Archives: 04/2014

I Thought Liberals Favored Diversity?

Frequent stories in the Washington Post describe failures in federal management and programs (e.g. here and here). There are also frequent stories about efforts to further centralize power in Washington. The ambitions are endless, even though the failures keep piling up.

From a Saturday story on education:

The Obama administration is making a second attempt to regulate the way the country prepares its classroom teachers, saying training programs should be held accountable to improve the quality of K-12 teachers.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that his department will propose regulations for teacher training programs this summer and seek public input in a process that should result in final rules in a year.

Some professions have standardized systems and national exams to ensure consistency … But teacher preparation programs vary from school to school, and each state sets its own licensing requirements. Most programs are run by universities, but some are run by nonprofit groups or school districts. They each have their own standards of admission and completion requirements.

In a nod to democracy, Secretary Duncan says that he will seek “public input” for his new national rules. But ultimately his department intends to bludgeon the education system into conformity with the threat of denying federal funds.

This story is a microcosm of the continual expansion in the federal aid system, which I’ve argued is a main cause of the erosion in American freedoms over the past century. The growth in the aid-to-state system—which has more than 1,100 programs—has undermined efficient, responsive, and frugal government in the United States.

With a track record of failures, wasteful paperwork, and stifling regulations, it is hard to believe that policymakers would want to expand the aid system further. But there is a continually barrage of proposals for increased federal aid spending and top-down regulations coming from Democrats.

Liberal Republicans such as George W. Bush have also been culpable in expanding central power through aid programs. And it was John Boehner who helped Bush foist No Child Left Behind on us. Nonetheless, there is at least an ongoing debate within the Republican Party about the wisdom of centralization.

As for the Democrats, they gush about “diversity,” “community,” and “democracy,” but their penchant for national top-down public policy is helping to destroy those very features of our free society.

National Sovereignty and Free Immigration Are Compatible

A common argument against returning to the immigration policy of 1790-1875, where virtually anybody in the world could immigrate to the United States, is that such a policy would diminish America’s national sovereignty.  By not exercising “control” over borders through actively blocking immigrants, as the argument goes, the United States government would surrender a supposedly vital component of its national sovereignty.  But that argument is mistaken as there is no inherent conflict between free immigration and national sovereignty.

The standard Weberian definition of a government is an institution that has a monopoly (or near monopoly) on the legitimate use of violence within a certain geographical area.  The way it achieves this monopoly is by keeping out other competing sovereigns (aka nations) that would be that monopoly of legitimate coercion.  The two main ways our government does that is by keeping the militaries of other nations out of the United States and by stopping insurgents or potential insurgents from seizing power through violence and supplanting the U.S. government. 

U.S. immigration laws are not primarily designed or intended to keep out foreign armies, spies, or insurgents.  The main effect of our immigration laws is to keep out willing foreign workers from selling their labor to willing American purchasers.  Such economic controls do not aid in the maintenance of national sovereignty and relaxing or removing them would not infringe upon the government’s national sovereignty any more than a policy of unilateral free trade would.  If the United States would return to its 1790-1875 immigration policy, foreign militaries crossing U.S. borders would be countered by the U.S. military.  Allowing the free flow of non-violent and healthy foreign nationals does nothing to diminish the U.S. government’s legitimate monopoly of force. 

Are Unpaid Internships A Social Evil? Ask Our Political Leaders

Next time you notice some politician demanding a higher minimum wage and denouncing private employers for underpaying labor, chances are good the message reached you with the help of an unpaid student intern. Last week a Washington Post opinion contributor unsurprisingly revealed that the Obama White House is itself taking on about 150 such interns this summer, even as it keeps dreaming up new ways to extend and toughen the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for everyone else. New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron, sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum wage at many employers to $15/hour, turns out to offer his own unpaid internships (minimum commitment: 3 days a week), while Del. Heather Mizeur, the left-most Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, has advised would-be Campaign Fellows that “All positions are unpaid and you must provide your own phone and laptop.”  All this following two years of agitation by labor activists and class-action lawyers about the iniquity of unpaid internships.

More about politicians’ double standards in a moment: should, in fact, the government ban such internships for private employers? I answer “no” in a new U.S. News “Debate Club” also featuring an entry by Dan Rothschild of R Street Institute as well as contributions by three advocates of a ban. Excerpt from mine:

With eyes wide open, students with many options have long sought out voluntary unpaid internships because they’re an arrangement that can rationally benefit both sides.

In an Auburn University working paper last month (via), four economists reported on a study that found internship experience was associated with a 14 percent increase in the rate at which prospective employers request interviews of job seekers. As a predictor of the rate of callbacks, an internship on the resume actually worked much better than a business degree itself.

Yet class-action lawyers and labor activists now attack internships as — in the trendy, elastic new term — “wage theft.” These same lawyers and activists go to court demanding millions of dollars retrospectively over arrangements both sides understood perfectly well at the time to be unpaid — and think shakedowns like these should *not* be called “theft.” …

In modern America, it’s never more than a short jump from “this set-up isn’t for everyone” to “let’s ban it.”

