Archives: February, 2010

Putting “Holds” on Hold

Recent weeks have witnessed considerable media attention on a fairly obscure Senate practice: that of Senators placing a “hold” on a nomination.  Holds are essentially a method for Senators to tell the Majority Leader that if the Leader were to try to move a nomination by unanimous consent, that Senator would object on the Senate floor.

Much of the attention has unsurprisingly come from Democrats, who see the use of holds as obstructing President Obama’s ability to get in place his preferred personnel.  Perhaps getting the most attention was Senator Richard Shelby’s placing a hold on 70 some nominations (full disclosure: I spent seven years working for Shelby).

What is missed in the debate over holds is whether the Senate should be moving nominations by unanimous consent in the first place.  President Obama’s supporters contend that his nominees deserve an up or down vote.  Yet that is exactly what is required by a hold: an up or down vote.  Holds do not have to be honored by the Majority Leader (else why doesn’t someone just place a hold on health care?).  In fact, nominations are privileged motions, meaning the Majority Leader can bring up a nomination for debate and vote at any time.   

Moving a nomination (or even legislation) by unanimous consent all but guarantees that the nomination in question will receive zero deliberation or debate by the full Senate.  Whether a particular position is subject to Senate confirmation is almost completely up to Congress.  So if Congress decides that a position is important enough to demand the “advice and consent” of the Senate, then one would assume that such a position would also merit deliberation and debate by the Senate.  In passing so many nominations (and legislation) by unanimous consent, the Senate fails in its responsibilities. 

Congress finds itself in this bind because of its own doing.  In desiring to have government intrude in some many aspects of our lives, Congress has decided that thousands of political appointees are needed to run those intrusions.  But with so many appointees subject to confirmation, the Senate has no choice by to move nominations without debate for deliberation, for there is not enough time in the day to do so, especially when the Senate prefers to sending its time on grand policies, rather than the business of simply governing.

The solution is not to get rid of holds.  The solution is to reduce the involvement of government in our lives, so that the Senate does not have to process thousands of nominations every year.

More on the Disconnect between IR Academics and Beltway People

Back in September I puzzled over the disconnect between international relations academics and the Washington foreign-policy establishment.  Back then, I wrote that

the two groups have been wildly at variance in terms of their views on important public policy issues.  Take the Iraq war, for example.  As anyone who was in Washington at the time knows, the [Foreign Policy Community] was extremely fond of the idea of invading Iraq.  To oppose it was to marginalize oneself for years.  Indeed, those who promoted the disastrous adventure have prospered, while those who (bravely or stupidly, depending on your point of view) opposed it remain huddled in the chilly, dusty alcoves of popular debate.

In the academy, meanwhile, there was hardly any debate over Iraq–almost 80 percent of IR academics opposed the war. [.pdf] To the extent academics did enter the public debate on the issue, it was to pay for an advertisement in the New York Times warning against the war. [.pdf] The only academics who spoke out in favor of the war (to my knowledge, anyway) were IR liberals like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who sought policy positions in Washington.  (Slaughter, of course, was rewarded with a spot as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, while to my knowledge none of the academic opponents of the war have gained Washington policy jobs.)

Today, Daniel Drezner describes his experience at

a small conference devoted to the idea of getting scholars and policymakers in the same room to talk about U.S. policy towards a Great Power That Shall Remain Nameless.  The idea was that policymakers could highlight issues that professors might have overlooked and vice versa.

Everything was going along swimmingly until one of the policymakers in the room complained that some of the academic memos that had been prepared for the conference were too long to be read by policymakers – which was true, except that wasn’t the purpose of these memos.  In response, a Smart and Well Respected Political Scientist went off on a serious and righteous rant.  Why didn’t policymakers or staffers in DC actually read what experts thought about a particular issue?  It wasn’t just that political scientists were being put on the sidelines – we were  being completely ignored.

