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From 2000 through the end of 2015, 6,329 immigrants and non-immigrants were ineligible for visas because of terrorist activities or association with terrorist organizations (Figure 1). A full 99.5 percent of the denials were for terrorist activities. Keeping terrorists, criminals, and other national security threats out of the United States is one of the federal government’s important immigration responsibilities but many of the people denied a visa shouldn’t have been. An overly broad definition of providing “material support” to terrorists results in bans that make little sense and do nothing to defend Americans from terrorist attacks.

For example, a young man who was living with his uncle in Colombia was attacked by paramilitaries who then forced the young man to march for several days.  Along the way, paramilitaries shot and killed many of those in the man’s group. Often times he was forced to watch the executions and, at times, to dig the graves of the dead. Sometimes the man was told that it was his own grave he was being forced to dig. The government denied his attempt to settle in the United States because his forced digging of graves provided “material support” in the form of “services” to a terrorist organization. 

Another example is of a Liberian woman who was abducted, raped repeatedly, and held hostage by LURD rebels after they invaded her house and killed her father. During this time they forced her to cook, clean, and do laundry. She eventually escaped and is now in a refugee camp but her attempted resettlement in the United States was put on hold because the tasks she had done for the rebels, such as doing laundry, provided “material support” in the form of “services” to a terrorist organization. 

Those who are denied a visa for this reason can get an exemption based on their individual circumstances, whether the material benefit was knowingly or intentionally given to terrorists, for certain medical reasons, and on a group-by-group basis for those who aided foreign groups supported by the U.S. government. A full 55 percent of those who are originally denied a visa on terrorism grounds are eventually overcome for this reason. The high waiver rate shows just how unnecessary and arbitrary many of these visa denials are in order to prevent domestic terrorist attacks. 

Figure 1

Visas Denied for Terrorism and Those Overcome by Waivers

Denied All      

212(a)(3)(B) Terrorist Activities

212(a)(3)(F) Terrorist Organizations

2000

101

0

2001

84

0

2002

49

25

2003

100

2

2004

77

0

2005

112

2

2006

120

0

2007

256

1

2008

418

0

2009

470

0

2010

621

0

2011

690

0

2012

890

0

2013

619

1

2014

707

2

2015

982

0

All

6296

33

      Overcome All    

212(a)(3)(B) Terrorist Activities

212(a)(3)(F) Terrorist Organizations

2000

31

0

2001

0

0

2002

0

0

2003

15

0

2004

26

0

2005

37

1

2006

39

1

2007

138

0

2008

266

0

2009

343

0

2010

387

0

2011

483

0

2012

470

0

2013

352

0

2014

457

0

2015

426

0

All

3470

2

Source: State Department, Report of the Visa Office, Statistical Table XX https://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/law-and-policy/statistics/annual-reports.html

Since at least the days of ancient Athens—which Demosthenes tells us had a five-year statute of limitations for nearly all cases—governments have limited the time period within which punishment or compensation may be sought. Statutes of limitations exist to protect defendants from vindictive or arbitrary lawsuits and prosecutions brought long after their memories have faded and records that might have been used to rebut a claim lost. They ensure that we need not spend our lives constantly anxious about the possibility of the distant past coming back to haunt us over half-forgotten slights.

These are the basic animating purposes behind 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which imposes on the federal government a five-year limitations period for any “action, suit, or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise,” and the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2013 opinion in Gabelli v. SEC (in which Cato also filed a brief) finding no valid justification for the Securities and Exchange Commission to pursue enforcement actions seeking civil penalties more than five years after the relevant conduct had occurred.

Unfortunately, the SEC didn’t learn its lesson and has consistently attempted to circumvent and subvert Gabelli by arguing that the relief it seeks in its years-overdue enforcement actions—monetary disgorgement, injunctions requiring defendants to obey the law, and declaratory judgments that laws were violated—is actually “equitable” and not a form of civil penalty covered under § 2462. Disgorgement—requiring a defendant to return their ill-gotten gains—has indeed traditionally been a way to remedy unjust enrichment rather than a punishment, but the SEC’s use of it has been anything but equitable.

The agency has brought disgorgement actions not to make the victims of wrongdoing whole, aid in public securities-law enforcement, or encourage private compliance, but to punish unsuspecting defendants for decades-old conduct, destroy their reputations and careers, and score massive financial judgements that go straight to the vaults of the U.S. Treasury rather than the pockets of any victims. When one actually looks at what the SEC is doing in context, it becomes clear that this “equitable” relief is functionally a “civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise,” subject to § 2462’s five-year limitations period.

While a careful application of § 2462 is itself sufficient to resolve this case, it is also important to note the serious reasons that actions like those taken by the SEC are in deep opposition to good public policy. Allowing the SEC—an administrative juggernaut more than capable of bringing meritorious claims in a timely manner—to pursue antiquated claims distracts the agency from its stated priorities of pursuing current malfeasance. It also misleads Congress and the public into believing that modern markets are rife with misconduct, in addition to casting a never-ending shadow of potential liability over anyone involved in financial markets.

This is why Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Charles Kokesh, a man now entangled in the SEC’s stale web, to urge the Court to put an end to the SEC’s gamesmanship and categorically hold that the agency may not institute an enforcement action seeking disgorgement or injunctive/declaratory relief more than five years after the underlying conduct occurred.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in Kokesh v. SEC on April 18, with a decision expected by the end of June.

This week, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for housing presented a new report in Geneva. In it, she condemns the evils of “deregulation of housing markets,” “capital investment in housing,” “excess global capital,” and even takes neo-liberalism to task twice over its “requirement that private actors ‘do no harm’” and “do not violate the rights of others.” Who knew that respecting individual rights was controversial? 

Included in the report are superstitious allusions to banks, investors, and money. Throughout, the U.N.’s special rapporteur trains her angst on markets, and concludes that markets are “undermining the realization of housing as a human right.”

However, in spite of burdensome regulation, worldwide markets are becoming better at providing housing to the poor. For evidence, just look at the data: the percentage of the urban population that is living in slums (houses with inadequate space, sanitation, water, durability, or security) has fallen consistently over the past twenty-five years. 

In some regions, the number has declined even more rapidly. In South America, the percentage of the urban population living in slum housing fell a whopping 37.7 percentage points over the twenty-five year period. 

 

Meanwhile, the house price index, or price of housing relative to average disposable income per person declined by 25% worldwide since 1970.

The special rapporteur paints a dismal picture of housing in the United States, which is puzzling given a plethora of U.N. member states with genuinely dire conditions that go unmentioned, like Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Venezuela. Still, conditions are even improving in the United States. Housing has become less crowded and more comfortable: as household size has fallen, the median and average SF per home has consistently grown.

Aside from these omissions, the U.N. special report lacks a conceptual understanding of economics and finance. There are many glaring examples:

  1. Luxury apartment buildings are not the enemy of low-cost housing. Thanks to filtering, the addition of luxury apartments to a city means that lower-income households have additional, improved-quality housing when luxury options are built. 
  2. Housing is not an investment, and as long as bureaucrats continue to talk about it this way over-consumption will occur. As John Allison explains, “We live in a house, and therefore we consume the house. Houses are not used to produce other goods.” As we saw during the financial crisis, policies that encourage over-consumption of housing harm the poor.
  3. The implied belief that investors somehow conspire to build luxury condominiums worldwide highlights a gross misunderstanding of the way financial markets operate. Investors don’t decide what type of housing to build, private developers do based on local market signals. For that matter, developers don’t even really decide what to build, often local government’s zoning regulations decide for them.
  4. The reason that real estate is typically purchased by Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) is not due to a conspiracy to anonymously purchase housing and “alienate” people from their communities. LLCs are used because tax codes and other government regulation encourage their use.
  5. Mortgages in the context described don’t become “speculative investments” due to changes in market conditions; they could not meet the standard for a speculative investment. Speculative investments are typically understood as a class of investments that are short-term in nature and based on asset pricing dislocation.
  6. Bondholders can’t own rental properties (unless they become equity holders through bankruptcy proceedings). Bondholders own debt, not equity.

In light of this confusion, the special rapporteur recommends “a full range of taxation, regulatory and planning measures in order to … prevent speculation and excessive accumulation of wealth.” It seems likely that if the U.N. had an understanding of the vast regulatory web that strangles the production of housing in the developed world, she might have come to a different conclusion.

