Archives: July, 2008

John Bolton’s “Delay, Depose, Denuclearize” Hokum

The Wall Street Journal’s editors have apparently plugged the word “Iran” into their John Bolton op-ed generator, and out comes the product: a proposal for bombing Iran. There’s not terribly much new in the piece to cover, but the Bolton piece does a good job of describing the hokey idea that bombing in order to buy time is a worthy endeavor:

…Israel is now at an urgent decision point: whether to use targeted military force to break Iran’s indigenous control over the nuclear fuel cycle at one or more critical points. If successful, such highly risky and deeply unattractive air strikes or sabotage will not resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis. But they have the potential to buy considerable time, thereby putting that critical asset back on our side of the ledger rather than on Iran’s.

With whatever time is bought, we may be able to effect regime change in Tehran, or at least get the process underway. The alternative is Iran with nuclear weapons, the most deeply unattractive alternative of all. (emphasis mine)

This is an awfully, awfully thin reed on which to base a case for starting another unprovoked war in the Middle East. Bolton concedes that bombing will not resolve the nuclear crisis, and concedes further that any delay (common estimates range from 3-7 years) resulting from air strikes may not allow for the regime to be changed.

So then what are we left with? The third U.S. war with a Muslim country in the last 7 years, with attendant casualties and the images beamed all across the Islamic world, further convincing Muslims that the United States is at war with Islam; the inevitable Iranian response that could range from annoying to catastrophic; a rally-around-the-flag effect in Iran, shoring up the position of Iran’s neoconservatives, who have driven the economy into the ground; the certainty that Iran will redouble its nuclear efforts, this time with massive support from its citizens; and a demonstration effect for all countries that the only sure way to stave off attack from the United States is to acquire a nuclear deterrent, tout de suite. That’s just off the top of my head. But maybe, somehow, we can engineer a coup or something in Iran in the five extra years that we will have purchased at the costs outlined above.

Let’s have this debate.

Oil Speculators, Headaches and Brain Tumors

Blaming speculators for high oil prices is like blaming a death on headaches rather than the underlying brain tumor. Speculation is a symptom, not the disease. It’s the tight supply-demand equation that creates opportunities for speculators to profit, although it’s less clear whether that necessarily increases prices.

So instead of bitching and moaning about speculators, our politicians should attack the fundamental problem by reducing barriers – and transaction costs – to increasing supply and reducing demand. But let’s not do it by increasing subsidies, which ultimately means more money out of the pocket of the taxpayer (who is also the consumer).

“NCLB Should Be Abolished” — TX GOP & AFT!

[TNR readers, please see update below.]

What poetic justice is this? The Republican party platform for the state of Texas has this plank dedicated to the No Child Left Behind act (which I quote in its entirety):

The No Child Left Behind Act has been a massive failure and should be abolished.

This is the same state that inspired NCLB, and whose Republican party gave us the law’s two greatest champions in the current president and secretary of education.

Not to be outdone, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest public school employee union in the country, had this to say about NCLB today:

“NCLB has outlived whatever usefulness it ever had. Conceived by accountants, drafted by lawyers, and distorted by ideologues, it is too badly broken to be fixed,”

A pair of bedfellows that might make even the Marquis de Sade raise an eyebrow, n’est pas?

If this justice is more than just poetic, similar calls for the abolition of NCLB will spread all over the country. The law has indeed been an abject failure whether one looks at the international or the domestic evidence on U.S. student performance. And if that were not enough it also makes a mockery of the principle of limited government on which this nation was founded – since the Constitution affords Congress no mandate to meddle in the content, standards or testing of American schools.

(Hat Tip: Kent Fischer, Dallas Morning News, for the TX GOP platform).

UPDATE:

TNR’s Josh Patashnik argues that if both the AFT and the Texas GOP are agin’ it, NCLB must be doing something right. He links to a page on the Center for American Progress website to support his view that the law has been beneficial to student achievement. There are two things wrong with CAP’s view. The first is that there are nationally representative trend data from two separate international test suites (see the “international” link above) that they are apparently unaware of, and the second is that they failed to take recent upticks on the NAEP tests in the context of their pre-existing patterns (see the “domestic” link above).

Scores for U.S. students are down across grades, across subjects, and across tests based on the PIRLS and PISA international results since NCLB was passed. The drops in math and science are large enough to be statistically significant. These results were released last November and December, so CAP should have known about them when they were writing in February on the page to which you linked (I’m not saying they did know, only that they should have known). Also, in the two to four years immediately prior to the passage of NCLB, the upticks at 4th and 8th grade on the NAEP test were larger than the gains in the five or so years that followed before the most recent tests. So if NCLB had any effect at all, it was to slow a pre-existing growth rate. And there’s no reason to think it did even that. NAEP scores have had such minor fluctuations for a long time. (We don’t have pre-NCLB trends on PISA or PIRLS).

