Posts tagged ‘EU’

Why Europe Won't Let Banks Fail

Dan Mitchell describes three possible government responses to an impending bank failure:

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

I would argue that in fact Cyprus has gone off the board and chosen a fourth option:  In addition to bailing out shareholder and bondholders with taxpayer money, it will protect them  by giving depositors a haircut as well.

The Cyprus solution is so disturbing because, hearkening back to Obama's auto bailout, it completely upends seniority and distribution of risk on a company balance sheet.  Whereas depositors should be the most senior creditors and equity holders the least (so that equity holders take the first loss and depositors take the last), Cyprus has completely reversed this.

One reason that should never be discounted for such behavior is cronyism.  In the US auto industry, for example, Steven Rattner and President Obama engineered a screwing of secured creditors in favor of the UAW, which directly supported Obama's election. In Cyprus, I have no doubt that the large banks have deep tendrils into the ruling government.

But it is doubtful that the Cyprus banks have strong influence over, say, Germany, and that is where the bailout and its terms originate.  So why is Germany bailing out Cyprus bank owners?  Well, there are two reasons, at least.

First, they are worried about a chain reaction that might hurt Germany's banks, which most definitely do have influence over German and EU policy.  There is cronyism here, but perhaps once removed.

But even if you were to entirely remove cronyism, Germany and the EU have a second problem:  They absolutely rely on the banks to consume their new government debt and continue to finance their deficit spending.  Far more than in the US, the EU countries rely on their major banks continuing to leverage up their balance sheets to buy more government debt.  The implicit deal here is:  You banks expand your balance sheets and buy our debt, and we will shelter you and prevent external shocks from toppling you in your increasingly precarious, over-leveraged position.

Update:  Apparently, there is very little equity and bondholder debt on the balance sheets -- its depositor money or nothing.  My thoughts:  First, the equity and bondholders better be wiped out.  If not, this is a travesty.  Two, the bank management should be gone -- it is as bad or worse to bail out to protect salaried manager jobs as to protect equity holders.  And three, if depositor losses have to be taken, its insane to take insured depositor money ahead of or even in parallel with uninsured deposits.

Kill the Messenger

Breaking news via Zero Hedge

EU LAWMAKERS APPROVE AMENDMENT TO END USE OF CREDIT RATINGS

It is always amazing to me that so many people view the government as a reasonable fix for perceived failures in private accountability systems.  Government officials are the worst about avoiding accountability.

Update:  The point that Basel II/III has big discrete jumps in capital requirements for small shifts in bond ratings is a reasonable observations.  Smoothing this out makes sense, but there is more than this that needs to be fixed in the Basel requirements (particularly the now largely dated idea that any assets are "risk-free"), which played a huge but largely unsung role in inflating the demand in the last decade for AAA rated mortgage bonds.

Thinking About Greece

Mike Rizzo writes:

A typical sovereign government can secure funds from three “legitimate” places.*What are these sources?

  1. Taxes today.
  2. Taxes tomorrow. In other words we can borrow money today in order to build our bridge and then use future tax revenues to pay for the debt tomorrow. By the way, if the government is in the business of actually producing valuable “public goods” then you can easily think of this as value enhancing.
  3. Printing money. It’s not generally done this way, but in effect the monetary authorities can monetize the borrowing of a sovereign entity (how they do it is beyond the scope of this post). For simplicity, imagine instead that a central bank prints new bank notes from scratch, hands them to the Treasury, and then the Treasury spends them on goods and services. This is just another form of a tax, again beyond the scope of this post.

So, this is what the government budget identity looks like for “normal” countries:

G = T + the change in debt + the change in base money

I think this is a useful simplification, but I wanted to add a couple other refinements  (refinements by the way he did not neglect in his text, just did not put in the formula).  One other source of funds we have seen in Greece is what I would call Aid, which used to be humanitarian aid (think India in the 1970s) but today tends to be bailout money and debt forgiveness.  So we will write the equation

G = Taxes + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

But due to the Keynesian orientation of many commenters on the Greek and European situation, it becomes useful to expand the "taxes" term into some sort of base income, which I will just call GDP for simplicity, and some sort of tax rate t.  So then we get:

G = GDP x t + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

The Greeks can't print money (unless the EU does it for them) and at the moment no one in their right mind will lend to them without guarantees from stronger European countries (e.g. Germany).  If we call EU money printing for Greece or EU loan guarantee programs Aid, we get

G = GDP x t + Aid

As Rizzo noted, aid is drying up and Greek tax revenues are going down rather than up, so basically they are screwed.  The only out seems to be for Greece to exit the Euro and then, once on the drachma again, print money like crazy and inflate their way out of the debt.

But expanding the tax term reveals one more policy alternative that is being suggested.   Keynesians seem to believe there is a path out of this situation in Greece (or if Greece is too far gone, certainly in Italy and Spain) where money from some source  (aid, borrowing, whatever) is spent in the economy by the government in some way that is stimulative, thus increasing GDP and therefore taxes and allowing Greece to increase the money available to the government.  Since Aid is currently only be granted tied to "austerity" programs rather than stimulative spending, they feel Germany et al are following exactly the wrong course.

