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Archive for April, 2020

Looking through my archives, I shared three column of gun control humor in 2019 (March, August, and December).

So it’s definitely time to add some new items to our collection.

We’ll start with a cartoon that shows how gun-control zealots would try to stop the coronavirus.

And I’m sure it will work just as well as signs declaring gun-free zones.

Next we have some satire about civil disobedience, this time in Virginia.

The bad news is that some new restrictions on gun rights were approved. The good news is that the worst idea was blocked by a citizen revolt.

Adolf Hitler imposed gun control after the Nazis seized power, so he’s looking up from hell (along with his fellow dictators) and can’t believe some people want to be disarmed.

Our next item for the collection is a clever depiction of the difference between open carry and concealed carry.

In either case, life is more difficult for criminals.

This next bit of satire is self-explanatory.

I don’t know Jordan Howard, but “a group of Karens who hate freedom” is a very succinct description.

As is my habit, I’m closing with my favorite item (even if the person who put it together obviously isn’t an expert on guns).

I’ve been in this situation a few times, though efforts to muzzle me usually aren’t very effective.

I don’t even own any “assault weapons,” much less one with a high-capacity magazine. But I definitely don’t want the government to restrict my freedom in case circumstances lead me change my mind.

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Since government officials have imposed severe restrictions on economic activity, I’m sympathetic to the notion that businesses should be compensated.

But, as I warn in this CNBC interview, I have major concerns about big government and big business getting in bed together.

As is so often the case with interviews on live TV, there are many issues that didn’t get appropriate attention (either because there was too little time or because I failed to address a key point).

  • A major risk of bailouts is that politicians will insist on having a say in how companies operate. Indeed, that’s what Christian Weller was calling for in the final part of the interview. I should have pointed out the huge economic downside of having government in the boardroom.
  • There’s a rationale for short-run emergency legislation, but we should be very concerned that self-interested politicians and power-hungry bureaucracies will use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to permanently expand their power and control over the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. I usually try to avoid making predictions (economists are lousy forecasters), but I feel confident in asserting that my friends on the left – once the coronavirus crisis has ended – will be complaining about big businesses having too much power.

I’m not against large companies, per se. But I don’t want bigger firms to gain an advantage over small companies by getting in bed with government.

If we want fair and honest competition, we need separation of business and state. No bailouts, no cronyism, no subsidies, and no favoritism.

That’s the part folks on the left don’t understand.

P.S. If you want more information on the economic damage caused by bailouts, watch this video and this video.

P.P.S. Speaking of videos, here’s some satire about the toys that politicians get for their children.

P.P.P.S. I wish this was satire, but American taxpayers are helping to underwrite cronyism in other countries.

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Like many supporters of individual liberty, I’m an anti-majoritarian. I don’t want my freedom to be at the mercy of 51 percent of the population. For all intents and purposes, I want the Supreme Court to protect the country from democracy.

So, based solely on the title, I was automatically disposed to like 10% Less Democracy, a book authored by Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University.

But Garett’s book isn’t a manifesto about the American Constitution and its (sadly neglected) provisions designed to protect economic liberty. It doesn’t even mention my favorite part, Article 1, Section 8, which lists the few and limited powers of the central government.

Instead, his book focuses on a different topic. He’s arguing that we will get better outcomes if ordinary people have less influence on public policy.

And he’s not subtle about that point. The full title of his book is 10% Less Democracy: Why you should trust elites a little more and the masses a little less.

All of a sudden, I was less instinctively favorable to the book.

Simply stated, there are too many cases where the elite tends to be on the wrong side.

When someone says we should trust the elite, I envision people like Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg deciding everything from how much tax we pay to what food we’re allowed to eat.

To be sure, people like that would produce a much better outcome when compared to having a lunatic like Bernie Sanders in charge of the government, but I’d like to have a government filled with people who are more likely to leave me alone, such as Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland, and Ronald Reagan.

But you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. And that means you shouldn’t judge it by its subtitle, either.

So I took the bold step of actually reading the book (unlike, for instance, when I wrote about Nancy MacLean’s smear job against James Buchanan).

And I liked it. A lot. It’s well written, avoids needless jargon (you don’t need to be a trained economist to understand his points), and touches on many important issues.

And Garett does a great job of dispassionately providing evidence. So even when he made points that rubbed me the wrong way, I was forced to wonder whether I was thinking with my heart rather than my head.

Here’s a small sampling of why you should buy – and read – the book.

In Chapter 1, you’ll learn that there’s very little evidence that democracies produce better economic results, but you will learn that they’re less likely to produce famine and mass killings.

In Chapter 2, you’ll learn how Congress is a “favor factory” and read Garett’s hypothesis that politicians will be more likely to support good policies such as free trade if they have longer terms.

In Chapter 3, you’ll learn that independent central banks work better (yes, feel free to criticize the Federal Reserve, but nations such as Argentina show it’s always possible to get worse outcomes).

In Chapter 4, you’ll learn from state evidence that independent judges also generate better results, at least when compared to judges that are directly elected by voters.

In Chapter 5, you’ll learn that not all voters are created equal.

In Chapter 6, you’ll learn that public policy might improve if bondholders had a bigger say in government policy, an insight from Alexander Hamilton.

In Chapter 7, you’ll learn some “public choice” insights about getting things done in Washington (whether that’s a good idea is an entirely different discussion).

In Chapter 8, you’ll learn that joining the anti-democratic European Union is the right choice for some nations, but also that the United Kingdom had good reasons for Brexit.

In Chapter 9, you’ll learn how Singapore is a huge success story with “50% less democracy.”

Garett concludes with some analysis on how to get the right amount of democracy.

His basic hypothesis is that we have too much input from the masses and he even put together his own version of the Laffer Curve to show that we would get better outcomes with less democracy.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that you want to be at the peak of Garett’s Laffer Curve.

With the original Laffer Curve, however, that’s not the right outcome.

P.S. Garett’s book does suffer from one sin of omission. I would have appreciated a chapter on the anomaly of Switzerland. It’s a very successful, very well-governed nation, yet it has an extremely high level of not just democracy, but direct democracy. Voters directly decide all sorts of major policy issues.

Is Switzerland an exception to the rule? Are Swiss people simply more rational than their neighbors? Does the country’s federalism-based model lead to better choices? It would be fascinating to get Garett’s insights.

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A couple of weeks ago, I debunked a remarkably anti-empirical column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post.

He claimed that America’s response to the coronavirus was hampered because government is too small, yet the nations he cited as successful role models actually have much smaller public sectors than the United States.

I congratulated him for accidentally making a strong case for libertarianism and providing evidence for my Seventh Theorem of Government.

Unfortunately, other journalists share Mr. Milbank’s ignorance with regards to easily accessible data on fiscal policy.

Writing for the Atlantic, George Packer asserts that the U.S. response to the coronavirus has been a miserable failure because government is too small.

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. …a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. …tests for the virus were almost impossible to find… years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation.

Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review takes apart Packer’s column.

He points out that CDC funding has increased, while also noting that the bureaucracy has squandered the additional money it has received.

…the CDC’s funding has increased — not that it has made good use of the extra money. This is not a lean and mean virus-fighting machine, getting by on starvation-level resources. It maintains a Hollywood liaison to consult on films. In recent years, it has expanded beyond its core mission to promote motorcycle safety and sponsor programs dedicated to fostering “safe, stable, nurturing relationships” in schools. If you’re wondering why there was lots of political and social messaging larding up CDC documents on COVID-19, just realize that when Congress increases an agency’s funding, the result is likely to be more ideological make-work jobs rather than a more effective workforce. …as for public-sector health-care spending, ours is not notably low — it’s roughly equivalent to those of the developed nations of Western Europe.

And he also observes that nations with smaller governments have done a better job than countries with bigger governments.

…The East Asian states that have done best in fighting COVID-19 are not social-democratic but hyper-capitalist. Compared with them — and to America —Western Europe has done much worse at containing the spread of the coronavirus and the holding down the death toll.

Excellent points.

For my contribution to this debate, I’m going to investigate whether Mr. Packer is right about “steady defunding” of the federal government.

To see whether he is correct about “programs defunded,” I went to Table 1.3 of the Historical Tables of the Budget and created the following chart to see what happened to inflation-adjusted spending over the past 40 years.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Mr. Packer is completely wrong. There hasn’t been any defunding. Not even close.

Instead, the inflation-adjusted burden of government is almost three times greater today than it was the year Reagan was elected (and it will be more than three times greater once all the emergency spending is included).

The bottom line is that I can’t figure out whether to be more dismayed that journalists are innumerate or that major publications apparently don’t have fact checkers.

P.S. There were periods when spending grew faster than at other times. There were also times when the private sector grew faster than the government (fulfilling the Golden Rule). And we also can see the how government exploded because of TARP and Obama’s faux stimulus and then was briefly constrained during the Tea Party era (and is now climbing rapidly under Trump).

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Having written about serious and depressing coronavirus-related issues during the week, it’s time for some politically-themed coronavirus humor.

Regular readers know that I’m a long-time proponent of this message for healthy thinking.

Moreover, I think it’s safe to say that coronavirus won’t come close to killing as many people as the various strains of socialism.

Here’s some humor based on Dr. Trump’s latest medical advice.

The coronavirus is bad for the nation, but it’s given the crowd in Washington a reason to engage in their favorite activity.

Which leads America’s best satire site, Babylon Bee, to report on a crime wave.

A nefarious gang of masked bandits has voted to steal another $500 billion from your grandchildren, investigators confirmed Thursday. The mysterious masked culprits…have not been apprehended yet and so are continuing to plot more heists. …”It’s the perfect crime,” said the gang’s ringleader, cackling, as she approved the plan to rob your grandchildren of their future. “We print the money, we borrow the money, then we’re gone before the bill comes due. The plan is flawless!”

Well, not quite flawless.

Here’s the latest version of a very recognizable meme.

Fortunately, I’ve never seen bats on the menu as part of my travels to China.

Here’s another jab at Trump’s medical advice.

Here are some excerpts from another report published by Babylon Bee, this one dealing with the petty tyrants in flyover country.

On Meet the Press Sunday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer reminded everyone that “revolutions and revolts are simply un-American.” Whitmer called on the protesters in her state to stop their illegal assembling, reminding them that protesting so-called tyranny is a foreign idea to the history of the United States. …”It flies in the face of every American tradition. Revolting against tyranny has no place in this great country.” Governor Whitmer then rattled off a long list of things that she also believes to be un-American: …Declaring independence from tyrants… Having a list of protected rights… Separation of powers… Freedom of religion, assembly, the press, protests, and speech… Federalism… “If you’re really Americans, you’ll stop with this dangerous revolutionary activity,” she concluded.

Here’s a clever image that applicable if you recognize there are tradeoffs.

Since I’ve written about the economic tradeoffs, I obviously want people to die.

Here’s a report from the Babylon Bee on a big increase in severe cases.

America suffered its highest one-day increase in cases of Trump Derangement Syndrome yesterday, adding 317,259 new cases. This brought the number of U.S. cases to roughly 59 million, while worldwide cases of the deadly disease increased to 110 million. The peak in cases was brought on by President Trump’s growing urgency to reopen the economy and allow people to go back to work. Scholars have noted that this is equivalent to slavery. …“Our models have been quite accurate from day one,” claimed Ron Whitley of the University of Washington.  “And we don’t see a peak here. Our data suggests a slow increase in cases through the summer, and then a big peak in cases about November 4 or so.”

Next, we have an actual photograph of a restaurant window across for the Treasury Department, but, if we believe in truth in advertising, the reflected sign may as well be a banner hanging from all government buildings.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that big government enables big corruption.

Here’s another amusing story from Babylon Bee.

Congress has asked all non-essential businesses to limit their hours or close entirely for an undetermined amount of time. But this shutdown mistakenly shut down the most non-essential entity of all: the government. …”Oops,” said Senator Mitch McConnell. “We meant non-essential private businesses. Of course, the government is always essential, even when it’s not doing anything or is making things worse.” Senators, congresspeople, and bureaucrats frantically rewrote the ban to include only businesses that actually produced something and not government agencies that just watched other people make stuff. …they passed this revision in record speed, almost as quickly as they vote for pay raises for themselves. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she would have caught the mistake but had passed the ban in a hurry, saying, “We had to pass the ban to see what it did.”

Reminds me of some of the jokes from when we have a government shutdown.

I’ve saved my favorite image for last.

Here are the previous editions of coronavirus humor.

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At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The international bureaucracy is the “Johnny Appleseed” of moral hazard, using bailouts to reward profligate governments and imprudent lenders.

The IMF also is infamous for encouraging higher tax burdens, which is especially outrageous since its cossetted employees are exempt from paying tax on their lavish salaries.

In recent years, the IMF has been using inequality as a justification for statist policies. Most recently, the lead bureaucrat at the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, cited that issue as a reason for governments to impose higher taxes to fund bigger welfare states.

…inequality has become one of the most complex and vexing challenges in the global economy. Inequality of opportunity. Inequality across generations. Inequality between women and men. And, of course, inequality of income and wealth. …The good news is we have tools to address these issues… Progressive taxation is a key component of effective fiscal policy. At the top of the income distribution, our research shows that marginal tax rates can be raised without sacrificing economic growth. …Gender budgeting is another valuable fiscal tool in the fight to reduce inequality…. The ability to scale up social spending is also essential… A cornerstone of our approach to issues of economic inclusion is our social spending strategy.

What’s especially remarkable is that the IMF has claimed that the punitive policies actually will lead to more growth, in stark contrast to honest people on the left who have always acknowledged the equity-efficiency tradeoff.

The economics editor at the left-leaning Guardian, Larry Elliott, is predictably delighted with the IMF’s embrace of Greek-style fiscal policy.

Raising income tax on the wealthy will help close the growing gap between rich and poor and can be done without harming growth, the head of the International Monetary Fund has said. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, said higher marginal tax rates for the better off were needed as part of a policy rethink to tackle inequality. …The IMF managing director, who succeeded Christine Lagarde last year, said higher taxes on the better off…would help fund government spending to expand opportunities for those “communities and individuals that have been falling behind.” …Georgieva said the IMF recognised that social spending policies are increasingly relevant in tackling inequality. …She added that many less well-off countries needed to scale up social spending.

Ironically, the IMF actually has admitted that this approach is bad for prosperity.

It has produced research on something called “equally distributed equivalent income” to justify lower levels of income so long as economic misery is broadly shared.

