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.

Will China Help End U.S. Farm Subsidies?

This morning, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to talk and answer questions about U.S. trade policy.  Most of the questions centered around trade promotion authority, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and how best to further the interests of industries or commodity groups that lobby Senators.  One popular way to phrase a question is to accuse other countries, especially China, of unfairly propping up their own industries and then asking how the administration is going to counteract that.

So it was that Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) asked Ambassador Froman about China’s cotton subsidies.

China is basically hoarding … buying cotton and hoarding it, and is stockpiling it.  And they’re subsidizing their producers at twice the world market price.  What can be done with China to enforce through the WTO or through any agreements we might otherwise have to keep them from manipulating the cotton prices and suppressing the cotton market?  

This accusation is kind of funny.  The United States is by far the world’s leading exporter of cotton.  We also subsidize that cotton like crazy.  Admittedly, the U.S. government props up domestic agriculture in slightly more complex and opaque ways than simply hoarding cotton, but if Senator Isakson wants to end distortions of global cotton prices, he could just stop voting for them.

Ambassador Froman’s response:

Well I think this is a very important point more generally, which is that the whole pattern of agricultural subsidies has changed a lot over the last 10 or 15 years.  When the Doha Round started, the focus on agricultural subsidies was really the United States and the European Union.  But in both of those areas, subsidies have come down, while subsidies from China and India in the agriculture area have increased, and by some measure China’s now the largest subsidizer of cotton.  And so we’re engaging with them and we had conversations also in the last couple days about that and about taking a fresh look at where subsidies are being provided, how it’s distorting the market, and how that should play into global trade negotiations.  I think it’s important that we update our view of where subsidies are coming from and what impact it has. 

If you’re a poor subsistence farmer in Africa, it doesn’t matter whether the subsidy’s coming from the U.S. or from China; it matters that the subsidy exists.  And so we’re hoping to engage with China on this and to create some disciplines around this.

Even the Benefit of the Doubt Won’t Save EPA’s Mercury Rule

Challenging an agency’s assessment of scientific research in court is typically seen as a fool’s errand. The courts may keep the regulatory state on a close leash where matters of constitutional law are concerned, and will give challenges regarding the proper interpretation of statutes a fair hearing before (usually) deferring to the government’s view. But an agency has to go seriously off the rails before the courts will second-guess its assessment of the scientific record underlying a regulation.

That’s what makes EPA’s super-expensive Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule so interesting: the agency’s own assessment of the scientific research shows there was no good reason to regulate in the first place. The Supreme Court is now reviewing EPA’s decision to plow ahead regardless, irrespective of the costs of doing so.

The Cato Institute’s amicus brief in Michigan v. EPA unpacks EPA’s own scientific assessment to show that regulation certainly is not (as the statute requires) “appropriate and necessary.” 

Power plants emit trace amounts of mercury, and mercury poses a risk to human neurological development when pregnant women consume fish tainted by it. But, as EPA has explained, mercury deposition in the United States “is generally dominated by sources other than U.S. [power plants].” In fact, the agency’s figures show that those plants are responsible for only about one half of one percent of airborne mercury.

Common sense would therefore suggest that reducing or even eliminating emissions from U.S. plants could have little or no appreciable effect on public health. And EPA actually agrees, finding that “even substantial reductions in U.S. [power-plant] deposition…[are] unlikely to substantially affect total risk.”

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