Archives: December, 2010

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Taxpayers received a rare, albeit small and temporary, victory when a pork-laden omnibus bill died in the Senate. We’re now about to find out how serious Republicans are about cutting spending.
  • Chris Edwards looks at breastfeeding and argues that bigger isn’t better when it comes to subsidies.
  • “The nearest earthly approach to immortality is a bureau of the federal government.”
  • Former President George W. Bush defends his abysmal spending record in his book Decision Points. Upon further review, perhaps the book should be retitled Deception Points.
  • A new Cato essay discusses the problems of the U.S. Postal Service and concludes that taxpayers, consumers, and the broader economy would stand to gain with reforms to privatize the USPS and open mail delivery up to competition.

CBO on Fannie, Freddie and Mortgage Finance Options

Just in time for the holidays, the Congressional Budget Office has released its analysis of the costs and benefits of various alternatives to our current system of mortgage finance, particularly the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The report examines three possibilities:

  1. A hybrid public/private model in which the government provides explicit guarantees on privately issued mortgages or MBSs;
  2. A fully public model in which a wholly federal entity would guarantee qualifying mortgages or MBSs; or
  3. A fully private model in which there would be no special federal backing for the secondary mortgage market.

The report doesn’t really push one option over another, but simply lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.  Some highlights worth keeping in mind as the debate continues into the new year:

“Relying on explicit government guarantees…would also have some disadvantages…If competition remained muted, with only a few…firms participating in the secondary market, limiting risk to the overall financial system and avoiding regulatory capture could be difficult…federal guarantees would reduce creditors’ incentive to monitor risk. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices and would most likely end up imposing some cost and risk on taxpayers. In addition, a hybrid approach might not eliminate the frictions that arise between private and public missions.”

“Privatization might provide the strongest incentive for prudent behavior on the part of financial intermediaries by removing the moral hazard that federal guarantees create.  By increasing competition in the secondary market, the privatization approach would reduce the market’s reliance on the viability of any one firm. Private markets may also be best positioned to allocate the credit risk and interest rate risk of mortgages efficiently, and they would probably be more innovative than a secondary market dominated by a fully federal agency. Further, privatization would eliminate the tension between public and private purposes inherent in the traditional GSE model.”

It is worth remembering that over the years, the CBO has actually been quite strong in warning against the dangers of the GSE model.  Sadly Congress simply chose to ignore those warnings.  Here’s hoping that the CBO has little more influence on this issue than they’ve had in the past.

Free Trade’s “Peace Dividend”

“Peace on earth, good will toward men” is a phrase we associate with the Christmas season. One bit of good news that you will probably not see in the newspaper or on cable TV over the holiday is that the world in recent decades has actually been moving closer to that ideal, and free trade and globalization have played a role.

In its latest “Trade Fact of the Week,” the pro-trade Democratic Leadership Council reminds us that “The world has become more peaceful.”

Citing a recent report from the Human Security Center in British Colombia, the DLC memo notes that wars are less frequent and less bloody than in decades past. The average annual death toll from armed conflicts has been declining since the 1950s, from an average of 155,000 down to 17,000 in 2002-2008. None of the world’s “great powers” have clashed since the 1969 border conflict between Russia and China, and none of the major European powers have exchanged fire for 65 years—-the longest intervals of peace for centuries.

In Chapter 8 of my 2009 Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, I describe this phenomenon as “Free Trade’s ‘Peace Dividend’” (pp. 140-143). There are two main ways that globalization promotes peace: The growing network of global trade and investment has raised the cost of war, so that now if two nations go to war, they not only lose soldiers and tax dollars, they also lose markets and cause lasting damage to their economies. Globalization has also reduced the spoils of war by allowing people to acquire resources through peaceful exchange rather than conquest.

The DLC Trade Fact memo shares the credit with decolonization, the end of the Cold War, the spread of democracy, and peacekeeping missions, while also recognizing the contribution of economic openness:

[L]ower trade barriers, more open economic policies, more efficient logistics industries and better communications technology speed up and deepen integration across borders through trade and investment, strengthening mutual interests and reducing reasons for conflict. The [Human Security Center] report suggests that a 10 percent increase in FDI reduces a nation’s chance of international or civil war by about 3 percent, and that globalization reduces the reasons a country might want to fight:

“[T]he most effective path to prosperity in modern economies is through increasing productivity and international trade, not through seizing land and raw materials. In addition, the existence of an open global trading regime means it is nearly always cheaper to buy resources from overseas than to use force to acquire them.”

Eliminating all remaining trade barriers would be one of the best Christmas presents our politicians could give us.

