Archives: 05/2009

About That Vision Thing…

Does the world need a “shared vision on food and agricultural trade policy”? So says World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy:

Let me start by saying that food and agricultural trade policy does not operate in a vacuum. In other words, no matter how sophisticated our trade policies may be, if domestic policies do not themselves incentivize agriculture, and internalize negative social and environmental externalities, then we will always have a problem.

Here I question what exactly Lamy means by “incentivize”.  Does he mean “make sure we get incentives right”, or does he mean “provide positive incentives to agriculture”? The former probably is harmless if it means simply allowing market forces to work, the latter a potential opening for the types of subsidies and price supports that have done so much damage to agricultural trade policy. Ditto with his wish to “internalize negative social and environmental externalities”: on the face of it, this is a fairly inoffensive goal, and a positively noble one if he is referring to, say, the effects on poor farmers abroad stemming from rich country farm subsidies. But I can see all sorts of nefarious social policies flowing from that prescription if it gets into the wrong hands.

Lamy goes on to make sensible points about the effects of tax policy on agriculture, and makes this statement about the importance of free trade for food security:

To my mind, global integration allows us to think of efficiency beyond national boundaries. It allows us to score efficiency gains on a global scale by shifting agricultural production to where it can best take place. As I often say, if a country such as Egypt were to aim for self-sufficiency in agriculture, it would soon need more than one River Nile. Which basically means that global integration must also allow food, feed, and fibre to travel from countries where they are efficiently produced to countries where there is demand.

All necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for global food security, to be sure. But Lamy then turns to exactly what a global vision for agriculture might involve:

I believe that we could all agree on what the basic objectives are that we seek from our agricultural systems. We all want sufficient food, feed, fibre and some even want fuel. We want nutritious food and feed. We want safe food and feed. We want a decent and rising living standard for our farmers. We want food to be available and affordable for the consumer. We want agricultural production systems that are in tune with local culture and customs, and that respect the environment throughout a product’s entire life-cycle.

Hmm. I’m not sure about all that. For one thing, some of those goals seem potentially in conflict. United States sugar policy, for example, has shown us the results when consumers’ desire for “affordable” food conflicts with sugar farmers’ desire for a “decent and rising living standard” (hint: it’s not the consumers who make out like bandits). Similarly, it is at least conceivable that food grown “in tune with local culture and customs” might be more expensive, or make food less abundant, or even less safe. And if those goals can be in conflict within a country’s borders, I shudder to think what such an overburdened agenda could do to the already-struggling global trading system. At the extreme, a call for a “global vision” of agricultural trade policy could see the return of international commodity agreements and other supranational management nightmares of the mid-late 20th century.

On balance, the WTO has been a force for good in freeing agricultural trade. For sure, commodity markets are still very distorted, and the whole mercantilist basis of the WTO must be questioned. But by trying to harness the desire of exporters for more customers to counteract the pressure on governments to protect domestic industries, the WTO has done much good in the world. Pascal Lamy is right to encourage countries to stay on course with the Doha round of trade negotiations. I just hope that encouraging a “global vision” for agriculture, and pointing to vague notions of “social externalities,” doesn’t run against his stated purpose of freeing farm trade.

More on Cato’s work on agricultural trade policy here.

Patching up the Education Monopoly

The Eli and Edythe Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations have sponsored a report, “Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success,” on how to spend $100 billion of “stimulus money” on improving America’s schools, according to Jay Mathews in The Washington Post. Ideas include national standards, better teacher evaluations, special help for struggling students, and more.

But let’s try a thought experiment. Bill Gates made his money in software. Eli Broad made his money building houses. Imagine a slightly different universe, say one in which Henry Wallace and Al Gore had become president, and we had monopoly providers of both software and housing. How good do you think the software and the housing would be? And if the U.S. Department of Technology and the U.S. Department of Housing announced that they would be spending another $100 billion, what would happen?

minitelIt seems clear that the way to improve housing and software in that world would be to open the fields up to competition, or even to privatize them. A government monopoly provider of software would be lucky to have given us Minitel by now. And monopoly provision of housing was tried in much of the world during the 20th century, with poor results. So if we were afflicted with these albatrosses, surely we’d recognize that deregulation, competition, and privatization would produce better results by far.

So then why don’t we realize it when we’re afflicted with a virtual government monopoly on the provision of education? Why are zillions of smart people studying and debating how to improve the performance of a sluggish, stagnant, tax-funded government monopoly? Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure that we’d see the failure of the software or housing monopoly either. Whatever enterprise the government chooses to monopolize – and there’s really nothing inherent or inevitable about which enterprises that will be – will most likely become a massive bureaucratic undertaking, and we will find it difficult to imagine how the enterprise could be privately run.

