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What does World War I have to do with Obamanomics?

There’s no real connection, of course, but it did give me an opportunity to present a good analogy. At a conference in London last week, I was discussing with some folks the state of the American economy and the role of public policy.

I was trying to explain what’s happened in the past few years, describing the avalanche of bad policy last decade, culminating with the faux stimulus in 2009 and the enactment of Obamacare in 2010.

I then said that Obama’s efforts to impose further statism have been largely stymied, particularly after the Tea Party election of 2010. There have been lots of skirmishes in recent years, to be sure, with Obama winning a few (such as the recent imposition of “net neutrality” regulations on the Internet) but also losing a few (such as spending restraint caused by policies like the sequester).

But the fact that Obama hasn’t been able to make additional “progress” is not really a victory. It’s simply a stalemate.

And that’s where the World War I analogy fits. As I was trying to get across my point, it occurred to me that it’s vaguely like World War I.

When the war started, the Germans gained considerable ground, overrunning much of Belgium and a lot of territory in northwestern France. That’s akin to Obama’s victories in 2009-2010.

But then the period of trench warfare began and neither side made much progress. And that’s a good description of what’s been happening in recent years in Washington.

This is a good news-bad news situation. To continue with my analogy, the good news is that Obama isn’t conquering more territory. The bad news is that we aren’t pushing Obama back into Germany and reclaiming territory.

And so long as we’re in this stalemate, it’s unlikely that we’ll enjoy robust economic growth. And that’s our topic for today.

In my actual speech, I dusted off my charts based on Minneapolis Fed data, and updated them to compare today’s weak recovery with what’s happened during previous business cycles. And I specifically focused on a comparison of the very strong growth of the Reagan years with the lackluster growth of the Obama years.

But it’s a pity that my speech wasn’t one week later, because I’ve just seen some really good contributions on the same topic from economists Robert Higgs and John Taylor.

Writing for the Independent Institute, Higgs looks at what’s been happening with a key measure of our prosperity.

Arguably the best single, currently available measure of the entire public’s payoff from economic activity is real disposable income per capita. This is the average amount per annum that Americans receive in exchange for the use of their labor and other input services, after taxes, corrected for changes in the purchasing power of the dollar. …this measure of economic well-being has scarcely increased at all since 2007.

Higgs also prepared a table to make it easier to compare performance of this important variable during various business cycles.

As you can see, the current “recovery” has been dismal compared to previous periods.

And here’s his analysis of why we’re suffering from sub-par growth.

These figures demonstrate that even though the rate of increase has varied substantially in the past, it has never remained so low as it has been in recent years. Even during the decade of so-called stagflation from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, real disposable income per capita grew more than twice as fast as it has grown in the past seven years. In the past, recessions were always followed by relatively brisk growth during the first several years of the ensuing recovery. Such has not been the case this time. Nor do forecasters anticipate any such surge of growth in the future. Might it be that the state’s burdens loaded onto the private producers of wealth—taxes, regulations, uncertainties, intrusions of all sorts, including demands for elaborate reports, asset seizures, and threats of felony prosecution for completely innocent and harmless actions—have finally become the “last straw” for these long-suffering camels? …the current situation is clear enough. The U.S. economy, though not yet completely stagnant, has made little headway for more than seven years, and there is little reason to foresee any great change in this regard.

Returning to my analogy, Higgs is basically saying that we’ll be mired in trench warfare for the foreseeable future.

Not exactly a rosy projection.

Now let’s look at the analysis of Professor John Taylor of Stanford University. He starts by walking through a timeline of the current “recovery.”

At the time of the first anniversary of current recovery in 2010, it showed clear signs of weakness compared to the recovery from the recessions in the early 1980s and from all other deep recessions in American history.  …By the recovery’s second anniversary in 2011, it was weak for long enough that I called it “a recovery in name only, so weak as to be nonexistent.” …By the recovery’s third anniversary in 2012, it was now the worst recovery from a deep recession in American history. …By the recovery’s fourth anniversary in 2013, few disputed any more that it was unusually weak and disappointing.  …By the recovery’s fifth anniversary, we were so far away from the recession that linking the terrible performance to the recession became increasing far-fetched.

