Trade Agreements Can Be Net Liberalizing

Some libertarians have been expressing concern about particular aspects of trade negotiations, often focusing on provisions relating to intellectual property. Here’s Jesse Walker of Reason:

“Free trade” agreements frequently include details that don’t have anything to do with freeing trade. When intellectual property enters the picture, the rules typically make trade more rather than less restrictive. That certainly seems to be the case with the TPP: Provisions in the leaked drafts would extend copyright terms, impose DMCA-style restrictions on circumventing copy protection, and otherwise take a maximalist approach to intellectual property. There are efforts to add tighter IP regulations to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership too.

I already tend to be skeptical about trade agreements as a path to freer trade, but I recognize and respect the argument that they do more good than harm. That argument is much harder to maintain, though, when the deals are loaded down with provisions like these. If fast-track authority makes such rules easier to pass, then fast-track authority is something I’m happy to do without.

I get what he is saying about intellectual property, and I have criticized this aspect of trade talks myself. But as my colleague Dan Ikenson says, we should consider whether these deals are “net liberalizing.”  In this regard, I think trade deals have the potential to do a lot of good, in ways that people may not be aware of.  Here’s an example from the negotiations between the U.S. and EU.  The EU has proposed new disciplines on government subsidies, in which it states:

subsidies given to support insolvent or ailing companies without a credible restructuring plan belong to some of the most harmful types of subsidies and have the potential to have an adverse effect on trade and investment relations.

Now, translating such sentiments into concrete rules can be difficult, but I like the idea of pushing for limits on subsidies. I can’t guarantee that anything will come out of the EU proposal, but I’m glad they are pursuing it.  To me, a trade agreement that offers additional disciplines on subsidies is something of great value.

(Some of you might be thinking, wait, how come the EU is proposing constraints on subsidies?  Aren’t they the worst abusers, with their farm subsidies, Airbus subsidies, etc.?  Here’s my sense of what is going on:  In addition to the concerns about bailout-type subsidies mentioned in the quoted text, the EU has some pretty strict internal rules governing when its member states can provide subsidies.  As a result, the Europeans get annoyed at subsidies offered by U.S. states, and are looking for ways to impose constraints on these and other U.S. subsidies).

The Charlie Hebdo Murders: The Real Atrocity Is Religious Persecution, Not Free Expression

The slaughter at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo brought hundreds of thousands of marchers and scores of world leaders onto the streets of Paris.  The killings demonstrate how the destructive phenomenon of religious persecution is spreading from Third World dictatorships to First World democracies. 

Religious minorities long have faced murder and prison around the world.  Now the freedom not to believe by majorities in Western democracies is under attack.

As I write in Forbes online:  “Free expression goes to the very essence of the human person.  While good judgment tells us not to express every thought we have, as moral agents responsible for our actions we must be free to assess the world and express ourselves in vibrant public debate.  For religion there is no greater affront than to inhibit people’s search for the transcendent and liberty to respond, yay or nay, to God’s call.” 

Western governments must protect the liberties of their peoples.  Members of no group, Muslim or other, should be treated as enemies.  However, the problem of violent religious intolerance is almost uniquely Muslim. 

Christians finally learned to stop killing over spiritual differences.  Today in most countries in which Muslims constitute a majority religious minorities suffer discrimination and persecution. 

There is no disguising reality.  If you are a Baha’i, Jew, Ahmadi, Christian, Yazidi, Hindu, wrong kind of Muslim, or atheist you likely will find life always difficult and often threatening in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Sudan, Yemen, Maldives, Syria, and others. 

Some Muslims point to blowback from promiscuous U.S. intervention.  Washington has supported dictators, harmed innocents, and wrecked societies throughout the Islamic world.  However, these are acts of a nation state, not a religious faith.  And while that behavior might explain (though not justify, since nothing warrants the murder of civilians) attacks on U.S. targets, it does not illuminate why, say, Pakistani mobs burn to death Pakistani Christians.

The thugs who cut down a dozen Charlie Hebdo are the international cousins of those who murder alleged blasphemers and apostates in Muslim nations.  Earlier this year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that victims of the ongoing attack on free expression include people from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey.  Nowhere are blasphemy laws more used and abused than in Pakistan. 

In its study on the issue USCIRF explained how the law encourages abuse:  “The so-called crime carries the death penalty or life in prison, does not require proof of intent or evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and does not include penalties for false allegations.”  Judges prefer not to hear evidence, since doing so could be construed as blasphemy.  A claim usually is sufficient to send someone to prison, making the law a common weapon in personal and business disputes.

Non-Muslims are peculiarly vulnerable.  Many people do not reach trial:  mobs have killed more than 50 people charged with the offense.  And thugs like those who gunned down the Charlie Hebdo staffers have murdered judges who acquitted defendants, attorneys who represented those accused, and politicians who proposed reforming the laws.

There isn’t much Washington can do to protect liberty in other countries, but the U.S. government must insist that the liberties of Americans are non-negotiable and will be defended.  More broadly, the Charlie Hebdo murders should remind policymakers that religious liberty is not an afterthought. 

A government which refuses to protect individuals in exploring the transcendent is more likely to leave other essential liberties unprotected.  People in Muslim-majority nations, where religious persecution today is at its worst, must come to peacefully accept those who believe differently both at home and abroad.

Highways and the Federal Gas Tax

Another day, another news article supportive of raising the federal gas tax. This time it’s the Wall Street Journal. The article notes that there is strong public opposition to raising gas taxes, but then proceeds to give us the arguments in favor of it, but none against. So for the next reporter writing about raising the gas tax, here are some policy reasons against it.

Let me zero in on two points made by the Journal story.

