Tag: Wall Street Journal

Predictions for 2010

I was just listening to the December CatoAudio interview with Tom Palmer and Ian Vasquez about the fall of the Soviet empire 20 years ago, and Tom mentioned that even as late as October 7, 1989, when the East German government held a gala celebration of its 40th year in power, no one anticipated that within a month the Wall would open and communism would come to an abrupt end in eastern Europe.

And then I looked at the predictions of various scholars and pundits at Politico’s Arena one year ago today and noticed how wrong most of them were – Terry McAuliffe would be elected governor of Virginia, Rod Blagojevich would still be governor in April, Iran would test a nuclear weapon, several Republican members of Congress would switch to the Democratic Party (!), Justice Stevens would retire. No one predicted the surge of small-government, anti-spending sentiment, which was arguably the top political story of 2009.

And then, looking up who said “Nobody knows anything” (screenwriter William Goldman, about Hollywood), I stumbled on this blog post from October 2008:

I pulled from my desk drawer a copy of the Wall Street Journal from Wednesday, May 23, 2007.

It was not a particularly notable day.  The bull market was in force, and the Dow was hitting new highs … even though gasoline prices were at record levels.  But here at Cabot we had been noting a growing divergence in the market; both the NYSE Advance-Decline Line and the Nasdaq had failed to confirm the Dow’s high.  Also, we detected a high level of optimism among both investors and the general media.  So I saved The Wall Street Journal, in part because of the lead article that announced, “Why Market Optimists Say This Bull Has Legs.”

The subhead of the article followed with, “They See Decade of Gain Fed by Global Growth; Skeptics Cite Big Doubts.”…

So I reread the article and what did I find?  Fundamental talk about global growth, low interest rates and a technology revolution that would boost productivity.  [One bull] even had the courage to utter the phrase that makes an experienced investor quail, ” … it really is different this time.”

Also given ink were the detractors, who claimed that reversion to the mean was inevitable, that low interest rates couldn’t last, and that the weak dollar and above-average P/E ratios would eventually pull the market down.

But here’s what I found interesting (in hindsight):  Not once in the entire article did anyone mention credit!!!

Today, we know from our rearview mirror that credit was the culprit of a decline that has crushed the global financial system.  But just 17 months ago, a reporter looking for reasons the bull might not last found no one mentioning credit!

All of which is to explain why you’re not going to find any predictions for 2010 in this post.

Topics:

Obama’s Copenhagen Speech

Politico asks, “Was he convincing?”

My response:

In Copenhagen this morning, President Obama convinced only those who want to believe — of which, regrettably, there is no shortage.  Notice how he began, utterly without doubt:  “You would not be here unless you, like me, were convinced that this danger is real.  This is not fiction, this is science.”  The implicit certitude is no part of real science, of course.  But then the president, like the environmental zealots cheering him in Copenhagen, is not really interested in real science.  Theirs, ultimately, is a political agenda.  How else to explain the corruption of science that the East Anglia Climate Research email scandal has brought to light, and the efforts, presently, to dismiss the scandal as having no bearing on the evidence of climate change?  If that were so, then why these efforts, or the earlier suppression of contrary or mitigating evidence that is the heart of the scandal?

We find such an effort in this morning’s Washington Post, by one of those at the center of the scandal, Penn State’s Professor Michael E. Mann.  Set aside his opening gambit — “I cannot condone some things that colleagues of mine wrote or requested” — this author of the famous, now infamous, “hockey stick” article seems not to recognize himself in Climategate.  That he then goes after Sarah Palin as his critic suggests only that on a witness stand, confronted by his real critics, he’d be reduced to tears by even a mediocre lawyer.  One such real critic is my colleague, climatologist Patrick J. Michaels, who documents the scandal and its implications for science in exquisite detail in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

But to return to the president and his speech, having uncritically subscribed to the science of global warming, Mr. Obama then lays out an ambitious policy agenda for the nation.  We will meet our responsibility, he says, by phasing out fossil fuel subsidies (which pale in comparison to the renewable energy subsidies that alone make them economically feasible), we will put our people to work increasing efficiency in our homes and buildings, and we will pursue “comprehensive legislation to transform to a clean energy economy.”

Mark that word “legislation,” because at the end of his speech the president said:  ”America has made our choice.  We have charted our course, we have made our commitments, and we will do what we say.”  But we haven’t made “our choice” — cap and trade, to take just one example, has gone nowhere in the Senate — even if Obama has made “our commitments.”  And that brings us to a fundamental question:  Can the president, with no input from a recalcitrant Congress, commit the nation to the radical economic conversion he promises?

