Power & Market
[Editors Note: After days of rioting in the streets of Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to backtrack today on proposed gas taxes. While this episode demonstrated the unpopularity of trying to raise taxes in the name of fighting climate change, Mises Institute Senior Fellow Robert Murphy recently noted at IER that this is only the start for "climate interventionists."]
Say what you will about the climate policy discussions at Vox, but they don’t mince words. They come right out and tell you how much they want to micromanage every last detail of your life. Vox’s resident expert, David Roberts, recently interviewed policy wonk and author Hal Harvey, to discuss which areas of society government should regulate in the name of slowing climate change. Everything was on the table—ranging from building codes to auto fuel efficiency to diet to family size—with the only debate being over the relative results from the various interventions.
Among other results, this peek into the interventionist mentality should serve as a wake-up call for the few writers who keep charmingly calling on libertarians and conservatives to strike a carbon tax deal with progressive leftists. As the Roberts/Harvey discussion says quite plainly, a carbon tax is just one arrow in the quiver of those championing aggressive government intervention to slow climate change.
A Carbon Tax Is Not Enough
Let me validate the carbon tax claim first. Here’s the key exchange from the Vox interview:
David Roberts: These days, people across the political spectrum are talking about carbon pricing. How does it fit into the larger effort?
Hal Harvey: The thing about carbon pricing is, it’s helpful, but it’s not dispositive. There are a number of sectors that are impervious to a carbon price, or close to impervious.
A carbon price works when it’s part of a package that includes R&D and performance standards. It does not work in isolation. It helps, but it doesn’t do nearly as much as is required.
Harvey elsewhere in the interview explicitly criticizes the standard “market solution” rhetoric behind a carbon tax when he says:
[Government-mandated performance standards] have a bad rep from an age-old and completely upside-down debate about “command-and-control” policy. But we use performance standards all the time, and they work really well. Our buildings don’t burn down very much; they used to burn down all the time. Our meat’s not poisoned; it used to be poisoned, or you couldn’t tell. And so forth. If you just tell somebody, this is the minimum performance required, guess what? Engineers are really good at meeting it cost-effectively.
In addition to their (naïve) promises of revenue neutrality, those pushing for a carbon tax swap deal also promise conservatives and libertarians that a “price on carbon” would allow for the dismantling of the existing top-down regulations. Yet we now have several lines of evidence to show just how naïve this hope is: (1) Harvey in the quotation above throws them under the bus. (2) The recent Curbelo carbon tax bill contained no *meaningful* regulatory relief. (3) Economist Paul Krugman is fine with outright bans on new (and existing?) coal-fired power plants, and (4) the people at Vox have said for yearsthat a carbon tax would only work in conjunction with other anti-emission government policies. Notice that I am not scouring obscure subreddit threads to find Marxists posting from a hipster café, I am quoting from quite mainstream sources who are openly declaring that putting “a price on carbon” will not do enough to reduce emissions.
The Interventionist Mentality
The reader should also realize that Roberts and Harvey don’t merely consider fuel economy standards and building efficiency codes when it comes to “command and control” regulations. Everything is on the table, and the only reason to refrain from pursuing certain strategies is the dilution of political capital. The following excerpt illustrates:
David Roberts: The book also has nothing about behavior change — no turning off lights or going vegetarian. Do you find that lever unrealistic?
Hal Harvey: It’s a policy design book, and there aren’t many policies that have people change their diet. Michael Bloomberg taxed sugar, so there’s one. But we’re not gonna have the tons-of-barbecue-per-capita tax in North Carolina…
We have limited political bandwidth. If you’re serious about change, you have to identify the decision makers that can innovate the most tons the fastest….There are 7.5 billion decision makers on diet. There are 250 utility commissioners in America — and utility commissioners control half the carbon in America.
Trying to invoke behavior change on something as personal as eating en masse is morally sound, it’s ecologically a good idea, but as a carbon strategy, it doesn’t scratch the surface.
