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Another step toward criminalizing advocacy: writing in the Washington Post, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) urges the U.S. Department of Justice to consider filing a racketeering suit against the oil and coal industries for having promoted wrongful thinking on climate change, with the activities of “conservative policy” groups an apparent target of the investigation as well. A trial balloon, or perhaps an effort to prepare the ground for enforcement actions already afoot?

Sen. Whitehouse cites as precedent the long legal war against the tobacco industry. When the federal government took the stance that pro-tobacco advocacy could amount to a legal offense, some of us warned tobacco wouldn’t remain the only or final target. To quote what I wrote in The Rule of Lawyers:

In a drastic step, the agreement ordered the disbanding of the tobacco industry’s former voices in public debate, the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), with the groups’ files to be turned over to anti-tobacco forces to pick over the once-confidential memos contained therein; furthermore, the agreement attached stringent controls to any newly formed entity that the industry might form intended to influence public discussion of tobacco. In her book on tobacco politics, Up in Smoke, University of Virginia political scientist Martha Derthick writes that these provisions were the first aspect in news reports of the settlement to catch her attention. “When did the governments in the United States get the right to abolish lobbies?” she recalls wondering. “What country am I living in?” Even widely hated interest groups had routinely been allowed to maintain vigorous lobbies and air their views freely in public debate.

By the mid-2000s, calls were being heard, especially in other countries, for making denial of climate change consensus a legally punishable offense or even a “crime against humanity,” while widely known advocate James Hansen had publicly called for show trials of fossil fuel executives. Notwithstanding the tobacco precedent, it had been widely imagined that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution might deter image-conscious officials from pursuing such attacks on their adversaries’ speech. But it has not deterred Sen. Whitehouse.

Law professor Jonathan Adler, by the way, has already pointed out that Sen. Whitehouse’s op-ed “relies on a study that doesn’t show what he (it) claims.” And Sen. Whitehouse, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has been investigating climate-dissent scholarship in a fishing-expedition investigation that drew a pointed rebuke from then-Cato Institute President John Allison as an “obvious attempt to chill research into and funding of public policy projects you don’t like…. you abuse your authority when you attempt to intimidate people who don’t share your political beliefs.”

P.S. Kevin Williamson notes that if the idea of criminalizing policy differences was ever something to dismiss as an unimportant fringe position, it is no longer. (cross-posted from Overlawyered)

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University posted some comments I sent him along with some questions about a recent blog post of his.  His questions are in quotes, my responses follow.  First, some background.

It’s important to separate immigration (permanent) from migration (temporary).  Much of what we think of as “immigration” is actually migration as many of them return home.  Dudley Baines (page 35) summarizes some estimates of return migration from America’s past.

Country/Region of Origin            Return Rates

Nordics                                     20%

English & Welsh                         40%

Portuguese                                30-40%

Austro-Hungarians & Poles          30-40%

Italians                                      40-50%           

 

Gould estimates a 60 percent return rate for Italians – similar to Mexican unauthorized immigrants from 1965-1985. 

There were three parts to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that all affected both immigration and migration.  The first part was the amnesty.  The second was employer sanctions through the I-9 form that was supposed to turn off the jobs magnet.  The third was increased border security to keep them out.  For the first two questions, I assume the rest of IRCA was passed.

1. How much higher would cumulative Mexican immigration since 1986 have been if the IRCA’s employer sanctions hadn’t been imposed?

Temporary migration would’ve been higher AND more illegal immigrants would have permanently settled in the United States.

IRCA didn’t change the probability of migrating illegally (Figure 6) but it made them more likely to stay once they arrived (Figure 7).  Since IRCA decreased the return rate, the population of illegal immigrants grew rapidly as the inflow was steady.  IRCA plugged the drain with border enforcement, not employer sanctions. 

Eliminating employer sanctions would increase the inflow of illegal immigrants by increasing their wages but not by much (see point 4 here).  The I-9 did not lower illegal immigrant wages enough to dissuade many from coming because the economic chaos in Mexico made the United States even more attractive by comparison.  Mexican unlawful migration thus would’ve been even greater without employer sanctions because the benefits to working here would’ve been larger.

Amnesty increased permanent settlement through chain migration.  IRCA granted green cards to roughly 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants that then allowed those new green card holders to sponsor family members who were then able to sponsor other family members, and so on.  Each green card holder could have sponsored many immigrants.  The amnesty of  the nearly 2.7 million increased the number of legal Mexican immigrants by millions more (my best guess).

2. How much higher would cumulative Mexican immigration since 1986 have been if the IRCA’s border security boost hadn’t been imposed?  (Your comments seem to suggest that it actually would have been lower, since guest workers wouldn’t have bothered to bring their families).

Temporary Mexican migration would’ve been higher, BUT fewer of them would’ve settled here permanently.

From 1965-1986, migrants moved between the United States and Mexico because it was easy to cross the border illegally.  If they returned to Mexico and they couldn’t find work, they could always return to the United States and find a job.  That explains most of the 26.7 million entries and 21.8 million subsequent returns of unauthorized Mexican migrants into the United States from 1965 to 1985.  I don’t know what the comparable figures are for 1986-present, but if the pre-IRCA regime continued, they would have been even larger.

Border security raised the price of entering the United States. It also raised the price of leaving by blocking the option to return if the Mexican economy tanked.  Once many decided to stay after getting passed the increased border security, they decided to send for their families and settle here. 

Later policies like the 3/10 year bars and the post-9/11 increase in border security combined with the Great Recession caused an even steeper decline in return rates, but IRCA started it (Figure 7).

The longer and increasing terms of residency for unlawful immigrants wouldn’t have happened if the border remained de facto open.  Many of the illegal migrants who came after IRCA wouldn’t have brought their families. 

3. How much higher would cumulative Mexican immigration since 1986 have been if the IRCA’s hadn’t been passed at all?

More Mexican workers would’ve migrated BUT many fewer of them would have permanently settled here as immigrants.  The circular flow of 1965-1986 would have continued and probably increased. Without the amnesty, there would’ve been roughly 2.7 million fewer Mexicans with green cards, which would’ve meant many fewer green cards for Mexicans in the future. 

P.S. Do your answers account for diaspora dynamics?

I do account for diaspora effects.  According to Doug Massey’s data (p. 69), the percentage of migrant heads of household with a spouse and/or children in the United States dropped from 1965 to 1985, loosening their familial ties.  Those with immediate family in the United States saw the size of their households increase.  From the 1965-1970, the odds of unlawful immigration by men rose until it stabilized in the 1980s before IRCA (p. 69).  Those behaviors are not consistent with migrants looking to settle permanently in the United States. 

After IRCA, the percentage of undocumented immigrants who were women or nonworkers jumped (p. 134), consistent with permanent settlement rather than temporary migration.      

The amnesty portion of IRCA increased the size of the Mexican-American population.  The legal immigration system emphasizes family reunification.  Amnestied Mexicans were thus able to sponsor their family members after receiving their green cards and even more so after about 45 percent of them earned citizenship.  Green cards for Mexicans would’ve increased at a slower rate without IRCA.  IRCA’s amnesty increased the size of the Mexican diaspora and set it up to grow more in the nearly 30 years since then than it would have otherwise.

The family-based immigration system that turned the amnesty into such a long-term increase in Mexican immigration was created by the Immigration Act of 1965, which is reviled by restrictionists today.  Ironically, the family reunification portion was concocted by restrictionists who lobbied for it.  The American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution opposed the abandonment of the national origins system under the 1965 Act.  According to historian (and noted restrictionist) Vernon M. Briggs Jr., they lobbied for a family-based immigration system because they thought it would preserve the European ethnic and racial balance of immigration. 