First, it says, “elected officials from both parties are treading into the debate cautiously, framing the issue around improving highway safety and local economies by repairing a growing backlog of troubled roads and bridges.”

I don’t think that’s true about a “growing backlog.” In fact, our highways and bridges appear to be improving, not getting more “troubled.” Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data show that of the nation’s 600,000 bridges, the share that is “structurally deficient” has fallen from 22 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2013. The share that is “functionally obsolete” has also fallen.

Meanwhile, the surface quality of the interstate highways has steadily improved. A study by Federal Reserve economists examining FHWA data found that “since the mid-1990s, our nation’s interstate highways have become indisputably smoother and less deteriorated.” And they concluded that the Interstate system is “in good shape relative to its past condition.”

The Journal says, “The federal levy … has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since the first year of the Clinton administration, despite multiple proposals over the years to raise it. Over the past decade, Congress has approved higher spending for highway construction but hasn’t raised the tax to pay for it, creating periodic funding crises.”

It’s true that Congress has not raised the gas tax recently, but that’s because the American people have been consistently against it in polls. The problem is that Congress has gone ahead and jacked up spending anyway. So we don’t have a “funding” crisis, but a “spending” crisis.

Gas tax supporters say that it is time to raise the tax because it has not been raised in two decades. What they leave out of the story is that the gas tax rate more than quadrupled between 1982 and 1994 from 4 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents, as shown in the chart below the jump. Thus, looking at the whole period since 1982, federal gas tax revenues have risen at a robust annual average rate of 6.1 percent (based on Tax Foundation data). So, again, we have a spending crisis, not a funding crisis.

Public Schooling’s Pluralism Problem and the School Choice Solution

Last month, the Orthodox Union, a prominent Jewish organization, launched a campaign advocating for private school choice policies. That raised hackles from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which condemned the chutzpah of the Orthodox Union to work for equal funding for children in their community:

“It [the campaign] will require us to stop being timid,” [Orthodox Union executive vice president Allen Fagin] said. “We pay our taxes, and our kids are also entitled not to be left behind.”

That statement, of course, is only half-true: Fagin’s constituents do pay their taxes, and their children are indeed entitled to an education. But that’s exactly what public schools are for. OU’s campaign relies on the same faulty logic we’ve seen from advocates of voucher programs: Because parents pay taxes, they should be able to ask every other taxpayer in the state to subsidize their child’s religious education. It’s a clear constitutional violation. […]

It’s unconscionable (and exceptionally brazen) for OU to demand that further funds be siphoned away from public schools intended to serve entire communities in order to promote their private religious agenda. If Orthodox parents want to place their children in religious schools, that’s their right. And it’s their responsibility to pay for it.

In reality though, it’s the idea that so-called “public” schools are actually “public” that is only half-true. District schools are technically open to any student whose parents can afford to live in the district, but they are certainly not “intended to serve entire communities.” For example, they are not intended to serve Orthodox Jews or others like them who have a different vision of education. When everyone is forced to pay for one school system and decisions about education are made via a political process, there will be winners and losers.

You Ought to Have A Look: Carbon Tax, Carbon Tax, Carbon Tax

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, this week we call attention to a few articles around the web examining the common sense behind a tax on carbon. It turns out there is none.

From time to time, there is a pitch made to conservatives that a “revenue neutral” carbon tax would be a win-win for everyone. It would help mitigate climate change while at the same time spur economic activity. Even if you don’t care about the former, you’re bound to like the latter. Or vice versa.

To try to win some new carbon tax recruits in the incoming Republican-led Congress, two recent high profile articles—one in the Washington Post by one-time Obama economic adviser Larry Summer and the other on National Review Online by the Hudson Institute’s Irwin Stelzer—make that argument, with embellishments.

If a carbon tax sounds too good to be true, then your intuition is correct.

Robert Murphy, an economist for the Institute for Energy Research, provides the technical details, collected from the economic literature, as to why the economic gains don’t actually come along with a carbon tax as they are being promised. In his National Review Online article “Taxing Carbon Won’t Help the Economy,” Murphy rebuts many of Stelzer’s claims. Ultimately, he delivers this sage advice:

Highlights from Overlawyered—2014

At my Cato blog Overlawyered I’ve been pulling together month-by-month highlights of stories from last year. I’m currently up to October in the series. Here’s a small sampling of my favorites: 

Read the whole series here.

Final Hurdle to Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Lifted

Today, the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and held that the power to approve a route for the Keystone XL pipeline through the state lay with the governor. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman had previously approved the pipeline’s route, but his authority was challenged by a group of landowners (pipeline opponents) who claimed the authoritative power was held by the state’s Public Service Commission rather than the governor.

President Obama repeatedly referred to this pending decision as the reason why he could not made a final decision on whether to approve or deny the pipeline. As recently as earlier this week, when indicating the president would veto a measure to approve the pipeline that is currently making its way through Congress, Obama press secretary Josh Earnest referred to a  “well-established process in place” for making such decisions. The Nebraska case was the last remaining part of that process, as the State Department has already given the pipeline a clean bill of environmental health.

As for the president himself, in delivering his Climate Action Plan back in the summer of 2013, he said:

I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

Odd that he should say that in June of 2013 when a month earlier, in May of 2013, I testified before Congress as to that climate math of the Keystone XL pipeline and found its effect on our climate was inconsequential, resulting in less than 1/100th of a degree of warming by the end of this century. Case closed.

Before the Nebraska decision, Congress was preparing to send legislation to the president’s desk that would wrest the decision from the State Department. But now that the Nebraska court decision has been handed down, Obama can steal the thunder for himself and simply grant approval to the pipeline.

And, who knows, with today’s oil economics, perhaps the pipeline will not be built, and the president can have his cake and eat it too.