Archives: December, 2010

Cato Unbound: Property, the State, Libertarians, and the Left

Talk between libertarians and the left usually follows one of two scripts, each of which frustrates me.

In the first script, both sides find things that they can safely dislike together – war, eminent domain, small business licensing – while carefully avoiding all the contentious areas. They’re a lot like that recently divorced couple at the Christmas party you’ve just attended, chattering as much as they dare… but mostly about the weather.

In the second script, someone yells “Taxation is theft!” or “You hate the poor!” and it’s not long before someone gets a drink thrown in their face. Perhaps also like that Christmas party you’ve just attended.

If I may say so myself, this month’s Cato Unbound has been quite different. The disagreements have been sharp, but well-informed and polite. (Even the libertarians are disagreeing among themselves; it’s a good sign that our movement isn’t just a set of dogmatic propositions, as some have claimed.)

As readers may already know, the December issue is about the role of property rights in social democracy. Discussants Daniel Klein, David D. Friedman, Ilya Somin, and Matthias Matthijs are arguing about whether social democracy entails the concept of overlordship – that is, the idea that the state must be the final, true owner of all property in a social democracy. If it’s not explicitly and by declaration, then at least it’s implicitly and by inference from its actions.

Klein shows that social democrats were once quite explicit on the point, and did indeed portray themselves as would-be overlords. Today they have to be cagier, but the claim remains logically implicit, he says.

Friedman argues that property has existed without the state, and perhaps even before the dawn of the human race. The state might claim any number of things, but we should judge it by what it actually accomplishes.

Somin suggests that today’s social democrats aren’t really overlords; they’re pragmatists without much in the way of theoretical principles at all.

And Matthijs actually is a social democrat. A proud one, by the look of it. He’s even European! Rights aren’t meaningful unless something enforces them, he argues, and the state does the work we all depend on. In this sense, all rights are artificial; all rights are created by the state. And he’s gamely defending his claims against a barrage of libertarian criticism.

Is your blood boiling? Or are you giggling behind your hand? Either way, grab yourself another egg nog, promise not to throw it at anyone, and go read the discussion for yourself.

Is the Federal Reserve Heading Towards Insolvency?

A recent statement from the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, points out that both rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have dramatically altered the maturity structure of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Normally the Fed conducts monetary policy using short-term Treasury bills, which allows the Fed to avoid most interest rate risk.  In loading up its balance sheet with long-dated Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed has exposed itself to significant interest rate risk.

Recall that the yield, or interest rate, on a long term asset is inversely related to its price.  So if you’re holding a mortgage that yields 5% and rates go up to 6%, then the value of that mortgage falls below par.  The same holds for Treasury securities.  I think  it is a safe assumption that rates will be higher at some point in the future.  When they finally do rise, and if the Fed still maintains a large balance sheet of long-dated assets, those assets will suffer losses.

Of course the Fed is not subject to mark-to-market rules and can avoid admitting losses by holding these assets to maturity.  But if the Fed, at some point in the future, wants to fight inflation, the most obvious way of doing so would be to sell off assets from its balance sheet.  It is hard to see the Fed engaging in substantial open-market operations without using its long-dated assets.  But if it is to sell these assets, it will have to do so at a loss (once again, because of higher rates).

Now the Fed claims to have other avenues by which to tighten, besides open-market operations.  For instance, it can raise the interest rate on excess reserves.  But then this would further erode the value of assets on its balance sheet.  Not to mention that they have to find the money somewhere to pay these higher rates on reserves.

Ultimately the Fed can continue to pay its bills, not out of earnings from its balance sheet, but by electronically crediting the accounts of its vendors and employees, but that would also be inflationary.  The real danger, again pointed out by the Shadow Committee, is that the Fed may avoid raising rates in order to minimize the losses embedded in its balance sheet.  One of the very real dangers from QE1 and QE2 is that the Fed has exposed itself to potential losses that are correlated with any efforts to fight inflation, raising serious questions as to its willingness to fight inflation.

Brian Aitken Pardon Decision Pending

In a recent post I discussed the plight of Brian Aitken, a New Jersey resident currently serving seven years in prison. Thing is, it’s not clear that Aitken broke the law.