That backfired.      

I have one question for you, Bryan: If the benefits of immigration are as great as we like to argue, why are there so few illegal immigrants

P.S.  I think about Bryan’s brilliant book The Myth of the Rational Voter more than any other I’ve ever read.  If you have any interest in economics, politics, or are just perplexed by the silly things politicians say, I highly recommend it.   

On Tuesday, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law the nation’s fifth education savings account (ESA) program, and the first to offer ESAs to all students who previously attended a public school. Earlier this year, Sandoval signed the state’s first educational choice law, a very limited scholarship tax credit. Despite their limitations, both programs greatly expand educational freedom, and will serve as much-needed pressure-release valves for the state’s overcrowding challenge.

When Nevada parents remove their child from her assigned district school, the state takes 90 percent of the statewide average basic support per pupil (about $5,100) and instead deposits it into a private, restricted-use bank account. The family can then use those funds to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services, such as textbooks, tutoring, educational therapy, online courses, and homeschool curricula, as well as private school tuition. Low-income students and students with special needs receive 100 percent of the statewide average basic support per pupil (about $5,700). Unspent funds roll over from year to year.

The eligibility requirements for ESA programs in other states are more restrictive. In Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, ESAs are limited to students with special needs. Arizona initially restricted ESA eligibility to students with special needs, though lawmakers have since expanded eligibility to include foster children, children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to district schools rated D or F, gifted students, and children living in Native American reservations.

Gov. Sandoval signs the nation’s first nearly universal ESA program into law. Photo courtesy of Tim Keller.

Research shows that parents in Arizona are overwhelmingly satisfied with the state’s ESA program and, as Lindsey Burke and I recently explained, ESAs are a significant improvement over school vouchers:

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school-choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent, in a manner similar to the way they would spend their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs.

One disappointing limitation of Nevada’s ESA is that it is restricted to students who previously attended their assigned district school for at least 100 days. This eligibility requirement unnecessarily excludes students whose assigned school is low-performing, unsafe, or simply not a good fit for that student. It also excludes families and communities who object to what is being taught at the district schools. Hopefully the legislature will expand the ESA eligibility to include all Nevada students in the near future.

At 2pm this Thursday, I will be testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts at a hearing investigating how the Internal Revenue Service developed the (illegal) “tax-credit rule” challenged in King v. Burwell. Witnesses include three Treasury and IRS officials involved in drafting the rule:

Panel I The Honorable Mark Mazur
Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy
Department of the Treasury
(invited)

Ms. Emily McMahon
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy
Department of the Treasury
(invited)

Ms. Cameron Arterton
Deputy Tax Legislative Counsel for Tax Policy
Department of the Treasury
(invited)

The second panel will consist of Michael Carvin (lead attorney for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, who argued the case before the Supreme Court), University of Iowa tax-law professor Andy Grewal (who discovered three additional ways, beyond King, that the IRS expanded eligibility for tax credits beyond clear limits imposed by the ACA), and me.

Lincoln Chafee, former U.S. Senator and Governor of Rhode Island, will announce his presidential run this week.  Chafee’s fiscal record as governor was moderately liberal, but much more centrist than Maryland’s Martin O’Malley.

Chafee served as governor of Rhode Island from January 2011 to January 2015, first as an Independent and then as a Democrat. (He was a Republican during his time in the U.S. Senate.) During his tenure, he received a “D” and a “B” on Cato’s Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.

State spending grew substantially while Chafee was governor. From fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012, Rhode Island general fund spending grew 5.2 percent and it grew another 5.1 percent from FY2012 to FY2013, according to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). NASBO data shows a 17 percent during Chafee’s entire tenure. This is almost three times population growth plus inflation for the state during his tenure.

Chafee promoted some tax increases to fund his expansion in government. In 2012 the state raised the cigarette tax. The sales tax base was expanded to cover clothing, pet services, and taxi rides. Sales tax base expansions can be the right pro-growth policy if they are combined with tax-rate cuts, but that was not on the case in Rhode Island. Chafee’s original proposal included even more tax increases, but the legislature prevented several from taking effect, such as an increase in the state’s meal and beverage tax.

Thankfully for Rhode Island, Chafee also supported numerous pro-growth reforms. Rhode Island’s tax reform package that passed in 2014 helped Chafee’s score in the most recent report card. The plan cut the corporate income tax from 9 to 7 percent, reduced the estate tax by increasing the exemption, and repealed the state’s franchise tax. He also supported a robust pension reform plan in 2011 that raised the retirement age and eliminated cost-of-living adjustments for beneficiaries.

Chafee joins a crowded presidential field with his announcement this week. For a Democratic Party that has moved far to left, he seems to have a more sensible fiscal approach than others in his party.

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

We highlight a couple of headlines this week that made us chuckle a bit, although what they portend is far from funny.

The first was from the always amusing “Energy and Environment” section of the Washington Post. Climate change beat writer Chris Mooney penned a piece headlined “The subtle — but real — relationship between global warming and extreme weather events” that was a hit-you-over-the-head piece about how human-caused global warming could be linked to various weather disasters of the past week, including the floods in Houston, the heatwave in India and hurricanes in general.

Mooney starts out, lamenting:

Last week, some people got really mad at Bill Nye the Science Guy. How come? Because he had the gall to say this on Twitter:

Billion$$ in damage in Texas & Oklahoma. Still no weather-caster may utter the phrase Climate Change.

Nye’s comments, and the reaction to them, raise a perennial issue: How do we accurately parse the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, as they occur in real time?

It’s a particularly pressing question of late, following not only catastrophic floods in Texas and Oklahoma, but also a historic heatwave in India that has killed over 2,000 people so far, and President Obama’s recent trip to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where he explicitly invoked the idea that global warming will make these storms worse (which also drew criticism).

As the Nye case indicates, there is still a lot of pushback whenever anyone dares to link climate change to extreme weather events. But we don’t have to be afraid to talk about this relationship. We merely have to be scrupulously accurate in doing so, and let scientists lead the way.

We must read different papers than Mr. Mooney. What little pushback there is (with a lot of it coming from us) has done little to impede the ubiquitous and speculative talk (or at the very least, insinuation) that global warming is involved in some material way in (or should we say, “made worse”) each and every extreme weather event. When it comes right down to it, adding significant quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere (which we have done) does impact the flow of radiation through the atmosphere and in some way, ultimately, the weather. But the precise role that it plays in each weather event (extreme or otherwise) and whether or not such an impact is detectable, noticeable, or significant is far from scientifically understood—and almost certainly dwarfed by natural variability. This is true subtlety of the situation. Trotting out some scientist to say, “while we can’t definitively link global warming in to individual weather events, this is the sort of thing that is consistent with our expectations” is hogwash devoid of meaning. Such a statement underplays the scientific complexities involved and almost certainly overplays the role of human-caused climate change. If Mooney were accurately quantifying the subtleties, he’d have no business inserting them into his stories at all.

The fact of the matter is we examined the flooding situation in a 2004 article in the International Journal of Climatology[1] and in the Texas region there was no statistically significant change in the rainfall on the heaviest day of the year. Given that earth’s surface temperature hasn’t budged since then, the same should hold today.

