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The Economic Development Administration (EDA) is a Department of Commerce agency that subsidizes local business activities. The EDA cost taxpayers $287 million in 2017.

The EDA funds activities that should be funded by local governments and the private sector. In the photo below, a federal official and a congressman are handing a check to local representatives to pay for road and water facilities at a new Home Depot store.

President Trump proposed abolishing the EDA in his recent federal budget. That would be a good reform, and a new study at discusses the EDA’s history and reasons to eliminate it.

Republican Hal Rogers of Kentucky worries that starvation may increase in his district without the program. That claim defies logic, but congressional Republicans recently sided with Rogers, and  increased EDA spending by $25 million.

A long time ago, legendary anti-pork Democrat Senator William Proxmire targeted the EDA with his “Golden Fleece Awards.” He pointed to wasteful EDA spending such as this “cursed pyramid” in Indiana.

Proxmire argued that the EDA “deserves to die,” and he was right.

Trump will have to try again next year. If the Republicans can’t cut the EDA, they can’t cut anything.

My analysis, with Tad DeHaven, of the EDA is here.

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1978, I had no intention of becoming an economist. Instead, I was studying marine biology at Duke University’s Marine Lab at Pivers Island, on the beautiful North Carolina Coast. There, when the wind was up, my classmate Alan Kahana and I enjoyed going out on his Hobie 16, with Alan manning the tiller and myself hiked-out on the trapeze. We weren’t, truth be told, especially prudent sailors. On the contrary: we were so inclined to push things to the limit that one day we took the Hobie out just as a gale was getting up, and ended up…well, that’s a long, sad story. Suffice to say that it doesn’t take much to capsize a Hobie, and that on that day we capsized Alan’s boat once and for all.

What, you are no doubt wondering, has any of this to do with Interest on Excess Reserves? I’m getting there. You see, although it doesn’t take much to capsize a Hobie — a little over-trimming of the sail will suffice — once one capsizes, it’s likely to start to turn turtle as its mast fills with water. And as that’s happening, it may be all that two reasonably trim lads can do — by pulling for dear life on a righting line attached to the boat’s mast, whilst leaning backwards on its uppermost hull — to lever the thing back upright. The more the mast fills, the harder it gets. And the same sort of thing goes for letting a central bank slip into, and then trying to wrest it out of, a floor system of monetary control: the more liquidity the banking system takes in while that system’s in place, the more effort it takes to pull out of it.

As faithful readers know, I’ve long insisted that the modest interest rates the Fed began paying on excess reserves in October 2008 were enough to encourage bankers, who long made do with only the slimmest of excess reserve cushions, to hoard all the reserves they could lay their hands on. That modest little bit of Fed sail-trimming was enough to overturn  the Fed’s traditional monetary control system. The Fed had long relied on a sort of asymmetrical “corridor” system, with a target fed funds rate set somewhere between zero and the Fed’s discount rate, and the effective federal funds rate kept near that target by means of small-scale open market operations. Now it had flipped-over to a “floor” system, with changes in the Fed-administered IOER rate serving as its chief instrument of monetary control.

Some economists, to be sure, refuse to believe that the modest IOER rates the Fed paid in the early stages of the crisis could account for the switch in question, or for banks’ subsequent tendency to hoard reserves. Paul Krugman even accused those who thought so of failing a “reality test,” by overlooking how, in the U.S. in the 1930s and in Japan more recently, banks hoarded non-interest-bearing reserves. But Professor Krugman himself might be said to have failed a “logic test,” calling for an understanding of the difference between a necessary and a sufficient cause. Then there’s the pesky fact that Ben Bernanke and other Fed officials secured permission to pay interest on bank reserves for the express purpose of getting banks to hoard them. Had they done so for no reason? Had Ben Bernanke himself forgotten about the 1930s? A page from his 2014 textbook is illuminating (HT: Alex Schibuola):

But allowing that a modest above-zero return on bank reserves was indeed all it took to establish a floor system, and to get banks to stock-up on excess reserves, it doesn’t follow that restoring the IOER rate to zero would have the opposite effects. The reason has to do with the immense growth in the total supply of reserve balances that has since taken place. That growth matters because, under a floor system, the greater the nominal stock of bank reserves, the lower the IOER rate must be to reduce the quantity of excess reserves demanded to zero. The accumulation of liquidity in a “floored” monetary control system thus acts like the accumulation of water in the mast of a capsized Hobie Cat, making it much harder to revert from a floor to a corridor system than it was to switch to the floor system in the first place. Call it the Hobie Cat effect.

The Hobie Cat effect can be illustrated formally using a diagram showing the supply of and demand for bank reserves or federal funds under a floor system. The supply schedule for federal funds is, as usual, a vertical line, the position of which varies with changes in the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. The reserve demand schedule, on the other hand, slopes downward, but only until it reaches the going IOER rate, here initially assumed to be set at 25 basis points. At that point the demand schedule becomes horizontal, because banks would rather accumulate excess reserves that yield the IOER rate than lend reserves overnight for an even lower return.

For the initial stock of reserves R(1), starting at the equilibrium point “a,” a slight reduction in the IOER rate would suffice to get the banking system back onto the sloped part of its reserve demand schedule, at point “b,” where reserves are again scarce at the margin. But once the stock of reserves has increased to R(2), it takes a much more substantial reduction in the IOER rate — perhaps, as the move in the illustration from “c” to “d” suggests, even into negative territory — to make reserves scarce at the margin again, and to thereby make switching to a corridor system, by a modest further reduction in the IOER rate, possible without any need for central bank asset sales.[1]

Does this mean that the Fed can never hope to escape from its current floor system unless it reduces its IOER rate substantially, and that it might even have to resort to a negative rate? It doesn’t. And it’s here that the Hobie Cat analogy fails, for while you can’t drain the mast of a Hobie Cat that’s turned turtle, the Fed can drain the banking system of any or all of the reserves it created after 2008. The obvious, and most prudent, way out of the floor system is, therefore, for the Fed to retrace the steps that got it into that system, by first shrinking its balance sheet far enough to return the stock of reserves to a point close to the kink in the federal funds demand schedule, and then reducing the IOER rate enough to make reserves scarce at the margin, thereby reviving interbank lending and establishing a corridor system.

Considering how many excess reserves banks are now holding, all of this is still a tall order. But it beats having an operating framework that leaves our monetary system sodden and adrift.


[1] Because the move from “c” to “d,” like that from “a” to “b,” involves no change in the total stock of bank reserves, readers may be tempted to assume that it also involves no reduction in the quantity of excess reserves, and hence no change in banks’ inclination to hoard such reserves. The temptation should be resisted: although banks hold the same total quantity of reserves at “d” as at “c,” the former equilibrium involves a higher quantity of bank lending and deposit creation, hence a higher value of required reserves, with a correspondingly lower value of excess reserves.

[Cross-posted from]

President Trump recently said that he would deploy troops to the Mexican border in response to the over-hyped story of about 1,000 Central Americans who are walking to the U.S. border to ask for asylum, which is their right under American law. “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” President Trump said on Tuesday. “That’s a big step. We really haven’t done that before, or certainly not very much before.” On the contrary, American Presidents have ordered troops to the border to assist in immigration enforcement several times and all of them when the flow of illegal immigrants was significantly greater than it is today.

When the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched Operation Wetback in 1954 (yes, that is what the government called it), then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell asked the U.S. Army to help round up and remove illegal immigrants.  According to Matt Matthews in his “The US Army on the Mexican Border: A Historical Perspective,” the Army refused to deploy troops for that purpose because it would disrupt training, cost too much money at a time of budget cuts, and it would have required at least a division of troops to secure the border.  According to Matthews, head of the INS General Swing remarked in 1954 that deploying U.S. Army troops on the border was a “perfectly horrible” idea that would “destroy relations with Mexico.” It was also unnecessary.

