Archive for the ‘Central planning’ Category

I’ve always viewed Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, as a warning about the dangers of over-regulation, over-taxation, and excessive redistribution.

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t yet read the book, but it’s basically a storyWelfare State Wagon Cartoons about what happens to a society when the people pulling the wagon decide that’s no longer how they want to spend their lives.

And as these highly productive people begin to opt out, politicians come up with ever-crazier ideas of keeping the economy going.

The most absurd example, something that could only happen in a dystopian work of fiction rather than real life, was “Directive 10-289,” an edict from the government to prevent continued contraction by requiring everybody in the economy to do exactly the same thing next year that they did this year. This meant no changing jobs. No starting new companies. No closing down existing companies. No changes in pay. Or employment. No changes in anything. Freeze the economy at current levels.

In other words, take Nixon-style wage and price controls and apply them to every bit of economic activity.

Unfortunately, some politicians think Atlas Shrugged is a direction manual rather than a warning. In Montreal, they’ve come up with a crazy idea to apply a version of Directive 10-289 to the restaurant industry. I’m not joking. In a column for Reason, Baylen Linnekin explains this surreal new policy.

…lawmakers in Montreal have moved to crack down on new restaurants, in an odious attempt to protect existing ones. “Montreal has one of the highest restaurant per-capita ratios in North America and the amount of places to eat is worrying local politicians,” reads a Canadian Press piece from earlier this week. …Data shows Montreal trails only New York City in terms of restaurants per capita in North America. As in New York City, that competition is great for Montreal’s consumers. But it puts pressure on incumbent restaurateurs. So lawmakers have decided to side with the latter.

The new law isn’t quite as bad as Directive 10-289, but it’s guided by the same attitude: Everything that exists now should be preserved and what’s new is bad.

…a ban on new restaurants from opening within 25 meters of an existing one along the city’s Rue Notre Dame… Notably, the action comes as “a number of commercial and retail properties remain empty” in this same part of Montreal. The law “risk[s] turning the city’s restaurant scene into a heavily bureaucratized nightmare like the province’s construction industry,” says the head of Quebec’s restaurant association

So who could possibly support such an initiative?

Unsurprisingly, the greatest enemies of genuine capitalism aren’t just politicians, but also incumbent firms that don’t want competition.

…some protectionist restaurateurs support the measure. “In Montreal you can apply for a restaurant permit and get it immediately—that’s a problem for me” says David McMillan, a supporter of the restrictions, whose high-end restaurant, Joe Beef, is an intended beneficiary of the ban. He’s not alone. “I don’t believe in the free market anymore,” says restaurateur Carlos Ferreira. “We have to protect the good restaurants.”

Gee, I thought consumers were the ones who were supposed to determine which restaurants are good. But Mr. Ferreira wants politicians and bureaucrats to now have the power.

Though we shouldn’t mock the Canadians too much. After all, Barack Obama imposed a version of Directive 10-289 in the United States.

Heck, he must be a big fan of Atlas Shrugged because he also mimicked another part of the book.

Of course, there are some cities, and even entire nations, that apparently want to replicate everything in Ayn Rand’s classic novel.

And the results in these real-world experiments are similar to what happens in the book. Except the book actually has a happy ending, whereas there’s little reason to be optimistic for a rebirth of freedom in places such as Greece and Venezuela.

P.S. John Stossel and Charles Murray have interesting things to say about Atlas Shrugged.

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The communist economic system was a total disaster, but it wasn’t because of excessive taxation. Communist countries generally didn’t even have tax systems.

The real problem was that communism was based on central planning, which is the notion that supposedly wise bureaucrats and politicians could scientifically determine the allocation of resources.

But it turns out that even well-meaning commissars did a terrible job. There was massive inefficiency and widespread shortages. Simply stated, notwithstanding the delusions of some left-wing economists (see postscript of this column), the system was an economic catastrophe.

Why? Because there were no market-based prices.

And, as explained in this video from Learn Liberty, market-based prices are like an economy’s central nervous system, sending signals that enable the efficient and productive allocation of resources in ways that benefit consumers and maximize prosperity.

And just in case it’s not obvious from the video, a price system can’t be centrally planned. Or, to be more precise, you won’t get good results if central planners are in charge.

Now let’s look at a bunch of economic policy questions that seem unrelated.

What’s the underlying reason why minimum wages are bad? We know they lead to bad effects such as higher unemployment, particularly for vulnerable populations, but how do these bad effects occur?

Why is it bad to have export subsidies such as the Export-Import Bank? It’s easy to understand the negative effects, such as corrupt cronyism, but what’s the underlying economic concern?

Or what’s the real reason why third-party payer is misguided? And why should people be concerned about high marginal tax rates or double taxation? Or Obamacare subsidies? Or unemployment insurance?