The next piece wasn’t really a headline, but rather a tweet. Dr. Chris Landsea, a multi-talented hurricane specialist (researcher, forecaster, historian) from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) sent out this tweet after President Obama stopped by the NHC last week and made a few comments about, what else, the tie-in between human-caused global warming and hurricanes:

The link in Landsea’s tweet points to his article a few years ago that summarizes his well-studied opinion as to the current state of the science of hurricanes and climate change. Unlike many popular press/government stories, Landsea doesn’t shy away from the complexities and the confounding factors—which in fact aren’t subtle at all.

For example, when it comes to global warming’s role in modifying the strength of hurricanes, Landsea has this to say:

It is likely - in my opinion - that manmade global warming has indeed caused hurricanes to be stronger today. However, such a linkage without answering the more important question of - by how much? - is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, a misleading statement. The 1-2 mph change currently in the peak winds of strong hurricane due to manmade global warming is so tiny that it is not measureable by our aircraft and satellite technologies available today, which are only accurate to about 10 mph (~15 kph) for major hurricanes.

Landsea touches on topics of hurricane strength, number, lifespan, tracking, monitoring, demographics, damages, and, most importantly, implications. For example:

So after straightforward consideration of the non-meteorological factors of inflation, wealth increases, and population change, there remains no indication that there has been a long-term pick up of U.S. hurricane losses that could be related to global warming today. There have been no peer-reviewed studies published anywhere that refute this.

As an easy-to-read and extremely informative and insightful piece by one of the world’s leading hurricane researchers, this article is not to be missed. What’s more frightening than hurricanes themselves, is how far apart the opinion of leading scientists is from that of leading politicians.

But perhaps our favorite was this headline “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How” which tells the tale of how a team of conspirators showed how easy it is to get completely meaningless research findings into the scientific literature and then generating front page headlines and articles in diverse media sources from around the world.

The article, by science reporter-cum-dietary health researcher John Bohannon, is a must read. Laid out in chapters like the screenplay for The Sting, Bohannon describes how the whole thing went down, from “The Setup,” to “The Con,” from “The Hook,” to “The Mark” to “The Score.” Even more disconcerting than how they got the bad science in the literature—which is worrisome enough—is Bohannon’s description of the state of scientific reporting. While his remarks are made about science reporters covering diet, they apply, in spades, to many on the climate change beat. From Bohannon:

We journalists have to feed the daily news beast, and diet science is our horn of plenty. Readers just can’t get enough stories about the benefits of red wine or the dangers of fructose. Not only is it universally relevant—it pertains to decisions we all make at least three times a day—but it’s science! We don’t even have to leave home to do any reporting. We just dip our cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases flowing through our inboxes. Tack on a snappy stock photo and you’re done.

The only problem with the diet science beat is that it’s science. You have to know how to read a scientific paper—and actually bother to do it. For far too long, the people who cover this beat have treated it like gossip, echoing whatever they find in press releases. Hopefully our little experiment will make reporters and readers alike more skeptical.

If a study doesn’t even list how many people took part in it, or makes a bold diet claim that’s “statistically significant” but doesn’t say how big the effect size is, you should wonder why. But for the most part, we don’t. Which is a pity, because journalists are becoming the de facto peer review system. And when we fail, the world is awash in junk science.

There’s a lot more really juicy stuff in this piece. You ought to have a look—but your trust in science and the media will certainly be shaken, if it’s not crumbled already.

[1] Michaels, P.J., et al, 2004. Trends in Precipitation on the Wettest Days of the Year across the Contiguous United States.  Int. J. Climatology 24, 1873-1882.

Ariana Eunjung Cha reports on the newest target of public shaming in China:

Long before the Internet was invented, China’s Communist Party was already skilled in the art of public shaming.

Dissidents have been known to disappear and then reappear after having published essays of self-criticism. On state-run television, business people, celebrities and editors have appeared so regularly from behind prison bars speaking about their misdeeds that the segments were like an early take on reality TV.

Now officials are using the tactic on another group that it feels has wronged the country: smokers.

Beijing has not relied just on public humiliation. It has banned smoking in indoor public places and workplaces, complete with large fines and massive propaganda campaigns. It also plans to

take more dramatic measures by posting the names of those breaking the law three times on a Web site in order to shame them.

That may not sound like a big deal, but in Asia the reaction of online citizens to inappropriate behavior can be harsh. Among the most infamous cases is one in 2005 when a woman in South Korea who refused to clean up her dog’s waste was caught in photos that were posted online. Internet users quickly discerned her identity and she was harassed so badly that she reportedly quit her university.

We expect this sort of thing in a country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and still influenced by Maoist ideas and practices. What’s disappointing is to see such tactics spreading in a country founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where once people feared harassment for giving to gay-rights groups, now we see people harassed for giving money to oppose gay marriage. Silicon Valley CEO Brendan Eich was forced to resign for having donated $1000 to the campaign for Proposition 8. A small-town pizzeria in Indiana was faced with a firestorm of media, Twitter harassment, and death threats after one of its family owners said they wouldn’t provide pizzas for a hypothetical gay wedding reception. Two gay entrepreneurs, generous contributors to gay causes, were targeted after they had dinner with anti-gay-rights senator Ted Cruz. Numerous people caught in such crosshairs, including Eich and the dinner hosts, have issued statements of self-criticism, just like during the Cultural Revolution in China. Andrew Sullivan, a pioneering crusader for gay marriage, deplored the defenestration of Eich, asking in a blog post titled “The Hounding of a Heretic”:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

And now we have “drought shaming” in California. The state refuses to do something sensible like charging market prices for water, so it’s forced to rationing and hectoring. And bring on the shaming:

California’s drought is turning neighbor against neighbor, as everyone seems to be on the lookout for water wasters….

In this new age of social media and apps for everything, so called “droughtshaming,” can be much more public, and nastier than what Demian got a taste of.

Just look at Twitter. If you search the social media site for the hashtags #DroughtShame or #DroughtShaming,” you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands of very public reprimands of water wasters, often with pictures, video, and a lot of addresses….

And there’s more — droughtshaming apps….

There’s another, newer app devoted only to droughtshaming, and it’s called, obviously, DroughtShameApp. Creator Dan Estes, a Santa Monica real estate agent, says he made the app just a few weeks ago out of a feeling of responsibility.

“I think like a lot of Angelenos, I’m a little freaked out by the drought,” he told NPR. “It just seems like something has to be done to avoid a long-term catastrophe.” Estes’ app lets users upload geo-located photos, with captions and addresses to report water wasters.

In many of these cases, actual legal coercion goes along with the public shaming. Beijing will fine smokers and bars, florists are being forced to supply flowers for gay weddings, and California has mandatory water restrictions. But the public shaming adds a new dimension of mob behavior and chilling effects.

Technology is part of the problem here. Back in 1978, when gays and their allies feared being on a list of opponents of the antigay Briggs Initiative, the list of donors was officially public. But you had to go to the office of the secretary of state (or maybe the county clerk) to inspect such a list. By 2008, when Proposition 8 was on the ballot, donor lists could be downloaded and posted on the internet in alphabetical and searchable form. From the privacy of your own home you could find out whether your friends, neighbors, or favorite celebrities had contributed to the side you found morally reprehensible. Today Facebook, Twitter, and specialized apps make it easier than ever to point a public finger at anyone who offends you.

