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Dr. Ben Ho’s piece in Tuesday’s New York Times entitled “The Conservative Case for Solar Subsidies” is certain to raise a few eyebrows amongst the conservative crowd. But Ho asks a valid question that I’m not sure conservatives have seen fit to fully address in the last few years: What, precisely, should free market denizens hold true about energy policy?

The facile response–that there should simply be no government role–doesn’t quite work here. To be fair, few conservatives suggest such a thing. Ho points out that when there are negative externalities to the production of a good or service the economically efficient policy response requires a tax, and our carbon-based fuels emit a variety of pollutants when burned. This holds true regardless of one’s opinion about the verities of carbon emissions and climate change: Smog–which results mainly from automobile emissions–remains a key contributor to myriad health problems in the United States, and particulate matter resulting from coal burning bedevils asthmatics.

But the libertarian solution is not quite as simple as imposing a tax that covers the socialized pollution costs of burning fossil fuels. We have a nationwide energy grid, one that the federal government played an integral role in conceiving and constructing. Without eminent domain, such a thing would have been all but impossible. The federal government’s regulatory apparatus also has an integral role in regulating power providers, and since the provision of power is a natural monopoly, it’s hard to conceive of an alternative, at least for the moment.

One victory libertarians managed to achieve in the last twenty years has been to convince regulators that the inherent natural monopoly lies solely in the distribution and not the production of energy, so the two have been disconnected in most states. These days, most utility customers can choose from where to get their power, which is a good thing, but it still leaves us with a fundamental economic problem: How do we get a natural monopoly–the operators of the energy grid–to behave as if it were subject to competition?

The basic regulatory solution is to allow the utilities to charge a price to recoup their costs plus some incremental profit. This may sound reasonable, but it creates lousy incentives–namely, the utility has zero incentive to control costs under such a scheme. In fact, they have an incentive to increase their costs and capital investments, since this boosts their attendant profits.

Dr. Ho alluded to the profound potential impact that solar energy could have on this monopoly in the future.  With the advent of Tesla’s home battery, it is possible that within the next decade (provided the batteries continue to improve–far from a sure thing) we could see some houses begin to go off the grid entirely, with solar energy producing all the energy they need. If this were to occur at a large scale, we might see utilities being forced to act as if they were a competitive firm and strive to boost efficiency where possible in order to distribute energy at the lowest possible costs to keep customers from cutting the power cord.

The other possibility in such an environment is a downward spiral: as people leave the grid, the costs of maintaining it gets spread over fewer people, boosting the cost and, in turn, nudging more people to get off the grid until only those without any other viable energy option are left holding the bag and paying sharply higher costs for energy.

The answer to such a potentiality is to embrace technology and apply a modicum of foresight to regulatory activities. While the utilities would prefer that home solar just go away, Ho points out that its costs are now competitive with gas and coal, and prices seem poised to drop further in the future. The potential of solar energy–and solar energy that can be stored–is that it can allow utilities to dramatically reduce their investments. If energy storage were to allow utilities to close marginal power plants that produce only at the peak demand each day, the savings to power companies would be enormous. What’s more, having distributed power across the grid would also allow utilities to reduce their own capital investment along the grid by smoothing out the fluctuations in power distribution: in essence, doing one of the utilities’ jobs for them.

We are entering a brave new world in energy production, one that threatens to upend the century-old regulated utilities monopoly and replace it with something that could be much less expensive to run–but only if we get the right policies in place to let it develop. The one worry is that the biggest player in this market has absolutely no incentive for these changes to happen, and its regulator more often than not takes its cues thusly.  This is the conservative’s task for the next decade–keep a watch on regulators to act in the long-term interests of the customers and not the utilities. It’s easier said than done.


North Korea has grabbed international headlines. Again. Pyongyang staged its 4th nuclear test, supposedly a thermonuclear device.

Proposals for more sanctions and further isolation likely will grow. However, the test dramatically demonstrated that the U.S. attempt to build a cordon sanitaire around the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has failed.

Washington instead should develop a new policy focused on engagement, not denuclearization. The latter should remain an objective, but even if it remains out of reach the U.S. might be able to reduce military threats on the peninsula.

As always, North Korean foreign policy reflects domestic politics. The test also gives Pyongyang greater leverage in its attempt to engage both South Korea and the U.S.

Talks with the Republic of Korea recently ended without result. The North also long has sought to draw the U.S. into bilateral discussions. However, the Obama administration set as a precondition for any talks that Pyongyang take steps toward dismantling its nuclear program, a non-starter.

In dealing with the North there are only second-best options which might ameliorate the threat otherwise posed by a famously enigmatic, persistently paranoid, and potentially unstable nuclear-armed state viewing itself in a perpetual state of war with America and its allies, South Korea and Japan.

The possibility of Pyongyang amassing not only a sizeable nuclear arsenal, but a thermonuclear arsenal, should help concentrate minds in Washington.

Current policy has failed. But more military threats would merely reinforce the case for nuclear weapons to North Korea. Moreover, the North recognizes that Washington has little stomach for a real war with mass casualties.

Additional sanctions aren’t likely to work without Beijing’s support. Xinhua News Agency ran an editorial criticizing the test, but urging “various parties” to “exercise restraint to prevent conflicts from escalating.”

Even if Beijing allows passage of a new UN Security Council resolution condemning the North, China is likely to limit the impact of any new sanctions. The PRC wants neither a messy national implosion on its border nor a united Korea hosting U.S. troops that could become part of an American containment network directed against the PRC.

Moreover, the DPRK has reopened channels to Russia. Although Moscow condemned the test, growing North Korea-Russia ties will discourage China acting against the DPRK.

The status quo has nothing to recommend it. North Korea will expand its nuclear and missile programs. Tensions will steadily rise. Any conflict will become more destructive.

Which leaves engagement.

Demanding denuclearization first ensures failure. As I wrote for Forbes: “Pyongyang is unlikely to abandon its weapon that best deters a U.S. attempt at regime change on the Korean peninsula. A nuclear arsenal has the additional advantages of preserving independence amidst other major powers (China, Japan, Russia), winning international stature for an otherwise minor, impoverished state, and offering abundant opportunities to extort economic and other benefits from fearful neighbors.”

In contrast, engagement at least creates the possibility, though admittedly small, of future denuclearization. First, negotiating with the North is the best way to reduce its fear of an American preventative war and detail the potential economic and diplomatic benefits of abandoning nukes.

Second, reducing U.S. threats against the DPRK would satisfy China’s standard response when urged to apply greater pressure on Pyongyang. Fair or not, the PRC long has blamed Washington for driving the North toward nuclear weapons.

Talking with the DPRK might achieve nothing. But Washington might be pleasantly surprised. Even if Pyongyang refused to eliminate its existing arsenal, the Kim regime might make other concessions, such as limiting future nuclear activity and reducing conventional threats.

So far nothing has stopped Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. Continued attempts at coercion aren’t likely to yield a better result.

As has oft been said, a good definition of insanity is doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Which leaves engagement as the best option for dealing with North Korea.

RealClearPolitics provides a useful tool to compare the Republican and Democratic nomination races today to similar points during the 2012 and 2008 primary cycles. Those nominating contests show that the candidates ahead at this point in the election cycle did not take home the nomination. This suggests that despite Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s persistent leads throughout the summer and fall of 2015, their primary victories remain uncertain.

Averaging across recent December polls, Donald Trump holds the lead among national Republican voters (not necessarily likely primary voters), at 35 percent. Trump holds a 15-point lead over Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in second place at 19.5 percent and an over 20-point lead over Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in third place with 11.5 percent. Trump’s support took-off in July and, for the most part, he’s remained ahead and increased momentum. 

Does Trump’s lead entering into 2016 portend his eventual win? Not necessarily.

At this point in the 2008 primary election cycle, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani led the pack with 23.6 percent. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee garnered 16.8 percent in second place while the eventual GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was in third with 13.6 percent. Like Trump, Giuliani consistently remained ahead throughout the summer and fall of 2007. 

Similarly, in 2012, RCP shows that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich held the top slot at this point in the cycle with 31 percent, while the eventual nominee Mitt Romney was in second with 20.5 percent. Herman Cain was in third with 13 percent.



As for the Democrats, Secretary Clinton has maintained a solid polling lead throughout this cycle for the nomination. Averaging over the same period as the 2016 GOP candidates, Clinton garners an average of 53.8 percent of the Democratic vote. Trailing by over 20 points, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) averaged 31.2 percent in December and O’Malley came in a distant third at 4.6 percent.


Source: Real Clear Politics

Hillary Clinton seems certain to clinch the nomination with little trouble, and she likely will. But it’s worth pointing out that Clinton found herself in a similar–albeit not identical–polling position heading into the January 2008 primary. As she did in this cycle, Clinton had held a persistent lead over her rivals throughout 2007,  Sens. Barack Obama and John Edwards. Analysts were all but certain she would be the party’s nominee.


Source: Real Clear Politics

Average polling throughout December 2007 found Clinton with 45 percent of the Democratic vote. Barack Obama trailed by 20 points with 24.6 percent and John Edwards garnered 13 percent. Fast-forward a few weeks: Obama won the Iowa Caucuses and his numbers soared past Clinton, eventually securing the nomination. Similar to the Republicans in 2012, the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination was polling second at the start of the new year in 2008.

