K. William Watson
I would like to second Simon Lester’s ambivalent endorsement of the trade agreement reached by WTO members in Bali last week. Despite cheers from governments and embarrassingly unrealistic claims of economic value, the new WTO agreement on trade facilitation is hardly something for free traders to get super-excited about.
There was some excitement, however, when a bit of last-minute diplomatic drama at the talks threatened to derail everything. Cuba, it turns out, had some genuine demands for actual trade liberalization and indecorously refused to be ignored. As reported by Inside U.S Trade [$]:
Cuba and three other Latin American countries – Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – had withheld consensus from the so-called Bali package consisting of a trade facilitation agreement as well as agriculture and development components.
Specifically, Cuba had refused to endorse the package until its demands were met for a provision in the trade facilitation deal that would prevent countries from applying discriminatory measures to goods in transit. This was aimed at counteracting a part of the U.S. trade embargo that prevents ships that engage in trade in Cuban ports from unloading cargo in the U.S. for 180 days thereafter.
After Cuba’s demands on trade facilitation came to the fore as the last outstanding issue on the evening of Dec. 6, WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo held consultations throughout the night with the U.S. and Cuban delegations until 6 am. At that point, the two sides agreed to compromise language to address Cuba’s demands, according to an informed source.
The compromise language consists of one sentence in the Bali ministerial declaration that appears immediately after a sentence adopting the trade facilitation deal. It states: “In this regard, we affirm that the non-discrimination principle in Article V of the [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] 1994 remains valid.”
This “compromise” means that the U.S. takes on no new obligations, and the embargo remains as is. Cuba wasn’t looking for an end to the embargo with its demands, merely recognition that this one small component of the embargo violates the brand new, U.S.-approved WTO rules.
It’s difficult to imagine, however, that the process could have worked out any differently. If there’s one thing that’s clear about the new WTO package at this point, it’s that the deal will not have any meaningful impact on U.S. trade policy.
Something is amiss when the global trading system’s achievements depend on the United States convincing Cuba and Venezuela to stop demanding freer trade.
Republican and Democratic negotiators are expected to agree to a budget deal this week setting spending levels for 2014. The Washington Post says that the deal will amount to “little more than a cease-fire.”
However, the deal being described in media reports would be much worse than a cease-fire for Republicans, at least for fiscally conservative Republicans. That’s because the Budget Control Act of 2011 and related sequester have started bearing fruit and are currently providing substantial discretionary spending control. Yet Republican leaders are apparently planning to throw it away in return for revenue increases and paltry spending trims.
In theory, Republicans have the upper hand in budget talks because current law specifies that discretionary spending will be modestly reduced in 2014 to $967 billion. Republicans always claim that they are for spending restraint, and here they just need to hold firm on current-law budget caps to save serious money over time.
However, the Post story indicates that the GOP may agree to scrap the budget cap for 2014 and spend up to $1.015 billion in return for a tiny cut to federal pensions and a revenue increase, possibly from auctioning radio spectrum.
That would be a giant cave-in because a precedent will have been set. The next decade of savings from current-law budget caps would be in jeopardy. If Republican leaders up-end the budget caps this year, they will empower big-spending Democrats, liberal Republicans, and appropriators to completely blow up the caps in later years.
A $48 billion cap overrun this year could set the stage for spending hundreds of billions of dollars more over the coming decade. That would be snatching defeat from the jaws of 2011’s modest budget victory.
There’s suddenly a lot going on in the trade negotiating world. Unfortunately, there is not as much free trade involved as one might hope or expect.
Over the weekend, the members of the WTO reached an agreement on several issues, the main one being “trade facilitation”. This was touted as a big deal because it is the first time the WTO agreed on just about anything in its almost 20 years of existence. In addition, supporters talked up its potential “$1 trillion” increase in global trade.
It’s important to understand, however, that this agreement is not an agreement under which all countries will lower tariffs or barriers to trade in services, which is the traditional kind of trade agreement. My colleague Dan Ikenson wrote about trade facilitation here. Reading through a draft of the agreement, it seems to cover two things. First, it tries to achieve “good governance” in customs procedures, such as through requiring an appeals process for customs decisions. And second, it requires governments to speed up the import process where possible, for example by letting frequent traders use expedited procedures. These are all good things, but it is not the same as using trade agreements to rein in protectionism. Also of note is how it accomplishes these things. Basically, it will be rich country governments paying, through money and training, for improvements to customs procedures in developing countries. Is that the best way to accomplish all this? I’m not really sure, to be honest, but that’s what they are doing.
Next up is the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement being negotiated by 12 countries in the Pacific region. Those talks have started up again, with a goal of finishing by the end of the year. (Probably won’t happen, but it’s good to have goals, I guess). What’s fascinating about these talks is how many non-free trade issues are involved. Someone just leaked a summary of where the parties stand on all the issues. What jumps out at me in this document is that about half the issues deal with environmental law or intellectual property! Not that there is no free trade at all in there, of course. There is the traditional tariff lowering as well. But there are so many other things to be ambivalent about.
And finally, next week the Europeans will be in town for another round of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These talks are in a much earlier stage than the others. The big issue being talked about here is what to do about “regulatory trade barriers.” Some on the left fear that this will mean lowering everybody’s regulation to a least common denominator. Some conservatives and libertarians worry that it will mean more regulation, as regulations are harmonized around higher standards. In practice, I think it is unlikely to mean either of these things. I don’t see much of a role for international law, through trade agreements, to make substantive regulatory policy, and I would be surprised if the TTIP does much of this. But where I think international agreements could help is pushing countries to remove the impact of divergent regulations. For example, if the U.S. and EU both regulate for auto safety, but do it differently, why can’t both sides sell their cars in the other market as is, based on the assumption that the regulations are functionally equivalent?
