Archives: 08/2014

Africa: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last week, President Obama hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. He welcomed over 40 African heads of state and their outsized entourages to what was a festive affair. Indeed, even the Ebola virus in West Africa failed to dampen spirits in the nation’s capital. Perhaps it was the billions of dollars in African investment, announced by America’s great private companies, that was so uplifting.

Good cheer was also observed in the advertising departments of major newspapers. Yes, many of the guest countries paid for lengthy advertisements–page turners–in the newspapers of record. That said, the substantive coverage of this gathering was thin. Neither the good, the bad, nor the ugly, received much ink.

What about the good? Private business creates prosperity, and prosperity is literally good for your health. My friend, the late Peter T. Bauer, documented the benefits of private trade in his classic 1954 book West African Trade. In many subsequent studies, Lord Bauer refuted conventional wisdom with detailed case studies and sharp economic reasoning. He concluded that the only precondition for private trade and prosperity to flourish was individual freedom reinforced by security for person and property.

More recently, Ann Bernstein, a South African, makes clear that the establishment and operation of private businesses does a lot of economic good (see: The Case for Business in Developing Countries, 2010). Yes, businesses create jobs, supply goods and services, spread knowledge, pay taxes, and so forth. Alas, in the Leaders Summit reportage that covered the multi-billion dollar investments by the likes of Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Ford Motor Co., the benefits of the humdrum activity of business and trade were nowhere to be found. But, as they say, “that’s not the president’s thing.”

Let’s move from the good to the bad and the ugly, and focus on the profound misery in Sub-Saharan Africa. I measure misery with a misery index. It is the simple sum of inflation, unemployment, and the bank lending interest rate, minus year on year GDP per capita growth. Using this metric, the countries for Sub-Saharan Africa are ranked in the accompanying table for 2012.

Police Militarization in Ferguson — and Your Town

[cross-posted and slightly adapted from Overlawyered]

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“ ‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone”?

As most readers have reason to know by now, the town of Ferguson, Mo. outside St. Louis, numbering around 21,000 residents, is the scene of an unfolding drama that will be cited for years to come as a what-not-to-do manual for police forces. After police shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on the street, then left his body on the pavement for four hours, rioters destroyed many local stores. Since then, police have refused to disclose either the name of the cop involved or the autopsy results on young Michael Brown; have not managed to interview a key eyewitness even as he has told his story repeatedly on camera to the national press; have revealed that dashcams for police cars were in the city’s possession but never installed; have obtained restrictions on journalists, including on news-gathering overflights of the area; and more.

The dominant visual aspect of the story, however, has been the sight of overpowering police forces confronting unarmed protesters who are seen waving signs or just their hands.

If you’re new to the issue of police militarization, which Overlawyered has covered occasionally over the past few years, the key book is Radley Balko’s, discussed at this Cato forum:

Federal grants drive police militarization. In 2012, as I was able to establish in moments through an online search, St. Louis County (of which Ferguson is a part) got a Bearcat armored vehicle and other goodies this way. The practice can serve to dispose of military surplus (though I’m told the Bearcat is not military surplus, but typically purchased new) and it sometimes wins the gratitude of local governments, even if they are too strapped for cash to afford more ordinary civic supplies (and even if they are soon destined to be surprised by the high cost of maintaining gear intended for armed combat).

As to the costs, some of those are visible in Ferguson, Mo. this week.

 

Crony Catfish

If you were looking for an example to show just how awful the legislative process is in Washington, the ongoing saga over catfish inspection is just perfect.  On its face, the 2008 law requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect catfish facilities seems relatively benign.  Who doesn’t want safer catfish?  In reality, though, the law has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with supporting the Southern catfish industry at everyone else’s expense.

Switching catfish inspection from the FDA (where it is now) to the USDA won’t make catfish any safer.  This isn’t really a controversial point, either.  The USDA itself has said that catfish is a low risk food and can’t explain how its inspections will reduce that risk in any meaningful way.  The Government Accountability Office has advised Congress to repeal the program.  

The new inspection regime is slated to cost taxpayers $14 million more per year than the current one.  But there’s actually a much greater harm being done here.

Aside from the cost, the main impact of the new inspection regime—and its actual purpose—is that foreign catfish producers will be banned from the U.S. market until they can show equivalence to U.S. production standards.  Regardless of how they produce the catfish, showing equivalence will take years.  In the meantime, U.S. consumers will be left with nothing but domestic catfish at hugely inflated prices.

The good news is that a growing, bipartisan group of legislators has been trying to kill the program since its stealthy insertion into the 2008 farm bill.  Most recently, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) announced that she will propose an amendment to the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations Bill to defund the new inspection program.  This may be the last chance to kill the program before it finally goes into effect, exposing the United States to retaliatory action for violating our trade obligations.

The amendment will probably succeed, as similar amendments have in the past, but—just as before—that may not be enough.  The program exists not because half of our illustrious legislators have been fooled into supporting it but because Thad Cochran (R-MS) has seniority on key committees.  He and a handful of other legislators in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas are the only ones pushing for this program.  

