks “to pay competitive rates of interest on…deposits,” bank notes might still be held in sub-optimal quantities owing to the difficulty of paying interest on circulating notes.  But I also noted that the consequence, instead of consisting of sub-optimal quantity of money, might well consist of a cross-subsidy of deposits such as would enhance the demand for them enough to compensate for the sub-optimal demand for currency.  What’s more, even the relatively minor inefficiency implicit in such a cross subsidy would be limited to the extent that private currency suppliers engaged in non-price competition.

But to regard the absence of an explicit interest return on circulating private bank notes as “sub-optimal” is to suppose that some alternative arrangement could do better.  And for that supposition there is, I believe, no sound basis.  The circulating notes of government monetary authorities have also tended to be non-interest bearing, and remain so to this very day, despite many authorities’ wish that this weren’t necessarily the case.  The explanation lies in the practical impossibility of keeping tabs on banknotes’ owners when the notes change hands frequently and anonymously, as they must do if they are to be convenient exchange media in transactions for which non-circulating forms of money will not serve.  Because government monetary authorities must reckon with the same transactions costs as of paying interest on circulating notes as their private counterparts, they cannot come closer to Friedman’s ideal by that means.  Moreover, because competitive pressures do not prevent them from earning monopoly profits, they are likely to stray even further from that ideal, even taking the rate of inflation, and hence the real return on non-interest-bearing notes, as given.

And what about the interventions that Sanches and Monnet recommend?  Might they at least help to nudge things closer to Friedman’s ideal?  I wouldn’t count on it.  Their proposal, you may recall, is to have the government tax currency users and use the proceeds to subsidize banks enough to keep their franchise values from falling below some critical level.  But Sanches and Monnet also assume — and the assumption is absolutely critical to their model — that “agents” apart from bankers themselves “do not observe the amount of collateral (if any) an individual banker holds in reserve to secure his circulating liabilities.”  Alternatively, “agents” do not know the value of their banks’ assets.  A bank’s franchise value is, however, strictly a function of the quantity of assets it has on hand.  Consequently, in order to implement the policy in question, the government must have access to information unobtainable by anyone else.  If this vaguely reminds you of the flaw in Diamond and Dybvig’s argument for deposit insurance, give yourself a gold star.  And give yourself another if you are wondering, as I am, how the government would manage the subsidies in question in a world in which some bankers are just-plain incompetent.

And that, you may rest assured, is a world that doesn’t just exist on paper.


*Although Sanches recognizes that the indeterminacy of the equilibrium value of “bank notes” in his model resembles that of fiat money in other writings, he does not seem to appreciate how the similarity arises owing in large part to the fact that nothing in his model obliges his bankers contractually to redeem their notes at a definite rate.

The JMCB paper differs from the RED paper in that bankers there  offer to redeem notes issued in sub-period 1 for a predetermined amount of a good in sub-period 2; still, the notes’ purchasing power when first issued can differ from their eventual redemption value.  The “notes” in question are therefore neither fiat money in the usual sense of the term nor ordinary banknotes but zero-coupon bearer bonds that mature after a set period, rather like Continental dollars, according to Farley Grubb’s understanding of the latter.  In referring to the notes in their model as “debt instruments…redeemable on demand,” Sanches and Monnet appear to overlook the distinction between “after one sub-period” and “on demand.”

[Cross-posted from]

Always a fable worth bearing in mind in a presidential election year:

* * *

THE FROGS, grieved at having no established Ruler, sent ambassadors to Jupiter entreating for a King. Perceiving their simplicity, he cast down a huge log into the lake. The Frogs were terrified at the splash occasioned by its fall and hid themselves in the depths of the pool. But as soon as they realized that the huge log was motionless, they swam again to the top of the water, dismissed their fears, climbed up, and began squatting on it in contempt. After some time they began to think themselves ill-treated in the appointment of so inert a Ruler, and sent a second deputation to Jupiter to pray that he would set over them another sovereign. He then gave them an Eel to govern them. When the Frogs discovered his easy good nature, they sent yet a third time to Jupiter to beg him to choose for them still another King. Jupiter, displeased with all their complaints, sent a Heron, who preyed upon the Frogs day by day till there were none left to croak upon the lake.

