From MSNBC to Cato — America’s Top Models

Next Sunday, MSNBC will feature a sort of townhall meeting on how great schools can pull kids out of poverty. Though headlined by Bill Cosby, perhaps the most electrifying panelist will be charter school principal Ben Chavis. On October 2nd at noon, you can come to Cato to see Ben live, and ask him how we can replicate his stunning success. Also joining us will be Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who’ll talk about the growing KIPP network of (now 82!) charter schools. Other than perhaps KIPP’s founders, nobody knows more about them than Jay. I’ll be simultaneously acting as cheerleader (I love these schools) and devil’s advocate (I’m skeptical that they can be brought to the masses within the charter sector).

To register, just visit the event page here:  “America’s Top Models: Can the Nation’s Best Charter Schools Be Brought to Scale?”

Incidentally, Ben has been called the most politically incorrect man in America, so Cato disavows all responsibility for any heads that explode during the course of his presentation.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Obama’s Tire Tariff Could Raise Prices by 20 to 30 Percent

President Obama’s decision to impose a 35 percent tariff on imported tires from China was not an act of statesmanship. The White House admitted as much by announcing its decision at 10 p.m. on Friday evening in order to minimize news coverage.

A few union leaders are cheering, but in just about every other way our country is worse off. Among the biggest losers will be low-income American families. The tariffs apply to lower-end tires that sell for $50 or $60 each, compared to $200 for higher-end tires. As The Wall Street Journal reported this morning:

The low end of the market will feel the impact of the tariff most, as U.S. manufacturers, who joined the Chinese in opposing the tariffs, have said it isn’t profitable to produce inexpensive tires in domestic plants.

“I think within the next 60 days you’ll see some pretty significant price increases,” said Jim Mayfield, president of Del-Nat Tire Corp. of Memphis, Tenn., a large importer and distributor of Chinese tires. He estimates prices for “entry-level” tires could increase 20% to 30%.

The anti-poor bias of U.S. tariffs is one of the themes of my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.  With his decision Friday, President Obama has revealed himself to be a friend of the status quo.

Monday Links

  • Burnt rubber: Obama’s decision to slap a 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires whiffs of senseless protectionism.

Reform Needed, but Obama Plan Would Result in More Financial Crises, not Less

Today President Obama took his financial reform plan to the airwaves.  While there is no doubt our financial system is in need of financial reform, the President’s plan would make bailouts a permanent feature of the regulatory landscape.  Rather than ending “too big to fail” – the President wants us to believe that with additional discretion and power, the same Federal Reserve that missed the boat last time will save us next time.

The truth is that the President’s plan will result in a small number of companies being viewed by debtholders as “too big to fail”.  These companies would see their funding costs decline, allowing them to gain market-share at the expense of their rivals, making these firms even larger.  Greater concentration in our financial services industry is the last thing we need, yet the Obama plan all but guarantees it.

Obama also chooses myth’s over facts.  The President claims that de-regulation and competition among regulators caused the crisis.  The facts could not be more different.  Those institutions at the center of the crisis – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman –could not choose their regulator.

The President’s plan chooses convenient targets and protects entrenched interests, rather than address the true underlying causes of the crisis.  At no time have we heard the President discuss the expansionary monetary policies that helped fuel the bubble.  Nor has the President talked about the global imbalances – the global savings glut that poured surplus savings from the rest of the world into the US.  But then the President appears to hope that loose monetary policy and continued American consumption funded by China will get him out of his own political problems with the economy.  It is especially striking that the President makes little mention of the housing bubble, as if it was only the bust that was the problem.

The President continues to say he inherited this crisis.  While true, he did not inherit the same individuals – Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke – who were at the center of creating the crisis.  All Obama needs to do is find a position for Hank Paulson and he will have completely re-assembled the Bush financial team.

Without real reform – fixing Fannie and Freddie, scaling back the massive subsidies for leverage in our tax code, loose monetary policy – it will only be a matter of time before the next crisis hits.  If we implement the President’s plan, we will, however, guarantee that the next crisis will be even larger and severe than the current one.

Fixing Detention in Afghanistan

The Obama administration is currently revising detainee procedures in Afghanistan. Bagram Airfield, located north of Kabul, is home for roughly 600 detainees. The Department of Defense plans to institute new review boards patterned on the ones at Guantanamo Bay, allowing detainees to challenge the basis of their detention and present evidence supporting their release.

The Bagram Theater Internment Facility has long used Unlawful Enemy Combatant Review Boards to determine who should remain in custody. These boards provided minimal process and, consequently, minimal ability to determine if the detainees were militants or intelligence operatives fighting the government. The detainee was not allowed to attend the hearing.

The shift in policy is an improvement, but a better model has been proposed by the Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson, Holding Terrorists Accountable: A Lawful Detainment Framework for the Long War. Stimson proposes that detention hearings follow the model used to determine the status of Salim Hamdan, Usama bin Laden’s driver. A military judge heard arguments for and against a finding that he was an unlawful enemy combatant, taking procedures for Hamdan’s appeal straight from Article V of the Geneva Conventions. This clearly meets American obligations under international law and decisions made in this forum are more likely to survive review in a federal court.