In 1954, the 1,079 Border Patrol agents made 1,028,246 illegal immigrant apprehensions or 953 apprehensions per agent that year.  For the entire border, Border Patrol agents collectively made 2,817 apprehensions per day in 1954 with a force that was 95 percent smaller than today’s Border Patrol. In other words, the average Border Patrol agent apprehended 2.6 illegal immigrants per day in 1954. Neither President Eisenhower nor the military considered that inflow of illegal immigrants to be large enough to warrant the deployment of troops along the border.  The expansion of the Bracero guest worker visa program increased the opportunity for legal migration to such an extent that it drove virtually all would-be illegal immigrants into the legal market, crashing the number of apprehensions by 93 percent by 1956.

In 2018, President Trump has ordered troops to the border to help the current number of 19,437 Border Patrol agents apprehend the roughly 1,000 Central American asylum seekers who are slowly making their way north (but probably won’t make it all the way to the border). There are currently about 19 Border Patrol agents for each Central American asylum-seeker in this caravan. In 2017, Border Patrol apprehended about 360,000 illegal immigrants or about 18 per Border Patrol agents over the entire year, which works out to one apprehension per Border Patrol agents every 20 days. By that measure, Border Patrol agents in 1954 individually apprehended an average of 53 times as many illegal immigrants as Border Patrol agents did in 2017. If the current caravan makes it to the United States border, it would add about a single day’s worth of apprehensions. Border Patrol should be able to handle this comparatively small number of asylum seekers without military aid as they have done so before many times.

It is also unclear what the troops will actually accomplish on the border. Since the members of the caravan intend to surrender to Border Patrol or Customs Officers and ask for asylum, the troops serve no purpose. They will not deter asylum seekers. Border Patrol agents are not overwhelmed by entries even though they constantly plead poverty in an effort to capture more taxpayer resources. The most likely explanation for the proposed deployment is politics, just like the previous deployments.

Other Border Deployments

Since 1982, most U.S. military deployments and operations along the Mexican border were intended to counter the import of illegal drugs.  The regular deployment of troops for that purpose ended in 1997 after a U.S. Marine shot and killed Esequiel Hernandez Jr., an American citizen, as he was out herding goats.  By July of that year, Secretary of Defense William Cohen suspended the use of armed soldiers on the border for anti-drug missions. 

On May 15, 2006, President Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the border as part of Operation Jump Start to provide a surge of border enforcement while the government was hiring more Border Patrol agents.  In 2006, there were about 59 apprehensions per Border Patrol agent or one per agent every four days.  Operation Jump Start ended on July 15, 2008.  In that year, there was an average of one apprehension every nine days per agent during the entire year.  President Obama also deployed 1,200 troops to the border in 2010 to assist Border Patrol during a time of falling apprehensions.  They left in 2012.  In that year, Border Patrol agents individually apprehended an average of one illegal immigrant every 16 days. 

The two recent deployments to assist in enforcing immigration law along the border occurred when there were fewer apprehensions, represented by more days between each apprehension for each agent (Figure 1).  The higher the number for the blue line in Figure 1, the fewer people Border Patrol agents individually apprehend.  From about 1970 through 2006, the Border Patrol faced an annual inflow of illegal immigrants far in excess of anything in recent years yet President Trump has decided that this is the time to put troops on the border.

Figure 1

The Average Number of Days Between Each Border Patrol Apprehension Per Year

Sources: Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Naturalization Service.  

Legal Issues

Whether President Trump’s proposed deployment of troops along the border is legal is a difficult question to answer.  The use of the military in domestic law enforcement has to be authorized by Congress but they have authorized it for drug enforcement several times along the border.  Furthermore, border enforcement might be distinct from domestic law enforcement as even the rights of American citizens are legally curtailed in border zones.  Additionally, Congress arguably granted funds and a blanket authority to deploy troops along the border in the Defense Authorization Act for 2005 to defend against a “threat” or “aggression” against the territory or domestic population of the United States.  As with most powers, Congress has ceded most of its authority to the President in this area.

Regardless of the legalities, the proposed deployment of American troops to the border without a clear mission at a time of low and falling illegal immigrant entries is an unnecessary waste of time and resources that could put Americans in harm’s way for no gain.  

I am a fan of Kimberley Strassel’s columns about federal politics in the Wall Street Journal. But her recent column about the omnibus spending bill—which increased spending 13 percent in one year—was off the mark.

Strassel suggested that Trump and the Republicans did not want to increase spending that much, but the Democrats forced them into it. Trump “felt pressured to sign it,” while the “Democrats used the bill to hold the military hostage to their own domestic boondoggles.”

Watching Congress in recent years, I have concluded something different. The real problem is that most Republicans support higher spending on nearly all programs. The problem is not that Democrats push them into accepting higher spending. Most Republicans want it, and that is why majorities of them in the House and Senate voted for the omnibus.

President Trump proposed an array of spending cuts in his 2019 budget. He proposed cutting subsidies for agriculture, community development, economic development, education, energy, foreign aid, housing, urban transit, and many other things. How many congressional Republicans—let alone GOP leaders—have you seen actively pushing those cuts? Very few I would guess, with the exception some members pushing to cut subsidies for Planned Parenthood.

Recent congressional hearings on Trump’s budget reveal broad GOP support for spending increases, and virtually no support for his proposed cuts. Cabinet secretaries have been testifying to House appropriations subcommittees on the president’s budget, and each committee member is generally given five minutes to make comments.

My intern, John Postiglione, watched seven of these recent hearings and took notes on what each Republican member said. (Hearing details are below).

Here is what John found:

  • Not a single Republican made a supportive comment about a specific Trump spending cut during the seven hearings. These hearings included 47 speaking time slots by 26 different Republican members (members can be on multiple subcommittees).
  • Numerous Republicans objected to Trump’s proposed cuts. In the Commerce hearing, Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Evan Jenkins (R-WVA) opposed cuts to the Economic Development Administration (EDA). In the Education hearing, Tom Cole (R-OK) opposed cuts to impact aid, academic enrichment grants, and other subsidies. In the Energy hearing, Jaime Beutler (R-WA) opposed privatizing the power marketing administrations, while Dan Newhouse (R-WA) opposed cuts to energy subsidies. In the HUD hearing, David Valadao (R-CA) opposed cuts to community development. In the Labor hearing, Cole and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) opposed cuts to Job Corps. In the Health and Human Services hearing, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) opposed cuts to numerous programs.
  • Many Republicans made comments supportive of various federal spending activities, particularly on programs they viewed as important to their districts.

The comments opposing Trump’s cuts were sometimes subtle, but it was clear what side the member came down on. Some comments were not subtle. Here is Hal Rogers in the Commerce hearing objecting to Trump’s proposed cut to the EDA:

We can’t afford to leave behind Americans in certain sections of the country like mine. I want to ask you about the economic development administration. … This dire need is exactly why over these 50 years, this EDA administration has been so helpful to us in recruiting jobs. To keep our people at home and prevent starvation. Mr. Secretary, I am deeply concerned about this proposal. 

I have a few questions for Rep. Rogers:

  • If the government has been subsidizing sections of Kentucky for 50 years, and they are still poor, doesn’t it suggest that subsidies are not the answer?
  • Would state and local governments in Kentucky, and the Kentucky people, let Kentuckians starve if federal subsidies were cut?
  • Isn’t Kentucky’s EDA funding of about $8 million a year too small to make a difference in Kentucky’s $197 billion GDP, let alone the state’s level of starvation?

President Trump set the stage for spending reforms by proposing perhaps the largest cuts to liberal, big-government programs since President Reagan. That provided congressional Republicans a great opportunity to push hard for cuts—an opportunity that they have completely blown.

My intern, John, looked at appropriations committee hearings, but a similar pro-spending tilt is evident with Republicans on the authorizing committees, such as the agriculture and transportation committees. Some members, such as those in the House Freedom Caucus, do push for spending cuts, but they are heavily outnumbered even in their own party.

Here are the hearings that John reviewed, with the date, names of cabinet secretaries, and the number of Republican members who made comments:

Commerce, March 20, witness Wilbur Ross, 6 GOP members.

Education, March 20, witness Betsy DeVos, 7 GOP members.

Energy, March 15, witness Rick Perry, 7 GOP members.

