Both the economy and the environment are complex ecosystems. Governments often upset the natural balance and cause damage because they combine limited understanding with an excessive zeal to mandate and subsidize.
In Washington , we have snow and cold, but I can’t blame that on the government. However, Britain has been suffering from river flooding, and a Daily Mail article explains how subsidies are a key culprit: “Thought ‘extreme weather’ was to blame for the floods? Wrong. The real culprit is the European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm.”
The author is a liberal environmentalist, but his piece illustrates how liberals and libertarians can share common ground on the issue of government subsidies.
The article describes how forests in the upstream areas of watersheds can mitigate floods. However, there “is an unbreakable rule laid down by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment … that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation.’ Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”
In the United States, we’ve got our own environment-damaging farm subsidies. We’ve also got the Army Corps of Engineers, which the Daily Mail could be describing when it refers to British policy: “Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour.”
The long-time bias of the Army Corps has been to spend a lot of taxpayer money on reengineering nature. Apparently, it’s been a similar story in Britain :
Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers along much of their length, to enhance their capacity for carrying water. They soon discovered that this was not just wrong but also counter-productive. By building ever higher banks around the rivers, reducing their length through taking out the bends and scooping out the snags and obstructions along the way, engineers unintentionally did two things: they increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster; and, by separating the rivers from the rural land through which they passed, they greatly decreased the area of functional flood plains. The result, as authorities all over the world now recognise, was catastrophic.
You don’t have to be an environmental expert to conclude that governments should at least “do no harm,” and not worsen the damage done by adverse weather. That means they should end subsidies for farming, deforestation, and building in flood-prone areas.
A new pharaoh is rising in Egypt. Gen. Abdel Fata al-Sisi is preparing to grasp supreme power, most likely as the country’s next president. He is posing as democracy’s savior while his troops detain or kill those opposing him. The arrests and shootings continued during last week’s constitutional referendum.
During the Cold War the U.S. stole Cairo away from the Soviet Union. When revolution loomed in 2011 the administration endorsed dictator Hosni Mubarak, before trying to work with newly elected President Mohammed Morsi. But the latter failed to expand his popular appeal and discredited the Muslim Brotherhood, making his defeat almost certain in the next poll.
However, Gen. Sisi and his confederates were in a hurry to seize power and staged a coup. Although the Brotherhood was not without blame, the military killed hundreds or more in the August crackdown in Cairo. Since then thousands more have died and been arrested.
The putative pharaoh has been actively restoring the Ancien Regime. Gen. Sisi has tapped military officials as provincial gauleiters, recreated Mubarak’s secret and intelligence police, reinstituted military trials, enacted strict new restrictions on demonstrations, arrested journalists, deployed private thugs against Morsi supporters and regime critics, and prosecuted protestors.
McClatchy’s Amina Ismail and Nancy Youssef reported: “Egyptians caught in the roundup have told McClatchy they were tortured while awaiting charges.” The new constitution maintains the military’s privileged status and protects repressive state institutions from outside control.
The press has been a special military target. The Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association cited a “worsening climate for free speech and peaceable assembly.”
Overall, human rights activists say the situation is worse than under Mubarak. Gamel al-Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information argued that the military was sending a message: “There is only one choice—to support the military or to be in jail.”
The regime hopes to destroy the Brotherhood. However, the group withstood decades of repression before and emerged strong enough to win Egypt’s first legislative and presidential elections. Moreover, by confirming the extremist critique that democracy is a fool’s errand, Gen. Sisi has left opponents of his incipient dictatorship little choice but to use violence.
The Mubarak regime’s crackdown on the Brotherhood four decades ago sparked the formation of new radical groups, including al-Qaeda. Before joining that organization current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was tortured by the Mubarak regime.
Violent opposition to Gen. Sisi’s incipient dictatorship is rising. Policemen are being killed while bombings are increasing in frequency. Worse for America, warned Max Boot: “as long as Washington is seen on the side of the generals, some of their violence will be directed our way.”
However, the administration still refuses to call a coup a coup. It reluctantly withheld portions of the $1.55 billion in annual foreign aid, while assuring Cairo that doing so was not “punitive.” Then the administration pushed to relax aid conditions.
But most of the roughly $75 billion given to Cairo over the years enriched political and military elites and funded the purpose of prestige weapons from American arms makers. The U.S. never received much “leverage” in return. For instance, the knowledge that the Egyptian military would cease to exist after a war with Israel, not American money, kept the peace.
Anyway, the U.S. had no credibility to enforce conditions since it never was willing to stop the money. The administration finally (kind of) did so last fall, but if America runs back to Cairo, cash-in-hand, the former will never again have the slightest hint of leverage. Moreover, the regime now is flooded with money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and doesn’t need American assistance.
Worse, underwriting a murderous regime inevitably stains the hands of American policymakers. Who can believe Washington’s lectures on human rights when it is funding a grotesquely repressive regime in Egypt?
America should exit the Egyptian imbroglio.
Daniel J. Mitchell
There’s an old joke about two guys camping in the woods, when suddenly they see a hungry bear charging over a hill in their direction. One of the guys starts lacing up his sneakers and his friend says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” The other guys says, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”
That’s reasonably amusing, but it also provides some insight into national competitiveness. In the battle for jobs and investments, nations can change policy to impact their attractiveness, but they also can gain ground or lose ground because of what happens in other nations.
The corporate tax rate in the United States hasn’t been changed in decades, for instance, but the United States has fallen further and further behind the rest of the world because other nations have lowered their rates.
Courtesy of a report in the UK-based Telegraph, here’s another example of how relative policy changes can impact growth and competitiveness.
The paper looks at changes in the burden of welfare spending over the past 14 years. The story understandably focuses on how the United Kingdom is faring compared to other European nations.
Welfare spending in Britain has increased faster than almost any other country in Europe since 2000, new figures show. The cost of unemployment benefits, housing support and pensions as share of the economy has increased by more than a quarter over the past thirteen years – growing at a faster rate than in most of the developed world. Spending has gone up from 18.6 per cent of GDP to 23.7 per cent of GDP – an increase of 27 per cent, according to figures from the OECD, the club of most developed nations. By contrast, the average increase in welfare spending in the OECD was 16 per cent.
