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Guest Worker Visas Can Halt Illegal Immigration

Mon, 05/05/2014 - 10:35

Alex Nowrasteh

There is a trade off between the number of lower skilled guest worker visas and the number of unauthorized immigrants.  More lower skilled guest workers means fewer unauthorized immigrants.  Fewer guest workers mean more unauthorized immigrants.  We just have to look back to the Bracero program to see this relationship.   

The number of removals and returns is an approximation of the stock of the unauthorized immigrant population and flows.  Many, but not all, of those removed or returned during this time period were funneled into guest worker visas.  Beginning with the adoption of the Bracero program and the H2 visa in the early 1950s, there was a flurry of removals and returns whereby many migrants were funneled into the guest worker visa programs.  After that, my thesis is that the large numbers of work visas decreased the number of apprehensions by shrinking the pool of unauthorized immigrants and channeling future ones into the legal system.  After Bracero was ended in the mid-1960s, the number of removals and returns began a steady increase along with an increase in the stock and flow of unauthorized immigrants deprived of their previous lawful means of entry and work.

Ending the lower skilled guest worker visa programs preceded the modern increase in unauthorized immigration. 

Source: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

The more low skilled guest workers there are, the fewer unauthorized immigrants there are to deport. 

One legal worker on a visa seems to be worth more than one unauthorized immigrant worker – meaning a pretty favorable trade off in numbers for those concerned about the numbers of immigrants.  In 1954, 1 guest worker visa replaced 3.4 unauthorized immigrants, meaning that one legal worker seemed to be equal to more than three illegal workers.  If an important goal of a lower skilled guest worker visa is to eliminate the American economic demand for unauthorized immigrants, relatively few guest worker visas can replace a much larger unauthorized immigrant population.

Increases in Border Patrol and border enforcement are also unnecessary to get this result.  By allowing unauthorized immigrants to get the work visas, by not punishing them or employers for coming forward, and by making work visas available to those who want to enter, almost all future and current unauthorized immigrants can be funneled into the legal market without a large increase in enforcement.  This was the policy followed in the 1950s and it appears to have worked:   

Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

This chart zooms in on the 1942 through 1965 time period when the Bracero guest worker visa was in effect:

Sources: Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Naturalization Service annual reports.

This is not to say that Bracero was a perfect program and that it should be replicated today.  There were a lot of problems with it, namely that migrants were constrained in changing employers, migrants were limited to working only in agriculture, and the work visa was annual – all issues that should be fixed in any new lower skilled guest worker visa adopted.  A lower skilled guest worker visa is indispensable to vastly reduce or even halt unauthorized immigration. 

Categories: Policy Institutes

Let Export-Import Bank and Corporate Welfare Die

Mon, 05/05/2014 - 09:55

Doug Bandow

Nothing brings out the well-tailored lobbyists in Washington quite like a threat to corporate welfare.  With the Export-Import Bank’s legal authorization set to run out this year, the Chamber of Commerce recently led a Big Business march on Capitol Hill to protect what is known as Boeing’s Bank. 

Over the last eight decades ExIm has provided over a half trillion dollars in credit, mostly to corporate titans.  Congress should close the Bank.

The agency was created in 1934 to underwrite trade with the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, ExIm is not free, as claimed.  Recently made self-financing, the agency has returned $1.6 billion to the Treasury since 2008. 

However, economists Jason Delisle and Christopher Papagianis warned that the Bank’s “profits are almost surely an accounting illusion” because “the government’s official accounting rules effectively force budget analysts to understate the cost of loan programs like those managed by the Ex-Im Bank.”  In particular, the price of market risk is not included.  Delisle and Papagianis figured ExIm’s real price to exceed $200 million annually.   

Economist John H. Boyd took another approach, explaining:  “For an economic profit—that is, a real benefit to taxpayers—ExIm bank’s income must exceed its recorded expenses plus its owners’ opportunity cost, a payment to taxpayers for investing their funds in this agency rather than somewhere else.”  He figured the Bank’s real cost at between $521 million and $653 million in 1980.  The corresponding expense today likely is much higher.

The Bank claims to create jobs.  No doubt, ExIm financing makes some deals work.  But others die because ExIm diverts credit from firms without agency backing.

Economists Heywood Fleisig and Catharine Hill figured that channeling resources to exports reduces “domestic investment, consumption, or government expenditure.”  Thus, they explained, while export subsidies will increase employment in export firms, they will do so “at the expense of employment elsewhere.”

ExIm also sells itself as necessary to promote trade.  But exports should not an end in themselves irrespective of cost.  Anyway, the Bank supports only about two percent worth of exports, barely a blip in a $17 trillion economy. 

The Bank contends that it corrects market failures when U.S. exporters can’t get credit. However, international financial markets are sophisticated.

Moreover, it’s impossible to know just how many of the deals currently financed by American taxpayers wouldn’t go through absent the subsidy.  Everyone—borrower, banker, exporter, bureaucrat—has an incentive to claim ExIm played a vital role.

The agency says it supports all businesses, including small ones.  However, candidate Barack Obama was right in 2008 when he described the Bank as “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.” 

The most money always goes to Big Business.  Boeing alone typically accounts for more than 40 percent of the Bank’s credit activities.  Veronique De Rugy of the Mercatus Center figured that the top ten recipients collect 75 percent of ExIm’s benefits.

Finally, ExIm’s warns that if the U.S. government doesn’t provide cheap credit, American companies will lose out to foreign firms subsidized by their governments.  In this way the Bank claims “to help level the playing field.”

However, less than half of ExIm credit is even directed in this way, let alone proven necessary.  Moreover, as I point out in my new Forbes online column:  “The fact that other governments are willing to hurt their peoples by channeling credit away from worthier firms in the marketplace in favor of politically well-connected exporters is no reason for America to do the same.”