I am incredibly skeptical of this for two reasons, beyond just my general skepticism of Keynesian stimulus.  First, I have heard something akin to this in my personal experience.  For a short time in my life, during the Internet crazy period, I was brought in by some investors to look at their portfolio of languishing Internet plays (e.g. discountshoelaces.com)* and decide if they should keep pouring money in or shut down.  The plan I got from management was always - always - this stimulus approach.  They suggested that rather than cut back, the investors should give them a bunch of new money to really blow out the marketing effort, which would kick start their growth, etc. etc.

The problem was that they never, ever had a lick of evidence beyond just hope that the next $1 million would suddenly do what the last $10 million failed to do.  So we shut most of these efforts down.  Your first loss is your best loss, as they say.

Similarly, I don't think Keynesians can point to any example in history where this actually worked.   A country is drowning in debt, but suddenly a Hail Mary play of adding a huge chunk more to the debt and spending it on civil service worker salaries suddenly turned the tide.  Seriously, do people honestly think this will work?  Or are they just frustrated because they grew up with an assumption that there is always a public policy answer for everything and there just does not seem to be one here.

I have an emerging hypothesis, not backed by any evidence at this point, that the value of the Keynesian multiplier shifts as debt to total GDP increases.  I am not sure in actual practice it is ever above one, but if it were to be above 1 at 20% debt to GDP, it certainly is not going to be the same at, say, 150%.

The Bankrupt as Victims

One of the amazing aspects of our new post-modern outlook on personal responsibility and obligations is that folks who are profligate and take on too much debt are increasingly considered victims to which other people owe something (generally a bailout).

We see this no only among US mortgage holders but in Greece as well

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos told lawmakers to back a deeply unpopular EU/IMF rescue in a vote on Sunday or condemn the country to a "vortex" of recession.

He spoke in a televised address to the nation, ahead of Sunday's vote on 3.3 billion euros ($4.35 billions) in wage, pension and job cuts as the price of a 130-billion-euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The effort to ease Greece's huge debt burden has brought thousands into the streets in protest, and there were signs on Saturday of a small rebellion among lawmakers uneasy with the extent of the cuts.

So outsiders generously agree to pay for 130 billion Euros of past Greek spending if only the Greeks will cut their current spending by 3.3 billion Euros (at which spending level the country would still be running large deficits).  And people riot as if they have been gang-raped.  Incredible.

Let the Greeks go.  Of course, this is not actually about bailing out Greece, but about bailing out, indirectly, European banks that invested in Greek bonds.  The banks seem to run public policy in Europe, even more so than in the US.

Also From the "This Time We Really, Really Mean It" Files

Apparently European leaders are close to an agreement that countries cannot run budget deficits higher than 3% of GDP.  If you are left to wonder, "hey, didn't they already have that rule before" the answer is yes.  Everyone had to promise a really, really stern oath not to run higher deficits before joining in the Euro group.

Of course, these promises meant nothing as there was no penalty for breaking the promise, and so the EU is proposing a new enforcement mechanism

Governments whose debts exceeded three percent of their GDP would be cited by the European Court of Justice, after which a super-majority of 85 percent of European governments would have to agree to impose some sort of sanction against the offending country.

I am not clear if the 85% is of the whole EU  (which would require a vote of 23 of the 27 members) or of just the Euro zone (which would require 15 of the 17 countries that use the Euro as currency).  Either way, I disagree with Drum and can't see how there is any hope at all here.  I am left with a number of questions

  • What is the likelihood that European countries will adopt this Constitutional provision and precedent for reduced sovereignty?  Don't treaty changes have to be unanimous?
  • Even if ratified, does anyone imagine the penalties will be high?  Imagine Greece today if such penalties exist.  How much are they going to worry about fines when they are already bankrupt?  And what will be the optics of the EU adding new costs to countries that are in financial crisis?  If a country in the future is doing things to endanger the euro from too much debt, the last thing the EU is going to be able to do is add to that country's burdens -- in fact, it is doing the opposite now, sending huge checks to all these countries
  • How are they every going to get the votes when this comes up?  Again, think about today.  Would Italy, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, etc. vote to sanction Greece, when they know they are next?

I just can't see this going anywhere.  And I would be surprised if the folks involved do either.  My guess is that they hope this will settle the bond markets so they can kick the can down the road.  Sure, we will have to deal with this all over again the first, inevitable time a country breaches the 3%, but that is later and right now they will accept a few years, even a few months, of survival.

Mad Cow Madness

Apparently, it is becoming increasingly impossible to produce traditional gut strings for musical instruments, due to EU regulations designed to prevent mad cow disease in humans.  Apparently, if one were to eat a few yards of a few meters of violin strings that were made from an animal with BSE (which are routinely destroyed when found rather than used for any products), he or she might get sick.

Speaking of Government Science...

Thank God for the Left and their scientific approach to government decision making

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration...

