Topic: International Economics and Development

Blinded by Ideology

A letter writer in the Washington Post complains about this Post editorial, which criticized the repression in Cuba, particularly the lack of freedom of expression and the right to emigrate. The writer declares,

Cuba is managing its economy and is making incremental changes and reforms within its socialist and human-needs-oriented system. The U.S. government and The Post shouldn’t lecture Cuba when we have our own problems with the economy, the budget, health care, infrastructure and our moral standing in the world.

I’ve just published a book, most of whose 300 pages are devoted to criticisms of the U.S. government on a far wider range of issues than that, so I’m no knee-jerk defender of any government, much less of the Bush administration. But let’s take a closer look at the writer’s claims:

Cuba is managing its economy…

Well, every country manages its economy in some sense. The Cuban government has managed to turn a beautiful country of tropical beaches 90 miles from North America into one of the poorest countries in the world.

…and is making incremental changes and reforms…

Yes, as the Post editorial noted:

In the past few weeks, Cuban President Raúl Castro has introduced a handful of micro-reforms to the oppressive and bankrupt regime left behind by his brother. Cubans are now officially allowed to buy cellphones, computers and microwave ovens; state workers may get deeds to apartments they have been renting for decades; and farmers may be able to sell part of what they grow at market prices. The measures won’t have much impact (though they have evidently annoyed the officially retired Fidel Castro): The vast majority of Cubans can’t afford to buy electronic goods, and the agricultural reforms fall short of steps taken years ago by North Korea.

So reforms are good. Wake me when they reform more than North Korea.

…within its socialist and human-needs-oriented system.

You’d think socialists would have stopped claiming Cuba. If Cuba is socialist, then socialism is a disaster. While the rest of the Americas grow, Cuba declines. Cubans keep their 1950s American cars shiny and clean because that’s what they have. Socialism’s great accomplishment is to try to freeze the economy at the level to which capitalism (in this case, a corrupt and crony capitalism) had brought it.

As for “human-needs-oriented,” millions of Cubans express their human needs by getting on rickety boats to try to sail to America. One might say that Cuba is like a vast open-air prison, except that American prisoners get better food and more choices in books, newspapers, and television than Cuban citizens do. It’s a rule of thumb around the world: the more a government proclaims its orientation to “human needs,” the less well it actually serves human needs.

The U.S. government and The Post shouldn’t lecture Cuba when we have our own problems with the economy…

Yes, our economy is growing only slightly these days, and we have looming fiscal disasters because our own government has introduced socialism into health care and retirement savings. But Americans don’t flee to Cuba, and our GDP per capita is estimated at something like 10 times that of Cuba. 

…the budget…

Yes, our federal budget is a disaster. But it hasn’t — yet — destroyed our standard of living, and I doubt that the adoption of Fidel Castro’s budgeting methods would help.

…health care…

Yes, we have the best and the most expensive health care in the world. If we had less socialism in health care, we could bring down our costs. But more drugs are created here, more medical advances are made here, and people come to American hospitals from all over the world, especially from the often-touted Canadian system.

…infrastructure and our moral standing in the world.

My colleagues and I have written very critically about the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, its treatment of the accused, its accumulation of executive power, and other actions that have harmed America’s standing in the world. (Not to mention President Clinton’s unauthorized uses of military force in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.) But if America’s moral standing in the world is less than that of the totalitarian Castro-Castro regime, then that is an embarrassment to the world, not to the United States.

As Human Rights Watch reports, “Cuba remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. There have been no significant policy changes since Fidel Castro relinquished direct control of the government to his brother Raul Castro in August 2006. The government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long-term and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.” And Human Rights Watch doesn’t even take note of the economic liberties that are systematically suppressed.

The Post’s “lecture” concluded this way:

Let Mr. Castro respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights his government recently signed, which guarantees not only freedom of assembly but the right to freely leave the country. Cuban officials recently hinted that the current ban on foreign travel by average citizens might be changed; let it be removed. Then Mr. Castro can discover just how many of Cuba’s 11 million people are willing to go on enduring a regime whose idea of reform is permitting the sale of microwave ovens.

The letter-writer might encourage the Castro regime to follow this advice, and then perhaps Cuba would have some small measure of moral standing in the world.

Re: Wall Street Journal Editorials — The Fed Caused the Rise in Food and Oil Prices?

In numerous unsigned editorials, The Wall Street Journal has argued that cutting the federal funds rate to 2% from 5 1/4% last September has been the main reason prices of crude oil and food commodities have soared in recent months. Such commodities are priced in dollars and the dollar was generally falling through February, though not in the past two months (even though the funds rate was reduced by one percentage point).

An April 28 editorial, “The Fed’s Bender,” notes that “since 2003 the dollar price of oil has climbed far more rapidly than the euro price — 273% in dollars, compared to 146% in euros.” It is not likely that the whole 2003-2008 picture reflects “the European Central Bank’s sounder monetary management,” as the editorial implies. The euro had dropped to below parity with dollar until late 2002. And the fed funds rate was repeatedly increased from 1% in 2003 to 5 ¼% in mid-2006 (well above the ECB’s equivalent 4% rate). The euro rose partly because it had first fallen, but also for reasons other than central bank interest rates (economists have no reliable model for forecasting floating exchange rates).