A better way to help promote trade would be to strengthen the economy generally.  Lower and rationalize business taxes.  Cut and streamline regulation.  Reduce tariffs, especially on widely used imports, such as steel.  Discourage frivolous litigation.  Stop subsidizing the defense of prosperous, populous trade competitors.

It’s time to kill the agency.  Let exporters pay to generate their own profits.

Categories: Policy Institutes

More Spending without New Taxes?

Fri, 05/02/2014 - 17:38

Jeffrey Miron

Wellesley, Mass., the town I live in, sent residents this message earlier today:

In April 2014, the Wellesley Annual Town Meeting approved … the acquisition of property at 494 Washington Street…  A few citizens, determined to derail the acquisition, obtained sufficient signatures to put a referendum on the ballot requiring voters to confirm the Town Meeting vote.

A YES vote on Question 1 … confirms the action taken by Town Meeting…  

There is NO tax increase associated with this vote; the acquisition will be financed using short-term debt under the levy.

Sentences like that last one are enough to make an economist’s head explode. Why? Because more debt-financed expenditure now means higher taxes later. It’s that simple. So the Town’s claim is spin, not truth.  

Categories: Policy Institutes

A Decent but Underwhelming Jobs Report

Fri, 05/02/2014 - 10:48

Daniel J. Mitchell

The headlines from today’s employment report certainly seem positive.

The unemployment rate has dropped to 6.3 percent and there are about 280,000 new jobs.*

But if you dig into the details of the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you find some less-than-exciting data.

First, here is the chart showing total employment over the past 10 years.

This shows a positive trend, and it is good that the number of jobs is climbing rather than falling.

But it’s disappointing that we still haven’t passed where we were in 2008.

Indeed, the current recovery is miserable and lags way behind the average of previous recoveries.

But the really disappointing news can be found by examining the data on how many working-age people are productively employed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has two different data sets that measure the number of people working as a share of the population.

Here are the numbers on the labor force participation rate.

As you can see, we fell down a hill back in 2008 and there’s been no recovery.

The same is true for the employment-population ratio, which is the data I prefer for boring, technical reasons.

Though I should acknowledge that the employment-population ratio does show a modest uptick, so perhaps there is a glimmer of good news over the past few years.

But it’s still very disappointing that this number hasn’t bounced back since our economic output is a function of how much labor and capital are productively utilized.

In other words, the official unemployment rate could drop to 4 percent and the economy would be dismal if that number improved for the wrong reason.

* Perhaps the semi-decent numbers from last month are tied to the fact that Congress finally stopped extending subsidies paid to people for staying unemployed?

Categories: Policy Institutes

Hot Off the Press: May 2014 "Cato Trade" Newsletter

Thu, 05/01/2014 - 14:43

Daniel J. Ikenson

If you don’t get inboxed with Cato Trade, the monthly newsletter of the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, you can find the current installment here.  In this month’s release, you can learn about Cato Trade on Campus; read about our efforts to dispel pervasive myths about trade; get the details of our upcoming half-day conference on the increasingly controversial investor-state dispute settlement rules; see what we’ve been thinking and writing about, and; get a sense of what may be in the pipeline.

Here are links to the current and previous releases:

Here is more information about Cato’s trade scholars and our areas of focus:

If you’d like to receive our newsletter at the beginning of every month, please send your name and email to Inu Barbee at ibarbee [at] cato [dot] org.

Categories: Policy Institutes

DoD’s Misaligned Incentives

Thu, 05/01/2014 - 11:39

Nicole Kaeding

The Department of Defense procurement problems are extensive. Last week, my colleague Chris Edwards discussed a failed DoD attempt to replace the president’s helicopter fleet. The project was canceled after several years due to large cost overruns and schedule delays, which ended up wasting $3.2 billion.

Now, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides further insights into the DoD’s troubled procurement processes. GAO tracked the progress of eighty major weapons systems, which have total projected costs of $1.5 trillion. Combined, all these projects have gone over budget by a huge $448 billion. Furthermore, forty-two percent of them had cost overruns greater than 25 percent.

Many of them are also well behind schedule. GAO estimates that the average project is twenty-eight months behind schedule, up from twenty-three months in fiscal year 2011.

The GAO report does highlight some small improvements with DoD’s handling of the projects, albeit with a caveat: “the enormity of the investment in acquisitions of weapon systems and its role in making U.S. fighting forces capable, warrant continued attention and reform.”

Aside from huge cost overruns, the GAO also details numerous other problems within the DoD procurement process. For one thing, DoD officials face incentives that are often misaligned with taxpayer interests. Some of these incentives call for DoD officials’ close relationships with contractors, and constant demands by senior officials and policymakers for new and better technology.

The “funding dynamics” within the DoD is another problem. The agency’s officials, unlike their counterparts in private industries, are functionally rewarded for over-budget projects according to the report:

There are several characteristics about the way programs are funded that create incentives in decision-making that can run counter to sound acquisition practices… In DoD, there can be few consequences if funds are not used efficiently. For example, as has often been the case in the past, agency budgets generally do not fluctuate much year to year and, programs that experience problems tend to eventually receive more funding to get well. Also, in DoD, new products in the form of budget line items can represent revenue. An agency may be able to justify a larger budget if it can win approval for more programs. Thus, weapon system programs can be viewed both as expenditures and revenue generators.

Once weapon system procurements get underway, it is very unlikely that they will be canceled before completion. So for projects that turn into white elephants, Congress and Defense officials tend to throw good money after bad.

The GAO also notes that, unfortunately for taxpayers, these issues are not new: “while some progress has been made, too often GAO reports on the same kinds of problems with acquisition programs today that it did over 20 years ago.” In testimony before Congress yesterday, Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, said, “I’ve seen any number of attempts to improve defense acquisition. My view is many of the things we have tried have had little discernible impact.”

