Sign the Petition against Protectionism by David Boaz

You only have to glance at the headlines to know that protectionist pressures are rising around the world -- from the "Buy American" provision in the stimulus bill to the unnecessary trade war with Mexico to the World Bank's report last week that 17 members of the G-20 have recently implemented restrictive trade measures.

And you only have to read a history of the 1930s to know that a worldwide turn to protectionism deepened and lengthened the global depression.

So some people are starting an international campaign to protect and expand free trade. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the International Policy Network, and the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity are sponsoring a global Freedom to Trade Petition to be released just before the upcoming G-20 meeting in London. To help head off another Smoot-Hawley-type spiral, please sign the petition. Academic economists, business and labor leaders, authors, and all concerned citizens are encouraged to sign.

And click on ShareThis below to tell your friends!

Posted on March 25, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Miss Manners’s Advice for President Obama by David Boaz

A reader writes to Miss Manners to complain that often she can't find a seat at a bookstore coffee shop, even though she's a paying customer and some of the people seated seem not to be buying anything. She suggests that it is obvious that this is not the way to manage a coffee shop in a bookstore and asks Miss Manners how she can politely get the seat she wants. Miss Manners responds:
If you want to manage a coffee shop, Miss Manners suggests you first talk to those who do.
She goes on to explain that bookstores may "do better selling books by being a neighborhood center than they would by checking to see that the tables are occupied only by people who are eating and drinking." But in any case, the bookstore managers are likely to have a better sense of this than customers who have not invested in the business. That's good advice for the Obama administration: If you want to manage a bank, an insurance company, an automobile manufacturer, or any other company, you might try talking to people with expertise. Better yet, you might even let those with skin in the game manage their own companies. If they make mistakes and the government doesn't bail them out, bad managers will soon enough be weeded out.

Posted on March 20, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Republicans Rediscover Their Big-Government Principles by David Boaz

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who can always be counted on to stick the federal government's nose where it doesn't belong, is criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder's teeny-tiny steps toward a less oppressive enforcement of drug prohibition. Holder said on Wednesday "that federal agents will target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state law. This is a departure from policy under the Bush administration, which targeted dispensaries under federal law even if they complied with the state's law allowing sales of medical marijuana." Grassley says that marijuana is a "gateway" drug to the use of harder drugs and that Holder "is not doing health care reform any good." As Tim Lynch and I wrote in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:
President Bush . . . has spoken of the importance of the constitutional principle of federalism. Shortly after his inauguration, Bush said, "I’m going to make respect for federalism a priority in this administration." Unfortunately, the president’s actions have not matched his words. Federal police agents and prosecutors continue to raid medical marijuana clubs in California and Arizona.
And as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissenting from the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the power of the federal government to regulate medical marijuana:
If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything — and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.
That's the principle that Chuck Grassley defends. Republicans claim to be the small-government party — and President Obama's policies on taxes, spending, and regulation certainly justify a view that the GOP is, if not a small-government party, at least the smaller-government party — but they forget those principles when it comes to imposing their social values through federal force.

Posted on March 20, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Selective Taxation Is Tyranny by David Boaz

The House of Representatives has passed a 90 percent tax on the bonuses paid to AIG employees, seemingly forgetting President Obama's admonition "that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment." Everybody's angry. But anger doesn't make good law. And there are real questions about both the wisdom and the legality of such legislation. Bloggers like Conor Clarke, Megan McArdle, and Eugene Volokh have asked if the bonus tax is legal or constitutional. And thank goodness for bloggers who ask the questions that members of Congress and print journalists seem to ignore! The bloggers wonder if after-the-fact taxes on specific people violate the constitutional ban on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. (Ex post facto = after the fact.) Good questions indeed. But they should go further and ask, Are laws like this tyrannical? Ex post facto legislation isn't just bad because it's unconstitutional. It's unconstitutional because it's bad. (Nate Silver did raise these broader questions, arguing that the bonus tax bill was like the congressional intervention into the Terri Schiavo case: quite possibly legal and constitutional, but "it represented a gross overreach of the chamber's authority, and ultimately undermined, at least a little bit, the rule of law.") Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tells Conor Clarke, "It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge. ...The fact that the individuals subject to the tax in its retroactive application would in principle be readily identifiable would not suffice to doom the tax either from a bill of attainder perspective or from a due process perspective." Which led liberal blogger Kevin Drum to this conclusion:
it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it's not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it's not (it should be "manifestly regulatory and fiscal" Tribe says).