Health and Human Services, March 15, witness Alex Azar, 7 GOP members.

Housing and Urban Development, March 20, witness Ben Carson, 6 GOP members.

Labor, March 6, witness Alexander Acosta, 7 GOP members.

Treasury, March 6, witness Steven Mnuchin, 7 GOP members.

I think we have interpreted the comments of the members fairly, but my apologies if we misinterpreted, or if we missed any members who expressed support for cuts.

In sum, on reviewing seven recent budget hearings, we did not find any supportive statements for any of President Trump’s specific cuts by members of his own party. A number of Republicans made comments generally supportive of fiscal restraint, but that does not move the ball forward if we actually want to downsize particular programs.

Economist Steven Horwitz writes in The USA Today about President Trump’s proposal to reduce legal opioid prescriptions by one third. Such a drastic reduction would inevitably harm people like Horwitz, who relates his experience with excruciating back pain and how opioids were essential to relieving his agony and helping his body heal:

People who wish to drastically limit access to opioids need to know the reality of this kind of pain. Getting out of bed took 10 minutes or more because even one small wrong movement while getting to a sitting position would cause severe back spasms, making me shudder with pain. Walking around my house required balancing myself on walls and door frames.

The pain from sitting down and standing up from the toilet required that I use a chair to hold my weight like one would use a walker. I had visions of being found in the bathroom, stuck on the toilet or even unable to get up off of the floor. Every little twist and turn of my body risked those spasms and shuddering.

Eventually I realized my mistake and got a prescription for opioids. The quality of my life quickly and dramatically improved, as within two or three days, the pain was reduced substantially and my mobility and mood were significantly better. I could walk comfortably and hug my kids again.

It’s important to understand that this kind of debilitating pain not only causes unnecessary suffering, it prevents patients from healing. It takes every bit of energy you have to fight it, and your body has little to nothing left to use to heal. Some medical professionals call pain “the fifth vital sign” because of the way in which it matters for a patient’s health. Opioids enabled me to relax, to sleep and to heal.

I too am one of the people Trump’s policy might harm.

I suffer from episodic back pain. Everything Horwitz describes I have experienced. If anything, I would say he understates the agony. In my experience, the pain can be more like torture—as if someone were deliberately trying to inflict as much pain as possible, for the purpose of breaking me emotionally and leaving me trembling in fear of its return.

Like Horwitz, I did not want to treat my back pain with opioids. I had previously used them to recover from knee surgery and I disliked the experience so much that after my second knee surgery, I refused them. Like Horwitz, I feared addiction. So I tried stretching. I tried physical therapy. I tried non-prescription analgesics.

Nothing worked until I broke down—until the pain broke me—and I tried opioids. They worked. They eliminated my pain and, as Horwitz says, that allowed me to heal. My pain could come back at any time, and so I too could be one of the people Trump’s policy would leave to suffer in excruciating pain. 

People who have never experienced back pain have no business making opioid policy.

Qualified immunity is a doctrine that can shield police officers and other public officials from civil suits when they violate individual rights in the course of their official duties. According to the doctrine, courts are supposed to first determine whether an individual’s right was violated and then proceed to determine whether the violation was “clearly established” in the jurisdiction—that is, whether the circumstances had happened before. This can lead to perverse outcomes in which a court can find an officer violated someone’s rights, but if the officer did so in a way completely novel, then the officer cannot be held liable for the violation. In other cases, courts can find that similar sounding circumstances aren’t the same and thus officers may prevail because those differences render the right not “clearly established.”

This morning, the Supreme Court ordered a summary reversal of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that had denied qualified immunity to an officer for shooting and injuring a woman. The woman, Ms. Amy Hughes, had a knife at her side and she posed no immediate threat to the officers or the person she was speaking to at the time she was shot. Other officers on the scene held their fire and were trying to gain Hughes’ cooperation before Officer Andrew Kisela shot at her four times. Unfortunately, such decisions have become all too familiar at SCOTUS.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a scathing dissent of the per curiam order:

If this account of Kisela’s conduct sounds unreasonable, that is because it was. And yet, the Court today insulates that conduct from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity, holding that Kisela violated no “clearly established” law. I disagree. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, as the Court must at summary judgment, a jury could find that Kisela violated Hughes’ clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by needlessly resorting to lethal force. In holding otherwise, the Court misapprehends the facts and misapplies the law, effectively treating qualified immunity as an absolute shield.

This Court’s precedents make clear that a police officer may only deploy deadly force against an individual if the officer “has probable cause to believe that the [person] poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” It is equally well established that any use of lethal force must be justified by some legitimate governmental interest. Consistent with those clearly established principles, and contrary to the majority’s conclusion, Ninth Circuit precedent predating these events further confirms that Kisela’s conduct was clearly unreasonable. Because Kisela plainly lacked any legitimate interest justifying the use of deadly force against a woman who posed no objective threat of harm to officers or others, had committed no crime, and appeared calm and collected during the police encounter, he was not entitled to qualified immunity.

In sum, precedent existing at the time of the shooting clearly established the unconstitutionality of Kisela’s conduct. The majority’s decision, no matter how much it says otherwise, ultimately rests on a faulty premise: that those cases are not identical to this one. But that is not the law, for our cases have never required a factually identical case to satisfy the “clearly established” standard. It is enough that governing law places “the constitutionality of the officer’s conduct beyond debate.” Because, taking the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, it is “beyond debate” that Kisela’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable, he was not entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.

[The majority’s] decision is not just wrong on the law; it also sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished. Because there is nothing right or just under the law about this, I respectfully dissent. (Citations omitted)

Today’s order was disappointing, but not surprising. Regular readers know that Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice is now dedicating resources to fighting the doctrine of qualified immunity, and it’s clear that most of the sitting justices support the doctrine. But the fight is worth it because qualified immunity effectively guts the best civil rights protection in federal law and, more broadly, police officers must be held accountable for their unconstitutional actions.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can view the launch event of our qualified immunity effort here. You can read our first amicus brief in the effort here. You can also read Will Baude’s excellent law review article that Justice Sotomayor cited in her dissent, “Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?” here, (spoiler alert: Yes it is!). And more here, here, and here.

The New York Times recently reported on a proposed policy change at the Environmental Protection Agency that would require the agency to only rely on scientific research with publicly available data when setting pollution exposure standards. Proponents of the rule argue that the practice would allow other researchers to examine and replicate findings, an essential characteristic of the scientific method. Opponents argue the rule would exclude large amounts of research that rely on confidential health information that cannot be public. The Times quotes opponents who view the policy change as an attempt by the Trump administration to attack regulations they don’t agree with by undermining the scientific results on which they are based.

Increased transparency in data used in empirical research and the facilitation of replication of studies are like mom and apple pie. In an ideal world, such practices are the very essence of the scientific method. In practice, academic journals in many disciplines already require that data used in empirical and experimental work be available for replication. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, no strangers to the limitations of data that include personal information, recently affirmed their commitment to responsible data sharing.

While opposition to transparency certainly has bad optics, the opponents of this rule change do have a point. The struggle over transparency isn’t really about transparency. Instead, it is simply the latest chapter in the scrum over two studies whose results are the bases of EPA decisions about appropriate clean air exposure standards.

The Harvard Six Cities Study (SCS) and the American Cancer Society Study (ACS), both published in the 1990s, provide the data on which the EPA estimates all mortality risks from air pollution. Both studies looked at the health damage caused by particulate matter (PM), which accounts for 90 percent of the health benefits from emission regulation, and found that higher levels of PM exposure were associated with increased mortality. And these studies both rely on individual health data given under conditions of confidentiality

So the opponents are probably correct that the transparency rule is a clever attempt to undermine the current basis for EPA regulation of PM. And reduced PM exposure is the exclusive basis on which current conventional pollution regulation is justified because the benefits of additional emissions controls on other conventional pollutants are low. In this environmentalists’ nightmare, a transparency mandate ends additional regulation of air quality by the EPA.