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

For three years a group of government employees actually got paid to come to the conclusion that drinking water does not prevent dehydration.  Congrats.

If you want an explanation, my guess is that this is part of the Left's war on bottled water.  For some bizarre reason, bottled water has been singled out as one of the evils of modern technology that will drive us into a carbon dioxide-induced climate disaster.  So I don't think the EU would have approved any label claim for water.  Since this is such an absurdly obvious claim that most consumers would just chuckle at (yes, consumers can be trusted to parse product claims), I almost wonder if some water company didn't just float this to make the point that no claim could be approved in the EU system.

Thoughts on the Greek Bailout / Debt Writedown

I am not at all a financial or Wall Street guy, but I had a few thoughts

  • I am amazed at the equity rally over this.   Writing down one country's debt, without fixing its underlying financial problem or dealing with all the other countries who have problems, seems a small win.  Particularly when this one country stretched European resources to the breaking point, and there are a lot of other lined up just behind Greece.
  • Its interesting to see how much everyone bent over backwards not to trigger payouts from credit default swaps (CDS).  If this is the wave of the future, I would be shorting sovereign debt at the same time I was writing CDS contracts on sovereign debt.    Maybe this is exactly why I am not a trader, but it strikes me that if you had an arsonist around burning down houses, while at the same time the government worked hard to let fire insurance companies avoid paying off on the fire damage, wouldn't you be shorting houses and long on fire insurance companies?
  • How smart does the UK feel right now for staying out of the common currency?  The anti-EU folks in the UK should be calling for that referendum on EU participation right now.   It would likely fail by a landslide.
  • The question that keeps nagging at me -- is it really worth as much as a trillion euros to keep Greece in the Euro?  Why?
Update:  Oh, and I left out the obvious take:  moral hazard
When sharing our kneejerk reaction to yesterday's latest European resolution, we pointed out the obvious: "Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy will promptly commence sabotaging their economies (just like Greece) simply to get the same debt Blue Light special as Greece." Sure enough, 6 hours later Bloomberg is out with the appropriately titled: "Irish Spy Reward Opportunity in Greece’s Debt Hole." Bloomberg notes that Ireland has not even waited for the ink to be dry before sending out feelers on just what the possible "rewards" may be: "Greece’s failure to cut spending and boost revenue by enough to meet targets set by the European Union and International Monetary Fund prompted bondholders to accept a 50 percent loss on its debt. While Ireland won’t seek debt discounts, the government might pursue other relief given to Greece, including cheaper interest payments on aid and longer to repay it, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be identified as no final decision has been taken."

How Governments Solve Problems

This is hilarious, all the more so because the actors involved have absolutely no self-awareness of just how bad this looks

This week alone has seen a ratings downgrade for Spain as well as a threat by agencies to review France's AAA status -- and the markets have taken notice. Once again, it would seem, ratings agencies are making things difficult for European countries.

Now, the European Union is considering doing something about it.

European Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier is considering a move to ban the agencies from publishing outlook reports on EU countries entangled in a crisis, according to a report in Thursday's issue of the Financial Times Deutschlandnewspaper

This is not even a content neutral ban on speech - it obviously will only be applied to bad reports, not positive ones.  No wonder Obama has always been so admiring of the Europeans.

These Are The Folks Who Are Wrapping Themselves in the Mantle of "Science"

Oops.  Accounting error seriously overestimates benefits of biofuels.  

The European Union is overestimating the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through reliance on biofuels as a result of a “serious accounting error,” according to a draft opinion by an influential committee of 19 scientists and academics.

The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee writes that the role of energy from crops like biofuels in curbing warming gases should be measured by how much additional carbon dioxide such crops absorb beyond what would have been absorbed anyway by existing fields, forests and grasslands.

Instead, the European Union has been “double counting” some of the savings, according to the draft opinion, which was prepared by the committee in May and viewed this week by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

The committee said that the error had crept into European Union regulations because of a “misapplication of the original guidance” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense since it assumes that all burning of biomass does not add carbon to the air,” the committee wrote.

Duh.  This has been a known fact to about everyone else, as most independent studies not done by a corn-state university have found ethanol to have, at best, zero utility in reducing atmospheric CO2.

It is worth noting that the EU would likely have never made this admission had it solely been under the pressure of skeptics, for whom this is just one of a long list of fairly obvious errors in climate-related science.  But several years ago, environmental groups jumped on the skeptic bandwagon opposing ethanol, both for its lack of efficacy in reducing emissions as well as the impact of increasing ethanol product on land use and food prices.

The Seen and Unseen: Passenger Rail Edition

We have all heard environmentalists and other American intellectual snobs lamenting that we just are not as smart as Europeans because we have so much less passenger rail.  But because freight and high-speed passenger rail service does not coexist well on the same tracks, urging more passenger rail on the US rail net is effectively asking for more freight to be dumped onto the highways.

