Tag: regulations

No Time for Mercantilist Posturing in Transatlantic Trade Talks

Pitched as a cure for Europe’s woes, salvation for the multilateral trading system, and the last best chance to restrain the Chinese juggernaut, the stakes are high for the upcoming Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. Of course the primary objective of the TTIP is to reduce nagging impediments to commerce between the United States and the European Union. But success is far from a sure bet.

Given the numerous bilateral trade frictions that have eluded resolution for many years, the goal of a “comprehensive” agreement by the end of 2014 – the current target – is simply not credible. Success would require negotiators to lay down their calculators and spreadsheets, disavow the “exports good, imports bad” mantra of mercantilist doctrine on which they were raised, and act on behalf of their citizens instead of their domestic producer lobbies.

That outcome would be too good to be true, but there may be a certain genius to the tight timeframe: it will demand that negotiators forego excessive posturing and will limit the potential for ever-shifting political calculations to subvert progress. Regardless, success can only take the form of a less comprehensive agreement or, perhaps, a two-phased agreement where the first phase meets the 2014 deadline by achieving accord on relatively agreeable matters, while the tougher issues are relegated to a later train.

A recent paper co-published by the Atlantic Council and the Bertelsmann Foundation presented the results of a survey of American and European trade policy experts about the prospects for a successful TTIP agreement. More than half thought the negotiations would produce a “moderate agreement,” and most thought the agreement would take effect by the end of 2015 or 2016.

Enron: Dependent on Government

A new piece at the Library of Economics and Liberty written by Robert J. Bradley is a timely reminder that it’s often government policies that fosters bad corporate behavior—not the “free market” as the left likes to claim.

Bradley, a sixteen year employee of the now defunct Enron Corporation, demonstrates that the company was actually “a political colossus with a unique range of rent-seeking and subsidy-receiving operations.” Manipulating the tax code, pushing for self-serving government regulations, and grabbing taxpayer handouts were all key components of Enron’s energy empire. It’s not a stretch to suggest that in the absence of government, the Enron story never happens.

In my recent Cato paper on corporate welfare in the federal budget, I discuss the government subsidies that Enron received:

Enron Corporation is a poster child for the harm of business subsidies, particularly with regard to its disastrous foreign investments. Enron lobbied government officials to expand export subsidy programs, and it received billions of dollars in aid for its projects from the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the U.S. Maritime Administration, and other agencies. Enron received about $3.7 billion in financing through federal government agencies.

Business subsidies create damaging economic distortions. All those subsidies to Enron induced the firm to make exceptionally risky foreign investments. And the resulting losses were an important factor in the company’s implosion.

A 2010 Bloomberg investigation, which looked at the Ex-Im Bank, found that companies seeking financing aid from this agency had been paying the travel expenses of government employees on visits to projects under consideration. For instance, Exxon Mobil spent almost $100,000 on Ex-Im Bank employees responsible for helping the agency decide whether it should aid Exxon on a major gas project in Papua New Guinea. Eleven months later, the Ex-Im Bank approved $3 billion in financing for the venture.

Early in the Bush administration, high-level officials went to considerable lengths to help Enron on an investment in India that had gone bad. When the Washington Post reported this in 2002, the administration argued that it was simply trying to guard taxpayer interests in the more than $600 million in federal loans that had been given to Enron by Ex-Im and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. However, the government should not be putting taxpayer money into such risky private schemes in the first place.

The Trouble with Zakaria’s Assessment of the Economy

Fareed Zakaria is a good journalist. But he’s also human. In his Washington Post column yesterday, Zakaria concludes that President Obama has a stronger case to make for his economic prescriptions than does Governor Romney. However, that conclusion—at least as presented in the column—is premised on a misreading of some recently published data.

Zakaria distills President Obama’s message down to the belief that investment in infrastructure, education, training, basic sciences, and technologies of the future are key to economic recovery, while Romney argues that relief from taxes and excessive regulatory burdens is the answer.

While both views have merit in Zakaria’s estimation, Obama has the stronger case. Why? Because Romney is barking about a relatively insignificant problem, concludes Zakaria:

We need a tax and regulatory structure that creates strong incentives for businesses to flourish. The thing is, we already have one.

To support that claim, Zakaria cites a figure from the 2011-12 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report that ranks the United States 5th (out of 142 countries) and concludes that “whether compared with our own past—of, say, 30 years ago—or with other countries, the United States has become more business-friendly.” The problem is that he’s citing the wrong number and, thus, reaching the wrong conclusion.

