Archives: 09/2011

Eight Questions for Protectionists

When asked to pick my most frustrating issue, I could list things from my policy field such as class warfare or income redistribution.

But based on all the speeches and media interviews I do, which periodically venture into other areas, I suspect protectionism vs. free trade is the biggest challenge.

So I want to ask the protectionists (though anybody is free to provide feedback) how they would answer these simple questions.

1. Do you think politicians and bureaucrats should be able to tell you what you’re allowed to buy?

As Walter Williams has explained, this is a simple matter of freedom and liberty. If you want to give the political elite the authority to tell you whether you can buy foreign-produced goods, you have opened the door to endless mischief.

2. If trade barriers between nations are good, then shouldn’t we have trade barriers between states? Or cities?

This is a very straightforward challenge. If protectionism is good, then it shouldn’t be limited to national borders.

3. Why is it bad that foreigners use the dollars they obtain to invest in the American economy instead of buying products?

Little green pieces of paper have little value to foreign companies. They only accept those dollars in exchange for products because they intend to use them, either to buy American products or to invest in the U.S. economy. Indeed, a “capital surplus” is the flip side of a “trade deficit.” This generally is a positive sign for the American economy (though I freely admit this argument is weakened if foreigners use dollars to “invest” in federal government debt).

4. Do you think protectionism would be necessary if America did pro-growth reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate, less wasteful spending, and reduced red tape?

There are thousands of hard-working Americans that have lost jobs because of foreign competition. At some level, this is natural in a dynamic economy, much as candle makers lost jobs when the light bulb was invented. But oftentimes American producers can’t meet the challenge of foreign competition because of bad policy from Washington. When I think of ordinary Americans that have lost jobs, I direct my anger at the politicians in DC, not a foreign company or foreign workers.

5. Do you think protectionism would help, in the long run, if we don’t implement pro-growth reforms?

If we travel down the path of protectionism, politicians will use that as an excuse not to implement pro-growth reforms. This condemns America to a toxic combination of two bad policies - big government and trade distortions. This will destroy far more jobs and opportunity that foreign competition.

6. Do you recognize that, by creating the ability to offer special favors to selected industries, protectionism creates enormous opportunities for corruption?

Most protectionism in America is the result of organized interest groups and powerful unions trying to prop up inefficient practices. And they only achieve their goals by getting in bed with the Washington crowd in a process that is good for the corrupt nexus of interest groups-lobbyists-politicians-bureaucrats.

7. If you don’t like taxes, why would you like taxes on imports?

A tariff is nothing but a tax that politicians impose on selected products. This presumably makes protectionism inconsistent with the principles of low taxes and limited government.

8. Can you point to nations that have prospered with protectionism, particularly when compared to similar nations with free trade?

Some people will be tempted to say that the United States was a successful economy in the 1800s when tariffs financed a significant share of the federal government. That’s largely true, but the nation’s rising prosperity surely was due to the fact that we had no income tax, a tiny federal government, and very little regulation. And I can’t resist pointing out that the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff didn’t exactly lead to good results.

We also had internal free trade, as explained in this excellent short video on the benefits of free trade, narrated by Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and produced by the Institute for Humane Studies.

My closing argument is that people who generally favor economic freedom should ask themselves whether it’s legitimate or logical to make an exception in the case of foreign trade.

Cops on Camera in Fullerton, Calif.

In large part because of social media and consumer-level video technology, two Fullteron, Calif. police officers likely involved in the death of Kelly Thomas have now been charged with murder, manslaughter and excessive use of force. Reason.tv’s Paul Detrick has produced an excellent video detailing the events that led to the charges. Be warned: Some of the images presented here are quite disturbing.

Still many jurisdictions claim that they can arrest and charge individuals when they use video technology to document police engaged in their public duties, even when those people are documenting police abuse. Further, police agencies are often reluctant to use video documentation to show what happens in high-stakes police encounters like SWAT raids. Cato’s “Cops on Camera” video last year provides some context about how technology can be used by individuals and should be used by police to help document how police do their jobs.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this past week:

  • Interesting thoughts on reforming the U.S. Postal Service.
  • If our bloated federal government is ever to be reined in, a return to fiscal federalism is a must. And if the states are to get their financial houses in order, state policymakers can’t be allowed to believe that a federal policy of “too big to fail” applies to them.
  • Chris Edwards says that Warren Buffet’s tax story is bogus.
  • Unless spending and deficits are cut, the United States is headed for economic ruin as growth falls and rising debt threatens further financial crises.
  • There’s no point getting worked up about government waste if you’re also getting checks from the U.S. Treasury or demanding that the government solve society’s problems.

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Elizabeth Warren, Fair Play, and Soaking the Rich

Elizabeth Warren’s recent remarks on class warfare, made during a campaign stop in her quest for a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat, provide a nice microcosm of the broader philosophical views behind much contemporary political debate.

Here’s Warren:

The relevant bit that has her supporters so fired up goes like this:

I hear all this, oh this is class warfare, no! There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there–good for you.

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory.

Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea–God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Fully exploring the thinking behind Warren’s remarks would demand a book at least. We might point out that most of the rich got that way by creating value for others, meaning they gave back in the process of getting rich. Or we might wonder if her thinking implies that, because the state is responsible in part for the environment in which all of us earned what we have, the state is the actual owner of what we have.

To spare you having to read that book, however, I’m going to instead address just two points I find particularly interesting. First, we can tease out the theory of political obligation Warren advances and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Second, we can ask whether her argument, even if we accept it on its own terms, supports a tax increase on high income earners.

In a 1955 essay, H. L. A. Hart articulated what’s come to be known as the “fair play” principle of political obligation.

When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.

Framed in Warren’s language, “the rest of us” restricted our liberty by paying taxes for the creation of roads, the formation of police forces, the funding of fire departments, and so on. And the rich benefited from our submission to taxes by getting rich (in part) because of the existence of roads, police, and fire departments. Therefore, we have a right to a similar submission from the rich in the form of them paying an increased amount in taxes to fund roads, police, and fire departments, too.

So by her account, this can’t be class warfare because it’s a simple matter of obligation. But is that true? Does the so-called “fair play” account of political obligation work?

Not really. Robert Nozick famously knocked it down in Anarchy, State, and Utopia with a thought experiment about a neighborhood public address system. And A. John Simmons went even further—and did so more persuasively—in his 1979 classic, Moral Principles and Political Obligations.

But the basic response to “fair play” is pretty simple: It seems awfully weird to demand that we repay benefits we never had a choice about accepting in the first place.

Nobody approached the rich before they were rich and said, “Hey, we’re all pitching in to pay for roads and police, which we all think are pretty valuable. If you’d like to benefit from those things like we would, we ask that you pay for them. Are you up for that?” A (pre-)rich person might very well say, “Yes, I’m game.” In that case the principle of fair play would apply. But it would only apply if he had a meaningful choice about the matter. On the other hand, he might say, “Yes, I think we do need roads and police, but I also think they’d be better provided by an alternative cooperative scheme (the market, a different government, a different voluntary group, etc.) to the one you’re offering.”

Simmons calls this the distinction between “receiving” benefits and “accepting” them. The fair play principle creates obligations when benefits are accepted, but not when merely received.

With that in mind, Warren would have a difficult time arguing that any of us genuinely accepted the particular roads and police provided by the particular scheme she supports. We’ve received them, yes, and may rather like what we received—but we were never presented with an actual choice.

There may, of course, be plenty of other good reasons to feel obligated to pay our taxes—or to even pay more taxes than our neighbors—but fair play, at least in the form Warren presents it, doesn’t quite get us there.

Still, let’s set such concerns aside and grant to Warren that, if the rich did benefit from the particular services paid for by the rest of us, they have a duty to pay (more) for them. Would that allow us to justify asking the rich to pay more taxes today?

Again, probably not. Just look at the beneficial services Warren draws our attention to.

  1. Roads
  2. Police
  3. Fire departments
  4. Education

She tacks an “and so on” to the list, but there’s something striking about the concrete examples she does give. Namely, they’re all the kinds of things you’d expect even from a much smaller state than the one we have today.

In other words, the need to raise taxes at the present moment (if such a need exists) is precisely not to pay for roads, police, fire departments, and education. We had those—and they were functioning quite nicely—for a good while before the explosion of federal spending under the last two administrations.

If Warren’s claim is that the rich got rich because of certain benefits they received from government and so should pay more to provide those benefits to others, then the overwhelming bulk of government spending is completely outside the scope of her argument.

It’s not obvious that many rich people got to be rich because of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or military expenses. (Those who got rich because of subsidies are another matter, but she doesn’t draw that distinction, nor is she calling for an end to government handouts to the wealthy and politically connected.) But those are where we’ve seen so much of the spending increases that now demand, according to Warren and her peers, that all of us pony up more cash to the federal government.

This means that an easy response to Warren is to grant her general philosophical point but then add that what it leads to is not increased taxes but cutting government back to those programs that do make people rich and only then worry about how much of what remains the rich should pay for.

Of course we might also point out that, even with the bloated leviathan we have in Washington—one that does far more than provide roads, police, fire departments, and schools (which are, after all, chiefly state and local matters)—the rich still pay for most of it. Certainly more than “the rest of us” pay. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out back in May, “the highest-earning 10% of the U.S. population paid the largest share among 24 countries examined, even after adjusting for their relatively higher incomes.” The top 20% of American income earners pay over half the federal taxes. Which means that “the next kid who comes along” already is getting his federal benefits from the rich. To Warren and her supporters, I ask, “How much is enough?”

If Warren’s moral case for increasing the tax burden of the rich doesn’t hold up, can she still maintain her claim that this isn’t class warfare? Probably not. By her arguments, the rich are not obligated to pay more than they already are. Nor will their paying more do much of anything to ameliorate America’s fiscal woes. That means it’s rather difficult to see her speech as anything but a ploy to fire up her base by attacking a disfavored minority.

