Tag: Barack Obama

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.

Taxes and Uncertainty

It looks like Republicans and Democrats may have made a deal on blocking the tax increases that loom on January 1. No details yet, but reports are that they will extend the current tax rates for one to three years. That means investors and businesses will face continuing uncertainty and the real prospect of a tax increase in one to three years.

Unfortunately, pundits continue to use terms like “extending the Bush tax cuts” or “tax breaks for the wealthy.” In reality, American taxpayers have faced a particular range of personal income tax rates for the past eight years. If the 2001 and 2003 tax laws are allowed to expire, then Americans will see increased tax rates on income, dividends, capital gains, and estates. So the issue is not “tax cuts” or “tax breaks,” it’s whether we should increase taxes in 2011.

And as I noted before, President Obama understands this. He said in mid-November, “I want to make sure that taxes don’t go up for middle class families starting on January 1st.”

The president’s got it right. Taxes are about to go up, and the debate in Congress is whether that’s a good idea. Unfortunately, President Obama does want taxes to go up for business owners, corporate executives, and investors on January 1, the very people whose decisions have the most immediate impact on economic growth and job creation.

And that’s the issue we should be debating: Is it a good idea, especially in a time of continuing high unemployment and slow growth, to raise taxes on investors and entrepreneurs. And even if Congress delays the decision, is it a good idea to leave investors uncertain about what tax rates they’ll face in a year or two?

Let’s hope Congress and the Obama administration soon learns that higher taxes, more regulation, a larger share of GDP shifted to government, fears of Fed monetization of soaring debt — not to mention newspaper reports of Obama budgeteers “flipp[ing] through the tax code, looking for ideas” and threats of “an array of actions using his executive power to advance energy, environmental, fiscal and other domestic policy priorities” — can only discourage employers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Robert Higgs has cited the role of “regime uncertainty” in prolonging the Great Depression, as investors worried about what FDR might do next. Will Wilkinson points to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s saying “businesses want certainty. They need certainty so they can make long-term plans today.” Unfortunately, Will says, “Creating completely irresponsible, economically chilling regime uncertainty would appear to be the basic modus operandi of the Obama administration.” A temporary extension of today’s tax rates, with a continuing threat of a rate hike in a year or two, is entirely in keeping with a regime of uncertainty.

Deficit Reduction Commission Says Military Spending Can and Must be Cut

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission’s report is out and they have wisely kept military spending on the table. Having not seen the accompanying list of specific cuts, it seems that rather than micromanage DoD’s decisions with respect to which weapons systems to cut or keep, the commissioners have laid down a different marker: find the cuts that make sense, but understand that the business-as-usual of the past decade is over.

The report fixes on a number of spending cuts and reforms that Benjamin Friedman and I call for in the Cato Policy Analysis “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint” including cuts to the civilian workforce (see recommendation 1.10.4). They also hold fast to the proposition that all spending must be on the table, and reject out of hand the notion that military spending must be held sacrosanct. This is bad news for the “defending defense” crowd.

I am not going to comment on the Commission’s other proposals with respect to taxes, social security, health care, etc.  As for specific military spending cuts, this report is less detailed than the preliminary report issued a few weeks ago by Co-chairs Bowles and Simpson. It is appropriate, however, to task the Department of Defense with identifying additional savings (as they do in recommendation 1.11). Responsible cuts can be made if the Pentagon and the White House adopt a strategy of restraint, one that husbands American resources, focuses on a few core missions vital to U.S. national security, and requires other countries to take primary responsibility for their defense.

Happy National Entrepreneurs’ Day?

President Obama has proclaimed today to be National Entrepreneurs’ Day. The president who has brought us regime uncertainty, more regulations, more government intrusion into the economy, more debt, and is proposing to raise taxes on productive businesses and individuals wants to celebrate entrepreneurship?

I was alerted to National Entrepreneurs’ Day via an email (not online) from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The EDA email makes it clear that the administration wishes to celebrate political entrepreneurship, not market entrepreneurship.

In his book, The Myth of the Robber Barons, historian Burton Folsom explains the difference:

A key point about the steamship industry is that the government played an active role right from the start in both America and England. Right away this separates two groups of entrepreneurs — those who sought subsidies and those who didn’t. Those who tried to succeed in steamboating primarily through federal aid, pools, vote buying, or stock speculation we will classify as political entrepreneurs. Those who tried to succeed in steamboating primarily by creating and marketing a superior product at a low cost we will classify as market entrepreneurs. No entrepreneur fits perfectly into one category or the other, but most fall generally into one category or the other. The political entrepreneur often fits the classic Robber Baron mold; they stifled productivity (through monopolies and pools), corrupted business and politics, and dulled America’s competitive edge. Market entrepreneurs, by contrast, often made decisive and unpredictable contributions to American economic development.

As Obama administration achievements, the EDA touts increased Small Business Administration subsidies and a smorgasbord of industrial planning contained in last year’s stimulus package:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act served as the cornerstone for this new foundation by pumping $100 billion into the economy to help us tackle some of the grand challenges of the 21st century in diverse fields from healthcare IT and health research, to clean energy, to smart grids, and high speed trains. Recovery Act investments are creating a virtuous cycle of investment, innovation, and job creation that have so far led to the creation of 3 million new jobs.

Wrong. The stimulus has fueled an unvirtuous cycle of political entrepreneurship in which business interests chase federal hand-outs for endeavors sanctioned by inside-the-Beltway planners. Political entrepreneurs have less incentive to innovate and are naturally reluctant to criticize the government because they don’t want to bite the hand that’s feeding them. As Chris Edwards puts it, they become “tools of the state.”