While Drezner’s post centers on the blame senior academics deserve for stigmatizing policy pronouncement from untenured political scientists, I think it’s worth revisiting the fact that policymakers and IR academics just don’t agree about much, as I highlighted above.  And, as if on cue, Steven K. Metz of the Army War College crops up in comments (you have to scroll down), writing in part that:

I really believe the key is for academics to learn how to express themselves in a policy relevant way rather than expecting policymakers to work through academic style analysis and writing. Heck, I remember participating in a workshop early in the Bush administration that brought together the elite of security studies professors. The stated purpose was to develop policy relevant analysis. But all I heard over two days was that the Bush administration needed to jettison its worldview and adopt the one advocated by the speaker. (emphasis mine)

That is, when you got “the elite of security studies professors” in a room with senior policy people in DC, they wanted to use the opportunity to warn the DC people that their expertise led them to the conclusion that the policies we were following were, in fact, dumb.  I think everybody complaining about the gulf between the fields needs to come to some sort of grips with the fact that there are just big disagreements between the Beltway consensus and the IR academic views on many, many issues.  And unless and until either a) policymakers feel inclined to listen to scholars on those subjects or b) academics lose their interest in warning the policy community about their policies, just pushing them together in various arenas is not going to do much good.

The Maytag Repair Man Would Make a Better USTR

Ron Kirk hasn’t exactly been burning the candles at both ends as U.S. Trade Representative.  And I don’t expect he’ll be racking up the frequent flier miles anytime soon, given his recent assessment of the trade policy scene.  Here’s what he had to say, as reported by Jerry Hagstrom of Congress Daily:

Speaking at the USDA Annual Outlook Forum, Kirk said members of Congress “are more open and receptive” to the idea of creating a trans-Pacific agreement because it could be written from scratch.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership comes “without any of the biases of the three [agreements] under consideration,” he said. Kirk added members of Congress also like it because it would take 18 to 24 months to develop and would not come up for approval until after the 2010 elections.

Basically, Kirk’s planning to hang his trade expansion hat on some future trade agreement that’s still in the conception phase and years away from a shot at reality, while giving up on the already-signed agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama because those agreements are too much of a burden politically for Congress, who would prefer to start from scratch. 

That’s trade leadership from the Obama administration!

At this point, though, likening Kirk to the Maytag repair man might be too optimistic an analogy. The USTR hinted that he might find something to do on the enforcement side of his job description. According to Hagstrom:

Kirk stressed the administration’s commitment to enforcing trade agreements, saying that “enforcement is not protectionist.”

A Value-Added Tax Is Not the Answer…Unless the Question Is How to Finance Bigger Government

While admitting that spending restraint is the ideal approach, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution asks whether a value-added tax (VAT) might be the most desirable of all realistic options for dealing with an unsustainable budget situation.

Read his post for yourself, but I think a fair summary is that he is basically saying that a) there will be a crisis if we don’t do something about future deficits, b) a crisis will result in very bad policy, and c) if we support a VAT now, we will at least be able to extract concessions from the other side.

I have no idea whether there will be a future crisis, but I think the rest of Tyler’s argument is wrong.

But before explaining my position, let’s start by stating what I assume to be our mutual objective, which is to control the size of government. We all agree that there is a problem because government is too big now, and it is projected to get even bigger because of the built-in growth of entitlement programs. One symptom of growing government is deficits, which are very large today and will be even bigger in the near future as more and more baby boomers retire and push up costs for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Our side (broadly speaking) wants to solve the budgetary situation by restraining the growth of government. One proposed solution is Congressman Paul Ryan’s Roadmap Plan, which would reform entitlements and curtail other programs so that the long-term burden of federal spending is reduced to less than 20 percent of GDP. Since long-term federal tax revenues under current law - even if the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent - are expected to be about 19 percent of GDP, this solves the budet problem  (the tax reform component of the Roadmap includes a VAT, which is a poison pill in an otherwise excellent plan, but let’s set that aside for another day).

