June 2, 2011 9:46AM

The (Beginning of the) End of the Shameful U.S. Cotton Deal?

Heartening news from the Appropriations Committee yesterday: they voted to cut aid to farmers generally, and to make significant changes to an egregious cotton program. But first, some background.  You'll recall the embarrassing deal made by the Obama administration last year to head off Brazil's right to impede American exports in retaliation for WTO-illegal cotton support. The United States is, in other words, now sending almost $150m worth of "technical assistance" and "capacity building" funds to Brazil, just so we can continue to subsidize American cotton growers without penalty (so much for U.S. promotion of the rule of law in international commercial relations). Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) tried to end that deal earlier this year, but to no avail. Big Ag's friends in Congress argued, unfortunately successfully, that any changes to the cotton bribes should be dealt with in the context of the 2012 Farm Bill, and by the agriculture committees (good luck with that).

But yesterday, the Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to take the fiscal 2013 payment to Brazil from funds that would normally go to supporting U.S. cotton growers. According to an article [$] in the Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Flake argued that "American cotton growers should pay the bill since the United States was making the payment on their behalf." Well played, sir.  Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) filed an amendment that would send the FY2012 cotton payment to the Women's, Infants and Children nutrition program instead.

The Committee also voted to lower the income eligibility cap to $250,000 AGI.

The CQ article did contain this worrying footnote, however:

Support for the amendments may be tenuous — especially if lawmakers cannot hide behind the anonymity of a voice vote. After winning the voice vote in committee, Flake sought a roll call, prompting appropriators of both parties to suggest that he did not need the recorded vote. Flake took their advice and demurred.

 Leglislators are usually shy about publicizing their positions only when they think it could get them in political hot water, so let's not uncork the champagne yet.

November 10, 2010 2:55PM

“Dear Foreigners, You Do the Math” –USA

A brand new Harvard University study finds that American students perform very poorly in math compared to their peers in other nations.

What's that? You've heard this all before? Not quite.

This study compares the percentages of students scoring at advanced levels across countries, and it controls for the confounding effects of differing populations of disadvantaged groups. When the researchers looked exclusively at white students and at students with at least one parent with a college degree, the results remained largely the same. Among white students, for instance, 8 percent of Americans scored "advanced" in math, landing us in 25th place among nations for which scores were available--behind nearly every other advanced industrialized nation on Earth. And the highest ranked U.S. state, Massachusetts, trails the overall averages of 14 nations.

This may come as a shock to those who imagined that America's educational shortcomings were restricted to inner cities or disadvantaged populations, but it is entirely consistent with results reported more than a decade ago as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, showing that U.S. students taking advanced mathematics and physics classes lagged their peers in other industrialized nations at the end of high school, often by wide margins.

So how, then, have we remained an economic superpower for so long if our school system is so bad? The answer is that we have historically enjoyed one of the freest economies on Earth, a relatively unfettered labor market, and comparatively low taxes--all of which have drawn to our shores many of the world's best and brightest. Regrettably, our comparative advantage in those areas has eroded over the past several years.

Perhaps, instead of continuing to make our economy more like our failing centrally planned school monopoly, we should allow our education system to benefit from the freedoms and incentives of the marketplace that was always the engine of our prosperity....

May 20, 2010 5:11PM

U.S. Antidumping Régime Restrains U.S. Export Growth

In honor of World Trade Week—and for its decreed purpose of educating Americans about trade—this post is about U.S. trade policy working at cross-purposes with other policies or goals of the administration. So numerous are these examples of trade policy dissonance, that a committed wonk could devote an entire website to the task of documenting them.

If the administration were serious about making trade policy work—rather than just paying it lip service—it would compile its own exhaustive list of laws, regulations, policies, and practices that actually undermine its stated objectives of facilitating economic growth, investment, and job creation through expanded trade opportunities. Then, it would make the changes necessary to ensure that our policies are paddling in the same direction. But that is not happening—at least as far as I can see.

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May 20, 2010 3:10PM

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

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May 5, 2010 2:14PM

‘The Dumbest Terrorist In the World’?

Businessweek has a story quoting a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, Michael Wildes, speculating that Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, made so many mistakes (leaving his house keys in the car, not knowing about the vehicle identification number, making calls from his cellphone, getting filmed, buying the car himself) that he may be the "dumbest terrorist in the world." But Wildes can't accept the idea that an al Qaeda type terrorist would be so incompetent and suggests that Shahzad was "purposefully hapless" to generate intelligence about the police reaction for the edification of his buddies back in Pakistan.

