Archives: October, 2012

Live Blog of the Second Presidential Debate

Join us Tuesday, October 16th at 8:45 PM ET for live commentary during the second presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

Tweet questions during the debate to the live blog participants below:

Follow the Twitter list of all live blog participants here (updated). You can also join the conversation with the hashtag #Debate and by following @CatoInstitute and @CatoFP.

A Dan Mitchell Debate Fantasy

In this modern era where we’re all supposed to share our innermost thoughts, I’ve openly discussed my fantasies.

I confessed to the world, for instance, that I have a fantasy that involves about one-half of the adults in America. And I’ve also admitted to a fantasy involving Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Now I’m fantasizing about something new, and it’s all the fault of the Cato Institute. In a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, I have to watch tonight’s presidential debate in order to add my two cents to Cato’s live-blogging of the clash between Obama and Romney.

That got me thinking about some of my least-favorite episodes from past debates, and this moment from 1992 is high on my list (I had to watch that debate because my then-wife worked for the Bush Administration and I had to offer some insincere moral support).

The clip is a bit over three minutes, but it will only take a minute or so to see why this was such an unpleasant segment.

Here’s my latest fantasy. If there’s a similar question tonight, I hope either Romney or Obama gives the following response:

I’m not your daddy and you’re not my child. I’m running to be the President of the United States in order to oversee the legitimate executive branch responsibilities of the federal government. And I hope to reduce the burden of government to give you opportunities, not to take care of your needs. You’re an able-bodied adult. Take responsibility for your own life and provide for your own needs.

But I don’t expect my fantasy to get fulfilled. If a question like this is asked, both Obama and Romney almost surely will express sympathy and support.

The good news is that there have been a few politicians in American’s history who have been willing to say the right thing. Here’s a quote from Barry Goldwater that warms my heart.

I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. … I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.

The bad news is that he got his you-know-what kicked in the 1964 election.

On the other hand, America did elect a president who said during his inauguration that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

And a 2011 poll showed that Americans—unlike their European counterparts—do not believe it is government’s job to guarantee that “nobody is in need.”

In other words, Julia, the fictional moocher woman created by the Obama campaign, is not representative of America. At least not yet.

France to Ban School Homework

Let’s say that you are a newly-elected French president and you have a lot on your plate. The unemployment rate is 10.2 percent and youth unemployment hovers around 23 percent. The budget deficit is 4.5 percent of the GDP and the explicit national debt 90 percent of the GDP. Your economy is at a standstill and your currency is on the verge of collapse. Many of your most productive people wonder if they should pack up and leave, because you have just asked them to fork over 75 percent of their earnings to the taxman. Your popularity is shrinking faster than you can say sacre bleu! So, what do you do?

Easy. You switch the subject and start talking about something completely different …  even if it is, well, a little crazy.

Thus, “French President François Hollande has said he will end homework as part of a series of reforms to overhaul the country’s education system. He doesn’t think it is fair that some kids get help from their parents at home while children who come from disadvantaged families don’t.”

Better that all children suffer, so long as they suffer equally. Equality of misery—that pretty much sums up socialist mentality everywhere.

Cuba Lifts De Facto Travel Ban … Maybe

In a move expected for over a year, the Cuban government announced today that, starting January 13th, it will lift the travel ban it imposed on its citizens since 1961. This is certainly not an official travel ban. Cubans are allowed to leave the island as long as they get an exit visa and have a letter of invitation from the country they want to visit. But in practice, only few Cubans get the exit visa—and most of them, if not all, are sympathetic to the regime. Well known dissents like Yoani Sánchez are repeatedly denied their exit visas despite having invitation letters from abroad. So in practice, it is a travel ban on the Cuban people.

What lies behind the decision is up for debate. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the economic “reforms” implemented by the regime in recent years aren’t working. The Economist recently reported that the timid changes announced shortly after Raúl Castro came to power “have indeed paused.” Exactly a year ago, I wrote about how the U.S. government registered the first rise in illegal Cuban immigration by sea in 3 years. Given the increasingly tough economic conditions, La Havana might be resorting to the “escape valve” of emigration to ease social discontent.

