Still the Slowest Recovery

Friday’s disappointing jobs report reminds us that we are still in a very slow recovery from the 2007 recession. Not only were far fewer jobs created in September than economists predicted, the estimates for July and August were revised downward. And the size of the total workforce slipped to 62.4 percent of the population, the lowest level since 1977.

The Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank has a handy tool for monitoring the depressing news, allowing you to compare this recovery to past recoveries since World War II. Output (GDP) is recovering more slowly than in past recoveries, along with employment:

Economic Recoveries

Why is the recovery so slow? John Cochrane of the Hoover Institution examined that question in the Wall Street Journal a year ago. Here’s part of his answer:

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford’s Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

If you put obstacles in the way of investment and employment, you’ll likely get less investment and employment.

A new e-book edited by Brink Lindsey, Reviving Economic Growth, presents ideas from 51 economists of widely varying perspectives on this crucial question.

Taking on the Conventional Wisdom about NATO at the Council on Foreign Relations

It should surprise no one that Cato tends to be an outsider in Washington. At least on the domestic policy side we usually have some allies hiding somewhere along the ideological spectrum. Conservatives are more likely to support free markets; liberals are more likely to back civil liberties.

But on foreign policy Cato often stands pretty much alone. Almost everyone in the foreign policy field can be counted on to endorse every existing alliance and insist that it be “strengthened.” No matter that the Cold War is over, Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are gone, Maoist China has disappeared, and most of America’s friends and allies have “grown up,” becoming democratic and prosperous. Whatever has been must always be is the seeming motto for liberals and conservatives alike on foreign policy.

Unfortunately, most of the debate in Washington occurs between opposing establishment advocates of the status quo. Everyone knows we should intervene. The only questions are how much more bombing is appropriate, what new tactics might prove to be more effective in imposing Washington’s will, and, most important, how to get a different result doing a lot more of the same?

But I recently had an opportunity to crash an establishment event. Actually, perhaps more surprising, I was invited to participate. The Council on Foreign Relations staged a discussion on NATO’s future in which I joined James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at the American University. Thom Shanker of the New York Times served as moderator.

It was an eminently civil affair, as Council events almost inevitably are. Goldgeier enjoys disagreeing without being disagreeable; in fact, he has participated in Cato events at our invitation. Shanker, a long-time reporter before ascending to editor, has strong interest in the issues and knowledge of the facts. The audience joined in, asking good, serious questions.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that everyone appeared to acknowledge that the alliance was seriously dysfunctional, with European countries unwilling to spend much on their own behalf while expecting America to make up any gaps. Where Goldgeier and I disagreed was whether the organization was too important for Washington to abandon. He thought so, while I contended that the end of the Cold War and rise of Europe allows America to finally turn over defense duties to those being defended.

The audience also seemed greatly frustrated with the behavior of our “allies.” While I can’t say the majority were ready to join my “out of NATO” parade, they did not seem shocked by my criticism of Washington’s most important pact. Even on foreign policy Cato’s ideas increasingly have a place in serious policy discussions. That’s all to the good, given how dramatically status quo ideas have failed. Especially in the international arena.

We still have a long way to go to change policy. But events continue to affirm the warnings that Cato scholars have made since the Institute’s founding about the dangers of promiscuous intervention. I look forward to more events, like that held by the Council, to make the case for a foreign policy that more effectively protects America—its people, territory, market economy, constitutional order, and dedication to individual liberty.

America Should Charge the World for Defending It

Today the U.S. underwrites the defense of wealthy nations across the globe. Washington should stop using the Pentagon as a global welfare agency.

Uncle Sam at least should charge for his defense services, as Donald Trump has suggested. America shouldn’t be defending its rich friends for free.

Most Republican Party presidential candidates insist that Washington do more on behalf of its already subsidized, protected, coddled, and reassured allies. Why do U.S. politicians put the interests of other nations before those of America?

The Pentagon devotes much of its resources to defend other nations, mostly wealthy industrialized states. In most of these cases America has no important, let alone vital, interests at stake. Instead, Washington should allow allies and friends to protect themselves.

China: Historic Empire Transformed, Fragile Leader In The Making?

SHANGHAI, CHINA—Shanghai, China’s financial capital, enjoys a double skyline. The city proper, or “old city,” sports a fascinating mix of colonial buildings and modern architecture. The “New Area” of Pudong hosts Shanghai’s four tallest structures, on the east bank of the Huangpu River.

