President Poroshenko Goes to Washington

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke before the U.S. Congress yesterday morning, and afterward met with President Obama at the White House. The visit was overshadowed by other major events of the week—Congress’s vote to authorize arms and training for Syrian rebels, and the Scottish independence referendumbut it was noteworthy that the visit didn’t elicit any U.S. offers of military support for Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s speech to Congress focused heavily on Ukraine’s role as a “strong American partner” and fellow democracy, and argued for greater U.S. involvement in the crisis. He even went so far as to argue that “this is America’s war too,” though he certainly offered no justification for why Ukraine is of key strategic interest for the United States. Between rousing rhetoric, references to John F. Kennedy, and anecdotes about brave Ukrainian warriors, he did ask the United States for three pieces of aid:

First, he asked for weaponry. Poroshenko thanked the United States for the humanitarian aid it has provided to Ukraine, but argued that “we can’t win a war with blankets.” The White House has promised a new $53 million aid package, comprising nonlethal military aid (i.e., blankets and food supplies). In contrast, the Ukrainians are particularly interested in heavy and antitank weapons.

Second, Poroshenko asked Congress for a massive injection of financial aid to support investment, fight corruption, and reform the Ukrainian state.

Finally, and most worrisome, he asked the United States (and NATO) to grant Ukraine a “special, non-allied partner status” for security and defense. It’s unclear exactly what this would entail, but it sounds suspiciously like a plea for NATO protection of Ukraine without full NATO membership.

There is limited interest in Congress to give Poroshenko some of what he is seeking. Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have co-sponsored the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which would seek to arm Ukrainian troops. But though the bill unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is unclear what will become of it as the Senate begins its recess, or whether it would command broader support from Congress.

Arming Ukraine’s government is foolhardy at best. Even if Ukraine were central to U.S. interests, the United States cannot possibly provide enough military aid to allow Ukraine to prevail against the Russian military. Such aid has the potential to escalate the situation and undermine a diplomatic settlement. Giving Ukraine a “special defense status” is an even worse idea, especially if it were to commit NATO to the military defense of Ukraine.

Luckily, the Obama administration seems determined to give Poroshenko a public relations boost—rolling out the red carpet for his visit—and nothing more. President Obama’s remarks praised Poroshenko’s leadership, but promised only to continue to help Ukraine reach a diplomatic settlement with Russia. With the U.S. military already gearing up for action on two different continents, it isn’t surprising that American leaders would choose to avoid escalating another regional conflict. Let’s hope this restraint continues once the other crises are past. 

A Tip o’ the Hat to the United Kingdom

As an eighth-generation Scottish-American, I’m disappointed that my ancestral homeland has chosen not to be A Nation Once Again. But at the Daily Caller I do note one remarkable and positive aspect of the referendum:

The leaders of the United Kingdom allowed this referendum to take place, allowed the Scots to peacefully decide their own fate. Just think how remarkable that is. We Americans weren’t allowed to peacefully leave the United Kingdom….

A few secession efforts in the United States also demonstrate the remarkable nature of the Scottish independence referendum. The San Fernando Valley region wanted to secede from the city of Los Angeles in the 1970s, and eventually a vote on secession was held in 2002. But the entire city of Los Angeles got to vote on whether the Valley could leave, and the effort was defeated. Today there are counties in both California and Colorado that have discussed secession, but in both cases the state law says that the legislature would have to approve. Few central governments look kindly on the loss of any portion of their taxpayers.

And that’s why I offer a tip o’ the hat today to the Parliament and the governments of the United Kingdom. They allowed the people of Scotland to decide their own fate. They did not insist that any secession had to get the approval of the government from which the dissident region wanted to secede. They did campaign hard to persuade Scottish voters to stick with the UK. But they let the Scots decide. May the road rise up to meet them, and may the sun shine warm upon their faces. And may other central governments learn from their example.

State Inspectors Get Run Of California Worksites—At Business Groups’ Behest

That workman from Craigslist who dropped by to install a set of office cabinets for you “off the books” is now more likely to be headed to jail, no matter how happy you are with the quality of his work, thanks to the California legislature:

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed S.B. 315, described by its sponsor, Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Beverly Hills), as a measure “to help curb California’s underground economy.” The measure would step up penalties and enforcement against persons who advertise for, or perform, repair and construction work with a value of $500 or more, counting parts and material as well as labor. … First offenses are subject to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine, and subsequent offenses are treated yet more harshly.

There’s more. The bill, according to its legislative summary, “would additionally require that the enforcement division, when participating in the activities of the Joint Enforcement Strike Force on the Underground Economy, be granted free access to all places of labor,” at least in business locations. (Yes, “all”; you only thought your property was private.) 

A special touch: the customer who ordered the work will now be legally classed as a “victim of crime” entitled to restitution and other benefits, even if the work was done exactly as ordered, and even if (the law is explicit) the customer was fully aware the job was unlicensed. 

How could the California legislature have unanimously (as it did) passed a measure curtailing property rights by giving more state inspectors access to places of labor against owners’ will? Simple: it was framed as a pro-business measure. Among its backers were the sponsoring Contractors State License Board and such groups as the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Contractors Association, the electrical contractors, the landscape contractors, the plumbing and heating contractors, and so forth.   

The costs of occupational licensure are many. Not least is that it gives established businesses a stake in making government more powerful and invasive.  

P.S.: Possibly unrelated, or possibly not: California issued massive fines that closed down a small winery whose owners were allowing volunteers to do some work, in violation of state law; a state spokesman said permitting volunteer labor “isn’t fair” to competing wineries with all-professional staff. 