Source: Real Clear Politics


Even candidates consistently ahead in the polls entering into a presidential election year can still falter. Similar to Trump’s persistent lead throughout the fall of 2015, Giuliani and Clinton maintained a consistent lead throughout the summer and fall of 2007. They eventually lost to their third and second place rivals, respectively. Throughout the summer and fall of 2011, Mitt Romney trailed Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich.

Despite these similarities across the last three nominating seasons, there are important differences between the candidates and campaigns. First, Trump has attracted more enthusiastic support with (thus far) enduring momentum and has activated a new base of supporters who have traditionally not voted in Republican primaries. Giuliani did not attract the growing momentum that Trump has, but rather maintained a consistent lead in 2007. In 2012, Republican voters cycled throughout a number of different contenders before they settled on Romney.

Second, there are far more Republican contenders vying for the nomination in 2016 than in 2012 or 2008.

Third, Hillary Clinton’s primary rival is Bernie Sanders, not Barack Obama. Polling of Sanders supporters reveals they comprise a much narrower demographic and ideological base than Obama’s coalition. Consequently, it’s difficult to conceive of a situation where Sanders wins an early primary and convinces enough strategic Clinton voters who actually prefer Sanders that he is, in fact, electable.

Fourth, Sanders has failed to make headway in terms of the “endorsement primary,” which research shows is highly predictive of successful candidates (see Cohen, et al 2008, The Party Decides). That said, Clinton led Obama in endorsements leading up to the Iowa Caucus in 2007, but by a smaller margin.

It’s anyone’s guess what could happen after the 2016 Iowa Caucuses and first few primaries. Nevertheless, based on 2008 and 2012 there is reason to expect changes in today’s polling lineup.

In an earlier post, I argued that addiction per se such should not be regarded as a negative of drug use.  And I discussed recent concern from policymakers and public health officials about Kratom, a plant that allegedly has medicinal properties but that is also allegedly addictive.

In response, I received this email (quoted with permission):

Thank you so much for this article.  I discovered kratom almost three years ago, and have been using it ever since to control the symptoms of severe restless leg syndrome.  I’m a 71-year-old woman, and before finding kratom I couldn’t take plane flights to visit my grandchildren, or sleep longer than two or three hours at night.  Kratom gave me back my life. 

I don’t understand the push to make it illegal.  Kratom doesn’t even seem to be dangerous.  The only thing I feel when I take it is a blessed relief from the squirmy, torturous feeling of severe restless leg syndrome.   

The weird thing is that the prescription drugs prescribed for severe RLS (Usually the dopamine agonist drugs)  really ARE dangerous.  Their side effects are scary (obsessive compulsive behaviors like gambling, nausea, and the showstopper:  the RLS eventually gets worse and the drugs no longer work.  They call it augmentation). 

So thank you.  I really hope it remains legal.  I don’t want to be the grandmother standing out on street corners looking for kratom drug dealers.

Well said.

If you ask just about anyone at Cato what is the biggest problem we face, they will say big government, particularly the vastly overgrown federal government. Gallup finds that many Americans agree with us.

GovExec reports:

The country’s No. 1 problem in the year that just passed was its government, according to a new survey. The Gallup poll found for the second consecutive year, more Americans identified Uncle Sam as the “most important problem facing the United States” than any other issue. An average of 16 percent of respondents selected government, followed by 13 percent who said the economy, 8 percent who chose unemployment and 8 percent who selected immigration.

Aside from having a dim view of the president and Congress, people are presumably responding to the fact that Uncle Sam is so damn dysfunctional. While we are overloaded with news on ISIS and the economy, Americans may also be aware that the Secret Service has been making a joke of itself, Veterans Administration officials have been lying and cheating regarding the agency’s long wait lists, and the IRS director has been so dishonest and derelict in his duties that even mild-mannered George Will called for impeachment.

Those are some of the recent scandals, but federal government dysfunction goes much deeper. I describe the five fundamental reasons for federal failure in this recent study. And I discuss dysfunction in numerous federal agencies here.

Here are the Gallup results, courtesy of GovExec:

Yesterday, NBER released the first random-assignment study of a school choice program ever to find a negative result. Students who received a voucher through the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) during the 2012-13 school year were 50 percent more likely to receive a failing score on the state math test than students who applied for but did not receive a voucher. The study also found negative effects on reading, science, and social studies tests.

The previous research on school choice had been almost unanimously positive. Out of a dozen previous random-assignment studies, 11 found positive results overall or for some subgroups, and only one found no statistically significant impact. Until now, none found any harm.

So what happened this time? As I explain at Education Next today:

Although not conclusive, there is considerable evidence that problem stemmed from poor program design. Regulations intended to guarantee quality might well have had the opposite effect. The [Louisiana Scholarship Program]’s high level of private-school regulation appears to have driven away better schools while attracting primarily lower-performing schools with declining enrollments that were desperate for more funding. 

Louisiana has one of the most highly regulated school choice programs in the nation. Private schools accepting voucher students may not use their own admissions criteria, may not charge more than the amount of the voucher, and must administer the state test. It’s no wonder then that two-thirds of Louisiana private schools do not accept voucher students. Worse, as I explained two months ago, the schools that choose to accept the vouchers along with all their attached strings are likely to be of a lower quality:

Better quality private schools that have little trouble filling their seats are less likely to accept vouchers if they decide — as two-thirds of Louisiana’s private schools did — that the regulations are too burdensome. By impeding the proper functioning of the market, regulations intended to raise quality may have the unintended consequence of lowering it.

Indeed, as Professor Jay P. Greene warned, the few schools “willing to do whatever the state tells them” to receive vouchers are those that are “most desperate for money.” According to the NBER study, “LSP schools open in both 2000 and 2012 experienced an average enrollment loss of 13 percent over this time period, while other private schools grew 3 percent on average.” The authors note that this “indicat[es] that the LSP may attract private schools struggling to maintain enrollment,” and they conclude that these results “suggest caution in the design of voucher systems aimed at expanding school choice for disadvantaged students.”

The results, said Matthew Ladner of the Foundation Excellence in Education, constitute “a very bitter lesson”:

If you are a low-income student attending low-rated schools in one of the lowest performing states, you got the short end of the stick in life. The very good people who designed this program had every intention of this program being a path out. Tragically in designing to keep bad schools out, they ironically kept the good schools out and invited the bad schools in. The road to this hell was built out of the cobblestones of good intentions, but it still led straight to this debacle.

The results are sobering but they shouldn’t be surprising. For years, factions within the school choice movement have argued over the effectiveness and wisdom of numerous regulations. For example, when the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” praising Louisiana for mandating the state test, among other regulations, it launched a vigorous debate. Andrew Coulson and I argued that, while well-intentioned, uniform testing mandates would stifle diversity and innovation. Matt Ladner warned that Fordham failed to recognize the “natural limitations of technocrats” in their overconfidence about the ability of policymakers to guard against the “risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available.” Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice cautioned that governments are “prone to politicial decisions and special interests,” and that accountability should be primarily to parents, not bureaucrats. Jay Greene noted that “testing requirements hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools,” and that “highlighting a measure that severely under-states performance puts those programs in jeopardy.” AEI’s Rick Hess expressed skepticism that “policymakers have a Goldilocks-like ability to find the ‘just right’ solution” and called the Fordham report “surprisingly naïve about the realities of the legislative process and regulatory creep.”

Ultimately, the Fordhamites dismissed these concerns. Future Fordham president Michael Petrilli waved them away as mere “hypotheticals” whereas his concerns—such as parents making bad decisions and the long-term impact of crummy schools on kids—were “all playing out, right now, in the real world.” Noting that “we have to work hard to get the policy design right,” Petrilli “applaud[ed] Louisiana and Indiana policymakers for doing a darn good job on this front with their statewide voucher programs.” Then-president of Fordham Chester Finn, went further, arguing that “it’s insane to expect [the] marketplace to yield quality control, efficiency, and accountability for educational outcomes.”

(Ironically, Petrilli also expressed his fear that “bad private schools will get lots of media attention, which will drive down public support for school choice and strengthen the hand of those who opposed such programs in the first place.” Sadly, the negative findings in the NBER study stemming from Petrilli’s preferred policies are likely to do more damage to the public support for school choice than any one bad school could ever do.)

Petrilli’s concerns about crummy schools are perfectly reasonable. Indeed, all his interlocutors share them. In this debate among friends, everyone wants what is best for children. Where they differ is over the best means to improve educational quality. Given that there is no perfect system, the question is what sort of system is most likely to produce the best outcomes. 

Our friends at Fordham rested their case for test-based accountability on a single piece of evidence: according to a longitudinal study of Milwaukee’s voucher program, test scores rose in the year after the state mandated that voucher students take the high-stakes state test. However, Patrick Wolf, one of the study’s authors, cautioned Fordham against reading too much into that finding:

Ours is one study of what happened in one year for one school choice program that switched from low-stakes testing to high-stakes testing.  As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year.  In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.

If we had had another year to examine the trend in scores in our study we might have been able to tease out a possible test-prep bump from an effect of actually higher rates of learning due to accountability.  Our research mandate ended in 2010-11, sadly, and we had to leave it there – a finding that is enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive.

In other words, Fordham’s case rested on a rather thin reed. Indeed, with the publication of the recent NBER study, the evidence now leans strongly against the technocratic approach.

