Tag: Washington Post

Facts That Lack Currency

In Washington, everybody seems to have an opinion about the Chinese currency these days.  But too often those opinions show contempt for the facts.

The prevailing wisdom—undergirded by theories and equations that may need updating in this age of global production sharing and transnational supply chains—is that an appreciating yuan will reduce the bilateral trade deficit, as U.S. imports from China become relatively more expensive for Americans using dollars, and U.S. exports to China become relatively less expensive for Chinese using yuan.

The lead article in Sunday’s Washington Post presents this point of view unquestioningly, and in the process foregoes an opportunity to explain to its readers that the relationship between currency values and trade balances, and between trade balances and jobs, is not as straightforward as many proponents of Chinese revaluation argue.

In the fourth paragraph, the authors write:

“Whether Saturday’s announcement [from the Chinese government that it will allow its currency to appreciate gradually] will help the U.S. economy depends on how much Beijing lets its currency rise.  A jump of 20 percent, for example, could cut as much as $150 billion off the U.S. trade deficit with China and create as many as 1 million U.S. jobs by making American exports more competitive, according to estimates by C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute of International Economics.  From 2005 to 2008, China let the yuan appreciate 20 percent against the dollar before it stopped the process while it confronted the global financial crisis.”  (My emphasis, primarily for what is absent from this sentence).

No doubt Fred Bergsten and his colleagues at the Peterson Institute know something about economics, but Bergsten’s projection should raise some red flags for anyone who’s been following this subject.   The authors cite Bergsten’s estimation that a 20 percent appreciation of the yuan could lead to a $150 billion decline in the U.S. trade deficit with China, and they even indicate that China has allowed that kind of appreciation before—from 2005 to 2008.  But then, inexplicably, the authors abandon what should be the next logical question in reporting this story: what happened to the bilateral trade deficit during that recent period of 20 percent yuan appreciation?  After all, if the authors are going to acknowledge that period of appreciation, then surely it should serve as support for Bergsten’s current projections of trade deficit reduction and job creation—unless, of course, it doesn’t.  And it doesn’t.

That recent period of Yuan appreciation (21 percent between July 2005 and July 2008) is associated with a U.S. bilateral trade deficit that increased by $66 billion from $202 to $268 billion between 2005 and 2008, and incidentally, the number of jobs in the U.S. economy increased by 3.5 million between July 2005 and July 2008 (the precise period of appreciation), from 142.0 million to 145.5 million.  It is confounding to me that reporters are still adhering, seemingly unquestioningly, to the pre-financial crisis, pre-recession fallacy that a trade deficit hurts the economy?  Didn’t our huge economic hiccup put that myth the bed for good?

Between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009, deficit hawks got their wish.  The U.S. trade deficit declined, and substantially, by $327 billion, from $702 billion to $375 billion.  But the huge payoff they promised never materialized.  Instead, U.S. employment fell from 146 million workers in 2007 to 138 million workers in 2009.  The unemployment rate increased from an average of 4.7 percent in 2007 to 10.1 percent in 2009.  What was that about currency values and trade balances?  And between trade balances and employment?

A review of Federal Reserve exchange rate data and Commerce Department trade data reveals that the textbook characterizations of an inverse relationship between currency value and the trade account does not hold for many of America’s largest trading partners.  Between 2002 and 2008 (before trade flows dropped dramatically across the globe on account of the recession), the dollar declined considerably against the Chinese yuan, the Canadian dollar, the euro, the Japanese yen the Korean won, the Indian rupee, and the Malaysian ringgit, yet the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with all of those countries (and the Eurozone collectively) increased, in some cases substantially.

As I suggested in this paper and in this op-ed a couple months ago, many factors, including income, the availability of substitutes, and perhaps most significantly, globalized production and supply chains influence trade flows.  Since somewhere between one-half to two-thirds of the value of Chinese exports to the United States comprise of value that was first imported into China (as components, raw materials, and the labor and overhead embedded therein), an appreciating yuan produces mitigating effects.  The appreciating yuan makes the price tag higher to Americans than before the appreciation, if all else were equal.  But all else isn’t equal.  The rising yuan also reduces the cost of production in China — the cost of imported inputs, which accounts for up to two-thirds of the U.S. price tag, on average (but far more for devices like the Apple iPod)–thereby enabling Chinese exporters to lower their price tags to American consumers.

