Archive for the ‘Mitchell’s Law’ Category

A reader wants to know if I think the American people are becoming more statist over time.

I’m conflicted. More and more people get lured into some form of government dependency every year, and this suggests Americans eventually will adopt a  European-style moocher mentality.

This worries me.

On the other hand, I periodically see polls suggesting that the American people have very libertarian views on key issues.

These are encouraging numbers. And here’s another bit of good news. A recent poll by Fox News found that a plurality of Americans would not give up personal freedoms to reduce the threat of terrorism. What’s especially remarkable is that this poll took place immediately following the bombing of the Boston Marathon by the welfare-sponging Tsarnaev brothers.

Terrorism Freedom Tradeoff

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a left-leaning friend who said this poll showed that Americans were a bunch of “paranoid nuts” because this poll showed that they viewed their government with suspicion.

But perhaps people are simply rational. I had an intern look up data on the probability of getting killed by a terrorist. He found an article from Reason that reported.

…a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

In other words, the odds of being killed by a terrorist are very low. And with the risk so low, why give up liberty? Particularly when it’s highly unlikely that sacrificing more of your freedom will actually reduce the already-low threat of terrorism.

This reminds me of the money laundering issue. Just a few decades ago, there was no such thing as anti-money laundering laws. Then politicians decided we need these laws to reduce crime.

These laws, we were told, would give law enforcement more tools to catch bad guys and also reduce the incentive to commit crimes since it would be harder for criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

That sounds good, but the evidence shows that these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

So how did politicians respond? In a stereotypical display of Mitchell’s Law, they decided to make anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact.

This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So when I see polls showing the American people are skeptical about surrendering freedom to the government, I don’t think they are being “paranoid.” I think they’re being very rational.

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Notwithstanding the title of this post, perhaps nobody deserves blame.

Sometimes, a good or service rises in price solely as a result of changes in supply and demand. And if the price of something climbs because of market forces, then it’s merely a reflection of unfettered exchanges between buyers and sellers.

But politicians and bureaucrats often distort market forces with subsidies. And even though consumers ostensibly benefit when government helps to pay for something, intervention can have very costly consequences.

I’ve already shared an amazing chart and a very powerful video to help explain how government subsidies in health care have created a third-party payer problem that has resulted in rapidly rising prices and considerable inefficiency in that sector.

Well, the good intentions of government also are causing problems for higher education.

Here’s a superb video from Learn Liberty, explaining why college expenses are skyrocketing.

The first part of the video shows that a college degree has become more valuable, so it’s understandable that the relative price of higher education has risen.

But then, beginning at about 1:55, the video discusses the role of subsidies. Echoing points I’ve made in the past, the professor explains how subsidies have simply generated higher prices. In other words, colleges have captured all the benefits, not students.

Business Week recently published a story that provides some glaring example of how universities have wasted all the additional money. Here are some remarkable excerpts.

“I have no idea what these people do,” says the biomedical engineering professor. Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000-a-year chief diversity officer. Among its 16 deans and 11 vice presidents are a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief. The average full professor at the public university in West Lafayette, Ind., makes $125,000. The number of Purdue administrators has jumped 54 percent in the past decade—almost eight times the growth rate of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “We’re here to deliver a high-quality education at as low a price as possible,” says Robinson. “Why is it that we can’t find any money for more faculty, but there seems to be an almost unlimited budget for administrators?” …Purdue is typical: At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty. “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. In a 2010 study, Greene found that from 1993 to 2007, spending on administration rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching at 198 leading U.S. universities. …Trustees at the University of Connecticut are reviewing administrative salaries at the school’s main campus in Storrs, following a controversy over the compensation of the school’s former police chief, who received $256,000 annually—more than New York City’s police commissioner. …Mitch Daniels, a fiscal hawk who will become [Purdue's] president when his term expires in January…says he wants to take a look at administrative costs that he suspects are “marbled” throughout the university—beginning with his office. In anticipation of his arrival in January, and without his knowledge, the school renovated the president’s 4,000-square-foot suite. The cost was $355,000, enough to send 15 Indiana residents to Purdue for a year.

Wow. Reminds me of this post about politically correct featherbedding at the University of California at San Diego. I can see why college administrators like this system. But it’s definitely bad news for students who get stuck on a treadmill of higher tuition and more debt.

