Archives: 03/2015

The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Lego Asks U.S. to Ban Imports of “Figure with Skirt”

Lego’s patent for the “Toy Building Brick” expired in 1988, but the company still aggressively tries to claim monopoly privileges over its products.  Ten years ago, Lego tried unsuccessfully to claim trademark protection for blocks with circles on top.  Now they are going after competitors for making products that look similar to the new “Lego Friends” line of blocks marketed toward girls.  For example, Lego complains that its competitors have infringed its copyright in “Figure with Skirt”.

Figure with Skirt

Of immediate interest is the fact that Lego has filed a complaint at the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking to bar importation of certain Mega Bloks, Lite Brix, and Best-Lock products.  There are a number of reasons why the ITC should not be adjudicating patent or other intellectual property disputes, and if you’re interested in the full story, you should read my Cato Policy Analysis on the subject from 2012.

The Eternal Criminal Record

Professor James Jacobs of New York University School of Law has written a new book, The Eternal Criminal Record, just published by Harvard University Press.  From the dust jacket:

For over sixty million Americans, possessing a criminal record overshadows everything else about their public identity. A rap sheet, or even a court appearance or background report that reveals a run-in with the law, can have fateful consequences for a person’s interactions with just about everyone else. The Eternal Criminal Record makes transparent a pervasive system of police databases and identity screening that has become a routine feature of American life.

The United States is unique in making criminal information easy to obtain by employers, landlords, neighbors, even cyberstalkers. Its nationally integrated rap-sheet system is second to none as an effective law enforcement tool, but it has also facilitated the transfer of ever more sensitive information into the public domain. While there are good reasons for a person’s criminal past to be public knowledge, records of arrests that fail to result in convictions are of questionable benefit. Simply by placing someone under arrest, a police officer has the power to tag a person with a legal history that effectively incriminates him or her for life.

In James Jacobs’s view, law-abiding citizens have a right to know when individuals in their community or workplace represent a potential threat. But convicted persons have rights, too. Jacobs closely examines the problems created by erroneous record keeping, critiques the way the records of individuals who go years without a new conviction are expunged, and proposes strategies for eliminating discrimination based on criminal history, such as certifying the records of those who have demonstrated their rehabilitation.

A few days ago, I sat down with Professor Jacobs for a podcast interview.  More info on his book here.

Is the TPP Necessary as a Response to China?

Paul Krugman has a blog post on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) today.  Overall, he is skeptical of the need for it.  He refers to a recent op-ed by Larry Summers, and notes that Summers appears to support “an idealized TPP that could have been,” but is “against the TPP that actually seems to be on the table.”  Krugman says he feels similarly.

Tyler Cowen responds as follows:

I agree with much of the economics in his post, though I would frame the points with a different kind of rhetoric.  But I think Krugman is nonetheless wrong to oppose TPP.  You will notice the word “China” does not appear in his argument.  He closes with a question: “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?”  The answer is simple: this deal either happens on American terms, or an alternative deal arises on Chinese terms without our participation.  For rather significant foreign policy reasons we prefer the former, and the pragmatic side of President Obama understands this pretty well.

Cowen is one of my favorite bloggers, both for style and substance, but I want to push back a little bit here.  The alternative deal he is referring to is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a negotiation among 16 countries, including China and India, in the Pacific region.  There is a good deal of overlap, in terms of participating countries, with the 12 TPP parties.  I think he is making two points here: (1) If there is no TPP, there will be an RCEP, and that will be bad for the United States; and (2) the RCEP will reflect Chinese priorities, not U.S. priorities, and that will be bad for the United States.

Just briefly, let me comment on both points.  First, the RCEP may be, to some extent, a response to the TPP.  If the TPP fails, the motivation for the RCEP might also diminish.  Furthermore, regardless of what happens with the TPP, it will not be easy to complete the RCEP.  Getting India, China, and 14 other countries to agree will not be easy.  So there may never be an RCEP.

Second, the reference to Chinese terms makes it sound like this will be an agreement that establishes state-owned companies as the norm.  In reality, if you look at the topics covered, I’m not sure this agreement would be much different than any other trade agreement, except perhaps less emphasis on labor rights and intellectual property protection than in U.S. agreements.  There will be tariff lowering, services liberalization, and all the usual issues.

In my view, then, we should consider the TPP on its own merits and not worry so much about what other countries do.  If they want to liberalize amongst themselves, that’s great.  But that’s not a threat, just an incentive to do a better job with trade negotiations ourselves.

The Folly of Fed Obeisance

As if to get my work week off to rotten start, my otherwise good pal Don Boudreaux greeted me first thing Monday morning with a link to Robert Samuelson’s Sunday evening Washington Post op-ed on “The Folly of Fed Bashing.” In it, Samuelson takes the Fed’s conservative critics to task for their “misinformed” attacks on the Fed, faulting them for failing to appreciate how much more transparent the Fed’s operations are today than they were some decades ago, and for not understanding that its actions, however undesirable they may seem, are generally “necessary for the nation’s long-term economic health.” As for the perception that “the Fed is a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed,” it rests, Samuelson says, on a “simplistic” view of the Fed’s history.

Well I can’t speak for others, but I know something about the Fed’s history. And I’ve come to the conclusion, informed by careful consideration, over the course of several decades, of that history, and the history of numerous other monetary arrangements in the U.S. and elsewhere, that the Fed is actually…a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed.