So that’s a basic round-up. There are some modest successes, and some issues causing distractions from actual free trade, but things are moving forward, for better or worse. (How’s that for a not-so-ringing endorsement?)
Two years ago this week, I published an op-ed called “President Obama’s Top 10 Constitutional Violations.” Although it didn’t go into depth about any particular issue, it struck a chord (note to aspiring pundits: readers and media bookers like lists, particularly at year’s end).
There’s so much material to choose from for an updated piece on which I’m long overdue, but in the meantime the House Judiciary Committee had an important hearing last week on the president’s constitutional duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” My colleagues Michael Cannon and Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz testified, as did GW law professor Jonathan Turley (who voted for Obama in 2008 and is not known to be libertarian or conservative), and their devastating testimony is a collective tour de force regarding this administration’s incredible and unconstitutional power grab. (My friend and frequent sparring partner Simon Lazarus of the Constitutional Accountability Center also testified, on the other side, offering a valiant if ultimately insufficient defense.)
Given the state of current affairs, the hearing focused on Obamacare, whose problematic rollout should have come as no surprise to those who follow this blog. Quite apart from the healthcare.gov fiasco – incompetent, sure, but it’s not unconstitutional to have a bad website – you simply cannot require expansive health “insurance” for all without regard to preexisting conditions and expect insurers not to cancel nonconforming policies or increase premiums. (Forget never running a business or caring about the Constitution; has nobody in the White House ever taken an economics class?)
After watching snippets of the hearing and reading the written testimony, I thought maybe I should start my “top 10 constitutional violations” update with the Affordable Care Act alone. But it seems that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. Hot off the presses, at 10am today, the office of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) released its second report on “The Obama Administration’s Attempts to Expand Federal Power” – the first was on the Supreme Court’s unanimous rejection of the Justice Department’s more outlandish positions, a trend I’ve written about as well – titled “The Administration’s Lawless Acts on Obamacare and Continued Court Challenges to Obamacare.”
Here are the seven items the new Cruz report highlights:
Category One: Implementation Contrary to Statutory Text
- Unilateral grant of a one-year delay on all Obamacare health insurance requirements.
- Unilateral delay of the employer mandate.
- Unilateral delay of out-pocket caps.
- Allowing congressional staff to continue on government-subsidized health care.
Category Two : Pending Court Challenges
- Violates the Origination Clause because it’s a revenue-raising bill that originated in the Senate.
- Contraception/abortifacient mandate violates religious liberties.
- Expansion of employer mandate’s penalty through IRS regulation.
Add to those the individual mandate (which the Supreme Court struck down before Chief Justice Roberts rewrote and upheld the provision as a tax), the coerced expansion of Medicaid (which the Court made voluntary), and the Independent Payment Advisory Board (litigation ongoing), and you’ve got an even ten. And that’s without straining to find the constitutional defects buried in thousands of pages of legislation and hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations.
Forget PPACA, ACA, and Obamacare; what people really ought to call the healthcare law is the “Constitutional Scholar Full Employment Act.”
Tim LynchThe Harvard Bait & Switch: Harvey Silverglate on the University’s Free Speech Fakery
Harvey Silverglate is an adjunct scholar with Cato.
For more information about the work of FIRE, go here.
Ted Galen Carpenter
As China’s economic and military power continues to grow, the country’s political leaders are engaging in increasingly assertive, if not abrasive, behavior. Two recent examples confirm that Beijing is determined to play diplomatic hardball.
The first was a stunningly meager pledge of aid to the Philippines in response to Typhoon Haiyan. In an article over at China-U.S. Focus, I point out that while such countries as the United States, Australia, and Japan rushed to provide generous relief assistance, China’s response was miserly and grudging. Beijing initially offered a paltry $100,000 in aid funds, and then after some apparent reluctance upped that total to a still very modest $1.6 million.
That appeared to be a deliberate snub, and the Chinese leadership seemed willing to incur the negative international publicity. Beijing’s relations with Manila have been quite frosty in recent years, primarily because of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. Tensions surged again earlier this year when the Philippines filed an unprecedented arbitration case—over Beijing’s strenuous objections—regarding those claims with the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea. Chinese officials have been doing a slow burn since that filing.
One should not underestimate the depth of China’s anger about such developments, or the willingness of Chinese officials to “send Manila a message”—including by withholding humanitarian aid during a time of great need. The message is that there will be a substantial price to pay for any nation that defies China’s policy preferences and seeks to undermine China’s interests.
The second episode that confirms Beijing’s willingness to play diplomatic hardball was the announcement on November 23rd of a new Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea. Portions of that ADIZ overlapped similar zones that Japan and South Korea had long implemented. China’s ADIZ also included the airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are the subject of a bitter territorial dispute between China and Japan, and airspace near another island involving a bilateral dispute with South Korea. Beijing insisted that all foreign military and commercial aircraft flying through the new zone file approved flight plans with the Chinese government.
