Archives: May, 2013

A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Political Bloviation in Doha, Qatar

The 13th Doha Forum has convened, with your loyal correspondent in attendance. It is an impressive gathering, filling the luxurious Ritz-Carlton. Cars are checked for bombs before approaching the hotel. Guests have to go through a metal detector both entering the hotel and inside heading to the conference. The meeting room was full, with just about every citizen of Qatar (who only make up something like 15 percent of the population) seeming to line the hallway before the Emir arrived.

There are few more tragic figures than onetime national leaders who have fallen away from the centers of power. For instance, after the Qatar royals, who still do matter, opened the gathering, to the stage strode a frustrated former British prime minister trying to remain relevant. The Right Honorable Gordon Brown, who finally grabbed the premiership from his frenemy Tony Blair only to lose it in the 2010 election, twice quoted John F. Kennedy while chattering on about the importance of interdependence.

Brown also urged the creation of a North African-Middle Eastern development bank to promote economic growth in such nations as Egypt—which, he failed to note, has been buried in foreign aid for years without generating economic growth. The former PM was introduced as preventing a new Great Depression (who knew!) and later lauded for his “profound” ideas (apparently defined as previously advanced by his hosts in Qatar).

Francois Fillon, a former prime minister of France, followed, telling us that we needed to solve the Syrian conflict, create a Middle Eastern financial institution, and “defend European civilization,” whatever that means. The moderator declared his ideas to be “fascinating” and his mention of Europe to be an example of “self-reflection.”

Amadou Bondou, the vice president of Argentina—which has made a practice of looting the productive and stealing people’s retirement savings—denounced austerity. These policies are having “negative repercussions” on poor people, he complained. No doubt, they are. However, if you have a wild party, you can’t very well expect everyone else to pay the clean-up costs. Next time countries, especially his own, should think before blowing their budgets to enrich favored interests and win votes.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, concluded the first session with a discussion about the importance of solving the Syrian conflict. He suggested a comprehensive conference to end the fighting and conduct of proxy wars in the region. Alas, what evidence is there that the parties are prepared to settle or that their backers are prepared to stay out? He also urged more humanitarian assistance for Syrians. He worried that if the Europeans fail to give more aid they may be left with no friends at all in Syria. Given the way that conflict is going, why would that be such a bad thing? Trying to make friends is about the dumbest reason one can imagine for getting involved in such a war.

Well, that’s the start here in Doha. I just can’t wait for additional “fascinating” observations from more “profound” thinkers like Messrs. Brown, Fillon, Bondou, and Ischinger!

Apple Defends Itself against Tax-Hungry Senators

A Senate Subcommittee chaired by Senator Carl Levin heard from three panels of witnesses today on Apple Inc.’s corporate tax payments.

Democratic senators and some news stories are making it sound like some vast tax cheating has been going on, but that’s not what the hearing actually revealed. My sense in listening for four hours is that Apple pretty well does what many or most U.S. multinationals do to legally minimize their tax payments on foreign income. No one at the hearing said the company is doing anything illegal.

The basic story seems to be that Apple uses a holding company to gather all the after-tax profits from its sales outside of the Americas. Those sales may or may not be subject to tax in the countries where they occur, but that first layer of tax is up to those particular countries. The holding company is apparently not taxed as an entity in any country, but Apple says that its investment earnings are taxed in the U.S. to the Apple parent company.

The purpose of Apple’s corporate structure that the senators focused on seems to be to avoid double-taxation of its foreign earnings. That goal makes sense because the U.S. is one of few major countries left that does not have a territorial corporate tax system. Essentially, Apple and many other companies are trying to create a home-made territorial tax system so that they can remain competitive in foreign markets. Thus, they are doing the job that Congress should have done in reforming the U.S. international tax system.

Note that Apple holds such a big pile of cash abroad in a holding company mainly because the U.S. applies such a high corporate tax rate to profit repatriation. A major goal of tax reform is to slash America’s absurdly high corporate tax rate so that companies can bring home their piles of foreign cash and invest it here. With such a reform, the issue of whether or not investment earnings of foreign holding companies were taxed would become far less important.

Four Reasons to Applaud Apple’s Tax Planning

The Senate is holding a Kangaroo Court designed to smear Apple for not voluntarily coughing up more tax revenue than the company actually owes.

Here are four things you need to know.

Apple is fully complying with the tax law. There is no suggestion that Apple has done anything illegal. The company is being berated by politicians for simply obeying the law that politicians have enacted. What’s really happening, of course, is that the politicians are conducting a show trial in hopes of creating an environment more conducive to tax increases on multinational companies (this is in addition to the OECD effort to impose higher tax burdens on multinational firms).

