Archives: 12/2007

Update on the Internet Gambling Dispute

Good news and not-so-good news on the long-running saga over internet gambling (background here): Antigua has been awarded $21 million annual “damages” as a result of the United States’ restrictions on offshore provision of internet gambling and betting services.

That is far less than the $3.4 billion Antigua had asserted it is owed, but more than the United States had suggested was warranted ($500,000). On the other hand, the arbitrator gave Antigua permission to collect the damages by suspending their obligations to protect U.S. intellectual property. The $21 million worth of pirated software, movies, and music would go on annually unless and until the United States changes its laws, so we can expect some lobbying from Hollywood to have the restrictions on internet gambling lifted.

The report just came out, so I have yet to absorb it fully myself, but here it is.

Expect to Pay More for Chocolate Coins this Christmas

An article today in the Wall Street Journal reports on Department of Justice investigations into alleged price-fixing by U.S. chocolate companies, following similar investigations by Canadian regulators into the Canadian divisions of the same companies.

The companies insist that higher commodity prices are behind any recent price increases in their products, with Cadbury’s CEO expecting ingredients to cost between 5 and 6 percent more next year as a result of tight supplies (primarily because of drought in Australia, pushing up dairy prices) and increased demand, as the middle class — and consequently appetite for dairy, sugar and meat — grows in Asia and Latin America. The U.S. government’s misguided promotion of biofuels, which diverts corn to ethanol production and puts upward pressure on all commodities prices as farmers divert land to growing corn, definitely doesn’t help.

While prices for most commodities are at historic global highs, confectionary companies in the United States have often had to pay significantly higher prices because of government intervention in agricultural markets. Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies has looked into dairy and sugar policies before, and finds that the costs to consumers and taxpayers of supporting sugar and dairy farmers through isolating the U.S. market is truly outrageous.

Of course, Congress has so far chosen to ignore the problems with dairy and sugar, proposing instead to maintain these programs (even increasing the support in the case of dairy) rather than bring relief to consumers (including candy manufacturers). You know something is wrong with U.S. agricultural policy when the European Union looks reformed in comparison: the EU announced that it is suspending its tariffs on some cereals crops [$].

Hillary Claus

Hillary Clinton’s Christmas-weekend TV ad shows her sitting at her famous couch wrapping presents. They’ve all got tags — reading “Alternative Energy,” “Middle Class Tax Breaks,” “Universal Health Care,” and “Universal Pre-K.” (Also “Bring Troops Home,” but she’s already made clear that that box is empty.) I’d embed the video here, but you’d think it was a Club for Growth parody, so instead I’ll link directly to her campaign website.

Hillary actually sees herself as Santa Claus, handing out presents to the voters. Except, as my colleague Justin Logan notes, instead of putting together the toys at the North Pole with her elves, she’ll just take our toys, wrap them up, and then give them back to us after taking her cut and then pretend that it’s a great act of beneficence.

I complained once about teenagers interviewed by Parade magazine who “seemed to regard the new president as a combination of Superman, Santa Claus, and Mother Teresa.” But they were teenagers, not 60-year-old presidential candidates. Only one of the teens interviewed had an adult understanding of where government benefits come from. “I worked every day last summer,” he told Parade, “repairing and setting up cattle fences, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in very hot weather. I got a good tan, but other than that it wasn’t worth it — just to have the government take a third of my money and have it go to someone I don’t even know who didn’t earn it in the first place. Do something about taxes.” He’s old enough to vote now. If only he were old enough to run for president.

Follow Huckabee’s Money

I read in Robert Novak’s column this morning that Mike Huckabee held a fundraiser earlier this week at the Houston home of Dr. Steven Hotze. As Novak notes, Hotze is “a leader in the highly conservative Christian Reconstruction movement.”

Christian Reconstructionists, for those unfamiliar with the term, are Religious Right radicals who believe that America, and the rest of the world besides, should be governed in accordance with strict Biblical law. And yes, that includes stoning adulterers. Here’s a snippet from “A Manifesto for the Christian Church,” a 1986 document from an outfit called the Coalition on Revival that was signed by, among others, Steven Hotze:

We affirm that the Bible is not only God’s statements to us regarding religion, salvation, eternity, and righteousness, but also the final measurement and depository of certain fundamental facts of reality and basic principles that God wants all mankind to know in the sphere of law, government, economics, business, education, arts and communication, medicine, psychology, and science. All theories and practices of these spheres of life are only true, right, and realistic to the degree that they agree with the Bible.

