Topic: General

You Asked Cato EVP David Boaz Anything. Here’s What Happened…

Over his 33 years at Cato and through his earlier activities in the libertarian policy sphere, Cato’s Executive Vice President David Boaz has played a key role in the development of both the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement at large; he even wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on libertarianism!

On Tuesday, in conjunction with the release of his new book, The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom (which, incidentally, sold out on Amazon within hours), Boaz took to Reddit’s iAMA forum to discuss libertarianism, his book, and the burgoening “libertarian moment,” inviting Redditors of all ilks to ask him anything

During the hour long Q&A session, Boaz tackled a wide-array of questions, weighing in on everything from the drug war and abortion to effective strategies for social change and the efficacy of libertarian governance.  Each one of his responses ignited impassioned debates amongst the forum’s diverse audience as commenters from all sides of the political spectrum hashed out the ideas of liberty. 

The resulting discussion is a fascinating one, very much worth your attention. Check out the Reddit discussion and Boaz’s book, and then continue the conversation on Twitter using #LibertarianMind.

Obama’s Hypocrisy Regarding Forcible Border Changes

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama stated that he was considering sending weapons to the government of Ukraine.  Noting that Russia had already annexed Crimea and was now backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the president warned that “the West cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Such sentiments might have more credibility if the Western powers, including the United States, had not engaged in similar conduct.  But Washington and its NATO allies have indeed redrawn borders, including borders in Europe, through military force.  Two incidents are especially relevant.  Turkey, a leading member of NATO, invaded Cyprus in 1974 and amputated some 37 percent of that country’s territory.  Turkish forces ethnically cleansed the area of its Greek Cypriot inhabitants and, in the years that followed, desecrated a large number of Greek historical and religious sites.

Ankara subsequently established a client state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories.  Turkey has steadfastly refused to atone for its illegal invasion and occupation, much less disgorge the land that it conquered.  Yet except for some token economic sanctions imposed shortly after the invasion, which were soon lifted, Washington has never even condemned the aggression that its NATO ally committed. 

One might assume that it would be awkward for U.S. leaders to excoriate Vladimir Putin’s regime for annexing Crimea or setting up puppet states in the occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Moscow did after a short, nasty war in 2008) when a NATO member is guilty of similar behavior.  But such flagrant inconsistency has apparently caused American officials little difficulty.

When Mean-Tested Benefits Rose, Labor Force Participation Fell

The U.S. job market has tightened by many measures – more advertised job openings, fewer claims for initial unemployment insurance, substantial reduction in long-term unemployment and the number of discouraged workers.  Yet the percentage of working-age population that is either working or looking for work (the labor force participation rate) remains extremely low.  This is a big problem, since projections of future economic growth are constructed by adding expected growth of productivity to growth of the labor force.

Why have so many people dropped out of the labor force?  Since they’re not working (at least in the formal economy), how do they pay for things like food, rent and health care?

One explanation answers both questions: More people are relying on a variety of means-tested cash and in-kind benefits that are made available only on the condition that recipients report little or no earned income.   Since qualification for one benefit often results in qualification for others, the effect can be equivalent to a high marginal tax rate on extra work (such as switching from a 20 to 40 hour workweek, or a spouse taking a job).  Added labor income can often result in loss of multiple benefits, such as disability benefits, supplemental security income, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. 

This graph compares annual labor force participation rates with Congressional Budget Office data on means-tested federal benefits as a percent of GDP.  The data appear consistent with work disincentives in federal transfer payments, labor tax rates and refundable tax credits.

China Makes the Right Move

Yesterday, China’s Central Bank reduced bank reserve requirements for large banks by 50 basis points to 19.5%. The Chinese know that the nominal level of national income is determined by the magnitude of the money supply. They also know that banks produce the lion’s share of China’s money. Indeed, banks produce 77% of China’s M2 money.

As shown in the accompanying chart, the average annual growth rate of China’s money supply since January 2004 has been 17.45%. At present, the annual growth rate for the money supply has slumped to 11%. China’s reduction in the banks’ reserve requirements is designed to push money growth back up towards the trend rate so that an economic slump is avoided. China has made the right move.

The Oil Price Plunge Won’t Cause Russia or Iran to Capitulate

The recent dramatic drop in global oil prices has significant geopolitical as well as economic implications.  Consumers in the United States and other countries enjoy substantial savings, while marginal producers, both here and abroad, find their profit margins severely squeezed.  As I discuss in an article at Aspenia Online, some of the oil-producing states that have been especially hard hit include Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.  All of those countries are governed by regimes that are on bad terms with the United States, so there is a temptation among American political leaders and pundits to relish the current discomfort of those governments.

Greater restraint is warranted.  The geopolitical benefits to the United States from the current depressed pricing environment are not trivial.  Increased economic constraints appear to be one factor making Iran’s clerical regime more willing to negotiate seriously about that country’s nuclear program.  Venezuela’s already substantial financial woes, caused by the leftist government’s chronic economic mismanagement since the late 1990s, has made that country a less appealing political model for the rest of Latin America.  Washington’s worries about a leftist “Bolivarian” revolution sweeping the region, which were prominent just a few years ago, have faded considerably.

The Obama administration is especially pleased about how lower oil prices are putting pressure on Vladimir Putin’s government.  Although Western economic sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, account for some of the country’s distress, the precipitous drop in oil prices (with Brent crude now selling for well under $50 per barrel) is a more important factor.  Not only has the value of the Ruble shrunk by more than 50 percent, the Russian government faces a budgetary squeeze verging on a crisis.  U.S. officials hope that the growing financial and economic discomfort will compel Putin to make major foreign policy concessions.

Conflicted on 529s

If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.

On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well-to-do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well-to-do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.

On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.

So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college-funding quagmire.

Ukraine’s Fight With Russia Isn’t America’s Business

Ukraine’s military has lost control of the Donetsk airport and the rebels have launched another offensive. Fortune could yet smile upon Kiev, but as long as Russia is determined not to let the separatists fail, Ukraine’s efforts likely will be for naught.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Only a negotiated settlement, no matter how unsatisfying, offers a possible resolution of the conflict. The alternative may be the collapse of the Ukrainian state and long-term confrontation between the West and Russia.”

Ukraine’s most fervent advocates assume anyone not ready to commit self-immolation on Kiev’s behalf must be a Russian agent. However, there are numerous good reasons for Washington to avoid the fight.

1) Russia isn’t Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya.

While the Obama administration has resisted proposals for military confrontation with Moscow, a gaggle of ivory tower warriors has pushed to arm Ukraine, bring Kiev into NATO, and station U.S. men and planes in Ukraine. These steps could lead to war.

Americans have come to expect easy victories. However, Russia would be no pushover. In particular, Moscow has a full range of nuclear weapons, which it could use to respond to allied conventional superiority.

2) Moscow has more at stake than the West in Ukraine.

Ukraine matters far more to Moscow than to Washington. Thus, the former will devote far greater resources and take far greater risks than will the allies. The Putin government already has accepted financial losses, economic isolation, human casualties, and political hostility.