Finally, it is worth noting that historical improvements in 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores have never translated into higher scores at the end of high school. The NAEP Long Term Trends scores for 17-year-olds are flat for the past four decades.

Policy affecting the lives of millions of children and costing billions of dollars should be solidly grounded in the broadest base of evidence. Taken in that context, NCLB has been a tragic misdirection of resources that could have been spent far more productively in other ways.

We’re #1!

Jay Greene—a man known for producing some of the most interesting (and voluminous) education research in the country—today published the most important finding of his career: When it comes to readership, Cato [at] Liberty [dot] org crushes all other education blogs!

OK, as Greene points out, Cato@Liberty is not strictly an education blog. (I have little doubt that readers come for the brilliant education coverage first and consider the rest of the content mainly an added — but outstanding! — bonus.) Even if that’s not the case, we thank all of you who take the time to read our education posts and want to tell lesser education bloggers that we think you’re very nice. And who knows, maybe some day In-Bev will buy us and someone else can be the king.

‘Ballooning Commodities’?

“The S&P GSCI commodities index is up 73% in the past 12 months,” writes Edward Hadas of breakingviews.com in The Wall Street Journal.

The author goes on to speculate about speculation, concluding, “This bubble could get bigger still.” Unfortunately, he assumes the S&P commodity index (which is shown in a graph) demonstrates a huge ongoing boom in the prices of commodities in general. In reality, all the index shows is that oil prices doubled over the past year and that most of that increase happened in the past four months. Energy commodities (mainly crude oil) account for 78 percent of the S&P GSCI commodity index.

The price of crude oil rose from $100 a barrel on March 4 to $136 on July 8, so the energy-dominated S&P GSCI index naturally soared too.

What happens to the widely reported “commodities boom” if you leave out oil? Look at The Economist’s index of 25 farm and industrial commodities, which excludes oil. The Economist’s commodity price index fell from 271.9 on March 4 to 265.6 on July 8.

It is on the basis of such fatally flawed evidence as the S&P commodity index that Congress has been trying to bully the Commodities Futures Trading Commission into bullying U.S. commodity traders to stop some sort of “commodity boom.”

The dollar was also quite stable during the past four months, contrary to numerous angry and overconfident Journal editorials about the alleged commodity boom being caused by the supposedly falling dollar. The Fed’s broad index of the dollar’s value was 95.97 on February 28 and 95.97 on July 8.

Do We Need Fannie and Freddie?

All eyes were on Wall Street Monday morning as Freddie Mac, one of the two giant government-sponsored enterprises that dominate U.S. mortgage finance, floated $3 billion in bonds to continue its role as a buyer and reseller of mortgage obligations. The bond sale came after a week in which Freddie’s stock, and the stock of its sister Fannie Mae, plummeted as analysts and economists worried that the housing bubble collapse would push the two GSEs into insolvency. To fortify Fannie and Freddie, the Bush Treasury Department, with blessings from the Democratic Congress, worked feverishly over the weekend to cobble together a bailout plan should the GSEs’ conditions worsen to the point that they can no longer function. The successful bond sale indicates the Bush plan has reassured the market — albeit barely.

It is an article of faith across the political spectrum that Freddie and Fannie cannot be allowed to fail — especially not at this time when the broader housing market is undergoing painful correction. Why do they have such exalted status?

Before Fannie Mae — the first of the twins — was created amidst the “Recession within the Depression” in 1938, home mortgage lending was highly risky for banks. State regulation kept banks small and geographically limited in order to make them better targets for taxation and political manipulation. As a result, banks could not geographically diversify their loan risk, leaving them highly vulnerable to localized economic downturns. Because they lent money (as mortgages and business loans to farms and other firms) to local borrowers for long periods of time but they had to honor local depositors’ withdrawal requests, banks were often one bad harvest and one bank run away from insolvency. For that reason, they shied away from financing long-term home loans.

Fannie Mae (formally, the Federal National Mortgage Association) provided badly needed lubricant to the mortgage industry. It purchased loan obligations from banks, putting money back in the banks’ vaults and making that money available for more home loans. Fannie financed its operations by borrowing on Wall Street and, later, by pioneering the creation and sale of mortgage-back securities (MBSs) — selling large “bundles” of loans to investors and then servicing the loans on the investors’ behalf. In this way, Fannie diversified loan risk, allowing a nationwide (and worldwide) pool of investors to finance (at first indirectly, then directly) a nationwide pool of mortgages. This wasn’t the ideal solution that banking reform would have been, but Fannie was a good second-best solution.