Posted on March 19, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Freedom for Yang Zili by David Boaz

Congratulations to Yang Zili, a Chinese advocate for political pluralism and human rights who has been set free after serving eight years in prison. As I noted in the Fall 2007 edition of Cato’s Letter, Yang was an admirer of the libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek and described himself as a political liberal. A computer engineer by trade, Yang quickly recognized the power of the internet to spread ideas, founding a website, the “Garden of Ideas” (, where he forcefully condemned communism and argued for democratic reforms. “I am a liberal,” he wrote, “and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy.” Yang also participated in a discussion group called the New Youth Society, where he discussed the potential for political reform in China with young people who were similarly passionate. In 2001, Yang Zili and three of his colleagues were jailed for conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. As the Washington Post reported in 2004, the small group met for only a few months, and during that time one of its members was reporting to the Ministry of  State Security. Indeed, the Post reported:
What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip. The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it. The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy. And yet they attracted the attention of China's two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.
Such is life in a police state. Yang Zili spent eight years in prison for being brave enough to speak out against an authoritarian regime, which is 8 years too many in my book. Still, we can take comfort that he got out, and that his colleagues are slated to be released from prison next year. Unfortunately, many young internet activists brave enough to stand up for freedom still languish in jail.

Posted on March 19, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

More Cheap Money from the Fed by David Boaz

The Federal Reserve announced that it would create $1.2 trillion out of thin air and use it to buy mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds, even though
Some Fed leaders have resisted buying Treasurys in the past because they were unsure whether it would help reduce borrowing costs and because they feared that it would appear that the central bank was simply printing money to finance the government's deficit, a hallmark of countries with poorly managed economies.

Posted on March 19, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Incredible Expanding Stimulus Programs by David Boaz

Get on a media list, and you get lots of emailed press releases. Like this one today:
In case you're wondering, it's from the Association of Home Appliance Measures (AHAM). And it won't surprise you to hear that "The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) urge the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to quickly disburse funding to state energy offices for the Energy Efficient Appliance Rebate Programs so that consumer rebates will be available for the summer months to purchase ENERGY STAR appliances." Yes, indeed, that's the way to get the economy moving again: get people out there buying new appliances. You know what I think would really stimulate the economy? Federal tax credits for contributions to free-market think tanks. Nonprofits are facing diminished revenues and layoffs during these tough times. A tax credit would "create or save up to 4 million jobs." OK, maybe not quite 4 million, but some number "up to" that. And by focusing the credit on free-market think tanks, you'd help to encourage sound long-term economic policy. It's a win-win idea. I should get out a press release.

Posted on March 18, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Chuck Schumer Endorses Hoover Plan by David Boaz

On Meet the Press last Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said
Those on the hard right say, "Cut government spending, let's go back to the old Reagan days." Well, the last president who did this when we were in this type of situation was Herbert Hoover.  Herbert Hoover said the government should do nothing when we were in a recession, not a depression.  We did nothing and it related [sic] to a depression.
Reality check: Did President Hoover cut federal spending during the recession that became a depression? Not by a long shot.   boaz-figure Source: OMB Federal spending was $3.1 billion (those were the days!) in 1929, the year Hoover took office and the stock market crashed. It rose modestly for two years, then shot up in 1932. It dropped a bit in nominal terms in 1933, though deflation meant that the real budget increased. Then, presumably reflecting Roosevelt's policies, it shot up again in 1934. In real terms, the federal budget was almost twice as high after Hoover's four years as it was when he took office. President Bush, President Obama, and Senator Schumer are all supporting Herbert Hoover's failed policy of increasing spending to fight recession. Let's hope they don't have the same results and turn a recession into a Great Depression. Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin dissects the "Herbert Hoover did nothing" fallacy at

Posted on March 12, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Time to Think about the Gold Standard? by David Boaz

