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.

Centers for Disease Control Spending

In an editorial today, the Wall Street Journal discusses Democratic complaints linking Ebola with supposedly falling spending on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Let’s take a look at the data with the Downsizing Government chart tool. Click open Health and Human Services, then click on CDC. Hold your mouse over the line to see the data.

Between 2000 and 2014, CDC outlays almost doubled in 2014 constant dollars, from $3.5 billion to $6.8 billion. Outlays have dipped the last few years, but that’s after a Bush-Obama spending boom. CDC outlays have quadrupled in constant dollars since the late 1980s.

The chart below shows CDC spending since 1970 in constant, or inflation-adjusted, dollars. The data is sourced from the Office of Management and Budget public database, available here.

Medicaid’s Fiscal Pressure

State budgets face numerous long-term pressures, including overpromised and underfunded pensions. Another challenge is Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income individuals, which is growing rapidly in cost and enrollment.

Medicaid is the single largest component of state budgets representing 25 percent of total state expenditures. Since 2003, state spending on Medicaid has increased 75 percent, growing faster than the federal budget. State spending decreased in 2010, but not because of any reforms. The federal stimulus bill temporarily increased the federal government’s share of Medicaid spending, so expenditures were simply shifted to the federal budget. But the stimulus has now expired so state spending is rising once again.

The below chart shows the growth in state Medicaid spending over the last ten years:

The higher levels of Medicaid spending are crowding out spending in other state budget areas, such as transportation and education, while also creating pressure to increase taxes.

In the newest edition of the “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors: 2014,” Chris Edwards and I discuss how the president’s health care law is poised to make this situation even worse for state budgets:

Medicaid has grown rapidly for years, and the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) expanded it even more. Individual states can decide whether or not to implement the ACA’s expanded Medicaid coverage, but Congress created strong incentives to do so. The federal government is paying 100 percent of the costs of expansion through 2016, and then a declining share after that, reaching 90 percent by 2020. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that Medicaid expansion under the ACA will cost the federal government $792 billion and state governments $46 billion over the next 10 years.

Even with the federal government paying most of the initial costs, the ACA will put a large strain on state budgets down the road. State policymakers are concerned that Congress will reduce the federal cost share in coming years because federal deficits will create pressure to cut spending. Without reforms, CBO estimates that federal Medicaid spending will almost double from $299 billion in 2014 to $576 billion by 2024. The growth is projected to be so rapid that even President Obama has suggested that Congress decrease the federal cost share.

The expansion of Medicaid under the ACA is bad policy for numerous reasons, and many governors are refusing to go along. Currently, at least 21 states have decided not to go along with the expansion. Those states may lose “free” federal money in the short-run, but leaders in those states may be saving their states from huge fiscal burdens later on.

Refusing to expand Medicaid under the ACA is a good first-step in controlling the growth in state and federal expenditures. But it is not enough. State and federal leaders should pass major structural reforms to Medicaid to halt the growth in this large entitlement program.