Indeed, even when they give a nod to basic human rights, Roberts and Harvey sound creepy. Consider this exchange:
David Roberts: Paul Hawken’s Drawdown Project looked at options for reducing greenhouse gases and found that educating girls and family planning were the two most potent.
Hal Harvey: When I was at the Hewlett Foundation, we sponsored a study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research that asked the question: Globally, if you met unmet need for contraceptives — that is to say, no coercion whatsoever — what would it cost and what would the carbon impact be?
We found large-scale abatement at less than a dollar a ton. So I’m completely in favor of that. [Bold added.]
It’s the part in bold that is chilling. For starters, I point out that this is the one area of life—the decision on how many children to have—where Harvey apparently feels that the government should not be using coercion to alter people’s behavior; coercive interventions in every other arena—from building design to diet to urban transit—were only tempered by pragmatic considerations.
Beyond that, the reason Harvey had to stress that his approach would be voluntary is that historically, this wasn’t taken for granted. There is a long and sordid history of wiser-than-thou social planners forcibly restricting how many children others could have, all in the name of some higher social good.
Indeed, Vox’s founder—Ezra Klein—recently got himself into an awkward spot when the website originally promoted his discussion with Bill Gates using the following tweet:
Vox quickly deleted the tweet after outrage and advertised the interview in a more sensitive manner, but the whole episode offered another peek into the interventionist mindset.
On these pages I have tirelessly pushed back against the small but vocal group of pundits and scholars who call on conservatives and libertarians to accept a carbon “tax swap deal” with leftist progressives. Beyond their failure to appreciate some of the technical nuances in the tax literature, these pleas overlook the simple fact that the mainstream thought leaders among the wonkish progressives have long since moved beyond the idea of a simple “price on carbon.” Every aspect of our lives, from our cars to our meals to our family sizes, affects global emissions—and therefore the interventionists want every tool at their disposal to control others.
As an addendum to last week's article on the prominence of civilian-owned guns versus homicide rates, it may be interesting to look at the diversity in gun prominence across European countries.
Contrary to the broad generalizations and over-simplifications spread by US gun-control advocates about European gun control, there is actually quite a diverse range in gun prominence and gun control laws across Europe.
Returning to the Small Arms Survey data, released earlier this year, we see that gun prominence in Europe ranges from 2 per 100 people in Hungary to 39 per 100 in Serbia:
Comparing these numbers to homicide rates, however, we clearly don't find much of a relationship at all.
Homicide rates in nearly all cases are below 2 per 100,000 which is a very low rate by any global or historical standard.
But, as we can see, civilian guns in Austria, for instance, are six times more numerous what they are in the UK. But the homicide rate is lower in Austria. Similarly, there are twelve times more civilian guns in Switzerland than in the Netherlands. Yet both countries have about the same homicide rates.
Attempts at proving causality here then especially starts to go off the rails when we look at Russia. In Russia, there is a modest 12 guns per 100 people — which is about half the Swiss rate. And yet the country's homicide rate is 10.8 per 100,000.
What can explain these large differences?
In the case of Russia, at least, we certainly can't blame things on lax gun control laws. Gun ownership requires registration and licensing. Handguns and rifles with shorter barrels are tightly controlled.
By contrast, guns are easier to acquire in Switzerland, Finland, Serbia, and Austria — although we find registration and licensing requirements in most cases. Especially notable is the Czech Republic which, by European standards, has very lax gun laws. In fact, it is remarkably easy to acquire a conceal-carry permit in the country, and more than 200,000 such permits (in a country of fewer than 11,000,000 people) have been issued.
The Czech republic has also made headlines in recent years by additional legislative efforts to further ease gun restrictions in certain cases.
The Czech Republic, by the way, has one of the lowest homicide rates in Europe, at less than one per 100,000.