Radley Balko produced an excellent write-up of Aitken’s case, and Glenn Reynolds put together a video. Aitken’s conviction is the product of (1) New Jersey’s draconian gun laws; (2) a lack of prosecutorial discretion that should have focused resources on real threats to society; and (3) a judge’s refusal to issue jury instructions on the “moving exception” to New Jersey’s gun laws. The same judge dismissed animal cruelty charges against a police officer that had placed his penis in the mouths of five calves. The judge was serving in a temporary capacity and not reappointed by Governor Christie. This is overcriminalization compounded by incompetence.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said that he intends to make a decision on Aitken’s conviction by Christmas. If you’ve got the time, here is a link to information on joining Aitken’s Facebook campaign for a pardon and a phone number to call the Governor Christie’s office and express your support.

America’s Number One! America’s Number One!…Oops, Never Mind

Sometimes it’s not a good idea to be at the top of a list. And now that Japan has announced a five-percentage point reduction in its corporate tax rate, the United States will have the dubious honor of imposing the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the report in the New York Times.

Japan will cut its corporate income tax rate by 5 percentage points in a bid to shore up its sluggish economy, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said here Monday evening. Companies have urged the government to lower the country’s effective corporate tax rate — which now stands at 40 percent, around the same rate as that in the United States — to stimulate investment in Japan and to encourage businesses to create more jobs. Lowering the corporate tax burden by 5 percentage points could increase Japan’s gross domestic product by 2.6 percentage points, or 14.4 trillion yen ($172 billion), over the next three years, according to estimates by Japan’s Trade Ministry. … In a survey of nearly 23,000 companies published this month by the credit research firm Teikoku Data Bank, more than 44 percent of respondents cited lower corporate taxes as a prerequisite to stronger economic growth in Japan. … A 5 percentage-point tax rate cut is unlikely to do much to solve Japan’s woes, however. An effective corporate tax rate of 35 percent would still be higher than South Korea’s 24 percent or Germany’s 29 percent, for example. … Meanwhile, the government is trying to offset lost tax revenue with tax increases elsewhere, which could blunt the effect of reduced corporate tax burdens.

I suspect the Japanese government’s estimate of $172 billion of additional output is overly generous. After all, the corporate tax rate in Japan will still be very high (the government originally was considering a bigger cut). And foolish Japanese politicians will probably raise taxes elsewhere. But there will be some additional growth since the corporate tax rate is an especially damaging way to collect revenue.

But I’m not losing sleep about Japan’s economic future. I hope they do well, of course, but my bigger concern is the American economy. The U.S. corporate tax rate of nearly 40 percent (including state corporate burdens) already is far too high, particularly since America adds to the competitive disadvantage of U.S.-domiciled firms by being one of the few nations to impose an extra layer of tax on foreign-source income. Japan’s proposed rate reduction, however,  means the high tax rate in America will be an even bigger hindrance to job creation.

It’s also worth noting that the average corporate tax rate in Europe has now dropped to less than 24 percent, so even welfare states have figured out that a high tax burden on business doesn’t make sense in a competitive global economy.

Sometimes you can fall farther behind if you stand still and everyone else moves forward. That’s a good description of what’s happening in the battle for a pro-growth corporate tax system. By doing nothing, America’s self-destructive corporate tax system is becoming, well, even more destructive.

Divided Government on Afghanistan

The Obama administration apparently plans to issue a positive Pentagon review of the war in Afghanistan.  Alas, this assessment evidently is not shared by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Reports the New York Times:

As President Obama prepares to release a review of American strategy in Afghanistan that will claim progress in the nine-year-old war there, two new classified intelligence reports offer a more negative assessment and say there is a limited chance of success unless Pakistan hunts down insurgents operating from havens on its Afghan border.

The reports, one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan, say that although there have been gains for the United States and NATO in the war, the unwillingness of Pakistan to shut down militant sanctuaries in its lawless tribal region remains a serious obstacle. American military commanders say insurgents freely cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan to plant bombs and fight American troops and then return to Pakistan for rest and resupply.

The findings in the reports, called National Intelligence Estimates, represent the consensus view of the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies, as opposed to the military, and were provided last week to some members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The findings were described by a number of American officials who read the reports’ executive summaries.

Obviously, any predictions about the future course of the Afghan war should be taken with a couple shakers of salt.  However, the fact that the U.S. remains at war nine years after intervening suggests that pessimism is the most realistic perspective. 

