201611

November 22, 2016 10:37AM

Airport Plan for Trump Administration

During the election campaign, Donald Trump complained that “our airports are like from a Third World country.” Indeed, America’s airports could be a lot better. The problem is that they are virtually all owned by governments and run as bureaucracies.

By contrast, many airports abroad are private and run in a more entrepreneurial fashion. Almost half of European Union airports have been privatized, including the main airports in Antwerp, Budapest, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lisbon, London, Birmingham, Brussels, Copenhagen, Naples, Rome, Venice, Vienna, and Zurich.

Robert Poole and I explore airport reforms in a new Cato study, “Privatizing U.S. Airports.” We examine the early history of U.S. airports, discuss global reform trends, explain the advantages of privatization, and describe the needed policy changes.

In the early years of commercial aviation, the major airports in numerous U.S. cities were privately owned. Unfortunately, government policies squeezed out the private airports over time. We can and should correct that mistake, and bring back the entrepreneurs to the airport industry.

We don’t know yet how transportation policies will shape up under the new president, but the incoming administration should know that airports and air traffic control are ripe for major reforms.

Airports are a crucial part of America’s infrastructure. Privatization would increase efficiency and innovation, and thus generate benefits to travelers and the broader economy.

November 22, 2016 10:26AM

Protectionist Steel Interests Given Keys to Trump’s Trade Policy Kingdom

“Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown.”

– Billy Joel, “Allentown,” 1982

Nearly 35 years after the release of Billy Joel's wistful lament about the decline of iconic Bethlehem Steel and the selfless virtues of America’s “Greatest Generation” along with it – the U.S. steel industry may be getting the last laugh. Yesterday, former Nucor Steel CEO Dan DiMicco and longtime Washington trade attorney Robert Lighthizer, who has devoted much of his professional career to building walls between foreign steel and the U.S. companies that want to buy it, were appointed heads of President-elect Trump's "Landing Team" at the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

To those who have been holding out hope that Trump’s anti-trade campaign bluster would moderate before it could be converted to policy, the selection of DiMicco and Lighthizer is pretty devastating news. Neither has met a tariff he didn’t like or a trade agreement he did. To the non-political staff at USTR, the DiMicco/Lighthizer duo must feel like a real poke in the eye. After all, the mission of the agency is “to work toward opening markets throughout the world to create new opportunities and higher living standards.” The staff is generally committed to trade liberalism and good will among nations and their sensibilities are informed by foreign service backgrounds.  DiMicco and Lighthizer bring an enforcement and prosecution ethos to the USTR, which will send a lot of the existing staff to the exits, while ensuring that the agency’s budget is devoted primarily to bringing complaints against our trade partners, rather than negotiating new and better deals.

Of course, Trump mistakenly cites the U.S. trade deficit as evidence that the United States is losing at trade.  We are losing, he bellows, because our trade agreements are disastrous. And, they are disastrous, he reasons, because U.S. negotiators always get outsmarted by their crafty foreign counterparts. What better way not to get outsmarted than to appoint people who would take a wrecking ball to existing agreements instead of crafting new ones?

For reasons unsupported by facts, DiMicco abhors the North American Free Trade Agreement and wants it shredded.  He also wants the United States to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which, yesterday, became one of Trump’s Day One priorities. Trump has been outspoken about his intentions to declare China a currency manipulator and to respond with punitive unilateral measures. To the extent that Trump’s actions are constrained by U.S. treaty commitments under the World Trade Organization, Lighthizer has a long history of challenging the veracity of the WTO dispute settlement system, which he claims embodies an anti-American bias. He has long advocated for closer scrutiny and, if warranted, U.S. withdrawal from the WTO.

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November 21, 2016 1:54PM

The Long Path to Director Cordray’s Removal

I have been vigorously recommending that President-elect Trump replace Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). I still think that replacing Director Cordray is necessary for reasons I’ve enumerated elsewhere; but on Friday the CFPB filed a petitionfor a rehearing of a recent and crucial case. So it’s time to talk about the legal hurdles President Trump will have to clear before he can install a new director. It is possible that there will be a long road ahead.

To understand these hurdles, we have to go back to the CFPB’s founding document, the Dodd-Frank Act. In Dodd-Frank, the Bureau was established as an independent agency. That means that although the President appoints the Director, and although that appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, the President’s ability to remove the director is very limited. Under Dodd-Frank, President Trump would be able to remove Director Cordray only for cause — e.g., for neglecting his duty or actual bad behavior. He would not be able to remove him because the two disagreed on policy or the direction the agency should take.

