Archives: March, 2009

Too Much Hysteria about Trade

The World Bank issued a press release on Tuesday announcing the results of a study published March 2, which concludes that 17 of the 20 so-called G-20 countries have invoked at least some protectionist measures since pledging last November to avoid protectionism for at least one year.

Of course the Washington Post—which now specializes in printing run-of-the-mill stories about trade that rarely come close to justifying the sensational headlines, provocative subheads, or gripping leads — jumped all over the report as evidence that: “Trade Barriers Could Threaten Global Economy: World Bank Finds Protectionist Trend.”

Well, we all know that trade barriers do threaten the global economy — in times of economic expansion and contraction. But most of the measures cited in the report are not particularly spectacular or unusual from a trade perspective. For better or worse, most WTO member countries do have some latitude to raise trade barriers — sometimes unconditionally. But also, in any given year, governments institute policies that happen to have adverse affects on trade (even if the measure wasn’t intended to be protectionist).

Sometimes aggrieved interests in affected countries prevail upon their governments to protest or otherwise seek resolution. And more often than not, under those circumstances, resolution is achieved. But sometimes, a protectionist measure doesn’t even provoke any kind of protest. So, quantifying protectionist measures is one thing, but qualifying them is quite another, more important exercise, if one is interested in making judgments about protectionist trends.

The by-line of the WP story belongs to Anthony Faiola, who last week wrote story titled: “U.S. to Toughen Its Stance on Trade: New Policy Reflects Growing Dissatisfaction With Global Markets.” The lead paragraph of the story read:

The Obama administration is aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy to more strongly emphasize domestic and social issues, from the displacement of American workers to climate change.

But nothing in the story supports the assertion that anyone is “aggressively reworking U.S. trade policy.” Nothing supports the subhead that there is a growing dissatisfaction with global markets. Trade policy may be in for some changes simply because there’s a new sheriff in town, who is beholden (to what extent we shall see) to interests that oppose competition, but not because of dissatisfaction with global markets.

Certainly there is no evidence of dissatisfaction with global markets in the story, which was occasioned by Ron Kirk’s confirmation hearing as U.S. Trade Representative. Kirk testified—before a Senate that already has before it legislation to make enforcement, rather than negotiation, the priority of trade policy for the next couple years—that he intends to focus on enforcement, rather than negotiation. Well, duh! What else is a nominee whose fate depends on the blessing of the people who want more enforcement going to say? For the record, it’s been known for quite some time that the administration would focus on systematizing enforcement efforts, so that’s not really news.

What is newsworthy, however, are the parts of Ron Kirk’s testimony that went unrevealed in Faiola’s reporting. For example, Kirk said that “at an appropriate time and with proper congressional input and concerns addressed,” the administration would ask Congress to grant the president fast-track trade negotiating authority, which is a tool required only by presidents interested in negotiating and expanding trade.

Kirk also said that “We are mindful that the benefits of trade are diffuse, while its pain is often concentrated. It is within that context that we seek to restore and build new bipartisan support for a progressive trade agenda for America.”  Where, then, is the reporting that the Obama administration does not reject trade? Where is the headline that Obama seeks support for a progressive trade agenda? (Cato is publishing a paper next month by Scott Lincicome and me that explains how President Obama can help restore the pro-trade consensus, which includes a large section on the role the media has played in perpetuating destructive myths about trade and globalization).

Where is the reporting that Democrats in Congress are not all opposed to trade liberalization? Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus told Kirk during the hearing: “I also want to find a way to begin consideration of the three pending trade agreements. We should start with Panama. That’s the agreement that’s most ready for action. And it’s the agreement that will win the greatest level of support.” Reporting on these matters would be newsworthy and constructive since so few in the media seem to be willing to publish stories that contravene conventional wisdom about trade.