In the wake of the criticism of Fordham’s policy toolkit, Petrilli expressed an admirable willingness to change course based on the evidence:

Maybe the tests that voucher students take need not be the state tests so long as they’re solid measures of achievement. Perhaps we need to let schools point to alternative measures of student outcomes before they are kicked out of choice programs. Possibly we need an accountability regime that’s completely separate from that which governs the public schools. 

Given the latest evidence, perhaps Fordham will rethink its support for the technocratic approach altogether. 

Presidential candidate Ben Carson released a three-page tax plan yesterday. Based on the limited information the plan includes, it looks like the best GOP plan so far.

Individuals and businesses would be subject to a simple 14.9 percent flat tax. The tax base appears to be of the Hall-Rabushka (HR) design, which is the gold standard of simple and pro-growth tax structures. I say “appears to be” because the Carson three-pager gives some hints, but not full details.

The defining feature of HR is that income is taxed once and only once. The current double taxation of savings and investment would be ended. Capital income would be taxed at the business level under HR, while labor income would be taxed at the individual level. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka proposed the HR tax structure back in 1981, as I discuss here. Rabushka, by the way, is a Cato adjunct scholar.

Ben Carson seems to have avoided the dangerous business VAT structure of the Ted Cruz and Rand Paul tax plans. He appears to be critiquing Cruz and Paul in this passage:

Unlike proposals advanced by other candidates, my tax plan does not compromise with special interests on deductions or waffle on tax shelters and loopholes.

Nor does it falsely claim to be a flat tax while still deriving the bulk of its revenues through higher business flat taxes that amount to a European-style value-added tax (VAT).

Adding a VAT on top of the income tax would not only impose an immense tax increase on the American people, but also become a burdensome drag on the U.S. economy.

I elaborate on Carson’s concerns about a GOP VAT here. My hope is that Cruz and Paul go back to the drawing board, drop their VATs, and release 2.0 versions of their plans. Carson’s plan appears to show a keener understanding of the big government risks of broadening the business tax base.  

Without details, I don’t know how close the Carson plan is to the HR model. But his three-pager indicates that he plans to abolish just about all special deductions and credits. And I like the fact that he makes both an economic and a moral case for flat and equal taxation on all Americans above a low-income threshold.

With low rates and an apparently neutral tax base, the Carson flat tax would be strongly pro-growth. American businesses would have increased incentives to build factories and buy capital equipment. Domestic production would expand, companies would hire more workers, and wages would be bid up. U.S. companies would become more competitive globally, and multinational corporate headquarters would move back to America.

That is all good news. But Carson and the other candidates should pair their tax-cut plans with spending-cut plans. Without spending cuts, the next president will have a hard time getting tax cuts through Congress because of deficit fears. Besides, both tax cuts and spending cuts stimulate private-sector economic growth.

In sum, kudos to Carson for his strongly pro-growth tax plan, and for apparently avoiding the VAT trap. The next step should be for Carson to provide full details to the modelers at Tax Foundation to examine the plan’s revenue and growth effects.

Politicians typically try to win votes by giving away money. Being a political Santa Claus usually is seen as more rewarding than being a federal Ebenezer Scrooge. Which is why there’s now a $1.2 trillion federal student loan program which, the New York Times politely observed, “has been removed from the norms and values of prudent lending.”

Federally subsidized student loans have become a political favorite, as Uncle Sam added $82 billion to his loan portfolio in 2015. An incredible 42 million Americans have outstanding debt; 6100 schools have collected subsidized loans. Congress has created an educational “entitlement” akin to Medicare and Social Security, only for the young.

A lot of that cash will never be repaid. As of 2014, 28 percent of those whose loans became due in 2009 were in default. Anticipated lifetime default rates for cohorts 2007 through 2011 steadily increase from 15.9 percent to 18.4 percent. The Huffington Post’s Shahien Nasiripour warned: “Federal student loans made in recent years resemble the toxic subprime mortgage loans that helped cause the Great Recession.”

After shoveling out money to people with little credit to attend schools unlikely to prepare them for work that pays, Uncle Sam provides multiple outs from having to repay the loans. For instance, people are entitled to three periods of forbearance.

The federal government also forgives loans for students who it believes to have been scammed in some sense by poor quality, typically for-profit, schools. But even in the case of flagrant fraud, why are the taxpayers responsible?

As Megan McArdle pointed out, “People get taken by scams every day, often with the help of government money. Should Fannie Mae forgive the mortgages of people if the buyer misrepresented the condition of the house?”

A multitude of public institutions underwrite what turn out to be very bad ideas. People may need relief but, McArdle observed, that’s what bankruptcy is for.

Congress also has created a forgiveness program for “public service,” which, of course, mostly means public, not service. Private jobs typically offer plenty of “service,” and the government often pays more—along with far greater job security—than private employers for similar “service.” Yet so far some 300,000 people have taken advantage of the program.

As a result, noted the Wall Street Journal, the program is yet another to spiral out of control, “encompassing far more workers than envisioned, many of them well-paid. Thousands of workers with graduate degrees are on track to discharge five-and six-figure debts on their way to typically lucrative careers.”

Next year the “Pay As You Earn” program, passed by Congress but expanded via executive order, will cost Uncle Sam $22 billion in lost loan repayments. PAYE limits monthly payments to ten percent of income and forgives the remaining debt after 20 years.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has pushed a $60 billion refinancing plan to reduce borrowers’ interest payments. We’re all already helping middle class kids attend college. Shouldn’t they at least pay what they promised on their loans?

Publicly subsidized student loans make no policy sense. The “social” benefit from education is greatest at the lowest levels, when people learn to read and write.

College is viewed as the ticket to professional success and attending college yields a large wage premium. But that benefits the individual, not society. Which is precisely why individuals should pay for school, rather than government.

The “social” benefit of piling up bachelor degrees—especially in the soft social sciences—isn’t obvious. Even more so, advanced degrees primarily benefit individuals. It is perverse to force lower income people to finance professional degrees for those destined to be part of the one percent.

As I note for the Freeman: “The federal student loan program illustrates how in Washington the taxpayers always lose. It’s time someone in government began to act in the interests of those who work and pay for everyone else.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to turn their national struggle into a religious conflict. The first is dangerous. The second could be catastrophic.

Yet Riyadh, America’s nominal ally, just demonstrated that it is the more reckless of the two states by executing Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

There is much bad to say about Tehran’s authoritarian and interventionist Islamic regime. But even worse is Saudi Arabia, considered by Washington to be a valued ally.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is essentially a totalitarian state. Last year Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia continued “to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities.”

Freedom House rated the kingdom at the bottom in terms of both civil liberties and political rights. Purported “antiterrorism” legislation allowed the “authorities to press terrorism charges against anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.”

The U.S. State Department devoted 57 pages to the Saudi monarchy’s human rights (mal)practices. Noted State: “The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the ability and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

The Saudi royals are, if anything, even more repressive when it comes to matters of faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that the regime “remains unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam.”

In its latest assessment State noted that citizens are required to be Muslims and that apostasy may be punished by death. Obviously, “freedom of religion is not protected under the law.”

Essentially, Saudi Arabia is an early version of the Islamic State which won social acceptance in the West.

Unfortunately, Riyadh doesn’t limit religious repression to home. The licentious royals propagate fundamentalist Wahhabist Islam abroad. The KSA backed the Taliban regime, which shared Riyadh’s enthusiasm for brutal implementation of 7th century Islam. Some wealthy Saudis supported al-Qaeda before 9/11.

According to Wikileaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that Saudi money continues to flow to terrorists. And the monarchy has generously supported extremist Syrian rebels.

Turning the American military into the Saudi royals’ bodyguard also spurred attacks on Americans The first Gulf War was directed more to safeguard Saudi Arabia than liberate Kuwait; the U.S. garrison left in Saudi Arabia stoked Osama bin-Laden’s anger and was later targeted in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.  Finally, attacking Iraq created the murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became a prolific employer of suicide bombers and morphed into the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia sells the West oil, but out of necessity, not friendship. Any successor regime would do the same. Anyway, the transformation of the international energy marketplace means Washington need not worry about reduced Saudi oil exports.

On foreign policy, Riyadh is as problematic as Iran. Killing a Shiite cleric for standing up to the oppressive Sunni monarchy moved the region closer to multinational sectarian conflict. The royals have made a political settlement in Syria far harder, if not impossible.

Saudi Arabia also is ruthless in suppressing democracy and human rights elsewhere. For instance, Riyadh intervened militarily to back Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy and subsidized Egypt’s brutal al-Sisi dictatorship.

Even worse has been the KSA’s intervention in Yemen. The long-running civil war was tribal more than sectarian, but Saudi Arabia turned it into another sectarian proxy fight. The humanitarian consequences have been horrific.

Instead of being treated as an ally, Saudi Arabia “should be a pariah,” argued Freedom House President Mark Lagon. As I point out in Forbes, “at the very least, U.S. officials should drop the faux intimacy. .”

Of the many bemusing chapters of the whole interest-on-reserves tragicomedy, none is more jaw-droppingly so than that in which the strategies’ apologists endeavored to show that paying interest on reserves did not, after all, discourage banks from lending, or contribute to the vast accumulation of excess reserves.

