Topic: International Economics and Development

Venezuela: Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

Hugo Chavez came one step closer to becoming a full-fledged dictator last night, as “Venezuelan lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill granting … [him] the power to rule by decree for 18 months so that he can impose sweeping economic, social and political change.” The vote in the National Assembly was unanimous — as befits a budding communist country.

Not that Chavez’s powers were much constrained prior to yesterday, but his soon-to-be official recognition as Venezuela’s dictator serves as an important reminder that state control of the economy and dictatorship go hand in hand.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, many defenders of socialism have argued that dictators, including Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot, were aberrations; they took Marx’s ideas in the wrong direction. They claim that nationalization of the means of production (call it communism, socialism, or Marxism) and democracy can be compatible. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek showed that it cannot. Some 50 years later, Hayek’s argument holds. Every socialist regime tends toward authoritarianism of some sort.

Chavez reminds us of the anti-democratic nature of socialism. As such, he is turning into a major embarrassment for many on the Left who supported him. Unfortunately, what the proponents of socialism again and again fail to realize is that it is the message, not the messenger, that is embarrassing.

How Large are Federal Oil Subsidies?

Yesterday, I co-authored an op-ed with Peter Van Doren on the Democrats’ energy bill scheduled for a vote today in the House.  The bill is advertised as an exercise to eliminate the subsidies going to “Big Oil” and to use that money instead to subsidize renewable energy (the fact that “Big Oil” is also in the renewable energy business and will simply find that the federal checks are going to different corporate in-boxes has apparently not occurred to anyone, but I digress).  But did the Democrats wipe out all the subsidies, or did they leave some big subsidies behind?

A lot of people think that the Democrats left a lot of money on the table.  Today in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, economist Doug Koplow argues that the biggest subsidy left untouched by Pelosi & Co. relates to the military protection of oil producing facilities and shipping lanes abroad, a mission which costs the taxpayer at least $19 billion a year. 

While the Ds certainly were less than thorough in their anti-oil-subsidy crusade, I’m not so sure that the subsidies are anywhere near as large as many people think.

Quantifying the national security costs associated with ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of foreign oil is difficult.  The Congressional Research Service estimated in 1997 that those costs may be anywhere between $0.5-65 billion, or 1.5 cents to 30 cents per gallon for motor fuel from the Persian Gulf.  Agreement about the extent of the military’s “oil mission” is difficult because military and foreign policy expenditures are generally tasked with multiple missions and objectives, and oil security is simply one mission of many.  Analysts disagree about how to divide those missions into budgetary terms. 

Debate about the size of the U.S. military’s oil mission and related foreign policy expenses, however, is not particularly relevant to a discussion about whether and to what extent oil companies are subsidized by this kind of thing.  From an economic perspective, the key question is whether an elimination of U.S. military and foreign aid expenditures dedicated to “the oil mission” would result in (a) greater corporate expenditures to secure oil from abroad, and/or (b) an increase in the price of oil, and, if so, how much?  That is the true measure of the subsidy if it indeed exists.  That’s because, if the oil mission provides no value to multinational oil companies or oil consumers - as I maintain - than it is not a subsidy.  Measuring the subsidy by the amount of money government spends on the oil mission is at best a measure of how much politicians believe the national security externalities might be.  Political assessments may or may not be accurate.            

To be sure, if the termination of the American “oil mission” implied the termination of all military, police, and court services in the region, petroleum extraction investments would become more risky, extraction of oil might decrease, and prices would increase.  But remember that oil companies in the Middle-East are creatures of government.  So the question is really whether Middle-East governments would produce less oil because the United States ended its oil-related military mission and foreign aid.  Or would oil producing states provide – or pay others to provide – military services to replace those previously provided by the United States?           

I strongly suspect that a cessation of U.S. security assistance would be replaced by security expenditures from other parties.  First, oil producers will provide for their own security needs as long as the cost of doing so results in greater profits than equivalent investments could yield.  Because Middle-Eastern governments typically have nothing of value to trade except oil, they must secure and sell oil to remain viable.  Second, given that their economies are so heavily dependent upon oil revenues, Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than we do to worry about the security of production facilities, ports, and sea lanes.  