That action was not well received. Unless Chinese leaders were uncharacteristically obtuse, Beijing had to anticipate that the Japanese and South Korean governments would not tamely accept the new proclamation and the procedures it outlined. They also had to assume that Washington would back the position of its allies. The decision appeared to be a diplomatic ploy to strengthen China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea, and quite possibly to be a precedent for creating a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea, where Beijing has even more extensive claims that various neighboring countries challenge.
What Chinese leaders may not have fully calculated was the nature of the reaction from the United States and its allies. Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington did not confine their response to diplomatic protests. Instead, all three countries promptly sent military aircraft (in Washington’s case, B-52 bombers) through the zone without complying with any of Beijing’s requirements. That defiance has infuriated the Chinese government, and tensions have now reached worrisome levels.
The measures that the United States and its allies adopted were both premature and excessive. China’s proclamation may not have been the most skillful diplomatic initiative, but creating a new ADIZ was not outrageous—especially since Japan has insisted on similar requirements in the same area for years. Indeed, Tokyo warns violators that they risk interception by Japanese military aircraft, and apparently has occasionally even carried out such intercepts. In any case, engaging in a provocative display of military power to defy China’s ADIZ was a clumsy response that has made matters even worse. This is an issue that cries out for restraint and sober dialogue on the part of all parties.
Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct Reporting Project, we have named the worst case for the month of November. It was the repeated, forced cavity search of two young men—in separate incidents—in New Mexico.
The first victim, David Eckert, was pulled over by police for failing to make a complete stop at a stop sign. After a police K-9 who was uncertified for drug searches indicated the presence of marijuana, the officers told a judge that the victim appeared to be “clenching his buttocks” and requested a body cavity search warrant, which the judge granted. The officers took Eckert to a local hospital and requested that doctors perform the search, but the hospital doctors refused. The cops then took Eckert to a second hospital, in a neighboring county that was not covered by the warrant, where they found doctors willing to perform the search.
First, the doctors took an x-ray of Eckert’s abdomen, which showed no hidden drugs. Next, they forcibly probed Eckert’s anus with their fingers, which again uncovered no drugs. Undeterred, the doctors inserted an enema and forced Eckert to defecate in front of the officers: again, no drugs. The enema search was repeated twice, and still no drugs were found. Another x-ray was taken: no drugs. To cap off Eckert’s nightmare ordeal, the officers had the doctors sedate him and perform a colonoscopy, probing his anus, colon, rectum, and large intestines. No drugs found. All of this was done against Eckert’s protest, in a county not covered by the search warrant, with part of the search done after the warrant had expired.
The second victim, Timothy Young, was brutalized in a similar manner after he was pulled over for failing to signal before making a turn, and after another marijuana indication by the same non-certified police dog. He was taken to the same hospital as Eckert and subjected to similar searching methods against his protests.
Cato’s Police Misconduct website often reports instances of police rape and sexual misconduct. In those cases, the offending officers typically do not contend that they have the legal right to abuse their victims’ bodies and are typically punished for their crime, even if often more lightly than others would be punished. Cases like this are entirely different. These cases show that officers can drum up warrants—for a dog’s bark and a perceived “clench”—to repeatedly and forcefully penetrate the depths of the human body for hours on end, and still think they have the power and lawful authority to repeat the process. Even worse, the futile, repeated nature of the searches seriously calls into doubt whether the officers were actually searching for drugs or just torturing the victims under the banner of law enforcement.
As Dan Mitchell has noted, Republican budget negotiators are poised to win Dan’s prestigious Charlie Brown Award for Fiscal Policy. With their 2011 Budget Control Act bearing fruit and providing some spending control the last two years, Republicans are gearing up to throw it away in return for fee increases and paltry spending trims.
In theory, Republicans have the upper hand in current budget talks because current law specifies that discretionary spending will be modestly reduced in 2014 to $967 billion. Republicans always claim that they are for spending restraint, and here they just need to hold firm on current-law budget caps to save serious money over time.
However, news reports indicate that the GOP may agree to spend at least $30 billion more in 2014 than budget caps specify while extending unemployment subsidies, in return for a tiny cut to federal pensions, aviation fee increases, and health provider cuts that won’t actually materialize.
That would be a worse GOP cave-in than new stories are indicating. That’s because a precedent will have been set. The next decade of savings from current-law budget caps will be in jeopardy. If Republican leaders up-end the budget caps this year, they will empower the big-spending Democrats, liberal Republicans, and appropriators to completely blow up the caps in later years. We could end up spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than both parties previously agreed to.
Here comes Charlie running down the field, determined to show that he can score budget reform points and win the broad support of fans. Here’s Lucy holding the ball, pretending to be on the same budget reform team, but actually not really interested in spending restraint. Will Charlie land on his behind and end up badly bruising fiscal policy for years to come?
Daniel J. Mitchell
There’s a saying in sports that teams that lose in the final minutes often “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
I don’t like that phrase because it reminds me of the painful way my beloved Georgia Bulldogs were defeated a couple of weeks ago by Auburn. But I also don’t like the saying because it describes what President Obama and other advocates of big government must be thinking now that Republicans apparently are about to do with the Sequester.
Specifically, the GOP appears willing to give away the Sequester’s real and meaningful spending restraint and replace that fiscal discipline with a package of gimmicks and new revenues.
I warned last month that something like this might happen, but even a pessimist like me didn’t envision such a big defeat for fiscal responsibility.
Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chief negotiators for their parties, are closing in on a deal… At issue are efforts to craft a compromise that would ease across-the-board spending cuts due to take effect in January, known as the sequester, and replace them with a mix of increased fees and cuts in mandatory spending programs.