Apart from resting on logic that’s bound to bring a smile to the face of anyone reasonably conversant with the rudiments of Money and Banking 101, these demonstrations fly in the face, both of the original justification for IOR, as offered by Federal Reserve officials themselves, and of the Fed’s recent decision to double IOR (and, with it, the upper-bound of the Fed’s federal funds rate target range) so as to prevent inflation from rising above the Fed’s 2 percent target.

Now, unless general understanding of basic monetary economics has deteriorated even more than I suspect it has over the course of the crisis and recovery, that understanding still sees inflation as a consequence of “too much money chasing too few goods.” But money can either chase after goods, or rest in bank vaults (or in the virtual vaults consisting of deposits at the Fed). It can’t do both. Thus the logic (and for once it is logical logic) behind the Fed’s decision, both in October 2008 and last month, to check inflation by raising the interest return on bank reserves.

Now on to the exhibits. I start with another passage from the Richmond Fed article by Walter and Courtois referred to in my earlier post. There I noted how these authors shared Bernanke’s own understanding of the Fed’s decision to introduce IOR in October 2008. “Once banks began earning interest on the excess reserves they held,” Walter and Courtois write, “they would be more willing to hold on to excess reserves instead of attempting to purge them from their balance sheets via loans made in the fed funds market.”

Perfectly correct. Nor do Walter and Courtois suggest that there was anything wrong with the Fed’s understanding of what it was up to. Yet, some paragraphs later, the same authors declare that banks’ subsequent accumulation of excess reserves

has mistakenly been viewed by some as a sign that the Fed’s lending facilities — the goal of which has been to maintain the flow of credit between banks, and therefore from the banking sector to firms and households — have not worked.

Now, this is already rather confusing, for as we’ve seen, according to these authors themselves, the whole point of IOR was, not to “maintain the flow of credit” in the sense of keeping it from shrinking — for shrink it most certainly did — but to make sure that the Fed’s additions to the total stock of reserves did not increase that flow, which is to say, did not serve to arrest the flow’s decline.

But let us set our befuddlement aside, in order to allow our authors to dispute the view that the vast post-IOR accumulation of excess reserves was evidence that the Fed’s emergency loans and asset purchases weren’t serving to “maintain” an adequate flow of credit:

To the contrary, the level of reserves in the banking system is almost entirely unaffected by bank lending. By virtue of simple accounting, transactions by one bank that reduce the amount of reserves it holds will necessarily be met with an equal increase in reserves held at other banks, and vice versa. As described in detail in a 2009 paper by New York Fed economists Todd Keister and James McAndrews, nearly all of the total quantity of reserves in the banking system is determined solely by the amount provided by Federal Reserve. Thus, the level of total reserves in the banking system is not an appropriate metric for the success of the Fed’s lending programs.

A gold star to all who spot the fallacy here. For those who can’t, it’s simple: “reserves” and “excess reserves” aren’t the same thing. Banks can’t collectively get rid of “reserves” by lending them — the reserves just get shifted around, exactly as Walter and Courtois suggest. But banks most certainly can get rid of excess reserves by lending them, because as banks acquire new assets, they also create new liabilities, including deposits. As the nominal quantity of deposits increases, so do banks’ required reserves. As required reserves increase, excess reserves decline correspondingly. It follows that an extraordinarily large quantity of excess reserves is proof, not only of a large supply of reserves, but of a heightened real demand for such, and of an equivalently reduced flow of credit.

And what about Keister and McAndrew’s 2009 paper, which Walter and Courtois refer to as the locus classicus of their argument? As Jamie McAndrews has generously contributed, in the course of several recent email exchanges and also in his published works, to my own understanding of the whole IOR business, I’m pleased to report that a careful reading of that paper does not support the conclusion that Walter and Courtois draw from it. On the contrary: Keister and McAndrews understand that, unlike the total quantity of reserves, the quantity of excess reserves is a function of banks’ willingness to lend. Moreover, they remind their readers that the Fed began paying interest on reserves “to prevent the increase in reserves from driving market interest rates below the level it deemed appropriate given macroeconomic conditions,” and that it was only owing to IOR that banks willingly held on to so many excess reserves instead of lending them away.

But while the 2009 paper by Keister and McAndrews cannot be said to confuse the determinants of banks’ excess reserve holdings with those of banks’ total reserves holdings, the same cannot be said of an August 27, 2012 Liberty Street Economics post by Keister and Gaetano Antinolfi. Antinolfi and Keister explicitly deny that the Fed, by lowering the interest return on excess reserves, might encourage banks to “lend out some of these ‘idle’ balances.” Why not? Because, according to their reasoning, “lowering the interest rate paid on reserves wouldn’t change the quantity of assets held by the Fed.” Since lowering the rate of IOR is also unlikely to increase the share of the monetary base consisting of currency rather than bank reserves, it follows that it “will not have any meaningful effect on the quantity of balances banks hold on deposit at the Fed.”

Here is that silly fallacy again: for the question isn’t whether a lower rate of IOR can reduce banks’ total reserve balances. It is whether it can reduce their excess (“idle”) balances by inducing them to lend more. For while such lending wouldn’t serve to reduce the aggregate stock of reserves, it would lead to an increase in the nominal quantity of bank deposits, and a proportional increase in banks’ required reserves. So, even as they caution their readers that “Language Matters,” Antinolfi and Keister blunder badly by neglecting to heed the crucial distinction between the total quantity of bank reserves, which no amount of bank lending can alter, and the quantity of excess reserves, which, by means of sufficient bank lending, might always be reduced to zero.

Speaking of language, one of the peculiarities of how it evolves, according to my own (admittedly inexpert) observations, is the particular tendency of bad language memes to go viral. Once upon a time, some moron imagined that “incentivise” was a word, and the next thing you knew every other moron couldn’t wait to slip it into a sentence.

In the same way, bad monetary analysis has a way of spreading like a wildfire. So I suppose it was only to be expected that Antinolfi and Keister’s “proof” that lowering IOR wouldn’t promote bank lending would be cited approvingly (or at least not disapprovingly) by numerous other commentators. Jon Hilsenrath reported favorably on Antinolfi and Keister’s argument for the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, as did Jonathan Spicer for Reuters, while Mark Thoma included a large chunk of their post in a post of his own, without expressly endorsing it, but also without suggesting that there was anything wrong with it.

The mistaken understanding of Keister and McAndrews (or, as now seems more likely, the correct understanding of Keister’s own contribution to that work) likewise became, in some quarters at least, the popular understanding. Thus, according to Frances Coppola, writing for Forbes,

The volume of excess reserves in the system is what it is, and banks cannot reduce it by lending. They could reduce excess reserves by converting them to physical cash, but that would simply exchange one safe asset (reserves) for another (cash). It would make no difference whatsoever to their ability to lend. Only the Fed can reduce the amount of base money (cash + reserves) in circulation. While it continues to buy assets from private sector investors, excess reserves will continue to increase and the gap between loans and deposits will continue to widen.

Nor, according to Ms. Coppola (writing in another Forbes column), has IOR anything to do with it:

Banks are not being paid not to make loans. They don’t lend out reserves to customers. They only lend reserves to each other. By competing with banks in the market for reserves, the Fed controls the price at which they lend reserves to each other. It has nothing whatsoever to do with customer lending.

There you have it: banks can hold on to reserves, and yet lend all they wish to (though not, for some reason, overnight). Such a marvelous business! Whoever said that one can’t have one’s cake and eat it, too?

Well, banking would indeed be a marvelous business if it worked as our expert at Forbes assumes. Alas, it is not so marvelous at all in fact. For despite what Ms. Coppola claims, banks do, in effect, lend “reserves” to customers no less than to other banks. The lending of “reserves” is more apparent in the overnight market simply because it is reserves per se that borrowers in the market are after, for they need extra reserves to avoid shortfalls that would otherwise subject them to penalties, or to what amounts to the same thing: a visit to the Fed’s discount window.

If, on the other hand, a businessman borrows $500,000 from a bank, it isn’t cash itself that the businessman wants, but other things that can be got for the cash. But as soon as the proceeds of the loan, originally received as a deposit balance, are drawn upon for the sake of acquiring these other things, the withdrawals, whether by check or draft, lead quickly to redeposits in other banks, and thence to a $500,000 adjustment to the pattern of interbank clearings and settlements at the expense of the lending bank and in favor of rival institutions compared to what would have been the case had it not made the loan.

All this is entirely elementary. Yet it is not just the folks at Forbes that don’t get it. Here is what The Economist had to say back in December 2009 about the piling-up of excess reserves:

The point is that the Fed is not trying to increase lending by increasing reserves; it is trying to increase lending by lowering long-term rates and directly supplying credit to borrowers who can’t get it elsewhere. Higher reserves are the unintended byproduct. Well, unintended or not, couldn’t all those excess reserves spur credit growth and inflation? No. Reserves have not been a relevant constraint on bank lending for decades, if ever. Bank lending is constrained by customer demand and by capital. Right now, loan demand is moribund (in spite of a zero federal funds rate) and capital is in short supply.

