Tag: China

The Truth about Sequestration

Cato has just released a new video, titled “The Truth about Sequestration,” that tells the real story about sequestration, the automatic budget cuts required by the Budget Control Act. Many in Congress claim to abhor their creation, including many of those who voted for it, yet the members and the president haven’t done much to prevent it. Perhaps they shouldn’t do anything and let the cuts happen. In our video, my colleagues Ben Friedman and Dan Mitchell join me in explaining that, whatever its shortcomings as legislation (and there are many, as discussed below) sequestration may be the only viable way to reduce the Pentagon’s budget.

However, there’s little likelihood that sequestration will significantly reduce the defense budget long term. That’s because sequestration cuts the defense budget only in the first year. Every year after that, defense spending will increase. Spending levels will indeed be lower than the Pentagon last year expected them to be. But only in Washington is that considered a cut. So, under sequestration, instead of spending $5.7 trillion on defense over the next decade, as the FY2013 budget suggests, the government will spend about $5.2 trillion.

That $500 billion difference may not actually materialize. Congress has a few options to mitigate the effects of the initial $55 billion slice off the budget. They could reprogram funds after the sequester, change the definition of “programs, projects and activities” (the budget level at which the cuts are implemented), or take advantage of the flexibility within operations and maintenance (O&M) funds. In fact, because the Office of Management and Budget has declared that war spending is eligible to be sequestered, the total cuts to O&M can be spread out across a bigger pot of money. Beyond all that, sequestration does not affect outlays or funds already obligated, which means it will not affect existing contracts. So, the real story is that should sequestration actually happen, Congress and the Pentagon will have much more flexibility than they’re willing to admit.

Our video also highlights the fact that we spend far more on the military than is necessary. Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers and pundits have coalesced around the idea that the United States is the “indispensable nation” responsible for protecting everyone from everything. Under the misapprehension that threats anywhere in the world are necessarily threatening to the United States, we have taken on the responsibility of policing the entire planet. This increases the chances that the United States will become involved in conflicts that do not engage vital U.S. interests, or that we do not fully understand, or can easily remedy. This strategic hypochondria (H/T Ted Galen Carpenter) also burden American taxpayers with additional costs that could and should be borne by others. The video includes a nifty graphic showing the expansion of NATO. We have added a host of weak or fragile countries in the Middle East and Southwest Asia (including, still, Iraq and Afghanistan), and now we are doubling down with assurances to Asian nations that we will constrain China (and implying that they need not do so).

In short, a bloated defense budget has enabled these misguided policies, encourages free-riding by our “allies” and make us less safe abroad and less free at home. Though I would have much preferred a serious strategic debate before the current fiscal crisis, and indeed called for such a thing, sequestration should help us to refocus our national security priorities. In fact, the real story is that sequestration doesn’t restrict our choices, it enables us to make better ones.

Americans shouldn’t worry that sequestration will make our defense budget too small. We account for approximately 48 percent of the world’s military spending. We will retain a margin of superiority over any conceivable combination of rivals, including China, even if our share of military spending fell to 44 or 45 percent of the world’s total.

Sequestration was no one’s first choice, but keeping our reckless spending and strategic myopia on auto pilot is worse.

Free Trade Is Not the Same Thing as Protectionism

That sounds obvious, right? I would have thought so. But this Washington Post article on U.S.-China trade issues seems to conflate the two. There’s a lot to criticize in the article, but I want to focus on these two sentences:

WTO challenges are not the only tool the United States has to try to open China’s market. The Commerce Department has imposed dozens of tariffs on Chinese products considered unfairly priced or subsidized.

Now, World Trade Organization complaints are certainly a way to open foreign markets. But imposing tariffs on foreign products through anti-dumping and countervailing duties is not, repeat not, a way to open foreign markets. Rather, it is a way to close our markets. Not the same thing at all.

Romney’s Foreign Policy Opportunity

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duel on foreign policy this week as they both address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Romney heads off toBritain,Israel, andPoland to burnish his foreign policy credentials.  It will be difficult for Romney to overcome Obama on this set of issues.  Denizens of neoconservatism scorn the president as a weakling on terrorism and other international issues, but that is not how most Americans see him.  The killing of Osama Bin Laden (as well as dozens of other high-level al Qaeda operatives) has largely inoculated Obama against the “weak on terrorism” allegation, and the public generally gives him decent marks on most other foreign policy issues.