The United States is ranked 5th on the overall global competitiveness index, which is a weighted value reflecting scores assigned for 12 broad criteria presumed to affect “competitiveness,” including: (1) institutions, (2) infrastructure, (3) macroeconomic environment, (4) health and primary education, (5) higher education and training, (6) goods market efficiency, (7) labor market efficiency, (8) financial market development, (9) technological readiness, (10) market size, (11) business sophistication, and (12) innovation.  U.S. scores on regulations and taxes contribute to that final ranking, but 5th is not where the United States ranks on those criteria.

To add another layer of complexity, the scores assigned to each of these 12 criteria are derived by weight-averaging the scores from individual survey questions. For example, there are 21 questions related to the first criteria, “institutions”—questions about property rights, public trust of politicians, judicial independence, transparency of government policymaking, etc. There are nine questions that feed into the infrastructure score; six that feed into the macroeconomic environment score, 16 that comprise the goods market efficiency score, and so on.

Zakaria errs by citing the overall, weighted average U.S. rank of 5th to support his assertion that we already have a tax and regulatory structure that creates strong incentives for business to flourish. That relatively high ranking reflects a few obvious U.S. advantages—tax and regulatory structure not being among them. The United States ranks fairly high with respect to some criteria, including “market size,” “university-industry collaboration in R&D” (which feeds into the innovation criterion), “strength of investor protection” (institutions), “availability of airline seats” (infrastructure), “inflation” (macroeconomic environment), “extent of marketing” (business sophistication), and a few others.

But on taxes and regulations, the U.S. ranks poorly. On the “Burden of Government Regulation,” the United States ranked 58th with a score of 3.4 on a scale from 0-to-7, slightly above the global average of 3.3. On the “Extent and Effect of Taxation,” the United States ranked 63rd out of 142 countries. On “Total Tax Rate, % Profits,” the United States came in 96th out of 142. On the issues that President Obama is pushing, the United States performs better than on those Romney advocates, which seriously weakens Zakaria’s argument.

The United States ranks 24th on quality of total infrastructure, better than on taxes and regulations. Likewise for “technological readiness” and “innovation.” “Higher education” (but not “job training”) generates bad scores for the United States, but clearly not for lack of spending. You can dig into the data here, and you’ll find that they tell a very different story than the one you may have read in yesterday’s Post.

Of course, Zakaria might still believe Obama has the stronger argument. But we should all be clear about the fact that regulations and taxes are real and growing problems, and that dismissing them as insignificant, even if inadvertent, doesn’t help policymakers find the solutions. Combine those impediments to investment and hiring with the growing perception that crony capitalism is on the rise (U.S. rank: 50th out of 142), that customs procedures present obstacles to global supply chains (rank: 58th of 142), that U.S. public debt weighs heavily on the economy (rank: 132th of 142), and that government spending is on a ruinous path (rank: 139th of 142 countries), and it becomes more apparent why an increasingly mobile business community often seeks the refuge and relatively warm embrace of foreign shores.

Government, Education, and Freedom

I did the above interview recently with ChoiceMedia.tv on the subject of education tax credits and vouchers, in which I argued that credits are a better way of ensuring universal access to the education marketplace. Credits can either directly reduce the taxes owed by families who pay for their own children’s education (as in Illinois and Iowa), or they can offset donations taxpayers make to non-profit k-12 scholarship programs that provide tuition assistance to the poor (as in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and several other states).

The interview elicited an important question from a commenter: If financial assistance for the poor comes from scholarship programs, isn’t there a risk that those programs will impose restrictions on how the scholarships can be used, thereby curtailing poor families’ educational options?

Minimizing that problem is actually one of the many reasons to prefer education tax credits over vouchers. Any time someone other than the parents is footing the bill for a child’s education, there is the risk that this third party is going to limit parents’ choices. The worst case, historically, has been when that third party is the government. When governments pay for schooling, there is a single set of regulations on what choices parents can make, and there is no way to avoid those regulations short of rejecting the financial assistance altogether—which the poorest families have difficulty doing. Vouchers bring with them this single set of government rules (and it is often an extensive one as I discovered in this study).

