Falling Oil Prices Put Producers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Over the last few months, the price of Brent crude oil lost over 20% of its value, dropping below $90 just yesterday and hitting its lowest level in over two years. In consequence, oil producers will no longer be able to rely on oil revenues to pay their bills. The fiscal break-even price – a metric that determines the price per barrel of oil required for a nation to balance its budget at current levels of production – puts the problem into perspective.

Using data from Bloomberg and Deutsche Bank, I prepared a chart showing the break-even prices for the world’s major oil producers and the price on Brent crude. Over the past six months, Brent crude fell far below the break-even price for eleven of the top oil producers in the world; Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, and even Saudi Arabia can no longer finance their governments’ largess through oil revenues.

The combination of oil markets flying into a perfect storm and excessive government spending puts most of the world’s oil producers between a rock and a hard place, where they will stay for some time.

Newsweek: Back in Print, Confused as Ever

Dumb arguments against libertarianism are increasing, as guardians of the expansive state begin to worry that the country might actually be trending in a libertarian direction. This may not be the dumbest, but as Nick Gillespie said of a different argument two weeks ago, it’s the most recent:

‘You Ready to Step Up?’

The deadly drug war in Long Island’s Hempstead ghetto is a harrowing example of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism, with a heavy dose of TEC-9s
To be fair, author Kevin Deutsch never uses the terms “laissez-faire” or “free-market” in his detailed article, so we should probably direct our disdain at Newsweek’s headline writers. Deutsch does portray the second-ranking guy in the Hempstead Crips as a businessman seeking to “recruit talent, maximize profits and expand their customer base.” But even the drug dealer gets the difference between selling prohibited substances and doing business in a free market:
“We’re looking to market, sell and profit off drugs the way any business would handle their product,” Tony says. “Only our product is illegal, so more precautions need to be taken. It’s all systematic and planned, all the positions and responsibilities and assignments. All of that’s part of our business strategy. It’s usually real smooth and quiet, because that’s the best environment for us to make bank. But now, we at war, man. Ain’t nothing quiet these days.”
Deutsch describes the competition between the local Crips and Bloods in terms not usually seen in articles about, say, Apple and Microsoft or Ford and Toyota:
As for strategies, they seem to have settled on a war of attrition, aiming to kill or maim as many of their enemies as possible….
 
They’re far better armed and willing to use violence than the smaller neighborhood cliques scattered throughout Nassau County….
 
They’re also able to keep out other competitors through use of brute force….
 
It’s one of hundreds of similar conflicts being fought by Bloods and Crips sets throughout the country. These battles breed shootings, stabbings and robberies in gang-plagued, low-income neighborhoods each day. 
These are, of course, just the sorts of consequences that libertarians and economists expect from prohibition. As Tim Lynch and I wrote in the Cato Handbook on Policy a decade ago,

drug prohibition creates high levels of crime. Addicts commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it were legal. Police sources have estimated that as much as half the property crime in some major cities is committed by drug users. More dramatic, because drugs are illegal, participants in the drug trade cannot go to court to settle disputes, whether between buyer and seller or between rival sellers. When black-market contracts are breached, the result is often some form of violent sanction, which usually leads to retaliation and then open warfare in the streets.

Jeffrey Miron of Harvard’s economics department and Cato made similar points in his book Drug War Crimes, as have such economists as Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. Miron also noted that prohibition drives up the prices of illegal drugs, making the trade attractive to people with a high tolerance for risk. And so in that sense, it’s true that some people will usually enter the prohibited trade – in alcohol, gambling, prostitution, crack, or whatever – and will employ some techniques that are also used in normal business enterprises. As Tyler Cowen says, there are markets in everything. Given our natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange in order to improve our own situation, we can expect people to step into any trade, prohibited or not. Better that such trade should take place legally, within the rule of law, than underground, where violence may be the only recourse in disputes.

When the government bans the use and sale of a substance, and imprisons hundreds of thousands of people in an attempt to enforce that prohibition, that’s not “laissez-faire, free-market capitalism.” Duh. 

China’s Curious Restraint

Beijing’s behavior on the international stage over the past few months has been surprisingly restrained—in marked contrast to an earlier, lengthy period of assertive, if not abrasive, conduct toward its neighbors. Not too long ago, policymakers in the United States and throughout East Asia were alarmed by China’s initiatives. Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were breathtakingly broad, leading to nasty incidents with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations.  Even worse were the confrontations between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, along with Beijing’s unilateral proclamation of an extensive Air Defense Identification Zone in that same area, which led to a surge of tensions with Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Two developments illustrate the new, less confrontational trend in China’s policy. One is Beijing’s concerted diplomatic courtship of such countries as South Korea, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. As I discuss in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, even such longstanding rivals as Japan and India have been recipients of this Chinese “charm offensive.” 

The other sign of uncharacteristic restraint is Beijing’s handling of the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. True, there are indications that the Chinese government may have organized and paid for counterdemonstrators to confront and harass democracy activists.  But, at least to this point, there is no indication that Xi Jinping’s government intends to intervene directly with its security forces, much less trigger a bloodbath reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Instead, Beijing has allowed its appointed authorities in Hong Kong to manage the turbulence.  