In short, whatever security our presence provides (and many analysts think that our presence actually reduces security) could be provided by other parties were the United States to withdraw.  The fact that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid for 55 percent of the cost of Operation Desert Storm suggests that keeping the Straits of Hormuz free of trouble is certainly within their means.  The same argument applies to Al Qaeda threats to oil production facilities.           

If oil regimes paid for their own military protection and the protection of their own shipping lanes, would U.S. Middle-East military expenditures really go down?  The answer might very well be “no” for two very different reasons.  First, the U.S. Middle-East military presence stems from our implicit commitment to defend Israel as well as the region from Islamic fundamentalism, and those missions would not likely end simply because Arab oil regimes paid for their own economic security needs.  Second, bureaucratic and congressional inertia might leave military expenditures constant regardless of Israeli or petroleum defense needs.              

Thus, U.S. ”oil mission” should not be viewed as a subsidy that lowers oil prices below what they otherwise would be.  Instead, the expenditures are a taxpayer-financed gift to oil regimes and the Israeli government that has little, if any, effect on oil prices or corporate profits.  Now, I’d be happy to see the oil mission go, but “Big Oil” won’t be any poorer for it.

Identity Crisis Book Forum Thursday at Cato

On Thursday, the Cato Institute is having a book forum on my book Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

Commenting on my presentation of the book will be James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jay Stanley from the ACLU.

The REAL ID Act is under siege from state leaders who are bridling at this unfunded surveillance mandate, and legislation was introduced at the end of the 109th Congress to repeal REAL ID. But the immigration debate this year will surely fuel the push for a national ID with the demand for “internal enforcement” of immigration law. Identity Crisis lays the groundwork for all these discussions.

The event is streamed for those not in the area. To register, go here.

The National ID Debate, Part II

“It is the policy of the United States that the Social Security card shall not be used as a national identification card.”

So reads the last line of the Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act of 2007. The bill would put an encrypted machine-readable electronic identification strip on each Social Security card, which would enable employers to access an “Employment Eligibility Database” at the Department of Homeland Security. The database would include the citizenship status of every Social Security card holder.

Employers who hired someone without checking this … national Social Security identification card … against the Department of Homeland Security’s database would be punished. (Must remember: “It is the policy of the United States that the Social Security card shall not be used as a national identification card.”) 

So goes the push for “internal enforcement” of immigration law — sure to be an important topic in the immigration debate this year. 

The national ID law that is now in place, the REAL ID Act, is a reaction to the terror attacks of 9/11, and the assumption that knowing who someone is tells us what that person plans to do. 

But the REAL ID Act is in retreat. With states bridling at the burden they’ve been asked to bear in order to implement the act, legislation to repeal REAL ID was introduced late last year, and it is likely to be re-introduced soon.

The next wave of the ID debate will be about immigration.

On Thursday, January 18th, we’ll be having a lunch-time book forum here at Cato on my book, Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood. I will present the book, and I have invited two interesting commentators — skeptics of different parts of my theses — to weigh in. 

Please join us for what I hope will be an interesting discussion of identity issues, and a preview of an important part of the coming immigration debate. 

Register for the book forum here.

Chavez: Do We Need Any More Evidence?

In his three-hour inaugural address — yet another characteristic he shares with his hero, Fidel Castro — Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez eliminated any remaining doubt about his plans to rule as a socialist dictator. Yet some journalists still can’t bring themselves to speak truth about power.

Take the Washington Post, for instance. Reporter Juan Forero’s story is headlined “Chavez Would Abolish Presidential Term Limit.” He notes Chavez’s stirring mantra, borrowed from Castro: “Socialism or death!” He reports:

All week in Caracas, Chavez has shaken markets and angered the Bush administration by promising to nationalize utilities, seek broader constitutional powers and increase the state’s control of the economy. He has also frequently referred to the new, more radical phase in what he calls his revolution — drawing comparisons with Castro’s famous declaration on Dec. 2, 1961: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and will be one until the day I die.”

But then in the next paragraph Forero cautions:

If the theatrics are similar, however, the apparent goal is not. Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy, and analysts do not believe his government will embark on a wholesale expropriation of companies, as Castro’s government set out to do soon after taking power in 1959.

