Ukraine’s Fight With Russia Isn’t America’s Business

Ukraine’s military has lost control of the Donetsk airport and the rebels have launched another offensive. Fortune could yet smile upon Kiev, but as long as Russia is determined not to let the separatists fail, Ukraine’s efforts likely will be for naught.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Only a negotiated settlement, no matter how unsatisfying, offers a possible resolution of the conflict. The alternative may be the collapse of the Ukrainian state and long-term confrontation between the West and Russia.”

Ukraine’s most fervent advocates assume anyone not ready to commit self-immolation on Kiev’s behalf must be a Russian agent. However, there are numerous good reasons for Washington to avoid the fight.

1) Russia isn’t Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya.

While the Obama administration has resisted proposals for military confrontation with Moscow, a gaggle of ivory tower warriors has pushed to arm Ukraine, bring Kiev into NATO, and station U.S. men and planes in Ukraine. These steps could lead to war.

Americans have come to expect easy victories. However, Russia would be no pushover. In particular, Moscow has a full range of nuclear weapons, which it could use to respond to allied conventional superiority.

2) Moscow has more at stake than the West in Ukraine.

Ukraine matters far more to Moscow than to Washington. Thus, the former will devote far greater resources and take far greater risks than will the allies. The Putin government already has accepted financial losses, economic isolation, human casualties, and political hostility.

Employers Aren’t Mind-Readers and Shouldn’t Be Forced to Pry Into Employees’ Religious Beliefs

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination. Along with enforcing these laws—most notably, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—the EEOC tells employers how not to discriminate. For example, the EEOC’s Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace instructs that an employer should “avoid assumptions or stereotypes about what constitutes a religious belief” and that managers “should be trained not to engage in stereotyping based on religious dress and grooming practices.” 

It’s passing strange, then, that the government is now arguing before the Supreme Court not only that employers can do these things, but that they must, or face liability under Title VII, in the context of reasonable accommodations that companies have to make for religious practice. Discerning when such accommodations are necessary can be difficult because people practice religion differently—and often in their own personal, non-obvious way. 

Title VII has thus traditionally been understood to leave it to the employee to determine when a company policy conflicts with his or her religious practice and then to request an accommodation. This interpretation leaves employers free to pursue neutral policies up to the point that they have actual knowledge of such a conflict. 

In the last several years, however, the EEOC has apparently taken the position that employers must pry into their employees’ religious practices whenever they have an inkling of suspicion that an accommodation may be needed. Abercrombie & Fitch is one company that has found out just how impossible a situation this puts employers into. When Abercrombie decided not to hire Samantha Elauf as a sales associate based on her violation of the company’s “Look Policy”—a branding guide that, among other things, prohibits the wearing of clothing generally not sold by the store, like Elauf’s black headscarf—the company found itself on the wrong end of a government lawsuit. 

A federal district court ruled for the EEOC even though Elauf never informed them that she would need a religious accommodation.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that an employer must actually know about a religious practice before it can be held liable for discriminating on that basis. The Supreme Court took the case at the EEOC’s request and Cato has now filed a brief in support of Abercrombie. 

We argue that employers must have actual knowledge of the potential need for a religious accommodation before they can be held liable for violating Title VII because the EEOC hasn’t offered any coherent alternative and because employers already know how to use this tried-and-true actual-knowledge standard. In addition, the burden of identifying the need for accommodations has to be on the employee because, after all, it’s their religion, and thus they are in a significantly better position to identify conflicts than employers—who aren’t mind-readers and shouldn’t have to rely on crude stereotypes or pry into employees’ personal lives. 

An opposite rule would create an awkward and uncomfortable scenario all-around. The EEOC’s position is short-sighted; if the agency somehow prevails, it will have done what federal agencies do best: turn minimal burdens for some people into heavy burdens for everyone.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. on February 25.

Uber Provides Case Against Occupational Licensing

By now we have all heard of the disruptive force that is the ridesharing company Uber. The company, which is beating traditional taxi companies at their own game, has caused headaches for competitors and regulators alike. Moreover, as Eduardo Porter argues in his New York Times column, Uber also brings the entire regime of occupational licensing into question.

Porter notes that Uber has made the public much more aware of the anti-consumer inefficiencies in the regulated taxicab industry. The medallion system limits the number of taxis on the roads.  Thus, the supply of cabs is much less than demand, which reduces the incentives for taxi owners to innovate and care about consumers.  Uber, outside of this licensing regime, has thrived while providing wages that are on par with (or more than) licensed taxi drivers.  This is possible because drivers (which are not in short supply) do not benefit from the limited number of medallions; only the medallion owners benefit.    

Porter cites the research of University of Minnesota economist and occupational licensing expert Morris Kleiner. Kleiner’s work describes how the labor market has changed since the early 1950s from blue collar and unionized to white collar and licensed. Protectionism has not declined. It has been transformed.   

The mischief created by occupational licensing appears to be a concern even for Democrats. The Obama administration has sought to streamline the licensing process nationwide, and the president’s Council of Economic Advisors seeks to subject licensure to cost-benefit analysis. 

For more from Morris Kleiner, see his recent essay from the Cato Reviving Economic Growth forum, or my other blog posts on his work.

Greeks Vote Against Euro and For Democracy

Greece’s parliamentary elections could reshape Europe. In voting for the radical left the Greek people have reinvigorated home rule and democracy across the continent.

Greece has been in economic crisis seemingly for eternity. Even in the Euro the system could not generate the growth necessary to repay the debt:  the economy was hamstrung by enervating work rules, corrupting political influences, profiteering economic cartels, and debilitating cultural norms.