Megan McArdle writes:

Moving freight by rail rather than by truck is an enormous carbon saving; one locomotive can haul as much as hundreds of trucks.  It also reduces highway congestion.  Unfortunately, it's hard for passengers and freight to share tracks.  In part, it's difficult simply because it's expensive to upgrade track to handle passenger speeds, but also because freight moves much more slowly, and on an irregular schedule.
I might well argue that if we were simply trying to maximize environmental benefit, we'd ignore passenger rail, and focus on upgrading our freight systems, which sorely need it.  Moreover, these upgrades could largely be made without the massive procedural obstacles that block new high speed rail lines.

But freight rail is not sexy.  It does not excite donors, and it does not excite most of the voters who are motivated by high speed rail.  Politicians win votes by delivering (or at least promising) highly visible improvements; not by silently enhancing the movement of goods from port to Wal-Mart.

I am not sure politicians really have to do anything other stay out of the way (we already have among the cheapest rail rates in the world, 1/2 of China's and 1/8 of Germany's).  The numbers on freight movement are pretty dramatic:

See the percentage of goods moved by freight, which is dramatically higher for the US.  The end result is we have a LOT less freight on our roads than the EU or Japan, and might have even less if US maritime laws had not done so much to kill coastal shipping.
This is the great unseen in all these "sophisticated" conversations about Europe.  These Euro-philes are so much smarter than the rest of us that they manage to ignore the most important part of the equation  (largely because it is unseen and not sexy).  In fact, the US has the best rail system in the world, and in fact the governments of Europe and Japan have likely sub-optimized their rail systems by forcing their focus towards passengers rather than freight.
I will leave the last word to the Anti-Planner:

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.

"Rights": I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I wish I had the book in front of me, but in one of the collections of Ayn Rand's essays (either the Virtue of Selfishness or Capitalism:  The Unknown Ideal) she quoted a bit of the 1968 Democratic Party platform, which called for all kinds of fake rights, the most hilarious being the right to vacation or leisure.

Well it turns out that absurd corruptions of the concept of individual liberty are never unthinkable, just ahead of their time:

Brussels has declared that tourism is a human right and pensioners, youths and those too poor to afford it should have their travel subsidised by the taxpayer

"Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life," [European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry Antonio Tajani], said

Tajani's programme will be piloted until 2013 and then put into full operation it is expected the EU will subsidise about 30% of the cost.

Government Picking Losers

I am done using the phrase "dangers of government trying to pick winners" because it implies that they sometimes might be successful.  They never are.  When governments choose, they choose losers.

I get a lot of pushback on this, because it seems to offend people's intuition.  They will say they know lots of good people they trust in government -- there is no way that all these smart, well-intentioned people are going to be so consistently wrong.

But the argument against government in this case (and in most other cases) is not based on the IQ or goodness of the individuals that populate it.  The argument is that even good people in groups make terrible decisions due to problems with their information and incentives.

The information problem is one that Hayek is famous for addressing.  In short, there is simply too much to know to make decisions for the entire economy.  In fact, folks with high IQ's often do especially poorly in this context, because they tend to overestimate their own knowledge and problem-solving ability.   And, even if one could be omniscient, it is still impossible to pick winners because 300 million people have different preferences and so one solution based on one set of idealized or mean preferences is going to sub-optimize for a lot of people  (remember this now that we all have to have health insurance plans on the exact same terms and coverage).

The incentives issue is perhaps an even more powerful problem.  We only have to look at the most recent health care bill and its progress through the legislative process to understand the power of incentives to shape rules and legislation in absurd ways.

Ethanol is a great illustration.  Scorned by scientists as both bad energy policy and bad environmental policy, ethanol mandates and subsidies do nothing but hurt the environment.  Ethanol generally takes more fossil fuels to produce than it replaces, it does almost nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and it creates new environmental issues with land use as well as social issues from rising food prices.  If you listed a hundred potential legislative initiatives to improve the environment and energy policy, ethanol would likely be in the bottom 10.  But never-the-less, it is consistently the number 1 legislative solution adopted by western democracies, including the supposedly science-based Obama administration.

I used to say that if we could move the first Presidential primary out of Iowa, ethanol might go away, but obviously that understated the appeal of subsidizing the agricultural industry under the thin veneer of environmental policy, as demonstrated by these nutty large subsidies in Europe.  Via Carpe Diem:

Biofuels production in Europe is heavily subsidized. Support has also been increasing in the past years and today stand at approximately EUR4 billion ($5.76B). Another way to look at subsidies is that every litre of ethanol consumed in Europe gets 0.74 EUR (about $4 per gallon) and every litre of biodiesel 0.5 EUR ($2.72 per gallon). The effective rate of assistance to biofuels (taking account of all measures of support) adds up to more than 250% for ethanol (see chart above). Biodiesel, and especially rapeseed crops, have lower effective rates of assistance (up to approximately 60%).

This structure of support and protection is not economically sustainable. It is rather close to economic madness to pursue the sort of self-sufficiency or industrial policy ambitions that have guided EU policy towards biofuels. The total cost of every unit of biofuel becomes far too high, which slows down the readiness to shift away from fossil fuels.