Environmental zealots say he can.  Look at the report released last week by the Climate Law Institute’s Center for Biological Diversity, “Yes He Can: President Obama’s Power to Make an International Climate Commitment Without Waiting for Congress,” which argues that in Copenhagen Obama has all the power he needs under current law, quite apart from the will of Congress or the American people, to make a legally binding international commitment.  Unfortunately, under current law, the report is right.  I discuss that report and the larger constitutional implications of the modern “executive state” in this morning’s National Review Online.

There is enough ambiguity in the president’s remarks this morning to suggest that he may not be prepared to exercise the full measure of his powers.  But there is also enough in play to suggest that it is not only the corruption of science but the corruption of our Constitution that is at stake.

“Send Us Your Tired, Your Poor, But Only if They’re ‘Culturally Unique’ ”

That’s the title of a Wall Street Journal article detailing the latest idiocy to come out of our immigration system.  It seems that if you’re a musician trying to get a visa to perform in the United States, you have to prove to some bureaucrat’s satisfaction that your music either is “culturally unique” or has “achieved international recognition and acclaim.”  (Query: Does the Department of Homeland Security now require immigration caseworkers to have degrees in musicology or fine arts?)

The article chronicles the various travails of performers who are either so innovative – perish the thought! – as to not fit into an easily defined cultural category or haven’t yet reached U2-like levels of popularity. 

Reads one denial: “The evidence repeatedly suggests the group performs a hybrid or fusion style of music … [which] cannot be considered culturally unique to one particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe or other group of persons.”

Reads another: “Being internationally acclaimed is not equivalent to performing on stages overseas.”

You can’t make this stuff up!  It reminds me of my own immigration plight – which ended happily earlier this year – whereby I shot myself in the foot by, among other ridiculous things, getting my education in the United States instead of acquiring legal expertise abroad (at lesser institutions, making myself less valuable to the U.S. legal market).

I’ve heard some talk that Congress will take up immigration reform after it finishes with health care, though I can’t imagine that happening in an election year.  In any event, I’ve long believed that our immigration non-policy is the worst part of the U.S. government (which should say something, coming from someone at Cato).

For more on our work on immigration policy, go here.

Today’s White House ‘Jobs Summit’

Today’s Politico Arena asks:

The WH Jobs Summit: “A little less conversation? A little more action? ( please)”

My response:

Today’s White House “jobs summit” reflects little more, doubtless, than growing administration panic over the political implications of the unemployment picture.  With the 2010 election season looming just ahead, and little prospect that unemployment numbers will soon improve, Democrats feel compelled to “do something” – reflecting their general belief that for nearly every problem there’s a government solution.  Thus, this summit is heavily stacked with proponents of government action.  This morning’s Wall Street Journal tells us, for example, that “AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is proposing a plan that would extend jobless benefits, send billions in relief to the states, open up credit to small businesses, pour more into infrastructure projects, and bring throngs of new workers onto the federal payroll – at a cost of between $400 billion and $500 billion.”  If Obama falls for that, we’ll be in this recession far beyond the 2010 elections.
 
The main reason we’re in this mess, after all, is because government – from the Fed’s easy money to the Community Reinvestment Act and the policies of Freddy and Fannie – encouraged what amounted to a giant Ponzi scheme.  So what is the administration’s response to this irresponsible behavior?  Why, it’s brainchilds like ”cash for clunkers,” which cost taxpayers $24,000 for each car sold.  Comedians can’t make this stuff up.  It takes big-government thinkers.
 
Americans will start to find jobs not when government pays them to sweep streets or caulk their own homes but when small businesses get back on their feet.  Yet that won’t happen as long as the kinds of taxes and national indebtedness that are inherent in such schemes as ObamaCare hang over our heads.  Milton Friedman put it well:  “No one spends someone else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.”  Yet the very definition of Obamanomics is spending other people’s money.  If he’s truly worried about the looming 2010 elections (and beyond), Mr. Obama should look to the editorial page of this morning’s Wall Street Journal, where he’ll read that in both Westchester and Nassau Counties in New York – New York! – Democratic county executives have just been thrown out of office, and the dominant reason is taxes.  Two more on the unemployment rolls.

More to Be Thankful For

In a new study, Glen Whitman and Raymond Raad demonstrate that America leads the world in medical innovations that ease and extend our lives. And in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Melinda Beck details some of the health care advances that we should give thanks for this Thanksgiving Day:

• Fewer Americans died in traffic fatalities in 2008 than in any year since 1961, and fewer were injured than in any year since 1988, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting injury data. One possible reason: Seat-belt use hit a record high of 84% nationally.

Life expectancy in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 77.9 years in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, continuing a long upward trend. (That’s 75.3 years for men and 80.4 years for women.)

Death rates dropped significantly for eight of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., including cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, accidents, diabetes, homicides and pneumonia, from 2006 to 2007. (Of the top 15, only deaths from chronic lower respiratory disease increased significantly.) The overall age-adjusted death rate dropped to a new low of 760.3 deaths per 100,000 people—half of what it was 60 years ago….