I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I don’t want anyone forbidden to publicly criticize others. But I don’t want to live in a Cultural Revolution either. Chinese novelist Murong Xuecon remembers his childhood:

[My] teacher summoned me before an assembly of the whole school to read a 600-word essay of self-criticism that he had made me write. I admitted I was lazy. I said I didn’t respect discipline and had let down my teachers and parents. My classmates appeared amused and my teacher satisfied. For me it was like I had been exposed naked to all.

This kind of scene is not uncommon. From primary school to university, I witnessed countless such public humiliations: for fighting, cheating or petty misdemeanors. Caught committing any of these offenses and you may have to stand before the student body, criticizing your own “moral flaws,” condemning your character defects, showing yourself no mercy, even exaggerating your faults. Only those who have endured it can know the depth of shame one feels.

Our new bouts of Twitter shaming and demands for firings and public apologies feel too much like that. Murong went on to write:

Socialist countries tend to emphasize national and collective interest ahead of individual rights and dignity. This has been a constant throughout 66 years of Communist rule in China, but in the past two years the tendency has become increasingly strident. Cases of public shaming show us how in the name of some great cause, individual rights, dignity and privacy can all be sacrificed.

Respecting the rights of individual citizens — even wrongdoers — is a fundamental principle of a moral society. 

Indeed it is. Calling out genuine prejudice or threatening behavior is one thing. But public denunciations of people for holding the positions that, say, President Obama held a few years ago are too reminiscent of the forced conformity of authoritarian regimes. Let’s not let technology turn us into a new theocracy.

By nature, human beings can be pessimistic. But, depending on their political persuasion, people tend to focus on different things. Among the Progressive shibboleths in recent decades were concerns over overpopulation, exhaustion of natural resources and coming widespread famine. Data, however, tells a different story. The population growth is leveling off and food is more plentiful than before. The New York Times and the National Public Radio were forced to admit as much in two articles over the last couple of days.  

On May 31, 2015, the New York Times published a story entitled “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion.” The article admits that the planet is not facing a problem of overpopulation. In fact, due to increased prosperity around the world, women have access to more information, education, and career choices. Female empowerment combined with the massive improvements in healthcare and dramatically falling infant mortality rates, have led to total fertility rate plummeting from 5 babies per woman in the 1950s to 2.5 in 2010s. 

To put it in the dry language of economics, as women’s earning potential increases, the opportunity cost of having babies increases as well. As such, more women chose to enter the labor force rather than stay at home and raise the children. The TFR of 2.5 babies per woman is still above the replacement rate of 2.1, but United Nations’ demographers predict that the world’s population will level off at 9 billion people and then start falling. That is already happening in a number of European countries. German population, for example, is predicted to decline from 80 million today to 71 million in 2060. 

So much, then, for the “settled” overpopulation consensus, which led, among other things, to forced sterilization of thousands of Indian men and women. As one author writes, “Incentives – radio sets, cash, food – were offered at first to volunteers who put themselves under the knife. When these failed to attract big numbers, Sanjay [Gandhi who was the son of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and in charge of forced sterilization] handed down targets to government officials. The ‘find and operate’ missions that followed were directed at the most vulnerable and defenseless individuals in the country…. One [Indian] state reported 600,000 operations in two weeks…. Policemen on sterilization assignments ransacked entire villages in their pursuit of adult men. The threat to drop bombs on villages was issued.”

(The Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich, who more than anyone was responsible for the overpopulation hysteria that gripped the late 1960s and 1970s, is still alive, still publishing, still listened to and still admired. He owes the world an apology.) 

Let’s turn to the question of food supply. On June 1, 2015, the NPR published an article entitled “There Are 200 Million Fewer Hungry People Than 25 Years Ago.” According to the state broadcaster, “The world isn’t as hungry as it used to be. A U.N. report has noted that 795 million people were hungry in the year 2014. That’s a mind-boggling number. But in fact it’s 200 million lower than the estimated 1 billion hungry people in 1990. The improvement is especially impressive because the world population has gone up by around 2 billion since the ’90s.”

Put differently, hunger is in retreat in spite of a still-growing population. Why? Because of increasing crop yields facilitated by modern machinery, synthetic fertilizers and faster transport. To give one example, in 1866, American farmers produced 24 bushels of corn per acre. In 2012, they produced 122 bushels of corn per acre. Concomitantly, the price of corn declined from $5.55 in 1866 (1982 dollars) to $3.15 in 2012.

As Professor Jesse H. Ausubel of the Rockefeller University points out, “If the world farmer reaches the average yield of today’s US corn grower during the next 70 years, ten billion people eating as people now on average do will need only half of today’s cropland. The land spared exceeds Amazonia. This will happen if farmers sustain the yearly 2 percent worldwide yield growth of grains achieved since 1960, in other words if social learning continues as usual.”

(The hero of increasing crop yields and improved global food supply was the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, who is credited with saving more human lives than anyone in history. The world owes him a great deal of gratitude.)

It took a while for the New York Times and NPR to acknowledge what anyone familiar with Professor Julian Simon’s work has known since the publication of Simon’s 1981 book The Ultimate Resource. The key to feeding a growing population is to realize that human beings are intelligent animals. Unlike rabbits, people can find ways around scarcity.

Officials often try to implement dubious or controversial initiatives over weekends or holidays, when journalists and the public are likely to be less vigilant than normal.  Three-day holiday weekends are especially popular candidates for such maneuvers.  It is perhaps unsurprising that there were indications of a significant change regarding U.S. policy toward Syria on the Sunday before Memorial Day.  Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country and the United States had agreed in principle to provide air protection for some 15,000 Syrian rebels being trained by Ankara and Washington once those insurgents re-enter Syrian territory.

Granted, an agreement in principle could break down over the details of implementation, and the Obama administration has yet to confirm the Turkish account.  Nevertheless, there are hints of an impending escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s murky civil war.  A lobbying effort by proponents of U.S. aid to factions trying to unseat dictator Bashar al-Assad is definitely taking place.  The number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durban of Illinois, has openly endorsed establishing and protecting “safe zones” for insurgents, and he is hardly alone.  

In essence, the United States and its Turkish ally appear to be contemplating the imposition of a “no fly” zone over northern Syria to prevent Assad’s forces from suppressing the rebel fighters.  It is pertinent to recall that a fateful step in America’s disastrous entanglement in Iraq was the creation of such zones against Saddam Hussein to protect Kurdish and Shiite insurgents in the 1990s.  A similar measure should not be undertaken lightly in Syria.

Indeed, the Syrian conflict is a cauldron of ethno-religious feuds involving multiple factions.  To a significant extent, it represents a bitter struggle for power between Assad’s coalition of religious minorities (including his Alawite political base and its Christian allies) and the Sunni Islamic majority.  That, in turn, is at least partly a broader regional power struggle between Shiite Iran and the major Sunni powers, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, using Syrian factions as proxies. To make matters even more complex, Kurdish secessionists are exploiting the turmoil to try to establish an autonomous region in Syria’s north and northeast akin to the successful de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

To be blunt, America does not have a dog in that fight.  It is especially naïve to believe that U.S. and Turkish-trained insurgents would be a strong “moderate” alternative to both Assad and ISIS.  The mythical moderate Syrian majority is just that: mythical.  Too many of the supposedly moderate rebel factions that we supported earlier in the conflict turned out to be radical Islamic fellow travelers.  Having been burned by that experience, U.S. policymakers should be doubly cautious about further entangling the United States in Syria’s troubles.

