In Memory of Carlos Ball

I’m sad to report that Venezuelan journalist and Cato adjunct scholar Carlos Ball passed away last week. He was 75. Carlos was a champion of liberty and a long-time friend to so many of us in the freedom movement in the Americas. His life was a testimony to the power of ideas, and he lived it true to his classical-liberal convictions.

Carlos was a co-founder of CEDICE, the market-liberal think tank in Caracas that celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and with whom Cato has worked closely for many years (and that has been severely harassed by the Chavista regime). In the 1980s, Carlos was the editor of El Diario de Caracas, an important daily that was critical of government policies. It was when Carlos represented Venezuelan journalists at an Inter-American Press Association conference in 1987 in San Antonio, Texas and denounced then-President Lusinchi’s attacks on freedom of the press, that Lusinchi demanded that Carlos be fired from the newspaper, conditioning the renewal of the license of the popular television station RCTV—part of the same media company—on that outcome. Carlos was let go from the paper, he was criminally charged by the government, and was told by the judge presiding his case that “I have orders from above.” It was at that time that Carlos left Venezuela, moving to Florida where he would live the rest of his life. RCTV received a 20-year license. It was the expiration of that license in 2007—that Hugo Chavez refused to renew, thus shutting down the television station—that triggered the massive student uprising against the government that year. (As a result, Chavez lost a constitutional referendum and temporarily slowed down his accumulation of power.)

The idea that Venezuela was doomed to repeat such experiences and that the country would only lose more freedoms if economic freedom was not also respected was a long-time theme in Carlos’s writings. In that regard, he was among a very small group of Venezuelan intellectuals who decades ago warned against the ideology of socialism predominant in the political system and much of Venezuelan society. Indeed, he very correctly viewed Hugo Chavez’s regime as a logical, though more extreme, extension of what had come before. “Chavez,” he wrote, “has intensified, accelerated and exacerbated corruption, the concentration of power, the violation of property rights” and the power of the bureaucracy in people’s lives. In a 1992 essay, Carlos wrote that the “fatal date” for his country was January 1976, when President Perez nationalized the petroleum industry. That “meant a radical change; for the first time since the death of General Gomez [1935], political and economic power was again concentrated in the same hands: in those of the head of state.”

He would later write: “Without that concentration of wealth in political hands, Chavez would never have been able to Cubanize Venezuela because it was the economic power of oil that allowed the government to crush the individual liberties of the Venezuelans.” How right he was.

Google Ventures Chief: Uber’s Long-Term Market Value Could Be at Least $200 Billion

Last month Uber, the San Francisco-based transportation technology company that connects drivers and passengers via its app, raised $1.2 billion in a funding round valuing it at $18.2 billion, making it worth about the same as Hertz Global Holdings Inc. and Avis Budget Group Inc. combined. In a recent Bloomberg interview Bill Maris, the managing partner of Uber investor Google Ventures, said that Uber’s long-term market value could be “$200 billion or more,” about the market value of Toyota.

Maris not only expressed confidence in Uber’s management, he also said that the company could become a large logistics company.

From Bloomberg:

“I am confident in Travis and his team,” Maris told Bloomberg News in an interview at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado. “His vision is huge and he has showed he can execute,” Maris said of Uber’s co-founder Travis Kalanick.

As Uber disrupts the transportation market around the world, it’s also experimenting with delivery services and could become a huge logistics company with a market value of $200 billion or more, said Maris.

“It’s an incredibly creative team – their growth shows they are clearly onto something,” he said of Uber. But Maris also warned that, like any startup, “it could also go down to zero.”

Uber board member and investor Bill Gurley has said that the company’s market opportunity is between $450 billion and $1.35 trillion per year and that Uber could be considered an alternative to private car ownership. Indeed, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the company’s vision is “Basically make car ownership a thing of the past.”

While Uber is certainly innovative it is a long way from making “car ownership a thing of the past” or becoming a large-scale logistics company. That said, it is clear that some investors foresee huge growth in Uber despite the regulatory barriers it has been facing. The technology that allows Uber and other so-called “sharing economy” companies to work is not going anywhere, and when one considers Uber’s growth since it launched in 2009 (it’s now operating in about 150 cities in 41 countries) it is not hard to see why Maris believes the company’s long-term market value could be at least $200 billion.

Government Officials Praising Unilateral Trade Liberalization

It doesn’t happen often, so I like to highlight it when it does.  Here is Australian trade minister Andrew Robb:

We’ve seen over the last thirty years in Australia that tariffs are down on average 2.7 per cent across the economy.  A lot of that was done unilaterally – we didn’t wait for the rest of the world and it’s one of the reasons that we’ve had uninterrupted growth for 23 years, because we are a very open economy. We’ve got to drive it further, we’ve got to be more competitive but so does the rest of the world.

U.S. Trade Policy Attacks U.S. Energy Policy, Both Hurting

First there were oil and gas export restrictions, then pipeline injunctions, now import restrictions on the steel needed for exploration and extraction.  Washington is coming from all angles to kneecap the energy boom sparked by the horizontal drilling and fracking revolutions – a once in a generation supply-side shock, which otherwise promises to attract a flood of foreign investment and serve as a wellspring of economic growth and job creation.
 