The supposed cuts wouldn’t include any genuine entitlement reform. And there would be back-door tax hikes.
Officials familiar with the talks say negotiators are stitching together a package of offsets to the planned sequester cuts that would include none of the major cuts in Medicare or other entitlement programs that Mr. Ryan has wanted… Instead, it would include more targeted and arcane measures, such as increased fees for airport-security and federal guarantees of private pensions.
The package may get even worse before the ink is dry.
Democrats on Thursday stepped up their demands in advance of the closing days of negotiations between Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) brought a fresh demand to the table by saying she wouldn’t support any budget deal unless in included or was accompanied by an agreement to renew expanded unemployment benefits that expire before the end of the year—which would be a major threat to any deal.
Gee, wouldn’t that be wonderful. Not only would the GOPers surrender the sequester and acquiesce to some tax hikes, but they could also condemn unemployed people to further joblessness and despair.
That’s even worse than the part of the plan that would increase taxes on airline travel to further subsidize the Keystone Cops of the TSA.
But look at the bright side—for D.C. insiders. If the sequester is gutted, that will be a big victory for lobbyists. That means they’ll get larger bonuses, which means their kids will have even more presents under the Christmas tree.
As for the rest of the nation? Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
P.S.: I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that this looming agreement isn’t as bad as some past budget deals, such as the read-my-lips fiasco of 1990.
Reporters who cover state and local government should heed the example of the Topeka-Capital Journal’s Andy Marso. It’s my opinion that reporters often insufficiently examine how state and local politicians spend federal tax dollars. Heck, I’m even surprised when a reporter mentions that the money originated from Uncle Sam to begin with.
Marso recently looked at the use of federal Community Development Block Grant money by Osage City in Kansas (see this Cato essay for more on the CDBG program). In particular, $750k from federal taxpayers that was wasted on a now defunct modular home builder:
Osage City Mayor Quintin Robert says John Samples and his modular housing company Kan Build Inc. was about as safe an investment as a company could be in 2006.
Samples owned Kan Build when the city council and Kansas Department of Commerce approved funneling $750,000 in federal money to the company through the Community Development Block Grant program. The business had nearly closed one year earlier, but Samples stepped in, leading a group of investors in buying the manufacturing facility.
Samples was a successful businessman who had bought and rehabilitated the company once before. Despite the turmoil, Robert, who was on the city council at the time, said betting on Samples seemed like a good play.
“I think the decision was based on, ‘Hey, this guy bought this plant when it closed, got multiple grants, was one of the only people to pay them back and had an award, an entrepreneur of year award,’ ” Robert said in a recent phone interview. “He got a lot of accolades, because it is a big deal in a small community. A couple hundred jobs are a big deal.”
Then the housing market crashed, and by February 2011 the plant closed and the 108 jobs it had when it got the grant money disappeared.
Mayor Robert’s simple-minded comments on the deal demonstrate the folly of allowing politicians to play economic planner with other people’s money. It’s even worse when a politician uses money that he or she didn’t have to first collect from his or her voters/taxpayers, which is a fundamental problem with federal subsidies to state and local government. Under that arrangement, local citizens have little incentive to pay attention to how their elected officials are spending money.
As Marso notes, the Osage City City Council’s spent all of three minutes on the decision to give Kan Build the money. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that Mayor Robert “worked for Kan Build in various capacities in the early 1980s, early 1990s and from 1999 until it closed.” The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Housing and Urban Development might want to look into that.
Anyhow, great work by Marso. There are a lot of similar stories out there waiting to be told.
Daniel J. Mitchell
It’s no secret that I dislike the value-added tax.
But this isn’t because of its design. The VAT, after all, would be (presumably) a single-rate, consumption-based system, just like the flat tax and national sales tax. And that’s a much less destructive way of raising revenue compared to America’s corrupt and punitive internal revenue code.
Advocates of the VAT, by contrast, want to keep the income tax and give politicians another big source of revenue. That’s a catastrophically bad idea.
To understand what I mean, let’s look at a Bloomberg column by Al Hunt. He starts with a look at the political appetite for reform.
There is broad consensus that the U.S. tax system is inefficient, inequitable and hopelessly complex. …a 1986-style tax reform – broadening the base and lowering the rates – isn’t politically achievable today. …the conservative dream of starving government by slashing taxes and the liberal idea of paying for new initiatives by closing loopholes for the rich are nonstarters.
I agree with everything in those excerpts.
So does this mean Al Hunt and I are on the same wavelength?
Not exactly. I think we have to wait until 2017 to have any hope of tax reform (even then, only if we’re very lucky), whereas Hunt thinks the current logjam can be broken by adopting a VAT and modifying the income tax. More specifically, he’s talking about a proposal from a Columbia University Law Professor that would impose a 12.9 percent VAT while simultaneously creating a much bigger family allowance (sometimes referred to as the zero-bracket amount) so that millions of additional Americans no longer have to pay income tax.
Hunt likes this idea.
The Graetz initiative offers something for both sides. It starts, he suggests, with countering the observation once offered by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers that liberals fear a value-added tax because it’s regressive and conservatives fear it because it’s a money machine. Graetz’s measure overcomes both objections.
Regarding the final sentence of that excerpt, he’s half right. Folks on the left will be happy to know that there will be a lot more redistribution through the tax code.
Graetz addresses the regressivity of most sales taxes, not by exempting food, drugs and other necessities as most of the older European systems do, but with a system of credits and offsets… He provides a payroll tax cut and expanded child-care credits focused on low- and moderate-income workers.