This map from the story shows how welfare spending has changed in various nations, with darker colors indicating a bigger expansion in the welfare state.
American readers, however, may be more interested in this excerpt.
In the developed world, only the United States and the stricken eurozone states of Ireland, Portugal and Spain - which are blighted by high unemployment - have increased spending quicker than Britain.
Yes, you read correctly. The United States expanded the welfare state faster than almost every European nation.
Here’s another map, but I’ve included North America and pulled out the figures for the countries that suffered the biggest increases in welfare spending. As you can see, only Ireland and Portugal were more profligate than the United States.
Needless to say, this is not a good sign for the United States.
But the situation is not hopeless. The aforementioned numbers simply tell us the rate of change in welfare spending. But that doesn’t tell us whether countries have big welfare states or small welfare states.
That’s why I also pulled out the numbers showing the current burden of welfare spending - measured as a share of economic output - for countries in North America and Western Europe.
This data is more favorable to the United States. As you can see, America still has one of the lowest overall levels of welfare spending among developed nations.
Ireland also is in a decent position, so the real lesson of the data is that the United States and Ireland must have been in relatively strong shape back in 2000, but the trend over the past 14 years has been very bad.
It’s also no surprise that France is the most profligate of all developed countries.
Let’s close by seeing if any nations have been good performers. The Telegraph does note that Germany has done a good job of restraining spending. The story even gives a version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule by noting that good policy happens when spending grows slower than private output.
Over the thirteen years from 2000, Germany has cut welfare spending as a share of GDP by 1.5 per cent… Such reductions are possible by increasing welfare bills at a lower rate than growth in the economy.
But the more important question is whether there are nations that get good scores in both categories. In other words, have they controlled spending since 2000 while also having a comparatively low burden of welfare outlays?
Here are the five nations with the smallest increases in welfare spending since 2000. You can see that Germany had the best relative performance, but you’ll notice from the previous table that Germany is not on the list of five nations with the smallest overall welfare burdens. Indeed, German welfare spending consumes 26.2 percent of GDP, so Germany still has a long way to go.
The nation that does show up on both lists for frugality is Switzerland. Spending has grown relatively slowly since 2000 and the Swiss also have the third-lowest overall burdens of welfare spending.
By the way, Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.
No wonder Canada is now much higher than the United States in measures of economic freedom.
In Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, economic historian Deirdre McCloskey writes about the “Great Fact” – the enormous and unprecedented growth in living standards that began in the western world around 1700. She calls it “a factor of sixteen”: we moderns consume at least 16 times the food, clothing, housing, and education that our ancestors did in London in the 18th century. Two new books help us to understand what that means.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviews Flyover Lives, a family memoir by Diane Johnson. She found diaries from some of her Midwestern ancestors, and Yardley notes what they tell us:
It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses — mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere — slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: “Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.” Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: “When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.”
This isn’t so long ago. Catharine Martin was the great-great-grandmother of Diane Johnson. Go back another century, and read about 18th-century life in another new book, Three Squares by Abigail Carroll:
Invited to dine with a ferryman and his family, [a 1744 traveler from Maryland to Maine] declined. He described the meal: “They had no cloth upon the table, and their mess was in a dirty, deep, wooden dish which they evacuated with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, and all. They used neither knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin because, I suppose, they had none to use.”
By the standards of the age, the ferryman’s repast was ordered: “Only about a third of the families in seventeenth-century Virginia had chairs or benches, and only one in seven had both,” writes Ms. Carroll. Only about a quarter of the early Virginian houses had tables.
And finally, I note an older book on my own Scottish ancestors, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History by James G. Leyburn:
The squalor and meanness of [lowland Scottish] life around 1600 [or 1700] can hardly be conceived by a person of the twentieth century. A cluster of hovels housed the tenants and their helpers….A home was likely to be little more than a shanty, constructed of stones, banked with turf, without mortar, and with straw, heather, or moss stuffed in the holes to keep out the blasts….The fire, usually in the middle of the house floor, often filled the whole hut with malodorous clouds, since the smoke-clotted roof gradually stopped the vent-hole. Cattle were tethered at night at one end of the room, while the family lay at the other end on heather piled upon the floor….Vermin abounded…skin diseases…Infectious diseases were propagated readily.
According to scholars such as Angus Maddison and Brad DeLong, GDP per capita hardly rose for thousands, or tens of thousands, of years before the emergence of capitalism. And then after 100,000 years of stagnation (by DeLong’s estimates), around 1750 capitalism and growth began, first in Northern Europe and the American seaboard, and spreading ever since to more parts of the world. That is, the existence of relatively free markets is the reason we don’t live like my Scottish ancestors. This is indeed the Great Fact of the modern world. We should celebrate it, even as we work to extend the benefits of markets to people and nations who don’t yet enjoy as much capitalism as they should.
The president’s speech on surveillance today proposed some welcome first steps toward appropriately limiting an expanding surveillance state — notably, an end to the NSA’s bulk phone metadata program in its current form, and a recognition that judges, not NSA analysts, must determine whose records will be scrutinized.
The details are important, however. Obama’s speech left open the possibility that bulk collection might continue with some third party — which would in effect be an arm of government — as a custodian. If records are left with phone carriers, on the other hand, it’s important to resist any new legal mandate that would require longer or more extensive retention of private data than ordinary business purposes require.
It was disappointing, however, to see that many of the recommendations offered by Obama’s own Surveillance Review Group were either neglected or specifically rejected. While the unconstitutional permanent gag orders attached to National Security Letters will be time-limited, they will continue to be issued by FBI agents, not judges, for sensitive financial and communications records.
Nor did the president address NSA’s myopic efforts to degrade the security of the Internet by compromising the encryption systems relied on by millions of innocent users. And it is also important to realize that changing one controversial program doesn’t alter the broader section 215 authority, which can still be used to collect other types of records in bulk—and for all we know, may already be used for that purpose.
