Archives: 01/2013

Obama’s Executive Actions on Guns Better Than His Legislative Proposals

We’re all still digesting what it is the White House’s plan on gun policy is, but here’s my initial assessment, not having gone through what technical language is available.

President Obama’s 23 executive actions generally take positive steps towards stopping gun violence – such as improving the background check system and increasing enforcement of gun crime – though I have federalism or privacy concerns about a few of them.

His legislative proposals, however – banning “assault weapons” and restricting magazines to 10 rounds – are feel-good measures that fail to abide by the principle that should guide any lawmaking in this area: keeping guns out of the hands of those who would do ill while protecting law-abiding citizens’ constitutional rights to armed self-defense.  The guns that the Newtown shooter used, for example, complied with Connecticut’s extremely strict “assault weapon” ban and, in any event, the vast majority of murders are committed with handguns.

On both sets of actions, the devil will be in the details:  How will the relevant executive branch officials and agencies implement the new actions?  Will the proposed “assault weapon” restrictions ban ordinary rifles that simply come with a pistol grip or other cosmetic feature (like the New York law that Gov. Cuomo signed earlier in the week)?  And that’s before we even get to the feasibility of getting anything through Congress or whether the president is willing to negotiate to get at least some of what he wants.

Finally, this national action isn’t the end of the story: our constitutional structure leaves to states most of the power to regulate in this area.  On that score, and befitting a federal system meant to reflect different political preferences, states have been moving in different directions – from allowing concealed-carry to increasing tort liability to posting armed guards in schools.  So long as states and local authorities don’t violate individual Second Amendment rights, the federal government ought to encourage that kind of policy innovation.

See also Tim Lynch’s podcast on Obama’s gun control agenda.

And a Pony…

In a move that should surprise precisely no-one, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest lobby group for agriculture, this week endorsed an “everything for everyone, all the time” approach to farm policy. Meeting at the AFBF’s annual conference, the delegates endorsed an approach similar to the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill. The House bill supporters made a big show of cutting direct payments to farmers, a program that runs at an annual cost of $5 billion, and goes to those who own farmland or former farmland, regardless of whether they still farm. Direct payments have to go, and the farmers know it. The “savings,” however, went to expanding crop insurance; a program that costs U.S. taxpayers$16 billion last year. The House bill also included a new “margin protection” plan for dairy farmers, which would essentially set domestic quotas for milk production and tax any producer who made above quota (an idea that John Boehner rightly said was “even worse” than the current, “Soviet-style” policy).

The bill never made it to the House floor, and in the end the current 2008 farm bill was extended until Septmber 2013 as part of the fiscal cliff deal. The farmers and their congressional supporters were disappointed, to say the least, but they’ve come back swinging.

Via FarmPolicy.com, an article in DTN contains the wish-list, and it’s analogous to the sort of thing I’d present to my parents at Christmastime before I knew better:

“Delegates for the country’s largest general farm organization passed resolutions Tuesday seeking immigration reform while also crafting broad policy language asking for Congress to give farmers a menu of commodity programs.

The group also reaffirmed its support for renewable fuels.”

Farm Bureau members don’t want caps or limits applied for crop insurance premium subsidies to producers… Farm Bureau delegates argued that such a cap would be detrimental to producers.

The group also opposes means testing and payment limitations for crop insurance.

“Farm Bureau supports the development of a revenue insurance program for peanuts and rice. The group also would like to see a risk-management program for forage producers.”

Earlier in the piece we learn that delegates “called on Congress to…tighten the country’s fiscal policies” which is, you know, hilarious given the context. I understand the concept of groupthink, but did anyone in the room feel squeamish about the audacity of calling for fiscal consolidation while asking for handouts?

Farm subsidies are wasteful, anachronistic, expensive, regressive blights on the U.S. economy. It’s well past time to eliminate them.

Obama’s Dismal Record on Jobs, Captured in a Single Chart and Explained with Common Sense

Economists may not agree on much, but we all agree that economic output is a function of capital and labor. Ask a Keynesian, a Marxist, an Austrian, a monetarist, or any economist, and they’ll all agree that living standards are determined by the quality and quantity of these two factors of production.

