Feed aggregator

About Those "Creeping Sharia" Fears

Cato Op-Eds - Thu, 02/20/2014 - 14:49

Walter Olson

If you’ve wondered about charges of “creeping sharia” in American law, you really should read this week’s series of blog posts by Eugene Volokh based on an Oklahoma Law Review article. (Oklahoma is the state whose legislators passed a law banning the use of Islamic sharia and other religious law in courts, struck down by the Tenth Circuit as unconstitutional because of its specific proscription of the law of one religion as against others.) Included are installments on the courts’ enforcement of contracts, wills, and similar instruments that would call on courts to interpret Islamic law or that are motivated by desire to conform to such law; instances where American courts use foreign law that itself incorporates religious law; instances where devout Muslims claim broadly available religious exemptions from generally applicable laws or work rules; and provision in government services of accommodations that benefit devoutly Muslim customers, employees, students, or clients. Summary passage, footnotes omitted:

In many of the instances that critics see as improper “creeping sharia,” I will argue, it is longstanding American law that calls for recognizing or implementing an individual’s religious principles, including Islamic principles. American law provides for freedom of contract and disposition of property at death. Muslims (like Christians, Jews, and the irreligious) can therefore write contracts and wills to implement their understanding of their religious obligations. American law provides for arbitration with parties’ consent. Muslims can use this to route their disputes to Muslim tribunals, just like Christians, Jews and the irreligious often route their disputes to private arbitrators of their choice.

American law provides for religious exemptions from generally applicable laws and from employer regulations. Muslims, as well as Christians, Jews, and others, may claim such exemptions. American law provides for the use of foreign law in certain cases stemming from foreign occurrences (marriages, divorces, injuries and the like). Sometimes this calls for the use of foreign religious law, whether Islamic law, Jewish law, or the decisions of Christian tribunals.

Of course, American law also imposes limiting principles on these doctrines. Some contracts and foreign judgments are unenforceable. Many religious exemption requests are denied. But these limiting principles, I argue below, already adequately prevent improper recognition of Islamic law and allow recognition of such law when recognition is proper. There is no need for new law here.

…[My approach] urges courts to continue following well-established American legal traditions rather than distorting those traditions either in favor of Islam or against.

Last month, Prof. Volokh published a series of posts, likewise based on a law review article, on the closely related issue of the reception of foreign law generally in American courts.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Friedman and Hanke on Bitcoin

Cato Op-Eds - Thu, 02/20/2014 - 14:35

Steve H. Hanke

In 2008, Bitcoin was mysteriously introduced to the world in an obscure, technical paper written under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. By late 2013, the financial press was filled with reportage on Bitcoin and its dramatic price increase.

Well ahead of Satoshi Nakamoto, Nobelist Milton Friedman, champion of free market economics and noted expert on money and banking, anticipated the coming of digital currencies, and foresaw the potential impacts that they would have on finance and economics.

In a 1999 interview, Prof. Friedman concluded:

I think that the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A. The way I can take a $20 bill hand it over to you and then there’s no record of where it came from.

You may get that without knowing who I am. That kind of thing will develop on the Internet and that will make it even easier for people using the Internet. Of course, it has its negative side. It means the gangsters, the people who are engaged in illegal transactions, will also have an easier way to carry on their business.

Prof. Friedman’s anticipation of Bitcoin is truly remarkable. He even understood the concept well enough to anticipate something like the Silk Road scandal involving illegal Bitcoin transactions.

In April 2013, Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times reported on Bitcoin in an article titled “Digital Money is Gaining Champions in the Real World”. In his reportage, Popper asked me if I thought Bitcoin had the makings of a speculative mania like the 17th century Dutch tulip bulb frenzy. My response was clear and unambiguous: “To say highly speculative would be the understatement of the century.”

Subsequently, the price action in Bitcoin confirms my diagnosis (see the following chart). In January 2013, one could buy a Bitcoin for about $13. By late November, one Bitcoin would have set a buyer back over $1100. And what about Bitcoin’s price volatility? As shown in the chart, Bitcoin’s volatility is truly fantastic.

While the price currently fluctuates around $600, Bitcoin remains far from secure. Serious discrepancies in price exist even between exchanges. For example, the price of a Bitcoin on the Mt. Gox exchange has fallen by over 50% in the past week, while the price of the exact same Bitcoin on the BitStamp exchange has fallen by only 3% in the same time period.

Categories: Policy Institutes

CBO's Minimum Wage Report

Cato Op-Eds - Thu, 02/20/2014 - 10:18

Jeffrey A. Miron

In a new report, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour would raise the incomes of low-wage workers who remain employed while lowering the incomes of low-wage workers who lose their jobs. CBO’s “middle” estimate is that a $10.10 minimum wage would reduce total employment by about 500,000.

These effects are exactly what textbook economics predicts; the question is then how policy should regard this combination of good news for some, bad news for others. On that score, the answer is obvious.

A policy that alleges to help low-wage workers, yet forces half a million to lose their jobs, is hard to reconcile with any sensible view of redistribution. People with the lowest incomes are more appropriate targets of redistribution than people with higher incomes, yet the minimum wage forces more people to have zero incomes. A minimum wage is therefore loony from the get-go, even if one believes in a government safety net.

Worse, the minimum wage is poorly targeted toward low-wage workers in poverty, even amongst those who retain their jobs. According to CBO:

The increased earnings for low-wage workers resulting from the [$10.10] … minimum wage would total $31 billion … However, those earnings would not go only to low-income families, because many low-wage workers are not members of low-income families. Just 19 percent of the $31 billion would accrue to families with earnings below the poverty threshold, whereas 29 percent would accrue to families earning more than three times the poverty threshold.

