Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

I’ve argued that the crowd in Washington profits by plundering America, but that’s just part of the equation.

There are also plenty of big companies that have their snouts in the public trough.

No wonder many people have become disgusted

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman points out that a growing number of Americans think the system is rigged against them and he links this disillusionment to an ever-expanding federal government.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, a full 56% of Americans agree with this statement: “The economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me.” This disillusionment index has been rising for more than a decade and coincides with an explosion in the size of the federal government. …The last time Americans had this little faith in the country’s political and economic systems was for a brief period in 1992, in the aftermath of President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his no-new-taxes pledge in a deal with Congressional Democrats that enabled more spending. …more government enables people to get rich through political favoritism. In the era of the Beltway boom, no wonder so many people feel the deck is stacked against them.

So is this just empty anti-government rhetoric?

I don’t think so.

Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits.

Or look at the way the major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies got into bed with the White House to line their pockets via Obamacare.

And examine how big financial firms pillaged taxpayers as part of the sleazy TARP bailout.

How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam.

Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market.

Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians.

Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs.

Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors.

And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

After looking at that list, I’m surprised that 100 percent of Americans haven’t concluded that the system is rigged for corrupt insiders.

But just in case you think that list is inadequate, let’s look at some new examples.

But first, allow me to reiterate my view on markets.

Simply stated, I believe in genuine unfettered capitalism within a system that protects life, liberty, and property (in other words, “unfettered capitalism” obviously doesn’t include the right to hire a hit man to kill your mother-in-law).

Within those boundaries, I have no objection to people taking risks, accumulating wealth, or losing all their money. Heck, it’s not just that I have “no objection.” I welcome such a system since it means the maximum freedom and prosperity for people, particularly the less fortunate.

But I don’t want people to get rich(er) because they have political allies who will adopt cronyist policies that tilt the playing field in favor of well-connected insiders.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in my two new examples.

First, we have the case of a big Democratic donor who invested a lot of money in a short sell position on Herbalife, which means he will profit if the stock falls in value.

Nothing wrong with that, at least in theory. Short selling can be a very economically beneficial way of correcting markets when something is over-valued. Heck, we would all be much better off today if there had been some short selling to pop the housing bubble before it got so big.

But as Tim Carney explains in a column for the Washington Examiner, this short-selling insider isn’t relying on market forces. Instead, he is asking his buddies in the Obama Administration to use coercive government to hurt the company and lower its value.

Here are some excerpts.

Politically connected hedge-funder Bill Ackman…shorted the nutritional supplement company Herbalife in late 2012… After Ackman’s announcement, Herbalife shares fell from $46 to $27. Ackman kept hammering away, taking his compelling slide show on the road to convince the investing public that Herbalife was a house of cards. But after the initial drop, Herbalife stock rebounded… But Ackman had another weapon in his arsenal. Namely: Big Government. Ackman lobbied congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., to sic the Federal Trade Commission on Herbalife. Sanchez complied. Ackman also…“paid civil rights organizations at least $130,000 to join his effort by helping him collect the names of people who claimed they were victimized by Herbalife in order to send the leads to regulators…” Ackman’s firm, Pershing Square Capital Management, hired an army of K Street lobbyists — paying a combined $14,000 a month to three firms that disclose lobbying for him — to turn the government against Herbalife.

What reprehensible behavior on the part of Ackman.

I have no idea whether Herbalife is a good company or a bad company. And I have no idea whether its stock is over-valued or under-valued.

But I do know that Ackman shouldn’t be getting his political buddies to intervene. As Tim points out, this is a recipe for rampant cronyism.

This is different from ordinary lobbying. Typically, companies lobby to protect or subsidize their business. When hedge funds play Ackman’s game, helping or hurting some other company is the entirety of that business — and so lobbying can become the core of their business plan. We’ve seen it before. Investor Steve Eisman took a short position on for-profit colleges and lobbied Congress and the Department of Education to crack down on them. The Obama administration this month announced new proposed regulations on these colleges.

Now let’s look at another example.

Only this time it involves a big-donor Republican who wants favors from big government.

As the Washington Post reports, Sheldon Adelson doesn’t want his casinos to face competition from the Internet.

Given the more than $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has donated lately to Republican causes, the billionaire casino tycoon is well-positioned to get what he wants from a GOP-dominated Congress. But it turns out that the item on top of Adelson’s wish list — a ban on Internet gambling — is encountering resistance. And it’s not Democrats who stand in his way but a small group of fellow conservatives. …Online betting has been embraced by a number of Adelson’s industry rivals and several states eager for the additional tax revenue it provides….Yet the move to the Internet has also been seen as a threat that could deplete the customer base for Adelson’s brick-and-mortar casino resorts. …Half of the 22 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee have co-sponsored the Adelson-backed legislation.