That is a smart move because the United States and the nations of East Asia are closely watching how the Chinese government handles the democratic ferment in Hong Kong. Taiwan is an especially interested spectator, and if Beijing wants to preserve the possibility of the island’s eventual return to the Chinese fold, a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong would doom those hopes for a generation or more. Conversely, the toleration of even limited moves toward free elections for Hong Kong’s leadership would increase the chances of seducing Taiwan regarding the desirability of gradual re-unification. It appears that Xi and his associates may understand that.

Of course, further developments bear close watching, since they could move quickly in an undesirable direction. It is possible that Beijing’s more conciliatory stance toward its Asian neighbors and its restraint regarding Hong Kong is merely a temporary tactical shift, and that we will soon see a return to a bold, confrontational approach. But if the current restraint instead is the harbinger of a more cautious, cooperative policy over the long term on geopolitical issues, China would become easier to accommodate as a rising great power. That would be good for the peace and security of East Asia and for harmonious relations between Beijing and Washington.

Governor Brownback’s Tax Cuts

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has become a punching bag for liberal pundits. They particularly dislike his tax reforms, which they say are causing a state budget disaster. Nicole Kaeding and I awarded Brownback an “A” on our “Fiscal Report Card.” So let’s take a look at how liberal and libertarian views on Governor Brownback differ.

John Judis at the New Republic writes, “the heart of his program consisted of drastic tax cuts for the wealthy…”

Brownback did sign into law large tax cuts, but that is a good thing. Legislation in 2012 replaced income tax rates of 3.5, 6.25, and 6.45 percent with lower rates of 3.0 and 4.9 percent, while substantially increasing the standard deduction. Those cuts provided savings for taxpayers at all income levels, not just the wealthy. 

Judis continues, “Brownback’s tax cuts had produced a staggering loss in revenue—$687 million, or nearly 11 percent.” Tax Foundation shows the revenue effects of 2012 and 2013 tax legislation here. Judis gets the numbers about right, but I don’t think that magnitude of revenue change is “staggering.” In 2011, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) increased overall Connecticut taxes about 15 percent. That same year, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) increased overall Illinois taxes about 25 percent—now that is “staggering.” (Details on both increases here).

The important thing with tax cuts is that politicians need to match them with spending cuts so they are sustainable. Brownback has been frugal on spending, but it is true that Kansas needs further budget reforms so that future spending growth matches projected revenues. However, that restraint will be beneficial, as it will encourage policymakers to trim low-value programs in the budget.

Paul Krugman slammed Brownback’s tax cuts, saying, “the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.”

One problem with that assessment is that state budgets don’t really “plunge deep into deficit” like the federal budget does. Nearly all states must legally balance their general funds. They often cheat a bit with accounting maneuvers, but they generally get it done.

The Nobel Peace Prize and Child Labor

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi is bound to attract public attention to the problem of child labor. In 1980, Satyarthi founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or “Save the Childhood Movement,” focused on fighting child labor and human trafficking, as well as bonded labor.

Child labor is widespread in developing countries, concentrating often in the agricultural sector where working conditions are particularly dire. Because of the gravity of the problem, it is necessary to be extremely careful in devising solutions. As is often the case, the fix to child labor that most people would think of instinctively—namely, to ban it—could do more harm than good. As another Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2001,

In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets—and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

There are no quick and easy answers to the problem of child labor, especially in poor countries where educational opportunities are limited and where bans on child labor simply displace children into less desirable, illegal, and more dangerous occupations. To end child labor, the currently underdeveloped countries must create economic opportunities that would reduce or eliminate the reliance of many, particularly poorer, families on income from the work of their children. In a recent Cato Economic Development Bulletin, the economist Benjamin Powell argues that

Explosive Findings on Volcanoes’ Climate Influence

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


A new paper overturns old suppositions regarding volcanoes, tree-rings, and climate sensitivity.

According to a 2012 press release accompanying a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, a research team led by Penn State’s Dr. Michael Mann concluded that the cooling influence of historical volcanic eruptions was underrepresented by tree-ring reconstructions of the earth’s temperature.

This, the press release went on to tell us, had potential implications when trying to determine the earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)—i.e., how much the global average surface temperature will rise as a result of a doubling of the atmosphere’s pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide. While most recent studies place the ECS noticeably less than earlier studies (including those most heavily relied upon by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and thus the U.S. Obama Administration), the 2012 Mann study was an exception. It implied that many existing determinations of the ESC were underestimates.

From the press release:

“Scientists look at the past response of the climate to natural factors like volcanoes to better understand how sensitive Earth’s climate might be to the human impact of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Mann. “Our findings suggest that past studies using tree-ring data to infer this sensitivity have likely underestimated it.”

Fast forward to today.

Appearing on-line in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (and sans press release) is a paper led by Penn State’s Martin Tingley that examined how the temperature response from volcanic inferred from tree-rings compared with that of observations. Tingley’s team concluded that tree-ring based temperature proxies overestimated the temperature response caused by large volcanic eruptions. Instead of responding only to the cooler temperatures, the tree rings also included signals from reduced light availability (from the shading effect of volcanic aerosols) and the two effects together produced a signal greater than what would have been produced by cooler temperatures alone. This is basically the opposite of what Mann and colleagues concluded.