Cato Op-Eds

Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace
Subscribe to Cato Op-Eds feed

Today is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks how far into the next year women on average have to work to bring home the same income men earned in the previous year. In light of Equal Pay Day I published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that looks at women’s opinions about the gender pay gap. What I found might surprise you:

Pew Research Center survey found that 62 percent of women believe that women “generally” get paid less than men for doing the same work. However, when asked about their own companies, far fewer — just 14 percent total — believe women are getting paid less than men where they work, and 17 percent say women have fewer opportunities for promotions where they work.

These are nearly 50-point shifts in perception from what women believe is generally happening in society at-large, and what they collectively report is happening based on their experiences in their own jobs.

This in no way discounts the negative experiences women have had, and we should not shy from denouncing inequitable treatment. Yet these data also reveal that although most women believe they are being treated fairly, they also believe that most other women aren’t.

These data indicate that women have come to believe the myth that women are getting paid less than men for doing the same work. However, academic studies show that gender discrimination is not largely influencing wages, as I explain in the op-ed:

Although Census data show that women make less money on average than men, this fails to consider any information about how women and men choose to pursue a work/life balance, whether they enter a career that requires 80-hour work weeks or 40-hour work weeks, whether they take time out of the workforce to raise children, how much education they attain, whether they go into careers like investment banking or education, surgery or nursing, etc.

Studies that take these other factors into account find that the gender pay gap narrows to about 95 cents on the dollar. The remaining 5 cent difference might be due to discrimination, or it might be due to differences in salary negotiations, or other reasons. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin writes, “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours.”

The Pew Survey found several disconnects between what women believe is causing the gender pay gap and the empirical research. First, Pew found that 54% of women believe that gender discrimination is a “major reason” for the pay gap. Although gender discrimination in pay can occur and should be sharply rebuked, research finds it is not significantly impacting wages.

Second, although differences in the number of hours men and women work (and when those hours are worked) is a significant driver of the wage gap, most women don’t find this believable. Only 28% thought this was a “major reason” that women on average earn less than men. Perhaps it sounds like one is accusing women of being lazy. Just because men on average work more hours in an office setting doesn’t mean women aren’t working the same or more hours when you combine hours worked in the office and taking care of family and home responsibilities.

Women responded better to the idea that men and women on average make different choices about how to balance work and family responsibilities and that might explain differences in pay. In fact, this was the most likely reason selected with 60% of women saying it was a major reason men and women earn different incomes.

As we talk about Equal Pay Day and the gender pay gap, it’s important to keep in mind both the empirical facts and where people are coming from. Some women have experienced discrimination in their jobs and such treatment should be condemned. We also need to be mindful about how we explain the sources of the gender pay gap, and avoid suggesting women aren’t working as hard as men.

Furthermore, in light of Equal Pay Day, we should point out the potential harms caused to women by perpetuating the idea that there is widespread injustice set against them. If women believe the deck is stacked against them regardless of their choices, this risks undermining risk-taking, accountability, and initiative. 

You can read the whole op-ed at the Washington Examiner here.

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of existing federal consent decrees with respect to troubled police departments.  Sessions’s legal memorandum is right that primary responsibility for dysfunctional police agencies resides with local officials–mayors, police chiefs, and city councils.  Those officials too often deflect criticism of their oversight failures with loud calls for a “federal investigation.”  When the feds announce their intervention, attention shifts to what the federal findings and recommendations may be later on.  For example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was under heavy fire after the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was disclosed.  By agreeing to a federal investigation, Emanuel survived, at least temporarily.

Some on the right mistakenly believe that the Obama administration was “anti-police” and that the DOJ investigations exhibited some sort of bias against law enforcement.  Not true.  Sessions is making a grave mistake if he thinks previous DOJ investigations did not uncover severe problems in American policing.  The problems are there.  The real question is how to address them.  In the education area, teacher unions are the main obstacles to reform.  Police unions are the major obstacle to sensible accountability measures for police organizations.  But over the long run, local mayors and city councils must be make a sustained commitment to proper oversight of police.  It is unrealistic to expect the Attorney General or a federal monitor to do their jobs.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

(This is the last of a three-part series.)

In my first and second posts addressing a recent Bank of Canada Working Paper by Ben Fung, Scott Hendry, and Warren E. Weber, I argued that the paper exaggerates the shortcomings of Canada’s 19th-century currency system, with its reliance upon the notes of numerous commercial banks, and also that it wrongly credits “government intervention” for various improvements to the system that were in fact instigated by Canada’s commercial bankers themselves.

With this third and final post, I come to the brass tacks of Fung et al.’s paper: its conclusion, supposedly informed by shortcomings of Canada’s 19th-century currency system, that even if governments supply their own, official digital monies, so long as private digital currencies aren’t altogether outlawed, it will take government regulation to render them safe and uniform.

The validity of this conclusion depends, first, on that of Fung et al.’s understanding of the shortcomings of Canada’s private banknote currency; second, on whether they are correct in arguing that government interference played an essential part in perfecting that currency; and, lastly, on whether they are justified in treating today’s digital currencies as analogous to yesterday’s banknotes. Having addressed the shortcomings of Fung et al.’s assessment of Canada’s banknote currency in my previous posts, I now turn to consider whether they are justified in claiming that whatever was true of private banknotes is likely to be true for private digital currencies as well.

Redeemable Digital Currencies

At one point Fung et al. declare (p. 3) that “the only difference” between the commercial banknotes of long ago and today’s digital currencies is that in the one instance “monetary value was ‘stored’ on a piece of paper” whereas in the other value exists “electronically.” But the declaration doesn’t hold water. Indeed, it’s so leaky that Fung et al. themselves quickly contradict it.

The contradiction occurs as soon as Fung et al. acknowledge the existence of two quite distinct sorts of digital currency. There are, first of all, “fractionally backed digital currencies that are redeemable on demand” (p. 28), mentioned examples of which include “Octopus cards in Hong Kong, M-pesa in Kenya, PayPal Prepaid card balances and Visa/Mastercard prepaid cards,” all of which are “denominated in a country’s monetary unit” (p. 32).  Then there are private digital currencies “that have their own unique monetary unit that differs from any national currency unit,” the best-known example of which is Bitcoin.

It should be obvious that only redeemable digital currencies have much in common with Canada’s 19th-century commercial banknotes, which were also “fractionally backed,” “redeemable on demand,” and “denominated in [Canada’s] official monetary unit,” and that these digital currencies alone could possibly possess the same flaws as banknotes sometimes did.

Redeemable Digital Currencies: Riskiness and Vulnerability to Counterfeiting

It’s conceivable, for example, that PayPal might default, leaving holders of its prepaid card balances to collect what they may from its receiver or liquidator. So those prepaid balances aren’t perfectly safe, just as commercial banknotes were never perfectly safe. It’s even possible that PayPal balances might someday command less than their par value, though (for reasons I’ll get to) it isn’t so easy to imagine why they’d ever be discounted so long as PayPal stays solvent. Finally, prepaid cards can be, and sometimes are, counterfeited, by compromising the data in a genuine card and using it to create fake copies. Though chip-based cards are much harder to clone, even those aren’t entirely safe.[1]

But while redeemable digital currencies may possess all these imperfections, that hardly means that they possess them to the degree that banknotes sometimes did, or to one warranting government intervention. To repeat a point I insisted on in my first installment in this series, imperfection doesn’t imply inefficiency, which is to say that the costs of regulatory interference aimed at correcting the imperfections may exceed those of the imperfections themselves.

In fact, neither the imperfect safety nor the vulnerability to counterfeiting of today’s redeemable digital currencies appear significant enough to justify any sort of government interference. Regarding the risk of counterfeiting, for example, although stored value cards are sometimes counterfeited, the problem is far less serious than it is for ordinary credit card counterfeits.  For that reason few stored value card issuers have so far found it worthwhile to add chips to their cards. Should the counterfeiting problem become more severe, more will presumably take that step, just as many credit card issuers have done.

Redeemable Digital Currencies: Likelihood of Discounts

When we come to consider the likelihood that redeemable digital currencies will routinely command less than their par or face value, as banknotes sometimes did, it becomes apparent that even these superficially similar types of currency are in some respects as different as night and day. Discounts applied to the notes of solvent banks mostly reflected the costs brokers stood to incur in getting them redeemed, including the costs of receiving, sorting, and storing the notes and, once enough were accumulated, those of bundling and sending them on their way back to their places of origin via mail stage, railway mail car, or St. Lawrence steamer. There were besides this the costs of having their redemption proceeds sent back to them, whether by the same costly means, in the shape of gold or Dominion notes, or by bank draft.

Redemption of banknotes’ modern digital counterparts is, in contrast, accomplished by means of a few keyboard strokes, by which light pulses are sent hurtling through glass-fiber cables, at speeds lately approaching that of unimpeded light itself. It all happens, moreover, at trifling cost. For this reason alone, even if it had taken government intervention to do away with discounts on Canada’s commercial banknotes, it wouldn’t follow that such intervention will be needed keep today’s redeemable digital currencies current.[2]

Am I saying that the market for redeemable digital currencies is efficient? Not quite. Because the digital currency industry is still in its swaddling clothes, there are ample opportunities for successful providers to assess fees exceeding their costs, and to secure corresponding surpluses. Still the presumption ought to be that, as the industry matures, competition will prove no less effective in hammering-down the surpluses than it is in rewarding relatively efficient firms in the first place.

Indeed, one need only look to see this very process taking place before one’s eyes. Consider Safaricom, one of the two Kenyon mobile network operators (the other is Vidacom) that launched M-pesa back in 2007. Safaricom charges fees typically ranging between one and two percent for various M-pesa transactions, and has  made handsome profits by so doing. Yet it recently chose to dispense with charges for smaller transfers; and it’s bound to make similar decisions in the future as competition among rival digital currency suppliers stiffens.

