The Malaysian Air Shoot Down Changes Nothing: America Cannot Save Ukraine

The agony of the families of the 298 people who died on flight MH17 lives on.  Fighting has prevented Dutch personnel from reaching the crash site.  However, despite calls for stronger action against Russia and its separatist clients in Ukraine, the tragic shoot down changed nothing in practice. 

American intelligence reportedly concluded that Russian separatists misjudged the flight for a Ukrainian military plane, which seems most likely.  If so, then what to do?

The bodies were still warm in Ukraine when America’s hawks began stiring the war machine.  Said Sen. John McCain:  involvement of Russia or Russian separatists in the plane shoot down “would open the gates for us assisting, finally, giving the Ukrainians some defensive weapons [and] sanctions that would be imposed as a result of that.  That would be the beginning.” 

The better answer, however, remains to do largely nothing.  The MH17 incident, while outrageous, actually is no trigger for anything.  Errant attacks on civilians, while always tragic, are not unusual.

However, in none of the earlier cases did an accidental or erroneous shoot down act as a casus belli.  Not once did much of anything happen.  Even during the Cold War such incidents were resolved peacefully.  The U.S. has no more cause than before for extensive involvement in the Ukraine imbroglio. 

Of course, Moscow’s geopolitical machinations are to be deplored.  But Russia is no Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin is no Joseph Stalin.  Unlike the U.S.S.R., Russia represents no ideological or military threat to America.

In fact, Putin’s Russia appears to have reverted to a traditional great power, concerned about international respect and border security.  Its ambitions are fierce, but bounded. 

Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, like the former’s war against Georgia, is consistent if unfortunate.   But such action isn’t likely to lead much further.  Indeed, Moscow apparently has no interest in swallowing Ukraine, with a majority of non-Russians (in contrast to Crimea), just like it did not absorb Georgia.  Aggression further west is even less likely.

President Barack Obama correctly dismissed the threat posed by Moscow:  “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” 

Corporate Inversions, Tax Rates, and Tax Revenues

News outlets are running stories about the rise in corporate tax inversions. Inversions are financial reorganizations that place U.S. firms under foreign parent corporations. They are one of the many ways that companies are responding to America’s uniquely high corporate tax rate.

Liberal policymakers and pundits are outraged by inversions because they fear that the government will be starved of revenues. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has demanded new rules to stop inversions because “allowing these transactions to continue, we run the risk of eroding our corporate tax base and undoing the progress we have made to reduce our budget deficits.”

However, it is our high 40 percent tax rate that is eroding our corporate tax base. If we chopped the rate substantially, tax avoidance would fall and U.S. investment would rise. Over time, more income would be reported to the government, with the result that the government would probably not lose any money, and it could even gain some. Governments, businesses, and workers would all win from a corporate tax rate cut.

US-Africa Summit Will Not Solve Africa’s Problems

As the U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to meet 50 African leaders on Wednesday, August 6, it is worth reflecting on the factors behind the recent progress occurring in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. As we write in our new paper,

The real gross domestic product [in Sub-Saharan Africa] rose at an average annual rate of 4.9 percent between 2000 and 2008 — twice as fast as that in the 1990s. […] As a result, between 1990 and 2010, the share of Africans living at $1.25 per day or less fell from 56 percent to 48 percent, while the continent’s population almost doubled in size. If the current trends continue, Africa’s poverty rate will fall to 24 percent by 2030.4 Since 1990 the per-capita caloric intake in Africa increased from 2,150 kcal to 2,430 kcal in 2013.5 Between 1990 and 2012, the proportion of the population of African countries with access to clean drinking water increased from 48 percent to 64 percent.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa is also becoming more democratic and better governed, a large gap between the quality of its institutions and those in the West persists. The continent remains, for example, economically unfree and heavily protectionist, not just vis-à-vis the outside world but also within the continent. For 25 African countries, the tariff costs of exporting or importing manufactured goods are higher within Africa than with the rest of world.

While international summits cannot not solve Africa’s internal problems, our paper argues that the upcoming meeting is a good opportunity for the U.S. administration to eliminate the existing trade barriers facing African exporters – regardless of whether they come in the form of explicit tariff barriers or implicit ones, such as agricultural subsidies:

[T]he elimination of the existing barriers to trade should be at the forefront of the efforts to help. Such barriers include tariffs, particularly on agricultural exports, which make it difficult for African economies to fully exploit their comparative advantage. As Brookings Institution researchers Emmanuel Asmah and Brandon Routman note, the structure of the tariff protection in the United States — but also in the European Union — is a significant part of the problem. The tariffs imposed up to a certain amount of imports may be low, yet the tariffs imposed for imports above the permitted quota might be very steep, in some cases up to 350 percent. Furthermore, agricultural subsidies in rich countries cause surplus production, which is often dumped on the world markets, depressing prices and undermining the livelihood of farmers in poor countries.