–Aesop, in the 1867 translation of George Fyler Townsend

(Illustration by Walter Crane, Baby’s Own Aesop, 1887. Note the motto that Crane appends: DON’T HAVE KINGS.)

Trade has enriched humanity, continuously providing cheaper and better goods while dramatically decreasing global poverty. Extreme poverty’s end is now in sight. A Gallup poll released recently shows that 58 percent of Americans view trade as an opportunity rather than a threat, and this belief has been rising. Yet we seldom hear of the incredible benefits of exchange. The 2016 presidential election has brought with it an increased interest in U.S. trade with China, with political figures like Donald Trump prominently focusing on the alleged “harm” done by China to the United States. Here are the three main arguments that trade-skeptics use regarding China and reasons why those arguments are wrong. 

1) Trade-skeptics often claim that trade with China is “taking American jobs.” However, in most cases American and Chinese workers are not competing for the same jobs because they do different kinds of work.   

Comparative advantage and specialization play an important role in every trade relationship. China has the comparative advantage in light manufacturing and heavy industry, while the United States has an advantage in areas involving a high degree of human capital like technology, education, and precision industrial manufacturing

Fewer and fewer Americans work in grueling areas like traditional manufacturing and agriculture, both of which are still common in China. The fall in traditional manufacturing and agriculture employment has been more than offset by a rise in the caring professions and in creative and knowledge-intensive careers, which are safer, more intellectually stimulating, and help improve the standard of living in the United States. 

For example, the number of physicians per person has risen in the United States, and there are also more teachers per student. The graph below shows that, while manufacturing employment has decreased, total non-agricultural employment has soared.

2)Many people are concerned about China’s so-called currency manipulation. China, they claim, is keeping the value of the yuan artificially low relative to the U.S. dollar. That means that Americans pay less for Chinese goods. As board member Mark J. Perry puts it

[T]he “manipulation” of China’s currency is actually to the distinct advantage of millions of American consumers (especially low-income Americans) and U.S. businesses buying products and inputs made in China. Those two groups certainly aren’t complaining about low-priced Chinese products, and in fact would be made worse off if China were forced to revalue its currency and in the process make its products more expensive for Americans.
So if neither American consumers nor U.S. import-buying businesses would benefit from a stronger yuan and a reduction in China’s “foreign aid” to America, who would really benefit? The same group that always benefits from protectionist, mercantilist trade policies: domestic producers who compete against foreign rivals in China and elsewhere … Unfortunately, the costs to consumers from protectionism are greater than the benefits to producers, resulting in a net economic loss for the country and a reduction in its standard of living.

In other words, while a few industries would benefit, the vast majority of Americans would be made poorer by America’s imposition of protectionist policies or penalties on China. 

3) China trade-skeptics often claim that trade leads to the exploitation of Chinese laborers and makes them worse off. However, as Cato’s Johan Norberg wrote

Western activists rail against “sweatshops,” but among researchers and economists from left to right there is a consensus that these jobs are the stepping stones out of poverty

Lest we forget, the United States and Europe had their own sweatshops during the Industrial Revolution. Work was often dangerous and difficult—though not as much as the drudgery of agricultural subsistence. Yet, as a result of the industrial revolution, life expectancy and GDP per capita shot up while poverty fell rapidly. Since economic liberalization, life expectancy in China has skyrocketed, nearing the U.S. level, and hundreds of millions of Chinese have escaped from extreme poverty. That represents the greatest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen. 

As prosperity has increased, gender inequality has diminished, and a smaller share of the population suffers from food inadequacy. If the trade-skeptics genuinely care about the wellbeing of the poor in China, they should support the most successful anti-poverty program of all time: economic freedom, including freedom to trade internationally. 


Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have identified the worst case for the month of February.  It was from Champaign, Illinois and involves several incidents regarding Officer Matt Rush.

Last month Precious Jackson filed a lawsuit against Rush and the City of Champaign for excessive force when Rush arrested her.  According to the lawsuit, Rush’s actions caused Jackson to lose her unborn baby.  Jackson also says that she begged to be taken to a hospital but that Rush and the other officers on the scene ignored her pleas and took her to the jail instead.

Local news agencies report that the City of Champaign has settled several similar lawsuits involving Rush to the tune of $320,000.  In 2014, Police Chief Anthony Cobb actually fired Rush for lies in police reports and omitting important details in the incidents he was involved in.

