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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