The left, by contrast, generally wants to let federal spending consume ever-larger shares of economic output, and they believe that increasing the tax burden is the right way of keeping the deficit from getting too large. No statist has put forth a detailed plan to match Rep. Ryan, but several high-ranking Democrats have made no secret about their desire for a VAT (see here, here, and here). And everyone agrees that a VAT is capable of extracting a lot of money from the productive sector of the economy.

These two visions are fundamentally incompatible, which helps to explain why there is a standoff. The bad guys do not want to control the size of government and the good guys do not want to raise taxes. But now we have to add one more piece to the puzzle. While gridlock normally is a good result, inaction to some degree favors the other side because entitlement programs automatically expand. The helps to explain why Tyler (with reluctance) thinks that it may be best to acquiesce to a VAT now rather than to wait for a fiscal crisis.

Now, let’s explain why Tyler is wrong. First, it is far from clear that surrendering to a VAT now will result in better (less worse) policy than what will happen during a crisis. It certainly is true that some past crises have led to terrible policy, such as the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s or the more recent Bush-Paulson-Obama-Geithner TARP debacle. But at other points in time, a crisis atmosphere has paved the way for better policy, with Reagan’s presidency being the most obvious example.

The wait-for-a-crisis strategy clearly is a bit of a gamble, but even if we lose, we get a VAT in the future rather than a VAT today. So what’s the downside? Tyler and others might say that the future legislation in the midst of a crisis could be a vehicle for other bad provisions, but he offers no evidence for this proposition. And it may be the case that the other side would be forced to add good provisions instead. Moreover, the lack of a VAT in the period between today and the future crisis might help lead to some much-needed spending restraint.

What about Tyler’s argument that the good guys could extract some concessions from the other side by putting a VAT on the table. This is horribly naive. Even though George Mason University is less than 20 miles from Washington, and even though Tyler is a renassaince man with many talents, he does not understand how Washington really works.

Imagine there is a budget summit where politicians from both sides get together to work on this supposed deal. Here are the inevitable ground rules - and the consequences they will produce:

1. The deal will be 50 percent spending cuts and 50 percent tax increases, but the supposed spending “cuts” will be nothing more than reductions in already-legislated increases. The tax increases, by contrast, will be on top of all the additional revenue that is already exepected under current law (not a trivial matter since receipts will be $1.5 trillion higher in 2015 than they are today according to OMB). For proponents of limited government, using the “current services baseline” as a benchmark in budget negotiations is like playing a five-minute basketball game after spotting the other team a 20-point lead.

2. All spending and revenue decisions will be examined through the prism of CBO income distribution tables, and the left will successfully insist that nothing is done to make the tax code less progressive. But since a VAT is a proportional tax, the only way of preserving overall progressivity is to raise tax rates on those wicked and evil rich people and/or to massively increase “refundable” tax credits (what normal people call income redistribution). Any proposal to lower income tax rates or eliminate the corporate income tax, as Tyler envisions, would be laughed out of the room (though Democrats will offer a fig leaf or two in order to seduce a sufficient number of gullible Republicans into supporting a terrible agreement, and that might include a cosmetic change to the corporate tax regime).

3. Many of the supposed spending cuts, for all intents and purposes, will be back-door tax increases on saving and investment. More specifically, a big chunk of the supposed spending cut portion of a budget deal will be from means-testing entitlement programs. This sounds good. After all, who wants to send a Social Security check to Bill Gates when he retires? But consider how such a system actually will work. The government will say that people with income (and/or assets) above a certain level are ineligible for some or all of the benefits available to less-fortunate retirees. From an economic persepective, this is very much akin to a higher tax rate on people who save and invest during their working years. And since means testing would only generate substantial budgetary savings if it applied to millions of regular people in addition to Bill Gates, we would wind up with a system that created big penalties on middle-class families who were dumb enough to save and invest.