True, the Fed is in some respects more transparent than it used to be. But it has also been doing things that it never used to do. The ordinary Fed publications and disclosures to which Mr. Samuelson refers shed no light at all on many of these novelties. Not for nothing did Dodd-Frank provide for a special, one-time audit of the Fed’s crisis-related undertakings. Among other things, that audit pointed to some serious conflicts of interest that might otherwise have escaped censure. Yet according to Mr. Samuelson’s supposedly up-to-date Fed history, it should have been just as unnecessary as the recurring audits Fed “bashers” have been calling for.

Would such recurring audits themselves be otiose? The Dodd-Frank audit covers the Fed’s actions up to July 21, 2010. Consequently the GAO isn’t allowed to look into any of the Fed’s unorthodox measures since then, including later rounds of Quantitative Easing, Operation Twist, and its enhanced overnight reverse repo program, not to mention its stress tests and other financial-regulatory measures. More importantly, under existing law it can’t be asked to look into any “emergency” steps the Fed might take in the future. Should we always have to rely on special legislation after the fact to allow Congress to scrutinize unusual Fed actions?

Mr. Samuelson complains about simplistic history. Allow me to complain instead about simplistic conjectures about the future–conjectures to the effect that the Fed will never again engage in the sorts of activities that warranted the Dodd-Frank audit. Such conjectures are after all implicit in claims, like his, to the effect that a permanent enhancement of the GAO’s Fed-auditing powers would only serve to “fulfill conservatives’ political agenda” by allowing Congress to “harass” the Fed and to otherwise undermine its ability to do its job.* Does Mr. Samuelson believe that the GAO “harasses” the other government departments and agencies over which it has unlimited auditing powers? If not, why does he worry that it would harass the Fed? Conservative agenda? Does he think that only conservatives (or conservatives and libertarians) distrust the Fed, and welcome GAO scrutiny of its unusual activities? If GAO officials themselves argue for relaxing present limits on their agency’s Fed-auditing powers, must they be part of a conservative plot?

Samuelson also sees “no obvious advantage” in a measure that would compel the Fed to choose and stick to a monetary rule, such as a Taylor Rule or NGDP growth rule. But while the advantage of such a rule may not be obvious to him, others may find it obvious enough. Either a Taylor or a Sumner-style NGDP growth rule would have called for less expansionary monetary policy in the mid-2000s, and for more expansionary policy in late 2009–reason enough to wonder whether, in complaining (in Samuelson’s words) that a rule “might make policy too inflexible,” Janet Yellen bothered to consider how in practice policy tends to “flex” the wrong way.

Finally, although he recognizes that the Fed isn’t infallible, and even suggests that the recent financial crisis was proof of its fallibility, Samuelson remains convinced that the Fed’s unhindered exercise of almost unlimited discretionary powers has contributed more than rule-based arrangements might to “the nation’s long-term economic health.” On what, I wonder, is this judgment based? Certainly not on recent experience. But a longer view is just as hard to square with the assertion, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz went to great lengths to demonstrate. Mr. Samuelson worries that Fed “bashing”–by which he seems to mean any criticism of the Fed that seeks to justify a reduction of its considerable power–“adds to uncertainty and subtracts from confidence” upon which economic growth depends. In truth, the Fed’s actions are themselves often unpredictable, and especially so when it comes to their influence on the long-run course of prices and spending. Were the Fed really a sort of Ambrose Light of financial markets, as Mr. Samuelson imagines it to be, Fed watching, instead of being a growth industry, would be about as useful–and as boring–as watching paint dry.

But the Fed needs more than mere watching. It needs scrutiny. It needs criticism. Above all, it needs to be reined in–not for conservatives’ sake, but for everyone’s. Mr. Samuelson may not like it. But I, for one, intend to keep bashing away.


*Like many commentators who take the Fed’s side in the “audit the Fed” debate, Samuelson suggests that there only two possible kinds of GAO audits to which the Fed might be subject: simple “do the books balance” audits, as are already provided for, and ones by which the GAO would “second guess” the Fed’s conduct of ordinary monetary policy. In fact, the Fed does a lot more than engage in ordinary monetary policy, and, as the special audit provided for in Dodd-Frank illustrates, there are correspondingly many ways in which the GAO might scrutinize it’s conduct. The real debate is about these other sorts of scrutiny. To represent it as a debate about whether the GAO (or “Congress”) should be allowed to interfere with the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy is missing the point, if it isn’t something rather worse than that.

Record Spending on Transit

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has issued its annual press release trumpeting the growth in transit ridership. Naturally, it selectively uses the data in order to get the best media attention.

For example, it claims that 2014 ridership set a record, which is true only if you don’t count any year between 1912 and 1957, during all of which transit carried far more people than it does today with almost no subsidies. Transit carried just under 10.8 billion trips in 2014, an increase of 101 million trips over 2013 but less than the 11.0 billion trips carried in 1956 (which doesn’t even include commuter rail and several other forms of transit that APTA counts today).

Second, APTA fails to note that all of the growth in ridership can be accounted for by increased usage of the New York City subway system. While national ridership grew by 101 million trips, APTA’s own ridership report shows that New York subway ridership grew by 107 million trips, or nearly 6 million more than the national gain. Without New York subways, whose ridership grew because of New York City’s rapid job growth, APTA would have had to report a national decline in ridership. Transit ridership grew in some cities, but it declined in many others, including Albuquerque, Austin, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Francisco (Muni), San Jose, and St. Louis, to name a few.

Are School Choice Technocrats Needed?

In a recent blog post, Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute declares: “School Choice Technocrats Wanted.” Smarick argues “if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer,” then “reform-oriented technocrats” will have to play a greater role.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.