P.S. At 2:18, the video has a discussion of how subsidies lead to higher costs, which then leads to more demands for additional subsidies. Hmmm…bad government policy leads to more bad government policy. Seems like there’s a term for that phenomenon.

P.P.S. I highly recommend the Learn Liberty videos. Here’s one on protectionism, one on the legality of Obamacare, and here’s another about how excessive federal spending is America’s real fiscal problem.

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The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy – sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

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Even though I’m a dull and straight-laced guy, that doesn’t mean I want the government to pester, harass, and persecute people for engaging in victimless crimes that I find distasteful.

Especially when interventionism and prohibition doesn’t work. To be blunt, the War on Drugs has been a costly failure (much like the War on Poverty).

Fortunately, it appears that more and more people are coming to the same conclusion – and many of them aren’t libertarians. For instance, I recently cited Mona Charen’s wise comments about the issue.

Even more remarkable are the statements from one of America’s leading evangelicals, Pat Robertson.

Here’s the key sections from an Associated Press report.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson says marijuana should be legalized and treated like alcohol because the government’s war on drugs has failed. The outspoken evangelical Christian and host of “The 700 Club” on the Virginia Beach-based Christian Broadcasting Network he founded said the war on drugs is costing taxpayers billions of dollars. He said people should not be sent to prison for marijuana possession. The 81-year-old first became a self-proclaimed “hero of the hippie culture” in 2010 when he called for ending mandatory prison sentences for marijuana possession convictions. “I just think it’s shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of a controlled substance,” Robertson said on his show March 1. “The whole thing is crazy. We’ve said, ‘Well, we’re conservatives, we’re tough on crime.’ That’s baloney.” …Robertson said he “absolutely” supports ballot measures in Colorado and Washington state that would allow people older than 21 to possess a small amount of marijuana and allow for commercial pot sales. Both measures, if passed by voters, would place the states at odds with federal law, which bans marijuana use of all kinds. While he supports the measures, Robertson said he would not campaign for them and was “not encouraging people to use narcotics in any way, shape or form.” “I’m not a crusader,” he said. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

Wow, not only for legalization, but “absolutely” supports ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington. Kudos to Rev. Robertson for recognizing the human cost of the Drug War. As the old saying goes, not everything immoral should be illegal.

Here’s five minutes from Gov. Gary Johnson on the issue.

Very well stated. Legalization is common-sense conservatism. Too bad Gary Johnson didn’t get more attention early in the GOP race.

The Drug War doesn’t work, and it is the ultimate example of Mitchell’s Law since it has spawned bad policies such as asset forfeiture and anti-money laundering rules.

Time to “just say no” to big government.

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Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers – at the very least – need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.

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A couple of weeks ago, I proposed a “Golden Rule of Fiscal Policy” that was probably a bit too wordy.

Good fiscal policy exists when the private sector grows faster than the public sector, while fiscal ruin is inevitable if government spending grows faster than the productive part of the economy.

In some recent speeches, I’ve been experimenting with how to discuss this concept, and I’ve decided to be more concise.

I’ve also decided to be self-aggrandizing and call this Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

In some sense, this Golden Rule is a way of trying to help people understand why it is important to limit the growth of federal spending. And based on my recent speeches, it appears that linking government growth and private sector growth is very helpful.

Especially when I point out that the fiscal crises in nations such as Greece are the result of the opposite approach – letting the public sector grow faster than the productive sector of the economy.

Another advantage of the Golden Rule is that it doesn’t matter whether a nation has a budget deficit or a budget surplus. As I’ve explained on several occasions, the fiscal problem in most nations is that government is too big. Deficits and debt are just a symptom of that problem.

Following the Golden Rule doesn’t prohibit tax increases, but it certainly means they will be far less likely. Simply stated, tax revenues tend to track economic performance. So if the private sector is growing faster than the government, that means tax revenues will be growing faster than government spending. So why raise tax rates?


P.S. Regular readers know that I’ve already tried to create a legacy with the not-so-famous Mitchell’s Law, which points out that politicians often propose to expand government to ostensibly solve the messes created by previous expansions of government.

But there’s nothing new about Mitchell’s Law. Great economists such as Mises wrote about how one misguided government intervention often becomes the excuse for another foolish government intervention. I simply coined a phrase in hopes of helping to popularize the notion that one government mistake is often a precursor for another government mistake.