The evidence, as presented in this paper, suggests that this dynamic played a big role in preventing the trade deficit from declining.  I wonder how these transnational production processes factor into Fred Bergsten’s economic models or whether the 2005 to 2008 period can be explained away as some anomaly.  Nevertheless, at the very least those data, that recent evidence, should be acknowledged and understood by economists, who in turn can help reporters provide a more complete picture to the public.

Short-Sighted Rules for Affordable Housing

The state of Maryland wants more people to have affordable housing – at least if they’ve already got it. Concerned that the owners of mobile home parks might sell the land for other uses, “affordable housing advocates” succesfully lobbied Maryland legislators this year for

legislation that, they say, discourages owners of mobile-home parks from selling their properties. If the landowner does sell, it provides the homeowner with some protection.

Under the law, which was passed earlier this year, a mobile-home park owner who wants to sell and change land use must give written notification to the residents and provide displaced homeowners with a relocation plan and relocation assistance that equals 10 months’ worth of rent. The legislation applies to mobile parks with more than 38 sites.

Now the first thing to be said about this is that it is theft. That’s become so common in legislatures that we’ve become accustomed to it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what happened here: Some people spent their own money to buy land. They rented that land to people with mobile homes, who knew that they were not buying the land, they were just renting a place to park their mobile homes. (The word “mobile” might be a tipoff that they’re made to move.) And then the government took away the owner’s right to change the use of his land. The owner could still sell it, of course, as long as he gives written notification of his plans, provides the renters with a “relocation plan,” and pays them 10 months’ rent to leave his land. That’s a huge burden; the government has simply appropriated much of the value of the owner’s land.

But there’s an obvious long-term consequence here, too, one that the Washington Post didn’t get to in its 1000-word story. What’s going to occur to a landowner as she reads this story? She’s going to think, if I allow anyone to park a mobile home on my property, I’ll be permanently harnessed to that tenant, like a medieval serf. So maybe I’d better not rent any space to a mobile home owner. But then she’s going to think a bit further: What about other kinds of affordable housing? If I build inexpensive apartments or bungalows, and rent them to people who need affordable housing, will the state of Maryland decide that I shouldn’t be allowed to change the use of the land or sell it? After all, wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland – which doesn’t have many mobile homes – does have a 20-page handbook of rules and restrictions for any owner who might want to convert an apartment building to condominiums, including the county’s right to buy the land and a guarantee of lifetime tenancies for low-income elderly tenants. William Tucker pointed out in a 1997 Cato paper how rent control laws usually had to be followed by condo conversion restrictions, as building owners tried to find some way to make a profit on their buildings. And then of course the whole series of attempts to “protect” affordable housing leads to housing shortages and sky-high rents.

If you want people to supply affordable housing, it’s probably a good idea not to pile taxes, restrictions, and threats of confiscation on the backs of those who do.

Robin Hood and the Tea Party Haters

What is it with modern American liberals and taxes? Apparently they don’t just see taxes as a necessary evil, they actually like ‘em; they think, as Gail Collins puts it in the New York Times, that in a better world “little kids would dream of growing up to be really big taxpayers.” But you really see liberals’ taxophilia coming out when you read the reviews of the new movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. If liberals don’t love taxes, they sure do hate tax protesters.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, writes in the Boston Globe that this Robin Hood is A big angry baby [who] fights back against taxes” and that the movie is “hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation.” You wonder what Professor Rotella teaches his students about America, a country whose fundamental ideology has been described as “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

At the Village Voice, Karina Longworth dismisses the movie as “a rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement” in which “Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about ‘liberty’ and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed.” Gotta love those scare quotes around “liberty.” Uptown at the New York Times, A. O. Scott is sadly disappointed that “this Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!” The movie, she laments, is “one big medieval tea party.”

Moving on down the East Coast establishment, again with the Tea Party hatin’ in Michael O’Sullivan’s Washington Post review:

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East – in this case, the Crusades – it’s the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who’s running the country into the ground.

Man, these liberals really don’t like Tea Parties, complaints about lost liberty, and Hollywood movies that don’t toe the ideological line. As Cathy Young notes at Reason:

Whatever one may think of Scott’s newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the “libertarian rebel” played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution….The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin’s chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs’ role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. [In other books and movies] Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

The reviewers are indeed tapping into a real theme of this Robin Hood, which is a prequel to the usual Robin Hood story; it imagines Robin’s life before he went into the forest. Marian tells the sheriff, “You have stripped our wealth to pay for foreign adventures.” (A version of the script can be found on Google Books and at Amazon, where Marian is called Marion.)  Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”

Dangerous sentiments indeed. You can see what horrifies the liberal reviewers. If this sort of talk catches on, we might become a country based on antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism and governed by a Constitution.

