Policy Institutes

Across my desk this morning: James Bennett’s new book, Corporate Welfare: Crony Capitalism That Enriches the Rich.

Bennett is a highly regarded George Mason professor of economics and a prolific author of public policy books. His new book opens with a discussion of corporate welfare in the Early Republic, and then provides four case studies on more recent issues. The case studies are the Supersonic Transport (SST) project of the 1960s, state and local economic development subsidies, the use of eminent domain in Detroit to benefit General Motors, and the Export-Import Bank.

The last item is timely given the current battle over Ex-Im between the fiscal reform and business-subsidy wings of the Republican Party. It is an important battle because a win for reform on Ex-Im might generate momentum to wean American businesses off of other types of subsidies. I also think that ending Ex-Im would make recipient businesses more competitive and efficient in the long run. Subsidies produce industrial weakness, not strength.

Here’s what I said about Corporate Welfare on the book’s dust jacket:

Professor Bennett begins his excellent new book about corporate welfare with Alexander Hamilton’s misguided schemes. Fortunately, those schemes were mainly blocked in the early Republic by the Jeffersonian party. The problem today—as Bennett skillfully documents—is that business subsidies are a bipartisan disease, chronic at all levels of government. Few politicians stand up for the taxpayer, despite citizen opposition to hand-outs from across the political spectrum. Hopefully, Bennett’s stomach-turning stories will convince more people of the evils of crony capitalism.

The Asian order is under strain as the People’s Republic of China has become an economic colossus with growing military might and diplomatic influence. The PRC is asserting territorial claims once considered impractical or worthless. Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam all stand opposed to these claims. 

Washington is not a claimant, but has sparred with the PRC over the U.S. Navy’s legal right to engage in intelligence gathering in Chinese waters. More important, America has a formal military alliance with Japan which, the president declared, covers disputed territories. Washington’s military relationship with Manila is looser, but Philippine officials are seeking a similar territorial guarantee.

The Obama administration has escalated U.S. involvement by sending American aircraft over islands reclaimed by China and discussing joint patrols with the Japanese.

Most of the islands are intrinsically worthless and provide little security value. Maritime rights are affected but, in peacetime, the difference wouldn’t matter so much. In wartime, everything would depend on the capabilities of the contending navies.

The economic benefits from control are real but still relatively small compared to the economies of most of the claimants. For most of the countries, national ego is the primary issue.

What should the United States do? American interests are few and of middling importance. Washington primarily seeks to uphold global norms, in this case, navigational freedom and peaceful conflict resolution.

It is widely assumed that America’s involvement would deter China from starting a war. However, any attempts to coerce the PRC over its perceived interests would add conflict to the U.S./China relationship.

As I point out on National Interest online: “China likely would respond by matching American air and naval maneuvers, accelerating military outlays, and challenging U.S. interests elsewhere. Americans should reflect on how they would respond if Beijing acted like the U.S.”

Maintaining the overly large and expensive military presence necessary for Washington to project power sustainable over the long-term. It costs far more to build carriers than to sink them. Americans are unlikely to heed a clarion call for sacrifice to ensure that the Senkakus stay Japanese.

Instead of goading China, the administration should withdraw from East Asia’s territorial miasma. First, Washington should acknowledge that East Asian hegemony it not essential for America’s security.

Second, Washington should make clear through action, as well as rhetoric, that it takes no position regarding competing territorial claims. While the United States should assert freedom of navigation—and insist that there is no valid legal justification for turning 80 percent of the South China Sea into Chinese territorial waters—Beijing has not threatened that basic freedom.

Third, the administration should remove contested territories from security guarantees. America’s interest is in Japan’s and the Philippines’ independence, not their control over worthless rock piles. It is especially foolish to threaten a nuclear-armed state over territories to which the latter might be entitled.

Fourth, the administration should allow events to take their natural course. China’s neighbors are growing increasingly hostile to Beijing’s aggressiveness. Japan is spending more and rethinking historic strictures on its military, smaller nations are arming–some of which are working with Tokyo–and everyone is encouraging India to play a larger regional role.

Fifth, U.S. officials should more effectively make the case for negotiation. Washington should press its friends to offer creative solutions to the region’s many disputes, such as setting aside or sharing island sovereignty.

Finally, Washington should highlight the advantages of peace for all concerned, especially China. The future should not be risked for stakes of such limited value.

What should the United States do about East Asia’s territorial disputes? In most of East Asia’s territorial controversies, America’s interests are peripheral and Washington should play a minor role. America’s most important interest today is keeping the peace.

On Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, the U.S. Senate passed the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act, better known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), by a vote of 62-38.  In light of what appeared to be formidable opposition pressing difficult demands that could have seriously prolonged the Senate TPA debate or derailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations altogether, passage of the bill in relatively short order is a credit to the commitment of Majority Leader McConnell, Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, and Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden to getting it done.  But proponents of the trade agenda still have a long road ahead.

When Congress reconvenes next week, debate and consideration of a similar TPA bill will be one of the first orders of business in the House of Representatives.  Getting to 218 votes will test the persuasive powers of Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, Speaker John Boehner, and President Obama, who will need to woo Democratic support without losing Republican support in the process. The goal is to pass TPA in a form that is sufficiently similar to the Senate version to avoid the need to reconcile different versions in conference, which would necessitate a second vote in the House. 

Meanwhile, with trade negotiators seeing some progress on TPA, the TPP talks appear to have begun to move into the “end-game” phase.  Although it is uncertain how long this phase of the negotiation might last – because it remains unclear how many issues are outstanding, how much distance there is between the parties, and whether unexpected demands requiring alterations to previously settled parts of the agreement will be made – it is now evident that the soonest Congress could vote to implement the TPP is early 2016, with the distinct and growing possibility that the matter will fall to a lame duck Congress and president or, even, to the next president and the 115th Congress.

Stay tuned for an analysis that fleshes out some of the issues likely to affect the direction and outcome of the trade agenda, including some possible hurdles and other twists and turns in the road.

George Pataki, the governor of New York from 1995 to 2006, is expected to announce the launch of his presidential campaign tomorrow. Pataki joins an already crowded Republican field and is expected to highlight his record as governor to win support. A review of Pataki’s record presents a question: which Pataki will be running for the presidency?

Pataki’s first several years in office showed promise, from a small-government perspective. He proclaimed that his administration was “overthrowing all the unworkable liberal abstractions of the past and replacing them with a revolution of conservative ideas.” His actions matched his claims. His first two budgets included a number of spending cuts. New York general fund spending decreased five percent in his first year.  He eliminated 12,000 of the state’s 200,000 government jobs. In total, spending was cut by $2 billion. Pataki coupled his spending cuts with tax cuts. He cut the personal income tax by 25 percent

His actions during those two years earned him an “A” on Cato’s Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors in 1996. The authors of the report said that Pataki “had far and away the most impressive fiscal record in his first two years” among the 20 new governors covered in the report.