It is better for Apple to retain its profits than it is for politicians to grab the money. If Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and the rest of the crowd in Washington are able to use this fake issue as an excuse to raise taxes, the only thing that changes is that the tax system becomes more onerous and politicians have more money to spend. Neither of those results are good for growth, particularly compared to the potential benefits of leaving the money in the productive sector of the economy.

Apple shouldn’t pay any tax to the IRS on any of its foreign-source income. A few years ago, Google was criticized for paying “only” 2.4 percent tax on its foreign-source income, but I explained that was 2.4 percentage points too high. Likewise, when Apple earns money overseas, that should not trigger any tax liability to the IRS since the income already is subject to all applicable foreign taxes (much as, say, Toyota pays tax to the IRS on its US-source income). Good tax policy is based on the common-sense notion of “territorial taxation,” which means governments only tax income and activity within their national borders. Unfortunately, the American tax system is partially based on the anti-competitive policy of “worldwide taxation,” which means the IRS gets to tax income that is earned – and already subject to tax – in other nations. Fortunately, we have a policy called “deferral,” which allows companies to postpone this second layer of tax.

If Apple is trying to characterize US-source income into foreign-source income, that’s because the US corporate tax system is anti-competitive. Multinational companies often are accused of “abusing” transfer-pricing rules on intra-company transactions to inappropriately turn US-source income into foreign-source income. To the extent this happens (and always with IRS approval), it is because the American corporate tax rate is now the highest in the developed world (and the second highest in the entire world), so companies naturally would prefer to reduce their tax burdens by declaring income elsewhere. So the only pro-growth solution is lowering the corporate tax rate.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Tax Foundation recently estimated that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is 14 percent.

So if the anti-Apple lynch mob actually wants more revenue, they should learn a Laffer Curve lesson and slash the corporate tax rate.*

*I want to maximize growth, not maximize revenue.

The “I-Word” Isn’t a Curse

I’m not convinced that any of the recent scandals roiling the Obama administration constitutes an “impeachable moment,” but, as I argue today in the Washington Examiner, there’s something wrong with a (post-?) constitutional culture where opinion leaders treat the very invocation of the “I-word” as akin to screaming obscenities in a church.

Impeachment talk is “industrial strength insane” says the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky; “serial madness,” per Richard Brodsky at the Huffington Post; Rachel Maddow compares it to incontinence; and for the Atlantic’s Philip Bump, it’s like the inevitable idiot in the comments thread invoking Hitler. True, Salon’s recent listicle of 14 “crazy times” right-wingers have called for Obama’s impeachment consists mostly of frivolous, even loopy proposals; but it also includes Bruce Fein’s 2011 call to impeach Obama “over the military intervention in Libya, alleging that it violated the Constitution’s mandate that only Congress can declare war.” Crazy talk!

Also in the Atlantic, “communitarian” godfather Amitai Etzioni moans “I see no way to protect the president and all of us from the second term curse” in a piece titled, “Why It Should Be Harder to Impeach a President.“ 

Harder”? A “reality-based” communitarian Etzioni ain’t. In our 224-year constitutional history, we’ve only managed the feat twice—three times if you count Nixon, who resigned before the full House got to vote. How much harder can it get?

And when did calling for—even musing about—a president’s impeachment become a form of secular blasphemy—the American version of Lèse-majesté

Given what the mid-’70s Church Committee hearings revealed about presidential abuses of power, at a minimum, all three presidents of the ’60s deserved to be impeached and removed from office. Of the seven presidents since Nixon, I can make a case for impeaching at least four.

As Ben Franklin put it at the Philadelphia Convention, the impeachment power is “the best way… to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive when his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal when he should be unjustly accused.”

Our problem isn’t too many impeachments, but too few.   

Who’s Afraid of School Profits?

Should there be a separation of school and profit? Many opponents of education reform seem to think so.

Case in point, a blog post at the Washington Post yesterday decried “outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.” Setting aside that the vast majority of private schools are nonprofit, the author apparently misses the fact that parents choose to send their kids to these schools. (Does it make sense to complain that other businesses are profiting “on the backs” of their paying customers?) In order to persuade parents to switch to private schools, they must offer parents something that the free-to-attend government schools do not. Even when a school choice program covers the full cost of private school tuition, the parents would merely be financially indifferent. To motivate parents to choose something other than the default government school option, private schools still must offer something better.