But Bill and Melinda, Eli and Edythe, Jay, Barack – the evidence on monopoly vs. competitive provision of services is out there. To a great extent it’s the history of the 20th century. Check it out.

Rev. Joe Darby of the NAACP and I Discuss School Choice

Tomorrow morning, the Rev. Joe Darby of Charleston, South Carolina and I will kick off a dialogue about school choice. As South Carolina’s legislature debates an education tax credit bill, Joe and I will debate the merits of school choice right here at Cato-at-Liberty.org.

Joe is an eloquent, thoughtful guy. I expect it to be very interesting.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a roundup of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

Are you blogging about Cato, but not on the list? cmoody [at] cato [dot] org (Drop us a line) and let us know!

Topics:

Why Health Care Reform Is Not a Sure Thing

Over at NPR.org, I’ve got a commentary that explains why comprehensive health care reform is far from certain – current events notwithstanding.   Read it, recommend it, comment on it.

From the NPR piece:

There are two things standing in the way of Democrats’ plans for universal health insurance coverage: math and politics.

First, the math. According to the Urban Institute, covering the uninsured would cost a minimum $120 billion per year. Over 10 years, that comes to about $1.6 trillion.

That money’s gotta come from somewhere. And that’s where politics comes in. Everybody wants that money to come from someone else.

UPDATE: Here’s my appearance on Fox News today, discussing lobbyists’ proposal to cut health care costs:

Also, is health care a right?

Barack Obama “Fatally Conceited” on Education

The AP reports today that president Obama wants the nation’s school districts to close 5,000 failing schools and re-open them with new principals and teachers. Here is why this won’t work:

  • Typically, public schools only dismiss teachers when they are forced to reduce their workforce for budget reasons, but the president has just infused the system with $100 billion to prevent such dismissals. And when teachers are let go, it is done starting with those with the least seniority, not the lowest performance. So the hundreds of thousands of teachers displaced from failing schools will simply move to other schools rather than being replaced by better teachers. This has been going on for decades. It is called “the parade of the lemons.” Overall, it achieves nothing.
  • The new principals who take over the formerly failing schools have to come from somewhere. So for every school that gets one of the system’s “good” principals, there will be another school that loses one. Public schooling has no incentive structure to ensure that it can identify, hire, and retain competent administrators to strengthen its ranks.

What the president is trying to do in education – as in the auto industry – is to replace the web of market forces that close failing businesses in the private sector with his own personal diktat. This is Hayek’s Fatal Conceit.

The market solves the problem of failing schools by allowing consumers to chose the ones that serve them best, which simultaneously accomplishes two things: it drives failing schools to either improve or go out of business, and it provides incentives for the expansion of successful schools and the hiring of effective teachers and administrators.

As I wrote here, and in expanded and updated form in vol. 3, no. 1, of the Journal of School Choice, the international scientific evidence reveals the overwhelming superiority of market over monopoly schooling. President Obama’s educational dirigism will fail.

Now Is Not the Time to Reduce Credit Card Availability

With the House having passed credit card legislation and the Senate scheduled to take up its own bill this week, one questions keeps coming back to me: What’s the hurry?

We are in the midst of a recession, which will not turn around until consumer spending turns around—so why reduce the availability of consumer credit now? And the Federal Reserve has already proposed a rule that would address many of Congress’ supposed concerns. The Fed rule will be implemented July 2010. Were Congress to get a bill to the president by Memorial Day, as he has asked, the Federal Reserve and the industry still couldn’t implement it before maybe January, if they were lucky.

Congress should keep in mind that credit cards have been a significant source of consumer liquidity during this downturn. While few of us want to have to cover our basic living expenses on our credit card, that option is certainly better than going without those basic needs. The wide availability of credit cards has helped to significantly maintain some level of consumer purchasing, even while confidence and other indicators have nosedived.

It was the massive under-pricing of risk, often at the urging of Washington, that brought on our current financial market crisis. To now pressure credit card companies not to raise their fees or more accurately price credit risk, will only reduce the availability of credit while undermining the financial viability of the companies, ultimately prolonging the recession and potentially increasing the cost of bank bailouts to the taxpayer.

As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has repeatedly said, some of the biggest credit card issuers will not be allowed to fail (think Citibank, American Express, Capital One, KepCorp) should they suffer significant losses to their credit card portfolios. Will taxpayers ultimately be the ones covering those losses?

Congress should also further examine the wisdom of restricting credit to college students under the age of 21. Outside of the obvious age discrimination, why treat adults between the ages of 18 and 21 any differently from those above 21? The basic premise of college is making sacrifices today in order to have a wealthier tomorrow—accordingly being able to borrow against that better tomorrow should be an option for any college student. Just as some small number of college students don’t benefit from college, some don’t benefit from credit cards, but throwing the “baby out with the bathwater” hardly seems the idea solution.