So what’s the status of the battle?

…conservative opposition began to emerge. …leaders of the other groups, including the American Conservative Union, did not mention Adelson by name. But their letter follows the publication this week of a fiery online column by former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), the libertarian hero and father of potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He called the bill an example of “crony capitalism” written “for the benefit of one powerful billionaire.” …Adelson called the 2011 Justice Department legal opinion a mistake and has taken steps to rein in online gambling, fighting state-level proposals to authorize it and pushing for the federal ban. A company lawyer penned an initial draft of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — later refined and introduced last year by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — which would effectively prevent states from authorizing online betting.

Ugh, how nauseating.

Though I’m glad to see that there is opposition inside the GOP to Adelson’s self-serving proposal.

I realize we can’t say for sure whether opponents are motivated solely by good principles of non-intervention and federalism. Perhaps they’ve received money from interest groups on the other side, but at least there is resistance and presumably some of that opposition is for the right reasons.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any Democrats who are opposed to Ackman’s cronyist attack on Herbalife.

The moral of the story is that big government enables insider corruption. Which is the message of this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

But if you don’t want to watch the video, just remember the simple lesson of today’s column, which is that all the examples of sleazy cronyism we discussed (both the new ones and the old ones) were only possible because government had the power to trump free markets.

Now let’s return to where we started. Yes, a growing number of Americans are getting disillusioned, and with good reason. But will the good people in Washington appeal to them with a principled campaign against corporate welfare and other policies that help insider fat cats?

Or will it be business as usual, with GOP cronyists replacing Democrat cronyists?

Even worse, will statists latch onto the issue and say the solution is to impose higher tax rates? That presumably would take some money from rich insiders, but it also would penalize folks who earn money honestly.

And it means the money that consumers lose because of cronyism winds up in the pockets of politicians.

Wouldn’t it be better to simply get rid of the bad subsidies and handouts and solve the real problem?

P.S. Since today’s column looks at capitalism vs cronyism, here’s the famous example of how you can explain various economic systems using two cows.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been banging the drum for years about Washington being a racket for the benefit of politicians, cronyists, bureaucrats, contractors, lobbyists, interest groups, and other insiders.

I’ve written about horrific examples of bloated spending that line the pockets of the well connected.

I’ve shared disgusting examples of Democrat sleaze and Republican sleaze.

I’ve exposed rampant corruption with insiders getting rich at our expense.

I’ve pontificated about fat-cat bureaucrats who get paid more and do less.

But I’ve never figured out an effective way of combining all these issues.

So I’m very happy that Scott Beyer of the American Enterprise Institute combines these themes in a very good article about our self-serving political class.

Here’s some of what he wrote.

…the nation’s capital today is wealthy and growing. Metro Washington now has six of the nation’s ten wealthiest counties. In 2012, Falls Church became the nation’s richest city… The region’s median household income is $88,233, second in the nation… But while in other cities this might be a success story, in Washington it comes with a catch. Rather than resulting from private industry, it merely underlies the growth of the city’s leading employer, the federal government. The city’s flourishing has seemed especially perverse in recent years, as the rest of America has lagged economically. Every tax dollar spent represents less money in the private sector to create jobs.

That’s all good material, but this pictograph is absolutely superb. It’s a very compelling summary of how Washington has become a fat and happy imperial city.

Very well done.

It should be clear to everyone that Washington is booming, and hopefully they make the obvious connection that D.C.’s wealth comes at the expense of America’s productive sector.

While the pictograph is excellent, Beyer has some other observations that are worth sharing.

For instance, there’s been an explosion in the amount of money diverted to lobbying by firms, as well as a huge jump in the number of politicians who cash in on their contacts.

One growth industry, due to the vast expansion of the federal government’s tax and regulatory rules, is lobbying. Businesses spent $3.24 billion last year on lobbying, up from $1.45 billion in 1998 and $200 million in 1983. Two-thirds of US senators and representatives joined the lobbying industry after leaving office in 2012, up from a small fraction in the 1960s.

Because I support the Constitution, I don’t object to the concept of companies exercising their 1st Amendment rights to petition the government.

