Negotiating Trade with China

The meetings today and tomorrow between President Trump and President Xi in Florida are unlikely to delve deeply into substantive policy issues.  Rather, the focus will be on establishing a good relationship between the two leaders, in order to lay the foundation for future cooperation.  Trade and security tensions between the two countries will be discussed, but probably only in broad terms.

But difficult talks on the substance of these issues are inevitable. The question is how to approach the disagreements most productively.

On trade, there have been long-standing concerns from U.S. industry about a number of Chinese trade practices (including allegations of intellectual property theft, high tariffs, discriminatory regulations, non-commercial behavior by state-owned companies, and overcapacity in the production of steel and other goods).  To date, the U.S. government approach to addressing these concerns has consisted largely of litigation at the WTO, trade remedy cases (mainly anti-dumping and countervailing duties), and high-level dialogues between the two governments, but these actions have failed to resolve most of the concerns.  Litigation at the WTO can be helpful, but only in those areas where the WTO has rules, and there are many gaps in those rules; trade remedy cases impose tariffs that harm Americans, and do little to resolve the underlying problems with Chinese trade practices; and the dialogues tend to be broad, vague, and unenforceable.

The Trump administration has hinted at adding new unilateral trade restrictions into the mix (beyond trade remedy cases), but such measures are likely to lead to retaliation by China, which could escalate the current tensions into a tit-for-tat trade war.  If that happens, the big losers will be ordinary Americans and Chinese who would feel the brunt of any tariff increases.

In a Free Trade Bulletin published yesterday, my colleague Huan Zhu and I argue that a better approach to these issues would be to sit down with China and negotiate a formal trade agreement to deal with as many of these issues as possible.  For example, with regard to existing tariff levels, the two countries could agree to an across the board lowering of tariffs, a standard feature of trade agreements.

There will be a number of political obstacles to such a negotiation, and don’t expect any big announcement about it at the Trump-Xi meeting.  But as the U.S. government develops its trade policy over the coming months, it may begin to realize the limitations of the alternative approaches to addressing concerns about China.  Trump administration officials have emphasized that the trade deals it negotiates will be bilateral, rather than multilateral.  Why not try to negotiate a bilateral agreement with China, one of our biggest trading partners, and the one that is the source of so many trade concerns?

Topics:

Puerto Rico Continues to Ignore Congress

Puerto Rico came to Congress last year because it desperately needed some sort of help: after a decade of deficit financing, it is now $72 billion in the hole. It owes much of that money to traditional individual investors and savers across the United States, who have lent it money over the last decade, and even more to current and future pensioners.

The law that Speaker Ryan pushed through Congress, PROMESA, was meant to be that help. It provided the island’s government with breathing room to get its fiscal act together and authorized an Oversight Board to oversee its finances and–crucially–give it the political cover to make difficult decisions and negotiate with its many creditors.

Unfortunately, neither the government nor the Oversight Board have followed the law and, as a result, it looks destined to fall short of meeting its goals of restoring fiscal responsibility on the island and returning Puerto Rico to the capital markets.

To date, neither the Board nor the Puerto Rican government has had discussions with its creditors on the either the development of the fiscal plan or any process for debt negotiations. Instead, their activities have culminated in the Oversight Board certifying a fiscal plan from the Commonwealth that falls short of–or outright ignores–requirements in PROMESA. The plan does relatively little to reform what’s broken in the Puerto Rico government, including wayward spending and bloated pension system, and instead achieves short-run fiscal solvency via significant haircuts for the creditors that, in violation of the statute, do not comport with the lawful or constitutional priority of Puerto Rico’s obligations.

In response, a group of creditors that owns over $13 billion of the island’s debt recently sent a letter to the members of the island’s Oversight Board asking it to reject the government’s fiscal plan. The signees are a diverse group, including general obligation bondholders, COFINA bondholders, a bond insurer, and others who do not always share the same perspective. However, they all agree that the plan is so flawed it cannot be considered a serious starting place for debt negotiations. Key among their objections is that the fiscal plan clearly violates PROMESA by both ignoring the law’s explicit call that it “respect the lawful priorities or lawful liens” that exist. The plan does this both by making debt subordinate to every single other government expense and by muddying the clear seniority of the various different creditor groups.