Professor Taylor has a couple of charts of his own that bolster his argument.

Here’s a comparison of quarterly growth during the Obama recovery and Reagan recovery.

If you’re keeping score, Reagan’s economy out-performed Obama’s economy (often by a very wide margin) in 19 out of 22 quarters.

If this was a boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago.

Taylor also looks at the performance of the labor market during the Obama recovery and Reagan recovery.

Once again, there’s no comparison. During the Reagan years more people were working and adding to the productive capacity of the nation.

During the Obama years, by contrast, the most optimistic assessment is that we’re treading water.

Here’s more of his analysis about the ongoing stagnation.

With the recovery now approaching its sixth anniversary, there is more optimism that we are finally coming out the excruciating slow growth. There is also some wishful thinking that the drop of people out of the labor force—which has made the unemployment rate come down—is due to demographic factors not the slow growth itself. And we are not as bad as Europe. But as these charts show there is still not much in this recovery to write home about. Growth over the four quarters of 2014 looks to average only 2.2% compared with 4.4% in the corresponding quarters of the 1980s recovery. And as of January 2015 the employment-to-population ratio is still lower than at the start of the recovery.

So what’s the bottom line?

To be blunt, you can’t make America more like Europe and then be surprised that our economy isn’t firing on all cylinders.

Returning to our analogy, we need to defeat the enemy of statism and reclaim our lost territory.

But that won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest. And it’s possible it will never happen, particularly if we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform.

P.S. The bad news is that we’re becoming more like Europe. The good news is that we’re not there yet. Our overall burden of government has expanded, but we still have considerably more economic liberty than the average European nation. And that helps to explain why our recovery (even though anemic by American standards) is far more impressive than what’s been happening across the Atlantic.

P.P.S. Based on insightful analysis from Thomas Sowell, John Mackey, and Ronald Reagan, it may have been more accurate (albeit snarky and inappropriate) to have used a World War II example, with Obama’s first two years being akin to the Nazi blitzkrieg and the conquest of France, and recent years being akin to the period between the Battle of Britain and D-Day.

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To save the nation from a future Greek-style fiscal meltdown, we should reform entitlements.

But as part of the effort to restore limited, constitutional government, we also should shut down various departments that deal with issues that shouldn’t be handled by the central government.

I’ve already identified some low-hanging fruit.

Get rid of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shut down the Department of Agriculture.

Eliminate the Department of Transportation.

We need to add the Department of Education to the list. And maybe even make it one of the first targets.

Increasing federal involvement and intervention, after all, is associated with more spending and more bureaucracy, but NOT better educational outcomes.

Politicians in Washington periodically try to “reform” the status quo, but rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic never works. And that’s true whether you look at the results of GOP plans, like Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind scheme, or Democratic plans, like Obama’s Common Core.

The good news, as explained by the Washington Examiner, is that Congress is finally considering legislation that would reduce the federal government’s footprint.

There are some good things about this bill, which will serve as the reauthorization of former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Importantly, the bill removes the Education Department’s ability to bludgeon states into adopting the controversial Common Core standards. The legislative language specifically forbids both direct and indirect attempts “to influence, incentivize, or coerce” states’ decisions. …The Student Success Act is therefore a step in the right direction, because it returns educational decisions to their rightful place — the state (or local) level. It is also positive in that it eliminates nearly 70 Department of Education programs, replacing them with more flexible grants to the states.

But the bad news is that the legislation doesn’t go nearly far enough. Federal involvement is a gaping wound caused by a compound fracture, while the so-called Student Success Act is a band-aid.

…as a vehicle for moving the federal government away from micromanaging schools that should fall entirely under state and local control, the bill is disappointing. …the recent explosion of federal spending and federal control in education over the last few decades has failed to produce any significant improvement in outcomes. Reading and math proficiency have hardly budged. …the federal government’s still-modest financial contribution to primary and secondary education has come with strings that give Washington an inordinate say over state education policy. …The Student Success Act…leaves federal spending on primary and secondary education at the elevated levels of the Bush era. It also fails to provide states with an opt-out.