But I do wish government was much smaller so that companies didn’t have so much interest in what happens in Washington. Particularly since companies oftentimes get seduced into treating Washington like a profit center.

Simply stated, as I explain in this video, big government is inherently corrupting.

Beyer also makes some important observations about the overpaid government workforce.

…the region houses about 14 percent of America’s 2.1 million civilian federal workforce, one in five of whom earns an annual salary of more than $100,000. In 2012, federal civilian employees’ median salary was $81,704, compared to $54,995 for the private-sector employees; after accounting for fringe benefits, those figures go to $114,976 versus $65,917, respectively.

Amen.

As a taxpayer, I don’t like overpaid bureaucrats. But as an economist, I’m even more upset that human capital is being misallocated to unproductive purposes.

For more information, here’s my video explaining that the bureaucracy is far too big and paid far too much.

Though if you prefer specific examples, this post contains the charter members of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. And if you’re not already sufficiently nauseated, you can click here and here to learn more about how you are subsidizing fun and games in Washington.

P.S. But I don’t want folks to get overly depressed, so I also encourage you to enjoy these examples of bureaucrat humor and these examples of politician humor.

Read Full Post »

I periodically try to explain that there’s a big difference between being pro-market and pro-business.

Simply stated, policy makers shouldn’t try to penalize businesses with taxes, mandates, and regulations.

But neither should politicians seek to subsidize businesses. That’s why I’m against bailouts, subsidies, and other distortions that provide special favors for politically connected companies.

I have nothing against companies earning money, to be sure, but I want them to earn their profits in the marketplace rather than lining their pockets by using the coercive power of government to rig the rules of the game.

But I don’t just have disdain for companies that stick their snouts in the public trough. I also have little regard for the politicians that enable this sordid type of business by trading campaign cash for corporate welfare.

I realize that’s a strong assertion, but I can’t think of any legitimate reason to support handouts for big companies. And I get especially angry when giveaways are facilitated by politicians who claim to support free markets.

Let’s look at two examples, the Export-Import Bank and the Obamacare bailout for big insurance corporations.

I’ve previously argued that the Export-Import Bank is a squalid example of corruption and I’ve shared a video that explains why it’s economically foolish to subsidize a handful of big exporters.

To augment those arguments, here’s some of what Professor Jeffrey Dorfman of the University Georgia recently wrote in a column for Real Clear Markets. He correctly warns that certain GOP politicians are to blame if the Export-Import Bank stays alive.

The Export-Import Bank is everything that Republicans should stand against. It is crony capitalism at its worst. It is corporate welfare, taxing American families to boost corporate profits. It ever forces firms to potentially subsidize a competitor. There is simply no need for this government agency. Republicans in Congress should make a stand and show voters that Republicans believe in free markets and small government, even if some big businesses complain. The Ex-Im Bank should not be reauthorized. …Over the last decade or so, the Democrats have increasingly become the party of big business, stealing that crown away from Republicans because of the Democrats’ willingness to engage in crony capitalism and actively pick winners and losers in our economy. While Republicans are still thought of as the pro-business party, and other actions by the Democrats are clearly anti-business (Obamacare, environmental over-regulation), large multinational corporations like Boeing and GE have donated money to Democrats and generally profited from their political alliances with them. If Republicans want to make gains among (lower) middle-class voters, one of the things that could help is to convince voters that they are on the side of the people and not big corporations. The Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is a perfect opportunity to do just that. …Income redistribution is wrong especially when the money is going to big and profitable companies.

Ryan Ellis of Americans for Tax Reform agrees. Writing for Forbes, he looks at both the policy and politics of Export-Import Bank handouts.

The ExIm bank is an export subsidy program, giving money to certain companies…in the hopes that gives them a leg up in international trade.  It’s been criticized for decades by free traders and those who simply oppose corporate welfare spending out of Washington. …the ExIm bank will sunset on its own on September 30th.  All Congress has to do is let nature take its course, and this corporate welfare program simply goes away forever.

Sounds like we should have a guaranteed victory from free markets over intervention, right?

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.  Ryan explains that Republicans may shoot themselves in the foot by trying to rescue this reprehensible example of cronyism.

Charging in at the last minute to save ExIm only makes the House GOP look beholden to K Street.  It also looks like they are flip-flopping from where they were back in the summer.  …ExIm reauthorization…is likely to take a GOP grassroots focused on President Obama’s failures and full of midterm election intensity, and turn them inward toward criticism of the House GOP leadership instead. If things go badly with this CR gambit, the House GOP will have given themselves a self inflicted wound just as they are trying to get out of town and not screw up what should be a good year for their candidates.