But contrary to the Times assertion, this a not simply a tale of good science versus evil polluters. The SCS has been the subject of intense scientific scrutiny and much criticism because of results that are biologically puzzling. The increased mortality was found in men but not women, in those with less than high school education but not more, and those who were moderately active but not sedentary or very active. Among those who migrated away from the six cities, the PM effect disappeared. Cities that lost population in the 1980s were rust belt cities that had higher PM levels and those who migrated away were younger and better educated. Thus, had the migrants stayed in place it is possible that the observed PM effect would have been attenuated.

Furthermore, a survey of 12 experts (including 3 authors of the ACS and SCS) asked whether concentration-response functions between PM and mortality were causal. Four of the 12 experts attached nontrivial probabilities to the relationship between PM concentration and mortality not being causal (65 percent to 10 percent). Three experts said there is a 5 percent probability of noncausality. Five said a 0-2 percent probability of noncausality. Thus 7 out of the 12 experts would not reject the hypothesis that there is no causality between PM levels and mortality. Based on these findings, a 95 percent confidence interval would include zero mortality effect for any reductions in PM concentration below 16 micrograms per cubic meter.

So the scientific fragility of the two studies has been known for some time. Despite that fragility, in December 2012, EPA set a much lower fine-PM standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to be met by 2020.

If the EPA is forced to use other studies, such as two recent papers by Michael L. Anderson and by Tatyana Deryugina, Garth Heutel, Nolan H. Miller, David Molitor, and Julian Reif, the estimated benefits from PM exposure reduction are reduced. Anderson’s estimate is 60 percent smaller. Deryugina et al conclude that declining PM concentrations from 1999 to 2011 resulted in an additional 150,000 life-years per year, which, if valued at $100,000 per life year, would equal $15 billion in annual benefits. The EPA estimates that the annual compliance costs of the 1990 Clean Air Act standards were $44 billion in 2010. With these lopsided costs and benefits, it is certainly true that eliminating the ACS and SCS studies from consideration and forcing reliance on other studies would result in less stringent regulation except in areas with bad geography, such as Los Angeles, that prevents pollution dispersion.

The Times article mentions the fact that the Congress has had the opportunity to enact language achieving the same goal of transparency but has not done so. Libertarians have long criticized the growth of the discretionary administrative state. Thus because Congress has explicitly considered but failed to enact a research transparency requirement, libertarians should be cautious about using administrative discretion to achieve their preferred outcome.

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to let you know that you shouldn’t listen to people who tell you that “education reform” hasn’t worked well. At least, that is, reforms that he likes—he ignores the evidence that private school choice works because, as far as can be gathered from the op-ed, he thinks such choice lacks “accountability.” Apparently, parents able to take their kids, and money to educate them, from schools they don’t like to ones they do is not accountability.

Anyway, I don’t actually want to re-litigate whether reforms since the early 1970s have worked because as time has gone on I’ve increasingly concluded that we do not agree on what “success” means and the measures we have of what we think might be “success” often don’t tell us what we believe they do. These are, by the way, major concerns that I’ll be tackling with Dr. Patrick Wolf in a special Facebook live event on Wednesday. Join us!

Rather than assessing the impacts of specific reforms on what are often fuzzy and moving targets, I want to examine one crucial assertion that Duncan says needs to be “noted”: students today are “relatively poorer than in 1971.”

To back this, Duncan links to a Post article from 2015 that said, “For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.” The article is based on a report from the Southern Education Foundation, which only mentions low-income rates as far back as 1989. More important, it is based on the share of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (FRPL), a flawed indicator of child poverty.

As the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) has pointed out, families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunches, and now many students get free lunches no matter their income if their schools use the Community Eligibility option. As the NCES summarizes:

[T]he percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch includes all students at or below 185 percent of the poverty threshold, plus some additional non-poor children who meet other eligibility criteria, plus other students in schools and districts that have exercised the Community Eligibility option, which results in a percentage that is more than double the official poverty rate [italics added].

What is the poverty rate for families with children? In 1971, according to the U.S. Census, 12 percent of families with children under the age of 18 had incomes at or below the poverty level. By 2016 the rate was 15 percent. Up, but not hugely. And you have to know what “poverty” means: It is about cash income, and excludes major benefits such as food stamps, housing subsidies, and tax credits. Include those, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and incomes for the poorest fifth of Americans have risen from about $20,000 in 1973 to over $22,000 in 2011. And with technological change, what that money can buy has afforded a much higher standard of living. Smartphones versus stuck-to-your-wall phones, anyone?

Finally, national test scores don’t gauge the performance of just the poor, but of all Americans. And while the poor are almost certainly better off today than in 1971, the nation as a whole is definitely better off. Indeed, as the figure above shows, inflation-adjusted, per-capita income nearly doubled from $18,603 in 1971 to $33,205 in 2016. Indeed, returning to the telephone theme, 13 percent of Americans didn’t have regular access to a telephone in 1971, versus about 2 percent today without a phone in their “housing unit.”

It is misleading, at best, to say that the “student population is relatively poorer” than in 1971. Burrow into the evidence and it is clear that American students are appreciably better off today than they were in 1971. It’s a basic reality we at least need to acknowledge before crediting broad “reform” for supposedly better outcomes.

In 2014 the government of Ecuador, under then-President Rafael Correa, announced with great fanfare that the Ecuadorian Central Bank (BCE) would soon begin issuing an electronic money (dinero electrónico, or DE). Users would keep account balances on the central bank’s own balance sheet and transfer them using a mobile phone app. Enabling legislation was passed in September, qualified users could open accounts beginning in December, and the accounts became spendable in February 2015. A headline on CNBC’s website declared: “Ecuador becomes the first country to roll out its own digital cash.”

The subsequent fate of the electronic money project has received less attention in the American press. Less than three years after opening, the system is now shutting down. In December 2017 Ecuador’s National Assembly, at the urging of President Lenin Moreno, Correa’s hand-picked successor who took office earlier in the year, passed legislation to decommission the central bank electronic money system. The legislation simultaneously opens the market to mobile payment alternatives from the country’s private commercial banks and savings institutions. As described below, the state system had failed to attract a significant number of users or volume of payments. Account holders now have until the end of March 2018 to withdraw their funds. Complete deactivation is scheduled for mid-April.

The substitution of open competition for state monopoly in mobile money is an important victory for the people of Ecuador. The entire episode is important internationally for the lesson it teaches us about the limits to a central bank’s ability to launch a new form of money when the public prefers established forms. The lesson provides an instructive contrast to “the case for central bank electronic money” recently made by Aleksander Berentsen and Fabian Schär in the pages of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review.

The Birth of the Project

There is an important backstory to the episode: Ecuador had suffered a hyperinflation of its domestic currency, the sucre, in 1999, prompting residents to dollarize their own payments and finances. In January 2000 the government, bowing to the popular verdict, announced that it would officially dollarize, fixing a parity of the sucre to the US dollar and retiring all sucres from circulation by September.  (Concerning Ecuador’s dollarized system see my earlier post here.)

The electronic money project was born in 2014 legislation that gave the state a monopoly in electronic money. Only the central bank could issue electronic dollars, and only the state-owned mobile phone company CNT could provide mobile payment services. The law barred the private mobile phone companies and private financial institutions from providing competing systems. The legislature also banned cryptocurrencies.

Because President Correa (in office 2007-2017) had often complained about the discipline that dollarization imposed on his government, observers wondered whether the electronic money system was intended merely as a way for the government to gain some monopoly profits, or was a first step toward de-dollarization. To calm fears that the electronic money would become a forced currency to be followed by de-dollarization, the law declared that use of the electronic money would be voluntary, and that even public employees and state contractors would not be obliged to accept it in payments from the state. (Everyone knew that the Assembly could later revise that provision of the law, of course.)

The government was quite optimistic that the system would rapidly prove popular. The leading newspaper El Comercio reported on Christmas Day of 2014: “Fausto Villavicencio, responsible for the new payment mechanism in Ecuador, said that the authorities expect that some 500,000 people will use e-money in 2015.”[1]  The actual number of accounts opened in 2015 turned out to be less than 5000. The economist Diego Grijalva of the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, citing the Ecuadorian central bank’s balance sheet, noted in early 2016 that “the Ecuadorian Electronic Money System is already implemented, but it has an uncertain future. In particular, financial institutions are not obliged to use it and the use thereof (less than US $ 800,000 for the end of January 2016) corresponded to less than 0.003% of the monetary liabilities of the Ecuadorian financial system.”