To be sure, there’s no realistic way of making significant progress with Obama in the White House.

But the long-run battle will never be won unless reform-minded lawmakers make the principled case. Here’s the bottom line.

Education is one area where the federal government has long resisted accepting the evidence or heeding its constitutional limitations. …Republicans should be looking forward to a post-Obama opportunity to do it for real — to end federal experimentation and meddling in primary and secondary education and letting states set their own policies.

Amen.

But now let’s acknowledge that ending federal involvement and intervention should be just the first step on a long journey.

State governments are capable of wasting money and getting poor results.

Local governments also have shown that they can be similarly profligate and ineffective.

Indeed, when you add together total federal/state/local spending and then look at the actual results (whether kids are getting educated), the United States does an embarrassingly bad job.

The ultimate answer is to end the government education monopoly and shift to a system based on choice and competition.

Fortunately, we already have strong evidence that such an approach yields superior outcomes.

To be sure, school choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChile, and the Netherlands shows good results after breaking up state-run education monopolies.

P.S. Let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that government education spending has been reduced.

P.P.P.S. And you’ll also be amused (and outraged and disgusted) by the truly bizarre examples of political correctness in government schools.

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Back in 2012, I shared a sadly amusing image about how the modern political process has degenerated into two wolves and a sheep voting what to have for lunch.

I was making an argument in that column against majoritarianism (and that is a critical issue, as explained in this video), but there’s also a very important moral component to this debate.

Walter Williams addresses this issue in his latest column. He starts by asking a hypothetical question.

Suppose I saw a homeless, hungry elderly woman huddled on a heating grate in the dead of winter. To help the woman, I ask somebody for a $200 donation to help her out. If the person refuses, I then use intimidation, threats and coercion to take the person’s money. I then purchase food and shelter for the needy woman. My question to you: Have I committed a crime? I hope that most people would answer yes. It’s theft to take the property of one person to give to another.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how Person A wants to spend money, it’s wrong for Person A to steal from Person B.

Walter than asks some critical follow-up questions, all of which are designed to make readers realize that theft doesn’t magically become acceptable simply because several people want to take Person B’s money.

Would it be theft if I managed to get three people to agree that I should take the person’s money to help the woman? What if I got 100, 1 million or 300 million people to agree to take the person’s $200? Would it be theft then? What if instead of personally taking the person’s $200, I got together with other Americans and asked Congress to use Internal Revenue Service agents to take the person’s $200? The bottom-line question is: Does an act that’s clearly immoral when done privately become moral when it is done collectively and under the color of law? Put another way, does legality establish morality?

Amen. Walter is exactly right.

And this is a point I need to internalize.

I’m often writing about the economic evidence for smaller government, but I suspect advocates of economic liberty and smaller government won’t win the debate unless we augment our arguments by also making the moral case against government-sanctioned theft.

And perhaps one way of getting this point across is to educate people about the fact that we used to have a very small federal government with little or no redistribution. Walter elaborates.

For most of our history, Congress did a far better job of limiting its activities to what was both moral and constitutional. As a result, federal spending was only 3 to 5 percent of the gross domestic product from our founding until the 1920s… James Madison, the acknowledged father of our Constitution, said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 to assist some French refugees, Madison stood on the floor of the House of Representatives to object, saying, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Here’s the bottom line according to Professor Williams.

We’ve become an immoral people demanding that Congress forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another. Deficits and runaway national debt are merely symptoms of that larger problem.

Though I would slightly disagree with the way Walter phrased it.

I would argue that a bloated government is the symptom of growing immorality. Deficits and debt are then symptoms of that problem.

P.S. I want to quickly address another issue.

When I quote Art Laffer, I’m almost always going to be in agreement with what he says.

But, as I wrote last year, we’re in disagreement on the issue of whether states should be allowed to tax sales that take place outside their borders.

