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Archive for August, 2010

The Free Market Mojo site asked me a number of interesting questions about public policy. I’m not sure all of my answers were interesting, but here are some snippets that capture my curmudgeonly outlook.

I think it’s important to divide the topic into two issues, the policies that cause short-run fluctuations and the policies that impact long-run growth. Generally speaking, I try to avoid guessing games about what is happening today and tomorrow (or even yesterday), and instead focus on the policies that will boost the economy’s underlying productive capacity. …the Fed’s easy-money policy was a mistake. If the central bank had behaved appropriately, we presumably would not have suffered a financial crisis and recession. And if we go back in history, we find the Fed’s fingerprints whenever there is an economic meltdown. …I would not want the government to impose a gold standard. Competitive markets should determine the form of money and/or what backs up that money. Perhaps gold would emerge in such a competitive system, but a gold standard should not be imposed. …I don’t trust politicians. They would pass a bill to impose a VAT while simultaneously phasing out the income tax over a five-year period. But inevitably there would be some sort of “emergency” in year three and the income tax would be “temporarily” extended. When the dust settled, temporary would become permanent and we would be a decrepit European-style welfare state. …There are many great economists, but for my line of work, Milton Friedman has to be at the top of the list. He had an incredible ability to explain the benefits of liberty and the costs of statism in a way that reached average people.

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The gilded nobility otherwise known as politicians get lavish compensation packages, particularly when fringe benefits are part of the equation. But that doesn’t include their first class travel to exotic overseas locations. And even that doesn’t count the walking-around money they get – sometimes as much as $300 per day. But they’re supposed to actually spend their “per diem” money, not keep it, and this has gotten some of them in trouble. Here’s an excerpt from a Wall Street Journal report on the issue.
Congressional investigators are questioning a half-dozen lawmakers for possibly misspending government funds meant to pay for overseas travel, according to people familiar with the matter. …Congressional rules say the daily travel funds, called a per diem, must be spent on meals, cabs and other travel expenses. But when lawmakers travel, many of their meals and expenses are picked up by other people, such as foreign government officials or U.S. ambassadors. That can leave lawmakers with leftover money. Lawmakers routinely keep the extra funds or spend it on gifts, shopping or to cover their spouses’ travel expenses, according to dozens of current and former lawmakers. The cash payments vary according to the cost of living and range from about $25 a day in Kabul to more than $250 a day in one part of Japan. Lawmakers also usually request and receive an additional $50 a day. Leftover funds can add up to more than $1,000 a trip for longer visits to expensive regions. …The travel inquiry is the latest in a string of ethics investigations in the House that could hurt Democrats at the polls in November by undermining the party’s message that it has “drained the swamp” of ethics abuses in Washington. The House ethics committee is also pursuing high-profile cases against Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California. Both lawmakers could face public proceedings in coming weeks that would be the congressional equivalent of a trial.

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One of the big problems with statists is that they define compassion incorrectly. They think they are being compassionate when they take other people’s money and give it to somebody that they define as being less fortunate. But genuine compassion occurs when you spend your own money. Another problem is that they define compassion by the number of people getting handouts from the government. A truly compassionate person, however, should strive for a society where the less fortunate are able to climb the economic ladder and no longer are dependent on redistribution programs. So it is definitely bad news that a record number of people – one out of six – now are on the dole in some form or fashion. Part of this growth in dependency is due to the economic downturn, but USA Today also notes that politicians have expanded eligibility and lured more people into dependency.
Government anti-poverty programs that have grown to meet the needs of recession victims now serve a record one in six Americans and are continuing to expand. More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid, the federal-state program aimed principally at the poor, a survey of state data by USA TODAY shows. That’s up at least 17% since the recession began in December 2007. …More than 40 million people get food stamps, an increase of nearly 50% during the economic downturn, according to government data through May. The program has grown steadily for three years. Caseloads have risen as more people become eligible. The economic stimulus law signed by President Obama last year also boosted benefits. …Close to 10 million receive unemployment insurance, nearly four times the number from 2007. Benefits have been extended by Congress eight times beyond the basic 26-week program, enabling the long-term unemployed to get up to 99 weeks of benefits. …As caseloads for all the programs have soared, so have costs. The federal price tag for Medicaid has jumped 36% in two years, to $273 billion. Jobless benefits have soared from $43 billion to $160 billion. The food stamps program has risen 80%, to $70 billion. Welfare is up 24%, to $22 billion. …The steady climb in safety-net program caseloads and costs has come as a result of two factors: The recession has boosted the number who qualify under existing rules. And the White House, Congress and states have expanded eligibility and benefits.