The fact of the matter is that there isn’t any discernible trend toward protectionism in the United States or in the world right now. World leaders issue warnings about the consequences of protectionism, but there are not trends. There are incidences, but no trends. The ballyhooed World Bank paper cites 78 trade measures “proposed and/or implemented,” 66 of which involved trade restrictions, 47 of which eventually took effect. The long footnote associated with the presentation of these numbers (footnote 1) includes the following sentence: “It is important to note that it is difficult to distinguish the trade policy measures that are taken in response to the current crisis from measures that might have been taken anyway.”

Most of the 47 measures cited in the report happened in November and December of 2008, and Faiola already ranted about them in the WP on December 22, 2008:

Moving to shield battered domestic manufacturers from foreign imports, Indonesia is slapping restrictions on at least 500 products this month, demanding special licenses and new fees on imports. Russia is hiking tariffs on imported cars, poultry and pork. France is launching a state fund to protect French companies from foreign takeovers. Officials in Argentina and Brazil are seeking to raise tariffs on products from imported wine and textiles to leather goods and peaches, according to the World Trade Organization.

There may be nothing necessarily incorrect about the facts reported. But the tone and implications are possibly misleading. It is hard to accept the otherwise marginally significant facts without also accepting the provocative metaphors and sense of impending doom. Those actions have less antagonistic explanations and more benign interpretations.

For example, the actions of Indonesia, Argentina, and Brazil are consistent with their rights under the WTO agreements and will have a negligible collective impact on world trade. Russia is not even a member of the WTO and frequently behaves outside of international norms, so its actions have very limited representative value. And France has intervened to block foreign takeovers of French companies on other occasions this decade, so its actions are not particularly noteworthy.

At least the World Bank study is careful enough to report some of the positive trade developments and reasons for optimism that I discuss in more detail in this paper that Cato published last week. The World Bank notes 10 instances of trade liberalization around the world, which presumably includes Mexico’s admirable decision to reduce tariff rates on 70 percent of the products listed in its tariff schedule; Brazil’s decision to scrap tariffs on certain raw materials, components, capital goods; China’s decision to forego inclusion of Buy China provisions in its own massive spending bill; and the signing of new free trade agreements between Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN countries.

The WB study, like my paper, points out that the sturdy legal and institutional infrastructure of the GATT/WTO system combined with the fact of growing interdependence between countries that are now linked by transnational supply chains will likely diminish prospects for more consequential protectionist indulgences.

Of course Anthony Faiola is not the only person at The Washington Post guilty of hyping protectionist rhetoric and war metaphors in trade stories (and the WP is not the only media outlet engaging in hype). But one of the more egregious disconnects between headline/subhead/lead and the body of the story is found in an article on U.S.-China trade relations by Faiola’s colleague, Ariana Eunjung Cha (which is dissected and analyzed here).

World policymakers and policy watchers do need to be vigilant about ensuring that the world doesn’t descend into a protectionist abyss. They will have plenty of help from their domestic constituencies who rely on open trade in both directions. But some vigilance must be reserved for a media that, if left unchallenged, could provoke a trade war on its own. The more reporting there is about protectionist measures—even if it is just more reporting about the same protectionist measures (as today’s WP article is)—the more justified or compelled policymakers will eventually feel in turning to that poison. If a Congressman’s aide can point to articles that cite rising protectionism, even if the measures cited don’t justify the label of protectionism, it becomes less taboo to propose or support protectionist policies. That kind of fear mongering needs to be identified as such.

Yes, some countries are likely to dabble in some degree of protectionism—either with border measures or the more camouflaged regulatory variety. But the costs of that protectionism will quickly become apparent in a world where capital and talent flow to the jurisdictions with the fewest physical and administrative frictions.

Maybe that story will be written as the economy is on its way back up.

Matt Yglesias on School Choice in Sweden

Following up on Dana Goldstein’s American Prospect blog post, Matt Yglesias calls the Swedish system and U.S. charter schools better education policy models than education tax credits.

He doesn’t say why, and I’d be interested to hear his reasoning. As I documented on Cato-at-Liberty in response to Goldstein, the econometric evidence shows that the greatest margin of superiority over state-run schooling is enjoyed by truly market-like education systems. By that I mean systems that are minimally regulated with respect to content, staffing, prices, etc., and which are funded at least in part directly by the families they serve.