But what do advocates of small government get out of the deal?
Well, they do get something in the short run. Graetz wants to use the VAT money to reduce the burden of the income tax. Rates for households are lowered, with the top rate falling to 31 percent. And the best part of the plan may be that it reduces America’s uncompetitive corporate tax rate to 15 percent.
What’s in the plan, for instance, that would prevent the VAT from becoming a “money machine”? Or what guarantees would be put in place to prevent politicians from re-expanding the income tax?
Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any safeguards. Professor Graetz has expressed some support for supermajority rules to protect against tax hikes, but he’s quoted in the article explicitly stating that a VAT could be used to generate more money to prop up the welfare state.
The Tax Policy Center found that his proposal succeeds in raising the same amount of revenue as current law. If revenue is to be part of any longer-term deficit reduction, Graetz observes, the value-added tax or the income taxes could be tweaked. “Actually, this would put us in a better situation to address the fiscal crunch down the road,” he says.
That statement scares the heck out of me. We desperately need the right kind of entitlement reform to save America from becoming another doomed welfare state. But what are the odds of getting good changes if politicians think they can continuously kick the can down the road by raising the VAT every couple of years.
Before you know it, we’re Greece!
If you don’t believe me about the VAT being a money machine, perhaps you’ll be more trusting of analysis from the International Monetary Fund. That bureaucracy actually supports the VAT, but the IMF inadvertently revealed in some research last year that the VAT is far more effective at generating new revenue than the income tax.
And that’s true for poor nations and rich nations.
This video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by yours truly, explains why the VAT would finance the road to serfdom.The Value Added Tax: A Hidden New Tax to Finance Much Bigger Government
Last but not least, it’s worth pointing out that Professor Graetz’s proposal has become more punitive over time. Check out this portion of a Tax Policy Center study showing that the VAT rate has been increased and that a new class-warfare tax rate has been added to the proposal.
So if the proposal has become more onerous on paper, imagine how much worse it will get once politicians get their hands on it.
P.S. To be fair, there’s very little indication that Prof. Graetz wants bigger and more expensive government. He’s proposing a VAT for the same reason Cong. Paul Ryan has proposed a VAT. They think the revenue can be used to reduce the burden of the income tax. They’re not wrong in theory. They just don’t appreciate the danger of giving politicians a new source of revenue.
P.P.P.S. Some advocates say the VAT is needed to forestall higher income tax rates, but that certainly hasn’t been the case in Europe.
Over at SeeThruEdu I’ve got a post responding – sort of – to a recent article on the Common Core by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. It’s only “sort of” because for the most part Ponnuru is right on the money: Some of the allegations against the Core are highly dubious, but so are many of the arguments proffered for it. My only quibble is that Ponnuru says that the Core doesn’t represent “Big Brother in the classroom.” Narrowly that’s right – the Core itself is just the standards – but when you look at the data collection and overall federal policy of which the Core is an integral part, fears about Big Brother – or maybe Big Micromanager – coming to a school near you are reasonable.
Check it out!
Today is a great day for freedom. On this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, thus repealing Prohibition. My former colleague Brandon Arnold wrote about it a few years ago:
Prohibition isn’t a subject that should be studied by historians alone, as this failed experiment continues to have a significant impact on our nation.
Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a key force in the passage of Prohibition, survive to this day and continue to insist that Prohibition was a success and advocate for dry laws.
Prohibition-era state laws, many of which are still on the books today, created government-protected monopolies for alcohol distributors. These laws have survived for three-quarters of a century because of powerful, rent-seeking interest groups, despite the fact that they significantly raise costs and limit consumer options. And because of these distribution laws, it is illegal for millions of Americans to have wine shipped directly to their door.
The website RepealDay.org urges celebrations of the “return to the rich traditions of craft fermentation and distillation, the legitimacy of the American bartender as a contributor to the culinary arts, and the responsible enjoyment of alcohol as a sacred social custom.” It’s easy! You don’t have to hold a party. Just go to a bar or liquor store and have a drink.
RepealDay.org says that “No other holiday celebrates the laws that guarantee our rights.” I think that’s going too far. Constitution Day and Bill of Rights Day do exactly that. And in my view, so does Independence Day. But that’s quibbling. Today we celebrate the repeal of a bad law. A toast to that!
Cato celebrated the 75th anniversary of repeal with this policy forum featuring Michael Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City; Glen Whitman, author of Strange Brew: Alcohol and Government Monopoly; Asheesh Agarwal, Former Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning; and Radley Balko, Senior Editor, Reason.
For the second time this fall, Cato has filed a brief supporting a lawsuit challenging the power of cities to stifle and regulate speech by licensing tour guides—effectively restricting who may lawfully speak to an audience about the city’s history.
In September, we filed a brief supporting “Segs in the City,” a segway touring company challenging a D.C. law which made it illegal to give tours in Washington, D.C., without completing a licensing process that involves a thorough history exam. Now we’ve filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, again joined by First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh, in support of a group of tour guides challenging New Orleans’ licensing scheme. (Both the D.C. and New Orleans guides are represented by our friends at the Institute for Justice.)
Like D.C., New Orleans only licenses guides who can pass a history test. In addition to that blatantly unconstitutional speech restriction, the Big Easy also requires licensees to submit to periodic drug tests. All that just so they can talk about the history and culture of New Orleans without spending five months in prison!