Most fundamentally, Congress must now act to cement these reforms in legislation — and to extend them —to ensure safeguards implemented by one president cannot be secretly undone by another.
Daniel J. Ikenson
A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.
“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.” Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.
But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:
Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.
Meanwhile, the United States (not China or Mexico) is the world’s #1 destination for FDI:
With a stock valued at $3.9 trillion, the United States is the top single-country destination for the world’s FDI outflows. There are plenty of reasons for that being the case, including the facts that the United States is the world’s largest market and has a sound legal system and a relatively transparent business environment. More than $4 out of every $5 of that stock (84.2%) is owned by Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese, with the U.S. manufacturing sector accounting for a full third of its value, making it the primary destination for inward FDI.
Are BASF, Michelin, BMW, Siemens, Airbus, InBev, Honda, Kia, Ikea, Shuanghui (recent Chinese purchaser of Smithfield Hams) and thousands of other foreign-headquartered companies invested here because labor is cheapest in the United States? They are here because firms conduct value-added activities wherever it makes the most sense to do so, given all of the considerations and restrictions that affect costs. For so many reasons, the United States is still the top destination for investment in manufacturing and most services industries.
So stop. Just stop.
The editorial also indulges the most persistent myth of all, that increasing exports while minimizing imports is the purpose of trade agreements. As I’ve written on countless occasions in numerous different ways, increased imports are the real benefits of trade. Our exports are what we use to pay for our imports. If you prefer paying less for your products at the grocery store, you should prefer exporting less for the products you import. And for those concerned about income inequality—the editorial’s presumed audience—it is worth understanding that import competition increases choices and reduces prices, which means imports increase real incomes.
The editorial concedes that imports from Vietnam may increase under the TPP (“suppose [the bilateral deficit] were to double”), but that the deficit “would still be tiny relative to the overall U.S. trade balance.” Instead of apologizing and rationalizing, as though this development were a cost, why not point out how lower-income Americans, in particular, would experience a lower cost of living because trade would reduce the cost of their clothing and footwear?
We need to do better a job explaining how trade does not lend itself to sports metaphors. Exports are not our “points.” Imports are not “their” points. The trade account is not a scoreboard. It is not Team America against the world. Trade is about mutually beneficial exchange between individuals in different political jurisdictions, and to the extent that those kinds of transactions are subject to the whims of politicians, more and more resources will be diverted from economic to political ends.
Though it may have had good intentions, the Washington Post should know better than to perpetuate simplistic myths spun by well-compensated K Street consultants on behalf of the business, labor, and environmental interests that benefit financially from restrictions on trade and investment.
Proponents of E-Verify, the Internet-based system to verify that a person is eligible to work in the United States, often tout its supposed speed and reliability. A recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Cato has shed some light on how long it takes for the government to resolve contested tentative non-confirmations (TNC). The data should temper some enthusiasm for the system.
Our FOIA revealed that in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 68,775 contested TNCs through E-Verify. A TNC is an initial E-Verify determination that a worker is unlawful. Of those, 21,007 were handled by the Social Security Administration, with an average turnaround of 3.42 work day days.
The Department of Homeland Security handled the other 47,768 contested TNCs, with an average turnaround of 6.01 work days. SSA deals with a lower volume of cases and deals with them in almost half the time that it takes DHS.
The information received as part of the FOIA included further breakdowns of resolution time:
Number of Days to Resolve
Contested SSA TNC Cases≤ 1 Day 1 to 2 Days 2 to 3 Days 3 to 8 Days ≥ 8 Days
Contested DHS TNC Cases≤ 1 Day 1 to 2 Days 2 to 3 Days 3 to 8 Days ≥ 8 Days
As can be seen, not only was DHS slower in resolving its cases, but nearly half of its cases took longer than 8 work days to resolve. Some 55.3 percent took over 3 work days for DHS resolve.
Some 52 million American workers were hired in 2012 and they were subjected to 21.1 million queries. This gives an indication that today’s relatively short delays would increase if tens of millions of additional American workers are forced to use E-Verify annually.
Worse, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has offered an amendment for national E-Verify that would require verification of all existing employees who were not previously verified—with a three-month deadline. There is a total civilian labor force of roughly 155 million people. Running more than 100 million workers through E-Verify within three months, as Senator Sessions’ amendment requires, would dramatically increase the wait time for resolving contested TNCs.
The 68,775 contested TNCs in 2012 came from a pool of 21.1 million total E-Verify queries nationwide, about 0.33 percent. Importantly, that is a percentage of contested TNCs to actual queries. It’s likely that individual workers were run through E-Verify by the same employer more than once, increasing the number of queries relative to the number of workers checked through E-Verify. That means that the rate of contested TNCs per worker run through E-Verify is actually higher than indicated here.
Applying that same rate to the 155 million workers Sessions envisions would produce 511,500 contested TNCs. About 36 percent of those, or 184,140, would take eight days or more to resolve—assuming (laughably) that increasing the number of people run through E-Verify by a factor of 7 will have no effect on speed.
The economic costs of nationally mandating E-Verify caused by TNC resolution delays will be higher than many of its proponents care to admit. That and the other economic costs of E-Verify, the worrying privacy issues surrounding it, its lackluster performance, and how it makes everyone ask for permission from the government to work should temper enthusiasm for this scheme.
This post was written with the help of Scott Platton.
Robert Poole is one the nation’s top experts on privatization and transportation policy reform. He has a great new Hudson Institute study on problems with our air traffic control (ATC) system and ideas for restructuring it. The nation’s ATC system is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Here are some of Bob’s findings:
- The features and procedures of our government-run ATC system “have remained remarkably unchanged through a half century of dramatic advances in technology” elsewhere in the economy.
- Our ATC system “has fallen well behind the capacity of new technologies to provide safer, faster, more reliable, and more fuel efficient air travel and to keep up with the increasing volume of air travel.”
- “Nearly all communications are still by voice radio, despite the ubiquity of text messaging and its greater ease and accuracy for routine communications.”
