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Archive for September 13th, 2010

Since we’re talking about a totalitarian nation, I suppose I should make clear that Raul Castro is getting rid of 500,000 government jobs, not executing a half-million bureaucrats. This is a remarkable development, particularly since the entire workforce is only 5 million people. What’s ironic, though, is that Cuba is trying to reverse its mistakes while politicians in the United States keep adding more bureaucrats. In other words, Obama  wants more people in the wagon and fewer people pulling the wagon. That’s not a good trend line. Here’s a CNN story about the Cuban reforms.

Cuba announced on Monday it would lay off “at least” half a million state workers over the next six months and simultaneously allow more jobs to be created in the private sector as the socialist economy struggles to get back on its feet. The plan announced in state media confirms that President Raul Castro is following through on his pledge to shed some one million state jobs, a full fifth of the official workforce — but in a shorter timeframe than initially anticipated. “Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities and services with inflated payrolls and losses that damage our economy and result counterproductive, create bad habits and distort workers’ conduct,” the CTC, Cuba’s official labor union, said in newspapers. …The state currently controls more than 90 percent of the economy, running everything from ice cream parlors and gas stations to factories and scientific laboratories. Traditionally independent professions, such as carpenters, plumbers and shoe repairmen, are also employed by the state. …The announcement avoided the word “private,” but said alternative forms of employment to be allowed included renting or borrowing state-owned facilities, cooperatives and self employment and that “hundreds of thousands of workers” would find jobs outside of the state sector over the next few years. Castro has launched a few, small free-market reforms since taking over from his brother Fidel Castro in 2006. In April, for example, barbershops were handed over to employees, who pay rent and tax but charge what they want. Licenses have also been granted to private taxis. For a couple of years, fallow land in the countryside has been turned over to private farmers. The more they produce, the more they earn.

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Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote this weekend that critics of Keynesianism are somewhat akin to those who believe the earth is flat. He specifically cites the presumably malignant influence of the Cato Institute.

Keynes was right, and in this case it’s probably for the better: Keynes didn’t live to see the Republicans of 2010 portray him as some sort of Marxist revolutionary. …These men get their economic firepower from conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute… What’s with the hate for Maynard? Perhaps these Republicans don’t realize that some of their tax-cut proposals are as “Keynesian” as Obama’s program. There’s a fierce dispute about how best to respond to the economic crisis — Tax cuts? Deficit spending? Monetary intervention? — but the argument is largely premised on the Keynesian view that government should somehow boost demand in a recession. …With so much of Keynesian theory universally embraced, Republican denunciation of him has a flat-earth feel to it. …There is an alternative to such “Keynesian experiments,” however. The government could do nothing, and let the human misery continue. By rejecting the “Keynesian playbook,” this is what Republicans are really proposing.

Milbank makes some good points, particularly when noting the hypocrisy of Republicans. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts were largely Keynesian in their design, which is also one of the reasons why the economy was sluggish until the supply-side tax cuts were implemented in 2003. Bush also pushed through another Keynesian package in 2008, and many GOPers on Capitol Hill often erroneously use Keynesian logic even when talking about good policies such as lower marginal tax rates.

But the thrust of Milbank’s column is wrong. He is wrong in claiming that Keynesian economics works, and he is wrong is claming that it is the only option. Regarding the first point, there is no successful example of Keynesian economics. It didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. It didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s. It didn’t work for Bush in 2001 or 2008, and it didn’t work for Obama. The reason, as explained in this video, is that Keynesian economic seeks to transform saving into consumption. But a recession or depression exists when national income is falling. Shifting how some of that income is used does not solve the problem.

This is why free market policies are the best response to an economic downturn. Lower marginal tax rates. Reductions in the burden of government spending. Eliminating needless regulations and red tape. Getting rid of trade barriers. These are the policies that work when the economy is weak. But they’re also desirable policies when the economy is strong. In other words, there is no magic formula for dealing with a downturn. But there are policies that improve the economy’s performance, regardless of short-term economic conditions. Equally important, supporters of economic liberalization also point out that misguided government policies (especially bad monetary policy by the Federal Reserve) almost always are responsible for causing downturns. And wouldn’t it be better to adopt reforms that prevent downturns rather than engage in futile stimulus schemes once downturns begin?

None of this means that Keynes was a bad economist. Indeed, it’s very important to draw a distinction between Keynes, who was wrong on a couple of things, and today’s Keynesians, who are wrong about almost everything. Keynes, for instance, was an early proponent of the Laffer Curve, writing that, “Nor should the argument seem strange that taxation may be so high as to defeat its object, and that, given sufficient time to gather the fruits, a reduction of taxation will run a better chance than an increase of balancing the budget.”

Keynes also seemed to understand the importance of limiting the size of government. He wrote that, “25 percent taxation is about the limit of what is easily borne.” It’s not clear whether he was referring to marginal tax rates or the tax burden as a share of economic output, but in either case it obviously implies an upper limit to the size of government (especially since he did not believe in permanent deficits).

If modern Keynesians had the same insights, government policy today would not be nearly as destructive.

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Even though I’ve been in Washington for 25 years, I still get nauseated by the predatory behavior of the looters and moochers. The latest example of disgusting behavior is from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who is engaging in Hugo Chavez-style threats to block insurance companies from raising rates in response to the new costs imposed by Obamacare. Michael Barone’s column and a Wall Street Journal editorial capture the odious nature of this banana republic stunt. Here’s part of what Barone wrote:
“There will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation and unjustified rate increases.” …Secretary Sebelius objects to claims by health insurers that they are raising premiums because of increased costs imposed by the Obamacare law passed by Congress last March. …Sebelius has “zero tolerance” for that kind of thing. She promises to issue regulations to require “state or federal review of all potentially unreasonable rate increases” (which would presumably mean all rate increases). And there’s a threat. “We will also keep track of insurers with a record of unjustified rate increases: Those plans may be excluded from health insurance Exchanges in 2014.” That’s a significant date, the first year in which state insurance exchanges are slated to get a monopoly on the issuance of individual health insurance policies. Sebelius is threatening to put health insurers out of business in a substantial portion of the market if they state that Obamacare is boosting their costs. “Congress shall make no law,” reads the First Amendment, “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Sebelius’ approach is different: “zero tolerance” for dissent. The threat to use government regulation to destroy or harm someone’s business because they disagree with government officials is thuggery. Like the Obama administration’s transfer of money from Chrysler bondholders to its political allies in the United Auto Workers, it is a form of gangster government. …Sebelius and the Obama administration…want to stamp out negative speech about Obamacare. “Zero tolerance” means they are ready to use the powers of government to threaten economic harm on those who dissent.
Here’s a blurb from the WSJ:
The White House was always going to blame insurance companies for any cost increases, even when its own policies cause them. Witness Kathleen Sebelius’s Thursday letter to America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade group—a thuggish message even by her standards. The Health and Human Services secretary wrote that some insurers have been attributing part of their 2011 premium increases to ObamaCare and warned that “there will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation and unjustified rate increases.” Zero tolerance for expressing an opinion, or offering an explanation to policyholders? They’re more subtle than this in Caracas. …This is nasty stuff and an obvious attempt to shift political blame for rising insurance costs before the election. It’s also an early sign of life under ObamaCare, when all health-care decisions are political and the bureaucrats decide who can charge how much for a service or product.

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