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March 31, 2016 4:12PM

Equality Run Amok — Women’s Soccer Version

The New York Times reports today that five key members of the US women’s national soccer team have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging U.S. Soccer, the private federation that oversees soccer in the United States, with wage discrimination. It seems that, on average (see the article for details), the federation pays women players considerably less than players on the men’s team, and that may be a problem under current law.

If Thomas Jefferson only knew what would follow from writing “All men are created equal.” What he meant, of course, was only that we all have equal rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and we’re free to pursue happiness however we think best. Most of us do that through voluntary association with others, which can result in all kinds of inequalities, yet violate the rights of no one. After all, whose rights are violated if Mia Hamm negotiates a salary with the team that is higher than a lesser player negotiates?

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March 31, 2016 2:43PM

Drug War Defeats Taxpayers

The federal government spends about $30 billion a year on the war on drugs. Much of the spending is wasteful and counterproductive. This week, for example, an auditor’s report revealed how the drug bureaucracy flushed $86 million down the drain on an anti‐​drug aircraft that was never used.


The Washington Post described this Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Department of Defense (DOD) boondoggle:

The plan was for DOD to modify a DEA plane to be used in counter‐​narcotics operations in a combat zone. … The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) determined “collectively, the DEA and DOD spent more than $86 million to purchase and modify a DEA aircraft with advanced surveillance equipment to conduct operations in the combat environment of Afghanistan, in what became known as the Global Discovery Program. We found that more than 7 years after the aircraft was purchased for the program, it remains inoperable, resting on jacks in Delaware, and has never flown in Afghanistan.”

The IG found that the “program has cost almost four times its original anticipated amount of $22 million.” Sadly, this sort of failure is par for the course when it comes to federal capital investments. 


Thank goodness for the IGs who uncover such waste, but what will come of these findings? Will anyone be fired? Will policymakers begin to rethink the drug war? Not yet it seems. When the Washington Post asked the DEA and DOD about the report, “the Pentagon did not reply and the DEA response was short boilerplate.”


For more on the government’s drug war, see Jeff Miron’s work here.

March 31, 2016 10:39AM

Federal Versus State Marijuana Law

Marijuana is now legal under the laws of four states and the District of Columbia, but not under federal law. And this creates huge headaches for marijuana businesses: 

Two years after Colorado fully legalized the sale of marijuana, most banks here still don’t offer services to the businesses involved.


Financial institutions are caught between state law that has legalized marijuana and federal law that bans it. Banks’ federal regulators don’t fully recognize such businesses and impose onerous reporting requirements on banks that deal with them.


Without bank accounts, the state’s burgeoning pot sector — 2,500 licensed businesses with revenue of $1 billion a year, paying $130 million in taxes — can’t accept credit or debit cards from customers, Colorado officials say.


Marijuana‐​related businesses instead use cash to pay their employees, purchase equipment or pay taxes to the state. Reports abound of business owners refurbishing retired armored bank trucks to transport money and hiring heavily armed security guards.

The best solution is repeal of federal prohibition. This is not on the policy table yet, but if more states legalize marijuana in November (at least five states are likely to vote on the issue), the pressure on federal policy might just hit the boiling point.

March 31, 2016 10:23AM

A Plant Pathogen that Can’t Take the Heat

Plant pathogens have long been a thorn in the side of the agricultural industry, reducing crop production between 10 – 16 percent annually and costing an estimated $220 billion in economic losses (Chakraborty and Newton, 2011). What is more, there are concerns that such damages may increase in the future if temperatures rise as predicted by global climate models in response to CO2‐​induced global warming. Noting these concerns, Sabburg et al. (2015) write that “to assess potential disease risks and improve our knowledge of pathogen strengths, flexibility, weakness and vulnerability under climate change, a better understanding of how pathogen fitness will be influenced is paramount.”