Because of its tax-free status and government backing (as well as banking regulations that constrained would-be competitors), Fannie quickly came to dominate the mortgage industry. This system hummed along, unchanged, until 1968 when Fannie’s costs conflicted with Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to rein in the federal budget amidst the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty. It was decided that Fannie would be spun off as a private corporation whose investors would bear its costs. However, Fannie retained its tax-free status and received a $2.25 billion line of credit at the U.S. Treasury. It also was allowed to operate with much lower reserve requirements than banks. But the most valuable of Fannie’s parting gifts was its implicit too-big-to-fail status: because of its history and role in mortgage lending, investors believe the federal government will ride to Fannie’s aid if it ever became financially unable to function. For this reason, investors buy Fannie’s stocks, bonds, and MBSs.

Congress realized that, with those perks and its original dominant position, Fannie would continue to monopolize the U.S. home loan market. In 1970 they created Freddie Mac (formally, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) as a competitor, with the same structure and perks as Fannie. It’s unclear why Congress believed a duopoly was better than a monopoly. (For more on Fannie and Freddie’s history, listen to Peter Van Doren’s recent podcast.)

Over the last decade, analysts have offered numerous criticisms of Fannie and Freddie’s dominance and nature, and issued calls for reform. (In Regulation alone, see: Van Order 2000, Frame & White 2004, Wallison 2004, Jaffe 2006.) Besides the GSEs’ dominance of the market and the risk that their too-big-to-fail status poses to taxpayers, the implied guarantee encouraged the GSEs to retain possession of some of their mortgages instead of selling them to investors. Retaining mortgages and reaping the payments enriched Fannie and Freddie shareholders, but it subjected the two GSEs to interest rate risk as well as the default risk of all Fannie- and Freddie-guaranteed loans.

Despite the criticisms and reform calls, the issue gained little traction, even in the go-go real estate market of the mid-2000s when Freddie and Fannie were involved in a relatively small 40% of new home loans. The result is that, in the aftermath of the housing bubble collapse when preserving mortgage financing is incredibly important, the market for those loans is dominated by two teetering giants.

Fannie and Freddie are currently involved in roughly half of all U.S. mortgages. That includes a large majority of post-bubble mortgages, as private investors have pulled back from financing non-guaranteed loans. Given that position and the overall turmoil in the housing market, the federal government cannot leave Fannie and Freddie to struggle — after all, their debt equals the debt of all other U.S. corporations combined, and imagine what would happen if all U.S. corporations suddenly defaulted on their loan payments.

So, there seems little that federal policymakers can do now except promise to prop up Freddie and Fannie if they become insolvent and hope that doesn’t occur. But this situation demonstrates why the mortgage industry should not be dominated by two firms — especially two government-sponsored firms.

If Congress does adopt legislation to protect Fannie and Freddie, that legislation should spare taxpayers and the nation from a repeat of the current crisis. The legislation should include an ironclad commitment to make Fannie and Freddie fully independent of the government over the next decade. It should also require that the GSEs be broken into several smaller firms that aren’t too big to fail. Those firms would be put under strict government oversight and conservative risk controls until they are fully independent. The legislation should also strip Fannie and Freddie of their tax-free status, putting them on equal footing with private lenders (including banks, which can now geographically diversify following the 1999 banking reform). With this reform implemented, the mortgage market would become supported by numerous institutions (some of which would be Freddie and Fannie spin-offs, others not) instead of just two vulnerable pillars.

It is because policymakers refused to reform state banking regulation in the 1930s that Fannie (and later Freddie) were created. It is because Fannie and Freddie were not reformed in the last 10 years that we’re stuck with this problem now. Federal policymakers cannot disregard another opportunity at reform — or else the U.S. mortgage industry will remain at the mercy of the financial health of two firms.

Postscript (7/15): Cato senior fellow Gerald O’Driscoll sketches a plan for breaking up Fannie and Freddie and making them truly independent in this excellent WSJ op-ed [$].

Politicians Complaining About Budweiser Takeover Should Look in Mirror

A Belgium-based company, InBev, has reached an agreement to purchase America’s biggest brewer, Anheuser-Busch (maker of Budweiser and other well-known beers). This has triggered whining from many politicians, including senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Rather than engage in demagoguery against foreign investment, maybe Senator Obama and his colleagues should fix the tax code so that U.S. companies are not disadvantaged in global markets. America’s high corporate tax rate, combined with a pernicious policy of taxing worldwide income of American-based firms, makes it very difficult for those companies to compete.

Belgium, by contrast, has a lower corporate tax rate. More important, it has a territorial tax system — the common-sense notion of taxing only income earned inside national borders. As such, it makes sense — from the perspective of all shareholders — for Anheuser-Busch to be taken over by InBev rather than the other way around. Indeed, that is why American companies almost always become the subsidiary rather than the parent when there is a cross-border merger.