- “Radar remains the principal means of aircraft position surveillance, despite the much greater accuracy of GPS and other systems.”
- The FAA “is slow to embrace promising innovations in outside research organizations or private-sector companies.”
- The FAA “does a poor job of procuring new technology, with many programs eventually cancelled or emerging years late at inflated cost.”
- The FAA “is particularly resistant to high-potential innovations that would disrupt its own institutional status quo.”
- Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and Germany are doing a better job of embracing new technologies for ATC. These countries have restructured their systems as self-supporting organizations outside of their government bureaucracies.
Ultimately, the culprit for America falling behind on ATC is not the FAA, but Congress. Congress has its head buried in the sand. Aviation demand is rising and our government-run system is not up to the challenge. ATC is an increasingly dynamic, high-tech business, and it is too important to consign to the lethargy, inefficiency, and bungling that dominates so many Washington bureaucracies. For more, see this study on airport and ATC reform, and this op-ed on privatizing ATC. Bob’s work at the Reason Foundation is here.
Some issues lend themselves well to cooperation between liberals and conservatives who can both see the need to limit the arbitrary power of government. One prime prospect: the dangers to individual privacy of government surveillance run amok. This week in Annapolis several members of the Maryland legislature held a press conference to announce that they would push for an agenda of reforms setting out rules for law enforcement’s use of techniques including phone location tracking, automatic license plate readers, email surveillance, and drones. The group is led by Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Silver Spring), one of the strongest liberals in the state legislature, and Sen. Chris Shank (R-Hagerstown), one of the strongest conservatives. Here (quoting verbatim) is the summary provided by the ACLU of Maryland:
- Email surveillance. Legislation to require that law enforcement go before a neutral arbiter and prove that the information they are obtaining is likely to turn up evidence of a crime before intercepting and accessing online data.
- Location Tracking. Legislation to require that law enforcement get a warrant based on probable cause prior to obtaining mobile phone tracking information.
- Drones. Legislation to impose limits and regulations on aerial surveillance that would protect against police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools.
- Automatic License Plate Recorders. Legislation that would keep law enforcement from storing records of license plates and locations that are not ‘hits’ against any database.
Others sponsoring the bills include Democratic delegates from Baltimore City and Montgomery County as well as Del. Mike Smigiel (R-Eastern Shore), a prominent supporter of Second Amendment rights.
Looks like something worth keeping an eye on.
This headline appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post:
The story reports that President Obama “will call on Congress to help determine the [NSA surveillance] program’s future. Which is good because Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States provides that:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.
Deciding the scope and extent of any federal surveillance powers is clearly a legislative matter. Subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution’s limits on federal powers, legislative powers are vested in Congress, not the president. How can reporters (and headline writers) write so cavalierly about the president “giving” Congress a chance to “weigh in” on matters of fundamental law? This headline should be as jarring as one reading, “Obama plans to give Supreme Court a say in fate of NSA program.” It isn’t up to the president. The legislative branch is empowered by the Constitution to make law, and the judicial branch is empowered to strike down legislative and executive actions not authorized by the Constitution. The president’s job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the rise of presidential power ‘‘was as much a matter of congressional acquiescence as of presidential usurpation.’’ It’s time for Congress to stop acquiescing. And for journalists to remind readers of the powers granted to presidents in the Constitution.
Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger
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 summer, we predicted that come this winter, any type of severe weather event was going to be linked to pernicious industrial activity (via global warming) through a new mechanism that had become a media darling—the loss of late summer/early fall Arctic sea ice leading to more persistent patterns in the jet stream. These are known as “blocking” patterns, which generally means that the same type of weather (usually somewhat extremish) hangs around longer than usual.
This global-warming-leading-to-more-extreme-winter-weather mechanism has been presented in several recent papers, perhaps the most noteworthy of which was a 2012 publication by Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus, which was the subject of one of our blog posts last summer. We noted then how their idea ran counter to much of the extant literature of the topic as well as a host of other newly published papers investigating historical jet stream patterns.
After running through a list of observations compiled from the scientific literature countering the Francis and Vavrus explanation of things, we nevertheless wondered:
It’ll be interesting to see during this upcoming winter season how often the press—which seems intent on seeking to relate all bad weather events to anthropogenic global warming—turns to the Francis and Vavrus explanation of winter weather events, and whether or not the growing body of new and conflicting science is ever brought up.
We didn’t have to wait long. After a couple of early winter southward Arctic air excursions, the familiar and benign-sounding “jet stream” had become the “polar vortex” which “sucked in” the United States. Of course, the U.S. being sucked into a polar vortex was part and parcel of what was to be expected from global warming.
Since we had predicted this action/reaction, we weren’t terribly surprised.
What did surprise us (although perhaps it shouldn’t have) is that the White House joined in the polar vortex horror show and released a video in which John Holdren, the President’s Science Advisor—arguably the highest ranking “scientist” in the U.S.—linked the frigid air to global warming:The Polar Vortex Explained in 2 Minutes
In the video, Holdren boldly stated:
…a growing body of evidence suggests that kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States as we speak is a pattern that we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues…
It seems that Holdren neither keeps up with our writings at Cato nor the scientific literature on the topic.
While perhaps it could be argued that Holdren’s statement is not an outright lie, it is, at its very best, a half-truth and even a stretch at that. For in fact, there is a larger and faster growing body of evidence that directly disputes Holdren’s contention.
In addition to the evidence that we reported on here and here, a couple of brand new papers just hit the scientific journals this month that emphatically reject the hypothesis that global warming is leading to more blocking patterns in the jet stream (and accompanying severe weather outbreaks across the U.S.).
The first paper is a modeling paper by a team of U.K. scientists led by Giacomo Masato from the University of Reading. Masato and his colleagues looked at how the magnitude and frequency of atmospheric blocking events in the Atlantic-Europe region is projected to change in the future according to four climate models which the authors claim match the observed characteristics of blocking events in this region pretty well. What they found was completely contradictory to Holdren’s claim. While the researchers did note a model-projected small future increase in the frequency of blocking patterns over the Atlantic (the ones which impact the weather in the U.S.), they found that the both the strength of the blocking events as well as the associated surface temperature anomalies over the continental U.S. were considerably moderated. In other words, global warming was expected to make “polar vortex” associated cold outbreaks less cold.
