Archives: 11/2014

Union Reforms to Improve Seaports

International trade boosts our economy, but U.S. seaports need major improvements to maximize the benefits of trade. Bloomberg reported a couple months ago that congestion at West Coast ports is so severe that shippers are diverting a growing share of traffic to Canada. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the problems are continuing.

One issue is the aggressive labor union that controls the West Coast ports:

For more than a month, a rotating cast of about a dozen container vessels, bulk ships and tankers has sat anchored just outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, some waiting as long as eight days to berth.

… Uncertainty over contract negotiations between terminal operators and the West Coast Longshoremen’s union has further aggravated the congestion, local officials and economists say.

Businesses up and down the West Coast that rely on the ports for importing and exporting goods have expressed concern over the protracted negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing workers at West Coast ports, and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents carriers and terminal operators. ILWU members have been working without a contract since a six-year pact expired July 1.

In recent weeks, the PMA has accused the union of slowdowns at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., and withholding some critical workers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, contributing to the current congestion. Some longshoremen walked off the job Oakland, Calif., last week, aggravating concerns over a widespread labor disruption during the holiday shipping season.

Port employers as well as retailers and manufacturers say their greatest fear is the possibility of a total shutdown across West Coast ports—similar to a 10-day worker lockout in 2002 after labor talks failed. The shutdown cost the U.S. economy several billions of dollars, industry groups say. Mr. Louttit of the Marine Exchange said the disruption at one point left 65 ships sitting at anchor off the Southern California coast.

The solution to these labor problems is straightforward: Congress should repeal “collective bargaining,” which is a euphemism for monopoly unionism. In other words, it should repeal the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which confers unjustified powers on unions and encourages them to disrupt workplaces.

The share of the private-sector workforce that is unionized has plunged for decades because unions make no sense in the modern fast-paced economy. But the unions that hang on in some industries cause a lot of trouble, as we’ve long seen with the high-paid longshoremen on the West Coast. I don’t imagine that NLRA repeal is on President Obama’s agenda, but it is a reform that policymakers should pursue down the road.

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Today in Cato’s Growth Forum

Cato’s special online forum on reviving growth continues today with the following new essays:

1. Morris Kleiner makes the case against occupational licensing.

2. Tim Kane calls for more immigration.

3. Alan Viard advocates moving to a progressive consumption tax.

4. Donald Marron argues for a carbon-corporate tax swap.

Obama’s Immigration Executive Order – Policy Implications

On Thursday, President Obama is expected to announce the specific provisions of his immigration executive order.  This order will have broad policy implications.  Below is a brief explanation of the changes in policy likely to be announced and their economic effects based on the leaked information.

Legalizations

The most contentious portions of the executive order will be the legalizations.  Many of the beneficiaries of all the legalization programs would be eligible for legal status through more than one program, creating significant overlap and making it difficult to predict exactly how many people would be eligible.  Below I will analyze each one and then sum up what the economic consequences are likely to be.

Grass-Roots Tobacco Bans? Not Quite

When the small town of Westminster in central Massachusetts announced plans to ban the sale of tobacco entirely – not just in certain types of stores, or to younger buyers – townspeople came out loudly and in force to oppose the plan. That has thrown advocates back a bit [New York TimesMassLiveearlier]:

“They’re just taking away everyday freedoms, little by little,” said Nate Johnson, 32, an egg farmer who also works in an auto body shop, as he stood outside the store last week. “This isn’t about tobacco, it’s about control,” he said.

Right he is. And despite the Times reporter’s lifted eyebrow at the notion that “outside groups” are encouraging town officials to go forward with the ban, it’s worth asking how Westminster, Mass., population 7,400, came to have its very own “tobacco control officer.” Do you imagine the townspeople decided to create such a position with local tax funds? If so, read on.

WestminsterSealFor well over a decade the Massachusetts Municipal Association has run something called the Tobacco Control Technical Assistance Program, assisted by grant money from the state Department of Public Health. It does things like campaign for town-by-town hikes in the tobacco purchase age to 21, and town-by-town bans on tobacco sales in drug stores. It will surprise few that it has been in the thick of the Westminster situation.

This article, written for a friendly audience of public health advocates, frankly describes how the MMA project, with assistance from nonprofit and university groups as well as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, worked to break down the reluctance of town health boards to venture into restrictions on tobacco sales (scroll to “Roles of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, Local Boards of Health, and Tobacco Control Advocates”):

Local boards were enticed into hiring tobacco control staff by the DPH’s tobacco control grants. As a participant in the process explained, “[L]ocal boards of health looked at it as ‘oh, it’s a grant. Let’s apply for this grant. So now, what do we have to do, now that we’ve got it?’” … The grants dictated that local boards use those community members they had hired as their staff to assist them in enacting and enforcing tobacco control regulations…

The staff paid with money from outside the town seem to have seen their job as, in part, lobbying the local officials: “We’ve had to work on each individual board [of health] member to get them to come around,” said one.

The account continues with many revealing details of how the outside advisers managed to orchestrate public hearings to minimize critics’ voice, deflect challenges with “we’ll take that under advisement” rather than actual answers, and in the case of particularly intense opposition, “back off for a couple of months” before returning. “Grant-funded regulatory advocates were able to counter all of [opponents’] arguments and tactics.”

In other words, an extra reason for the townspeople of Westminster to be angry is that they have been paying to lobby themselves. And it’s worth knowing exactly how the game plan works, because similar ones have been rolled out to localities in various states not only on “tobacco control” but on “food policy,” environmental bans and other topics. Grass roots? If so, most carefully cultivated in high places.

