Tag: Barack Obama

Fannie & China: 2 Birds, 1 Stone

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington brought renewed focus on China’s currency.  It was likely the largest point of discussion between President Obama and President Hu.  I suspect a less public, but related, issue was China looking for some certainty that America would make good on its obligations; after all, China is our largest lender.

What is often missed is the connection between these two issues:  currency and debt.  When China receives dollars for the many goods it sells us, instead of recycling those dollars into the purchase of US goods, it uses that money mostly to buy US Treasuries and Agencies (Fannie/Freddie securities).  These large Treasury/Agency purchases (foreign holdings of GSE debt are over $1 trillion) have the effect of increasing the demand for dollars and depressing that for yuan, resulting in an appreciation of the dollar relative to the yuan.  This connection exposes the hypocrisy of President Obama’s complaints about China currency manipulation - without massive US budget deficits, China would not be able to manipulate its currency to the extent it does.  If the US wants to end that manipulation, it can do so by simply reducing the outstanding supply of Treasuries and Agency debt.

Another solution, which would also do much to end the “implicit guarantees” of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is to take Fannie and Freddie into a receivership, stop the US taxpayer from having to cover their losses, and shift those losses to junior creditors, which include the Chinese Central Bank.  Were the Chinese to actually suffer credit losses on their GSE debt, they would quickly start to reduce their holdings of such.  They might also cut back on Treasury holdings.  These actions would force the yuan to appreciate relative to the dollar.  And best of all, it would end the bottomless pit that Fannie and Freddie have become.  It is worth remembering that even today, under statute, the Federal government does not back the debt of Fannie and Freddie.  It is about time we also teach the Chinese a lesson about the rule of law, by actually following it ourselves. 

Of course this would increase the borrowing costs for Agencies (and maybe Treasuries), but then if China were to free float its currency, that would also reduce the demand for Treasuries/Agencies with a resulting increase in borrowing costs.  We cannot have it both ways.

Barack Obama, Mr. Deregulation?

In today’s much talked-of Wall Street Journal op-ed, President Obama reaches for common ground with critics of excessive government regulation – not a constituency he’s had much time for in the past. He announced an executive order requiring agencies to review existing regulation for outdated or unwise rules deserving of being struck from the books. That drew measured praise from organized business groups, something the President has not had much of lately.

Many left partisans are aghast, just as they were when Bill Clinton dashed for the political center after his own mid-term electoral “shellacking.” Salon complains that Obama’s op-ed “reads like an apology to the business community,” while Rena Steinzor fears the move signals a decline in influence for the administration’s regulatory ultras, such as Margaret Hamburg (FDA), Lisa Jackson (EPA), and David Michaels (OSHA).

Environmental law expert Jonathan Adler thinks the new executive order might do some good:

The Executive Order is here. It reaffirms the basic principles outlined in President Clinton’s Executive Order 12866, issued in September 1993, and continues to require agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses of proposed rules. As noted in the President’s op-ed, it also requires agencies to engage in “retrospective analysis” of existing rules so as to accelerate the pace at which outdated regulations are revoked. Specifically, it requires all agencies to develop a plan for such retrospective review within 120 days. If the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs ensures such reviews are meaningful, this could be a significant and positive step.

That’s a big “if.” Over the past two years, OIRA has not restrained its administration colleagues from making 2010 by far the biggest year for new regulatory burdens in memory (Heritage helpfully assembles details.) The most burdensome new rules are not from the best-known areas of new legislation, such as ObamaCare and financial reform, but from the environmental area. That makes it especially disturbing that, as Ted Frank points out, the President’s op-ed “singles out the top-down and economically inefficient fuel-economy regulation as a good one.”

So what does Obama see as an example of an excessive regulation needing repeal? The example he offers is the inclusion of the sweetener saccharin in the category of hazardous waste. Really? Saccharin as hazardous waste? Amid dozens of high-stakes, much-studied regulatory controversies, the only one he could come up with is one that – with all due respect to the people who make the little pink packets – is of hardly any significance to the wider economy, and not much more as a matter of principle?

Even this administration could have made better deregulatory boasts than that. For example, in a fit of sense, the Obama Justice Department a while back adopted regulations specifying that the Americans with Disabilities Act should no longer (as of this March) be interpreted to require restaurants, theaters and other Main Street businesses to admit patrons’ non-canine “service animals” such as monkeys, goats, snakes and spiders.

But it was almost as if his point was to pick a regulation so minor that no one cared much about it one way or the other. Had the President’s speechwriters been looking for an example of a hazardous-substance rule that would actually get people talking about regulatory overreach, they might have picked EPA’s dairy-spill regulations, which (in the words of one report) “treat spilled milk like oil, requiring farmers to build extra storage tanks and form emergency spill plans….” That one does have big and widespread economic costs.

Whoops – not a good example. That one’s not being repealed – EPA at last report intended to go forward with it. Can we really assume anything much is changing here besides the atmospherics?

Rep. Brady’s CUTS Act

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) has introduced the Cut Unsustainable and Top-heavy Spending Act, which would cut spending by $44 billion annually.  Brady’s effort moves in the right direction but it is a very modest fiscal reform effort.

