Archives: 12/2010

GOP vs. GOP on New START

The major dailies feature dueling op-eds by a number of Republican luminaries pertaining to the New START treaty.

On the side of ratification are Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, James Baker III, Lawrence Eagleberger and Colin Powell in the Washington Post; and Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff Howard Baker in the USA Today.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ed Meese, former Reagan Attorney General, and Richard Perle, a Reagan-era defense official and prominent neoconservative, contend that the agreement impedes efforts to deploy missile defense, and argue that it should be rejected on those grounds. In an additional leap, they summon Ronald Reagan from the grave – though, in fairness, President Obama foolishly did the same. Where Obama claims that Reagan would have supported ratification, Meese and Perle assert that The Gipper would have opposed New START because he was so committed to missile defense as a concept.

I’ll leave it up to readers to decide which side has assembled the more credible voices on matters pertaining to national security. The pro-side of New START today boasts five former Republican secretaries of state (and a leading Republican senator and Reagan White House staffer thrown in for good measure). Plus Bob Gates. Plus Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Adm. Mike Mullen. Plus a slew of retired generals. (I could go on.) The anti-New START forces bring forward a former attorney general and a gentleman who fellow Reagan administration staffer Ken Adelman suspected was an opponent of all arms control agreements. Adelman told author Alan Weisman “Richard had the attitude that no arms control treaty could be good.” Presumably that is still the case.

On the merits of ratification of this particular treaty, I commend this column in The National Interest Online by Cato’s own Benjamin Friedman and MIT’s Owen Cote. As for claims that New START impedes our efforts to deploy strategic missile defense, that piece concludes that the agreement does no such thing. For additional detail on this question, the good people over at the American Security Project have assembled a handy fact sheet.

Although I have given my qualified support to New START in the past, now is the time for a dispassionate and objective assessment of the pluses and minuses, not hyperbolic claims of the harms that would come either from ratification or a failure to ratify.

Battle of the Ilyas II: This Time It’s Personal

Last year, Cato adjunct scholar (and George Mason law professor) Ilya Somin and I engaged in the inaugural “Battle of the Ilyas.”  Tired of being confused for one another – how many D.C. libertarian legal scholars named Ilya S. can there be? – we accepted Josh Blackman’s invitation to compete in a trivia contest whose prize was the exclusive use of the Ilya name.  I won, but my one-year reign expired last week, so it was time for a rematch.

There were two components to this year’s competition, a written quiz based on Judge Danny Boggs’s famed clerkship applicant quiz – worth 75% – and an oral speed round – worth 25%.  (Boggs is a friend of Cato, having given a B. Kenneth Simon Memorial Lecture and contributed to our Supreme Court Review.)  Somin and I completed the written portion right before Thanksgiving and held the oral part during a conference call with Josh last night.  To listen to how it all went down, including the announcement of the overall winner, read and listen here.  And if you’re dying to know without going through all that, see below.

I beat Somin 15-10 in the oral round (3 questions correct to 2), which, when added to my 58-53 lead after the written round, gave me a decisive 73-63 victory.  As I said in the podcast, “it’s good to be king [of the Ilyas].”

Taxes and Uncertainty

It looks like Republicans and Democrats may have made a deal on blocking the tax increases that loom on January 1. No details yet, but reports are that they will extend the current tax rates for one to three years. That means investors and businesses will face continuing uncertainty and the real prospect of a tax increase in one to three years.

Unfortunately, pundits continue to use terms like “extending the Bush tax cuts” or “tax breaks for the wealthy.” In reality, American taxpayers have faced a particular range of personal income tax rates for the past eight years. If the 2001 and 2003 tax laws are allowed to expire, then Americans will see increased tax rates on income, dividends, capital gains, and estates. So the issue is not “tax cuts” or “tax breaks,” it’s whether we should increase taxes in 2011.

And as I noted before, President Obama understands this. He said in mid-November, “I want to make sure that taxes don’t go up for middle class families starting on January 1st.”

The president’s got it right. Taxes are about to go up, and the debate in Congress is whether that’s a good idea. Unfortunately, President Obama does want taxes to go up for business owners, corporate executives, and investors on January 1, the very people whose decisions have the most immediate impact on economic growth and job creation.