We argue that the licensing regime is a content-based restraint on speech and therefore must pass the strictest judicial scrutiny, so the government needs a compelling reason for it and has no other way of accomplishing the same goal. The law is a content-based speech regulation in that it is (a) triggered by the content of speech, and (b) justified on the basis of the content that it regulates. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a law regulating the content of speech—as opposed to its location, timing, or manner—is subject to strict scrutiny. The justifications offered for the licensing law refer to the “sufficient knowledge” of the guides and the accuracy of their speech. That is as much a content-based justification as saying that people need to be protected from hearing “erroneous” political opinions or “controversial” historical theories.
Finally, we argue that tour guides are not members of a “profession,” such as lawyers, doctors, and accountants, which could merit less First Amendment protection in order to protect the public from harm. Unlike those professions, tour guides don’t have intimate relations with clients. Instead, like most businesses, they simply have customers. The government can’t possibly require authors, public lecturers, or documentary filmmakers to get licensed in order to protect the public from “misinformation,” and it has no more basis for licensing tour guides.
The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Kagan v. City of New Orleans early in the new year.
Immigration reform is taking its time in Congress but the executive branch agencies charged with enforcing immigration laws have not been idle. Rather, they’ve been implementing bits and pieces of the reform package on their own – but not any of the good ones.
Last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it will “lock” a Social Security number when E-Verify or USCIS employees, based on new algorithms, believe the number is fraudulent or used fraudulently. The number is locked and a tentative non-confirmation (TNC) is issued to the applicant or applicants using the contested number – preventing any further E-Verify confirmations until the fraudulent user proves he or she is the lawful holder.
“Locking” was proposed as part of the summer’s comprehensive immigration reform bill that was passed by the Senate and in the House’s Legal Workforce Act. Locking was a bad idea in those bills and remains a bad idea today when implemented by regulatory fiat.
The largest and most obvious problem is the Kafkaesque bureaucratic resolution process that could catch employees in an endless loop of lockdowns. To begin with, the onus for establishing a valid ID is placed on the user of the number as opposed to USCIS having to prove that the user is fraudulent. Mere identification by a USCIS algorithm shouldn’t prevent somebody from lawfully working.
Legitimate holders of Social Security numbers that are locked down are forced to go through the standard and long TNC resolution process to unlock their numbers, which in turn involves the use of state and federal issued documents to prove the applicant’s validity.
But these documents are dependent on Social Security numbers. Driver’s licenses in most states, passports, and most of the other forms of government issued ID use Social Security numbers to establish the bearer’s validity. In essence, the holder of a suspect Social Security number is forced to use documentation derived from a number considered suspect by USCIS in order to prove identification to USCIS. The government has not stated how it will resolve this conundrum or even if it has considered it.
Additionally, if a number is locked down due to multiple E-Verify submissions, nothing can stop the fraudulent user of the Social Security number from using that number to acquire government-issued ID. The valid holder of a number, with a valid license and valid passport, would be pitted against the fraudulent holder, with a license and passport that are, on paper, validly issued by the government. How would the valid holder prove who they say they are when USCIS is faced with two or more sets of ID documents that appear valid? Would USCIS have the power to decide who is the valid holder of a Social Security number? What if they decide that the fraudster is correct and dismiss the legitimate holder? What recourse would the legitimate holder have in such a situation?
USCIS took the innaccurate, Kafkaesque E-Verify system and made it worse.
This post was written with the help of Scott Platton.
The longest war in American history drags on, with Washington a captive of purposeless inertia. The Obama administration should bring all U.S. forces home from Afghanistan and turn the conflict over to the Afghans.
After Afghan-based terrorists orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration had little choice but to make an example of the Taliban regime as well as target al-Qaeda.
But the lesson that governments which allow terrorist attacks on America lose power was delivered 12 long years ago. The Bush administration soon switched to nation-building in Central Asia.
President Barack Obama then made the war his own, twice increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan. Still, he promised that U.S. forces would return home in 2014.
But now the administration wants to keep between 8,000 and 15,000 troops on station for years if not forever. The newly negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement would run until “the end of 2024 and beyond.”
Why? Afghanistan never was vital to America. Not even during the Cold War, when after the Soviet invasion in December 1979 the conflict offered a convenient and inexpensive (for Washington, not the Afghan people) opportunity to bleed Moscow dry.
As I point out in my latest Forbes online column:
Osama Bin Laden again focused U.S. attention on Afghanistan, but only the transitory terrorist connection made control of Kabul critical to America. With the displacement of al-Qaeda and punishment of the Taliban, Afghanistan quickly receded in importance. Observed Vice President Joe Biden: “we went there for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans, al-Qaeda. We’ve decimated al-Qaeda central. We have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose.
So what is Washington doing there today? A mix of nation-building, democracy-promotion, and humanitarian intervention.
However, if the Afghan political system is not stable after years of allied military and financial support, the few thousand personnel the Obama administration hopes to keep in country won’t make much difference. Moreover, war is a dubious humanitarian tool. Afghanistan has been ravaged by decades of conflict.
Why else should Washington stay in Afghanistan? The country’s travails are destabilizing its neighbors, most obviously Pakistan, but the conflict is the most harmful factor. Continuing war after a U.S. withdrawal could affect other local powers, but the price of conflict without America is likely to remain far less than with America.
Lastly, when I visited Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, allied officials justified the Western presence as being necessary to prevent an al-Qaeda revival. However, terrorists don’t need to locate in Afghanistan when they can operate in Pakistan and many other nations.