In an attempt to obtain that knowledge, the team of four Australian researchers set out to investigate the impact of rising temperatures on Fusarium pseudograminearum, the “predominant pathogen causing crown rot of wheat in Australia” that is responsible for inducing an average of AU$79 million in crop losses each year. More specifically, they examined “whether the pathogenic fitness, defined as a measure of survival and reproductive success of F. pseudograminearum causing crown rot in wheat, is influenced by temperature under experimental conditions.”


The experiment was conducted in controlled‐​environment glasshouses at the Queensland Crop Development Facility in Queensland, Australia, where eleven lines of wheat were grown under four day/​night temperature treatments (15/15°C, 20/15°, 25/15° and 28/15°C for 14‐​hour days and 10‐​hour nights). The first three treatments were representative of “the range of average maximum temperatures of the various wheat‐​growing regions across Australia,” whereas the fourth (28/15°C) treatment was intended to simulate a future warming scenario. The minimum temperatures of all treatments were kept at 15°C because “night‐​time temperatures over the last 50 years in the large majority of wheat‐​growing regions across Australia have not shown an increasing temperature trend in all seasons.” With respect to the eleven wheat lines, they were selected based on known susceptibilities and resistances to crown rot. Fourteen days after sowing a portion of each line was infected with F. pseudograminearum and then grown to maturity.


So what did the researchers find?


With respect to disease severity, Sabburg et al. report it was highest under the lowest temperature treatment and declined with increasing temperature (Figure 1a), and this general reduction was noted in all of the eleven wheat lines. Similarly, pathogen biomass was also reduced as treatment temperature increased (Figure 1b). According to the researchers, “on average, warming reduced pathogen biomass in stem base (PB‑S) by 52% at either 25/15°C or 28/15°C compared with the biomass at 15/15°C.” And it also decreased the amount of relative pathogen biomass from the stem base to flag leaf node. (The flag leaf is to top leaf on the plant.)


A third fitness measure of F. pseudograminearum — deoxynivalenol (also known as “vomitoxin,” for an obvious reason) content (DON) — was also reduced in the stem base and flag leaf node tissue as temperature treatment increased. And the significance of this finding was noted by the authors as “an encouraging result if we consider temperature rises in the future,” because “DON can make food sources including wheat grains unsafe for human or animal consumption.” That’s putting it mildly!

Figure 1. Effect of temperature on (Panel A) disease severity as expressed by the length of stem base browning (cm) and (Panel B) relative pathogen biomass in stem base (PB-S) and flag leaf node tissue (PB-F) as measured by Fusarium DNA relative to wheat DNA. All measurements in wheat plants were made at maturity following stem base inoculation by Fusarium pseudograminearum. Adapted from Sabburg et al. (2015).

Figure 1. Effect of temperature on (Panel A) disease severity as expressed by the length of stem base browning (cm) and (Panel B) relative pathogen biomass in stem base (PB‑S) and flag leaf node tissue (PB‑F) as measured by Fusarium DNA relative to wheat DNA. All measurements in wheat plants were made at maturity following stem base inoculation by Fusarium pseudograminearum. Adapted from Sabburg et al. (2015).

In light of the above results, Sabburg et al. conclude that “this study has clearly established that temperature influences the overall fitness of F. pseudograminearum,” and that “based on our findings, warmer temperatures associated with climate change may reduce overall pathogenic fitness of F. pseudograminearum.” And given the annual production and monetary damages inflicted by this pathogen on wheat, this is news worth both reporting and celebrating!


 


References


Chakraborty, S. and Newton, A.C. 2011. Climate change, plant diseases and food security: an overview. Plant Pathology 60: 2 – 14.


Sabburg, R., Obanor, F., Aitken, E. and Chakraborty, S. 2015. Changing fitness of a necrotrophic plant pathogen under increasing temperature. Global Change Biology 21: 3126 – 3137.


 

March 31, 2016 10:16AM

Can Competition ‘Make America Great Again’?