Regulatory Spending Actually Rose under Bush

Analysts across the ideological spectrum generally agree that the government’s regulatory bodies fail far too frequently. However, analysts seem to learn different lessons from this experience.

Washington Post business columnist Steve Pearlstein cites numerous examples of failure and concludes, “It’s time for the business community to give up its jihad against regulation.”

He says:

It hardly captures the breadth and depth of these regulatory failures to say that during the Bush administration the pendulum swung a bit too far in the direction of deregulation and lax enforcement. What it misses is just how dramatically the regulatory agencies have been shrunken in size, stripped of talent and resources, demoralized by lousy leadership, captured by the industries they were meant to oversee and undermined by political interference and relentless attacks on their competence and purpose.

It’s true that regulators often do the bidding of the industries that they regulate. But “regulatory capture” is a long recognized phenomenon that undermines the contention that the government is well-suited to be a watchdog.

Regardless, is Pearlstein right that federal regulatory agencies were “dramatically” shrunk? Not according to a new study from George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis. The figure shows that regulatory spending actually rose an inflation-adjusted 31 percent during the Bush administration (FY2002-FY2009):

Similarly, regulatory staff jumped by 42 percent under Bush’s watch:

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

First, in an effort to preempt any suggestion that China’s protectionism is nothing exceptional and can be remedied through the World Trade Organization and other channels, McGregor offers this blanket statement: “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules.”  I realize that op-ed writing forces one to economize on words, but that statement, which serves as McGregor’s springboard to socialism, cannot suffice for an analysis of the facts.  One of those facts is that the United States has been successful in compelling changes in China’s protectionist practices in all of the formal WTO disputes it has lodged that have been resolved thus far (6 of 8 formal cases have been resolved).  If China violates the agreed rules of trade, and its actions impair benefits or impose costs on U.S. interests that are too large to ignore, pursuing a WTO case is a legitimate and proven channel of resolution. Chinese protectionism can be addressed without the radical changes McGregor counsels. 

But I think McGregor—sharing the tactics of other in the media and politics—exploits public angst over a rising China to promote his idea as the obvious and only solution to what he sells as a rapidly-metastasizing problem.  McGregor argues that China is aiming to create national champions through subsidies and other preferential policies, while charging foreign companies admission to its market in the form of technology transfer, joint-venturing requirements, and local content rules.  McGregor claims, that this appropriation of foreign technology will be used to “create Chinese ‘indigenous innovations’ that will come back at us globally.”  Ultimately, McGregor fears that “American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.”

It is telling that McGregor doesn’t consider U.S. government expropriation of those companies’ technology assets as planting the seeds of their own destruction.  Indeed, it is nothing short of expropriation when technology that is owned by individual companies in the private sector, making unique decisions to improve their own bottom-lines on behalf of their own shareholders is suddenly subject to the questions McGregor wants answered: What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?  Those questions, let alone the answers, imply that the U.S. government should have at least de facto ownership and control over these privately-held technology assets.

What is wrong with allowing each of these companies to decide for themselves whether they want to license or transfer some of their technology to Chinese companies, as the price of doing business in China?  Some will, some won’t, but the presupposition that those who do are selling the golden goose is not based on fact.  Let companies decide for themselves how to use their resources, and don’t treat industry as a monolith, as in “What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?” 

Had we tried to answer and implement the answer to that question in the face the Japanese “threat” two decade ago, we’d be bereft of some of the most ingenious technological breakthroughs and the hundreds of industries and thousands of products that “our system of almost no national economic planning” has yielded.

When we peel away the chicken-little rhetoric, when we dispense with neo-Rahm Emanualism (“Never manufacture a good crisis and then let it go to waste”), when cooler heads and analytical minds prevail, the economic question boils down to this: What has been more successful at creating growth, central planning or decentralized dynamism?  For both China and the United States, it has been the latter. 

My bet is that China’s re-embrace of greater central planning will be brief, as it wastes resources, yields few -if any- national champions, and limits innovation.  For similar reasons, U.S. opinion leaders will eschew central planning, as well.

