Archives: February, 2013

The Challenges of Negotiating a U.S.-EU Trade and Investment Agreement

A couple months ago on this blog, I set out some views on the possible U.S.-EU free trade agreement that was being discussed.  Things have now progressed a bit, and President Obama has announced talks on a “Trade and Investment Partnership” with the EU.  Reports suggest that the negotiations will begin this summer.

Should we be excited about these developments?  Perhaps a little bit, but overall I maintain the ambivalence I had in my earlier blog post.  I have elaborated on this ambivalence in a Free Trade Bulletin. To summarize, I like all the trade liberalization parts of these talks (lower tariffs, removing barriers to services trade, opening up government procurement), but there are also aspects that take us down a difficult and unclear negotiating path.  One of these aspects is the issue of “regulatory barriers to trade.”  Some people have the idea that there will be great economic benefits if we can harmonize regulation across the U.S. and EU, so that, for example, manufacturers do not have to produce different products for different markets.  I agree that there would be benefits if we could address this problem.  But it won’t be easy to reach agreement here, and there could be some downsides (e.g., if this is a compromise, both the U.S. and EU may have to agree to some regulatory changes that they don’t like).

I’d like to get excited about these talks. But I have some doubts about their scope, and I’m not sure anything will come out of them.

We’ll be talking more about all this at a policy forum here at Cato tomorrow.

Student Essay Contest

Attention high-school and college students: The Moorfield Storey Institute has announced the Vision of Ayn Rand essay contest. Students are invited to submit essays related to issues discussed in the book The Vision of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden.

The book has a fascinating history. For ten years, from 1958 to 1968, Branden delivered lectures on “Basic Principles of Objectivism” at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City and, via tape transcription, to groups in more than 80 cities throughout the United States and abroad. More than 35,000 students attended those lectures. Along with Rand’s books, the lectures helped to create one of the first modern organized libertarian movements. But until 2009, the lectures were never available in printed form. Now they are. Buy the book here.

Back in 2009 I said this in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand’s subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn’t change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may – and should – debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn’t that a time! 

Legislative Data and Wikipedia Workshop—March 14th and 15th

In my paper, “Publication Practices for Transparent Government,” I talked about the data practices that will produce more transparent government. The government can and should improve the way it provides information about its deliberations, management, and results.

“But transparency is not an automatic or instant result of following these good practices,” I wrote, “and it is not just the form and formats of data.”

It turns on the capacity of the society to interact with the data and make use of it. American society will take some time to make use of more transparent data once better practices are in place. There are already thriving communities of researchers, journalists, and software developers using unofficial repositories of government data. If they can do good work with incomplete and imperfect data, they will do even better work with rich, complete data issued promptly by authoritative sources.

We’re not just sitting around waiting for that to happen.

Based on the data modeling reported in “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices,” and with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been marking up the bills introduced in the current Congress with “enhanced” XML that allows computers to automatically gather more of the meaning found in legislation. (Unfamiliar with XML? Several folks have complimented the explanation of it and “Cato XML” in our draft guide.)

No, we are not going to replace the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., quite yet, but our work will make a great deal more information about bills available automatically.

And to build society’s capacity “to interact with the data and make use of it,” we’re hoping to work with the best outlet for public information we know, Wikipedia, making data about bills a resource for the many Wikipedia articles on legislation and newly passed laws.

Wikipedia is a unique project, both technically and culturally, so we’re convening a workshop on March 14th and 15th to engage Wikipedians and bring them together with data transparency folks, hopefully to craft a path forward that informs the public better about what happens in Washington, D.C. We’ve enlisted Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies to help assemble and moderate the discussion. Pete was a key designer of the Wikimedia Foundation’s U.S. Public Policy Initiative—a pilot program that guided professors and students in making substantive contributions to Wikipedia, and that led to the establishment of the Foundation’s Global Education Program.

The Thursday afternoon session is an open event, a Wikipedia tutorial for the many inexperienced editors among us. It’s followed by a Sunshine Week reception open to all who are interested in transparency.

On Friday, we’ll roll up our sleeves for an all-day session in which we hope Wikipedians and experienced government data folks will compare notes and produce some plans and projects for improving public access to information.

You can view a Cato event page about the workshop here. To sign up, go here, selecting which parts of the event you’d like to attend. (Friday attendance requires a short application.)

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Follies

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Carbon dioxide regulations promulgated by the EPA are based upon the assumption that they will actually do something about climate change in the U.S., and that the rest of the world, which had been needling the U.S. for decades of inaction, will now follow our virtuous lead. 

Neither is going to happen.

This Report is based upon just-released data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from the U.S in the last year was the about the same as was emitted in 1994—nearly two decades years ago.  During that time, emissions grew steadily for 14 years, peaking in 2007, and then fell dramatically (Figure 1). The emissions in 2012 were 12% less than those of 2007.