Pataki seems to have lost his zeal for fiscal restraint after his first two years. He supported a 55 cent increase to the cigarette tax and followed it with another 39 cent increase in the tax. He pushed for a $1.5 billion bond issue for infrastructure. General fund spending increased by seven percent from fiscal year 1998 to fiscal year 1999. It continued to grow after that. It grew five percent from fiscal year 2004 to 2005, nine percent from fiscal year 2005 to 2006, and an astounding 10.6 percent from fiscal year 2006 to 2007. 

During his tenure as governor, fiscal years 1997 to 2007, New York general fund spending increased 67 percent, according to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. That was almost double New York’s population growth and inflation during those years.

In his final appearance in the Cato report card in 2006, the authors summarized Pataki’s time in office. “George Pataki started out as a tax-cutting, small-government governor. He ended up as a big spender seemingly hell-bent on overturning anything good he had done in his first term.” His grade fell from an “A” in his first two years in office to a “D” for his final term

Pataki’s tenure as governor can be divided into two distinct periods. His first two years in office embodied fiscal restraint. Pataki cut taxes and spending and downsized the state’s workforce. He quickly lost steam tackling the monster New York budget. Pataki increased taxes by $3 billion in his last term. Under Pataki’s leadership, state general fund spending increased by 67 percent. His campaign will hopefully answer the question of which Pataki is running for president.

Over at the Huffington Post, Ryan J. Reilly reports that St. Louis was one of the cities to receive MacArthur Foundation grants to improve the relationship between the police and the public. When discussing the award, the police chief made some frank admissions about the double standard that infects policing in the greater St. Louis area:

In an interview ahead of the announcement, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the reform effort a “positive that came out of a tragedy.”

[…]

Belmar… said it is simply unrealistic for law enforcement to be able to enforce the hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants in the county, many of them in connection with missed court dates for minor violations of municipal codes.

“I’m looking at cities that have 50,000, 39,000, 30,000 outstanding warrants today. You’re never going to catch up to that,” Belmar said. “You might have a city like Pine Lawn, which is 360 acres, that has 30,000 outstanding warrants. How can that be? The math doesn’t work.”

Belmar acknowledged that the protests in Ferguson have given a voice to populations that had been overlooked in the past.

“If you went to a very affluent area in St. Louis County, how long do you think a program would last where speed cameras were put up on arterial roads coming into subdivisions, and people were given letters saying they were going to be arrested? It would last about five hours,” Belmar said.

As Judge Janice Rogers Brown recently wrote in a concurrence in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, such double standards are not limited to St. Louis. Describing roving patrols for guns that are standard practice in Southeast D.C.—an area of predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods—she wrote:

As a thought experiment, try to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required. While viewing such an encounter as consensual is roughly equivalent to finding the latest Sasquatch sighting credible, I submit to the prevailing orthodoxy, but I continue to reject its counterintuitive premise.

Georgetown is an affluent, predominantly white area that is home to many D.C. elites and features high-end shopping and dining. It is indeed difficult to imagine SWAT teams shaking down tourists and well-to-do residents for very long.

Because many neighborhoods around the United States continue to be segregated along both economic and racial lines, this policing double standard has the effect—whether intended or not—of alienating poor minorities and undermining police legitimacy in those communities. Extracting money from the impoverished and using dubiously constitutional tactics in specific areas is the wrong way to treat the people who live there.

When I first came to Washington back in the 1980s, there was near-universal support and enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment among advocates of limited government.

The support is still there, I’m guessing, but the enthusiasm is not nearly as intense.

There are three reasons for this drop.

  1. Political reality - There is zero chance that a balanced budget amendment would get the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. And if that happened, by some miracle, it’s highly unlikely that it would get the necessary support for ratification in three-fourths of state legislatures.
  2. Unfavorable evidence from the states - According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state other than Vermont has some sort of balanced budget requirement. Yet those rules don’t prevent states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad fiscal policy.
  3. Favorable evidence for the alternative approach of spending restraint - While balanced budget rules don’t seem to work very well, policies that explicitly restrain spending work very well. The data from Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado is particularly persuasive.

Advocates of a balanced budget amendment have some good responses to these points. They explain that it’s right to push good policy, regardless of the political situation. Since I’m a strong advocate for a flat tax even though it isn’t likely to happen, I can’t argue with this logic.

Regarding the last two points, advocates explain that older versions of a balanced budget requirement simply required a supermajority for more debt, but newer versions also include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. This means - at least indirectly - that the amendment actually is a vehicle for spending restraint.

This doesn’t solve the political challenge, but it’s why advocates of limited government need to be completely unified in favor of tax-limitation language in a balanced budget amendment. And they may want to consider being more explicit that the real goal is to restrain spending so that government grows slower than the productive sector of the economy.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund (which is normally a source of bad analysis) understands that spending limits work better than rules that focus on deficits and debt.

Here are some of the findings from a new IMF study that looks at the dismal performance of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact. The SGP supposedly limited deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP, but the requirement failed largely because politicians couldn’t resist the temptation to spend more in years when revenue grew rapidly.

An analysis of stability programs during 1999–2007 suggests that actual expenditure growth in euro area countries often exceeded the planned pace, in particular when there were unanticipated revenue increases. Countries were simply unable to save the extra revenues and build up fiscal buffers. …This reveals an important asymmetry: governments were often unable to preserve revenue windfalls and faced difficulties in restraining their expenditure in response to revenue shortfalls when consolidation was needed. …The 3 percent of GDP nominal deficit ceiling did not prevent countries from spending their revenue windfalls in the mid-2000s. … Under the SGP, noncompliance has been the rule rather than the exception. …The drawbacks of the nominal deficit ceiling are particularly apparent when the economy is booming, as it is compatible with very large structural deficits.

The good news is that the SGP has been modified and now (at least theoretically) requires spending restraint.

The initial Pact only included three supranational rules… As of 2014, fiscal aggregates are tied by an intricate set of constraints…government spending (net of new revenue measures) is constrained to grow in line with trend GDP. …the expenditure growth ceiling may seem the most appealing. This indicator is tractable (directly constraining the budget), easy to communicate to the public, and conceptually sound… Based on simulations, Debrun and others (2008) show that an expenditure growth rule with a debt feedback ensures a better convergence towards the debt objective, while allowing greater flexibility in response to shocks. IMF (2012) demonstrates the good performance of the expenditure growth ceiling

This modified system presumably will lead to better (or less worse) policy in the future, though it’s unclear whether various nations will abide by the new EU rules.