I’m not joking. You can click here to see another example of the IMF embracing poverty if it means the rich disproportionately suffer.

In other words, negative-sum economics. Though Margaret Thatcher was more eloquent in her description of this awful ideology.

At first, this column was going to be a run-of-the-mill anti-IMF diatribe.

But as I contemplated how the people fixated on inequality are willing to treat the poor like sacrificial lambs, it occurred to me that this is a perfect opportunity to unveil my Eighth Theorem of Government.

P.S. Here are my other theorems of government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.

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When I put forth the “The Case for Social Security Personal Accounts” in early 2011, I pointed out that the program’s long-run fiscal shortfall was more than $27 trillion.

We should be so lucky to have that problem today.

The Social Security Administration just released the annual report on the program’s finances, so I went to to Table VI.G9 of the “Supplemental Single-Year Tables” to peruse the yearly projections for future revenue and spending (which are adjusted for inflation so we have a more accurate method for comparisons).

The bad news is that an ever-increasing amount of our income is going to be grabbed by payroll taxes. The worse news is that Social Security’s spending burden will climb at an even-faster rate (historical data to the left of the red line, future projections to the right of the red line).

For those who focus on the less-important issue of red ink, the gap between revenue and spending over the next 75 years is projected to reach $44.7 trillion.

The gap in this year’s report is not directly comparable to the number I cited in 2011, but there’s no question the program’s finances are heading in the wrong direction.

This is partly because Social Security – as a “pay-as-you-go” program – is very vulnerable to demographic changes.

Like other types of Ponzi Schemes, it can work so long as there are always more and more new people entering the system.

But America’s demographic profile is changing. We’re living longer and having fewer kids.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Daniel Kowalski has a summary of how the program works and why it has a grim future.

Social Security recipients are not paid with the money that the government deducted directly from them and their past employers. Instead that money was used to pay the benefits for past retirees, while current retired recipients are getting their money through Americans who are currently working and contributing to the system. …the first recipients of the Social Security program took out far more than they put in with the difference being made up by the fact that active workers then greatly outnumbered beneficiaries. In 1940 this was not an issue as there were 159 workers supporting one beneficiary. …By 1960, 15 years after President Roosevelt’s death, that ratio was reduced to 5 workers for every beneficiary. In 1980, the ratio dropped to just above three and in 2010 it dropped below that. …there is one thing that Millennials and Generation Z can do to prepare themselves for that day. Start saving and planning for retirement now and make a plan that does not count on a government-issued Social Security check.

He’s right, and his column doesn’t even address the other problem for young people, which is the fact that they get a rotten deal from the program, paying in record amounts of money in exchange for hollow promises of a meager monthly benefit.

By the way, the numbers in the two charts above are based on the Social Security Administration’s “intermediate” assumptions.

I’ve never had any reason to question the reasonableness of those numbers. But in a world with coronavirus, which is causing crippling short-run economic damage and could cause significant long-run harm, it may be more prudent to look at SSA’s “high-cost” assumptions.

The bottom line is that the program’s long-run shortfall could be more than $20 trillion higher.

And remember, these numbers are in 2020 dollars. In other words, adjusted for inflation.

So how do we solve this mess? How do we avoid a grim fiscal future?

Shifting to a system of personal retirement accounts would be the most prudent approach. Yes, there would be an enormous transition cost since we would need to pay benefits to current retirees and many older workers, but that transition cost would be less than the $44.7 trillion unfunded liability (or even more!) of the current system.

I’ve written many times about the benefits of personal accounts for the United States, but I find most people are more interested in real-world evidence. Here are just a few of the several dozen nations that either fully or partially utilize private savings instead of political promises.

P.S. Some folks in Washington want to exacerbate Social Security’s fiscal burden by expanding the program.

P.P.S. I hate to add to the bad news, but the long-run finances for Medicare and Medicaid are an even-bigger problem.

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Remember the “jobless recovery” of the Obama years?

Part of the problem was that President Obama kept extending unemployment benefits, which subsidized joblessness, as even Paul Krugman and Larry Summers had warned.

The good news was that Congress eventually said no in 2014 (actually one of the three best things to happen that year).

After that happened, the labor market improved.

But politicians apparently didn’t learn anything. As part of emergency coronavirus legislation, they turbo-charged unemployment benefits.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial from yesterday has a good summary.

Much of the harm from the coronavirus is unavoidable, but it would be nice if politicians didn’t compound the damage by ignoring the laws of economics. The worst blunder so far on that score is the $600 increase in federal jobless benefits… Why would anyone take a pay cut to go back to work? …Employees say they’ll take the unemployment check for as long as they can make more money by not working. …This does not mean these workers are lazy. Workers are making rational decisions based on the economic incentives the political class has created. …The question now is whether the Trump Administration will learn from its negotiating mistake. Democrats will try to extend the $600 for another few months, and then a few more after that, as they describe anyone who disagrees as heartless.

Tim Kane, in a piece for the Hill, explains why this doesn’t make sense.

The UI system is a case study in perverse incentives in the best of times, but the four-month “fix” in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) makes it far worse. …Existing UI provides a government payment to each worker who is involuntarily laid off, in essence paying people not to work. The amount varies slightly according to state-based formulas. But UI checks are generally set to replace 50 percent of the individual’s wages until they find a new job. …Pandemic UI jacks up the replacement rate with a supplemental $600 per unemployed worker for the next four months. That’s roughly an extra $2,400 each month that will go to you only if you are unemployed. …Now that the CARES Act is the law of the land, any American with an annual salary of $62,000 has no financial incentive to work, certainly not until August. …the federal government is going to pay non-working Americans way more than working Americans.

In a column for Bloomberg, Conor Sen explores the implications.

It’s also important to be mindful of how, once the economy is growing again, a $600 weekly benefit can distort the labor market. That works out to the equivalent of $15 an hour for a 40-hour work week, a level that substantially exceeds the minimum wage in most states. When restaurants are open for business again, they are likely to complain if they can’t hire dishwashers who understand that it’s not worth giving up unemployment benefits. One step to winding down the program might be reducing the benefit over time in response to labor-market conditions and monitoring the impact that’s having on workers accepting jobs.

Sam Hammond, writing for National Review, opines on the potential human cost.

…the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program…will…add an extra $600 per week to the base benefit (equal to half the state’s regular unemployment benefit) for up to four months. …This $600 per week add-on — equivalent to a $15-per-hour full-time income — means that many workers will soon be eligible to receive more in unemployment compensation than they would make on the job. …It should go without saying that no government in history has ever designed an unemployment-insurance program quite like this — one that virtually anyone can qualify for, and with benefits on par with the median weekly earnings of full-time workers. …a worst-case scenario is easy to imagine…once quarantines begin to lift, a fraction of Pandemic UI recipients will choose to stay on “extended benefits”… Temporary unemployment will become structural, and a jobless recovery will drag out for decades.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center cites some of the academic literature.

The unintended consequences and moral hazard of UI during normal times and normal recessions are well known. Put briefly, generous UI benefits create an incentive for workers to delay looking for jobs until the expiration of the benefit. In 2010, Harvard University economist Robert Barro estimated that the Great Recession expansions in UI benefits raised the US unemployment rate by about 2.7 percentage points. …In addition, economists Lawrence F. Katz and Bruce D. Meyer observe that workers receiving unemployment benefits were likely to postpone their job searches until their benefits expired. This finding was confirmed by many other studies, including one by economist Alan Krueger,  who wrote in 2008 that “job search increases sharply in the weeks prior to benefit exhaustion.”

And she points out that there is a better approach.

…an old policy proposal that should receive new attention—a proposal that by design encourages people to go back to work as quickly as they can… Personal unemployment insurance savings accounts (PISAs) are designed to maintain a financial incentive to return to work as soon as possible. These accounts are individually owned by workers who, during spells of unemployment, can make orderly withdrawals to partially compensate for the loss to their income but can keep and build the balance during their regular times of employment. …This form of UI is not a mere theoretical proposition. The experience of Chile is worth noting, but other countries such as Austria and Colombia have adopted similar plans.

Making a related point, Congressman Justin Amash points out that it would be less harmful to simply give people money rather than giving them money on the condition that they don’t work.

By the way, a study from the Bank for International Settlements, published well before coronavirus became an issue, notes other negative effects of unemployment benefits.

Many countries provide unemployment insurance (UI) to reduce individuals’ income risk and to moderate fluctuations in the economy. However, to the extent that these policies are successful, they would be expected to reduce precautionary savings and hence bank deposits–households’ main saving instrument. In this paper, we study this reduced incentive to save and uncover a novel distortionary mechanism through which UI policies affect the economy. In particular, we show that, when UI benefits become more generous, bank deposits fall. Since deposits are the main stable funding source for banks, this fall in deposits squeezes bank commercial lending, which in turn reduces corporate investment.

Just another chapter in the government’s book on how to discourage savings.

Let’s close with some real world illustrations of how Washington’s approach is backfiring.

A story from National Public Radio shows how workers respond logically to perverse incentives.

…the extra money can create some awkward situations. Some businesses that want to keep their doors open say it’s hard to do so when employees can make more money by staying home. “We basically have this situation where it would be a logical choice for a lot of people to be unemployed,” said Sky Marietta, who opened a coffee shop along with her husband, Geoff, last year in Harlan, Ky. …The shop had been up and running for only a few months when the coronavirus hit. …Marietta was determined to stay open. …But even though she had customers, Marietta reluctantly decided to close the coffee shop just over a week ago. “The very people we hired have now asked us to be laid off,” Marietta wrote… “Not because they did not like their jobs or because they did not want to work, but because it would cost them literally hundreds of dollars per week to be employed.” …the $10 to $15 an hour they’d make serving coffee is no match for the new jobless benefits.

Maxim Lott also wrote about another tragic example.

An additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits…causing concern that some workers could be in a position to actually make more money by leaving their jobs. . …That angers some essential workers on the front lines on the crisis. “I can tell you as a worker who barely makes over minimum wage, at $12 an hour, the whole thing is complete BS,” Otis Mitchell Jr., who works in West Virginia transporting hospital patients to get medical tests, told Fox News. Mitchell Jr. added that he has unemployed friends who already are getting the extra $600, and that “I prefer to work, but sadly I’d make more staying home.” …generous payments are…scheduled to last for four months, ending July 31.

A report from CNBC also found perverse consequences.

Jamie Black-Lewis felt like she won the lottery after getting two forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program. …When Black-Lewis convened a virtual employee meeting to explain her good fortune, she expected jubilation and relief that paychecks would resume in full even though the staff — primarily hourly employees — couldn’t work. She got a different reaction. “It was a firestorm of hatred about the situation,” Black-Lewis said. …The anger came from employees who’d determined they’d make more money by collecting unemployment benefits than their normal paychecks. …“I couldn’t believe it,” she added. “On what planet am I competing with unemployment?”

If you want to see why people are choosing unemployment, here’s a chart from the CNBC story. Using examples from three states, it shows the normal generosity of unemployment benefits on the left and the new approach on the right.

Needless to say, it’s economic malpractice to make unemployment more attractive than jobs paying $20-$30 per hour.

It’s the real-world version of this satirical Wizard-of-Id cartoon.

P.S. Speaking of satire, Nancy Pelosi actually argued that paying people not to work was a form of stimulus.

P.P.S. Here are a couple of anecdotes, one from Ohio and one from Michigan, about the perverse impact of excessive unemployment benefits during the last downturn.

P.P.P.S. If you want more academic literature on the relationship between government benefits and joblessness, click here and here.

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The folks who don’t want to let a crisis go to waste have been very busy in the era of coronavirus, pushing an ever-expanding menu of bad ideas.

Now we have another bad idea to add to the list.

A professor from Yale Law School, Daniel Markovits, argues in a column in the New York Times that the virus is a great excuse to impose a wealth tax.

Our extraordinary battle against the pandemic should draw on the immense reserves that the most privileged among us have accumulated over decades of abundance. To achieve this goal, America should institute a wealth tax. …the relief effort should be funded through a one-time wealth tax imposed on the richest Americans… An exemption for the first $2.5 million of household wealth would exclude the bottom 95 percent from paying any tax at all and leave the top 5 percent with total taxable wealth of roughly $40 trillion. A 5 percent tax on the richest 5 percent of households could thus raise up to $2 trillion. …this one-time wealth tax…appeal ought to cross partisan lines. …A wealth tax would fund the relief effort in a way that gives meaning to shared sacrifice in the face of a universal threat.

My initial suggestion for Professor Markovits is the same one I put forth for Bill Gates. He should lead by example and donate a big chunk of his income, as well as the bulk of his savings and investments, to the IRS.

As an Ivy League professor, I’m sure he’s comfortably positioned as a member of the infamous “top 1 percent” of taxpayers, so he can be a guinea pig for his idea. To make things easy, the government has a website for him to use.

But let’s set aside snark and focus on the economic consequences. This issue deserves serious attention, not only because it is a threat in the United States, but also because it’s becoming an issue in other nations.

Such as Argentina.

Argentine Economy Minister Martin Guzman has backed the idea of a wealth tax on the country’s rich…to…find money to help cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. The tax would affect 11,000 people with fortunes of at least $2 million, Guzman said… He spoke in an interview with journalist Horacio Verbitsky, published on the website El Cohete a la Luna. President Alberto Fernandez, in a separate interview, spoke of the need for wealth redistribution.

And South Africa.

The South African government will consider a proposal for a one-off wealth tax during an economic recovery planning meeting… Such a tax could assist Africa’s most industrialized economy as it bounces back from the coronavirus outbreak and a five-week lockdown that is scheduled to be lifted on 30 April. The proposal comes from a group of economists, led by former South African National Treasury budget chief Michael Sachs.

The big problem with all of these proposals is that they ignore the crippling economic impact of wealth taxation.

The important thing to understand is that such taxes impose very punitive implicit tax rates on saving and investment. As seen in the accompanying chart, the actual tax rate depends on how well affected taxpayers are investing their money.

And it doesn’t take extreme assumptions to see that many taxpayers will face implicit tax rates of more than 100 percent!

And since all economic theories – even foolish ones such as socialism – agree that saving and investment are vitally important if we want higher living standards, any sort of wealth tax is a big mistake.

Actually, that’s an understatement.

In a normal economy, a wealth tax is a big mistake. But we’re now dealing with the very painful economic fallout from the coronavirus.

