Category: Current Affairs

Rating the agencies and departments

How does the Bush administration rate its own agencies, in terms of management performance?

The “Executive Branch Management Scorecard” rates agencies in terms of human capital, competitive sourcing, financial management, e-government, and budget/performance. Eight of the twenty-six agencies earned the lowest possible score in all categories, see here, and then click on the top scorecard link to get to the evaluations. These agencies include the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Treasury Department. Out of a possible 130 grades, 87 fall into this lowest category.

Education, Labor, and the Office of Personnel Management do the best, but this is little consolation if you, like me, would be inclined the abolish the first two of those.

It is nice to see the Bush Administration be frank about problems in government management. The scorecard claims the problem is getting better, but note two things. First, good management is not an end in itself, policy must also be good. Second, I expect little in the way of real reform as long as budgets jack up domestic spending for most of these agencies, regardless of their performance.

Policies toward wildfires

…the disdain for (and, in recent years, sometimes legal banning of) human “management” of the woods plays a role in the rising of dangerous wildfires. Time to drop the illusion that everything can be natural in a society of 285 million citizens. People are here and we’re not going to go away; people and forests and brushlands are in closer contact all the time; this leaves us little choice but to return to some version of managing lands to exert power over natural fire.

…Note that, since it is fashionable to deride George W. Bush’s environmental policies, the president’s “healthy forest” initiative, unveiled months ago, contains many provisions aimed at exactly the sort of pragmatic management that would reduce wildfires. The “healthy forest” bill was blocked in the Senate by Democrats and enviro lobbyists, who expressed horror at the thought of artificial intervention in the forest. Wednesday, as San Diego burned, the Senate passed the legislation 97-1. Bush’s plan is far from perfect, but will move forest management back toward realism.

Read Gregg Easterbrook for the full and very thoughtful analysis.

Hey, wait a minute…

Iraq is getting a flat tax of 15 percent, here is the full story. I’m all for this, but note that under Saddam very few Iraqis paid any income taxes at all, despite a published marginal rate of 45 percent.

You might now ask who will be exempt from the new taxes:

The 15 percent rate does not take effect until January. In the meantime, Bremer has abolished all taxes except for real estate, car sales, gasoline and the pleasantly named “excellent and first class hotel and restaurant tax.” Even while leaving these Hussein-era levies in place, Bremer exempted his coalition authority, the armed forces, their contractors and humanitarian organizations. Exempting occupation personnel leaves only the Iraqis to pay taxes, as well as journalists, business people and other foreigners.

I don’t mean to show lack of appreciation for those who are putting their lives on the line. But, symbolically speaking, I doubt if this is a worthwhile way to avoid additional expenditures.

Crony Statism

Johan Norberg provides some depressing information about the situation in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, is said to have resigned. This is another sign that the so called power clan, “siloviki”, with its base in the FSB (former KGB) is strengthening its grips on power, and that both the liberal economists and the allies with former President Yeltsin are losing out. This is bad news for Russia. It all began with the brutal arrest of the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky this Saturday. The difference between Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs is not that he is more corrupt or unscrupulous, on the contrary, his oil company Yukos is renowned for being relatively transparent and law-abiding for a Russian company. The difference is that he has challenged Putin by supporting democratic forces, like the parties Yabloko and SPS. Before the arrest FSB also made a raid on Yabloko’s headquarters and stole their servers with their planning for the parliamentary election on December 7th. First the destruction of the free media in Russia and now this. It is no longer possible to call Putin’s Russia a democracy. It is more like a “democtorship” (“demokratur”), as the Swedish novelist Vilhelm Moberg once called a dictatorship with democratic rituals….

Addendum: More on the rise of the siloviki.