Recently, some people have wondered aloud at the worldwide crisis of faith in elite international governing bodies. When the U.N. produces a report replete with economic and financial incompetence, an omission of counterarguments and counter facts, and brimming with ideological bias, it simply isn’t difficult to understand.

In two earlier posts on this blog, I described how President Trump said he had required the use of American steel in the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, while the reality seemed to be only an interagency consultation that would “develop a plan” on the issue and had some important qualifiers (only “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law”).  Now Politico is reporting that any such requirement will not apply to Keystone:

The Keystone XL Pipeline will not be subject to President Donald Trump’s executive order requiring infrastructure projects to be built with American steel, a White House spokeswoman said today.

Trump signed the order calling for the Commerce Department to develop a plan for U.S. steel to be used in “all new pipelines, as well as retrofitted, repaired or expanded pipelines” inside the U.S. projects “to the maximum extent possible.”

By the White House’s judgment, that description would not include Keystone XL, which developer TransCanada first proposed in 2008.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline is currently in the process of being constructed, so it does not count as a new, retrofitted, repaired or expanded pipeline,” the White House spokeswoman said.

Assuming this report holds up (I’d like to hear it from additional White House sources), it is a small victory for free trade.  There is still a great deal of uncertainty on the direction of U.S. trade policy right now, but at least for the moment I have a bit of hope.  Cooler heads seem to have prevailed on this one issue.  Perhaps they will have similar success on other issues.

Raj Chetty, the head of Stanford’s “Equality of Opportunity” project, recently released a paper called “The Fading American Dream” co-authored with another economist, a sociologist, and three grad students. It claims that “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s.” [Though the study ends with 2014, when most of those “born in the 1980s” were not yet 30.]

The title alone was sure to attract media excitement, particularly because the new study thanks New York Times columnist David Leonhardt “for posing the question that led to this research.” 

Leonhardt, in turn, gushed that Chetty’s research “is among the most eye-opening economics work in recent years.”  He explained that he asked Chetty to “create an index of the American dream” which “shows the percentage of children who earn more money… than their parent earned at the same age.”  The result, he concludes, is “very alarming. It’s a portrait of an economy that disappoints a huge number of people who have heard that they live in a country where life gets better, only to experience something quite different.”

“Another Chetty-bomb just exploded in the mobility debate,” declared a Brookings Institution memo: “Only half of Americans born in 1980 are economically better off than their parents. This compares to 90 percent of those born in 1940.”

At Vox.com,  Jim Tankersley proclaimed “The  American Dream [is] collapsing for young adults.”

“Sons born in 1984 are only 41 percent likely to earn more than their fathers, compared to 95 percent of sons born in 1940,” wrote USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey.  “If the American dream is defined as earning more money than your parents,” said Bomey, “today’s young adults are just as likely to have a nightmare as they are to achieve the dream.”

The Chetty study proved to be a politically irresistible story, since it appears to confirm a popular nostalgia for the good old days and belief that it has become more and more difficult to get ahead. But that is not what the study really shows.  What it really shows is:

First: Incomes were extremely low in 1940, so it was quite easy to do better 30 years later.

Second: Doing better than your parents is not defined by your income at age 30, but by income and wealth accumulated over a lifetime (including retirement).

Third: A rising percentage of young people remain in grad school at age 30, so their current income is lower than that of their parents at that age but their future income is likely to be much higher.

Consider those three points in more detail.

Regarding the First point, it should be no surprise that children born during the Great Depression or World War II did better than their parents. Of course they did. We don’t need an intricate statistical study to make such an obvious point.

I was born on a Texas Army base in 1942 where my father was a lieutenant earning $167 a month. That was not a difficult target for me to exceed in 1972.  

Comparing incomes of children and their parents at age 30 over many decades tells us more about the very low incomes of poorly-educated and poorly-employed parents in the early decades than it does about the incomes of their children more recently.  

Only 38.1% of Americans age 25–29 had a high school diploma or higher in 1940, compared with 75.4% in 1970. Only 25.7% of American age 18–24 were enrolled in college in 1970, compared with 40.5% in 2015.

To return to the “absolute mobility” of children born in the 1940s would require another 1930-38 Great Depression, another World War, and a massive loss of college degrees. 

Turning to the Second point, “Fading American Dream” depends entirely on an indefensible caricature of that dream—namely, as earning more than your parents did at a very young age (30).

The study claims “One of the defining features of the ‘American Dream’ is the ideal that children have a higher standard of living than their parents.”  But that means over a lifetime (importantly including retirement)—not just at age 30. Labor incomes of peak at age 50 for most college grads, and in the mid-50s for those with advanced degrees. Investment incomes commonly peak in retirement.

The Graph from Advisor Perspectives shows cumulative changes in real median income by age groups from 1967 to 2015. Median income rose much more at ages 45–64 than it did at ages 25–34, and the growth of median income has been fastest by far for those over age 65 (thanks in large part to rapid growth of tax-favored savings plans for retirement).

To judge yourself a failure at age 30 because your income had not yet passed your father’s income at the same age would be a psychological problem, not an economic problem.

Finally, switching to the Third point, a large and growing share of college grads now remain in graduate school past age 30, so (unlike their parents) they have little or no earned income. That would have been quite unusual at age 30 in 1940-80. The “average graduate student today is 33 years old. Students in doctoral programs are a bit older.”  Grad students have low current incomes at age 30, but high lifetime incomes.

An Urban Institute report finds “The share of adults ages 25 and older who have completed graduate degrees rose from eight percent in 1995 to 10 percent in 2005, and to 12 percent in 2015, growing from 34 percent to 37 percent of individuals with bachelor’s degrees.”

Most men born around 1940 went to work right after high school, assuming (often wrongly) they waited to finish high school.  By age 30 most men my age had many years of valuable work experience, known as “human capital” or on-the-job-training. Most of us married in our twenties and were in two-earner families with children by age 30.

Chetty and company compare incomes of children at age 30 with the ages of their parents when sampled sometime between the ages of 25 and 35.  Most parents of those turning 30 in the study’s last year (2014) were born during the Reagan years of 1983-89 when economic growth averaged 4.4% a year. To compare incomes between President Reagan’s boom years and President Obama’s prolonged slump reflects the poor economy of 2008–2014, not poor “mobility.”  Those born in 1984 turned 30 in 2014, when median household income was $53,718 in 2015 dollars—6.5% below 2007 and nearly the same as $53,367 in 1989 (when tax rates were much lower).  

The finding of a 2014 study by Chetty and Emmanuel Saez that “measures of intergenerational mobility have remained extremely stable for the 1971–1993 birth cohorts” is still credible and relevant.  Mr. Chetty’s latest 30-year parent-child comparisons involving those born from 1940 to 1984, by contrast, are not credible and not relevant.

In an effort to justify its massive global warming regulations, the Obama Administration had to estimate how much global warming would cost, and therefore how much money their plans would “save.” This is called the “social cost of carbon” (SCC). Calculating the SCC requires knowledge of how much it will warm as well as the net effects of that warming. Needless to say, the more it warms, the more it costs, justifying the greatest regulations. 

Obviously this is a gargantuan task requiring expertise a large number of agencies and cabinet departments. Consequently, the Administration cobbled a large “Interagency Working Group” (IWG) that ran three combination climate and economic models. A reliable cost estimate requires a confident understanding of both future climate and economic conditions. The Obama Administration decided it could calculate this to the year 2300, a complete fantasy when it comes to the way the world produces and consumes energy. It’s an easy demonstration that we have a hard enough time getting the next 15 years right, let alone the next 300.

Consider the case of domestic natural gas. In 2001, everyone knew that we were running out. A person who opined that we actually would soon be able to exploit hundreds of years’ worth, simply by smashing rocks underlying vast areas of the country, would have been laughed out of polite company. But the previous Administration thought it could tell us the energy technology of 2300. As a thought experiment, could anyone in 1717 foresee cars (maybe), nuclear fission (nope), or the internet (never)? 

On the climate side alone, there’s obviously some range of expected warming, often expressed as the probabilities surrounding some “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS), or the mean amount of warming ultimately predicted for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In the UN’s last (2013) climate compendium, their 100+ computer runs calculated an average of 3.2°C (5.8°F). A rough rule of thumb would be that this is also an estimate of the total temperature change predicted from the late 20th century to the year 2100.