And now Art has a short video that rubbed me the wrong way.

He endorses legislation that would create a sales tax cartel and says – right at the start of this video – that this is because “states should have the right to be able to tax whatever they want to within their state.”

I agree, but this is why I’m against the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act. That legislation would allow state governments to tax outside their borders.

Simply stated, a merchant in one state should not be forced to collect taxes for a government in another state.

P.P.S. This also explains why FATCA is such horrible legislation. It is an effort by the U.S. government to coerce banks in other nations to enforce bad IRS law.

If we care about liberty, we should make sure the power of government is constrained by borders.

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We’re supposed to believe that President Obama is some sort of expert on constitutional law.

Richard Epstein was not overly impressed by his track record as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, and here’s a good parody of the President’s selective view of the Bill of Rights.

Likewise, we now have a Michael Ramirez cartoon that captures the spirit of the President inaugural address earlier this week.

Collective Action Cartoon

If you’re amused – in a tragic way – by cartoons showing the huge gap between Obama’s ideology and America’s founding principles, you’ll doubtlessly enjoy this and this.

And in the spirit of cooperation, I even drafted a new Declaration of Dependency to help Obama explain his vision.

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Like Sweden and Denmark, Germany is a semi-rational welfare state. It generally relies on a market-oriented approach in areas other than fiscal policy, and it avoided the Keynesian excesses that caused additional misery and red ink in America (though it is far from fiscally conservative, notwithstanding the sophomoric analysis of the Washington Post).

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to have much optimism for Europe’s future when the entire political establishment of Germany blindly thinks there should be more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization in Europe.

The EU Observer has a story about the agenda of the de facto statists in the Christian Democratic party who currently run Germany.

“Harmonization über alles!”

…what Merkel and her party are piecing together is a radical vision of the EU in a few years time – a deep fiscal and political union. The fiscal side involves tax harmonisation, a tightly policed Stability and Growth Pact with automatic sanctions for countries that breach debt and deficit rules, and the possibility of an EU Commissioner responsible for directly intervention to oversee budgetary policy in a crisis-hit country. …On the institutional side, the CDU backs a directly elected President of the European Commission as well as clearly establishing the European Parliament and Council of Ministers as a bi-cameral legislature with equal rights to initiate EU legislation with the Commission.

Keep in mind that the Christian Democrats are the main right-of-center party in Germany, yet the German political spectrum is so tilted to the left that they want tax harmonization (a spectacularly bad idea) and more centralization.

Heck, even the supposedly libertarian-oriented Free Democratic Party is hopelessly clueless on these issues.

Not surprisingly, the de jure statists of Germany have the same basic agenda. Here’s some of what the article says about the agenda of the Social Democrat and Green parties.

…its commitments to establish joint liability eurobonds and a “common European fiscal policy to ensure fair, efficient and lasting receipts” would also involve a shift of economic powers to Brussels. While both sides have differing ideological positions on the political response to the eurozone crisis – they are talking about more Europe, not less.

The notion of eurobonds is particularly noteworthy since it would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. That’s only a good idea if you think it’s smart to co-sign a loan for your unemployed and alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

All this makes me feel sorry for German taxpayers.

Then again, if you look at the long-run fiscal outlook of the United States, I feel even more sorry for American taxpayers. Thanks to misguided entitlement programs, we’re in even deeper trouble than Europe’s welfare states.

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I made a serious point the other day about how government plays a very important role in the lives of entrepreneurs.

But since I was talking about the staggering burden of red tape and regulation, I wasn’t being very supportive of the President’s assertion that government deserves a big chunk of the credit when a business is successful.

This cartoon makes the same point, but adds taxation to the mix.

As far as I recall (I sound like a politician under oath when I write something like that), this is the first Branco cartoon I’ve used, but I think it’s the best one in this post, so I’m looking forward to more of his (her?) work.

Regular readers know about Michael Ramirez, of course, and he has an amusing take on the you-didn’t-build-that controversy.

I’ve used lots of Ramirez cartoons over the past few years, and you can enjoy some of his work here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehereherehereherehere, and here.