The biofuels policy in the European Union is a classic example of "green protectionism" "“ protectionism that is not motivated for the benefit of the environment, but which uses environmental concerns to pursue non-environmental objectives. The European Union runs an extensive policy for subsidies to biofuel production. Border protection increases the level of subsidy by giving a market support from consumers to producers. Standards are used to favour domestically produced biofuels. It is difficult to escape the picture of a policy driven by industrial ambitions rather than environmental concerns. The intention and/or the effect of Europe's policy is associated with beliefs of self-sufficiency. Obviously, trade is not considered to be an integral part of an environmental ambition to shift from fossil fuels to biofuels.

I Wondered Why They Weren't Pounding the US

Usually an article like this would blame the US:

Global carbon dioxide emissions in 2008 rose 1.94 percent year-on-year to 31.5 billion tonnes, German renewable energy industry institute IWR said on Monday, based on official information and its own research.

Several other leftish / alarmist sites picked up the story, but still didn't hammer the US, saying only that the US is the largest contributor to total emissions but not whether it contributed significantly to last year's rise.  It turns out there is a reason for this.  US emissions were actually way down, falling far faster than the drop in economic growth:  (from the EIA)

slide01

The story tries to put a positive spin on Europe  (again, the preferred story line is always Europe-good-America-bad):

Carbon dioxide emissions from heavy industry participating in the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme fell 3.1 percent last year compared with 2007, the EU's executive Commission said in mid-May

This is a carefully worded cherry-picking on one sector of the economy.  I would be willing to bet almost any amount of money that the rest of Europe's economy saw less of a drop or even an increase.  Even so, the cherry-picked sector, the one subject to cap-and-trade, still underperformed the US.  Overall, US emissions have fallen since 2000 without any real regulatory program and just the normal incentives of economic efficiency at work.

The US is NOT the problem when it comes to future emissions growth.

Canada to Join EU Free Trade Zone?

If so, great for them.  The more free trade in the world, the better:

Canadian and European officials say they plan to begin
negotiating a massive agreement to integrate Canada's economy with the
27 nations of the European Union, with preliminary talks to be launched
at an Oct. 17 summit in Montreal three days after the federal election.

Trade Minister Michael Fortier and his staff have been engaged for
the past two months with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and the
representatives of European governments in an effort to begin what a
senior EU official involved in the talks described in an interview
yesterday as "deep economic integration negotiations."

If successful, Canada would be the first developed nation to have
open trade relations with the EU, which has completely open borders
between its members but imposes steep trade and investment barriers on
outsiders"¦

A pact with the United States would be politically impossible in Europe, senior European Commission officials said.

I would have said that changing the last statement would be a great goal for an Obama administration that wants to make Europe love us again (did they ever?)  But he has made clear that trade does not count in his definition of good relations, and in fact has already committed to initiating trade wars against our neighbors Mexico and Canada.

When Energy Cutbacks are Frightening

Via TJIC:

Harvard plans to sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in the
next eight years, Drew Faust, the university president, said.

The initial, short-term goal for the university will be to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from a 2006 baseline by
2016, Faust said yesterday in a statement.

In the winter of 1990, my Harvard-owned apartment had its heating fail.  I called the administration for weeks before anyone would show up to look at it.  By this time, I actually had ice on the inside of my window panes.  Walking into my freezing apartment, a maintenance guy placed a thermometer in the center of my room, and then just stood there staring at it for 5 minutes.  At this point he had not asked me about my problem, nor looked at anything remotely connected with the heating system.

He suddenly sprung into action, looked at the thermometer, and started to walk out of the room.  "Wait," I said.  "What is wrong?  Do you know how to fix it?"  The Harvard maintenance guy says "Your room is only 53 degrees -- by state law we don't have to do anything unless it is below 50.*"  And then he walked out, with me screaming at his back.  Only when I sent a letter to the University, copied to the fire marshal, explaining that all was well because I found the room stayed pretty warm if I kept the oven on "broil" 24 hours a day and left the oven door open all the time, did I get any action to fix my heating.

It is scary to think that a university so reluctant to spend any money on heating rooms even 20 years go now wants to reduce its energy use by 30%. 

Of course, we all know how these things work:  creative accounting.  The Enron guys were saints compared to the accounting games played in the carbon accounting and offset world.  Harvard will probably say that "Well, we were planning to build a massive coal-powered electricity plant right in the middle of Harvard Yard, and by cancelling the project, we have reduced our emissions 30% over what they would have been and therefore made our goal.  Don't laugh - the UN and EU are doing EXACTLY this every day.

* Note that I cannot remember the exact legal standard quoted to me, but I think it was 50.