I’ve already pontificated enough for one blog post, so let me summarize by stating that Tyler’s approach, while not unreasonable, is about how to lose gracefully. Even if his strategy works perfectly, the result is bigger government. I’d much rather fight. If you want some inspiration for the battle, watch this video. If you haven’t had enough of me already, here’s my video explaining why the VAT is a horrible idea.

Update: Tyler has emailed to object to how his position is being characterized. He writes, “I am asking anti-VAT forces to strengthen their argument and am very clearly agnostic and certainly not calling for a VAT today.” Everyone I’ve spoken with has interpreted his post as pro-VAT, and that’s certainly how I read it, but I want to add this addendum to my post so people can see Tyler’s response in case I’m not being fair.

Big Teacher Is Watching

Researching government invasions of privacy all day, I come across my fair share of incredibly creepy stories, but this one may just take the cake.  A lawsuit alleges that the Lower Merion School District in suburban Pennsylvania used laptops issued to each student to spy on the kids at home by remotely and surreptitiously activating the webcam built into the bezel of each one. The horrified parents of one student apparently learned about this capability when their son was called in to the assistant principal’s office and accused of “inappropriate behavior while at home.” The evidence? A still photograph taken by the laptop camera in the student’s home.

I’ll admit, at first I was somewhat skeptical—if only because this kind of spying is in such flagrant violation of so many statutes that I thought surely one of the dozens of people involved in setting it up would have piped up and said: “You know, we could all go to jail for this.” But then one of the commenters over at Boing Boing reminded me that I’d seen something like this before, in a clip from Frontline documentary about the use of technology in one Bronx school.  Scroll ahead to 4:37 and you’ll see a school administrator explain how he can monitor what the kids are up to on their laptops in class. When he sees students using the built-in Photo Booth software to check their hair instead of paying attention, he remotely triggers it to snap a picture, then laughs as the kids realize they’re under observation and scurry back to approved activities.

I’ll admit, when I first saw that documentary—it aired this past summer—that scene didn’t especially jump out at me. The kids were, after all, in class, where we expect them to be under the teacher’s watchful eye most of the time anyway. The now obvious question, of course, is: What prevents someone from activating precisely the same monitoring software when the kids take the laptops home, provided they’re still connected to the Internet?  Still more chilling: What use is being made of these capabilities by administrators who know better than to disclose their extracurricular surveillance to the students?  Are we confident that none of these schools employ anyone who might succumb to the temptation to check in on teenagers getting out of the shower in the morning? How would we ever know?

I dwell on this because it’s a powerful illustration of a more general point that can’t be made often enough about surveillance: Architecture is everything. The monitoring software on these laptops was installed with an arguably legitimate educational purpose, but once the architecture of surveillance is in place, abuse becomes practically inevitable.  Imagine that, instead of being allowed to install a bug in someone’s home after obtaining a warrant, the government placed bugs in all homes—promising to activate them only pursuant to a judicial order.  Even if we assume the promise were always kept and the system were unhackable—both wildly implausible suppositions—the amount of surveillance would surely spike, because the ease of resorting to it would be much greater even if the formal legal prerequisites remained the same. And, of course, the existence of the mics would have a psychological effect of making surveillance seem like a default.

You can see this effect in law enforcement demands for data retention laws, which would require Internet Service Providers to keep at least customer transactional logs for a period of years. In face-to-face interactions, of course, our default assumption is that no record at all exists of the great majority of our conversations. Law enforcement accepts this as a fact of nature. But with digital communication, the default is that just about every activity creates a record of some sort, and so police come to see it as outrageous that a potentially useful piece of evidence might be deleted.

Unfortunately, we tend to discuss surveillance in myopically narrow terms.  Should the government be able to listen in on the phone conversations of known terrorists? To pose the question is to answer it. What kind of technological architecture is required to reliably sweep up all the communications an intelligence agency might want—for perfectly legitimate reasons—and what kind of institutional incentives and inertia does that architecture create? A far more complicated question—and one likely to seem too abstract to bother about for legislators focused on the threat of the week.

