Topic: General

China and the U.S.: Similar Frustrations, Different Policies toward North Korea

SHENYANG, CHINA—China-Korean relations are in a state of flux.  The People’s Republic of China and South Korea have exchanged presidential visits.  Trade statistics suggest that the PRC did not ship any oil to the North during the first quarter of the year.  Chinese academics openly speak of Beijing’s irritation with its long-time ally.

The cold feelings are reciprocated.  Last year North Korea’s Kim Jong-un sent an envoy to the PRC to unsuccessfully request an invitation to visit.  In December Kim had his uncle, Jang Song-taek, the North’s most intimate interlocutor with China, executed.

These circumstances suggest the possibility of a significant foreign policy shift in Beijing away from the North and toward the Republic of Korea.  Washington hopes for greater Chinese willingness to apply economic pressure on Pyongyang.  However, the PRC remains unwilling to risk instability by undermining the Kim dynasty. 

I recently visited China and held scholarly meetings amid excursions to long-missed tourist sites (such as Mao’s Mausoleum!).  I also made it to Shenyang, where relations with the North are of great interest because the city is about a two hour drive from the Yalu River.

I met one senior scholar who indicated that there was no doubt that Beijing-Pyongyang relations had changed since Kim came to power.  The two nations “have a different relationship now and it is becoming colder than ever before.” 

However, Jang’s execution had been “weighed too heavily by Western researchers,” he indicated.  In fact, economic relations had continued.  Jang’s fate was a matter of internal North Korea politics, “the result of the natural struggle for power.” 

This doesn’t mean Beijing was happy about Jang’s fate.  However, Jang’s ouster “is not the reason for the DPRK’s and China’s bad relations.” 

Rather, the principal barrier is the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons.  Kim Jong-un wants to visit China.  But it is “unimaginable for Chinese officials to invite him when he’s doing nuclear tests.  Impossible.”

In return, the North is unhappy over Beijing’s refusal to accommodate Kim as well as the end of oil shipments.  “Also, the DPRK is quite angry over the quick development of Chinese relations with South Korea.” 

This has made Pyongyang “eager to make contact with the U.S.,” an effort which so far has gone nowhere.  This is why the Kim regime “took American citizens as hostages” and invited Dennis Rodman to visit, but these tactics “are not working.” 

The North eventually “shifted the focal point of its foreign relations to Japan.”  For the same reason, though “less importantly the DPRK made contact with Russia.”

The PRC is quite interested in U.S.-DPRK relations and Washington’s view of Japan’s move toward Pyongyang.  “One of the uniform convictions for both the U.S. and China is no nuclear weapons in the DPRK,” he emphasized. 

However, in Beijing’s view the solution is not more sanctions which “everyone has been putting on the DPRK,” but revival of the Six-Party Talks.  This is where agreement between the U.S. and China breaks down. 

The PRC wants more negotiations, preceded by an American willingness to reduce tensions and Pyongyang’s perceived need for a nuclear arsenal.  The U.S. wants the North to make concessions beforehand lest the latest round fail like the many previous efforts.

This clash reflects an even deeper disagreement over competing end states.  Both Washington and Beijing oppose a nuclear North Korea.  However, the U.S., in contrast to China, would welcome a DPRK collapse, even if messy, and favor reunification with the South.

As I write in China-U.S. Focus, It isn’t impossible for American and Chinese policymakers to work through their differences.  However, it will require understanding the other party’s perspective and offering meaningful concessions to make the deal a positive for both parties.

Inventions to Eagerly Await

Humans are progress seekers. Those with an entrepreneurial drive use their intellect to invent novel solutions to our problems. Sometimes, their solutions alleviate widespread suffering and let us live better than kings of centuries past. Thomson Reuters released just such a list of welfare-enhancing inventions to expect by 2025:

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, cancer drug-induced deaths, and Type I diabetes should afflict far fewer individuals by 2025. See below that cancer–one of the most common causes of death in several countries–is already on the decline (with a graph made on HumanProgress.org):

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

In Memory of Carlos Ball

I’m sad to report that Venezuelan journalist and Cato adjunct scholar Carlos Ball passed away last week. He was 75. Carlos was a champion of liberty and a long-time friend to so many of us in the freedom movement in the Americas. His life was a testimony to the power of ideas, and he lived it true to his classical-liberal convictions.