I’m not aware, however, of anybody that has stated that the key to good fiscal policy is restraining government spending so it grows slower than the private sector. Hence, my narcissistic decision to label this concept Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

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Over the years, Obama has said some really disturbing things.

In my video on class warfare, I noted that Obama in 2008 said he wanted to raise the capital gains tax even if the government lost revenue.

It was necessary to punish success, he said, to promote “fairness.”

This was an utterly malevolent statement. It meant Obama is so consumed by the politics of hate and envy that he is willing to destroy private sector output even if it doesn’t result in more money for the political class.

Now there is a new statement that may be just as bad. In a recent interview on new fees from banks, the President said, “you don’t have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit, if your customers are being mistreated.”

This statement is reprehensible because banks are only raising fees because of new regulations in the Dodd-Frank bailout bill. In other words, this is a classic example of “Mitchell’s Law,” which is my narcissistic way of describing how politicians mess up an economy with one bad policy and then use the inevitable damage as an excuse for imposing additional bad policy.

But there is an even deeper problem with Obama’s statement. He is saying that consenting adults in the private sector do not have a right to engage in voluntary exchange if some clown in Washington arbitrarily thinks that one side of the transaction is being “mistreated.”

At the risk of engaging in uncivil rhetoric, but the President can go jump in a lake. Under the U.S. Constitution, I do have an “inherent right” to engage in commerce. As Walter Williams has eloquently explained, it is the federal government that does not have the right to do things that are not listed in the enumerated powers section of the Constitution.

Last but not least, I’m not making a partisan attack on Obama. On my occasions, I have strongly condemned Bush for stating that, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

Where the you-know-what did Bush get the right to declare that “we” have a responsibility? Why the you-know-what did he think that compassion is defined by spending other people’s money.

Heck, what Bush said is probably even more morally bankrupt than what Obama said.

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The governments of Spain, Italy, Belgium and (of course) France recently imposed 15-day bans on “short selling,” which means they are prohibiting people from making investments that would be profitable if certain stocks fall in value.

According to the politicians, the bans are being imposed to protect financial markets from “speculators” who cause “panics” by “betting” in favor of bad news.

But this type of regulatory intervention doesn’t seem very effective, at least if the U.S. and U.K. experiences are any guide. Here’s an excerpt from a Bloomberg report.

British financial stocks dropped 41 percent in the four months after regulators imposed a ban on short selling following the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008. The benchmark FTSE 100 index fell 15 percent in the period. When the Securities and Exchange Commission prohibited short-sales for three weeks in September 2008 a Bloomberg Index tracking the 880 U.S. stocks affected fell 26 percent, outpacing the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s 22 percent decline. …“In contrast to the regulators’ hopes, the overall evidence indicates that short-selling bans at best left stock prices unaffected and at worst may have contributed to their decline,” said Alessandro Beber, a professor at Cass Business School in London who’s studied short-sales bans in 30 countries. …“EU policy makers don’t seem to understand the law of unintended consequences,” Jim Chanos, the short seller known for predicting Enron Corp.’s collapse, said by e-mail. “The vast majority of short-selling financial shares is by other financial institutions, hedging their counterparty risks, not speculators. The interbank lending market froze up completely in October to December 2008 — after the short-selling bans.”

Beber’s research (cited in the excerpt above) has been confirmed by other scholars. Simply stated, if investors realize that something is over-valued, it is going to fall in price. Governments can hinder and delay that process, thus increasing volatility and uncertainty, but they can’t stop it.

But here’s a very big reason why these laws are stupid (at least from my amateur perspective*). Most rational people presumably would agree that the housing and financial bubbles of the last decade were a bad thing. But most of us know it was a bad thing because we have 20-20 hindsight.

But what if there were lots of people back in 2005, 2006, and 2007 who recognized a bad thing as it was happening? And what if they had the ability to deflate the bubble (or at least slow its increase) by making investments that assumed housing and finance were heading for a fall?

We could have saved ourselves a lot of economic misery if that was the case. Heck, short sellers probably did save us from a lot of additional economic agony by stopping the bubbles from getting even bigger.

In other words, short sellers are the good guys. To some extent, they put a damper on “irrational exuberance” and therefore reduce the subsequent economic damage.

But don’t believe me. Here are some sage words from Cliff Asness.