Radioactive Corporate Welfare

A good default proposition regarding the government’s role in the economy would state that the government should not loan money to an enterprise if the enterprise in question cannot find one single market actor anywhere in the universe to loan said enterprise a single red cent.  It might suggest – I don’t know – that the investment is rather … dubious.

Alas, like all good propositions regarding the government’s role in the economy, this one is being left by the roadside by the Obama administration.  Unfortunately, the only complaint being made by a not insubstantial segment of the political Right – frequently, the political crowd that is busy decrying “Bailout Nation” – is that the loan guarantees are not fat enough.

I write, of course, about the $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee announced by President Obama this week for Southern Company to build two new nuclear power plants.  The money will be used to guarantee the loans being made by the federal government (via the Federal Financing Bank) to partially cover the cost of Southern’s projected $14 billion nuclear construction project at their Vogtle plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.  The loan guarantees were authorized by Congress in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and, we are told, are the first installment on a total package of $54 billion that the President would like to hand out to facilitate the construction of 7-10 new nuclear power plants (Congress, however, has only authorized $18.5 billion to this point).

The claim being made by some – that the loan guarantees are necessary to jump-start investor interest in new nuclear power plant construction – is not quite correct.  Even these lavish loan guarantees aren’t enough to do that.  In a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy dated July 2, 2007, six of Wall Street’s s then-largest investment banks – Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley – informed the administration that, contrary to the government’s expectations, anything short of a 100 percent unconditional guarantee would be insufficient to induce private lending.

Why is it risky to build nuclear power plants?  Because new nuclear projects tie up more capital for longer periods of time than its main competitor, natural-gas fired generation.  Nuclear power makes economic sense only if natural gas prices are very high.  Then, over time, the high initial costs of nuclear power would be offset by nuclear power’s lower fuel costs.  Moreover, as noted by Moody’s in an analysis published in July of last year, there is uncertainty associated with construction costs, regulatory oversight, technological developments that might reduce the cost of rival facilities, and the ability of utilities to recover costs and make a profit over the lifetime of the plant – a risk tied up in the economic prospects of the region being served by the plant.  And those risks have been increasing, not decreasing, as time has gone on.

In short, even during the go-go days prior to the September 2008 crash – a time when Wall Street was allegedly throwing around money left and right to all sorts of dubious borrowers – the banks that stand accused of recklessly endangering their shareholders on other fronts were telling utility companies that they would not loan them anything for new nuclear power plant construction unless the feds unconditionally guaranteed every last penny of those loans.  That’s how risky market actors think it is to build nuclear power plants.

And it’s not as if the federal government disagrees completely.  The Congressional Budget Office pegs the chance of default (program-wide) at 50 percent or better and the Government Accountability Office likewise thinks that default risks are quite high.  Energy Secretary Stephen Chu says that he thinks the chance of default is much lower.  We can only speculate about who’s right given that no one has tried to build a nuclear power plant in the United States for over 30 years.

Regardless of what the risk actually is, the loan guarantees do not reduce that risk.  They simply transfer the risk from the bank to taxpayer.  In this particular case, however, the loan guarantee transfers risk from one arm of the state to the other, so it doesn’t really count.  But if such loan guarantees  ever were to induce actual private lending for plant construction, that’s how it would work.

Plenty of arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Most of them are flimsy on their face.

For instance, we’re often told that we “need” new power plants.  But with electricity demand declining over the past couple of years, it is unclear when that need might arise.

Regardless, when the market “needs” more electricity, that need will be manifested in price signals that will carry with them profit opportunities.  Profit-hungry investors will be willing and able to meet that need without the help of government.  Of course, if market conditions don’t radically change, those needs will be met with gas-fired power plants, but hey, if that bothers you, take it up with someone else.

Others argue that we need the jobs that will be produced by new nuclear power plants.  Well, building big new reactors will certainly employ a lot of (largely unionized) construction workers.  But that’s one reason why building a nuclear power plant is not very economic compared to building gas-fired generators.  If creating jobs is the idea whether the project makes any economic sense or not, then let’s just ban food imports and farm equipment and put everyone to work with hand plows and scythes.