We will have a desperate need for lots of private capital if we want to restore prosperity as fast as possible, which is why imposing a wealth tax nowadays (in addition to other forms of double taxation that already exist) would be a catastrophic blunder.

And if the class-warfare crowd succeeds in their campaign to punish the rich, poor people will suffer the most.

P.S. Some people argue that a one-time wealth tax, similar to what Prof. Markovitz proposes and what South Africa is considering, wouldn’t have adverse economic effects because it penalizes productive behavior in the past (and there’s no way for people to reduce work, saving, and investment that already took place). But as I explained when debunking IMF arguments for a one-time wealth tax, this assertion is flawed because a) people will adjust their behavior when such a tax is discussed, b) people won’t trust it is a one-time tax, and c) the money will be used to finance a larger burden of government spending.

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One year ago, I shared this video to explain why a “trade deficit” doesn’t matter, in large part because it is simply a result of foreigners wanting to invest in America’s economy with some of the dollars they earn.

We also have a trade deficit, I pointed out, because we’re richer than most other nations. Simply stated, we can afford to buy more from people in other nations than they can afford to buy from us.

Indeed, I pointed out that the trade deficit increased in Trump’s first few years in office because better tax policy and better regulatory policy increased America’s economic performance relative to other countries.

This is why, as a general rule, it’s actually a sign of economic strength to have a so-called trade deficit.

The flip side of this observation is that trade deficits will decline if the economy is weak.

And that seems to be happening today. Christine McDaniel of the Mercatus Center, writing for the Hill, notes that the trade deficit is now falling for that unfortunate reason.

The Trump administration’s dream of reducing the trade deficit is finally coming true. …for the first two months of 2020, the U.S. trade deficit dropped to $113.5 billion. That’s down from $130.4 billion over the same period last year, a 13 percent decrease. …Needless to say, …we import less. Today, we are importing less because Americans are consuming less during an economic shut down. …We are probably on track to shrink the trade deficit even more this year. …Consumer confidence declined sharply in March, which reflects consumer sentiment — that is, their overall desire to go out and buy things, including imports. …The irony is that the pandemic is fulfilling one of his campaign promises. Nobody is treating it like good news — but this dream coming true just highlights why the metric is so flawed.

To emphasize Ms. McDaniel’s point, let’s look at the long-run data on America’s trade balance.

Here are the annual numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, measured as a share of economic output.

As you can see, our last trade surplus was during the 1970s, when America was suffering from stagflation, and the trade deficit since then has always declined when there’s been a recession.

By the way, you can also see how the trade deficit increased during the Reagan years and the Clinton years. The obvious lesson is that pro-market policies make us richer, and that means we buy more and attract more investment.

That’s good outcome, even if the so-called trade deficit climbs.

The bottom line is that if we want to reduce our trade deficit (and also, by definition, reduce our capital surplus), we should adopt the Bernie Sanders agenda. We won’t be rich enough to buy much from foreigners, and people in other nations won’t be so willing to invest in America’s economy.

Maybe I’m crazy, but that seems like a bad outcome.

P.S. Trade balances also can be affected by other factors, such as shifts in monetary policy and the economic performance of major trading partners.

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Nine days ago, I wrote about Dana Milbank scoring an “own goal” because he claimed we needed bigger government to deal with coronavirus, yet all the nations he cited for their effective responses actually have a much smaller fiscal burden than the United States.

Today, we have the Twitter equivalent of an “own goal.”

R.D. Hale, a British guy from the #SocialistCampaignGroup tweeted that he wants to move to an island and start a new country with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good idea. I certainly wouldn’t be upset if hard-core leftists decided to leave the United States (there’s even a satirical version of this idea).

But Tom Harwood, as you can see, had a response that was far more clever.

Ouch! I don’t know if “own goal” does this justice. This is a brutal dunk by Harwood on Hale.

Especially since both Sanders and Corbyn actually have offered praise for Castro and Cuba.

The bottom line is that the utter misery and deprivation of the Cuban people is a pretty good indication of what would happen if lunatics like Sanders and Corbyn ever had free rein to impose their policies in the U.S. or U.K.

P.S. Here’s the best counter-tweet of 2019.

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Time for the 5th edition of coronavirus humor (previous versions here, here, here, and here).

Our first item is one that may me laugh out loud, perhaps because it also reminded me on another cameo appearance by Bill Clinton.

Next, we have Bernie Sanders celebrating America’s coronavirus-inspired experiment with socialism.

My friends on the left keep insisting that there’s a difference between socialism and democratic socialism. I guess that applies to coronavirus as well.

This cartoon is worth sharing. For what it’s worth, I actually prefer it when politicians hate each other rather than when they engage in “bipartisanship.”

Since most people actually over-pay during the year (thus giving the IRS an interest-free loan) because of withholding and get an annual refund, this next image isn’t actually accurate. But it’s still amusing.

Here’s a clever cartoon strip about Trump continuing his pattern of spending other people’s money.

I wrote a few days ago about some of the senseless enforcement actions of state and local governments. This Ron White meme would have been an ideal addition to that column.

Regarding the Constitution, I’ve mostly focused on how it is supposed to protect out economic liberty. But here’s a clever reminder it applies to other freedoms as well (even if it would be smart to minimize the exercise of some of those freedoms).

Here’s a meme that almost everyone will recognize, though it’s been modified to show how Nancy Pelosi is being mocked for caring more about her ultra-expensive ice cream than about small businesses.

Since almost everyone in Washington is an out-of-touch elitist, there are plenty of opportunities to mock Republicans as well.

 

No collection of humor is complete without at least one item from Babylon Bee.

In a candid speech Tuesday, President Xi Jinping stated he was “pretty impressed” by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, specifically praising her totalitarian policies. …”She has some pretty great ideas — stopping people from gathering together even with their families, ordering people not to buy seeds — they can’t even plant their own food now! We hadn’t even thought of some of these innovative approaches,” the Communist president said. “We’re always looking for more ways to oppress people, and we were really inspired by Whitmer’s approach.” …Other dictators across the world also chimed in with words of support and affirmation for Whitmer’s policies, from North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei.

Politicians love to get people snitching on each other (see Andrew CuomoRichard Daley, and David Cameron), so this bit of satire is both amusing and accurate.

I think this next image might be an actual depiction of Dana Milbank.

Needless to say, this next image is a joke. But a funny one.

Vladimir Putin is infamous for his bare-chested horse riding, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised somebody extended that to the coronavirus.

Since politicians are releasing criminals and announcing that they’re cutting back on law enforcement, there’s a serious point to this next bit of satire.

I’ve saved the best for last. This made me laugh, both because Trump probably would do this if he could get away with it, and because some people hate Trump so much that they would tick the box that gives them nothing.

I haven’t thought of anyone in the White House as “my president” since Ronald Reagan.

That being said, I’ll still cash my check. I’ll rationalize that choice by viewing it as return of stolen funds.

P.S. If you want some Trump-specific humor, I recommend this collection of maps and this collection of videos.

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I’ve written that policy makers need to consider both the human toll of the coronavirus and the human toll of a depressed economy.

I also discussed this tradeoff with Brian Nichols, beginning about seven minutes into this podcast.

And, as you can see from this tweet, even the United Nations has acknowledged that a weak economy leads to needless death.

Since I don’t have any expertise on epidemiology, I’m not arguing that the economy should be opened immediately. I’m simply stating that the people who do make such decisions should be guided by the unavoidable tradeoff that exists between lives lost from disease and lives lost from foregone prosperity.

Which then raises the question of who should make such decisions.

As reported by the New York Post, President Trump claims he has all the authority.

President Trump on Monday said the decision to reopen the country’s ailing economy ultimately rests with him, not state leaders, as he feuds with governors over when to allow Americans to return to work. …Trump is now looking at reopening the economy by May 1, putting him on a collision course with state leaders who are pushing back, saying it would be dangerous to “take our foot off of the accelerator” in the war against the virus. …Rebuffing the president’s claims Monday, constitutional experts say it is state leaders who have the power to police their citizens under the 10th Amendment.

Trump is wrong.

He’s wrong in part because the Constitution limits the powers of the central government.

But he’s also wrong because – as explained by scholars from the Austrian School of Economics – we’re far more likely to get better choices when they’re decentralized.

In some cases, that means allowing individuals to make informed choices about how much risk to take.

But, to the extent government must be involved, it makes more sense to have state and local officials make choices rather than the crowd in Washington.

Opining for the Wall Street Journal, Walter Olson explains why federalism is the right approach.

Public-health merits aside, the president can’t legally order the nation back to work. The lockdown and closure orders were issued by state governments, and the president doesn’t have the power to order them to reverse their policies. In America’s constitutional design, …the national government is confined to enumerated powers. It has no general authority to dictate to state governments. Many of the powers government holds, in particular the “police power” invoked to counter epidemics, are exercised by state governments and the cities to which states delegate power. …Modernizers have long scoffed at America’s federalist structure as inefficient and outdated, especially in handling emergencies. …Today you won’t find these critics scoffing at the states or overglamorizing Washington. One federal institution after another, including the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been caught flat-footed by Covid-19. …State governments, by contrast, with some exceptions here and there, have responded to the emergency more skillfully and in a way that has won more public confidence. …The record of federal systems—some of the best known are in Canada, Germany and Switzerland—suggests there’s a lot of resilience packed into the model.

Michael Brendan Dougherty elaborates in an article for National Review.

Writer Molly Jong-Fast complains, “So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn’t know how to president at all?” Well, no. It’s simple: Our president doesn’t have dictatorial powers, even in a national emergency. The president doesn’t have authority to shut down your local gin joint. Your state governor does have this power, in extraordinary circumstances. That so many governors have done so, often responding to popular demand for shutdowns, demonstrates America’s genuine practice of federalism — a system that is allowing us to respond to this crisis even faster than the states of Europe… One of the reasons federalism can act faster is that it allows decentralization. It is less politically risky to impose measures in one state than on an entire nation. You can respond where the hotspots are, rather than imposing costs evenly across an undifferentiated mass of the nation where the overall average risk may be low.

Professor Ilya Somin wrote on this same topic for Reason. He noted limitations on federalism in a pandemic, but also pointed out the benefits of decentralization.

The US is a large and diverse nation, and it is unlikely that a single “one-size-fits-all” set of social distancing rules can work equally well everywhere. In addition, state-by-state experimentation with different approaches can increase our still dangerously limited knowledge of which policies are the most effective. Moreover, if one policymaker screws up, his or her errors are less likely to have a catastrophic effect on the whole nation. …There is, in fact, a long history of state and local governments taking the lead in battling the spread of contagious disease. During the 1918-19 flu pandemic, state and local restrictions were the primary means of inhibiting the spread of the virus, while the federal government did very little.

John Daniel Davidson of the Federalist echoes the benefits of having choices made at the state and local level.

The founders wisely chose a federal republic for our form of government, which means sovereignty is divided between states and the federal government. The powers of the federal government are limited and enumerated, while all powers not granted to the feds are reserved for the states, including emergency police powers of the kind we’re seeing states and localities use now. …Much of the media seems wholly unaware of this basic feature of our system of government. …Trump explained that many governors might have a more direct line on this equipment and if so they should go ahead and acquire it themselves, no need to wait on Washington, D.C. This is of course exactly the way federalism is supposed to work. …We should expect the government power that’s closest to affected communities to be the most active, while Washington, D.C., concern itself with larger problems.

And those “larger problems” are the ones enumerated in Article 1, Section 8.

The bottom line is that we should always remember the Third Theorem of Government, which helps to explain one of the reasons why it’s generally a bad idea to give the folks in Washington more power and authority.

Instead, we should try to be more like Switzerland, which is one of the world’s best-governed nations in large part because of a very decentralized approach.

Which may be why economists at the (normally statist) International Monetary Fund found a clear link between federalism and quality governance.

Let’s hope Donald Trump realizes that federalism is the right approach.

P.S. My favorite example of federalism came from Vermont.

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Exactly one month ago, I wrote “A Primer on Price Gouging” to explain why government-mandated price controls are an unwise response when prices for certain goods climb after a disaster.

Here’s a video from Johan Norberg on the topic.

And here’s Professor Michael Munger from Duke University on the same issue.

Those are both excellent presentations.

In a column for the Nashville Business Journal, Professor Daniel Smith explains in written form why laws against price gouging inevitably backfire.

High prices in the wake of a disaster or in the face of uncertainty often spark consumer outrage and calls for stricter price-gouging laws. Such measures, however, would actually harm consumers searching for necessities in emergencies. …in the face of uncertainty, such as the coronavirus, it is instinctive for consumers to stock up on goods, such as water, toilet paper, and nonperishable food. Stores need some way to discourage consumers from hoarding or wasting necessities as well as to encourage the increased manufacture and delivery of necessities to the affected area. Higher prices, driven by the increase in demand for these goods, naturally incentivize both of these important functions. …higher price encourages consumers outside of the affected area to also economize on their purchases. The increased demand for building materials for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina drove building material prices up across the nation, leading unaffected consumers to delay less essential building or remodeling projects. …Higher prices also encourage the manufacture and delivery of necessities to the affected area. …higher market prices, by increasing the supply of necessary goods, is the driving force that will ultimately push the price back down. …there is always concern for providing for low-income residents. But the empty shelves created by price gouging laws do little to help them.

It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that workers can engage in “price gouging” as well.

This tweet from Mark Perry cites a story about nurses being able to earn much more money if they agree to work in New York City.

For what it’s worth, I fully support those nurses extracting much higher pay. They’re going into the medical equivalent of a war zone.

And that’s a good outcome for society. Allowing prices (whether for goods or labor) to rise and fall in response to market conditions ensures that resources go where they have the most value.

Sadly, many politicians in Washington either don’t know or don’t care about the harmful impact of intervention.

Indeed, the House of Representatives wants to demonize so-called price gougers, as reported by Billy Billion of Reason.

When it comes to the federal government’s coronavirus response, there is much room for self-criticism. But that won’t come from the House’s new select oversight committee, announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.)… House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D–S.C.), telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that the committee will instead focus on things like “price gouging” and “profiteering.” …In other words, if Clyburn’s description is to be taken at face value, lawmakers will scapegoat private businesses, as opposed to delving into the list of ways the government has failed the American public. …The South Carolina representative said the House will…punish those that set high prices on essential goods, though he didn’t say how this would work in practice.