A labor arbitrator overturned the police chief’s discipline and reinstated Rush to his job.  

At this point, it may not be appropriate to compare anyone to Donald Trump. In terms of overheated rhetoric, he is in a (low) class by himself. Nevertheless, I am struck by the parallels between Bernie Sanders and Trump on trade policy. Of all the remaining presidential candidates, these two are the most strongly opposed to international trade and to international trade agreements. While most of the candidates have something negative to say about trade, Sanders and Trump go the furthest in this regard, and, unfortunately, their views seem to appeal to a lot of people.

As we all know, Trump has been inflammatory on the subject of immigration and trade, which could be taken as a general dislike for and distrust of non-Americans, with a few particular groups demonized. Sanders is a little different. He’s not generally negative about foreigners, but now and then he says things in a way that makes me wonder if he is trying to tap into the same group of voters that Trump has in his camp. For example, in last night’s debate, Sanders said this:

… Look, I was on a picket line in early 1990s against NAFTA because you didn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.

Obviously, if Sanders had a Ph.D. in economics, he would be a free trader. But putting that aside, what exactly does Sanders have against people in Mexico? Yes, they are, on average, not as wealthy as Americans. But why does that mean they should not be allowed to sell their goods and services to Americans? Clearly, it would make them better off if they could (and their income has risen a lot since NAFTA was signed). Why should the U.S. government take action (protectionism) to keep them poor?

No doubt Sanders would say that this isn’t about keeping Mexicans poor, but rather about making Americans better off. Now, in fact, protectionism does not make Americans better off, so he’s actually hurting everyone. But regardless, even if he did believe his policies would make Americans better off, that wouldn’t change the fact that his policies would help keep Mexicans poor. Those are two sides of the same coin.

Overall, it is pretty clear that Sanders is no Trump. But still, the way his policies treat poor foreigners–and how that appeals to some of his supporters–leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Like the apocryphal story of the state legislature that passed a law dictating that pi equals 3, the Oregon state legislature has passed two laws that pretend the laws of supply & demand don’t exist. The difference is that, in reality, no state legislature ever did pass a law saying that pi equals 3, but Oregon’s legislature is totally ignoring basic economic principles.

First, earlier this week, the legislature passed a new minimum wage law increasing the minimum to as high as 14.75 per hour in the Portland area by 2022 (with lower minima for other parts of the state). This will supposedly be the highest in the nation, but only in the unlikely event that no other state raises its minimum wage in the next six years. However, after adjusting for the cost of living, Oregon’s new minimum wage probably is the highest in the nation even before 2022.

Proponents claim the minimum-wage law will improve Oregon’s economy by putting more money in the hands of its residents that they will spend in Oregon businesses. The new minimum wage “is going to be good for Oregon families and is going to add to consumer purchasing power that will benefit our small businesses,” Oregon’s labor commissioner told a reporter. That’s like warming the bed by cutting off one end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end. If increasing the minimum wage does so much good, why not increase it to $15 right away? Or $50? Or $500?

The reality is that a minimum wage law is a balancing act for politicians. They have to have the wage be just high enough to create a constituency for the wage that will support them but not so high that people who actually vote will lose their jobs. As a Congressional Budget Office study concluded, for every two people who benefit from a minimum wage law, one is put out of work. That’s okay if the people who are out of work don’t vote.

The Oregon situation is complicated by threats by higher wage advocates to use the initiative petition process put a $15 wage on the November ballot. The legislature hopes its bill can forestall that without causing the economic damage that an immediate $15 wage would do.

Buoyed by its success, the legislature yesterday passed a law legalizing inclusionary zoning, that is, forcing homebuilders to sell a certain percentage of their products below cost. This will also lead them to build fewer homes and to sell the market-rate homes they do build for higher prices to offset their losses on the “affordable” homes. In other words, this law relies on the counterintuitive notion that making housing more expensive will make it more affordable.

Once again, the legislature is playing a balancing game. A few people will get–and be very grateful for–more affordable housing. Every other homebuyer and renter will end up paying more, but not enough more for them (the legislature hopes) to complain about it.