That forecast is simply not working out. Since 1979, when global temperature-sensing satellites became operational, both satellite and weather balloon data show that the lower atmosphere is warming at about half the rate that was predicted. And in the area that is supposed to show the most integrated warming, in the tropics from about 15,000 to 45,000 feet, there’s two to three times less warming being observed than would be “forecast” by the UN’s models if they are run backwards from today. At the top of the active weather zone there, the forecast warming is a stunning seven times more than has been observed.

Since around the time that the last UN report was being written, a spate of scientific papers has been published showing that the ECS is quite a bit lower than the UN’s number, by 40-60 percent, depending upon the study.

It seems like there’s quite a conspiracy of nature when it comes to observed versus predicted warming, with various measures all telling us that we’re seeing about half as much warming as we are supposed to in the bulk atmosphere. Further, the Obama Administration assumed a distribution of possible warming that was way to hot at the extreme end, 7. 1°C or 12.9°F, a number that Science magazine recently said was “implausibly high” in a different model.

On the economic side, how much something will cost by the year 2300 requires some estimate of economic growth between now and then. It’s called the discount rate, and there are actually guidelines for how to do this put out in 2003 by the Office of Management and Budget. The higher the discount rate, the less that warming costs that far out into the future. OMB says that “you should provide estimates of net benefits using both 3 percent and 7 percent.”

The latter figure drove the cost of warming down too far for the Obama Administration’s liking, and the cost actually went below zero assuming 7 percent and an ECS not far from what may be the most realistic value. That means it could be a net benefit, something Denmark’s Richard Tol has been saying for decades, as long as it doesn’t warm too much. The Administration wouldn’t go near that, so, in contravention of the OMB guidance, they simply did not use the 7 percent rate, as Kevin Dayaratna of the Heritage Foundation notes.  

For more information on the social cost of carbon, take a look at my testimony from earlier this week before the House subcommittees on the environment and on oversight. A lot came to light in the hearing, which will go a long way towards an EPA justification to cease and desist on its onerous Clean Power Plan and other Obama Administration climate regulations. 

With a presidential administration that is disliked for myriad reasons openly pushing school choice, what had been kind of a cold war over choice for years has exploded into a hot one. And the tip of the anti-choice spear seems to be the New York Times. Last week it ran a piece by New America education director Kevin Carey suggesting that choice has been “dismal,” and doubled down on that yesterday with an attack on choice as an academic “failure.”

Is it a failure? First, the vast majority of random-assignment studies of private school voucher programs—the “gold-standard” research method that even controls for unobserved factors like parental motivation—have found choice producing equivalent or superior academic results, usually for a fraction of what is spent on public schools. Pointing at three, as we shall see, very limited studies, does not substantially change that track record.

Let’s look at the studies Carey highlighted: one on Louisiana’s voucher program, one on Ohio, and one on Indiana. Make that two studies: Carey cited Indiana findings without providing a link to, or title of, the research, and he did not identify the researchers. The Times did the same in their editorial. Why? Because the Indiana research has not been published. What Carey perhaps drew on was a piece by Mark Dynarski at the Brookings Institution. And what was that based on? Apparently, a 2015 academic conference presentation by R. Joseph Waddington and Mark Berends, who at the time were in the midst of analyzing Indiana’s program and who have not yet published their findings.

Next there is Ohio’s voucher program. The good news is that the research has been published, indeed by the choice-favoring Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And it does indicate that what the researchers were able to study revealed a negative effect on standardized tests. But Carey omitted two important aspects of the study. One, it found that choice had a modestly positive effect on public schools, spurring them to improve. Perhaps more important, because the research design was something called “regression discontinuity” it was limited in what it was able to reliably determine. Basically, that design looks at performance clustered around some eligibility cut-off—in this case, public schools that just made or missed the performance level below which students became eligible for vouchers—so the analysis could not tell us about a whole lot of kids. Wrote the researchers: “We can only identify with relative confidence the estimated effects…for those students who had been attending the highest-performing EdChoice-eligible public schools and not those who would have been attending lower-performing public schools.”

That is a big limit.

Finally, we come to the Louisiana study, which was random-assignment. Frankly, its negative findings are not new information. The report came out over a year ago, and we at Cato have written and talked about it extensively. And there are huge caveats to the findings, including that the program’s heavy regulations—e.g., participating schools must give state tests to voucher recipients and become part of a state accountability system—likely encouraged many of the better private schools to stay out. There are also competing private choice programs in the Pelican State. In addition, the rules requiring participating private schools to administer state tests are new, and there is a good chance that participating institutions were still transitioning. Indeed, as Carey noted, the study showed private school outcomes improving from the first year to the second. That could well indicate that the schools are adjusting to the change. And as in Ohio, there was evidence that the program spurred some improvements in public schools.

Choice advocates should not cheer about the latest research, but in totality, the evidence does not come close to showing choice a “failure.” Indeed, the evidence is still very favorable to choice. And the primary value of choice is not necessarily reflected in test scores: it is freeing families and educators to choose for themselves what education is best.

Monetarism is often misunderstood, overlooked, forgotten, or even derided. Yet its basic logic, resting on the quantity theory of money, is evident and remains important in a world of pure fiat monies.

Most major central banks have abandoned monetary targeting in favor of setting interest rates to achieve long-run price stability and full employment. China is an exception. Since 1998, the People’s Bank of China (PBC) has used money growth targets to guide monetary policy aimed at maintaining stable nominal income growth and preventing excess inflation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: PBC Monetary Framework[1]

That said, the PBC’s use of monetary targeting is embedded within China’s centrally planned and largely nationalized financial system. The PBC is subject to oversight by the State Council; the financial system is dominated by state-owned banks; capital markets are highly regulated; and interest rates and exchange rates are distorted. Just as the Chinese government refers to its unique mix of markets, statism, and communist ideology as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” we can call the PBC’s monetary targeting “monetarism with Chinese characteristics.”

Use of Monetary Targets in China

UBS economist Tao Wang and her team describe the PBC’s use of monetary targets:

Unlike some developed central banks that directly target certain policy interest rates or inflation, the PBC has targeted broad monetary aggregates such as M2 since 1998 to achieve its key macroeconomic objectives. The M2 growth target is usually set by adding together the GDP growth and CPI inflation targets plus a few percentage points for “financial deepening.” Although the PBC has tried to increase the use of price-based policy instruments, to date it still relies mainly on managing the quantity of base money supply and directly controlling credit growth to help achieve its desired broad money growth [Wang et al. 2017: 2].

The PBC is not an independent central bank. It is governed by, and reports to, the State Council. Policymakers set targets for the growth of monetary aggregates based on plans for CPI inflation and real GDP growth—the sum of which is equal to the growth of nominal income. The simple quantity theory of money, which lies behind monetarist logic, specifies that to achieve nominal income growth of x percent per year, the quantity of money should grow at a similar rate, with some adjustment made for changes in the income velocity of money:

(1)        ΔM/M = ΔP/P + Δy/y – ΔV/V.

The PBC does not directly control the money supply, which can be expressed as

(2)        M = mB,

where m is the money multiplier and  B is base money (i.e., currency held by the public plus bank reserves).

To achieve its target for money growth, the PBC relies on controlling the monetary base and uses various instruments to regulate the flow of credit (see Figure 1).[2] The state-run banking system in China means that newly created base money can be multiplied into a much larger stock of bank money (Figure 2). When state-owned commercial banks have excess reserves, they lend them out to meet the credit plans handed down to them, creating a multiple expansion of demand deposits. The increase in M will then flow into the economy, first impacting output and employment, and later the price level.

 Figure 2. The M1 Money Multiplier in China Is Working

Adherence to a monetary rule with Chinese characteristics since 1998 prevented nominal GDP growth from dipping below 10 percent from 2000–13, even during the 2008 global financial crisis (Figure 3).[3]  However, with the slowdown in real GDP growth during the last several years, NGDP growth has slowed as well.

 Figure 3. Real and Nominal GDP Growth, China 

Financial Repression in China

On the surface, it may seem that PBC has been reasonably successful in using monetary targeting to maintain steady nominal income growth and prevent excessive inflation. But any assessment ought to consider that Chinese monetary policy is implemented in the context of China’s illiberal and inefficient financial system.