Unfortunately, the EU Is What Many US Politicians Long to Emulate

From the Times, via Daniel Mitchell at Cato:

An award-winning winemaker whose wares are sold at the royal palaces is
facing a £30,000 bill after European bureaucrats ruled that he was
using the wrong-shaped bottles. Jerry Schooler, who sells 400,000
bottles of fruit wines and mead a year, has been threatened with
prosecution over his determination to use traditional measurements. The
proprietor of the Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex, has been told to
halt the sale of beverages such as mead, silver birch wine and bramble
liqueur in 75cl and 37.5cl bottles. If he continues to sell them, he
could be taken to court under a new EU directive that permits the sale
of such products in 70cl, 50cl or 35cl measures only. "¦Mr Schooler now
faces costs of about £30,000 to change his production line. "We are
going to have to change all our bottling, the labels, machinery, boxes
and maybe the corks as well and it is going to cost me thousands to do
it," he said. "¦West Sussex County Council's trading standards
department said that the winery was bound by EU Directive 2007/45/EC,
which was drawn up in September to "lay down rules on nominal
quantities for prepacked products". It said the directive meant that
the use of 37.5cl bottles for liqueurs was illegal.

Don't miss his other story of passengers having to hop off buses every 30 miles to satisfy EU regulations.  The latter regulation is actually one that is remarkably similar to railroad regulation in the US, where a crew day was defined as something like 100 miles.  Modern freight railroads were having to change crews every two hours - I don't know if that one is still on the books.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

For years, protectionists in this country have tried to argue that "oh, I am really for free trade, but to be fair we must impose environmental and labor standards on our trading partners."  Well, now Europe is proposing doing exactly the same to us:

The European Commission is considering proposing a
carbon dioxide tariff on imports from states failing to tackle
greenhouse gas emissions, while also considering a toughening-up of the
EU's own emission trading system....


The plan reflects pressure by French president Nicolas Sarkozy who
argued in October that Europe should "examine the option of taxing
products imported from countries that do not respect the Kyoto
Protocol," referring to the 1997 international agreement on fighting
climate change.

Mr Sarkozy urged Brussels to discuss the implications of "unfair
competition" by firms outside the EU, which do not have to abide by
strict European standards on CO2 emissions.

This letter from Don Boudreaux seems relevant:

Hillary Clinton needs a
language lesson.  She favors only trade that is found by government to
"benefit[] our workers and our economy" and that promotes "rising
standards of living across the world" ("Full Transcript: Hillary Clinton Interview," December 3; my emphasis).  She then asserts that "There is nothing
protectionist about this."

Oh please.

Protectionism
exists whenever, wherever, and whyever government artificially raises
its citizens' costs of buying imports.  Protectionism has forever
rested on the false notion that government officials know best how
consumers should spend their money.  And it attempts today to hide its
ugly face behind the smiling mask of allegedly noble intentions, such
as those mouthed by Sen. Clinton.

The title of his post is "The Moment Somone Must Explain that He or She Isn't a Protectionist, You Can Bank on that Person Being a Protectionist."

 

More Anti-Consumer Regulation

We seem to be getting these stories in batches lately (others here and here) but leave it to the EU to trump even San Francisco in anti-consumer stupidity:

Microsoft lost its appeal of a European antitrust order Monday
that obliges the technology giant to share communications code with
rivals, sell a copy of Windows without Media Player and pay a $613
million fine - the largest ever by EU regulators.

The EU
Court of First Instance ruled against Microsoft on both parts of the
case, saying the European Commission was correct in concluding that
Microsoft was guilty of monopoly abuse in trying to use its power over
desktop computers to muscle into server software.

It also said regulators had clearly demonstrated that selling media software with Windows had damaged rivals.

"The
court observes that it is beyond dispute that in consequence of the
tying consumers are unable to acquire the Windows operating system
without simultaneously acquiring Windows Media Player," it said.

"In
that regard, the court considers that neither the fact that Microsoft
does not charge a separate price for Windows Media Player nor the fact
that consumers are not obliged to use that Media Player is irrelevant."

Yes, you are reading it correctly.  Microsoft is being penalized for giving the consumer too much value by bundling in additional features and programs for free into its OS.  And just to make sure that you understand that this has nothing to do with the consumer, but is purely a complaint of large competitors that can't keep up, they make it clear that they want the bundling stopped even if it does not change the price of the OS one penny (pfennig or whatever the Euro equivalent is).  They want the product stripped down and are deliberately trying to reduce its value to customers.

Gwynnie at Maggie's Farm has a funny comment, saying, "Microsoft is guilty of succeeding while American."

Is Belgium Collapsing?

The amount I know about Belgium could probably be written on a post card (except for its role in military history, which is substantial due to its location and its famously brave stand against Germany in the opening act of WWI).  So this article about the tremendous split developing between French (Wallonia) and Flemish (Flanders) Belgium was new to me.  In particular, I noted this:

Every year 6.6% of Flanders' GDP is spent on welfare in Wallonia.
The money has not helped the Walloons but turned them into welfare
addicts. Belgium is a case study of how socialist redistribution
schemes lead to economic perversions.

It appears that 60% of Wallonians are either unemployed or on the government payroll (roughly the same thing in Europe), vs. just 28% in Flanders.  And this despite the fact that Brussels and the EU HQ are in Flanders.