If that’s not class warfare, I don’t know what is.

Update: I just finished a podcast on the subject of this post with Caleb Brown.

On Waste in the Justice Department

An audit released this week by the Department of Justice’s inspector general details wasteful and extravagant spending at DOJ conferences under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Stories about waste in government programs are as common as ants, but this one appears to have struck a nerve across the country—perhaps because the president is trying to convince us that Washington needs more money.

Yesterday I discussed the issue of $16 muffins at DOJ conferences on radio stations from California to New York, with points in between. The most common question I received was, “How can wasteful spending be stopped?” As I told listeners, the only way to stop it is to not give the offending agency or program any more money. Otherwise, government employees will continue wasting money for the simple reason that it isn’t their money. And because the government isn’t a business, politicians and government employees don’t have to be concerned with improving the bottom line. In short, there’s little incentive for the government not to waste money.

Politicians typically respond to stories about government waste by condemning the situation and promising to fix it. Government waste actually creates a good opportunity for politicians to feign concern for taxpayers. Reason’s Matt Welch explains:

The nation’s current and future deficit is driven overwhelmingly by health care, military and retirement spending, each of which involve ever-increasing promises that have proved politically career-threatening to scale back.

That’s why politicians prefer instead to talk about $16 muffins and $600 toilet seats—it’s the least expensive way to simulate fiscal responsibility. The boy who cries muffin while signing onto every new major entitlement and military adventure is not in any position to deliver lectures about tax-dollar stewardship. And never forget that the spending frenzy is distinctly bipartisan: Even alleged fiscal radical Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the Iraq War and Medicare Part D.

Sadly, a lot of Americans buy it, which is why politicians keep selling it. As I’ve previously discussed, a majority of Americans erroneously believe that the federal budget’s imbalances can be fixed by just eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. That’s why I made it a point to remind listeners that there’s no point getting worked up about government waste if they’re also getting checks from the U.S. Treasury or demanding that the government solve society’s problems. As Welch puts it, “As long as we believe that government is good at creating jobs and stimulating the economy, we’re going to be stuffed by much more than just $16 muffins.”

How Do You Get to the Supreme Court?

So you want to know how the case of Good v. Evil ends up at the Supreme Court, providing fodder for all us legal pundits to digest and expound upon?  The Institute for Justice has come out with an entertaining video going through the basics of trial and appellate procedure—essentially a “How a Bill Becomes a Law” for the legal practice set.

It’s really the best way to procrastinate on a rainy Friday afternoon:

Look for the volume of the Cato Supreme Court Review that appears briefly as the narrator describes the various materials attorneys have to read to get a good grasp on their case.

The Solyndra Story Keeps Unfolding

Is the taxpayers’ lost $535 million in the green-energy company Solyndra just an unfortunate business failure, or is there something more scandalous involved? You should read every word of this front-page New York Times article. Sure, it says that “no evidence has emerged that political favoritism played a role in what administration officials assert were merit-based decisions.” But the story is full of smoking guns.

Here’s the opening:

President Obama’s visit to the Solyndra solar panel factory in California last year was choreographed down to the last detail—the 20-by-30-foot American flags, the corporate banners hung just so, the special lighting, even coffee and doughnuts for the Secret Service detail.

“It’s here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future,” the president declared in May 2010 to the assembled workers and executives. The start-up business had received a $535 million federal loan guarantee, offered in part to reassert American dominance in solar technology while generating thousands of jobs.

But behind the pomp and pageantry, Solyndra was rotting inside, hemorrhaging cash so quickly that within weeks of Mr. Obama’s visit, the company canceled plans to offer shares to the public. Barely a year later, Solyndra has become one of the administration’s most costly fumbles after the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and was raided by F.B.I. agents seeking evidence of possible fraud.

Solyndra’s two top officers are to appear Friday before a House investigative committee where, their lawyers say, they will assert their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

And there’s more:

[Solyndra’s] lobbyists corresponded frequently and met at least three times with an aide to a top White House official, Valerie B. Jarrett, to push for loans, tax breaks and other government assistance… Energy Department preliminary loan approvals—including the one for Solyndra—were granted at times before officials had completed mandatory evaluations of the financial and engineering viability of the projects.

…[T]he company spent nearly $1.8 million on Washington lobbyists, employing six firms with ties to members of Congress and officials of the Obama White House. None of the other three solar panel manufacturers that eventually got federal loan guarantees spent a dime on lobbyists… Solyndra’s loan guarantee was the highest of the four companies…

Five lobbyists employed by the McBee group eventually worked on Solyndra’s behalf, including Michael Sheehy, a former top aide to Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader. Solyndra has paid McBee Consulting $340,000 since 2009…

Solyndra and its lobbyists continued to provide assurances to the White House and the Energy Department, which still could have stopped the flow of federal money…

The story might well be read in conjunction with yesterday’s Washington Post story, which stressed “questionable spending by management almost as soon as a federal agency approved a $535 million government-backed loan for the start-up… ‘Because of that infusion of money, it made people sloppy.’”