Senate Passes Bill to Approve Keystone XL Pipeline

Today, in a 62-38 vote, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The House passed a similar measure a few weeks ago. These actions come more than 6 years after TransCanada Corp originally submitted its application to the State Department to build a pipeline linking the Alberta oil sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Did I say State Department?

Yep, in matters involving the crossing of an international border (in this case the one with Canada) the State Department must make a determination as to whether or not the project is in the “national interest.” Two-thousand, three hundred and twenty-three days later, the ultimate head of the State Department still hasn’t made up his mind.

So Congress has attempted to make the decision for him.

But it probably won’t work.

President Obama has already advertised that he plans on vetoing the measure, because, well, because the State Department already has a procedure in place to handle cross border pipeline projects like this one.

In fact, this procedure has worked flawlessly up until the Keystone XL pipeline.  The previous cross-border pipeline that was proposed—the Alberta Clipper in 2007—was approved in just over two years. At the time, the State Department wrote in glowing terms about the project praising it for advancing “strategic interests,” being a “positive economic signal” and adding that “reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are best addressed through each country’s robust domestic policies.”

The Oil Price Plunge Won’t Cause Russia or Iran to Capitulate

The recent dramatic drop in global oil prices has significant geopolitical as well as economic implications.  Consumers in the United States and other countries enjoy substantial savings, while marginal producers, both here and abroad, find their profit margins severely squeezed.  As I discuss in an article at Aspenia Online, some of the oil-producing states that have been especially hard hit include Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.  All of those countries are governed by regimes that are on bad terms with the United States, so there is a temptation among American political leaders and pundits to relish the current discomfort of those governments.

Greater restraint is warranted.  The geopolitical benefits to the United States from the current depressed pricing environment are not trivial.  Increased economic constraints appear to be one factor making Iran’s clerical regime more willing to negotiate seriously about that country’s nuclear program.  Venezuela’s already substantial financial woes, caused by the leftist government’s chronic economic mismanagement since the late 1990s, has made that country a less appealing political model for the rest of Latin America.  Washington’s worries about a leftist “Bolivarian” revolution sweeping the region, which were prominent just a few years ago, have faded considerably.

The Obama administration is especially pleased about how lower oil prices are putting pressure on Vladimir Putin’s government.  Although Western economic sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, account for some of the country’s distress, the precipitous drop in oil prices (with Brent crude now selling for well under $50 per barrel) is a more important factor.  Not only has the value of the Ruble shrunk by more than 50 percent, the Russian government faces a budgetary squeeze verging on a crisis.  U.S. officials hope that the growing financial and economic discomfort will compel Putin to make major foreign policy concessions.

International Economics and Development

Journalists know that alarmism attracts readers. Just yesterday, an article in the British newspaper The Independent titled, “Have we reached ‘peak food’? Shortages loom as global production rates slow” claimed humanity will soon face mass starvation. Just as Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb  predicted that millions would die due to food shortages in the 1970s and 1980s, the article from yesterday tried to capture readers’ interest through unfounded fear. Let’s take a look at the actual state of global food production.

The alarmists cite statistics showing that while we continue to produce more and more food every year, the rate of acceleration is slowing down slightly. The article then presumes that if the rate of food production growth slows, then widespread starvation is inevitable. This is misleading. Let us take a look at the global trend in net food production, per person, measured in 2004-2006 international dollars. Here you can see that even taking population growth into account, food production per person is actually increasing:

Food is becoming cheaper, too. As K. O. Fuglie and S. L. Wang showed in their 2012 article “New Evidence Points to Robust but Uneven Productivity Growth in Global Agriculture,” food prices have been declining for over a century, in spite of a recent uptick:

In fact, people are better nourished today than they ever have been, even in poor countries. Consider how caloric consumption in India increased despite population growth:

Given that food is more plentiful than ever, what perpetuates the mistaken idea that mass hunger is looming? The failure to realize that human innovation, through advancing technology and the free market, will continue to rise to meet the challenges of growing food demand. In the words of HumanProgress.org Advisory Board member Matt Ridley, “If 6.7 billion people continue to keep specializing and exchanging and innovating, there’s no reason at all why we can’t overcome whatever problems face us.”

Pentagon Spending and Bureaucratic Bloat

There are major spending battles on the Washington agenda this year, including over the defense budget. Congress needs to decide whether to stick with capped spending levels agreed to in 2011, or allow its past restraint efforts to unravel.

Republican defense hawks want to bust the spending caps, while the small-government wing of the party wants to hold the line. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve been spending too much on defense for years because we have a lot of waste within the Department of Defense … There’s room to cut, and I think we are perfectly capable of staying within the sequester caps.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) noted, “To defend ourselves, we need a lean, mean fighting machine that doesn’t waste money on a bloated civilian bureaucracy.”

Amash and Paul’s position is buttressed by a new GAO study on the management bloat in Department of Defense (DoD) headquarters.

It is also buttressed by looking at DoD civilian and uniformed employment levels. The chart below shows that civilian DoD employment has grown 105,000 since 2001, while uniformed employment has grown just 22,000. Based on numbers in the chart, the ratio of bureaucrats-to-soldiers has increased from 47 percent in 2001 to 54 percent in 2014. But with the advance of computer power and other technologies, one would think that the bureaucratic overhead costs of our fighting force would be falling over time, not increasing.

How much could we save by improving bureaucratic efficiencies, and cutting the number of Pentagon civilians by at least the apparent excess of about 100,000? Annual pay and benefits for federal civilians is about $120,000 a year, so we could save roughly $12 billion a year by trimming this aspect of Pentagon bloat.

All data from the “Analytical Perspectives” sections of the FY2003 and FY2015 federal budgets. Data for 2014 are OMB estimates.

Live Free and Learn: Scholarship Tax Credits in New Hampshire

For School Choice Week, Austin Bragg and I produced a short documentary that details the struggle to adopt and implement a scholarship tax credit program in New Hampshire. The program had to overcome a governor’s veto, a repeal fight and a lawsuit that went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. We talked with three families that have benefitted from the scholarship program and people working to keep the program.

Cato’s Jason Bedrick has detailed the history of this program at length. He also played a key role in adopting and evaluating the results of the scholarship program in the face of sometimes less-than-civil opposition.

On Monday, we hosted an event featuring Jason and two other folks who played a key role keeping scholarships alive in New Hampshire where we discussed the potential for scholarship tax credits in other states with so-called “Blaine amendments.” And feel free to snag a free DVD of our short film while supplies last.

Georgia Has it Right on School Choice—Though on Too Small a Scale

Georgia has a schoalrship donation tax credit program that makes it easier for lower-income families to afford private schooling—if that’s what they think is best for their children. The program is so popular that the cap imposed upon it by the legislature was reached within the first few hours of January 1st, this year. Over at Education Next I argue today that raising the cap would do a lot of good for Georgia children.

Conflicted on 529s

If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.

On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well-to-do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well-to-do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.

On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.

So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college-funding quagmire.

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