Its Failure to Achieve Popularity

One had to be skeptical of the stated rationale for the central bank electronic money project, to benefit the unbanked. Invited to speak in Ecuador about the dollarization regime in November 2014 (working paper in English, later published in Spanish) at events organized by the USFQ and the think-tank IEEP, I added some critical comments on the new project:

There is no reason to believe that a national government can run a mobile payment system more efficiently than private firms … If the government sincerely wishes to help the poor and unbanked, it should let private providers enter the competition, which will drive down the fees that the poor and unbanked will have to pay.

Private bankers in Ecuador made similar arguments during the life of the project. In its December 2017 legislation, the government conceded the case. According to one news account, “the Government hopes that with the transfer to the private financial system the means of payment can reach more unbanked population.”

I attributed a fiscal rationale to the project:

[W]hy does the government want to issue mobile payment credits as a monopolist? It seems likely that the project is meant as a fiscal measure. One million dollars held by the public in the form of government-issued credits is a million-dollar interest-free loan from the public to the government.

From the fact that the government is now closing its service, I infer that the central bank failed to make a profit even as a statutory monopolist. Float was smaller, and expenses higher, than had been hoped (see below). The new administration had no fiscal reason to keep it open.

Although I did not foresee the system’s failure to achieve sustainability, I did add one final dig at the system’s low trustworthiness:

Personally, I would find dollar-denominated account credits that are claims on [the leading private mobile phone companies] Movistar or Claro more credible than claims on the government of Ecuador. After all, unlike the government, neither company defaulted on its bonds in the past 12 years.

Trust, it turned out, was the crucial issue.

Unlike what is usually envisioned under the rubric “central bank electronic money,” the BCE was not creating nominally default-risk-free accounts denominated in its own domestic fiat money. It was issuing claims to US dollars that it might become unable or unwilling to repay. The government under Correa had in fact defaulted on sovereign dollar-denominated bonds in 2008. Although the sucre hyperinflation of 1999 had brought with it a banking crisis, since dollarization the commercial banks had by all indications become stable and prudently run.

Consequently it was reasonable for an informed citizen in 2014-17 to think that dollars on deposit at a private commercial bank in Ecuador were less risky than dollars on deposit at the central bank. The private banks had better incentives to behave prudently than the BCE had. A private bank could be taken to court if it failed to pay, but not so the government central bank with its sovereign immunity.[2] The enabling legislation specified no limit on the volume of electronic dollars the BCE could create, and no prudential requirement that the central bank hold adequate assets to redeem them.

The Ecuadorian public recognized a risk of default or devaluation with the central bank’s electronic money accounts, and stayed away from them, defying to the optimistic projections of government officials promoting the system. In June 2016 President Correa recognized that the project had critics, but he dismissed them as merely members of the opposition party and certain private bankers annoyed that the business was not going to them. In fact mistrust in the system was much more widespread.

At least one print commentator at the time pointed to the BCE’s lack of trustworthiness.  El Comercio’s economic columnist Gabriela Calderón de Burgos in a June 2016 column clearly predicted that because of public mistrust the DE system would not succeed. She noted that, unlike the private bankers with their own wealth at stake, the BCE could behave irresponsibly, and would be pressured to do so by the Treasury with its chronic financing problems. Thus the electronic claims on the BCE are “a currency that does not inspire confidence,” and as a result “the DE will not work because it will not enjoy widespread acceptance. It would only achieve this if the government declares it to be a curso forzoso [forced tender].” But the government knows that such a move “would lead to chaos.”

Later that month, in a column on the “antics” of the central bank, she observed: “The government has intensified its campaign for people to deposit their dollars in the BCE and use ‘electronic money.’ I suspect that the campaign will have little success because of the justified distrust that the government and the BCE have earned in terms of their ability to take care of others’ funds.”

In May 2017 Calderón de Burgos returned to the theme, in a column entitled “Only the Dollar is Trusted.” The project for the Ecuadorian government to issue its own digital currency, denominated in US dollars, she wrote, “faces an insurmountable inconvenience: people will not voluntarily accept the new currency. That’s why they’ve been trying to convince us to use electronic money for three years and still few use it.” The US dollar itself, because it is something that Ecuadorian politicians cannot devalue, “generates much more confidence than any alternative that can occur to our politicians, even and particularly in times of financial crisis.”

A news article in December 2017 reported the answers that ordinary people gave when asked them directly why they weren’t using the BCE’s electronic money. Their answers confirm that many found the system not creditworthy. For example: “Mistrust is among the reasons, says Frank Guijarro, owner of a tire network.” And: “I do not trust opening an account with the Central Bank, so I pay in cash and sometimes with a debit card when I cannot get out,” says Katherine Alcivar, 26.” The president of the association of cooperative savings banks gave a similar answer in an interview: “The greatest confidence we can give is that your resources are in your financial institution and not in the BCE.” The BCE system was haunted by the “ghost” of the previous government’s default. In addition, the BCE did too little to promote acceptance by shopkeepers and other businesses: “Not enough strength was given to the reception channels.”

As a result of these shortcomings, the system peaked at only $11.3 million in account balances, less than 5 hundredths of 1% of the country’s narrow money stock M1 ($24.5 billion). According to the deputy general manager of the central bank electronic money system, before the announcement of the coming shutdown ironically raised the average level of activity due to withdrawals, the system averaged only about 1,100 transactions per day.  The total value transacted over the entire life of the system was only about $65 million. Only 7,067 businesses ever conducted transactions with the electronic money. While a total of 402,515 accounts were eventually opened, the BCE found in retrospect that only 41,966 were ever used to acquire goods and services or to make payments. Another 76,105 were used only to upload and download money. The remaining 286,207 accounts (71%) that were opened were never used. (I do not know why the three reported component figures do not sum exactly to the reported total.)

Lessons from the Failure of the Project

We can make a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the Ecuadorian government’s profit from its monopoly electronic money project. Between 2014 and the present, the Ecuadorian government has been paying roughly 8% interest on the bonds it sells in international markets. Replacing $11.3 million of 8% bonds with zero-interest liabilities of the central bank provides an annual debt-service savings of less than $1 million, specifically $904,000. From the BCE’s 2014 income statement (the most recent that seems to be available), its “administrative expenses” (presumably payroll) were roughly $38 million. Thus the project would have turned a loss if it enlarged the BCE payroll by as little as 2.4%, even leaving aside non-salary expenditures on promoting and operating the project.

An accounting report on the DE project issued by GPR, an Ecuadorian government accounting office, puts the government’s expenditures on the project at $7,967,553.78. Comparing that figure to the estimated debt service savings of only $904,000, the fiscal loss is clear. My thanks to Luis Espinosa Goded and Santiago Gangotena of the USFQ Department of Economics for pointing me toward the GPR report and helping me read it.

It is instructive to contrast the outcome in Ecuador with the optimistic picture of central bank electronic money drawn by Berentsen and Schär, who write:

We believe that there is a strong case for central bank money in electronic form, and it would be easy to implement. Central banks would only need to allow households and firms to open accounts with them, which would allow them to make payments with central bank electronic money instead of commercial bank deposits. As explained earlier, the main benefit is that central bank electronic money satisfies the population’s need for virtual money without facing counterparty risk.

The BCE deposits, by contrast to the scenario they have in mind, were not free of counterparty risk. More generally, in a sound banking system a commercial bank’s counterparty risk for depositors can be negligible, very close to zero, so that the central bank’s zero default risk need not be a big draw. In episodes where the central bank and the commercial banks simultaneously circulate banknote liabilities (e.g. today’s Scotland or Northern Ireland), no public concern about a risk difference is evident.