I talk more with Caleb Brown about Thad Cochran’s Crony Catfish in this Cato podcast:

President Obama Makes U.S. Participation Inevitable in Renewed Iraq War

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for a Declaration of War against Germany. His unreasonable policies regarding submarine warfare had made America’s entry well-nigh inevitable.

When President Barack Obama first spoke to the nation about Iraq, he sounded reluctant to be the fourth straight president to intervene militarily.  However, the conditions he set on Washington’s participation guarantee a much broader and longer campaign.

President Wilson implemented a policy which ensured that war would result if Germany used the only maritime weapon it possessed capable of contesting London’s overwhelming naval advantage. Great Britain’s passenger liners carried munitions and were ordered to ram submarines which surfaced to inspect their cargoes. Germans started sinking passenger ships without notice. 

Wilson’s position was that Americans had an absolute right to book passage on belligerent vessels carrying munitions through a war zone. The position was ludicrous. In January 1917 Berlin decided to unleash unlimited submarine warfare against London and Wilson got his casus belli.

New Market Tax Credits Fail to Deliver

Created in 2000 as part of the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act, the federal New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program provides tax credits to “spur new or increased investments into operating businesses and real estate projects in low-income areas.” Two new reports, one from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the second from Senator Tom Coburn’s office, question the effectiveness of NMTC in accomplishing that goal.

The program provides tax credits to investors in low-income neighborhood development projects equaling 39 percent of the investment value over seven years. For example, a $1 million investment provides a $390,000 tax credit to the investor—a healthy sum. Congress has provided $40 billion in tax credits since 2003 with banks and other financial institutions receiving “nearly 40 percent of all NMTC[s]” since 2007.

But the program’s structure is flawed. According to GAO, the Treasury Department—which oversees the program—does not have adequate oversight of the program. For instance, the Treasury is unable to determine if a project has failed even after receiving seven years of tax credits. Treasury’s reporting on numerous aspects of the program is incomplete and missing.

Like many federal programs originally premised on helping low-income areas, the NMTC program now spreads the subsidies widely. In fact, the program’s structure results in “virtually all of the country’s census tracts” being eligible for the program according to the Congressional Research Service.  

NMTC projects are heavily subsidized. They frequently receive additional government funding from other programs. Sixty-six percent of projects from 2010 to 2012 received funding from other federal, state, or local sources, with 33 percent receiving additional federal funds. This program is one of 23 community development tax programs and 80 discretionary economic development programs.

Projects often receive NMTCs, historic tax credits, and benefits from tax-exempt bond issuances, which adds up to heavy subsidization. For instance, a streetcar project in St. Louis received $15 million from NMTC allocations, $25 million from a federal Urban Circulator grant, a Surface Transportation Program grant, and a grant from the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program. “The trolley’s total cost of $43 million is almost completely paid for through federal funding,” according to Coburn’s office.

If an Interest Group Says We Need to Spend More Money, Check It Out

Young journalists are told, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Every day journalists follow that advice, protecting us all from reading rumors and unconfirmed stories in the morning papers (though of course the increasing pressure to be first with the news is threatening this rule).

But journalists are still too quick to take the word of special interests without seeking other viewpoints, especially in stories about things the taxpayers need to spend money on. Take this morning’s story about water infrastructure on Marketplace Radio:

Following the expensive water-main break that flooded UCLA’s campus, Los Angeles officials say they’re trying to aggressively fix the city’s aging infrastructure. 

The costs are daunting. It’s going to take the city of Los Angeles billions of dollars to fix.

“They estimate some over 20 millions of gallons of water were lost and of course it wound up on that new floor at the Pauley Pavilion Basketball Arena,” says Greg DiLoreto, former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “We have some 240,000 water main breaks a year in this country. And the age of our water infrastructure continues to get older and older and older.”

People Shouldn’t Be Able to Sue Think Tanks When They Disagree with Us

What’s worse than a public policy debate that turns bitter and impolite? Well, for one, having the courts step into the marketplace of ideas to judge which side of a debate has the best “facts.”

Yet that’s what Michael Mann has invited the D.C. court system to do. In response to some scathing criticism of his methodologies and an allegation of scientific misconduct, the author of the infamous “hockey stick” models of global warming – because they resemble the shape of a hockey stick, with temperatures rising drastically beginning in the 1900s – has taken the global climate change debate to a record low by suing the Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Review, and two individual commentators. The good Dr. Mann claims that some blogposts alleging his work to be “fraudulent” and “intellectually bogus” were libelous. (For more background on the matter, see this excellent summary by NR’s editor Rich Lowry; linking to that post is partly what led Mann to target CEI.)

The D.C. trial court rejected the defendants’ motion to dismiss this lawsuit, holding that their criticism could be taken as a provably false assertion of fact because the EPA, among other bodies, have approved of Mann’s methodologies. In essence, the court seems to cite a consensus as a means of censoring a minority view. The defendants appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals (the highest court in the District of Columbia).

Cato has now filed a brief, joined by three other think tanks, in which we urge the court to stay out of the business of refereeing scientific debates. (And if you liked our “truthiness” brief, you’ll enjoy this one.)