The Oregonian, for example, accompanied my article criticizing the urban-growth boundary with a photo of a man who enjoys “affordable” housing provided by the city of Bend that was funded by taxing all other new homes in the city. Where are the photos of the people having to pay higher taxes or who can’t afford to buy a new home because of that tax?

Are the legislators who voted for these laws really really trying to promote their political careers by cynically benefitting a few at everyone else’s expense? Or are they just ignorant of simple economic principles? Either way, their votes demonstrate the flaws in a society that believes it can get rich by robbing some people and giving it to others.

Earlier this week, Buzzfeed unearthed a 2005 blog post in which Donald Trump explained the economic benefits of outsourcing jobs overseas.  The piece flatly contradicts the boisterously protectionist rhetoric of Trump’s presidential campaign.  No doubt it will be added to the many arguments for why Trump can’t be trusted, but there’s really nothing special about Trump’s flip-flop on trade.  It is an exceedingly common tactic among politicians.

In this election cycle alone, we’ve see Hillary Clinton oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she once heralded as the “gold standard in trade agreements.”  And Ted Cruz did a full 180 in opposing trade promotion authority last year after he eloquently praised the bill in the Wall Street Journal.

One of the most impressive trade flip-floppers in recent memory was Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign.  Prior to running for office, Romney properly criticized protectionist tariffs the Obama administration imposed on Chinese tires as an economically harmful sop to labor unions. 

But then the Obama campaign started accusing Romney of being the “outsourcer-in-chief” for helping companies invest abroad during his time at Bain Capital.  In response, Romney struck a very confrontational tone against China, accusing them of cheating while criticizing Obama for being too soft on Chinese trade.

Four years later, Romney is back to talking sense about trade.  In his recent speech warning Republicans about Trump, Romney directly addressed Trump’s signature trade policy proposal:

[Trump’s] proposed 35% tariff-like penalties would instigate a trade war that would raise prices for consumers, kill export jobs, and lead entrepreneurs and businesses to flee America.

Peter Suderman at Reason points to Romney’s duplicity in a scathing indictment of the GOP establishment he claims have enabled Trump’s candidacy:

Romney, like many Republican elites, has now changed his tune, and he deserves credit for speaking unequivocally about Trump’s many serious flaws. But Romney and others in the party played Trump’s game, and talked Trump’s language, for long enough that they helped legitimize it, and allowed it, even encouraged it, to fester and grow.

Republicans’ election-year flirtations with anti-trade populism are especially frustrating, because populist rhetoric doesn’t always have to be anti-market.  You can and should make the case for free trade by railing against the evils of protectionism. 

Every artificial trade barriers is an example of crony rent-seeking.  You don’t have to extol the economic virtues of free trade in order to condemn corporate welfare.   Republicans did a good job of this in their (temporarily successful) fight against the Export–Import Bank. 

Some of Donald Trump’s primary opponents recently took a similar tack when they criticized Trump’s tariff proposal as harmful to consumers.  Tariffs are taxes that raise prices.  This is bad for consumers, especially poor consumers, and bad for U.S. businesses that need low-priced imports to remain competitive in a global market.  By making it more expensive to do business in America, tariffs directly drive away investment and jobs. 

Protectionism benefits big businesses with lobbyists while killing American jobs.  That’s the populist case for free trade.  It may be easier to blame foreign competition and outsourcing for perceived economic ills, but it’s not accurate and it won’t lead to good policies that help the American public.

In the end, elected Republicans shouldn’t be surprised that Trump’s belligerent economic nationalism resonates with voters.  They’ve consistently failed or refused to articulate the broadly compelling case for good economic policy they desperately need at the moment.

The Republican foreign policy establishment is up in arms over Donald Trump’s ascendancy. The prospect that “The Donald” could become The Commander in Chief is simply too much for many of them to stomach.

Take, for example, this “Open Letter on Donald Trump From GOP National Security Leaders” signed by almost 80 members of the Republican foreign policy elite. They warn that a Trump presidency would be dangerous to America’s safety, civil liberties, and international reputation.

I share their concern. But when people ask who is at fault for America’s tragic turn inward, if Trump wins a major party nomination – or, worse, the election – the very GOP foreign policy elite that is now denouncing him should get the lion’s share of the blame for his rise.