The Ecuadorian case also shows that implementation of a central bank electronic money system isn’t so easy. It requires more than merely setting up a website (the US federal government has sometimes proven not even competent at that) and letting households and firms open deposits. A convenient point-of-sale deposit-transfer mechanism, requiring both hardware and software, must be provided to many thousands of merchants. Consumer service and marketing are part of the business of providing retail payments. There is no reason to think that central banks are or would be good at a commercial business operation. In short, it is far from clear that asking bureaucrats to build a “public option” electronic money system would have benefits in excess of its cost.

[1] All quoted statements from Ecuadorean sources are my own translations, assisted by Google Translate.

[2] George Selgin and I raised this point some years ago as part of a general case for preferring private competition to sovereign monopoly in currency.

[Cross-posted from]

On March 30, Sally Satel, a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse at Yale University School of Medicine, co-authored an article with addiction medicine specialist Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Medicine condemning the plans of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to place limits on the amount of opioids Medicare patients can receive. The agency will decide in April if it will limit the number of opioids it will cover to 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day. Any opioids beyond that amount will not be paid for by Medicare. One year earlier, Dr. Kertesz made similar condemnations in a column for The Hill. While 90 MME is considered a high dose, they point out that many patients with chronic severe pain have required such doses or higher for prolonged periods of time to control their pain. Promoting the rapid reduction of opioid doses in such people will return many to a life of anguish and desperation.

CMS’s plan to limit opioid prescriptions mimics similar limitations put into effect in more than half of the states and is not evidence-based. These restrictions are rooted in the false narrative that the opioid overdose problem is mostly the result of doctors over-prescribing opioids to patients in pain, even though it is primarily the result of non-medical opioid users accessing drugs in the illicit market. Policymakers are implementing these restrictions based upon a flawed interpretation of opioid prescribing guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016.

Drs. Satel and Kertesz point out that research has yet to show a distinct correlation between the overdose rate and the dosages on which patients are maintained, and that the data show a majority of overdoses involve multiple drugs. (2016 data from New York City show 97 percent involved multiple drugs, and 46 percent of the time one of them was cocaine.)

Not only are the Medicare opioid reduction proposals without scientific foundation, but they run counter to the recommendations of CMS in its 2016 guidelines. As Dr. Kertesz stated in 2017:

“In its 7th recommendation, the CDC urged that care of patients already receiving opioids be based not on the number of milligrams, but on the balance of risks and benefits for that patient. That two major agencies have chosen to defy the CDC ignores lessons we should have learned from prior episodes in American medicine, where the appeal of management by easy numbers overwhelmed patient-centered considerations.”

In an effort to dissuade the agency, Dr. Kertesz sent a letter to CMS in early March signed by 220 health professionals, including eight who had official roles in formulating the 2016 CDC guidelines. The letter called attention to the flaws in the proposal and to its great potential to cause unintentional harm. CMS will render its verdict as early as today.

Until policymakers cast off their misguided notions about the forces behind the overdose crisis, patients will suffer needlessly and overdose rates will continue to climb. 

I am saddened to report that Pat Korten, Cato’s vice president for communications from 1996 to 1999, died Thursday evening after suffering a stroke earlier in the week. 

Pat was a personal friend of mine. We served together in the administration of President Reagan, first for four years at the Office of Personnel Management, then for two years at the Department of Justice where Pat continued to serve under President George H.W. Bush. 

Pat was a movement classical liberal from his first days as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. He was an informed and sharp communicator of the first order in all the positions he held, including with the Knights of Columbus, where he spent the last ten years of his career. More than anything, however, he was man of deeply held principle, who at the same time could fill a room with his infectious laugh. We’ve lost a wonderful spokesman for liberty. May he rest in peace.

A judge in Los Angeles ruled Wednesday that Starbuck’s, Peet’s, and many other retailers face potentially massive liability under California law for not warning consumers that naturally occurring substances in roasted coffee beans can cause cancer, at least in lab animals. Absurd? Outrageous? Yes. But the scorn and outrage should be directed not at the judge but at the law whose terms he was required to enforce – Proposition 65, adopted by state voters through the initiative process in 1986 – as well as the lawyer-swayed California political system that still, more than 30 years later, is unwilling to address the measure’s gross flaws. 

Acrylamide is a naturally occurring substance formed when many foods are browned or otherwise subjected to high heat, including in many cases grilled burgers, fried chicken, bread, almonds, and potato chips. Like many other constituents of everyday life, it appears to cause cancer in some animals at high dosages. And that brings it under the terms of Prop 65, which has already led to a proliferation of warnings on and around thousands of common goods and services in California, from office furniture to hotel corridors to garages (car exhaust). Almost everyone agrees by now that the over-proliferation of warnings makes it less likely that consumers will pay attention to those few warnings that actually flag notable risks. Although on paper the law provides exemptions for some risks that are not “significant” or are balanced by benefits, these have been hard for defendants to use in practice, and the coffee vendors were not saved by the argument that java overall provides (scientifically uncertain) net health benefits, which may even perhaps include net anti-cancer benefits, that outweigh the (also scientifically uncertain) risks. 

What happens next? As the Post reports, “In addition to the warning signs likely to result from the lawsuit, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, which brought the lawsuit, has asked for fines as much as $2,500 for every person exposed to the chemical since 2002, potentially opening the door to massive settlements.” And the financial shakedown value here is far from incidental; it’s the very motor that keeps the law going. Way back in 2001 – yes, Overlawyered has been covering this for nearly 20 years – I noted of the idealistic-sounding CERT, then involved in a suit against Starbucks over minute amounts of the Chinese herb ma huang in chai tea, and its lawyer Raphael Metzger:

While CERT is previously unknown, the same is not true of attorney Metzger, based in Long Beach, who runs a large “toxic-tort” practice whose website is publicizing the Starbucks action…  “The constitutional right of Californians to pursue and obtain safety could be an untapped source of riches that plaintiffs’ attorneys should consider on behalf of their clients and the public,” Metzger wrote a while back in the San Francisco Daily Journal regarding the prospect of tort claims based on the California Constitution’s “inalienable rights” provision. 

Metzger is involved in CERT’s current coffee litigation as well. Meanwhile the California political system, which listens carefully to the small industry of nonprofits and attorneys that make a living by filing suits, has been unwilling to do more than nibble around the browned edges of Prop 65’s famous irrationalities. The warnings of potentially chaotic results like today’s – like Prop 65 warnings in general – have gone ignored.  Overlawyered has covered in detail both Prop 65 in general (including its use against scented candles, matches, brass knobs, light bulbs, playground sand, and billiard cue chalk) and acrylamide in particular. 

The NRA cites this pronouncement by the Brady Center’s co-founder, Pete Shields:  “The first problem is to slow down the number of handguns being … sold….  The second problem is to get handguns registered.  The final problem is to make possession … totally illegal.”  There’s the proof, says the NRA, that liberals just want to get rid of our guns and kill the Second Amendment.  That narrative had traction among hardcore gun rights people, but Heller actually defused the argument by affirming that the Second Amendment is here to stay, and it secures a fundamental, individual right.  

Then comes Justice Stevens — for many years, the intellectual leader of the liberal wing of the Court — and breathes new life into the NRA’s storyline.  What better evidence that the left wants a gun-free America?  A liberal icon calls for repeal of the Second Amendment – a proposal that will never be implemented, and would have limited effect if it were.  The Second Amendment doesn’t prevent states from enacting reasonable regulations; and its repeal wouldn’t prevent states from allowing assault weapons or high capacity magazines.  It’s state law, not the Second Amendment, that “calls the shots.”

But if so, then why the Second Amendment?  To prevent government from constructively banning a large class of weapons in common use for self-defense.  That was tried in DC (until Heller), and in Chicago (until McDonald), and perhaps in a few other localities.  That’s what would happen again if the Second Amendment were repealed.  And that’s why the NRA’s slippery slope argument still resonates with millions of gun owners.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Crude exports earn the country 95 per cent of its foreign exchange. That figure used to be lower, but relentless nationalization and the government’s insistence on controlling prices and exchange rates have made other exports unviable. Not that productive activity has reoriented inward: the IMF expects Venezuelan GDP to have dropped by 15 per cent in real terms each year in 2016 and 2017, and to do so again in 2018. This is a country in freefall.