Moreover, it is absurd to think that profit—in the sense of financial gain—is limited only to the for-profit sector. Do teachers, principals, and other school staff from janitors to bus drivers “profit” from their salaries or wages? What of the profits made by the corporations that publish the textbooks that students read? Or construct school buildings? Or manufacture desks, whiteboards, pens, pencils, and playgrounds? Whether government- or privately-run, nearly every adult involved in the formal education process is earning a “profit” short of the parents who volunteer to chaperone the high school dance.

Those who denounce “profits” in education simply don’t understand the role of profits in a market. Perhaps they are confused because in the government-run education system with which they are familiar, there is little connection between financial gain and meeting the needs of students. In a competitive market, by contrast, profits (and, just as importantly, losses) provide valuable information. As explained in Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast’s excellent book, Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary):

In a capitalist economy, profits are the reward earned by firms that maximize the quality of services and goods, minimize overhead and bureaucracy, motivate their workers to achieve high and consistent levels of productivity, and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Successful firms sell better, cheaper, or better and cheaper products and services than do other firms. Customers notice, and business gradually shifts from inefficient to efficient firms. […]

Low-performing government schools don’t gradually lose customers and face the threat of closure, the way an inefficiently run business does. As a result, there is little urgency for reform. Their assets do not move from the control of those who have misused them into the hands of others who could do a better job. (Pages 98-9)

In our existing education system, only the financially well-off can afford to live in the expensive districts with high-performing government schools or to pay for private schooling. Without school choice programs, low-income families are locked out of these markets. Instead, their only option is the local, assigned, government school. If I blogged for WaPo, I might say that these underperforming schools are built on “the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

Cato’s “Deepbills” Project Advances Government Transparency

It’s not the culmination–that will come soon–but a major step in our work to improve government transparency has been achieved. I’ll be announcing and extolling it Wednesday at the House Administration Committee’s Legislative Data and Transparency conference. Here’s a quick survey of what we’ve been doing and the results we see on the near horizon.

After president Obama’s election in 2008, we recognized transparency as a bipartisan and pan-ideological goal at an event entitled: “Just Give Us the Data.” Widespread agreement and cooperation on transparency has held. But by the mid-point of the president’s first term, the deep-running change most people expected was not materializing, and it still has not. So I began working more assiduously on what transparency is and what delivers it.

In “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” (Sept. 2011), I articulated ways the government should deliver information so that it can be absorbed by the public through the intermediary of web sites, apps, information services, and so on. We graded the quality of government data publication in the aptly named November 2012 paper: “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.”

But there’s no sense in sitting around waiting for things to improve. Given the incentives, transparency is something that we will have to force on government. We won’t receive it like a gift.

So with software we acquired and modified for the purpose, we’ve been adding data to the bills in Congress, making it possible to learn automatically more of what they do. The bills published by the Government Printing Office have data about who introduced them and the committees to which they were referred. We are adding data that reflects:

- What agencies and bureaus the bills in Congress affect;

- What laws the bills in Congress effect: by popular name, U.S. Code section, Statutes at Large citation, and more;

- What budget authorities bills include, the amount of this proposed spending, its purpose, and the fiscal year(s).

We are capturing proposed new bureaus and programs, proposed new sections of existing law, and other subtleties in legislation. Our “Deepbills” project is documented at cato.org/resources/data.

This data can tell a more complete story of what is happening in Congress. Given the right Web site, app, or information service, you will be able to tell who proposed to spend your taxpayer dollars and in what amounts. You’ll be able to tell how your member of Congress and senators voted on each one. You might even find out about votes you care about before they happen!

Having introduced ourselves to the community in March, we’re beginning to help disseminate legislative information and data on Wikipedia.

The uses of the data are limited only by the imagination of the people building things with it. The data will make it easier to draw links between campaign contributions and legislative activity, for example. People will be able to automatically monitor ALL the bills that affect laws or agencies they are interested in. The behavior of legislators will be more clear to more people. Knowing what happens in Washington will be less the province of an exclusive club of lobbyists and congressional staff.

In no sense will this work make the government entirely transparent, but by adding data sets to what’s available about government deliberations, management and results, we’re multiplying the stories that the data can tell and beginning to lift the fog that allows Washington, D.C. to work the way it does–or, more accurately, to fail the way it does.

At this point, data curator Molly Bohmer and Cato interns Michelle Newby and Ryan Mosely have marked up 75% of the bills introduced in Congress so far. As we fine-tune our processes, we expect essentially to stay current with Congress, making timely public oversight of government easier.

This is not the culmination of the work. We now require people to build things with the data–the Web sites, apps, and information services that can deliver transparency to your door. I’ll be promoting our work at Wednesday’s conference and in various forums over the coming weeks and months. Watch for government transparency to improve when coders get a hold of the data and build the tools and toys that deliver this information to the public in accessible ways.