Major procurement reforms are clearly needed at the Defense Department. But until that happens, misaligned incentives within Congress and the DoD will continue to waste billions of taxpayer dollars.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Cost-Benefit Analysis in Nurse Practitioner Regulation

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 16:21

Peter Van Doren

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Sandeep Jauhar questioning the New York state legislature’s passage of a bill allowing more independence for nurse practitioners. The author, a doctor himself, claims that allowing nurse practitioners to work independently would not save money and would result in lower quality care. In his opinion, the answer to the question of too few primary care doctors is not to allow competition from those with less education, but to raise their pay.

My forthcoming Working Papers column in the Summer issue of Regulation will describe a paper by occupational licensing expert Morris Kleiner et al. that disputes these claims. In his September 2013 paper, Kleiner et al. find that in states that allow nurse practitioners to independently practice and write prescriptions, the fees charged for services are lower while health care quality, as measured by changes in the infant mortality rate and malpractice insurance premiums, is not affected.

For more of coverage of Kleiner’s work, see here and here.

Categories: Policy Institutes

The Politics of Personal Destruction—Campaign Finance Version

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 13:26

Roger Pilon

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko had a great tweet this morning—“Rich progressives hold secret meeting to discuss how we can ban rich conservatives from holding secret meetings.” He linked to a long morning POLITICO piece by Kenneth P. Vogel, “Big donor secrecy: ‘Irony, but it’s not hypocrisy,’” about a gathering in Chicago this week of major Democratic Party donors that’s raised more than $30 million for liberal groups—a meeting that included a bit of strong-arming to keep unwanted reporters at bay, Vogel reports.

Secrecy aside, one of the issues I found most interesting among the many interesting things in Vogel’s piece was his discussion about what motivates big political donors—and the different perceptions liberals and conservatives have about that question. Both sides argue, he writes, that “their donations are animated by a desire to right a country headed down the wrong path.” But,

The liberal strain of the argument is usually sprinkled with a heaping helping of moral superiority. Their most generous backers are giving to candidates and causes that could hurt their bottom line by raising taxes on the denizens of their elite tax bracket, the argument goes, whereas conservative big donors are seeking to pad their pockets by trying to slash taxes and regulations that impinge on their business.

“The people who are giving money into politics here are interested in changing the system. They’re not interested in getting return on investment,” said former Stride Ride president Arnold Hiatt, who donated $1.9 million to Democratic super PACs in 2012, not including gifts to nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors. “You can focus on the irony, but it’s not hypocrisy because we’re not trying to get something for our donations.”

There you have it: white hats and black, and we know which side’s hats are black. It will surprise no one that the Koch brothers played a prominent role in the moral narrative that surrounded this gathering. What is hard to believe, however, is that these Democratic donors believe their own rhetoric. Yet they’re asking the rest of us to believe that the Kochs and the Sheldon Adelsons and the rest of the conservative and libertarian big-money donors are in it for the money.

The argument doesn’t pass the straight-face test, but of course it’s part of the class-warfare tack that Progressives took when they first teamed up with Populists at the end of the 19th century. It’s not enough to rebut your political opponent’s arguments. You’ve got to vilify him as well—what has come to be called the politics of personal destruction—and that’s especially important when you can’t rebut his arguments. In no area of our public life today do we find this politics practiced more zealously than campaign finance.

Fortunately, Vogel gives us a few facts that undermine the morality play unfolding this week in Chicago:

Of course, there are some examples where liberal donors’ causes overlap with their economic interests. San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, whose aides delivered a Tuesday morning presentation to [Democracy Alliance] donors on his plan to spend $100 million in the 2014 midterms boosting environmentally minded candidates, has invested in renewable energy initiatives that could be boosted by his advocacy. And DA partners Amber and Steve Mostyn, who declined an interview request in Chicago, have spent heavily against advocates of tort reforms in Texas that could crimp their legal business.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples of top conservative donors whose giving is animated by causes unrelated to their bottom lines. While Adelson would undoubtedly benefit from GOP tax policies, he donates mostly on the basis of a single issue—the defense of Israel—that is detached from the casino empire that built his $40 billion fortune. And the Kochs often cite their opposition to ethanol subsidies that benefit their sprawling industrial empire as an example of a political stance that could hurt their bottom line.

So do the liberal donors gathered in Chicago this week really believe their own rhetoric? Of course not. If we’re talking about morality, then, let’s do so. Repairing to the title of Vogel’s piece, it’s not irony; it’s hypocrisy. Let’s put the black hats on the proper heads.

 

Categories: Policy Institutes

Colorado Isn't Having a Cultural Revolution

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 11:11

Jason Kuznicki

In news that will surprise exactly no one, music and cannabis can be pretty nice together:

The cultural revolution that is making marijuana part of everyday Colorado life conquers another established front Tuesday as the Colorado Symphony Orchestra announces a series of performances sponsored by the cannabis industry.

The concerts, organized by pro-pot promoter Edible Events, will start May 23 with three bring-your-own marijuana events at the Space Gallery in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district and culminate with a large, outdoor performance at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Sept. 13. The events are being billed as fundraisers for the CSO, which will curate a themed program of classical music for each show.

But that’s hardly a cultural revolution: The earliest written mention of marijuana was by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who described its users dancing and singing. The rest, as they say, is history.

What’s revolutionary here is the law, which has finally begun treating Coloradans like responsible adults rather than criminals. At least about cannabis: Our laws ought to do the same for all illegal drugs. Doing so will encourage responsible drug use, better scientific research, and better treatment for addicts.

Yes, legal cannabis means we will have to make a few adjustments. But many of them aren’t so bad: “Are drivers sober?” is not a new question, after all. Only now, it’s a question to be answered a little more honestly, and with better treatment from the law. On the whole, that’s clearly for the best.

Categories: Policy Institutes

New Frontiers in Regulatory Overreach

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 10:19

Simon Lester

In most cases, excessive regulation doesn’t surprise me all that much.  It usually focuses on familiar industries, such as automobiles.  So, for example, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came up with a rule mandating that all cars and light trucks sold in the United States have rearview cameras, it wasn’t a great shock.