Nor have price controls helped to sustain Venezuela’s currency. The bolivar, dubbed with cruel irony ‘strong’ because it replaced the old, weaker, bolivar at a 1:1,000 rate, has itself lost 99.9 per cent of its value against the U.S. dollar since March 2016. Shortages induced by controls, inept state management of nationalized companies, and capital flight have joined unlimited central bank money-printing to extinguish the purchasing power of Venezuelan money.

Rational policymakers would react to such a catastrophic state of affairs by enacting a dramatic U-turn and committing to it. Previous episodes of hyperinflation in Latin America were most effectively quelled by dollarization and the subsequent liberalization of goods and capital markets. But the extreme form of socialism that is the ruling regime’s ideology makes the leadership unwilling to countenance change.

Instead, they regale the population with a mixture of repression and gimmicks. The launch of the Petro, a state-sponsored cryptocurrency announced late last year, belongs in the latter category.

The Petro, which according to the Venezuelan government’s clumsy white paper is available for purchase as of yesterday, is supposed to be linked to the price of Venezuelan oil. From the white paper:

In words: the government vows to accept Petros in payment for taxes and government fees at a rate determined by the previous day’s price of Venezuelan oil. Dv is a discount rate.

Because the quantity of Petros in circulation is fixed and governance of the cryptocurrency is technically decentralized, the government argues that future manipulation of the Petro’s value is outside its control.

The reality, unsurprisingly, is more complicated. The Petro will run on the NEM blockchain, where transactions are validated differently from most cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin, for example, relies on a proof-of-work consensus algorithm, where computing power determines which transactions are validated. NEM, on the other hand, uses a proof-of-importance system where transactions are confirmed by the most important nodes, with importance defined as the number of coins owned and the frequency of transactions.

The Petro will ostensibly be accepted for payment of Venezuelan taxes and government fees, but little else. Moreover, the government has issued 100 million tokens but only 82.4 million are available for sale. Venezuelan authorities will presumably retain the remainder, so they will play an outsize role in the governance of the cryptocurrency under the POI system, despite the nominally decentralized blockchain.

Second, the supposed “backing” of the Petro by oil reserves is nothing of the kind. There is a link between the market price of Venezuelan oil and the Petro’s bolivar exchange rate, but ownership of the cryptocurrency gives its owner no claim on sovereign oil assets. By buying Petros, one is giving the country’s socialist government full faith and credit that it will fulfill its promise to redeem liabilities at the prevailing oil price. Given recent experience and Venezuela’s multiple oil commitments to sovereign creditors such as Russia and China, that would be a lot of faith indeed.

The Petro might offer Venezuelan citizens a distraction from their nation’s dire problems; it may even allow the Venezuelan dictatorship to evade some U.S. sanctions, despite President Trump’s decision to ban U.S. citizens from buying Petros. But as a cryptocurrency, it is doomed to fail.

A true crypto-asset might instead represent claims on real barrels of oil, which could be traded in a decentralized market through transactions recorded on the blockchain. It’s unclear how much of an improvement this would yield over futures trading on an exchange, although it’s probably cheaper for some market participants to transact on the blockchain. But the Petro offers no true claim on anything, so its utility is dubious given the likelihood that the Petro’s state sponsor will default on its promises.

If you needed another reason not to buy any currency, digital or otherwise, issued by the Venezuelan government, then this is it.

[Cross-posted from]

President Donald Trump has dismissed Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin amid disagreement within the administration over the future of the beleaguered  Veterans’ Health Administration, a single-payer health system whose closest analogue is the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. 

In a farewell printed in the New York Times, Shulkin criticizes proposals to improve health care for veterans by privatizing the VHA:

The private sector, already struggling to provide adequate access to care in many communities, is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics, particularly when it involves the mental health needs of people scarred by the horrors of war. Working with community providers to adequately ensure that veterans’ needs are met is a good practice. But privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea. The department’s understanding of service-related health problems, its groundbreaking research and its special ability to work with military veterans cannot be easily replicated in the private sector.

Actually, Shulkin is probably right. The VHA has built expertise in treating the special challenges veterans face (which is not to say the VHA always treats veterans well). If privatization “dismantl[es] the department’s extensive health care system,” it could take the private sector years to fill in the gap. Simply “closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics” could well be “a terrible idea.”

Fortunately, that is not what privatization means. To privatize does not mean to dismantle. It means to transfer ownership of a resource from the government to private individuals. 

Privatization of the VHA need not dismantle any aspect of that unique system. All that privatization would or need do is transfer ownership of VA hospitals and clinics–of all the system’s physical capital–to the people that system exists to serve: veterans. The VHA would continue to exist as the nation’s largest integrated health system, and would preserve its capacity to meet the unique needs of veterans, but under the control of veterans themselves rather than politicians who persistently renege on the commitments they make to veterans.

Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy studies Christopher A. Preble and I explain in the New York Times how privatization can have bipartisan appeal:

The alternative system we propose combines the universal goal of improving veterans’ benefits with conservative Republicans’ preference for market incentives and antiwar Democrats’ desire to make it harder to wage war. 

Read more about this bipartisan VA privatization proposal in Chapter 14, Veterans Benefits of Cato’s Handbook for Policymakers (8th ed.).

I take a look at the federal budget situation in The Hill:

The 2,232-page omnibus spending deal signed into law last week threw fiscal sanity out the window. While entitlement spending has continued to grow, the relative restraint in discretionary spending had provided hope that federal budget control was possible.

But that hope is now dashed under this president and Congress. The omnibus hiked discretionary spending 13 percent in a single year, while scraping the budget caps that were the singular achievement of reformers after the landmark 2010 election.

President Trump included substantial cuts in his recent budget, but signing the omnibus made a joke of his own proposals for fiscal restraint. 

The GOP’s discretionary budget actions and the relentless rise of health care and retirement spending have put the budget on a catastrophic course.

You can read the rest at The Hill.

President Trump continued his grumbling about Amazon this morning, echoing common but misguided views about the states being hurt by the rise of retail sales over the Internet. NPR has said, “The big problem is a loss of sales tax revenues as online sales climb.” And a coalition of states recently complained that online sales are imposing an “ever-increasing toll on the states’ fiscal health.”

But government data does not show any substantial “toll.” The chart shows total state-local revenues from income and sales taxes as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). E-commerce sales have grown to nine percent of retail sales, but sales tax revenues have nonetheless roughly kept pace with economic growth.

Since 1990, sales tax revenues have dipped only slightly from 3.1 percent to 3.0 percent of GDP.

Meanwhile, state-local income tax revenues have fluctuated with the economy, but have trended upward. They have risen from 1.8 percent of GDP in 1990 to 2.1 percent today.

Overall, state-local tax revenues (including property and other taxes) have edged up since 1990 from 8.7 percent of GDP to 8.8 percent.

It is not a lack of revenue that is taking “a toll on the states’ fiscal health,” but, rather, ever-increasing spending on Medicaid and worker pensions, as the Wall Street Journal discusses today.

The Washington Post reports that “House Republicans are considering a vote on a ‘balanced-budget amendment’” (BBA) to the constitution, having just backed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill which will worsen the deficit considerably.

With deficits now projected to rise as high as 5.3 percent of GDP by 2019, this move amounts to the worst kind of “fiscal virtue signaling” on behalf of the GOP leadership. The vote appears designed to tell voters that the GOP favors fiscal restraint, safe in the knowledge the amendment is near-certain to fail, given the hurdles in the Senate alone and despite all recent evidence to the contrary.

There will therefore be a lot of rightful mocking and dismissiveness from the commentariat on this move. But two points from the conclusions on my recent paper on fiscal rules should be borne in mind.

First, lots of people will use this hook to come out and say a BBA is bad economics, particularly given that overwhelmingly mainstream economists oppose a requirement at the federal level for the books to balance every year.