All this, I realize, is the stuff of any principles text. Yet it’s worth pointing out  lest anyone should lose sight of it. I also think it prudent to observe that, generally speaking, if one wishes to avoid inefficiency, the last thing one ought to do, except perhaps in those uncommon instances in which an industry qualifies as a “natural monopoly,” is to let an outfit already gifted with a statutory monopoly of some product — whether it be paper currency, soap bars, or salt — compete with private sector suppliers of other products, including substitutes for the monopolized good. Letting it enter these other markets is, after all, a recipe for having it resort to cross-subsidies to defeat its more efficient private sector rivals — an alternative to outright prohibition that Fung et al. (p. 32) don’t appear to consider.

Non-Standard Digital Currencies

Turning to private digital currencies that are neither denominated nor redeemable in some official money — and that aren’t, for that matter, redeemable claims to anything at all — it should be perfectly obvious that these have about as much in common with old-fashioned banknotes as a $50 gold Maple Leaf has with a $50 deposit credit at the RBC or Scotiabank. While both a banknote and a bank deposit credit are IOUs, bitcoins and Maple Leafs aren’t.

It should therefore be equally obvious that non-standard digital currencies are necessarily both free of default risk and incapable of having a market “value” distinct from their nominal or face value.  The value of a bitcoin can and does fluctuate in terms of other currencies; but a bitcoin is always worth precisely one bitcoin. It follows that, whatever experience may tell us concerning losses suffered by banknote holders owing to either bank failures or discounts applied to the notes of solvent banks, that experience tells us even less about today’s non-standard digital currencies than the precious little it tells us about their standardized and redeemable counterparts.

That leaves counterfeiting. Fung et al. think it “likely that digital currencies would be subject to criminal attempts to counterfeit them,” and it is hard to disagree with them. But here again, the statement is more true of redeemable digital currencies than of non-standard ones, including bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies which, as Fung et al. recognize (p. 27), appear to have solved the counterfeiting problem “by requiring ‘proof of work’ or ‘proof of stake’ before a block of transactions can be added to the blockchain.” The concession is important, for, so far at least, no other actual or would-be currencies, whether official or private, can claim to be counterfeit-proof. That point ought surely to be seen as a decisive one in at least some digital currencies’ favor.

Yet instead of emphasizing the point, Fung et al. devote but a single, fleeting sentence to it. They also surround that sentence with others concerning problems other than outright counterfeiting to which decentralized digital currencies are supposed to be uniquely vulnerable, namely, the so-called “double spending” problem, and the risk of “fraud and cyber attacks.” But “proof of work” schemes are just as effective in preventing double spending, where a legitimate owner of digital currency units makes and spends copies of those units, as they are in ruling-out outright counterfeiting. The outright theft of stored bitcoin through successful hacking of security systems has, in contrast, been a very real problem. But despite what Fung et al. claim, and as Willie Sutton (or any garden-variety mugger or purse-snatcher) might tell you, currencies that “rely on a trusted third party,” including the paper currencies that central banks supply, can be stolen no less easily.

The Question of Scarcity

Thus far, both here and in my previous posts in this series, I’ve referred to only three items in Fung et al.’s list of “five desirable characteristics of a medium of exchange”: minimal exposure to counterfeiting,  a high degree of safety (taken to mean safety from loss owing to a providers’ insolvency), and uniformity with respect to the prevailing standard monetary unit. I’ve overlooked the other two, ease of transacting and scarcity, because Fung et al. themselves allow that with respect to these characteristics Canada’s private banknotes were no worse than available alternatives, including Dominion notes.

Fung et al. say nothing about the relative ease of transacting with private digital versus government-supplied currency. They do, however, compare the capacity of digital currencies to remain scarce to that of government fiat currencies, to the disadvantage of the former.  While at least some central banks, including those of Canada, the U.S., England, Europe, and Japan, are, in their words, “committed to keeping inflation low and stable,” they believe that

Private digital currencies are likely to be scarce only when subject to strong government regulation  or when their are rules for issuance hard coded from the beginning and not subject to any change (p. 28).

It’s hard to see just how Fung et al. arrive at this conclusion. With regard to redeemable digital currencies, the mere fact that their issuers (like most private issuers of redeemable IOUs but unlike modern central banks) face the penalty of failure in the event of nonpayment has been by far the most powerful constraint against excessive issues. It sufficed, at any rate, to keep the supply of banknotes in check in Canada when its banks were able to issue notes subject to no practical limit save the requirement that banks  pay their notes on demand.[3] If there is some reason for supposing that a similar obligation won’t suffice to contain the growth of today’s redeemable digital currencies, Fung et al. should spell it out.

Concerning non-standard digital monies, it’s of course true, as Fung et al. say, that these may not be sufficiently scarce, and may therefore fail to “ever enjoy wide spread acceptance,” unless rules limiting their multiplication are “hard coded from the beginning.” But whoever thought otherwise? And is this not something we can safely let private digital currency suppliers discover for themselves, as at least some have already done? What’s the point, in short, of insisting on the necessity of government regulation in the event that private firms attempt to do what they can’t possibly get away with doing? One might as well observe that government regulation “may” be called for to keep privately-manufactured airplanes from dropping out of the sky, or never getting off the ground, unless their manufacturers happen to take the trouble to equip them with wings and other such aerodynamically-appropriate devices.

Fung et al. insist nonetheless that even those non-standard private digital currencies that manage to get off the ground are more likely to end up becoming worthless than their government-supplied counterparts. In defense of this view they note that several non-standard digital currencies have already come and gone, whereas they are unaware of “evidence of any government issued fiat currency having become valueless” (p. 29). Reading that last statement, I couldn’t help thinking of an old bank building in  Madison, GA, not far from where I used to live, that still contained the former bank’s vault. When I saw it the vault’s interior was literally  lined with Confederate States’ notes. Were they not smothered with glue and varnish, those notes would be worth something to collectors today. But they sure couldn’t have been worth much to whoever glued them on the vault walls in the first place!

To be fair, Confederate money only became worthless after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, so perhaps the example shouldn’t count. But there are numerous other examples one might point to — enough, at least, to have inspired Irving Fisher to remark, in 1910, that “Irredeemable paper money has almost invariably proved a curse to the country employing it” (Introduction to Economic Science, p. 219, my emphasis). Consider those famous pictures, taken in Weimar Germany, of a man papering a wall with Reichsmarks while the Reichsbank was still a going concern, or of a woman lighting her stove with them? And how about those $100 trillion Zimbabwean notes that ended up being worth less than a penny — and that mainly because their very worthlessness made them popular with souvenir hunters?[4] Last and, in this case, also least, let’s not forget those notorious Hungarian pengős, 3.8 of which were worth a gram of gold when they were first introduced in 1927. By August, 1946, when the forint was introduced, a gram of gold cost 5300 octillion pengős! Admittedly a unit of currency worth 1/5300 octillion grams of gold is, mathematically speaking, worth more than zero. But who’s counting?

Admittedly Fung et al.’s claim that government fiat currencies are less likely to become worthless than their private digital counterparts rests on something other than the difference between 1/5300 octillion and zero. It depends as well on the authors’ belief that official currency issuers enjoy the ability “to declare their currencies legal tender and require that they be accepted in certain transactions.” But while legal tender laws may suffice to render fiat currencies valuable in the settlement of certain preexisting debts, they have no bearing at all on such currencies’ value in spot transactions.

As for such currencies’ acceptability in payment of taxes and other government dues sufficing to keep them from becoming worthless, the claim begs the question: acceptable at what rate? Imagine, if you will, a poll tax payable in old Zimbabwean dollars. Unless Zimbabwe’s tax authorities suffer from money illusion, that tax would tend to increase no less rapidly than other prices. The public receivability of official fiat monies tends, in other words, to contribute little more to their value than their receivability among other sellers of goods and services. As a bulwark against hyperinflation, a paper currency’s legal tender status is in itself far less reassuring than an absolute quantity limit like the one that will forever keep the quantity of bitcoins below 21 million.

Overlooked Advantages of Banknote Currency

I come now to what I regard as the most serious shortcoming of Fung et al.’s paper, namely, it’s failure to consider the ways in which private currency may be better than government-supplied alternatives. That in assessing Canada’s 19th century experience, Fung et al. never take this possibility seriously is evidenced by their asking, “Did Dominion Notes Improve the System?” without ever asking whether Dominion Notes may actually have been worse than Canada’s commercial banknotes.

Yet to judge either by the opinion of contemporary experts, or by the preferences of Canada’s citizens, Dominion notes were inferior to commercial banknotes. Regarding the public’s verdict, it’s notorious that the notes of Canada’s commercial banks were its currency of choice, which it preferred, not only to government currency, but to gold itself. Consequently to create a demand for Dominion notes the Canadian government had, not only to make them full legal tender, and  require that the chartered banks hold them in amounts equal to no less than 40 percent of their legal tender reserves, but to outlaw banknote denominations below $4 and (after 1880), below $5. Were it not for the last of these provisions, it’s highly doubtful that Dominion notes would have circulated at all, for the chartered banks would naturally have been inclined to “push” their own notes, and there’s no evidence that Canada’s citizens would have hesitated to take them.

And while the verdict of Canada’s citizens might be set aside by some readers as proof of nothing save those citizens’ lack of discernment, that of contemporary experts can’t be so readily dismissed. And that verdict was also unanimous in holding banknotes to be superior to redeemable government paper currency.