Thus, the minimum wage, in part, transfers income from people in poverty to people in middle- and upper-income households!

And the minimum wage’s negative effects do not stop at its perverse impact on the distribution of income. The minimum wage forces employers to substitute higher-wage workers or capital for low-wage labor, raising costs and therefore prices. The minimum wage perpetuates the notion that evil employers, rather than low skill, explain low wages. And the minimum wage pretends to fix a problem without imposing any costs, except that the costs are merely hidden, not avoided.

The right minimum wage is not $10.10, or $7.25. It is zero.

Categories: Policy Institutes

It's Time to Break up the NSA

Cato Op-Eds - Thu, 02/20/2014 - 09:15

Jim Harper

says security guru Bruce Schneier on CNN.com.

His brief, readable piece articulates the three distinct – and conflicting – missions the NSA now has, and how they should be handled. It’s no hit piece: Schneier calls NSA’s Tailored Access Operations group “the best of the NSA and … exactly what we want it to do.”

The generals who have built NSA into a fiefdom will fight tooth and nail against true reforms like these, of course, but they’re the kind of reforms we need. The most prominent measures under discussion are mere nibbles around the edges of the problem, or worse.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Jared Bernstein’s "Tax Reform" Assault on Pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s

Cato Op-Eds - Thu, 02/20/2014 - 09:10

Alan Reynolds

The bad habit of defining “tax reform” in terms of fairness or “closing loopholes” sidesteps the most essential task of effective tax policy – namely, to collect taxes in ways that do the least possible damage to incentives for productive effort, investment and entrepreneurship.

The Joint Committee on Taxation list of “tax expenditures” is arbitrary accounting, not economics, and tax expenditures are not necessarily “loopholes.” These estimates do not take taxpayer behavior into account and therefore do not estimate revenues that could be raised by closing the so-called loopholes (e.g., a higher tax on capital gains would shrink asset sales and revenues). Policies that make sense in terms of economic incentives can therefore be portrayed as useless tax subsidies in the purely static accounting of “tax expenditures.”

For example, a recent New York Times article by former vice presidential adviser Jared Bernstein complains that tax deferral for retirement savings is unfair because, “most savings subsidies go to households that would surely save anyway, while almost nothing goes to the households that need help to save.” 

These “subsidies” for high-bracket taxpayers mainly consist of deferring rather than avoiding taxes, which only partly offsets the way savings are double-taxed. Even if higher-income households would actually save the same without 401(k) accounts (which contradicts research), they would still end up with much smaller retirement savings. Dividends and capital gains would then be repeatedly taxed, year after year, rather than being continually reinvested within a tax-deferred pension, IRA or 401(k) account. 

Estimated “subsidies” from tax deferral are deceptive: Instead of having recent dividends and capital gains taxed at a 15-20 percent rate in recent years, distributions from tax-deferred accounts will later be taxed at rates up to 39.6 percent. It’s a subsidy only if you don’t live much past 70.

Bernstein presents a graph showing the top 20 percent getting a 66 percent share of these “subsidies” for pensions and defined-contribution plans while the middle fifth gets only nine percent and the poorest 20 percent just two percent. What these figures actually demonstrate is that (1) people who work full-time for many years have more income to save than those who don’t, and that (2) people who pay no income tax cannot benefit from any policy that reduces taxable income, even temporarily.

There are five times as many workers in the top 20 percent than there are in the bottom 20 percent. To exclude young singles and old retirees, Gerald Mayer examined the work experience of households headed by someone between the working ages of 22 and 62. Average work hours among the poorest 20 percent still amounted to just 1,415 hours a year in 2010, while those in the middle fifth worked 2,771 hours, and the top 20 percent worked 4060 hours.

If Bernstein’s “subsidies” were properly expressed as shares of income, rather than as shares of foregone tax revenue, the differences nearly vanish. The Congressional Budget Office (the undisclosed source of his estimates) shows tax benefits for retirement savings worth only about twice as much to the top 20 percent (2 percent of net income) as to the middle 20 percent (0.9 percent of income). Retirement savings incentives appear to be worth only 0.4 percent of income to the poorest 20 percent, since they rarely owe taxes, yet annual benefits are a poor guide to lifetime benefits. Those in low income groups while they are young commonly move up to higher tax brackets by the time they start saving for retirement.

The alleged unfairness of lower-income households not getting the same dollar tax break as couples earning more than $115,100 (the top 20 percent) could be alleviated by reducing marginal tax rates on two-earner families. But Bernstein instead suggests “closing loopholes that make it easy for wealthy individuals to exceed contribution limits to tax-preferred accounts (as was found to be the case with Mitt Romney), reducing contribution limits for high-income filers, or simple limiting the value of tax breaks for the wealthiest of filers (e.g. allowing them to deduct such contributions at 28 percent instead of 39.6 percent.” None of these schemes would add a dime to the savings of low or middle-income households, of course, and they wouldn’t work.

It is not legal – and therefore not “easy”– to exceed strict contribution limits for high-income taxpayers, and Mitt Romney certainly did not do so.  What Romney did was to roll over qualified retirement plans into an IRA and then earn high compounded returns on very successful investments.  Similarly, albeit on a much smaller scale, I rolled-over a lump-sum pension into an IRA in 1990 when I changed jobs, and that IRA is now 12-times larger thanks to compound interest and bold investments.  Since I never contributed another dollar after 1990, tougher or lower contribution limits would have been entirely irrelevant.  