The Obama campaign has been complaining that the President’s words were misinterpreted, so this Eric Allie cartoon is quite amusing and appropriate.

You can laugh at more Allie cartoons here, here, here, and here.

Fortunately for Obama, he has some allies to help him out, as Lisa Benson reminds us.

More funny Lisa Benson cartoons can be seen here, here, herehere, here, here, herehere, and here.

Last but not least, we have another Allie cartoon. I think this is the first time I’ve used two cartoons by the same person, but I think you’ll agree they’re worth sharing.

This gives me an opportunity to end on a serious note. The Obama campaign is asserting that the President was simply stating that private sector prosperity is made possible by the provision of “public goods” such as roads and bridges.

This is a perfectly fair point, as I explain in this video about the Rahn Curve.

But what Obama conveniently overlooks is that spending on so-called public goods is only about 10 percent of the federal budget. The vast majority of government spending is for unambiguously harmful outlays on transfers, consumption, and entitlements.

Which is why the second Allie cartoon is so good. Even when government does something that is theoretically good, it causes a lot of collateral damage because of the excessive size and scope of the welfare state.

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As part of his campaign to expand the size and scope of the federal government (and to justify his advocacy of class-warfare taxation), President Obama has been asserting that all of us benefit from government spending.

It’s why he now echoes Elizabeth Warren’s claim that entrepreneurs owe their success to government programs and activities.

It’s also why he cites the Internet as an example of wise, prudent, and far-seeing government intervention.

Sounds like a powerful example. The kind of anecdote that leaves libertarians momentarily speechless.

But there’s just one small, tiny, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny problem with Obama’s example. It ain’t true.

Here are some excerpts from a first-rate column by Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal.

It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. …The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way. …If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks. …But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage today. …So having created the Internet, why didn’t Xerox become the biggest company in the world? The answer explains the disconnect between a government-led view of business and how innovation actually happens. Executives at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., were focused on selling copiers. From their standpoint, the Ethernet was important only so that people in an office could link computers to share a copier. …As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Economist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2005: “The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished. . . . In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.”

It’s nice to see this urban legend of effective government punctured weakened, but let’s close out this post with a thought experiment. Let’s assume that the federal government deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the Internet.

Our Tax Dollars at Work?

Or we’re sometimes told that NASA generated big benefits, such as Tang and microwave ovens, and maybe those claims are true.

Would any of this justify Obama’s proposals to expand the size and cost of the federal government?

Since I’ve actually explained in one of my videos that there are some forms of government spending – such as capital spending – that can generate positive rates of return, this is an empirical question.

But here’s where Obama’s argument breaks down. If you look at federal outlays for “major public physical capital investment” and “conduct of research and development,” they add up to less than 10 percent of the federal budget.

So the parts of the budget that theoretically might generate some positive spin-offs are trivial. The vast majority of spending, by contrast, is consumed by inefficient tax-and-transfer entitlement programs.

And what are Obama’s two biggest “accomplishments” since taking office? The so-called stimulus and Obamacare, two pieces of legislation that expand the unambiguously unproductive portions of the federal budget.

In other words, like most other politicians, Obama is like an unethical used car salesman. He lures the unsuspecting onto the lot with glib talk of good roads and the Internet, but they wind up driving away with a lemon known as the welfare state.

P.S. Speaking of Elizabeth Warren, here’s an amusing parody of her views as they apply to the world of intimacy. And here’s a video mocking her “Soul Man” claims of Indian ancestry.

P.P.S. Just like I recently apologized to hyenas and gang members, I now apologize to used car salesmen for putting them on the same level of politicians.

P.P.P.S. The government may not have invented the Internet, but it sure is anxious to tax it, with everyone from state politicians to U.N. bureaucrats trying to stick their hands in the cookie jar.

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Addendum: My Cato colleague Jim Harper and others tell me that government played a bigger role than argued by Crovitz, so the first part of this post overstates the argument against government as incubator. But that underscores the importance of what I wrote in the concluding part of the post.

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