We should begin by understanding the people who comprise today’s GOP foreign policy elite, and what motivates them. This is not Dwight Eisenhower’s GOP, or even George H.W. Bush’s. Their bias toward interventionism is not grounded in traditional conservative precepts of order and fiscal discipline. When forced, they will call for higher taxes to fund more military spending. And they are openly disdainful of whatever small government instincts the modern conservative movement draws from libertarianism. 

So no one should be surprised when some neoconservatives speak openly of choosing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump as many are now doing. If they do ultimately pull the lever for Clinton, they will merely be reaffirming their core beliefs.

After all, some of the older neocons cut their teeth writing policy briefs for the hawkish Democrat Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. The earlier generation’s intellectual descendants fastened themselves firmly to the GOP, which they saw as the most convenient vehicle for implementing their foreign policy views. But that doesn’t mean that the association was either automatic or permanent.

The neocons would occasionally show their hand, admitting that they would choose foreign policy orthodoxy over party, and threatening to return to their Democratic Party roots. In 2004, for example, Bill Kristol praised the Democratic nominee John Kerry’s proposal to double down on the U.S. military presence in Iraq, at a time when some Republicans were wavering on Iraq. Kristol pointed out in an interview with the New York Times that his magazine The Weekly Standard, “has as much or more in common with the liberal hawks than with traditional conservatives.” In 2014, in a long feature article in the New York Times magazine, Jacob Heilbrunn noted that many putative GOP foreign policy elites would abandon the party if Republican voters nominated a skeptic of U.S. military intervention, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The party’s own nominee for president in 2008, John McCain, when asked who he would vote for in 2016 if it came down to Clinton vs. Paul said, with a nervous laugh, “It’s gonna be a tough choice.”

So it should surprise no one that the neoconservatives are in a panic over Trump, and ready and willing to cast their votes for Clinton, if it came to that. In addition to her vote in favor of the Iraq war in 2002, Clinton has pushed many of the neocons’ other foreign policy adventures, including in Libya in 2011. And although The Weekly Standard editors castigated Bill Clinton for his personal foibles, they cheered him when he waged war in the Balkans.

But while Washington elites were also looking for the next dispute to meddle in, public skepticism of such global adventurism lingered below the surface. Americans were unconvinced by arguments that American exceptionalism necessarily meant defending other countries that can and should defend themselves – effectively, forever. More than half thought that the United States was doing too much to try to solve all the world’s problems, while fewer than one in five thought we should be doing more. And a growing number of Americans questioned whether even those interventions sold purely on the basis of advancing U.S. national security – e.g. Iraq in 2003 – actually had that effect. But when the leading candidates of both parties promised them more of the same, they went looking for alternatives. They found Donald Trump.


It didn’t have to be this way. As I’ve watched Trump’s rise, and seen his poll numbers grow after every ugly, xenophobic, and racist comment, I’ve had a passage from my book, The Power Problem, running in the back of my head. I wrote the book in 2008, before Barack Obama’s election, and before the effects of the financial crisis had become clear. It was after the surge in Iraq, but before the surge in Afghanistan. A lot has happened during Obama’s seven years in office. But, back then, I was most concerned about the unwillingness of the bipartisan foreign policy elite to revisit some of the core assumptions that had guided U.S. foreign policy for decades. And I was most troubled by the elite’s utter disregard for the will of the people who actually fight their wars, and pay the bills.

So, here’s what I wrote. I hoped at the time that I would be proved wrong. But I’m afraid that I was right. You decide:

For years, international relations scholars have stressed that the world would resist the emergence of a single global superpower. The fact that we’ve managed to sustain our “unipolar moment” for nearly twenty years does not mean that an alternate path might not have delivered a comparable level of security at far less cost and risk. Even many who celebrate our hegemony admit that their approach is costly. They also admit that it cannot last forever. It was they, not their intellectual opponents, after all, who called it a “unipolar moment.”

The wisest course, therefore, is to adopt policies that will allow us to extricate ourselves from regional squabbles, while maintaining the ability to prevent a genuine threat to the United States from forming. This book has tried to set forth just some of the many reasons for doing this. The strongest reason of all might be that our current strategy doesn’t align with the wishes of the American people. As the costs of our foreign adventures mount, and as the benefits remain elusive, Americans may push with increasing assertiveness for the United States to climb down from its perch as the world’s sheriff.