Figure 1. U.S. annual carbon dioxide emissions, 1994-2012 (data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Given this non-trivial decline in carbon dioxide emissions, let’s see how the government’s assumptions are holding up.

Only Doom Without the Denominator

The Obama administration tried to turn the doom-and-gloom up a notch over the weekend, releasing reports on how many employees each state could lose if sequestration isn’t stopped. Teachers were prominently featured, of course, because nothing scares people like the prospect of their kids not getting educated.

“Could” is a crucial word here, because it is entirely possible that savings could be found that would negate the need to dismiss people. For instance, unnecessary purchases could be cancelled, or all employees could take small pay cuts. But suppose worst-case firings did come. How horrific would the education damage be?

It turns out, once you look at the overall staffing picture, not very. Using a compilation of the state reports put together by the Washington Post, as well as Digest of Education Statistics staffing data, we assembled the following table calculating how big a percentage of public school employees in each state would disappear in the worst-case scenario. Unlike the administration, we included the numerator and the denominator.

Why Have a Machine-Readable Federal Government Organization Chart?

When I write and talk about getting better data about the federal government, its activities, and spending, I mostly have in mind strengthening public oversight by bringing computers to bear on the problem. You don’t have to know much about transparency, organizational management, or computing to understand that having a machine-readable government organization chart is an important start.

There should be a list, that computers can process, showing what agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects exist in the federal government and how they are related. Then budgets, bills in Congress, spending programs and actual outlays, regulations, guidance documents, and much more could be automatically tied to the federal organizational units affected and involved.

But it’s not only public oversight that would benefit from such a list.

Mike Riggs at Reason magazine has found that the Office of Management and Budget’s sequestration report issued last September listed a cut to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s budget even though the NDIC went out of business last June.

The first line item on page 121 of the OMB’s September 2012 report says that under sequestration the National Drug Intelligence Center would lose $2 million of its $20 million budget. While that’s slightly more than 8.2 percent (rounding error or scare tactic?), the bigger problem is that the National Drug Intelligence Center shuttered its doors on June 15, 2012–three months before the OMB issued its report to Congress.

That’s embarrassing for the administration, as it should be. Riggs asks, “Might there be other errors in the OMB’s report?”

Getting organized is not just about public oversight. Another reason to have a machine-readable federal government organization chart is to improve internal management and controls. This kind of mistake should be nearly impossible. People at OMB should be able to download the list of government entities at any time, day or night, and be sure that it is the correct listing that uniquely identifies and distinguishes all the organizational units of the federal government at that moment. We should be able to download it, too.

Unfortunately, OMB controller Danny Werfel has been riding the brake on transparency. He and the Obama administration as a whole should be stepping on the gas. In early February, the Sunlight Foundation found that more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending for fiscal year 2011 was misreported on USASpending.gov.

Karzai’s Decree: Get Out!

Just yesterday, after accusing unnamed “armed individuals” of harassing, torturing, and murdering innocent villagers, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai ordered all U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak province, a defensive buffer against insurgents southwest of the capital. Reports on Karzai’s decision have focused on the implications of America’s withdrawal from the “strategically important” province. But U.S. policymakers should leverage the opportunity by rescinding their open-ended commitment to the country and transferring responsibility to the Afghans. 

To be sure, U.S. and coalition forces will face challenges as U.S. combat troops scale back to advisory roles and U.S. Special Forces assert ever greater authority. But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans “running roughshod all around our country.” 

For years, there have been reports that CIA-trained Afghan militias operating beyond the control of the Karzai administration have conducted so-called night raids and captured and killed a number of alleged Taliban commanders—“alleged” because information about those operations remains classified. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Taliban-perpetrated violence in and around the province continues. 

Amid increasing Afghan public anger over foreign misconduct and civilian casualties, the mere suspicion that American commandos condoned such lawless activities (an allegation U.S. officials deny) proved enough to encourage Karzai to expel from Wardak the very foreigners he relies on for his country’s security. As Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said of Karzai’s decision, “local people are blaming the U.S. Special Forces for every incident that is taking place there.” 

That blame-shifting, however warranted, is particularly troublesome, given the reckless behavior of Afghan security forces under U.S. training. BBC reporter Ben Anderson recently documented that Afghan police are also rife with criminality, and show little compunction about firing at enemies when civilians are in the line of fire. Upending the fundamental premise of Washington’s “hearts and minds” strategy, one deputy police commander told Anderson he saw no difference between civilians and the Taliban. 

For these and other reasons far too numerous to mention here, the Afghan government, its police, and armed forces must take full responsibility for the security of their country. Rather than respond with indignation, Washington should take Kabul’s ruling as a blessing. 

Update: A previous version of this post did not include a source for the following passage: “But as someone close to Karzai commented sourly, Afghan officials are tired of Americans ‘running roughshod all around our country.’” The source is the New York Times and the link has been inserted above.