Or maybe little will change in practice, as has been the case with the much heralded economic reforms. Cubans are required to apply for a passport and, as the official newspaper Granma announced today, the issuance of passports will be denied for several reasons such as:

  1. Defense and national security reasons.
  2. Having a security measure pending.
  3. Having “obligations” with the Cuban government.
  4. Preserving a “qualified” labor force for the development and security of the country.
  5. “Public interest” reasons determined by the authorities.

As we can see, the new restrictions to get a passport are so nebulous and discretionary that in practice it’s very likely that the Cuban government will continue to prohibit most of its people from traveling. Thus, it’s better to wait and see if the restrictions are actually lifted and Cubans are allowed to travel abroad more or less freely. If that happens, a new dynamic will enter into play that might accelerate (or delay) the implementation of further political reforms.

Newsflash: Politicians Pander to Agriculture!

The American Soybean Association (ASA) recently asked each of the presidential candidates to respond to a series of questions about agricultural policy issues. The questions covered farm bill and crop insurance, estate tax, biodiesel, biotechnology, trade, research, regulations, and transportation and infrastructure. The candidates’ responses (full text here) were not exactly models of courageous and principled policymaking.

I won’t parse the entire thing, as it is just too depressing and some of the issues (e.g., the estate tax) fall outside my area of research. But I will comment on a couple of the topics.

On subsidies and crop insurance, both candidates pledged to support passage of the farm bill, and the crop insurance and disaster provisions it contains. Mr Romney—no Senator John McCain in this area, at least—went on to make a broader statement about his philosophy on farm supports:

On the broader question of farm programs, we must be cognizant that our agricultural producers are competing with other nations around the world. Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don’t ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interest is achieve [sic] a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.

Ugh. That is a monumentally awful statement. First, not all nations subsidize their farmers. New Zealand and (not to brag) Australia, for example, subsidize their farmers very little, and in very minimally distorting ways, and yet their agricultural  exports generally are thriving. They compete with other agricultural exporters because they try to be the best they can be given their natural resource endowments, research, experience, and human capital.  Second, the caution against unilaterally changing policies is, of course, ubiquitous in many trade policy statements (see, e.g., Ex-Im Bank, manufacturing, reducing tariffs generally). It is also economically insane to enact bad policies because other countries do so. Especially when it is becoming clear that other large agricultural subsidizers (e.g., Japan and the EU) are not exactly thriving, many and varied though their problems may be.

Third, as for the importance of farm supports in maintaining food independence, that’s also nonsense. As I’ve argued ad nauseum, (e.g., here), subsidies aren’t keeping us well-fed: if food abundance depended on government support, we’d see nothing but so-called program crops (soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, and rice) on supermarket shelves. Judging by the size of my fellow Australians on my last visit home, no-one is starving there despite very little government support for agriculture. By the way, if you want to read some comments from a president who actually knows what he is talking about, read Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s comments in this article, where he calls for lower trade barriers around the world, particularly for food security reasons.

Mr. Romney’s support for the Senate-passed farm bill also is at odds with his statement to the ASA about the importance of open trade. Even putting aside Mr Romney’s typical mercantilist obsession with exports, I wonder if he realizes that the changes proposed in the Senate farm bill would increase the amount of subsidies deemed trade-distorting by the World Trade Organization, putting trade liberalization at risk? U.S. government spending on trade-distorting support, the “worst” kind, is at record lows right now, mainly thanks to higher commodity prices. But even a senior United States Department of Agriculture official admits (paywall) that the proposed changes to farm policy—including a move towards revenue insurance—would likely see that progress eroded:

But Joseph Glauber, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in an interview with Inside U.S. Trade that if either the Senate-passed farm bill or the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee were enacted, that would likely increase the level of U.S. trade-distorting payments.

While stressing that his assessment is preliminary in light of the fact that no legislation has been finalized, Glauber said it is fairly apparent that cutting direct payments and replacing them with either a revenue guarantee program or a price-loss program, as the two legislative proposals envision, would lead to an increase in amber box payments.

In fact, Glauber argued that changing U.S. farm policy along the lines of either of the farm bill proposals could make it more likely that the U.S. exceeds the $7.6 billion cap to which the U.S. informally agreed in the Doha round, especially in those years where commodity prices dip down and subsidy payouts increase.

Pass the farm bill, in other words, and multilateral liberalization efforts get more difficult.