In the two areas where there has been grumbling about the president’s performance—escalating and perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and doing little about the bloated Pentagon budget—Romney’s neoconservative allies advocate measures that most voters dislike even more than they do Obama’s approach.  If Romney is to seize the opportunity to score points against the president on foreign policy, he needs to break with the hawkish extremists in his party and take a very different tack than he has done so far in the campaign.  Unfortunately, his harsh statements toward China and Russia—including describing the latter as America’s principal global adversary—and his alarmingly bellicose rhetoric toward Iran suggest that he is taking his foreign policy positions from George W. Bush’s playbook.  That is a bad move both politically and in terms of good policy.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney should outline a new security strategy built on the foundation of cautious, national-interest realism—a position that once characterized the GOP and still finds some resonance among the party’s rank and file.  That move, though, would require him to challenge the neoconservative conventional wisdom on four major issues.

First, he needs to advocate a prompt withdrawal of U.S.forces from Afghanistan, even faster than the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to have U.S.forces out of that country in 2014.  The intervention in Afghanistanis the poster child for how a limited and justified punitive expedition against a terrorist adversary (al Qaeda) can morph into an open-ended, nation-building crusade on behalf of an inept, corrupt Third Worldgovernment.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern whether Romney has a policy regardingAfghanistan.  To the extent he has said anything substantive on the issue, it creates worries that he may want to keep American troops in that snake pit indefinitely.

Adopting a new, smarter position onAfghanistanleads to the second point Romney should emphasize in his VFW speech: a repudiation of nation building as aU.S.foreign policy goal.  It is bitterly ironic that, beginning with the Bush administration, Republicans seem to have become more enthusiastic than Democrats about humanitarian interventions and nation-building ventures.  Republicans rightly used to scorn such crusades as wasteful, utopian schemes.  Condoleezza Rice once remarked that it should not be the mission of theU.S.military to escort children to school in foreign countries.  Romney needs to return the GOP to that wise skepticism.

Third, Romney should advocate a complete reassessment ofWashington’s overgrown network of formal and informal security commitments around the world.  It is absurd for theUnited Statesto continue subsidizing the defense of allies in Europe andEast Asiatwo decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.  Those allies shamelessly free ride on America’s security exertions, choosing to under-invest in their own defenses and refusing to make a serious effort to manage the security affairs in their respective regions.  Even if theU.S.government was cash-rich and running chronic budget surpluses, the current policy toward obsolete alliances would be wasteful and ill-advised.  Maintaining such a policy whenWashingtonhas to borrow money fromChinaand other foreign creditors to do so, borders on insanity.

Reassessing alliances and other security commitments points to the final change that Romney should advocate: a willingness to cut military spending.  The United Statesspends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.  The House of Representatives just voted to appropriate $606 billion for defense—and that figure does not include $11 billion to pay for the nuclear arsenal, a budget item housed in the Energy Department.  Instead of promising to increase military spending to four percent of GDP—an extra of $2.5 trillion over ten years—Romney should reverse course and support cutting that bureaucracy’s budget as part of an overall austerity program for the federal government.  And as noted, the overseas missions should be trimmed or eliminated to match the capabilities and budget of a smaller force.

Such an agenda might not please the attendees at the VFW convention, and it certainly would not please the junior varsity from the Bush-Cheney administration that Romney has been relying upon thus far for advice on foreign policy.  But it would appeal to a wide swath of American voters and put Barack Obama on the defensive.  Most important, it would be a wise policy alternative for the American republic.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Romney, Kerry Miss the Point on Threats: Size Matters

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is the latest person to mock Mitt Romney’s declaration that the Russian Federation “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” It was a pretty silly statement, particularly given the fact that Russia is a demographic basket case and a very humble economic power. But there’s all sorts of weirdness going on in Romney’s assertions and those of his critics.

Take, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s follow up to the Romney assertion:

BLITZER:  But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let’s say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that—is that what you’re suggesting, Governor?

ROMNEY:  Well, I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors.  Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran.  A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these—these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when—when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go—we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And—and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a—a massive nuclear power, Russia is the—the geopolitical foe and—and the—and they’re—the idea that our president is—is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

In fairness to Governor Romney, it does seem like he realizes he’s made a gaffe here, so he tries to back up and take another run at it. But in doing so, he just makes it worse. Taking a mulligan, he tries to pivot from the Russia allegation by folding in Iran (“the greatest threat the world faces”) and North Korea, and gesturing at Syria.

It’s the same thing Kerry does in his condescending lecture to Romney:

We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth.

Both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves. And they ought to be light-headed from the amount of threat inflation they’re doing. We spend too much time debating the relative size of our enemies and too little debating their absolute size. Every country at all times has a #1, #2, and #3 “geopolitical foe.” But the threat environments posed by those foes vary radically.

