Archives: 05/2008

Ag Committee Chair Demands Higher Food Prices

Not content with a protected near monopoly of the domestic market, American sugar producers are demanding that Congress make their pot of subsidies and protection even sweeter.

Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.), is pushing language in the latest proposed farm bill that would raise domestic price supports for sugar and mandate that sugar imports be used for ethanol production.

His proposals would virtually lock in an 85 percent share of the U.S. market for domestic sugar beet and cane growers, even though a number of foreign countries can grow sugar more cheaply than most American growers. And by the way, did I mention that Rep. Peterson’s district is among the nation’s top producers of sugar beets?

The Bush administration, to its credit, opposes Peterson’s changes in the farm bill. The sugar industry, of course, loves the idea. A spokesman for the pro-protection American Sugar Alliance told this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “We have an administration that seems more interested in supporting foreign producers, than producers right here in America.”

Notice the sugar industry doesn’t mention American consumers. U.S. agricultural policies should not be about favoring “our” producers over “theirs,” but about advancing such national interests as freedom, prosperity, and a more peaceful world. As we’ve explained in detail at the Center for Trade Policy Studies, the U.S. sugar program favors American sugar producers primarily at the expense of the rest of America. American families pay higher prices at the store, while U.S. producers that use sugar as an input — bakeries, food processors, restaurants, candy makers, etc. — incur higher costs because of our sugar program.

As we read daily in the newspaper about soaring food prices, this Congress is the verge of passing a farm bill designed explicitly to raise domestic food prices.

ACTE Endorses REAL ID Repeal

Joining the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives has endorsed S. 717, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2007. This bill would reinstitute a negotiated rulemaking process regarding identity security that was established in the 9/11-Commission-inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

XM-Sirius Rent-Seeking

The FCC’s review of the XM-Sirius merger is a perfect example of the type of quagmire that’s inevitably created when a government agency is given broad, discretionary authority over private businesses. Various special interest groups have proposed that the merger be subjected to a laundry list of requirements. Lefty groups want an open device mandate. A rent-seeker entrepreneur named Chester C. Davenport wants the merged entity to set aside 20 percent of its spectrum for minority-controlled broadcasting. There are a variety of other proposals to require the firm to lease spectrum to unaffiliated entities. Clear Channel is demanding that it be subjected to the same “indecency” regulations that now plague terrestrial radio.

There are good arguments against each of these proposals, and there are some plausible arguments for some of them as well. But what I find most problematic about the situation is the way the proposals are handled. We have a constitutional system of government in which Congress is supposedly in charge of writing laws, the executive branch is in charge of executing them, and the courts are in charge of interpreting them. This ensures that laws are written by the most politically-engaged branch—Congress—and interpreted by the most impartial branch—the courts.

But in this case, as in many others, Congress has effectively given the FCC its blessing to wear all three hats. It can dream up new “conditions” (read: regulations) for the merger focusing on virtually any subject that strikes its fancy. The conditions are specific to one company, so there’s ample scope for favoritism and arbitrary decision-making. And once the conditions have been announced, and XM-Sirius have been blackmailed into “accepting” them, the FCC effectively wears executive and judicial hats as well. Yes, supplicants before the FCC can and do appeal decisions to federal courts, and the FCC is sometimes overruled. But the courts tend to give the FCC relatively wide deference in its policy decisions, and firms that practice regularly before the FCC may be reluctant to too aggressively defend their prerogatives in the courts for fear of souring their relationship with the FCC going forward.

The fundamental problem (aside from the courts’ failure to require that lawmaking powers be limited to Congress as required by the Constitution) is the FCC’s baroque process for apportioning spectrum. The right way to handle it would be for XM, Sirius, and every other broadcaster to have a property right in the spectrum they use, which would entitle them to do as they please with that spectrum (as long as it didn’t interfere with other broadcasters) or to lease or sell the spectrum to anyone else. In a world with genuine property rights, spectrum would find its way to owner with the highest-valued use, and anyone who wanted to enter a market like satellite radio would be able to do so simply be purchasing spectrum rights in the appropriate bands. The FCC’s role would be limited to keeping track of who held which license and verifying that spectrum uses did not create interference with one another.

My suspicion is that in such a world, satellite radio would prove economically infeasible because the spectrum would be more valuable in other uses. But I don’t know, and the FCC’s soviet-style spectrum allocation process is certainly not a good way to figure it out. The FCC should approve the XM-Sirius merger without conditions. But the more important lesson is that, Congress should be moving toward genuine property rights in spectrum, so that the 21st-century wireless market ceases to be micro-managed by an anachronistic 20th-century bureaucracy.