In contrast, when I first visited Shanghai a couple decades ago there were few buildings, commercial or residential, racing skyward. Pudong was mostly empty, with more brush and trash blowing down the streets than buildings with people working in them.

But there is another China. More distant towns offer a vision into the past—more traditional, less advanced, more isolated. Shift to the nearby countryside and incomes drop substantially, averaging less than $2000 per capita. My traveling group stopped by the remains of an ancient fortress and the Great Wall, which required walking along dirt roads lined by homes constructed with bricks taken from the ruins. The primitive toilet had holes in the wooden floor, through which the ground was visible.

Self-Serving Federal Bureaucrats

In the federal government, employees are paid to faithfully execute the laws, but they often pursue self-serving goals counter to those of the general public. Unionized federal workers actively oppose legislators who support reforms. Agency leaders try to maximize their budgets by exaggerating problems in society. They leak biased information to the media to ward off budget cuts. They put forward the most sensitive spending cuts in response to proposed reductions, which is the “Washington Monument” strategy.

Federal officials signal to the public that they are solving problems without actually solving them. Security agencies, for example, use “security theater” techniques that are visible to the public but do not make us safer.

Officials often trumpet the supposedly great jobs they are doing, but hide agency failures from the public. And officials stonewall congressional requests for information that may shed a bad light on them.

I describe these and other bureaucratic failures in this new essay at Downsizing Government.

The Washington Post reports on other ways that bureaucrats serve themselves and not the public. In one story the other day, the paper reported:

An assistant director of the Secret Service urged that unflattering information the agency had in its files about a congressman critical of the service should be made public, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.

That effort to smear Rep. Jason Chaffetz is disgraceful, but it is topped by another one in the Post the same day:

Senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs manipulated the hiring system to coerce two managers to accept job transfers against their will — then stepped into the vacant positions themselves, keeping their pay while reducing their responsibilities.

The executives also gamed VA’s moving-expense system for a total of $400,000 in what a new report by the agency’s watchdog described as questionable reimbursements, with taxpayers paying $300,000 for one of them to relocate 140 miles, from Washington to Philadelphia, Pa.

Rubens and Graves kept their salaries of $181,497 and $173,949, respectively, even though the new positions they took as directors of the Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn. regional offices had way less responsibility, overseeing a fraction of the employees at lower pay levels. Rubens had been deputy undersecretary for field operations.

By and large, the federal government is not full of people that help us. They tax us, regulate us, defend their bureaucracies, and some of them try to actively fleece us. So in structuring the government, a basic assumption should be that it will not be populated by “public servants,” but by people who are in it for themselves. That is one reason why all of us should want to keep the government’s power strictly limited.

For more of the workings of the bureaucracy, see “Bureaucratic Failure in the Federal Government.”

U.S.–China Relations Hurt by American Antidumping Abuse

As expected, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the issue of antidumping abuse during his recent visit to Washington.  Specifically, he called on the United States to stop using “nonmarket economy” methodology when imposing antidumping duties on imports from China.  The issue is going to become more and more pressing as a diplomatic problem over the next year, because the United States is required under WTO rules to end NME treatment by December 2016. 

NME methodology is one of many ways the United States inflates the protectionist impact of U.S. antidumping law.  My colleague Dan Ikenson has thoroughly documented the senselessness of NME treatment.  Last year, I wrote a Cato Policy Analysis looking at how U.S. officials and policymakers might respond to the December 2016 deadline.

That deadline coincides closely with the end of President Obama’s term in office.  The president can choose to leave his successor years of trade conflict and WTO litigation by refusing to act.  Or he can do the right thing for the American economy and U.S.–China relations by ending NME treatment as soon as possible. 

Mismatch Between 20th Century Trade Negotiations and 21st Century Trade Threatens TTIP’s Success

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Per Altenberg from the Swedish Board of Trade makes an interesting political economy argument and a compelling practical case for why the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will be a tough slog. Altenberg argues that the old model for trade negotiations, premised as it is on mercantilist reciprocity, which leverages the interests of exporters against import-competing industries to secure domestic support for liberalization, is no longer functional in a world where trade is dominated by intermediate goods trade along global value chains. Today, openness to trade is seen as essential, and trade negotiations cover matters that probe deeply into domestic regulatory space. To sum up, Per writes:

Traditional 20th-century reciprocity in market access negotiations will thus not be an effective mechanism in the context of 21st-century deep integration negotiations such as TTIP. Instead, deep integration issues require new approaches to trade negotiations.

Per’s essay elaborates on those approaches.  Read it.  Provide feedback.  And please register for Cato’s TTIP conference on October 12.