Newspapers in small countries

Consider this list of newspapers per capita. This is the number of papers, not how many people read papers. Here is the top ten:

1. San Marino 108.19 per 1000000 people
2. Gibraltar 36.08 per 1000000 people
3. Andorra 29.24 per 1000000 people
4. Macau 21.65 per 1000000 people
5. Greece 19.45 per 1000000 people
6. Norway 17.9 per 1000000 people
7. Bermuda 15.63 per 1000000 people
8. Estonia 11.3 per 1000000 people
9. Switzerland 11.09 per 1000000 people
10. Latvia 10.99 per 100000 people

Rounding out the top fifteen are Iceland, Cyprus, and Malta, along with such giants as Sweden and Finland. And note the gap between the frontrunner, San Marino, and number two; San Marino has almost three times as many newspapers per capita.

The United States is not in the top sixty-seven and does not stand on the list at all, it appears not to be in the database. A separate data source lists America as having 1,228 daily newspapers, which if correct would put us in per capita terms at number 28, between Mauritius and Bolivia. Why so low? Well, we rely on TV more, we have more concentrated media (most cities have only one daily paper, and perhaps smaller countries like the gossipy element that follows from a large number of small circulation newspapers.

Note: I have modified the initial version of this post, due to helpful comments from Frank Quist.

Drug reimportation

Most libertarian economists oppose drug reimportation, on the grounds that the resulting lower prices would harm the incentives for R&D. Richard Epstein provides a good statement of this case, with links to the relevant debates, including some libertarian dissenters, such as Ed Crane and Roger Pilon, both of Cato.

I have wondered, however, whether libertarians ought to reconsider their opposition to reimportation. Recall that the libertarian position paints the FDA as a significant obstacle to drug research.

I suspect that allowing drug reimportation would, in the long-run, break down the authority of the FDA. Once Americans are looking to abroad for medicines, the flood gates will be opened. They will want to buy medicines from Mexico, Europe, and indeed from all over the world. These medicines, of course, will not have met with FDA approval. It is not a matter of pure logic that legal reimportation would lead to this broader class of imported drugs, but I think it is what the political equilibrium would look like. Illegal drug importation is already on the rise; legal reimportation would legitimize and publicize the overall idea of getting drugs from other countries.

So, if we allow reimportation, the FDA will either have to become much stronger, and more intrusive (in conjunction with other governmental agencies, such as customs perhaps), or the FDA will cede much of its effective power, while likely keeping its nominal powers. But in the long run it is hard to see how to enforce restrictions on drug importation, especially once reimportation is legal. Drugs don’t take up much space, and the exact nature of their content is not easily tested. You can have a customs dog sniff for pot, but that same dog cannot tell whether a drug is of pure quality of adulterated, or is something else altogether. If libertarian think that the FDA does more harm than good, perhaps they should welcome reimportation as moving us toward a greater reliance on markets.

I don’t make macroeconomic predictions myself

Ray Fair is a prominent macroeconomic forecaster. He tells us:

Real Growth and the Unemployment Rate: The predicted growth rates for the next four quarters are 4.1, 3.6, 3.5, and 3.4 percent, respectively. The unemployment rate is predicted to fall to 5.6 percent by the middle of 2004.

Inflation: Inflation as measured by the growth of the GDP deflator (GDPD) is predicted to rise to 2.5 percent by the middle of 2004.

Here is the whole memo. The link is from Here is Paul Krugman telling us not to be too happy about today’s announced quarterly 7.2 growth rate, Brad Delong adds to Krugman’s concerns. Andrew Sullivan gets his digs in on Krugman.

Here is a thoughtful defense of macroeconomic forecasting. Here is a more critical view of forecasting, closer to my own view.

My take: You can squabble about the numbers all you want, at this point the Bush people have to be pretty happy.

What do Scandinavians export?

It is commonly known that Sweden and Norway stand among the top five nations for foreign aid per capita.

It is less commonly known that, in per capita terms, they are among the top five arms exporters in the world.  Here is the whole list, along with a color-coded map.

And who is number one on the list?  Macedonia.  The U.S. is number ten, France number seven.

From, a valuable data source, growing by the day.

Do you want to know cinema attendance per capita?  The U.S. is number two, just behind Iceland.  Georgia is number six, and Lebanon is number ten.