The second paper is by a research team led by Colorado State University’s Elizabeth Barnes. In their paper “Exploring recent trends in Northern Hemisphere blocking,” Barnes and colleagues used various meteorological definitions of “blocking” along with various datasets of atmospheric conditions to assess whether or not there have been any trends in the frequency of blocking events that could be tied to changes in global warming and/or the declines in Arctic sea ice.
They found no such associations.
From their conclusions:
[T]he link between recent Arctic warming and increased Northern Hemisphere blocking is currently not supported by observations. While Arctic sea ice experienced unprecedented losses in recent years, blocking frequencies in these years do not appear exceptional, falling well within their historically observed range. The large variability of blocking occurrence, on both inter-annual and decadal time scales, underscores the difficulty in separating any potentially forced response from natural variability.
In other words natural variability dominates the observed record making it impossible to detect any human-caused global warming signal even if one were to exist (which there is no proof of).
So, the most recent science shows 1) no observed relationship between global warming and winter severe weather outbreaks and 2) future “polar vortex”-associated cold outbreaks are projected to mollify—yet the White House prepares a special video proclaiming the opposite with the intent to spread climate alarm.
Full scientific disclosure in matters pertaining to global warming is not a characteristic that we have come to expect with this Administration.
Barnes, E., et al., 2014. Exploring recent trends in Northern Hemisphere blocking. Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2013GL058745.
Francis, J. A. and S. J. Vavrus, 2012: Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000.
Masato, G., T. Woollings, and B.J. Hoskins, 2014. Structure and impact of atmospheric blocking over the Euro-Atlantic region in present day and future simulations. Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2013GL058570.
 For what it’s worth, there’s been two polar vortices (north and south) on planet earth ever since it acquired an atmosphere and maintains rotation.
One of the claims made by defenders of NSA spying is that it’s overseen and approved by all three branches of the federal government.
Computer security expert Bruce Schneier provides some insight into how well congressional oversight is working in a short blog post entitled: “Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA.”
This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me – as someone with access to the Snowden documents – to explain to them what the NSA was doing.
Many members of Congress have been derelict for years in not overseeing the National Security Agency. Now some members of Congress are asking questions, and they’re being stonewalled.
It’s the government so…
I suggested that we hold this meeting in a SCIF, because they wanted me to talk about top secret documents that had not been made public. The problem is that I, as someone without a clearance, would not be allowed into the SCIF.
Randy Barnett and I made the case last fall that the panels of judges who approve domestic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should not be regarded as legitimate courts. Their use to dispose of Americans’ rights violates due process.
And the executive branch? Here’s President Obama: “I mean, part of the problem here is we get these through the press and then I’ve got to go back and find out what’s going on…”
How’s that tri-partite oversight coming along?
On Tuesday, the Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” proposing that all private schools accepting students participating in school choice programs be required to administer the state test. Low-performing schools would be forbidden to participate in the school choice program. As I explained then, that would de facto entail forcing almost all private schools into the Common Core regime, thereby stifling innovation and diversity. The Friedman Foundation pointed to a recent study showing how parents hold private schools accountable already. Matt Ladner highlighted Fordham’s own previous research that exposed state accountability measures as fradulant “illusions.” Greg Forster cast a gimlet eye on Fordham’s assurance that existing private schools don’t really mind the state tests:
Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.
Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.
And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).
In response, Fordham’s new president, Michael Petrilli, acknowledges (some of) these concerns, but oddly claims that since we don’t share his proposed government solution, we also must not share his concern about poorly performing private schools. It’s as though Petrilli proposes dousing a burning building with gasoline but when others object that this is a bad idea, he accuses them of thinking that the burning building is a not really a problem.
Sure, as Petrilli notes, there are poorly performing private schools just as there are poorly performing government schools. The question is which system is more likely to reduce the number of bad schools and increase the number of good ones: a system of uniform accountability to the government or a diverse and innovative system where accountability is directly to parents? We believe that the evidence supports the latter and demonstrated why the evidence Fordham relies on lies somewhere between flimsy and non-existent.
Petrilli has at least shown a potential willingness to back down from the worst elements of his proposal:
Maybe the tests that voucher students take need not be the state tests so long as they’re solid measures of achievement. Perhaps we need to let schools point to alternative measures of student outcomes before they are kicked out of choice programs. Possibly we need an accountability regime that’s completely separate from that which governs the public schools. Such compromises might help to ensure that the educational diversity of the private school marketplace isn’t inadvertently diminished.
Unfortunately, he still clings to the notion that what we have now is somehow a “market” in education, concluding: “But the answer cannot be ‘let the market figure it out.’ Because it hasn’t, and it won’t—and somebody must.” But as Forster noted, a system where 90 percent of the “market” is consumed by the “free” government schools is not really a market. If we really want more accountability, then we need more choices. Even Petrilli admits that sometimes families choose a poorly performing private school because it’s the only alternative to a worse performing (or unsafe) government school. Eliminating that alternative by forbidding the private school from participating in a school choice program won’t do any good for those low-income families who will then be shuffled back to the government school.
Instead of government-induced conformity, let’s push for broader education choice programs that give the private schools the space to innovate.
Jeffrey A. Miron
In today’s WaPo, the DEA’s Chief of Operations James L. Capra claims that:
the movement to decriminalize the sale of pot in the United States will have severe consequences. … Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.
Capra’s assertion is so ignorant of the facts that it merits little comment; instead, read Glenn Greenwald’s Cato study on decriminalization in Portugal, which shows just the opposite of Capra’s claim.
Capra’s statement about “severe consequences” is not entirely wrong, however; legalization will put thousands of DEA and other law enforcement officials out of work! Perhaps, therefore, the government should outlaw food, clothing, and shelter; then we could emply billions in the attempt to enforce those laws.