So it should be very worrisome that there has been a big drop in the share of the population that is employed. Here’s a chart produced from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, showing labor force participation during the 21st Century.

Employment Population Ratio, 2001-2012

There was a big drop during the recession. That’s the usual pattern, and it definitely isn’t something that can be blamed on President Obama since the downturn began before he took office.

Employment Population Ratio, Long RunBut what is unusual is that the employment/population ratio has not bounced back. As you can see from this second chart, taken directly from the BLS website, there’s normally a “V” pattern. The numbers drop during a recession but then quickly bounce back.

Deacons for Defense

Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy:

When Charles “Chuck” Hicks does the Martin Luther King Jr. Day peace and freedom walks Saturday, he’ll also be taking a step for what the National Rifle Association has dubbed “National Rifle Appreciation Day.” That’s because Hicks is the son of Robert Hicks, a prominent leader of the legendary Deacons for Defense and Justice — an organization of black men in Louisiana who used shotguns and rifles to repel attacks by white vigilantes during the 1960s.

“The Klan would drive through our neighborhood shooting at us, shooting into our homes,” recalled Hicks, 66, who grew up in Bogalusa, La., and has been a civil rights activist in the District for more than 35 years. “The black men in the community wouldn’t stand for it. You shoot at us, we shoot back at you. I’m convinced that without our guns, my family and many other black people would not be alive today.”

Hagel’s Common Sense on Cuba

Foes of Chuck Hagel have found another reason to oppose his nomination for secretary of defense: he supported ending the 50-year old embargo on Cuba. Hagel also called the idea that the government in Havana constitutes a terrorist threat to the United States “goofy”, referring to Fidel Castro as a “toothless old dinosaur.” Supposedly, this proves he’s weak and won’t stand up to world dictators when vital U.S. interests are at stake. 

In reality, Hagel belongs to a growing group of conservatives who have come to realize the failure of U.S. policy towards Cuba. This group includes former senator Richard Lugar, who until recently was the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona. Even Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP’s former VP candidate, voted against the embargo the last time it came to a vote in the House in 2005. 

You don’t need to think hard to understand why the embargo and travel ban on Cuba have failed: the Castro brothers are still in power in Havana. Five decades of economic sanctions—the most stringent Washington has imposed on any country—have failed to bring about a democratic transformation of Cuba. Moreover, the embargo has served as a scapegoat to the regime.

Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, a leading dissident in Cuba, has aptly summed up that strategy: “[Castro] wants to continue exaggerating the image of the external enemy which has been vital for the Cuban Government during decades, an external enemy which can be blamed for the failure of the totalitarian model implanted here.” Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez has called the embargo “the regime’s excuse for all its failures” and pointed out that its existence has undermined the work of dissidents on the island. 

Proponents of the embargo (who are now opposing Hagel’s nomination) inadvertently accept this reality. Our friend Frank Calzón, at the Center for a Free Cuba, mentions in the Washington Post several instances when Havana rebutted Washington’s outreach efforts: “Each solicitation has been met with aggressive action.” Why? Perhaps because the Castro regime fears that an end to the embargo and travel ban could weaken its grip on power? 

Ironically, those who argue that national security concerns are reasons to oppose changing U.S. policy towards Cuba ignore that the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office points out that enforcing the embargo and travel ban diverts limited resources from homeland security that could be used to keep terrorists and criminals out of the United States. The GAO report warned that arrival inspections from Cuba intended to enforce the embargo are “straining Customs and Border Patrol’s capacity to inspect other travelers according to its mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens out of the country.”     

It would be naïve to think that ending the embargo will somehow transform Cuba into a democratic society. As long as the Castros are in change, that won’t happen. But it’s equally naïve to believe that there are great benefits and no significant downsides to the current policy. Chuck Hagel doesn’t have a Cuba problem. Just the opposite. He has shown common sense in ending one of Washington’s most anachronistic foreign policies.

New Trade Negotiations on Services

Of all the international trade negotiations being talked about these days, the one I’m most enthusiastic about is on trade in services.  Today, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office notified Congress of the Obama Administration’s intent to enter into negotiations for a new trade agreement on international trade in services, with a group of 20 trading partners.  Brazil, China and India are not participating, which is disappointing, but most other major trading nations are in.  (This is in contrast to many of the narrower bilateral or regional trade agreements under discussion, which create a mess of overlapping agreements.)