Thanks for the Help, MSM

Well, thanks a hell of a lot, mainstream media, for doing such a good job of delivering the facts.   QandO, in discussing the issues behind my earlier post on testing for mad-cow disease (BSE) helpfully includes this link to the EU's BSE testing site (the home of the testing program supposedly so much more enlightened than ours):

No method will detect BSE early in the infection. BSE has an average incubation period of 4-6 years. Therefore the EU testing programmes are targeted at animals over 30 months. The PrPres has not been detected in bovine brain or other nervous tissue very early in the disease and infectivity has not been shown either. In experimental infection where very high doses were administered, infectivity has been found in the ileum, part of the intestine. This has not been detected in natural infections.

Robert Fulton, via QandO, supplies the one other missing fact:  Most US cows are slaughtered as two-year-olds.  So they can't have BSE, because you can't have a five-year incubation disease in a 2-year-old animal.  And further, even if the animal has latent BSE infection, which has never been shown to harm humans, it can't be detected by current technology!  Even those superior Euros only test at 30 months.  This is an issue for aging dairy cows sent to slaughter, not for most of the US beef supply.

Well, those facts certainly would have been good to know, though in reading at least 20 mad cow articles in the MSM over the years, I have never seen it mentioned.  And it certainly hasn't been mentioned in the current testing brouhaha. 

I stand by my statement that private companies should be allowed to compete on full testing if they wish.  Hell, most of the stuff that is labeled "organic" and sells at a premium price is probably no safer than normal stuff, but companies are welcome to try to profit from the public's perceived need for organic stuff.

Assuming this is the reason behind the administration's decision to test only 1%, for which they have been chastised for years, it is yet another example of Bush's ham-handedness on communication.  Why not change the policy from "1% of all steers" to "100% of all beef from cattle over 36 months old." The latter would not represent much more testing, but would sure calm people a lot more than the other statement.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

The EU has an odd definition of the term "free trade."  Apparently, low taxes, in the EU's world, are irreconcilable with free trade.

In a move that is both remarkable and disturbing, the European
Commission plans to file a complaint - and threaten protectionist trade
barriers - because attractive Swiss tax policies are supposedly a
violation of a free-trade accord. The bureaucrats in Brussels are not
arguing that Switzerland is imposing barriers against EU products.
Instead, the Commission actually is taking the position that low taxes
are attracting businesses that might otherwise operate in high-tax
nations. The implications of this radical assertion are
breathtaking. It certainly is true that a nation with more
laissez-faire policy will attract economic activity from neighbors with
more burdensome levels of government. But if this migration of jobs and
investment is a "distortion" or trade, then the only "solution" is
complete and total harmonization of all taxes (and regulations,
spending, etc). If the Euro-crats succeed with this argument at the
European level, it will be just a matter of time before similar cases
are filed at the World Trade Organization.

Its Official: Europe Gives Up on Free Speech

As a strong libertarian, I have all kinds of problems with the government in this country.  However, I always scratch my head when people try to make the case that certain European countries are more free and open than the US.  The facts just don't bear this out.  First, the US at least has a written Constitution that make some attempt to define government's purpose as the protection of individual rights.  Now, our government fails at this all the time, but at least there is something there in writing we can try to hang on to;  European countries have nothing like it.

In particular, Europe has never had the strong tradition of free speech that we have in the US.  Often folks in the US, particularly on the left, confuse Europe's receptiveness to leftish comments by Americans with general openness to free speech.  In fact, just the opposite is true:

People who question the official history of recent
conflicts in Africa and the Balkans could be jailed for up to three
years for "genocide denial", under proposed EU legislation.

Germany,
current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, will table new
legislation to outlaw "racism and xenophobia" this spring.

Included in the draft EU directive are plans to outlaw Holocaust denial, creating an offence that does not exist in British law.

But
the proposals, seen by The Daily Telegraph, go much further and would
criminalise those who question the extent of war crimes that have taken
place in the past 20 years.

For years, I and most free speech advocates in this country have criticized the holocaust-denial laws as the mother of all slippery slopes.  Holocaust deniers should have the same speech rights as any other moonbat out there.  Now, you can see the EU starting to slide down this slope, as more speech is criminalized.  The article goes on:

If agreed by EU member states, the legislation is likely to declare
open season for human rights activists and organisations seeking to
establish a body of genocide denial law in Europe's courts.

Who needs jackbooted government dictators when we have "human rights activists" available to muzzle our speech. 

Counting Coup for CO2

New numbers for US vs. European CO2 growth have been making the rounds, based on a Wall Street Journal article today.  Jonathon Adler at Volokh has the key numbers for CO2 growth rates:

U.S. E.U.
1990-1995 6.4% -2.2%
1995-2000 10.1% 2.2%
2000-2004 2.1% 4.5%

The Wall Street Journal tries to make the point that maybe the US somehow has a better approach to CO2 reduction.  Here is the reality:  Neither the US or the EU has done anything of substance to really reduce CO2 production, because at the end of the day no one can tolerate the political and economic costs associated with severe reduction using current technology.