An interesting side note is that, like law enforcement officials, drug traffickers also fear legalization. See minute 4:00 of this video.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the overwhelming approval of the new Egyptian constitution in the referendum held earlier this week. While, according to preliminary results, the vast majority of roughly 37 percent of Egyptians who showed up at the polls backed the proposal, very little about the document itself or about the process through which it has come about is consistent with the idea of liberal democracy and limited government. Yesterday’s Bloomberg View editorial summarizes all one needs to know about the new constitution:
The armed forces would for at least the next eight years be independent of civilian control, including over their budget, as they were under former President Hosni Mubarak, himself an air force commander. Military courts would remain autonomous and would have jurisdiction over civilians in many instances. The hated police would also get greater independence, while the Supreme Court would be able to decide its size and membership for itself.
Neither should there be any illusions about the events leading to the adoption of the document. The referendum followed months of a deliberate crackdown on the opposition and disbanding of the largest political force in the country – not to speak of the arrests of activists of the ‘no’ campaign.
In short, Egypt seems to be coming full circle to where it was before the events of the Arab Spring, particularly if General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announces his candidature for the country’s highest office. The question is how long the Egyptians are willing to put up with it.
As a side note, the constitutional process in Tunisia looks much more encouraging, although as Emmanuel Martin and I argue here, the new constitution is unlikely to be a an impetus for the badly needed economic reforms.
K. William Watson
The most important piece of trade legislation Congress has dealt with in years was introduced in the House and Senate last week. The “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014” sets out the parameters for renewing trade promotion authority (TPA), originally known as “fast track,” in order to ease eventual passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other agreements through Congress. There will be a lot of debate in the coming months about what U.S. trade policy should look like, and this TPA bill will do a lot to establish the agenda.
The new bill largely mirrors the last TPA grant in 2002. The basic idea of fast track is that Congress agrees to hold an up-or-down vote on any trade agreement submitted by the president, while the president agrees to adopt a series of negotiating objectives laid out by Congress.
I’ve explained before why I think TPA is not necessary right now to get agreements through Congress and why it could even make the TPP negotiations more difficult. However, that argument is temporarily moot since this TPA bill is on the table and will apply not only to the TPP but to the U.S.-EU trade agreement and any World Trade Organzation negotiations for the next four years.
Defeat of this bill could quite possibly kill any chance the president has to conclude trade agreements before the end of his term. Also, the negotiating objectives included in the new bill are not as bad as I had feared.
At this point, we should be talking about what’s in the new TPA bill and how it might change as the debate heats up.
For starters, the bill’s weak language on currency manipulation is particularly encouraging. American automakers and their allies among House Democrats have made “misaligned” foreign currency their number one trade issue and have insisted on very strong language in TPA. The administration, however, has stated that it does not want the issue addressed in the TPP agreement, as other countries in the negotiations are strongly opposed to the inclusion of currency rules.
The current text of the TPA bill calls out currency manipulation as a problem but leaves the president a lot of discretion. The political cost of that discretion has been a complete lack of support from House Democrats. Dan Ikenson has explained the troubling politics of this situation and calls for the president to take a tougher stance against Detroit if he wants to make progress with his own trade agenda.
On labor and the environment, the new TPA bill maintains the status quo in U.S. trade policy. The language requiring our trade partners to abide by specific international labor and environmental agreements was not included in the 2002 TPA but reflects a compromise reached in 2007, when Democrats took control of the House. Despite the fact that Republicans have regained their majority, many were worried that the new TPA would impose even stronger objectives on labor and environmental requirements.
If support from House Democrats is already lost because of the currency issue, Republicans may want to consider whether there’s any room to roll back the objectives on labor and environment. Free trade should not be contingent on the adoption of foreign labor and environmental standards. As Dan Griswold succinctly explained when Congress was debating another fast track bill fifteen years ago:
This debate is not about worker rights or a cleaner environment. It’s about the freedom of people in America and abroad to engage in mutually beneficial trade. In the real world, the international standards and trade sanctions that opponents of fast-track insist upon could in fact slow progress toward better living standards in poor countries.
Now fast track imposes those very same standards and sanctions, but opponents are still not satisfied. Perhaps this Congress in 2014 is incapable of imbuing the trade agenda with much-needed faith in the free market, but there’s little to lose from trying.
The new TPA bill also continues the past policy of promoting strong intellectual property rules through trade agreements. This is an area where the United States has to expend a considerable amount of negotiating capital to get marginal changes in foreign IP laws that benefit a handful of U.S. industries.
IP has also become a focus of domestic opposition to the U.S. trade agenda, as copyright and patent reform advocates recognize the dangers of locking-in bad policy through international agreements. Like labor and environmental targets, the IP component of the trade agenda is an issue where congressional consensus exists despite a pressing need for serious debate.
Finally, some separate trade initiatives may get tied-in to the passage of TPA.
Democrats are certain to insist on an extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program before supporting TPA. Trade Adjustment Assistance provides greater welfare benefits to people who can tie their job loss to import competition. It is an entitlement program whose primary purpose is to demonize trade while assuaging anti-trade constituencies. In truth, these jobs are lost due to economic growth and trade is only one of many ways to ensure a dynamic and competitive economy.
Also, the Generalized System of Preferences program that grants tariff-free treatment to imports from poor countries could be extended in conjunction with passage of TPA. The program, though it has its faults, helps many consumers and producers in the United States and creates economic opportunity for people who desperately need it. Despite being generally popular in Congress, the program expired last year.
TPA offers Congress an opportunity both to support and to shape the U.S. trade agenda. Perhaps the current set of negotiating objectives is the best that can be done with this particular Congress this year. But, this is a good time to have a debate about the goals of U.S. trade policy: to consider ways to make it better and, especially, to keep it from getting worse.
Jeffrey A. Miron
As “Big-Box” retailers like Walmart have proflierated in recent years, “Mom-and-Pop” retailers have asked local governments to ban or limit Big Boxes, arguing that Walmart and their ilk drive small, independent retailers out of business.