The Chinese financial system is characterized by financial repression—in the form of low or negative real interest rates on deposits at state-owned commercial banks, capital controls, and credit rationing. State-owned banks favor lending to state-owned enterprises (SOEs), rather than more efficient private enterprises, resulting in a misallocation of capital. Deposit rates are purposefully kept below lending rates to keep state-owned banks profitable and generate tax revenue. Inflation can turn real deposit rates negative, adversely affecting savers. Finally, below-market lending rates at state-owned banks create an excess demand for loanable funds and result in the use of quotas to ration credit.

China has allowed more flexibility in setting interest rates but still uses benchmark rates to maintain a positive net interest margin at state-owned banks. Private enterprises that find it difficult to obtain low-interest loans in the state sector move to the shadow banking system where they must pay a much higher interest rate. The lack of investment alternatives, and strict control of capital outflows, has resulted in more than 50 percent of national income being saved. Financial deepening and liberalization have reduced the scope of financial repression, but the financial sector is still under strong state control.

While it is true that China has intervened to lower the foreign exchange value of the yuan, more recently the PBC has tried to stem capital outflows by defending the yuan against the U.S. dollar, and in so doing is using up scarce foreign exchange reserves. That is, the PBC is propping up the yuan-dollar rate by buying yuan in the foreign exchange market and selling dollars. To offset the decrease in base money—and prevent deflation—the PBC must sterilize the foreign exchange intervention by buying securities (central bank bills, etc.) from state-owned banks, adding reserves to the banking system. But this is a tricky business because the larger the capital outflows, which put downward pressure on the yuan, the higher the probability of further downward pressure on the yuan-dollar exchange rate. This reality makes it increasingly difficult to defend the peg and manage the money supply.

Monetarism with Chinese characteristics— in which the PBC targets M2 in line with planned NGDP growth— is therefore compromised by inconsistent, competing policy goals (see “Policy Objectives” in Figure 1), and hindered by heavy state intervention in capital markets. The dominance of state-owned banks in China’s financial system, which  lend to SOEs and take their marching orders from the PBC under the visible hand of the State Council, means constant fine-tuning of monetary and credit policy.

Lessons

In a fiat money world, central banks need an anchor in the form of a monetary rule. The quantity theory of money predicts a close relationship between money growth and NGDP growth over the longer-run. By targeting monetary aggregates since 1998, China has helped prevent severe inflation and recession. Nevertheless, the lack of PBC independence, the existence of multiple objectives for monetary policy, and financial repression weaken the implementation of monetarism in the form of either a Friedman-style constant money growth rule or a McCallum rule targeting NGDP.

The Fed and other central banks could learn from China’s experience with money supply targeting while recognizing the dangers of credit allocation. China pays interest on both required and excess reserves, but the rate on excess reserves is far below lending rates.[4] Unlike the United States, the money multiplier has not collapsed in China: increases in base money have increased the money supply and nominal income.

If the Fed adopted a simple monetary rule, abolished interest on excess reserves,  reduced the size of its balance sheet, ended credit allocation, and lessened onerous  macro-prudential regulation, there would be a much higher probability that the money multiplier would return to normal and another financial crisis avoided.

___________________________________________

This blogpost is drawn from a recent Cato Institute working paper, James A. Dorn, “Monetarism with Chinese Characteristics,” [Cato Institute Working Paper No. 42, February 14, 2017]. Please see this paper for more detail on Chinese monetary targeting and more thorough recommendations for American and Chinese policymakers.

[1] Notes: RRR is required reserve ratio; OMO is open market operations; MLF is medium-term lending facility; PSL is pledged supplementary lending; SLO is short-term liquidity operations; SLF is standing lending facility; LDR is the loan-to-deposit ratio. Source: Wang et al. (2017: 2).

[2] Burdekin and Siklos (2008a: 84–85) argue that interest-rate controls preclude the PBC from targeting interest rates. Thus, a better fit for China is to target monetary aggregates and use a McCallum-type monetary rule. See McCallum (1988).

[3] I chose 10 percent NGDP growth as a reasonable target based on planned real output growth of 7 percent per year and inflation of 3 percent per year.

[4] The PBC pays 1.62 percent on required reserves and 0.72 percent on excess reserves, which is substantially less than the prime lending rate of 4.35 percent.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

Support for the ACA’s community-rating provisions flips from 63%-33% support to 60%-31% opposed if it harms the quality of health care. 55% say more free-market competition not government management would best deliver high-quality affordable health care. FULL RESULTS (PDF)

Most polling of the Affordable Care Act finds popular support for many of its benefits when no costs are mentioned. However, a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey finds that support plummets, even among Democrats, if its popular provisions harm the quality of health care. The poll finds that risks of higher premiums, higher taxes, or subsidies to insurers are less concerning to Americans than harm to the quality of care. 

By a margin of 63% to 33%, Americans support the ACA’s community-rating provision that prevents health insurers from charging some customers higher rates based on their medical history. However, support flips with a majority opposed 60%-31% if the provision caused the quality of health care to get worse.

Majorities also come to oppose the ACA’s community-rating provision if it increased premiums (55% oppose, 39% favor), or raised taxes (53% oppose, 40% favor). However, threats to the to quality of care appear to be a pressure point for most Americans.

When respondents were asked follow-up questions about specific types of quality reductions, Americans turned against the ACA’s community-rating provision most if:

  • It limits access to medical tests and treatments (66% oppose, 27% favor)
  • People have to wait several months before seeing a specialist to receive medically necessary care (65% oppose, 25% favor)
  • It limits access to top rated medical facilities and treatment centers for serious illnesses (62% oppose, 31% favor).
  • If people received more surprise medical bills for services they thought were covered (64% oppose, 25% favor)

Democrats Turn Against ACA’s Popular Provisions When Quality at Risk

Democrats are key to the shift on quality. Majorities of Democrats (58%) would be willing to pay more in health insurance premiums or pay higher taxes (60%) to prevent insurers from charging higher rates to people with preexisting conditions. But a majority would oppose (55%) this rule if it meant the quality of health care would get worse. 

Several demographic groups are less sensitive to financial costs associated with the provision. But, threats to quality narrow the gap.

For instance, 48% of Americans under 35 say they would oppose the community-rating provision if it meant their taxes would increase compared to 57% of Americans 35-54. However, two-thirds of both groups would oppose if the provision resulted in limited access to medical tests and treatments.

Americans earning above $80,000 a year (47%) are more willing than Americans making less than $40,000 a year (37%) to pay higher premiums to prevent insurers from charging higher rates to people with pre-existing conditions. However, 60% and 62% respectively would turn against the provision if it meant they’d have less access to top-rated medical facilities and treatment centers.

Quality considerations bridge the gap across partisanship, income, and age.

Quality Concerns Move People Most on Guaranteed-Issue

We find the same pattern in the second Cato Institute/YouGov survey when asking about the ACA’s guaranteed-issue provision that requires health insurers cover anyone who applies for health insurance, including those with pre-existing conditions. Support for this provision flips from 77%-20% support, to 75%-20% opposed if it caused the quality of health care to get worse. Although majorities also come to oppose the provision if it raised premiums (60%) or taxes (55%), threats to quality result in the most dramatic shift.

By asking these questions on a separate survey, respondents were not impacted by the community-rating provision questions. Thus, we find that quality is a key pressure point for most Americans in two separate surveys.

Once again, Democrats are essential to the dramatic shift on quality. Although majorities of Democrats would be willing to pay higher taxes (60%) and higher premiums (51%), a majority would oppose (65%) the guaranteed-issue provision it caused the quality of health care to decline.

The survey also found that Americans might continue their support for the ACA’s guaranteed-issue (52%) and community-rating (47%) provisions if either required Congress to provide taxpayer subsidies to private insurance companies. This indicates that Americans distinguish between potential costs, are willing to accept some more than others, but are unwilling to sacrifice on quality.

Dependent-Coverage Mandate

At first glance, a strong majority (72%) of Americans support a provision in the ACA that allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26, while 25% oppose. However support plummets to 38% and a majority would instead oppose (58%) if the provision cost $1,200 a year to allow young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plan. (This number comes from a NBER study of the costs of the dependent-coverage mandate.)

