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Posts Tagged ‘Central planning’

When speaking about the difference between the private sector and the government, I sometimes emphasize that mistakes and errors are inevitable, and that the propensity to screw up may be just as prevalent in the private sector as it is in the public sector.

I actually think the government is more likely to screw up, for reasons outlined here, here, and here, but let’s bend over backwards to be fair and assume similar levels of mistakes.

The key difference between capitalism and government, though, is the feedback mechanism.

Private firms that make errors are quickly penalized. They lose customers, which means they lose profits. Or perhaps they even fail and go out of business (remember, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell).

This tends to concentrate the mind. Executives work harder, shareholders and bondholders focus more on promoting good corporate governance. All of which benefits the rest of us in our roles as workers and consumers.

But mistakes in the public sector rarely lead to negative feedback. Indeed, agencies and departments that make mistakes sometimes get rewarded with even bigger budgets. This means the rest of us are doubly victimized because we are taxpayers and we have to rely on certain government services.

Citing the Federal Reserve as an example, Thomas Sowell explains how this process works. He starts with a look at the Fed’s recent failures and asks some basic questions about why we should reward the central bank with more power.

The recent release of the Federal Reserve Board’s transcripts of its deliberations back in 2007 shows that their economic prophecies were way off. How much faith should we put in their prophecies today — or the policies based on those prophecies?

Here’s another example.

Ben Bernanke said in 2007, “The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.” It turned out that financial disasters in the housing market were not “contained,” but spread out to affect the whole American economy and economies overseas.

And here’s the icing on the cake.

Bernanke said: “It is an interesting question why what looks like $100 billion or so of credit losses in the subprime market has been reflected in multiple trillions of dollars of losses in paper wealth.” What is an even more interesting question is why we should put such faith and such power in the hands of a man and an institution that have been so wrong before.

Sowell acknowledges that we all make errors, but then makes the key point about the risks of giving more and more power to a central bank that has such a dismal track record.

We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System — or the seemingly boundless confidence that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke still shows as he intervenes in the economy on a massive scale.

Sowell then highlights some of the reasons why we should worry about concentrating more power into the hands of a few central bankers.

Being wrong is nothing new for the Federal Reserve System. Since this year is the one hundredth anniversary of the Fed’s founding, it may be worth looking back at its history. …In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded. The biggest deflation in the history of the country came after the Fed was founded, and that deflation contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If you want a more detailed examination of the Fed’s performance, this George Selgin video is withering indictment.

In other words, instead of giving the Fed more power, we should be looking at ways of clipping its wings.

I realize my fantasy of competitive currencies isn’t going to be realized anytime soon, and I’ve already explained why we should be very leery of trusting the government to operate a gold standard.

So I’m not sure whether I have any firm recommendations – other than perhaps hoping to convince policy makers that easy money is the not the right way of boosting an economy that is listless because of bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

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Back in 2010, I cited the superb work of Christina Hoff Summers as she explained that we should let markets determine wages rather than giving that power to a bunch of bean-counting bureaucrats.

She wrote that article because leftists at the time were pushing a so-called Paycheck Fairness Act that would have given the government powers to second guess compensation levels produced by the private marketplace.

For all intents and purposes, proponents were arguing that employers were deliberately and systematically sacrificing profits by paying men more than they were worth (which is the unavoidable flip side of arguing that women were paid less than they were worth).

Well, bad ideas never die and the Senate recently took up this statist proposal.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it didn’t get enough votes to overcome a procedural objection.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Christina Hoff Summers explains why we should be happy about that result.

Groups like the National Organization for Women insist that women are being cheated out of 24 percent of their salary. The pay equity bill is driven by indignation at this supposed injustice. Yet no competent labor economist takes the NOW perspective seriously. An analysis of more than 50 peer-reviewed papers, commissioned by the Labor Department, found that the so-called wage gap is mostly, and perhaps entirely, an artifact of the different choices men and women make—different fields of study, different professions, different balances between home and work. …The misnamed Paycheck Fairness Act is a special-interest bill for litigators and aggrieved women’s groups. A core provision would encourage class-action lawsuits and force defendants to settle under threat of uncapped punitive damages. Employers would be liable not only for intentional discrimination (banned long ago) but for the “lingering effects of past discrimination.” What does that mean? Employers have no idea. …Census data from 2008 show that single, childless women in their 20s now earn 8 percent more on average than their male counterparts in metropolitan areas.

At the risk of sounding extreme (perish the thought), let me take Ms. Summers argument one step farther. Yes, it would be costly and inefficient to let trial lawyers and bureaucrats go after private companies for private compensation decisions.

But what’s really at stake is whether we want resources to be allocated by market forces instead of political edicts.

This should be a no-brainer. If we look at the failure of central planning in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a fundamental problem was that government officials – even assuming intelligence and good intentions – did not have the knowledge needed to make decisions on prices.

And in the absence of a functioning price system, resources get misallocated and growth suffers. So you can imagine the potential damage of giving politicians, bureaucrats, and courts the ability to act as central planners for the wage system.

But that didn’t stop the economic illiterates in Washington from pushing a vote in the Senate.

Here’s some of what Steve Chapman wrote for the Washington Examiner.

