Proven Reforms to Restrain Leviathan

Back in March, I shared a remarkable study from the International Monetary Fund which explained that spending caps are the only truly effective way to achieve good fiscal policy.

And earlier this month, I discussed another good IMF study that showed how deficit and debt rules in Europe have been a failure.

In hopes of teaching American lawmakers about this international evidence, the Cato Institute put together a forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the specific reforms that have been successful.

I moderated the panel and began by pointing out that there are many examples of nations that have enjoyed good results thanks to multi-year periods of spending restraint.

I even pointed out that we actually had an unintentional - but very successful - spending freeze in Washington between 2009 and 2014.

But the problem, I suggested, is that it is very difficult to convince politicians to sustain good policy on a long-run basis. The gains of good policy (such as what was achieved in the 1990s) can quickly be erased by a spending binge (such as what happened during the Bush years).

Republicans Should Welcome Trade’s “Burgeoning Bromance”

The skepticism was evident in conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham’s voice when she referred to the working relationship between President Obama and Senate Majority Leader McConnell as a “burgeoning bromance.” Her sentiment is shared by a number of Republicans in Congress, who are unhappy that Senate and House leadership is working with the president to secure Trade Promotion Authority.

Perhaps it’s no longer axiomatic that trade divides Democrats and unites Republicans.  According to Politico, “about 40 to 45 of the 245 Republicans in Congress are hard ‘nos’ on [TPA]” with many asking: Why would Republicans want to give this president, who has aggrandized his authority and disregarded congressional prerogatives, any more power?  Well, they shouldn’t.  However, TPA would not give the president any power to make mischief.

Trade Promotion Authority is neither a congressional capitulation nor an executive power grab.  It is a compact between the branches, which effectively deputizes the president to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of Congress, which meet parameters and fulfill objectives spelled out by Congress, which are put to votes in both chambers of Congress. 

If the concluded trade agreement meets Congress’s parameters and fulfills its objectives, legislation to implement the agreement is considered without amendments on an expedited timetable by an up-or-down vote.  If the agreement fails to meet Congress’s parameters or fulfill its objectives, it can be taken off the so-called fast-track through a resolution of disapproval.  And, ultimately, members and senators can always vote “no” if they don’t like the deal.  

The Futility of Stimulus

George Selgin has recently focused on the failure of Federal Reserve policy to finance a normal recovery. The Fed has greatly expanded its balance sheet and created a large quantity of excess reserves, which, for a variety of reasons, commercial banks have not mobilized into credit creation. Instead, banks seem content to earn the 25 basis points of interest the Fed now pays on reserves.

This anomalous behavior shows up in the M1 money multiplier, which is at record lows – less than half its value before the financial crisis. The Fed is creating reserves, but commercial banks are not creating as much bank money as has been historically true. Compounding this is the fact that the velocity of M1 – the rapidity with which each dollar is spent annually – has hit a 40-year low. Consequently, the Fed’s efforts to produce monetary stimulus have failed.

(A similar story can be told for other money supply measures. Data and charts can be found at FRED, the online data center at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.)

I do not think economists fully understand all of the factors contributing to this policy failure. But Selgin has surely identified one relevant factor, the payment of interest on reserves. On the margin, it creates a disincentive for commercial banks to create money and credit in a normal fashion. There are also fiscal reasons for ending the payments, as they reduce the payments the Fed makes to the Treasury. As it is, the payment of interest on reserves constitutes a fiscal transfer from taxpayers to commercial banks. In a normal world, I would endorse his call to end the interest paid on reserves.

We do not live in a normal world. The Fed has replaced liquid, short-term assets on its balance sheet with illiquid, long-term assets. Normally, to raise the Fed Funds rate, the Fed would sell Treasury bills. It has none to sell. Analysts and pundits speculate on when the Fed will raise interest rates. They should be asking how the Fed will raise interest rates.

Stanford’s John Taylor thinks the Fed will need to increase the interest rate paid on reserves to accomplish that goal. Markets through arbitrage would then increase the interest rates banks pay each other to borrow reserves. I suspect he is correct, with two caveats. First, there is no longer much of a market for federal funds. Banks aren’t lending each other reserves. Second, there are other possible mechanisms for raising short-term interest rates like the tri-party, reverse repo facility at the New York Fed. This, and other facilities, are untested as a means to implement a policy change. Their use would put monetary policy in unchartered waters.