It can be frustrating to hear how the U.S. government talks about these initiatives, for example, when they refer to “a new international services agreement to support additional U.S. exports and jobs.”  Producer interests are always put front and center, while consumer interests are ignored.  And they say:  ”The agreement we envision will place a high priority on enabling our service suppliers to compete on the basis of quality and competence rather than nationality.”  Here, I like the general sentiment, but I would simply apply it to service suppliers from foreign countries as well – we should be able to compete there, and they should be able to compete here.  It’s great that U.S. producers will benefit from this agreement, but it’s just as good that U.S. consumers will have additional choices.

In terms of the scope of the agreement, services holds great potential for opening up a variety of new sectors to competition.  Liberalization started much later with services than with goods, so there is more that can be accomplished.  As USTR puts it:  “The agreement must also permit comprehensive coverage of all services, including services that have yet to be conceived.”  In the Internet age, trade in services is now possible in many new sectors.  It would be nice to get as many service sectors covered as possible.

It’s not clear yet which sectors will be the focus.  Let me give two suggestions.  First, there has been a lot of talk recently about online higher education.  In a policy analysis to be published soon, I argue that we should encourage free trade in online higher education, and this new trade in services agreement would be a good place to do it.  And second, I have written about the idea of free trade in health insurance.  I’d love to see that included in these talks.  But those are just two small possibilities, and I look forward to seeing the United States and other governments push to liberalize as many service sectors as possible.

A Cosmetic Gun Law

Last night, the New York Senate passed far-reaching reforms to New York’s gun laws. The law should easily pass the Assembly and then be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Almost assuredly, this law will save no lives and stop no mass shootings. In fact, it may make New Yorkers less safe. 

I invite you to read over the previsions of the law—expanding the definition of already-banned “assault” weapons, banning the sale of magazines that hold over seven rounds, a requirement that licenses be renewed every five years—and ask if there is a single would-be killer out there who would be hampered by such restrictions in a country where he is already surrounded by 300 million guns? It is simply unreasonable to think that any unstable person with plans for mass carnage will be stopped by only having seven rounds per magazine. The Virginia Tech shooter, after all, solved this “problem” by carrying a bag with 19 magazines.

And how could this law make New Yorkers less safe? First, the law will inevitably limit law-abiding citizens’ access to weapons, and those citizens may need those weapons to protect themselves or others from a crime. At minimum, this occurs 108,000 times per year, according to the federal government’s National Crime Victimization Survey, and it likely occurs far more than that (you can read more about defensive gun use in the Cato study Tough Targets).

Second, onerous gun restrictions tend to drive gun purchasers underground. Those black and illicit markets are further expanded by gun-control advocates’ attempts to shame and demonize those who own firearms and enjoy using them in a responsible manner (for example, the recent Gawker exposé publishing the names and addresses of gun owners in New York City, who were blatantly described as “a**holes,” as well as the Journal News publishing similar data for gun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties). Moreover, as J.D. Tuccille recently documented in Reason, evading gun restrictions is not just a national pastime, it is an international pastime. Tuccille writes that there are approximately 58,000 registered gun owners in New York City, but that the Justice Department estimates that there are about 2 million illegal guns in the city. 

Pushing more of the gun trade underground by passing onerous restrictions and creating bureaucratic labyrinths impairs our ability to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.   

Some aspects of the law, such as the requirement that mental health professionals report patients who they believe are likely to harm themselves or others, seem like an honest attempt to prevent dangerous people from having guns. However, the requirement violates the traditional rules of therapist/patient confidentiality, and unfortunately it will likely do more to dissuade people from seeking help out of fear that they may be disarmed by the state.  

Governor Cuomo’s statement—“Enough people have lost their lives. Let’s act”—shows that this law is more an example of the “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done” tendency in politics rather than a carefully considered bill that offers workable solutions to the problem. In many ways, this is the biggest harm of these cosmetic gun laws: lawmakers can pat themselves on the back and incorrectly say, “we saved some lives today” and then move on to other tasks while having done nothing to solve the problem.