For now, no clear consensus on an alternative foreign policy has emerged. Polls show that Americans are opposed to using the U.S. military to promote democracy abroad. Similar majorities believe that the costs of the war in Iraq have not been worth the benefits. There is now precious little enthusiasm for launching new military missions, and considerable skepticism that the United States must solve the world’s problems, or even that these problems require solving.

If the trends are moving away from a strategy of primacy, away from the United States as indispensable nation, and away from Uncle Sam as global sheriff, where might a new consensus on foreign policy end up? It is possible that it will coalesce around a strategy that is less dependent on the exercise of U.S. military power and more on other aspects of U.S. influence — including our vibrant culture, and our extensive economic engagement with the world. Another very different consensus could also coalesce, however, and move the country — and possibly the world — in a sad and ugly direction.

Surveying the high costs and dubious benefits of our frequent interventions over the past two decades, many Americans are now asking themselves, “what’s the point?” Why provide these so-called global public goods if we will be resented and reviled — and occasionally targeted — for having made the effort? When Americans tell pollsters that we should “mind our own business” they are rejecting the global public goods argument in its entirety.

As noted in the introduction to this book, the defenders of the status quo like to describe such sentiments as isolationist, a gross oversimplification that has the additional object of unfairly tarring the advocates of an alternative foreign policy — any alternative — with an obnoxious slur. There is, however, an ugly streak to the turn inward by the United States. It appears in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility to free trade. The policies that flow from these misguided feelings include plans to build high walls to keep unskilled workers out, and calls for mass deportations to expel those already here. And we already have a very different wall built with regulations and arbitrary quotas for skilled workers under the H1-B program.

For the most part, Americans want to remain actively engaged in the world without having to be in charge of it. We tire of being held responsible for everything bad that happens, and always on the hook to pick up the costs. We have grown even more skeptical of our current foreign policies when the primary benefit that they are supposed to deliver, namely greater security, fails to materialize. If “global engagement” is defined as a forward-deployed military, operating in dozens of countries, and if the costs of this military remain very high, then we should expect the public to object. And if the rest of the world looks upon this military power and our propensity to use it as a growing threat, and if Americans gain a fuller recognition that our great power and our willingness to use it increases the risks of terrorism directed against the United States, then many will demand that we change course. But if Washington refuses to do so, or simply tinkers around the margins while largely ignoring public sentiment, then we should not be surprised if many Americans choose to throw the good engagement out with the bad, opting for genuine isolationism, with all of its nasty connotations.

That would be tragic. It would also be dangerous. For to the extent that there is a global war brewing, it will not be won by closing ourselves off from the rest of the world. If Americans reject the peaceful coexistence, trade, and voluntary person-to-person contact that has been the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy since the nation’s founding, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world will grow only worse, with negative ramifications for U.S. security for many years to come.


The latest working paper in the ongoing Social Security Programs and Retirement Around the World project asks whether older people are healthy enough to work more years, and finds that there is a significant amount additional work capacity due to health and mortality gains. While piecemeal reforms like increasing the retirement age or changing how benefits are indexed are not as comprehensive as allowing young workers to invest a portion in personal accounts, they could be part of some comprehensive package to address the program’s shortfall. In a recent AP/NORC poll, 85 percent of respondents said protecting the future of Social Security is extremely or very important, but under current law, the Congressional Budget Office projects the trust fund will be exhausted by 2029 and benefits the following year would need to be cut by 29 percent. Delaying the needed reforms only increases the magnitude of changes that will be needed.  Increases in life expectancy and the additional capacity for work at older ages should be considered when designing those reforms.

In the report, the authors use a few different methods and find that in each scenario, due to gains in health and life expectancy, older people are able to work significantly more than they currently do. In the Milligan-Wise (MW) method, the authors estimate additional work capacity by comparing employment rates for men in 2010 with men at the age with the same mortality rates from previous years. For all age groups, older men have significantly more work capacity, as much as 42 percent for men between ages 65 and 69, for example.

Additional Work Capacity by Age Group, MW Method 2010 vs. 1977


Source: Coile et al. (2016).