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This story from St. Louis, which my Cato colleague Walter Olson cites in a post about OSHA, is a typical example of bureaucratic stupidity and absurd “safety” laws. My favorite part is that the bureaucrat actually thought it would be reasonable to rent a lift for $750 per day just to attach a harness for somebody working only 11 feet off the ground. I’m sure the consumer would have been happy to swallow that additional cost. Reminds me of the classic Dave Barry column I cited in this post. Good to see that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is just as incompetent today as it was decades ago.

In April, Heffernan and his nephew were working on a house in the 6400 block of January Avenue. Heffernan had finished rebuilding the chimney and his nephew was finishing up the job when Heffernan left to bid a job in West County. While he was looking at the prospective new job, he got a call from his nephew. There was some kind of a problem with an inspector. Heffernan returned to the site on January Avenue and found that an inspector for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had shut down the site. In other words, she had told Heffernan’s nephew to stop working. Heffernan was taken back. …He said the inspector had written several citations. The first thing she told him was his scaffold wasn’t level. He said he pulled out his level and put it on the scaffold to show that the scaffold was level. He said the inspector then wrote down the brand name of the level, as if there might be something wrong with his equipment. …He said he offered to let the inspector walk on the scaffold, but she declined and said she was afraid of heights. The inspector told him his nephew needed a helmet and a safety harness. “We have safety harnesses. If the job requires it, we wear them,” Heffernan said. “But my nephew was only about 11 feet off the ground. I told the inspector I didn’t know what I was supposed to attach the harness to. She told me I could rent a lift and run the main pole above the chimney and have the safety line from that hooked to my nephew. A lift costs about $750 a day. It made no sense.” …Heffernan received notice in the mail that he had been cited for three violations. …Heff’s Tuckpointing is a successful operation, but it cannot afford $3,600 in fines. …So Heffernan requested a meeting to contest the violations. He said he spoke with an OSHA compliance officer who offered to drop the first violation and reduce the fines of the other two by 40 percent. Heffernan refused the offer. He has now requested a formal hearing.

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According to news coverage, United Kingdom Prime Minister Cameron is imposing deep and savage budget cuts. I was interviewed by the BBC recently, for instance, and asked whether 25 percent spending reductions were too harsh. And here’s an excerpt from a New York Times story that is very representative of the news coverage.

Like a shipwrecked sailor on a starvation diet, the new British coalition government is preparing to shrink down to its bare bones as it cuts expenditures by $130 billion over the next five years and drastically scales back its responsibilities. The result, said the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a research group, will be “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since World War II. …Public-sector unions are planning a series of strikes. Charities — which Mr. Cameron has said should take over some of the responsibilities now held by the state — say that they are at risk of collapse because they are so dependent on government money. And the chief executive of the Supreme Court, the country’s highest, said she did not know whether the court would be able to function at all if its budget were cut by 40 percent.

To be blunt, this type of analysis is completely false. There are no budget cuts in the United Kingdom, at least in terms of total government spending. Instead, the politicians are measuring cuts against some imaginary baseline, which is the same scam that happens in Washington. So if spending increases by 4 percent instead of 7 percent, that is characterized as a 3 percent budget reduction. The chart shows what is happening with overall government spending in the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding phony stories about budget cuts, spending in Prime Minister Cameron’s first year is climbing by more than 4 percent – twice as fast as needed to keep pace with inflation.

This doesn’t mean that Cameron isn’t doing anything right. There is a two-year pay freeze for bureaucrats, for instance, which is at least a small step in the right direction. But the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition is not a good role model for those who want limited government and fiscal responsibility. There are promises of spending restraint in future years, but those belong in the I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it category. Spending is supposed to increase by less than 1 percent in next year’s budget, for instance, but politicians are very good with tough talk of fiscal discipline in future years. But if we judge them by what they’re doing today rather than what they’re claiming will happen in the future, Cameron’s policies leave much to be desired.