One problem is that the overall system of fiscal rules has become rather complicated, as illustrated by this image from the IMF study.

Which brings us back to the third point above. If the goal is to restrain spending (and it should be), then why set up a complicated system that first and foremost is focused on red ink?

That’s why the Swiss Debt Brake is the right model for how to get spending under control. And this video explains why the objective should be spending restraint rather than deficit reduction.

And for those who fixate on red ink, it’s worth noting that if you deal with the underlying disease of too much government, you quickly solve the symptom of deficits.

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

A popular media story of the week was that sea level rise was accelerating and that this was worse than we thought. The stories were based on a new paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change by an author team led by the University of Tasmania’s Christopher Watson.

Watson and colleagues re-examined the satellite-based observations of sea level rise (available since the early 1990s) using a new methodology that supposedly better accounts for changes in the orbital altitude of the satellites—obviously a key factor when assessing sea levels by determining the height difference between the ocean’s surface and the satellites, the basic idea behind altimetry-based sea level measurements.

So far so good.

Their research produced two major findings, 1) their new adjusted measurements produced a lower rate of sea level rise than the old measurements (for the period 1993 to mid-2014), but 2) the rate of sea level rise was accelerating.

It was the latter that got all of the press.

But, it turns out, that in neither case, were the findings statistically significant at even the most basic levels used in scientific studies. Generally speaking, scientists report a findings as being “significant” if there is a less than 1-in-20 chance that the same result could have been produced by random (i.e., unexplained) processes. In some fields, the bar is set even higher (like 1 in 3.5 million). We can’t think of any scientific field that accepts a lower than a 1-in-20 threshold (although occasional individual papers do try to get away with applying a slightly lower standard).

But in the sea level rise paper that is getting all the attention, the author’s team push a result—an acceleration in sea level rise—that has about a 1-in-4 chance of being zero or below—i.e., that no acceleration in actuality is taking place. That’s like betting the farm that you won’t get two heads in a row when flipping a coin. No one outside of someone who is extremely desperate would make such a bet.

Given such a result—a finding that grossly failed the standard test of statistical significance—the  authors of the paper should have concluded that over the past 22+ years, there has been no reliably detectable change in the rate of sea level rise in the satellite-observed dataset.

Instead, the lead authors wrote in their paper’s abstract that:

“[I]n contrast to the previously reported slowing in the rate during the past two decades, our corrected [global mean sea level] data set indicates an acceleration in sea-level rise…which is of opposite sign to previous estimates.”

Further down in the details of the paper (where no reporter dares to go), the authors do admit that the acceleration was in fact statistically insignificant. But that’s not the impression left to the press.

And the press, always eager for a paper predicting doom and gloom from human-caused climate change was more than happy to run with headlines like:

“Sea Level Rise Accelerating Faster Than Thought” (from Science magazine)

“Sea levels are rising at faster clip as polar melt accelerates, new study shows” (from the Washington Post)

“Sea level rise accelerated over the past two decades, research finds” (from The Guardian)

“Study: Sea level rise accelerating worldwide” (from USA Today)

For the misleading claims, and the cascade of misinformation that flowed from them, we determine that the Spin Cycle setting of this story is Permanent Press.

 

 

Venezuela’s bolivar is collapsing. And as night follows day, Venezuela’s annual implied inflation rate is soaring. Last week, the annual inflation rate broke through the 500% level. It now stands at 510%.

When inflation rates are elevated, standard economic theory and reliable empirical techniques allow us to produce accurate inflation estimates. With free market exchange-rate data (usually black-market data), the inflation rate can be calculated. The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable inflation estimate.

To calculate the inflation rate in Venezuela, all that is required is a rather straightforward application of a standard, time-tested economic theory (read: PPP). Using black-market exchange rate data that The Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project has collected over the past year, I estimate Venezuela’s current annual implied inflation rate to be 510%. This is the highest rate in the world. It’s well above the second-highest rate: Syria’s, which stands at 84%.

Venezuela has not always experienced punishing inflation rates. From 1950 through 1979, Venezuela’s average annual inflation rate remained in the single digits. It was not until the 1980s that Venezuela witnessed a double-digit average. And it was not until the 1990s that Venezuela’s average inflation rate exceeded that of the Latin American region. Today, Venezuela’s inflation rate is over the top (see the accompanying table).

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Given Franklin’s leadership in the struggle for American independence, we can infer that he did not think that there never was a war that was necessary, or a war that was worth its cost. But he reminds us that even necessary wars have terrible costs.

I thought about Franklin when I read an eloquent column on the meaning of Memorial Day by the novelist Mark Helprin, who is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He lamented:

Though if by and large we ignore the debt we owe to those who fell at Saratoga, Antietam, the Marne, the Pointe du Hoc, and a thousand other places and more, our lives and everything we value are the ledger in which it is indelibly recorded.

It’s a worthy sentiment, one heard frequently in Memorial Day addresses, and we do indeed owe our lives and our pursuit of happiness to the freedom that America’s soldiers have sometimes had to defend.

But I can’t help wondering: Have all of America’s wars have been necessary to American freedom? Helprin mentioned the Second Battle of the Marne, the great turning point of World War I and the first battle in which Americans started experiencing the enormous casualties that Europeans had been facing for nearly four years. The problem is that World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country, the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally, World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I was the worst mistake of the 20th century, the mistake that set in motion all the tragedies of the century. The deaths of those who fell at the Marne are all the more tragic when we reflect that they did not in fact serve to protect our lives and all that we value.

Did the wars in Vietnam and Iraq protect American lives and liberties? Two weeks ago, Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush said that discussing whether the Iraq war was a mistake “does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot.” It’s understandable that an aspiring commander-in-chief would want to spare the feelings of those who lost a loved one in Iraq. But surely it’s more important that a commander-in-chief ask tough questions about when it’s advisable to go to war.

In my book The Libertarian Mind, I wrote about the effects of war: not just death on a large scale but the destruction of families, businesses, and civil society. And thus:

War cannot be avoided at all costs, but it should be avoided wherever possible. Proposals to involve the United States—or any government—in foreign conflict should be treated with great skepticism….We should understand the consequences of war for our entire social order and thus go to war only when absolutely necessary.