Bernstein’s final proposal is from the Obama budget – “allowing taxpayers to deduct contributions at 28 percent instead of 38.6 percent.” But that too is irrelevant. Any alleged “loopholes” for retirement savings have nothing to do with itemized deductions for top-bracket taxpayers, who are not allowed to deduct contributions to an IRA.  Failure to include employer contributions as taxable income is not an itemized deduction to begin with, nor is the exclusion from adjusted gross income for contributions to a Keogh retirement plan for the self-employed.  

In the process of giving “tax reform” a bad name, Jared Bernstein uses a sham fairness argument to justify arbitrary and unworkable anti-affluence policies that are irrelevant to any ill-defined problems. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Policy Institutes

What Both Sides Miss in the Immigration Debate

Cato Op-Eds - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 17:21

Ilya Shapiro

That’s the title of my latest Forbes column, which begins:

As chances for immigration reform fade ahead of this year’s congressional elections, the main sticking point seems to be the “pathway to citizenship” for those who are in the country illegally.

Reform opponents don’t want to reward those who break our laws, while activists on the other side refuse to consider a deal that doesn’t naturalize this entire population. Fixing our broken immigration system thus seems to turn on the question of what to do with the estimated 11-12 million illegal aliens living in our midst. (I’m reminded of John Candy’s final movie, Canadian Bacon, where a propaganda bit ominously decries: “Canadians: They walk among us.”)

But both sides are wrong to focus on citizenship and should instead target permanent resident status—otherwise known as green cards.

Read the whole thing, which includes a bit about the naturalization process that I’m now experiencing.

Categories: Policy Institutes

The Federal Reserve's "Foreign Banking Organization" Rule Is Unnecessary

Cato Op-Eds - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 16:30

Louise Bennetts

Last November, Arthur Long and I released a policy study on the likely impact of the Federal Reserve’s 2012 “Foreign Banking Organization” proposal.

We argued – along with many others – that the proposal amounted to little more than a costly corporate reshuffling exercise. Of even greater concern, we suggested that the proposal threatened the ability of global banks to allocate capital and liquidity in an efficient manner, would increase financial instability, and dampen economic growth.

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve released a final rule that is essentially the same as the original proposal. The final rule is more lenient only in the sense that it increases the timeframe for compliance, simplifies the leverage requirements a little, and impacts fewer organizations. To that end, the fundamental criticisms still apply, as does the confusion around why such a proposal is necessary.

Governor Tarullo – a leading proponent of the rule – has argued that the Federal Reserve extended financial “support” to foreign banks at unprecedented levels during the crisis and therefore should be given greater oversight of these banks’ activities. That sounds reasonable. But upon closer review, the support he refers to was limited to liquidity provided through the Fed’s discount window. Foreign banks were not eligible to receive TARP or other forms of bailout assistance.

Fed officials have gone to great lengths to argue that providing liquidity through the discount window (which may be provided only to otherwise solvent institutions on a fully collateralized basis) is a legitimate central bank function and is NOT financial assistance constituting a bailout.

I agree (although on this point, I note that I depart quite radically from some of my contemporaries). However, this argument does undermine the central pillar supporting the Fed’s new rule. In addition, if protecting U.S. taxpayers is the fundamental aim, why implement a rule that will close-off the channels of liquidity and support that the U.S. subsidiary could receive from the foreign parent? 

The Fed’s rule may well spark retaliatory actions from foreign regulators, who are even more annoyed about it than the banks they oversee. The losers will be both local and foreign banks and, most importantly, consumers of credit. Governor Tarullo himself noted during yesterday’s open meeting that the rule “may not strike the right balance indefinitely.” The Fed had an opportunity to lead from the front. That it failed to do so is unfortunate. 

Categories: Policy Institutes

Selling Federal Government Buildings

Cato Op-Eds - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 15:33

Chris Edwards

How many buildings does the federal government own? 10,000? 20,000? Actually, it is a staggering 306,000, according to the U.S. General Services Administration. In addition, the government leases 55,000 buildings, for a total of 361,000. These include offices, hospitals, warehouses, and other sorts of facilities. The chart shows federal buildings owned by department.

In addition to all the buildings, the federal government owns and leases a remarkable 486,000 structures such as parking lots. The GSA reports that the annual operating costs for all the buildings and structures is $33 billion. The current market value of the buildings is unknown, but the government estimated that the replacement value in 2007 was $1.5 trillion.

A good way to save taxpayer money and increase economic efficiency would be to start privatizing these assets. The government itself says that it has about 77,000 buildings that are underutilized or unneeded.

It is widely recognized that the government is a poor manager of its assets. The GAO has had federal property on its “high risk” waste list for years, and it has found that “many assets are in an alarming state of deterioration.”

Privatizing buildings and assets is an area of some bipartisan agreement, and so the parties should move ahead with reforms. House Republicans issued a report on the waste in federal buildings in 2010. The Obama administration is also supportive of selling excess buildings and facilities.

Policymakers should focus on removing the legal and bureaucratic barriers to unloading federal assets. One problem is that the government does not know exactly what it owns, what condition assets are in, and what items are excess. The GAO says that the government has a “lack of accurate and useful data to support decisionmaking” on its vast property holdings. So the government needs much better inventory information.

Another problem is that the current process for disposing of assets is lengthy and convoluted. There are, for example, detailed requirements for repairs and environmental remediation of assets before sales. And there are burdensome rules requiring that surplus property be evaluated for possible use by homeless persons. The rules for the homeless—believe it or not—can add two years to the asset disposal process.

Sweeping away the red tape and privatizing buildings and structures would create many benefits. Selling assets would put them to more productive use in the private sector, which would boost economic growth. And using property more efficiently would save on energy, which would gain support from environmentalists.