Recommended Reading

Assorted media clips worth catching up with over the holiday:

  • You’ve probably seen the ongoing scandal about how local officials used the southern California city of Bell to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense. A Los Angeles Times investigation finds that the city was milking small tradespeople too: “Legal experts point to a lack of due process and judicial oversight in hundreds of ‘civil compromises,’ in which plumbers, carpet cleaners and bottle-gatherers paid up to $1,000 for alleged code violations.”
  • “To get the check, you’ve got to medicate the child”: a horrifying Boston Globe series exposes how the incentives created by the federal SSI dependent disability program result in the overdiagnosis of disability among school-age kids. The result can be lifelong dependency, especially when grown kids realize that entering the labor force would make their families worse off by losing the “disability money.” [first, second, third parts, more]
  • A U.S. Congressman ousted by Ohio voters in last month’s election is suing a PAC that campaigned against him, saying its unfair ads deprived him of his “livelihood” [Cincinnati Enquirer, Politico]
  • The supposedly poisoned town of Hinkley, Calif., made famous by the Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich, turns out to have cancer rates a bit below the average, a new epidemiological study finds [more];
  • Aside from the morality aspects, there are really good reasons not to steal a meerkat (via).

Are Republicans to the Right of Pat Robertson?

On his “700 Club” program this week, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson endorsed the decriminalization of marijuana. He says, “We’ve got to take a look at what we’re considering crimes. I’m not exactly for the use of drugs, don’t get me wrong, but I just believe that criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot, that kinda thing it’s just, it’s costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people. Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths and come out as hardened criminals. That’s not a good thing.” Check out the video:


Robertson’s comments come a few days after other conservatives, including Ed Meese and Gov. Rick Perry, have joined to encourage new conservative thinking about who should go to jail. Now far be it from me to recommend any policy on the grounds that it’s endorsed by Pat Robertson. But I do have this question for Republican members of Congress: Do you really want to be to the right of Pat Robertson on the issue of marijuana prohibition?

Related: For an interesting look at how socially and economically conservative different Republican presidential candidates are, check out this graphic by Ben Adler at Newsweek. There’s actually some surprising consistency. Mike Huckabee is the least libertarian candidate on economic issues, and exceeded only by Rick Santorum in his un-libertarianism on social issues. Gary Johnson and Ron Paul are most libertarian on both economic and social issues.

Fabricated Myths about War

In front of the White House last Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, were among the 131 people arrested while protesting America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Hedges, a veteran war correspondent, recalls what he was thinking just moments before being arrested:

I was transported in that short walk to places I do not like to go. Strange and vivid flashes swept over me—the young soldier in El Salvador who had been shot through the back of the head and was, as I crouched next to him, slowly curling up in a fetal position to die; the mutilated corpses of Kosovar Albanians in the back of a flatbed truck; the screams of a woman, her entrails spilling out of her gaping wounds, on the cobblestones of a Sarajevo street.

Americans rarely see the horror and savagery of the wars being fought in their name. The public—right or wrong—could care less about war; and our military and political elites have incentives for withholding the realities of war from the public. I don’t like that symbiosis, but it makes sense.

What I find disturbing is the way in which the military’s values of small-unit cohesion—duty, honor, and camaraderie—have been adopted and are now being propagated by popular culture. In the 20th century, cultural narratives merely glorified war and combat. In the 21st century, cultural narratives are being driven by systems directed by war and combat. This “new isolationism” allows the public to hide from war, while enabling the government to devise new justifications for prolonging them.

In these heady days of the holiday season, while you’re buying your niece or nephew that last stocking stuffer or cavorting with co-workers at the annual Holiday party, keep this striking image in mind:

[W]e would drive into towns in Bosnia and find bodies crucified on the sides of barns or decapitated, burned and mutilated. That is why those slain in combat are treated as trophies by their killers, turned into grotesque pieces of performance art.

Hurrah for ‘Draconian’ Education Cuts!

Over at the Daily Kos they’re getting ready to demonize. Some congressional Republicans opposed language in the continuing budget resolution passed yesterday that would fill a shortfall in Pell Grant funding and keep individual grants at their current sizes. By not filling the shortfall, individual grants would get smaller, something that Kos contributor Jed Lewison characterizes as “draconian.” He also suggests that Republican concerns foreshadow mean things to come in next year’s Congress.

Oh please, let this be true!

For far too long, almost anything related to education has seen pretty regular, sizeable funding increases due largely to the  simplistic – and easily demagogued – notion that spending more money on education must be good. Anyone opposing such increases has generally been attacked as a fool or heartless idealogue. But here’s the thing: All this spending has produced little if any discernable good! In higher ed, it has mainly encouraged more and more people to pursue degrees that they either don’t need, can’t handle, or that don’t signify much learning, all while enabling colleges to raise their prices to capture the aid increases! In other words, all the magical thinking about education spending notwithstanding, the evidence strongly suggests that more spending ultimately does little educational good while bleeding taxpayers dry and expanding our utterly unsustainable debt.

So let’s get those “draconian” cuts going, and maybe even have an honest discussion of what really happens when government spends on “education.”