Once we have a real market for spectrum, Congress may choose to enact general regulations governing the use of that spectrum. But the current system, in which the FCC has the arbitrary power to single out individual companies for arbitrary restrictions on virtually any subject the FCC’s commissioners happen to be concerned with, is deeply flawed. It’s not fair to companies that have the misfortune of attracting the FCC’s scrutiny, and it’s not good for consumers, who are deprived of the benefits of a robust and competitive market for spectrum.

Blinded by Ideology

A letter writer in the Washington Post complains about this Post editorial, which criticized the repression in Cuba, particularly the lack of freedom of expression and the right to emigrate. The writer declares,

Cuba is managing its economy and is making incremental changes and reforms within its socialist and human-needs-oriented system. The U.S. government and The Post shouldn’t lecture Cuba when we have our own problems with the economy, the budget, health care, infrastructure and our moral standing in the world.

I’ve just published a book, most of whose 300 pages are devoted to criticisms of the U.S. government on a far wider range of issues than that, so I’m no knee-jerk defender of any government, much less of the Bush administration. But let’s take a closer look at the writer’s claims:

Cuba is managing its economy…

Well, every country manages its economy in some sense. The Cuban government has managed to turn a beautiful country of tropical beaches 90 miles from North America into one of the poorest countries in the world.

…and is making incremental changes and reforms…

Yes, as the Post editorial noted:

In the past few weeks, Cuban President Raúl Castro has introduced a handful of micro-reforms to the oppressive and bankrupt regime left behind by his brother. Cubans are now officially allowed to buy cellphones, computers and microwave ovens; state workers may get deeds to apartments they have been renting for decades; and farmers may be able to sell part of what they grow at market prices. The measures won’t have much impact (though they have evidently annoyed the officially retired Fidel Castro): The vast majority of Cubans can’t afford to buy electronic goods, and the agricultural reforms fall short of steps taken years ago by North Korea.

So reforms are good. Wake me when they reform more than North Korea.

…within its socialist and human-needs-oriented system.

You’d think socialists would have stopped claiming Cuba. If Cuba is socialist, then socialism is a disaster. While the rest of the Americas grow, Cuba declines. Cubans keep their 1950s American cars shiny and clean because that’s what they have. Socialism’s great accomplishment is to try to freeze the economy at the level to which capitalism (in this case, a corrupt and crony capitalism) had brought it.

As for “human-needs-oriented,” millions of Cubans express their human needs by getting on rickety boats to try to sail to America. One might say that Cuba is like a vast open-air prison, except that American prisoners get better food and more choices in books, newspapers, and television than Cuban citizens do. It’s a rule of thumb around the world: the more a government proclaims its orientation to “human needs,” the less well it actually serves human needs.

The U.S. government and The Post shouldn’t lecture Cuba when we have our own problems with the economy…

Yes, our economy is growing only slightly these days, and we have looming fiscal disasters because our own government has introduced socialism into health care and retirement savings. But Americans don’t flee to Cuba, and our GDP per capita is estimated at something like 10 times that of Cuba. 

…the budget…

Yes, our federal budget is a disaster. But it hasn’t — yet — destroyed our standard of living, and I doubt that the adoption of Fidel Castro’s budgeting methods would help.

…health care…

Yes, we have the best and the most expensive health care in the world. If we had less socialism in health care, we could bring down our costs. But more drugs are created here, more medical advances are made here, and people come to American hospitals from all over the world, especially from the often-touted Canadian system.

…infrastructure and our moral standing in the world.

My colleagues and I have written very critically about the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, its treatment of the accused, its accumulation of executive power, and other actions that have harmed America’s standing in the world. (Not to mention President Clinton’s unauthorized uses of military force in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.) But if America’s moral standing in the world is less than that of the totalitarian Castro-Castro regime, then that is an embarrassment to the world, not to the United States.

As Human Rights Watch reports, “Cuba remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. There have been no significant policy changes since Fidel Castro relinquished direct control of the government to his brother Raul Castro in August 2006. The government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long-term and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.” And Human Rights Watch doesn’t even take note of the economic liberties that are systematically suppressed.