But there is a story in these numbers.  That story goes back to the crafting of the Kyoto treaty, and  sheds an interesting light on what EU negotiators were really trying to achieve.

The Kyoto Treaty called for signatories to roll back CO2 emissions to 1990 levels.  Since Kyoto was signed in the late nineties, one was immediately led to wonder, why 1990?  Why not just freeze levels in place as they were currently?

The reason for the 1990 date was all about counting coup on the United States.  The date was selected by the European negotiators who dominated the treaty process specifically to minimize the burden on Europe and maximize the burden on the US.  Look at the numbers above.  The negotiators had the 1990-1995 numbers in hand when they crafted the treaty and had a good sense of what the 1995-2000 numbers would look like.  They knew that at that point in time, getting to 1990 levels for the EU was no work -- they were already there -- and that it would be a tremendous burden for the US.  Many holier-than-thou folks in this country have criticized the US for not signing Kyoto.  But look at what we were handed to sign - a document that at the point of signing put no burden on the EU, little burden on Japan, no burden on the developing world, and tremendous burden on the US.  We were handed a loaded gun and asked to shoot ourselves with it.  Long before Bush drew jeers for walking away from the treaty, the Senate voted 99-0 not to touch the thing until it was changed.

But shouldn't the European's get some credit for the 1990-1995 reduction?  Not really.  The reduction came from several fronts unrelated to actions to reduce CO2:

  • The European and Japanese economies were absolutely on their backs, reducing economic growth which drives CO2 growth.  I have not looked up the numbers, but the 1990s are probably the time of the biggest negative differential for the European vs. US economy in my lifetime.
  • The British were phasing out the use of carbon-heavy domestic coals for a variety of reasons unrelated to carbon dioxide production.
  • German reunification had just occurred, so tons of outdated Soviet inefficient and polluting industrial plant had just entered the EU, and was expected to be shut down and modernized for economic reasons over the 1990's.  The negotiators went out of their way to make sure they picked a date when all this mess was in their base number, making it easier to hit their target.
  • The 1990 also puts Russia in the base.  Since 1990, as the negotiators knew, the Russian economy had contracted significantly.
  • At the same time the American economy was going gangbusters, causing great envy among Europeans.

Kyoto was carefully crafted to make America look like the bad guy.  The European's goal was to craft treaty responsibilities that would require no real effort in Europe, with most of the burden carried by the US.  But times change, and the game is catching up with them.

In Case You Thought Anti-Trust Was About Consumers

I could spend all day discussing the follies of anti-trust law.  But one of the memes that still seems to hang on is that anti-trust was designed as a form of consumer protection, with the government protecting consumers from the monopoly power of consolidated enterprises.

I am not enough of a business historian to comment on whether anti-trust has ever been used for consumer protection, but it is clear that it is not any more.  That has been one very expensive lesson we can all learn from the Microsoft anti-trust cases, both in the US and Europe. 

If you remember the US cases, Sun, Netscape, Oracle and other Microsoft competitors, having failed to best Microsoft in the marketplace, went running to the FTC to get them to sit on Microsoft for them.  And they were successful, with a series of high-profile settlements.  Nowhere was there even a hint that these cases were about the consumer -- in fact, the settlement demanded was to remove functionality and free add-on components from the Windows OS, making it less attractive to consumers.

We can see this again in the recent decision by an EU court, which seems very happy to use anti-trust law to step on an American competitor in favor of local companies (my emphasis added).

Microsoft was fined $357 million, on top of the record $613 million
fine it paid in the original order. It also faces new penalties of
$3.82 million a day beginning July 31....

The commission has said that it is concerned about Vista's Internet
search capabilities and method of managing digital rights. Regulators
also are worried about the implications for competitors of a new
technology for saving documents that is similar to the Portable
Document Format developed by Adobe Systems Inc.

Microsoft's chief crime is not doing enough to help competitors compete against them:

The fines announced Wednesday come after the EU told Microsoft to
supply "complete and accurate technical specifications" to developers,
so they could make software for servers that help computers running
Windows, printers and other devices on a network talk to each other. It
accused Microsoft of using its monopoly position with Windows to elbow
into the server software market.

Kroes said Microsoft's earlier efforts had not come even close to a readable manual developers could use.

Again, settlements are taking the form of defeaturing the product consumers get:

Smith said Microsoft had suggested various ways it could offer Vista in
Europe, to address concerns about XPS. One option is to ship Vista
without it, while another is to include ways for PC makers or others to
either remove certain XPS utilities or make them invisible.

And, by the way, this certainly gives one a lot of confidence in the due process the courts in Europe are going to give you as an American:

"In some ways, these fines are only partially about complying with the
... prior case, and half about sending a message to Microsoft that the
European Commission is not going away,"

You get that?  It sounds like a mafioso beating someone up because they didn't show him enough respect.

By the way, I am frustrated with Microsoft and their pricing as well.  Rather than run to the government, though, I have employed this and this and this.