What’s really galling about the actions of Pelosi, Clyburn, and other politicians is that they’re insulated from the policies they impose on the rest of us.

They have voted themselves generous pensions, so they they don’t have to worry about a bankrupt Social Security system.

They have voted themselves lavish fringe benefits, so they don’t have to worry about dealing with the Obamacare disaster.

And they doubtlessly have arranged to be first in line for goods and services if there are shortages caused by anti-gouging laws.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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An unfettered “price system” is a core feature of capitalism, as explained in videos from Marginal Revolution, Learn Liberty, and Russ Roberts.

This video from Don Boudreaux is a great addition to that collection.

What happens, though, when politicians interfere with this system by dictating minimum or maximum prices?

I’ve previously addressed why price controls are misguided, looking at the sector-specific impact of government price-rigging for items such as rental housing, labor, and pharmaceuticals.

Now let’s consider the macroeconomic impact of price controls.

The World Bank has just published a new working paper on this issue. Here are some of the key findings.

Price controls have a long history with well documented examples… In the 20th century, these policies were used extensively in several Western countries…, culminating with widespread controls in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970s… Price controls were also ubiquitous in communist countries with planned economies. …Price controls can be imposed in a variety of ways. They may involve price ceilings, or price floors, imposed on selected goods and services by the authorities. …this study seeks to enumerate the challenges that price controls impose for growth and development and government policies. While they may be introduced with the best intentions to improve social outcomes, available evidence suggests that price controls often undermine growth and development, impose fiscal burdens…price control measures frequently morph into distortive subsidy regimes. Important social, fiscal and environmental costs are likely to follow, as well as adverse consequences for investment and employment, and productivity growth.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that price controls are more common in emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs), especially in low-income countries (LICs).

Price controls are widely employed across advanced economies and EMDEs. They tend to be much more pervasive in EMDEs than in advanced economies… Among EMDEs, they are more prevalent in LICs… In EMDEs that have become middle-income countries (MICs) since 2001, price controls are somewhat less common than in the average EMDE

The logical conclusion, of course, is that the existence of price controls helps to explain why these countries have lower levels of economic development.

Here’s a chart from the study showing the prevalence of price controls.

The study goes on to list all the negative effects associated with price controls.

If you don’t want to read a lengthy excerpt, I’ve highlighted some of the adverse consequences.

The use of price controls can have adverse consequences for growth for several reasons. Price ceilings can depress producer margins and discourage domestic investment and entrepreneurial activity…they can discourage foreign investment in those sectors by increasing the country risk premium facing global firms…where the controlled price is above that required for a competitive return to investment, its maintenance requires barriers to entry or costly government stockpiling of excess supply… Price-support controls can depress competition… Price control regimes may also tilt the allocation of resources towards the subsidized sector. …such policies can end up reducing productivity, and worsening income inequality… They may lead to inefficient use of subsidized inputs… They can also adversely affect incentives to adopt productivity-raising new technologies. Empirical evidence suggests that market-oriented structural reforms, including the reduction of price controls and their related subsidies, are strongly associated with improved firm-level productivity in EMDEs… Moreover, price controls that distort consumption towards price-controlled goods, can cause chronic shortages of these goods… Price controls in the financial sector, such as ceilings on interest rates, can distort financial markets… These measures reduce the supply of credit to safer borrowers and small and medium-sized enterprises, increase the level of non-performing loans, reduce competition and innovation in lending markets, and increase informal lending. Moreover, they can exacerbate inequality by limiting the poor’s access to lending. …Replacing price controls…, coupled with structural reforms, can be both pro-poor and pro-growth. Indeed, policies to lower subsidies that underpin price controls appear to be associated with higher per capita output growth.

An exhaustive list, to put it mildly. I’m almost surprised that lung cancer and tooth decay weren’t included as well.

Let’s now shift from macro impact to micro examples.

Writing for the Hill, Professor J.W. Verret of George Mason University Law School looked at price controls on payment processing.

In 2011, the Federal Reserve adopted rules implementing fee caps on debit card transactions, pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. These rules have led to diminished access to credit products for consumers and have failed in their promise to lower consumer debit fees. The last eight years have shown this to be a failed experiment. …The amendment’s direct price control has gotten most of the attention and well-deserved criticism, having resulted in the same consequences as all price controls. Every college student taking Economics 101 learns that keeping prices at an artificially low level results in an undersupply of vital goods or services. …Supporters of the Durbin amendment’s price controls and exclusivity ban argued that the provision would pass cost savings on to consumers. That alone was not a legitimate argument in the first place, as it would merely reflect use of government power to take property rights from innovators and redistribute them to politically sympathetic beneficiaries. Even if one were willing to accept that as a legitimate policy goal, the fact is it didn’t happen. Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond demonstrate that the Durbin amendment didn’t even fulfill its intended purpose. Retailers simply kept the cost savings. Thus, the Durbin Act merely reflected a very successful act of lobbying by retailers.

Yet another bad feature of a very bad law.

We also have a story in the Washington Post regarding price controls on brides in China.

The new rule was taped onto doorways around town: Officials were limiting what a groom-to-be could pay for a bride. The going rate was about $38,000, or five times the average annual salary in this village about four hours outside of Beijing. Now, families were told to keep it below $2,900. Anything more and they would risk being accused of human trafficking. The “bride price”…has been part of the marriage pact in most of China for centuries. The costs, though, are swelling as China copes with one of the biggest demographic imbalances in history. …There are an estimated 30 million or so more men then women in China… So officials in Da’anliu and other villages have taken matters into their own hands on one thing they can control: the bride price. …The controls are good if you have a son. Not so good for families with a daughter. Ask Liang, a pear farmer in Da’anliu. He has one daughter. When it comes time for her to marry, “I will ask whatever amount I want,” he said. “It’s not fair otherwise.” …“It’s the market,” he said. “I’m allowed to charge what the market will bear for my pears. Why not my daughter?” …The Da’anliu Communist Party secretary, Liang Huabin, has seen the way families scrimp and save and panic over the bride price. …He was not sure what to do about it until one of his constituents sent him a picture of a bride price limit instituted in another Chinese village. He decided to try something similar. …Wang Feng, a sociologist who studies Chinese demography at the University of California at Irvine, said…families…would find ways around any regulation — even limits on bride price. “It’s trying to cure a symptom, not the root issue,” he said

Yet another bit of evidence that price controls don’t work, even in a market that shouldn’t exist (at the risk of coming across as a chauvinistic westerner, Chinese daughters should be able to make their own marriage choices).

Since I started this column with a video, I’ll recycle a video I first shared nearly 10 years ago.

It shows how removal of price controls triggered the post-war economic miracle in West Germany.

For those who want more information on this topic, the Mises Institute has an online version of Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls, authored in 1978 by Robert L. Scheuttinger and Eamonn F. Butler.

These first few sentences from Chapter 1 aptly summarize the lessons from history.

From the earliest times, from the very inception of organized government, rulers and their officials have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to “control” their economies. The notion that there is a “just” or “fair” price for a certain commodity, a price which can and ought to be enforced by government, is apparently coterminous with civilization. For the past forty-six centuries (at least) governments all over the world have tried to fix wages and prices from time to time. When their efforts failed, as they usually did, governments then put the blame on the wickedness and dishonesty of their subjects, rather than upon the ineffectiveness of the official policy. The same tendencies remain today.

Last but not least, here’s a cartoon from the book.

It shows (I think) the former head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, in the role of Darth Vader and Jimmy Carter as a hapless version of Luke Skywalker.

This was back when wage and price controls were a government-imposed response to government-created inflation (a classic example of Mitchell’s Law).

Nowadays, price controls are primarily a tool for various interest groups to tilt the playing field.

P.S. The late Jeff MacNelly was the Michael Ramirez of the Reagan generation. For example, see these cartoons about government shutdowns, the tax code, and the United Nations.

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I’ve shared plenty of jokes about how America is getting a trial run of life under socialism thanks to the coronavirus.

But, as discussed in this interview, there are some very serious issues relating to economic policy during a pandemic.

I started the interview by stating that we’re in uncharted territory. And I openly acknowledge I’m not an expert on epidemiology in general or the coronavirus in particular. (And neither are the politicians and pundits who dominate Washington, even if they pretend otherwise.)

Which is why, in this list of four takeaways from the interview, I start with the need for more information.

1. Testing is key – We desperately need to get the economy going again, but that’s not going to happen until we know the extent of the disease. Without that information, I suspect it won’t matter whether politicians officially lift the lockdowns. Many individuals won’t go back to work because of concerns about personal safety and many businesses won’t reopen because of concerns about things such as liability and profitability.

2. The FDA and CDC have failed – As I stated in the interview (and as I’ve repeatedly stated in my columns), the Washington bureaucracies have hindered an effective and rapid response to the coronavirus. We need to get rid of the rules and red tape that prevent the private sector from responding to the demand for tests.

3. Be concerned about a long-run expansion in the burden government – I’m extremely worried about the coronavirus being the pretext for a permanent expansion in Washington’s power over the private sector.

A column in today’s Wall Street Journal by former Senator Phil Gramm, along with Mike Solon, echoes my fears.

…even in a time of bitter partisanship, consensus can almost always be found in a crisis to spend a large sum of taxpayer money. …politicians and interest groups have…sought to use the crisis to expand permanently government spending and the role government plays in the aftermath. …Based on the massive programs already adopted and the decision to use the Fed as a crisis lender, the role of government in post-coronavirus America will be significantly expanded. …the capacity of private businesses and banks to lead the recovery could be smothered. …The government would direct the recovery and the Fed would allocate credit. Is that a future most Americans want to fight for?

4. An extended economic shutdown is bad for health outcomes – I wrote about this issue last month, explaining that a weak economy leads to adverse consequences for health and longevity.

Andrew Sullivan succinctly captured this painful tradeoff in his column for New York.

There are costs to this collective exercise in empathy and compassion. You contemplate the rising chances of a long and devastating global depression. You look ahead to months and months more of quarantine, empty streets, crippled businesses, shrinking retirement savings, and rising poverty. And you realize that our choice for life over wealth is a little more complicated. There will come a point at which we will have to risk some lives to reopen and save the economy. …in principle, at some point, there will be a crossover moment when quarantine and lockdown cease to have the net-positive impact they are now having.

If you want more information, click on any of these stories and tweets and you’ll learn more about why there is a very legitimate concern.

Let’s close with excerpts from a column by Tim Worstall for the U.K.-based CapX.

…there are no solutions, only trade-offs. There are costs to everything just as there are benefits and the task is to balance them… This is not to make the mistake of claiming that money, share prices and asset values outweigh lives. Rather, it’s to point that GDP is the sum of economic activity, production, incomes and consumption. If that falls 15% that means we are are all significantly poorer – and that poverty will kill people as surely as the virus is doing. …It’s also why the NHS limits access to treatments to those which cost less than £30,000 (or £50,000 for some diseases) per quality adjusted life year gained. …healthcare is something society spends more of its income upon as incomes rise. Naturally, a richer country will spend a higher portion of GDP on health care than a poorer one. …The optimal point is to balance spending on maintaining human life, while avoiding the damage to those same lives caused by a slump in economic activity. …The aim now is to…minimise overall deaths from all causes. To my mind, a six month shutdown risks missing that target by tipping the world into a depression that is more damaging than the disease itself.

Tim is right.

If politicians impose too many restrictions on the economy, we can lose more lives in the long run.

Which is why this Venn Diagram accurately shows where I am. And hopefully where everyone is.

P.S. This lesson about tradeoffs applies to all types of government policy, not just the coronavirus (cleverly captured in the Remy video at the end of this column).

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I’m a big fan of federalism. After all, compared to what happens when Washington screws up, there’s a lot less damage if a state or city imposes a bad law.

Moreover, it’s relatively easy to move across a border if a state or city is doing something foolish. Leaving the country, by contrast, is a much bigger step (and a lot harder if you have some money).

That being said, politicians outside of Washington deserve plenty of scorn (to show that Washington has no monopoly on venality and incompetence, I periodically share columns that highlight “Great Moments in State Government” and “Great Moments in Local Government“).

And the coronavirus crisis is giving us plenty of new evidence.

Writing for the Federalist, John Daniel Davidson takes aim at control-freak politicians.

…some mayors and governors…think they have unlimited and arbitrary power over their fellow citizens, that they can order them to do or not do just about anything under the guise of protecting public health. We’ve now witnessed local and state governments issue decrees about what people can and cannot buy in stores, arrest parents playing with their children in public parks, yank people off public buses at random, remove basketball rims along with private property, ticket churchgoers… The most egregious example of this outpouring of authoritarianism was an attempt by Louisville, Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer to ban drive-in church services on Easter. …he also threatened arrest and criminal penalties for anyone who dared violate his order, and in an Orwellian twist, invited people to snitch on their fellow citizens. …this didn’t just happen in Louisville. Two churches in Greenville, Mississippi, that were holding drive-in services for Holy Week said police showed up and ordered churchgoers to leave or face a $500 fine. …the targeting of churches, while undoubtedly the most offensive overreach by state and local governments, is hardly the only instance of government gone wild. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken it upon herself to declare what items are and are not “essential,” dictating to grocery stores what they can and cannot sell… Among the nonessential, and therefore banned, items are fruit and vegetable plants and seeds. …(Lottery tickets, on the other hand, are still permitted.)

There’s so much outrageous material in this article that it’s almost impossible to focus on one item.

I’ll simply note that it is entirely predictable – but totally disgusting – that Governor Whitmer in Michigan has exempted sales of lottery tickets from her lockdown order. I guess risk is okay if it’s for the purpose of getting more revenue by screwing poor people.

Since we’re on the topic of Governor Whitmer and Michigan, this tweet indicates that it’s okay to put infants in danger. After all, they don’t line the pockets of government by purchasing lottery tickets.

Let’s look at more examples of nanny-state authoritarianism.

David Harsanyi’s column in National Review is appropriately scathing.