That certainly was the reaction of Malou Innocent and me after visiting Afghanistan earlier this year.  Even if the military has figured out the best strategy for fighting the Taliban, there is no competent and honest Afghan partner to replace the Taliban.  The Karzai government is as likely to impede as aid Washington’s efforts.  The U.S. cannot afford to sacrifice more lives and money in what has devolved into yet another attempt at nation-building that fails to advance Amerca’s security.

Bill of Rights Day

Since today is Bill of Rights Day, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and consider the condition of the safeguards set forth in our fundamental legal charter.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, insist that they can enact laws concerning television and radio broadcasting, and even pamphlets!

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to keep and bear arms.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners.  This safeguard is doing well–so we can pause briefly here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can treat airline travelers like prison inmates by conducting virtual strip searches and crotch inspections.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for a public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can take away our property and give it to others who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused shall enjoy a speedy trial, a public trial, and an impartial jury trial. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial. That is why 95% of the criminal cases never go to trial.

The Seventh Amendment says that jury trials are guaranteed even in petty civil cases where the controversy exceeds “twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines against people without jury trials.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that jailing people who try in ingest a life-saving drug is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are to be reserved to the states, or to the people.  Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers are reserved to the states, or to the people.

It’s a depressing snapshot, to be sure, but I submit that the Framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the relentless attempts by government to expand its sphere of control. The Framers themselves would often refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers” or what we would describe as “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that putting safeguards down on paper was better than having nothing at all. And lest we forget, that’s what millions of people around the world have — nothing at all.

Another important point to remember is that while we ought to be alarmed by the various ways in which the government is attempting to go under, over, and around our Bill of Rights, the battle will never be “won.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than four million copies of our “Pocket Constitution.” At this time of year, it’ll make a good stocking stuffer.

Finally, to keep perspective, we should also take note of the many positive developments we’ve experienced in America over the years. And for some positive overall trends, go here.  Let’s enjoy the holidays but also resolve to be more vigilant about our liberties in 2011.

Unintended Consequences of Money-Laundering Laws, Cont’d

As Dan Mitchell pointed out this morning, proposals to abolish the $100 bill, on the grounds that it’s too easily used in underground-economy activities such as tax evasion and drug dealing, are another instance in which ordinary citizens are called on to sacrifice convenience and privacy to help in the ever-expanding federal fight against “money laundering.” I’ve long been fascinated by the unintended consequences that arise from these laws, especially from the federal “know your customer” rules under which banks (and increasingly other businesses) are required to pry into their customers’ earnings sources, family relationships, overseas ties and other sensitive matters. Those who cannot furnish satisfactory answers – such as Americans who lack a suitable recent domestic credit record because they have long lived as dependents, overseas, or even as nuns in convents – may find that banks turn them away as customers or even freeze their existing accounts. The same is true of established customers who cannot explain a large or irregular series of cash deposits or remittances from abroad to a bank officer’s satisfaction.

A new example of this has emerged this fall, and it’s embarrassing even by the standards of federal government foul-ups. According to a Foreign Policy report last month, no fewer than 37 foreign governments with embassies in the United States are on the brink of losing, or have already lost, access to the routine banking services they need to pay their staff salaries and keep the lights and heat on in their consulates. The reason? These governments cannot prove to the satisfaction of U.S. banks that their accounts are not potentially open to use for illicit money transfers. From the banks’ point of view, there is no particular benefit to be had from an account which is relatively small in the first place – the countries involved are mostly poorer nations, many in Africa, with small embassy staffs – when these are dwarfed by the paperwork costs and potential legal exposures from a misstep.

The consequences for American foreign interests have already been unpleasant, and will become more so if the problem isn’t fixed. Angola, which saw its accounts closed down by Bank of America, has already had to cancel planned national independence day celebrations and has hinted at retaliation against unrelated U.S. companies that happen to do business in Angola. Extend that sort of anger to 37 countries, and some significant international frictions could result.

Now, I have no doubt that some embassy bank accounts, of smaller and bigger countries alike, are pressed into service for improper or even criminal money transfers. (I always assumed the whole point of “diplomatic pouches” was to transfer things back and forth that the host country would have preferred to stop and inspect). But the odds are near zero, I think, that the latest wave of bank refusals-to-deal was somehow a planned or intended consequence of the original federal calls for wide-ranging bank regulation in the name of money-laundering prevention. How many such unintended consequences will the new Dodd-Frank law turn out to have?