In a better world, American political elites would discuss the absolute level of threat they face rather than just bickering over our enemies’ batting order. As Ben Friedman and I recently wrote in Orbis:

The dirty little secret of U.S. defense politics is that the United States is safe—probably the most secure great power in modern history. Weak neighbors, vast ocean barriers, nuclear weapons and the wealth to build up forces make almost nonexistent the threats that militaries traditionally existed to thwart. Americans cannot seriously fear territorial conquest, civil war, annexation of peripheral territories, or blockade. What passes for enemies here are small potatoes compared with what worried most states at most times. Most U.S. military interventions affect U.S. security at best marginally. We have hopes and sometimes interests in the places where we send troops, but no matter how much we repeat it to honor the troops, it is untrue that they are fighting to protect our freedom.

Part of the reason our national security politics are pathological is that we focus disproportionately on debating which enemy is the biggest without stopping to ask how big the enemies are.

If your three biggest problems are being infected with Black Death, having a bull rhino charging at you, and being knee-deep in quicksand, you can wonder—for a few seconds, at least—which is your #1 problem. Similarly, if your three biggest problems are that you got into an argument with your spouse about who left a dish in the sink, your shoelaces are untied, and you can’t log in to Facebook, you can puzzle over which of those is bigger. But only a fool would miss the distinctions between the two scenarios.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Solar Panels Trade Case Mocks Washington’s Ways

Later today the U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to announce preliminary antidumping duties on solar panels from China. This case might normally be met with an exasperated sigh and chalked up as just another example of myopic, self-flagellating, capricious U.S. antidumping policy toward China.

But in this instance the absurdity is magnified by the fact that Washington has already devoted billions of dollars in production subsidies and consumption tax credits in an effort to invent a non-trivial market for solar energy in the United States.  Imposing duties only undermines that objective. With brand new levies on imports to add to the duties already being imposed on the same products to “countervail” the lower prices afforded U.S. consumers by the Chinese government’s production subsidies, the administration’s already-expensive mission will become even more so – perhaps prohibitively so.

It’s not that President Obama and the Congress woke up one morning and agreed to craft policies that simultaneously promote and deter U.S. solar energy consumption. But that’s what Washington – with its meddling ethos and self-righteous politicians – has wrought: policies working at cross-purposes.

The Economic Report of the President in 2010 (published before Solyndra became a household name) boasts of the administration’s tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for production and tax credits for consumption of solar panels. This industrial policy continues to this day and there is no greater cheerleader for solar than the president himself. In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama said:

I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.

One month later, noting that 16 solar projects have been approved on public land since he took office, the president said:

[Solar] is an industry on the rise. It’s a source of energy that’s becoming cheaper. And more and more businesses are starting to take notice.

The president has couched his support for solar in terms of what he sees as the environmental imperative of reducing carbon emissions and slowing global warming. Thus his policy aim is to encourage consumption by making solar less expensive to retail consumers with production subsidies and consumption tax credits. (Of course, lower-cost solar is a mirage – accounting smoke and mirrors – because the subsidies come from current taxpayers and the tax credits deprive the Treasury of revenues already earmarked, forcing the government to borrow, burdening future taxpayers with principle and interest debt, which is paid with higher taxes down the road).

However, the president also sees solar and other green technologies as industries that will create great value, spawn new ideas and technologies, keep the United States at the top of the global value chain, and serve as reliable jobs creators going forward. And he seems to think that realization of that objective requires his running interference on behalf of U.S. producers.  He says:

Countries like China are moving even faster… . I’m not going to settle for a situation where the United States comes in second place or third place or fourth place in what will be the most important economic engine in the future.

There is nothing incompatible about holding the simultanous beliefs that greater use of solar power could reduce carbon emissions and that a solar industry has great potential to spur innovation, create value, and support good-paying jobs.  But promoting the realization of both premises simultaneously through policy intervention is a fools errand, and we are caught in its midst.

Efforts to protect and nurture these chosen industries by keeping foreign competitors at bay is incompatible with the president’s environmentally-driven objective of increasing retail demand for solar energy.  Intervening to reduce the supply of solar panels will cause prices to rise and rising prices (particularly in light of abundant cheap alternatives like natural gas) will cause demand to fall.  Sure, we may be left with some protected producers in the short-run, but how will they endure without customers.