The change in policy also comes on the heels of a Marine General’s report that 400 of the 600 detainees in Bagram pose no threat to the Afghan government or to American forces. We did a better job with detention in Iraq, isolating hardcore foreign fighters, providing job training and community support to the local flunkies who took potshots at American forces for a quick buck, and prosecuting as many detainees as possible in the Iraqi Central Criminal Court.  We should follow a similar template in Afghanistan.

For related discussion of the merits of the American presence in Afghanistan, watch today’s policy forum at Cato, Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan? It streams live at noon today, featuring Malou Innocent, Ted Galen Carpenter, and Christopher Preble.

The Libertarian Case against the Google Book Search Deal

Five years ago, Google began scanning millions of books for inclusion in what eventually became Google Book Search. Google carefully designed the service to stay within the boundaries of copyright’s fair use provisions, at least as Google interpreted them. Still, some authors and publishers objected, and in 2005 they filed a lawsuit accusing Google of copyright infringement. The lawsuit dragged on for more than three years. Finally, in 2008, the parties announced a settlement of the lawsuit. Its text runs for 140 pages, not counting a secret termination clause available only to Google and its adversaries. The deadline for comments on the settlement was earlier this month, and on October 7 a federal judge must decide whether to approve or reject the settlement.

I was (and still am) firmly on Google’s side on the copyright claims at issue in the lawsuit. But the proposed settlement is another matter. The parties like to describe the agreement as a private agreement settling a legal dispute. But I agree with Librarian of Congress Marybeth Peters, who surprised almost everyone on Thursday when, testifying before Congress, she came out swinging against the agreement:

We realized that the settlement was not really a settlement at all, in as much as settlements resolve acts that have happened in the past and were at issue in the underlying infringement suits. Instead, the so-called settlement would create mechanisms by which Google could continue to scan with impunity, well into the future, and to our great surprise, create yet additional commercial products without the prior consent of rights holders. For example, the settlement allows Google to reproduce, display and distribute the books of copyright owners without prior consent, provided Google and the plaintiffs deem the works to be “out-of-print” through a definition negotiated by them for purposes of the settlement documents. Although Google is a commercial entity, acting for a primary purpose of commercial gain, the settlement absolves Google of the need to search for the rights holders or obtain their prior consent and provides a complete release from liability. In contrast to the scanning and snippets originally at issue, none of these new acts could be reasonably alleged to be fair use.

In the view of the Copyright Office, the settlement proposed by the parties would encroach on responsibility for copyright policy that traditionally has been the domain of Congress. The settlement is not merely a compromise of existing claims, or an agreement to compensate past copying and snippet display. Rather, it could affect the exclusive rights of millions of copyright owners, in the United States and abroad, with respect to their abilities to control new products and new markets, for years and years to come. We are greatly concerned by the parties’ end run around legislative process and prerogatives, and we submit that this Committee should be equally concerned.

The fundamental problem with the settlement is its audacious use of class action law. As my former colleague Mark Moller has argued, the aggressive use of class action law raises fundamental issues of fairness, due process, and the separation of powers. Rather than dozens of judges hearing individual cases and reaching judgments based on individual circumstances, class action law often asks a single judge to render justice on behalf of thousands of plaintiffs in a single decision. This arrangement opens the door to a whole host of potential problems. A single judge unlikely to have the knowledge required to render justice in thousands of individual cases simultaneously. And there’s a real danger that a nominally judicial proceeding will take on a fundamentally legislative character, reshaping the rights of thousands of people whose interests are not adequately represented by any of the parties before the judge.

This danger is especially acute in the Google Book Search case because of the incredibly broad scope of the class the plaintiffs purport to represent: all authors of books still under copyright in the United States. The settlement class doesn’t just include authors and publishers of still-in-print works, who are relatively easy to contact and can opt out of the settlement if they don’t like its terms. It also includes the copyright holders for millions of “orphan works” – works that are in copyright and whose authors cannot be located. These copyright holders are, by definition, difficult to find. The settlement effectively expropriates these absent parties for the benefit of Google and the large publishers leading the lawsuit.

The usurpation of the legislative function is especially clear in the case of orphan works because Congress has been actively considering legislation to deal with the orphan works problem. I have written in favor of an “orphan works” defense to copyright infringement. The leading orphan works proposals have two key features: they require prospective users of orphan works to make a good-faith effort to find rights-holders before using the works. And they are competitively neutral – everyone would have equal opportunity to use orphan works under the conditions set forth in the legislation.

The Book Search deal has neither characteristic. Using the legal fiction that the plaintiffs represent the interests of millions of absent copyright holders, the settlement would give Google carte blanch to use these orphan works without making a serious effort to contact their owners. This deprives some copyright holders of royalties to which they might otherwise be entitled. And it gives Google a permanent competitive advantage by giving Google an immunity to litigation that would not be available to competitors if they entered the same market. Not surprisingly, Google’s leading competitors, including Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon.com, have all urged the judge to reject the agreement.

Our system of government is based on the principle of the separation of powers. Congress, not the judicial branch, is responsible for making broad changes to rules of copyright. The Google Book Search settlement, if approved, would use the legal fiction of the class action lawsuit to re-write copyright law as it applies to the online book market. While the settlement includes some laudable provisions, it’s more important that the judge respect the separation of powers and reject the settlement.