The Unlikely Fight over Gay Rights in the Heart of Europe

This weekend, after months of animated and often vicious campaigning, Slovaks will vote in a referendum on same-sex marriage, adoptions, and sex education. Interestingly, the referendum has not been initiated by the proponents of gay rights, which are not particularly numerous or well-organized, but rather by the social-conservative group Alliance for Family. The goal is to preempt moves towards the legalization of same-sex unions and of child adoptions by gay couples by banning them before they become a salient issue. Overturning the results of a binding referendum would then require a parliamentary supermajority and would only come at a sizeable political cost.

However, in spite of all the heated rhetoric, it seems unlikely that the threshold for the referendum’s validity will be met. Also, as I wrote in International New York Times some time ago, Slovakia is slowly becoming a more open, tolerant place – something that the referendum will hopefully not undo. However,

[i]n the meantime, the mean-spirited campaigning and frequent disparaging remarks about gays and their “condition” are a poor substitute for serious policy discussions and are making the country a much less pleasant place, and not just for its gay population.

Another disconcerting aspect of the referendum is its geopolitical dimension. For some of the campaigners a rejection of gay rights goes hand in hand with a rejection of what they see as the morally decadent West:

Former Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, a former Catholic dissident and an outspoken supporter of the referendum, noted recently that “in Russia, one would not even have to campaign for this — over there, the protection of traditional Christian values is an integral part of government policy” and warned against the “gender ideology” exported from the United States.

We will see very soon whether the ongoing cultural war was just a blip in Central Europe’s history or whether it will leave a bitter aftertaste for years to come. Here is my essay on the referendum, written for V4 Revue. I also wrote about the referendum in Slovak, for the weekly Tyzden (paywalled), and discuss it in a video with Pavol Demes (in Slovak).

Asthma Justification for EPA Regulations Gutted by the Latest Science

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

A pre-print of a soon to be published paper in the Journal of Asthma and Clinical Immunology describes a study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center making this provocative finding:

Taking the United States as a whole, living in an urban neighborhood is not associated with increased asthma prevalence.

If it isn’t immediately obvious what this means, Dr. Joseph Perrone, chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, spells it out in his article in The Hill:

It’s a radical finding. The study upends more than half a century of research that assumed outdoor air pollution in cities was to blame for higher asthma rates—a hypothesis repeatedly used by EPA regulators to justify the agency’s regulations.

Perrone goes on to explain:

For years, environmentalists and regulators have cited childhood asthma as an excuse for ever-stricter pollution rules. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, uses asthma as a pretext for nearly every “clean air” regulation issued since the 1970s.

But what if the assumed link between air pollution and childhood asthma doesn’t actually exist?

New research questions the long-held wisdom on asthma and air pollution, casting doubt over the scientific basis for EPA’s expansive regulatory agenda….

The study still points to air pollution as a cause for asthma, only it’s indoor air pollution—think second hand smoke, rodents, mold, etc.—that may be the main culprit.

This counters EPA’s asthma pretext for “clean air” regulations, as well as their regulations on climate change.

China Makes the Right Move

Yesterday, China’s Central Bank reduced bank reserve requirements for large banks by 50 basis points to 19.5%. The Chinese know that the nominal level of national income is determined by the magnitude of the money supply. They also know that banks produce the lion’s share of China’s money. Indeed, banks produce 77% of China’s M2 money.

As shown in the accompanying chart, the average annual growth rate of China’s money supply since January 2004 has been 17.45%. At present, the annual growth rate for the money supply has slumped to 11%. China’s reduction in the banks’ reserve requirements is designed to push money growth back up towards the trend rate so that an economic slump is avoided. China has made the right move.

Selling Trade Liberalization Like the Measles Vaccine

President Obama is presiding over what may prove to be the most significant round of trade liberalization in American history, yet he has never once made an affirmative case for that outcome. Despite various reports of intensifying outreach to members of Congress, the president’s “advocacy” is couched in enough skepticism to create and reinforce fears about trade and globalization.

Politico reports:

On Tuesday, Obama sent a letter directly to Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), arguing that reaching new trade agreements is the only way to stop China from dominating the global markets and letting its lax standards run the world.

“If they succeed, our competitors would be free to ignore basic environmental and labor standards, giving them an unfair advantage against American workers,” Obama wrote Gallego in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “We can’t let that happen. We should write the rules, and level the playing field for the middle class.”

