Not as Good as It Seems

Today, Cuba officially lifted its ban on the sale of computers to the general public. Some other prohibitions have also been scrapped in recent weeks: Cubans can now buy cell phones, stay in hotels previously reserved for tourists, and buy appliances like microwaves and TV sets.

Is this a sign of openness from Cuba’s geriatric regime? Not so.

A Cuban dissident I met in Havana last year sent me today an article he wrote about the real motive behind relaxing these bans. It has been reported in the state-controlled media that people purchasing these goods are later being investigated by the authorities who want to know the real sources of their income. As it’s widely known, the average Cuban salary is less than $20 a month, while the cost of most of these goods ranges in the hundreds of dollars. Many Cubans get their extra money from relatives in the United States, but many others run independent (and illicit) small businesses.

My friend tells the story of the first person to purchase an electric bicycle, which cost the equivalent of $1,070. This man had a small butter factory that apparently was very profitable, since he was selling the butter at a lower price than the government. After buying his electric bicycle, the authorities investigated him and discovered his factory. They proceeded to confiscate everything they found in his home, including the bike.

Let’s not forget that, after all, there is still a Castro brother running the show on the island. As my Cuban friend says about the so-called “reforms,” the fact that something is no longer prohibited doesn’t mean that you can do it.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, Hounded to Death

Faced with the prospect of years in prison, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the “D.C. Madam,” committed suicide on Thursday. Her pursuers and prosecutors should be ashamed of themselves.

Running a house of prostitution is not a distinction most of us would wish for our daughters. But it’s a vice, not a crime. That’s a crucial distinction in a free society. So far as we know, she never murdered, raped, assaulted, robbed, or defrauded anyone. Like any broker, she brought together willing buyers and willing sellers. And for doing so, she was convicted–not actually of prostitution but of “racketeering” and money laundering — and faced up to 55 years in prison, though prosecutors estimated that her sentence would likely be “only” four to six years.

Palfrey was indicted after a three-year joint investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently they couldn’t catch her cheating on her taxes, but her employees mailed her cut of the proceeds in money orders, which led to racketeering and money laundering charges. As with former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, apparently a fishing expedition into money matters turned up something far more headline-worthy.

But really — a three-year investigation of a prostitution service? Are there no real criminals? Are there no terrorists? Before, during, and after 9/11, the Justice Department ran a 13-month investigation of a brothel in New Orleans. At least 10 FBI agents were involved. As Jonathan Turley noted, “Only the FBI could go to the French Quarter and find only a dozen prostitutes after a year of investigation. Given the roughly one-to-one ratio between agents and prostitutes, the FBI could have produced a hundred times this number by simply having agents walk down Bourbon Street.” What a ridiculous waste of money and manpower.

But the waste is not the worst aspect of this outrage. Even if there were no criminals and no terrorists to hunt down, it would be wrong to harass, arrest, prosecute, imprison — and hound to death — people who are violating no one’s rights.

There’s a nightmarish intersection of old prostitution laws and modern financial regulations. Palfrey was investigated on suspicion of tax evasion and then convicted of “racketeering” and “money laundering.” But she was no racketeer; she was one woman with some employees or contract workers. Spitzer’s bank accounts were being monitored, as apparently all our bank accounts are, under post-9/11 laws allegedly designed to turn up evidence of terrorist financing or other nefarious activity. And boy, did they find something sinister — a married man having sex with prostitutes.

In many ways we are more free today than we were in previous decades. But new regulations and new technology are making it much easier to monitor our activities and to actually enforce both old and new laws. It’s like a silent police state that we only realize when we’re suddenly served with papers. 

Palfrey told journalist Dan Moldea, “I’m not going back to jail. I’ll kill myself first.” A woman who had worked for her had also committed suicide after being charged with prostitution in 2007.

It’s time to repeal these antiquated laws against prostitution and to take a close look at the use and abuse of racketeering, money laundering, bank monitoring, and other intrusive laws. Someone needs to step forward and start that debate. Perhaps Governor Spitzer and Sen. David Vitter would be good candidates.

In the meantime, may Deborah Jeane Palfrey rest in peace. And may her persecutors have many sleepless nights.

Real Budget Reform

Senator John McCain and other budget reformers are right to rail against the institutionized corruption of federal “earmarking.” Earmarks are, however, just a small part of the massive bloat in the federal budget. Earmark reform is needed, but presidential candidate McCain needs to propose more fundamental budget reforms in the coming months.

Representatives John Campbell (R-CA) and Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) have just introduced an idea that McCain could champion: A constitutional cap on the overall federal budget. You can read the proposed amendment here, but essentially these House budget experts propose that annual federal spending growth should not exceed the long-run average growth in the U.S. economy, except with a two-thirds vote or a declared war.

I’ve proposed a similar budget cap that would be statutory, not constitutional, and thus easier to implement. See here and here.

Either way, the point for Mr. McCain (or Mr. Obama, if he is so inclined) is to promote some sort of overall cap on the budget to drive home that the government’s budget should not grow any faster than the average family’s budget. 

Re: Wall Street Journal Editorials — The Fed Caused the Rise in Food and Oil Prices?

In numerous unsigned editorials, The Wall Street Journal has argued that cutting the federal funds rate to 2% from 5 1/4% last September has been the main reason prices of crude oil and food commodities have soared in recent months. Such commodities are priced in dollars and the dollar was generally falling through February, though not in the past two months (even though the funds rate was reduced by one percentage point).