But every now and then, regulators do something that catches me off guard.  This is from the Economist:

Vancouver’s ban on doorknobs in all new buildings, which went into effect last month, … has provoked a strong reaction from the door-opening public and set off a chain reaction across the country as other jurisdictions ponder whether to follow Vancouver’s lead. 

Wait, what?? They are banning doorknobs? I confess that this threw me when I first read it. Were they going to require some sort of Star Trek-like eyeball scanning device, along with an automatic door?

Turns out it wasn’t anything quite so techonoligcally advanced. They just want “levered doorhandles” instead. Here’s their rationale:

The war on doorknobs is part of a broader campaign to make buildings more accessible to the elderly and disabled, many of whom find levered doorhandles easier to operate than fiddly knobs. Vancouver’s code adds private homes to rules already in place in most of Canada for large buildings, stipulating wider entry doors, lower thresholds and lever-operated taps in bathrooms and kitchens.

I would have thought doorknobs were pretty easy to deal with, but OK, maybe levers are easier. But I’m not sure how you go from “some people find levers easier” to “everyone must use levers!”

Furthermore, perhaps levers are too easy:

True, elderly and disabled people find it easier to operate doors with handles. But so do bears. In British Columbia, bears have been known to scavenge for food inside cars—whose doors have handles, knob advocates point out. Pitkin County, Colorado, in the United States, has banned door levers on buildings for this very reason. One newspaper columnist in the pro-knob camp has noted that the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” were able to open doors by their handles.

Obviously, bears don’t vote (nor do velociraptors), so we probably can’t attribute these developments to regulatory capture by the bear lobby, which wants easier access to people food (are campers getting more careful with their “pic-a-nic” baskets these days?). Nevertheless, something seems a little off in the regulatory process in Vancouver.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Adaptation to Extreme Heat

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 09:54

Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger and Patrick J. Michaels

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Last fall, the press pounced on the results of a new study that found that global climate change was leading to an increasing frequency of heat waves and thus resulting in greater heat-related mortality. Finally a scientific study showing that global warming is killing us after all! See all you climate change optimists have been wrong all along, human-caused global warming is a threat to our health and welfare.

Not so fast.

Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the authors of that study—which examined heat-related mortality in Stockholm, Sweden—failed to include the impacts of adaptation in their analysis as well as the possibility that some of the temperature rise which has taken place in Stockholm is not from “global” climate change but rather local and regional processes not at all related to human greenhouse gas emissions.

What the researchers Daniel Oustin Åström and his colleagues left out of their original analysis, we (Chip Knappenberger, Pat Michaels, and Anthony Watts) factored in. And when we did so, we arrived at the distinct possibility that global warming actually led to a reduction in the rate of heat-related mortality in Stockholm.

Our findings have just been published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change as a Comment on the original Oustin Åström paper (which was published in the same journal).

We were immediately skeptical because the original Oustin Åström results run contrary to a solid body of scientific evidence (including our own) that shows that heat-related mortality and the population’s sensitivity to heat waves was been declining in major cities across America and Europe as people take adaptive measures to protect themselves from the rising heat.

Contrarily, Oudin Åström reported that as a result of an increase in the number of heat waves occurring in Stockholm, more people died from extreme heat during the latter portion of the 20th century than would have had the climate of Stockholm been similar to what it was in the early part of the 20th century—a time during which fewer heat waves were recorded. The implication was that global warming from increasing human greenhouse gas emissions was killing people from increased heat.

But the variability in the climate of Stockholm is a product of much more than human greenhouse gas emissions. Variations in the natural patterns of regional-scale atmospheric circulation, such as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), as well as local impacts associated with urbanization and environmental changes in the direct vicinity of the thermometer are reflected in the city’s temperature history, and the original Oudin Åström et al. publication did not take this into account. This effect is potentially significant as Stockholm is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities.

But regardless of the cause, rising temperatures spur adaptation. Expanded use of air conditioning, biophysical changes, behavior modification, and community awareness programs are all examples of actions which take place to make us better protected from the dangers associated with heat waves. Additionally, better medical practices, building practices, etc. have further reduced heat-related stress and mortality over the years.

The net result is that as result of the combination of all the adaptive measures that have taken place over the course of the 20th century in Stockholm, on average people currently die in heat waves at a rate four times less than they did during the beginning of the 20th century. The effect of adaptation overwhelms the effect of an increase in the number of heat waves.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that much of the adaptation has likely occurred because of an increased frequency of heat waves. As heat waves become more common, the better adapted to them the population becomes.

Our analysis highlights one of the often overlooked intricacies of the human response to climate change—the fact that the response to climate change can actually improve public health and welfare.

Which, by the way, is a completely different view than the one taken by the current Administration.

References:

Knappenberger, P., Michaels, P., and A. Watts, 2014. Adaptation to extreme heat in Stockholm County, Sweden. Nature Climate Change, 4, 302-303.

Oudin Åström, D., Forsberg, B., Ebi, K. L. & Rocklöv, J., 2013. Attributing mortality from extreme temperatures to climate change in Stockholm, Sweden. Nature Climate Change, 3, 1050–1054.

Categories: Policy Institutes

The Legalization Juggernaut

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 17:04

Tim Lynch

Former Drug Czar Bill Bennett has co-authored an article in the Weekly Standard, “The Legalization Juggernaut.”  Bennett is upset about voter approval for the marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington and recent polls showing “for the first time that a clear majority of Americans (58 percent) support marijuana legalization.”  Bennett can hardly believe that we have reached this “dangerous and absurd moment.”   It is absurd because, to Bennett, the policy question boils down to this: “Do we need a dumber country?”   If the debate can be framed that way, Bennett and his co-author, Christopher Beach, are convinced that “this headlong rush into disaster can be stopped.”  If.