Many worry about international trade and the increased competition to which it leads, while overlooking trade’s incredible benefits. In a refreshing Wall Street Journal article, the founder and CEO of FedEx, Fred Smith, reflects on how trade and deregulation have improved American living standards over the course of his lifetime. He recalls how many luxuries enjoyed by few during his youth plummeted in price and became accessible to more people than ever before. 

“Foreign travel was exotic, expensive and rare among the population as a whole” during the 1960s, Smith reminds us. Industry deregulation and international Open Skies agreements changed that. “Long-distance telephone calls were expensive, international calls prohibitively so,” and cell phones did not even exist yet. “From furniture to TVs and appliances, and especially automobiles, American brands dominated consumer spending” across the United States, and were often out of reach to the less affluent. Then trade worked its magic: 

[Trade] has rewarded Western consumers with low-cost products that have substantially improved standards of living. [Today] Americans and Europeans don’t need to be affluent to afford cell phones, digital TVs, furniture and appliances.

The moral of Smith’s story is clear: competition, which trade and deregulation facilitate, has an extraordinary tendency to enhance efficiency and bring down prices.

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March 31, 2016 10:11AM

Big Win for MetLife and Other SIFIs

MetLife notched an important win this week, securing a ruling from a federal court that it is not a systemically important financial institution (SIFI) under Dodd-Frank. Like much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SIFI designation has been controversial since its introduction in 2010. The designation is intended to help the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC, another Dodd-Frank creation) to monitor companies whose demise could destabilize the country’s financial system. Putting aside the question of whether a group of regulators in Washington could see and stop a crisis more quickly than those in the trenches at the nation’s financial giants, the designation triggers a host of regulatory requirements that many companies would prefer to avoid. 

One of the most controversial aspects of the SIFI designation is its black box nature. There is no publicly available SIFI check-list. The rationale for following a more principles- than rules-based approach may be that the definition needs to remain flexible. Companies may be motivated to avoid the letter of such a rules-based approach without avoiding the spirit, leaving FSOC without the ability to monitor a company that, despite not triggering the SIFI designation, still poses a risk to the financial system. But this has left companies in a bind. The SIFI designation has real and substantial ramifications for any company that triggers it, but companies have been unable both to avoid designation and to challenge designation once applied.  It’s hard to argue that you don’t fit a certain definition if you don’t know what the definition is.

Of course, not all companies want to avoid SIFI status. Although some have argued that FSOC and other aspects of Dodd-Frank will prevent future bailouts, it seems naïve to think that the government could designate a company as a risk to the entire financial system and then sit idly by as it burns.  SIFI designation is a wink and a nod, all but assuring government support if the designated company founders in rocky times.

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March 31, 2016 9:12AM

Dodd‐​Frank and Capital, Revisited

My previous post, inquiring as to the actual impact of the Dodd-Frank Act on bank capital, elicited some comments, mainly in the form of tweets, from Dodd-Frank’s defenders.  Here are some of the issues raised, along with my response.

A tweet from former Schumer staffer and current law professor David Min suggests that, while my analysis referred to depositories, the real issue is consolidated bank holding companies.  I don’t think the distinction matters much, because the capital requirements in Section 2(o)(1) of the Bank Holding Company Act, mirror those in Section 38 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act, which I had discussed.  In any case the fact remains that bank regulators had more than sufficient authority before Dodd-Frank to set almost any capital standards they wanted, whether for bank holding companies or their depository subsidiaries.

That said, the question remains whether  bank holding companies’ capital levels  have in fact gone up since Dodd-Frank.  Let’s see.  In 2010, the year  Dodd-Frank was passed, the largest bank holding companies, on a consolidated basis, had a tier 1 leverage ratio of 9.05%.  By 2015 the ratio had risen to 9.69% — a mere 64 basis points.  Again, color me unimpressed.  Other leverage measures for holding companies show slightly different numbers, but the magnitudes are all similar.

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