Household Gun Ownership vs. Gun Prevalence
It is helpful to remember, though, that even in cases where gun prevalence is high, gun ownership rates (on a household basis) might still be low. That is, it's entirely possible in some cases that only a small number of people own most of the civilian guns that the Small Arms Survey says exist. This could lead to a situation in which few people have guns in spite of there being a large number of guns overall. However, while this is theoretically possible, it has not been demonstrated to be a common occurrence. Moreover, this lopsided situation is more likely in poorer countries where the high cost of firearms, combined with government-mandated licenses, is prohibitive for much of the population, leaving ownership a realistic option open to only a relatively few wealthy residents.
International comparisons in gun ownership rates, however, are hard to find. Most articles that purport to make these comparisons are usually using the Small Arms Survey data, and are thus just comparing gun prevalence.
(At the very least, considering both high gun prevalence and relative ease of purchase in countries like Switzerland, Austria, and Serbia, we have good reason to believe that both gun ownership rates and prevalence are comparatively high in some areas of Europe.)
Few gun control advocates trouble themselves with these details, however. For many, it apparently remains good enough to simply conclude "more guns=more crime," even when the numbers fail to show much connection at all.
According to the Federal Reserve's Underlying Inflation Gauge, the 12-month inflation growth in June (the most recent month reported) was at 3.33 percent. That's the highest rate recorded in 158 months, or more than 13 years. The last time the UIG measure was as high was in April 2005, when it was at 3.36 percent.
The Fed began publicly reporting on new measure in December of last year, and takes into account a broader measure of inflation than the more-often used CPI measure.
Not shockingly, the UIG has shown a higher rate of inflation than the CPI, most of the time in recent years, although this gap has narrowed in recent months.
For both CPI and UIG, the general trend has been upward since 2014. The UIG, however, stands out because it shows a sizable amount of price inflation compared to the recent past. the CPI growth rate, for example, remains below where it was in 2011, while we must go all the way back to 2004 to find a UIG growth rate comparable to what we're seeing now.
Moreover, the UIG holds promise as a better indicator of an approaching recession. For example, we know that the economy was already softening in 2006 and into 2007 before the last financial crisis. And yet the CPI shows continued and sizable growth right up until late 2008 even though the Great Recession had started in late 2007 — at least according to the NBER. The UIG, however, shows weakening prices before both of the two most recent recessions.
The most recent UIG data, however, is fairly old — being June data — so it remains to be seen if there is any sign, by this measure, of a weakening economy in late 2018.
The Federal Reserve today raised the the Federal Funds Rate to a target/range of 2.0-2.25 percent:
According to Business Insider:
The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday, after a two-day policy meeting, that it would raise interest rates for the third time this year.
The decision, which had been widely expected, raised the federal funds rate by 25 basis points, to a range of 2% to 2.25%.
It was the eighth time the Federal Open Market Committee has raised borrowing costs since late 2015. It held rates near zero after the Great Recession to speed up the economic recovery.
Accordingly, the Fed removed language in its statement that had characterized its policy as "accommodative." Still, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at a press conference that the Fed did not have a precise estimate of where accommodation ends.
A look at rates over time shows that at 2.25 percent, the Federal Funds Rate has not been this high since January of 2005. At the time, however, the Fed still had more than two-and-a-half years before indications of an imminent recession led the Fed to begin cutting rates again in September of 2007. Rates peaked during the last cycle at 5.25 percent for 15 months.
It remains to be seen if the Fed will have a similarly broad period of time during which to "normalize" rates after more than seven years of a near-zero target rate. The Fed's pledge to "unwind" its extremely accommodative monetary policy is still a long way from coming to tuition. The Fed's balance sheet, after all, remains enormous by historical standards:
Moreover, if a recession begins within the next year, the Fed will find itself in a place where it will want to pursue "stimulus" by slashing the target rate, but will have to cut rates from a starting point of around 3 percent. That leave considerably less room to move than it had when the target rate was over five percent in 2007.