Free people act out of self-preservation, but they shouldn’t be coerced to act through the authoritarian whims of the state. Yet this is exactly what’s happening. …politicians act as if a health crisis gives them license to lord over the most private activities of America people in ways that are wholly inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the Constitution. …What business is it of Vermont or Howard County, Ind., to dictate that Walmart, Costco, or Target stop selling “non-essential” items, such as electronics or clothing? …it is an astonishing abuse of power to issue stay-at-home orders, enforced by criminal law, empowering police to harass and fine individuals for nothing more than taking a walk. …The criminalization of movement ends with…three Massachusetts men being arrested, and facing the possibility of 90 days in jail, for crossing state lines and golfing — a sport built for social distancing — in Rhode Island. …In California, surfers, who stay far away from each other, are banned from going in the water. Elsewhere, hikers are banned from roaming the millions of acres in national parks. …Would-be petty tyrants, such as Dallas judge Clay Jenkins, who implores residences to rat out neighbors who sell cigarettes.

So many awful examples, but I’m especially nauseated by Judge Jenkins and his call for snitching. Makes me wonder if he’s related to Andrew Cuomo, Richard Daley, or David Cameron.

I’ll close with two amusing items.

First, every red-blooded American should cheer for this jogger (and you should cheer for him if you’re a red-blooded person from abroad as well).

Second, here’s some satire that is both seasonal and accurate (though, to be fair, the disciples weren’t practicing social distancing).

P.S. Maybe this is the kind of harassment that led to “Libertarian Jesus“?

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Libertarians and other supporters of limited government historically have mixed feelings about the European Union (and its various governmental manifestations).

On the plus side, there are no trade barriers between nations that belong to the EU, and membership also makes it difficult for countries to impose regulatory burdens that hinder trade. The EU also has helped to improve the rule of law in some nations, particularly for newer members from the former Soviet Bloc.

On the minus side, the EU imposes trade barriers against the rest of the world. There is also continuous pressure for tax harmonization policies and regulatory harmonization policies that increase the burden of government – compounded by efforts to export those bad polices to non-member nations.

Given these good and bad features, it’s understandable that proponents of economic liberty don’t have a consensus position on the European Union.

But views may become more universally hostile since some European politicians now want to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to expand redistribution and enable bailouts by changing existing EU rules.

Currently, there is very limited scope for bad European-wide fiscal policy because Article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union ostensibly prohibits cross-country redistribution or bailouts.

For what it’s worth, there is another provision for nations that use the euro currency. Article 136 of the Treaty allows for a “stability mechanism” to “safeguard the stability of the euro,” but also states that “the mechanism will be made subject to strict conditionality.”

Now let’s apply this background knowledge to the current situation.

As I wrote last month, the coronavirus-triggered economic mess is wreaking havoc with the finances of EU nations, especially for “Club Med” nations.

For example, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute writes for the Hill about the potential consequences for Italy.

The Eurozone’s moment of truth has arrived with the coronavirus pandemic. …a supply side-shock of unprecedented size to Europe in general and to a highly indebted Italy in particular. Indeed, Italy, the Eurozone’s third-largest member country, is now at the epicenter of the pandemic and is being subject to an economic shock of biblical proportions. …That is all too likely to cause the country’s public debt to skyrocket to over 160 percent of GDP by year-end. It is also likely to put enormous strain on the country’s rickety banking system…it would seem to be only a matter of time before markets…became increasingly reluctant to buy Italian government bonds for fear of an eventual default. They would also…chose to move their deposits out of the Italian banks to safer havens abroad. …we should brace ourselves for an Italian exit from the euro that would almost certainly roil the world’s financial markets.

None of this should be a surprise. Italy is a fiscal mess and I’ve been making that point with tiresome regularity.

The coronavirus and the concomitant economic shutdown are merely a final (and very big) straw on the camel’s back.

So is Italy going to default? And maybe crash out of the euro? Or, alternatively, actually impose some long-overdue spending restraint?

Well, why make any tough decision if there’s a potential new source of money – i.e., cash from taxpayers in Germany, Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other EU nations in Northern Europe.

Needless to say, that’s a very controversial concept. British newspapers have been writing about this issue.

Here are some passages from a report in the left-leaning Guardian.

The European Union has weathered the storms of eurozone bailouts, the migration crisis and Brexit, but some fear coronavirus could be even more destructive. …Jacques Delors, the former European commission president who helped build the modern EU, broke his silence last weekend to warn that lack of solidarity posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”. …The pandemic has reopened the wounds of the eurozone crisis, resurrecting stereotypes about “profligate” southern Europeans and “hard-hearted” northerners. …The Dutch finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra,…infuriat[ed] his neighbours by asking why other governments didn’t have fiscal buffers to deal with the financial shock of the coronavirus. His comments were described as “repugnant”, “small-minded” and “a threat to the EU’s future” by Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa.

Here are excerpts from a piece in the right-leaning Telegraph.

Italian politicians took out a full-page advertisement in one of Germany’s most prestigious newspapers…, urging parsimonious northern Europe to do more to help the south… They urged Berlin to drop its opposition to a proposed EU scheme to issue so-called “coronabonds” to raise funds to fight the crisis. And they accused the Netherlands, which has led opposition to the scheme, of operating as a tax haven and diverting revenue from other member states. …Several EU members – led by France, Italy, Spain and Belgium – have called for EU-wide “coronabonds” to help poorer member states borrow as they struggle with the economic impact of the crisis. But a rival faction of northern members, led by the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Germany, has opposed what it sees as an attempt to saddle the countries with the debts of their more feckless neighbours.

An article in the Express highlighted divisions between Portugal and the Netherlands.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa has stunned fellow EU leaders after raising the idea…that the Netherlands could be kicked out of the European Union… The Netherlands held up the talks after blocking demands from Italy, Spain and France for so-called ‘corona-bonds’ where the EU would issue joint shared debt to help finance a recovery. …The Portuguese leader said: “If under these conditions it’s not possible for Europe to ensure a common response to this challenge, this is a sign of great concern for those who believe in Europe.” Mr Costa went on to question whether “there is anyone who wants to be left out” of the EU or eurozone. He added: “Naturally, I’m referring to the Netherlands. “There is at least one country in the euro zone that resists understanding that sharing a common currency implies sharing a common effort.”

The rest of this column is going to explain why it’s a very bad idea to have intra-EU redistribution and bailouts.

But I first want to debunk the claim from the Portuguese Prime Minister that a common currency requires a common fiscal policy.

Indeed, he’s not the only one to make this mistake. In a column for the U.K.-based Times, Iain Martin also asserts that a common currency somehow necessitates cross-country redistribution.

European finance ministers and leaders have spent the week arguing over desperate pleas from countries such as Italy…who want the European Central Bank and the EU to underpin common debt that will cover the epic bills being faced by national governments. …The fiscally conservative northern nations see no reason why they should take on the “pooled” debt of weaker southern European economies. …The core problem is what it has always been: the elementary design flaw of the euro. Currency blocs that work depend on that notion of common endeavour and “pooling” debt and risk, and ideally must function as one political organisation. …the euro needed an institutional structure that would operate roughly as the United States does. …This escalating economic emergency is a tragedy…a currency and monetary and fiscal construction that is not capable of swiftly transferring resources to the weak.

Both Costa and Martin are wrong.

Panama does very well using the dollar as its currency, yet there’s obviously no common fiscal policy with the United States. Other nations also have “dollarized” without any adverse impact.

Or consider the fiscal history of the United States. For much of American history, the federal government was trivially small. Most spending happened at the state and local level.

Needless to say, having a common currency in this decentralized system wasn’t a hindrance to U.S. economic development.

With this topic out of the way, let’s now deal with whether the coronavirus crisis should be used as an excuse to open the floodgates for intra-EU redistribution and bailouts.

Politicians from nations on the receiving end obviously approve.

But some Americans also like the idea.

Max Bergmann, a former Obama appointee at the State Department, likes the idea. He argues in the Washington Post for more centralization and more redistribution in the EU.

…this is in fact a fight over the future of Europe. The common European bond proposal hits at the core of what Europe’s union is for. It is an act of unity… A common E.U. bond would take the debt that individual European states accrue to fight this crisis and make it a collective European responsibility. …Moving ahead with it would entail a sweeping increase in the power of the federal union. …The move by…nine countries for a common E.U. bond was in fact a revolt against Europe’s status quo. It was at its core therefore a revolt against Merkel and the past decade of austerity in Europe. …Merkel is also the architect of a decade of devastating austerity that has caused economic devastation and deprivation… The crisis revealed that Europe’s new currency (the euro) had a design flaw. While the E.U. had a common monetary policy with its own central bank, it lacked a common fiscal policy. …Merkel could have pushed for that. …Merkel lectured southern European countries about profligacy. She turned what was a manageable crisis into a systemic shock to Europe’s economies. …As the coronavirus crisis hit, …Merkel has stuck to her guns.

The New York Times, unsurprisingly, has editorialized for centralization and redistribution.

…the European Union is…an alliance of sovereign countries, not a central government, and Brussels has control only over external trade and competition. For the rest, its executive branch, the European Commission, can only seek cooperation, not order it. The states that share the euro do not have true fiscal union, under which wealthier parts of the bloc would prop up the poorer. …Europe could do better. Much better. …Italians or Spaniards confronted with death and economic catastrophe…aren’t in a bind due to profligate spending; they’re in the throes of a plague… The question to ask is what’s the point of any union if it cannot find unity when it is needed most…true leadership requires knowing that we’re all in this together and can only conquer it together.

Is this correct? Would it be a good idea to have “a sweeping increase in the power of the federal union”? Would that be “true leadership”?

Gideon Rachman warns in the Financial Times that such policies will cause political fallout.

…northern Europeans will…feel exploited by the south. …The longer-term fears of the northern Europeans are also legitimate. …The northerners are alert to any sign that they are being sucked into permanent, large transfers of cash to heavily indebted EU partners. They are justifiably concerned that the current anguish is being used to push forward ideas that they have already rejected, many times over. …if political leaders renege on longstanding promises…, they should not be particularly surprised if voters then turn to populist, anti-European parties. …Anti-EU parties have already made strong gains across northern Europe in recent years.

That’s very sensible political analysis.

But the bigger problem, at least from my perspective, is that a common fiscal policy would be very bad economics.

It means more redistribution, with all the unfortunate incentives that creates for both those paying and those receiving (as illustrated by this cartoon).

And it means more overall government spending. The “Club Med” countries obviously would spend any money they got (whether from so-called coronabonds, a common-EU budget, or any other mechanism), and there’s no reason to think the nations in Northern Europe would reduce spending as their taxpayers started to underwrite the budgets of other nations.

This is a problem since government already is far too large in every EU country. Here’s the most-recent data from the European Commission. If you focus on the left, you’ll see the average fiscal burden in the EU is about 45 percent of GDP (and slightly higher in the subset of eurozone countries).

The bottom line is that countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal are in trouble because their governments have been spending too much.

Sadly, I fear it is just a matter of time before Article 125 is somehow sidelined and the profligacy of those “Club Med” nations is rewarded.

And if/when that happens, what’s good about the EU (open trade and the remnants of mutual recognition) definitely will be dwarfed by bad policy (bailouts, transfers, and others form of redistribution).

P.S. One of the strongest arguments for Brexit was that the EU inevitably would morph into a transfer union – and thus accelerate the economic decline of Europe. Given what’s now happening, the British were very wise to escape.

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A new tradition (which I hope is very temporary) is sharing coronavirus humor every weekend.

But not just random jokes about things like toilet paper hoarding. I’m only sharing humor that has some connection to politics or public policy.

We’ll start with Bernie Sanders, who says that the Venezuela-ish conditions in some grocery stores don’t qualify as “real socialism.”

Since I believe in targeting politicians from all parties, our next bit of satire involves Trump.

I’ve written in the past about the desirability of armed school teachers.

Well, that’s now what we have in this new era of home schooling.

I assume these next two quotes aren’t actually real, but the fact that they easily could be true is what makes this next item very amusing.

Let’s now look at an article from the Genesius Times.

A poll conducted by the Pew Pew Institute shows that a majority of Americans are unimpressed with their 30-day free trial of Communism. “It kinda sucks,” 19-year-old San Diegan Britta Fowler said of the trial. “I was expecting all this free stuff, which I guess we’re getting, but I also didn’t expect empty store shelves and house arrest for everyone. It’s really lame!” …“We thought we’d entice the people everywhere into Communist utopia with a trial run,” USBS Secretary John Lennon said. “We thought, hey, it works with Netflix, so it should work with Communism!” The federal government worked with the Chinese government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the coronavirus for the free trial kick-off. “Everything went well but only a few Karens across the country are really enjoying it.” Lennon added. “They really revel in telling people to ‘stay the f**k home!’”

Misogynistic readers may not appreciate this next item.

I thought about saving the following item for my collection of libertarian-themed humor. But since it involves coronavirus, it’s appropriate for today.

I debated whether this item qualifies, but I’m sharing it since my friends on the left are so fixated on gun control.

Next, we have a cameo appearance by Bill Clinton.

Here’s a story from the Babylon Bee, America’s premier site for satire.

When Jeffrey Walton tested positive for COVID-19, he hoped for a speedy recovery. But since he has been treated with hydroxychloroquine, the experimental treatment President Donald Trump has been touting, he now hopes he dies quickly to help prove that Trump is an idiot. …Walton, a lifelong Democrat and progressive, had joined in calling Trump “irresponsible” and an “ignoramus” and now has an opportunity to prove it by simply dying. “It’s such an opportunity, I don’t want to pass it up,” Walton said. …Dr. Logan has been warning Walton that there is a chance he could fully recover. Walton is trying to prepare himself for this — a world where everything isn’t black and white and Trump can be right about some things — but he insists he’d much rather die.

Here’s a tweet that deserves a chuckle or two.

Here’s an item that circulated on the email list of one of my softball teams.

One of my left-leaning teammates decided to edit the image and his version also is worth sharing.

This next bit of satire is actually rather depressing since it’s so accurate.

Since we’re getting plenty of reports that state and local governments are engaging in thuggish behavior to enforce stay-at-home orders (gee, what a surprise), this next bit of satire is very timely.

Our next item targets the Speaker of the House (though there is a potentially serious point to be made about the consequences of the statist policies she supports).

President Trump makes another appearance.

I’ve saved the best for last.

This crowd likes any excuse to buy votes with other people’s money.

P.S. Margaret Thatcher famously warned about what eventually happens with that approach.

P.P.S. If you like mockery of politicians, click here for many amusing examples.

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Welcome, Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn

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About three weeks ago, I unveiled the “Seventh Theorem of Government” to support the libertarian proposition that a smaller government will do a better job of fulfilling its legitimate responsibilities.