Moreover, even a triumphant Taliban wouldn’t likely welcome back the group which brought down the wrath of America. Indeed, concluded a Washington Post story on administration deliberations: “Many of the groups that U.S. forces target in Afghanistan—most notably the Afghan Taliban—do not appear eager to attack Americans or U.S. interests outside the country.”
The strongest argument against the “zero option” of no troops is that it would limit Washington’s capability to strike elsewhere, most notably in Pakistan. However, the administration’s proposed deployment looks more configured to act in the civil war that is likely to continue.
Further, the larger the projected presence, the greater the target for terrorists, insurgents, and other malcontents. Better a much smaller counter-terrorist operation, perhaps off-shore, as with Yemen.
Moreover, Washington should scale back its drone operations in Pakistan and elsewhere. So-called “signature” strikes, in which most anyone in proximity to suspected terrorists is viewed as a likely terrorist, undoubtedly kill locals who threaten no one. Further, the U.S. began targeting the Pakistan Taliban apparently on the rationalization that Pakistani militants might threaten Americans in Pakistan, leading to blowback with the PT targeting Americans.
Now, however, President Karzai says he does not want to sign the BSA until after April’s presidential election. He may be primarily engaged in extortion, having explained: “We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and be an honest partner. And bring a lot of money.”
President Karzai’s chutzpah is in America’s interest. Because of him, U.S. troops actually might leave Central Asia—as they should.
Americans have been fighting in Afghanistan for longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. It’s time for America to go home.
Daniel J. Mitchell
Let’s do a simple thought experiment and answer the following question: Do you think that additional laws from Washington will give you more freedom and more prosperity?
I don’t know how you will answer, but I strongly suspect most Americans will say “no.” Indeed, they’ll probably augment their “no” answers with a few words that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat in polite company.
That’s because taxpayers instinctively understand that more activity in Washington usually translates into bigger and more expensive government. And big government isn’t so fun for those who pay the bills and incur the costs.
So what’s the purpose of our thought experiment? Well, new numbers have been released showing that the current Congress is going to set a modern-era record for imposing the fewest new laws.
But while most of us think this is probably good news, Washington insiders are whining and complaining about “diminished productivity” in Congress. The Washington Post is very disappointed that lawmakers aren’t enacting more taxes, more spending, and more regulation.
…this Congress — which is set to adjourn for the year later this month — has enacted 52 public laws. By comparison, …90 laws were encated during the first year of the 113th Congress and 137 were put in place during the first year of the 111th Congress.
Just in case you don’t have a beltway mindset, another Washington Post report also tells you that fewer laws is a bad thing.
…whatever gets done in December will still be part of a year with record-low congressional accomplishment. …According to congressional records, there have been fewer than 60 public laws enacted in the first 11 months of this year, so below the previous low in legislative output that officials have already declared this first session of the 113th Congress the least productive ever.
Let’s actually look at some evidence. The first session of the current Congress may have been the “least productive” in history when it comes to imposing new laws, but what’s the actual result?
Well, there are probably many ways this could be measured, but one of the most obvious benchmarks is the federal budget.
And it appears that “record-low congressional accomplishment” translates into a smaller burden of government spending.
Indeed, government spending actually has declined for two consecutive years. That hasn’t happened since the 1950s.
And it’s worth reminding people that you begin to solve the symptom of red ink when you address the underlying disease of too much spending. That’s why the deficit has fallen by almost 50 percent in the past two years.
Interestingly, the Washington Post accidentally confirms that you get better policy when you have fewer news laws.
In 1995, when the newly empowered GOP congressional majority confronted the Clinton administration, 88 laws were enacted, the record low in the post-World War II era.
Needless to say, the author isn’t saying that we got good policy because there were a “record low” number of laws in 1995. But if we look at fiscal policy during that period, that’s when we began a multi-year period of spending restraint that led to budget surpluses.
Now for some caveats.
It’s obviously a gross over-simplification to assert that the number of laws is correlated with good policy or bad policy. Sometimes politicians impose laws that increase the burden of government (with Obamacare being an obvious example).
But sometimes they enact laws that increase economic liberty and reduce government (with the sequester being a good example, even though very few politicians actually wanted that result).
To conclude, the message of this post is that we shouldn’t worry about “diminished productivity” in Washington if it means fewer bad laws.
P.S. Since we’re talking about low productivity in Washington, there’s good evidence that bureaucrats don’t work very hard compared to workers in the economy’s productive sector. But that’s probably a good thing. After all, do we want bureaucrats (like this one) being more diligent? That’s why we should focus on reducing their excessive compensation rather than encouraging them to put in a full day’s work.
New international student test results called PISA have been released. See here and here. Once again, U.S. high-school kids did poorly. American kids ranked 36th in math, 24th in reading, and 28th in science among 65 countries and jurisdictions. The U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.
A number of Asian countries scored the highest on all three tests. But Canadian kids also did very well, scoring toward the top on all the tests. On math, for example, Canadian kids ranked 13th, compared to U.S. kids at 36th.
American policymakers often react to such dismal U.S. results by calling for more central planning of education through federal subsidies and mandates. But note that Canada has no federal education department and no federal subsidies for its K-12 schools. Canadian education is entirely controlled at the provincial and local levels.
The Canadian test score advantage over the United States doesn’t prove that decentralization alone leads to higher scores, but it does prove that the United States does not need any federal involvement in order to become a top-ranked schooling nation. Indeed, Cato scholars have long argued that we would better off abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and ending all federal subsidies.