On this weekend we should mourn those who went to war, such as my father, who planned and participated in the liberation of Europe, and his brother who was lost off the coast of Normandy, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

In about 30 seconds this morning on Fox News Sunday, George Will laid out the prudential case for proceeding very cautiously when contemplating a war:

WALLACE: So George, with that as trailer, what’s the lesson that we should take from Iraq, and particularly as it comes to future U.S. policy?

WILL: Four lessons, I think.

First, the government has to choose always on the basis of imperfect information. I agree with Bob [Woodward]. There were no lies here [in the Bush administration’s incorrect claims about WMD]. It was a colossal failure to know what we didn’t know.

Second, the failure to ask Admiral Yamamoto’s question. When he was asked by the government of Japan could he take a fleet stealthily across the Pacific and strike Pearl Harbor, he said yeah, but then what? He knew they would have on their hands an enormous problem in the United States.

Third, Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Just as when the Kennedy administration in November 1963 was complicit in the coup against Diem, in South Vietnam, we owned South Vietnam ever after.

But fourth and most important, the phrase nation-building is as absurd as the phrase orchid building. Orchids are complex, organic things. So are nations. And we do not know how to build nations any more than we know how to fix English-speaking home grown Detroit. 

That’s more-or-less the question that Bankrate.com asked Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and me after last month’s FOMC press release. Dean said yep. I said…uh, not really. Our full answers appeared recently in the online publication’s “Wealth of Opinions” column. There’s even a little poll at the end, allowing you to pick your favorite answer. Of course you don’t have to vote. It’s really entirely up to you. I mean, I’m not trying to pressure you or anything like that.

Honest.

No, really!

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.

In this issue of You Ought to Have a Look, we focus on what we think is an extremely important article, written by Richard Horton, long-time editor of The Lancet—a British medical journal considered to be one of the world’s most prestigious.

Horton addresses what is increasingly becoming recognized as the biggest problem in modern science: an incentive system that promotes style (i.e., “attention grabbing”) over substance. The headlong pursuit of headlines is leading not only to sloppy science, but selective science. The result is that the course of human knowledge is being perturbed, and not for the better.

Horton’s comments are particularly salient as this week witnessed the retraction of another headline-grabbing paper in a prestigious journal.

Here, we reproduce the bulk of Horton’s essay in which he addresses “the idea that something has gone fundamentally wrong with one of our greatest human creations”:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices.The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data.Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivize bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative. Would a Hippocratic Oath for science help? Certainly don’t add more layers of research redtape. Instead of changing incentives, perhaps one could remove incentives altogether. Or insist on replicability statements in grant applications and research papers. Or emphasise collaboration, not competition. Or insist on preregistration of protocols. Or reward better pre- and post-publication peer review. Or improve research training and mentorship. Or implement the recommendations from our Series on increasing research value, published last year.One of the most convincing proposals came from outside the biomedical community. Tony Weidberg is a Professor of Particle Physics at Oxford. Following several high-profile errors, the particle physics community now invests great effort into intensive checking and rechecking of data prior to publication. By filtering results through independent working groups, physicists are encouraged to criticise. Good criticism is rewarded. The goal is a reliable result, and the incentives for scientists are aligned around this goal. Weidberg worried we set the bar for results in biomedicine far too low. In particle physics, significance is set at 5 sigma—a p value of 3 × 10–7 or 1 in 3.5 million (if the result is not true, this is the probability that the data would have been as extreme as they are). The conclusion of the symposium was that something must be done. Indeed, all seemed to agree that it was within our power to do that something. But as to precisely what to do or how to do it, there were no firm answers. Those who have the power to act seem to think somebody else should act first. And every positive action (eg, funding well-powered replications) has a counterargument (science will become less creative). The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously. The bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system.

This issue is especially near and dear to our hearts at the Center for the Study of Science. For those interested in more on this topic (and we hope that is most of you), please see our recent Working Paper and various other writings and presentations.

This is an extremely important issue that is far from receiving the level of attention that it deserves.

Most central banks do one thing well: they produce monetary mischief. Indeed, for most emerging market countries, a central bank is a recipe for disaster.

The solution: replace domestic currencies with sound foreign currencies. Panama is a prime example of this type of switch. Panama adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency in 1904. It is one of the best-performing countries in Latin America (see the accompanying table). In 2014, economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean was a measly 0.8 percent. In contrast, Panama’s growth rate was 6.2 percent. Not surprisingly, it was the only country in Latin America to have realized an increase in the number of greenfield FDI projects

My misery index indicates just how well Panama stacks up against other Latin American countries. The misery index is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending rates, and unemployment, minus year-over-year per-capita GDP growth. The table below shows the misery index readings for the Latin American countries in which data were available in 2014.

Thanks to their central banks, Venezuela and Argentina top the list as the most miserable countries in the region. Panama, El Salvador, and Ecuador score very well on the misery index. All three are dollarized.

Gallup’s latest report of American ideology shows the public is becoming increasingly socially liberal but not more economically liberal. Putting these trends together, you have an increasing number of Americans who are both socially liberal and fiscally conservative. This is probably why pundits are talking about a libertarian impulse trending in the United States. America is not becoming more liberal across the board, we are becoming more libertarian on social issues. In sum, the country is more libertarian today in 2015 than it was 10 years ago.

Social Liberalism on the Rise

Since the late 1990s Gallup has tracked the share of Americans who say their views on social issues are “liberal” or “very liberal.” In 1999 Americans were nearly twice as likely to say they were socially conservative as socially liberal (39 to 21 percent). However, throughout the 2000s the share of Americans who viewed themselves as liberal on social issues has steadily increased. In Gallup’s latest poll, Americans are equally likely to say they are socially liberal as socially conservative (31 percent each).

The rise in social liberalism is largely due to Democrats’ embracing the term rather than Republicans becoming more liberal. In 2015 fully 53 percent of Democrats say they are social liberals, up from only 38 percent 10 years ago. Among Republicans there has been no significant change in the share who say they are social liberals. Compared to 10 years ago, almost the same share of Republicans say they are social conservatives. However, there was a surge in social conservatism on the right between 2007 and 2012, reaching 67 percent in 2009. From that, there has been a marked decline to 53 percent. Only 11 percent of Republicans say they are social liberals, while 8 percent used the label 10 years ago.

Fiscal Conservatism Maintains Strong Advantage

Nevertheless, despite the 2008 Financial Crisis and Great Recession, talk of who built what and who’s paying their fair share, Americans continue to see themselves as fiscal conservatives by a wide margin. Gallup found that 39 percent of Americans self identify as fiscal conservatives compared to 19 percent who say they are fiscal liberals—a 20-point advantage.

