United States Should not Confront China over Other Nations’ Territorial Disputes

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.

Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: The Heavy Lifting Lies Ahead

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.

Pataki’s Fiscal Record

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. 

Double Standards in American Policing

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.

Balanced Budget Requirements Don’t Work as Well as Spending Limits

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.

The Spin Cycle: Accelerating Sea Level Rise

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).

Venezuela: World’s Highest Inflation Rate

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).

Average Annual Inflation Rates

Pages