These questions involve lots of different issues, so at first glance there’s no common theme.

But that’s not true. In every single case, bad effects occur because politicians are distorting the workings of the price system with preferences and penalties.

And that’s today’s message. We generally don’t have politicians urging the kind of comprehensive central planning found is genuinely socialist regimes. Not even Bernie Sanders. But we do have politicians who advocate policies that undermine the price system on an ad-hoc basis.

Every tax, every regulation, every subsidy, and every handout is going to distort incentives for some people. And the cumulative effect of all these interventions is like a cancer that eats away at prosperity.

The good news is that we don’t have nearly as many of these bad policies as places such as France and Mexico.

But the bad news is that we have more of these policies than Hong Kong and Singapore.

The bottom line is that America could be much richer with less intervention. But that would require less ad-hoc interventionism.

P.S. There’s a bit of economic wisdom in these jokes that use two cows to explain economic systems.

P.P.S. Here are two other videos on the price system, both of which help explain why only a decentralized market system can allocate resources in ways that benefit consumers.

P.P.P.S. A real-world example of the price system helped bring about the collapse of communism.

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I’ve written before about the tremendous success of Hong Kong. The jurisdiction routinely is ranked as being the world’s freest economy, and its fiscal policy is a role model for spending restraint.

One reason Hong Kong has prospered is that it has enjoyed a policy of benign neglect, particularly when it was a British colony prior to 1997. More specifically, the United Kingdom by happenstance appointed John Cowperthwaite to help govern the colony. And his view of governing was to leave things alone.

…while the mother country lurched in a socialist direction at home under Clement Attlee, Cowperthwaite became an advocate of what he called “positive non-interventionism” in HK.

Cowperthwaite was especially wise in realizing that collecting statistics was risky because advocates of big government would want to justify and implement intervention on the basis of data.

To Cowperthwaite, the planner’s quest for statistics was anathema. So he refused to compile them. When Friedman asked him in 1963 about the “paucity of statistics,” Cowperthwaite answered, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.”

This may seem to be an arcane point, but imagine how much freer we would be if Washington didn’t have access to our private information.

Consider these examples.

  1. The burdensome modern income tax would be impossible if government didn’t have information on our income and assets.
  2. Disgusting examples of asset forfeiture would no long occur if the government didn’t have data on our bank accounts.
  3. Failed interventions such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core would be impractical if Washington didn’t have education statistics.
  4. Our medical system wouldn’t be messed up by Obamacare, Medicaid, and Medicare if politicians didn’t have data about healthcare.

The list is almost endless.

And now we have another disturbing example. As the New York Post reports, the Obama Administration is engaging in an intrusive and Orwellian data-collection exercise as a precursor for central planning of the economy and manipulation of private behavior.

Unbeknown to most Americans, Obama’s racial bean counters are furiously mining data on their health, home loans, credit cards, places of work, neighborhoods, even how their kids are disciplined in school — all to document “inequalities” between minorities and whites. This Orwellian-style stockpile of statistics includes a vast and permanent network of discrimination databases.

Why are they doing all this snooping? To justify more intervention, of course.

The bureaucrats are guided by the theory of disparate impact, which is based on the absurd notion that any difference in racial statistics somehow is a sign of malignant racism.

So it doesn’t matter if there isn’t any evidence of racism. It doesn’t matter if there’s any suggestion of actual discrimination.

What matters if that a bunch of bureaucrats want power to micro-manage the economy and control our lives.

Here’s what’s happening, for instance, in housing.

…the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing database, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development rolled out earlier this month to racially balance the nation, ZIP code by ZIP code. It will map every US neighborhood by four racial groups — white, Asian, black or African-American, and Hispanic/Latino — and publish “geospatial data” pinpointing racial imbalances. The agency proposes using nonwhite populations of 50% or higher as the threshold for classifying segregated areas. Federally funded cities deemed overly segregated will be pressured to change their zoning laws to allow construction of more subsidized housing in affluent areas in the suburbs, and relocate inner-city minorities to those predominantly white areas.

By the way, if you think this is just hyperbole, the federal government has been using Westchester County in New York as a guinea pig based on residential housing data. With terrible results, as you can imagine.

And the Department of Housing and Urban development also has been using subsidized housing as a tool for central planning of society.

Needless to say, this is the wrong approach. Instead of letting bureaucrats in Washington act as some sort of national zoning commission, we should shut down HUD and get the federal government completely out of the housing sector.

And, more broadly, we should heed the wise words of John Cowperthwaite, who helped Hong Kong become rich by denying bureaucrats access to data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another example.

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

And here’s the icing on the cake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I just read something that unleashed my inner teenager, because I want to respond with a combination of OMG, LMAO, and WTF.