Back in 2007, presidential candidate Ron Paul generated a lot of talk, especially among libertarians, about monetary policy, the Federal Reserve, and the gold standard. As a longtime believer in sound money, I was surprised to discover how many smart young libertarians thought that talk of the gold standard was nutty. And perhaps more surprised to discover that they thought it was unnecessary now that the problem of central banking had been solved. As two of them wrote when I asked about their objections,
"The gold standard is the solution to no actual problem that is of concern to anyone. I think it's a mistake to take a relatively professional and independent central bank for granted, but we have one. Inflation is low and predictable. The monetary climate is stable and amenable to savings and investment, etc." "What's the beef with the Fed?  By my estimation, it's been one of the most effective, restrained government agencies over the last twenty five years.  They've dramatically reduced the volatility of the business cycle while achieving low, reasonably constant inflation." 
Well. How's that confidence in central banking looking now? I'm reminded of Murray Rothbard's comment in 1975 about what the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and stagflation had done to trust in government:
Twenty years ago, the historian Cecelia Kenyon, writing of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, chided them for being “men of little faith” – little faith, that is, in a strong central government. It is hard to think of anyone having such unexamined faith in government today.
Partly in response to such criticisms of the gold standard, in February 2008 Cato published a paper by Professor Lawrence H. White, "Is the Gold Standard Still the Gold Standard among Monetary Systems?" White argued:
The gold standard is not a flawless monetary system. Neither is the fiat money alternative. In light of historical evidence about the comparative magnitude of these flaws, however, the gold standard is a policy option that deserves serious consideration. In a study covering many decades in a large sample of countries, Federal Reserve Bank economists found that "money growth and inflation are higher" under fiat standards than under gold and silver standards. A gold standard does not guarantee perfect steadiness in the growth of the money supply, but historical comparison shows that it has provided more moderate and steadier money growth in practice than the present-day alternative, politically empowering a central banking committee to determine growth in the stock of fiat money. From the perspective of limiting money growth appropriately, the gold standard is far from a crazy idea.
And he quoted a devastating line from an essay (p. 104) by Peter Bernholz:
A study of about 30 currencies shows that there has not been a single case of a currency freely manipulated by its government or central bank since 1700 which enjoyed price stability for at least 30 years running.
In February 2008 White's study didn't get much attention. Most people still thought the Greenspan-Bernanke Fed was doing a great job, so why talk about alternatives to fiat money? But now, after the crash of 2008 and the growing realization that Dow 14000 was the product of a cheap-money boom that led to the inevitable bust, maybe it's time to think about the gold standard or other constraints on politicized money creation.

Posted on March 12, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Hillary’s Shock Doctrine by David Boaz

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state who no doubt thinks of herself as "fourth in the line of succession," tells a European audience how the Obama administration will pass an agenda that Americans have previously rejected: "Never waste a good crisis ... Don't waste it when it can have a very positive impact on climate change and energy security." As I've written several times, governments throughout the decades have taken advantage of wars and economic crises to expand their size, scope, and power. Bob Higgs wrote about "Crisis and Leviathan" long before Naomi Klein called it "The Shock Doctrine." But the striking thing about the Obama administration is that they openly acknowledge that's what they're doing -- using a crisis to ram through their entire policy agenda while people are in a state of panic. Projects like national health insurance, raising the price of energy, and subsidizing more schooling -- the three prongs of President Obama's speech to Congress -- have nothing to do with solving the current economic crisis. But the administration is trying to push them all through as "stimulus" measures. And they keep proclaiming their strategy. First it was Rahm Emanuel: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before." Then Joe Biden: "Opportunity presents itself in the middle of a crisis."  Not to mention Paul Krugman and Arianna Huffington. And now Hillary. Not since George Bush the elder told the media that his campaign theme was "Message: I care" has a president been so open about his political strategy. But these people are displaying a contempt for the voters. They're telling us that we're so dumb, we'll go along with a sweeping agenda of economic and social change because we're in a state of shock. They may be right. But voters and members of Congress should remember Bill Niskanen's sobering analysis of previous laws passed in a panic.

Posted on March 9, 2009  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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