Some bondholders are clearly senior. For instance, the island’s constitution promises that the government will use “all available resources” to pay the holders of general obligation bonds before anyone else. That assurance allowed Puerto Rico to borrow that money at a low-interest rate relative to riskier revenue-backed bonds.

Others expect dedicated revenue pledges to be respected. For instance, COFINA bonds, created to offer deficit borrowing capacity beyond the constitutional limit on general obligation debt, are backed by revenue generated by the island’s sales tax. Whether that diversion of resources was legal remains to be seen, but Puerto Rico managed to increase its borrowing capacity by promising these bondholders first dibs on this revenue stream.

Protect Your Privacy and Save Money by Telling NHTSA No to the Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications Mandate

Comments on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s proposed vehicle-to-vehicle communications mandate are due next on Wednesday, April 12. This is one of the rules that was published just before President Trump was inaugurated. If approved, it will be one of the most expensive vehicle safety rules ever, adding around $300 dollars to the price of every car, or (at recent car sales rates) well over $5 billion per year. 

Despite the high cost, the NHTSA predicts the rule will save no more than 31 lives in 2025, mainly because it will do little good until most cars have it. Yet even by 2060, after consumers have spent well over $200 billion so that virtually all cars would have it, NHTSA predicts it will save no more than 1,365 lives per year. 

The danger is not that it will cost too much per life saved but that mandating one technology will inhibit the development and use of better technologies that could save even more lives at a lower cost. The technology the NHTSA wants to mandate is known as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), a form of radio. Yet advancements in cell phones, wifi, and other technologies could do the same thing better for less money and probably without a mandate.

For example, your smartphone already has all the hardware needed for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Since more than three-fourths of Americans already have smartphones, mandating similar technology in new cars is redundant. Since that mandate will take more than a decade to have a significant impact on highway safety, NHTSA could see faster implementation using smartphones instead. It could do so by developing an app that could communicate with cars and provide extra features on the app that would encourage people to download and use it.  

All of the benefits claimed for the DSRC mandate assume that no other technology improvements take place. In fact, self-driving cars (which will work just as well with or without vehicle-to-vehicle systems) will greatly reduce auto fatalities, rendering the projected savings from vehicle-to-vehicle communications moot.

A mandate that one technology be used in all cars also opens the transportation system to potential hackers. The communications would necessarily be tied to automobile controls, which means that anyone who understands it could take control of every car in a city at once. If individual manufacturers were allowed to develop their own technologies, the use of multiple systems would make an attack both more difficult and less attractive.

There is also a privacy issue: vehicle-to-vehicle also means infrastructure-to-vehicle communications, raising the possibility that the government could monitor and even turn off your car if you were doing something it didn’t like, such as drive “too many” miles per year. That’s a very real concern because the Washington legislature has mandated a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. Oregon and possibly other states have passed similar rules.

Comments on the proposed rule can be submitted on line or mailed to:

Docket Management Facility, M–30
U.S. Department of Transportation
West Building, Ground Floor, Rm. W12–140
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE.
Washington, DC 20590.

New York Times Article Misleads on British Rail Privatization

British commentator Owen Jones was published yesterday by the New York Times, with a piece entitled “Why Britain’s Trains Don’t Run on Time: Capitalism.” I’ve learned through experience not to judge articles by headlines, but this one seems especially curious, given 89.1 per cent of trains were, in fact, on time in 2015/16—a figure that has improved somewhat since 1997, just a couple of years after some of British Rail was part-privatized.

Yet aside from the bizarre opening assertion we might judge the state of a nation by how the railways run, the purpose of the article and headline soon becomes clear: to push the case for the British left’s hobby horse—full renationalization of Britain’s rail industry.

The hook this time is the dreadful ongoing dispute that has been rumbling for almost a year between Southern Rail and the rail unions, resulting in the substantial strike action Jones cites. For those uninitiated, the dispute mainly centers around a proposed business decision by Southern rail (a train operating company granted the running of trains between London and the south coast by government) to reassign the duty of operating train doors from conductors to the train driver, allowing onboard conductors to focus solely on dealing with passengers. The unions fear this because they believe it will render the role of conductors obsolete, and reduce their power. The reason is simple. If drivers control the doors, conductor strikes will no longer be able to bring down whole services.