This should not be a controversial concept. There’s plenty of empirical data as well as academic evidence showing that smaller governments are more competent.

Many people in the D.C. bubble obviously disagree.

In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank tries to make the argument that the fight against coronavirus has been hampered by inadequate government.

…then came the tea party, the anti-government conservatism that infected the Republican Party in 2010 and triumphed with President Trump’s election. …What you see today is your government…a government that couldn’t produce a rudimentary test for coronavirus, that couldn’t contain the pandemic as other countries have done… Now it is time to drown this disastrous philosophy in the bathtub — and with it the poisonous attitude that the government is a harmful “beast” that must be “starved.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this ideology caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government. …Americans are paying for this with their lives — and their livelihoods.

There are some glaring inaccuracies in Milbank’s column, starting with the absurd notion that big-spender Trump (he increased domestic spending at a faster pace than Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama) is somehow connected to the principles that animated the Tea Party.

More relevant, he wants readers to believe that anti-government activism somehow blocked the production of a “rudimentary test” for the virus, yet I’ve repeatedly documented that the actual problem has been mindless red tape from bureaucracies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Speaking of which, Chris Edwards has rigorously debunked the notion that those bureaucracies, along with the National Institutes of Health, somehow have been starved of resources.

Here’s his chart showing funding for NIH and CDC

And here’s his chart showing the number of bureaucrats at the NIH, FDA, and CDC.

And what have we gotten in exchange for more bureaucrats and bigger budgets?

As already noted, we got inefficient bureaucracies that have put Americans at risk by hindering and delaying tests, equipment, and treatments.

Now let’s address the part of Milbank’s column that is a classic example of what’s called an “own goal” in soccer. He wants to make the case that bigger government is more effective government, but look at the examples he cites.

If the United States had more public health capacity, it “absolutely” would have been on par with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which have far fewer cases, Auerbach said. South Korea has had 4 deaths per 1 million people, Singapore 1 death per million, and Taiwan 0.2 deaths per million. The United States: 39 per million — and rising fast.

What do we know about Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan?

Well, as I noted in November of 2018, they all have a smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Significantly smaller.

I’m embarrassed for Mr. Milbank, for the obvious reason that it is personally humiliating to score an “own goal.”

But I’m also embarrassed for myself. I repeatedly try to make the argument for limited government, but Milbank’s accidental case for libertarianism may be more persuasive than anything I’ve ever written.

P.S. On a related note, check out the concept of “state capacity libertarianism.”

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared headlines and tweets to illustrate how bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence have hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Time to beat that dead horse one more time.

But not just for the sake of mocking the clowns in Washington. I want to help people understand that we would get better outcomes with a slimmed-down public sector that focused on genuine governmental responsibilities.

Before providing a comprehensive collection of headlines and tweets, please read these excerpts from a searing indictment of the federal government’s incompetence, written by Stephen Pimentel for Palladium.

The FDA’s poor performance has little to do with insufficient budgets… The countries with the most effective responses… Taiwan, for example, has relied on a decentralized set of quickly developed digital tools, coordinated by its DIGI+ digital ministry but developed on the fly by private citizens. ….None of these countries allowed their equivalents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block virus-testing and the production of masks. In the U.S., the FDA possesses exclusive authority to approve tests once the Department of Health and Human Services declares a Public Health Emergency, which it did on January 31, 2020. The FDA proceeded to grant such approval only to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In February, the CDC developed a test on its own and distributed it to state labs. But the test kits had a bad reagent and did not work. During the entire month of February, as the virus continued to spread, the FDA granted no private lab approval to test. The first approval for a private lab was only issued on March 2, 2020. …Why have common surgical masks (and not only the higher-grade N95 masks) run short during the pandemic? Surely they are easy to produce. The answer is that, while they are physically easy to produce, the FDA treats them as regulated medical devices and requires extensive risk analysis and testing before they can be legally sold, making them difficult and time-consuming for a company to legally bring to market. …The American institutions charged with protecting public health are embedded in a bureaucratic culture that values turf-centered gatekeeping and control over effectiveness and outcome.

Now for our collection of headlines and tweets.

And we’ll start with the one that carries the main message of today’s column.

And why are people needlessly suffering? And even dying?

Well, feel free to click on any of these stories and tweets to access the underlying information.

While the FDA and CDC deserve plenty of scorn and criticism, Let’s not forget that states augment the damage of big government thanks to misguided “certificate of need” laws that restrict the capacity of the health sector, as well as laws against so-called price gouging.

The same problem exists to varying degrees in other nations, and also with international bureaucracies.

So what’s today’s message? Here’s a blunt headline that applies to national red tape, local red tape, and global red tape.

That lesson is captured by this image from the Atlas Society.

Once again, we have an answer to the question first asked back in 2009.

P.S. The bad news shared above doesn’t even count the deadly impact of the FDA’s lengthy and expensive process for approving new drugs.

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Say goodbye to “Crazy Bernie.” The socialist senator from Vermont has ended his bid for the Democratic nomination.

I have mixed feelings. Given his genuinely awful views about socialism, I’m glad there’s no risk Bernie Sanders will be in the White House next January.

On the other hand, he deserves credit for being honest about his agenda. And he was a wonderful source for satire and humor.

And that’s today’s topic.

We’ll start with some material about Bernie’s agenda and his campaign and then we’ll close with some jokes about his departure from the presidential race.

This one will only make sense if you’ve seen the 1989 comedy, Weekend at Bernie’s.

But Bernie was never just about free stuff.

He also had a soft spot for totalitarianism. Here’s a story published by the comedic geniuses at Babylon Bee before Bernie exited the race.

At a special campaign appearance abroad in Berlin, Bernie made waves with an ambitious new campaign promise to rebuild the Berlin Wall. …At the announcement, the crowd threw their soy lattes in the air and erupted in a rapturous chant of “Построить эту стену!” which is roughly translated as “build that wall!” Sanders looked out on a sea of hope-filled faces, giddy over the prospect of restoring the majestic landmark built by the German Democratic Republic. The cheering intensified as Bernie promised that not only will he build the wall, but that he will make Trump voters pay for it. …Current estimates say that construction of the wall will provide 2 million shovel-ready jobs and cost approximately 382 billion dollars per mile.

But who would fill those “2 million shovel-ready jobs”?

Not his supporters if this bit of satire is accurate.

As you can see from this image, his economic policies never made much sense.

The coronavirus crisis presumably didn’t help Crazy Bernie’s campaign.

The Babylon Bee reported that Bernie had a hard time maintaining social distancing.

Those suffering the most are American politicians, who have been having quite a bit of trouble staying six feet away from citizens’ wallets. Bernie Sanders was hardest hit by CDC guidelines, as he struggled to stay away from Americans’ wallets, purses, and checkbooks. “These guidelines are ridiculous!” he shouted while feeding pigeons at the park… “How am I supposed to steal money to buy another hou — err, I mean, to give some of it to the 99% — when I can’t even get within six feet of anyone? It’s impossible!” Sanders tried using a makeshift fishing rod, casting it out toward purses left on park benches and reeling it back in.

And the disease may have helped to end his campaign by reminding people what life would like like in a socialist paradise.

Needless to say, it was a poignant moment when the Vermont socialist broke the news to his most avid supporters.

Speaking of his many houses, the Babylon Bee has the scoop on Bernie’s real motive for leaving the race.

Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders has dropped out, announcing he wants to spend time with his many, many houses. “It just seemed silly to spend all this time campaigning when I’m neglecting my many houses,” Sanders explained to his supporters. “I’ve made a huge profit pushing socialism and amassed much real estate, and it’s time I enjoy it.” …Now that Bernie Sanders has dropped out, he’s endorsed Donald Trump, whom he refers to as an “idol,” and says he hopes to buy many more houses so he can have a real estate empire just like Trump.

Though maybe the real reason he dropped out is that he’s actually achieved his goals.

The Babylon Bee has the details.

As the coronavirus panic has already accomplished the aims of his socialistic policies, Sanders realized the country didn’t need his public service anymore. Unemployment has skyrocketed, grocery stores have empty shelves, and everyone is confined to their homes on penalty of arrest. This “idyllic paradise” is exactly what Sanders wanted in the first place, so he says he can leave the race satisfied that his vision has been achieved. “This once-in-a-lifetime deadly pandemic has already accomplished what socialism aims to do,” Sanders said in his concession speech. “Since my services are no longer required, I will be suspending my campaign and heading to my house. Well, one of my houses. I haven’t decided which yet. …Sanders also pointed out that his other main goals of hyperinflation and total dependence on the government are already on their way.

Which is also the message of this final addition to our collection of Bernie humor.

P.S. If you haven’t overdosed on Bernie humor, here are some prior columns focusing exclusively on that topic.

And we also have some one-off examples of Bernie humor:

We will miss mocking Bernie. Fortunately, his replacement already exists.

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Reviewing public policy and the coronavirus, I’ve mostly focused on the manifest failures of Washington bureaucracies.

But let’s not overlook the politicized incompetence of the World Health Organization, a U.N.-connected bureaucracy that ostensibly exists to prevent global pandemics.

Much of that criticism, as illustrated by this National Review column by Senator Marco Rubio, has focused on the WHO’s ties to China.

…there is grave cause for concern over the independence of the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO). …a systemic problem within WHO leadership: a subservience to Beijing that comes at the expense of its stated commitment to public health. …the WHO refused to act on or publicize Taiwan’s warning that the new respiratory infection emerging in China could pass from human to human. …the organization repeated the CCP’s lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. …the WHO, at Beijing’s behest, also blocked Taiwan from participating in critical meetings to coordinate responses to the coronavirus and even reportedly provided wrong information about the virus’s spread in Taiwan. …the U.S. — the WHO’s largest financial contributor, giving five times as much money as obligated… I will also work with my colleagues in Congress to review U.S. contributions to the WHO.

None of this is surprising. International bureaucracies are politicized, and their activities are designed and packaged in part to please the nations that provide funds (especially since the bureaucrats at places such as the WHO get lucrative tax-free remuneration and they don’t want to derail the gravy train).

I’ve made this same point when writing about how European welfare states, which dominate the membership of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, pushed the Paris-based bureaucracy into fighting against tax competition. So it’s not simply a China-specific problem.

The bigger issue is that the WHO, like almost all bureaucracies, has become sclerotic and self-aggrandizing.

For instance, it has sought to expand its power and budget by getting involved in lifestyle issues.

I’ve previously written about the WHO’s reprehensible efforts to harmonize tobacco taxation (including a column about the bureaucracy’s attempted censorship).

But that didn’t have any effect. A few years ago, the then-Director General of the WHO co-authored a column in the Washington Post extolling the bureaucracy’s attempts to dictate global tobacco taxation.

…tobacco taxes have already been formally endorsed by governments representing 90 percent of the world’s people, through a legally binding global treaty — the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control… The United Nations should encourage countries to raise tobacco taxes to support the world’s development goals.

Peter Suderman points out another bizarre example of WHO mission creep.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified video game addiction as a mental disorder. …But now, with much of the global economy shuttered due to a pandemic, and health experts issuing increasingly strenuous recommendations for people to avoid leaving the house whenever possible, the WHO is encouraging people to stay home—and play video games.

And Matt Ridley authored a persuasive indictment of the WHO for the U.K.-based Telegraph, including a critique of the bureaucracy for getting involved in extraneous issues such as obesity and climate change.

There are three charges against WHO. First, it failed to prepare the world for a pandemic, spending the years since the Sars and ebola alarms talking more about climate change, obesity and tobacco… Second, once the epidemic began in China, WHO downplayed its significance… The third charge against WHO is that it has failed before. When the ebola outbreak in West Africa that was to kill 11,000 people began in late 2013, on its own admission WHO hindered the fight against the virus… WHO gives the impression it would rather reprimand rich countries for climate change or bad eating habits than worry about epidemics. It’s also a bit obsessed with celebrities. …On 28 March this year, Tedros found time to tweet about having had “a very good call with @ladygaga.” …It is an open secret among international diplomats and public health experts that WHO is “not fit for mission” (as one of them put it to me), riddled with politics and bureaucracy.

So what’s the bottom line?

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial aptly summarizes the situation, suggesting that it may be time to end subsidies for the WHO from American taxpayers.

The coronavirus pandemic will offer many lessons in what to do better to save more lives and do less economic harm the next time. But there’s already one way to ensure future pandemics are less deadly: Reform or defund the World Health Organization (WHO). …Much of the blame for WHO’s failures lies with Dr. Tedros, who is a politician, not a medical doctor. As a member of the left-wing Tigray People’s Liberation Front, he rose through Ethiopia’s autocratic government as health and foreign minister. After taking the director-general job in 2017, he tried to install Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador. …If WHO is merely a politicized Maginot Line against pandemics, then it is worse than useless and should receive no more U.S. funding. And if foreign-policy elites want to know why so many Americans mistrust international institutions, WHO is it.

I’ll close with an article for the Federalist by Richard Tren. He starts by acknowledging that the WHO did good work in its early days, but then sacrificed lives to appease a handful of rich donor nations.

Early in the organization’s history, when it was allowed to take a more paternalistic approach to disease control in poor countries, it recorded considerable progress against diseases such as river blindness, yaws, leprosy, polio, and malaria. …By the 1970s, however, there was a general move away from disease-specific programs and toward more holistic health programs. …this change of focus had disastrous consequences for malaria control. …The WHO’s global malaria eradication program, which it began in the 1950s and was largely based on the use of public health insecticides, …saved about 1 billion lives, which is a remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards. The move against insecticides and the focus on family planning meant the disease slowly started to reemerge. By the early 2000s, about 1 million people were dying of malaria every year. …wealthy donor countries, such as Sweden and Canada, kept pressure on the WHO to stop the use of these life-saving chemicals.

Interestingly, he concludes with a story about WHO bureaucrats admitting their employer should be shut down.

Several years ago, while visiting Geneva during the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly, I had a fascinating discussion with two long-term WHO staffers… The two, who shall remain nameless, had worked for the organization for many years in various locations around the world and knew the WHO well. In our conversations, I thought I would be criticizing the WHO and they would be defending it. Far from it. They described the backstabbing and the politics, both internal and external, which had frustrated their work and probably cost lives. “But surely we need something like the WHO to control things like global pandemics and other emergencies,” I said. “No,” they both responded. These long-standing public health professionals argued the world didn’t need the WHO, even when dealing with a pandemic. They believed it should be shut down. The Wuhan virus has shown that even during pandemics, the WHO will put politics ahead of public health.

