Topic: Government and Politics

The South China Sea Is Not Worth the Risk of War

Contrasting Chinese and American perspectives were on display at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, during which Defense Secretary Ashton Carter challenged Beijing over its island expansion program. Privately the possibility of war has emerged as a serious topic in Washington. Both nations should draw back from their increasingly dangerous game of chicken.

China’s territorial claims involve a complex mix of control, historical practice, international law, and treaty. In the view of most observers, Beijing’s claims are extravagant. Yet they are not unprecedented.

The early American republic made aggressive claims against both Canada and Mexico. The United States won its claims in the first case through conquest and in the second instance through negotiation. Great Britain’s decision to accommodate the United States yielded long-term peace and future friendship.

As territory most of the islands are worthless rocks. However, they carry with them control over surrounding waters and underlying resources.

While Washington lays claim to no land, it insists on free transit in surrounding waters. Equally important, with China expanding many Americans want the United States to contain Beijing.

Indeed, there is increasing comment among the chattering classes about the importance of making China “pay a price” for its aggressive behavior. The administration is more vigorously advancing claims than the claimants themselves. The United States created particular controversy flying over islands claimed by China, courting a corresponding challenge from the latter.

The problem is not asserting American navigational freedoms, but doing so in a way seemingly designed to provoke a response. In 2001 similar military gamesmanship resulted in an aerial collision which killed a Chinese pilot and brought down an American spy plane, leading to an extended bilateral stand-off.

Since then both nations have become even more concerned over credibility and reputation, which means neither will readily back down when challenged. This creates a real danger of a military confrontation.

Rather than working to prevent such an eventuality, however, a number of officials, pundits, and analysts appear to view it as almost inevitable. I recently attended a gathering which mixed policy and non-political professionals. Without a neoconservative at the table there was broad agreement that Beijing had tossed down the gauntlet, so to speak, and had to be confronted.

Most sobering was the acknowledgement that an aggressive reaction could trigger a Chinese response in kind and a confrontation such as a ship collision or plane shoot-down. The consensus was that Washington would have to act immediately and firmly by, for instance, sinking a vessel or destroying a runway.

As I point out on China-US Focus: “The unspoken presumption was that the confrontation would end there, with Beijing duly chastened. But the obvious question is what if the Chinese made a similar calculation and escalated in turn? Some “damn fool thing” in the Asia-Pacific just might trigger war between the two nations.”

Washington enjoys military superiority but must disperse its forces around the globe. More important, the PRC views its interests in nearby waters as important if not vital. In contrast, American domination is not necessary for America’s defense. Beijing knows that and will risk much more than the United States in handling nearby territorial issues.

The possibility of miscalculation and misjudgment makes it even more important that all participants step back from confrontation. The fuse to war may be long, but no one should risk lighting it.

All parties should look for creative solutions to the plethora of territorial disputes. Countries could set aside deciding on sovereignty while jointly developing resources. Neighbors could share sovereignty and resources. Beijing could pledge to maintain navigational freedoms irrespective of the islands’ ultimate disposition. 

The disputed territory is important, but not worth war. Yet a dangerous dynamic appears to have taken hold. Instead of sleepwalking into a shooting war while assuming the other party will bend, both America and China should renew their determination to defuse territorial controversies peacefully.

America’s Greek Fiscal Future

Last September, I wrote about some very disturbing 10-year projections that showed a rising burden of government spending.

Those numbers were rather depressing, but a recently released long-term forecast from the Congressional Budget Office make the 10-year numbers look benign by comparison.

The new report is overly focused on the symptom of deficits and debt rather than the underlying disease of excessive government. But if you dig into the details, you can find the numbers that really matter. Here’s some of what CBO reported about government spending in its forecast.

The long-term outlook for the federal budget has worsened dramatically over the past several years, in the wake of the 2007–2009 recession and slow recovery. …If current law remained generally unchanged…, federal spending rises from 20.5 percent of GDP this year to 25.3 percent of GDP by 2040.

And why is the burden of spending going up?

House Budget Committee Testimony on Debt

I testified to the House Budget Committee yesterday on the history of federal debt and reasons to balance the budget. John Taylor, Jared Bernstein, and Ryan Silvey also testified.

The ratio of federal debt to the size of the economy has never been anywhere near as high during peacetime as it is today. Federal debt has often spiked during wars, but has always been reduced afterwards.

Before the 1930s, policymakers believed that high debt was immoral and bad for the economy. Those beliefs restrained the basic political instinct to spend more than the available revenue. Unfortunately, in recent decades, Keynesian theory has informed policymakers that deficit spending is beneficial. That has led to the “modern era of profligacy,” noted economist James Buchanan.

Federal borrowing imposes an unfair and damaging burden on future generations, and it should be avoided except during major crises such as wars. Paul Krugman and Steve Landsburg are completely mistaken when they urge people not to worry about government debt because we “owe it to ourselves.”

Cutting spending to balance the budget would reduce the damage from future taxes, increase macroeconomic stability, and potentially increase capital formation. Requiring the government to balance its budget would also curtail spending on lower-valued activities, create incentives to prune waste, and thus spur greater economic growth. 

The video and written testimony is here.

Senator Rand Paul’s Very Good Tax Plan Needs One Important Tweak

Our nation very much needs fundamental tax reform, so it’s welcome news that major public figures - including presidential candidates - are proposing to gut the internal revenue code and replace it with plans that collect revenue in less-destructive ways.