Privatizing federal buildings would be also good fiscal policy. The sales proceeds would reduce the budget deficit in the short run, while the reduction of property maintenance costs would cut spending over the long run.

In sum, privatizing federal buildings and facilities would be a win all around. It would be good economics and good politics. So let’s get started.

Categories: Policy Institutes

William Galston’s Not-So-Great Decoupling of Pay, Productivity, and Common Sense

Cato Op-Eds - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 13:21

Alan Reynolds

Wall Street Journal columnist William A. Galston says “the Great Decoupling of wages and benefits from productivity [is] the biggest economic story of the past 40 years.”  Wow!  The Biggest Economic Story of the past 40 years!  Imagine that!  I have been researching such data longer than 40 years yet this particular story is so old (and so wrong) I had almost forgotten about it.   

The alleged decoupling of growth of pay from productivity, as Robert Gordon explained in 2009, “compares apples with oranges, and then oranges with bananas.” Median wages for the whole economy were deflated by the consumer price index, which exaggerated inflation and understated real income growth. Rapidly growing health and retirement benefits were often excluded. These muddled measures of real pay, which also failed to adjust for changing household size or hours, were compared to productivity of the nonfarm business sector, not the whole economy. And real output was calculated using GDP deflators that showed much less inflation than the CPI. With those errors, one estimate for the income-productivity gap from 1979-2007 was 1.46 percentage points, but Gordon’s adjustments shrunk that to a negligible 0.16. He also noted that mean and median incomes grew at remarkably similar rates, suggesting inequality did not explain much.

A 2013 study from the London School of Economics likewise found no significant gap between growth of compensation and productivity in the United States or UK (unlike the EU and Japan) if both measures are properly calculated with the same price index. The LSE study concluded that, “the debate around net decoupling in the UK and US is rather a distraction (it is actually more important in Continental Europe and Japan). Obtaining faster productivity growth is a highly desirable policy goal in the current climate of near recession as it will ultimately lead to faster wage growth and consumption.”

Galston tells other stories, such as “mobility has stalled” – which is indefensible nonsense. His allusion to the “past 40 years,” appears based on a Pew Research paper’s pointless claim that the “middle class” constituted a smaller share of adults in 2011 than in the idyllic year of 1971. As Pew Research hesitantly revealed, that is mainly because millions of people moved up – “the upper-income tier [earning more than double median income] rose to 20% of adults in 2011, up from 14% in 1971.”

All this statistical fog is thin camouflage for Galston’s invitation to grant authoritarian politicians and bureaucrats the discretion to somehow “link the tax rates individual firms have to the compensation practices they adopt.” That may well be the worst economic policy idea of the past 40 years, trailing barely behind Nixon’s dictatorial price controls.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Nightmare Scenario Underway in Ukraine

Cato Op-Eds - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 12:23

Dalibor Rohac

As the Ukrainian security forces are moving to clear Kiev’s ‘Maidan’ protest camp again, after an unsuccessful attempt last night, the events are unfolding quickly and with the characteristically scary dynamics of an autocratic regime acting under pressure:

Ukraine’s state security service said it was launching an “anti-terrorist operation” across the country after the seizure of administrative buildings and arms and ammunition depots by “extremist groups.”

Labeling the opposition as ‘terrorists’ is a common rhetorical device used by authoritarian governments under duress. But we should make no mistake – the current situation is not just an outcome of the divisions existing within Ukrainian society but also a result of Vladimir Putin’s long standing and sinister meddling in Ukraine.

For Mr. Putin, the current situation is both a source of fear and an opportunity. The fear stems from the possibility of Ukraine setting a precedent of a bottom-up, civil society-driven initiative displacing a Moscow-sponsored leadership in a country with strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. The opportunity lies in leveraging the current unrest and the ethnic divisions it has uncovered to strengthen Russia’s influence over the country’s politics. The Russian government already provided Mr. Yanukovych with cash in December 2013; this week, another bond purchase worth $2 billion was announced, conditional on the government successfully tackling the opposition.

The international response is too timid given the magnitude of the problem and its proximity to the European Union’s borders. Targeted EU sanctions, such as the asset freezes and travel bans directed at Ukrainian officials, which are likely to be adopted tomorrow, seem fully justified–although they come very late. Still, care needs to be exercised so that they hurt the regime and not ordinary citizens.

More importantly, European leaders need to clearly articulate the long-term alternative that they are offering to Ukraine lest it remain the Kremlin’s client state. The roadmap to full EU membership ought to have an accelerated timeline, incentivizing Ukrainian policymakers to adopt open political and economic institutions.

The EU’s engagement with the country needs to come with tangible benefits for Ukrainians. Those would include most fundamentally a removal of trade and regulatory barriers, as well as immigration restrictions, making Ukrainians a de facto part of the common European market now rather than at an uncertain point in the future.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Fuel Efficiency Standards for New Trucks—Can’t We Decide These for Ourselves?

Cato Op-Eds - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 08:43

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

Rather than wait on the market to demand more fuel efficient trucks, President Obama, bypassing Congress, has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to draw up a new round of regulations raising the fuel efficiency standards on heavy-duty trucks. He promises that this will save billions of dollars in fuel costs, lower prices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions—or, as he describes it, a “win-win-win” situation.

Thank you, Mr. President for taking such good care of us.

Apparently, we are too stupid to have realized the manifold benefits of this chain of events ourselves.

Or is it that we realize these actions will have no impact of climate change and will probably result in higher prices for new trucks and everything that they transport?