That question is, apparently, far from minds of perennial interventionist Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and arch-protectionist Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).  Just this week, the duo released a proposal that would make ineligible for the 30% tax credit, solar panels made outside of the United States, claiming that “Chinese solar panel producers’ eligibility for tax credit undercuts Amercian companies and jobs.”  The senators should tell that to the American business owners and employees in the much larger and more economically significant downstream industries that install and service solar panels in the United States.  The proposal would cause a dramtic increase in the retail price of solar panels and imperil livelihoods in these downstream industries.

This Cato video should be required viewing for Washington’s meddling policymakers.

Law of the Sea Treaty: A Tool to Combat Iran, China, and Russia?

Every few years, the Law of the Sea Treaty rears its head as a one-size-fits-all solution to a host of current maritime problems. This time, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, are urging the Senate to ratify the treaty. The officials claim it will act as a tool to deal with aggressive actions by Iran, China, and Russia. But as I have long argued, no matter the current rationale for the treaty, it represents a bad deal for the United States.

Panetta and Dempsey rolled out three hot issues to make their case:

  • Iran is threatening the world economy in the Strait of Hormuz? The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) will help solve this.
  • China is threatening the Philippines in the South China Sea? LOST is a crucial tool to prevent war.
  • Russia is claiming land in the Arctic region to extract natural resources? LOST will put the screws to Moscow.

These international controversies will be magically resolved if only the Senate ratifies the convention.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. It is not clear the treaty would do much at all to alleviate these flashpoints. Especially since the two most important potential antagonists, China and Russia, already have ratified LOST. And it is certainly not the best option policy-wise for the United States with each issue: Iran’s bluster in the Strait of Hormuz may prove its weakness. U.S. policy in the South China Sea suffers from a far more serious flaw: encouraging free-riding by allied states. Russia’s move into the Arctic has nothing to do with Washington’s absence from LOST.

The treaty itself, not substantially altered since 1994, is still plagued by the same problems that have halted its ratification for decades. Primarily, it will cede decisionmaking on seabed and maritime issues to a large, complex, unwieldy bureaucracy that will be funded heavily by—wait for it—the Untied States.

On national security, the U.S. Navy does not need such a treaty to operate freely. Its power relative to all other navies is the ultimate guarantee. Serious maritime challengers do not exist today. Russia’s navy is a rusted relic; China has yet to develop capabilities that come close to matching ours. Moreover, it is doubtful that the United States needs to defend countries such as the Philippines when flashpoints over islands in the region affect no vital American interests.

The average American knows very little about this treaty, and rightly so. It is an unnecessarily complicated and entangling concoction that accomplishes little that the longstanding body of customary international law on the high-seas or the dynamics of markets do not account for. My conclusion in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2004 still holds true:

All in all, the LOST remains captive to its collectivist and redistributionist origins. It is a bad agreement, one that cannot be fixed without abandoning its philosophical presupposition that the seabed is the common heritage of the world’s politicians and their agents, the Authority and Enterprise. The issue is not just abstract philosophical principle, but very real American interests, including national security. For these reasons, the Senate should reject the treaty.

The TPP Trade Negotiations Need More Japan and Less Detroit

If you harbor any doubts that the parameters of U.S. trade policy are defined by a few politically-important domestic industries, take a look at the debate over whether Japan should be allowed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

Did you miss it?  That’s because there really hasn’t been much debate; there has been near-unanimous support for the idea in the United States.

In December 2011, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative requested comments from the public about Japan’s expression of interest in joining the TPP talks.  In response, 115 submissions were filed on behalf of various U.S. interests (small to large companies, trade associations, unions, and other NGOs).  Five of the responses flat out rejected the idea of Japan’s participation; five expressed a willingness to support Japan’s participation with conditions, and 105 expressed no-strings-attached support for Japan joining the talks.  In other words, 91 percent of the respondents were unequivocally in favor of Japan’s participation in the negotiations.

Yet, four months after reviewing those comments, the Obama administration is equivocal about the matter.

With 91 percent in favor, the only formula that could produce executive equivocation is one that weights extremely heavily the views of those expressing opposition to Japan’s participation.  Which of these five dissenters’ views are likely to be getting extra special consideration from the administration on this matter: Humane Society International, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission, the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, or the American Automotive Policy Council (hint: the lobbying arm of the “Detroit 3” – Ford, GM, and Chrysler)?

Yes, the same GM that American taxpayers bailed out and are still involuntarily vested in to the tune of $27 billion has interest in seeing those same taxpayers denied the enormous benefits of liberalizing trade with the world’s third largest economy.  And yes, this is the same Chrysler that masquerades as an American company (remember the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl ad), but is owned by the Italian automaker Fiat. Add that little detail to the fact that GM produces more cars in China than it does in the United States and one has to question how, exactly, the process of U.S. trade policy formulation is reality-based.