For more, check out this audio clip of Hotze from back in 1990. Over the years, Hotze has achieved some prominence for his anti-abortion and anti-gay activism. Also, the good doctor appears to be a total quack.

Meanwhile, Novak reports that among the members of the fundraiser’s host committee was Baptist minister Rick Scarborough. The founder of Vision America and a self-described “Christocrat,” Scarborough made news earlier this year when he argued that the HPV vaccine improperly interferes with God’s punishment of sexual license.

Just when you thought the Huckabee campaign couldn’t get any creepier….

[cross-posted from www.brinklindsey.com]

Korean Tax-Cutter Wins

The corporate tax-cutting revolution may take another step forward with the election of Lee Myung-bak to the South Korean presidency.

Lee has promised to cut the country’s federal corporate tax rate from 25 to 20 percent.

Lee seems to have a very pro-market perspective on fiscal economics: “The ratio of taxation against national income was 17.9 percent under former President Kim Young-sam’s administration, but it increased to 20 percent under the incumbent administration, which almost stops the economy from growing.”

America’s tax ratio is closing in on 19 percent of GDP and our federal corporate tax rate at 35 percent will be 75 percent higher than Korea’s.

The Man with the Plan

The Russian government’s monthly propaganda insert in the Washington Post includes this headline today:

The Man with the Plan/President Putin Has Got the Nation’s Future Mapped Out

It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago with the same title, “The Man with the Plan.” (In Liberty, July 1996, or you can read it in my forthcoming book The Politics of Freedom.) I was writing about Clinton adviser Ira Magaziner, whose various planning schemes, while scary, are certainly not as bad as the ones that have been tried in Russia over the past century. Though this idea, expressed by presidential candidate Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992, might come close:

We ought to begin by doing something simple. We ought to say right now, we ought to have a national inventory of the capacity of … every manufacturing plant in the United States: every airplane plant, every small business subcontractor, everybody working in defense.

We ought to know what the inventory is, what the skills of the work force are and match it against the kind of things we have to produce in the next twenty years and then we have to decide how to get from there to there. From what we have to what we need to do.

Five-year plans not having planned out so well, Clinton and Magaziner decided the problem was their short-term focus. Whether Bill or Hillary, Putin or Magaziner, when I hear the phrase “the man (or woman) with the plan,” I think of Adam Smith:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

A Moment of Idiocy, of Real Idiocy

The above title is the correct assessment of the new energy bill that President Bush just signed into law less than 24 hrs after the House approved it by a 314–100 margin. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking just prior to yesterday’s vote, gave the politicians’ assessment: “You are present at a moment of change, of real change.”

Of course, it’s not that much of a change for politicians to substitute their collective judgment for the private decisions of consumers who have strong incentives (stronger than politicians!) to make the most efficient choices. Still, the new energy bill — assuming Congress sticks to it — will make some changes:

  • The incandescent light will be phased out of existence beginning in 2012.
  • Average fuel economy for new vehicles will move from the current 25.0 MPG to 35.0 by 2020 — a standard that only the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrids currently meet.
  • New government mandates and subsidies will push the domestic ethanol industry to some 36 billion gallons in sales by 2020. (This will actually lessen fuel efficiency because ethanol gets considerably worse mileage than gasoline.)
  • The move to more biofuels will continue to increase food prices as farmland is reallocated to the production of energy stocks.

All this leads to one question: Why are these mandates necessary? If the changes are as sensible as Congress and the White House claim, consumers would make them privately. Indeed, the data indicate that consumer preference for fuel-efficient cars is stronger than what the economics would justify.

So then, what is this energy bill really all about?

ADDENDUM:  Beth Douglas Kelly, a mechanical engineer who specializes in energy R&D, emailed me about a bit of sloppiness in my parenthetical that ethanol gets worse gas mileage than gasoline. My statement is correct but, she points out, it’s not that important — it simply means that a certain volume of gasoline gets you farther than the same volume of ethanol. That fact bypasses the important questions of gasoline’s and ethanol’s costs (understood in a broad sense).

Here are the important comparisons:

  • What is the cost per mile for gasoline vs. ethanol? (Currently, gasoline still beats ethanol when you take into account the loss of gas mileage.)
  • What are the environmental externalities of gasoline and ethanol? (Here, ethanol seems to be better but there’s still some argument.)
  • What are the other externalities of gasoline use vs. ethanol use?
  • Will consumers ever be made to bear (and thus judge between) those costs, or will politicians continue to hide them?