You can use our “Handy-Dandy Temperature Change Calculator” to see that, using the EPA’s own computer model, if Americans cut all of our carbon dioxide emissions to zero, today, the amount of warming that would be prevented (assuming a warming forecast that is itself probably to high) by 2100 is around two-tenths of a degree—an amount that would be virtually impossible to measure against natural climate variability.  Increasing the fuel efficiency of heavy trucks would have considerably less of an effect than cutting all carbon dioxide emissions and would simply not be discernible in climate data.

And the President’s claim that increasing the fuel efficiency will lower the price of all things neglects the fact that we simply do not know what technology would accomplish this end.

Perhaps he should have said—”if you like your truck, you can keep your truck,” that is, until you have to replace it with something that will cost much more than you would have otherwise purchased and not do what it is supposed to do.

Again, thank you, Mr. President.

Categories: Policy Institutes

John Kerry’s Bumbling Performance Regarding East Asia

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 16:53

Ted Galen Carpenter

Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be suffering a case of foot-in-mouth disease before and during his current trip to East Asia. We had already learned to be wary of his judgment on substantive foreign policy issues. He was, for example, an enthusiastic proponent of U.S. military intervention in Syria, a move that would have mired the United States in yet another expensive, futile war in the Muslim world. Fortunately, intense congressional opposition and a timely Russian diplomatic initiative spared the Obama administration from its own folly—at least for the time being.

But whatever challenges might exist when handling difficult foreign policy issues, one should be able to expect a secretary of state not to mangle basic facts about key countries and regions. Alas, that expectation is apparently erroneous when it comes to John Kerry. During a press conference in Washington prior to his departure for East Asia, he emphasized Washington’s support for Japan’s position regarding the bitter dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Unfortunately, Kerry’s credibility became somewhat suspect when he initially placed those islands in the South China Sea (the arena of territorial disputes involving China and other neighbors).

Matters got worse when he traveled to South Korea. During a press conference in Seoul, a reporter asked him about the long-standing territorial dispute between Tokyo and Seoul over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan. The audience was astonished when he appeared to signal a major shift in U.S. policy by stating that the U.S.-South Korean mutual defense treaty covered those islands. Such a position would place the United States on the side of South Korea against Washington’s principal ally in East Asia, Japan.

A State Department spokesman had to scramble later to rectify Kerry’s verbal gaffe, insisting that the Secretary apparently had misunderstood the question, believing it had referred to the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. One problem with the revised version of events is that South Korea is not a party to that controversy; as noted above, it’s a feud between Japan and China.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s blunders are indicative of widespread problems in President Obama’s foreign policy team. The president appointed Caroline Kennedy to the crucial post of ambassador to Japan, although her knowledge of Japan (or foreign policy in general, for that matter) is exceedingly meager. Other ambassadorial appointees have embarrassed themselves in Senate confirmation hearings, displaying little or no knowledge of the country to which they would be assigned. In some cases, their principal qualification for the diplomatic post appeared to be their record in raising funds for President Obama’s election campaigns.

The American people have every right to expect a better performance from individuals who are tasked with running the foreign policy of the United States. And that expectation should start with Secretary Kerry.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch on the New Episode of "Free Thoughts," the Libertarianism.org Podcast

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 15:54

Trevor Burrus

On Free Thoughts, the newish podcast from Libertarianism.org, Aaron Ross Powell, myself, and our guests explore the deep questions in libertarian thought. Guests include philosophers, economists, other Cato scholars. Rather than focusing on current public policy issues, we try to take a deeper look at how libertarians see the world. 

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch joined us for this week’s episode, and Jason Kuznicki filled in for Aaron. We discuss whether there is a growing movement of independents that is a cause for optimism among libertarians. Are we in for a better, more libertarian era than ever before? Or should we be skeptical of this kind of optimism, given the growth of the federal government in recent years?

You can also subscribe to the iTunes feed or the RSS.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Venezuela’s Plunging Petroleum Production

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 15:24

Steve H. Hanke

A hallmark of socialism and interventionism is failure. Venezuela is compelling proof of this, having spent the past half century going down the tubes. Indeed, in the 1950’s, it was one of Latin America’s most well off countries. No more. Now it is a basket case – a failed state that’s descending into chaos.

How could this be? After all, Venezuela’s combined reserves of oil and gas are second only to Iran’s. Well, it might have reserves, but thanks to the wrongheaded policies of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is the only major energy producer that has seen its production fall over the past quarter of a century. The following chart tells that dismal tale:

Categories: Policy Institutes

Obama Administration Turns Antique Collectors And Dealers Into Criminals

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 14:11

Doug Bandow

The Obama administration is preparing to treat virtually every antique collector, dealer, and auctioneer in America as a criminal.  In the name of saving elephants, the administration is effectively banning the sale of all ivory objects, even if acquired legally decades ago.  Doing so will weaken conservation efforts and enrich those engaged in the illegal ivory trade.

Under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) only ivory from before 1989 can be sold.  Unfortunately, ivory prohibition has not stopped the slaughter of elephants. 

The greatest demand for new ivory comes from Asia.  Most ivory in America arrived legally, many years ago. 

Until now the rules were simple and sensible.  Ivory imported legally can be sold.  Moreover, the burden of proof fell on the government to convict you of violating the law.  That’s the way America normally handles both criminal and civil offenses.

However, in mid-February the administration issued what amounted to a ban on ivory sales.  As I point out in my new Forbes online column:

In practice, virtually every collector, dealer, auctioneer, and other person in America is banned from selling ivory items, even if acquired legally, owned for decades, and worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Every flea market, junk shop, estate sale, antique store, auction showroom, and antique show is at risk of raids, confiscations, and prosecutions.