The Post’s “lecture” concluded this way:

Let Mr. Castro respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights his government recently signed, which guarantees not only freedom of assembly but the right to freely leave the country. Cuban officials recently hinted that the current ban on foreign travel by average citizens might be changed; let it be removed. Then Mr. Castro can discover just how many of Cuba’s 11 million people are willing to go on enduring a regime whose idea of reform is permitting the sale of microwave ovens.

The letter-writer might encourage the Castro regime to follow this advice, and then perhaps Cuba would have some small measure of moral standing in the world.

Not as Good as It Seems

Today, Cuba officially lifted its ban on the sale of computers to the general public. Some other prohibitions have also been scrapped in recent weeks: Cubans can now buy cell phones, stay in hotels previously reserved for tourists, and buy appliances like microwaves and TV sets.

Is this a sign of openness from Cuba’s geriatric regime? Not so.

A Cuban dissident I met in Havana last year sent me today an article he wrote about the real motive behind relaxing these bans. It has been reported in the state-controlled media that people purchasing these goods are later being investigated by the authorities who want to know the real sources of their income. As it’s widely known, the average Cuban salary is less than $20 a month, while the cost of most of these goods ranges in the hundreds of dollars. Many Cubans get their extra money from relatives in the United States, but many others run independent (and illicit) small businesses.

My friend tells the story of the first person to purchase an electric bicycle, which cost the equivalent of $1,070. This man had a small butter factory that apparently was very profitable, since he was selling the butter at a lower price than the government. After buying his electric bicycle, the authorities investigated him and discovered his factory. They proceeded to confiscate everything they found in his home, including the bike.

Let’s not forget that, after all, there is still a Castro brother running the show on the island. As my Cuban friend says about the so-called “reforms,” the fact that something is no longer prohibited doesn’t mean that you can do it.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Hounded to Death

Faced with the prospect of years in prison, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” committed suicide on Thursday. Her pursuers and prosecutors should be ashamed of themselves.

Running a house of prostitution is not a distinction most of us would wish for our daughters. But it’s a vice, not a crime. That’s a crucial distinction in a free society. So far as we know, she never murdered, raped, assaulted, robbed, or defrauded anyone. Like any broker, she brought together willing buyers and willing sellers. And for doing so, she was convicted–not actually of prostitution but of “racketeering” and money laundering — and faced up to 55 years in prison, though prosecutors estimated that her sentence would likely be “only” four to six years.

Palfrey was indicted after a three-year joint investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently they couldn’t catch her cheating on her taxes, but her employees mailed her cut of the proceeds in money orders, which led to racketeering and money laundering charges. As with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, apparently a fishing expedition into money matters turned up something far more headline-worthy.

But really — a three-year investigation of a prostitution service? Are there no real criminals? Are there no terrorists? Before, during, and after 9/11, the Justice Department ran a 13-month investigation of a brothel in New Orleans. At least 10 FBI agents were involved. As Jonathan Turley noted, “Only the FBI could go to the French Quarter and find only a dozen prostitutes after a year of investigation. Given the roughly one-to-one ratio between agents and prostitutes, the FBI could have produced a hundred times this number by simply having agents walk down Bourbon Street.” What a ridiculous waste of money and manpower.

But the waste is not the worst aspect of this outrage. Even if there were no criminals and no terrorists to hunt down, it would be wrong to harass, arrest, prosecute, imprison — and hound to death — people who are violating no one’s rights.

There’s a nightmarish intersection of old prostitution laws and modern financial regulations. Palfrey was investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and then convicted of “racketeering” and “money laundering.” But she was no racketeer; she was one woman with some employees or contract workers. Spitzer’s bank accounts were being monitored, as apparently all our bank accounts are, under post-9/11 laws allegedly designed to turn up evidence of terrorist financing or other nefarious activity. And boy, did they find something sinister — a married man having sex with prostitutes.

In many ways we are more free today than we were in previous decades. But new regulations and new technology are making it much easier to monitor our activities and to actually enforce both old and new laws. It’s like a silent police state that we only realize when we’re suddenly served with papers. 

Palfrey told journalist Dan Moldea, “I’m not going back to jail. I’ll kill myself first.” A woman who had worked for her had also committed suicide after being charged with prostitution in 2007.

It’s time to repeal these antiquated laws against prostitution and to take a close look at the use and abuse of racketeering, money laundering, bank monitoring, and other intrusive laws. Someone needs to step forward and start that debate. Perhaps Governor Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter would be good candidates.

In the meantime, may Deborah Jeane Palfrey rest in peace. And may her persecutors have many sleepless nights.