President Barack Obama said it would merely mandate “equal pay for equal work.” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada warned beforehand that failing to pass the bill would send “the message to little girls across the country that their work is less valuable because they happened to be born female.” …This is a myth resting on a deception. …The gap reflects many benign factors stemming from the choices voluntarily made by women and men. …Women, on average, work fewer hours and are more likely than men to take time off for family duties. A 2009 report commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department concluded that such “factors account for a major portion and, possibly, almost all of the raw gender wage gap.” “The gender gap shrinks to between 8 percent and 0 percent when the study incorporates such measures as work experience, career breaks and part-time work,” Baruch College economist June O’Neill has written. …What the alleged gender pay gap reflects is the interaction of supply and demand in a competitive labor market. Even in a slow economy, companies that mistreat women can expect to lose them to rival employers.

Regular readers know that I’m very critical of Republicans for their propensity to do the wrong thing, particularly since they presumably know better.

But I also believe in giving praise when it’s warranted. That’s why I’ve written nice things about Bill Clinton and also why I praised House Republicans for supporting entitlement reform.

Well, here’s a case where a very bad idea was blocked because every single GOPer in the Senate held firm and voted for economic rationality. Those Senate Republicans did the right thing and prevailed, just as they were victorious when they did the right thing on taxes a couple of years ago.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, refused to take a position on the issue, showing that he is trying very hard to be the Richard Nixon of 2012.

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I’m glad that China has taken some steps away from communism. According to Economic Freedom of the World, China was one of 10-worst nations for economic liberty back in 1980 and they’ve since climbed to 92nd place out of 141 nations.

I’ve even offered a small bit of praise for China’s shift to a more business-friendly environment, and I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

That being said, 92nd place is still a very anemic rank, far below the first- and second-place jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Singapore.

So I was flabbergasted when Andy Stern, a former union boss and long-time Obama ally, wrote a column for today’s Wall Street Journal praising the efficiency and vitality of China’s planned economy.

You probably think I’m pulling your leg and/or deliberately misrepresenting what he wrote, but his article was titled “China’s Superior Economic Model.”

And just in case you think that’s the fault of editors and he couldn’t possible say such a thing, let’s look through the piece.

He starts off praising the goals of China’s latest five-year plan.

The aims: a 7% annual economic growth rate; a $640 billion investment in renewable energy; construction of six million homes; and expanding next-generation IT, clean-energy vehicles, biotechnology, high-end manufacturing and environmental protection—all while promoting social equity and rural development. Some Americans are drawing lessons from this. Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.”

Gee, that sounds so uplifting and inspirational. But there’s one tiny problem. China is still a very poor country. Here’s a chart showing the 2010 data from the World Bank.

Maybe I’m a crazy free-market ideologue, but I’d rather copy the Singapore or Hong Kong economic model.

But if I can’t choose one of those Asian tigers, I’ll stick with the U.S. system. Americans, after all, are about six times better off than the Chinese. Heck, China is still behind Albania.

Mr. Stern then writes about the supposed failures of “free-market extremism” in the United States.

The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model—so successful in the 20th century—is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century. In an era when countries need to become economic teams, Team USA’s results—a jobless decade, 30 years of flat median wages, a trade deficit, a shrinking middle class and phenomenal gains in wealth but only for the top 1%—are pathetic. …This should motivate leaders to rethink, rather than double down on an empirically failing free-market extremism. As painful and humbling as it may be, America needs to do what a once-dominant business or sports team would do when the tide turns: study the ingredients of its competitors’ success.

Since this is a pro-family blog, I won’t repeat the inappropriate words that came out of my mouth upon reading these passages.

Instead, I’ll simply call your attention to this post, which shows how America’s score in the Economic Freedom of the World ranking declined during the past decade. Indeed, the United States was among the five nations with the biggest declines over that 10-year period and the United States dropped from 3rd to 10th during those years.

If that was a period of “free-market fundamentalist” policies, then I guess I need to start cheering for socialism.

I’ll conclude by doing one of my favorite things – quoting myself. Here’s a bit of what I wrote last year.

China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. …This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. …But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy.

I’ve probably exhausted everyone’s interest in this topic, but if anyone’s a glutton for punishment, I was part of a debate on English-language Russian TV about Chinese and American economic policy.

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Thomas Sowell makes a very good point about the ostensibly brilliant advisers working for President Obama. If these smart people think that a high IQ somehow entitles them to “plan” the economy, then history shows the results will not be pretty. This is the difference between intellect and wisdom. Unfortunately, Obama’s people have very little of the latter. The late Nobel Laureate, Friedrich Hayek, referred to this trait among certain intellectuals as the “fatal conceit” and it is an especially common affliction in Washington as Sowell opines:

Many people, including some conservatives, have been very impressed with how brainy the president and his advisers are. But that is not quite as reassuring as it might seem. It was, after all, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brilliant “brains trust” advisers whose policies are now increasingly recognized as having prolonged the Great Depression of the 1930s, while claiming credit for ending it. …Brainy folks were also present in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, especially in the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s brilliant “whiz kids” tried to micro-manage the Vietnam war, with disastrous results. There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs. Such people have been told all their lives how brilliant they are, until finally they feel forced to admit it, with all due modesty. But they not only tend to over-estimate their own brilliance, more fundamentally they tend to over-estimate how important brilliance itself is when dealing with real world problems. …Argentina began that century as one of the 10 richest nations in the world– ahead of France and Germany– and ended it as such an economic disaster that no one would even compare it to France or Germany. Politically brilliant and charismatic leaders, promoting reckless government spending– of whom Juan Peron was the most prominent, but by no means alone– managed to create an economic disaster in a country with an abundance of natural resources and a country that was spared the stresses that wars inflicted on other nations in the 20th century.

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