Remain a democracy, eh? Well, that’s good news.

At the end of his article, Forero does note:

He has installed military officers in all levels of government and packed the Supreme Court, and now says he will end the autonomy of the Central Bank.

Good thing Venezuela is going to remain a democracy, or those actions could be worrisome.

In his 1,000-word story, Forero failed to note a key point that other journalists pointed out: Chavez said he would  ask the National Assembly, all 167 of whose members are his supporters, for special powers allowing him to enact a series of “revolutionary laws” by decree.

What more would it take for a journalist to conclude that Chavez’s “apparent goal” is the same as Castro’s and that, of course, he does not intend for Venezuela to “remain a democracy”?

Even people usually thought of as on the left have viewed Chavez’s consolidation of power with alarm. Human Rights Watch yesterday issued a report saying that Chavez and his supporters “have sought to consolidate power by undermining the independence of the judiciary and the press, institutions that are essential for promoting the protection of human rights.”

In a recent study for the Cato Institute, Gustavo Coronel, former Venezuelan representative to Transparency International, shows that “corruption has exploded to unprecedented levels…and Chávez has created new state-run financial institutions, whose operations are also opaque, that spend funds at the discretion of the executive.”

We know from theory and history that socialism — state ownership of the means of production and the attempt to eliminate for-profit economic activity — leads inevitably to tyranny. We saw it in Russia, China, and Cuba. We know that Cuba is one of the poorest countries in the world after almost 50 years of Castro and that its people daily risk their lives in rickety boats to escape.

Chavez has promised to bring socialism to Venezuela. If he succeeds, we know that the result will be tyranny. But meanwhile, he’s not waiting for the advent of socialism. He has packed Congress and the Supreme Court with his supporters. He has installed his military officers in all levels of government. He is trying to end the autonomy of the Central Bank, nationalize major industries, abolish constitutional limits on presidential tenure, and perhaps most clearly, get his followers in Congress to give him the power to rule by decree.

“Remain a democracy” indeed.

Subsidies Fail to Save French Farms

French farmers harvest billions of euros every year in government support through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Yet those lavish subsidies and trade barriers have failed to achieve one of their primary objectives: saving the French family farm.

According to a study just released by the French Statistical Institute (INSEE), and reported in today’s Financial Times, an average of 100 French farms have gone out of business EVERY DAY for the past 50 years. The number of farm workers in France has dropped by two-thirds in the past 25 years. France’s farm exports have been declining by 3.4 percent per year since 1999, and farm household income has actually fallen during the past decade, while the incomes of non-farm households in France have been going up.

The decline of the French farm has occurred despite, or perhaps because of, the generous support of the CAP. France’s farmers receive the equivalent of $11.6 billion a year in handouts, more than one fifth of total European Union spending on agriculture. Those subsidies have arguably kept French farms from becoming more competitive and thus contributed to their long-term decline.

When the EU’s farm commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, warned that French farmers should seek second incomes outside the farm sector to survive, the French farm minister denounced her comments as “an insult to the social model to which European citizens are profoundly and legitimately attached.”

Is an agricultural “social model” that costs billions of euros a year and only adds to the decline of the French farm worth holding on to?

Rock on, Canada

I realize I have already blogged about agriculture today, and normally I would spare you a second blog entry, but there has been an important development in agricultural trade circles. Canada has requested consultations (the first step in a full-blown trade dispute) with the United States over U.S. farm programs.

Specifically, the Canadians want to discuss the subsidies given to U.S. corn farmers, and the damage they did to other world corn producers because of price suppression effects. Enquiring minds in Canada also want to know more about the amount of trade-distorting support that the United States paid to its farmers overall in “certain years” (the press release doesn’t specify which).

It’s hard to say at this point what effect, if any, this development will have on the U.S. farm bill debate, or the WTO negotiations in the Doha round. But it would be a stupid brave Congress indeed that paid no heed to the WTO effects (in litigation or negotiation) of American farm subsidies when drafting a new farm policy. History has shown that the costs of farm welfare to consumers and taxpayers tend to get short-ish shrift when juxtaposed with the farm lobby, but firms facing possible retaliatory sanctions or failed market access ambitions as a result of an adverse ruling against the United States might carry more weight.