How nauseating.

I realize that the Export-Import Bank is a relatively minor issue and that I should mostly care about whether politicians do the right think on big topics such as entitlement reform. After all, that’s what really counts if we want to avoid fiscal catastrophe.

But I can’t stop myself from foaming at the mouth when self-proclaimed supporters of free markets undermine the argument for economic liberty with cronyist deals.

Obamacare is another example of big business being against free markets. We already know that the big pharmaceutical firms cut a special deal with the Obama White House.

The big insurance companies also had their snouts in the trough. Not only did they get legislation that mandated the purchase of their products, but they also got language that provides bailouts if they aren’t able to profit from Obamacare.

What’s really amazing, though, is that some Republicans are willing to go along with Obamacare bailouts for those major companies.

The good news is that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is in the right side. Here’s some of what he wrote about bailouts for health insurance companies for Fox News.

 …section 1342 of the ObamaCare law…established so-called “risk corridors”. According to this provision, taxpayers will make up the difference for health insurance companies whose plans lose money under ObamaCare. Last November, as it became clearer what this section of the law actually meant, I introduced legislation repealing it and protecting taxpayers from being forced to cover insurers’ ObamaCare losses. …In recent weeks, the public has learned that senior White House officials have been working closely with insurers behind the scenes to make sure that their earlier bailout deal, which helped assure ObamaCare’s passage in 2010, would stand and that a taxpayer-funded bailout was still, in fact, on the table. …On this ObamaCare bailout, as with so many issues, Washington politicians are misleading average Americans and planning to stick them with the bill. This is government favoritism and corporate cronyism at its worst. …It’s time to repeal and replace it, but at the very least, we should make it the law of the land that health insurers won’t be bailed out by taxpayers.

I’ll also add a moral argument.

As far as I’m concerned, I want the health insurance companies to suffer major losses. I want the business community to see that it’s a mistake to get in bed with big government.

Though I guess I’m actually making a practical argument. I may be motivated by morality, but the companies hopefully will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide that it’s too risky to strike deals with the political class.

By the way, Republicans often do the wrong thing because they’re afraid that voters favor the statist agenda of dependency.

But that’s not the case for Obamacare bailouts for health insurances companies. Here’s some polling data on the issue that showed up on my Twitter feed.

Let’s close by sharing some of what the editors at National Review wrote about both the Obamacare bailout and Export-Import Bank subsidies.

Congressional Republicans keep saying they oppose Obamacare. Yet they’re refusing to take the simplest and easiest action against it. …Some Republicans say that the insurance companies should not be penalized for the defects of the law. Why not? They have freely chosen to participate in the exchanges, and they should bear the risks of that decision — which include the risk that Congress might decide not to shovel tax dollars at them. The alternative, after all, is to punish taxpayers. …The debate over the Export-Import Bank is one test of Republican sincerity about ending corporate welfare. These taxpayer subsidies are another: If Republicans can’t take on corporate welfare when doing so advances one of their party’s most popular and basic commitments, when will they?

Amen. Both of these issues are tests for the GOP.

Actually, they should get added to a long list of issues that tell us whether Republicans have any sincerity (or brains) in the fight against statism.

o No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.

o To stop bailouts for Europe’s decrepit welfare states, no more money for the International Monetary Fund.

o Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

o No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor, here’s the federal government’s satirical bailout application form.

Read Full Post »

The Export-Import Bank is noxiously corrupt example of crony capitalism.

It never should have been created. But that’s something we could say about most government programs.

So the real question is how to reverse the damage.

If we reform a big program such as Medicare, you can’t end it overnight. You have to deal with the reality that millions of people have made plans based on government policies. And even if those policies are wrong, you can’t pull the rug out from folks who did nothing wrong.

So it’s important to put in place appropriate and fair transitions when reforming a major program.

But that’s not an issue with the Export-Import Bank. It provides undeserved subsidies to big companies. Those big companies will be just fine without having their snouts in the public trough. The right thing to do, from both a moral and economic perspective, is to shut it down immediately.

Indeed, this should be a test as to whether supposedly pro-taxpayer politicians in Washington understand the critical difference between being pro-business and being pro-market.

But what about the argument that the Export-Import Bank is somehow a win-win for the American economy? I tend to automatically dismiss such claims for the simple reason that all sorts of companies in the private sector would do what the Ex-Im Bank is doing if it really was a money maker.

