Archives: August, 2013

Good News! U.S. Can Keep Sending $147m (per annum) to Brazilian Cotton Farmers after All

Phew. That was close.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that without a new farm bill to replace the 2008 farm bill, the USDA would not have the authority or the funds to continue paying the $147m per year bribe we had settled with Brazil in 2010 as part of a trade deal. (The fulsome details are available in this blog post, written at the time of the deal, and more about the underlying trade dispute is available in this 2005 policy analysis by Cato Adjunct Scholar Dan Sumner). And without those bribes, Brazil would likely suspend the ceasefire deal and retaliate against U.S. export interests by raising import taxes and suspending its obligations to protect Americans’ intellectual property. So, Mr. Vilsack implied, Congress needs to pass a farm bill now, and include changes to the cotton program that would satisfy the Brazilians and prevent a trade war. 

Well stand down, America, because according to some unnamed trade experts quoted by Inside U.S. Trade today [$], Mr. Vilsack’s analysis is not exactly correct. He may even be lying:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack misconstrued the facts, or was at least misleading, when he claimed last week that the U.S. government will lose the authority on Oct. 1 to continue paying Brazil $147 million annually under a temporary settlement to a World Trade Organization dispute, according to four non-government experts.

The statement, these experts agreed, was clearly aimed at pressuring Congress to pass a new farm bill and thereby resolve the longstanding fight with Brazil over agricultural subsidies…

But a decision on whether to end that authority is clearly within the purview of the administration – not Congress, these experts said. In other words, if the authority is expiring this fall, it is only because the administration has determined internally that it wants it to expire and does not want to continue making the payments, they said…

Spinning Core

I don’t know if it is intentionally being done to promote the Common Core national curriculum standards, or they are honest but failed efforts to objectively describe what the Core is, but recent polling on the Core has been heavily slanted to get pro-Core responses.

Case in point, the newest Education Next public opinion poll, which in the past has offered terrific efforts to compensate for wording in other polls seemingly designed to elicit negative results against school choice. But on Common Core? Just read the question for yourself (#32 on the questionnaire):

As you may know, all states are currently deciding whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math. If adopted, these standards would be used to hold the state’s schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose adoption of the Common Core standards in your state?

First and foremost, that “all states are currently deciding” whether or not to adopt the Core is just incorrect. Some states are contemplating leaving the Common Core, but almost all states decided they would adopt in 2010. Many, of course, did so in a rush to get federal Race to the Top money. Indeed, federal coercion–and the flash adoption it spurred–are two of the biggest objections to the Core, and this question acts like those hugely controversial things simply never happened.

Second, how many people, knowing little else about the Core, are going to oppose something that generically will hold “schools accountable for their performance?” Probably not many. And the fact is the Core does not hold anyone accountable for performance. That would be the role of tests coupled with sanctions, not the Core itself. Core supporters love to bash opponents for attributing to the Core things that do not directly come from it–data mining, squeezing out literature–but seem to have no trouble wrongly attributing positive things directly to it.

It’s no wonder the Education Next pollsters found big support for the Core, but faster rising opposition: Much support likely comes from respondents only knowing what the pollsters tell them, while opposition is almost certainly coming primarily from people who over the last year have become aware of the reality of Core, and don’t like it.

Just as bad as the Education Next poll is the AP-NORC “National Education Survey” that came out a few days ago, though it does furnish one very useful piece of information: more than half of respondents knew “little” or “nothing” about the Core, showing how influential a leading question could be. Unfortunately, then they provided such a question (Q30), saying that “the objective of the Common Core is to provide consistent, clear standards across all states for students in grades K-12.” Who, knowing little to nothing about the Common Core, is going to oppose “consistent, clear standards?” That there is big debate about how consistent and clear they are is in no way indicated in the question, and, not surprisingly, it gets a plurality to say they think the Core will “improve the quality of education.” Perhaps the amazing thing is that it didn’t get a majority to say that.

In the end, whether national standards are a good or bad policy doesn’t have a lot to do with public opinion polls. But wouldn’t it be nice if the polls weren’t obviously slanted toward pro-Core outcomes?

If You Think Smith v. Maryland Permits Mass Surveillance, You Haven’t Read Smith v. Maryland

… and you’re not following developments in Fourth Amendment law.

Jeffrey Toobin is the latest to claim that Smith v. Maryland settles the Fourth Amendment issues around the National Security Agency’s acquisition of data about every call made in the United States. He even links to the text of the decision in a recent blog post.

The majority opinion in Smith did say that people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in phone records, but that rationale is weak, and the facts of Smith are inapposite to the present controversy. I think that’s easily gathered from reading the case with awareness of legal currents.

Here’s what happened in Smith:

On March 5, 1976, in Baltimore, Md., Patricia McDonough was robbed. She gave the police a description of the robber and of a 1975 Monte Carlo automobile she had observed near the scene of the crime. After the robbery, McDonough began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls from a man identifying himself as the robber. On one occasion, the caller asked that she step out on her front porch; she did so, and saw the 1975 Monte Carlo she had earlier described to police moving slowly past her home. On March 16, police spotted a man who met McDonough’s description driving a 1975 Monte Carlo in her neighborhood. By tracing the license plate number, police learned that the car was registered in the name of petitioner, Michael Lee Smith.