If the administration were really interested in promoting entrepreneurship, it would repudiate the anti-market policies it has pursued thus far. That’s obviously not going to happen, so it’s going to be up to congressional Republicans to repudiate their own history of supporting federal subsidies. In other words, the GOP’s re-found fondness for limited government rhetoric is going to have to actually be matched by action.

President’s Statement about GM IPO Reveals a Defensive Politician

I don’t particularly relish picking on a president who, on virtually every policy front, is showing all the markings of a man in way over his head.  But the president’s actions and statements are becoming excruciating to watch—like a highly-touted Olympic figure skater who can’t complete a maneuver without falling to the ice. 

President Obama’s salutary statement about GM’s IPO yesterday reveals a man so focused on defending his policies that he can no longer conceal the incongruity between his political objectives and the country’s imperatives.

American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM, and that’s a good thing. (My emphasis)

Besides revealing the president’s preference for LIFO accounting procedures, the statement strikes me as sub-presidential.  Shouldn’t the POTUS be concerned about  American taxpayers getting back all of the money invested in GM?  Even though former President Bush is complicit, shouldn’t the sitting president of a country that owes its wealth, freedom, and future to the endurance of the rule of law and the other long-standing, bedrock institutions that were defiled and abused to bail out two automakers issue a statement of regret and reassurance that such extreme measures will never be undertaken again? 

I think President Obama missed an opportunity to make amends, build a bridge, and reassure businesses and investors that the White House will do its part to reduce the economy-stifling problem of regime uncertainty going forward.  But, then again, that might have been too presidential for a politician who appears motivated more by avoiding blame than by advancing the country’s best interests.

A Successful IPO Does Not a Justifiable Bailout Make

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the meaning of GM’s IPO today.  A common narrative in today’s media is that GM’s return to the stock market affirms the wisdom of the auto bailout.  Some tougher customers in the media insist on a higher threshold being met—that taxpayers get back the entirety of their $50 billion investment in GM—before declaring “mission accomplished.” And then there are the rabid partisans who—in their seething animosity toward the Obama administration—reach conclusions devoid of logic and rich only in conspiratorial-mindedness.  For example, yesterday I was contacted by a media outlet vetting this conclusion: “The IPO is evidence of the failure of the bailout because taxpayers were excluded from buying shares at the IPO price and, therefore, denied the opportunity to get their money back.”  Huh?

All of those analyses are wrong.  Let me dispense with the last one first, as it simply betrays a gross misunderstanding of how taxpayers are on the hook.  By divesting of GM (i.e., selling its shares), the government is beginning to make the taxpayer whole.  But just as there were no checks written directly from taxpayers to GM, there will be no checks written to taxpayers, as the Treasury liquidates the public’s share of GM.  Whether main street Americans could participate in the IPO has nothing to do with making the taxpayer whole.  And, by the way, IPOs typically limit sales of shares at the initial price to a chosen few.  So let’s just shelve the canned indignation on this claim.  It’s a distraction.

Here’s the real issue.  Today’s IPO is nothing more than testament to the fact that the government threw GM a lifeline, enabling the company to expunge most of its debts and firm up its balance sheet on terms more favorable than a normal bankruptcy process would have yielded.  That enabled GM to partake of the cyclically growing U.S. auto market in 2010 and turn a profit through the first three quarters.  So what?  Did anyone really think that a chosen company so coddled and insulated from market realities couldn’t turn a short-run profit?  Yes, even GM, under those favorable conditions should have been expected to turn a profit this year.

But at what cost?  That answer—even the question—seems to be elusive in the public discussion of the IPO.  The cost was not only $50 billion—the amount diverted to GM in the first place.  Nor was it that $50 billion minus the proceeds raised in today’s IPO (and minus the proceeds raised later when the government divests entirely of GM – it will still hold 33% of GM after today).  In other words, making taxpayers whole does not absolve the Bush and Obama administration’s for the auto intervention.  Recouping the $50 billion only gets us partially out of the hole.  (And I’m not even sure who “us” includes because the costs are so far reaching.)

Yes, GM is making sales and accounting for market share, but only at the expense of the other automakers.  Had GM been forced to severely atrophy or liquidate, the other automakers would have had greater revenues, more market share, and probably higher profits).  They would have been able to attract GM’s best engineers and line workers.  They would have more money to invest in R&D and to lead the industry into the future.  Instead, by keeping GM in the mix, some of those industry resources remain misallocated in a company that the evolutionary market process would have made smaller or extinct. 

The auto industry wasn’t rescued with the GM bailout.  GM was “rescued.”  By rescuing GM, the government overrode market forces, and there are significant costs to assign for that.  Witness the stagnant economy with 9.6 percent unemployment.  Is it not plausible that businesses are sitting on their cash and not investing or hiring because of the fear inspired by the government interventions starting with the bank and auto bailouts?  It’s more than plausible.  The regime uncertainty that persists to this day was spawned by the GM bailout and other interventions.

What about the weakening of the rule of law?  Doesn’t the diversion of TARP funds by the Bush administration, in circumvention of congress’s wishes and in contravention of the language of the law, represent a cost?  How about the property right of preferred bondholders who were forced to take pennies on their investment dollars under the Obama bankruptcy plan?  Any costs there?  What about U.S. moral authority to dissuade other goverments from meddling in their markets or indulging industrial policy?  That may be costly to U.S. enterprises.  And with the government still holding a third of GM, its hard to swallow the idea that public interest will be the driver of policies affecting the auto industry.  And that suggests even more costs.

But don’t mistake this blog post for an anti-IPO rant.  I’m in favor of the IPO.  It couldn’t have happened sooner.  But I suspect the investment bankers, the administration, and the other members of GM’s Board of Directors reckoned that, with the hype over the new Chevy Volt and the recent newsleak of GM’s $43 billion in unorthodox tax deferrments on the balance sheet, now was the perfect time to go public.