I’ve had current and former OECD employees say the same thing, so I’m not surprised that some bureaucrats at the WHO have the same attitude.

It must be depressing to be a non-ideological professional and watch your organization get hijacked by those who care primarily about budgetary expansion and personal aggrandizement.

So if we ever get to that wonderful day when Washington puts an end to taxpayer subsidies for the OECD, maybe they’ll simultaneously defund the WHO as well.

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As explained in this short video, a spending cap limits how fast a government’s budget can grow each year.

That’s a very sensible approach, sort of like having a speed limit in a school zone, and even left-leaning international bureaucracies have concluded it’s the best fiscal rule.

That being said, not all spending caps are created equal. A fiscal rule that allows continuous increases in the burden of government spending is akin to an excessive speed limit on the road in front of an elementary school.

At a minimum, a spending cap should keep the spending burden constant (relative to the economy’s productive sector). Even better, a spending cap should fulfill the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by slowly but surely reducing the size of government.

Let’s learn from a real-world example.

Ben Wilterdink, a Visiting Fellow with the Alaska Policy Forum, explains for readers of the Peninsula Clarion that the state has a spending cap, but one that is set too high.

Alaska is in the midst of a perfect fiscal storm. …Even before the present crisis, our state faced large budget deficits and tough decisions about how to make ends meet. …That’s why adopting a functional limit on the growth in state spending is essential for long-term economic success. …a functional limit in the growth of state spending decreases the temptation to dramatically increase spending when economic times are good, creating new budget expectations that are difficult to maintain during inevitable economic downturns… Technically, Alaska already has a constitutional spending cap in place, but the formula used renders it basically meaningless. …While Alaskans can’t retroactively adopt a meaningful spending limit, we can ensure that those economic benefits are captured going forward.

So why is a spending cap now an important issue?

Because the state relies overwhelmingly on energy taxes, which are very cyclical, and the drop in oil prices is putting pressure on state finances.

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Here’s some of what Henry Olsen wrote last year for the Washington Post.

Alaskans have long financed their state government without paying for it themselves. Alaska has no personal income tax and no statewide sales or property tax. Instead, the state uses taxes and royalties on oil and gas producers to fund the overwhelming share of its government. …Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) told his constituents that the gravy train is over. Oil prices and production have been down for many years… Dunleavy showed the leadership that many conservatives contend is lacking in Washington and proposed slashing state spending by nearly 25 percent. Those cuts are real, not some phony accounting scheme against “projected” spending. …Dunleavy’s budget is forcing Alaskans to decide how much government they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

The bad news is that Alaskans may decide they want more government. Indeed, Olsen suggests in his column that this may be the outcome.

That might even lead politicians in the state to do something really unfortunate, such as adopting a state income tax.

The key thing to understand, however, is that the state would not be in this position if it had the kind of meaningful spending cap that Ben Wilterdink discussed in his column.

I wrote about Alaska’s fiscal policy back in 2015 and shared a very depressing chart showing that the burden of state spending tripled in the eight-year period between 2005 and 2013.

Just imagine, though, if spending during that period only grew at the rate of population plus inflation. The state would be in a very strong fiscal position today instead of dealing with a big mess (that’s also the case for the federal government, which also deals with revenue fluctuations).

So what’s the bottom line? Here’s another excerpt from Wilterdink’s column, noting that Colorado’s spending cap is a good role model.

…the most effective is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which constitutionally limits spending growth to the rate of inflation plus estimated population growth. The stable budget and tax climate created by TABOR has served Coloradans remarkably well. Over the past decade, Colorado’s gross state product (GSP) has grown by 45.5%, personal income has grown by 59.5%, and non-farm payroll employment has grown by 15.8%.

Amen. Colorado’s TABOR policy is a common-sense policy with a strong track record. And Colorado voters, most recently last November, routinely reject proposals to bust the state’s spending cap. So it’s an economic success and a political success.

P.S. If Alaska (or any other jurisdiction) wants global examples of successful spending caps, Switzerland and Hong Kong are good role models.

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The current crisis teaches us that excessive regulation and bureaucratic sloth can have deadly consequences.

Here’s John Stossel’s video with another lesson, explaining that we need more capitalism rather than more government.

This seems like a no-brainer, especially given the wretched economic performance of countries where the government owns or controls the means of production.

But not everyone agrees. The appropriately named Paris Marx wants government to have more power, making the case for nationalization of Amazon in an article for Jacobin.

The government needs to…respond to the needs of people across the country as the pandemic situation deteriorates. The response should be to nationalize Amazon and integrate it with the USPS. …Nationalizing the company would also allow Amazon workers to get covered by the same union as postal workers… Amazon isn’t just an online e-commerce marketplace. …Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud computing platform…the cloud should be placed under public ownership. Taking control of AWS would allow the government to…ensure the cloud platform is serving the public good… We have a rare opportunity to fundamentally alter the economy to serve the needs of people instead of private profit, and it’s time to seize it.

Call me crazy, but if the government takes over Amazon and merges it with the Postal Service, I’m guessing that what emerges will have the inefficiency of the latter rather than the nimbleness of the former.

Just imagine a giant Department of Motor Vehicles (or, on a related note, the government’s track record on teaching kids to drive).

Which is why the U.K.-based Economist warned back in 2017 about the dangers of government-run companies.

Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments. For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. …But in the 1970s economists came to see state ownership as a costly fix to such problems. Owners of private firms benefit directly when innovation reduces costs and boosts profits; bureaucrats usually lack such a clear financial incentive to improve performance. Firms with the backing of the state are less vulnerable to competition; as they lumber on they hoard resources that could be better used elsewhere. …economists saw in the productivity slowdown of the 1970s evidence that an overreaching state was throttling economic dynamism. …State-owned firms pose risks beyond that to dynamism. Government-run companies may prioritise swollen payrolls over customer satisfaction. More worryingly, state firms can become vehicles for corruption, used to dole out the largesse of the state to favoured backers or to funnel social wealth into the pockets of the powerful. As state control over the economy grows, political connections become a surer route to business success than entrepreneurialism.

The good news is that very few politicians are supporting explicit nationalization.

The bad news is that there’s plenty of support for intermediate steps involving cronyism, industrial policy, and various types of direct and indirect subsidies.

Including in the legislation recently approved in Washington (not that anyone should be surprised).

Professor Amit Seru from Stanford and Professor Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago warn, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has take a dangerous step on the road to central planning.

The need to help individuals and small firms has provided cover to the largest corporate subsidy program in U.S. history. Under intense pressure from lobbyists, the Cares Act allocates $510 billion to support loans for large businesses. A small chunk of this money ($56 billion) will be used directly by the Treasury to grant loans to airlines and other “strategic” firms (read: Boeing). The Treasury will then confer the rest ($454 billion) to the Federal Reserve to absorb losses the Fed might incur in lending to firms in the private sector. The expectation is that the central bank will leverage this money… This is the largest step toward a centrally planned economy the U.S. has ever taken. And it socializes only losses. Profits, when they come, remain private. …The urgency of the moment facilitated a giveaway to vested interests. Now that the Cares Act is law, policy makers need to find ways to impose restrictions on how the money is deployed. It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence; the nature of American capitalism is at stake.

In other words, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction on my “Industrial Policy Spectrum.”

The key unanswered question is whether the government’s new powers will be temporary or permanent.

There’s a legitimate argument for some form of intervention while the crisis in ongoing. But what happens once things go back to normal? Will politicians allow the “creative destruction” of capitalism, or will they use their expanded power to permanently interfere with market forces?

If they choose the latter, there will be less long-run prosperity.

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Until the crisis is over, I plan on sharing coronavirus-themed humor every weekend (previous versions here and here).

We’ll start with a meme that actually does a very good job of capturing the reaction when economists explain that there’s a tradeoff between economic damage and lives saved.

The Remy video at the bottom of this column is even better, if you like satire about saving lives.

Speaking of satire, the Babylon Bee has supplanted the Onion as the go-to site for clever humor.

This story about politicians saving the lives of government programs is a good example of why that’s happened.

America’s heroic lawmakers have managed to come together and pass a stimulus package to save the world from the effects of the coronavirus. A grateful country full of very stimulated Americans is applauding the lifesaving efforts of Congress. Already, experts are predicting the stimulus package will save the lives of at least 85,000 government programs. …”We believe that every government program’s life is infinitely precious and is made in the image of its lobbyist,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We know that if spending two trillion dollars saves the life of at least one beautiful and valuable government program, it is worth it.” …Thanks to the leadership of Washington, Americans everywhere are learning to appreciate the infinite worth of every lawmaker’s pet project. Experts believe this may mean a greater cultural shift toward a country that deeply respects life (of government programs.)

Here’s an amusing image based on the utterly inane fight over the name of the virus.

There have been plenty of clever memes involving toilet paper in recent weeks, but I’m only sharing examples that somehow intersect with public policy.

This is the first example – given the libertarian interest in cryptocurrency – that satisfies that requirement.

We’ll close with my two favorite selections for today.

First, we have another story from Babylon Bee, this one focusing on New York’s reflexive answer for just about everything.

New York state has announced a new plan to raise taxes on the novel coronavirus. The 15% income tax on all COVID-19 viruses, coupled with an 8% luxury disease tax, is expected to generate significant revenue and stop the virus in its tracks. …”We thought about all the different ways to solve problems that we know of, and we just returned to the tried-and-true method: taxing something until it runs away,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo. “This new legislation will cause the virus to run away and go to those dumb, backward Southern states not smart enough to have a special coronavirus tax.” …The plan seemed to work almost immediately, with coronaviruses packing up their bags, renting U-Hauls, and moving to better states like Texas. Texas has unveiled its own plan to stop the bug, however, shooting the virus with fully automatic weapons on sight.

The last sentence reminds me of other jokes involving Texans and firearms (here, here, here, and here).

Our last item for today is this image, showing ever-greater threats, from my Liberland friends.

The image is amusing, but there’s presumably a non-trivial threat that politicians will grab more power as a result of the crisis and permanently expand the burden of government.

That will mean lots of suffering and hardship, but the silver lining to that dark cloud is that we’ll surely get plenty of new material to add to my collection.

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Near the beginning of the croronavirus crisis, I observed that “government-run health systems have not done a good job” of dealing with the pandemic.

And I’ve repeatedly noted the failure of government bureaucracies to respond effectively in the United States.

Is there, perhaps, a lesson to be learned about what happens when politicians get more control of the health sector?

Let’s consider the different experiences of two European nations.

Kai Wess of the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna has a column for CapX on the performance of the German system.

…the responses of national governments to the crisis have been starkly different. …Germany’s approach is particularly interesting. …the death rate of Germany has been hovering around 0.2% to 0.5% for the entirety of March, only rising to the current 1.1% in the last days after deaths spiked in the first days of April. And yet, 1.1% is still light years away from Spain’s 8.7% Italy’s 11.7%, Britain’s 7.11%, and France’s 6.8%. …Germany’s lockdown has also been somewhat more lenient than in other European countries. …So why is Germany doing comparatively well? For one thing, mass testing has taken place for weeks… The second key factor is the good condition of Germany’s health sector. The number of critical care beds in Germany previously stood at 29.2 per 100,000 inhabitants – the highest of the countries most affected by Covid-19 other than the US (34.7). …why does Germany have these testing capacities? And why is the health sector so well-equipped? One of the main answers is that, at least relatively speaking, Germany’s health sector is more decentralised and leaves more room for competition… Germany does not have an NHS-style one-size-fits-all approach, but an insurance-based system. Everyone has to have health care and the government bears the cost for poorer patients. …there is competition between different insurance plans and individuals can pick their preferred plan. The health sector’s revenue comes from the premiums paid by patients as well as their employer – not through state funding. …The testing system has also been very decentralised, with a mixture of government agencies, private enterprise, and research organisations working on expanding testing capabilities – indeed, the January test was made possible by a private biotech entrepreneur. …when it comes to testing, Germany does not have a centralised diagnostic system, but a network of local authorities. As Christian Drosten explain, “Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests.”

Now let’s look at the performance of National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

Writing for the Telegraph, Charles Moore opines on its less-than-impressive track record.

The Government’s policy of lockdown is in significant part dictated by the demands not of patients, but of the NHS, and by its lack of adaptability and readiness. …A significant reason for the slow development, arrival and use of the antigen tests (“Have I got it?”) and the antibody tests (“Have I had it?”) seems to be the reluctance of the health service, and of Public Health England, to look outside their own spheres for help. In a culture almost proudly hostile to the private sector and mistrustful of independent academic work, the NHS’s first instinct is to defend bureaucratic territory. …the NHS belatedly admitted within government that it had failed to get enough ventilators. …University College Hospital, Formula I and Mercedes Benz got together to produce the CPAP… Next week, the repurposed Mercedes Benz F1 factory in Brixworth expects to produce 1,000 CPAPs a day. …the amazing 4,000-bed capacity Nightingale field hospital at the ExCeL centre in east London, opened yesterday… For two weeks after it was proposed, NHS top brass opposed it. When they finally admitted they needed it, the Army and the private contractors were the ones who made it happen in nine days. …Ten days ago, government contacts found the only company in Britain with expertise in making reagent for antigen swab tests. The firm was put on to the NHS, but at the time of writing, the health service had still not had a conversation with it. …That system is the problem. …The defects are baked into our system of national bureaucratic command. People have noticed that Germany has been more successful in managing the virus spread through testing. This is not a coincidence. Germany does not have our lumbering central diagnostic system, because it does not have, in our sense, a national health service.

These two columns are very instructive, not only because they show the adverse consequences of too much government, but also because they show that there are big differences in European health systems.

Many people have the (very!) inaccurate belief that the United States has a market-based system. And many of them also share the mistaken belief that all European nations have systems where everything is financed and provided by government.

In reality, there’s a wide divergence of policies across the globe.

Back in 2013, I created a back-of-the-envelope “Freedom Meter” to illustrate how Obamacare was best viewed as in incremental step on a long (and well-traveled) road to a government-dominated health care system.

Simply stated, we already greatly reduced the role of markets thanks to a range of programs and policies (Medicare, Medicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

Obamacare simply added another layer of taxes, spending, and regulation.

I actually suspect many nations that supposedly have “government-run healthcare” actually would be closer to the free-market side of the Freedom Meter than the United States.