Since 1999, there has been no significant change in the share of Americans who view themselves as “liberal” on economic issues—16 percent in 1999 and 19 percent in 2015. There has been a slight decline in the share who view themselves as economically conservative from 44 percent in 1999 to 39 percent in 2015. However, there was a marked increase in self-identified fiscal conservatives between 2009 and 2012, when more than half identified as such. However, this share has since declined to 39 percent. There appears to be a reversion to the mean in American fiscal attitudes.

On economic issues, Republicans and Democrats have further diverged. Republicans are slightly more likely in 2015 to identify as fiscal conservatives (64 percent) compared to 2001 (60 percent). However, there was a surge in Republicans’ fiscal conservatism in the middle of the decade that has since begun to subside. Self-identified fiscal conservatives among Republicans surged from 58 percent in 2005 to 76 percent in 2010 at the height of the tea party wave in the aftermath of TARP, the stimulus, and passage of the Affordable Care Act. Since 2012, economic conservatism has begun to recede back to pre-Recession levels among Republicans.

Democrats are becoming more economically liberal. In 2001 30 percent of Democrats said they were fiscal conservatives, compared to only 18 percent in 2015. While the share of fiscally moderate Democrats has remained steady, the share of fiscally liberal Democrats has increased from 22 percent 10 years ago to 33 percent in 2015.

Election 2016

The American electorate is more libertarian in 2015 than it was a decade ago. Candidates seeking the presidency in 2016 will face voters more open to the rhetoric of inclusivity, legalizing same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization, but about where they were 10 years ago on economic issues.

There has not been a clear shift to the left on all issues, but primarily on social and cultural issues. Consequently, Republican candidates may find themselves rewarded by toning down the harsh rhetoric on social matters and immigration and promoting fiscal responsibility and free markets. However, while Democrats may benefit from trending social liberalism, they should be careful to avoid staking economic positions that are perceived as too liberal.

In sum, while this is certainly not always the case, candidates leaning in a more libertarian direction will likely be benefited at the polls.

In New Hampshire yesterday, Jeb Bush found something to disagree with his brother’s presidency—sort of:

“I think that, in Washington during my brother’s time, Republicans spent too much money,” Mr. Bush said Thursday when asked to describe where there was a “big space” between himself and his brother George W. Bush. “I think he could have used the veto power. He didn’t have line-item veto power, but he could have brought budget discipline to Washington, D.C.”

As Peter Suderman noted in Reason, there’s some weaseling in there—it’s “Republicans” who spent too much, not specifically the Republican president. And Jeb quickly went on to say that such criticism “seems kind of quaint right now given the fact that after he left, the budget and deficits and spending went up astronomically.” Suderman notes that George W. Bush in fact

presided over the most significant increase in federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson was president in the 1960s… Federal spending under Obama has increased at a far slower rate than under President Bush. Obama took Bush’s baseline and built on it, but George W. Bush’s spending increases were a big part of what made Obama’s spending possible.

Jeb had said this before—in fact, during his brother’s presidency. At CPAC in 2007, he said, “If the promise of pork and more programs is the way Republicans think they’ll regain the majority, then they’ve got a problem.” He said then that he was talking about the Republicans in Congress. And I noted then

But who’s he kidding? President Bush sponsored most of those “more programs,” and in six years he hasn’t vetoed a single piece of pork or a bloated entitlement bill or a new spending program. And if Jeb thinks “we lost … because we rejected the conservative philosophy in this country,” he must realize that his brother has set the agenda for Republicans over the past six years almost as firmly as Putin has set Russia’s agenda. If Republicans turned their back on limited-government conservatism, it’s because the White House told them to. Not that congressional leaders were blameless—and on Social Security reform, they did decide to resist Bush’s one good idea—but it was President Bush and his White House staff who inspired, enticed, threatened, bullied, and bully-pulpited Republicans into passing the No Child Left Behind Act, the biggest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, and other big-government schemes.

I also pointed out then, as Peter Suderman does today:

Although Jeb seems to have convinced conservatives that he’s much more committed to spending restraint than W—and he did veto some $2 billion in spending over eight years [as Florida governor]—his real record is much more like his brother’s. According to the Cato Institute’s Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors (pdf), he presided over “explosive growth in state spending.” Indeed, in the latest report card, only 10 governors had worse ratings on spending restraint, though—again like his brother—Jeb scored much higher on tax cutting. Federal spending is up 50 percent in six years; Florida’s spending was up 52 percent in eight years, and Jeb wasn’t fighting two foreign wars.

Republicans like to promise spending restraint, to deplore past profligacy, and then to deliver more of the same. That’s what George W. did, and it looks like Jeb is starting down the same path.

On May 19, I testified at a hearing titled “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which was held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade. The subject agencies were the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). The focus of my remarks, which follow, was on Ex-Im and the myth that exports are the benefits of trade.

Good morning, Chairman Poe, Ranking Member Keating, and members of the subcommittee. I am Dan Ikenson, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Thank you for the invitation to share my views with you today concerning “Trade Promotion Agencies and U.S. Foreign Policy.” The views I express are my own and should not be construed as representing any official positions of the Cato Institute.

To the extent that today’s hearing will help clarify some of these issues and prompt a serious effort to reform and retire some of the redundant, distortionary, and, frankly, scandal-prone agencies among the panoply of federal offerings, I am pleased to be of assistance.

U.S. trade promotion agencies are in the business of promoting exports, not trade in the more inclusive sense. That is worth noting because despite some of the wrongheaded mercantilist assumptions undergirding U.S. trade policy—that exports are good and imports are bad—the fact is that the real benefits of trade are transmitted through imports, not through exports.

In keeping with the conventional wisdom, in January 2010 President Obama set a national goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years. Prominent in the plan was a larger role for government in promoting exports, including expanded nonmarket lending programs to finance export activity, an increase in the number of the Commerce Department’s foreign outposts to promote U.S. business, and an increase in federal agency-chaperoned marketing trips.

But the NEI neglected a broad swath of worthy reforms by ignoring the domestic laws, regulations, taxes, and other policies that handicap U.S. businesses in their competition for sales in the U.S. market and abroad. For example, nearly 60 percent of the value of U.S. imports in 2014 consisted of intermediate goods, capital goods, and other raw materials—the purchases of U.S. businesses, not consumers. Yet, many of those imports are subject to customs duties, which raise the cost of production for the U.S.-based companies that need them, making them less competitive at home and abroad. U.S. duties on products like sugar, steel, magnesium, polyvinyl chloride, and other crucial manufacturing inputs have chased companies to foreign shores—where those inputs are less expensive—and deterred foreign companies from setting up shop stateside.