[cross-posted and slightly adapted from Overlawyered]

New in Cato’s Online Growth Forum

Here are the newest essays in the Cato Institute’s online forum on reviving growth:

1. Ramesh Ponnuru offers three ideas – on taxes, patents, and money.

2. William Gale argues for getting our fiscal house in order.

3. Jeff Miron proposes cuts in health insurance subsidies.

4. Adam Thierer calls for a culture of permissionless innovation.

Keystone XL Pipeline: Enough Already!

Enough already!

Why is Congress, the President, or anyone else, still talking about the Keystone XL pipeline?

This project is so small in the grand scheme of anything it boggles the mind anyone outside of those directly involved in building and operating it gives it a second thought.

That a discussion of the pipeline is still consuming government resources some six years after it was originally proposed epitomizes the grand waste of time and money that characterizes the current Administration when it comes to anything it thinks causes dreaded global warming.

In this case, the fault lies squarely with President Obama.

He could have killed the pipeline years ago if he wanted. Or better yet, he could have approved the pipeline years ago and we would now be reaping the benefits of it in whatever form those benefits may have taken (choose your favorites from among the lists that likely includes jobs, tax revenues, lower gas prices, energy security, ally cooperation, etc.).

But he did neither.

Strange Bedfoes against NSA Reform Bill

The push to rein in the authorities of the National Security Agency—covertly expanded by a secret court to permit indiscriminate bulk collection of Americans’ communications  and financial records—has become a truly bipartisan affair. In a way, this is nothing new: Liberals who recall the abuses of the Hoover era have long teamed with conservatives skeptical of government power in efforts to check excessive surveillance.  With a Senate vote looming to move forward with the USA FREEDOM Act, however, a still stranger mix of opponents is seeking to block what has emerged as the primary vehicle for intelligence reform in the post-Snowden era.

First, and least surprising, there’s the “More Catholic than the Pope” contingent—boosters of the intelligence community who seem convinced that the bill will somehow put Americans at risk, despite the insistence of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the proposed safeguards would not hinder intelligence operations. This stance is exemplified by a stunningly misleading Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and forrmer NSA head Michael Hayden. Since the terrorist Islamic State group, or ISIS, is currently in the headlines, naturally it is invoked to tar the bill as “a reform that only ISIS could love.”  Never explained: Why, precisely, we should expect an authority to indiscriminately sweep up domestic telephone records to be a critical tool for monitoring a group that seems primarily concerned with consolidating its power overseas, not fielding operatives in the United States.  After all, even when it comes to domestic investigations—where one might have expected the NSA’s mass database to show its value—two independent review groups with full access to classified records have concluded that the program had little or none.  Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has described the reforms as “tying our hands behind our back”—but a hand is a useful appendage.  On the public record, “tying our hair back” might a be more apt description—the bulk database has obscured the FBI’s by flooding the Bureau with dead-end “tips,” while any truly pertinent information it provided was invariably duplicative of records that agents had already obtained using traditional, targeted authorities.

Yet the USA FREEDOM framework actually preserves the core capabilities of this ineffective program: It creates a new mechanism for the government to do “connection chaining” by quickly and continuously obtaining, from multiple phone carriers, the records of suspected terror affiliates and their contacts. Mukasey and Hayden falsely decribe the new process as requiring a “warrant”—which it does not, on the consensus legal understanding that a “warrant” is a particularized authority based on the Fourth Amendment’s relatively high evidentiary standard of “probable cause.”  They also, somewhat comically, describe it as requiring the government go “scurrying” to telecomunications providers to “comb through” records, presumably by consulting a card catalogue.  Yet the point of the new framework, with a mandate that carriers provide “technical assistance” to NSA, is precisely to ensure that carriers can rapidly search their files to provide information about numbers once the secret FISA court has signed off (or, indeed, in advance of the court’s approval in an emergency).  Nor, indeed, do Mukasey and Haden so much as mention “National Security Letters,” a separate tool that can be used to obtain certain types of communications records without any judicial involvement. Unfortunately, the USA FREEDOM Act does not implement the recommendation of the President’s Surveillance Review group that these, too, require court authorization. Nor, conspicuously, does their tendentious discussion of the various safeguards currently in place mention the numerous massive and systemic violations of the rules imposed by the FISA court—violations that easily passed undetected for years precisely because NSA itself maintained the database rather than making particularized requests to carriers through the FISA court.

In short, the bill doesn’t really affect the government’s capabilities, only the way they’re implemented.  First, phone numbers to be searched will have to be specifically approved by the FISA Court—as Congress expected would be the case when it approved these authorities, and as has already been required since Februrary under a presidential directive.  Second, NSA will quickly obtain particular records, corresponding to “specific selectors” like phone numbers or other account identifiers, by passing its search queries to the carriers who already maintain those rather than compiling its own massive database, overwhelmingly consisting of irrelevant data about innocent people. This ought to be a pure win: A privacy protective re-architecting that reduces the potential for abuse without meaningfully interfering with the government’s ability to obtain the information in which it has a legitimate interest.   Which, of course, is why current intelligence officials have characterized the reforms as reasonable. Retired officials—the ones who implemented the bulk program and insisted its vast invasiveness was absolutely necessary—may be reluctant to admit they’ve been proven wrong, but their stubbornness does not amount to much of an argument.