In the Cutler et al. (CMR) method, the authors estimate a relationship between employment and health for people between 50 and 54, and then combine this estimation with actual health for older age groups. With this method, they also find significant additional work capacity: 31.4 percent for men between ages 65 and 69, and even more for the older age group. 

Source: Coile et al. (2016).

While older Americans have more work capacity overall, if the health status of people with lower-educational attainment hasn’t seen any improvement, it’s possible that they would have difficulty working additional years. To examine this question, the authors look at Self-Assessed Health (SAH) and find significant reductions in the percent of men responding that they were in poor or fair health across all education quartiles. The quartile with the lowest educational attainment saw a 22 percent improvement, and the second education quartile enjoyed an almost 44 percent improvement. Older Americans have seen significant gains in self-assessed health across all levels of education. While this is admittedly just one subjective metric, taken with the other findings of the paper, it suggest that older Americans have the capacity to work more than they do now.

Increasing the retirement age is one option to begin to address the program’s shortfall, although a better reform would allow younger workers to choose to divert some of their payroll taxes into some form of personal accounts. Without significant changes, Social Security will be unable to pay all scheduled benefits long before today’s young workers get close to retirement age. Absent reform, this shortfall will require significant tax increases or benefit cuts, and it only gets worse the longer policymakers delay. Due to welcome gains in life expectancy and other health improvements, older Americans can work more, and this should be considered when crafting reform proposals.

This week Howard Dudley was released from prison after serving 23 years.  He was accused of sexually assaulting his 9-year old daughter, but the daughter now recants her testimony from the 1992 trial. When ordering Dudley’s release, the judge said he was convinced that her earlier testimony was false.  Moreover, the government is supposed to provide the defense with evidence in its possession that tends to indicate that the accused is innocent.  (Lawyers call that “Brady material” after the name of a landmark case on the subject.)  In this case, the judge noted that Dudley was never given copies of reports that showed wildly inconsistent and improbable stories of the alleged assault that his daughter related to social services employees.

The problem of innocents behind bars received lots of attention in January and February as a result of the popular Netflix series, Making a Murderer.  The primary reason the documentary grabs your attention is that Steven Avery finds himself accused of an awful crime shortly after he is released from prison for a crime he did not commit.  The police department that conducted a sloppy investigation in the first case is then shown to be sloppy (and perhaps corrupt) in the second case.  In this podcast interview, I discuss Making a Murderer and the problem of innocents behind bars with Shawn Armbrust of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.  (Spolier alert if you have not yet seen the Netflix documentary, which I do think is well worth your time).

In the fall, Federal Appellate Court Judge Alex Kozinski was here at Cato to reiterate his view that there is an epidemic of Brady violations in the U.S. and that there are more innocents behind bars than most people want to believe. 

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?

Then there is this: Taxpayers would have used the money sent to community colleges for their own ends. Maybe for buying food, employing farmers and truck drivers and lots of other people. Or maybe they’d have invested it in businesses, some of which may have employed low-skill labor. Or maybe they’d have bought cars to get their kids back and forth to school, in the process employing autoworkers. Quite simply, there are major opportunity costs to society when we funnel money into community colleges, and it is not at all clear that the more beneficial use of taxpayer dollars is higher education.

One last critique of Reed’s rebuttal: He attacks my proposal that we put student lending in private hands by writing, “I took offense at the prospect of replacing universal access to higher education with screening done by the same people who caused the mortgage crisis.” I’d suggest he reexamine the mortgage crisis. Government “help” – much like student loans – had a lot to do with it.

Reed is certainly right, though, to ask what to do to help unprepared people now, while the loan qualification debate is mainly about not inflicting more harm. Ultimately, a sustainable college preparation solution must come before people reach higher education – and I have strong opinions on how to do that – but what about for people right now who did not get an adequate K-12 education and want a better future?

I’m not sure what the answers are – I’d love to hear suggestions – or even if there are any that are really satisfactory, especially if we want to avoid major, negative, unintended consequences that might go with them. I suspect viable ones might involve options like apprenticeships and quick, specific-skill programs – perhaps provided by community colleges or for-profit schools – or even remedial learning through outlets like the Khan Academy. Indeed, maybe a relatively quick measure – though it would involve changing law – would be Washington putting limits on loan amounts so that they would only cover a few courses, aimed at getting specific skills, or just remediation. What I am pretty sure are not solutions are spending more on community colleges to make them free to students, raising the minimum wage, or giving out loans to pursue degrees for which students are unprepared.