One response to this complaint is, “Too bad.” Walmart’s large size allows it to operate efficiently and offer low prices; independents are less efficient and so should get driven out of business. Independents may be better than Big Boxes at service, convenience, specialty items, and “personality,” so many will survive despite nearby Big Boxes. But if some fail and exit, that is what economic efficiency demands.
A different response is that, even if Big Box entry hurts independents, laws that limit Big Boxes do not necessarily help independents. That is precisely the conclusion of new research by Raffaella Sadun (Harvard Business School). Analyzing entry regulation in the United Kingdom, she finds that
independent retailers were actually harmed by the creation of entry barriers against large stores. Instead of simply reducing the number of new large stores entering a market, the entry barriers created the incentive for large retail chains to invest in smaller and more centrally located formats, which competed more directly with independents and accelerated their decline.
Thus even if policymakers want to protect small retailers, the “treatment” (government intervention) can be worse than the “disease” (competition)!
Seventy-five economists, including seven Nobel winners, have signed a letter advocating an increase in the minimum wage. The letter was preceded by a New York Times editorial on January 2 making the same argument. I assume that there will be an opposing letter shortly, probably also including some Nobel signers. These minimum wage campaigns arise from time to time; this exchange is old hat, but worth reviewing briefly.
The new letter claims that “… the weight of evidence now show[s] that increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers … .” Relatively few op-ed readers are economists, but anyone interested in the evidence should consider a 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by David Neumark and William Wascher, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Review of Evidence from the New Minimum Wage Research.” Here is the abstract:
We review the burgeoning literature on the employment effects of minimum wages - in the United States and other countries - that was spurred by the new minimum wage research beginning in the early 1990s. Our review indicates that there is a wide range of existing estimates and, accordingly, a lack of consensus about the overall effects on low-wage employment of an increase in the minimum wage. However, the oft-stated assertion that recent research fails to support the traditional view that the minimum wage reduces the employment of low-wage workers is clearly incorrect. A sizable majority of the studies surveyed in this monograph give a relatively consistent (although not always statistically significant) indication of negative employment effects of minimum wages. In addition, among the papers we view as providing the most credible evidence, almost all point to negative employment effects, both for the United States as well as for many other countries. Two other important conclusions emerge from our review. First, we see very few - if any - studies that provide convincing evidence of positive employment effects of minimum wages, especially from those studies that focus on the broader groups (rather than a narrow industry) for which the competitive model predicts disemployment effects. Second, the studies that focus on the least-skilled groups provide relatively overwhelming evidence of stronger disemployment effects for these groups.
It is not hard to explain to the noneconomist why some studies suggest no effect of the minimum wage on employment. In the past, changes in the minimum wage have been relatively small. Trying to sort out the effects of the increase from everything else going on requires high-powered statistics, and even then the effects can be buried by a host of other simultaneous disturbances and influences.
So, consider the following common-sense thought experiment: Suppose Congress were to enact a minimum wage $50 higher than the current one of $7.25 per hour. Would a minimum of $57.25 reduce employment? I know of no economist who would assert a zero effect in this case, and recommend that readers ask their economist friends about this thought experiment. Assume that the estimate is that a minimum of $57.25 would reduce employment by 100,000. The actual number would be far higher but 100,000 will do for this thought experiment. Now, consider several other possible increases of less than $50. The larger of these increases would have substantial effects, the smaller ones smaller effects.
But is there reason to believe that a minimum of $10 would have no effect? I have never seen a convincing argument to justify that belief. If you accept as a fact that a minimum wage of $57.25 would reduce employment, and you accept as a fact that some workers are currently paid $7.25 per hour, then logic compels you to believe that a small increase in the minimum wage above $7.25 will have at least a small negative effect on employment.
The only escape from this logic is to believe that there is a discontinuity in the relationship between the minimum wage and employment. No one has offered evidence that there is a discontinuity at a certain minimum wage such that a minimum above that has an effect and one below does not.
A wage above $7.25 is readily available to anyone willing to move to low-unemployment area such as North Dakota. Instead of calling for a higher federal minimum wage, why not call for federal assistance helping workers to move to labor-short states?
The Ethics of a Minimum Wage Increase
If you accept that a small increase in the minimum wage will have some small negative effect on employment, then you need to consider the nature of the trade-off involved. Those who remain employed—and most workers will remain employed if the minimum wage increase is small—will enjoy the benefits of the higher wage and will thank the politicians who gave it to them. Those who lose employment will, most likely, not even realize that the minimum wage is the cause. Why? Because most firms will adjust by letting attrition run down staff size. Most minimum wage jobs are in industries with high turnover. Thus, few workers are fired; instead, some are not hired to replace workers turning over. Workers not hired are unlikely to have any idea as to the reason.
Who are the workers not hired? They are the least skilled, most disadvantaged members of society. The bottom line is that those who advocate an increase in the minimum wage are willing to trade the higher wages of those who remain employed for reduced employment opportunities for the least skilled.
I finish with a personal story. I remember my father telling me of an effect from the minimum wage increase from $1.00 to $1.15 effective September 1961. The same legislation scheduled a further increase to $1.25 in September 1963. Dad described how the DuPont Company at that point decided to automate elevators in its office building in Wilmington, Delaware. The old elevators worked fine, but required an operator. Within a short time, all the elevators were automated and the operators of the old ones had no jobs.
Today, even modest increases in the minimum wage will have similar effects. For example, fast-food restaurants will replace order takers with electronic order stations that accept cash and credit cards for payment and relay the orders directly to the kitchen.
I wish it were possible for today’s long-term unemployed to plead with the economists and editorial writers not to advocate a higher minimum wage. Will those advocating a higher minimum wage be willing meet face to face with disadvantaged members of society, who are willing and able to work, and explain why their employment needs to be sacrificed for higher wages for those who remain employed?
North Korea has never been an easy ally for the People’s Republic of China. With the execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and supposed mentor, Beijing’s uncertain clout in Pyongyang is at risk.
“Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il has been dead barely two years, but his son appears to have turned politics there into blood sport. While family members, including Jang under both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, were commonly sidelined, they never were publicly executed.
