Years After the Recession, Welfare Rolls Hit New Highs

New Census data shows that the number of households receiving welfare benefits hit a record high of almost 33.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2012. While part of the surge was due to the recession, the proportion receiving benefits has increased from 25.2 percent to 27.4 percent since the recession officially ended in June 2009. These inflated welfare rolls are not just a temporary response to an economic downturn, and could instead become the new normal. This poses a problem not only for the country as a whole, but for the individuals beneficiaries as well.  These welfare programs could eventually become unaffordable as programs for the elderly take up an increasing share of our budget. At the same time, for a record number of beneficiaries the structure of our current system could actually make it less likely they escape poverty for good.

Of particular concern are the households participating in three or more means-tested non-cash programs, which has also increased significantly, rising from 7.3 percent of all households at the end of the recession to 8.6 percent by the end of 2012. Participation in multiple programs is even more commonplace among families headed by a single mother, similar to the case family we used in The Work versus Welfare Trade-off 2013. In that paper, we found that in some states, the welfare benefits package available could be so generous that it could disincentivize work in some cases. One critique of the paper was that not every low-income household qualified for the programs in our benefit package. This is true, and we acknowledged as much in the paper. We even included a scenario where the family only received benefits from a more limited package. However, this Census data shows that cases like the one we examinedare becoming increasingly common. Almost 44 percent of households headed by a single mother participated in three or more means-tested non-cash programs in 2012, compared to only 38.7 percent when the recession ended.  While the point remains that not every low-income household participates in every welfare program, many do participate in multiple programs, and the proportion has continued to increase years after the recession ended.

Defeat the Islamic State by Allowing Syria and Others to Kill Radicals

Administration officials proclaim the Islamic State’s isolated experiment in 7th Century Islam to pose a dire threat to America.  After promising to strictly limit the military mission in Iraq, the president is preparing to expand the war to Syria, where the administration is working to overthrow the Assad government—which now blocks Islamic control over the entire country.  Instead, the administration should encourage other nations, starting with Syria, to kill ISIL radicals.

Iraq is a catastrophic failure.  Yet the Obama administration risks falling into war there again. 

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to address the Islamic State “on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” between Iraq and Syria. 

However, Washington’s intelligence capabilities in Syria remain limited.  More important, the Obama administration has spent three years attempting to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime, which possesses an air defense system and warned that it would treat any attacks as “aggression.” 

The administration should reconsider its policy in Syria.  As I point out in Forbes online, “The Assad government is even more committed than Washington to eliminating the Islamic State as a geopolitical force.”

Yet America’s support for the opposition has weakened the Assad government’s ability to fight ISIL.  Washington’s preference for less radical groups also has discouraged Damascus from targeting the Islamic State, whose existence inhibits U.S. involvement. 

Reaching a modus vivendi with Damascus would encourage Assad to focus on ISIL.  Assad is no friend of liberty, but Washington must set priorities. 

When a Hamburger Becomes a Doughnut and Other Lessons About Tax Inversions and Globalization

So Burger King plans to purchase Canadian doughnut icon Tim Hortons and move company headquarters north of the border, where corporate tax rates are as much as 15 percentage points lower than in the United States.  Expect politicians at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to accuse Burger King of treachery, while spewing campaign-season pledges to penalize these greedy, “Benedict Arnold” companies.
 
If the acquisition comes to fruition and ultimately involves a corporate “inversion,” consider it not a problem, but a symptom of a problem. The real problem is that U.S. policymakers inadequately grasp that we live in a globalized economy, where capital is mobile and products and services can be produced and delivered almost anywhere in the world, and where value is created by efficiently combining inputs and processes from multiple countries.  Globalization means that public policies are on trial and that policymakers have to get off their duffs and compete with most every other country in the world to attract investment, which flows to the jurisdictions where it is most productive and, crucially, most welcome to be put to productive use.
 
Too many policymakers still believe that since the United States is the world’s largest market, U.S.-headquartered companies are tethered to the U.S. economy and committed to investing, hiring, and producing in the United States, regardless of the quality of the business and policy environments. They fail to appreciate how quickly the demographics are changing or that a growing number of currently U.S.-based companies do not share their view. Perhaps too many are unaware of how the United States continues to slide in the various global rankings of attributes that attract business and investment. The leverage politicians have over America’s corporate wealth creators has diminished.

Coping with the Legacy of Arab Socialism

Countries of the Arab Spring suffer from many economic, social, and political ills. At their center lies the unfortunate legacy of Arab Socialism, which established itself in the region during the 1950s and 1960s. One of its features, besides the ideology of Pan-Arabism and international ‘non-alignment,’ was an emphasis on government ownership and industrial planning. Far from generating prosperity and economic growth, these policies resulted in large, vastly inefficient government-operated sectors in several Arab economies. My new Cato Policy Analysis provides a sense of the magnitude of the problem and of its evolution over time:

In Egypt, for example, the share of government investment fell from around 85 percent in the late 1990s to below 40 percent in 2012. Over the same period of time, the share of government investment in Algeria doubled, from around 30 percent to above 60 percent. Throughout much of the same period, the average for lower-middle-income countries hovered under 30 percent.

Some Arab governments, most prominently Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, attempted to put in place large-scale privatization programs. However, these were perceived (and rightly so!) as attempts by the political elites and their cronies to simply seize publicly owned assets, without much regard for the future restructuring of the companies and their exposure to competition. My paper reviews the experience of privatization in other countries and tries to provide some practical lessons to policymakers in countries such as Egypt or Algeria.