Americans Believe Free-Market Competition Offers Path Forward

A majority (55%) of Americans say that more free-market competition among health insurers, hospitals and doctors is the “better way” to sustainably provide high-quality affordable insurance to people. Thirty-nine percent (39%) say that more government management of health insurers, doctors and hospitals would be more effective.

These results are consistent with similar polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found 51% believe market competition would better reduce prescription drug prices than government regulation (40%).

Unsurprisingly, respondents line up by partisanship. A majority (59%) of Democrats believe more government management of the health care system is what’s needed while 82% of Republicans and 59% of independents believe free-market competition would be more effective.

Quality Concerns in Historical Context

The pattern of quality concerns moving public opinion the most is consistent with polling data over the past 20 years. Back in 1994, Gallup asked a similar set of questions about universal health insurance coverage. Like these results, the poll first found strong support 80%-16% for universal coverage. When Gallup asked follow-up questions, as we have done here, support declined to 55% if universal coverage raised premiums. But the poll measured the most dramatic shift against universal coverage if it were to limit the availability of health services with 69%-26% opposed. 

Once again in 2012, the Reason-Rupe poll, which I directed at the time, asked a comparable set of questions about the ACA’s community rating provision and found the same pattern. At first, the poll found a majority (52%) who supported the provision. But 50% would oppose if it raised premiums, and 76% would oppose if it reduced health care quality.

A CBS/New York Times July 2009 survey used a similar wording construction to the questions used in the Cato Institute poll. First, it asked if it was the federal government’s responsibility to guarantee insurance for all Americans, finding 55% in agreement. However, “if that meant the cost of your own health insurance would go up,” support declined to 43%. This survey did not measure how support changed if health care quality was at risk.

These surveys demonstrate that polls presenting only the benefits of health care policies risk inflating support for such policies. Support for even the most popular provisions in the ACA drop when the public is asked to consider their likely costs in concert with the benefits. Furthermore, reductions in the quality of care, more so than premium increases, have the most significant impact on support.

Survey results and methodology can be found here. The Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov conducted two health care surveys online February 22-23, 2017. The first survey interviewed 1,152 American adults with a margin of error of  ± 2.93 percentage points. The second survey interviewed 1,103 American adults with a margin of error of ± 2.85 percentage points. The margin of error for items used in half-samples is approximately ±  5.1 percentage points.

President Trump is reportedly planning to cut the Department of State’s budget by 37 percent. I’m not an expert on the department’s activities, but it would seem ripe for cuts given the large run-up in spending in recent years.

The chart shows Department of State outlays since 1970 in constant 2016 dollars. Real spending has more than tripled the past 16 years—from $9.5 billion in 2000 to $30.9 billion in 2016. The data comes from President Obama’s last budget. You can chart spending on federal departments and agencies here at DownsizingGovernment.org.

The Trump administration apparently wants to make budget room for Department of Defense spending increases, but the Pentagon is also bloated with inefficiency, as discussed here, here, and here.

The Supreme Court in the 1990s established that “a racially gerrymandered redistricting scheme… is constitutionally suspect” under the Equal Protection Clause. Today’s more-or-less-unanimous decision in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia Board of Elections confirms that the Court is not prepared to back off or cut corners on that principle.

In particular, the Court unanimously found that a district court had been too indulgent in reviewing Virginia officials’ race-conscious drawing of lines for legislative districts. While the Court permits some race-conscious line drawing in order to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act, this is not a blank check. “Racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may balkanize us into competing racial factions,” warned Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the first case in this series, Shaw v. Reno (Shaw I, 1993).

In that 1993 case, O’Connor and her colleagues were reviewing a set of North Carolina districts so bizarre in shape that their tactical purpose could scarcely be denied with a straight face. Today’s ruling clarifies, though there had not been much doubt before, that when there is other evidence of racial motivation, the process does not escape Equal Protection scrutiny just because the shape of districts appears normal and they do not visibly violate other sound principles of districting. 

Justice Alito in a separate and Justice Thomas in a partial concurrence would have applied even tougher scrutiny. Overall, however, the Court spoke with much unity. And that is not something to take for granted on this subject. In both Shaw v. Reno (1993) and Miller v. Johnson (1995), four dissenting Justices from the liberal wing disapproved of Equal Protection scrutiny on varying rationales. In a notably vicious editorial after Shaw I, the New York Times assailed O’Connor personally over what it saw as “a full-scale assault on the Voting Rights Act” intended to “punish” blacks and “sustain all-white politics.” 

Today – despite some academic opinion that still yearns to go back to the days when racial gerrymandering was A-OK when done with suitably progressive motives – all eight sitting members of the Court, liberal wing included, appear content to apply at least the Shaw-Miller level of scrutiny. 

Justice Kennedy wrote today’s opinion, confirming once more that he stands at the center of gravity of today’s Court on redistricting issues. Much of the speculation these days is whether Kennedy is prepared to join the liberal wing in disapproving gerrymandering done for political (typically party- and incumbent-protective), as distinct from racial, motives. By coincidence, for those interested in these issues, I have a chapter in the new 8th edition of Cato’s Handbook for Policymakers on the topic of political gerrymandering, with advice on how best to reduce its prevalence at the state level. 

Last night’s address to Congress by President Trump was devoid of detail on infrastructure investment. But in justifying his desire to harness $1 trillion of public and private funds for “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways”, the President used two lines of bad economic reasoning sadly all too prevalent in public debate on this issue.

First was to invoke the building of the interstate highway system. “The time has come,” Trump declared, “for a new program of national rebuilding.” The implication: the interstate highway system was good for the economy, so we should invest more in roads today - a common rhetorical technique, but one which confuses average with marginal.

Previous economic research has indeed found that the construction of the interstate highway system substantially boosted productivity for industries associated with road use. But the same research finds those benefits to be largely one-offs, meaning this analysis does nothing to inform us about new decisions. In fact, more recent work has found that too many new highways have been built between 1983 and 2003, and that marginal extensions to the highway system tend not to increase social welfare, because the cost savings of reducing travel times are small relative to incomes and prices.

In other words, building a highway system can boost growth. Building a second highway system? Not so much. Rather than appealing to grand projects based on historical experience, all new government projects should stand up on their own merits – ideally having high benefit to cost ratios and being things that would not be undertaken by the private sector.

The second mistake was to highlight “creating millions of new jobs” as an aim or positive of any infrastructure spending. When the government is investing to build something, it should aim to do so most efficiently. “Jobs” in this sense are a cost, not a benefit, and ones “created” only come through the diversion of resources and opportunities in other parts of the economy.

Upon visiting an Asian country in the 1960s, Milton Friedman is frequently quoted as reacting to the absence of heavy machinery in a canal build by asking why the project was being undertaken by men with shovels. Upon being told it was a “jobs program,” he is said to have remarked: “Oh, I see. I thought you were trying to build a canal. If you really want to create jobs, then by all means give these men spoons, not shovels.”

If one is concerned with improving the economic growth potential of the economy, then you would base both the selection of projects and the means of undertaking them according to that objective. Sadly, when governments are involved, other ambitions (be it stimulating particular regions, appeasing certain interests, obtaining political prestige or facilitating observable jobs) tend to interfere with the stated aim. The constant talk of the benefits of wise, productive investment is an ambition, rather than something we should expect.

During the presidential campaign Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles candies along with the caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

Trump’s tweet generated backlash from many corners but the general logic of this vivid metaphor continues to resonate for many, despite research that demonstrates that the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack carried out by refugees and immigrants in the United States is astonishingly low. For many Americans, the prospect of just one bad skittle overwhelms a more rational calculation embracing both immigration’s costs and benefits.

But perhaps a different vivid mental picture can help people see the immigration question in a new light.

The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment in ethics. The general form of the problem (quoted here from Wikipedia) is this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the sidetrack. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the sidetrack where it will kill one person.

This is a tough scenario for sure. Do you believe that pulling the lever is the best option? What is your justification for that choice?

Surveys have shown that around 90% would make the difficult decision to pull the lever to save the five people. The justification for most people is straightforward: saving five lives is better than saving one life. But studies also show that it matters a great deal who that one person is. For example, if the person happens to be the respondent’s relative or loved one, a respondent is far less likely to indicate he or she would pull the lever.