…what goes through the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats and what do they say to themselves? Perhaps it’s the following: “What this crisis absolutely requires is that a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part and we’re just the guys to do it.” It was funny when Bluto said it in “Animal House.” …So, they decide to outlaw shorting in a giant number of stocks… Never mind that the short sellers were in many cases the heroes who uncovered much of the ugliness in the financial system that needed uncovering. The government’s actions here will unambiguously hurt our capital markets and economy long-term. …At the risk of restating the obvious, short-sellers play a vital role in any free market. In a world where everyone can only hold long positions, managers have less incentive to work hard, improve stale business models or keep their companies competitive and efficient (sound anything like government bureaucracy?). Short-sellers keep companies, managers and markets honest, and without them the disciplining mechanism is much weaker.

By the way, Asness made those comments back in 2008, and his analysis was confirmed by subsequent events.

Andrew Lilico, meanwhile, is equally astute in his analysis.

Short-sellers make money by identifying situations in which the world is worse than the Market thinks. They expose cases where managements or governments are disorganised or lying or have themselves been deceived. Given the events of the past few years, it would seem very foolish to try to deter people from properly analysing companies or governments to see whether they might actually be less robust than they claim. Surely we want more such analysis, not less! …short-selling (and other forms of speculation) are extremely valuable. They improve market efficiency…and they expose errors made by the management of companies and by governments, early, when those companies and governments might still have a chance to rectify things. Banning short-selling is a classic case of shooting the messenger because one does not like the truth he tells.

The bans on short selling are classic examples of Mitchell’s Law. Politicians do stupid things such as bad monetary policy and corrupt housing subsidies. Those misguided policies cause bubbles that eventually pop. But rather than learn that bad policies are foolish, they use the economic damage as an excuse to implement additional forms of intervention such as short-selling bans. The only constant is that the political class gains more power and control.

* Caveat: I’m only commenting on public policy, not how you should invest your money. I’m only a policy wonk. I know less about financial markets than Barack Obama knows about economics

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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Okay, perhaps the title of the post is not quite as memorable as Charlton Heston’s famous line from Planet of the Apes, but it certainly captures my sentiments after reading an article in Slate that calls for the elimination of the $100 bill. The author, Timothy Noah, says that large bills are only for “criminals and sociopaths.” Here’s the crux of his argument.

…why does the U.S. continue to print C-notes…? Technological change has reduced much further the plausible need of any law-abiding American to carry a C-note in his wallet or to stash a pile of C-notes in his mattress.

Noah’s argument is unconvincing for several reasons. First, he is underestimating the degree to which “law-abiding” Americans use “Benjamins.”  And with higher inflation almost certainly around the corner, one can safely expect that $100 bills will become even more common in the future. Second, his entire argument rests on the statist assumption that government should restrict honest people because this will somehow make life more difficult for criminals. Yet he debunks his own anti-money laundering argument by noting that the government already has stopped printing larger bills, such as the $500 note. Has that stopped the drug trade? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

Like much of what government does, the campaign against money laundering is a costly exercise with very few tangible benefits. This video examines the cost-benefit issues.

I actually think the moral arguments against anti-money laundering laws are even more powerful. As Americans, we should have a presumption of innocence in our daily lives. What business is it of government whether we want to carry $20 bills or $100 bills? And think about the implications of these laws. What if the government said we need to ban cars, or put government-monitored homing devices in all vehicles, because bank robbers occasionally use automobiles as getaway vehicles? In this case, there is a theoretical benefit to the policy, just like there is a somewhat plausible case for anti-money laundering laws, but presumably we would reject such a policy as too intrusive.

Anti-money laundering laws are a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is the notion that bad policy begets more bad policy (this insight has been around forever, but I’m quite envious of Art Laffer for the Laffer Curve, so I’m trying to give myself a small measure of notoriety by being the lead proponent of the concept). The government passes drug laws that create huge profits for criminals. But rather than fight criminals (or, as libertarians would argue, get rid of victimless crimes), the government imposes policies that make life more difficult and costly for everyone else.

But regardless of what people think about drug laws, let’s at least use common sense and tell the crowd in Washington that it’s our choice whether we use $100 bills.

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I don’t want to give anyone indigestion, but The Hill is reporting that GOPers on Capitol Hill want to require insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, which is one of the key provisions of Obamacare.