The inevitable crisis hit in 2009. Athens couldn’t make debt payments or borrow at affordable rates. Nor could Greece devalue its currency to make its products more competitive. The European “Troika” (European Central Bank, European Commission, and International Monetary Fund) developed a painful rescue plan.

Syriza, meaning Coalition of the Radical Left, arose to challenge the two establishment parties. Headed by Alexis Tsipras, Syriza won 36.2 percent and 149 seats, two short of a majority, on Sunday.

Syriza offered dreamy unreality:  free health care and electricity along with food subsidies, pension increases, salary hikes, and more public sector jobs. Billions in new revenue is to magically appear.

Rethinking Currency Manipulation

Interest groups in the United States have focused on the possibility of including provisions in trade agreements with the intent of countering currency manipulation.  The concern is that another country may choose to reduce the value of its currency relative to the U.S. dollar in order to encourage its businesses to export more goods to the United States.   Such currency realignment also would tend to make it more expensive for the devaluing nation to import products from this country.

It’s true that an adjustment in currency exchange rates – regardless of the reason for the adjustment – can have an effect on trade flows.  U.S. industries that export to foreign customers, or compete with imported goods in the domestic marketplace, understandably would prefer that currency relationships not become skewed against their commercial interests.  Currency stability improves the business climate by making it easier to build long-term relationships with customers and suppliers. 

However, currency exchange rates have fluctuated throughout recorded history.  Sometimes those changes may be driven by a government’s conscious desire to devalue its currency.  More often the variability in exchange rates reflects fundamental economic realities.  Economies that experience growing productivity and rising prosperity should not be surprised to find that market pressures cause their currencies to strengthen.  The reverse is true for countries that are growing slowly or not at all. 

A shift in exchange rates changes a country’s “terms of trade,” which is a term  used by economists to describe the ratio of a country’s export prices to its import prices.  From a U.S. perspective, if another country sets its currency at an artificially low level relative to the dollar, the U.S. terms of trade will improve.  The United States will be able to obtain a greater value of imports for the same value of exports.  Exporting the same number of airplanes and soybeans as before will pay for the importation of larger quantities of shoes, coffee, and automobiles. 

Putting Agriculture Subsidies Back on the Table

Yesterday, my colleague Bill Watson made the following point on this blog: “Perhaps China’s growing use of subsidies can change the dynamic, making it finally possible for international negotiations to take on U.S. agriculture subsidies.”  I’ve been thinking the same thing.  When it was just a few rich countries subsidizing, the political dynamic of subsidy reduction was challenging.  But if we are all subsidizing now, can’t we all just agree to stop?  Unfortunately, I fear the reality is going to be less promising than we might hope.

I confess that I did get a little excited and optimistic when I read a recent piece from U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, in which he said:

Take the example of agriculture, the subsidies for which have proven one of the toughest issues to tackle. In 2008, the proposed solution was that developed countries would cut their agricultural subsidies while developing countries would not.

But much has changed since that time. Just last year, a group representing agriculture-exporting countries, developed and developing alike, published a report listing the top four users of trade-distorting agricultural subsidies in today’s world, with India first, followed by China, the European Union, and the United States.

In a global commodities market, this double-standard makes no economic sense. In reality, trade-distorting subsidies from emerging economies have the same impact on global commodity prices as trade-distorting subsidies from developed countries. The United States is willing to wade back into the complex thicket of agricultural trade negotiations, but only if the discussion reflects today’s reality.

Parsing his words, he says the United States is “willing to wade back” in to these issues.  That’s slightly positive, suggesting the possibility of action.  But it’s going to take a bit more than this.  At some point, someone has to make an actual concrete proposal to eliminate or reduce agriculture subsidies.  That is, someone has to lay out specific details of a proposal for everyone to rein in subsidies.  It would be great if it were the United States, but it could be any of the big subsdizers.  However, it’s not going to happen unless and until someone takes this initiative.

Taxing Us to Spy on Us

Reading some Frederic Bastiat last night, I circled his observation that the government takes advantage of citizen passivity to increase its power, often by promising to “cure all the ills of mankind.” The government initiates “in the guise of actual services, what are nothing but restrictions; thereafter the nation pays, not for being served, but for being disserved.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that we pay our hard-earned tax dollars for the federal government to spy on us on the highways. Americans might think they are footing the $29 billion annual bill for the Department of Justice to secure our freedoms, but instead the department is abusing those freedoms:

The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.

The database raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance. The existence of the program and its expansion were described in interviews with current and former government officials, and in documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request and reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. It is unclear if any court oversees or approves the intelligence-gathering.

The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of electronic eyes scanning traffic on the roads to steer police toward suspects.

“Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,’’ said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided, it shouldn’t be done in secret.’’

The disclosure of the DEA’s license-plate reader database comes on the heels of other revelations in recent months about the Justice Department, as well as the agencies it runs, gathering data about innocent Americans as it searches for criminals. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of Americans’ phones as it searches for criminal suspects and fugitives.

Why do government officials try to keep such programs secret? I suspect it’s because they know they are disserving us by undermining our liberties. As for members of Congress, they often do little more than say government spying on us “raises concerns,” but the license plate program is a good opportunity for them to stand up to the executive branch and put a stop to it.

Notes:

The Journal’s report is not an entirely new revelation. In this essay, I mentioned that the Department of Homeland Security also has a license plate spying program.

Walter Olson weighs-in here.

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