Given that most everyone expects the Fed to continue with its practice of buying up assets for stimulus purposes, it will then need to add "underpriced" assets to an existing portfolio of over 3 trillions dollars — even assuming the Fed manages to shed a sizable amount of its portfolio over the next year.
Such moves would be unprecedented in the history of American central banking, and we may get to find out what happens if the Fed tries it.
Note: for additional context, here's a longer time horizon on the federal funds rate levels. In recent years, the federal funds rate has been spending more and more time at rock-bottom levels, and with a result of arguably more anemic growth in real incomes.
Brian Price interviewed Max Wolff, chief economist at the Phoenix Group for Real Vision. Wolff believes the bloom will be coming off the Trump economic rose (Wolff contends it’s a continuation of the Obama boom) and was most testy about the president’s trade policy. “Two hundred years of economic wisdom versus a tier two real estate developer from New York. I’m not going with the tier two real estate developer from New York.
More than a little of that economic wisdom came from Ludwig von Mises, who explained,
All varieties of (government) interference with the market phenomena not only fail to achieve the ends aimed at by their authors and supporters, but bring about a state of affairs which — from the point of view of the authors' and advocates' valuations — is less desirable than the previous state of affairs which they were designed to alter. If one wants to correct their manifest unsuitableness and preposterousness by supplementing the first acts of intervention with more and more of such acts, one must go farther and farther until the market economy has been entirely destroyed and socialism has been substituted for it.
The tier two Trump “administration said it would make $4.7 billion in payments to U.S. farmers to offset losses from trade battles rippling across the globe,” reports the Wall Street Journal.
There is $12 billion in taxpayer funds just waiting to be distributed to farmers impacted by what Trump calls “unjustified retaliation.” So Tier Two Donald whips out tariffs, other countries retaliate, and while a few more steel workers are hired, a few farmers may go out of business. At what point does it end? What was left of the market economy, according to Mises, is substituted with socialism.
“Problems caused by unjustified tariffs could not have come at a worse time,” said [Agriculture Secretary Sonny] Perdue said on Monday. He added the aid will give the Trump administration time to strike trade deals that benefit the entire U.S. economy, including agriculture.
Farmers, he said, “cannot pay their bills with simple patriotism.”
Meanwhile, aluminum workers in Missouri had tears in their eyes talking about Trump’s tariffs on HBO’s Vice . “He done exactly what he said he was gonna do,” said Derrick Cummins. “I wish I could meet him. I’d give him a big old hug.”
So, with the aluminum workers handled, the USGA is handing out hush money, as Jesse Newman and Heather Haddon write,
Soybean farmers are slated to get roughly three-fourths of the direct payments, or $3.6 billion, followed by producers of pork, cotton, sorghum, dairy and wheat.
Pork products will benefit the most from a related program to purchase excess commodities, at $558 million out of an estimated $1.2 billion. Apples, dairy and pistachios would be targeted for roughly $90 million each from the program.
USDA officials said they could decide on a second wave of payments to farmers by December, if difficult market conditions persist.
Also in the midwest, Mid-Continent Nail Corporation, the largest nail producer in the country, has lost 70 percent of its business since Trump’s tariffs began. The company shuttered one entire plant virtually overnight.
Murray Rothbard explained,
In short, it is best for all of us to allow the free market, and the international division of labor, to operate across international boundaries (“freedom of trade”). Furthermore, economics shows us that even if another country places artificial barriers on trade, it is still better for us as consumers to allow free trade; any sort of retaliatory tariffs, quotas, or enforced cartels only cut off our noses to spite our faces.
Trade wars create winners and losers, at home and abroad. American consumers lose, as the prices are hiked while capital and labor are misallocated. This makes everyone, over time, poorer--even the tier two real estate developer.
In the year 2018, it is not remotely shocking to see media attention shift seamlessly from reality show villains to former CIA directors. The Trump Administration’s announcement that it has revoked the security clearance for John Brennan, America’s former Communist-sympathetic spymaster, naturally resulted in a race to see who among the professional political class could be most dramatic in their condemnation.