Yglesias also claims that choice supporters want to “eliminate public education.” On the contrary, choice supporters are fundamentally more committed to public education than anyone who refuses to consider the market alternative.

“Public Education” is a set of ideals. It is not a particular institution. It is the ideal that all children should have access to a good education, regardless of family income; that schools should prepare students not just for success in private life but for participation in public life; and that our schools should foster harmonious relations among the various groups making up our pluralistic society – or at the very least not create unnecessary tensions among them.

School choice advocates are more committed to those ideals than is anyone wedded to the current district-based school system, because that system is inferior in all of the above respects to a universally accessible education marketplace. This is documented in the literature review linked-to above, in my book Market Education: The Unknown History, and in the work of James Tooley, E.G. West, my Cato colleagues, and many others.

The education tax credit programs my colleagues and I have proposed would ensure universal access to the education marketplace, while leaving essentially intact the freedoms and incentives responsible for the market’s success. I know of no other policy capable of achieving this. Certainly charter schools and the Swedish system fail to do it.

Who Owns Cybersecurity?

There is a government brawl underway over cybersecurity.

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) is legally responsible for cybersecurity for nonmilitary parts of the government. It is also supposed to help state and local government and the private sector protect their networks. But Shaun Waterman reports that the guy running that center just quit because the National Security Agency (the wiretapping intelligence agency) was basically running his office and taking over its function.

According to Walter Pincus’ article in today’s Washington Post, Strategic Command (the nuclear weapons command) is in charge of offensive cyber attacks and defending US military networks from cyberattack. But the NSA oversees Stratcom’s cybersecurity activities, somehow or other.

The White House is conducting a 60-day cybersecurity review, which is being led by an official in the office of Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence. Blair wants a bigger role for U.S. intelligence agencies in cybersecurity. Presumably that means the NSA, which employs some of the nation’s leading cryptographers. Meanwhile, Obama is likely to give General Keith Alexander, head of NSA, his fourth star and make him the White House’s cybersecurity coordinator (aka, the cyberczar).

So it sounds like the review may be moot – the decks are stacked for the NSA to take over. The Federal Times, however, reports that Congress may upset those plans.  Congressmen on the homeland security committee still want DHS in the lead.

What about private networks? The White House Review will address that too. Alexander has said that the NSA should play a role. But right now, according to most people, it’s DHS’s job. Pincus writes, “Responsibility of protecting civilian networks currently rests with the Department of Homeland Security.”

I would have thought it rests with the network operators. Missing in this debate, from what I can tell, is any attempt to outline what public goods are at play. Clearly, the federal government should defend its own networks. (Whether it should do so through the leadership of agency recently engaged in vast illegal activity is less clear.) The feds should probably also collect intelligence about cyberattacks, make it available to the public and pursue perpetrators. But providing security to private entities, through technology transfers or consultation, seems akin to providing locks to homeowners. That may be too simple – and the relevant distinction may be whether we are talking about state or non-state threats – but it’s something that the review should consider.

Here’s more on the great cybersecurity freakout.

The Hazards of Expanding the War into Pakistan

This morning, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration may expand the war in Afghanistan deeper into Pakistan in order to target Taliban safe havens in Balochistan.

The war would have a very different character if the Pashtun and Balochi areas of western Pakistan did not act as de facto sanctuaries for the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban. As I’ve written before, NATO’s stalemate will continue so long as Pakistan is unable – or unwilling – to uproot militant sanctuaries.

But I’ve also argued about the hazards of the United States using unmanned aerial drones to strike targets within Pakistan. These aerial strikes lead to collateral damage that undermines the authority of sitting Pakistani leaders, fuels violent religious extremism in a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country and exacerbates anti-American sentiment even among the more moderate elements of the country.