First, no imports are allowed, not even of antiques, which before could be brought to America with a CITES certificate. 

Second, all exports are banned, except antiques (defined as over a century old) in what the Fish and Wildlife Service says are “exceptional circumstances.”  At best the administration is raising the administrative and cost burdens of exporting to countries which already limit ivory imports to items with appropriate CITES documentation.  Or the new rule may restrict the sale of items previously allowed, thereby hindering Americans in disposing of their legal collections. 

Third, interstate transactions are prohibited, except for antiques.  But the latter requires “documented evidence.”  Unfortunately, for items inherited or purchased years ago such evidence rarely exists.  Thus, the sale of almost all ivory across state lines is effectively banned. 

Fourth, intrastate commerce, said the agency, is “prohibited unless seller can demonstrate item was lawfully imported prior to” 1990, when the international ban took effect.  But how does someone “demonstrate” when, say, a gift from his or her parents was imported?  If you can’t, you can’t sell the object.

By any standard, the administration rule is unfairly penalizing thousands of Americans.  Why? 

The administration complained about the difficulty in distinguishing ivory imported legally and illegally.  But banning everything fails to distinguish between guilt and innocence.  Moreover, much older ivory, given its manifold unique characteristics, is easily distinguishable from new work. 

The illegal ivory supply also is small compared to that of legal ivory.  Rather than ban the latter in an attempt to limit the former, the government should aid African countries in protecting their elephants, better interdict illegal imports, and identify sellers who specialize in new ivory.

In fact, targeting owners of legal ivory will perversely undermine such enforcement efforts.  Making most ivory in America illegal will vastly expand the ivory black market and dramatically dilute enforcement resources.

Ivory commerce will continue, only mostly underground.  More objects will privately pass among dealers and collectors, never reaching public view. 

The interstate ban, too, will be flouted.  Owners also may hand carry items to other nations without similar restrictions.  Moreover, documentation will be faked.

Collectors and dealers will turn to those already participating in the illegal market, helping criminals expand their networks and increase their profits.  Finally, overtaxed federal agents may prefer to go after easy targets, such as local flea markets, rather than secretive smugglers. 

If the administration does not withdraw its rules, Congress should overturn this unfair attack on the law-abiding.  Washington should penalize poachers and their seller allies—not collectors and dealers who have followed the rules.  Especially since the administration’s new regulations will divert enforcement resources and push owners of legal ivory into the illegal trade, meaning more elephants are likely to die. 

Categories: Policy Institutes

ABBA and the Story of the Most-Inane-Ever Tax Controversy

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 13:27

Daniel J. Mitchell

The tax code is a complicated nightmare, particularly for businesses.

Some people may think this is because of multiple tax rates, which definitely is an issue for all the non-corporate businesses that file “Schedule C” forms using the personal income tax.

A discriminatory rate structure adds to complexity, to be sure, but the main reason for a convoluted business tax system (for large and small companies) is that politicians don’t allow firms to use the simple and logical (and theoretically sound) approach of cash-flow taxation.

Here’s how a sensible business tax would work.

Total Revenue - Total Cost = Profit

And it would be wonderful if our tax system was this simple, and that’s basically how the business portion of the flat tax operates, but that’s not how the current tax code works.

We have about 76,000 pages of tax rules in large part because politicians and bureaucrats have decided that the “cash flow” approach doesn’t give them enough money.

So they’ve created all sorts of rules that in many cases prevent businesses from properly subtracting (or deducting) their costs when calculating their profits.

One of the worst examples is depreciation, which deals with the tax treatment of business investment expenses. You might think lawmakers would like investment since that boosts productivity, wage, and competitiveness, but you would be wrong. The tax code rarely allows companies to fully deduct investment expenses (factories, machines, etc) in the year they occur. Instead, they have to deduct (or depreciate) those costs over many years. In some cases, even decades.

But rather than write about the boring topic of depreciation to make my point about legitimate tax deductions, I’m going to venture into the world of popular culture.

Though since I’m a middle-aged curmudgeon, my example of popular culture is a band that was big about 30 years ago.

The UK-based Guardian is reporting on the supposed scandal of ABBA’s tax deductions. Here are the relevant passages.

The glittering hotpants, sequined jumpsuits and platform heels that Abba wore at the peak of their fame were designed not just for the four band members to stand out – but also for tax efficiency, according to claims over the weekend. …And the reason for their bold fashion choices lay not just in the pop glamour of the late 70s and early 80s, but also in the Swedish tax code. According to Abba: The Official Photo Book, published to mark 40 years since they won Eurovision with Waterloo, the band’s style was influenced in part by laws that allowed the cost of outfits to be deducted against tax – so long as the costumes were so outrageous they could not possibly be worn on the street.

When I read the story, I kept waiting to get to the scandalous part.

But then I realized that the scandal - according to our statist friends - is that ABBA could have paid even more in tax if they wore regular street clothes for their performances.

In other words, this is not a scandal at all. It’s simply the latest iteration of the left-wing campaign (bolstered by tax-free bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD) to de-legitimize normal and proper tax deductions.

So I guess this means that the New York Yankees should play in t-shirts and gym shorts since getting rid of the pinstripes would increase the team’s taxable income.

And companies should set their thermostats at 60 degrees in the winter since that also would lead to more taxable income.

Or, returning to the example of ABBA, perhaps they should have used these outfits since there wouldn’t be much cost to deduct and that would have boosted taxable income.