The rules for an independent agency can be contrasted with those for an executive agency, such as the Department of Justice or the Department of the Treasury. The Attorney General, for example, can be removed by the President at will. And there have been examples in the past when a cabinet member has resigned over policy disagreements with the sitting President.

The CFPB is not the only independent government agency. But it is unusual in that it is headed by a single individual. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, is an independent agency. Its Commissioners can be removed by the President only for cause. The Chair of that agency, however, serves as Chair at the President’s will. If President Obama wanted to remove the current Chair Mary Jo White, he could remove her from her position as Chair but could not prevent her continuing as a member of the Commission for the duration of her term.

All of this changed, however, last month when a federal appeals court ruled the CFPB’s structure unconstitutional. In that case, the court found that, unlike a multi-seat commission where commissioners must work together, there is no check on the Director’s power. The court ruled that, to cure the constitutional defect, the Director must serve at the will of the President. That is, the court said that the President can fire the Director for any reason at all, including a disagreement on policy.

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November 21, 2016 1:29PM

Supreme Court Takes on the Empire State’s Language Police

In Federalist 10, James Madison warned of “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” These groups—“factions” in Madison’s terms—come together to seek concentrated benefits from favorable legislation and regulation rather than competing in the marketplace, while spreading the costs throughout society.

While Madison conceded that such interests could not be stopped completely, he suggested that certain steps could be taken to mitigate the “effects” of these groups, and the damage that they can do to the public interest. The First Amendment is one such protection.

The New York legislature, however, ignored the First Amendment rights of both merchants and consumers when—at the behest of the credit-card lobby—it passed a law restricting how retailers can convey pricing schemes, as well as the public’s right to know about them. New York’s no-surcharge law—like those in 10 other states—insulate credit-card companies from consumer knowledge about who is actually causing the higher prices on goods when they use their credit card (“swipe fees”). The law does this not by restricting the merchants’ ability to charge different prices as between cash and credit payments—that’s legal everywhere—but by regulating the communications about the different prices.

To put it simply: the law allows merchants to offer “discounts” to cash-paying customers, but makes it a crime to impose economically equivalent “surcharges” on those who use plastic. By mandating how these merchants convey their pricing structure, New York is restricting speech on the basis of its content, which would seem to be an obvious First Amendment violation.

A federal district court agreed—as have two other federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit when it struck down a similar Florida law. The district court held that the law “plainly regulates speech”—not conduct—by drawing a line between prohibited “surcharges” and permissible “discounts” based solely on words and labels. The Second Circuit disagreed, however, holding that the law regulates “merely prices,” not speech. Cato filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take up this important case, and the Court has agreed to do so.

Along with the Pacific Legal Foundation, we have now filed another brief asking the Court to rule that collusion between business interests and state government can’t be used to circumvent constitutional rights. Indeed, the Framers sought to protect speech from the type of cronyism and rent-seeking the New York’s no-surcharge law manifests.

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November 21, 2016 1:14PM

Amtrak’s World‐​Class Losses

Amtrak issued its F.Y. 2016 unaudited financial results last week with a glowing press release claiming a "new ridership record and lowest operating loss ever." Noting that "ticket sales and other revenues" covered 94 percent of Amtrak's operating costs, Amtrak media relations called this "a world-class performance for a passenger carrying railroad." The reality is quite a bit more dismal.

Many new high-tech firms attract investors despite losing money, but a 45-year-old company operating an 80-year-old technology shouldn't really brag about having its "lowest loss ever." The "world-class performance" claim is based on the assumption that passenger trains all over the world lose money, which is far from true: most passenger trains in Britain and Japan make money, partly because they are at least semi-privatized.

Moreover, a close look at the unaudited report reveals that Amtrak left a lot of things out of its press release: passenger miles carried by Amtrak declined; ticket revenues declined; and the average length of trip taken by an Amtrak passenger declined. The main reasons for Amtrak's positive results were an increase in state subsidies (which Amtrak counts as passenger revenue) and a decrease in fuel and other costs.

Ridership grew by 1.3 percent, but passenger miles fell because the average length of trips fell by 3.1 percent. One of the biggest drops in trip lengths was on the New York-Savannah Palmetto. Starting at the beginning of F.Y. 2016, Amtrak added stops at Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton Junction, and Baltimore-Washington Airport, effectively turning the supposedly long-distance train into a Northeast Corridor train. In 2015, the train's average trip length was 396 miles, but in 2016 that dropped to 257 miles.