To ‘Control the Border,’ First Reform Immigration Law

The latest catch phrase in the immigration debate is that we must “get control of our borders” before we consider actually changing the current immigration law that has made enforcement so difficult in the first place.

In his Washington Post column yesterday, George Will wrote that “the government’s refusal to control [the U.S.-Mexican] border is why there are an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona and why the nation, sensibly insisting on first things first, resists ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, Democrats in Congress this week unveiled the outlines of an immigration bill that would postpone any broader reforms, such as a new worker visa program or legalization of workers already here, until a series of border security “benchmarks” have been met.

Requiring successful enforcement of the current immigration laws before they can be changed is a non sequitur. It’s like saying, in 1932, that we can’t repeal the nationwide prohibition on alcohol consumption until we’ve drastically reduced the number of moonshine stills and bootleggers. But Prohibition itself created the conditions for the rise of those underground enterprises, and the repeal of Prohibition was necessary before the government could “get control” of its unintended consequences.

Illegal immigration is the Prohibition debate of our day. By essentially barring the legal entry of low-skilled immigrant workers, our own government has created the conditions for an underground labor market, complete with smuggling and day-labor operations. As long as the government maintains this prohibition, illegal immigration will be widespread, and the cost of reducing it, in tax dollars and compromised civil liberties, will be enormous.

We know from experience that expanding opportunities for legal immigration can dramatically reduce incentives for illegal immigration. In the 1950s, the federal government faced widespread illegal immigration across the Mexican border. In response, the government simultaneously beefed up enforcement while greatly expanding the number of workers allowed in the country through the Bracero guest-worker program. The result: Apprehensions at the border dropped by 95 percent. (For documentation, see this excellent 2003 paper by Stuart Anderson, a Cato adjunct scholar and executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.)

If we want to “get control” of our border with Mexico, the smartest thing we could do would be to allow more workers to enter the United States legally under the umbrella of comprehensive immigration reform. Then we could focus our enforcement resources on a much smaller number of people who for whatever reason are still operating outside the law.

Nostalgia Used to Be Better

Julian Simon often wrote about the persistence of the belief that life was better in the past or that things are steadily getting worse. It takes many forms: people used to be more polite, the media used to be more literate, life is more dangerous today, we’re running out of natural resources. Simon pointed out in many books and articles that, at least since the industrial revolution, life on earth is in fact getting longer, healthier, more comfortable, and less dangerous. Or, as the title of one of his books put it, It’s Getting Better All the Time.

He was mostly right. But in a review of a new collection of H. L. Mencken’s writings, I found an exception: Nostalgia itself, the longing for a lost golden age, was at least more eloquent when Mencken was writing it back in the 1920s. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post quotes these eulogies for old Baltimore:

Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and lived almost his entire life in the house on Hollins Street where he grew up. “The Baltimore of the 80’s had a flavor that has long since vanished,” he wrote in a 1925 Evening Sun piece reprinted here. “The town is at least twice as big now as it was then, and twice as showy and glittering, but it is certainly not twice as pleasant, nor, indeed, half as pleasant. The more the boomers pump it up, the more it comes to resemble such dreadful places as Buffalo and Cleveland.”…

Mencken believed, as he wrote in 1930, that the great fire of 1904 was what killed the old Baltimore that he knew so intimately and loved so deeply: “The new Baltimore that emerged from the ashes was simply a virtuoso piece of Babbitts. It put in all the modern improvements, especially the bad ones. It acquired civic consciousness. Its cobs climbed out of the alleys behind the old gin-mills and began harassing decent people on the main streets.”…

“I am glad I was born long enough ago to remember, now, the days when the town had genuine color, and life here was worth living. I remember Guy’s Hotel. I remember the Concordia Opera House. I remember the old Courthouse. Better still, I remember Mike Sheehan’s old saloon on Light street – then a mediaeval and lovely alley; now a horror borrowed from the boom towns of the Middle West. Was there ever a better saloon in this world? Don’t argue: I refuse to listen! The decay of Baltimore, I believe, may be very accurately measured by the distance separating Mike’s incomparable bar from the soda-fountains which now pollute the neighborhood – above all, by the distance separating its noble customers (with their gold watch-chains and their elegant boiled shirts) from the poor fish who now lap up Coca-Cola.”

Man, you just don’t get nostalgia like that any more!