The legislation, which Brady calls a “down payment on getting America’s financial books in order,” chooses targets that have already been proposed by the Obama administration or the president’s Fiscal Commission. Therefore, the proposal should have bipartisan appeal. For example, Brady’s bill would cut Pentagon spending and eliminate subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Many of the targets represent “house cleaning cuts” that would reduce spending on bureaucratic activities such as printing and federal travel. The legislation would also reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent per the Fiscal Commission’s recommendation. While there’s nothing wrong with a little house cleaning, these types of cuts would occur on their own if entire government agencies and programs were eliminated.

Eliminating federal agencies and programs should be the ultimate goal. Annual savings of $44 billion only amounts to about 3 percent of the project budget deficit this year, and less than 10 percent of the annual amount needed to be cut to stabilize the debt by 2020. (See this Cato spending cut plan for more details on what is needed to get our budgetary situation under control.)

The RTTT Made Me Do It!

Adopting national curriculum standards – the so-called “Common Core” – is voluntary for states. That is what we’ve long been told, and that is what the text of a new report looking at implementation of the standards repeats. But within that report is powerful evidence of how involuntary and federally led Common Core adoption has truly been.

According to the report, which furnishes results of a November 2010 survey of state education officials, the vast majority of states that had adopted the Common Core as of November had done so at least in part because of “the possible effect” of doing so “on success of our Race to the Top application.” Race to the Top, you might recall, was a $4.35 billion federal contest for education funding, and to maximize their chances of winning states had to adopt national standards.

The report tries to downplay this revelatory finding by emphasizing that a slightly larger number of states – 36 versus 30 – cited “the rigor” of the Common Core in their adoption decisions. But what state education official is going to say that adoption was only about money and not also at least some educational considerations? On the flip side, that officials in any, much less thirty, states were willing to concede the importance of ugly federal-dollar chasing says a ton. In particular, it says what reasonable observers have been stating all along: National standards have largely been bought by Washington, not “voluntarily” adopted by states.

The Incredible Expanding Afghan War

This simple chart dramatizes something that I don’t think most Americans realize: the tripling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by President Obama.

U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Now it’s true that when candidate Barack Obama vowed, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009,” he was talking about Iraq. In July 2008 he suggested that he would send two more brigades – about 8000 troops – to Afghanistan. He has far exceeded that, and we can only wonder whether the voters who responded to his antiwar message anticipated that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by almost as much as he reduced the number in Iraq.

Obama’s Afghanistan War Plan

President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.

I have four thoughts on the matter:

First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as “al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker,” “[a]l-Qa’ida’s senior leadership has been depleted,” and “al-Qa’ida’s leadership cadre have diminished.” However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, “fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter failed British “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid. “Fighting them over there so they don’t fight us here” did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims “improved understanding of Pakistan’s strategic priorities,” but policy considerations seem to fail to take into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan’s decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.

The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.

Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism “capacity building”). After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan’s pervasively corrupt and predatory government with “economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces.”

Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military a chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. But a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.

Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy’s political and economic costs. The Afghan War’s current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America’s permanent role in Central Asia.

Promoting Free Trade—Sort Of

The U.S. and South Korean governments have agreed to changes in the free trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. The president rightly lauded the FTA as a good deal for Americans:

“This agreement shows the U.S. is willing to lead and compete in the global economy,” the president told reporters at the White House, calling it a triumph for American workers in fields from farming to aerospace.”

Approving the FTA has taken on added urgency after the European Union negotiated a similar accord with the South. Once that agreement takes effect, Europeans would have better access than Americans to the world’s 13th largest economy. Protectionism is always foolish, but especially so when one’s competitors are promoting open markets.

The accord also offers important geopolitical benefits. With much nervousness in the U.S. and throughout East Asia over an increasingly assertive China, Washington should work to break down barriers to Americans trading with China’s neighbors. Already Koreans do more business with China than the U.S. While the FTA won’t reduce the appeal of products from next door China in South Korea, it will allow American producers to compete more freely in that market.

The president deserves credit for pushing the agreement forward, but he also needlessly held up ratification by two years. Moreover, his “fix” punishes American consumers. As the official government fact sheet explains:

Car Tariff Elimination: The 2007 agreement would have immediately eliminated U.S. tariffs on an estimated 90 percent of Korea’s auto exports, with remaining tariffs phased out by the third year of implementation. The 2010 supplemental agreement keeps the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff in place until the fifth year. At the same time, Korea will immediately cut its tariff on U.S. auto imports in half (from 8 percent to 4 percent), and fully eliminate that tariff in the fifth year.

Truck Tariff Elimination: The 2007 agreement would have required the United States to start reducing its tariff on Korean trucks immediately and phase it out by the agreement’s tenth year. The 2010 supplemental agreement allows the United States to maintain its 25 percent truck tariff until the eighth year and then phase it out by the tenth year – but holds Korea to its original commitment to eliminate its 10 percent tariff on U.S. trucks immediately.

That is, the Obama administration forced a delay in the reduction of U.S. auto tariffs. This obviously hurts Korean exporters, but the highest price will be paid by American consumers. The provision is simply a special interest payoff to the auto industry, which already has benefited from a big federal financial bail-out. So much for bringing “change” to Washington.

Free trade is good for Americans. That means bringing down foreign trade barriers. It also means bringing down U.S. trade barriers.