Some readers of Cato@Liberty might need reminding that when Bennett was a high-ranking government official, he once said executing drug dealers was morally justifiable. Given that stance, it must bewilder him to see marijuana stores opening in Denver, Seattle, and other cities.  For the moment, all Bennett wants are a few political leaders to “speak out on marijuana.”   Hmm.  That’s another telling indication of the changing political climate with respect to drug policy.

More here, here, and here.

Categories: Policy Institutes

All Aboard the Privatization Train

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 14:38

Chris Edwards

With the expiration of the current federal highway bill in a few months, the infrastructure issue is heating up. Newspapers are ginning up interest with stories about deficient and falling down bridges (e.g. here and here).

Diane Rehm kindly invited me to her NPR show this morning to discuss how we should move ahead with financing infrastructure. I pointed to the advantages of devolving funding to state governments and the private sector. America should embrace the global movement towards privatization and public-private partnerships for highways, bridges, airports, and other facilities.

Even Japan—previously known for its pork-barrel infrastructure spending—is beginning to embrace privatization, notes this piece at NextCity.org (h/t Nick Zaiac):

Over a 15-year period starting in 1987, the Japanese government undertook one of the most ambitious privatizations in history, moving its most heavily traveled railways from public ownership into private hands. The privatization of Japanese National Railways – whose assets on Honshu (Japan’s main island) were split into three separate companies (JR East, Central and West, each centered around one of Japan’s three major metropolitan areas) – was a roaring business success. JR East, which runs commuter, intercity and Shinkansen lines in Tokyo and the surrounding region, doubled its revenue over the 15-year period, cut its payroll by a third, upped its per-capita passenger-miles by two-thirds, all while cutting the number of accidents by nearly 60 percent and keeping fares more or less flat.

Now Osaka, Japan is looking to repeat the magic, but this time on its city subway network – which, if successful, would be the first government subway system in the country to be sold off.

… The move follows on the heels of the sale of another one of the prefecture’s railways, the … Semboku Rapid Railway.

… Not to be outdone, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is considering selling its 46.6 percent stake in Tokyo Metro.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Reflections on High Frequency Trading

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 14:23

Robert A. Levy

Here are a few thoughts on high frequency trading [HFT] – not a thorough analysis of the problems and solutions, but rather a brief outline to encourage further discussion.

What is HFT?

The modern version of HFT, as described by Malkiel and Leavitt in an April 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “involves the placement of high-speed computers in close proximity to stock-market servers to give some participants the ability to buy and sell stocks faster than the blink of an eye.”  The favored participant purchases early access to information from either a public exchange or a so-called dark pool, which is essentially a private exchange established by investment banks.  With privileged access, the HF trader can learn of a pending order before it is executed, and then earn a small profit by buying or selling ahead of the order.  For example, a sell order exists at $100.00; an HF trader learns of a pending buy order at $100.02, which allows the HF trader to earn $.02 by first buying at $100.00 then selling at $100.02.

What are the pluses and minuses of HFT?

Benefits of HFT can include market efficiency, increased liquidity, and lower transactions costs.  To illustrate: Assume orders have been placed to sell 5,000 shares of XYZ at $15.02 and 5,000 shares at $14.94.  Assume further, a pending buy order for a minimum of 10,000 shares at $15.00.  The HF trader, acting as market-maker, might buy 10,000 shares from the two sellers at an average price of $14.98 and re-sell the shares to the buyer for $15.00.  The result would be a narrowed bid-asked spread, reduced trading costs, increased volume, and enhanced liquidity.

On the other hand, as Malkiel and Leavitt point out, HFT is a form of insider trading known as front-running whereby “optimally positioned traders can see trade orders from other investors before they are executed.  They can execute a purchase just ahead of those orders and run the price up just a bit, pocketing the difference.”  In addition, HFT has been blamed for increased market volatility.

Has HFT caused increased volatility and “flash crashes”?

Early information is new information; and new information, by its very nature, can trigger market volatility.  Every major announcement is potentially destabilizing, and the persons who first acquire the information have an advantage – usually to the detriment of retail investors.  Yet government intervention to suppress new information is rarely beneficial.  Increased volatility, taken alone, does not justify regulation.  At a minimum, there should be a showing that HFT either generates large economic losses or involves fraud, breach of contract, or breach of fiduciary duty.

Because price often responds to increased volume, one way to dampen volatility would be to slow down trading.  For instance, HF traders might be charged a transaction fee or required to hold a security for a specified period of time.  Such regulations would also mitigate front-running, but they could diminish market efficiency and raise trading costs to the detriment of all investors.  Drawing again from Malkiel and Leavitt:  “In Europe, when trading taxes were implemented, trading volume and liquidity fell, and bid-asked spreads increased.  Similarly, in Canada, when fees were increased on high-speed traders, spreads increased and liquidity decreased.”

With respect to flash crashes, an SEC-CFTC joint report determined that HFT actually improves conditions by absorbing some of the sell pressure.  Moreover, the Dow’s 600-point decline in a few minutes during May 2010 – which was reversed within a half-hour – was attributed to a single $4+ billion futures sale by a large money manager.  In fact, flash crashes were common long before HFT.  The exchanges have already implemented “circuit breakers” to minimize their impact.

Does HFT entail front-running?

Ordinarily, front-running allegations are based on breach of fiduciary duty.  The front-runner is under a legal obligation not to profit from inside knowledge of his client’s pending order.  By contrast, the HF trader is transacting for his own account; he has no client, and so could not have breached a fiduciary duty. His trades are based on information that he has purchased from an exchange.

If, however, the exchange did not have the right to sell the information, then the HF trader’s early access might have been acquired illegally.  Typically, investors have written agreements with their brokers, but not with exchanges; so the sale of access by the exchange is not a direct contractual breach.  Nonetheless, that sale might still be impermissible if contracts are deemed to contain an implicit term that provides for ownership of the information by the investor who initially placed the order.  In that case, it’s the exchange, not the HF trader, that has acted unlawfully by selling information it doesn’t own.