Policymakers should stop conflating the interests of exporters with the national interest and commit to policies that reduce frictions throughout the supply chain—from product conception to consumption. Why should U.S. taxpayers underwrite—and U.S. policymakers promote—the interests of exporters, anyway, when the benefits of those efforts accrue, primarily, to the shareholders of the companies enjoying the subsidized marketing or matchmaking? There is no national ownership of private export revenues.

If policymakers seek a more appropriate target for economic policy, it should be to attract and retain direct investment, which is the seed of all economic activity, including exporting.

Given the exalted status of exports in Washington’s economic policy narrative, it is understandable why agencies would want to portray themselves as indispensable to U.S. export success. But on that metric, none of the subject agencies is scarcely relevant: Ex-Im supported $27.4 billion in exports in 2014; USTDA supported approximately $2.5 billion annually; and, OPIC supports less than $2 billion. In aggregate, these three agencies “support” less than 2 percent of all U.S. exports.

But the relevant economic question concerns the costs and benefits of these agencies to the U.S. economy. Let me focus now on Ex-Im.

Ex-Im financing helps two sets of companies: U.S. firms whose exports are subsidized through direct loans or loan guarantees and the foreign firms who purchase those subsidized exports.

But those same transactions impose costs on two different sets of companies: competing U.S. firms in the same industry who do not get Ex-Im backing, and U.S. firms in downstream industries, whose foreign competition is now benefitting from reduced capital costs courtesy of U.S. government subsidies.

Ex-Im financing reduces the cost of doing business for the lucky U.S. exporter and reduces the cost of capital for his foreign customer, but it hurts U.S. competitors of the U.S. exporter (what I call intra-industry costs), as well as U.S. competitors of his foreign customer (what I call downstream industry costs) by putting them at relative cost disadvantages. According to the findings in a recent Cato Institute study, the downstream costs alone amount to a tax of approximately $2.8 billion every year and the victims include companies in each of the 21 broad U.S. manufacturing sectors.

The notion that because Beijing, Brasilia, and Brussels subsidize their exporters, Washington must, too, sweeps under the rug the fact that the United States is a major export credit subsidizer that has been engaged in doling out such largesse since 1934, well before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. To say that U.S. exporters need assistance with financing to “level the playing field” suggests that they lack advantages among the multitude of considerations that inform the purchasing decision. Moreover, the fact that less than 2 percent of U.S. export value goes through export promotion agencies suggests this rationale for Ex-Im is bogus.

Congress should allow Ex-Im to expire at the end of next month and the administration should announce plans to bring cases to the World Trade Organization against governments operating their export credit agencies in violation of agreed-upon limits under the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. The combination of the carrot of U.S. withdrawal from the business of export credit financing and the stick of WTO litigation would likely incent other governments to reduce, and possibly eliminate, their own subsidy programs.

For better or worse, at different times and for different purposes over the years, U.S. trade policy has been a tool of U.S. foreign policy. Trade preference programs, trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, investment treaties, trade sanctions, infrastructure funding, and trade financing have all been pursued or deployed for reasons not entirely economic in nature. Pursuing strategic objectives through trade policy has a long history.

The State Department’s mission is “to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.” That broad mission may justify one or two export promotion agencies.  But according to the Congressional Research Service, there are at least 20 such agencies within the U.S. government with overlapping responsibilities and, in some cases, working at cross purposes.

Ex-Im’s inspector general is currently investigating 31 cases of fraud and abuse and last year the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing with a former bank employee who was subsequently indicted on charges of fraud. It would be difficult to argue that this is the kind of behavior we encourage foreign governments to emulate.

Despite the rhetoric of U.S. decline, the United States maintains enormous commercial advantages over other countries.  We have the world’s largest market; strong institutions, including respect for private property and the rule of law; relatively free markets; a highly educated and productive workforce; the world’s best research institutions; a society that encourages innovation and produces deep and broad capital markets to fund it.  From these commercial advantages comes security and strength, so it is important that we maintain and build on those advantages. They underlie the strength of the U.S. economy, which is crucial to reaching U.S. security and foreign policy goals going forward.

Today, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published my op-ed addressing the claims of a group called Pastors for Texas Children. For the last month, the pastors have been flooding the pages of Texas newspapers with op-eds opposing school choice. Although they raise some legitimate concerns about school vouchers, their charges against scholarship tax credits—and school choice laws generally—range from lacking substance to being demonstrably false. 

There wasn’t enough space to address all of their claims in a single op-ed, but fortunately, here at Cato@Liberty we buy megapixels by the barrel (or whatever they come in). 

The claims made by six Fort Worth pastors in this op-ed were typical. I’ll address their major claims point by point:

The Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 4, providing tuition tax credits to donors giving scholarships to private schools. These are plainly private school vouchers.

Actually, the scholarships plainly are not vouchers. Voucher programs are government-funded and administered. Tax-credit scholarships are privately funded and administered by nonprofit scholarship organizations. As I wrote in the Star-Telegram, it’s like the difference between government-issued food stamps and nonprofit food banks. Donors to both scholarship organizations and food banks have their tax burden lowered as a result, but in neither case do the donated funds transmogrify into government property.

Our state Legislature has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers because they divert public money to religious schools in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any establishment of religion.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that school vouchers are constitutional because they serve a secular purpose, are neutral with respect to religion, and the funds are given to parents who can choose among religious or secular options. This is no more offensive to the First Amendment than holding a Bible study in a Section-8 subsidized apartment or using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and chaplains on the payroll.

Second, as noted previously, tax-credit scholarships are private funds. In ACSTO v. Winn, SCOTUS held that private funds do not become government property until they “come into the tax collector’s hands.”

Nevertheless, whoever runs the Pastors for Children Twitter account argued that “Tuition tax credits reduce the public treasury in diverting money for [a] religious cause.” But if that’s all it takes to turn private donations into government money, then the churches to which the pastors belong are entirely government-funded. After all, donors to those churches receive tax deductions and the churches themselves receive 100 percent property-tax exemptions. Fortunately for the pastors, no one really believes that.

Moreover, unlike the tax benefits that churches receive, well-designed education tax credits reduce the overall tax burden by reducing state expenditures more than they reduce state tax revenue. Whenever a child leaves her assigned district school to accept a tax-credit scholarship, the state no longer has to fund that child. In 2010, Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability calculated that the Sunshine State’s scholarship tax credit produced $1.44 in savings for every $1 of reduced tax revenue, saving Florida taxpayers more than $36 million in a single year.

Religious liberty is at stake. The separation of church and state is intended not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state.