Shifting to the individual income tax, another potential revenue raiser is for households to follow this example from Monty Python and sell their kids for medical experiments. That would eliminate personal exemptions and lead to more taxable income.

Heck, maybe our friends on the left should pass a law mandating weekend jobs so we could have more income for them to tax.

Though I’m not sure how that would work since the statists are now saying Obamacare is a good thing because it “liberates” millions of people from having to work.

I’m not sure how they square that circle, but I’m sure the answer is more class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. A very low tax rate is the best way of encouraging taxpayers to declare income and minimize deductions. 

When ABBA first became famous, the top personal tax rate in Sweden was at the confiscatory level of about 80 percent and the corporate tax rate was about 55 percent. With rates so high, that meant taxpayers had big incentives to reduce taxable income and little reason to control costs.

After all, a krona of deductible expense only reduced income by about 20 öre for individual taxpayers.

Corporate taxpayers weren’t treated as badly, but a rate of 55 percent still meant that a krona of deductible expense only reduced after-tax income by 45 öre.

But if the rate was very modest, say 20 percent, then taxpayers might be far more frugal about costs (whether the cost of uniforms or anything else) because a krona of deductible expense would reduce income by 80 öre.

By the way, the United States conducted an experiment of this type in the 1980s and the rich wound up declaring far more income to the IRS.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Are We Nearing a Breaking Point in Venezuela?

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 12:33

Juan Carlos Hidalgo

Today could be a very tragic day in Venezuelan history. Two large marches, one from the opposition and the other organized by the government, are already taking the streets of the capital and might converge in the same district. The regime of Nicolas Maduro outlawed the opposition march and threatened violence if they try to enter the municipality of Libertador, in downtown Caracas. Things could get very ugly.

Tensions have built up since last week when tens of thousands of people, mostly students, took to the streets to protest against the government. The heavy-handedness with which the regime has dealt with the protests is almost unprecedented. At least 3 people died, scores have been detained and many are still missing. The students that were released have denounced that they were tortured and raped while in custody. Moreover, the government issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo López, former mayor of the district of Chacao and one of the most emblematic leaders of the opposition. As leader of the march today, he turned himself in to the National Guard.

We need to keep a few things in mind as events unfold:

A large segment of the population is fed up: This is not the first time that tens of thousands of Venezuelans take the streets to protest against the government. However, as the acute economic crisis worsens, the level of desperation among the population, especially the middle class, is reaching a boiling point. The scarcity index shows that more than one out of four basic products is out of stock. Hour-long lines are an every-day occurrence in super markets. And when you can actually find a product, your income is rapidly dwindling to purchase it. The official inflation rate reached 56 percent last year, but according to my colleague Steve Hanke’s Troubled Currency Project, the implied annual inflation rate is actually 305 percent. Crime has significantly worsened living conditions: Venezuela is now one of the most dangerous places in the world with almost 25,000 homicides in 2013 –a murder rate of 79 killings for 100,000 inhabitants. The country is quickly becoming unlivable and many Venezuelans think that they have nothing to lose.

The government will do anything to maintain its hold on power: This is almost verbatim from Nicolás Maduro this past weekend, who even stated that he doesn’t mind being called a dictator. People who fear the breakout of a civil war in Venezuela don’t understand that only one side is armed: the government and its supporters. The Maduro regime, whose security apparatus is closely controlled by Cuba’s secret services, has already engaged in brutish repression of protestors. The army and the National Guard are firmly aligned with the government and there is little or no chance that they might balk at exercising unrestrained violence against unarmed civilians. Moreover, armed gangs of government supporters, called “tupamaros,” act freely with the complicity of the security services and were supposedly behind the killings of a couple of protesters last week. It’s hard to have a civil war when only one side is armed.

Maduro’s real threat is from within: The opposition is disarmed and doesn’t constitute a real threat to Maduro’s hold on power. His real enemies are inside the government, especially military-types aligned with the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. Any sign of weakness from Maduro could give the green light to this wing of chavismo to take over power. Maduro knows this, and is another reason he is likely to exert unrestrained repression against the protestors.  

Latin American countries will back Maduro or remain silent: Maduro doesn’t have to worry about the international community, at least about his Latin American peers. Mercosur has already issued a statement declaring its solidarity with the Venezuelan regime. Similar declarations were made by other left-wing governments such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. On the other hand, Latin American nations with more mature democracies such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Costa Rica have been silent, out of cowardice or cynicism, and will probably remain so. Thus, the Venezuelan government has a free hand to repress its people without having to be held accountable by its neighbors or regional groupings such as the Organization of American States or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The Venezuelan government will simply brush off any other criticism coming from Washington or Brussels.

There won’t be an easy way out. The question is whether the opposition will be intimidated by the threat of violence, as has been the case before, or will continue its struggle even if that means mounting casualties. My guess is that things will get a lot uglier.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Freedom to Panties!

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:00

K. William Watson

The Associated Press reports that “30 women protesters in Kazakhstan were arrested and thrown into police vans while wearing lace underwear on their heads and shouting ‘Freedom to panties!’”

Is this the beginning of a sexual revolution in authoritarian central Asia?  Alas, no.  The protest is a response to new rules from the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union banning the sale or importation of underwear containing less than 6% cotton.  The ban will outlaw 90% of the underwear currently being sold in those countries, stoking concerns of a return to Soviet-era underwear.

Although it is unclear to me at this point exactly why, lacy silk lingerie apparently threatens the economic vitality of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.

Banning clothes for economic reasons is unfortunately nothing new.  In her thorough and informative book, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, Georgetown professor Pietra Rivoli details the efforts of the English Parliament in the 17th Century to keep people from abandoning English woolens in favor of cotton garments from India.  In 1700, Parliament went so far as to mandate that all corpses be buried wearing nothing but wool.