What framework should control the regulatory environment?

Accordingly, ownership of the underlying property rights is one criterion for government regulation of HFT.  If the investor owns the information on his pending orders, his rights have been violated by the exchange; and any sale of the information must be subject to his consent.  Effectively, that might shut down HFT because the investor is the party whose trades are being front-run.  But if the exchange owns the information, then its sale does not violate anyone’s rights and traders should be allowed to compete for faster access.

Under those circumstances, the only other basis for government regulation would be significant welfare losses – e.g., if the costs of front-running and higher volatility outweigh possible improvements in market liquidity, pricing efficiency, and trading costs – in which case investors unable or unwilling to compete against HF traders might have to be protected.

Who has property rights to information on pending orders?

The Coasean answer to the property rights question is that the initial assignment of ownership doesn’t matter:  If transactions costs are low, bargaining by the various parties will direct resources toward their highest valued use.  But here, transactions costs among affected investors, brokers, exchanges, and HF traders are likely to be prohibitive.  Moreover, libertarians are concerned with distributive shares – i.e., who benefits and who bears the costs – not just aggregate resource allocation.

A Lockean rule would assign ownership to the originator of the information.  The economically efficient rule is that ownership should vest in the party least able to avoid harm if the right were to vest elsewhere.  And the libertarian rule is that the victim of any harm has the right to claim compensation.  Application of those rules is unclear in this instance, and perhaps even conflicting.  When that happens – i.e., when rights theory doesn’t provide clear guidance – a utilitarian analysis can inform the initial assignment of a property right.  In other words, an economic cost-benefit assessment and a rights-based assessment will merge. (That also happens when we evaluate, say, speed limits or any other safety regulations.)

In brief: Preventing exchanges from selling access to early information is equivalent to establishing a property right in the originating investor.  Perhaps that’s desirable, but it requires careful scrutiny of costs and benefits that, so far, hasn’t been evident in the literature.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Hey GOP: Just Because It’s Choice Doesn’t Make It Right

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 12:06

Neal McCluskey

It is increasingly clear that the congressional GOP will be using school choice – especially charter schools – as an election-year weapon [$]. And certainly Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens – whatever – should support school choice because educationally, socially, and financially it is the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean Republicans should ignore that the Constitution gives Washington no authority to meddle in education outside of controlling the District of Columbia, federal installations, and ensuring that states and districts don’t discriminate when they provide schooling.

Congressional Republicans’ primary vehicle for showing how much they care about choice is a bill – the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) – that would use $300,000,000 annually to expand charter schooling. Charters, recall, are schools authorized to function by public entities such as school districts or states, but that are run by ostensibly private entities.

The biggest threat that typically comes from federal funding, of course, is that regulation will follow. That said, as public schools, charters already have to follow federal laws such as No Child Left Behind, so regulation isn’t the primary threat from charter aid. No, it’s another major threat: unintended consequences. And the most dangerous – and real – of those consequences is the damage charter schooling does to private schooling, by far the truest form of school choice.

As a 2012 Cato analysis revealed, between 8 and 11 percent of all charter students, depending on the level of schooling, came from private schools. In urban areas the numbers are much more stark, with nearly a third of elementary charter students having been likely private schoolers. As a new Friedman Foundation report describes, the problem for private schools is a clear one: It is very hard to compete when parents think they are getting a private education at public school prices: $0.

It’s great if congressional Republicans, or anyone else, wants to talk up school choice. But the Constitution exists for a reason: to keep federal politicians from inflicting harm, even when they think they’re doing good.  

Categories: Policy Institutes

Minimum Wage Increase Not the Answer in Hawaii

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 11:24

Michael D. Tanner

According to reports, lawmakers in Hawaii agreed to a four-step increase in the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25, rising to $10.10 by 2018. This increase would make them just the third state to impose a double digit minimum wage, along with Connecticut and Maryland. Proponents of the increase point to the high cost of living on the island, and say that, without this increase, low-wage workers will be consigned to living in poverty. They also point to the low unemployment rate in the state as a sign that the labor markets could absorb the increased minimum wage without significant job loss. These arguments fail to look at who the proposed increases would actually affect and do not properly account for the adverse effects this legislation could have on some segments of the population.

Despite claims to the contrary, relatively few Hawaiians would benefit from the increase. For one, the median wage for many sectors that are targeted by minimum wage legislation is already above the $10.10 goal: the median wage for bellhops in 2012 was $10.12, for cashiers it was $10.41 and for amusement and recreation attendants it was $11.87. Older, more experienced workers more likely to support a family are more likely to earn above the median wage, and thus be unaffected by the minimum wage hike.  According to testimony before the state legislature, only around 14,000 people worked at the current minimum wage or less in 2012, but even this might overstate how many people would benefit from the increase; many of these workers were teenagers or secondary earners, after accounting for this, the number of full-time workers who are also the head of household falls to 3,700. Depending on which poverty measure you look at, there are between 173,000 and 231,000 people in poverty in Hawaii, so the tiny proportion of families that could benefit from the increase is little more than a drop in the bucket when looking at their broader poverty problems. The plight of these people is not trivial, but introducing broad ineffective policy that introduces distortions into the entire labor market is not the answer.

While it is true that topline unemployment rate (4.7 percent over the past four quarters) is significantly lower than the national average (7.1 percent), as is often the case, looking solely at a headline statistic leaves out many of the nuances needed to understand the context. When people not attached to the labor force or involuntary working part time for economic reasons are accounted for, their unemployment rate rises to 11.3 percent, closer to the national average, so claims that the labor market is strong enough to absorb the distortions of the minimum wage increase are not true.

