Tag: politicians

Trade Can Help the Poor Escape Poverty

Professor William Easterly, the economic development expert from New York University, has written an excellent comment for the Financial Times online. He writes, “The Millennium Development Goals [summit that wraps up in NY today] tragically misused the world’s goodwill to support failed official aid approaches to global poverty and gave virtually no support to proven approaches. … But current experience and history both speak loudly that the only real engine of growth out of poverty is private business, and there is no evidence that aid fuels such growth.”

At the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, we have continuously emphasized the power of trade to help the poor escape poverty. Unfortunately, politicians in rich countries find it easier to waste billions of taxpayers’ dollars in the form of foreign aid than to take on special interests that thrive on trade protectionism; hence European and American agricultural tariffs and subsidies.

However, the impact of rich countries’ protectionism should not be exaggerated. African countries are typically more protectionist than rich countries. In fact, they are more protectionist against one another than against rich countries. The sad truth is that poor countries are perfectly able to shoot themselves in the foot by following growth-killing economic policies – irrespective of what the rich countries do.

Foreign aid, incidentally, has been ineffective at promoting liberalization.

The Fraud From Basel

Despite every major US bank being declared by regulators as “well capitalized” prior to the financial crisis, we still found ourselves watching the government plow hundreds of billions of capital into said banks.  How can this be?  The answer is quite simple:  we were lied to.  Maybe that’s a little harsh, after all these banks did meet the regulatory definition of “well capitalized”.  But when push came to shove, market participants rightly ignored regulatory capital.  After all you cannot use things like “deferred tax losses” to pay your bills with.

It is hard to improve upon Martin Wolf’s observation in today’s Financial Times:  “This amount of equity is far below levels markets would impose if investors did not continue to expect governments to bail out creditors in a crisis.”  This point is best illustrated by the trend in bank capital over the last 100 years.  Back when banks were actually subject to market forces and were not explicitly subjected to government capital standards, they held significantly more capital.   In 1900 the average US bank capital ratio was close to 25%, now it’s closer to 5%.  The trend is unmistakable:  the more government has regulated bank capital, the less capital banks have ended up holding.

Despite the claims of the banking industry, what the bank regulators have just delivered with “Basel III” is simply another fraud upon the public and investors.  Any framework that continues to treat say Greek or Fannie Mae debt as largely risk-free is a sham.

The real solution is to first end the various government bailouts, guarantees and subsidies behind the banking system, subjecting bank creditors to actual losses, while also abandoning the charade that is capital regulation.   Sadly politicians (see the Dodd-Frank Act) and regulators continue to simply tweak a flawed and morally bankrupt system.

“Either the Most Honest Politician in the World or the Most Opportunistic”

Paul Waldie at Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports on the case of Mike Reilly, who (unsuccessfully so far) has sought to write off as tax expenses the costs of campaigning for local office in a suburb of Vancouver. Reilly told a tax court that there was nothing idealistic about his quest for government office: he wanted “to earn a good salary and promote his business,” raising the visibility of his development company. Lawyers for the Canada Revenue Agency insisted that Reilly wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of running unless he had cared about at least some public issues, but he disputed that:

“You know, I don’t recall being passionate about any issues other than seizing an opportunity to step in and develop a better profile for myself,” Mr. Reilly replied. “No. It was strictly business for me.”

The tax judge ruled against Reilly based on accounting issues but accepted his general contention that he “was not passionate about any issue except increasing his own profile and earning the salary of mayor,” noting that the candidate “did not listen to the citizens of Delta and did not appear to have much interest in their concerns.” If all politicians had to tell the truth, how many similar confessions might we hear?

Your Health Insurance, Designed by Lobbyists

Christopher Weaver of Kaiser Health News has an excellent article in today’s Washington Post on the various government agencies that will now be deciding what health insurance coverage you must purchase, and how many of those decisions will ultimately fall to lobbyists and politicians:

For years, an obscure federal task force sifted through medical literature on colonoscopies, prostate-cancer screening and fluoride treatments, ferreting out the best evidence for doctors to use in caring for their patients. But now its recommendations have financial implications, raising the stakes for patients, doctors and others in the health-care industry.

Under the new health-care overhaul law, health insurers will be required to pay fully for services that get an A or B recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force…[which] puts the group in the cross hairs of lobbyists and disease advocates eager to see their top priorities – routine screening for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes or HIV, for example – become covered services.

And it’s not just the USPSTF that will be deciding what coverage you must purchase:

[P]lans must also cover a set of standard vaccines recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as well as screening practices for children that have been developed by the Health Resources and Services Administration in conjunction the American Academy of Pediatrics. Health plans will also be required to cover additional preventative care for women recommended under new guidelines that the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue by August 2011.