Banknotes were considered superior to government paper money in three important respects. First, banks stood to lose more by dishonoring their promises, bankers were less likely to break those promises than government authorities were. Second, bankers were more likely to employ the scarce savings represented by the public’s currency holdings productively. Finally, banknote currency was “elastic,” meaning that its quantity tended to adapt automatically to secular, cyclical, and (especially) seasonal changes in demand, whereas government-supplied currency was not. Because there’s no place for these advantageous qualities of banknote currency among the “desirable characteristics of a medium of exchange” Fung et al. consider relevant “for determining how well private bank notes and government notes performed” (p. 3n. 2), their appraisal severely underrates banknotes in comparison to their government counterparts.

Banknotes Contributed to the Efficient Employment of Savings

I have already, in the first part of this series, referred to the superior efficiency and elasticity of Canada’s banknote currency in arguing that these advantages more than compensated for the somewhat lower security of such currency (judged solely in terms of its specie backing) compared to Dominion notes. So it remains for me only to elaborate a bit more on these traits.

As Joseph Johnson pointed out in 1910 (p. 129), thanks to the Canadian public’s “unquestioning confidence” in Canadian banks’ notes and other credit instruments, they “never demand that they be converted into gold,” which is “used only between banks and in the foreign exchanges.” The banks, in other words, had succeeded in developing “an almost perfect credit system” — the very embodiment of Adam Smith’s ideal highway “suspended upon Daedalian wings.” The savings represented by the Canadian public’s currency holdings, or that part of it which the government did not acquire by monopolizing the supply of currency of denominations below $5, was almost entirely backed by  productive bank loans, rather than by either specie or loans to the Dominion government. Had the government succeeded in any of its several attempts to completely substitute Dominion notes for banknotes, those savings would instead have been either locked-up in so much gold coin and bullion, or commandeered by the Canadian government.

In summary, Canada’s banknotes were, in contrast to either Dominion notes or the notes of U.S. national banks, genuine commercial credit instruments, as opposed to fiscal devices whose real purpose was to secure forced loans to the government from the public, either directly or via bank reserve or note-collateral requirements. It’s possible, of course, that Fung et al. don’t consider the difference important. Perhaps they don’t believe it matters much how scarce savings are employed. Or perhaps they deny that Canada’s private banks were any more capable of employing such savings productively than Canadian government authorities were. But if they believe either of these things, they ought to say so. And since in holding either view they’d be bucking centuries of received opinion, they also ought to say why.

Banknotes Provided an “Elastic” Currency

However impressive it may have been, the efficiency of Canada’s banknote currency was not nearly as widely appreciated as its elasticity was. For while Canadians themselves may have been inclined to take their elastic currency system for granted, U.S. observers were keenly aware of it, and of the stark contrast between it and their own nation’s notoriously inelastic paper currency, consisting of greenbacks and national bank notes. During the final decades of the 19th century, and the first decades of the 20th, the inelasticity of the U.S. currency stock was an important cause, if not the main cause, of recurring financial crises. Just how currency inelasticity contributed to U.S. crises is a subject too involved to go into here (though readers can find a quick summary in this Cato Policy Analysis). But that it did so ought to be evident enough from the fact that the Federal Reserve System was established “to furnish an elastic currency.”

That Canada’s elastic banknote currency allowed it to avoid the crises that afflicted the U.S. economy is no minor detail. Yet Fung et al. never so much as hint at this advantage of Canada’s banknotes — or at the fact that the supply of Dominion notes were even less elastic than national bank notes in the U.S. The only reference Fung et al. make to variations in the stock of Canadian banknotes consists of some remarks concerning year-to-year growth rate changes (p. 19), which they illustrate with the following chart:

Someone knowing nothing more about the behavior of the Canadian banknote supply than what this chart reveals might be forgiven for supposing that the vaunted “elasticity” of Canada’s banknote supply was but a euphemism referring to its volatility. But here is a different picture, showing levels rather than growth rates, and using monthly rather than annual data, for both U.S. national bank notes (left scale) and Canadian banknotes (right scale) :

Alas, Fung et al.’s paper supplies neither such chart, nor any other indication of the lovely saw-tooth pattern of Canada’s currency stock, perfectly reflecting both the comings and goings of the harvest season, and the secular growth of Canada’s economy.[5]

Canada’s banknote currency had yet another important advantage that not only Fung et al. but most other modern authorities overlook: its role in fostering branch banking. Branch banking itself was, of course, a highly advantageous feature of the Canadian system that the U.S. banking system long lacked. Besides contributing to Canadian banks’ safety by making it relatively easy for them to diversify their assets and their liabilities, it also made it much easier for bank-intermediated credit to flow where it was most needed, equalizing interest rates in the process.

But it was only because they were free to issue their own notes that Canada’s chartered banks found it profitable to establish far-reaching branch networks. For had Canada’s banks been obliged to stock their branches’ tills and safes entirely with specie and Dominion notes, instead of having them serve only as small change, the cost would have been prohibitive. By equipping those branches with their own notes instead, they saved a corresponding amount of resources, for until those notes were actually placed into circulation, they were, as one Canadian banker put it (p. 834), “merely so much paper.”

The Real Lesson

I come now at last to what I consider to be the most disappointing thing about Fung et al.’s working paper. It isn’t that it exaggerates the flaws of Canada’s private banknote currency, or that it understates the bankers own part in correcting those flaws. And it isn’t that it overlooks Canadian banknotes distinct advantages over government paper currency. Nor is it that Fung et al. employ their misleading appraisal of Canada’s 19th-century system to arrive at still less reliable conclusions regarding the inherent defects of digital currencies. What’s most disappointing  about the paper is that one might read every word of it, and carefully, without ever realizing that, even before the reforms of the 1880 and 1890, Canada’s private currency system was widely considered, by experts and non-experts alike, to be one of the world’s best currency systems ever, and a darn good one at that.

For testimony on this point, one might turn to the any of the same authorities upon whom Fung et al. rely in cataloguing the Canadian system’s flaws, as well as to many other authorities. For our purposes, the two sources upon which Fung et al. rely upon most heavily should suffice. Toward the end of his history Breckenridge (p. 355) says that “The efficiency of the banks … their services to the country, have received about all the positive description that the subject permits.” He then devotes his book’s final chapter (p. 360ff) to a detailed description of the Canadian banking system’s many advantages, ending with a flurry of rhetorical questions that, read in context, amount to a summary:

How the Canadian banks economize capital; how they utilize and distribute it; what is the security, convertibility and elasticity of the circulating medium they supply; how thoroughly are their creditors protected against loss; how low and how nearly equal are the rates of interest in different parts of the country; how cheaply are other banking services sold; how easy of access are banking facilities; what support have worthy customers in critical times; and how far does the system promote the stability of commercial confidence: these are questions to which, perhaps, this chapter forms an answer. According to the true response, the merits of the Canadian Banking System must be judged. If the present answer be sufficient, the reader may draw his own conclusions.

According to Joseph French Johnson (p. 128), Canada’s banknote-based currency system

possesses features of extraordinary merit, adapting it admirably to the needs of the country which it serves. It performs most efficiently the service for which banks are created, gathering up the country’s idle capital and placing it in channels of useful employment. … The law leaves the banks such freedom that business is never brought to a halt through lack of instruments of exchange; whether the need be for checks and drafts or for bank notes, the supply is always adequate. The redemption system insures perfect elasticity for both the note and deposit currency. …Finally…the system possesses a solidarity that makes possible united action in the face of a common peril.

Similar words of praise can be found in works not mentioned by Fung et al.  Thus George Hague, in his “Historical Sketch of Canadian Banking” (p. 476), observes that “No person acquainted with Canada can doubt that its banking system has been conducive to its material interests in a very high degree, and it is the opinion of many who are conversant with the matter, that no other system would have been equally beneficial.” Elsewhere (p. 452) Hague remarks that Canada’s system is “perfectly adapted to the wants of the country, and has proved itself so during the most trying periods of commercial depression, no matter how long protracted.”

Nor, as I’ve shown previously on Alt-M , was such praise voiced only by bankers and economists.

Yet for Fung et al., the sole merit of Canada’s 19th-century currency arrangement lies in its supposed ability to adumbrate the likely flaws of today’s private digital currencies, and the consequent need for regulators (including, presumably, the Bank of Canada) to stick their mitts in it. Honing-in as it were on every knot and toadstool they can discover disfiguring trunks within the forest of Canada’s chartered banks, they overlook the tremendous merits of the forest itself, and thus manage to arrive at precisely the wrong answer to the question their paper poses.

That question, to paraphrase it, is, “In light of Canada’s experience with commercial banknotes, what must regulators do to perfect today’s private digital currencies?” Stand back a ways, ignore those toadstools and knots, and behold that glorious old forest. The right response, surely, is not unlike the one French businessmen famously gave to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, France’s Comptroller-General of Finances, back in 1681: leave them be.

____________________________

[1] PayPal Prepaid card balances are, on the other hand, safer than cash itself in at least one respect, for if you lose cash you’re out of luck, while according to PayPal “If your card is lost or stolen, we will, upon your request, send you a new card. Your funds will be transferred to the new card account.” In this as well as in other respects, including the fees involved, prepaid card balances resemble travelers’ checks rather than banknotes, raising the question whether Fung et al. should be drawing conclusions regarding the need to regulate them from past experience with such checks, rather than with circulating banknotes.

[2] If Canada’s experience with banknote discounts supplies only dubious grounds for regulating digital currencies, antebellum U.S. experience, to which Fung et al. also appeal (p. 30), is still less pertinent, for the relatively extensive note discounts of that episode were peculiar byproducts of unit banking, which is now defunct.