With Thomas Jefferson, we believe it is sinful and tyrannical for government to compel people to pay taxes for the propagation of religious opinions with which they disagree, or even with which they agree. Authentic religion must be wholly uncoerced. [emphasis in the original]

Indeed! Of course, the pastors don’t extend that logic to its conclusion: public schools regularly propagate opinions with which many citizens disagree. If the pastors truly held that principle sacred, if they truly believed that such compulsion is “sinful and tyrannical,” then they would seek to end government-run schooling altogether.

Moreover, even school vouchers have an advantage over the government’s near-monopoly in K-12 education because they allow parents to enroll their children in schools that reflect their views and values, rather than forcing parents into social conflict. And, of course, tax-credit scholarships achieve that end through voluntary contributions. In any case, given the pastors’ rhetoric, they should support school choice.

As a practical matter, vouchers channel public monies to private schools with no public accountability.

Actually, vouchers and tax-credit scholarships enhance accountability by making schools directly responsible to parents. This is especially true in low-income communities where parents have no financially viable options besides their assigned district school.

Private schools could use public money to discriminate on race, gender, religion and special needs.

There are four claims here. The first is patently false; as Patrick Gibbons noted at RedefinED, all schools—public and private—are forbidden by law to discriminate based on race. The U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue in its 1976 decision in Runyon v. McCrary. The pastors should issue a retraction.

The second and third claims are red herrings. Of course, in a free and pluralistic society that treasures freedom of association, a private school can be single-sex or have a particular religious affiliation. Do the pastors object to Wellesley College or Notre Dame accepting students on Pell Grants?

The fourth claim is more complicated. Not all private schools are equipped to handle particular special needs, but any school that accepts federal funding must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Moreover, there are numerous private schools that cater to students with special needs. Indeed, more than a dozen states have school choice programs that specifically benefit students with special needs, such as the child in this video:

https://youtu.be/iVbMrfTta_g

Returning to the pastors’ op-ed:

Texas benefits from a robust economy, yet hovers near the nation’s bottom in per-pupil spending. We feast at bounty’s table while some children subsist on crumbs.

The underlying but unstated assumption here is that more money means higher performance. However, there is no good evidence to suggest that’s the case. Texas public schools already spend north of $10,500 per pupil on average–how much do the pastors think should they should spend?

Education is a core component of democracy.

Indeed it is! Yet as Neal McCluskey noted recently, the best evidence shows that private schools do a better job instilling civic knowledge and values.

In a second op-ed, a Pastors for Texas Children member takes a different approach:

As tempting as it may be for private, religious schools to pluck the low-hanging fruit of “free” public money, the cost is too great. … Vouchers come with government strings attached.

Here the pastor raises a good point. Vouchers do tend to come with strings attached—but tax-credit scholarships do not. For that matter, the government could impose regulations on private schools even in the absence of vouchers. School choice or not, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

These government payouts seek to fill in for faith. They whisper from the shadows that they are the answer to the problems of funding a Christian school. God does not need vouchers.

Frankly, I’m not even sure what to make of that. Does that mean that there are no religious schools with a waiting list? And does God also not need public schools?

Whether or not God needs vouchers (whatever that means), there are low-income families who need financial assistance to send their kids to a decent school. Ideally, those funds would come through private charity, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, we live in a world in which the government provides “free” education that crowds out most alternatives. Tax-credit scholarships would reduce that crowd-out by encouraging private giving to empower low-income families to choose private schools.

At one point, the pastor strays into darker territory:

There however, are some faith-based schools ready to receive the funds. I don’t want tax dollars diverted to them anymore than I want them diverted to my school. In North Carolina’s voucher program, 8 percent of the public money is diverted to a single school, the Greensboro Islamic Academy. Louisiana’s voucher system only passed the state legislature when an Islamic school’s request for funds was withdrawn. Where public funds are diverted to faith-based schools, all faiths will have access to the funds.

Why raise the specter of Islamic education if not to appeal to the assumed bigotry of the reader? We should expect better from a man of the cloth.

In short, none of the pastors’ central claims withstand scrutiny. Let us hope that after prayerful reflection on the evidence, they will—like the Texas Catholic diocese—come to support education for all students.

In the news this morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–UT), author of the Trade Promotion Authority bill, makes the usual case for trade agreements and TPA:

We need to get this bill passed. We need to pass it for the American workers who want good, high-paying jobs. We need to pass it for our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs who need access to foreign markets in order to compete. We need to pass it to maintain our standing in the world.

It’s certainly good that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee supports freer trade. But I fear he’s as confused as most Washingtonians about the actual case for free trade.

This whole “exports and jobs” framework is misguided. Thirty years ago in the Cato Journal, the economist Ronald Krieger explained the difference between the economist’s and the non-economist’s views of trade. The economist believes that “The purpose of economic activity is to enhance the wellbeing of individual consumers and households.” And, therefore, “Imports are the benefit for which exports are the cost.” Imports are the things we want—clothing, televisions, cars, software, ideas—and exports are what we have to trade in order to get them.

And thus, Krieger continues, point by point:

Cheap foreign goods are thus an unambiguous benefit to the importing country.

The objective of foreign trade is therefore to get goods on advantageous terms.

That is why we want free—or at least freer—trade: to remove the impediments that prevent people from finding the best ways to satisfy their wants. Free trade allows us to benefit from the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, and economies of scale.

I write about this in The Libertarian Mind (buy it now!):

Politicians just don’t seem to get this. President Obama’s official statement on “Promoting U.S. Jobs by Increasing Trade and Exports” mentions exports more than forty times; imports, not once. His Republican critics agree: Senator Rob Portman says that a trade agreement “is vital to increasing American exports.” More colorfully, during his 1996 presidential campaign, Pat Buchanan stood at the Port of Baltimore and said, “This harbor in Baltimore is one of the biggest and busiest in the nation. There needs to be more American goods going out.”

That’s fundamentally mistaken. We don’t want to send any more of our wealth overseas than we have to in order to acquire goods from overseas. If Saudi Arabia would give us oil for free, or if South Korea would give us televisions for free, Americans would be better off. The people and capital that used to produce televisions—or used to produce things that were traded for televisions—could then shift to producing other goods. Unfortunately for us, we don’t get those goods from other countries for free. But if we can get them cheaper than it would cost us to produce them ourselves, we’re better off.