When thinking about President Trump’s proposed crackdown on travel, immigration, and refugees, we might revise the standard version of the problem to read like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five refugees and immigrants tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one American citizen on the sidetrack. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five refugees and immigrants on the main track.
  1. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the sidetrack where it will kill one American citizen.

Now how do you answer the trolley problem? Does your justification differ from the justification of your response to the original version of trolley problem?

This second version is, of course, very similar to the refugee and immigration policy problem confronting the United States today, except that in this case pulling the lever (i.e. allowing refugees and immigrations into the U.S.) will help or save millions of people, not just five, for every American that might get hurt. In fact, according to a Cato study, despite the United States welcoming a million immigrants each year and over three million refugees since 1975, refugees and immigrants combined to kill just eleven Americans in terrorist acts between 1975 and 2015. That’s about 41 million immigrants and 3 million refugees “saved” against eleven Americans who died. In other words, the real life trolley problem has 11 million refugees and immigrants on one track and a single American on the other track.

If you believe that the right answer in the first version is to pull the lever, then you either need to pull it in the second version or you need a new justification that privileges American lives over foreign lives in a very powerful way. Nationalists like President Trump do so by simply declaring “America First” and arguing that no Americans should die in order to save any number of foreign nationals.

But that perspective is troubling to many others. The majority of Americans support sending troops to help prevent genocide or major humanitarian disasters. And despite the risks most Americans support sending help in cases of natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Thus for most, though the risk to American lives is certainly a critical consideration, so is the opportunity – even the obligation – to save other people’s lives when possible.

Few people are used to thinking about public policy in such blunt terms, but in the end Americans must decide whether or not they are willing to live with a very modest increase in risk to American lives in order to save and improve the lives of millions of refugees and immigrants. Most Americans, in the end, choose to save the lives of the five people when confronted with the trolley problem. Hopefully a majority will eventually apply the same thinking to the debate on refugees and immigration.

Nearly three years ago, Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president fled the country’s capital amidst massive anti-government protests. The series of events to follow would alter the geopolitical landscape of post-Soviet Eurasia, destabilize security within the wider region and pose a major challenge for U.S.-Russia relations.

Following an unrecognized referendum in eastern Ukraine, Russia proceeded in its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in a brazen act transgressing the notion of Westphalian sovereignty. The United States and the European Union responded by imposing sanctions on Russia, with debatable efficacy, while two ceasefire agreements have failed to end a protracted and bloody conflict on the ground.

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has indicated a willingness to lift Russian sanctions in order to improve bilateral relations—a move which would be unpopular in Congress. Simultaneously, there is continued insistence from the United States and Europe that Russia must return control of the Crimea to Ukraine—a stipulation which Russia refuses to consider. Where do U.S.-Russia relations go from here?

Prior to looking into the policy options, an upcoming Book Forum presenting the recently released book Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, January 2017) will first examine how U.S.-Russian relations arrived at such a precarious point in the first place.  

The book’s authors, Timothy J. Colton (Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, Harvard University) and Samuel Charap (Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, International Institute for Strategic Studies; Former Senior Advisor, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security), argue that a series of grave strategic miscalculations, resulting from years of zero-sum behavior on the parts of both Russia and the United States, have destabilized the post-Soviet Eurasian sphere to the detriment of the West, Russia and the countries caught in the midst. With regional and international security now deteriorated and all parties worse off, Colton and Charap conclude that all governments must commit to patient negotiation aimed at finding mutually acceptable alternatives, rather than policies aimed at securing one-sided advantages.

Please join us for what is sure to be an insightful and comprehensive foray into the roots of the Ukraine crisis during Cato’s Book Forum on March 10th, featuring co-author Samuel Charap with comments provided by Emma Ashford, Cato Institute Research Fellow. You are invited to register for the event here.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, I discuss new economic research showing ObamaCare is making health insurance worse for patients with high-cost medical conditions.

Republicans are nervous about repealing ObamaCare’s supposed ban on discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions. But a new study by Harvard and the University of Texas-Austin finds those rules penalize high-quality coverage for the sick, reward insurers who slash coverage for the sick, and leave patients unable to obtain adequate insurance…

If anything, Republicans should fear not repealing ObamaCare’s pre-existing-conditions rules. The Congressional Budget Office predicts a partial repeal would wipe out the individual market and cause nine million to lose coverage unnecessarily. And contrary to conventional wisdom, the consequences of those rules are wildly unpopular. In a new Cato Institute/YouGov poll, 63% of respondents initially supported ObamaCare’s pre-existing-condition rules. That dropped to 31%—with 60% opposition—when they were told of the impact on quality.

Republicans can’t keep their promise to repeal ObamaCare and improve access for the sick without repealing the ACA’s penalties on high-quality coverage.

The lesson is clear. To repeal ObamaCare, opponents need to talk to voters about how the law is reducing the quality of health insurance and medical care for the sick.

Read the whole thing.

President Donald Trump will lay out some of his budget priorities in an address to Congress tonight. He wants to increase spending on defense, a border wall, and perhaps infrastructure. He also wants to cut taxes and balance the budget, yet does not favor reductions to Medicare or Social Security. His budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, faces a challenge in meshing all those priorities.

The chart shows federal spending in four categories as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP). No doubt, Mulvaney is pondering the CBO baseline projections to the right of the vertical line for 2018-2027. As a share of GDP, entitlement and interest spending are expected to soar, while defense and nondefense discretionary spending are expected to fall. Below the chart, I discuss the ups and downs of the four categories since 1970.

Here are some of the causes of the fluctuations seen in the chart:

1970s: Defense spending plunges as the Vietnam War subsides in the early 1970s. But the cost of new Lyndon Johnson/Richard Nixon entitlement and discretionary programs skyrockets.

1980s: Ronald Reagan boosts defense spending, and interest costs soar due to the rising debt. But Reagan cuts numerous discretionary and entitlement programs. For example, “income security” programs fall from 1.6 percent of GDP in 1981 to 1.1 percent by 1989.

1990s: The end of the Cold War prompts large defense cuts. But the recession and spendthrift approach of George H.W. Bush causes other spending to rise early in the decade. Bill Clinton lucks out as Social Security spending falls from 4.4 percent in 1992 to 4.0 percent by the end of the decade, while spending on Medicare and Medicaid remains fairly flat.

2000s: Medicare spending soars under George W. Bush, partly due to his Part D drug plan. Bush also pushes up spending on defense, homeland security, food stamps, education subsidies, and other programs. However, Bush benefits from the Fed’s policy of low interest rates, which moderates federal interest costs.

2010s: The recession of 2007 to 2009 causes spending on entitlements—such as unemployment insurance and food stamps—to soar. The Obama stimulus package includes big increases for many discretionary and entitlement programs in 2009 and subsequent years. The early Obama years also include high levels of Iraq and Afghanistan war spending. However, Obama also benefits from the Fed’s interest rate policies.

2018-2027: CBO projections show entitlement and interest costs rising rapidly, and deficits topping $1 trillion by 2023. To sustain economic growth and avert a fiscal disaster, Trump should push to terminate and privatize programs in every federal department. He talks a good game, but we will see whether he is interested in actual budget reforms in coming weeks as he rolls out specific proposals.

Notes: CBO data is here. I adjusted the entitlement line to take out TARP from 2009-2011 because it ended up costing taxpayers little or nothing.

For ways to cut federal spending, see this essay at DownsizingGovernment.org.

In Federalist 39, James Madison asks whether the 1787 Constitution

be strictly republican. It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.

The political scientist John DiIulio, Jr. answers ten questions about big government. He shows that regulations and spending by the federal government have risen a lot over the past half century. At the same time, representatives of the people have less control over the people who implement big government. The feds delegate implementation to state and local governments and contractors. These “agents of the people” by and large, he argues, do a poor job.

DiIulio concludes that Americans “want big government benefits and programs, but they do not want to pay big government taxes and they prefer not to receive their goods and services directly from the hand of big government bureaucracies.” Add some lobbying by contractors and state and local officials, and you have big, incompetent government.

DiIulio recalls Alexander Hamilton’s claim that “the true test of good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.” That’s a Hamiltonian thing to say!

Madisonian things ought also be said. The U.S. Constitution promised republican self-government, not efficient tax collection and a skilled civil service. The government DiIulio outlines involves so many people doing so much that elected representatives can hardly be expected to control this vast administrative state. The old hope for republican liberty too has been diminished by the rise of big government.