U.S. policy in this region is beyond complicated. It’s a complete mess. Right now, more than three-quarters of provisions for U.S. and NATO troops must travel through Pakistan’s worsening security conditions to make it into land-locked Afghanistan. But after previous U.S. aerial drone strikes within Pakistan, leaders in Islamabad have more than once closed their main supply route.

As I argue in a forthcoming Cato policy analysis,

Our dependence on [Pakistan] constrains the usefulness of their support… To make matters worse, Washington’s diminished leverage over Pakistan means that elements of its military and intelligence service will continue to take advantage of America’s dependence by failing to tackle terrorism more vigorously.

Other routes for the Afghanistan mission are currently being considered, but the leaders of these countries bring their own problems, as other scholars have written both here and here.

For the foreseeable future, the war in Afghanistan will remain hostage to events inside Pakistan. And sadly, Washington’s attempts to stabilize Afghanistan will likely continue to destabilize Pakistan.

To Reform Health Care, Obama Must First Convince His Advisers

In The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn makes some interesting observations about how Barack Obama’s campaign and administration approach policy issues, particularly health care.

In early January, most of Barack Obama’s senior staff assembled with the president-elect … It was a pivotal moment in Obama’s transformation from candidate to commander-in-chief. Obama’s advisers had taken all of his campaign pledges, factored in his promise to reduce the deficit, and put together a provisional blueprint for governing. For the first time, Obama would get a sense of how his proposals fit together in the real world.

Does Cohn suggest that candidate Obama just threw out proposals without considering their cumulative, real-world impact?  That Obama launched a new administration with insufficient planning??  Perish the thought.

Obama … said he was mostly happy with what his advisers had produced. Investments in energy and education, plus real progress on reducing the deficit–it was all in there, Obama noted. But then the president-elect turned to his one major concern: a key item that was not, in his opinion, sufficiently funded. “Here’s my guidance to you,” one participant recalls Obama saying to the group. “Protect health care.”

It wasn’t the first time that health care had seemed to get short shrift from Obama’s advisers. Nor would it be the last. Indeed, there were moments during the transition and the early weeks of the administration when it appeared that the push for comprehensive health care reform might collapse before it had even begun. During this time, a debate raged inside the administration, with some senior officials arguing that the new president should wade into health care gingerly–or even postpone it altogether–because it would cost too much, distract from other priorities, and carry huge political risks.

Ultimately, however, these arguments failed to carry the day, and health care reform, against what occasionally seemed like long odds, managed to find a sizeable place in Obama’s budget…

The divide among Obama’s counselors was never over whether to pursue health care reform or even what it should look like in the end … What divided Obama’s team was the question of how to pursue reform–in particular, how quickly.

That tension stretched back to the campaign, when Obama’s political strategists advised him to soft-pedal the topic. One of them was David Axelrod. Although personally acquainted with the flaws in our health care system because of his disabled daughter, he also understood public opinion: The middle-class voters whose support politicians covet were worried about the cost of insurance, but their enthusiasm for universal coverage seemed shallow. Obama, though, always insisted on keeping health care prominent in the election.

Why so much dissension in the ranks? Partly because the nation faces much more immediate problems.

Axelrod’s anxiety hadn’t dissipated since the election. And now he had a new ally in Larry Summers, whom Obama had appointed to head the National Economic Council. One concern for Summers was the diversion of presidential and staff attention from other issues, like the economy.

But the dissension is also because Obama’s advisers understand just how difficult it will be to achieve universal coverage.

Mostly, though, Summers worried about money. Experts generally believe it will take years before better use of information technology, more preventive care, and other reforms start to yield serious savings. At least in the short run, health care reform is therefore likely to add to the government’s financial burden–during a time of rising deficits. This made Summers uncomfortable.

How bad was the dissension?

Particularly in Obama’s absence, the voices of the skeptics often predominated. “It was scaring the hell out of the rest of us,” says one of the advisers who favored more aggressive action.

Ultimately, Obama insisted on putting $634 billion in his budget to fund health care reform.  But Cohn acknowledges that Obama may be over-reaching.

