Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Readers may have noticed that the fringes of the blogosphere have been aflame with attacks on the Cato Institute and several of our staff members—and former staff members, and former Board members, and occasional writers, and friends, and people we once met at a cocktail party—all because of our attempt to separate the grand old cause of classical liberalism from racism and bigotry.

Readers may also have noticed that we haven’t responded to any of these attacks. I published one statement setting forth my view that people who write racist newsletters “are not our comrades, not part of our movement.” And that’s been the extent of our response. (Though of course a few of my colleagues who maintain private blogs have written about the current controversy there.)

Indeed, you might note that this blog has never mentioned the name of the proprietor of the website where many of the vicious attacks have appeared, who is also widely reported to be the author of those reprehensible passages that have so embarrassed his political patron. Some people tell us they deplore “libertarian infighting.” Well, I’d make two responses to that: We’re not fighting. And people who defend racist writings (though almost never by actually quoting them, I note) are not what I’d call libertarians.

Let it not be thought that by ignoring these critics we tacitly concede their wild accusations and innuendos. Many of the things that have been written about us are false, or intentionally misleading, or wildly conspiratorial, or frankly nuts. (Of course, a few of the charges are true. I do in fact live near the Orange Line of the Washington Metro, and Reason magazine’s Washington office is on the Red Line, and red is next to orange in the color spectrum.) The reason we’ve refrained from answering these libels stems from a bit of folk wisdom I learned growing up in the South: Never wrestle with a pig; in the first place, you get dirty; and in the second place, the pig likes it. 

Besides, we’d rather take on bigger game. My colleagues and I will continue to spend our time arguing with big-government liberals and big-government conservatives, criticizing the Iraq war and the federal tax code, publishing the ideas of Bastiat, Mises, and Hayek in languages around the world, and skewering wasteful and unconstitutional government programs.

But I’ll take just a moment to repeat what I said a few days ago:

Libertarians should make it clear that the people who wrote those things are not our comrades, not part of our movement, not part of the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick. Shame on them.

The People Who Govern Us

Thank God we have Congress to run our lives:

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur [(D-Ohio)] came to a House committee hearing on Thursday prepared to ask U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson tough questions about his involvement in the subprime mortgage crisis.

Unfortunately, she was questioning the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The Ohio Democrat, at a House of Representatives Budget Committee hearing, said she wanted to know what Wall Street firms were responsible for the securitization of subprime mortgages.

She then asked: “Seeing as how you were the former CEO of Goldman Sachs…” But the only person testifying at the hearing interrupted.

“No, no, no, you’re confusing me with the Treasury Secretary,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

“I’ve got the wrong firm? Paulson, Oh, OK. Where were you sir?” Kaptur said.

Bernanke noted that he was head of the Princeton University economics department.

I guess her staff didn’t brief her very well. But really, if she can’t tell the difference between the secretary of the Treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, should she be overseeing the budget of the United States government?

And you know how critics of term limits say that we don’t want to lose all the expertise of the experienced members of Congress? Representative Kaptur has been in Congress for 25 years. I guess that expertise will be kicking in real soon.

Hat tip: Jon Henke.

Economic Retardant Package

Whether you have faith that a blast of demand-side fiscal stimulus can jump start the economy or not, policymakers are moving with dispatch to rig up a defibrillator. 

A couple hours ago, President Bush announced his support for a $140 billion “tax relief” package (scare quotes because, as Chris Edwards points out, we’re talking about money borrowed by the Feds on our and our children’s credit to be repaid by us and our children with interest), which amounts to about 1 percent of GDP.

The president is leaving to Congress the details of which citizens in which income groups get checks and how much. Chances are good that the Democratic Congress will produce a plan to get bigger checks into the hands of those who are most likely to spend it all and quickly — lower- and middle-income Americans. But if getting lower- and middle-income Americans to spend more is the key to reversing our slowing economy, why is the next big item on the House Ways and Means Committee’s docket antagonistic trade legislation that would make Chinese-produced goods more expensive? The committee is reportedly planning to put together a “China Bill” from the dozens of pieces of legislation introduced in the first session, including bills aimed at Chinese subsidization, dumping, and currency misalignment.

Think about it. Americans spent about $325 billion on imports from China in 2007 (actually, that figure is the customs value at the U.S. port, so U.S. consumers probably spent 10 to 20 percent more than that after factoring in the transportation, selling, and administrative expenses and profits reflected in the final prices). Lower- and middle-income Americans likely accounted for the majority of that spending.