But with the issue heating up, it would be a good idea to examine this claim more closely. Fortunately, Matt Mitchell (no relation) of the Mercatus Center does an excellent job of explaining the dodgy economics of the Ex-Im Bank is this short video.

In some sense, Matt is channeling Frederic Bastiat, the great French thinker who said that a good economist looks at both direct and indirect consequences of policies (the “seen” and the “unseen”).

Matt shows that the negative indirect impact of the Ex-Im Bank is far larger than any putative benefits generated by handouts to politically well-connected firms.

Just like bailouts, s0-called stimulus, and green-energy programs all look bad when you examine all the costs and benefits.

For more information, I also recommend this superb video on why cronyism is so corrosive.

And if you want a humorous analysis, scroll to the bottom of this post and see what the Kronies have to say about the Ex-Im Bank.

Or just enjoy this Glenn Foden cartoon.

P.S. I shared six jaw-dropping examples of left-wing hypocrisy last month.

But maybe it’s time to create a special Hypocrisy Hall of Fame, because the Wall Street Journal reveals that we another member who would be a shoo-in for the award.

It seems that Warren Buffett was not being terribly sincere or honest when he said people like him should be paying higher taxes.

Now this is awkward for President Obama and Senate Democrats. …Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is expected to help finance Burger King’s  pending acquisition of Canadian doughnut-chain Tim Hortons. The deal will allow Miami-based Burger King to claim Canada as its new legal home for tax purposes. Beltway Democrats had been hoping to use a recent wave of such corporate inversions as a campaign tool. The idea was to propose new taxes on the companies that move. Step two was to beat up Republicans who don’t agree to make the free world’s most punitive corporate tax system even more punitive. But now that Democratic tax hero Mr. Buffett has been spotted surfing on top of this wave, the political challenge has become more difficult.

Sort of makes you wonder whether Buffett endorses higher taxes for the self-interested reason that the political class will then give him a free pass on issues such as the Burger King inversion?

Shocking, just shocking, to think that rich leftists are hypocrites.

Read Full Post »

When major changes occur, especially if they’re bad, people generally will try to understand what happened so they can avoid similar bad events in the future.

This is why, when we’re looking at major economic events, it’s critical to realize that narratives matter.

For instance, generation after generation of American students were taught that the Great Depression was the fault of capitalism run amok. But we now have lots of evidence that bad government policy caused the Great Depression and that the downturn was made more severe and longer lasting thanks to further policy mistakes by Hoover and Roosevelt.

The history textbooks are probably still wrong, but at least there’s a chance that interested students (and non-students) will come across more accurate explanations of what happened in the 1930s.

More recently, the same thing happened after the financial crisis. The statists immediately tried to convince people that the 2008 mess was a consequence of “Wall Street greed” and “deregulation.”

Fortunately, many experts were available to point out that the real problem was bad government policy, specifically easy money from the Fed and the corrupt system of subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

So hopefully future history books won’t be as wrong about the financial crisis as they were about the Great Depression.

I raise these examples because I want to address another historical inaccuracy.

Let’s go back about 100 years ago to the s0-called “progressive era.” The conventional story is that this was a period when politicians reined in some of the excesses of big business. And if it wasn’t for that beneficial government intervention, we’d all still be oppressed peasants working in sweatshops.

There’s just one small problem with this narrative. It’s utter nonsense.

Let’s look specifically at the issue of sweatshops. Writing for the Independent Institute, Ben Powell looks at the history of sweatshops and whether workers were being mistreated.

He starts with a bit of history.

Sweatshops are an important stage in the process of economic development. As Jeffery Sachs puts it, “[S]weatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of  extreme poverty”. …Working conditions have been harsh and standards of living low throughout most of human history. …Prior to the Industrial Revolution,  textile production was decentralized to the homes of many rural families or artisans, and output was limited to what could be produced on the  spinning wheel and hand loom. …Yarn spinning was mechanized in 1767 with the invention of the spinning jenny, and water power was harnessed shortly  thereafter. With these inventions and steam power later, large-scale textile factories that are similar to today’s sweatshops emerged. The conditions in these  early sweatshops were worse than those in many Third World sweatshops today. In some factories, workers toiled for sixteen hours a day, six days per week.

Then he looks at what actually happened in Great Britain, which is where sweatshops began.