The chairman of the USPSTF says the task force will try “to stay true to the methods and the evidence… the science needs to come first.”  A noble sentiment, but as my colleague Peter Van Doren likes to say, “When politics and science conflict, politics wins.”  Witness how industry lobbyists have killed or neutered every single government agency that has ever dared to produce useful comparative-effectiveness research.  (You’re next, Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute!)

When government agencies are making non-scientific value judgments–e.g., are these studies reliable enough to merit an A or B recommendation? what should be the thresholds for an A or B recommendation? will the benefits of mandating this coverage outweigh the costs?–politics does even better.  Witness Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md) overruling a USPSTF recommendation when she “inserted an amendment in the [new] health-care law to explicitly cover regular mammograms for women between 40 and 50. “

Speaking of value judgments, the one flaw in Weaver’s article is that it inadvertently conveys a value judgment as if it were fact.  He writes that the mandate to purchase coverage for preventive services is “good news for patients” and that 88 million Americans “will benefit.”  Whether the mandate is good news for patients depends on whether patients value the added coverage more than the additional premiums they must pay.  (The administration estimates that premiums for affected consumers will rise an average of 1.5 percent.  One insurer puts the average cost at 3-4 percent of premiums.  Naturally, some consumers will face above-average costs.)  Whether the benefits outweigh the costs is ultimately a subjective determination. (The best way to find out, as it happens, is to let consumers make the decision themselves.)

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

The Mote in Paul Krugman’s Eye

Paul Krugman says libertarianism is not a serious political philosophy because politicians are corruptible, do stupid things, et cetera.  My colleagues Aaron Powell and David Boaz demonstrate why that’s a bigger problem for Krugman than for libertarians: Krugman’s statism wouldn’t make politicians any less ignorant or corruptible, it would just give those ignorant and corruptible politicians more power.

I made the same point to Krugman during a health care debate.  He complained that Republicans complain that government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove themselves correct.  (It’s a good line, but I think he stole it from P.J. O’Rourke.)  I responded, “Unless you have a plan to abolish Republicans, they’re part of your plan. Maybe we can put them in camps?”  Krugman seems impervious to the point.

Slippery Standards Slope

The draft national curricular standards released yesterday, as I wrote earlier, will in all likelihood do little or no educational good if adopted. They’ll either be ignored or, if hard to meet, dumbed-down.

That said, the really troubling question is not whether the standards will do any good, but whether they will do much harm.

The answer: Oh, they’ll do harm. They’ll move us one step closer to complete centralization of education, which portends many potentially bad things, from total special-interest domination to even more wasteful spending.

Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that complete centralization – meaning, federalization – will lead to nationwide conflict over what the schools should teach, much as we are seeing in Texas right now and witnessed in the 1990s, the last time Washington tried to push “voluntary” national standards. Back then national standards in several subjects were proposed, and a national firestorm was set off over what they did, and did not, contain.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative folks clearly learned from the nineties experience, assiduously avoiding even the appearance of mandating the reading of specific literary works and focusing instead on skills. (The draft standards include a lot of reading exemplars but don’t require knowledge of any specific literary pieces). As a result, the response so far seems much less heated than occurred in the nineties, though critiques of the proposed standards certainly do exist. Once control over language arts skills and mathematics is fully centralized, however, can we really expect specific content standards in literature and other subjects to be left entirely to states and districts?

It seems unlikely: Once Washington connects receipt of federal funding to performance on national standards for some subjects, it is very likely to expand into others. After all, aren’t science, history, and other topics as important as reading and math?

“Promoting” science is a huge favorite of federal politicians, so it’s certainly hard to imagine science – and the freighted questions about human origins and climate change that go with it – not becoming a target for nationalization. Similarly, since many public schooling advocates argue that we must have government schools to create good citizens, it’s hard to envision the controversy-laden subjects of history and civics not entering the sites of federal politicians.  And when they do, we can either expect the sparks to fly, or the standards that are set to be so milquetoast as to be meaningless.

Wait. Am I being overly alarmist about this, trying to start a trumped-up slippery-slope scare to undermine the current national standards push?

Nope. National standards supporters are already talking about targeting science and history. For instance, in the forward to International Lessons about National Standards, a recent report from the national-standards-loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute, it is written about the CCSSI:

Our authors would prefer for science to be included in this first round, and we’d like to get to history sooner rather than later.

And Fordham is not alone. Indeed, the CCSSI folks have already been talking about creating national science and social studies standards!

When should all kids learn evolution, if at all? How much Hispanic history should students know? How many Founding Fathers should high school grads be able to identify? What caused the Civil War? Is global warming a major threat? Are we a Christian nation? How these and numerous other bitterly contested questions will officially be answered will suddenly have to be duked out by every American, and the winners will get to dictate to the entire nation.

So the language arts and math standards revealed yesterday are, almost certainly, just the camel’s nose under the tent.  Unfortunately, that means the whole destructive beast isn’t far behind.