Sort of like what I’m depicting in this revised, worldwide version.

Though I admit I’m just guessing that Germany and Switzerland might be better than the United States.

What we really need is the healthcare equivalent of what the Tax Foundation does with its State Business Tax Climate Index and its International Tax Competitiveness Index.

Only instead of a fiscal ranking based on factors such as income taxes, business taxes, property taxes, and consumption taxes, we’d have a health ranking based on factors such as third-party payer, degree of centralization, consumer choice, regulatory burden, financing mechanisms, and extent of direct government provision.

If anybody’s aware of anything like this, please share.

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Starting with a column about government-subsidized debt and ending yesterday with a column about why government shouldn’t own airlines, I’ve written about coronavirus-related issues for 14 straight days. And since that’s the topic now dominating the national discussion, I expect many more coronavirus-themed columns will be forthcoming.

But I’m going to make a detour to normalcy today and write about the person who is probably America’s second-worst president in terms of economic policy.

No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama or George W. Bush.  Or even Herbert Hoover.

That’s a list of bad presidents, to be sure, but none of them are in the same league as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As I’ve explained before, FDR deserves scorn for doubling down on Hoover’s awful policies of higher taxes, increased spending, and more intervention – thus keeping the economy mired in misery all through the 1930s.

Amazingly, some people applaud his performance. Including some self-described conservatives.

Conrad Black, in an article for American Greatness, actually wants readers to think of FDR as a conservative.

My motive is…to correct the widespread misperception of Roosevelt as a socialist and somehow the person responsible for the present leviathan-state. …Roosevelt wanted to make America safe for wealthy people like himself. …he wanted a contented working-class and agrarian class, as he thought equitable in a rich country, and the only assurance against social instability. …retroactive quarterbacks have never suggested any serious alternatives to what Roosevelt did and no significant part of his domestic legislation has been seriously altered… When it comes to long-term social and economic policy, Roosevelt gets a solid B-plus. …Roosevelt acknowledged that the New Deal would, and did, make many mistakes, but it saved the country.

Saved the country?!? According to academic experts, the New Deal lengthened and deepened the downturn.

Why? Because FDR adopted so many bad policies. For instance, increased the top tax rate to 79 percent (and fortunately failed in his effort to impose a 100 percent tax rate). He cartelized the economy based on fascist economic principles. And he doubled the burden of federal spending in just eight years.

I’ll discuss more about FDR’s policy mistakes at the end of this column, but I also want to address his upside-down view of freedom.

He wanted to replace the Founding Fathers’ vision of “negative liberty” (the right to be left alone) with the redistributionst concept of “positive liberty” (the right to get handouts).

Here’s one of his speeches, which I first shared back in 2011.

I’m not the only one to find this point of view to be repugnant.

Here’s some of what James Bovard wrote last year, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Franklin Roosevelt did more than any other modern president to corrupt Americans’ understanding of freedom. …his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech…declared: “The third [freedom] is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world.” Proclaiming a goal of freedom from fear meant that government should fill the role in daily life previously filled by God and religion. Politicians are the biggest fearmongers, and “freedom from fear” would justify seizing new power in response to every bogus federal alarm. …Three years later, …Roosevelt called for a “Second Bill of Rights” and asserted that “True individual freedom can’t exist without economic security.” And security, according to FDR, included “the right to a useful and remunerative job,” a “decent home,” “good health,” and “good education.” Thus, if…someone was in bad health, then that person would be considered as having been deprived of his freedom, and somehow it would be the government’s fault. Freedom thus required boundless control over health care.

Amen.

There is no “right” to other people’s earnings.

Let’s now return to FDR’s specific policies.

My contribution to this discussion is a back-of-the-envelope assessment of the policies adopted while he was in office. As you can see, there were many anti-growth policies (and the policies that did the most damage get the biggest bars).

Trade was the only area where he consistently pushed policy in the right direction.

P.S. According to presidential scholars such as Al Felzenberg, President Roosevelt didn’t have firm views on economics and his administration was characterized by haphazard shifts in policy depending on which group of advisors (the reflationists, corporatists, Keynesians, anti-trust zealots, etc) were most influential.

P.P.S. FDR’s Treasury Secretary admitted the failure of the New Deal in 1939, telling a congressional committee that “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work… I say after eight years of this administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started…and an enormous debt, to boot.”

P.P.P.S. I wrote above that FDR is “probably America’s second-worst president.” I’m hesitant to give a definitive answer, in part because Nixon was so terrible. More important, the wretched track record of Woodrow Wilson (creator of the income tax and Federal Reserve, as well as an odious racist) suggests he may deserve the prize for being the worst of the worst.

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Most economic downturns are caused by misguided government policy, which leads to predictable battles over how to address the fallout as well as battles over how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Today’s crisis is different. It’s more akin to a natural disaster. But it’s not a one-off event like a big hurricane or earthquake. It’s an ongoing pandemic, which is having a terrible impact on many sectors of the economy. And if it lasts a long time, the consequences will be catastrophic depression rather than ordinary recession (which is why it is reasonable to contemplate the economic and health tradeoffs of re-opening the economy).

To deal with the immediate consequences of this crisis, Washington has responded by approving a mutli-trillion dollar relief package. And I won’t be surprised if politicians come back with another huge package.

Since responding to a pandemic is a legitimate function of government, I don’t have a principled objection to emergency legislation (for wonky readers, there’s an interesting debate in libertarian circles about whether government assistance – even bailouts – can be justified because government has ordered a shutdown of economic activity, which can be viewed as a “regulatory taking“).

That being said, I worry that self-interested politicians will use the crisis as an excuse to shovel goodies to their friends and cronies.

And I also want to minimize the danger that politicians will use the crisis as a reason to permanently expand the size and scope of government.

I’ve already written about how the crowd in Washington is exploiting the crisis with regards to three different issues.

Today, let’s consider a potential downside of providing assistance to companies. We’ll focus on airlines, but the lessons apply to any businesses that get government assistance.

A Bloomberg report explains why this issue, in general, is controversial.

…the administration may consider asking for an equity stake in corporations that want coronavirus aid from taxpayers. …Against that, there’s the potential for political risk. During the financial crisis, some Republicans decried a tilt toward European-style socialism. The current crisis coincides with the — albeit fading — candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and his democratic socialist platform. …“This is a very big slippery slope because the ownership of private capital by government is not traditionally consistent with capitalism,” said Kevin Caron, portfolio manager for Washington Crossing.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on this issue focuses on the airline industry and makes some very important points.

America’s beleaguered passenger airlines are allocated roughly $50 billion in the coronavirus relief bill… The idea is simply to freeze the staff list for six months, at which point the pandemic might have receded and air travel recovered. In exchange, Congress has authorized the Treasury Secretary, at his sole discretion, to “receive warrants, options, preferred stock, debt securities, notes, or other financial instruments” that constitute “appropriate compensation to the Federal Government.” …The desire to get something for the taxpayer’s buck is understandable, but there’s a real risk here of a long-term nationalization. …Washington should have no role in directing the business of a private company, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin perhaps would agree. What if his successor turns out to be Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren? …Helping the airlines weather a 100-year pandemic might be, arguably, within the government’s job description. Owning them isn’t.

The bad news is that are no good options.

It’s not a good idea to simply give taxpayer money to airlines. And it’s also not a good outcome for airlines to go bankrupt, perhaps leading to a total shutdown rather than a reorganization.

Some outcomes, however, are worse than others. And having government as a major shareholder is the option with the greatest long-run risk. Simply stated, it’s a recipe for cronyism and industrial policy.

Based on what’s already happened on issues such as energy and trade, I don’t trust President Trump and his team to have a hands-off attitude. What will happen, as we approach the November election, if the White House thinks it can win a key state by forcing a company (either an airline or any other affected firm) to increase jobs and/or pay?

Or, if you happen to trust Trump, what happens if Joe Biden wins in November and – as the Wall Street Journal warned – a dogmatic interventionist like Elizabeth Warren becomes Treasury Secretary.

She already has a very bad track record on issues of corporate governance. Do you want her to have the power that comes with being a major shareholder?

For all intents and purposes, this is why I unveiled the Fifth Theorem of Government last September.

I’ll close with some troubling observations about where we may be heading.

  1. The technical definition of fascism (at least with regards to its economic policy) is nominal private ownership of business but government control.
  2. The technical definition of socialism is outright government ownership and control of business (along with other policies such as central planning and price controls).

Which raises the depressing issue of how much government ownership is required to get to #1 and how much additional government ownership is required to get to #2.

Could it be that Bernie Sanders may be the real winner, regardless of who is in the White House next year?

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The crowd in Washington has responded to the coronavirus crisis with an orgy of borrowing and spending.

The good news is that the legislation isn’t based on the failed notion of Keynesian economics (i.e., the belief that you get more prosperity when the government borrows money from the economy’s left pocket and then puts it in the economy’s right pocket).

Instead, it is vaguely based on the idea of government acting as an insurer for unforeseen loss of income.

Not ideal from a libertarian perspective, of course, but we can at least hope it might be somewhat successful in easing temporary hardship and averting bankruptcies of otherwise viable businesses.

The bad news is that the legislation is filled with corrupt handouts and favors for the friends and cronies of politicians. Simply stated, they have not “let a crisis go to waste.”

The worst news, however, is that politicians have plenty of additional ideas for how to exploit the crisis.

An especially awful idea for so-called stimulus comes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to restore (retroactively!) the full federal deduction for state and local tax payments.

Pelosi suggested that reversing the tax law’s $10,000 cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction… The cap on the SALT deduction has been strongly disliked by politicians in high-tax, Democratic-leaning states such as New York, New Jersey and California… But most Republicans support the SALT deduction cap, arguing that it helps to prevent the tax code from subsidizing higher state taxes.

I’ve written many times on this issue and explained why curtailing that deduction (which basically existed to subsidize the profligacy of high-tax states) was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform.

Needless to say, it would be a horrible mistake to reverse that much-needed change.

The Wall Street Journal agrees, opining on Pelosi’s proposal to subsidize high tax states.

Democrats are far from finished using the crisis to try to force through partisan priorities they couldn’t pass in normal times. Mrs. Pelosi is now hinting the price for further economic relief may include expanding a regressive tax deduction for high-earners in states run by Democrats. …In the 2017 tax reform, Republicans limited the state and local tax deduction to $10,000. …Democrats have been trying to repeal the SALT cap since tax reform passed. …Blowing up the state and local tax deduction would…also make it easier for poorly governed states to rely on soaking their high earners through capital-gains and income taxes, because the federal deduction would ease the burden. …Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks underscore the potential for further political mischief and long-term damage as the government intervenes… When Democrats next complain that Republicans want to cut taxes “for the rich,” remember that Mrs. Pelosi wants to cut them too—but mainly for the progressive rich in Democratic states.

Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also denounced the idea.

This is not the time to load up emergency packages with giveaways that waste billions of taxpayer dollars… Weakening or eliminating the SALT cap would be regressive, expensive, poorly targeted, and precisely the kind of political giveaway that compromises the credibility of emergency spending. …Retroactively repealing the SALT caps for the last two years would mean sending a check of $100,000 to the household making over $1 million per year, and less than $100 for the average household making less than $100,000 per year. …During this crisis, the Committee implores special interest lobbyists to stand down and lawmakers to put self-serving politics aside.

By the way, I care about whether a change in tax policy will make the country more prosperous in the long run and don’t fixate on whether the change helps or hurts any particular income group. So Maya’s point about the rich getting almost all the benefits is not what motivates me to oppose Pelosi’s proposal.

That being said, it is remarkable that she is pushing a change that overwhelmingly benefits the very richest people in the nation.

The obvious message is that it’s okay to help the rich when a) those rich people live in places such as California, and b) helping the rich also makes it easier for states to impose bad fiscal policy.

Which is why she was pushing her bad idea before the coronavirus ever became an issue. Indeed, House Democrats even passed legislation in 2019 to restore the loophole.

Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern University Law School wrote early last year why the deduction was misguided and why the provision to restrict the deduction was the best provision of the 2017 tax law.

…the best feature of the Trump tax cuts was the $10,000 cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. It advanced one of the Constitution’s most important structures for good government—competitive federalism. Deductibility of state taxes deadens that competition, because it allows states to slough off some of the costs of taxation to citizens in other states. Moreover, it allows states to avoid accountability for the taxes they impose. Given high federal tax rates in some brackets, high income tax payers end up paying only about sixty percent of the actual tax imposed. The federal government and thereby other tax payers effectively pick up the rest of the tab. …the ceiling makes some taxpayers pay more, but its dynamic effect is to make it less likely that state and local taxes, particularly highly visible state income taxes, will be raised and more likely that they will be cut.

For what it’s worth, I think the lower corporate tax rate was the best provision of the 2017 reform, but McGinnis makes a strong case.

Perhaps the best evidence for this change comes from the behavior of politicians from high-tax states.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial from early last year.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo…is blaming the state’s $2.3 billion budget shortfall on a political party that doesn’t run the place. He says the state is suffering from declining tax receipts because the GOP Congress as part of tax reform in 2017 limited the state-and-local tax deduction to $10,000. …the once unlimited deduction allowed those in high tax climes to mitigate the pain of state taxes. It amounted to a subsidy for progressive policies. …The real problem is New York’s punitive tax rates, which Mr. Cuomo and his party could fix. “People are mobile,” Mr. Cuomo said this week. “And they will go to a better tax environment. That is not a hypothesis. That is a fact.” Maybe Mr. Cuomo should stay in Albany and do something about that reality.

Amen.

The federal tax code should not subsidize politicians from high-tax states. Nor should it subsidize rich people who live in high-tax states.

If Governor Cuomo is worried about rich people moving to Florida (and he should be), he should lower tax rates and make government more efficient.

I’ll close with the observation that the state and local tax deduction created the fiscal version of a third-party payer problem. It reduced the perceived cost of state and local government, which made it easier for politicians to increase taxes (much as government subsidies for healthcare and higher education have made it easier for hospitals and colleges to increase prices).

P.S. Speaking of fake stimulus, there’s also plenty of discussion on Capitol Hill (especially given Trump’s weakness on the issue) about squandering a couple of trillion dollars on infrastructure, even though such spending a) should not be financed at the federal level, b) would not have any immediate impact on jobs, and c) would be a vehicle for giveaways such as mass transit boondoggles.

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