I go on to discuss the sclerosis of the European job market, especially when it comes to youth employment, and observe that the “campaign against internships is part of a wider campaign against low-pay work options in general — call it a campaign to get rid of any stepping stones in the stream that aren’t sturdy enough to support a whole family.” And I note the curious contrast with higher education pointed out by my colleague Andrew Coulson: “Paying to Learn Nothing = Legal. Paying Nothing to Learn = Illegal.”

But back to the politicos. My reaction to the stories above is not to try to shame President Obama or Sen. Squadron. To begin with, we know exactly what fix they are likely to propose once we “win” that debate: mulct taxpayers in Terre Haute and Ticonderoga to provide stipends for highly credentialed White House or Albany interns who are already probably headed for the top 10 percent of the income distribution no matter what. Another victory for salving our consciences about inequality!

Instead, I hope stories like the above lead some supporters of Obama, Squadron and Mizeur to rethink their notions of exploitation and unpaid labor. Why wouldn’t a 22-year-old with a laptop and a few free months take a flyer to work for a dynamic political operation, or (mutatis mutandis) hang out in a foreign correspondent’s office, or be the coffee-bringer while getting to see how a Hollywood studio makes a film? Why shouldn’t consenting parties be free to make a choice like these for themselves, rather than our presuming to make it for them? [adapted and expanded from Overlawyered]

Supply-Side Economics from the Founder of the Brookings Institution

“Within limits, the system of progressive taxation is defensible and effective.  Beyond a certain point, however, it dulls incentives, and may destroy the principal source of funds for new enterprises involving exceptional risks.”

–Harold G. Moulton (founder of the Brookings Instituion), Controlling Factors in Economic Development, The Brookings Institution, 1949, p. 292.

WaPo’s Bridge Story Is Structurally Deficient

Oh dear, yet another scare story about falling-down bridges. A Washington Post headline today in the hardcopy is “63,000 Bridges Structurally Deficient, U.S. Says.”

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has released its annual data on bridge conditions, and indeed the data show that 63,522 bridges were “structurally deficient” in 2013. That sounds like a lot, but it is out of 607,751 total U.S. bridges.

Here’s what nearly all media stories on this topic gloss over: the share of U.S. bridges that are structurally deficient has been falling steadily for more than two decades. The chart below (based on FHWA data) shows that the share of U.S. bridges that are structurally deficient fell from 22 percent in 1992 to just 10 percent in 2013.

The chart clearly shows good news on the bridge front, but many reporters focus on the bad news angle favored by construction lobby groups.

The WaPo story reflects lobbyist pleas that the states need the federal government to fix their bridges. But why? If Pennsylvania has “the nation’s worst problem,” then the Pennsylvania legislature should find a solution—either reprioritize the state budget, start privatizing bridges, charge bridge tolls, or find other funding sources. No need to look to Washington. Uncle Sam is not Santa Claus.

For more on our (supposedly) crumbling infrastructure, see here, here, here,  

U.S. Touts Ineffectiveness of Tobacco Control to Defend Cigarette Ban

The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act banned the sale of all flavored cigarettes, except menthols, in the United States. Indonesia successfully challenged that part of the law at the World Trade Organization as disguised protectionism—the banned products were clove cigarettes from Indonesia and the exempted menthols are made in the United States. The U.S. government tried to claim that the distinction was justified because kids like smoking cloves more than menthols. They failed to convince the trade court, because that’s ridiculous. 

The time given the United States to bring its measure into compliance with WTO law has now elapsed. Instead of changing the law to allow cloves or to ban menthols, however, the United States has claimed that issuing a report and thinking about what to do about menthol cigarettes is enough to bring it into compliance. Indonesia understandably disagrees and is seeking permission to retaliate against U.S. imports.

To stave off retaliation, the U.S. government has now decided to defend the clove cigarette ban by arguing that it was completely ineffective. As reported by Inside U.S. Trade ($)(emphasis added):

The U.S. is … claiming that, even if it is found not to have complied with the ruling, Indonesia is not entitled to retaliation because the country’s exports have not been nullified or impaired by the U.S. ban on clove cigarettes….

Specifically, the U.S. points out that the Indonesian industry has repackaged clove cigarettes into clove cigars, which unlike their counterparts are not banned. Therefore, the U.S. maintains, Indonesia’s clove exports have not suffered as a result of the ban.

Two Questions, Two Answers

As the fall-out continues from the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision earlier this week—see, in order, Ilya’s, my, and Wally’s Cato@Liberty comments—I was invited late yesterday to expand, very briefly, on my earlier reflections at a site called “2paragraphs”—in particular, to discuss, in two paragraphs, how public higher education transfers wealth from the lower to the upper classes of society, and how affirmative action actually harms those it’s meant to help. You’ll find that brief discussion here.