Now the game has changed. Although Kim appears to be in firm control, the circumstances are extraordinary. A quick execution is as much a sign of weakness as strength, suggesting the need to dispatch a dangerous rival who might gather support. Undertaking a broad and deadly purge creates not only uncertainty but desperation, which might spark unexpected resistance.
The most obvious concern over the DPRK concerns a foreign policy which has gotten more erratic and confrontational since Kim Jong-il’s death. Kim regularly employed brinkmanship as policy, but always seemed to know just when to stop. Kim fils has demonstrated no such limits. His latest threat of war against South Korea went by fax to Seoul. The possibility of mistake or miscalculation seems much higher.
There also is rising doubt as to the PRC’s ability to offer a moderating influence on Pyongyang. China’s relationship with the DPRK never has been easy. Still, Chinese energy and food aid has been essential, and most recently Chinese investment has provided the DPRK an economic lifeline.
There has been a recent hardening of attitudes in the PRC. Nevertheless, until now the North continued to seek support from China. But now Jang is gone.
Jang was widely thought to play an important role in economic affairs and place greater emphasis on economic development, which probably meant support for economic liberalization.
Moreover, Jang had established a strong relationship with Chinese officials. Bilateral deal-making seemed to accelerate in Kim Jong-il’s final years, when Jang played an important leadership role. In 2012, the latter headed a large delegation which discussed expanding special investment zones with Beijing’s support. Many North Koreans linked to Jang were in business in the PRC.
It is widely presumed that Jang was removed for political reasons. Yet the bill of particulars included several economic charges.
For instance, Jang was accused of having “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living.” Even more telling, Jang’s indictment includes the charge of “selling of precious resources of the country at cheap prices” and having “made no scruple of committing such act of treachery in May last as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying those debts.” Moreover, corruption was charged involving a 2011 project at Rason.
Of course, China is the “foreign country” cited.
The charges could merely reflect a “kitchen sink” quality, but they seem too specific for Beijing’s comfort. So far nothing has obviously changed. New contracts have been signed and one North Korean economic official announced “It’s just the same as before.” Still, inertia might continue to govern, with change to come. Zhu Feng of Peking University observed: “the negative impact must be tremendous.”
Chinese with whom I spoke in early December admitted that they could only speculate. But if the North really is targeting Beijing along with Jang, relations could deteriorate quickly.
North Korea’s urge to purge should prompt rethinking in Beijing about the North Korea “problem.” The PRC should explore options with South Korea and America, including taking a much tougher policy toward the DPRK in return for allied attention to Chinese concerns over economic costs, refugee flows, and security issues. The North’s neighbors should work together to ensure a stable and peaceful future no matter what.
Nine years after the so-called Orange Revolution against electoral fraud, opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich hope to stage a repeat. But the issue today, whether Kiev aligns economically with Europe or Russia, doesn’t much concern the U.S.
In 2004 the Orange Revolution helped deliver the presidency to Western-favorite Viktor Yushchenko, a disastrous incompetent. Yanukovich narrowly won the 2009 race.
He has been negotiating over an Association Agreement with the European Union. However, Brussels demanded political concessions, most importantly the freeing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been prosecuted by Yanukovich’s government, and refused to offer cash assistance.
At the same time Vladimir Putin pushed Kiev to forswear the EU and join the Moscow-led Customs Union. And Moscow brought cash to the table. To the consternation of Brussels, last month the Yanukovich government signed an accord with Russia—though without joining the CU.
Brussels and Washington were shocked, shocked. New German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “It is utterly scandalous how Russia used Ukraine’s economic plight for its own ends.”
Sen. John McCain visited Kiev, where he complained that “President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe.” Former Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky demanded “a broad range of measures, including WTO sanctions, Russian expulsion from the Group of Eight and even a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics by political leaders, unless Moscow abandons its strong-arm tactics toward Kiev.”
The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
After all, the EU was pushing Kiev into making political concessions and choosing Europe over Russia. In return, the Europeans offered the prospect of economic gain through increased trade. After Kiev said no European officials said billions in grants and loans would have been forthcoming had Ukraine signed with the EU.
Of course, Washington goes not one hour, let alone one day, without attempting to bribe or coerce another government to do something. The American secretary of state circles the globe constantly lecturing other nations how to behave. Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has been the warrior state, routinely using military means to achieve its ends. Indeed, Sen. McCain has variously supported war against Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Serbia, and Syria.
Russia is guilty of heavy-handedness?
Yes, the West offers a better, freer path. Which is why protests have broken out over Ukraine’s abandonment of the EU. It’s fair for Washington to wish the critics well and warn Kiev against a violent response.
But why should Brussels or Washington meddle in the decision itself? The Wall Street Journal insisted that the Obama administration “stand up for America’s interests and values.” But what are they in Ukraine?
Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland declared at the opposition rally in Kiev: “the U.S. stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity and security, for economic health, and the European future that you have chosen and deserve.”
Washington should endorse justice and human dignity, which justifies support for honest elections and warnings against police brutality. But Ukraine’s “economic health” and “European future” aren’t American values and are barely American interests. How would Americans feel if Ukrainian politicians showed up at a Republican rally in Washington vowing to stand with protestors in the name of Ukrainian “interests and values”?
A stable, democratic Ukraine would be benefit all. However, Russia’s activities in Ukraine do not threaten the U.S. In contrast, bringing NATO up to Russia’s southern border could not help but be seen as threatening by Moscow—imagine the Warsaw Pact expanding to Mexico.
The West should acknowledge legitimate Russian interests in Ukraine, while offering new incentives for Kiev to look westward. Moreover, Europe should seek compromise with Moscow. Ukraine has proposed creation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues,” including greater links between the EU and the Russian-lead CU, which might reduce Moscow’s pressure on Kiev.
If Ukraine wants to look east, so be it. Even with Russia’s money Yanukovich’s reelection prospects are weak and Ukraine is likely to eventually join the West. If not, the country never was the EU’s or Washington’s to lose.