The editorial boldly concludes that “had the dollar merely retained the same purchasing power as the euro, today’s price of oil would be below $70 a barrel.” That is a counterfactual exercise that makes little sense.

Even if we accept the half-true premise that the dollar-euro exchange rate is sensitive to relative short-term interest rates, the dollar might have “retained the same purchasing power as the euro” by having the ECB lower interest rates to 3% and the Fed to keep ours at 3%. Or the Fed might have kept the funds rate at 5% and the ECB at 4%. Although either option might have stabilized that particular exchange rate, they would not have had the same effect on global economic growth and therefore on the world demand for oil.

If oil had been priced in dollars and the euro had not appreciated against the dollar, then the euro area would not have been as insulated as it was against the rising cost of oil. Because demand is responsive to price (particularly business demand), Europe would have bought less oil than it did. Or, to use the editorial version, if the U.S. still faced $70 oil then we would try to buy more. Either way, the price in dollars would not have remained the same.

The Economist index covers the prices of 25 commodities, excluding oil and gold, with food accounting for 56% of the index. By April 22 it was up 31% for the year and 3.7% for the month, when measured in dollars.

That was mostly because of food. Industrial commodities were up only 1.6% for the year.

If we are going to blame the rising price of oil and food commodities on the dollar, do we need a different theory to explain why industrial commodities have barely risen?

Here’s another anomaly: Measured in British pounds, the commodity index was up about the same as it was in dollars—31.6% for the year and 4% for the month. That can’t be because Britain has a weak currency—the pound buys 8.9% more dollars than it did a year ago. It can’t be because the Bank of England cut interest rates too much, since 3-month interest rates are 5.86% in Britain, compared with 1.97% in the U.S.

I happen to agree that the Fed (and ECB) have paid too little attention to the impact of exchange rates on prices of internationally traded commodities. And I suspect the Fed has already gone too far with rate cuts and will have to put rates back up shortly after the election. But to single-out a few sensitive commodity prices that have risen the most (in dollars or pounds) and blame just those prices on the Fed is going too far.


Arizona’s law requiring employers to use the federal government’s “E-Verify” system to check workers’ immigration status has employers there “confused by the law’s requirements and ‘terrified’ at the prospect of losing their business licenses if they run afoul of its provisions,” according to a local chamber of commerce official.

My recent paper on electronic employment verification calls it “Franz Kafka’s solution to illegal immigration.”

Re: Martin Feldstein — The Fed Should Stop Helping Commodity Speculators?

In The Wall Street Journal on April 15, Martin Feldstein of Harvard took a position between Makin and Chapman, saying the Fed should have left the federal funds rate at 2 1/4%, because a lower rate would cause “rising food and energy prices.” Feldstein told The Guardian the dollar had to fall further on April 11, so the link he envisions between Fed policy and commodity markets is not through exchange rates (I’ll discuss that in a later post), but just upside speculation alone:

Lower interest rates induce investors to add commodities to their portfolios. When rates are low, portfolio investors will bid up the prices of oil and other commodities to levels at which the expected future returns are in line with the lower rates.

But investors go short as well as long–betting the price will fall– and they can use credit for that too.

The only reason to make a leveraged bet that the price of oil, gold or corn will go higher is if you expect the prices to rise by enough (during the holding period) to exceed the interest expense.

Ignoring trading costs, if you can borrow at 5% to invest in something whose price is expected to rise by 8% that may look like easy money. Yet oil futures are cheaper than near-term spot prices, and gold has recently fallen by about 13%, so momentum trading is dangerous. It is properly called “greater fool investing” – just like paying too much for a Las Vegas condo on the assumption that some greater fool will later pay even more.

It seems unlikely that today’s quarter-point cut in the fed funds rate will result in lower margin rates for commodity traders. But even if it did that is not nearly enough to make a significant difference for more than a day or two.

U.S. politicians seem equally angry with upside “speculators” and downside “shorts,” but it is the contest between the two that constantly gropes for the right price.

I am shorting oil through an exchange-traded fund (DUG), and shorting precious metals through a mutual fund (SPPIX). I’m also slightly long the dollar (UUP). Don’t try this at home without a net. But if I win those bets, the world economy wins too.

Re: John L. Chapman — The Fed Should Tighten to Slow the Growth of MZM?

In The Wall Street Journal on April 29, another AEI economist, John L. Chapman, took the exact opposite position from John Makin. Chapman suggested the Fed “should soon begin a series of rate increases.” The title was “The Fed Must Strengthen the Dollar,” but that is not what he wrote. Chapman just advocated “a stable dollar.”

The dollar was stable in March and April. The Fed’s index of the dollar’s value against a broad basket of currencies (Jan. 1997=100) was 95.84 on March 6 and 95.81 on April 29. The index against major currencies (1973=100) remained close to 70. That was just two months, of course. But those were the months when we were deluged by editorials blaming rising prices of food and oil on “the falling dollar.” In any case, if the goal is being achieved with current Fed policy, then changing that policy would mean deviating from that goal.