[3] Fung et al. wrongly attribute the scarcity of Canada’s commercial banknotes to official “restrictions on the quantity that could be issued,” and particularly to the post-1871 stipulation limiting banks’ circulation to their paid-in capital. “Since banks did not increase their capital very often,” they write, “this [capital limitation] controlled the supply of banknotes” (p. 18). But the capital limit didn’t actually become binding until 1906. Something  else must have kept banknotes scarce until then. That something was, surely, the fact that banknotes were routinely presented for payment in gold or Dominion notes, which were themselves scarce, with failure as the penalty for non-payment. That Fung et al. don’t recognize this most basic mechanism for limiting the expansion of redeemable bank money is more than a little disconcerting.

[4] Regarding that Zimbabwean $100 trillion note, Fung et al. observe (p. 29n32) that instead of being valueless it was still worth a loaf of bread in 2009. But the story of the Zimbabwean dollar didn’t end in 2009, for that currency wasn’t officially abandoned until the summer of 2015, when a new Zimbabwean dollar was introduced, with a starting value once again equal to one U.S. dollar. At the then official exchange rate, one old $100 trillion note was worth just 40 cents of the new currency, while in Harare a loaf of plain white bread cost $1.3, which is to say more than three old $100 trillion notes.

[5] For an excellent discussion of how Canada’s banks furnished the extra paper currency needed for its harvest season — and automatically took it back once the season had passed — see A. St. L Trigge, “How Canada Provides Currency for Moving the Crops,” The Bankers’ Magazine 72 (1906), pp. 834-41.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

A major issue in the summit meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be the growing U.S. insistence that Beijing do much more to rein-in its disruptive North Korean ally. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times on Sunday. His blunt comment is only the latest in a series of escalating warnings from Washington. Administration officials have indicated that all options, including unilateral military force, are on the table.

Unfortunately, the administration’s approach to inducing Beijing to take action against North Korea consists of all sticks and no carrots. The fear that the United States might launch airstrikes against North Korea, with all the possible adverse ramifications of such a move for China’s interests, is apparently deemed sufficient to cause a change in Xi’s policy.

Like its predecessors, the Trump foreign policy team overestimates China’s normal influence over Pyongyang and is oblivious to the reasons for Beijing’s reluctance to apply maximum pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime. China undoubtedly has more leverage over North Korea than does any other country, but it is still limited. Pyongyang has defied the Chinese government’s repeated requests and warnings to cease both its nuclear tests and its ballistic missile launches.

True, since China supplies so much of North Korea’s food and energy supplies, it could probably bring Kim’s regime to its knees if it severed such assistance. But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, Chinese leaders have several reasons for refraining from adopting that option. There is the worry that intense pressure might cause Kim’s volatile regime to engage in even more risky military provocations, thereby triggering the very war that the United States and all East Asian nations want to prevent. Even if that nightmare did not occur, cutting off food and energy aid might cause the North Korean state to unravel. Among many other potential problems, that development would lead to massive refugee flows into China.

Beyond those immediate dangers, Chinese officials are concerned that if North Korea imploded, Washington would exploit that situation to Beijing’s geostrategic disadvantage. A united Korea allied with the United States would mean the loss of the geographic buffer between China and the rest of Northeast Asia dominated by America and its allies. Chinese leaders would wonder further if someday Washington might seek to have military bases in what is now North Korea. Given the recent U.S. behavior in deploying military forces in what was formerly Moscow’s East European satellite empire, despite promises to the contrary, such Chinese worries are not unfounded.

There is no indication that the Trump administration has moved to address any of these concerns, much less all of them. So far, the administration’s diplomatic approach appears to be comprised entirely of demands that China take more vigorous action against its troublesome ally or the United States will, despite the potential catastrophic consequences. Concessions to either China or North Korea do not appear to be on the table. I have discussed elsewhere the possible concessions Washington could offer to China, both with respect to the Korean Peninsula and other areas, to increase the incentives for Beijing to adopt more decisive measures toward Pyongyang. But expecting China to incur great risks to implement a hardline policy that would primarily benefit the United States and its allies is inherently unrealistic. Foreign policy is rarely a charitable enterprise, and Chinese foreign policy is never such an enterprise. If the Trump administration wants China to get tough with North Korea, it will need to make it worthwhile for Beijing to do so.

Since his election to Congress in 2012, Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) has been one of the federal legislature’s most outspoken critics of the failed drug war. Rep. O’Rourke is in the news again this week following his announcement that he plans to run against sitting Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

In November of 2011, O’Rourke spoke at Cato’s “Ending the Global War on Drugs” conference regarding his experiences as an El Paso native and the costs of drug prohibition on both sides of the border.

Rep. O’Rourke also spoke with Cato regarding his support for immigration reform in March of last year.

Last week The Washington Post reported that D.C. will be “among [the] first in [the] nation to require child-care workers to get college degrees.” This jumps on a bandwagon gathering pace in recent years: that child care should be seen as formal pre-school education rather than whatever parents decide is best for their children.

The logic behind the move is simple. Development gaps between poor and middle-class kids arise early, in part due to the failure for many children to experience an environment imbued with the knowledge of how best to deliver early learning. By setting the requirement for “lead teachers” to have an associate degree, child care directors to obtain a “bachelor’s degree” and for home carers to have the Child Development Associate (CDA) Credential, it is believed a better-educated workforce will raise the “quality” of care when children do experience it, in turn improving child outcomes.

Yet the push for professionalization and “improvements in quality” has led to child care becoming increasingly expensive in other countries, such as the U.K., with little evidence of the development objectives being achieved.

Regulatory restrictions such as these, which make becoming a child carer more expensive and time-consuming, will (other things equal) reduce the number of people opting for this type of job. Even though there is evidence it may raise some measure of the “quality of care”, this reduces the number of child care options available to parents overall and increases its price. Mercatus Research estimates requiring “lead teachers to have at least a high school diploma [note: a much lower standard] is associated with an increase in child care costs for infants of between 25 and 46 percent, or between $2,370 and $4,350 per year, per child.”

Given D.C. already has the highest cost of care in the country (the average annual cost of infant care in D.C. is $22,631, taking up close to 36% of a typical family’s income), reducing accessibility to care for low-income families seems a particularly dumb idea. It may reduce the payoff to returning to work for many individuals, or else result in substantial reductions in post-care disposable incomes, which could be used for other positive purposes.

The policy will likely ratchet up too. This is a classic example of how governments restrict the supply of a service, resulting later in demands to subsidize it given the high price. This has certainly been the case in the U.K., where regulations on qualifications and staff-child ratios have been buttressed with provision of so-called “free child care” for 3 and 4-year-olds. The result? There has been some evidence that the provision has a very small average beneficial impact to educational attainment at age 5. Yet this effect weakens by age 7 and has completely disappeared by age 11.

Even if it does improve the average quality of child care then, this type of policy will make child care more expensive and is likely to be completely overshadowed in the longer term by other factors which affect development (not least parenting). Given we do not force parents to take degrees in child development, or else put children in educational centers from birth, it is unclear what the robust explanation is for the government determining what constitutes quality, and restricting the availability of child care. Parents should be free to make judgments about their own wants and needs.  

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

This time around You Ought to Have a Look at a brilliant analysis of the profound illogic of “climate catastrophizing” appearing, in all places, in Foreign Affairs, arguably the most important international contributor to precisely just that.

Written by the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass (“he’s just like you and me, only smarter”), who often finds himself YOTHALed in these writings, it’s a logical tour-de-force that skewers the exaggerated bathos of the apocalyptics with simple economic logic and hard numbers. Along the way, the usual purveyors of gloom-and-doom, like Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich and The Club of Rome, as well as some more modern-day would-be autocrats like Harvard’s Daniel Schrag, fall victim. The intellectual carnage wrought by Cass is truly breathtaking. And it’s all in Foreign Affairs.

Cass starts off with a bang:

Climate change may or may not bear responsibility for the flood on last night’s news, but without question it has created a flood of despair. Climate researchers and activists, according to a 2015 Esquire feature, “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job,” suffer from depression and PTSD-like symptoms. In a poll on his Twitter feed, meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus found that nearly half of 416 respondents felt “emotionally overwhelmed, at least occasionally, because of news about climate change.” 

For just such feelings, a Salt Lake City support group provides “a safe space for confronting” what it calls “climate grief.”

Panicked thoughts often turn to the next generation. “Does Climate Change Make It Immoral to Have Kids?” pondered columnist Dave Bry in The Guardian in 2016. “[I] think about my son,” he wrote, “growing up in a gray, dying world—walking towards Kansas on potholed highways.” Over the summer, National Public Radio tackled the same topic in “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?” an interview with Travis Rieder, a philosopher at Johns Hopkins University, who offers “a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.” And Holthaus himself once responded to a worrying scientific report by announcing that he would never fly again and might also get a vasectomy

Cass then notes that this fear is stoked at the highest levels, with gaudy statements by President Obama (as long as there’s no chance of an audience question, he notes), Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Bill di Blasio (the last made at the Vatican, which has also been fanning the flames).

The problem, according to Cass, is that all of this just isn’t warranted. Worst-case scenarios based upon business-as-usual give, according to the UN, a warming of three-to-four degrees (C) from 2015 to 2100 (the earth may be telling us these numbers are way high, see here for a summary of recent findings). Using even the high end of that, integrated economic/climate models (don’t laugh at the concept, please) project a worldwide increase in GDP from $76 trillion today to $490 trillion. That’s with climate change. Without it, the 2100 figure is $520 trillion. Small beer.

How small? Cass cites the model output:

In the [economic/climate model, moreover, the climate-change-afflicted world of 2105 is already more prosperous than the climate-change-free world of 2100. And because the impacts and costs of climate change emerge gradually over the century—0.3 percent of GDP in 2020, 1.0 percent in 2050—in no year does the model foresee a reduction in economic growth of even one-tenth of a percentage point. Average annual growth over the 2015–2100 period declines from 2.27 percent to 2.22 percent. 