An April 28 editorial, “The Fed’s Bender,” notes that “since 2003 the dollar price of oil has climbed far more rapidly than the euro price — 273% in dollars, compared to 146% in euros.” It is not likely that the whole 2003-2008 picture reflects “the European Central Bank’s sounder monetary management,” as the editorial implies. The euro had dropped to below parity with dollar until late 2002. And the fed funds rate was repeatedly increased from 1% in 2003 to 5 ¼% in mid-2006 (well above the ECB’s equivalent 4% rate). The euro rose partly because it had first fallen, but also for reasons other than central bank interest rates (economists have no reliable model for forecasting floating exchange rates).

The editorial boldly concludes that “had the dollar merely retained the same purchasing power as the euro, today’s price of oil would be below $70 a barrel.” That is a counterfactual exercise that makes little sense.

Even if we accept the half-true premise that the dollar-euro exchange rate is sensitive to relative short-term interest rates, the dollar might have “retained the same purchasing power as the euro” by having the ECB lower interest rates to 3% and the Fed to keep ours at 3%. Or the Fed might have kept the funds rate at 5% and the ECB at 4%. Although either option might have stabilized that particular exchange rate, they would not have had the same effect on global economic growth and therefore on the world demand for oil.

If oil had been priced in dollars and the euro had not appreciated against the dollar, then the euro area would not have been as insulated as it was against the rising cost of oil. Because demand is responsive to price (particularly business demand), Europe would have bought less oil than it did. Or, to use the editorial version, if the U.S. still faced $70 oil then we would try to buy more. Either way, the price in dollars would not have remained the same.

The Economist index covers the prices of 25 commodities, excluding oil and gold, with food accounting for 56% of the index. By April 22 it was up 31% for the year and 3.7% for the month, when measured in dollars.

That was mostly because of food. Industrial commodities were up only 1.6% for the year.

If we are going to blame the rising price of oil and food commodities on the dollar, do we need a different theory to explain why industrial commodities have barely risen?

Here’s another anomaly: Measured in British pounds, the commodity index was up about the same as it was in dollars—31.6% for the year and 4% for the month. That can’t be because Britain has a weak currency—the pound buys 8.9% more dollars than it did a year ago. It can’t be because the Bank of England cut interest rates too much, since 3-month interest rates are 5.86% in Britain, compared with 1.97% in the U.S.

I happen to agree that the Fed (and ECB) have paid too little attention to the impact of exchange rates on prices of internationally traded commodities. And I suspect the Fed has already gone too far with rate cuts and will have to put rates back up shortly after the election. But to single-out a few sensitive commodity prices that have risen the most (in dollars or pounds) and blame just those prices on the Fed is going too far.

I Have a Dream …

… that one day, corporate executives will tire of being bullied by demagogic politicians. I was reminded of that dream by a press release issued yesterday by Sen. Pete Domenici, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and long-time Republican major-domo on energy policy. Sen. Domenici asked the heads of the five largest oil and gas companies in America (BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell America) to promptly send reports to his office “explaining” their individual corporate investment strategies with particular attention to their work in the “clean energy” sector.

In my dream, Senator Domenici would get a reply like this:

Dear Sen. Domenici:

We appreciate your interest in our corporate operations, but we are too busy at the moment to expedite your request as outlined in your letter dated April 30. You write in that letter that you are interested in a compilation of all previously released, publicly available data on this matter. Accordingly, we suggest that you put some staffers on the job and compile those reports for yourself. To help you on your way, you will find enclosed our 2007 Annual Report.

That having been said, Senator, we answer to our stockholders, not to you. Our investment strategy is our business, not yours. While we are happy to discuss our perspective on the energy market and the merits of existing and proposed public policy, we are not interested in encouraging the idea that our investment strategy is a legitimate matter of interest to the United States Senate.

Cordially,
Big Oil CEO

Alas, it is only a dream.

Doublespeak in Health Policy Reporting

By all accounts, U.S. spending on health care has been growing much more rapidly than national output. Health statistics–health spending as a share of national output or per person, compared across developed nations–routinely ranks the United States at the top of the list, and statistics on effective health care delivered per dollar spent routinely ranks the United States near the bottom. So news reporters could not miss the clear implication that Americans need to cut health care spending growth and make their health care sector more efficient. If we could reduce spending on unnecessary and low-value health care services, it would go a long way in achieving both objectives.

Now for the doublespeak: Many proponents of Health Savings Accounts (HSA) that can only be accessed under a high-deductible health plan tout the increased role of health care consumers. With larger out-of-pocket spending initially, consumers have greater incentives to eliminate unneeded and costly health services. But success on this count is routinely dismissed in the media as having undesirable side effects–as in today’s Wall Street Journal (HSA Users Find Hassles Amid Savings, May 1, 2008, Personal Journal, page D1):

…average health-insurance costs rose 3.6% in the past two years for employers who offered high-deductible plans, compared with a rise of 7% for employers without such plans.

That’s followed by

Some analysts say much of those employer savings come because many HSA participants tend to forgo care.

Excuse me, but isn’t this exactly how it’s supposed to work?! The language in all such instances usually hints (as does this WSJ report) that the forgone care is valuable and people with HSAs are therefore suffering unduly. Such implied criticism is unjustified unless accompanied with the qualification that the rejected health care services may not be valuable or cost effective.

Indeed, the article later cites a patient with an HSA “fighting” with a doctor about routine physicals and cardiac exams. The doctor wants these exams to be taken regularly, whereas the patient does not because the high-deductible HSA implies larger out-of-pocket payments. In my personal experience, both types of health checkups are most often a waste of time–all they do is separate the patients from their money, which goes to the doctors.

But if many more consumers were to obtain HSAs and economize their health care spending, it would clearly be a problem for the medical profession. And news reporters usually accept, without further questioning, analysts’ comments about unneeded patient suffering because of forgone care. Clearly, wider use of HSAs and better management of consumers’ health care dollars face tremendous hurdles–the medical profession’s self-interest being the biggest one of all. (And I hope my doctor doesn’t read this.)