Donald Berwick, the person appointed by Obama to be in charge of Medicare, has a column in the Wall Street Journal that makes a very good observation about how relative prices are falling for products bought and sold in the free market. But he then draws exactly the wrong conclusion by asserting that further crippling market forces for healthcare will yield similar cost savings for programs such as Medicare.

Here’s the relevant passage from his Wall Street Journal column.

The right way is to help bring costs down by making care better and improving our health-care system. Improving quality while reducing costs is a strategy that’s had major success in other fields. Computers, cars, TVs and telephones today do more than they ever have, and the cost of these products has consistently dropped. The companies that make computers and microwaves didn’t get there by cutting what they offer: They achieved success by making their products better and more efficient. …Under President Obama’s framework, we will hold down Medicare cost growth, improve the quality of care for seniors, and save an additional $340 billion for taxpayers in the next decade.

I have no idea whether Berwick realizes that he has inverted reality, so I can’t decide whether he is cynically dishonest or hopelessly clueless. All I can say with certainty is that what he wrote is sort of like asserting “gravity causes things to fall, so therefore this rock will rise when I let go of it.”

To explain, let’s start by looking at why relative prices are falling for computers, cars, TVs and telephones. This isn’t because the companies that make these products are motivated by selflessness. Like all producers, they would love to charge high prices and get enormous profits. But because they must compete for consumers who are very careful about getting the most value for their money, the only way companies can earn profits is to be more and more efficient so they can charge low prices.

So why isn’t this happening in health care? The answer, at least in part, is that consumers aren’t spending their own money so they don’t really care how much things cost. As this chart illustrates (click to enlarge), only 12 percent of every healthcare dollar is paid directly by consumers. The rest comes from third-party payers, mostly government but also insurance companies.

In other words, Berwick’s column accidentally teaches us an important lesson. When consumers are in charge and responsible for paying their own bills, markets are very efficient and costs come down. But when government policies cause third-party payer, consumers have little if any incentive to spend money wisely – leading to high costs and inefficiency.

Defenders of the status quo argue that the market for healthcare somehow is different than the market for things such as computers. But here’s a chart (click to enlarge) showing that relative prices are falling in one of the few areas of the healthcare system where consumers spend their own money. And I’ve previously noted that the same thing applies with abortion, where prices have been remarkably stable for decades. Regardless of one’s views on the procedure, it does show that costs don’t rise when people spend their own money.

That’s common sense and basic economics. But it’s not a good description of Obama’s healthcare plan, which is explicitly designed to increase the share of medical care financed by third-party payer.

The White House presumably would argue that price controls will help control costs. And the President’s Independent Payment Advisory Board (a.k.a., the death panel) will have enormous power to directly or indirectly restrict care, but that’s probably not too comforting for the elderly and others with high healthcare expenses.

The right approach, needless to say, would be to restore market forces to healthcare, which is the core message of this video narrated by Eline van den Broek of the Netherlands.

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This blog already has noted that Obamacare crippled the market for “kids only” health insurance policies. Unsurprisingly, that is just the beginning of the bad news. The latest development is that health policies designed to provide insurance to low-income workers may no longer be economically feasible. The Wall Street Journal comments.
Among President Obama’s core health-care promises was that Americans can keep their current coverage if they like it. Among the reasons that a new ObamaCare squall blows in every other day is that this claim simply is not true, as people are discovering. The latest fracas was incited by Janet Adamy’s scoop in the Journal this week that McDonald’s Corp. may be forced to cancel its current coverage for 29,500 employees as a result of ObamaCare. McDonald’s told Health and Human Services regulators that new mandates will make its plans “economically prohibitive” and cause “a huge disruption” unless it gets a waiver. …The entire philosophical and policy architecture of ObamaCare is explicitly designed to standardize health benefits and how those benefits should be paid for. Those choices and tradeoffs will be made for everyone by Ms. Sebelius’s regulators. …Around 2.5 million consumers are covered by “mini-med” policies, most of them concentrated in low-wage industries like fast food, hospitality and retail that have large numbers of part-time or temporary workers. In the case of the restaurants, 75% of the workforce turns over every year and nearly half are under age 25. Mini-med plans are a temporary stopgap for businesses that have low margins and face high labor and health costs. But Democrats hate mini-med and other skinny-benefit plans, calling them “underinsurance.” ObamaCare is meant to run them out of the market by mandating benefits, eliminating coverage caps and certain technical rules about how premiums must be spent. …In other words, the choice is between relatively affordable coverage that isn’t as generous as Democrats think it should be and dumping coverage entirely. McDonald’s may eventually offer the high-cost plans that Ms. Sebelius favors, or get its waiver, but many of its less profitable or smaller competitors won’t. While subsidized ObamaCare options will be available in 2014, those costs will merely be transferred to taxpayers.

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