More on remittances

1. Almost one Mexican in five receives remittances from relatives working in the United States.

2. These payments help feed, house, and educate at least a quarter of the 100 million people in Mexico.

3. The total sent amounts to about $14.5 billion for this year.

4. Some 450,000 Mexicans entered the United States illegally last year.

The New York Times notes:

Most of the money is spent on food, clothing and housing. But Mr. Suro said a growing portion was invested in small business or helped to pay for high school and college educations.

Across much of central Mexico, where men and women have migrated to the United States for so many decades that crossing the border has become more a rite of passage than an escape from poverty, remittances exceed state public works budgets and pay to build roads, schools, water systems and baseball stadiums.

In recent years the United States and Mexico carried out reforms aimed at making it easier and more affordable for migrants to transfer money home. Companies like Western Union cut the fees they charged for wire transfers, halving the cost of transferring money, and American banks have begun allowing illegal immigrants to open accounts so relatives at home can withdraw funds from automatic teller machines.

Bravo, I say. I have spent a good deal of time in rural Mexico and I can attest that these funds make an enormous difference in the lives of millions. By the way, Daniel Drezner offers insightful commentary on my earlier post on remittances.

Technology and the environment

How many persistent toxins, such as PCBs, would be in the environment a century hence if Bush were president vs. Gore? He didn’t like my answer–that on that question, the election results made no difference. The time scales are off. Technological innovation, not environmental regulation, will determine the state of the earth in 100 years.

This is Virginia Postrel, here is her complete blog post. And I couldn’t agree more.

Tuned-in tots

According to the 1,065 parents surveyed for the national study “Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers,” a quarter of children under 2 have televisions in their bedrooms. Two-thirds of kids under 2 use some kind of screen media (computer, DVD, television) on a typical day, for an average of about two hours a day. And for children under the age of 6, the average of two hours a day spent with screen media is more than three times the amount of time they spend reading or being read to.

For the full story, click here.

And here is a whack at Teletubbies:

“When children watch television, they are being marketed to,” he said. ” ‘Teletubbies’ was targeted to 1-year-old children, when the purpose was to market those toys and it was effective. They sold a lot of toys. . . . We are making children consumers at age 1. I don’t know what’s educational about it. They are walking around going ‘ooh-ooh, ugh-ugh,’ and they talk like babies.”

My take: I am from an older generation (41!), and I love books far more than electronic media. So part of me is sad to read this. More realistically, I realize that the next generation will need significant computer skills, and that such skills will bring great benefits to the world. So I don’t see the harm in this, provided that electronic media become a complement to time spent with grown-ups, not a substitute for such time.

How to advertise money

Earlier this month the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing brought out a new $20 bill. Curiously, the debut of this redesigned piece of currency was accompanied by a marketing campaign–at a reported cost of $32 million. That’s a decent budget and includes events, print ads, some Web goodies, and even TV spots…The ads have been in heavy rotation, and they raise an obvious question: Why bother to advertise money itself?

Here is a description of one commercial:

In one spot, a guy with glasses gets some dough from an ATM, but the upbeat, swingy background music hints that this no ordinary withdrawal. And indeed, the machine spits out a stack of new $20 bills. He pauses and holds one up to study it closely (always a good idea to raise a twenty in the air and lose yourself in thought on a city sidewalk). An announcer says, “You can see right away that things are different.” A smile of satisfaction creeps over the guy’s face. “We’ve added color,” the announcer says, “and changed the portrait.” We follow Mr. Glasses as he buys some flowers, paying with a new $20 bill that seems to vaguely impress the vendor. The announcer mentions improved “security features” and assures us that the new twenty, like the old one, is worth 20 bucks. He then concludes with the new money’s tag line: “Safer, smarter, more secure.”

My take: We need to advertise the money to limit counterfeiting, and to maintain the status of the U.S. dollar in black markets and abroad. We need to tell the world that the $20 bill has changed.

Here is the full story, which includes a video link to one of the commercials. Thanks to Eugene Volokh for the pointer. By the way, I’ve yet to receive one of these bills.