The most recent assault on our “All of the Above” energy policy comes via our fantastically self-destructive trade policy. Last Friday, in a final antidumping determination, the U.S. Department of Commerce found exporters from nine countries to be dumping “Oil Country Tubular Goods” (OCTG) – a class of steel products used primarily in oil and gas well projects – in the U.S. market. The most important foreign source of OCTG in the case was South Korea, whose exporters were found NOT to be dumping in the preliminary determination issued back in February.
 
But in the intervening months, the U.S. steel industry and the Congressional Steel Caucus impressed upon the bean counters at Commerce that the methodology they used for the Korean preliminary determination was inferior to an alterative they favored.  Without getting too into the weeds here, as tends to happen when exposing the dishonesty of the antidumping regime, suffice it to say that the revision from 0% dumping margins to 10%-16% for Korean exporters was primarily the result of Commerce changing its estimate of what the home market profit rate “should be.”
 
For the preliminary determination, that estimate was based on Korean OCTG producers’ experiences (with OCTG and other products).  For the final determination, Commerce changed its estimate to one based on a University of Iowa graduate student’s estimation of the profit experience of a single Argentine OCTG producer named Tenaris.  That’s right!  The cost of steel for U.S. oil well projects will rise – maybe 16% – because some student was messing around with @functions on Microsoft Excel.
 

Pennsylvania Lawmaker Portraits Now Come With Conviction Footnotes

Truth in legislative portraiture from the Pennsylvania State Capitol, as reported by Kris Maher in the Wall Street Journal: “On Tuesday, officials in the capital, Harrisburg, placed plaques beneath the portraits of three former state House speakers and a former Senate president pro tempore listing when the lawmakers left office—and when they were sentenced to prison.” The idea was a compromise between those who felt the portraits should be taken down entirely and those who favored keeping them on display with no mentions of criminality. The plaques cost $63.75 each, and if their shaming presence even slightly improves lawmakers’ incentives to avoid corruption, they could prove a good investment: 

Pennsylvania was ranked the fifth most corrupt state in a recent study that analyzed federal data from 1997 to 2008. During that time, malfeasance among state officials appeared to boost per capita spending by about 5% in the 10 states with the highest levels of corruption, the study published in Public Administration Review found.

Paul Light on Government Failure

Paul Light of Brookings and NYU is a top expert on the federal bureaucracy. He has a new study on federal government failures over the 2001 to 2014 period.

Light’s paper is useful. He identifies 41 major federal failures, examines the reports completed on each, and classifies the types of mistakes that took place. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the recent veterans health care scandal, Light points to failures in both “operations” and “oversight.”

Certainly, government operations and oversight fail frequently. But I look at many of Light’s 41 events and see more fundamental failures than he does. Federal policies, for example, often distort the economy in ways that are bound to cause problems. Federal interventions based on coercion are generally worse than solutions developed in the private, voluntary sphere of society.  

Light classifies the 2008 financial collapse as a failure of federal “oversight.” He says, “after years of risky investments and with little regulation, the banking system collapsed under the weight of toxic assets created by risky mortgage loans, poorly understood financial instruments, and a credit crisis that froze the economy.”

But it was government policies—such as Federal Reserve interest rate policies and federal housing subsidies—that incentivized the bad behavior on Wall Street. Federal oversight may have been poor, but the main problem was that government-created distortions cascaded and undermined markets.

On Hurricane Katrina, Light notes that the federal emergency response was a failure in operations, and it is true that FEMA officials were mired in confusion and indecision when the storm hit. However, it was decades of misguided policies that encouraged many people to live in low-lying and dangerous areas in New Orleans in the first place, which made the disaster much worse.

After an initial coding of failures between “operations” and “oversight,” Light does proceed to look more deeply into why the government failed in each of the events. He finds multiple causes behind all of the failures, with the most common factor being poorly designed policies.

Still, there are deeper reasons why the government fails than the potentially fixable problems that Light identifies. Superficially, the veterans health care scandal is just a failure of “operations,” but the fundamental problem is the federal attempt to centrally plan an industry rather than relying on markets.

Light’s study is a thoughtful piece that will hopefully generate a broader discussion about government failure. The 15 factors in this recent testimony are my initial stab at identifying some of the more fundamental reasons for government failure.

Politicians Befriend Big Business, Undermine Free Market

The recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was one of the bigger shocks to American politics in some time. Congressional leaders, known to bring home the bacon for local folks, usually are handily reelected.

But Cantor’s loss will do more than simply reshuffle the biggest offices on Capitol Hill. He gave lip service to fiscal responsibility but was, argued Nick Gillespie of Reason, “atrocious and hypocritical in all the ways that a Republican can be,” constantly voting to grow government.

Indeed, Cantor’s constituency was as much corporate America as it was Virginia voters. Business was counting on him to help reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, known as “Boeing’s Bank” for lavishing extensive benefits on one company; extend terrorism risk insurance, which transfers financial liability for loss from firms to taxpayers; and preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which nearly wrecked the economy while subsidizing homeowners, builders, and lenders.