The tax side of the fiscal equation is even more depressing. There is small reduction in the corporate tax rate, but otherwise there is considerable bad news. The new government is leaving in place the new 50 percent top tax rate imposed by Gordon Brown as an election-year class-warfare gimmick. It is boosting the capital gains tax rate from 18 percent to 28 percent. And it increased the VAT rate from 17.5 percent to 20 percent.

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Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune makes several excellent points in his column on the recent salmonella scare, commenting on the absurd tendency to reward government bureaucracies that screw up. But more important, he explains that there are very strong incentives for safety in an unfettered marketplace. The fundamental issue, though, is that there is no way of completely eliminating risk in society, so the responsible approach is finding the best ways to minimize risk without imposing excessive costs. Relying on free markets is surely the best answer, though the government does have a role. As Chapman notes, a well-functioning tort system ensures that companies can be punished by people who suffer damages. Command-and-control regulation, by contrast, is a very expensive and inflexible approach.

In the private sector, entities that fall short of doing their jobs find themselves forced to shrink. In the public sector, the opposite is typically true. Failure is an option, and often a beneficial one. The Federal Reserve Board and Treasury facilitated the 2008 financial crisis? Then obviously we have no choice but to give them even more responsibility. The Securities and Exchange Commission let Bernie Madoff rob investors? A bigger SEC will be a smarter SEC. Just once, I’d like to see a government official say, “We blew it, and you know what? If you give us another chance, we’ll probably blow it again.” But so far, my hope has not availed. It’s true that the FDA is charged with assuring food safety. But really, the government can’t do that. The task is too big and too complex. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to do it, because the pressures of competition force producers to make sure their goods are clean and wholesome. What goes curiously unnoticed is that egg suppliers and grocery stores have nothing to gain from sickening their customers — and a lot to lose. It doesn’t take many obvious hygiene lapses for a company to get a bad reputation, and a bad reputation can be catastrophic. In 1971, a New York man died of botulism after eating a can of Bon Vivant soup. If you’ve never heard of Bon Vivant soup, there’s a simple explanation: In no time at all, the company was bankrupt and the brand was as defunct as William McKinley. The farms implicated in this episode are likely to find themselves oddly short of buyers in the coming months, if not years — unless they can prove they have taken drastic steps to clean up their act. But the burden of proof will be on them. They can also expect to be sued for huge sums of money. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other companies that didn’t screw up, whose wares will be more attractive going forward.

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In the private sector, no business owner would be dumb enough to assume that higher prices automatically translate into proportionately higher revenues. If McDonald’s boosted hamburger prices by 30 percent, for instance, the experts at the company would fully expect that sales would decline. Depending on the magnitude of the drop, total revenue might still climb, but by far less than 30 percent. And it’s quite possible that the company would lose revenue. In the public sector, however, there is very little understanding of how the real world works. Here’s a Reuters story I saw on Tim Worstall’s blog, which reveals that Bulgaria and Romania both are losing revenue after increasing tobacco taxes.

Cash-strapped Bulgaria and Romania hoped taxing cigarettes would be an easy way to raise money but the hikes are driving smokers to a growing black market instead. Criminal gangs and impoverished Roma communities near borders with countries where prices are lower — Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine — have taken to smuggling which has wiped out gains from higher excise duties. Bulgaria increased taxes by nearly half this year and stepped up customs controls and police checks at shops and markets. Customs office data, however, shows tax revenues from cigarette sales so far in 2010 have fallen by nearly a third. …Overall losses from smuggling will probably outweigh tax gains as Bulgaria struggle to fight the growing black market, which has risen to over 30 percent of all cigarette sales and could cost 500 million levs in lost revenues this year, said Bezlov at the Center for the Study of Democracy. While the government expected higher income from taxes in 2010 it has already revised that to the same level as last year. “However, this (too) looks unlikely at present,” Bezlov added. Romania, desperately trying to keep a 20 billion-euro International Monetary Fund-led bailout deal on track, has a similar problem after nearly doubling cigarette prices in 2009 then hiking value added tax. Romania’s top three cigarette makers — units of British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris — contributed roughly 2 billion euros to the budget in taxes in 2009, or just under 2 percent of GDP. They estimate about a third of cigarettes in Romania are smuggled and say this could cost the state over 1 billion euros.

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