Establishing a de facto no fly zone would be a momentous, potentially very dangerous step.  At a minimum, such a change should be implemented only after a far-reaching public discussion, an extended debate in Congress, and a formal congressional vote authorizing that action.  It is disgraceful that officials might even consider trying to smuggle such an escalation of policy into practice through an announcement by an allied government in the middle of a holiday weekend.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has another failure on its hands. In recent tests, undercover investigators smuggled mock explosives and banned weapons through U.S. airport checkpoints 96 percent of the time. According to ABC, “In one case, agents failed to detect a fake explosive taped to an agent’s back, even after performing a pat down that was prompted after the agent set off the magnetometer alarm.”

The unionized TSA has a history of inept management. Reports in 2012 by various House committees found that TSA operations are “costly, counterintuitive, and poorly executed,” and the agency “suffers from bureaucratic morass and mismanagement.” Former TSA chief Kip Hawley argued in an op-ed that the agency is “hopelessly bureaucratic.” And in 2014, former acting TSA chief Kenneth Kaspirin said that TSA has “a toxic culture” with “terrible” morale.

TSA has a penchant for wasting money on useless activities, leaving it less to spend on things that benefit travelers, such as more screening stations. A GAO report, for example, found that TSA continues to spend $200 million a year on a program to spot terrorists by their suspicious behaviors — yet the program does not work.

Perhaps most importantly, studies have found that TSA security performance is no better, and possibly worse, than private-sector screening, which is allowed at a handful of U.S. airports. I list some of the studies here.

The solution is to dismantle TSA and move responsibility for screening operations to the nation’s airports. The government would continue to oversee aviation safety, but airports would be free to contract out screening to expert aviation security firms. Such a reform would end TSA’s conflict of interest stemming from both operating airport screening and overseeing it.

Private airport screening is a successful approach used by other nations. All major airports in Canada use private screening firms, as do about three quarters of Europe’s major airports. That practice creates a more efficient security structure, and allows governments to focus on aviation intelligence and oversight.

Over a decade of experience has shown that the nationalization of airport screening under the Bush administration was a mistake. Let’s learn from reforms abroad, and bring in the private sector to boost the quality of our aviation security system.

For more on TSA’s failures and reform options, see here.

Every so often, I get asked why I’m so rigidly opposed to tax hikes in general and so vociferously against the imposition of new taxes in particular.

In part, my hostility is an ideological reflex. When pressed, though, I’ll confess that there are situations - in theory - where more taxes might be acceptable.

But there’s a giant gap between theory and reality. In the real world, I can’t think of a single instance in which higher taxes led to a fiscally responsible outcome.

That’s true on the national level. And it’s also true at the state level.

Speaking of which, the Wall Street Journal is - to put it mildly - not very happy at the tax-aholic behavior of Connecticut politicians. Here’s some of what was in a recent editorial.

The Census Bureau says Connecticut was one of six states that lost population in fiscal 2013-2014, and a Gallup poll in the second half of 2013 found that about half of Nutmeg Staters would migrate if they could. Now the Democrats who run the state want to drive the other half out too. That’s the best way to explain the frenzy by Governor Dannel Malloy and the legislature to raise taxes again… Mr. Malloy promised last year during his re-election campaign that he wouldn’t raise taxes, but that’s what he also said in 2010. In 2011 he signed a $2.6 billion tax hike promising that it would eliminate a budget deficit. Having won re-election he’s now back seeking another $650 million in tax hikes. But that’s not enough for the legislature, which has floated $1.5 billion in tax increases. Add a state-wide municipal sales tax that some lawmakers want, and the total could hit $2.1 billion over two years.

In other words, higher taxes in recent years have been used to fund more spending.

And now the politicians are hoping to play the same trick another time.

Apparently they don’t care that they’ve turned the Nutmeg State into a New England version of Illinois.

…the state grew a scant 0.9% in 2013, the last year state data are available. That was tied for tenth worst in the U.S. The state’s average compounded annual growth for the last four years is 0.42%. Slow growth means less tax revenue but spending never slows down. Some “40% of the state budget goes to government employee compensation and benefits, including payroll, state pensions, teacher pensions and current and retiree health care,” says Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute. …The Tax Foundation ranks Connecticut as one of the 10 worst states to do business. The state finished last in Gallup’s Job Creation Index in 2014 and now ties with Rhode Island for the worst job creation in the index since 2008.

What’s particularly discouraging is that Connecticut didn’t even have an income tax twenty-five years ago. But once the politicians got a new source of revenue, it’s been one tax hike after another.

Not too many years ago Connecticut was a tax refuge for New York City workers, but since it imposed an income tax in 1991 the rate has kept climbing, as it always does.

There are a couple of lessons from the disaster in Connecticut.

First and foremost, never give politicians a new source of revenue, which has very important implications for the debate in Washington, DC, about a value-added tax.

Unless, of course, you want to enable a bigger burden of government.

And for the states that don’t already have an income tax, the lesson is very clear. Under no circumstances should you allow your politicians to follow Connecticut on the path to fiscal perfidy.

Yet that’s exactly what may be happening in America’s northwest corner. As reported by the Seattle Times, there’s a plan percolating to create an income tax in the state of Washington. It’s being sold as a revenue swap.

State Treasurer Jim McIntire has a “grand bargain” in mind on tax reform and he wants to bend your ear. …the McIntire plan would institute a 5 percent personal-income tax with some exemptions, eliminate the state property tax and reduce business taxes. The plan would raise billions of dollars… The proposal also would lower the state sales tax to 5.5 percent from 6.5 percent.

But taxpayers should be very suspicious, particularly since politicians are talking about the need for more “investment,” which is a common rhetorical trick used by politicians who want to squander more money.

It certainly happens all the time in Washington, and it’s also happening in the Pacific Northwest.

“It is mathematically impossible for us to sustain an adequate investment in education on a shrinking tax base,” he said.

And when you read the fine print, it turns out that the politicians (and the interest groups in the government bureaucracy) want a lot more additional money from taxpayers.

…the plan would raise $7 billion in state revenue but would lower local levies by $3 billion, for an overall increase of about $4 billion.

Advocates of the new tax would prefer to avoid any discussion of big-picture principles.

“We need to have less of an ideological conversation about this,” he said in a news conference.

And their desire to avoid a philosophical discussion is understandable. After all, the big spenders didn’t fare so well the last time voters had a chance to vote on whether the state should impose an income tax.

Voters may not welcome McIntire’s argument, either. In 2010, a proposed income tax on high earners failed by a nearly 30-point margin.

The voters in Washington were very wise back in 2010, so let’s hope they haven’t lost their skepticism about the revenue plans of politicians over the past few years.

There’s every reason to suspect, after all, that the adoption of an income tax would be just as disastrous for the Evergreen State as it was for the Nutmeg State.

To close, I want to share some great advice that was presented by the always sound Professor Richard Vedder. I was at a conference a few years ago where he was also one of the speakers. Asked to comment on whether the Lone Star State should have an income tax, he threw his hands in the air and cried out with passion that, “Texas should give the Alamo to Osama bin Laden before allowing an income tax.”

So if I’m ever asked to speak in Seattle on fiscal policy, I’m going to steal Richard’s approach and and warn that “The state of Washington should give the Space Needle to North Korea before allowing an income tax.”

I doubt I’ll capture Professor Vedder’s rhetorical flair, but there won’t be any doubt that I’ll be 100-percent serious about the dangers of a state income tax.

And what about my home state of Connecticut?

Well, I don’t know of any big landmarks that they could have traded to avoid an income tax. About the only “good” thing to say is that New York’s tax system is probably even worse.