Many, including Brennan himself, bizarrely argued that the Trump Administration’s action was a “1st Amendment violation.” As Jim Bovard quipped on Twitter, “Can someone show me the asterisk in the First Amendment that says that former govt. officials have a divine right to confidential inside govt. info in perpetuity?”
Most entertaining was the response from ex-VP and amateur masseuse Joe Biden, who tweeted:
In Washington, you can always identify how dependable an ally is by the size of the lies they are willing to tell in your defense.
After all, Brennan’s tenure at the CIA was rampant with dishonesty, unaccountability, and hypocrisy – and that’s before looking at Brennan’s long record of support for war crimes.
It was Brennan’s CIA, after all, that was found guilty of spying on Senate computer servers and threatened to prosecute Intelligence community staffers investigating CIA interrogation practices. He then lied about it repeatedly until investigation into the matter made doing so indefensible.
The conduct of Brennan’s CIA wasn’t limited simply to the Senate. Though in his current capacity as an MSNBC contributor, Brennan is now a passionate defender of the 1st Amendment and free press, his agency also hacked and spied on American journalists reporting on CIA torture.
As the McClatchy reported at the time:
The CIA got hold of the legally protected email and other unspecified communications between whistleblower officials and lawmakers this spring, people familiar with the matter told McClatchy. It’s unclear how the agency obtained the material.
Of course it is understandable that Brennan was so interested in keeping CIA torture practices as hidden as possible, particularly since he himself was an advocate for them. These included waterbordering, rectal feeding, beatings, and other sometimes fatal practices. Additionally the CIA’s conduct during this period was without any sort of accountability, keeping other government agencies and even the White House in the dark. Inevitably many innocent people became ensnared by the actions of America’s rogue spy agency.
Naturally the media and the anti-Trump left would now treat a defender of these practices as a moral defender of American democracy.
If Trump really wanted to act on the Deep State, he wouldn’t settle for simply revoking John Brennan’s security clearances. He should move to strip his pension and have him prosecuted for his past actions. While it's fair to question whether the current legal system would actually allow anything to happen to Brennan, doing so would force renewed focus on his past actions and help highlight the dangers of leaving the CIA unchecked. Trump is a fan of spectacles, let this one play out for the nation to see.
Then he should do the same for James Clapper.
Responding to Russian-funded political advertisements, Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg declared last month that “we will do our part to defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation.” But Facebook is effectively sowing disinformation by kowtowing to foreign regimes and censoring atrocities such as ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. In the name of repressing fake news and hate speech, Facebook is probably suppressing far more information than Americans realize.
Facebook blocked a post of mine last month for the first time since I joined it nine years ago. I was seeking to repost a blog article I had written on Janet Reno, the controversial former attorney general who died last year. I initially thought that Facebook was having technical glitches (no novelty). But I checked the page and saw the official verdict: “Could not scrape URL because it has been blocked.”
“Pshaw!” I said, or some other one-syllable epithet. I copied the full text of the article into a new blog post. Instead of using “Janet Reno, Tyrant or Saint?” as the core headline, I titled it: “Janet Reno, American Saint.” Instead of a 1993 photo of the burning Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, I substituted an irreproachable official portrait of Reno. Bingo — Facebook instantly accepted that crosspost. I then added a preface detailing the previous blockage and explaining why I sainted Reno. The ironic headline attracted far more attention and spurred a torrent of reposts by think tanks and other websites.
I contacted Facebook’s press office to learn why the initial post was blocked. Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja checked into the matter and notified me that I would be permitted to post that link. "But why was it blocked?" I replied. She responded: “There was an image in the post that incorrectly triggered our automation tools. That issue has been corrected.”
So when did showing the home of more than 70 people engulfed in flames after a FBI assault become beyond the pale? Facebook presumably blocked everyone who sought to share that image from the most vivid law enforcement debacle of the 1990s.