And that’s the issue we should be debating: Is it a good idea, especially in a time of continuing high unemployment and slow growth, to raise taxes on investors and entrepreneurs. And even if Congress delays the decision, is it a good idea to leave investors uncertain about what tax rates they’ll face in a year or two?

Let’s hope Congress and the Obama administration soon learns that higher taxes, more regulation, a larger share of GDP shifted to government, fears of Fed monetization of soaring debt — not to mention newspaper reports of Obama budgeteers “flipp[ing] through the tax code, looking for ideas” and threats of “an array of actions using his executive power to advance energy, environmental, fiscal and other domestic policy priorities” — can only discourage employers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Robert Higgs has cited the role of “regime uncertainty” in prolonging the Great Depression, as investors worried about what FDR might do next. Will Wilkinson points to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s saying “businesses want certainty. They need certainty so they can make long-term plans today.” Unfortunately, Will says, “Creating completely irresponsible, economically chilling regime uncertainty would appear to be the basic modus operandi of the Obama administration.” A temporary extension of today’s tax rates, with a continuing threat of a rate hike in a year or two, is entirely in keeping with a regime of uncertainty.

Holiday Gift Recommendations

I decided last year to give a young colleague a post-graduate course in political science and economics — P. J. O’Rourke’s books Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich. So I went to my local Barnes & Noble to search for them. Not in Current Affairs. Not in Economics. No separate section called Politics. I decided to try Borders. But first — to avoid yet more driving around — I went online to see if my local Borders stores had them in stock. Sure enough, they did, in a couple of stores just blocks from the Cato Institute. Checking to see where in the store I would find them, I discovered that they would both be shelved under “Humor–Humorous Writing.” Oh, right, I thought, they’re not books on economics or current affairs, they’re humor.

Yes, P.J. is one of the funniest writers around. But what people often miss when they talk about his humor is what a good reporter and what an insightful analyst he is. Parliament of Whores is a very funny book, but it’s also a very perceptive analysis of politics in a late 20th century democracy. And if you read Eat the Rich, you’ll learn more about how countries get rich – and why they don’t – than in a whole year of econ at most colleges. In fact, I’ve decided that the best answer to the question “What’s the best book to start learning economics?” is Eat the Rich.

On page 1, P. J. starts with the right question: “Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?” Supply-and-demand curves are all well and good, but what we really want to know is how not to be mired in poverty. He writes that he tried returning to his college economics texts but quickly remembered why he hated them at the time–though he does attempt, for instance, to explain comparative advantage in terms of John Grisham and Courtney Love. Instead he decided to visit economically successful and unsuccessful societies and try to figure out what makes them work or not work. So he headed off to Sweden, Hong Kong, Albania, Cuba, Tanzania, Russia, China, and Wall Street.

In Tanzania he gapes at the magnificent natural beauty and the appalling human poverty. Why is Tanzania so poor? he asks people, and he gets a variety of answers. One answer, he notes, is that Tanzania is actually not poor by the standards of human history; it has a life expectancy about that of the United States in 1920, which is a lot better than humans in 1720, or 1220, or 20. But, he finally concludes, the real answer is the collective “ujamaa” policies pursued by the sainted post-colonial leader Julius Nyerere. The answer is “ujaama—they planned it. They planned it, and we paid for it. Rich countries underwrote Tanzanian economic idiocy.”

From Tanzania P. J. moves on to Hong Kong, where he finds “the best contemporary example of laissez-faire….The British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing.”

You could do worse than to take a semester-long course on political economy where the texts are Eat the Rich and Parliament of Whores. So, bookstore owners, leave them in the Humorous Writing section for sure, but also put copies in the Economics, Politics, and Current Affairs sections.

And of course P. J. would want me to mention his brand-new book on American politics, Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards. Buy ‘em all and make it a year-long course.

A Wall Street Journal Column Understates the Size of U.S. Manufacturing

The Wall Street Journal’s December 1 “Ahead of the Tape” column, by Kelly Evans, says “manufacturing is a relatively small part of the economy; It employs about 9% of the work force and accounts for about the same percentage of GDP.” Actually, manufacturing accounts for about 12 percent of nominal GDP.  But that, too, is misleading.  