Certainly, playing the China card could help win support for Trade Promotion Authority and, eventually, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it needn’t be the first selling point.  Pitching trade agreements as though they were innoculations from an otherwise imminent disease betrays a profound lack of understanding of the benefits of trade. With TPP near completion and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks expected to accelerate, the president’s stubborn refusal to make an affirmative case for his trade initiatives to the public and the skeptics in his party is disconcerting. Bill Watson was troubled by the president’s feeble advocacy of trade liberalization in his SOTU address.

Managing Sugar Markets Gets Even Messier

In a previous blog post I discussed the implications of the proposed agreement to settle the antidumping and countervailing duty (AD/CVD) cases brought by U.S. sugar producers against imports from Mexico.  That article amounted to a lament on the difficulties of trying to balance sugar supply and demand by government fiat.  Market managers employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) have a really hard job, as do their counterparts in the Mexican government.  Not only do the supply, demand, and price of sugar tend not to stay quiet and well behaved, but important firms involved in the business also can prove (from the perspective of the program managers) to be vexing and disputatious.

Such is the case with Imperial Sugar Company and AmCane Sugar, both of which are U.S. cane refiners that rely on ample supplies of raw sugar to run their operations.  Much of that raw sugar comes from other countries; in recent years Mexico has been the largest supplier to the United States.  It now appears that U.S. cane refiners were not too happy with either the original proposed settlement that was announced on October 27, 2014, or the final suspension agreements announced December 19 that set aside the underlying AD/CVD investigations. 

One source of that unhappiness seems to have been that the initial proposal would have allowed 60 percent of imports from Mexico to be in the form of refined sugar rather than raw.  The U.S. and Mexican governments acknowledged that concern in the December 19 agreement by reducing the allowable level of refined sugar imports to 53 percent.  Another issue bothering U.S. refiners likely was the relatively narrow spread between the original proposal’s import reference prices, which were 20.75 cents per pound for raw sugar and 23.75 cents per pound for refined.  U.S. refiners may have feared suppression of their processing margins, if imported refined sugar from Mexico could have been sold at only 3 cents per pound above the price of raw sugar imports.  The December 19 version increased that price spread to 3.75 cents (22.25 cents for raw and 26.0 cents for refined).  From the standpoint of the refiners, that margin still may be uncomfortably narrow.

Rising Cost of Net Interest

One of the largest and fastest growing items in President Obama’s new budget is often overlooked. Net interest expenses will skyrocket over the next decade, growing by 250 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) continues to warn about the rising burden of federal interest payments. Over the next decade, CBO expects net interest expenses will be the third fastest growing budget item. Net interest represents 24 percent of the increase in federal spending during that time period.

Interest expense will increase due to two factors: higher interest rates and larger outstanding debt.

First, federal borrowing rates are currently well below average. In 2014 the 10-year Treasury rate averaged 2.5 percent according to CBO. Since 1990 the 10-year Treasury has averaged approximately 5 percent. Lower-than-normal interest rates are currently keeping the government’s borrowing expenses low, but interest rates are expected to return to historic averages.

Second, the government has added federal debt quickly. Debt held by the public has grown by 120 percent since 2008, and that growth is expected to continue.

As a result of these two factors, CBO predicts that net interest will grow from 1.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2015 to 3 percent in 2025.

Does the Government Require Your Hotel to Spy on You?

If you’re a privacy conscious traveler, you may have wondered from time to time why hotels ask for ID when you check in, or why they ask you to give them the make and model of your car and other information that isn’t essential to the transaction. What’s the ID-checking for? There’s never been a problem with fraudsters checking into hotels under others’ reservations, paying for the privilege to do so…

Well, in many jurisdictions around the country, that information-gathering is mandated by law. Local ordinances require hotels, motels, and other lodgers (such as AirBnB hosts), to collect this information and keep it on hand. These laws also require that the information be made available to the police on request, for any reason or no reason, without a warrant.

That’s the case in Los Angeles, which not only requires this data retention about hotel guests for law enforcement to access at will or whim. It also requires hoteliers to check a government-issued ID from guests that pay cash.

Open access to hotel records may have been innocuous enough in the early years of travel and lodging. Reading through hotel registers was a social sport among the wealthy, who could afford long-distance travel and lodging. Today, tourism is available to the masses, and hotel records enjoy tighter privacy protections. Most people would quit a hotel that left their information open to the public, and many would be surprised that hoteliers’ records are open to law enforcement collection and review without any legal process.