The reason catastrophizing is wrong is its proponent’s inability to comprehend the huge degree that affluence immunizes society against catastrophe. In 1970, a severe tropical cyclone (“hurricane” in American) killed 500,000 in Bangladesh. In 2007, a similar storm took out 4,000. That’s 4,000 tragedies to be sure, but 496,000 less than there would have been with 1970 infrastructure and technology there.

Cass notes that the lurid future scenarios are often based upon some very hokey “science.” Our EPA, for example, says that in 2100, the heat-related death rate in New York City will be 50 times that of Phoenix—even though today’s Phoenix is a lot hotter than 2100’s New York. Here—and we have written scientific papers on this—EPA ignores the fact that as heat waves become more frequent, heat-related mortality drops. It’s this thing called “adaptation,” something catastrophists tend to ignore.

In one of the better turns of phrase in the climate/economic literature, Cass notes that “The costs of climate adaptation can also appear deceptively large if the alternative of maintaining the status quo is imagined to be free.” That’s because all along we are adapting to climate, changing or not.

Cass closes back-to-bathos:

As for Bry, the newspaper columnist; Rieder, the philosophy professor; and Holthaus, the meteorologist? They each decided to have kids after all.

Speaking of which, YOTHAL at the testimony before the House Science Committee hearing on Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method on March 29 by Judith Curry, John Christy, and Roger Pielke, Jr. Penn State’s Michael Mann also testified, and one-half hour after the hearing sent out a fundraising letter for 314 Action, a nonprofit group lobbying for, among other things, the defeat of Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. Talk about chutzpah! And his letter certainly didn’t tell the truth:

But today when I appeared before the House Science Committee, I was seated with three witnesses, all of whom deny climate science or its implications.

For field notes on this trainwreck, you also ought to have a look at witness Judith Curry’s report on her blog, Climate Etc.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled in Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman that imposing restrictions on how merchants inform buyers about the prices they charge triggers First Amendment scrutiny. This would seem to be an obvious conclusion, but the decision is an important, although limited, victory for those who want to convey honest information to their customers, and for those who have a right to receive that information.

The case dealt with New York Business Law § 518, which prohibits merchants from imposing a “surcharge” on customers who use credit cards, but allows for a “cash discount.” To put it simply: the law allows stores to advertise “discounts” for paying cash, but makes it a crime to advertise an economically equivalent “surcharge” for paying with plastic.

Expressions Hair Design, along with several other merchants, sued the state, arguing that the law was vague and a violation of their First Amendment right to convey information to their customers. The federal district court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that decision. The circuit court’s ruling held that the First Amendment wasn’t implicated because the law didn’t regulate speech but merely regulated prices. The Supreme Court granted review to determine two issues: The threshold question of whether the law regulated speech rather than conduct and, if so, whether the law violated the First Amendment.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a majority of the Court, held that the New York law was not only a price regulation dealing with conduct, but also a speech regulation: “What the law does regulate is how sellers may communicate their prices.” As he explained:

A merchant who wants to charge $10 for cash and $10.30 for credit may not convey that price any way he pleases. He is not free to say “$10, with a 3% credit card surcharge” or “$10, plus $0.30 for credit” because both of those displays identify a single sticker price—$10—that is less than the amount credit card users will be charged. Instead, if the merchant wishes to post a single sticker price, he must display $10.30 as his sticker price. Accordingly, while we agree with the Court of Appeals that §518 regulates a relationship between a sticker price and the price charged to credit card users, we cannot accept its conclusion that §518 is nothing more than a mine-run price regulation.  In regulating the communication of prices rather than prices themselves, Section 518 regulates speech.

While this part of the Court’s decision is an important victory for free speech, the Court also held that the law was not vague and did not decide whether the speech restriction amounted to a First Amendment violation under the commercial speech doctrine. In what has become a theme, the Court made a point of ruling as narrowly as possible and remanded the case to the Second Circuit to make that hard balls-and-strikes call that John Roberts discussed at his confirmation hearing. This means the merchants will have to continue to fight for their rights in the lower court.

Although the judgment remanding the case to the circuit court was unanimous, Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor (joined by Justice Samuel Alito) wrote separate concurring opinions. Justice Breyer continued his disheartening plea for the Court to adopt a rational-basis-type test when dealing with certain commercial speech (meaning the government wins). As Cato pointed out in our amicus brief, however, this approach has no foundation in First Amendment law. All restrictions based on content of speech should be subject to exacting scrutiny. Justice Sotomayor wrote a longer concurrence, arguing that because of the complexity of the case, the Court should have sought the input of the New York Court of Appeals (New York’s highest state court) to get a clearer picture of what the statute actually does.

Ultimately, while the victory was small, the Court chose to recognize the law for what it was—a restriction of the merchants’ ability to tell their customers the truth. Only time will tell whether the Second Circuit will now do the right thing and rule that the restriction violates the First Amendment.

Once again, a court has refused to recognize any meaningful limit to Congress’s authority to regulate Americans’ private lives through the Commerce Clause. On Wednesday, after a long delay in considering the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed a district court order that had declared the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)’s regulations prohibiting the “taking” of the Utah prairie dog (effectively, anything that may disrupt its habitat) unconstitutional. (This is a case in which Cato had filed a brief nearly two years ago.)

The court held that, since Congress had a rational basis to believe that protecting the prairie dog “constituted an essential part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme that, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce,” the FWS regulations are authorized under Article I, section 8. This, despite acknowledging that “taking” the prairie dogs—which exist solely within the borders of Utah and have no economic value—is a “noncommercial, purely intrastate activity.”

The case was brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners (PETPO), a nonprofit organization formed by Utah residents and property owners to protect their interests in the face of FWS’s burdensome regulations. Its members have been prevented from building homes, starting small businesses, and even from protecting local parks and cemetery grounds. Finally, enough was enough and PETPO brought suit against the FWS on the grounds that neither the Commerce Clause nor the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to regulate this rodent on nonfederal land. Such is the bizarre dreamscape in which the Tenth Circuit exists: where the power to regulate interstate commerce somehow covers activities that are neither interstate nor commercial.

But how did we get here? The Commerce Clause, while always a fairly broad source of authority—at least since Chief Justice Marshall’s landmark decision in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)—wasn’t always read as a congressional blank check.  It wasn’t until 1942, when the post-New Deal Supreme Court held in Wickard v. Filburn that even wholly interstate, noncommercial activity can be regulated by Congress, as long as, looked at in the aggregate, the activity could theoretically impact interstate commerce if enough people engaged in it. And while the Court has made some effortsto place outer limits on Congress’s commerce power—most notably in United States v. Lopez (1995), United States v. Morrison (2000), and NFIB v. Sebelius (2012)—these opinions seem to have done little to actually rein in federal overreach. The medical-marijuana case of Gonzales v. Raich (2005), which held that an activity may be regulated if it’s plausible that Congress thought doing so would be an “essential part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme that, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce,” is the precedent most relied on here. The Tenth Circuit, uncritically following a line of much-maligned cases holding only the most tenuous connections to actual constitutional text, has managed to chip away at the limits on federal power even more than the Supreme Court has already done.

The Constitution’s Commerce Clause affords Congress the power to regulate only items, channels, or instrumentalities of interstate commerce. If Congress wants to regulate activities that “substantially affect” interstate commerce, that power rests in the Necessary and Proper Clause, which gives Congress the means to regulate interstate commerce—provided those means are both necessary and proper. But the activities prohibited by the FWS regulation don’t substantially affect interstate commerce. Moreover, the “take” rule isn’t necessary: Congress can regulate interstate commerce without interfering with residents’ use of their property. Nor is it proper: the power to regulate uses of property that don’t affect interstate commerce belongs to the states.

Hopefully PETPO will now appeal to the Supreme Court, which, newly invigorated by the words and ideas of an energetic textualist like Neil Gorsuch (who, by the by, wasn’t on this Tenth Circuit panel), will see this as another opportunity to place meaningful limits on federal authority. Until then, it appears that the good citizens of Utah will have to continue bearing burdens caused not by the critters at issue – this isn’t Bill Murray in Caddyshack – but by federal regulators’ use of powers that simply aren’t theirs to assert.

The economist Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Richard Nixon, once quipped,

Most of the economics that is usable for advising is at about the level of the introductory undergraduate course.

One lesson from such courses is that minimum wage laws reduce employment, so this is reassuring:

I critically review the recent findings regarding the effects of minimum wages on employment. Contrary to often asserted statements, the preponderance of the evidence still points toward a negative impact of permanently high minimum wages.

From Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde at the University of Pennsylvana.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column defending Obamacare 3.8% surtax on investment income on joint returns above $250,000, Peggy Noonan ends by quoting Tucker Carlson’s Fox News interview with Paul Ryan which questioned the now-suspended health plan’s elimination of that surtax:

“Looking at the last election, was the message of that election really, ‘We need to help investors?’ I mean, the Dow is over 20,000. Are they really the group that needs the help?…“The overview here is that all the wealth, basically, in the last 10 years, has stuck to the top end. That’s one of the reasons we’ve had all the political turmoil, as you know. And so, kind of a hard sell to say ‘Yeah, we’re gonna repeal Obamacare, but we’re gonna send more money to the people who’ve already gotten the richest over the last 10 years.’ I mean, that’s what this does, no? I’m not a leftist, it’s just—that’s true.”

Mr. Carlson used the word “wealth” rather than income. He said, “all the wealth …  in the last 10 years, has stuck to the top end.”  He surely meant income, however, since the latest wealth estimate from the Survey of Consumer Finance was in 2013, and wealth of the top 1%, like income of the top 1%, clearly fell from 2007 to 2013. Despite “shared prosperity” Clinton campaign chatter, there were no gains to share. John Weicher at the Hudson Institute notes that, “Between 2007 and 2013, the poor became poorer, but so did the rich and the people in between.”