Carlos was a co-founder of CEDICE, the market-liberal think tank in Caracas that celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and with whom Cato has worked closely for many years (and that has been severely harassed by the Chavista regime). In the 1980s, Carlos was the editor of El Diario de Caracas, an important daily that was critical of government policies. It was when Carlos represented Venezuelan journalists at an Inter-American Press Association conference in 1987 in San Antonio, Texas and denounced then-President Lusinchi’s attacks on freedom of the press, that Lusinchi demanded that Carlos be fired from the newspaper, conditioning the renewal of the license of the popular television station RCTV—part of the same media company—on that outcome. Carlos was let go from the paper, he was criminally charged by the government, and was told by the judge presiding his case that “I have orders from above.” It was at that time that Carlos left Venezuela, moving to Florida where he would live the rest of his life. RCTV received a 20-year license. It was the expiration of that license in 2007—that Hugo Chavez refused to renew, thus shutting down the television station—that triggered the massive student uprising against the government that year. (As a result, Chavez lost a constitutional referendum and temporarily slowed down his accumulation of power.)

The idea that Venezuela was doomed to repeat such experiences and that the country would only lose more freedoms if economic freedom was not also respected was a long-time theme in Carlos’s writings. In that regard, he was among a very small group of Venezuelan intellectuals who decades ago warned against the ideology of socialism predominant in the political system and much of Venezuelan society. Indeed, he very correctly viewed Hugo Chavez’s regime as a logical, though more extreme, extension of what had come before. “Chavez,” he wrote, “has intensified, accelerated and exacerbated corruption, the concentration of power, the violation of property rights” and the power of the bureaucracy in people’s lives. In a 1992 essay, Carlos wrote that the “fatal date” for his country was January 1976, when President Perez nationalized the petroleum industry. That “meant a radical change; for the first time since the death of General Gomez [1935], political and economic power was again concentrated in the same hands: in those of the head of state.”

He would later write: “Without that concentration of wealth in political hands, Chavez would never have been able to Cubanize Venezuela because it was the economic power of oil that allowed the government to crush the individual liberties of the Venezuelans.” How right he was.

Paul Light on Government Failure

Paul Light of Brookings and NYU is a top expert on the federal bureaucracy. He has a new study on federal government failures over the 2001 to 2014 period.

Light’s paper is useful. He identifies 41 major federal failures, examines the reports completed on each, and classifies the types of mistakes that took place. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the recent veterans health care scandal, Light points to failures in both “operations” and “oversight.”

Certainly, government operations and oversight fail frequently. But I look at many of Light’s 41 events and see more fundamental failures than he does. Federal policies, for example, often distort the economy in ways that are bound to cause problems. Federal interventions based on coercion are generally worse than solutions developed in the private, voluntary sphere of society.  

Light classifies the 2008 financial collapse as a failure of federal “oversight.” He says, “after years of risky investments and with little regulation, the banking system collapsed under the weight of toxic assets created by risky mortgage loans, poorly understood financial instruments, and a credit crisis that froze the economy.”

But it was government policies—such as Federal Reserve interest rate policies and federal housing subsidies—that incentivized the bad behavior on Wall Street. Federal oversight may have been poor, but the main problem was that government-created distortions cascaded and undermined markets.

On Hurricane Katrina, Light notes that the federal emergency response was a failure in operations, and it is true that FEMA officials were mired in confusion and indecision when the storm hit. However, it was decades of misguided policies that encouraged many people to live in low-lying and dangerous areas in New Orleans in the first place, which made the disaster much worse.

After an initial coding of failures between “operations” and “oversight,” Light does proceed to look more deeply into why the government failed in each of the events. He finds multiple causes behind all of the failures, with the most common factor being poorly designed policies.

Still, there are deeper reasons why the government fails than the potentially fixable problems that Light identifies. Superficially, the veterans health care scandal is just a failure of “operations,” but the fundamental problem is the federal attempt to centrally plan an industry rather than relying on markets.

Light’s study is a thoughtful piece that will hopefully generate a broader discussion about government failure. The 15 factors in this recent testimony are my initial stab at identifying some of the more fundamental reasons for government failure.

Still No Halbig v. Burwell Ruling, But Plenty of Halbig Chatter

The latest bit of chatter about a someday-forthcoming ruling from the D.C. Circuit in Halbig v. Burwell is the banter between myself and Washington & Lee University law professor Timothy Jost. (For a quick primer on the Halbig cases, click here. For a comprehensive reference guide to the cases, click here.) Or as my email traffic has described it, “The subtle repartee between Michael Cannon and Tim Jost continues.” And, “What a summer! Argentina vs. Germany, Cannon vs. Jost. What’s next?“ 

Jost’s contribution appeared on the oped page of the Washington Post. Mine…didn’t.