Two somewhat more serious arguments have been offered to justify these loan guarantees.  Neither of them stands up to much scrutiny either.

The first argument – the argument most often heard from the nuclear power industry and some segments of the political Left – is that we need nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Of course, the best (that is, most efficient) way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions in the retail price of electricity and then allow market actors to adjust their production and consumption decisions accordingly.  That price internalization exercise, however (whether directly through a carbon tax or indirectly through a cap-and-trade program), does not appear to be in the cards in the foreseeable future.  Hence, the loan guarantees are advanced as a “second-best” solution, one that will get us the technology and economic efficiency that would be delivered by a properly crafted carbon tax or cap-and-trade program without the retail price increases associated with either.

One of several problems with this argument is that it would take one hell of a carbon tax – or one hell of an onerous cap-and-trade program – to get anyone interested in building nuclear power plants.  If natural gas prices remained roughly where they are at present (that is, if they were to remain at historical norms) then it would take a $90 per ton carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that delivered carbon emission credits at $90 per ton on the open market to induce investment in nuclear power plants.  Few economists who study climate policy believe that a carbon tax of that size is defensible given what we know about climate change.

And that’s if construction costs are as low as advertised.  Were they to double (as they did from 2003 to 2009) – either because of endogenous increases in the cost of capital, labor, or construction-related resources or because of cost overruns – then it would take at least a $150 per ton carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade program that delivered $150 carbon credits to the market) to induce investment.

You might ask yourself what the historical relationship is between final (inflation-adjusted) nuclear power plant construction costs in the United States and construction costs as projected at the onset of the project.  Happily, the CBO has done your homework for you.  They found that final construction costs averaged 207 percent of projected costs.  Hence, a doubling of construction costs is probably more likely than not once a project is underway … if past is prologue.

The upshot is that there are many more efficient ways to respond to greenhouse gas emission constraints than to go on a nuclear power bender.  This observation is heresy on the Right, but almost every credible analysis of the matter backs up that observation.

The second argument one hears to justify federal loan guarantees is that they are necessary to counter-balance the excessive regulatory costs associated with new plant construction.  Now, put aside the fact that the Nuclear Energy Institute – the trade association of the nuclear power industry – has often expressed near-total satisfaction with the current federal regulatory regime.  If the regulatory regime is truly “bad” and, accordingly, is imposing steep and unnecessary costs on the industry, then the correct remedy is to improve said regulatory regime, not to subsidize the industry.

The counter-complaint that positive regulatory reforms are impossible is difficult to swallow.  After all, if there is sufficient political will to bestow tens of billions of dollars worth of tax money on this industry, then surely there is enough political will to reform the bad and unnecessarily costly regulations allegedly bedeviling the object of those very same legislative affections.

I will confess to being skeptical about the argument that high construction costs are largely the fault of regulators.  Building a light water breeder reactor is a technologically challenging and costly undertaking whether regulators are on the scene or not.  Moreover, it is not obvious to me that the regulations that are in place are a priori objectionable from a libertarian perspective.

One rarely, if ever, hears of particulars in this bill of complaint offered about nuclear regulation.  But if a persuasive bill of complaints is ever presented, then the appropriate response is regulatory reform and then to leave the decision to build or not to build to markets.

In the course of announcing these loan guarantees, President Obama said this week that “The fact is, changing the ways we produce and use energy requires us to think anew. It requires us to act anew.”  Well, there’s nothing new about throwing subsidies at nuclear power.  Economist Douglas Koplow calculates that federal nuclear subsidies have totaled $178 billion from 1947-1999.  The promise of a nuclear economy with rates too cheap to meter has been made for over half a century.  What would be new would be a policy of “just saying no” to industries with their hands out in Washington.

[Cross-posted at MasterResource]