• Around the world, 27% fewer children died before their fifth birthday in 2007 than in 1990, due to greater use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, better rehydration for diarrhea, and better access to clean water, sanitation and vaccines.…

• Twenty-seven countries reported a reduction of up to 50% in the number of malaria cases between 1990 and 2006.

Read it all. (I should note that Beck attributes more of this good news to government action than I would, and she counts the mere existence of smoking bans as a “health care advance,” despite the lack of evidence that they actually have any health effects. But that’s an argument we can save for next week. Today and tomorrow let’s just celebrate the good news.)

I wrote a couple of years ago about the good news of falling cancer death rates and falling heart disease death rates.

In his book The Improving State of the World, Indur Goklany examined, as the subtitle put it, Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.

Congress Grows Fed Up

The Wall Street Journal reported that Congress likes Fed Chairman Bernanke, but not the institution that he heads. There is growing consensus that the Fed needs to be reformed and restructured.  Most notably, there are calls to strip the Fed of its supervisory authority.  In practice, the new sentiment reflects the failure of the Fed to rein in risk taking by the largest banks.

The Fed is pushing back.  One reserve bank president said that removing the Fed’s supervisory authority “would affect our ability to conduct monetary authority effectively.” He went on to say that without the supervisory authority, the Fed wouldn’t know enough about risks brewing in the economy.  This argument is shop worn. The Fed had the authority. It fueled the housing boom with its monetary policy and failed to head off the banking crisis with its supervisory powers. And let us not forget the regional banking crises of the 1990s; the fallout of the Latin American debt crisis for Citibank; and others (e.g., the failure of Continental Illinois National Bank).  All on the Fed’s watch.

Around the world, some central banks have supervisory authority over banks and some do not.  There is no clear pattern for either monetary policy or bank regulation with respect to how the powers are structured and distributed.  Other factors seem to matter much more. It would be useful to identify what they are.

Congress is moving a few deck chairs around as the ship sinks. No fundamental rethinking of bank regulation is occurring. The Fed is probably being made a scapegoat for Congress’s own failings.  But that is how Washington works.

Government Electric

The recession has given the government an excuse for major interventions into markets, and the word “bailout” is found in business section almost daily. While there are justified concerns over government bailouts of large corporations, big businesses cashing in on the economic stimulus plan have flown below the radar.

In an essay for Cato Unbound on the issue of corporations and markets, libertarian theorist Roderick Long states: “Corporate power depends crucially on government intervention in the marketplace.” This dependency is on full display in an insightful Wall Street Journal story on General Electric’s overt efforts to hitch its future to billions of stimulus dollars.

The article is worth reading from start to finish, but here are some snippets:

The government has taken on a giant role in the U.S. economy over the past year, penetrating further into the private sector than anytime since the 1930s. Some companies are treating the government’s growing reach – and ample purse – as a giant opportunity, and are tailoring their strategies accordingly. For GE, once a symbol of boom-time capitalism, the changed landscape has left it trawling for government dollars on four continents.

‘The government has moved in next door, and it ain’t leaving,’ Mr. [GE CEO Jeffrey] Immelt said at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Montreal in June. “You could fight it if you want, but society wants change. And government is not going away.’

A close look at GE’s campaign to harvest stimulus money shows Mr. Immelt to be its driving force… Inside GE, he pushed his managers hard to devise plans for capturing government money.

By January, Mr. Immelt had become a leading corporate voice in favor of the $787 billion stimulus bill, supporting it in op-ed pieces and speeches. Reporters who called the Obama administration for information on renewable-energy provisions in the legislation were directed to GE.

When the stimulus package was rolled out, Mr. Immelt instructed executives leading the company’s major business units “to put together swat teams to get stimulus money, and [identify] who to fire if they don’t get the money,” says a person who heard him issue the instructions.

In February, a few days after President Obama signed the stimulus plan, GE lawyers, lobbyists and executives crowded into a conference room at GE’s Washington office to figure out how to parlay billions of dollars in spending provisions into GE contracts. Staffers from coal, renewable-energy, health-care and other business units broke into small groups to figure out “how to help companies” – its customers, in particular – “get those funds,” according to one person who attended.

It speaks poorly for American capitalism when one of the nation’s biggest economic engines is assembling “swat teams” to go after taxpayer money. Instead of corporate America trying to figure out what products and services to bring to the marketplace, big business is taking its cue from politicians and bureaucrats in Washington. This isn’t socialism; it’s state corporatism and it bodes ill for long-term economic growth.

See this essay for more on the problems with special-interest spending. Also see this essay on why the excuses for government interventions in energy markets fall short.