Chapman, like some other economists, sees “inflation warnings” in rapid growth of a measure of money supply (or demand) known as MZM (money with zero maturity), which is largely driven by institutional money market funds. These short-term investments tend to expand when corporations and financial fiduciaries are nervous about investing longer-term, and therefore park more cash in money market funds for security.

The trouble with using MZM as an omen of inflation is that it has never worked.

MZM grew rapidly in 2001, during a recession, but MZM was nearly flat in 1973 when inflation began to explode. MZM fell from $854.3 billion in September 1978 to $827.3 billion in April 1980, yet this was a period of rapidly escalating inflation. Core inflation, excluding food and energy, reached 8.5% in the year ending December 1978, then 11.3% and 12.2% in the following years.

There may be an argument for raising the fed funds rate whenever oil and food prices rise, but MZM is not it.

Shiny, Happy SSA Employees

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a pair of briefings for congressional staff regarding electronic employment eligibility verification. A pair of bills are vying for the attention of Congress these days. I suggested in my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” that Congress should ignore both. Indeed, it should eliminate “internal enforcement” of immigration law entirely.

One of my co-briefers provided staffers with some interesting information pertaining to the idea of building a regulatory contraption for automatic nationwide verification of workers’ identity and immigration status. He was a representative of SSA workers from the American Federation of Government Employees, National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals.

The programs slated to go national under these proposals would compare data about new workers (and in some cases, existing workers) with databases at the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. When the data didn’t match, workers would receive what is called a “tentative nonconformation.” With the 4.1% error rate in SSA files (as found by its Inspector General), that’s a lot of tentative nonconfirmations going even to law-abiding American citizens. A higher percentage of the time, naturalized citizens would get them, too, as government data about them is even more error-prone. Bad government data is just one source of error.

Anyway, when a tentative nonconfirmation is issued, employers are supposed to communicate this to the employee (not all do) and the worker is supposed to report to a Social Security Administration office or the Department of Homeland Security to clear the problem up. This is where the interesting new information comes in.

What would the process be like? Well, try calling your local SSA field office to find out. The SSA worker rep reported that 50% of those calls aren’t answered because field offices are too busy. Calls to the SSA’s national 800-number don’t go through 25% of the time.

It’s not just a phone problem. The agency currently has a backlog of 752,000 on disability rulings. That’s three quarters of a million people who aren’t getting an answer from SSA. It takes 530 days – a little under a year and a half – to get a disability ruling out of SSA.

In my paper, I wrote about the experience American workers would get at the Social Security offices when they went to clear up their tentative nonconfirmations:

Disputes of tentative nonconfirmations would not happen in lushly carpeted offices with marble columns, hot coffee, and friendly, attentive staff. The experience of American workers when they sought permission to work would be much more like their trips to the nation’s departments of motor vehicles, post offices, and dentists—long lines, unfriendly service, and painful procedures.

The SSA union rep assures me that SSA workers are friendly. Any perception of unfriendliness is due to overwork. Fair enough; I may have been slapdash in my writing about SSA employees. But a national electronic employment eligibility verification system would result in 3.6 million new visits to these folks, overworking them and eroding their courtesy even more. These visits, and administering tentative nonconfirmations at SSA, would cost $1 billion, according to the union rep.

Of course, an SSA employee union rep would happily take the money and add workforce to do whatever Congress wants. My preference is to save the money. Enforcement of our abnormally restrictive immigration law causes us to spend taxpayer money on undermining the productive economy. That shouldn’t make sense to anyone.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

I’m sorry to bring bad tidings so close to the weekend, but apparently House and Senate conferees have reached agreement [$] on the broad outlines of a Farm Bill.

We will have to wait until Monday to get the full, disgusting details but broadly, we know this about the proposed bill:

  • it will raise the target prices and loan rates for northern crops (i.e., wheat, soybeans, other feedgrains) beginning in 2010
  • raise the sugar loan rate three-quarters of a cent
  • include a sugar-to-ethanol program (whereby the USDA would buy sugar that would otherwise threaten the domestic minimum price and sell it, presumably at a loss, to ethanol plants)
  • an additional $4 billion for conservation programs
  • $10.361 billion extra for domestic and international food aid programs
  • The bill also includes the new “permanent” disaster program (some thoughts on that here), albeit at $250 million less than the original $4 billion request

To pay for this, your representatives in Congress cut the $5.2 billion per year direct payments program (that is the program that pays farmers on the basis of past production and yields, regardless of what they produce now) by 2 percent per year for four years. Recall that the direct payments program, while an offence to taxpayers everywhere, is at least less trade distorting than the price-linked subsidies that the conferees have agreed to increase. And in the final year, when it really counts for purposes of planning future spending levels (i.e., the baseline), the direct payments will go back up again.

The one possible bright light at the end of this sewer-pipe: a presidential veto. No word from the administration on this latest deal, but it does not fit their past definition of an acceptable amount of reform and thus, assuming intestinal fortitude on the part of President Bush (I know, I know), would likely elicit a veto threat.

Happy weekend, everybody.