It has been 800 years since English barons negotiated a written peace agreement with King John. The original June 1215 agreement was revised and reissued numerous times, with the 1217 version gaining the title Magna Carta (“Great Charter”). Over the centuries, the document has had a powerful influence of the evolving British legal system and government.

The Great Charter will be explored at a Cato conference this week, and David Boaz recently blogged about the document’s importance to the American founding.

If you are interested in a very brief primer, I noticed this article (page 64) by British historian David Starkey in BBC History magazine. Starkey describes the 1215 charter as a radical break, and also the beginning of a long evolutionary process of building parliamentary government in Britain.

Here is the magazine’s summary of a conversation with Starkey, who has an upcoming book on the topic:

Magna Carta was initially drafted in 1215 in an attempt to broker peace between England’s barons and the unpopular King John. It failed, and the country was plunged into civil war. Following John’s death the charter then underwent a series of revisions over the next decade. An updated version was issued in 1216 by the government of his successor, the young Henry III, in an attempt to placate the rebels. Having won the war, the king issued a new edition in 1217 in order to cement peace. The final version was produced in 1225 in return for a grant of taxation.

And here are some of Starkey’s thoughts:

[Magna Carta] set out to do three things. Firstly, to bridle a king, John, who was dangerous and unpredictable  and made his whim the law, and secondly, to make it impossible for any other king to rule in the same way. It was successful in both of those things. The third thing was the great change, and something very different: it set out to create machinery that absolutely bound any king in iron to its measures.

… One of the things that we forget is that the Magna Carta of 1215 had 62 or 63 clauses, while the long-term one has in the region of 40. A third of it was struck out in 1216 …

… It had an immense and immediate impact on law and on the development of law. Individual clauses are very quickly pleaded. What’s striking is how many copies were circulated. It forced governments to behave differently, and set rules for good behaviour and, once the charter was reissued in 1225, it became impossible to impose general taxation without consent.

I think you are repeatedly struck by the ambition of 1215. Whatever you may think about the motives of the people like Robert Fitzwalter, clearly I rather respect ambition. I respect radicalism; I don’t necessarily like it, but I respect it. They are intellectually ambitious, which is impressive whatever one thinks. How do we go about setting an absolute monarch in chains?

… The year 1215 really is the beginning of a very particularly English politics – and I’m daring to use the word English – which has actually survived 800 years. The futures of England and the English political system are first sketched out in 1215 – or rather, in that crucial decade-long crisis of the charters from 1215 to 1225. You can trace so much back to that point: the whole dialogue of Whig and Tory; particular models of statesmanship that constantly repeat themselves; this crisis of charters leading directly to the establishment of parliament. The whole structure of parliamentary government really begins with the reissue of the charter in 1225.

For more on Magna Carta, the British Library website has useful resources.

True to form, in Elonis v. United States the Supreme Court continued its unparalleled defense of free speech – this time in the social-media context. Also true to form, however, Chief Justice John Roberts put together a near-unanimous majority by shying away from hard questions and thus leaving little guidance to lower courts.

The case involved a statute that made it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce – the Internet counts – “any communication containing any threat … to injure the person of another.” Based on a bizarre series of Facebook posts styled largely on the lurid lyrical stylings of Eminem, Anthony Elonis was convicted under that law of threatening his wife, the police, an FBI agent, and a kindergarten class. Yet prosecutors didn’t prove that Elonis intended to threaten anyone or even understood his words as being threatening. All they showed was that the individuals in question felt threatened by the posts. The Supreme Court correctly ruled that that’s not enough, that negligently throwing around violent rap lyrics shouldn’t get someone thrown in prison. As Roberts noted, the general rule is that a “guilty mind” – what lawyers call mens rea – is a necessary element of any crime.

But alas that’s as far as Roberts went: since the statute in question doesn’t specify the requisite state of mind, mere negligence isn’t enough. He did not say – the Court did not rule at all – whether an amended statute criminalizing negligent speech would pass First Amendment muster. (This issue was the focus of Cato’s amicus brief.) Indeed, as Justice Alito points out in partial dissent, the majority opinion doesn’t even say whether “reckless” Facebook posts come under the statute’s purvey (or whether that reading would in turn satisfy the First Amendment).

In short, I’m glad that amateur poet “Tone Dougie” (Elonis’s nom de rap) won’t be practicing his art in the hoosegow, but the Supreme Court’s minimalism has guaranteed this type of case – and maybe even this defendant – an encore. Particularly as social media and other new means of expression evolve, the justices need to do more than narrowly slice speech-chilling criminal laws.

Reversing the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court this morning ruled to allow an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suit to go forward against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch in the widely noted “headscarf case.” The retailer had turned away a Muslim applicant who wore head covering, rather than considering whether its prescribed salesperson “look” might reasonably be refined to accommodate her wish. The outcome was not a surprise, given the way the case had developed, and in the end turned on narrow issues of statutory interpretation not much connected to the other religion-and-law cases that have riled the Court and the nation in recent years. And while the Court declined Cato’s invitation to draw a clearer line that would have averted more future disputes, its ruling is likely to be of limited direct significance: there just aren’t that many discrimination disputes that hinge on whether an employer has been explicitly told of someone’s religious beliefs.  

The Court’s near-unanimous ruling (Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in part) was unsurprising in part because the facts in evidence were not favorable toward Abercrombie: even though Samantha Elauf had not declared that her wish to wear a scarf was based on her religious beliefs, managers apparently did realize that it was so based, which mean that later, when lawyers argued that she had not put the company on notice of it being a religious issue, it seemed, well, lawyerly of them.  As Justice Antonin Scalia observed in Footnote 3 of his majority opinion – and as Justice Samuel Alito made clear as well in his concurrence – this does not mean employers will lose if they genuinely don’t know about an employee’s religious beliefs, or if they have an inkling about them but are motivated in their decision by other factors.

Even if not many future cases fall into the Abercrombie pattern, employers are still at risk in at least two other ways. First, they will be tempted to ask explicitly whether some requested accommodation (such as weekend scheduling) is based on religious belief, and such questions will sometimes rouse a suspicion of religious discrimination (or perhaps even be an act of discrimination itself). Second, they will be encouraged to make assumptions about employees’ unvoiced religious preferences that will shade into stereotyping (“She seemed so pious, we figured she probably wouldn’t want to be assigned Sunday work.”) One good way to avoid situations of being sued if you do, sued if you don’t is for judges to spell out clear rules that are easy to follow. In its concern to craft a modest statutory reading, the Court missed a chance to do that today.

A New York Times/CBS News poll from 2013 asks, “Which is more important to you – to protect American industries and jobs by limiting imports from other countries, or to allow free trade so you can buy good products at low prices no matter what country they come from?” I like this question because it addresses protectionism as a policy rather than trade agreements.

When the options were protectionism or free trade, the result was 51% in favor of limiting imports and 41% supporting free trade.  Now that isn’t a majority of American favoring free trade, but it strikes me as an incredibly high number considering how broadly the question is worded.  It didn’t ask if we should lower tariffs; it asked if we should have any at all?  Do 41% of Americans really oppose all tariffs?

That’s worth keeping in mind as the public becomes more involved in the debate over trade promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  We’re going to be hearing more from the news media about Americans’ attitudes toward trade and globalization, and it’s important to remember that polls about trade vary greatly depending on how the question is worded. 