First and foremost, privatization needs to be perceived as fair and transparent. Bidding should be competitive and open to a large spectrum of potential bidders, domestic and foreign. Second, private ownership of the financial sector is a requisite for successful privatization and restructuring of the rest of the economy–otherwise Arab countries risk creating a dangerous nexus of cronyism through which the state-owned banks and financial institutions would provide funding to newly privatized companies. Third, in order to avoid the danger of simply replacing government-run monopolies with privately-run ones, privatization should be far-reaching and accompanied by broad economic liberalization and opening up both to trade and investment.

Privatization is not very high on the agenda of Arab policymakers or foreign experts, and is typically eclipsed by the more immediate political concerns about the region. It is not, however, an issue that can be simply ignored.

It is a mistake to think that economic reforms can wait until Middle Eastern countries address their internal political and economic problems. There are not many examples of countries that have transitioned successfully to a representative constitutional government while maintaining economic rules that deny opportunity to large segments of the population. State ownership, accompanied by regulations that favor existing state-owned incumbents, are a critical part of the problem facing countries in the MENA region, most notably Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Yemen

The Threat of Poorly Performing Vacuum Cleaners

I don’t follow domestic regulation as closely as many people at Cato, but I keep an eye on it in relation to “regulatory trade barriers” that are being addressed in trade negotiations. In that context, I came accross this EU attempt to crack down on high-wattage vacuum cleaners:

Consumers are being urged to buy powerful vacuum cleaners while they can after it emerged that some of the most powerful models on the market will disappear in September when a new EU rule comes into force.

An EU energy label, to be introduced from 1 September, means manufacturers will not be able to make or import vacuum cleaners with a motor that exceeds 1,600 watts.

European commission spokeswoman for energy Marlene Holzner said in a blog: “As a result of the new EU eco-design and labelling regulations, consumers will also get better vacuum cleaners. In the past, there was no legislation on vacuum cleaners and companies could sell poorly performing vacuum cleaners.”

Oh, the humanity! Companies might sell “poorly performing vacuum cleaners” to an unsuspecting public! And only legislation can save the day!

Or – and I know this might sound crazy to some people – we could just rely on consumers to evaluate the vacuum cleaners, buying the better ones and leaving the “poorly peforming” ones on the shelf.

How the British Burned Washington

The British burned Washington 200 years ago today. In the Washington Post Joel Achenbach, with help from Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight, tells how the day went, including this description of how thorough and careful the British were:

The British knew how to build a bonfire. You just stacked the furniture, sprinkled it with gunpowder and put a torch to it.

They built multiple fires inside the Capitol, immolating the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the splendid chambers of the House and Senate.

Later in the evening, Ross and Cockburn made their way to the White House and helped themselves, amid hearty toasts, to the fabulous meal and adult beverages left by Mrs. Madison and her staff. They took a few souvenirs, and one filthy lieutenant ventured into the president’s dressing room and put on one of the president’s clean linen shirts.

Then they set the fires. Up in flames went some of the most beautiful furniture in the country, including pieces obtained by Jefferson in Paris and the private possessions of the Madisons. The fires left the mansion a gutted, smoldering shell.

The British also burned the Treasury building, and the building housing the War and State departments. They ransacked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, with Cockburn ordering the seizure of all the letter C’s from the presses so that the editor could no longer write nasty things about him. The Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep the ships and stores out of British hands. 

The invaders spared private dwellings. This was to be a civilized sacking; no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.

 One would hate to think that the British army was more respectful of private property rights than the current U.S. government.

 

 

 

The First Amendment Protects Random Ugly Rap Lyrics

To ensure that public discussion remains “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the First Amendment protects speech that is “vituperative, abusive, and inexact.” While nobody will argue that Anthony Elonis’s speech—the subject of a Supreme Court case this coming term—was anything but “vituperative, abusive, and inexact,” there is considerable disagreement over whether his speech should be protected by the First Amendment. 

Elonis’s chosen form of speech was a series of rap lyrics he posted on Facebook under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie.” Many of the lyrics were violent and lurid, and some of those violent images were made in reference to Elonis’s estranged wife, who took them as a threat to her life. As a result of his crude posts, Elonis was fired, his wife obtained a protective order against him, and he was arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat to injure the person of another.”

Elonis argued that his rap lyrics were an artistic expression and that because he did not intend them to be a threat, his speech should be protected. The federal district court hearing his case didn’t see it that way. The judge rejected his request that the jury be instructed to consider his actions based on whether he expressed a subjective intent to threaten and instead instructed the jury to judge his speech based on whether a reasonable person would have interpreted the lyrics as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily injury. Elonis was thus convicted and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit also rejected his argument that a subjective intent to threaten is required before speech loses First Amendment protection.

Now before the Supreme Court, Cato has joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the National Coalition Against Censorship on a brief supporting Elonis’s position. We argue that Supreme Court precedent shows that (1) a subjective intent to threaten is an essential element of a “true threat,” (2) requiring a finding of subjective intent is in line with First Amendment principles, and (3) drawing the line between threat and protected speech carefully is particularly important given the rise of the Internet as a forum of communication—one where it can be easy to take things out of context.

As a matter of most people’s taste, the Internet may well be better off without violent rap lyrics like Anthony Elonis’s. But that shouldn’t matter to this case or how it’s analyzed under the First Amendment, which requires a high standard of proof regarding incitement or threats of violence before individuals can be jailed for their speech. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to speak that truth freely across all mediums.

Elonis v. United States will be argued at the Supreme Court in November or December.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.