The next day, the telephone company, at police request, installed a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the telephone at petitioner’s home. The police did not get a warrant or court order before having the pen register installed. The register revealed that on March 17 a call was placed from petitioner’s home to McDonough’s phone. On the basis of this and other evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search petitioner’s residence. The search revealed that a page in petitioner’s phone book was turned down to the name and number of Patricia McDonough; the phone book was seized. Petitioner was arrested, and a six-man lineup was held on March 19. McDonough identified petitioner as the man who had robbed her. (citations omitted)

End Foreign Aid to Egypt and Stop Underwriting Repression

With dead protesters littering the streets of Cairo, Secretary of State John Kerry’s theory that Egypt’s military rulers “were restoring democracy” isn’t looking very good. The dead won’t be able to vote in the new and improved Egypt.

Instead of acting as the regime’s enabler, the Obama administration should cut off foreign “aid.” If there is influence for Washington to exercise, officials should do so quietly and informally.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy toward Egypt has rarely focused on the Egyptian people. The $75 billion in “aid” was largely a payoff to successive dictators and their military Praetorian Guards. Washington worried about “stability,” not democracy. 

Hosni Mubarak was finally overthrown in 2011. In last year’s presidential election, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi defeated Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik.  The secular liberals were not a factor. 

Morsi failed to establish his organization’s democratic bona fides, and especially to reach out to disaffected Egyptians who only reluctantly backed him. But his opponents were little better, while the Mubarak state remained largely intact and undercut him at every turn.

You Shouldn’t Have to Ask Your Competitors for Permission to Start a Business

Occupational licensing laws make it harder and more expensive for people to get jobs or to create innovative businesses that might not fit into to conceptual box designed by last generation’s regulators. Worse, while these laws are supposed to be about protecting consumers against dangerous or inept practitioners, they’re often exploited by existing businesses to bar newcomers from competing against them.

But these problems are nothing compared to “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity” laws, also called “Certificate of Need” or CON laws. Unlike typical licensing rules, CON laws don’t have anything to do with whether a person is educated or qualified. Instead, they prohibit you from going into business unless you first prove to bureaucrats that a new business is “needed.” And these laws rarely define “need,” or explain how to prove it. Still worse, such laws usually allow existing firms to block a newcomer from staring a competing business. In short, CON laws bar you from going into business until you get permission from your own competitors. (It sounds like something from an Ayn Rand novel, right?)

Last week, Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur and his colleagues at the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a motion with a federal judge in Kentucky asking the court to strike down that state’s CON law for moving companies. The details are here, and they’re telling.

There have been 39 applications for new moving licenses since 2007. Those that were not “protested” by existing moving companies were approved without incident. But in 19 cases,  existing firms did object. And in all of those cases, one of two things happened: either the applicant gave up and abandoned the application, or the government denied it on the grounds that existing moving services were “adequate.” The state never approved an application that was protested by existing firms, no matter what. In one case, an applicant who’d been working for moving companies for 39 years was denied a license in a decision that declared him fully qualified–but said existing companies didn’t need the competition. No wonder Sandefur calls the law “the Competitor’s Veto.”

The Common-Sense Case for Dynamic Scoring

As regular readers know, one of my great challenges in life is trying to educate policy makers about the Laffer Curve, which is simply a way of illustrating that government won’t collect any revenue if tax rates are zero, but also won’t collect much revenue if tax rates are 100 percent. After all, very few people will be willing to earn and report income if the government steals every penny.

In other words, you can’t estimate changes in tax revenues simply by looking at changes in tax rates. You also have to consider changes in taxable income. Only a fool, for instance, would assume that you can double tax revenue by doubling tax rates.

But how do you explain this to the average person? Or, if you want a bigger challenge, how do you get this point across to a politician?

School Choice at the Polls

In a nation with a strong tradition of holding major political contests in years divisible by the number two, politicos are mostly confined to chirping about distant elections during odd-numbered years. The exceptions in the year following a presidential election are New Jersey and Virginia, which hold their gubernatorial elections. In addition, due to the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey will hold a special election to the U.S. Senate. In all three elections, one or both of the major candidates have made school choice an issue. That makes sense because school choice is increasingly popular, especially once implemented. Unfortunately, while the candidates should be commended for promoting school choice policies in general, their specifics leave much to be desired.

Last week, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, unveiled an education plan calling for an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit program (or the creation of a separate program) that would direct funds to students currently attending a failing public school. However, what Virginia’s scholarship tax credit program really needs is the policy equivalent of Extreme Home Makeover to remove unnecessary regulations on private schools, shift administration of the program to the Department of Revenue, increase the credit amount, and expand the uses of the scholarships beyond just tuition. As Andrew Coulson has demonstrated, it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families.