At a time when the economy is collapsing, perhaps Obama can’t afford the distraction of such a major policy effort; at a time when the government is pumping out so much money for other priorities, perhaps it’s foolish to incur a new obligation that, if carried out by the book, still may not pay for itself in under ten years. And, even if it makes sense to seek health care reform this year, Obama’s decision to allocate health care money now could make the budget tougher to pass–inviting an extra political fight that might make reform even harder to achieve.

Nice thing about Cohn: he may be a high priest in the Church of Universal Coverage.  But he’s a darned good journalist.

An Eminent Domain Injustice

“My name is Susette Kelo, and the government stole my home.”

That was how former New London, Connecticut resident Susette Kelo, who lost her home in one of the most troubling legal battles against eminent domain abuse, began her talk at the Cato Institute in January.

The court ruled that Susette Kelo’s little pink house in New London, and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more taxes or jobs.

At this time, the property is still empty.

In this new mini-documentary produced by Austin Bragg and Caleb Brown, those who fought on Kelo’s behalf tell her story.

For an in depth look at Kelo’s case, read Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict.

For more videos like this one, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

More Reasons Not to Nationalize Health Care

Advocates of a government takeover of the health care system routinely offer up horror stories of American medicine, and no system yet has found a way around the problem of human imperfection, especially when operating in a system with such distorted incentives–most from ill-considered government policies.  Yet the horror stories in nationalized health care systems are manifold and tend to be more intractable since they result from government policy.

For instance, consider the quality of care delivered by hospitals in one region in Great Britain (with a hat-tip to Philip Klein of the American Spectator for finding this story).  According to the Daily Telegraph:

Sir Ian Kennedy, chairman of the Healthcare Commission, said the report is a ‘shocking story’ and that there were failures at almost every stage of care of emergency patients. “There is no doubt that patients will have suffered and some of them will have died as a result,” he said.

The investigation of the trust now called the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, found overstretched and poorly trained nurses who turned off equipment because they did not know how to work it, newly qualified doctors left to care for patients recovering from surgery at night, patients left for hours in soiled bedclothes, reception staff expected to judge how seriousness of patients arriving at A&E, patients left without food or drink, others who received the wrong medication or none at all, blood and faeces left on lavatories and floors, and doctors diverted away from seriously ill patients in order to treat minor ones who were in danger of breaching the four hour waiting time target.

When high mortality rates triggered questions, the trust board of directors ‘fobbed off’ investigators by saying the rates were a result of statistical errors but the Healthcare Commission found this was not that case.

The report said there was a ‘reluctance to acknowledge or even consider that the care of patients was poor’.

The trust was more concerned with hitting targets, gaining Foundation Trust status and marketing and had ‘lost sight’ of its responsibilities for patient care, the report said.

Sir Ian said: “The resulting report is a shocking story. Our report tells a story of appalling standards of care and chaotic systems for looking after patients.”

While Britain tends to be near the bottom in terms of health care system in industrialized states, there are plenty of horror stories elsewhere.  Socialism doesn’t work, whether in health care or elsewhere.  As Investor’s Business Daily reminds us:

The Swedish government system is no better. It also refuses to provide some expensive medication and, inhumanely, refuses to let patients buy the drugs themselves. Why? According to a Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons article, bureaucrats believe doing so “would set a bad precedent and lead to unequal access to medicine.”

Like Canadians, Swedes are subjected to long waits. They also have denial-of-care problems that sometimes lead to death.

A reasonable person would see the record of repeated failures in government-run medicine as evidence that such a system is not sustainable. Yet every central planner thinks he or she — or his or her immediate group — is smart enough to correct the flaws of socialist programs and therefore has the moral authority to force others to participate in his experiments. It is the same thinking that will move a person to say we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The Obama administration seems determined to waste a lot of money “stimulating” the economy.  We can replace money lost.  But if the administration succeeds in nationalizing the medical system directly or indirectly, the damage may prove irreversible–and deadly.