There is nothing wrong with companies investing across borders and producing wherever they can to serve demand across the globe.  Indeed, freedom of capital, trade, and labor should be the rule, not the exception that it is today.  Likewise, it is to be expected that companies will respond to incentives and if policy is perceived as malleable, the incentive to influence favorable outcomes will motivate companies to lobby.  And as entities beholden to the fiduciary duty to maximize profits for shareholders, these companies try to influence the rules to their own advantages.  But who’s watching over the hen-house here?  Policymakers have a responsibility to the public interest, not to specific industries or companies.

What is proper, democratic, or civic-minded about U.S. policy formulated with the views of a few politically-favored companies – companies that are lobbying foreign governments on some of the very same issues – trumping the opinions of a diverse 91 percent of respondent interests?  If the goal of trade policy is to deliver the benefits of trade liberalization to a broad cross-section of Americans, then why is there this egregious imbalance of influence on the process? What is the point of collecting comments from the public on such matters, if not just to create the illusions of policy accessibility and transparency?  The whole exercise renders trade policy indistinguishable from corporate welfare and gives trade a bad name.

Consider the realpolitik of the matter.  The Chinese government sees the TPP negotiations as a U.S.-led effort to counter China’s growing influence, a perception the administration has not been shy about helping to cultivate.  Presumably, the Chinese government would like to see those efforts fail, and one way to undermine the TPP is to ensure that Japan stays out.  How might China accomplish that?  GM and Ford have big and growing stakes in a Chinese auto market that has been subject to various regulations to control rapid demand growth and stifling traffic congestion.  Might GM’s and Ford’s adamant opposition to Japan’s joining the TPP negotiations be animated by these considerations?  The argument put forward by the American Automotive Policy Council that Japan should be excluded from even negotiating because it has allegedly impermeable non-tariff barriers seems to miss the whole point that negotiations are where those barriers are discussed and, ultimately, dismantled.  It’s like disqualifying someone for a haircut because he wears his hair too long.  To my mind (and I neither offer nor have any proof), the adamancy of AAPC’s opposition whiffs of their trying to uphold their end of a bargain with Beijing.

Another explanation put forth for official U.S. equivocation over Japan is that the administration wants to proceed quickly, but the Japanese government itself has not decided whether it even wants to join the negotiations.  Even if Japan were entirely committed to the negotiations and had no domestic opposition to overcome, the process would be slower.  But there is domestic opposition in Japan, so, in fairness, the Obama administration’s concern for Detroit’s feelings doesn’t present the only obstacle.

Getting the deal done quickly is a valid reason to oppose Japan’s participation if the administration sees the TPP only as a means to a political end: having a deal – a relatively minor one, no doubt – to tout before November.  But this isn’t going to be done before November 2013, let alone November 2012.  And the economics of a Japan-less deal are, frankly, underwhelming.

Japan is the world’s third largest economy and the fourth largest trading partner of the United States.  The $6 trillion Japanese economy is more than double the size of the economies of the eight current U.S. negotiating partners combined.  The $200 billion in two-way trade between the United States and Japan equals that of trade between the United States and all of the eight current negotiating partners combined – and the United States already has free trade agreements with four of them.  If there are good reasons for pursuing a trade agreement with the eight, the reasons are much stronger if Japan is included.


Just a few short weeks ago, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk waxed in the Wall Street Journal about the importance of the U.S. services sector industries.  In a piece titled “Rethinking ‘Made in America’,” Ambassador Kirk made the point that the United States is a services-exporting powerhouse and that industries in those sectors would drive growth and job creation in the 21st century. He wrote:

A commitment to services exports is why services and investment are a [sic] cornerstone of the current nine-country Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, in which the U.S. is seeking broad, nondiscriminatory market access for a wide range of services.

There isn’t a bigger ready-market for U.S. services in the world than Japan’s, but as of this moment an icon of the 20th century’s manufacturing economy is in the driver’s seat of this 21st century agreement.

Those who claim to want to move fast assert that Japan can always accede to the agreement at a later date – when it is good and certain that it wants to join.  But there are no guarantees that Japan would want to get into the club on terms undoubtedly less favorable than those it could secure as a charter member.  Rather than view the TPP as a model for the region, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Canada, Mexico, China and even Europe might create their own alternative.  If the TPP is to have guaranteed drawing power, it needs the anchor of a large Asian economy.  And adding Canada and Mexico makes the endeavor all the more worthwhile.