Will trade historians one day write about the great Russian panty raid of 2014?  Will they tell of the uprisings in the streets, the dangerous and exotic world of black market lingerie smugglers, Vladimir Putin’s regime-shattering silk drawers scandal?  Only time will tell.

The purpose of trade barriers is always to control consumers, because free consumers are a danger to the goals of the state.  And so, I call on free traders all around the world to stand in solidarity with these protestors.  Freedom to panties!  Freedom for all!

Categories: Policy Institutes

Saving Rustbelt Cities

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 08:51

Randal O'Toole

What should be done about the nation’s rustbelt cities–or, as they are being repackaged by marketers, “Legacy Cities”? The populations of at least a dozen major cities declined by more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, including Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and of course Detroit and New Orleans (whose population decline has little to do with the rest of them). In many cases, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis (which declined between 8 and 9 percent in the 2000s), recent declines are merely a continuation of trends since 1950.

Click image to download the report (7.6 MB)

A new report from the Lincoln Land Institute offers a set of prescriptions for these cities. While they may sound good at first glance, close scrutiny reveals that they are the same tired policies that have been trotted out by urban planners for decades.

These policies include:

  1. Urban renewal, funded with tax-increment financing and other subsidies, to “leverage assets” in the city;
  2. Regional government “to better distribute the burdens of urban infrastructure and other costs,” i.e., make the suburbs pay for the central cities’ mismanagement;
  3. “New urban forms,” meaning high-density, mixed-use developments;
  4. “Re-establishing the central role of the city,” meaning demands that employers move to cities rather than suburbs; and
  5. “New governance structures,” meaning “economic development corporations” that can “leverage assets” (use tax dollars) to benefit selected developers in selected neighborhoods with little public scrutiny.

The report gives examples of cities that are doing some of these things, but fails to show that any of them have actually succeeded at attracting new people and jobs. In fact, the higher taxes and increased regulation called for by this report is more likely a recipe for accelerated disaster.

Here’s a completely different set of recommendations that I suggest is more likely to succeed:

  1. Improve schools, probably by using a voucher system to create a competitive environment for both public and private schools;
  2. If the city has a large African-American underclass, make absolutely sure that all elementary students have caught up to their middle-class peers by the time they reach high school, and gather private funding to insure that all high-school students who graduate with decent grades know they will get scholarships to a major university, thus giving them an economic path out of poverty;
  3. Eliminate cronyism and corruption in city government, problems never mentioned in the Lincoln Land Institute report but which could actually be exacerbated by the report’s recommendations. Cities are the creation of state legislatures, and if cities can’t reform themselves, the legislatures should take action by rechartering the city governments;
  4. Reduce crime by doing things like changing the gridded city streets that planners love into cul de sacs so that criminals have fewer escape routes;
  5. Reduce taxes by eliminating all but the most essential urban services–this means no government-funded convention centers, sports stadiums, hotels, streetcar lines, or other things that ought to be privately funded, if they are needed at all;
  6. Reduce regulation, including zoning rules, so property owners can engage in urban renewal without government subsidies or top-down planning. Historic preservation ordinances may sound cool, but they are one of the biggest obstructions to private redevelopment;
  7. Fix city pension and health care funds, even if it means going bankrupt to allow cities to renegotiate unsustainable contracts with public employee unions;
  8. If it hasn’t been done already, legalize the sale of beer from the same premises in which it is made. As I’ve argued elsewhere (see page 6), the micro brewpub revolution has done more to revitalize cities than rail transit, urban renewal, and the other expensive programs planners and city officials love.

In short, rather than adding to the layers of taxes and regulation that already hinder city growth, government should get out of the way.

Categories: Policy Institutes

Spying on Trade Lawyers

Cato Op-Eds - Tue, 02/18/2014 - 08:47

Simon Lester

The latest NSA spying revelations involve international trade issues, in particular an Indonesian complaint brought at the WTO in response to a U.S. ban on clove cigarette.  (The trade problem was that the U.S. banned clove cigarettes, which are mostly made in Indonesia, but did not ban menthol cigarettes, a competing U.S.-made product). According to the New York Times, the Australian government monitored communications between the Indonesian government and its DC-based trade lawyers, possibly in relation to this case, and passed the information along to the NSA.  (Note that law prof Orin Kerr is skeptical about the way the story is presented in the Times.)

Let me offer the following thoughts:

1. It’s hard to imagine that any information gathered by the Australians had much impact on the WTO case. I suppose it could be a slight advantage to get an early look at your opponents’ arguments, and see how they are thinking about the issues. But I can also imagine that all this additional information would be a distraction, with too much time being spent on marginal points.  It’s worth noting that, in spite of any information U.S. government trade lawyers may or may not have received, the U.S. lost the case. Thus, like most NSA spying, any spying here was probably of limited value.

2. Regardless of its value, this kind of spying is likely to be pretty offensive to our trading partners. The WTO has detailed rules of procedure for its disputes, one of which says the parties must act in good faith (“all Members will engage in these procedures in good faith in an effort to resolve the dispute”). It’s hard to see how receiving confidential information about your opponents’ arguments, if that happened, satisfies this requirement. It will be interesting to see if this gets discussed in upcoming WTO meetings.

3. I wonder whether all of these revelations about spying will accelerate proposals being made by foreign governments to develop non-U.S.-based communications networks: “German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday she would talk to French President Francois Hollande about building up a European communication network to avoid emails and other data passing through the United States.”

Categories: Policy Institutes

Pages