The New Secretary of Agriculture Plays Lucy

My American friends tell me that there is a recurring scene in the Peanuts comics whereby Lucy says she will hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick before she whips it away.

I was reminded of that yesterday when the new boy in school, newly conferred Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, dashed the hopes of all American consumers, Lucy-style, by implying [$] that the long-awaited open trade in sugar between the United States and Mexico (one of the last NAFTA provisions to come into effect) could be delayed.

Two weeks ago, the Sugar Alliance circulated a proposal to lawmakers that would effectively divide up the United States and Mexico’s (combined) market into a protected cartel. That would significantly impede what was planned to be free trade in sugar between the two countries and downward pressures on the U.S. price of sugar: currently the U.S. price is about double the world price, although it has been up to triple the world price in previous years because of trade barriers to cheaper sugar (see more here).

Sec. Schafer, at least according to the article, was willing to listen to the producers’ plan to manage the sugar trade and was quoted thusly:

If producers in two countries can agree on an approach, that’s better than two governments…trade is all about the producer and providing opportunities and opening markets…

No mention of us consumers paying for it all. And quite why Sec. Schafer believes the market needs managing (either by producers or government) is not made clear.

The Very Models of a Modern Market School System

In an exchange with Sol Stern over at City Journal last week, I pointed out that existing school choice programs should never have been expected to transform American education, because they bear little resemblance to real education markets.

In response, Stern implied that real education markets are not real all, being instead “such stuff as dreams are made on.” (Did I mention we were waxing Shakespearean?)

As it happens, though, the free education marketplace of classical Athens was the first school system in the world that spread learning beyond a tiny ruling elite, and there have been numerous times and places throughout history where schooling was organized more or less as a free market. There are still such places today. And since I can’t think of a suitable Shakespeare quote to illustrate them, how about a little riff on Gilbert and Sullivan:

They are the very models of a modern market school system.
It doesn’t matter how often the punditocracy’s dissed ‘em.
In the shanty towns of India, Kenya and Nigeria
Are schools known to the readers of Cato and Edutheria.
They are private, parent-funded, and they outperform the public schools,
After application of the best econometric tools.
And poor countries are not alone; ed. markets thrive in rich ones, too –
For instance businesses that tutor children in Japan (“juku”).
Just think of “Kumon” here at home or of the “Sylvan” chain.
They thrive and make a profit ‘cause the ed. monopoly’s inane.

For a more extensive, if less poetic, rundown of the evidence on market education (and US school choice programs), have a look here.

Flex-Fuel Nonsense

Over at National Review Online today, Clifford May asks:

What if lawmakers could guarantee that the price you pay to fill your car’s tank will go down, not up, in the years ahead? What if they could launch a new industry that creates more jobs for more Americans? What if this would produce environmental benefits, too? Would that not send a message to the markets? And would that not represent the kind of change so many politicians have been promising?

All of this would come true, Mr. May believes, if the federal government would force auto makers to ensure that every new car sold in the United States could run on gasoline OR high blends of ethanol OR methanol OR fill-in-the-blank. After all, it would only cost about $100 up-front during the manufacturing process to make such “flex-fueled” cars a reality, a modest investment that would give motorists a ready-made ability to run their cars on whatever strikes their fancy.

Well, to answer Mr. May’s questions in the order they are posed, they can’t, they won’t, it wouldn’t, it would, and it wouldn’t.

Congress can no more guarantee that fuel prices will go down from now until the end of time than it can guarantee a robust sex life for fat, balding, middle-aged men. Fuel prices are subject to supply and demand curves that do not answer to Congress — particularly in global energy markets.

The conceit that government can create jobs by creating industries out of whole cloth glosses over the fact that the money needed to create those industries and those jobs starves other industries of cash that will, in turn, eliminate other jobs. While it’s not inconceivable that government could on balance create more jobs than it destroys in this manner (that is, that the industry created is more labor-intensive than the industries harmed), that’s still not a good reason to go forward. After all, one might on balance increase employment in the United States by banning modern farm machinery and food imports, which would put a lot of people into the fields. But no sane person would endorse such a thing on economic grounds. Economic growth occurs when we increase productivity, and we don’t necessarily do that by biasing investment toward labor-intensive activities.