In a previous Cato blog post, I explained how the House Republican “Better Way” corporate tax plan, which replaces our current 35% corporate income tax with a 20% “destination-based cash flow tax” (DBCFT), could theoretically avoid litigation at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and member countries’ eventual, WTO-approved retaliation against billions of dollars worth of US exports. I concluded therein that, while there wasn’t yet enough concrete information about the DBCFT’s final form to determine its WTO-consistency, the conventional wisdom was wrong to assume that any US corporate tax plan would violate the United States’ international trade obligations. Today, on the other hand, I’ll explain the quickest way that the DBCFT could get into trouble at the WTO. 

Spoiler: it’s all about the deductions.

I won’t reiterate here how the DBCFT is intended to operate and again will acknowledge that we haven’t actually seen any legislative text yet. That said, there is a pretty clear consensus view among economists that the DBCFT would essentially operate as a modified “subtraction-method” value-added tax (VAT) on US corporations’ domestic sales revenue, minus taxable input purchases. This was helpfully summarized in a recent Paul Krugman blog post (emphasis mine):

[A] VAT is just a sales tax, with no competitive impact. But a DBCFT isn’t quite the same as a VAT. With a VAT, a firm pays tax on the value of its sales, minus the cost of intermediate inputs—the goods it buys from other companies. With a DBCFT, firms similarly get to deduct the cost of intermediate inputs. But they also get to deduct the cost of factors of production, mostly labor but also land. So one way to think of a DBCFT is as a VAT combined with a subsidy for employment of domestic factors of production. The VAT part has no competitive effect, but the subsidy part would lead to expanded domestic production if wages and exchange rates didn’t change.

Just so we’re clear that I’m not playing partisan favorites here, Krugman’s view was essentially echoed by Republican/conservative economist Greg Mankiw, who called the DBCFT “like a value-added tax” on corporations’ US sales with “a deduction for labor payments.”

While economists disagree about the economic and trade effects of the DBCFT, the aforementioned descriptions have generated significant (though certainly not consensus) concerns with respect the whether the new tax would be consistent with WTO rules—concerns that don’t arise with a VAT. As I discussed last time, the DBCFT would have to clear at least three hurdles at the WTO—two on the export subsidy side and one on the import side:

  • Export subsidy: The DBCFT would be found to confer prohibited export subsidies under the Article 3 of the WTO Subsidies Agreement where (1) the tax is found to be a “direct tax,” which the Agreement defines as “taxes on wages, profits, interests, rents, royalties, and all other forms of income, and taxes on the ownership of real property” (VATs are a type of “indirect tax”); and (2) the “border adjustment” (i.e., tax exemption or rebate) for a company’s export sales is greater than the actual amount of tax due or collected.
  • Import discrimination: The DBCFT would violate the “national treatment” principle of GATT Articles II and III (on internal taxes) where it imposes a higher tax burden on an imported good than that imposed on an identical domestically produced product.

The concern among us trade lawyers rests in the deductions for labor and (maybe) land that a VAT doesn’t have but the DBCFT does—deductions that could generate violations of one or more of the aforementioned disciplines. This can be pretty difficult to see in the abstract, but the problems—as well as their absence for a normal VAT—become clearer through a simple hypothetical assessment of the tax’s effect on two identical US companies selling and exporting the same product, with one company selling only imported final goods and the other selling identical products with 100% US content. So let’s do that now, starting with a classic example used by the US Government Accounting Office to show how a standard subtraction-method VAT, which taxes corporations’ domestic (not export) sales revenue and permits one deduction for domestic (and thus taxable) input purchases, works in practice.

Effect of Basic Subtraction-Method VAT (No Export Sales)

The table below illustrates the tax treatment under a standard, 10% subtraction-method VAT for two different value chain scenarios. In this example, we presume no export sales by any company involved to make it as simple as possible.

Scenario 1: US-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Lumber Company

US Baseball Bat Manufacturer

US Retailer

Total

Sales

$20 $70 $80 $170

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0 $20 $70 $90

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$20 $50 $10 $80

VAT Amount

$2 $5 $1 $8

 

Scenario 2: Import-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Retailer

Sales

$80

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$80

VAT Amount

$8

As shown above, the total effective tax paid on the final product (baseball bats) is the same in both value chain scenarios: $8. (This assumes, consistent with economic theory, that the full amount of the VAT in the US-only scenario is passed through in each stage to the final sale, so the retailer in this example is in effect paying the full $8 tax, even though he’s only paying $1 directly to the IRS. The tax is thus embedded in the “taxable purchases” value in each of the Scenario 1 tables shown throughout.) As a result, concerns that the VAT imposes a higher tax burden on the import-only retailer (Scenario 2)—thus raising a potential import discrimination problem under GATT Articles II and III—are minimal.

Effect of Basic Subtraction-Method VAT (Export Sales)

The next example shows the effects of a US corporation exempting 100% of its export sales value from its tax base (a “border adjustment”). For the sake of simplicity, only the retailer here exports—50% of total sales—in these scenarios.

Scenario 1A: US-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Lumber Company

US Baseball Bat Manufacturer

US Retailer

Total

Sales

US

Export

US

Export

US

Export

US

Export

$20 $0 $70 $0 $40 $40 $130 $40

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0 $20 $70 $90

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$20 $50 $-30 $40

VAT Amount

$2 $5 $-3 (credit) $4

 

Scenario 2A: Import-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Retailer

 

US

Export

Sales

$40 $40

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$40

VAT Amount

$4

Even with the border adjustment on export sales, the effective tax burden is the same in both value scenarios, thus obviating concerns regarding discriminatory tax treatment against imports under the GATT. Furthermore, this tax raises no concerns regarding prohibited export subsidies because (i) VATs aren’t a “direct tax” under the Subsidies Agreement and (ii) the amount of the tax exemption ($4) for export sales isn’t greater than the amount of the tax that the exporter (retailer) in each scenario would have owed if the baseball bats had just been sold in the United States instead of exported (also $4). As a result, the risk of a WTO challenge to this type of tax system is low.

This risk increases significantly, however, once you add other deductions—such as the wage/salary deduction mentioned by Krugman and Mankiw above—to the corporate tax. This is shown in the next examples.

Effect of a “Modified” Subtraction-Method VAT with Wage/Salary Deduction (No Export Sales)

A provision that permits US corporations to deduct from the tax base both taxable input purchases and domestic wages and salaries would reduce the tax base for all upstream participants in the “US-only” value chain (Scenario 1), thus lowering the total tax paid on the product(s) at issue. However, because a retailer/importer (Scenario 2) would only be able to deduct its own wages/salaries, the imported baseball bats would face higher total tax burden than the 100% American-made baseball bats

Scenario 1B: US-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Lumber Company

US Baseball Bat Manufacturer

US Retailer

Total

Sales

$20 $70 $80 $170

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0 $20 $70 $90

Wages/Salaries

$10 $10 $5 $25

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$10 $40 $5 $55

VAT Amount

$1 $4 $0.50 $5.50

 

Scenario 2B: Import-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Retailer

Sales

$80

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0

Wages/Salaries

$5

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$75

VAT Amount

$7.50

In the example above, the total VAT paid on the imported good (baseball bats) is now greater ($7.50) than the VAT paid on the American baseball bats ($5.50), thus creating an apparent disincentive to sell the imported bats. In other words, if given the choice between selling an imported bat and an identical American-made bat, the US retailer operating under this “modified” VAT would have a financial incentive to buy American because he’d be paying higher total tax on the import. This same incentive would apply to other companies in the United States, and not just at the retail level. As such, the additional wage/salary deduction—very similar to the one described by Krugman and Mankiw above for the DBCFT—raises serious concerns that the DBCFT would be found to impermissibly discriminate against imports in violation of the United States’ national treatment obligations for internal taxes under GATT Articles II and III. 

One could try to argue that this discrimination is not a WTO violation because (i) it’s equivalent to a labor/wage deduction provided through a separate tax measure like the payroll tax (which raises no WTO concerns); or (ii) its discriminatory effects are eliminated through currency adjustments or through an examination of the actual economic effects of US tax reform as a whole. However, there’s little indication that a WTO panel would undertake such a comprehensive analysis, instead of simply examining the basic, superficial impact of the DBCFT measure itself in a manner similar to what I just did above. Indeed, I doubt WTO Members—including the United States!—would want the WTO to undertake such a speculative economic and legal analysis (and panels have in the past shied away from examining actual trade effects).