This was not the first time Facebook erased an iconic image that the U.S. government would be happy to see vanish. Facebook likely deleted thousands of postings of the 1972 photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked after a plane dropped napalm on her village. After coming under severe criticism last year, Facebook announced that it would no longer suppress that image. Unfortunately, Facebook is unlikely to disclose a list of the images it bans. Because most Americans are clueless about current events and recent history, they will have little idea of what vanishes into the Memory Hole.
Read the full article at USA Today
The Trump Administration recently announced that the US will withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Their justification is that the council consists of human rights violators, such as Cuba, China, and Venezuela, and has demonstrated a bias against Israel.
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to further expand on the decision, writing:
After more than a year of unsuccessful efforts to fix these fundamental defects, the U.S. delegation announced Tuesday our withdrawal from the council. Our country will no longer be party to this deeply flawed institution, which harms the cause of human rights more than it helps it....
In the end, our allies’ case for the U.S. to stay on the council was actually the most compelling argument to leave. They said American participation was the last shred of credibility left in the organization. But a stamp of legitimacy on the current Human Rights Council is precisely what the U.S. should not provide.
Of course the exact same logic could be used to advocate the United States from pulling out of the UN entirely.
The UN’s website outlines the five core missions for the organization. These include:
- Maintain International Peace and Security
- Protect Human Rights
- Deliver Humanitarian Aid
- Promote Sustainable Development
- Uphold International Law
Its failure to maintain international peace and security is obvious, though obviously the United States raising that objection would open America to deserved ridicule. The failure of the United Nations, however, to restrain fifteen years of US militarism points to the inherent weakness of the organization.
The disastrous human rights record of the UN also goes deeper than the criticism of the HRC. While, again, it’s not surprising for the US government being hesitant in raising particular objections, in recent years the UN has witnessed member countries resurrect widespread torture programs and help foster an active slave market in Libya.
As Lucy Wescott wrote in Newsweek, international human rights organizations have been vocal in questionining the usefulness of the UN:
The U.N. remains vulnerable after a number of governments have stopped it from preventing mass atrocities, including wars in Syria and Yemen. Syria is an example of “a systematic failure of the U.N. to fulfill its vital role in upholding rights and international law and ensuring accountability,” according to the report.
“[The U.N. is] certainly an organization that is creaking at the seams, that was designed for the 20th century,” Richard Bennett, head of Amnesty International’s U.N. office, tells Newsweek. “ There are questions about whether it’s fit for purpose in the 21st century.”
While the UN does manage to carry out some humanitarian aid missions, these too are plagued with expected problems of a vast international bureaucracy. The organization’s own estimates place the rate of fraud at 30%, but even those numbers understate the bleak reality that the biggest winners of the UN’s programs tend to be government officials who are the most to blame for international poverty.
William Easterly, co-director of New York University’s Development Research Institute, has written on how the United Nation's humanitarian model gets everything wrong:
[The UN swoops] into third-world countries and offer purely technical assistance to dictatorships like Uganda or Ethiopia on how to solve poverty.
Unfortunately, dictators’ sole motivation is to stay in power. So the development experts may get some roads built, but they are not maintained. Experts may sink boreholes for clean water, but the wells break down. Individuals do not have the political rights to protest disastrous public services, so they never improve. Meanwhile, dictators are left with cash and services to prop themselves up–while punishing their enemies.
This same top down approach underscores the failures of the UN’s “sustainable development” objective as well. Unsurprisingly, the inherent fallacies of economic central planners don’t vanish when executed by a vast international organization. Instead, we have bad economic policy, usually backed by Malthusian fearmongering, empowering globalist bureaucrats who aspire to one day be able to impose direct taxes on sovereign countries.
For those reasons and more, Trump should do what he does best and disrupt the status quo by pulling the US out of the UN and evict the organization from New York City. Then, if he wants to actually succeed where the UN has failed, he’d find a way to make his truly free trade zone happen. After all, nothing is better for peace, development or human rights as the wonders of international trade.