Although it is certainly true that the Fed wasn’t trying to get banks to lend more, it did not itself believe that reserves were not a “relevant constraint on bank lending.” If it had thought so, it would not have bothered sterilizing its pre-Lehman lending, and it would not have resorted post-Lehman to paying interest on excess reserves. Jose Berrospide has it right when he says that, once that policy was in place,

banks sold assets worth selling, such as treasuries and [other] government securities, because the return on those assets was almost zero. Banks accumulated cash and excess reserves at the central bank because of the interest earned on reserves balances.

The Fed’s creation of vast quantities of fresh reserves did not result in a like increase in bank lending, not because reserves had ceased to be a relevant constraint on lending “decades before,” but because, thanks to IOR, “the marginal return on loans [was] smaller than the opportunity cost of making a loan” (ibid.).

Nor, as I pointed out in my previous post, was bank lending capital constrained except for a brief time during 2009. After that, many banks held both excess reserves and excess capital. As for lending being “constrained by customer demand,” oh puh-lease! The quantity of loans demanded, which is what the writer ought to be talking about, depends on the rate charged. The problem is that no bank was willing to lend for, or to buy assets yielding, less than the rate paid on reserves themselves.

Economists seem lately to have built a little cottage industry around the notion that those old-fashioned accounts of bank lending, what with their reserve multipliers and clearing losses and all that, are passé. To subscribe to them is to be hopelessly out of fashion. Well, call me an old fogey if you must, but I say, show me some au courant writings on the matter, and I will show you some fashionable nonsense.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

The more I read about the case of Dwight and Steven Hammond, the more convinced I am that their prison sentences are a gross miscarriage of justice. After conducting prescribed fires on their own land that crossed onto a few acres of federal grasslands, they were convicted of arson on federal lands, which under a 1996 anti-terrorism law carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

The law says, “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys … by means of fire or an explosive, any … real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States … shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years.” The key word is “maliciously”: there is nothing malicious about starting a prescribed fire, something that is regularly practiced by thousands of landowners as well as the government itself.

In its opinion on the case, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a 2001 fire (which the Hammonds started on their own land but which escaped to federal land) was malicious because Dwight Hammond’s grandson and Steven’s nephew, who was a 13 years old in 2001, “testified that Steven had instructed him to drop lit matches on the ground so as to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’” This betrays a divide between urban and rural cultures. To urbanites such as the judges on the Ninth Circuit, “the whole country” means the entire United States.

This obviously makes no sense; no one would think that a teenager with a few matches could light the whole nation on fire. This is probably why some press accounts reported that Steven told the teenager to “light the whole county on fire,” but even that makes little sense: Harney County, in which the Hammonds live, is the largest county in Oregon and bigger than the entire state of New Jersey.

Ruralites use the word “country” to mean something other than “United States.” Instead, it means what urbanites would call “land” or “countryside” (another word used in some press accounts). Steven Hammond’s instruction to the teenager probably was intended to mean, “burn this entire field.”

The court also noted that the fire “took the acreage out of production for two growing seasons.” Again, this indicates urbanite ignorance of rural processes. Fire is a natural component of many ecosystems, and burning can produce long-run increases in ecosystem productivity that justify short-term losses. In any case, grazing rights on the land in question were leased by the Hammonds, so they, more than anyone else, would pay for any declines in productivity.

Prescribed fire has been controversial within federal agencies for decades. As described in Ashley Schiff’s classic bureaucratic study, Fire and Water, the Forest Service long opposed prescribed burnings. During the 1920s and 1930s, it included such fires in their annual counts of total acres burned by wildfire, which greatly inflated those numbers. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the agency begrudgingly accepted the use of prescribed fire, though it still resisted its use on its own lands in the West until very recently. I remember in the 1980s hearing an agency official calling people who burned their own lands “vandals.”

The Hammonds have apparently been at odds with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over fire before, as a 1999 fire that they lit on their own land crossed over to BLM land, which led the BLM to warn the Hammonds not to do so again without a permit. They failed to get a permit for the 2001 fire, which burned 139 acres of federal land and probably improved its long-term productivity. The fire cost the federal government nothing as the Hammonds themselves put it out.

Nor did they get a permit for the 2006 fire, which was set to defend against a wildfire on BLM lands near their ranch. Such a backfire is standard procedure, but–probably because there wasn’t time–the Hammonds didn’t get either a permit or a waiver of a fire ban that was then in effect due to dry conditions. The fire burned just one acre of federal land, and the Hammonds paid $400,000 of federal fire suppression costs, though I suspect most of that money had been used fighting the wildfire, not the Hammond’s back fire.

The Hammond precedent could severely inhibit prescribed burning anywhere near federal land, which means practically anywhere in the West. While such burning should theoretically be okay so long as people get the appropriate permits, if they fail to follow every single rule to the letter, they could be imprisoned for five years for a “terrorist” act. Even a lightning-caused that starts on private land could be labeled “malicious” if the landowner does not make every possible effort to insure that the fire does not cross over onto federal land.

In chapter 23 of Roughing It, Samuel Clemons tells how, in the early 1860s, he lit a campfire near Lake Tahoe. When he “went back to the boat to get a frying pan… , I heard a shout from Johnny, and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises!” They got in their boat for safety, and “Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame!” Clemons could get away with this because there was no one other than his party for miles around. Today, the world is different, something that the Hammonds apparently failed to recognize.

Defense attorneys for the Hammonds submitted character references arguing they “have done wonderful things for their community.” But the defense brief to the Supreme Court also indicates that they have alienated numerous people.

  • A private hunting guide who testified against the Hammonds about the 2001 fire “had a great deal of animosity to the Hammonds,” probably due to conflicts between cattle and wildlife;
  • The teenager who said Steven told him to “burn the whole country” was estranged from his uncle because Steven had taken sandpaper to the boys skin to remove a self-applied tattoo;
  • One BLM official claimed that Steven had threatened to expose the official’s own careless prescribed fires to get him to change his testimony (an accusation for which the court concluded there was insufficient evidence);
  • In addition, in a classic Western conflict, the BLM and Fish & Wildlife Service were apparently upset that Hammonds had legally obtained water rights for their land and unsuccessfully challenged those rights in court.

Like a Western film noir, it seems that the Hammond’s real crimes are that they live in the past, may be somewhat hot-headed, and have made too many enemies. They’ve more than paid for those crimes with (in Steven’s case) a year in jail and a $400,000 fine. President Obama should grant their plea for clemency.

Unfortunately, their “friends” the Bundys have probably made it politically impossible for Obama to do so. It would be one thing if the Bundys and their friends had conducted an unarmed sit-in, saying they wouldn’t leave a federal office until the Hammonds were freed. Instead, they took up arms and have threatened to shoot anyone who tries to remove them, adding that they’ve invited other people to come and live on and take over the wildlife refuge. Though they clearly have a completely different axe to grind, politicians will be wary that helping the Hammonds would appear to also support the Bundys.

Our recent policy analysis criticizing E-Verify drew a response from NumbersUSA that we did not notice until recently. Most of the NumbersUSA piece is about how well E-Verify polls, which has nothing to do with the system’s failures or how it will harm Americans. NumbersUSA does take an issue with the data set we used for showing that E-Verify is largely ineffective at identifying unauthorized immigrants. As the piece reads:

According to Nowrasteh and Harper, the “the most damning indictment of E-Verify as a tool to force unlawful immigrants out of the labor market” is it’s [sic] susceptibility for identity theft. The authors write that “E-Verify cannot tell the employer, for instance, that the SSN handed to him by a Hispanic job applicant in 2015 in Texas actually belongs to an 11-year old girl who died in Minnesota decades ago.” To be sure, E-Verify was not created to catch identity thieves. And the authors report that “an estimated 54 percent of unauthorized workers submitted to E-Verify were incorrectly found to be work authorized because of rampant document fraud.” That was the finding of a 2009 report that studied statistics from April to June of 2008. The authors present it as if it was a recent discovery applicable to 2015.

The 2009 dataset is older but more reliable and detailed than more recent sets. Also, the NumbersUSA critic acknowledges in his next paragraph that  identity-theft still plagues E-Verify in 2015.  He blasts the Social Security Administration (SSA) for “failing to crack down” on identity thieves and demands further integration with the DHS.

We are glad that NumbersUSA at least shares our concerns over E-Verify’s problematic identity theft issues. However, the problem with E-Verify is economic and won’t be solved by sharing data with DHS. Our immigration laws try to separate willing workers from willing employers where large mutual gains exist. E-Verify is just one of the latest tools to attempt that. Spending more taxpayer dollars to keep these workers and employers apart with ever fancier gadgets like E-Verify won’t work. Liberalizing the law to allow more lawful immigration will. 

Thanks to Scott Platton for his excellent research assistance.

Nowhere is China’s growing reach more obvious than in Africa. President Xi Jinping just returned from a trip during which he promised African officials $60 billion in new investment. Beijing also has grown more active culturally, educationally, and even militarily.

The PRC’s increasing role has created unease in Washington. But China has run into many of the same sort of problems which faced America in the past.

The U.S. obviously fears losing business: African trade with China surpassed that with America in 2009. Beijing undermines Western pressure to improve democracy and human rights.

Yet the ultimate results of President Xi’s visit remain to be seen. The photo ops were impressive, but both the pictures and promises may fade over time.

Dealing with the continent remains a challenge. Many African nations remain in crisis. The November terrorist attack in Mali killed three Chinese citizens.

The PRC appears willing to ignore some risks which deter Western countries and companies. However, no money put into Zimbabwe—a large destination of Chinese investment—is likely to turn out well.