Sometimes international trade is seen in terms of competition between nations. We should view it, instead, like domestic trade, as a form of cooperation. By trading, people in both countries can prosper. And we should remember that goods are produced by individuals and businesses, not by nation-states. “South Korea” doesn’t produce televisions; “the United States” doesn’t produce the world’s most popular entertainment. Individuals, organized into partnerships and corporations in each country, produce and exchange. In any case, today’s economy is so globally integrated that it’s not clear even what a “Japanese” or “Dutch” company is. If Apple Inc. produces iPads in China and sells them in Europe, which “country” is racking up points on the international scoreboard? The immediate winners would seem to be investors and engineers in the United States, workers in China, and consumers in Europe; but of course the broader benefits of international trade will accrue to investors, workers, and consumers in all those areas.

The benefit of international trade to consumers is clear: We can buy goods produced in other countries if we find them better or cheaper. There are other benefits as well. First, it allows the division of labor to work on a broader scale, enabling the people in each country to produce the goods at which they have a comparative advantage. As Mises put it, “The inhabitants of [Switzerland] prefer to manufacture watches instead of growing wheat. Watchmaking is for them the cheapest way to acquire wheat. On the other hand the growing of wheat is the cheapest way for the Canadian farmer to acquire watches.”

The Senate Commerce Committee held a fascinating hearing on Wednesday regarding air traffic control (ATC). The hearing showcased the momentum to proceed with ATC restructuring. Because aviation is crucial to the economy, such a reform would create wide-ranging benefits.

At this point, industry experts are ahead of Congress in thinking about ATC reform. At the hearing, some of the senators seemed short-sighted and parochial. They had not done their homework and they nit-picked instead of considering the big-picture benefits.

However, the witness testimony was powerful and so it hopefully helped sway the skeptics. America’s ATC needs a big upgrade to meet rising passenger demand. Airspace is getting crowded and our antiquated ATC is causing delays and wasting fuel. Other countries have improved performance by separating ATC from their governments. That is the reform that America needs.

The testimonies of former Democratic senator Byron Dorgan (here), Paul Rinaldi of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (here), and Jeff Smisek of United Airlines (here) were impressive. Kudos to them all for embracing change.

Dorgan heads an ATC reform group, and he clearly had done his homework. If he were still a sitting senator, he might be skeptical of ATC changes, but he now favors restructuring. He argued that separating ATC finances from the federal budget is a crucial step to take. His testimony illustrates that when politicians take the time to learn about policy issues in detail, they are more likely to embrace reform.

Rinaldi is carving out a thoughtful pro-reform position as head of the controller’s union. Unions are often resistant to change. But to Rinaldi and his union’s credit, they have researched international ATC reforms and they seem to be open to major U.S. restructuring.

Smisek is chairman of United Airlines and heads Airlines for America (A4A). Corporations often resist reforms that reduce their subsidies. Currently, ATC is partly funded by general tax revenues, and those aviation subsidies might end if ATC were separated from the government. So bravo to United and A4A for putting the long-term interests of aviation first.

The skunk at the picnic was Ed Bolen, who heads the trade group for general aviation, the National Business Aviation Association. Bolen fears that separating ATC from the government might result in higher fees. His mistake is to believe that the current bureaucratic ATC will miraculously start working better in the future and that Congress will deliver billions of dollars for new ATC investment. That seems unlikely. As other witnesses observed, the current ATC system still uses World War II–era technology. Bolen is being short-sighted. His members would be better off if America had a more efficient privatized ATC that reduced delays and saved fuel costs. ATC is a high-tech industry, so embracing stasis over dynamism makes no sense.  

The model for American ATC reforms is the Canadian reforms of the 1990s. Under a Liberal government, Canada moved its ATC to a stand-alone nonprofit corporation, Nav Canada. The company has won “three IATA Eagle Awards since 2001 as [the] world’s best air navigation services provider.”

Witnesses at the hearing discussed advantages of the Canadian system. One is that an independent ATC company has a strong incentive to make technological advances and to export them around the world. In the Q&A, Rinaldi explained:

I was up last week visiting [Nav Canada] in Ottawa, and looking at their technical center. And the unique thing they do is that they have a true collaboration from the position of developing their next-gen technology. They have the air traffic controller, the engineer, and the manufacturer working together from conceptual stage all the way through to training, implementation, and deployment within their facilities. And what that does is it saves time and money. And they actually are developing probably the best equipment out there, and they are selling it around the world. And they are doing it in a 30-month to three-year time frame, when we have to look much longer down the road because of our procurement process in this country.

This is a long-time controller and industry expert telling Congress that there are major advantages to setting up ATC as an independent organization. Nav Canada collaborates, innovates, and it generates revenues from exporting technology. It has won numerous awards for its high-quality services, such as this recent one.

The bottom line: Canadian-style ATC reform is a no-brainer for the United States. If President Obama wants to add a bipartisan pro-growth reform to his legacy, he should get on board with overhauling our antiquated air traffic control system.

OK, I’m being melodramatic. But the question actually posed by the PanAm Post, “Will Bitcoin’s Fixed Money Supply Be Its Downfall?”, was only slightly less so. They had me take the “yes” position. But as my doubts about Bitcoin’s future are far from certain, I was delighted to see that they got Konrad Graf, a Bitcoin fan who has done some very good work on that cybercurrency’s early development, to oppose me.

The crucial questions, I believe, are whether any exchange medium can become widely adopted without also serving as an economy’s medium of account–that is, the medium to which prices and other payment contracts refer–and whether a new unit is likely to displace an established one unless it’s purchasing power is considered to be relatively stable and predictable. Think about your own employment contract, and of the alternative of having a contract written in Bitcoin, and you have some idea of the challenge. Of course, Bitcoin’s value is bound to be less predictable now than it would be were bitcoins more widely employed in making payments. But its popularity must remain limited unless it can somehow be perceived as offering a relatively stable unit of account.

In this regard it is worth considering Leland Yeager’s plea, in several of his writings, for “separating” the medium of exchange from the unit of account. (Here is a good summary by Bill Woolsey, comparing Yeager’s ideas to those of Market Monetarists.) Although Yeager’s perspective, which argues that it’s better to have a medium of exchange that isn’t also an economy’s medium of account, superficially appears to hold out more promise for Bitcoin than my own arguments, the appearance is deceiving. For what Yeager has in mind is a system in which the unit of account is a stable-value unit, with the value of actual exchange media fluctuating relative to the fixed nominal value of that unit. So while Yeager’s argument does suggest the desirability of a “separated” system, it is only for the sake of being able to have a more stable unit of account that he favors such an arrangement. Otherwise separation doesn’t achieve much, for macroeconomic problems can still arise in consequence of unanticipated changes in the value of the medium of account, and the consequent disruption of contracts that such changes will entail, regardless of the media actually employed in making payments and in settling accounts due. That’s one reason why I, for one, look forward to seeing further experimentation and innovation in the cybercurrency world.

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