Jost explains that while the Supreme Court’s ruling against the government in Hobby Lobby will not have much of an impact on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, “a number of ACA lawsuits percolating up through the courts could be much more destructive. The theory of these suits seems to be that the drafters of the ACA planted a secret bomb in the heart of the statute.” Jost, along with a federal judge he quotes approvingly, thinks it’s “preposterous” that Congress would have intended to give states the power to block the expansion of health-insurance coverage that’s supposed to happen through the PPACA’s health-insurance “exchanges.”

Never mind that Congress did exactly that with the other coverage expansion – the Medicaid expansion – in the very same bill. Or that Congress has allowed states to block the entire Medicaid program for the past 49 years. Or that that’s how Jost himself proposed Congress could set up the bill’s health insurance Exchanges. Or that in 2009, both Republicans and Democrats introduced legislation that would have conditioned health-insurance subsidies on states establishing Exchanges. Or that, in particular, the other leading bill advanced by Senate Democrats in 2009 also gave states the power to block Exchange subsidies. Or that that’s what Jost admits the plain language of the PPACA “clearly” says.

Forget all that. Following the clear, consistent, uncontradicted language of the statute, which is completely consistent with the law’s legislative history, would be preposterous. Why? Because if the courts implement the law as Congress intended, then not even ObamaCare’s supporters would like how ObamaCare works. 

Subsidies Make Businesses Weaker

The technical arguments against the Export-Import Bank are provided in this excellent summary by Veronique de Rugy. However, one argument against Ex-Im and other business subsidies is not stressed enough in policy debates: subsidies weaken the businesses that receive them.

Subsidies change the behavior of recipients. Just like individual welfare reduces work incentives, corporate welfare dulls business competitiveness. Subsidies give companies a crutch, an incentive not to improve efficiency or to innovate, as I noted here.

Yesterday, I looked at Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsom’s new book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, which examines federal fur trading boondoggles of 1795-1822. 

Now let’s look at Chapter 2, which focuses on the steamboat industry of the 19th century. The historical lesson is clear: subsidies make companies weak, inefficient, and resistant to innovation.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the Folsoms’ steamboat story:

  • In 1806 New York gives Robert Fulton a legal monopoly on steamboat travel in the state. Breaking this misguided law, a young Cornelius Vanderbilt launches a competitive service in 1817.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the New York law in 1824. The effect is to usher in an era of steamboat innovation and falling prices for consumers.
  • Vanderbilt launches many new steamboat routes whenever he sees an opportunity to drive down prices.
  • With subsidies from the British government, Samuel Cunard launches a steamship service from England to North America in 1840. In response, Edward Collins successfully lobbies Congress to give him subsidies to challenge Cunard on the Atlantic route. With this unfortunate precedent, Congress proceeds to hand out subsidies to steamship firms on other routes.
  • By the 1850s, Congress is providing Collins a huge annual subsidy of $858,000. Irked by the subsidies and Collins’ inefficient service, Vanderbilt builds a better and faster ship and launches his own Atlantic service.
  • In 1856 two of Collins’ inferior ships sink, killing almost 500 people. Collins builds a new ship, but it is so shoddy that it is scrapped after only two trips.
  • Congress finally realizes that the aid to Collins is damaging, as it has spawned an inferior and mismanaged business. Congress cuts off the subsidies in 1858. Without subsidies, Collins’ steamship company collapses.
  • Vanderbilt also out-competes subsidized steamship companies on the East Coast-to-West Coast route through Central America.
  • In England, an unsubsidized competitor to Cunard—the Inman Line—is launched and begins out-competing and out-innovating the subsidized incumbent.
  • The subsidized Cunard and Collins aim their services at the high-end luxury market. The more efficient and unsubsidized Vanderbilt and Inman focus on driving down prices for people with more moderate incomes.
  • Government subsidies “actually retarded progress because Cunard and Collins both used their monopolies to stifle innovation and delay technological changes in steamship construction.”

Government subsidies have similar negative effects today, whether it is subsidies to energy companies, aid to farm businesses, or the Ex-Im program.

The difference is that in the 19th century Congress eventually cut off subsidies when the damage became clear, as it did with steamship subsidies in 1858 and fur trading subsidies in 1822. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but I can’t think of a business subsidy program terminated by Congress in recent years, or even in recent decades.