Osadebe Osakwe, managing director of North China Construction Nigeria, argued that “Unless the West changes its risk assessment, the Chinese will beat them to the African market.” But the market is not worth dominating at any price. Observed the New York Times:  “Nigeria is a particularly shaky bet for China.”

African countries also have discovered that Beijing desires what the U.S. demanded in the past: political loyalty, resource control, investment return. For instance, most of the $60 billion will be concessional loans. Assuming the money is forthcoming. Observed Claire Provost and Rich Harris in the Guardian, many past projects announced with great fanfare “never make it past the ceremonial pledges.”

Moreover, Africa long has been awash in “aid” from multilateral development banks, but much of that has been stolen or wasted. Beijing’s experience so far is no different.

For instance, more than a $1 billion essentially vanished, noted the Economist magazine, after being invested in a palm oil plantation in a region where “there were no roads, the river was barely navigable and villagers were hostile.” Because of the lack of conditionality, observed Brad Parks of the research lab AidData, “African officials know that they have more leeway with Beijng’s money, and they use it.”

Even cheap loans may become a significant burden to repay. Observed the Times: “Infrastructure projects in Nigeria have been fueled by the same manic lending that has also created mountains of debt for China’s economy at home.”

The PRC also often demands concessions for land, minerals, or other commodities in return. Moreover, Beijing often requires use of Chinese firms, even bringing laborers from the PRC. This is seen as a new version of neocolonialism.

In fact, the “Ugly Chinese” looks a lot like the “Ugly American” before. Explained a recent Rand Corporation report: “Labor unions, civil society groups, and other segments of African society criticize Chinese enterprises for their poor labor conditions, unsustainable environmental practices, and job displacement.”

Both sides must worry about declining growth rates. As China’s economy has slowed, demand for African commodities—food, minerals, and energy, in particular—has weakened. Another problem is that Chinese products have gained a reputation for being shoddy and counterfeit.

Thus, Western fears of Chinese domination in Africa appear overblown. Although Beijing has attempted to adapt to criticism, “African perceptions of China include a mix of approval, apathy, and contempt,” reported the Rand Corporation.

While America’s role has shrunk, I argue on China-US Focus that “the U.S. remains the largest, most productive, and most attractive economic partner for African nations. American enterprises also have a reputation for offering better working conditions, purchasing local products, and transferring more technologies.”

The U.S. has lost economic primacy in Africa, as in Asia, to China. But America likely will do just fine as long as they compete rather than whine about a changing world.

Amidst increased public scrutiny of policing practices and rising concerns over police officer safety, a recent Cato/YouGov national survey finds fully 65% of Americans say there is a “war on police” in America today. Majorities across partisan groups share this view, although Republicans (81%) express greater concern than independents (62%) and Democrats (55%). 

While Americans are concerned about police safety, this does not mean they wish to avoid reform. Instead, Americans overwhelming support (92%) requiring police officers wear body cameras that would record video of their interactions. Moreover fully 6 in 10 “strongly support” such a proposal. A paltry 8% oppose police wearing body cameras. Support extends across demographic and political groups. In an era of hyper-partisanship, police wearing body cameras achieves rare post-partisan consensus.

Sign up here for Cato’s regular digest of Public Opinion Insights.

Studies of police departments reveal officers perceive public support for body cameras as an indication of public distrust. However, this does not comport with this survey’s findings. Americans who have a favorable opinion of the police are as likely as those with an unfavorable view to support implementing a police body camera program in their community. 

Moreover, Americans do not view the police wearing body cameras as exclusively protecting citizens from the police. Instead, 81% believe such a policy will protect both—the police officers who wear them and the citizens who interact with the police—equally. Only 10% expect cameras to protect citizens more and 9% percent expect cameras to protect police officers more. While African-Americans and Hispanics (19%) are about three times as likely as Caucasians (7%) to say cameras will primarily protect citizens, overwhelming shares of all groups still say cameras will protect both members of the public and officers equally. 

A truth too often overlooked is that public support for a policy is not synonymous with a willingness to pay for it. However in the case of body cameras, a majority—55%—of Americans says they would be willing to pay higher taxes in order to outfit their local police department with body cameras, while 45% would not support increased taxes for this purpose. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasizing that if support were contingent on raising additional revenues, initial support decreases a substantial 37 points.

Politics, rather than demographics, primarily drive attitudes toward tax increases for body cameras. Sixty-five percent of Democrats (including independent leaners) say they’d pay higher taxes in exchange for a police body camera program, while 35% oppose. Conversely, a majority (54%) of Republicans (including leaners) oppose raising additional revenues and prefer local governments redirect funds from other programs to pay for police body cameras, while 46% would favor. There are not significant differences across race, gender, and age. Furthermore, favorability toward the police does not correlate with support for raising tax revenues for cameras.

Police body camera policy becomes particularly contentious when it comes to accessing the video footage. Fifty-two percent of Americans say police officers ought to be allowed to watch body camera footage before making their official statement about violent encounters, while 48% oppose. Recent legislative trends have favored police advocates’ recommendation that police officers be allowed to view video footage before making any official statements. They reason doing so allows officers to “more clearly” remember a stressful incident and point out that officers will still have to explain their actions. However body camera advocates have warned that allowing officers to view the footage beforehand creates an opportunity for officers to change their stories in efforts to absolve themselves from blame. This will likely remain a contentious policy issue going forward.

Public support for early officer access to video footage hinges largely on favorability toward the police. Among those with a favorable opinion of the police, 61% say officers should be allowed to watch the video footage before making a statement, while 39% say they should not. Results are reversed among those with an unfavorable view of the police: 74% say officers should not be allowed to watch the footage while 26% say they should. There are stark political divisions as well: 59% of Democrats oppose early access while 68% of Republicans favor early access. Non-partisan independents are divided but lean with Democrats with 53% opposed to early video access. A similar pattern emerges across ideology, with respondents who identify as “very liberal” stridently opposed (72%) while “very conservative” respondents are firmly in support (64%). Self-identified libertarians reflect moderates with slightly more in favor than opposed (55% v 45%).

Race, income, and living in a city or suburb also correlate with support for officers obtaining early access to body camera footage. Majorities of Caucasians (57%), individuals living in the suburbs and rural areas (56%), and households making more than $50,000 a year (58%) say officers ought to be allowed to watch camera footage before making an official statement of a violent encounter. Conversely, majorities of African-Americans (65%), Latinos (51%), city dwellers (56%), and households making less than $50,000 a year (55%) oppose allowing an officer view video footage before making an official statement.  A simple statistical model that simultaneously controls for race/ethnicity, urban density, and income finds that race and living in a city both exert independent effects on attitudes, while income loses statistical importance.


Americans support equipping their local police departments with body cameras even if doing so requires them pay higher taxes. Furthermore, animus toward the police does not appear to drive support for police body cameras. Police favorability does not correlate with support for the program, raising taxes to pay for cameras, or whether one believes cameras better protect citizens or police officers.

One explanation for broad public support is that different groups favor body cameras and raising revenues to pay for them for different reasons. Those who trust the police may view cameras as a safeguard protecting police officers from frivolous lawsuits or may encourage citizens to behave better when interacting with cops. Furthermore, this disproportionately conservative group also tends to view policing as part of the proper role for government and thus may be more willing to raise taxes for this purpose. On the other side, those distrustful of the police may view cameras as a way to encourage officers to behave better and will make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct.

Favorability—and by extension public trust—of the police does play a significant role when it comes to providing individual officers early access of video footage. Those with greater confidence in their local departments likely trust that officers won’t use their early access to change their stories or mislead investigators. Conversely those who lack confidence in their local police likely worry that officers who view footage before making statements will use the opportunity to absolve themselves from blame.

For more public opinion analysis and upcoming public opinion studies sign up here for Cato’s regular digest of Public Opinion Insights.

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2000 adults was conducted November 19-24, 2015 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the US population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.27 percentage points. Topline (.pdf) results can be found here, full methodological details can be found here.

Note: In this report, Democrats include independents who lean Democratic and Republicans include independents who lean Republican. Independents include those who said they did not lean toward either the Democratic or Republican parties.

The Identity Project says that a new DHS “Rumor Control” web page lies about the REAL ID Act. That may be true, but a lie is an intentional misstatement, and we don’t know if the PR professional who wrote the material on that page knows the issues or the law. Let’s review the record, taking each of the rumors DHS addresses in turn, so that the agency doesn’t misstate the federal government’s national ID policy in the future.

Rumor: I need a passport to fly domestically

The DHS is correct that residents of any state can currently use their drivers’ licenses and IDs, as well as a variety of other forms of ID, at TSA checkpoints. Last fall, though, in an effort to buffalo states into compliance, DHS officials and others started fanning rumors that TSA would soon refuse the IDs and licenses of states that resisted the national ID program. You don’t need a passport to fly yet.

Given the practice of checking IDs at airport checkpoints, the upshot of REAL ID compliance would be that the U.S. will have an internal passport system for domestic air travelers. You don’t need a passport to travel within the United States now, but that is the direction the policy is going.

Rumor: TSA isn’t going to accept my driver’s license starting on January 1, 2016

It must have been reassuring when DHS’s “Rumor Control” page started spreading this good news on December 31, 2015….