The arguments so far have ignored the active harm this legislation could do, as some workers will be priced out of the labor market altogether or will see their hours decreased, reducing their take home pay. Due to the high cost of living, 6.2 percent of workers in Hawaii work multiple jobs, often supplementing their full time job with other work in the service or hospitality industry. When this legislation increases the minimum wage they can be paid, many businesses will decide to cut hours or reduce the number of workers they add in busy months, instead hoping to increase productivity of the workers they do retain. While those retained workers will see an increase in pay, more will find their hours cut or be locked out of the job market altogether. Teenagers would also be likely to be priced out of their entry level jobs under this legislation, as employers will be unable to justify the increased cost of keeping them on for their low level of productivity; this would lead to lower human capital development, and more young Hawaiians could end up leaving for the mainland where there are more opportunities.

The cost of living is certainly higher in Hawaii than other states. A recent report from Vox found that Honolulu was the most expensive metropolitan area in the country, and my own research showed that the high cost of living in Hawaii was one of the reasons they had the most generous welfare package in the Work Versus Welfare study.  This higher cost of living contributes to the broader problem of poverty in the state, which is without question a concern, but this minimum wage increase will do little to lift people out of poverty, and will actively harm others. It is not the answer the Aloha State needs.

For more on the problems with minimum wage laws, see here.

Categories: Policy Institutes

The Common Core Walks into a Bar...

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 10:16

Neal McCluskey

Defenders of the Common Core national curriculum standards have long employed ridiculing Core opponents as a primary tactic to keep their effort from crumbling. Unlike, say, a circus, the pro-Core assault hasn’t been very entertaining or funny, but it’s been there. Now, though, the humor tide may be turning, with actual funny people – professional comedians – taking on the Common Core.

A first big laugh attack was launched a few weeks ago, when David-Letterman-in-waiting Stephen Colbert ripped into bizarre math questions stemming from the Common Core:

Yesterday, another comedian went after the Core. Louis C.K., of the show Louie, tweeted what actually sounded like a kinda serious distress call about his children:

My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Now, nobody should make policy based on the jibes of comedians, professional or otherwise. But that pop culture is starting to mock the Core is yet another bad sign for the national standards effort, an effort proponents once thought in the bag when, under federal pressure, 45 states quietly signed on to the Core.

Funny thing is, Core stalwarts don’t seem to be laughing anymore.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Let's See What DATA Can Do

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 08:56

Jim Harper

The New York Times reported at the top of page one yesterday on the $4.1 million in payments that a single physical therapist in Brooklyn got from Medicare in 2012. It’s a shocking sum, and Medicare fraud is common in both physical therapy and the Brooklyn area. The therapist who received the money says that the billings are for his large, multi-office practice.

The point is broader: Reporters, medical trade association figures, investigators and researchers are poring over newly released data about Medicare spending. They’re strengthening public oversight and the public’s capacity to question this government program. It’s data that the American Medical Association and other industry groups fought against releasing. There is risk that the numbers will lead some to unfair conclusions, perhaps even in the case of this Brooklyn physical therapist, but the public oversight it brings to the Medicare program and the circumspection it brings to fraudsters and others will be more than worth it. Data is a powerful oversight tool.

That’s why I think it’s good news that the House of Representatives passed the DATA Act yesterday. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, introduced by Mark Warner (D-VA) in the Senate and Darrell Issa (R-CA) in the House, requires the federal government to adopt data standards for all federal spending and publish all of it online. This will permit the public to gather insights like the ones in that New York Times story across the vastness of the federal spending enterprise. It will make the diffuse cost of government a little more acute in the minds of many, positioning Americans to say specifically which spending should stop.

Change will not come instantly, and the legislation is not self-executing, but groups like the Data Transparency Coalition, a prime mover behind the legislation, appear poised to insist on full execution of the law. Implementation should not have the cost that the Congressional Budget Office estimated for it, and if it does, the billions saved thanks to availability of information to the public should justify the costs. If another “cost” of transparency is improvement of federal programs that should be eliminated, I think that beats the today’s status quo of having them on the books and failing.

The DATA Act is not a direct response to a 2008 Cato event asking the Obama administration to “Just Give Us the Data.” Indeed, the administration has been conspicuously unsupportive of transparency in this area, though transparency was a key campaign theme in President Obama’s first election. Cato studies in this area since then include “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” and “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.” We’ll be repeating the grading study during the summer, though it’s doubtful the administration’s grades will improve by that time. We will use the data structures that the DATA Act requires in our Deepbills project, which shines light on Congress’s proposals, including its plans for spending.

Categories: Policy Institutes

When “Conservative” Means “Alarmist”

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 08:50

Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger and Patrick J. Michaels

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

There is a new study out that purports to make a “conservative” estimate of the social cost of carbon and in doing so arrives at a figure nearly four times larger than the central estimate currently used by the U.S. government—the latter a figure which we and others have voluminously argued is itself several times too high. Perhaps the authors of the new report ought to look up the definition of the word “conservative.”

Recall that the social cost of carbon is supposed to represent the total value of future damages from climate change resulting from the current emission of a ton of carbon dioxide. As you may imagine, coming up with the SCC involves more imagination than actual science.

The primary “tools” used for determining the SCC are “integrated assessment models,” or IAMs, which incorporate a very simple climate model into an economics model. Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, Jeroen van den Bergh and Wouter Botzen review elements (economic and climatic) that are poorly incorporated or missing entirely from the IAMs.

A prominent characteristic of the IAMs is that they are notoriously malleable and able produce virtually any value for the SCC that the modeler or end-user desires.

Judging from the introductory sentence of their paper

Climate change has been called “the biggest market failure the world has seen” and “the mother of all externalities.”

you can pretty much guess what kind of SCC value van den Bergh and Botzen prefer.

To support their apparent preference for a high SCC, they spend the bulk of their paper imagining bad climate outcomes—with high monetary damages—and are generally dismissive of positive climate impacts. For example:

Nevertheless, our summary of the main effects provides a clear insight, namely that unquantified negative effects of climate change tend to domi­nate unquantified positive effects. The negative effects comprise large biodiversity losses, political instability, violent conflicts, large-scale migration, extreme weather events, natural disasters and the effect on long-term economic growth. Accounting for the latter is likely to increase the SCC because large impacts of cli­mate change are expected to reduce the rate of GDP growth, partly because of negative effects on labour and capital productivity.

