President Trump Shouldn’t Give in to the Solar Industry’s Drama

President Trump is about to decide whether to raise the price of solar energy, based on an economic theory refuted in 1845.

In response to a formal complaint, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled this month that imported solar cells are putting too much competitive pressure on domestic cell producers. The commission will now examine what remedy would be appropriate, and then it will be up to the Trump administration to decide whether to take action. The likely remedy would be to impose tariffs on imported solar cells, thus protecting U.S. cell manufacturers and raising prices for consumers.

The solar industry is already receiving this sort of protection. In 2014, in response to a complaint by U.S. manufacturers, the Commerce Department imposed tariffs of up to 78.42 percent on imports of solar panels made in China, increasing the price for any U.S. consumer purchasing the panels. But that wasn’t enough for the U.S. companies filing this year’s complaint relating to the cells that make up the panels.

This attempt to raise the price of using sunlight for energy reminds me of one of the most famous documents in the history of free trade. In 1845, the French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote “The Candlemakers’ Petition,” in which he imagined the makers of candles and street lamps petitioning the French parliament for protection from a most dastardly foreign competitor:

Let’s hope that this time President Trump stands up for American consumers and workers and tells the uncompetitive solar panel manufacturers to go build a better mousetrap.

“We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price [ …] This rival … is none other than the sun.”

After all, Bastiat’s imaginary petitioners noted, how can the makers of candles and lanterns compete with a light source that is totally free?

Thank goodness we wouldn’t fall for such nonsense today—or would we? Solar manufacturers are asking for pretty much the same thing: protection from a cheaper competitor.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. After all, the solar manufacturers haven’t been asking for protection from the sun, only from foreign companies.

What’s the difference, though? Any source that supplies solar panels to American consumers and businesses is a competitor of the American industry. And any source that can deliver any product cheaper than American companies is a tough competitor. Domestic producers will no doubt gain by imposing a tariff on their Chinese competitors, but American companies that install solar power will lose, by having to pay higher prices for panels.

Indeed, as is often in the case in trade matters, not all the companies in the industry are in agreement. This case was brought by two companies, but the largest solar trade group in the nation, the Solar Energy Industries Association, opposes tariffs. The association says that if the two companies get what they are asking for, prices for solar power will rise, consumer demand will fall, and the industry will lose some 88,000 jobs, about one-third of the current American solar workforce.

Interestingly, the two companies that brought the complaint, Suniva and SolarWorldAmericasTwo, are based in the United States but are respectively owned by German and Chinese firms. It’s ironic that companies made possible by cross-border investment are now seeking protection from cross-border trade.

Businesses would always prefer a world without competitors. If they can’t outcompete their rivals in the marketplace, they may be tempted to ask the government for protection. And our trade laws actually invite such complaints. But economists agree that consumers, and the businesses that use imported products, lose more on net than producers gain. Protectionism is a bad deal for the American economy. And in this case, a bad deal for anyone who wants to see more solar energy in the United States.

Let’s hope that this time President Trump stands up for American consumers and workers and tells the uncompetitive solar panel manufacturers to go build a better mousetrap.

Posted on October 18, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Hydra-Headed Drug Business

With television cameras rolling and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on hand in San Diego, the Coast Guard announced late last month that it had set a new record for cocaine seizures at sea—more than 455,000 pounds through September 11, topping last year’s record.  

At last we’ve turned the corner in the war on drugs. Right? 

Don’t bet on it. When Americans read about ever-larger drug busts, or when we watch television shows about drug enforcement, we get the impres­sion that drug enforcement agents are clever and innovative, always staying one step ahead of the sinister pushers. But in reality the drug distributors are the innovative ones—because they have a financial incentive to be. 

That’s why we keep reading the same story. 

In 2015 the Coast Guard announced the largest submarine drug bust ever, $181 million worth of cocaine. 

In 2001 a Coast Guard crew seized more than 13 tons of cocaine in what authorities called “the largest cocaine seizure in U.S. maritime history.” 

Back in 1998 Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin announced more than 100 indictments and the seizure of some $150 million from Mexican banks, representing a successful conclusion to “the largest, most comprehensive drug money launde­ring case in history.”

Indeed, it seems that not a week goes by without a report of  “one of the biggest drug busts in Utah’s history,” “Brooklyn’s biggest drug bust in history,” “one of the biggest drug busts in New York City history,” “the largest drug bust ever in the United States outside of Florida,” or—drum roll, please—”the largest drug bust in history.” Visit CBSNews.com for pictures of “17 massive drug busts.”

Law enforcement agents and journalists love those stories—they publicize the “success” of the war on drugs, and they offer the journalists great visuals and great numbers. Helpful police flacks always provide some sexy dollar figures—cocaine or heroin or meth with a street value of $3.3 million, $20 million, $73 million, $2 billion, $4 billion.

This has been going on forever. In a 1991 San Francisco case, billed as the biggest heroin bust ever, television cameras panned over 59 boxes containing 1,080 pounds of heroin—enough to supply each of the country’s estimated 500,000 heroin addicts for a month. Drug war officials said the street value of the heroin was $2.7 billion to $4 billion. 

It’s true that the drug warriors are interdicting more drugs at our borders all the time. Seizures of cocaine have risen dramatically since President Ronald Reagan revved up the drug war in the 1980s. But does that indicate success? More likely, it means that more drugs are crossing our borders, and officials are interdicting about the same percentage as before. The street prices of cocaine and heroin have been falling for years, a pretty good indication that plenty of both are still crossing our borders.

As Mark A. R. Kleiman, a leading drug policy scholar, said back in 1991 about the California raid, “For any shipment like this that you catch, you can assume that many more get through.” 

Kleiman has a point. Drug distributors have to stay one step ahead of the cops in order to stay in business. 

The Drug Enforcement Agency and other law enforcement organizations are bureaucra­cies, and like all bureaucracies they tend to be inefficient. Police officers and drug agents are paid whether they slow drug traffic or not. In fact, they may receive more funding if the drug problem gets worse. Drug dealers, on the other hand, are entrepre­neurs. If they outwit the officers, they make big money. That economic incentive spurs creativity, innovation, and effi­ciency. 

When the Supreme Court in 1989 approved surveil­lance flights over private property to search for marijuana fields, marijuana growers began moving indoors and under­ground. Every week  brings reports of innovations in drug smuggling: people who swallow heroin and carry it into the United States in their stomachs; drugs placed in the luggage of unaccompanied children on international flights; cocaine implanted in a pas­senge­r’s thighs; liquid cocaine; cocaine chemically modified to be odorless and pliable; tunnels, drones, and catapults to get across the U.S.-Mexican border—and those are just the methods police have discov­ered.

Around the world, drug enforcers face what Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance calls the “push-down/pop-up factor”: push down drug production in one country, and it will pop up in another. Since the stepped-up drug war in the 1980s, drugs have flowed into the American market at different times from Turkey, Mexico, Burma, Afghanistan, Colombia, Peru, and other places. As long as Americans want to use drugs, and are willing to defy the law and pay high prices to do so, drug busts are futile. Other profit-seeking smugglers and dealers will always be ready to step in and take the place of those arrested. 

“We’ve cut off the head of the dragon,” said Robert Bender, head of the DEA’s San Francisco office, in announcing that heroin bust back in 1991. 

But in the decades since, the DEA has discovered that it had cut off the head, not of a dragon, but of a Hydra—the nine-headed monster in Greek mythology that couldn’t be killed because whenever one of its heads was cut off, two more grew to replace it. Is there any reason to hope that this latest Coast Guard triumph will be any different? 

Posted on October 11, 2017  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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