Tucker Carlson is not a leftist and neither is Peggy Noonan. Yet to define what is “true” about income growth over 10 years, they are relying wholeheartedly on the socialist team of French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.  

When media celebrities disparage the “top end” they do not mean Fox News anchors (who earn millions); they mean the “Top 1%” who earned more than $442,900 in 2015 according to Piketty and Saez.  When claiming all the gains over the last 10 years have “stuck to” the top 1%, Carlson appears to have accepted the same source Hillary Clinton abused when she claimed “more than 90 percent of [income] gains have gone to the top 1 percent.”   

What “stuck to the top end,” to use Tucker Carlson’s phrase, is the Top 1% share of gains since 2009.  Prior losses are forgotten.  The “last 10 years” is simply redefined as starting with 2009, not 2007.

In the latest version of this ruse, Saez says, “Top 1% families … capture[d] 52% of total real income growth per family from 2009-2015.”  Of the many deceptions the Piketty-Saez team has inflicted on us over the years, this one may well be the most politically popular and most economically ridiculous. It has fooled many fools. 

What goes unmentioned, is that the Top 1% first “captured” 49% of the losses from 2007 to 2009.  Students of New Math might imagine the 52% gain from 2009 to 2015 compensated for the 49% loss from 2007 to 2009, but that deserves an “F” grade (because the 52% gain is calculated from a much smaller base).

The graph shows what actually happened to average pretax incomes of the Top 1%, as estimated by Piketty and Saez.

From 2007 to 2015, average real incomes of the Top 1% fell by 11.9%, even before taxes. 

Top incomes fell much more after taxes because top tax rates were increased from 35% to 39.6% in 2013, the arbitrary and discriminatory 1990 PEP/Pease limits on exemptions and deductions were restored, and an extra 3.8% Obamacare surtax was inflicted on those supposedly privileged stockholders.  

When conservative media commentators rely on deceptive leftist statistics to make their points, they might as well be leftists.

The simplistic notion that organisms are “dumb” when it comes to changing environments goes like this: Species X lives in a relatively stable environment and with a certain defined range of temperature. So, if the temperature changes enough, species X will go extinct.

In resuming our series on biological adaptation to environmental change, we are going to be looking in depth at the evolutionary and environmental nuances that—with some limits—invalidate the simple point of view. And, in doing so, we will discover important implications for environmental and climate-related policies.

We begin with revolutionary classic in evolutionary biology published in 1984 by Peter Hochachka and George Somero called “Biochemical Adaptation.” It summarized and expanded on much of their earlier work on what they called “phenotypic plasticity”.

Pre-Hochachka thinking had it that our DNA codes for specific proteins, which do their thing (often serving as catalysts for complex biochemical syntheses) and are pretty much static, which would lead automatically to the “dumb” organism when it comes to environmental change. But, among other things, Hochachka and Somero can show that, depending upon temperature, many critical proteins actually change their shape as temperature rises (or falls), greatly broadening the environmental range of many species.

A wonderful example of this concerns marine fish living in tropical waters, which tend to experience much smaller seasonal variations in temperature than fish inhabiting other latitudes. Without phenotypic plasticity, there are concerns that tropical fish maintain narrow temperature tolerance and that they might presently be close to their optimal temperature limit. If temperatures were to therefore rise in the future in response to CO2-induced global warming, many tropical fish species might experience widespread decline and possible extinction.

Given plasticity, does this hypothesis hold any water?

A five-member Portuguese research team of Madeira et al. (2016) examined the cellular stress response of a tropical clownfish species (Amphiprion ocellaris) exposed to elevated temperatures over a period of one month. Their experiment was conducted in a controlled laboratory setting in which they subjected juvenile A. ocellaris to either ambient (26°C) or elevated (30°C) temperatures, while examining several biomarkers (e.g., stress proteins and antioxidants) in several tissue types (brain, gills, liver, intestine and muscle) at 0, 7, 14, 21 and 28 days of temperature treatment. What did their measurements reveal?

Amphiprion ocellaris

According to Madeira et al., “results showed that exposure time significantly interacted with temperature responses and tissue-type, so in fact time influenced the organisms’ reaction to elevated temperature.” First, at day 7 they observed significantly higher levels of biomarkers in fish in the high temperature environment that was indicative of a typical thermal stress response. Thereafter, however, they report that biomarker levels stabilized, showing either “a significant decrease in comparison with controls or no significant differences from the control” through the end of the experiment, which observations they suggest are indicative of temperature acclimation.

The fact that temperatures outside the “normal” range elicited clear biochemical changes (after a period of initial stress) is clear evidence for the much more nuanced view of organismal response to change.

Commenting on their findings, Madeira et al. write that “A. ocellaris probably lives far from its upper thermal limit and is capable of adjusting the protein quality control system and enzymes’ activities to protect cell functions under elevated temperature, adding that “these results suggest that this coral reef fish species presents a significant acclimation potential under ocean warming scenarios of +4°C.”

This is very good news for those concerned about the impact of global warming on tropical reef fish, and therefore for reefs themselves, as fish are an integral part of complex reef ecology.

One could speculate that—because most species alive today evolved on a warmer (pre-ice age) planet, that the genetic material that responds to heat is maintained, only to be expressed when they go back to their future, which is what is happening as we speak.

 

References

Hochachka, P., and S. Somero, 1984 (republished in 2016). Biochemical Adaptation. Princeton Legacy Library, Princeton. 520pp.

Madeira, C., Madeira, D., Diniz, M.S., Cabral, H.N. and Vinagre, C. 2016. Thermal acclimation in clownfish: An integrated biomarker response and multi-tissue experimental approach. Ecological Indicators 71: 280-292.

At least in Serbia, people know that politicians’ promises are ridiculous. NPR reports on a satirical candidate named Ljubisa Beli Preletacevic, or just Beli for short:

A new politician is here to save you. I’m pure and clean. Whatever the other politicians promise you, I will promise you three times more.

I’ll give jobs to everyone and big pensions to everyone. I’m going to move the sea here because we need a beach.

Satire it may be, but his new party won 12 council seats in his home town, and most of his party’s candidates are seriously seeking election. Reporter Joanna Kakissis continues:

There will be no corruption, excluding my own of course, he declares to one crowd. Please send all money directly to my pockets. Drama student Danka Svetilova laughs and asks for a selfie. She says mainstream politicians have lied to Serbs for years….

So that’s why she and her schoolteacher mom are voting for Beli in this Sunday’s presidential election. Better a fake candidate who tells the truth about lying, she says, than a real one who lies about telling the truth.

The Cato Institute recently released Monetary Alternatives: Rethinking Government Fiat Money, a collection of essays 30 years in the making. As George Selgin explains in the foreword,

The complacency wrought by the Great Moderation, not to mention the limited interest in fundamental monetary reform before then, resulted in a dearth of serious inquiries into potentially superior arrangements….Cato kept the subject alive, offering a safe haven, in the shape of its Annual Monetary Conference, for the minority of experts that continued to stress the need for fundamental monetary reform. Although fundamental reform has been a consistent theme of Cato’s monetary conferences, those conferences have never been dominated by one approach to reform. The articles in this book present a variety of ideas for improving the monetary regime — including proposals for a formal “monetary constitution,” various monetary rules, competing currencies, and establishing a new gold standard.

In sum, Monetary Alternatives explores fundamental and controversial ideas that would move our monetary system and economy beyond repeated crises to sustainable stability and prosperity. The contributors to the volume energetically question the status quo and provide compelling arguments for moving to a monetary system based on freedom and the rule of law.

A limited constitutional government calls for a rules-based, free-market monetary system, not the topsy-turvy fiat dollar that now exists under central banking. When the Federal Reserve was created in 1913, its powers were strictly limited and the United States was still on the gold standard. Today the Fed has virtually unlimited power and the dollar is a pure fiat money.

Central banking, like any sort of central planning, is not a panacea.  Concentrating monetary power in the hands of a few individuals within a government bureaucracy, even if those individuals are well intentioned and well educated, does not guarantee sound money. The world’s most important central bank, the Federal Reserve, is not bound by any strict rules, although Congress requires that it achieve maximum employment and price stability. The failure of the Fed to prevent the Great Recession of 2009, the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, raises the question, can we do better?

In questioning the status quo and widening the scope of debate over monetary reform, the fundamental issue is to contrast a monetary regime that is self-regulating, spontaneous, and independent of government meddling versus one that is centralized, discretionary, politicized, and has a monopoly on fiat money. Free-market money within a trusted network of private contracts differs fundamentally from an inconvertible fiat money supplied by a discretionary central bank that has the power to create money out of thin air and to regulate both banks and nonbank financial institutions.

There are many types of monetary regimes and many monetary rules. The classical gold standard was a rules-based monetary system, in which the supply of money was determined by market demand — not by central bankers. Cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, offer the possibility of a private non-commodity monetary base and the potential to realize F. A. Hayek’s vision of competitive free-market currencies. Ongoing experimentation and technological advances may pave the way for the end of central banking — or at least the emergence of new parallel currencies.

In making the case for monetary reform and thinking about rules versus discretion in the conduct of monetary policy, it is important to take a constitutional perspective. As early as 1988, James M. Buchanan argued, at an international monetary conference hosted by the Progress Foundation in Lugano, Switzerland:

The dollar has absolutely no basis in any commodity base, no convertibility. What we have now is a monetary authority [the Fed] that essentially has a monopoly on the issue of fiat money, with no guidelines that amount to anything; an authority that never would have been legislatively approved, that never would have been constitutionally approved, on any kind of rational calculus [“Comment by Dr. Buchanan,” Economic Education Bulletin 28, no. 6: 32–35].