#WhyLiberty: Venezuela

Thousands of Venezuelans regularly protest Nicolás Maduro’s government. Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a Policy Analyst on Latin America at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, recalls witnessing the struggle for freedom in Caracas.

“Why Liberty” is a short series of personal stories emphasizing the value of liberty. Feel free to make your own video telling your story using #WhyLiberty. And, of course, subscribe to us on YouTube.

Intellectual Property in Trade Agreements

Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation, who spoke at a Cato event we held earlier this year, has a new essay arguing that intellectual property protection should be included in trade agreements. He makes several points, but I’m going to focus on just one.  He states:

[N]umerous studies have found a correlation between higher levels of IP protection and stronger economic growth.

  • According to a 2008 OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] study, stronger patent rights in developing countries are a significant determinant of levels of foreign direct investment, and also facilitate higher levels of technology transfer.
  • A 2012 OECD study found that a 1 percent change in the strength of a country’s IP framework is associated with a 2.8 percent increase in foreign direct investment inflows and a 0.7 percent increase in domestic R&D [research and development].
  • And a 2013 study found that R&D spending has grown relative to GDP in developing countries after they adopted the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The study also found that medicines for developing countries had received additional funding, and that the TRIPS agreement had directly contributed to the emergence of native film industries in African countries.

Here’s the problem: If you treat intellectual property as a single concept, and you can either have more or less protection of it, it would be reasonable to conclude that some countries have too little protection and probably need more. But intellectual property covers a lot of ground. To name a few areas, you have copyrights, trademarks, and patents.  You also have the European favorite, “geographical indications.”

If the argument is that having intellectual property protection is better than not having intellectual property protection, in terms of economic growth, that seems like an easy one.  It’s hard to imagine a modern economy working very well without effective trademark enforcement, for example.

But beyond that, things get complicated. How much protection is too much?  The United States is pushing copyright terms that last for the life of the author plus 70 years as part of its trade negotiations. I’ve argued that’s way too long. What is the right amount exactly?  Well, no one seems to be sure, as far as I can tell, but there are plenty of people who say life plus 70 years is excessive.

So, it’s not enough just to say, “we need stronger IP protection in trade agreements.”  If you want to convince anybody, you need to get into the specifics of each kind of protection, and why the stronger level you propose is justified. Otherwise I’m just going to assume you want stronger IP protection of any and all kinds and would go along with the European Union demand that Feta cheese can only be made in Greece.

Bankers Advise Fed to Regulate Bitcoin

Four times a year members of the Federal Reserve Board are scheduled to meet with members of the banking industry, as represented by the Fed’s Federal Advisory Council.  This, of course, does not include all the many other occasions that the Fed meets with bankers.  These meetings allow the banking industry to express its views to the Fed on a wide range of issues.  Summarized records of those meetings are released to the public.  In the most recent meeting, bankers raised, among other topics, the issue of Bitcoin. 

While the bankers did not yet view Bitcoin as a viable competitor to their role in the payments system, the bankers did express that Bitcoin “regulation is advisable.”  Those soft-hearted bankers expressed a concern that without adquate consumer protections, users of Bitcoin would be vulnerable to fraud and theft.  Bankers also suggested, presumably out of a concern for national security, that Bitcoin be subject to the same anti-money-laundering procedures, including Know-Your-Consumer, that banks are subjected to.  Bankers explicitly suggested that Bitcoin be subjected to the suspicious activities reports (SARs) that banks must currently file. Personally, this all sounds like an attempt at “raising rivals’ costs” to me.

Interestingly banks also suggested that in “an economy hypothetically dominated by Bitcoin, its finite number (21 million) would prevent the application of traditional monetary policy tools to provide support…” In other words banks are concerned that a Bitcoin world would be one where bank bailouts and assistance were more difficult to achieve.  I guess one man’s bug is another man’s feature.

Government Failure: More from Paul Light

NYU’s Paul Light provides thoughts on government failure in the Wall Street Journal today.

Congress returned to its investigation of the General Motors faulty ignition switch Tuesday with a blistering Senate hearing on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s failure to act. As the House Energy and Commerce Committee concluded on the same day, the agency had more than enough information in 2007 to prevent further tragedy, but gave GM a pass.

Lest anyone think that the neglect was an aberration in an otherwise invulnerable government, the cascade of highly visible failures has been accelerating since the mid-1980s. According to my list of management failures that made the national news over the past quarter-century, the federal government produced an average of 1.5 failures per year from 1986 to 1993, two per year from 1993 to 2001, and three per year from 2001 to today.

Light’s views build on his recent study on the subject, which I discussed in this blog. Light says some nice things about the bureaucracy, which I have not quoted here. But he has documented a long list of failures:

With more aggressive oversight and stronger policy, for example, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration could have prevented the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, last year that killed 13 people. With more effective monitoring of at least two of its watchlists, the intelligence community could have warned the Boston police that there was a potential terrorist duo in the city before the Boston Marathon bombing. With a bit of late-night reading of its own internal reports, the Department of Veterans Affairs could have discovered the VA’s wait-list scandal well before it hit the news. And so it goes, from the flu-vaccine shortages, to the Columbia shuttle disaster, the financial meltdown, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the healthcare.gov disaster.

I think a key reason why the federal government is failing more than ever is because it is larger than ever. Light suggests other reasons for the government’s poor performance. Either way, this is an important discussion to have, and I am glad Light is out front documenting the failures and asking some fundamental questions.

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