Since the Chinese yuan was unhitched from a pure dollar peg in July 2005, it has appreciated against the dollar by almost 15 percent. Theory suggests that U.S. imports should decline in light of the higher relative prices to U.S. consumers, but they haven’t. Between July 2005 and July 2007, the yuan appreciated by about 10 percent against the dollar, yet imports from China increased by 36 percent between January-July 2005 and January-July 2007. (This paper goes into more detail about currency values and trade flows).

If, in 2008, the yuan increases in value 25 percent against the dollar (which is what many in Congress would like to see and is the object of some of the pending legislation) and U.S. demand is identical to 2007 (no new demand and old demand remains unresponsive to higher Chinese prices), then imports from China would total about $406 billion. In other words, $80 billion ($406 – $325) of the $140 billion “tax relief” package would go down the tubes, not supporting an ounce of additional U.S. economic activity.

So, is Congress not working at cross-purposes when it doles out cash to Americans to support economic activity and then limits the activity that can be supported by pursuing other policies that devalue that cash? Some might say that spending money on imported consumables doesn’t support U.S. economic activity, but they would be wrong. There is plenty of U.S. value-added in an import purchased on American retail shelves AND some percentage of the revenue that goes to China will be devoted to purchasing U.S. exports.

Perhaps the slowing U.S. economy juxtaposed against surging U.S. exports to a growing world economy will give Congress a fresh perspective on the benefits of trade.

Thomas Jefferson at Cato

Today’s Wall Street Journal gives a warm review to the new book Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford:

Alan Pell Crawford treats his subject with grace and sympathetic understanding, and with keen penetration as well, showing the great man’s contradictions (and hypocrisies) for what they were…. Drawing on new archival sources, Mr. Crawford reconstructs daily life at Monticello and depicts a colorful supporting cast of eminent personages, family members and retainers.

Alan Crawford will discuss Twilight at Monticello at the Cato Institute on Tuesday, February 19. He promises to discuss Jefferson’s growing concerns about slavery and how he became a radical decentralist and admirer of the New England townships, where, he believed, the real fire of liberty burned bright. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m., so our hard-working friends can work a full day and still join us for a glass of wine and a new look at the man George Will called “the man of the millennium.”

The Corruption of Barack Obama

Barack Obama stands accused of moral shortcomings regarding money in politics: he has not invited the press to all of his fundraisers.

Obama has voluntarily disclosed his bundlers and opened some fundraisers to the media. But that is not enough. He is not inviting the media to all his fundraisers, probably to protect the privacy of his supporters. After all, Hillary may yet become president, and like most politicians, she is not known for forgiving and forgetting.

Obama might learn a lesson here. If you give the media what they want, they will only demand more. If you give them access to all your fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once-promising reformer.  On the other hand, if you don’t let them come to the fundraisers, they will write stories about how big donors are corrupting the once promising reformer.

The media have only one storyline about private money in politics: it corrupts the process. You don’t get a pass by supporting their crusade to restrict private money in elections (Obama does) or by giving in to their endless demands for access. They will write the same story.

Obama has shared that narrative until now. He has promised to move against big money when he has power. He is also famously open-minded. Perhaps his own “corruption” might occasion some rethinking about the politics of “reform.”

A Republican Worth Supporting

Many advocates of limited government are rather unhappy with the GOP’s fiscal record in recent years. Yet even after losing Congress in part because of fiscal profligacy, it seems that Republicans have not learned any lessons. The major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have conspicuously failed to identify programs they would cut and departments they would eliminate — presumably because they have no interest in reducing the burden of government. But then I found this video, which shows that it is possible to be a Republican who believes in smaller government.

Let Them Go Barefooted

Just about every American needs to buy socks every year, while a relatively tiny number of U.S. workers actually MAKE socks for a living. Yet the Bush administration may decide by this Friday whether to sock it to the many for the temporary benefit of one small and dwindling industry.

Under a provision of the Central American Free Trade Agreement approved by Congress in 2005, the Bush administration is weighing whether to impose special duties on socks imported from Honduras. According to today’s Wall Street Journal, the move would placate a particular lawmaker in Alabama with several sock factories in his district and a few other, mostly southern lawmakers whose votes may be necessary for upcoming trade deals the administration wants.

Has U.S. trade policy come to this? For the sake of a domestic sock industry that, by its own count, employs only 20,000 workers, the U.S. government would impose a temporary 13.5 percent tariff on the 8.3 percent of imported socks that come from the small neighboring democracy of Honduras—a country that entered into a free trade agreement with the United States only two years ago.

By design, the tariff would mean higher sock prices for the 300 million or so Americans who buy and wear socks. And the sock tax would fall disproportionately on lower-income families, who spend a higher share of their income on such staples as food and clothing.

The Bush administration should forget nose counting for future trade agreements if gathering votes means raising trade taxes on low-income Americans. If the administration wants to support free trade, it should resist any calls for higher tariffs.