In 1980, just after Ronald Reagan’s election, Buchanan recommended that a presidential commission be established to discuss the Fed’s legitimacy. There was some support within the Reagan camp, but Arthur Burns, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, nixed it. As Buchanan explained at the Lugano conference, Burns “would not have anything to do with any proposal that would challenge the authority of the central banking structure.”

Buchanan’s aim was “to get a dialogue going … about the basic fundamental rules of the game, the constitutional structure.”  There is, he said, “a moral obligation to think that we can improve things.” That is the spirit of this volume and Cato’s recently established Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives.

This year marks Cato’s 40th anniversary and the 35th anniversary of the Annual Monetary Conference, making it an appropriate time to bring out this collection of articles devoted to rethinking government fiat money and to offer alternatives consistent with limited government, the rule of law, and free markets.

________________

Contributors to Monetary Alternatives include: Claudio Borio, Jeffrey Lacker, John Allison, Bennett McCallum, James Buchanan, George Selgin, Peter Bernholz, Charles Plosser, Leland Yeager, John Taylor, Scott Sumner, James Dorn, Edwin Vieira, Lawrence White, Richard Timberlake, Roland Vaubel, and Kevin Dowd.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]

The North Carolina legislature has passed and sent to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper H.B. 142, unveiled last night as a compromise intended to end the state’s acrimonious year-long battle over discrimination laws and transgender persons’ access to bathrooms and changing rooms. From what I can see, it’s a basically sound measure that gives both sides much of what they legitimately asked.

HB2, the bill passed last March, was a response to a successful push in the city of Charlotte to enact anti-discrimination laws going well beyond state law in numerous areas, including making LGBT persons a protected class and regulating private actors in various ways (including bathroom policies) through employment and public accommodations laws. Opponents went to the state legislature and – as has happened in other states lately as well – proposed yanking back those portions of home rule that allowed for local ordinances to go beyond state law. (How you feel about yanking back home rule powers probably has a lot to do with how you feel about the substantive laws involved, since neither libertarians nor most other thinkers hold to a rigid always-or-never view of municipal home rule powers. Should towns in your state have the power to jail people for using alcohol or medical marijuana? Enact rent control? Ban the construction of any residence worth less than $1 million?)  

One part of HB2, then, eliminated towns’ and cities’ power to go beyond state law in some areas of employment and public accommodations law. But HB2 went a fateful step further by enacting into law the idea of some organized social conservatives that transgender persons should use the bathroom of their sex at birth, unless they succeed in jumping over the legal hurdles needed to get a changed certificate. There are all sorts of things wrong with that approach, and I said some of them in a Wall Street Journal letter last year

[The relevant section] of the bill imposes affirmative, uniform new duties of exclusion on North Carolina government entities such as schools, town halls, courthouses, state agencies and the state university system, taking away what had generally been local discretion. This not only will inflict needless burdens on a small and vulnerable sector of the public, but presumes to micromanage local governments and districts in an area where they had not been shown to be misusing their discretion. Whatever the merits of the rest of the bill, the provisions on state-furnished bathrooms are a good example of how legislation in haste from the top down can create new problems of its own.

The new HB142 compromise retreats, and rightly so, from this worst portion of HB2, but it does not retreat (or at least not very much) from the other elements, including those that are not so bad. By repealing HB2, it abandons the wretched aim of trying to prohibit transgender-friendly bathrooms. But it also takes away, for a time, local governments’ power to mandate them in the private sector. It provides that “State agencies, boards, offices, departments, institutions, branches of government, including The University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Community College System, and political subdivisions of the State, including local boards of education, are preempted from regulation of access to multiple occupancy restrooms, showers, or changing facilities, except in accordance with an act of the General Assembly.” (The pre-emption expires in 2020.)

“Regulation of access to” is not an entirely clear phrase in this context. Clearly, cities like Charlotte need to go on carrying on the “regulation of access to” their own city-run facilities. The debate in the legislature today, according to several sources, emphasized sound local discretion – Charlotte can run bathrooms in municipal buildings the way it sees fit. 

The new compromise is being met with peals of outrage from some of the predictable ultras on both sides. But it looks to me like a more careful attempt to respect the legitimate rights of both sides than we’ve seen in this controversy up to now.

I sometimes feel like a broken record about entitlement programs. How many times, after all, can I point out that America is on a path to become a decrepit European-style welfare state because of a combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs?

But I can’t help myself. I feel like I’m watching a surreal version of Titanic where the captain and crew know in advance that the ship will hit the iceberg, yet they’re still allowing passengers to board and still planning the same route. And in this dystopian version of the movie, the tickets actually warn the passengers that tragedy will strike, but most of them don’t bother to read the fine print because they are distracted by the promise of fancy buffets and free drinks.

We now have the book version of this grim movie. It’s called The 2017 Long-Term Budget Outlook and it was just released today by the Congressional Budget Office.

If you’re a fiscal policy wonk, it’s an exciting publication. If you’re a normal human being, it’s a turgid collection of depressing data.

But maybe, just maybe, the data is so depressing that both the electorate and politicians will wake up and realize something needs to change.

I’ve selected six charts and images from the new CBO report, all of which highlight America’s grim fiscal future.

The first chart simply shows where we are right now and where we will be in 30 years if policy is left on autopilot. The most important takeaway is that the burden of government spending is going to increase significantly.

Interestingly, even CBO openly acknowledges that rising levels of red ink are caused solely by the fact that spending is projected to increase faster than revenue.

And it’s also worth noting that revenues are going up, even without any additional tax increases.

The bottom part of this chart shows that revenues from the income tax will climb by about 2 percent of GDP. In other words, more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal mess is due to higher levels of government spending. So it’s absurd to think the solution should involve higher taxes.

This next image digs into the details. We can see that the spending burden is rising because of Social Security and the health entitlements. By the way, the top middle column on “other noninterest spending” shows one thing that is real, which is that defense spending has fallen as a share of GDP since the mid-1960s, and one thing that may not be real, which is that politicians somehow will limit domestic discretionary spending over the next three decades.

This bottom left part of the image also gives the details on built-in growth in revenues from the income tax, further underscoring that we don’t have a problem of inadequate revenue.

Here’s a chart that shows that our main problem is Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Last but not least, here’s a graphic that shows the amount of fiscal policy changes that would be needed to either reduce or stabilize government debt.

I think that’s the wrong goal, and that instead the focus should be on reducing or stabilizing the burden of government spending, but I’m sharing this chart because it shows that spending would have to be lowered by 3.1 percent of GDP to put the nation on a good fiscal path.

Some folks think that might be impossible, but I’ll simply point out that the five-year de facto spending freeze that we achieved from 2009-2014 actually reduced the burden of government spending by a greater amount. In other words, the payoff from genuine spending restraint is enormous.

The bottom line is very simple.

We need to invoke my Golden Rule so that government grows slower than the private sector. In the long run, that will require genuine entitlement reform.

Or we can let America become Greece.

The Wall Street Journal reports: “Mr. Trump’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative singled out Mexico and South Korea during his Senate confirmation hearing as sparking American trade deficits. ‘In some cases, the rules don’t seem to be working as well as others,’ Robert Lighthizer said. Critics say the deal has led to a flood of South Korean cars, auto parts, memory chips, motors and pumps into the U.S., weighing on American competitors and jobs. A U.S. Trade Representative report this month said the pact… doubled the U.S. trade deficit in goods with South Korea.”

National Trade Council boss Peter Navarro has likewise claimed “We lost 100,000 jobs because of that South Korean deal. Our trade deficit has doubled, and, more importantly, 75 percent of the damage that has been caused by that deal has been to the auto industry itself, which, of course, is based in Michigan.”

Navarro, Lighthizer and the Journal’s unnamed critics are entirely wrong about the March 15, 2012 Korea/U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).  

KORUS could not possibly have “led to a flood of South Korean… memory chips, motors and pumps into the U.S.” because memory chips were already duty-free before that FTA, and so were motors (HS code 8501) and pumps (8413).

KORUS could not possibly explain the post-recession 2010-2015 rise in U.S. imports from South Korea because most U.S. tariffs were scheduled to be reduced from 2016 to 2021not from 2010 to 2015. 

KORUS had precisely zero effect on U.S. imports of Hyundai and Kia vehicles before 2016 because the U.S. tariff on Korean cars (HS code 8703) was 2.5% before KORUS and remained at 2.5% through 2015.  Ironically, when U.S. tariffs on autos and other products finally did come down in 2016, total U.S. imports from South Korea fell 2.6% (by $1.9 billion).

 The Korean tariff on imports of U.S. cars was cut from 8% in 2012 to 4% in 2015 and zero in 2016 and a 10% Korean tariff on U.S. trucks was eliminated.  Even before Korea cut its tariff on U.S. cars to zero in 2016, U.S. exports of cars to So. Korea tripled from $418 million in 2011 to $1.3 billion in 2015, according to the USTR.  Incidentally the USTR also notes that “Korea is currently our fifth-largest market for agricultural exports thanks to KORUS,” with farm exports up 208% from 2011 to 2015.

What has been most changed about the auto industry since KORUS is that South Korea exported a sizable share of its auto industry to the United States, displacing previous Korean imports and adding to U.S. auto exports. More than half the Hyundais sold in the U.S. are now assembled in Alabama, and more than 40% of Kias in Georgia (contrary to Peter Navarro,  82.5% of U.S. auto industry jobs are not in Michigan). The Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento have 67% domestic content. Hyundai has invested $2.8 billion in the U.S. and plans to add $3.1 billion more. 

As the Graph shows, U.S. routinely ran sizable trade deficits with South Korea long before the FTA (and the U.S. routinely runs surpluses with other FTA countries, Australia and Singapore).  The U.S. trade deficit with South Korea and other countries came way down in 2009-2011 because deep recessions always slash U.S. imports, particularly industrial imports.