After deferring deadlines many times since the statutory deadline came and went in May 2008, DHS said last year that it would begin to refuse IDs from recalcitrant states “no sooner than 2016,” and it has said it would provide 120-days’ notice before it did. But the desire to manufacture urgency and bring states to heel seems to have gotten the better of the department, and refusal of IDs on January 1 became a widespread belief.

In fact, TSA will never institute a policy of turning away travelers from recalcitrant states. The reason why is the tidal wave of blame the agency would bring down on itself and the Congress if it ever followed through on this threat.

That doesn’t mean its brinksmanship won’t work. Many governors and state legislators haven’t calculated what the politics look like, and they don’t know that DHS has backed down every time a state has refused them.

What’s also little understood is that DHS is picking and choosing which states to threaten based not on the REAL ID law, but on an in-house “material compliance checklist.” DHS is issuing blanket waivers of some terms of the law to some states while it tells state officials in other states that it is absolutely required to enforce other terms against them.

Rumor: I need to get a new driver’s license or passport

The DHS response here says, “The REAL ID Act places the responsibility for action on the state, not residents of the state.” A more complete clarification would say, “The REAL ID Act threatens residents of states to coerce action out of their state representatives.”

The only thing that might require people to get new driver’s licenses is their state legislatures and governors caving to the DHS and putting them into the national ID system. People in those states will be required to go back to the DMV and stand in line to show papers proving that they’re legally entitled to be in the country. That’ll be a challenge for many people, an insult to others, costly and time-consuming for everyone.

Rumor: The Department of Homeland Security is trying to build a national database with all of our information

DHS should not try to refute this again. Doing so is untruthful, false, not accurate, and incorrect. As I’ve noted before, the law requires states to

(12) Provide electronic access to all other States to information contained in the motor vehicle database of the State.

(13) Maintain a State motor vehicle database that contains, at a minimum –

(A) all data fields printed on drivers’ licenses and identification cards issued by the State; and
(B) motor vehicle drivers’ histories, including motor vehicle violations, suspensions, and points on licenses.

Who knows why those two items are listed out of order, but compliance with REAL ID means maintaining a big database and sharing it with every other state. States that don’t do that are non-compliant with the REAL ID Act. DHS isn’t requiring it yet—it’s not on their “material compliance checklist”—but if states get on board, DHS will add this statutory requirement to the list.

REAL ID compliance now will put states “in for a penny, in for a pound.” They’re going to have to share lots of information about their residents with other states and the federal government.

Rumor: I can’t use my license to access a federal facility or nuclear power plant

As part of its staged implementation, DHS says that agencies are to refuse IDs from non-compliant states at federal facilities and locations regulated by federal identification rules. You see lots of announcements in the Federal Register about meetings where IDs from non-compliant states will be refused, and I’ve heard anecdotes about people coming to Washington, D.C., for government meetings being warned to have compliant IDs if their states are on the wrong side of DHS. What we haven’t seen yet is anyone actually turned away from a meeting, a courthouse, or other location because the only ID they had was from a non-compliant state.

When someone is turned away from a meeting or government facility for not having a national ID, the lawsuit will be really interesting. DHS will have to claim that it can condition the right to petition the government (for example) on showing ID. And it will raise the question whether a person can be denied a constitutional right because they live in a state whose driver licensing policy differs from what the federal government prefers. The lawsuit will also expose that DHS is picking and choosing among provisions of the REAL ID law to treat as “compliance.”

So, if you want your life to be easy, bring a passport on your next tour of a nuclear facility. But there are people in the country who stand on principle for liberty, sometimes at substantial cost to their convenience.

Accepting Syrian migrants in America and Europe has become an increasingly divisive political issue. While the Gulf States have refused to offer refuge to any fleeing Syrians, Syria’s direct neighbors bear a huge burden, with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey each hosting more than a million refugees. More than four million people have left Syria and even more have been displaced internally.

Last year I visited Zaartari Refugee Camp, located just a few miles from the Syrian border in Jordan. I was traveling with International Orthodox Christian Charities, which carries out an expansive ministry addressing the many needs of Syrians inside and outside of their country.

Zaartari, just a few miles from the Syrian border, opened in July 2012 and now contains around 80,000 people, making it Jordan’s 4th largest “city.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has overall authority to care of refugees, but a multitude of other governments and NGOs, such as the IOCC, my host, support Zaartari’s operations.

Camp residents are dependent on the charity of others. Economic life is almost entirely controlled from outside.

I visited a clinic which typically serves about 700 people daily. Samer Makahleh, with the Jordan Health Aid Society, coordinates health care programs. “To fill gaps we go to outside partners like IOCC,” he explained. Two people came up to me during my brief visit seeking financial support for operations.

Refugees receive a stipend of roughly $30 a month. Many also work for the camp, NGOS, or in private shops. Most surprising may be the diversity of private businesses, around 2500 in all, many of which line the main street, called the Champs-Elysees. (I’ve included photos in my photo-essay on Forbes online.)

The UNHCR estimates that 60 percent of working age refugees are employed to some degree. Helping with security was 22-year-old Abdul al-Jabbar, who said his family of nine came from the city of Daraa to the camp three years ago. Life is difficult, he said, “but at least we are alive. We must adapt.”

Almost anything is available for a price. Shops sell food, cell phones, tools, household supplies, and clothes, including wedding dresses, which are available for rent. There are barbers and hair-dressers. Restaurants and cafes.

Residents can buy falafels and order pizzas. There’s even a travel agency, though few refugees are in a position go far. I bought a few worry beads to supplement my supply.

Homes are a mix of tents and containers, which can be purchased by residents to gain a bit more protection from the extremes of hot and cold. Most refugees now have their own latrines and kitchens, instead of having to rely on communal facilities.

The landscape is dusty, a bit out of Mad Max World, suggested journalist Mark Haddon of London’s Daily Mail. But there are spots of green. Two homes, across from each other, have a few plants growing outside.

Both families, from the Syrian city of Daraa, were farmers. They are determined to preserve a little memory of home, and use wastewater to keep the plants alive.

The future weighs heavily. Many refugees want to return to homes which may no longer exist. Others would like to try life outside of the camp in Jordan, but cannot go legally without financial sponsorship. Resettlement elsewhere grows less likely as political opposition to increased immigration rises.

Still, life goes on. One of al-Jabbar’s sisters is engaged. The present may be difficult, but who wants to wait for a future which may never come?

As I write in Forbes online, “people in America and elsewhere in the West enjoy lives of comparative privilege. We should respond with compassion to those in need. Even Americans afraid to open their nation to Syrian refugees can give to organizations which help care for the human tsunami from Syria.”

“Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers of mine, you did for me,” said Jesus. (Matthew 25:40) Helping refugees in Zaartari would be a fine place to start.

We’ve all heard it said that the “rich are getting richer” while the middle class suffers. Political figures on both the right and left frequently speak about the need to “bring back” or “restore” the “disappearing” middle class. Pew Research Center just put out a report that calls those ideas into question, according to a recent Washington Post opinion piece.

The report shows that from 1971 to 2014, middle-income households (meaning three-person households making from $41,869 to $125,608 annually in inflation-adjusted dollars) decreased from 61 to 50 percent of U.S. households. Why the 11 percentage point difference?

Seven of those 11 percentage points can be explained by households moving into a higher income bracket. High-income households grew from 14 percent to 21 percent of all households during the same period.

The Pew report also stated that all income groups have typically made double-digit pre-tax income gains since the 1970s:

Middle-income household income increased by 13% in the 1970s, 11% in the 1980s, and 12% in the 1990s. Lower-income households had gains of 13% in the 1970s, 8% in the 1980s and 15% in the 1990s. Upper-income households registered a 10% gain in the 1970s [and] 18% in both the 1980s and 1990s.

Then the Great Recession struck in the late 2000s. But even the Great Recession only removed 6 percentage points from the gains made by the middle class. In 2000, an average middle-income household earned 40 percent more than in 1970. In 2014, an average middle-income household earned 34 percent more than in 1970.

The Washington Post piece opines that “We’ve mistaken what is plausibly a one-time setback—the response to the Great Recession—for long-term stagnation. People have understandably but wrongly taken their recent experience and projected it onto the past.” We cannot predict the future, but it certainly seems as though the middle class has fared better than many people believe.

Yet another top North Korean official has met a violent and untimely death. No one knows if it was a tragic accident or political assassination.

Kim Yang-gon was in charge of negotiations with South, where he was respected. He supposedly died in an early morning car accident. A surprising number of North Korea’s high officials appear to leave the world this way; yet defectors say accidents are common given the poor streets and tendency of top officials to drive drunk.

Still, it looks suspicious. But it doesn’t appear to be a state-sanctioned hit. Dictator Kim Jong-un praised his “close comrade-at-arms” and showed emotion at the state funeral. 

Perhaps a rival took out Kim Yang-gon. However, while he was well-connected, having served “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il too, it’s not apparent that he is the sort of rival worth killing.

Which leaves everyone outside again looking through the mirror darkly, as the Bible puts it.

The Korean status quo obviously is unsatisfactory. Indeed, it is positively dangerous. While everyone discounts North Korea’s endless threats against both South Korea and the U.S., as the North’s military capabilities grow people are more likely to treat them as warnings to be taken seriously. Proposals for military action against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might enjoy a revival.