Speaking to more than 100 students at American University, Cantor said, “What you will see us do is to push for repeal of the healthcare bill, and at the same time, contemporaneously, submit our replacement bill, that has in it the provisions [barring discrimination due to pre-existing conditions and offering young people affordable care options].” Cantor stressed that while he supports full repeal of the current law, Republicans share some of the same goals as Democrats, although they propose different ways of achieving them. “We too don’t want to accept any insurance company’s denial of someone and coverage for that person because he or she may have pre-existing condition,” Cantor said, addressing a young woman in the audience who noted that she had a pre-existing health condition.

This story initially was seen as a sign that House Republicans were planning to keep certain provisions of Obamacare, but Cantor’s office claims he was misquoted and the story now includes a correction indicating that “House Republicans are pursuing a full repeal of healthcare reform while addressing issues in the law, such as pre-existing conditions.”

It doesn’t matter to me, though, whether Republicans violate free markets and ignore the laws of economics by keeping an Obamacare provision or by doing the same thing in a different way with a brand new provision. The bottom line is that private insurance markets will be seriously damaged if the government imposes a mandate requiring companies to provide policies (with no price adjustment) that cover pre-existing conditions.

Such an approach leads to a couple of problems. First, such a mandate will create a bad incentive structure since consumers will be tempted to wait until they’re sick before purchasing insurance. Second, regardless of when they obtain insurance, the mandate would result in higher premiums for everybody else, contributing to what is sometimes referred to as adverse selection, which occurs when relatively healthy people decide to leave the system because government rules push up prices by forcing them to subsidize other consumers. Insurance companies are then left with consumers that are more expensive to cover, which leads to even higher rates, which leads even more consumers to opt out of insurance (which is why this process sometimes is referred to as the health insurance death spiral).

Ironically, the Democrats supposedly solved this problem in Obamacare by imposing the insurance mandate, which helps explain why the big companies were supportive of the legislation.

So what’s the answer? I’ve been around the political system long enough that I actually can sympathize with GOPers who don’t want to appear heartless when dealing with tough issues such as pre-existing conditions, but they better figure out an approach that doesn’t lead to an especially destructive version of “Mitchell’s Law,” which is when one bad government policy (such as a mandate to cover pre-existing conditions) leads to even worse government policy (a health insurance mandate or a single-payer system).

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For those who favor truth in labeling, the housing meltdown and related financial crisis and economic downturn should be brightly stamped with the phrase, “Made in Washington.” Here are two good pieces of evidence. First, this paper from the American Enterprise Institute is one of the best big-picture analyses on the issue. It identifies how “affordable lending” policies are at the heart of the problem. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract.

Government policies forced a systematic industry-wide loosening of underwriting standards in an effort to promote affordable housing. This paper documents how policies over a period of decades were responsible for causing a material increase in homeowner leverage through the use of low or no down payments, increased debt ratios, no loan amortization, low credit scores and other weakened underwriting standards associated with NTMs. These policies were legislated by Congress, promoted by HUD and other regulators responsible for their enforcement, and broadly adopted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) and the much of the rest mortgage finance industry by the early 2000s. Federal policies also promoted the growth of overleveraged loan funding institutions, led by the GSEs, along with highly leveraged private mortgage backed securities and structured finance transactions. HUD’s policy of continually and disproportionately increasing the GSEs’ goals for low- and very-low income borrowers led to further loosening of lending standards causing most industry participants to reach further down the demand curve and originate even more NTMs. As prices rose at a faster pace, an affordability gap developed, leading to further increases in leverage and home prices. Once the price boom slowed, loan defaults on NTMs quickly increased leading to a freeze-up of the private MBS market. A broad collapse of home prices followed.

Then, to show a good example of Mitchell’s Law, which is how bad government policy leads to more government policy, here’s a story about the fiasco surrounding President Obama’s mortgage subsidy program. The government is so bloody incompetent, it can’t even give away money effectively.