Chicago Fed economist William Strauss explains why neither U.S. manufacturing’s share of employment nor its share of GDP captures the actual strength of manufacturing:

Between 1950 and 2007 (prior to the severe recession), manufacturing output was just over 600% higher while over the same period growth in real GDP of the U.S. was only a slightly lesser 560%. Yet, the manufacturing share of GDP declined markedly over this period as measured in current dollar value of output. In 1950, the manufacturing share of the U.S. economy amounted to 27% of nominal GDP, but by 2007 it had fallen to 12.1%. How did a sector that experienced growth at a faster pace than the overall economy become a smaller part of the overall economy? The answer again is productivity growth. The greater efficiency of the manufacturing sector afforded either a slower price increase or an outright decline in the prices of this sector’s goods. As one example, inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) averaged 3.7% between 1980 and 2009, while at the same time the rise in prices for new vehicles averaged 1.7%. So while the number (and quality) of manufactured goods had been rising over time, their relative value compared with the output of other sectors did not keep pace. This allowed manufactured goods to be less costly to consumers and led to the manufacturing sector’s declining share of GDP.

Those who imagine “we don’t make anything anymore,” as Donald Trump claims, don’t grasp the magnitude of America’s industrial productivity gains.

In reality, the U.S. is by far the world’s largest manufacturer, with China trailing by 22 percent according to U.N. data for 2008 and arguably much more when we’re not in recession.

On Happiness

The financial crisis and global warming have reinforced an age-old criticism of our traditional ways of measuring wealth, and a number of alternative indexes have been proposed that would instead measure people’s well-being and environmental sustainability.

There are problems with using GDP. It involves an incredible amount of guesswork; and even if it were perfect, it would be bizarre to use production of goods and services as the only yardstick to evaluate our societies. But finding problems is one thing; it is something completely different to find an alternative that is better. Any sort of well-being index would require agreement on what well-being is, and there is a risk that governments would be tempted to find a one-size-fits-all standard and try to make us all wear it.

In a new paper I examine some of the proposed alternatives and they all beg the question about well-being by defining it as the result of the particular kinds of policies that they happen to prefer. Bhutan’s famous National Happiness Index, for example, defines it partly as a strong, traditional culture, and has used it to oppress minorities. And the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, created by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and led by economist Joseph Stiglitz, selectively chooses measures to show that France is richer in relation to the United States than it would otherwise be.

The advantage of GDP is precisely what it has often been criticized for – that it is a narrow and value-free measure. It does not even try to define well-being, and so fits liberal, pluralistic societies in which people have different interests, preferences and attitudes toward well-being. It tells us what we can do, but not what we should do; and since it measures what we can do, it also correlates with most of the things most people want from life: better health, longer lives, less poverty and even happiness. The latest research shows not only that people in rich countries are happier but also that countries grow happier as they become richer.

Read the paper here. Read Will Wilkinson’s Policy Analysis on happiness research here.

Robert H. Frank’s Non-argument for Higher Tax Rates

In The New York Times, Robert H. Frank of Cornell University repeated his perpetual argument that high tax rates on the rich do no harm to demand (not supply) because the rich can just draw down savings, year after year,  to pay more taxes yet maintain a showy lifestyle.   Then he resorts to the old trick of asserting there is no “credible” evidence that tax disincentives and distortions have any ill effects on the economy.

Frank asks, rhetorically, if an increase in top tax rates might reduce economic growth.  And he replies, “There’s no credible evidence that it would.”   This is a timeworn trick among people too intellectually lazy to look for a single academic study or statistical fact.  

As I have shown before, Mr. Frank has a history of abusing bogus statistics culled from dubious sources. 

To simply assert “there’s no credible evidence,” however, is much worse than distorting the facts. 

It amounts to claiming that he has the ability and the right to suppress facts not to his liking. 

Over the past year I have repeatedly cited several major studies showing that pushing the highest marginal tax rates even higher is extremely dangerous to economic growth; Stanford economist Michael Boskin lists half a dozen of them in his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed.   

For Mr. Frank to assert that such studies are not “credible” simply reveals his own inability to find credible evidence to support his own untenable position.