Of course, the more dangerous Pyongyang perceives the international environment, the more committed it likely will become to building a sizeable nuclear arsenal and missile force. And to the extent that the North can argue that it is responding defensively to America, the less likely Beijing will be to apply more pressure on the DPRK.

An intrepid few have forthrightly proposed military action. But that would be a wild gamble, risking thousands of lives, mostly Korean, on both sides.

Enhanced sanctions look pretty good compared to war. And tighter financial controls would make it much harder for the Kim regime to do business with the world. However, Sudan gets by despite strict financial controls.

Moreover, without Beijing’s acquiescence, the U.S. won’t be able to cut the North’s lifeline. Forcing a national implosion would have unpredictable and potentially violent consequences.

For some the People’s Republic of China is the preferred option. Just get the PRC to force the North into line. That presumes Beijing has the ability to do so.

Moreover, the PRC has good reason to choose the status quo over creating the possibility of chaos and war on China’s southern border. Moreover, Beijing is unlikely to do any favors for the U.S., which would use a united Korea as part of a containment strategy against China.

If none of these, then what?

Some form of engagement with the objectives of moderating regime behavior, easing the threat environment, constraining arms development, encouraging domestic reform, and improving human development. Not because the chances of success seem great, but because there is no better option.

That means the South should continue talks despite Kim Yang-gon’s death. In fact, in his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un expressed his desire to improve bilateral relations.

And as I argue on National Interest online: “the U.S. should open a dialogue, with the objective of initiating official though low-key relations. A diplomatic presence in Pyongyang would provide a small keyhole for peering into this mysterious country. Although expectations should be low, tempering hostilities could lead to additional benefits, especially if Kim Jong-un uses next year’s party congress to modernize.”

Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That certainly describes the DPRK for the West. Kim Yang-gon’s death only makes the puzzle more complex. Increasing contact with Pyongyang is the best way to begin to understand the North and influence its future.

History weighs heavily on East Asia. To Washington’s enduring frustration, its two most important democratic allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea, have been at odds for decades.

The divergence between the two grew especially sharp over the last couple of years, during which ties between Seoul and the People’s Republic of China notably warmed while those between Japan and the PRC sharply deteriorated, driven by the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Moreover, South Korea had its own contentious territorial contretemps with Tokyo.

Both parties deserved blame. The South was determined to hang onto emotional grievances—serious and real, but long past. Japan insisted on justifying indefensible actions whose perpetrators were long dead. Destructive domestic politics ruled.

At the end of December, however, the two countries tried to put the issue of the “comfort women” behind them. Beginning in 1931, with Japanese military operations in China, Tokyo created brothels for its soldiers. For years Japanese officials insisted that the women were prostitute voluntarily engaged, despite evident coercion.

Now Japan has apologized and agreed to create a compensation fund. In return, the ROK promised to drop the matter and “address” the issue of the private statue of a young girl, representing the comfort women, facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

It’s an important step forward, but does not yet close the issue. Both leaders have been called “traitors” by domestic critics. South Koreans have protested and termed the accord “humiliating.”

Unsurprisingly, the PRC denounced the agreement. Beijing cited the plight of Chinese comfort women. Japan must “face up to its history and take concrete actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

Of course, that is precisely what Tokyo has been doing. It previously moved ahead with relations with India. Manilla has publicly urged Japan to do more to promote regional security. Tensions never have been as great with Taiwan and Australia.

Most interesting are the implications for the Japan-Korea-China triangle. An unnamed State Department official called the agreement “strategically consequential.”

While Tokyo and the ROK have been at odds, Beijing and Seoul have ostentatiously embraced, with President Park meeting PRC President Xi-Jinping several times. This has simultaneously hindered U.S. efforts to isolate and contain China and added pressure on North Korea to moderate its behavior.

The PRC’s warm feelings toward South Korea may ebb a bit as a result of the pact, but Beijing cannot easily criticize another government—the sort of interference with internal affairs which it routinely decries when directed in its direction. Moreover, the bilateral economic ties are too important great for the two nations to drift apart.

While the pact opens the way for expanded military cooperation between the ROK and Seoul, President Park is unpopular and nearing the end of her term. More important, the two nations face very different security situations.

In contrast to Japan, the South fears North Korea more than the PRC. The historical and territorial disputes between Beijing and South Korea are very unlikely to lead to war.

Thus, irrespective of Washington’s wishes, it makes sense for Seoul to continue to prioritize its relationship with China over that with Tokyo. In contrast, Japan has little desire to get sucked into a land war on the Korean peninsula, while worrying mightily about Beijing’s naval advances.

Only if the ROK appears to actively join America in seeking to contain the PRC might Chinese-South Korean relations suffer. And Seoul is unlikely to make that mistake. The giant next door will always be there. The U.S. will remain the world’s leading power for years, but no longer can afford to police the globe.

As I point out in National Interest: “The South Korean-Japanese settlement is a positive step. But while it will ease tensions between America’s two top allies, it isn’t likely to turn their relationship into a new anti-China axis. Washington’s job in East Asia has gotten easier, but only somewhat.”

There are no good guys to cheer for in the militia takeover of an Oregon federal office building on January 2. The ostensible issue is the re-sentencing of two Oregon ranchers–Dwight Hammond and son Steven Hammond–for arson, while the underlying issue is federal land ownership of much of the West.

The arson fires lit by the Hammonds in 2001 and 2006 may have actually represented sensible land management, but the Hammonds lost the high ground by their failure to coordinate with the government agency managing the land they burned. Prescribed fire is a tool used to improve wildlife habitat, increase land productivity, and control wildfire. The 2001 fire aimed at improving productivity, but the government says the ranchers didn’t bother informing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) they planned to burn until two hours after they lit the fire. While they lit the fire on their own land, it escaped and burned 139 acres of federal land, but that burning probably did not do serious damage to the grassland and they put the fire out themselves.

The 2006 fire was more questionable. A wildfire was burning on BLM land near the Hammond’s ranch, so to defend their land they lit a backfire on their own land. That would be standard procedure except, again, they didn’t tell anyone and when their fire crossed over onto federal land it endangered firefighters who the Hammonds apparently knew were located between the wildfire and their backfire. Due to severe fire hazards, the county had a no-burn rule which the Hammonds apparently violated, but this was hardly a terrorist act.

For these actions, they were sentenced to a year in jail, which possibly was appropriate considering they endangered people’s lives. But the federal government, citing an anti-terrorism law that sets a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for arson on federal land, demanded that they be re-sentenced. Having already served the first year, they were scheduled to be re-incarcerated for four more years after the New Year. It is always disturbing when the federal government uses laws aimed at foreign terrorists to oppress citizens who have political differences of opinion with government policy. The Hammonds, who have paid $400,000 in fine related to the fires they lit, probably should not have been re-sentenced to four more years in prison, but that’s a problem with mandatory sentencing laws and overly aggressive prosecutors, not federal land management.

Enter Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose use of BLM land in that state became a hot issue in 2014. The Bundys and their allies believe that federal land should belong to the states or the ranchers themselves since the ranchers have grazed their cattle on it for so many generations. Thus, they ignored limits the BLM placed on the number of cattle they could graze on federal land near their ranch and refused to pay legally mandated fees for grazing those cattle.

Section 8 of the Constitution authorizes the federal government to control land in the nation’s capital, but nowhere else. If you believe that any power not granted to the federal government belongs to the states, then the Bundys are correct. However, the federal government has owned land outside the capital since 1790, when Alexander Hamilton convinced the states to yield land west of the Appalachians in exchange for federal assumptions of state debt. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson himself questioned the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase even as he persuaded the Senate to approve it 

The Supreme Court has heard hundreds of cases involving federal land and has never ruled that the Constitution does not allow the federal government to own land in the West. So any battle against federal ownership would have to fought politically, not in the courts.

That may be what Bundy and his friends think they are doing. Just as tree sitters raised public awareness of issues related to old-growth forests in the 1980s, the “militia’s” occupation of a Fish & Wildlife Service building that was closed for the holidays might be a way to raise public awareness of alleged federal mistreatment of ranchers. The problem with this tactic is that 90 percent of western residents are urbanites who are much more likely to sympathize with spotted owls and sandhill cranes than with cattle and sheep.

Decades ago, ranchers grazing their livestock on public lands paid enough fees to earn the Forest Service a profit. But in 1978, ranchers persuaded Congress to adopt a grazing fee formula on national forests and BLM lands that is designed to guarantee ranchers a profit even as grazing costs taxpayers more than $100 million per year. Thus, many people, including some agency officials, view the ranchers as freeloaders and their livestock as invasive species damaging the habitat for native fish and wildlife.

The Hammonds shouldn’t have lit the 2006 fire without coordinating with the BLM. The federal government shouldn’t have prosecuted them for prescribed burning using an anti-terrorist law. The Bundys shouldn’t have occupied the Fish & Wildlife Service office.

Property rights advocates who want to change public views need to find ranchers more appealing than the Bundys, who want to overgraze other people’s land without paying for the right to do so, or the Hammonds, whose unauthorized fire on federal lands threatened firefighters’ lives. Without better representatives–preferably ones willing to pay their own way and not rely on taxpayer subsidies–they won’t be able to capture the hearts and minds of the American people, which means the future of ranchers who depend on federal lands is dim.