Undercurrents of Liberty in China

BEIJING, CHINA—Everything in China is big.  Including the battle over its future.

I recently returned from the People’s Republic of China.  It’s always a fascinating place with a future as yet unresolved. 

The country is growing economically, but no one really believes the government’s statistics.  The “one child” policy has created a birth dearth that may leave the PRC old before it grows rich. 

The PRC’s future is not yet determined.  Politics remains authoritarian, and it isn’t obvious that democracy would yield a meek Beijing. Nationalism could become an even more dangerous force without the current government’s power to close off discussion. 

Nevertheless, the young are restless.  Those I met had little patience with the Chinese Communist Party. 

Many hoped to go to America for school, for both its educational opportunities and personal freedoms.  Moreover, they weren’t afraid to speak out in front of others.

#Escape2010

In response to my “Twitter fight!” blog post from Wednesday, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig charges me (in a post entitled “#Escapethe1990s”) with living in the campaign finance debates of the 1990s. There’s a better knock on me: I live in the 1790s, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, like some kinda freak!

Lessig really wants me to rely on modern Supreme Court precedents to argue that public funding of electioneering is unconstitutional: “And I challenge Harper to offer one bit of actual authority to counter that statement beyond his ‘this is the way I wish the Constitution were interpreted’ mode of argument,” he says, in “I-really-mean-it” bold.

I’ve had similar challenges to my starry-eyed and—I’ll confess—ideologically driven view of the Constitution. (I’m biased in favor of liberty.) For about a year, supporters of NSA spying bandied Smith v. Maryland “Supreme Court law,” saying that a person has no Fourth Amendment interest in phone calling data—until Judge Leon undercut them. Needless to say, the Court got its rationale wrong in Smith. Applying Smith to NSA spying is wrong. To the extent precedents might allow public funding of electioneering, they are wrong, too.

Professor Lessig devotes a good deal of time to the compromise he and others have made with conservative opponents since the ’90s. Perhaps because I’m not a conservative, but a libertarian, I don’t feel as though I owe it to them to come their way. To Lessig’s credit, he is not doubling-down on a bad idea, as others are, by seeking a constitutional amendment to allow government regulation of political speech. (The bill at the link was introduced Tuesday.)

What is most interesting is his utter certainty that an intricate scheme to mask government subsidy for political speech is good enough to slide over the First Amendment’s bar on “abridging the freedom of speech.” I thought I did a pretty good job on the subsidy question the first time, but I’ll do it again: Under Lessig’s plan, if you give money to a politician, you pay less in taxes. If you don’t give money to a politician, you pay more in taxes. Government tax policy would funnel money to politicians for their campaigns. That’s subsidy.

The EU’s Anti-Austerity Hypocrites

The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.

Never mind. The EU fiscal austerity bandwagon keeps rolling on with Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister and current President of the EU, holding the reins. Indeed, Renzi recently went so far as to form an anti-austerity coalition with France and Spain. According to the coalition, its members simply cannot impose further spending cuts. They assert that their budgets have been cut to the bone. This claim is ludicrous. 

<--break->There is nothing to cut in Italy? Get real. Senior civil servants are being paid over 12 times the national average salary. As for France and Spain, their civil servants are “well paid,” too. It’s time for the public to stop listening to the EU’s anti-austerity hypocrites and start looking at the numbers.

Would We Start the Ex-Im Bank Today?

One point that I think gets overlooked in the Ex-Im Bank debate is whether we would create the bank today, if it did not already exist. If there were no export credit agencies out there already, what would the discussion over whether to start one look like? I have a difficult time believing that, based on current understandings of finance markets, a proposal to start using government-run export credit banks would gain any traction today.

So what we really have is a program that was created many years ago, vested interests have emerged to fight its repeal, and the practice has spread around the world. It’s basically just status quo bias that is keeping Ex-Im around, as I argue in this HuffPo piece:

It is difficult to imagine that we would create an Ex-Im Bank today if none existed. Yet we cannot seem to get rid of it.

The Ex-Im Bank was created in 1934, at a time when finance markets were undeveloped and international trade was filled with uncertainty. This was also a time of growing economic intervention in the economy, centered around the New Deal. As the Ex-Im Bank itself explains, “The Export-Import Bank was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1934, as a New Deal program and to support his foreign policy.”

In the ensuing decades, economic thinking has changed radically, as our understanding of markets has grown. While it is possible that financing was simply not available for certain transactions at the time of Ex-Im’s creation, it is difficult to believe this is the case today. Finance is a sophisticated field with numerous options. If financing is not available for a particular transaction, it is almost certainly because the sale is not commercially viable. As The Economist recently put it, “The scarcity of private financing for certain exports reflects genuine risks that taxpayers are forced to assume.”

Of course, this problem of overcoming the status quo occurs in other policy areas as well. No doubt this blog’s readers can think of many examples where programs exist and linger on, even though they could never generate the support to start them today.