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.”
About a year ago, a major paper appeared in a high-profile scientific journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, claiming a link between genetically modified corn and cancer in rats. The findings were published by a research team led by Gilles-Éric Séralini of the University of Caen in France. It was widely trumpeted by people opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Simply put, making a GMO dramatically accelerates the normally slow process of traditional plant breeding, which takes many generations to stabilize some desired new trait in the plant genome, making the philosophical objections to it seem somewhat naïve.
While Séralini’s finding was heralded by anti-GMO activists as an “I told you so,” the paper was promptly, harshly, and widely criticized by geneticists and the general scientific community, many of whom lobbied the journal directly to address the shortcomings in the paper.
The most stinging criticism is going to sound painfully like what we see so often in environmental science, where researchers purposefully design an experiment likely to produce a desired results. Two months ago we documented a similar process that pretty much guaranteed that the chemical currently the darling of green enrages, bisphenyl-A, would “cause” cancer.
In Seralini’s case, the research team used a strain of rats with a known strong proclivity to develop cancer if left to age long enough, which is what they allowed, obeying the maxim that “if you let something get old enough, it will get cancer.”
After an about a year-long investigation into the Séralini results, the editor-in-chief of Food and Chemical Toxicology determined that the findings in the Séralini et al. paper were not methodologically sound enough to support to the conclusions forwarded by the authors. The journal consequently asked the Séralini authors to withdraw the paper. After their refusal to do so, the journal took the unusual step last week of retracting the paper itself, justifying:
The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups. Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a potent herbicide with little field-demonstrated toxicity in humans. It is used in huge quantities in modern, “no-till” agriculture, in which the soil surface is never broken with a plow. Seeds are “drilled” into the ground surrounded by the background vegetative litter, which, left to itself would soon yield a passel of choking weeds. But, by inserting DNA plasmids that render the crop resistant to Roundup’s toxicity, glyphosate becomes a “chemical plow” that kills the competing weeds while leaving the corn or soybeans to prosper. For what its worth, no-till is much more conservative of moisture, making crops less sensitive to long dry spells, and also “sequesters” carbohydrates which would normally oxidize into dreaded atmospheric carbon dioxide.
As a result, farmers pretty much swim in glyphosate. There’s also substantial exposure to suburban homeowners, who use it to spray down weeds that invade small cracks in blacktop and concrete driveways and sidewalks. There’s simply no evidence for increase cancer in these populations, which should have made anyone question Seralini’s finding at the get-go.
Séralini’s group is apparently now contemplating a lawsuit, claiming that the journal’s actions and criticisms were unacceptable.
We hope this gets beyond “contemplation,” but that’s not likely. The pre-trial discovery process would be interesting, to say the least.
The whole affair is full of fairly sordid details involving the anti-GMO movement, details which are laid out by the Genetic Literacy Project’s Jon Entine over at his Forbes.com blog. It is worth a read.
Almost surely, this will not be the last you hear about this study. Entine sees it playing out this way:
A court airing of this ugly episode now appears inevitable. Rumors abound that Séralini is already in contact with legal counsel and is set to pursue this issue in court, and perhaps in multiple courts. The disgraced scientist, in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation, could also turn around and submit the article in its current or revised form to a third-tier journal, including the many pay-for-play publications that cater to activist scientists.
Benjamin H. Friedman
Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Rogers (R-Mich) made news Sunday when they both insisted on CNN that the terrorist threat to Americans has grown in the last couple of years. Feinstein’s evidence: “The statistics indicate that, the fatalities are way up.” Rogers agrees and argues that al Qaeda has been “metastasizing” into more groups that engage in smaller attacks.
It’s true that global terror attacks and fatalities increased in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. And, several new jihadist groups have emerged of late. But, as Marian Tupy showed here Monday, the fact remains that terrorism has for decades been becoming less deadly.
We should also be skeptical that the recent increase in terrorism means more danger for Americans. The cause of terrorism’s recent increase is civil wars and political unrest in Africa, the Middle-East and South Asia, where the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks have occurred.
Meanwhile, terrorists killed fifteen, seventeen, and ten private U.S. citizens (that is, non-military) in 2010, 2011, 2012, respectively. That means the danger to Americans either did not grow or that they mostly avoided it.
The real problem then is not al Qaeda, but the fractured political order in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria and the like. Feinstein is conflating those problems to frighten us. As John Mueller notes:
When terrorism becomes really extensive, we generally no longer call it terrorism, but war. But people are mainly concerned about random terror, not sustained warfare.
Rogers’ claim that the al Qaeda threat is “metastasizing” into smaller, deadlier cells resembles old arguments that al Qaeda was a hierarchical organization that cleverly decentralized when the gig was up in Afghanistan. But as I explained at greater length here, even in its 1990s heyday, al Qaeda was a fragmented and unmanageable movement.
Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. Its “affiliates” are either bunches of guys with little capability or Islamist insurgents trading on the name’s cachet to organize their corner of a rebellion. Most of those insurgents target local enemies, not Americans. Those tragic struggles do not necessarily threaten U.S. security.
The fact that the jihadists that do target Americans are now focused on small-scale attacks is a consequence of their limited ability to pull off complex plots. And even the simpler sorts have mostly failed. Given the devastation our leaders tell us to expect from al Qaeda, what Rogers calls metastasis seems like good news.