Archives: 09/2009

Curbing Free Trade to Save It

In the latest example of “We had to burn the village to save it” logic, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) argues in a letter in the Washington Post this morning that the way to “support more trade” in the future is to raise barriers to trade today.

Brown criticizes Post columnist George Will for criticizing President Obama for imposing new tariffs on imported tires from China. Like President Obama himself, Brown claims that by invoking the Section 421 safeguard, the president was merely “enforcing” the trade laws that China agreed to but has failed to follow. He scolds advocates of trade for talking about the “rule of law” but failing to enforce it when it comes to trade agreements. Brown concludes, “If America is ever to support more trade, its people need to know that the rules will be enforced. And Mr. Obama did exactly that.”

Nothing in U.S. trade law required President Obama to impose tariffs on imported Chinese tires. As my colleague Dan Ikenson explained in a recent Free Trade Bulletin, Section 421 allows private parties to petition the U.S. government for protection if rising imports from China have caused or just threaten to cause “market disruption” to domestic producers. If the U.S. International Trade Commission recommends tariff relief, the president can decide to impose tariffs, or not.

The law allows the president to refrain from imposing tariffs if he finds they are “not in the national economic interest of the United States or … would cause serious harm to the national security of the United States.”

As I argue at length in my new Cato book Mad about Trade, trade barriers invariably damage our national economic interests and weaken our national security, and the tire tariffs are no exception. If the president had followed the letter and spirit of the law, he would have rejected the tariff.

And since when is causing “market disruption” something to be punished by law? Isn’t that what capitalism and market competition are all about? New competitors and new products are constantly disrupting markets, to the discomfort of entrenched producers but to the great benefit of the general public and the economy as a whole.

Human beings once widely practiced an economic system that minimized market disruption. It was called feudalism.

C/P Mad About Trade

The Land Is There, the Cubans Are There, but the Incentives Are Not

The Washington Post has an interesting story today on the program of the Cuban government to transfer idle state-owned land to private farmers so they can resurrect the dilapidated agricultural sector on the communist island. As Ian Vásquez and I wrote in the chapter on U.S. policy toward Cuba in Cato Handbook for Policymakers, before this reform, the agricultural productivity of Cuba’s tiny non-state sector (comprising cooperatives and small private farmers) was already 25 percent higher than that of the state sector.

At stake is an issue of incentives. Collective land doesn’t give farmers an incentive to work hard and be productive, since the benefits of their labor go to the government who distributes them (in theory) evenly among everyone, regardless of who worked hard or not. While with private property, “The harder you work, the better you do,” as a Cuban farmer said in the Post story.

The country’s ruler, Raúl Castro, recently declared that “The land is there, and here are the Cubans! Let’s see if we can get to work or not, if we produce or not… The land is there waiting for our sweat.” However, it’s not a matter of just having land and lots of people. It’s also a matter of incentives to produce. Failing to see this, as in the case of Cuba’s failed communist model, is a recipe for failure.

A Federal Ban on Texting While Driving?

text-messaging-while-drivingIn response to claims that texting-while-driving (TWD) causes traffic accidents, Congress is considering “a federal bill that would force states to ban texting while driving if they want to keep receiving federal highway money.”

This approach to forcing a particular policy on the states mimics the 1984 Federal Uniform Driving Age Act, which threatened to withhold federal highway funds unless states adopted a 21-year-old minimum legal drinking age. The justification for that law was reducing traffic fatalities among 18-20 year olds.

A federal ban on TWD is not compelling:

1. Federal imposition of the 21-year old minimum drinking age did not save lives.

2. A ban on texting might increase other distractions: adjusting the radio, putting on makeup, eating a sandwich, reading a map, and so on. Relatedly, the evidence that TWD causes accidents is far from convincing. Traffic fatalities per vehicle mile travelled have declined substantially over the past 15 years, despite the explosion in text messaging.

3. TWD has benefits, not just costs. Truckers, for example, claim that

Crisscrossing the country, hundreds of thousands of long-haul truckers use computers in their cabs to get directions and stay in close contact with dispatchers, saving precious minutes that might otherwise be spent at the side of the road.

4. If the benefits of banning TWD become clear, most states will ban on their own.

Thus laws that penalize TWD might make sense. But this is an issue for states, not the federal government.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z.

Is This Intervention Necessary?

So asks the Washington Post in a cogent editorial about FCC Chairman Jules Genachowski’s speech proposing to regulate the terms on which broadband service is provided. (More from TLJ, Julian Sanchez, and me.) The WaPo piece nicely dismantles the few incidents and arguments that underlie Genachowski’s call for regulation.

As the debate about “ ‘net neutrality” regulation continues, I imagine it will move from principled arguments, such as whether the government should control communications infrastructure, to practical ones: Will limitations on ISPs’ ability to manage their networks cause Internet brown-outs and failures? (This is what Comcast was trying to avoid when it ham-handedly degraded the use of the BitTorrent protocol on its network.) Will regulation bar ISPs from shifting costs to heavy users, cause individual consumers to pay more, and hasten a move from all-you-can-eat to metered Internet service? We’ll have much to discuss.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers writing about Cato research and analysis:

  • Blogging from Korea, Joseph Steinberg writes about Cato’s foreign policy views on East Asia.
  • Chris Estes defends Obama’s decision to slap a tariff on Chinese tire imports, and cites Dan Ikenson’s research on the subject.
  • A blog that just started up this summer, Political Policy takes a look at Cato’s analysis of Obama’s health care address to Congress.
  • Wes Messamore rounds up libertarian responses to the 9/12 demonstration in Washington DC.
  • Y-Intercept takes a look at Jim Harper’s analysis of government transparency.
  • Bloggers at The Liberty Pen cite Michael Cannon’s research on the “public option” provision that has been debated for inclusion in the final health care reform bill.

UPDATE: The Humble Libertarian is revising his list of the top 100 libertarian blogs and is accepting submissions.

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Weekend Links

  • The problem with long-term urban planning.
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