Unsurprisingly, when you include a lot of negative impacts along with a low discount rate, the IAMs produce very high estimates of the SCC.

In fact, van den Bergh and Botzen arrive at a “conservative” SCC value of $125. For comparison, value used by the Obama Administration for cost/benefit analyses of new regulations is $36.

Interestingly, in their “conservative” analysis, they never once mention the growing body of new and prominent scientific literature that produce updated estimates of the earth’s climate sensitivity—a measure of how much climate change we expect from carbon dioxide emissions—that are much lower and much more tightly constrained than the ones used in all of the studies reviewed by van den Bergh and Botzen.

The lower climate sensitivity estimates not only reduce the overall impacts from expected climate changes, but they do so primarily by reducing the chances of unexpected and catastrophic changes—the biggest drivers of the high SCC values in the IAMs. It has been repeatedly shown (see here, here, and here for example) that incorporating the new, lower climate sensitivity estimates reduce the IAMs’ SCC determinations by some 40 percent.

And there are lots of other things, which, if better incorporated in the IAM’s, would lead to lower SCC values.

If the positive benefits from carbon dioxide emissions on the planet’s crop production were better included in the IAM’s, the SCC value drops further.  And if arguments for the use of a higher discount rate, rather than the very low one espoused by van den Bergh and Botzen win the day, the SCC drops further still.

Add to the mix a more reasoned view of future climate extremes, and before you know it, it is an easy argument to make that the SCC value should fall significantly below the Administration’s $36 rather than some three to four times higher.

It is bad enough that van den Bergh and Botzen present a rather one-sided view of the science of climate change/climate extremes and the economics concerning the choice of discount rate, but for them to term their analysis “conservative” is really taking things too far. “Alarmist” would be a more apt description.

Our hope would have been that the reviewers for Nature Climate Change would have caught the glaring oversight of the current climate sensitivity literature (with one of the most persuasive articles appearing in the sister journal Nature Geosciences), but that didn’t happen. We’ll withhold speculation as to why that was the case.

Reference:

Van den Bergh, J.C.J.M., and W.J.W. Botzen, 2014. A lower bound to the social cost of CO2 emissions. Nature Climate Change, 4, 253-258, doi:10.1038/NCLIMATE2135.

Categories: Policy Institutes

South Korea’s Success, America’s Failure: Still Dependent on the U.S. After All These Years

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 08:47

Doug Bandow

Last week President Barack Obama embarked on his great reassurance tour of Asia.  America’s allies need not fear.  No matter how wealthy, influential, or powerful, they can count on Washington’s continuing protection.

So it is with the Republic of Korea (ROK).  Behind America’s shield the South prospered, developing an economy now around 40 times the size of North Korea’s.  The ROK also has twice the population, an overwhelming technological advantage, access to global markets, and numerous important international friends.

Yet when President Obama arrived in Seoul he announced:  “The commitment that the United States of America has made to the security of the Republic of Korea only grows stronger.”  The U.S. is rather busy in the world.  Why must Washington promise even greater support for a country well able to defend itself?

In one sense the ROK’s dramatic growth demonstrates the success of American policy.  For years, without U.S. backing the South could have been overwhelmed by Pyongyang in a second Korean War.

But the correlation of forces began to change in the 1960s.  By the new millennium the Korean race was over.  Seoul had won decisively. 

Only in terms of military power did Pyongyang remain ahead, and even there its advantage waned.  The DPRK held that advantage only because South Korea chose not to invest more of its growing wealth in its military.  Which Seoul could do because America was still protecting the South.

If there was no cost of defending much of the known world, there’d be no problem with this policy.  However, while everyone assumes America’s promise to intervene will deter war, human history is littered with cases when deterrence failed.

Thus, the more Washington wants to do in the world, the more of Americans’ money Washington must spend.  Moreover, as I point out in my latest Forbes online article:  “receiving a security commitment from a major power usually makes nations more confrontational, even reckless:  after all, if you have a big brother willing to do the fighting, why not take advantage of the opportunity?”

Finally, Washington’s treaty commitments and force deployments discourage allied nations from doing more on their own behalf. 

The worst danger for America from its commitment to the ROK is involvement in an unnecessary war among nuclear powers.  After years of attempting to dissuade Pyongyang from building nuclear weapons the U.S. government appears to have concluded that the DPRK is unpersuadable.

This realization has left Washington officials searching for new approaches.  But the only reason the U.S. needs be so concerned is America’s military tie to the South. 

Absent Washington’s promise to war on the Seoul’s behalf, the DPRK would have little interest in America.  Moreover, Pyongyang only has an ability to harm the U.S. because Washington has generously stationed 28,000 men and women, plus additional dependents, within range of its artillery and tanks as well as missiles. 

Of course, Washington promotes a general policy of nonproliferation.  But that does not justify permanent defense treaties and garrisons.

Worse, it isn’t clear that nonproliferation works any longer in Northeast Asia.  Russia, China, and North Korea possess the doomsday weapon.  America’s democratic allies, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, have no deterrent and instead rely upon the U.S. 

The risks of this policy increase as Beijing grows more aggressive.  It might be time for Washington to indicate that if Pyongyang continues to follow its present course and China allows the North to do so, the U.S. government would withdraw its objection to its democratic allies following the same path.

Dissolving the military alliance wouldn’t mean ending other cooperation.  Even security cooperation would be possible, indeed, desirable, without America promising to defend its wealthy friend.

The U.S.-South Korea military alliance once made sense.  No longer.  American policy will not have really succeeded until the ROK ends its embarrassing security dependence on Washington.

Categories: Policy Institutes

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