Give me a break. This incompetence is hardly unprecedented. Three years ago Bruce Schneier wrote an article titled "Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot," describing the incompetence of several would-be al Qaeda plots in the United States and castigating commentators for clinging to image of these guys as Bond-style villains that rarely err.  It's been six or seven years since people, including me, started pointing out that al Qaeda was wildly overrated. Back then, most people used to say that the reason al Qaeda hadn't managed a major attack here since September 11 was because they were biding their time and wouldn't settle for conventional bombings after that success. We are always explaining away our enemies' failure.

The point here is not that all terrorists are incompetent -- no one would call Mohammed Atta that -- or that we have nothing to worry about. Even if all terrorists were amateurs like Shahzad, vulnerability to terrorism is inescapable. There are too many propane tanks, cars, and would-be terrorists to be perfectly safe from this sort of attack. The same goes for Fort Hood.

The point is that we are fortunate to have such weak enemies. We are told to expect nuclear weapons attacks, but we get faulty car bombs. We should acknowledge that our enemies, while vicious, are scattered and weak. If we paint them as the globe-trotting super-villains that they dream of being, we give them power to terrorize us that they otherwise lack. As I must have said a thousand times now, they are called terrorists for a reason.  They kill as a means to frighten us into giving them something.

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March 15, 2010 4:53PM

Drug Violence in Mexico

The apparent drug gang killings of U.S. consular employees this weekend in Juarez, Mexico are a bloody reminder that President Obama is getting the United States involved in yet another war it cannot win. Drug gang killings also occurred in Acapulco, with a total of 50 such fatalities nationwide over the weekend.

Unfortunately, Obama has responded to the latest incident by following the same failed strategy as his predecessors when confronted with drug war losses: a stronger fight against drugs.

Though the deaths are the first in which Mexican drug cartels appear to have so brazenly targeted and killed individuals linked to the U.S. government, illicit drug trade violence has killed some 18,000 people in Mexico since President Calderon came to power in December 2006—more than three times the number of American military personnel deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The carnage only shot up after Calderon declared an all-out war on drug trafficking upon taking office. After more than three years, the policy has failed to reduce drug trafficking or production, but it is weakening the institutions of Mexican democracy and civil society through corruption and bloodshed, which are the predictable products of prohibition.

The 29 people killed in drug-related violence this weekend in a 24 hour period in the state of Guerrero sets a dubious record for a Mexican state. And an increasing number of Mexicans, including former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, are calling for a thorough rethinking of anti-drug policy in Mexico and the United States that includes legalization. Legalization would significantly reduce drug cartel revenue and put an end to an enormous black market and the social pathologies that it creates.

March 4, 2010 12:57PM

Will Taxing Foreign Visitors Promote Tourism?

President Obama is taking a break today from promoting a more federalized health-care system to sign a bill creating a federalized tourist promotion campaign.

In a closed ceremony at the White House, the president signed the Travel Promotion Act. After gaining final passage by the Senate last week, the bill will raise an estimated $200 million a year by imposing a $10 tax on visitors to the United States from countries where they are not required to obtain a visa. The revenue will be used to create and fund a new agency, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, that would work with the U.S. tourism industry to promote the United States as a global travel destination.

I’m all for promoting tourism to the United States. Tourism is an important “service export” that generates more than $100 billion a year in earnings from foreign travelers to the United States. But a new federal agency and a new tax on travel are not the right way to drum up more tourism business.

First, just on principle, promoting a particular industry should be the business of that industry, not the business of government. Americans also export billions of dollars worth of farm goods, semiconductors, machinery, aircraft, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals, along with financial, education, insurance, and other services. None of those industries deserves their own tax-financed promotion board either. If the payoff from promotion is so huge, the industry should be willing to bear its cost without the aid of the government.

More practically, it goes against basic economic logic to promote tourism to the United States by imposing new costs on tourists. Granted, $10 is not a large amount, but the demand curve for tourism is downward sloping - as it is in every other market. A higher price will lead to less demand, not more. As a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association told ABC News:

It's absolutely counterintuitive. To us, we're saying we'd love to see more people visit the United States, but we're going to charge you more for the privilege of entering the country. We are in favor of increased tourism and visitation... but let's look at our priorities. We don't think that videos and billboards are necessarily a priority. Instead, we should be focusing on how to make customs and immigration easier for people.

As I argued in a previous post, the U.S. government should be doing more to keep dangerous people off  flights to the United States instead of making it even more difficult for perfectly harmless tourists and business travelers to get on those same flights.