The border adjustment for export sales provides one final concern, as shown next.

Effect of a “Modified” Subtraction-Method VAT with Wage/Salary Deduction (Export Sales)

If the “modified” VAT included a border adjustment on exports, while still permitting corporations to deduct 100% of wages/salaries (instead of proportional to export sales), the system could create a higher effective tax on an import-only value chain and a possible subsidy for exports due to the over-exemption of tax otherwise due on export sales. Again, in this scenario only the retailer exports (50% of its sales).

Scenario 1C: US-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Lumber Company

US Baseball Bat Manufacturer

US Retailer

Total

Sales

US

Export

US

Export

US

Export

US

Export

$20 $0 $70 $0 $40 $40 $130 $40

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0 $20 $70 $90

Wages/Salaries

$10 $10 $5 $25

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$10 $40 $-35 $15

VAT Amount

$1 $4 $-3.50 (credit) $1.50

 

Scenario 2C: Import-Only Value Chain (VAT=10%)

 

US Retailer

 

US

Export

Sales

$40 $40

Taxable (US) Purchases

$0

Wages/Salaries

$5

Net Receipts (i.e., Tax Base)

$35

VAT Amount

$3.50

In this case, the same import discrimination issue arises as the one noted in the previous example, but the exported baseball bats in the US-only value chain also receive an extra $2.50 tax benefit ($4 in Scenario 1A versus $1.50 in Scenario 1C) due to the labor deductions taken at all stages of the US value chain. It would be difficult to argue, however, that the full value of that labor benefit was due on those exports where only a portion of the labor was used to produce taxable goods (i.e., domestic sales). Put another way, the export sales should not benefit from any tax deduction for labor because they did not generate any tax owed in the first place, and providing this benefit could be considered an export subsidy. Thus, there is a legitimate argument to be made that the DBCFT would generate prohibited export subsidies under Article 3 of the SCM Agreement (over-exemption/rebate of internal taxes owed/due) where it permitted a 100% deduction for a firm’s wages/salaries plus a 100% exemption for that firm’s export sales. That appears to be the case with the DBCFT, though we’ll have to wait for the final legislative text to be sure.

Finally, there is a risk—not shown in the charts above—that the DBCFT would be found to constitute a “direct tax” where it permits so many additional deductions that it more closely resembles a corporate income tax than a VAT or sales tax. In short, the more deductions, the more likely it’s a direct tax (and thus confers prohibited export subsidies, regardless of the over-exemption/rebate of taxes on exports). This question is far murkier, however, that the other two issues above.

Maybe the final DBCFT will resolve these WTO problems by eliminating the extra deductions, or maybe Congress just simply ignores them and takes its chances at the WTO (risking billions in US exports in the process). But that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist, no matter what some DBCFT cheerleaders might have you believe.

It is well known that the Federal Reserve System expanded its assets more than four-fold during and after the 2007-09 financial crisis by making massive purchases of mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries. The balance sheet has not returned to normal since. Total Fed assets stand today at $4.45 trillion, up from less than $1 trillion before the crisis. Whether, when, and how to normalize the size of the Fed’s balance sheet have been under discussion for years.

Economist-blogger David Andolfatto — not speaking for his employer the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis — now offers “a public finance argument” for “keeping the Fed’s balance sheet large.” Viewing the Fed as a financial intermediary, he observes that “The Fed transforms high-interest government debt into low-interest Fed liabilities (money),” and that this is a profitable business.

Curiously, Andolfatto omits to mention two important details: the Fed enjoys such a spread only because it is — for the first times in its history — (a) borrowing short and lending very long, also known as practicing “duration transformation” or “playing the yield curve,” and (b) heavily invested in mortgage-backed securities. The Fed is borrowing short by currently paying 0.75% (not 0.50% as Andolfatto reports) on zero-maturity bank reserves. It lends long by holding 10-year and longer Treasuries (paying 2.42% and up as of 17 Feb. 2017) and long-term mortgage-backed securities.

Andolfatto writes that the Fed’s “rate of return has generally followed the path of market interest rates downward.” While that was true in 2007-08, it should be noted that the Fed’s rate of return largely stopped following the downward path of market interest after 2008. As market rates on five-year Treasuries fell closer to the administered interest rate on reserves after 2008, the Fed shifted from a portfolio maturity of 5 years to one of around 12 years, as if determined to keep its interest income large. This is shown in the following two figures from a 2016 Cato Journal article of mine.

Here is Andolfatto’s closing pitch for embracing the status quo: “Reducing the Fed’s balance sheet at this point in time seems like a needless loss for the U.S. taxpayer. … if the Fed holds the debt, the carry cost is generally much lower. This cost-saving constitutes a net gain for the government. So why not take advantage of it?” The Fed faces an “arbitrage opportunity.” Having the Fed hold Treasury debt, in place of the public holding it, yields a pure arbitrage profit, because the Fed can borrow to carry the debt at a rate lower than the rate at which the Treasury borrows.

Characterizing the situation this way, however, neglects the simple difference between borrowing short and borrowing long. When the Fed borrows short from the banks to lend long to the Treasury, it does not do so costlessly. Duration transformation carries a risk of capital loss, also known as duration risk. Suppose the yield curve shifts up, both short and long interest rates rising together. The Fed will experience a decline in present value of its assets that will swamp the smaller decline in the present value of its liabilities. Such an event is not unknown: in 1979-81 it rendered insolvent about two-thirds of US thrift institutions, who were financing 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with 1- and 2-year deposits. In cash-flow terms, such an event would mean that the Fed would quickly have to start paying higher interest rates to borrow, while its asset portfolio continues to pay low yields and roll over much more slowly. The Fed’s annual net transfer to the Treasury might even go negative. Smaller or negative transfers from the Fed to the Treasury would mean a sudden jump in the present value of the public’s ordinary tax liabilities. Net interest income from playing the yield curve is not a free lunch.

The Fed has also been carrying significant default risk by holding $1.7 trillion of its portfolio not in Treasuries but in mortgage-backed securities. It was not so many years ago that MBS were trading well below par because of their default risk. Indeed it was to push their prices back towards par that the Fed purchased so many.

Responding to a commentator on his blog who pointed out the Fed’s duration risk, Andolfatto remarks: “the duration risk … could be mitigated considerably if the Fed restricted itself to short-duration assets.” He proposes that “If a one-year UST is yielding anything significantly higher than the interest on Fed liabilities, then the Fed can make a profit for the government.” But when we look at the actual numbers, we find that the yield on one-year UST is not significantly higher. The Fed could not in fact continue to make a profit for the government. One-year Treasuries are currently yielding just 82 basis points (0.82%), only 7 basis points more than the 75 basis points that the Fed pays on reserves. Multiplying 7 basis points by the Fed’s $4.45 trillion asset portfolio yields only $3.1 billion in net interest income, less than the Fed’s 2016 budget of $4.5 billion or its ex-post 2015 operating expenses of $4.2 billion. Mitigating the duration risk by going to a portfolio of one-year Treasuries would thus eliminate the Fed’s profit from borrowing from banks and relending to the Treasury.

The principal cases for normalizing the Fed’s balance sheet are (1) the Fed should not distort the allocation of credit by holding trillions in MBS, and (2) normalizing the size of the balance sheet would allow the Fed to normalize the conduct of monetary policy by making bank reserves scarce again. There is no fiscal-free-lunch case for holding off on normalization.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

How can unelected judges limit the power of an elected official like the president? Two political scientists offer some answers in The Washington Post.

First, the public should broadly agree “about the basic legitimacy of the procedures used to review the powerful.” Second, the public needs “accurate information about the behavior of public officials.”

The authors say a free press should and does provide that information in various ways. That’s a good answer as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. Many other parts of our polity have the power and responsibility to provide information about government. To name a few: interest groups, bloggers, think tanks, professors, leakers, labor unions, trade associations, grassroots groups, and many others who might spring to mind with more reflection.

The media does not have a monopoly on informing the public. “The freedom of speech and of the press” belongs to all Americans. This diffusion of power seems especially valuable at a moment when the media lack credibility for so many Americans.

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