Yet rather than judge the strikes on this naked self-interest, Jones suggests that somehow they are a consequence of privatization and of letting “market ideology into key public services.” He then throws everything but the kitchen sink at private involvement in the railways, implying that privatization is responsible for high prices, underinvestment, substantial government subsidy, and inefficiency.

For some commentators, particularly on the left of the UK’s political spectrum, increasing prices and the fact that privatized companies make profits are evidence enough that the blame for rising costs to consumers can be laid squarely at the door of privatization itself. Jones’ article is the latest in a long line of misleading, potted histories, which utilize any problems as a hook to push for public ownership.

To understand why the article is misleading, one needs to consider what “privatization” of the railways in Britain actually entailed. Virtually all of the UK’s rail network was privately built and operated for more than 100 years before its nationalization following World War II. But the 1995 reforms did not return to this framework. Instead, the government imposed a top-down model of separating track and train, with the former kept nationalized and operation of the latter franchised out on a regional basis, such that firms could compete to operate a line for a set contracted period. This was supposedly to deal with the natural monopoly problem, but in reality fragmenting the sector eliminated potential economies of scale and scope, whilst introducing additional transactions costs. The train operating companies, who run the franchises, remain heavily regulated, having to meet certain government conditions and being very restricted in many cases on pricing.

More Fun with Not-so-Dumb Organisms and the U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change

Last time around, we brought forth evidence against organismal “dumbness”—the notion that species found only in defined climatic environments will go extinct if the climate changes beyond their range. We picked on cute little Nemo, and “found,” much like in the animation, that his kind (Amphiprion ocellaris) could actually survive far beyond their somewhat circumscribed tropical reef climate.

The key was the notion of plasticity—the concept that, despite being linked to a fixed genetic compliment, or genotype, the products of those genes (the “phenotype”) changed along with the environment, allowing organisms some degree of insurance against climate change. How this comes about through evolution remains a mystery, though we may occasionally indulge in a bit of high speculation.

“Science,” according to the late, great philosopher Karl Popper, is comprised of theories that are capable of making what he called “difficult predictions.” The notion that gravity bends light would be one of those made by relativity, and it was shown to be true by Sir Arthur Eddington in the 1919 total solar eclipse. It just happened to be in totality in the Pleiades star cluster (also the corporate logo of Subaru), and, sure enough, the stars closest to the eclipsed sun’s limb apparently moved towards it when compared to their “normal” positions.

So we have been interested in a truly difficult test of phenotypic plasticity, and we think we found one.

How about a clam that lives in the bottom of the great Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica? Specifically, the burrowing clam Laternula elliptica. According to a recent (2017) paper by Catherine Waller of the University of Hull (in the, perhaps temporarily, United Kingdom) “75 percent of the recorded specimens [of L. elliptica] are from localities shallower than 100 m,” where the populations are exposed to “low and stable water temperatures in the range of -1.9 to +1.8 °C” (the remaining 25 percent inhabit cooler waters of the continental slope down to ~700m).

Laternula elliptica

Laternula elliptica

On ObamaCare, Trump Is Still Exhausting Every Alternative to Doing the Right Thing

House Republican leaders cancelled a vote on the American Health Care Act nearly two weeks ago, after it became clear the measure would not command a majority. The conservative House Freedom Caucus objects that, far from repealing and replacing ObamaCare, the AHCA would make ObamaCare permanent. It would preserve the ObamaCare regulations that are driving premiums higher, causing a race to the bottom in coverage for the sick, and causing insurance markets to collapse. The Congressional Budget Office projects the bill would cause premiums to rise 20 percent above ObamaCare’s already-high premium levels in the first two years, and leave one million more people uninsured than a straight repeal. Oh, and it also reneges on the GOP’s seven-year campaign and pledge to repeal ObamaCare.