A decline in passenger miles means more empty seats. In 2015, Amtrak filled 51.4 percent of its seat-miles; in 2016, this fell to 50.0 percent. In other words, the average Amtrak train is half full; when was the last time you were on a half-full airliner? The biggest declines were on the Washington-Richmond state-supported train, the Seattle-Los Angeles Coast Starlight, and the Auto Train.

Some trains did show an increase in passenger miles. One of the biggest increases was the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State, which saw an 11 percent increase in passenger miles and a 16 percent increase in revenues. This train is supported by Indiana, which got fed up with Amtrak service and contracted it out to another operator, Iowa Pacific. Amtrak is a "partner" because it allows people to make reservations on the train from its web site. But the lesson may be that privatization (or semi-privatization) can result in bigger ridership gains than Amtrak.

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November 21, 2016 12:16PM

Fixing the Federal Budget Process

On Friday, the Heritage Foundation held a conference entitled “Budget Process Reforms in the Next Congress.” Paul Winfree organized the event and provided opening remarks.

The federal budget process is a mess. Congress does not pass bills on time, and then jams huge omnibus measures through at the last minute. Spending exceeds revenues by $600 billion a year and rising. Congress does not scrutinize programs to see whether the benefits actually outweigh the costs. And most of the budget grows on auto-pilot, allowing politicians to pretend that they are not responsible for the government’s massive debt.

I was on the first panel, which looked at budgeting lessons from other countries. Barry Poulson and John Merrifield discussed Switzerland’s “debt brake” and proposed that the U.S. federal government adopt a similar budget cap. Dan Mitchell also likes the Swiss debt brake. In my remarks, I agreed that a cap was a good idea, but argued that a simpler restraint would be better, such as a 3 percent annual growth limit on total outlays.

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What we really need is for Congress and incoming President Trump to focus on eliminating low-value programs. I provided evidence that politicians are capable of major spending cuts. In particular, Canada cut federal spending from 23 percent of GDP in the early 1990s to 14 percent by 2015. (Unfortunately, Canada has recently elected a government that seems to believe that deficit spending and debt helps the economy, despite the country’s own experience over two decades that shows the opposite).

On the second panel, former federal budget official Marcus Peacock described how federal agencies tend to maximize their costs, while private businesses focus on minimizing their costs and improving efficiencies. Fiscal restraint can lead to innovation, he argued.

On the third panel, Rick May and George Everly of the House and Senate Budget Committees, respectively, described Republican efforts to overhaul congressional budget procedures. Background materials on these efforts are here.

If you are interested in budget issues and enjoy free lunches, please attend our November 30 panel on Capitol Hill featuring Senator James Lankford. The senator will describe wasteful programs he found in the budget, and experts will discuss spending-cut opportunities during the Trump administration.

November 21, 2016 12:04PM

President‐​elect Trump

President-elect Donald Trump. That's a phrase I never expected to see. Like most Washingtonians, journalists, and political observers around the country, I never took his candidacy seriously. And now here we are, in thoroughly uncharted waters. I don't think we've ever had a president with less apparent knowledge of or interest in policy, which makes it difficult to assess the direction of policy over the next few years. The few issues that did seem to motivate Trump were strikingly unattractive from a libertarian perspective, notably his hostility to international trade and immigration.

Back in January I wrote this in a National Review symposium:

From a libertarian point of view—and I think serious conservatives and liberals would share this view—Trump’s greatest offenses against American tradition and our founding principles are his nativism and his promise of one-man rule.

Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign. Trump launched his campaign talking about Mexican rapists and has gone on to rant about mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, and building a wall around America. America is an exceptional nation in large part because we’ve aspired to rise above such prejudices and guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone. Equally troubling is his idea of the presidency—his promise that he’s the guy, the man on a white horse, who can ride into Washington, fire the stupid people, hire the best people, and fix everything. He doesn’t talk about policy or working with Congress. He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat. It’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.

Nothing much changed over the ensuing 10 months. Except that Trump won the election. He is now president-elect, and scholars and activists on all sides are waiting to see what his actual policies will be. Some of my friends are excited about the prospects for tax cuts, deregulation, repeal of Obamacare, the appointment of conservative or classical liberal Supreme Court justices, and a change in our interventionist foreign policy. Others—and sometimes the same people—worry about threats to world trade and an open society, religious tests, and a president who seems vindictive, inclined to conflate his private business with public affairs, and predisposed toward an authoritarian mindset.

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