Archives: 12/2018

A New Brexit Referendum Would Indeed Be A Betrayal of The First

Ilya Somin offers a typically thoughtful case for why a second Brexit referendum would not be a betrayal of the 2016 result. His argument, as I read it, is this: Theresa May’s likely defeat on her dreadful proposed Withdrawal Agreement grants an opportunity to reassess the wisdom of leaving the EU. Given a referendum was the means of making the decision to leave, a referendum is a perfectly legitimate mechanism to test whether the public still wants to. Ergo, deciding to ultimately Remain in a second referendum would not betray the result of the first vote.

I disagree.

A second referendum so soon would violate the U.K.’s convention of having one-off constitutional referendums, the results of which are respected for a generation. The U.K. has had major referendums in the past on remaining within the European Economic Community (1975), changing the general election voting system (2011), deciding whether Northern Ireland should join the Republic of Ireland (1973), and Scottish Independence (2014). The results of all these constitutional decisions have been implemented without discussion of the need to check again whether people really meant to vote as they did. In the case of the EU, the gap between the EEC vote and 2016 was 41 years.

That is why, in the government leaflet that was sent to all households during the referendum campaign urging people to vote remain, the government promised to implement the result. It told the public “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” The implication was clear: the vote would be respected and delivered upon. And the result was clear: people wanted to leave the EU. Reassessing now would be an explicit breach of that promise.

Today’s Drug Abusers Did Not Derive From Yesterday’s Patients

We learned last week that the 2017 drug overdose numbers reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly show most opioid-related deaths are due to illicit fentanyl and heroin, while deaths due to prescription opioids have stabilized, continuing a steady trend for the past several years. I’ve encouraged using the term “Fentanyl Crisis” rather than “Opioid Crisis” to describe the situation, because it more accurately points to its cause—nonmedical users accessing drugs in the dangerous black market fueled by drug prohibition—hoping this will redirect attention and lead to reforms that are more likely to succeed. But the media and policymakers remain unshakably committed to the idea that the overdose crisis is the product of greedy pharmaceutical companies manipulating gullible and poorly-trained doctors into over-prescribing opioids for patients in pain and ensnaring them in the nightmare of addiction.

As a result, most of the focus has been on pressing health care practitioners to decrease their prescribing, imposing guidelines and ceilings on daily dosages that may be prescribed, and creating surveillance boards to enforce these parameters. These guidelines are not evidence-based, as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb seems to realize, and have led to the abrupt tapering of chronic pain patients off of their medication, making many suffer desperately. An open letter by distinguished pain management experts appeared last week in the journal Pain Medicine criticizing current policies for lacking a basis in scientific evidence and generating a “large-scale humanitarian issue.” 

Current policy has brought high-dose prescriptions down 41 percent between 2010 and 2016, another 16.1 percent in 2017, and another 12 percent this year. Yet overdose deaths continue to mount year after year, up another 9.6 percent in 2017.

One might expect the obvious prevalence of heroin and illicit fentanyl among overdose deaths would make policymakers reconsider the relationship between opioid prescribing, nonmedical use, and overdose deaths. The data certainly support viewing the overdose crisis as an unintended consequence of drug prohibition: nonmedical users preferred to use diverted prescription opioids and, as supplies became tougher to come by in recent years, the efficient black market responded by filling the void with cheaper and more dangerous heroin and fentanyl.

Central Bank Digital Currency Threatens Financial Privacy and Economic Growth

Various proposals for “central bank digital currency” (CBDC) have been under discussion for several years now. The central bank of Ecuador launched a digital currency in 2015 — and shut down the failed project three years later. A number of economists have addressed the topic.

What is a CBDC? It is a payment medium that would be denominated in the established fiat money unit, not in any new unit. There are two main models: (1) a digital token that, like traditional coins and currency notes, and like Bitcoin, passes peer-to-peer without going through the interbank clearing system, presumably validated by a distributed-ledger blockchain system; and (2) account balances that individuals and businesses can directly hold on the books of the central bank, retail versions of the balances that commercial banks presently hold there for interbank payments. The latter model is not really properly called a currency, being a deposit-transfer system, but it is put under the “digital currency” umbrella because it resembles fiat currency notes in being a liability of the central bank, and as such a “final” means of payment, and because transactions would settle nearly instantly on a single balance sheet.[1]

The debate over CBDCs was recently revived by the IMF’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde in a speech suggesting, rather tentatively, that central banks should consider issuing some kind of digital currency so as to keep up with the times. (Why on earth the IMF continues to exist, long after the demise of the Bretton Woods system that it was created to support, is a question for another time.)

Three Basic Principles for Immigration Reform

I have previously described in detail the reforms that America’s immigration system needs. In this post, I want to highlight what I think the general principles behind those reforms should be. Three basic principles should guide immigration reform: openness, equal treatment, and flexibility. Reform should make America more open to immigrants, should treat all immigrants equally as individuals, and should be flexible enough to respond automatically to changes in the economy or society.

1) Openness to new immigrants. Reform should make it easier to immigrate legally, not more difficult. This pillar protects the rights of Americans to associate, contract, and trade with people born in other countries. These people might be their family members, friends, employees, or employers, but ultimately, restrictions on immigration are restriction on the liberty of Americans. Reform should recognize the presumptive right—overcome only for very good reasons—of Americans to freely interact with foreigners on U.S. soil.

Of course, the freedom to associate across borders also benefits Americans—even those who don’t participate directly with the immigration system—by expanding the pool of employees, consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs who produce goods and provide services that improve the quality of life of all Americans. The social capital that immigrants bring with them makes America a stronger, safer country. Immigrants marry, have children, and participate in religious groups at higher rates than the U.S.-born population, and it is precisely for these reasons that they have much lower rates of criminality.

As a practical matter, there are many ways to move toward a more open immigration system. My list of reforms gives specific examples. But here is a general blueprint: grant indefinite work visas to anyone with a job in the United States, confer legal permanent residency on anyone who works for 5 years, and remove the quotas on green cards for immediate family members—adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens as well as spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents.

Should the Fed Raise Rates Now to Combat Future Recessions?

Many macreconomists believe that the Fed needs to keep raising rates now so it can lower them in future to combat a recession.  See, for example, my colleague Martin Feldstein’s recent op-ed in the WSJ.

I have always been puzzled by this argument; it seems to assume an asymmetry in the effects of raising versus lowering rates. 

Specifically, if raising rates now will hurt the economy just as much as lowering them later will help, why is the net effect beneficial? To a first approximation, one might expect a symmetric effect, which makes the standard case for higher rates now unconvincing.