Promoting alternative fuels is not necessarily good for the environment. Ethanol, for instance, increases urban smog without any corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It drains already depleting groundwater reserves and pollutes those that remain. It puts millions of additional acres of land under the plow, which in turn kills ecosystems and further pollutes navigable waterways. In short, gasoline looks positively “Green” compared to many of the fuels Mr. May hopes to champion.

Mr. May is correct, however, about the fact a mandate like this would send a message to the markets. The message would be “Congress is not a serious legislative body.” But to be fair, it’s not as if the market hasn’t heard that message before.

Mr. May is wrong, however, to think that a flex-fuel mandate would represent the kind of “change” that most politicians are promising. Congress has told Detroit how to build its cars for decades now. Nothing new there.

The main reason that this sales pitch is hollow, however, has to do with the fact that, at present, there is no cheap alternative to gasoline. The problem isn’t that cars can’t use the fuel. The problem is the cost of the fuel. For instance, on wholesale spot markets as of Jan. 24, 87 octane was selling at $2.32 per gallon. Compare that to the price for alternative fuels (in the same spot wholesale markets) once you adjust for the differences in energy content:

• E100 ethanol — $3.53 per gallon
• B100 biodiesel — $3.97 per gallon
• Methanol — $4.22 per gallon

In short, there’s a good reason why auto companies aren’t popping flex-fuel capabilities into every engine sold: consumers don’t seem willing to spend the $100 extra for that extra. Well, to be precise, most consumers don’t seem that interested. Some are in fact buying flex-fueled vehicles right now — 4 million such vehicles are thought to be on the road at present and dozens of models are on sale right now. But some of us aren’t willing to fork over the extra money for the option to use those fuels over the lifetime of our new car.

Should Congress override consumer preferences in that regard? No. Given the high cost of alternatives, consumers are not acting irrationally when they say “no thanks” to flex-fueled vehicles.

Would auto companies be advantaged by a flex-fuel mandate? Mr. May thinks so, but auto executives tend to disagree. My guess is that Mr. May knows less about their business than they do.

If and when alternative fuels are cheaper than gasoline, you can rest assured that consumers will increase their demand for flex-fueled vehicles and that auto makers will supply them out of simple interest in profit. Government mandates are not necessary.

Less Fuel for the Trade Fire

John Edwards has announced that he is withdrawing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. As I wrote in an op-ed the other week, John Edwards had by far the worst trade policy proposals of the front-running Democrats. It says something good about America that Mr Edwards’ brand of populist nonsense has been rejected by the primary voters.

E-Verify: Slow and Unsteady in Arizona

I’ll soon have a paper out on “electronic employment eligibility verification.” This is the idea of requiring every employer in the country to check the immigration status of employees against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases.

A nationwide EEV program, building on the current Basic Pilot/”E-Verify” program, was treated as a matter of near consensus at the beginning of this past summer’s immigration debate, and the Department of Homeland Security continues to promote it.

My paper goes into the practical and technical problems with a full-fledged EEV system, as well as the question whether such a thing is appropriate for a free country. But I’ve already become aware of problems I didn’t think of.

A law went in to effect in Arizona January 1st requiring all employers to use the E-Verify system. The Arizona Republic reports that just 17,000 of the state’s 150,000 businesses have signed up for E-Verify. (January is a slow month for hiring, but employers may be holding off on hiring too. And a lawsuit has been brought challenging the Arizona law.)

Among employers using E-Verify, the question has arisen what to do when an employee has worked for a few days, but then is deemed ineligible by the database. Should the employee who is either an illegal immigrant are a citizen with bad paperwork be paid? “[E]mployers could look for workers who are at risk of failing E-Verify, the online database that checks employment eligibility, and fire those workers without paying them for up to three days of labor,” says the report.

The simple idea of “internal enforcement” of immigration law using employers as Border Patrol agents turns out not to be so simple. E-Verify puts fair-minded employers between a rock and a hard place, while facilitating unscrupulous behavior by others.

The Myopia Behind the Protectionism

There appears to be something in the protectionist genome that triggers obsessive factual cherry-picking. Genetics may explain the protectionist propensity for Malthusian sensationalism, too. Some of the folks at the U.S. Business and Industry Council provide the latest example.