The graph includes services which, like farm products, were an important part of the deal.  The U.S. trade surplus in services with Korea rose from $6.9 billion in 2011 to $10.7 billion in 2016.  With services included, U.S. imports from South Korea did not rise at all from 2014 to 2016 ($81.4 billion in both years), and goods imports fell in 2016.

South Korea’s imports of goods from the U.S. rose from $29.7 billion in 2009 to $46.3 billion by 2014 before falling 8.4%to $42.4 billion in 2016.  Even with services included, South Korea’s imports from the U.S. fell from $66.5 billion to $63.9 billion since 2014.

KORUS could not possibly have had anything to do with the 2014-2016 drop in Korean imports from the U.S. because that agreement lowered rather than raised Korean tariffs.

South Korea’s demand for imports weakened because annual growth of industrial GDP fell to 2.5% from 2012 to 2015 – down sharply from a 6% pace from 2000 to 2011. One reason for Korea’s post-2014 import slump is that China’s imports from South Korea fell from more than $20 billion in October 2014 to $10-12 billion recently.  

The Trump Administration’s top trade advisers are entirely wrong about what happened when with respect to trade between the U.S. and South Korea.  KORUS had no effect at all on U.S. imports of auto, chips, motors or pumps between 2009 and 2015, because the U.S. auto tariff was unchanged until 2016 (when overall U.S. imports fell) and most other industrial products were already tariff-free before KORUS.

The Korea-U.S. trade deficit in goods did not rise from 2011 to 2015 (or fall in 2016) because of U.S. auto tariff cuts in 2016, but because the U.S. economy strengthened after 2010 and the Korean economy weakened after 2014.  

In numerous states and cities, taxi interests – notably unions representing taxi drivers – have come up with creative legislation to hobble the rise of ridesharing apps like Lyft and Uber. In Nevada, the taxi union recently proposed a package of measures to slam the apps good and hard, of which perhaps the most startling was this: drivers getting a rideshare booking would be required by law to wait to ensure that their fare was not picked up in less than ten minutes.  

What a great idea – all must be brought down to the level of the least able! Echoing Vonnegut’s funny-dystopian short story Harrison Bergeron, the speediest would have to sit out in artificial penalty time to ensure that they did not arrive before the poky. “In a brief interview, [union president T. Ruthie] Jones said the union only wanted a level playing field,” reports the Nevada Independent.

And it gets even better. When legislators got a look at the union’s wish list of requests, whoever was in charge of drafting apparently decided that a 10 minute wait time didn’t go far enough. So Senate Bill 485, introduced on Monday, instead upped the handicap delay to 15 minutes. Per the Nevada Independent, “Taxi companies — long an influential Nevada industry — gave to 50 legislators throughout the 2016 campaign cycle for a total of $476,200.” 

But the bill’s introduction stirred immediate and searching news coverage Tuesday. An Uber representative termed the 15 minute obligatory wait time “really absurd, frankly, on its face,” and said the service would pull out of the state if it were enacted. (That was the idea, right?) And by yesterday, Sen. Kelvin Atkinson (D-North Las Vegas), who chairs the committee on Commerce, Labor and Energy, said the bill was “bad policy,” dead and wouldn’t get a hearing. One of his opposite numbers had already commented critically:

Republican Assembly Leader Paul Anderson said in an earlier interview that the proposed restrictions were “atrocious” and said the measure was a blatant attempt to kneecap the industry.

“All it does is stifle an industry that is significantly providing a better service,” he said in a Tuesday interview.

My favorite comment came on Twitter: “I dunno, maybe the lawmakers should be forced to wait a while before they can drop this proposal…”

Imagine how many proposals of this sort would quietly slip through were it not for the vigilant, independent, and free press we are used to having in America.

The NAFTA renegotiation Donald Trump promised during his campaign may finally be getting started.  The specialty trade publication Inside US Trade (subscribers only) has a draft of the administration’s notice to Congress “that the President intends to initiate negotiations related to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its architecture,” in which the administration sets out “specific objectives for negotiation.”  

At first glance, the administration’s plan looks like more than just a tweak to NAFTA, but will not come close to blowing up the system (as it sometimes sounded like during the campaign).  Things may change before the final notice is sent out, but for now a lot of what’s in there seems like an attempt to upgrade NAFTA to reflect provisions that have been developed in U.S. trade agreements over the last 15 years, including in the TPP.  In a sense, this NAFTA renegotiation is an attempt to make NAFTA more like the TPP.  Some examples are:  

  • adding rules on digital trade and cross-border data flows
  • adding enforceable provisions on labor, the environment, and state-owned enterprises
  • revising the provisions on investor-state dispute settlement
  • strengthening intellectual property rights

To the extent that the NAFTA renegotiation just incorporates TPP provisions, it is not too worrying.  That’s not to say that we in Cato’s trade policy center like all of the TPP provisions, but it would indicate that the Trump administration is not looking to do anything too radical on trade.

On the other hand, there are some proposals that could take NAFTA in a more protectionist direction.  Some examples of that are proposals to:

  • Eliminate a special procedure to have an international panel review U.S. anti-dumping/countervailing duties
  • Address the perceived unfairness of foreign border adjustment taxes (“level the playing field on tax treatment”)
  • Make sure NAFTA allows Buy America provisions (“establish rules that require government procurement to be conducted in a manner that is consistent with U.S. law and the Administration’s policy on domestic procurement preferences”)
  • Tighten up rules of origin, that is, restrict who can benefit from low NAFTA tariffs
  • Add new procedures that allow special tariffs when there are increased imports (“a safeguard mechanism to allow a temporary revocation of tariff preferences, if increased imports from NAFTA countries are a substantial cause of serious injury or threat of serious injury to the domestic industry”)

Keep in mind that this is just the draft, so the objectives stated here may change a bit.  Also, note that this is simply what the U.S. will ask for, and not necessarily what it will get after sitting down with Canada and Mexico.

All in all, it is somewhat of a relief to see that the proposed changes do not completely undermine NAFTA.  However, there will be some aspects of these proposals that we will be pushing back on, once the specifics of the proposals become more clear.

When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump administration has been engulfed in scandal and intrigue from day one. From the resignation of Michael Flynn, to a botched Yemen raid, to a U.S. bombing campaign in Mosul, Iraq that killed up to 200 civilians, to unrelenting controversy over Russian meddling in our election, it’s difficult to even keep up.

With all these distractions, it is easy to forget that there are important issues that demand thoughtful attention. High among these is the Iran nuclear deal. Not only must the Iran deal compete for attention with other controversies swirling around the White House, it has to withstand antagonism from hawks who refuse to acknowledge its success.

At the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for “bestow[ing] a windfall of billions for the Iranian regime to distribute to its proxies.” At the same conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan described the deal as “an unmitigated disaster” that is “dangerous for the United States and for the world.”

Actually, most of the tangible benefits in sanctions relief have gone to improving the economy for every day Iranians. And far from being a “dangerous” and “unmitigated disaster,” the deal has been successful in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and in easing regional tensions.

The rhetorical abuse visited upon the JCPOA doesn’t bode well for the survival of the deal. And even the relative moderates in the Trump administration – people like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, frequently described as the “grown-ups,” in contrast with the opposing bloc of “ideologues” – seem more hawkish than pragmatic on Iran.

In other words, the Trump White House exists in an echo chamber of negativity toward the JCPOA. The deal’s survival depends on deliberate administration support and a measured understanding of its benefits.

Sanction relief is an important part of this. The Trump administration needs to work hard to ensure that Iran sees the full benefits of sanctions relief in exchange for Iran rolling back its nuclear program, as it has done.

Unfortunately, both the Senate and the House are working to impose additional sanctions on Iran. The legislation would target people involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and foreign entities who do business with them, while also applying terrorism sanctions to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

But concerns about Iran’s missile program and support for terrorism are distinct from the JCPOA. The nuclear deal was narrowly conceived as a non-proliferation agreement. Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, which have drawn so much fire from critics of the deal, did not violate the agreement.

More to the point, Iran’s missiles aren’t a serious security threat. Iran is militarily weak compared to all of its neighboring rivals and is easily deterred from attacking its adversaries with these missiles.

As for applying terrorism sanctions to the Revolutionary Guards, this amounts to a pointless redundancy that will not yield positive results, but may make things much worse. The IRGC is “already one of the most sanctioned entities in the world” and these additional measures will have negligible impact on its activities. New sanctions could even undermine anti-ISIS operations, as the IRGC and Iranian Shiite militias are battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, American military and intelligence officials have warned such sanctions “could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and the overall fight against the Islamic State, and would be an unprecedented use of a law that was not designed to sanction government institutions.”

Imposing new sanctions on Iran that are unrelated to the JCPOA and have almost zero chance of producing the desired results is needlessly antagonistic. In fact, Iran’s cheeky response this week to new U.S. sanctions was to impose “its own sanctions regime on U.S. military companies involved in supporting Israeli settlements.” This tit-for-tat dynamic risks eroding trust between Iran, the United States, and the other signatories to the deal (the U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany), creating a disincentive for Iran to comply with the deal’s restrictions.

Most worryingly, this may even be the intention of those who oppose the deal. They recognize that pulling out of the JCPOA unilaterally would be too costly for America diplomatically, but if they can provoke violations on Iran’s part, they can destroy the deal and avoid blame.

Both the White House and Congress need to understand that the future of the Iran nuclear deal is a matter of choice. The United States can choose to uphold the deal and ensure promised sanctions relief for Iran. Or it can choose to undermine the agreement by inflating the threat from Iran and provoking tension over peripheral issues. The first choice holds back nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. The second risks disastrous conflict between the United States and Iran. 

Pages