Introducing their work, Stapleton et al. (2016) write that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are “considered among the most highly sensitive marine mammals to the projected consequences of climate change,” citing Laidre et al. (2008). Indeed, increased sea ice losses projected for mid-century have led to concerns that “polar bears may be extirpated from or substantially reduced across most of the circumpolar Arctic.” As a result, the Arctic polar bear has become the proverbial canary in the coal mine for those seeking proof of climate change impacts in the far northern latitudes of our planet. Efforts have long been under way to study trends in these northern mammals and relate those trends to changes in climate.

The study of Stapleton et al. is no different in this regard. Their objective was to provide an updated analysis of the polar bear population within the Foxe Basin of Canada, a region that spans 1.1 million square kilometers across the Nunavut territory and northern Quebec. Last inventoried in the early 1990s, the Foxe Basin has been identified as a region of concern as climate conditions over the period 1979-2008 have led to a deterioration of the sea ice habitat (Sahanatien and Derocher, 2012) that has long been thought to engender a stable polar bear population. Against this backdrop of potential decline, Stapleton et al. set out to conduct an updated population survey of polar bears in this region to discern whether or not declining sea ice conditions had indeed affected their numbers as model-based projections claimed it would. And to this end, the three researchers conducted a series of aerial surveys in late summer of 2009 and 2010.

So what did their survey reveal?

Following rigorous statistical analysis of their data Stapleton et al. report a current average estimate of 2,585 polar bears in the Foxe Basin, which is similar to the last estimate of 2,200 obtained in 1994.  This new number, along with evidence of “robust cub production,” in the words of the authors, “suggests a stable and healthy population despite deteriorating sea ice conditions.” “In other words,” as Stapleton et al. emphatically conclude, “the deterioration of sea ice habitat has not resulted in a decline in [polar bear] abundance.” Thus, it would appear that this canary of the north has so far been oblivious to alarmist predictions of its demise.


Laidre, K.L., Stirling, I.,Lowry, L.F., Wiig, Ø., Heide-Jørgensen M.P. and Ferguson, S.H. 2008. Quantifying the sensitivity of Arctic marine mammals to climate-induced habitat change. Ecological Applications 18: S97–S125.

Sahanatien, V. and Derocher, A.E. 2012. Monitoring sea ice habitat fragmentation for polar bear conservation. Animal Conservation 15: 397–406.

Stapleton, S., Peacock, E. and Garshelis, D. 2016. Aerial surveys suggest long-term stability in the seasonally ice-free Foxe Basin (Nunavut) polar bear population. Marine Mammal Science 32: 181-201.

Why do countries have different economic policies and political institutions?  One view, oft-expressed, is that people in different countries are different.  For example, back in the early 1990s, many observers believed Russia was not ready for a transition to capitalism because Russians did not understand markets.

Around that time, economists Robert Shiller, Maxim Boycko, and Vladimir Korobov decided to examine this view using surveys of New Yorkers and Moscovites. They found that Russians did have significant misgivings about markets, but so did Americans. In fact, attitudes and understanding were, to a first approximation, the same.

In a recent update, Shiller and Boycko ask whether things have changed:

We repeat a survey we did in the waning days of the Soviet Union … comparing attitudes towards free markets between Moscow and New York. Additional survey questions … are added to compare attitudes towards democracy. Two comparisons are made: between countries, and through time, to explore the existence of international differences in allegiance to democratic free-market institutions, and the stability of these differences. While we find some differences in attitudes towards markets across countries and through time, we do not find most of the differences large or significant. Our evidence does not support a common view that the Russian personality is fundamentally illiberal or non-democratic.

So if underlying differences in attitudes and values do not explain differences in economic policies and political institutions, what does? Many factors presumably play a role, but my bet would be on historical accidents. In some times and places, the indviduals with greatest influence have valued freedom (e.g., the American Revolution), while in others they have cared mainly about their own power (e.g., Putin). 

The broader significance is that claims like, “The citizens of country X will never accept capitlism / democracy,” or “transitions from statism to liberalism must be gradual,” do not seem well-supported by existing evidence.