A 2013 Gallup poll focusing on general attitudes toward trade asked respondents, “Do you see foreign trade more as an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports or a threat to the economy from foreign imports?”  The problem with this question is that it assumes that trade is supposed to meet some mercantilist goal of exports exceeding imports and asks whether that goal is being met.  Unfortunately, this is how most supporters of the TPP have framed their arguments.  Still, the poll found support for trade at 57% with 35% opposed.

A new Pew Research Center poll shows that most Americans think trade agreements have been good for the United States, but when asked whether those agreements have been good for them personally, the results are more mixed:

Majorities across income categories say free trade agreements have been a positive thing for the U.S., but there are much wider income differences in opinions about the personal impact of free trade agreements.

Overall, somewhat more say their family’s finances have been helped (43%) than hurt (36%) by free trade agreements. Among those with family incomes of $100,000 or more, far more feel they have been helped (52%) than hurt (29%) financially. But among those in the lowest income group (less than $30,000), 38% say their finances have benefited from free trade agreements, while 44% say they have been hurt.

My colleague Simon Lester has noted that these results might be different if people were more informed about the regressive costs of protectionism.

Trade opponents have been quick to point out that polls about past agreements don’t actually ask if people support the TPP.  They also point to other polls that show strong public opposition when the question links trade agreements to specific hot-button issues like currency manipulation or outsourcing. 

Shawn Donnan of the Financial Times has noted how the Pew poll demonstrates a disconnect between the American public and their elected representatives.

What is remarkable is the consistency with which polls have pointed to support for trade and trade agreements in some important demographics.

Polls have shown a majority of Democratic voters support trade agreements even as most of the party’s representatives in both houses of Congress do not. The same is true for Republicans, voters under 30 and Hispanics, last week’s Pew poll found.

In fact the Pew survey found that a majority in all income groups thought trade agreements had been a “good thing” for the US economy even if they took contrasting views on what the impact had been on their own family finances.

Largely because of the political discourse in Washington, the US often looks from the outside like a parochial nation in retreat from the world, particularly when it is put up against a resurgent China. But from the ground, the US seems more comfortably interconnected with the world than it has in decades.

Just as polls show Americans are more comfortable with gay marriage than they once were they also reflect the fact that Americans are more accepting of globalisation than they have been in the past.

One of the criticisms of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is that it’s “not about trade.”  While it is true that the TPP goes beyond trade, and addresses issues such as labor, environment and intellectual property protection (in ways that I’m not always happy about), its impact on traditional protectionist measures such as tariffs should not be ignored.  Here is Politico on this issue:

Vietnam slaps tariffs of 70 percent on U.S. cars and machinery, 35 percent on U.S. chemicals, 30 percent on U.S. biscuits and baked goods, and 25 percent on U.S. recording equipment. Japan marks up our oranges 16 percent from June through November and 32 percent from December through May; it marks up our beef exports 38.5 percent all year long. Cars made in America face a 30 percent tariff in Malaysia, which might not seem stiff compared to 50 percent on motorcycles or 35 percent on plywood, except that cars made in Japan and other Asian nations don’t face any tariff in Malaysia.

These burdensome overseas tariffs, provided to POLITICO by US Trade Representative Michael Froman, are the kind of problems President Obama hopes to address with the free trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has not yet been finalized but has recently erupted into one of the most contentious topics on Washington’s agenda. 

Overall, the U.S. imposes an average tariff of 1.4 percent on foreign goods, less than half the average for the rest of the nations Froman is negotiating with, barely a fourth the average in Vietnam and Malaysia. And it can get much worse for specific industries and products. TPP nations have tariffs ranging up to 100 percent on textiles, 87 percent on corn, and 75 percent on consumer goods, not to mention selected Japanese tariffs that amount to 189 percent on U.S. shoes and a don’t-even-think-about-it 778 percent on U.S. rice above a certain annual quota.

Even our friendly trading partner to the north has some brutal anti-American protectionism on its books. The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 broke down a slew of barriers between the U.S. and Canada, but it exempted the poultry and dairy industries, which is why U.S. eggs face tariffs of up to 163.5 percent—and not less than 79.9 cents per dozen—in the land of ice hockey and eh. U.S. yogurt, milk, cheese, and frozen chicken all face tariffs between 237.5 percent and 249 percent in Canada.

Of course, when you talk to a U.S. government official, the focus will be on the protectionism of others, and U.S. protectionism will be ignored.  In reality, the U.S. is not all that great either.  Among other things, we have some “tariff peaks” of our own, we abuse anti-dumping duties, and there is lots of protectionism in government procurement (e.g., Buy America laws).  But the overall point is still valid: There is plenty of protectionism for trade agreements to take on.  The key, from my perspective, is how much of it the TPP actually gets rid of.  For that, we need to wait for the TPP to be completed, and see what the negotiators have accomplished.  Then, whatever has been achieved in this regard needs to be balanced against the other parts of the TPP.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited Seoul and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will head to Washington later this month. The main agenda item: what to do about North Korea.

As usual, no one knows what is going on in Pyongyang. Its internal politics appears to be bloodier than usual. Ironically, this might provide an opportunity for Washington to initiate talks over a more open bilateral relationship.

The latest rumor is that young dictator Kim Jong-un had his defense minister executed with anti-aircraft fire for disrespectful conduct. Hyon Yong-chol probably has been purged, though South Korea’s intelligence agency acknowledged that it could not confirm his gruesome death. If Hyon was executed, it probably was because the military man was plotting, or at least feared to be plotting, against the North’s leadership.

There has been striking turnover among party and military officials since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in December 2011. Most dramatic was the arrest and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, seen as the regime’s number two, in December 2013. Overall some 70 top apparatchiks and more than 400 lower level officials apparently have been killed this year.

This brutality towards the power elite sets Kim apart from his father and grandfather. While Kim Jong-un’s apparent penchant for executions may reflect a peculiarly sadistic nature, it more likely grows out of insecurity. Only 28 or maybe 27 when his father died, Kim’s succession was pushed extremely quickly after his father suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Although there is no sign of organized resistance to the latest Kim, continuing turnover suggests that Kim is not, or at least does not see himself, as yet secure. Instead of cowing resistance, promiscuous executions, even for acts short of actual rebellion, might make subordinates believe it is worth going for broke.

Repression is rising in other ways. For instance, the regime apparently has been employing “Patrol Teams” as press gangs to fill out its construction work force for projects to be finished by October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. The regime also has strengthened border controls with China.

If Kim retains control, none of this might matter. However, everyone is wary of something other than the usual predictable unpredictability in Pyongyang. South Korean President Park Geun-hye noted “growing concern” over “an extreme reign of terror within North Korea.”

Governance matters since the North continues to expand its nuclear capabilities. While nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal—members of the dynasty appear to prefer their virgins in this world rather than the next—Pyongyang’s decision-making process could become more unilateral, unpredictable, or both.

Unfortunately, there is little that the U.S. can do to directly influence events within the DPRK. War would be foolhardy, tougher sanctions aren’t likely to work, and the Kim regime is well beyond the reach of moral suasion.

Nor is negotiation likely to have much effect. While the North recently launched an international charm offensive, it continues to highlight weapons development and spout rehashed threats against America and the South. The Kim regime is not likely trade away the one factor causing the world to follow events in the DPRK.

Nevertheless, as I point out in Forbes, “the possibility of division and dissension in Pyongyang gives Washington a new reason to suggest direct discussions without preconditions, but with the prospect of benefits for a change in direction. If the regime is unsettled, those disaffected might benefit if Washington stood ready to reward a new approach.”