To sum up, monetary policy has failed to simulate economic activity. It has failed even to finance a normal economic recovery. In pursuing a failed stimulus policy, the Fed has tied its policy hands going forward. At some point, interest rates will need to rise. The Fed will need to rely on novel means to accomplish a turn in policy. Paying higher interest rates on bank reserves may be one method. It is an unpleasant reality. It is only one consequence of the Fed’s experiment with extraordinary monetary policy.

A Pattern of Problems in American Cities

Last December the federal Department of Justice concluded an investigation of the Cleveland Police Department.  That investigation found a pattern of excessive force in violation of the Constitution.  On Monday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson agreed to a legal settlement with the feds to overhaul his police department’s policies and practices regarding the use of force and how it handles complaints and monitors the actions of its officers.  This is just the most recent police department to be scrutinized.  Following the riot in Baltimore, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that the Dept of Justice would be launching a pattern and practice investigation of that police department as well.  Local policymakers in Baltimore, Cleveland, and elsewhere, have let serious problems fester in their police departments and addressing those deficiencies is long overdue.  At the same time, we should also remember that policymakers are also doing a generally poor job on a broader range of issues, including the schools.  As it happens, our friends at Reason did a short film a while back titled “Saving Cleveland.”  The film covers several important issues and what needs to be done.

Last week, Cato hosted an event on Capitol Hill, Lessons from Baltimore, which covers additional issues not in the Reason film.  Policing, body cameras, and social welfare spending.  That event can be viewed here.

Is the TPP a Huge Deal or No Big Deal?

As more journalists and commentators discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we’ve seen very conflicting descriptions of the agreement.  For some, the TPP isn’t about trade at all but about giving power to corporations and ending U.S. sovereignty, or about containing China and building U.S. influence in Asia.  When commentators do focus on the potential economic impact of the agreement, they either describe the TPP as a very big deal or as a very small one.  It all depends on your perspective.

My colleague Simon Lester has written about problems in how GDP gains from the TPP have been estimated.  I’d like to take issue with a different figure commonly cited to bolster the idea of the TPP’s hugeness—that the 12 countries involved account for almost 40% of global GDP.  This number is correct but highly misleading as a gauge of the TPP’s economic significance.

For one thing about 22.5% of global GDP comes from the United States.  So, one could claim accurately that the U.S.–Jordan Free Trade Agreement covers almost a quarter of the global economy.  Also, most of the remainder comes from Canada and Mexico, with whom the United States already has a free trade agreement.  In fact, the United States has free trade agreements with all but five countries in the TPP negotiations.

The only large economy country in the TPP that the United States doesn’t already have a free trade agreement with is Japan.  So, if you’re going to measure the “size” of the TPP, it would be best understood as a U.S.–Japan free trade agreement.  That’s a pretty big deal, actually, but it’s not two-fifths of the world.

Free Trade Is Good for Poor People

A piece in the New York Times today suggests that rich people are more likely than poor people to support free trade:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal making its way through Congress is the latest step in a decades-long trend toward liberalizing trade — a somewhat mysterious development given that many Americans are skeptical of freer trade.

But Americans with higher incomes are not so skeptical. They — along with businesses and interest groups that tend to be affiliated with them — are much more likely to support trade liberalization. Trade is thus one of the best examples of how public policy in the United States is often much more responsive to the preferences of the wealthy than to those of the general public.

Skepticism toward free trade among lower-income Americans is often substantial. Data from a 2013 CBS/New York Times poll show that 58 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year preferred to limit imports to protect United States industries and jobs, while only 36 percent preferred the wider selection and lower prices of imported goods available under free trade. But the balance of opinion reversed for those making over $100,000. Among that higher-income group, 53 percent favored free trade versus 44 percent who wanted to limit imports.

Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey released on Wednesday found that a plurality of Americans making under $30,000 per year say that their family’s finances have been hurt by free trade agreements (44 percent) rather than helped (38 percent). By contrast, those making more than $100,000 per year overwhelmingly believe free trade has been beneficial — 52 percent said trade agreements have helped their family’s finances versus only 29 percent who said they have hurt.

I am sometimes skeptical of polls on these issues, mainly due to badly phrased questions.  But regardless, I would be interested to see if the answers were affected by information on who actually pays the most in tariff revenue (as a percentage of their income), which, it turns out, is poor people:

Paid Leave’s Effects on Job Prospects

Expanded maternity and child care benefits are expected to be a pillar of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. These policies seek to make it easier for women to balance the challenges of being a working mother. While they may well be well-intentioned, but they backfire. The New York Times highlighted the downside.

First, the article focused on maternal leave policies in Spain:

Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

The results in Chile were similar:

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