Finally, I note that Mr. Romney also couldn’t resist adding his standard, wrongheaded, and increasingly prominent talking point about “vigorously enforcing” U.S. trade law, and catching cheaters (plenty of blog posts by my colleagues on this topic can be viewed on this blog). I wonder if he realizes that the United States itself has been caught breaking the rules of agricultural trade, and how hypocritical his statements about farm subsidies and trade are in that context? Plenty of damage, and retaliation, has been unleashed because of various ways the U.S. government conducts its affairs in agriculture.

So, in short, there is not much to like in either candidate’s statements, with Mr. Romney deserving special opprobrium because of his professed free-market, limited government principles. But we knew that.

21st Century U.S. Trade Policy Should be Pro-Market, not Pro-Business, Pro-Labor, or Pro-Lobbyist

The difference between the trade policy we have today and the trade policy we should have is like the difference between crony capitalism and free-market capitalism. The sausage grinder that is U.S. trade policy serves politicians and rewards lobbyists and gate-keeper bureaucrats, who have the gall to presume entitlement to limiting Americans’ options and picking winners and losers.

In a country that exalts freedom, the default trade policy should be free trade. But it’s not. Why?

The public has been trained to accept that special interests—companies seeking exemptions from competition; unions demanding that citizens ”Buy American”; investors and intellectual property holders demanding the U.S. public assume part of its business risks; enviros insisting on measures that punish developing countries for being poor—are rightly entitled to negotiate, abridge, impair, or sacrifice those freedoms in the name of Team USA.

So how are we free if decisions about how, with whom, and how much we transact with foreigners are decided by parties in Washington, who profit from denying us that freedom?

Trade policy should be about maximizing the freedom of Americans to choose, and distinctly not about bestowing certain advantages on particular companies, industries, or special interests. Trade policy should be about maximizing opportunities for Americans as consumers, workers, and investors, and not about impeding those opportunities.

In a globalized world where businesses are mobile and, ultimately, untethered to a homeland, what is the point of policymakers going to bat for U.S. producers? Usually, policies adopted to assist particular companies or industries handicap or subvert companies and industries upstream or downstream in the supply chain, or in other sectors. What even defines a U.S. producer anymore? GM builds more vehicles in China than it does in the United States.  Should Washington and Beijing both claim GM as national treasures and craft policy to serve its needs?

No. Policy should be neutral with respect to the goals of particular companies and industries, and designed to attract investment and human capital, and to maximize opportunities for Americans to partake of the global economy. Trade policy should be about ensuring certainty and eliminating policy-induced frictions in supply chains. As I wrote in this article (21st Century Economy Deserves Better Than 16th Century Trade Policies), which expounds upon the thoughts in this post:

This 21st century economic reality demands better than trade policies rooted in 16th century mercantilist dogma. It demands policies that are welcoming of imports and foreign investment, and that minimise regulations or administrative frictions that are based on misconceptions about some vague or ill-defined “national interest”.

The Latest Nobel Prize in Economics… Why It Should Make Us Sad

The latest Nobel Prize in economics has been awarded to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley. They’ve done brilliant work on algorithms for optimally matching pairs of things (such as job vacancies and job seekers), but at least one prominent application of their work should produce a deafening roar of foreheads hitting desktops: public school choice.

As the Nobel organization’s website explains, the original algorithm was developed by Shapley and David Gale to optimally match pairs of individuals who could only each be matched with one other person. For instance, optimally marrying-off 10 men and 10 women based on their relative levels of interest in one another. Over the past decade, it has come to be used to match students to places in local public schools (by Roth).

The problem is that this approach to “school choice” correctly assumes that the better public schools have a fixed number of places and cannot expand to meet increased demand. So it’s about finding the least-awful allocation of students to a static set of schools—a process that does nothing to improve school quality.

Meanwhile, there is something called a “market” which not only allows consumers and producers to connect, it creates the freedoms and incentives necessary for the best providers to grow in response to rising demand and crowd-out the inferior ones. It also provides incentives for innovation and efficiency. But instead of advocating the use of market freedoms and incentives to improve education, some of our top economists are spending their skill and energy tinkering with the increasingly inefficient, pedagogically stagnant status quo.

Forehead… meet desk.