A peace treaty, diplomatic relations, and end of economic sanctions all should be on the table. It’s still a long-shot, but so is almost any other proposal to address the North.

Someday Pyongyang will change. Engagement is the best way to prepare for that day.

Like the 2009 Oscar award-winning Pixar film Up, Venezuela’s annual inflation rate has soared sky high (see the chart below). On December 31, 2014, Venezuela’s bolivar traded at a VEF/USD rate of 171 and the implied annual inflation rate stood at 169%. In May of 2015, Venezuela’s bolivar collapsed and the implied annual inflation rate broke the 500% barrier. On May 28, 2015, the VEF/USD rate was 413, a 59% depreciation in the bolivar since January 1st. Not surprisingly, the implied annual inflation rate stood at a staggering 495%.

Daniel Hannan writes in the Wall Street Journal today about Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary will also be celebrated at a Cato conference next week. Alas, he persists in an error that I regret to say he’s made before.

Hannan is a great advocate of liberty and particularly of English liberty. His patriotism is admirable in an English representative to the European Parliament. But he fails to grasp the shift in the idea of liberty that took place in America in the 1770s. Hannan, I think correctly, celebrates Magna Carta as the great foundation of ordered liberty, of what I have called the greatest libertarian achievement in history, bringing power under the rule of law:

As Lord Denning, the most celebrated modern British jurist put it, Magna Carta was “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

It was at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215, that the idea of the law standing above the government first took contractual form. King John accepted that he would no longer get to make the rules up as he went along. From that acceptance flowed, ultimately, all the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted: uncensored newspapers, security of property, equality before the law, habeas corpus, regular elections, sanctity of contract, jury trials.

But he goes wrong when he glosses over the change in thinking that occurred around 1776 in the American colonies:

The American Revolutionaries weren’t rejecting their identity as Englishmen; they were asserting it. As they saw it, George III was violating the “ancient constitution” just as King John and the Stuarts had done. It was therefore not just their right but their duty to resist, in the words of the delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, “as Englishmen our ancestors in like cases have usually done.”

Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights. On the contrary, they were very clear that they were fighting for the privileges bestowed on them by Magna Carta. The concept of “no taxation without representation” was not an abstract principle. It could be found, rather, in Article 12 of the Great Charter: “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.” In 1775, Massachusetts duly adopted as its state seal a patriot with a sword in one hand and a copy of Magna Carta in the other.

I recount these facts to make an important, if unfashionable, point. The rights we now take for granted—freedom of speech, religion, assembly and so on—are not the natural condition of an advanced society. They were developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words.

When we call them universal rights, we are being polite.

It’s true that the colonists came here with the spirit of English liberty running in their veins. They brought with them the books of Locke and Sydney, the examples of Lilburne and Hampden, the writings of Edward Coke. In the 18th century they read Cato’s Letters and William Blackstone. They petitioned Parliament and the king for their rights as Englishmen. 

But the Declaration of Independence marks a break in that thinking. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write “an expression of the American mind,” he did not appeal to the rights of Englishmen. Instead, the Americans declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (emphases added)

They appealed not to the British Parliament nor to King George III, but rather to “the opinions of mankind…a candid world…the Supreme Judge of the world.” Hannan glosses over this when he makes reference to 1774 and writes, “Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights.” True, not in 1774. But by 1776, when Thomas Paine published Common Sense, in which he defended “the natural rights of all mankind” and denounced kings as “ruffians” and “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti,” and the Continental Congress made its case on the basis of the unalienable rights of all men, American thinking had changed. Americans declared their belief in universal rights and their independence from a nation that denied those rights.

As I was researching this post, I found a similar argument from Tim Sandefur a year ago. Alas, Hannan persists in making this error year after year. Besides citing the argument of the Declaration, Sandefur presents in evidence the thoughts of John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the Constitution:

English liberties had failed [the Patriots]. From the omnipotence of Parliament the colonists appealed to the rights of man and the omnipotence of the God of battles. Union! Union! was the instinctive and simultaneous cry throughout the land. Their Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, once—twice had petitioned the king; had remonstrated to Parliament; had addressed the people of Britain, for the rights of Englishmen—in vain. Fleets and armies, the blood of Lexington, and the fires of Charlestown and Falmouth, had been the answer to petition, remonstrance and address.

Independence was declared. The colonies were transformed into States. Their inhabitants were proclaimed to be one people, renouncing all allegiance to the British crown; all co-patriotism with the British nation; all claims to chartered rights as Englishmen. Thenceforth their charter was the Declaration of Independence. Their rights, the natural rights of mankind. Their government, such as should be instituted by themselves, under the solemn mutual pledges of perpetual union, founded on the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration…. The omnipotence of the British Parliament was vanquished. The independence of the United States of America, was not granted, but recognized. The nation had “assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature, and of nature’s God, entitled it.”

Daniel Hannan is a thoughtful, forceful, and eloquent advocate of liberty under law. But he needs to read the Declaration of Independence and respect what it says, that the United States of America, though inspired by the tradition of English liberty, was founded on the self-evident truth that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that those rights reside in all men and women in every country of the earth.

 

In my prior post, “The Futility of Stimulus,” I examined whether Federal Reserve Policy has provided economic stimulus. I employed standard measures of money-supply growth to evaluate the question. I concluded that Federal Reserve policy has resulted in less expansion of the money supply than would normally be expected. The weakness of the current economic expansion testifies to that.

In this post, I employ an alternative measure of monetary stimulus. I rely on a recent lecture at the University of Nevada Reno by Professor John Taylor of Stanford University. With a series of charts, he made a convincing case that successive rounds of Quantitative Easing provided no monetary stimulus. Taylor looked at the interest-rate channel, particularly longer-term interest rates. If monetary policy stimulates the economy through real capital investment, then we must look to longer-term interest rates.

Taylor specifically examined the effects on 10-year Treasury yields of each round of Quantitative Easing by the Fed. In each case, there was an announcement effect. When the Fed announced a new round of bond purchases, interest rates on 10-year Treasuries did drop. As QE was executed, however, the 10-year rate recovered to its previous level or even moved higher. On the assumption that rates on corporate bonds price off Treasuries, there was no measurable effect on investment and economic growth. Again, the weakness of the economic expansion is consistent with Taylor’s argument.

There is policy background here. Taylor is the author of a monetary rule, which others have dubbed the Taylor Rule. It is a rule for adjusting short-term interest rates (the Fed Funds rate) to changes in inflation and real economic activity. The Taylor Rule calculates that the Fed Funds should by 1.5 percent versus the current reality of near-zero. Taylor did not advocate an immediate increase to that level, but the beginning of gradual increases.

What of the economic recovery? If Taylor is correct, then low short-term interest rates have not contributed to the economic expansion and raising them will not slow economic growth.

Have very low short-term interest rates had any effect? Janet Yellen recently hinted they might have contributed to unsustainably high equity prices. I will not argue with the Fed Chair on that point, but only suggest that other financial bubbles may also have been financed by Fed policy. To repeat a hackneyed phrase (nonetheless accurate), Wall Street has benefited but not Main Street.

To sum up, following Taylor’s analysis of the interest-rate channel, I conclude that Fed policy has not stimulated economic growth. It has had consequences, which some would consider undesirable. Taylor has provided a reasonable case for beginning to raise interest rates. I doubt that will happen soon. But the debate should continue.

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