In an article that ran in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, erstwhile doomsayer Alan Tonelson and a colleague present their view that the “fiscal stimulus” will have limited impact because consumers have few alternatives to spending their checks on imports. They provide statistics showing the rising import share in major consumable goods categories to support their argument that even if consumers wanted to buy American, it is becoming close to impossible. As a result, the stimulus “benefits will leak overseas,” and the “near-term economic performance will be modest at very best.”

And, as sure as all roads lead to Rome, “failed trade policies deserve much of the blame” for allowing the “import tide [to grow] large enough to sandbag Washington’s best –laid stimulus plans?” Let me review critical assertions from the article and suggest some genetic tweaks (i.e., the truth).

Assertion 1: “[B]uying products (or services) made in the United States creates the biggest and quickest domestic growth bang per stimulus buck because it encourages companies to ramp up output and possibly build new facilities and hire more workers.”

But in fact…

…the fiscal stimulus package is unlikely to have any effect on output and investment. Even if Americans could only purchase domestic goods and services, suppliers would know that the uptick in demand was a short-term response to the stimulus, and not worthy of expanded investment and output.

Assertion 2: “American spending on imports would increase U.S. growth as well – by stimulating the wholesale and retail and transportation and warehousing sectors.”

Kudos for the half-truth, but…

… let me add that U.S. spending on imports helps American industries all along the supply chain – not just in the four sectors mentioned. U.S. design, advertising, marketing, legal and other professional services, and yes, manufacturing industries (like components, raw materials, and capital equipment suppliers) all partake of the benefits of import sales in the United States. Protectionists have difficulty comprehending that the world is no longer characterized by “our producers” against “their producers.” With proliferation of global supply chains, import sales support more profitable U.S. activities at both ends of the value chain (from product design and finance operations to logistics and advertising).

Assertion 3: “Higher profits and stock prices in these sectors [wholesale, retail, transportation, and warehousing] would help, too, by enriching American investors.”

Uh huh, but…

…didn’t John Edwards just drop out of the race because he couldn’t convince voters that there are two Americas? Indeed, higher profits and stock prices would benefit American investors, but the phrase “enriching American investors” is intended to connote “The Rich.” In fact, Americans across income groups hold stock or mutual funds.

Assertion 4: “Unfortunately, this smaller stimulus bounce is inevitable – and resulting growth will fall well short of politicians’ and voters’ expectations – because import levels have grown so high for so many types of manufactured products.”

Right, but more wrong because…

…a negligible stimulus bounce is inevitable, but it has nothing to do with imports. If imports were at the considerably lower levels that the authors implicitly prescribe, there wouldn’t be any discussion about a stimulus plan. Policymakers wouldn’t be panicking about a relatively mild slowdown after 25 years of nearly uninterrupted economic growth. Instead, without imports, our $14 trillion economy would be a considerably smaller economy, with anemic annual growth rates evocative of Japan—the bête noire of protectionists past. Our problem would be quite serious. Instead, the increasing volume of imports has inspired competition and U.S. productivity gains, which has delivered better prices, higher quality and more choices, while freeing up resources to invest or purchase U.S. and foreign goods and services.

Assertion 5: “In many major consumer goods categories … the rates of import penetration are much higher. For example, in 2006, nearly 96 percent of the men’s dress and sport shirts sold in the United States were imports. More than 90 percent of the non-athletic shoes came from overseas, along with nearly 90 percent of the women’s coats, and more than 86 percent of the women’s blouses.”

Good statistics that support a different conclusion because…

…even though Americans rely heavily on imported shoes and clothing (as evidenced by the stats), those products are subject to the highest duties in the U.S. tariff schedule. In fact, while clothing and footwear comprised 5.1 percent of the total value of imports in 2005, duties collected on clothing and footwear accounted for 42.3 percent of all duties collected. Not only are these tariffs some of the worst regressive taxes under U.S. law (lower-income Americans spend a higher percentage of their income on these necessities), but if you’re worried about “leakage” from the stimulus package then you should support abolishing those tariffs. What’s the sense in handing chunks of your allowance back to the government?

Protectionists tend to see the U.S. market as the reserve of U.S. producers, while simultaneously berating foreigners for protecting their own. But there is a strong linkage between imports and exports. If Americans don’t buy imports, foreigners can’t buy U.S. exports. If Americans spend large chunks of their stimulus checks on imports, U.S. manufacturers are sure to add to the record export (and output and profit) performance they’ve been experiencing over the past couple years.