But countries around the world have developed much more sophisticated fiscal rules which in effect balance budgets over the economic cycle. Switzerland’s is even part of its constitution, and it appears to work pretty well. Fiscal rules really can really help to shape responsible budget outcomes, provided they smooth spending by capping it around trend revenues (rather than requiring balance every year), and avoid scope for overoptimistic assumptions or creative accounting by politicians.

Second and crucially, though, fiscal discipline – even to get to the stage of introducing and abiding by rules – requires political and public buy-in. At the moment, the equilibrium in Washington is instead for higher spending and more borrowing, and a continual reluctance to countenance reform of entitlement programs which drive the dreadful long-term debt projections.

Republicans had the opportunity, after the tax cuts, to explain to voters that if they liked their tax cuts, and wanted to keep their tax cuts, then fiscal restraint over a number of years was necessary. Now, even getting to a stage where a BBA could kick in would likely take years given the high deficit, and the political difficulties of cutting spending.

No doubt there are some Republicans who still care and worry about balancing the books. But with this proposed vote, the GOP instead is preaching like St Augustine: “Lord give me fiscal discipline, but not yet.” The best way of locking in fiscal responsibility is to practice it.

Read my full paper on fiscal rules and the experience of other countries here.

Taiwan’s supporters in Congress and the Trump administration are pushing unprecedented measures to increase Washington’s backing for the island’s de facto independence from China. On March 1, the Senate passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which the House of Representatives had previously approved in January. The TTA states that it should be the policy of the United States to authorize officials at all levels to visit Taiwan to meet with their counterparts and allow high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States for meetings with U.S. officials. Notably, the TTA specifically encouraged interaction by “cabinet-level national security officials.”

As I note in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, although the measure does not compel the executive branch to change policy, it clearly underscores the congressional desire for closer U.S. ties, especially defense ties, with Taiwan’s government. Since the Senate passed the legislation with no dissenting votes, it reinforced the intensity of the congressional position. That President Trump signed the legislation instead of letting it go into effect without his signature signaled his agreement with the substance.

Although it was not a legal requirement, Washington’s policy since it switched official diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 has been to authorize only low-level (usually economic) policymakers to interact with their Taiwanese counterparts. Prominent officials such as the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, refrain from doing so. That situation is now likely to change.

Congressional activists also are pushing a new gesture of support for Taiwan, even though Beijing’s strong protests in response to the TTA have barely begun to subside. Two key Republican senators, John Cornyn (R-TX) and James Inhofe (R-OK), are urging President Trump to approve the sale of F-35 fighters to Taipei. Cornyn is the assistant majority leader and Inhofe is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, so their support for such a sale is not a minor matter.   

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan always are a sensitive issue with the Chinese government. Beijing contends that the communique President Reagan signed in 1982 committed the United States to phase-out all such sales. U.S. leaders respond that the promise was conditional on Beijing’s willingness to rule out the use of force to compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland—a renunciation China has never made. A provision in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act authorizes the sale of defensive arms to Taipei, but it is quite a stretch to regard F-35s as a defensive weapon system.

Since President Trump’s election, Beijing’s suspicions have grown that the United States intends to dilute, if not abandon, the “one-China” policy that has governed bilateral relations since the 1970s. The concerns soared with the much-discussed December 2016 telephone conversation between President-elect Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. No previous president-elect since Washington’s recognition of the PRC as China’s rightful government had ever interacted with a Taiwanese leader. Trump alleviated Beijing’s concerns when he assured President Xi Jinping in February 2017 that Washington remained fully committed to the one-China policy, but passage of the Taiwan Travel Act and the new congressional push for F-35 sales undoubtedly revive China’s worries.  

Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his new national security advisor also likely elevates Beijing’s apprehension. Bolton is a longtime, passionate supporter of an independent Taiwan. Not only did he previously urge the United States to establish diplomatic relations with Taipei, he even suggested redeploying U.S. troops currently stationed on Okinawa to Taiwan to demonstrate the firmness of Washington’s commitment to the island’s security.

It is hard not to empathize with the aspirations of a vibrant, capitalist democracy like Taiwan. In a just world, the Taiwanese would have every right to determine their own political destiny and not be pressured into reunifying with the mainland—especially as long as the PRC remains a repressive, one-party state. But we do not live in a just world, and China regards reunification as a vital interest for which it is prepared to go to war.

The Taiwan Travel Act and the proposed F-35 sale signify an emphatic pro-Taiwan tilt and a serious policy change. Even if the Trump administration does not fully implement the TTA and approve the arms sale, a future administration now has congressional authorization and encouragement to do so. Some of the statements already coming from China’s state-controlled media are worrisome. The semi-official Global Times suggested that Beijing’s response to the latest provocations might need to be “military” in nature. That is not a minor concern. The Taiwan Relations Act states that Washington would regard any Chinese military coercion of Taiwan as a grave breach of the peace in East Asia. There is little doubt that America would be entangled in such a conflict.

U.S. leaders are playing a very dangerous game when they flirt with measures that undermine the one-China policy. Greater caution is imperative.

Ever since President Trump appointed John Bolton to be the new national security advisor last week, a torrent of commentary has poured forth about the hawkish Fox News pundit and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow, who once served as United Nations Ambassador for 18 months in the George W. Bush administration. Two pieces published today, however, stand out for their precision and insight. 

The first is by The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, whose central argument is that Bolton is not the learned foreign policy scholar many believe him to be. While Bolton certainly has years of experience, it hasn’t been of the right kind. Bolton’s “militancy,” his “incessant, almost casual, advocacy of war,” Beinart argues, is positively “Trumpian: The less evidence you have, the more certain you sound.”

Bolton’s analysis and prognostications - particularly about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - have so frequently been proven wrong by events that it can be tedious to lay it all out. Beinart does a good job of it, but his real insight is to suggest a possible explanation for why Bolton has been so extremely hawkish, and wrong, for so long. 

[I]f Kissinger is right that “[high] office teaches decision making, not substance” and that it “consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it,” then the narrow professional experience through which Bolton has amassed his intellectual capital matters a great deal. He has never served in the military. He has never studied another region of the world, or another period of history, at the graduate level. He has spent his entire adult life in the interlocking world of hawkish think tanks, Washington law firms, Republican politics, and the right-wing media. And he manifests that narrowness in the smugly insular worldview he brings to his new job.

Over the past two decades, Bolton has written dozens of columns and essays, often for the flagship publications of the American right. To read them is to enter a cocoon. His writing is filled with assertions—about the purity of America’s intentions, the motivations of its adversaries, the uselessness of diplomacy, and the efficacy of war—for which he offers either feeble evidence or no evidence at all.

Do read the whole thing.

The second must-read on Bolton’s appointment comes from Josh Shifrinson, assistant professor of international affairs with the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. In the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Shifrinson argues that an extremist like Bolton can rise to the top of television punditry, and now to immense power as the president’s right-hand man on all things national security, only because of America’s peculiar place atop the international system. The unusual outsize power of the United States in the post-Cold War era has several implications for foreign policy.

First, it is a permissive environment for foreign policy activism in that there are few external constraints on the exercise of U.S. might. We face fewer negative consequences for strategic blunders and foolish wars, compared at least to states that face retaliation from peer competitors.

Second, this peculiar position of U.S. dominance means that domestic politics and the idiosyncrasies of individual leaders matter more for foreign policy than it otherwise would amid a more equal balance of power. “All this means sage leadership that screens policy ideas is especially important,” Shifrinson writes. “With an inexperienced leader like Trump in the Oval Office, Bolton’s views can gain traction partly because America still reigns as the sole superpower.”

Third, while other powers, like China, are beginning to compete with the U.S. in the economic and diplomatic spheres, America still reigns supreme in the miltiary arena. Using force and projecting power are our comparative advantage, and so Washington’s incentive is to play to this strength, wisely or not.

Both Beinart and Shifrinson illustrate just how hazardous it is to have a man like Bolton in the Oval Office advising a man like Trump. If his history of erroneous analysis and impulsive support for elective wars is any guide, Americans should be bracing for a bumpy remainder to the Trump presidency.