The House Freedom Caucus has offered to hold their noses and vote for the AHCA despite several provisions its members dislike, including a likely ineffectual repeal of ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, new entitlement spending, and the preservation of most of ObamaCare’s regulations. All they ask is that House leaders agree to repeal the “community rating” price controls and the “essential health benefits” mandate that are the main drivers of ObamaCare’s higher premiums, eroding coverage, and market instability. Repealing those provisions would instantly stabilize insurance markets and cause premiums to plummet for the vast majority of Exchange enrollees and the uninsured.

A collection of House moderates known as the Tuesday Group, meanwhile, has threatened to vote against the AHCA if it repeals community rating. The group has refused even to negotiate with the House Freedom Caucus. One Tuesday Group member recommended to the others, “If that call comes in, just hang up.”

In an attempt to bridge the divide, the White House has proposed to let individual states opt out of certain ObamaCare regulations, including the essential-health-benefits mandate and (presumably) the community-rating price controls. Reportedly, states could apply to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive some (but not all) of ObamaCare’s Title I regulations, and the Secretary would have discretion to approve or reject waiver applications based on their compliance with specified metrics, such as premiums and coverage levels. 

What might seem like a fair-minded compromise is anything but. The fact that White House officials are floating this offer means they have reneged on their prior proposal to repeal ObamaCare’s “essential health benefits” mandate nationwide. The current proposal would keep that mandate in place, and make it the default nationwide. That alone makes this “opt out” proposal a step backward for ObamaCare opponents.

Even if the White House were not displaying bad faith, an opt-out provision offers little to ObamaCare opponents. The obstacles to using such a waiver would be so great, it is unlikely any states would be able to exercise it, which would leave ObamaCare’s regulations in place in all 50 states.

Opting-Out Would Be All But Impossible

Under an opt-out, ObamaCare’s regulations—in particular, the community-rating price controls and essential-health-benefits mandate that the House Freedom Caucus has said are the price of their votes—would remain the law in all 50 states. States that do not want those regulations would have to take action (and get federal permission) to roll them back. Federal control would remain the default.

To take advantage of the waiver process, ObamaCare opponents would have to fight, again and again, in state after state, to achieve in each state just a portion of what President Trump and congressional Republicans promised to deliver in all states. Opponents would have to convince both houses of each state legislature (Nebraska excepted), plus the governor, plus the Secretary of HHS to approve the waiver, all while being vastly outspent by insurance companies, hospitals, and other special interests.

If President Trump and congressional Republicans advance an opt-out provision, they will essentially be telling ObamaCare opponents, “Thank you for spending all that money and effort electing us, but we are not going to repeal ObamaCare. Instead, we want you to spend even more money having ObamaCare-repeal fights in all 50 states. And good luck getting state officials to keep a promise they haven’t made, when we won’t even keep the promise we did make.”

Donald Trump's "Contract with the American Voter"

Marketplace Radio Laments Uber’s Victims: Investment Banks

On Monday NPR’s Marketplace shared a tale of woe that Uber has created for the hard-working blue collar men who own taxicab medallions in New York City, thereby illustrating once and for all that in today’s liberal zeitgeist, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In a normal world, public radio’s reflexive liberalism would greatly object to the system of taxicab medallions: A few decades ago New York City set a cap for the number of cars and gave each car at that time a medallion that must be displayed on the cab itself to be legal. Because demand for cabs went up over the last four decades, the medallions became more valuable. For the cars that received one at the beginning the medallion became a wonderful gift and those that sold it did quite well. A few years ago the price of a medallion exceeded $1 million.

However, an increase in medallion value does nothing to help most drivers today, who cannot afford to buy one at any price. Instead, investment companies own most medallions, which bought them from retiring cab drivers through the years and saw them as a safe investment. And they were, at least until Uber came along. Most drivers rent a medallion from the investment company, and pay a good portion of what they earn to the company.

Normally, public radio would object to the exploitation of working class men, especially when it’s been aided and abetted by the government, but when Uber is involved all bets are off. Uber has dramatically reduced the value of these medallions, since people can drive with Uber (or its competitor, Lyft) without a medallion. The barriers to becoming a driver are now almost nonexistent–no more than the price of a car. Taxicabs have lost their effective monopoly, and consumers have gained as a result.