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Archive for September 6th, 2010

This is just a rumor, but some of the “stimulus” money has been spent to buy new pencil sharpeners for the IRS. Apparently, the new equipment puts agents in the right frame of mind before auditing taxpayers.

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Like a terrible remake of Groundhog Day, the White House has unveiled yet another so-called stimulus scheme. Actually, they have two new proposals to buy votes with our money. One plan is focused on more infrastructure spending, as reported by Politico.
Seeking to bolster the sluggish economy, President Barack Obama is using a Labor Day appearance in Milwaukee to announce he will ask Congress for $50 billion to kick off a new infrastructure plan designed to expand and renew the nation’s roads, railways and runways. …The measures include the “establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs,” and “the integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program.” 
The other plan would make permanent the research and development tax credit. The Washington Post has some of the details.
Under mounting pressure to intensify his focus on the economy ahead of the midterm elections, President Obama will call for a $100 billion business tax credit this week… The business proposal – what one aide called a key part of a limited economic package – would increase and permanently extend research and development tax credits for businesses, rewarding companies that develop new technologies domestically and preserve American jobs. It would be paid for by closing other corporate tax loopholes, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the policy has not yet been unveiled. 
These two proposals are in addition to the other stimulus/job-creation/whatever-they’re-calling-them-now proposals that have been adopted in the past 20 months. And Obama’s stimulus schemes were preceded by Bush’s Keynesian fiasco in 2008. And by the time you read this, the Administration may have unveiled a few more plans. But all of these proposals suffer from the same flaw in that they assume growth is sluggish because government is not big enough and not intervening enough. Keynesian politicians don’t realize (or pretend not to realize) that economic growth occurs when there is an increase in national income. Redistribution plans, by contrast, simply change who is spending an existing amount of income. If the crowd in Washington really wants more growth, they should reduce the burden of government, as explained in this video.
 

The best that can be said about the new White House proposals is that they’re probably not as poorly designed as previous stimulus schemes. Federal infrastructure spending almost surely fails a cost-benefit test, but even bridges to nowhere carry some traffic. The money would generate more jobs and more output if left in the private sector, so the macroeconomic impact is still negative, but presumably not as negative as bailouts for profligate state and local governments or subsidies to encourage unemployment – which were key parts of previous stimulus proposals.
Likewise, a permanent research and development tax credit is not ideal tax policy, but at least the provision is tied to doing something productive, as opposed to tax breaks and rebates that don’t boost work, saving, and investment. We don’t know, however, what’s behind the curtain. According to the article, the White House will finance this proposal by “closing other corporate tax loopholes.” In theory, that could mean a better tax code. But this Administration has a very confused understanding of tax policy, so it’s quite likely that they will raise taxes in a way that makes the overall tax code even worse. They’ve already done this in previous stimulus plans by increasing the tax bias against American companies competing in world markets, so there’s little reason to be optimistic now. And don’t forget that the President has not changed his mind about imposing higher income tax rates, higher capital gains tax rates, higher death tax rates, and higher dividend tax rates beginning next January.
 
All that we can say for sure is that the politicians in Washington are very nervous now that the midterm elections are just two months away. This means their normal tendencies to waste money will morph into a pathological form of profligacy.

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In a free society, people obviously should be free to join unions and companies should be free to negotiate with unions. But that also means that companies should be free to resist union demands and hire non-union workers. There is no right or wrong in these battles, just as there is no right or wrong when McDonald’s decides to sell french fries for a particular price. The market will reward good decisions and penalize bad choices. The only appropriate role for policy in this area is to enforce contracts and protect public safety. The government should not attempt to tip the scales either in favor of unions or in favor of employers. Our friends on the left, however, want the rules rigged in favor of unions, in part because of a reflexive desire for coerced equality. E.J. Dionne waxes nostalgic in the Washington Post for the good ol’ days, when unions held significant power in the American economy.
Only 12.3 percent of American wage and salary workers belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from a peak of about one-third of the work force in 1955. A movement historically associated with the brawny workers in auto, steel, rubber, construction, rail and the ports now represents more employees in the public sector (7.9 million) than in the private sector (7.4 million). Even worse than the falling membership numbers is the extent to which the ethos animating organized labor is increasingly foreign to American culture. The union movement has always been attached to a set of values — solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. This promoted other commitments: to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room. You might accuse me of being a union romantic, and in some ways I am, having grown up in a union town, loved the great union songs, and imbibed such novels about labor’s struggles as John Steinbeck’s fine and underrated “In Dubious Battle.” 
There would be nothing wrong with Dionne’s love letter to big labor - but only if he also agreed that the government should not take sides. Unfortunately (and predictably), that’s not the case. Like other statists, he wants a thumb on the scales to help unions. He thinks he is being pro-worker, but his mistake is failing to understand that above-market wages (at least in the private sector) are not sustainable in the long run. Workers ultimately get paid on the basis of what they produce and if it costs $25 per hour to employ a worker and that worker produces $23 per hour of output, that ultimately is a recipe for unemployment. A good example is the American auto industry, which has declined in part because of a compensation system that is not matched by productivity. This does not necessarily mean that wages are too high. It could mean that productivity is too low. Some of that, to be sure, is the fault of government policies such as a corporate tax system that penalizes investment (thus making it more difficult for workers to boost productivity). But unions also have used their government-granted power to insist on absurd workforce practices. The picture below, taken from Mark Perry’s excellent blog, compares union contracts in 1941 and 2007. With all the bureaucracy that is buried in those pages, is it a surprise that American auto workers don’t produce as many cars per hours as their main foreign competitors?

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