Nearly half of the 1.3 million homeowners who enrolled in the Obama administration’s flagship mortgage-relief program have fallen out. The program is intended to help those at risk of foreclosure by lowering their monthly mortgage payments. Friday’s report from the Treasury Department suggests the $75 billion government effort is failing to slow the tide of foreclosures in the United States, economists say. More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to foreclosure listing service RealtyTrac Inc. Economists expect the number of foreclosures to grow well into next year. “The government program as currently structured is petering out. It is taking in fewer homeowners, more are dropping out and fewer people are ending up in permanent modifications,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. …Many borrowers have complained that the government program is a bureaucratic nightmare. They say banks often lose their documents and then claim borrowers did not send back the necessary paperwork. The banking industry said borrowers weren’t sending back their paperwork. They also have accused the Obama administration of initially pressuring them to sign up borrowers without insisting first on proof of their income. When banks later moved to collect the information, many troubled homeowners were disqualified or dropped out. Obama officials dispute that they pressured banks. They have defended the program, saying lenders are making more significant cuts to borrowers’ monthly payments than before the program was launched. And some of the largest mortgage companies in the program have offered alternative programs to those who fell out.

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David Ignatius has a thoroughly boring and utterly predictable establishment left-wing column in the Washington post, but it is a perfect illustration of my maxim that “Bad government policy begets bad government policy.” In this case, Ignatius wants to expand gun control in the United States in response to the foolhardy drug war in Mexico. Neither effort will succeed, at least if either society wants even a smidgen of individual liberty, but statists never seen to worry about such niceties. If one of their policies leads to a mess, that’s just an excuse for more bad policy.

Mexico is reeling from a drug-cartel insurgency that is armed mainly with weapons acquired in the United States… Naming a new ATF chief to lead the fight against illegal weapons would be a small symbolic step. But it would signal to Mexicans and Arizonans alike that the administration is mobilizing to deal with these problems — and is willing to take some political heat in the process. …”The absence of a chief has hamstrung ATF’s ability to aggressively target gun trafficking rings or corrupt firearms dealers and has demoralized its agents,” Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, wrote in a June 10 letter to Obama. …The prevailing political wisdom in America, to which the Obama administration evidently subscribes, is that it’s folly to challenge the gun lobby. When Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón addressed a joint session of Congress in May, he all but pleaded with lawmakers to help stop the flow of assault weapons. His call to action produced little more than a shrug of the shoulders in Washington.

By the way, several of you have been ribbing me for calling this phenomenon Mitchell’s Law when great economists like Mises have written about this pattern. But I’m not saying that I invented the concept. I’m just trying to popularize it, much as I gave the name “Rahn Curve” to the theory about a growth-maximizing level of government. In effect, I’m trying to mimic Art Laffer. Art will freely tell anyone he meets that the concept behind the Laffer Curve existed for centuries. But he turned in into a curve and brought it to the attention of the world.

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I’ve decided my one legacy to the world is the phrase, “Bad government policy begets more bad government policy.” This term, which I am modestly calling Mitchell’s Law, describes what happens when government intervention (Fannie and Freddie, for example, or Medicare and Medicaid) causes problems in a particular market (a housing bubble or a third-party payer crisis), which leads the politicians to impose more misguided intervention (bailouts or Obamacare).

Here’s a good example from Germany. The politicians created government-run healthcare. Overweight people are putting a larger burden on the system, imposing costs on taxpayers. The logical response is to shift to a market-based system where people are in charge of their own healthcare costs. Not surprisingly, that option isn’t being considered. Instead, politicians are using the situation as an excuse to consider even more taxes.

Marco Wanderwitz, a conservative member of parliament for the German state of Saxony, said it is unfair and unsustainable for the taxpayer to carry the entire cost of treating obesity-related illnesses in the public health system. “I think that it would be sensible if those who deliberately lead unhealthy lives would be held financially accountable for that,” Wanderwitz said, according to Reuters. Germany, famed for its beer, pork and chocolates, is one of the fattest countries in Europe. Twenty-one percent of German adults were obese in 2007, and the German newspaper Bild estimates that the cost of treating obesity-related illnesses is about 17 billion euro, or $21.7 billion, a year. …Health economist Jurgen Wasem called for Germany to tackle the problem of fattening snacks in order to raise money and reduce obesity. “One should, as with tobacco, tax the purchase of unhealthy consumer goods at a higher rate and partly maintain the health system,” Wasem said, according to Germany’s English-language newspaper The Local. “That applies to alcohol, chocolate or risky sporting equipment such as hang-gliders.” Others are suggesting even more extreme measures. The German teachers association recently called for school kids to be weighed each day, The Daily Telegraph said. The fat kids could then be reported to social services, who could send them to health clinics.

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