Yet workers flocked to the mills. …sweatshop workers…were attracted by the opportunity to earn higher wages than they could elsewhere. In fact, economist Ludwig von Mises defended the factory system of the Industrial Revolution,…writing, “The factory owners did not have the power to compel anybody to take a factory job. They could only hire people who were ready to work for the wages offered to them. Low as these wage rates were, they were nonetheless more than these paupers could earn in any other field open to them.” …Mises’s argument is supported by historical evidence. Economist Joel Mokyr reports that workers earned a wage premium of 15 to 30 percent by working in the factories compared with other alternatives. The transformation of Great Britain during this time was dramatic. As economist and historian Donald McCloskey describes it, “In the 80 years or so after 1780 the population of Britain nearly tripled, the towns of Liverpool and Manchester became gigantic cities, the average income of the population more than doubled… Peter Lindert and Jeffery  Williamson similarly find impressive gains in the standard of living between 1781 and 1851. Farm labor’s standard of living went up more than 60 percent,  blue-collar workers’ standard increased more than 86 percent, and overall workers’ standard increased more than 140 percent. Along with this increase in  the standard of living came a decrease in the share of women and children working beginning sometime between 1815 and 1820.

Ben then looks at the American experience. Once again, he finds that sweatshops allowed workers to earn more income than they could by staying on the farm.

And this was part of a process that enabled the United States to become much richer over time.

…workers flocked to the mills. At first, in the cities north of Boston it was mainly rural women and girls who left the farm to populate the early textile mills.  During the 1830s in Lowell, a woman could earn $12 to $14 a month (in 1830s dollars) and after paying $5 for room and board in a company boarding house  would have the rest left over for clothing, leisure, and savings. It wasn’t uncommon for women to return home to the farm after a year with $25 to $50 in a  bank account. This was far more money than they could have earned on the farm and often more disposable cash than their fathers had. …much like in Great Britain, living standards improved over time. In 1820, before the Industrial Revolution, annual per capita income in the United States stood at a little  more than $2,000. By 1850, it had grown by 50 percent to more than $3,000 and then doubled again by 1900 to more than $6,600. Along with the rise in  incomes came improvements in working conditions and greater consumption.

Eventually, of course, the sweatshops disappeared. But Ben explains that it was because of higher living standards rather than government intervention.

Sweatshops are eliminated mainly through the process of industrialization that raises a country’s income. The increased income comes from increased  worker productivity, which raises the upper bound of compensation. The increased productivity isn’t just in one firm, but in many firms and industries, and  thus workers’ next-best alternatives improve, raising the lower bound of compensation. As the economy grows, the competitive process pushes wages up.  Because health, safety, leisure, and so on are normal goods, workers demand more of their compensation on these margins as their total compensation increases. The result is the eventual disappearance of sweatshops.

Now let’s look at the broader issue of whether the “progressive era” was bad news for big business.

The answer is yes and no. Politicians imposed lots of legislation that was bad for the free market, but the crony capitalists of that era were big supporters of intervention.

Tim Carney elaborates in a column for the Washington Examiner.

Every American knows the fable of the Progressive Era and that “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt wielding the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations. We would be better off if more people knew the work of the man who dismantled this myth: historian Gabriel Kolko… His thesis: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Period “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.”

Here’s what really happened.

Many corporate titans in the early 20th Century, buying into the pervasive hubris of the day, believed that a state-managed economy was the inevitable end of a rational society—the conclusion of what Standard Oil’s top lobbyist Samuel Dodd called the “march of civilization.” Competition, in their eyes, was destructive redundancy. “Competition is industrial war,” James Logan of the U.S. Envelope Company wrote in 1901. “Ignorant, unrestricted competition carried to its logical conclusion means death to some of the combatants and injury for all.”  Steel baron Andrew Carnegie constantly strove to turn the steel industry into a cartel and keep prices high. Competition, however, always had a way pulling prices down. As Carnegie wrote in 1908, “It always comes back to me that Government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem.” Kolko also showed how the socialists welcomed corporate-state collusion to advance monopoly as part of “progress.”

And, as Tim explains, it’s still happening today.

This has its echoes in contemporary progressive politics… When conservatives challenged Obamacare’s individual mandate, the White House had the backing of the insurance industry and the hospital lobby. After Obama won at the Supreme Court, liberal Bill Scher wrote in the New York Times that progressive victories historically flow from the Left’s alliances with Big Business. …Liberal scholar William Galston at the Brookings Institution explains the economics at play. “Corporations have sizeable cash flows and access to credit markets, which gives them a cushion against adversity and added costs,” he wrote in 2013, explaining why the big guys often welcome regulation.

In other words, big business often is the enemy of genuine capitalism and free markets.