A few months ago, I wrote about a sweeping proposal by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Today, let’s look at the plan that Senator Rand Paul has put forward in a Wall Street Journal column.

He has some great info on why the current tax system is a corrupt mess.

From 2001 until 2010, there were at least 4,430 changes to tax laws—an average of one “fix” a day—always promising more fairness, more simplicity or more growth stimulants. And every year the Internal Revenue Code grows absurdly more incomprehensible, as if it were designed as a jobs program for accountants, IRS agents and tax attorneys.

And he explains that punitive tax policy helps explain why our economy has been under-performing.

…redistribution policies have led to rising income inequality and negative income gains for families. …We are already at least $2 trillion behind where we should be with a normal recovery; the growth gap widens every month.

So what’s his proposal?

…repeal the entire IRS tax code—more than 70,000 pages—and replace it with a low, broad-based tax of 14.5% on individuals and businesses. I would eliminate nearly every special-interest loophole. The plan also eliminates the payroll tax on workers and several federal taxes outright, including gift and estate taxes, telephone taxes, and all duties and tariffs. I call this “The Fair and Flat Tax.” …establish a 14.5% flat-rate tax applied equally to all personal income, including wages, salaries, dividends, capital gains, rents and interest. All deductions except for a mortgage and charities would be eliminated. The first $50,000 of income for a family of four would not be taxed. For low-income working families, the plan would retain the earned-income tax credit.

Kudos to Senator Paul. This type of tax system would be far less destructive than the current system.

ALJs in Limbo

A number of cases have been filed recently against the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), challenging its use of in-house administrative law judges (ALJs).  As I discussed in my earlier post on this topic, the SEC’s use of ALJs has come under close scrutiny lately because of concerns that, in the wake of a provision in Dodd-Frank expanding ALJs’ power, the SEC has elected to use its in-house procedures more frequently and that this use may have increased the SEC’s ability to prevail in enforcement actions.  Of particular concern is the fact that administrative proceedings lack many of the protections for defendants that litigation in federal courts provide, including: the option of having the case decided by a jury; access to the government’s evidence; and the ability to exclude certain evidence traditionally believed to be unreliable (such as hearsay).    

While a number of these cases have been dismissed, Monday finally garnered a win: Charles Hill succeeded in getting a federal court to issue an injunction that prohibits the SEC from continuing its case against him using its in-house ALJ.  Having been charged with insider trading and brought before an SEC ALJ, Hill filed suit against the SEC in federal court claiming the administrative proceeding was unconstitutional on three different grounds.  Although the court disagreed with two of his arguments, it found in his favor on the third – that the ALJs’ appointment violates the appointments clause because ALJs are “inferior officers.”

Federal Technology Failures

A new GAO report describes failures in the federal government’s information technology (IT) activities. The government spends $80 billion annually on IT. These “investments frequently fail, incur cost overruns and schedule slippages, or contribute little to mission-related outcomes,” concludes GAO.

The new report summarized some of the failures:

  • the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Expeditionary Combat Support System, which was canceled in December 2012, after spending more than a billion dollars and failing to deploy within 5 years of initially obligating funds;
  • the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative Network program, which was ended in January 2011, after the department obligated more than $1 billion to the program, because it did not meet cost-effectiveness and viability standards;
  • the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise program, which was intended to be delivered by 2014 at a total estimated cost of $609 million, but was terminated in October 2011 due to challenges in managing the program;
  • the Office of Personnel Management’s Retirement Systems Modernization program, which was canceled in February 2011, after spending approximately $231 million on the agency’s third attempt to automate the processing of federal employee retirement claims;
  • the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, DOD, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was a tri-agency weather satellite program that the White House Office of Science and Technology stopped in February 2010 after the program spent 16 years and almost $5 billion; and
  • the VA Scheduling Replacement Project, which was terminated in September 2009 after spending an estimated $127 million over 9 years.

The GAO attributes the problems to “a lack of disciplined and effective management and inadequate executive-level oversight.” That is certainly true, but I would also point to more fundamental problems with the nature of government bureaucracy, which I discussed in testimony yesterday.

#TakenInByDHS

Are journalists across the nation working to establish a national ID in the United States? Most would object, “Certainly not!”

But in reporting uncritically on the Department of Homeland Security’s claimed deadlines for implementing the U.S. national ID law, many journalists are unwittingly helping impose a system that the federal government may one day use to identify, track, and control every American. Today I’ve started Tweeting about news articles in which this occurs with the hashtag #TakenInByDHS.

Under the terms of the REAL ID Act, which became law more than ten years ago, states were supposed to begin issuing licenses according to federal standards by May of 2008. States that didn’t follow federal mandates would see their residents turned away at airports when the Transportation Security Administration declined their drivers’ licenses and ID cards.

The DHS failed to issue implementing regulations timely, and backed off of the statutory deadline by regulatory fiat. No state was in compliance with REAL ID on deadline, and no state is compliant with REAL ID today. Over the years, the Department of Homeland Security has declared a variety of milestones and deadlines in a fairly impotent effort to bring state driver licensing policy under federal control. Many states have resisted.

The reason for DHS’s impotence is that making good on the threat to prevent Americans from traveling would almost surely backfire. If already unpopular TSA agents began refusing Americans their right to travel, it would be federal bureaucrats and members of Congress getting the blame—not state legislators.

But most state legislators haven’t done this calculation. They are reluctant to create a national ID, and they don’t want to expend taxpayer funds on a program that undercuts their constituents’ privacy. But told of their potential responsibility for bedlam at local airports, they will accede to such things.