By contrast, scholarship tax credit programs, like the one in Pennsylvania, give rise to a multitude of different organizations that provide tuition assistance to poor families. If any one of those organizations decides to impose a particular set of restrictions on the use of its scholarships, it has no effect on any of the other organizations. Parents looking for financial assistance are thus free to seek it from a scholarship organization that aligns with their needs and values. The multiplicity of different sources of funding is instrumental—in fact it is essential—in ensuring that poor parents’ choices are not curtailed.

I’ve made this argument in a variety of places, most recently in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in the Arizona tax credit case ACSTO v. Winn.

How Judges Protect Liberty

In my Encyclopedia Britannica column this week, I take a look at “the responsibility of judges to strike down laws, regulations, and executive and legislative actions that exceed the authorized powers of government, violate individual rights, or fail to adhere to the rules of due process.”

Certainly they don’t always live up to those expectations, as Robert A. Levy and William Mellor wrote in The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom

The column might have been more timely last summer, when Judge Andrew Napolitano concluded one of his Freedom Watch programs on the Fox Business Channel by hailing four federal judges who had courageously and correctly struck down state and federal laws:

  • Judge Martin L. C. Feldman, who blocked President Obama’s moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico;
  • Judge Susan Bolton, who blocked Arizona’s restrictive immigration law;
  • Judge Henry Hudson, who refused to dismiss Virginia’s challenge to the health care mandate; and
  • Judge Vaughn Walker, who struck down California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.

That was a good summer for judicial protection of liberty. But as I note, there have been more examples this year, reminding us of James Madison’s predictions that independent judges would be “an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.”

School Choice Murder-Suicide in Pennsylvania

A huge school choice opportunity has been lost for the moment in Pennsylvania. But that lost opportunity is not the voucher program that has  drawn so much attention.

The political conflagration touched off by the push for a targeted, failing-schools voucher program incinerated along with it a massive expansion of an existing, popular, successful, bipartisan-supported, and better program; the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). The House passed this expansion of credit program by a massive margin. And when I say “massive,” I mean 96 percent in favor to 4 percent opposed. Unfortunately, a stand-alone credit bill was not considered in the Senate, and the expansion fell by the wayside as the voucher battle raged.

In the next session, it would be good policy and politics to consider vouchers and credits separately. They are substantively different means of fostering choice, and the public deserves a clear debate and vote on both policies in separate bills.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program is vastly superior to all of the voucher bills. Vouchers are open to credible legal challenges, afford no accountability directly to taxpayers, and government money brings stifling government regulations. Furthermore, giving vouchers only to kids in or around “failing schools” won’t produce a dynamic market because there is an ambiguous, limited, and potentially shifting customer base. A failing-schools voucher program is a terrible policy design.

The EITC should not be legislatively handcuffed to vouchers. Vouchers are an inferior policy and a proven political liability. For once the popular, politically smart, most principled, and most effective thing to do are all the same; drop the voucher drama and expand the education tax credit program.

Hoenig for FDIC

On July 8th, Sheila Bair will step down as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  While I believe she’s gotten a lot wrong (such as not preparing the fund for the coming crisis), she has been about the only voice among senior bank regulators for actually ending too-big-to-fail.  With her departure, we might lose that one voice.  Later this year, Kansas City Fed President Tom Hoenig is also scheduled to leave his current position.

Hoenig has actually gone beyond Bair in trying to address too-big-to-fail, having called for the largest banks to be broken up.  While I don’t believe that should be our first approach, having an advocate for both the taxpayer and the overall economy at the helm of the FDIC could make a significant difference.

Given that Section 2 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act requires the FDIC to have a bipartisan board, President Obama is faced with the choice of either appointing a non-Democrat or asking Vice-Chair Marty Gruenberg to leave.  While I have no idea as to Hoenig’s politics, he’d likely be able to pass that test.

Hoenig has also been willing to publicly challenge Bernanke on a number of issues.  Given the narrow group-think among regulators that contributed to the crisis, having a loud, credible, independent voice among bank regulators is solely needed.  Hoenig again fits that bill.  His appointment would also offer Obama a chance to show that he is not completely beholden to the Geithner “never seen a bailout I didn’t like” worldview.

Perhaps with Hoenig at the helm, we can actually begin a debate about reducing the moral hazard created by the Federal Reserve.  While Bair was all too willing to see both insurance coverage and regulatory powers of the FDIC expanded, Hoenig strikes me as open-minded to the very real excess bank risk-taking that is encouraged by the existence of the FDIC.

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