Not only did the big companies, including insurance and pharmaceuticals, support Obamacare.

They’re now supporting the corrupt Import-Export Bank.

And they’re perfectly happy to support higher taxes, at least when the rest of us are being victimized.

They also supported the sleazy TARP bailout.

The moral of the story is not just the big business can be just as bad as big labor. The real moral of the story is captured by this poster.

Read Full Post »

I periodically comment about government corruption, often in the context of trying to make the general point that shrinking the size and scope of the public sector is the most effective way of reducing sleaze in Washington.

Now let’s get specific. I’ve already cited Obamacare, the tax code, and the Export-Import Bank as facilitators of corruption. Let’s augment that list by looking at government intervention in the financial sector.

We’ll start with some findings on the effectiveness of lobbying. In some new research, two professors at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center found that being active in Washington is beneficial for top executives, but it doesn’t help a company’s bottom line.

Here’s how the Washington Examiner summarized the study.

What is the return on investment in lobbying? Does a PAC contribution actually pay for itself? There are so many cases of a lobbyist winning an earmark, or a PAC contribution immediately preceding a subsidy, that it’s hard not to see politics as a good investment. …But for every company that hits the jackpot after lobbying campaign, scores of others end up throwing away money on lobbyists — and scores of executives whose PAC contributions don’t help the company a bit. Business professors Russell Sobel and Rachel Graefe-Anderson of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University collected the data and dug into the bigger question: Do lobbying expenditures and PAC contributions increase corporate profits, on average? Their answer: No… When Sobel and Graefe-Anderson crunched numbers, conducted regressions, and controlled for firm size, industry and other factors, they arrived at data “suggesting that any benefits gained from corporate political activity are largely captured by firm executives.” In short, when a CEO and a lobbyist decide to get their company more involved in politics, the CEO and the lobbyist benefit, while not helping the company.

These findings at first struck me as counterintuitive. After all, there are plenty of companies, such as General Electric and Archer Daniels Midland, that seem to obtain lots of unearned profits thanks to their lobbying activities.

But don’t forget that government – at best – is a zero-sum game. So for every company, industry, or sector that “wins,” there will be lots of companies, industries, and sectors that suffer.

And speaking of industries that benefit, there was one exception to the Mercatus Center findings.

The only exception was the banking and financial sectors, where they found “positive and significant correlations between firm lobbying activity and three measures of firm financial performance,” including return on investment and return on equity.

At this stage, let’s be careful to specify that lobbying is not necessarily bad. If a handful of business owners want to join forces to fight against higher taxes or more regulation, I’m all in favor of that kind of lobbying. They’re fighting to be left alone.

But a big chunk of the lobbying in Washington is not about being left alone. It’s about seeking undeserved benefits by using the coercive power of government.

And this latter definition is a good description of what the financial industry has been doing in Washington. That’s bad for taxpayers, but it’s also bad for the financial sector and the overall economy. Here are some of the conclusions from a recent study published by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

…there have been many concerns with banks deemed “too big to fail.” These concerns derive from the belief that the too-big-to-fail status gives large banks a competitive edge and incentives to take on additional risk. If investors believe the largest banks are too big to fail, they will be willing to offer them funding at a discount. Together with expectations of rescues, this discount gives the too-big-to-fail banks incentives to engage in riskier activities. …The debate around too-big-to-fail banks has given rise to a large literature. … we study whether banks that rating agencies classify as likely to receive government support increase their risk-taking. …The results of our investigation show that a greater likelihood of government support leads to a rise in bank risk-taking. Following an increase in government support, we see a larger volume of bank lending becoming impaired. Further, and in line with this finding, our results show that stronger government support translates into an increase in net charge-offs. Additionally, we find that the effect of government support on impaired loans is stronger for riskier banks than safer ones, as measured by their issuer default ratings. …the level of impaired loans in a bank loan portfolio increases directly with the level of government support. …riskier banks are more likely to take advantage of potential sovereign support.

Isn’t that wonderful. Our tax dollars have been used to increase systemic risk and undermine economic growth. Though none of us should be surprised.

Since this has been a depressing column, let’s enjoy some morbid TARP humor.

Here’s a cartoon from Robert Ariail about the cronies who got rich from the Bush-Obama bailouts.

Good to see Hank Paulson getting ripped. At the end of the Bush Administration, I attempted to convince the White House that “FDIC resolution” was a much better way of recapitalizing the banking system. I was repeatedly told, though, that Paulson was in charge and there was no way of stopping him from bailing out his former cronies on Wall Street.

