Planning for the Unpredictable

How do you plan for the unpredictable? That’s the question facing the more than 400 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been tasked by Congress to write 20-year transportation plans for their regions. Self-driving cars will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas. Yet not a single regional transportation plan has tried to account for, and few have even mentioned the possibility of, self-driving cars.

Instead, many of those plans propose obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways. Those technologies made sense when they were invented a hundred or so years ago, but today they are just a waste of money. One reason why planners look to the past for solutions is that they can’t accurately foresee the future. So they pretend that, by building ancient modes of transportation, they will have the same effects on cities that they had when they were first introduced.

If the future is unpredictable, self-driving cars make it doubly or quadruply so. Consider these unknowns:

  • How long will it take before self-driving cars dominate the roads?
  • Will people who own self-driving cars change their residential locations because they won’t mind traveling twice as far to work?
  • Will employers move so they can take advantage of self-driving trucks and increased employee mobility?
  • Will car-sharing reduce the demand for parking?
  • Will carpooling reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), or will the increased number of people who can “drive” self-driving cars increase VMT?
  • Will people use their cars as “robotic assistants,” going out with zero occupants to pick up groceries, drop off laundry, or do other tasks that don’t require much supervision?
  • Will self-driving cars reduce the need for more roads because they increase road capacities, or will the increase in driving offset this benefit?
  • Will self-driving cars provide the mythical “first and last miles” needed by transit riders, or will they completely replace urban transit?

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

House Bill Eviscerates Asylum System, Deports Child Trafficking Victims

President Obama recently asked Congress for authority to treat Central American children in the same way the government treats Mexican children. The Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act (H.R. 5137), introduced today by Reps. Chaffetz (R-UT) and Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, goes beyond the President’s request. The bill eliminates any sort of review for juvenile victims of trafficking and the requirement that an immediate return of a child be voluntary.

Under current law, Mexican children may be immediately removed if they are:

  1. Not severe victims of trafficking,
  2. Not asylum seekers, or
  3. If they accept voluntary departure, a procedure by which the child admits that he or she has no right to be here and leaves in lieu of formal removal proceedings.

Under the proposed H.R. 5137, all children caught at the border would be subject to expedited removal, a process under which they can be removed without a hearing before a judge if they have no credible fear of persecution (8 USC 1225(b)). This process triggers an automatic 5-year bar on legal reentry (8 USC 1182(a)(9)(A)(i)). Any child caught at the border may be detained until his asylum application is adjudicated. It extends the current arbitrary one year deadline on asylum applications for adults to children.

Unaccompanied children could be detained or released under the bill while waiting for final approval of their asylum application, but the bill redefines “unaccompanied” to mean that once a child has been released to a parent, they no longer qualify for release, which means they would head right back into detention.

Worse, H.R. 5137 raises the initial standard of review for all asylum claims for children. Rather than going before a judge simply by asserting a fear, they would actually have to convince an asylum officer that their claim was “more probable than not” to be factual in order to even to go before a judge. Raising the standard that high for an initial review would bar many legitimate asylum seekers.

Even worse, H.R. 5137 allows children apprehended at the border to be removed without any asylum screening to a “safe third party country” (i.e. Mexico) without an agreement from that country, as is required by current law. If H.R. 5137 becomes law, the U.S. government would immediately start dumping Honduran, El Salvadoran, and Guatemalan children into Mexico.

The crisis along the Southwest border has prompted many Americans to want all unlawful immigrants and children removed. But this bill goes far beyond that desire. H.R. 5137 would remove many foreigners who have legal rights under our current immigration laws. H.R. 5137 would be a disastrous blow to America’s asylum system and send numerous children with legitimate asylum claims back into danger.

Mexican Immigration Policy Lowers the Cost of Central American Migration to the US

One persistent American complaint about the Mexican government’s opposition to immigration laws like Arizona’s SB-1070 is that Mexico’s immigration policy is far more restrictive than that of the United States or anything proposed in Arizona. In 2010, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) articulately pointed out the Mexican government’s blatant hypocrisy. Brutal Mexican immigration laws were not only bad policy for Mexico but exposed an absurd level of hypocrisy.

After Representative Poe’s comments, the Mexican government passed a Migratory Act in 2011 that went into effect on November 1, 2012. This law replaced the General Law of Population that created the oppressive Mexican immigration laws Rep. Poe and others rightly critiqued. The Migratory Act made a number of significant changes:

  • Guarantees the equal treatment of migrants and Mexican nationals under Mexican law, entitling them to due process, 
  • Establishes “family unity and the best interests of children and adolescents as the principal criteria for the admission and stay of foreigners for temporary or permanent Mexican residency, alongside labor and humanitarian causes,” 
  • Establishes offices for protection of migrants’ human rights and the investigation of crimes purportedly committed against migrants, including those committed by immigration officials,
  • Simplifies entrance and residence requirements,
  • Establishes a point system for those who apply for residence,
  • Creates a 3 day regional visitors visa for people from neighboring countries, 
  • Streamlines the visa application process.

Other legal changes to Mexican laws in 2008 reduced the punishment for illegal entry from up to ten years in prison to a maximum fine of 5000 pesos. The Mexican government also introduced temporary visas, valid for up to a year, for agricultural laborers from Guatemala and Belize working in Mexico’s southern states. In 2010, undocumented migrants were guaranteed the right to report human rights violations and receive medical treatment without prosecution.

Mexican Immigration Laws, Central American Free-Movement Zones, and the Increase in Central American Immigration

One unintended consequence of Mexico’s more liberalized immigration laws, partly in response to legitimate American criticism, is that now the migration of people from Central America to the United States through Mexico is much cheaper than it used to be. The biggest hurdle for Central American migrants used to be the militarized Southern Mexican border and the abuse by corrupt police, which the Migratory Act of 2011 mitigates.

Mexico isn’t the only country that changed its immigration and border control policies in recent years. In June 2006, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua signed the Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement that created a common passport and obliterated border controls and movement restrictions between those four nations. The removal of political barriers to movement has decreased the costs of migrating northward toward the United States.

Liberalized Mexican and Central American immigration laws and border controls likely play a role in lowering the cost of migrating to the United States. Ironically, American complaints that partly spurred Mexican immigration policy changes are likely a contributing factor of the recent increase in Central American migration.

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.