Oh well, at least I tried.

Here’s another cartoon about the real victims of TARP. Like the first cartoon, it’s an oldie but goodie and it’s a good illustration of how government is a zero-sum scam.

But let me re-emphasize a point I made above. Taxpayers aren’t the only ones to lose. The entire economy suffers from bailouts and subsidies. Such policies distort the allocation of capital and lead to slower long-run growth.

That may not be easy to measure, but it matters a lot.

Here’s a video explaining how such policies create moral hazard.

This is a good time to recycle the famous poster about supposed government solutions.

P.S. Not all financial institutions are corrupted by government. The nation’s 10th-largest bank, BB&T, did not want and did not need a bailout. But as the bank’s former CEO (and, I’m proud to say, current Cato Institute president) explained in his book, thugs from Washington threatened to use regulatory coercion if BB&T didn’t participate.

Read Full Post »

I thought TARP was the sleaziest-ever example of cronyism and corruption in Washington.

The Wall Street bailout rewarded politically well-connected companies, encouraged moral hazard, and ripped off taxpayers. Heck, it was so bad that it makes the sleaze at the Export-Import Bank seem almost angelic by comparison.

But I may have to reassess my views.

One of the provisions of Obamacare allows the White House to give bailouts to big health insurance companies. You’re probably wondering why these big firms would need bailouts. After all, didn’t Obamacare coerce millions of people into becoming involuntary customers of these companies? That should give them lots of unearned profits, right?

But here’s the catch. The President wasn’t being honest when he repeatedly promised that Obamacare would reduce premiums for health insurance. And since the Democrats don’t want consumers to get angry about rising costs (particularly before the 2014 elections), they want health insurance companies to under-charge.

Avik Roy of Forbes explains in greater detail how the White House is coercing health insurance companies to limit premium increases before the mid-term elections. Here are some excerpts.

Hidden in the midst of a 436 page regulatory update, and written in pure bureaucratese, the Department of Health and Human Services asked that insurance companies limit the looming premium increases for 2015 health plans. But don’t worry, HHS hinted: we’ll bail you out on the taxpayer’s dime if you lose money. …The White House is playing politics with Americans’ health care—and they’re bribing health insurance companies to play along. The administration’s intention is clear: Salvage the 2014 midterm elections. …Technically, the regulations don’t force health insurance companies to tamp down their premium spikes. But the White House isn’t asking nicely. …Under Obamacare, insurers are so heavily regulated that they have to play nice with the bureaucrats who call the shots. …If insurance companies don’t give in, regulators have powerful ways to make life hard for them. A shrewd CEO doesn’t need to look far to see what might happen if his company opts out.

But before you feel sorry for Big Insurance, remember that these corrupt companies supported Obamacare and fully expect to get bailed out by taxpayers. Here are some blurbs from an article last month in the Weekly Standard.

Most Americans don’t think it’s their job to bail out insurance companies who lose money under Obamacare, but that’s exactly what’s poised to happen. Obamacare’s risk-corridor program — which President Obama has been using as a slush fund to placate his insurance allies and keep them quiet about his lawlessness — shifts financial risk from insurers to taxpayers. According to the House Oversight Committee, health insurers expect Obamacare’s risk corridors to net them nearly $1 billion, at taxpayer expense, this year alone. …It was a win-win that would boost Obamacare in its early days — to the benefit of those who’ve gained extraordinary power at the expense of Americans’ liberty, and of those whose product has become mandatory for Americans to purchase.

In other words, we have a stereotypical example of Mitchell’s Law. Government screws up something, and then uses that mess as an excuse to impose more bad policy!

This Lisa Benson cartoon is a perfect summary of what’s happening.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor, here’s the federal government’s satirical bailout application form.

P.P.S. Switching to a different topic, it’s time for me to rectify a mistake. When I first created the Moocher Hall of Fame last year, I didn’t include the “Octo-moocher” as a charter member. After all, having 14 kids while living on the dole didn’t seem particularly noteworthy.

But now we’ve discovered that she could afford her kids. She just wanted other people to pick up the tab.

Octomom Nadya Suleman pleaded no contest Monday to a single count of misdemeanor welfare fraud for failing to disclose income she was receiving from videos and personal appearances while collecting more than $26,000 in public assistance funds to care for her 14 children.

This may not be as impressive as the deadbeat who got handouts while living on a $1.2 million yacht, but still worthy of membership.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,517 other followers

%d bloggers like this: