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Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

Because of their aggressive support for bigger government, my least-favorite international bureaucracies are the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But I’m increasingly displeased by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is another international bureaucracy (like the OECD and IMF) that is backed by American taxpayers.

And what does it do with our money? As I explained earlier this month in this short speech to the European Resource Bank in Prague, the EBRD undermines growth with cronyist policies that distort the allocation of capital.

In some sense, the argument against the EBRD is no different than the standard argument against foreign aid. Simply stated, you don’t generate growth by having the government of a rich nation give money to the government of a poor nation.

Poor nations instead need to adopt good policy – something that’s less likely when profligate and corrupt governments in the developing world are propped up by handouts.

That being said, the downsides of the EBRD go well beyond the normal problems of foreign aid.

I recently authored a study on this bureaucracy for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Here are some of the main findings.

The EBRD was created with the best of intentions. The collapse of communism was an unprecedented and largely unexpected event, and policymakers wanted to encourage and facilitate a shift to markets and democracy. …But good intentions don’t necessarily mean good results. Especially when the core premise was that growth somehow would be stimulated and enabled by the creation of another multilateral government bureaucracy. …Unfortunately, even though its founding documents pay homage to markets…, there’s nothing in the track record of the EBRD that indicates it has learned from pro-intervention and pro-statism mistakes made by older international aid organizations. Indeed, there’s no positive track record whatsoever.

• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance grow faster than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance enjoy more job creation than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD,
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance have better social outcomes than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.

I also delved into three specific downsides of the EBRD, starting with its role in misallocating capital.

In a normal economy, savers, investors, intermediaries, entrepreneurs, and others make decisions on what projects get funded and what businesses attract investment. These private-sector participants have “skin in the game” and relentlessly seek to balance risk and reward. Wise decisions are rewarded by profit, which often is a signal for additional investment to help satisfy consumer desires. There’s also an incentive to quickly disengage from failing projects and investments that don’t produce goods and services valued by consumers. Profit and loss are an effective feedback mechanism to ensure that resources are constantly being reshuffled in ways that produce the most prosperity for people. The EBRD interferes with that process. Every euro it allocates necessarily diverts capital from more optimal uses.

I explain why taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing cronyism.

…the EBRD is in the business of “picking winners and losers.” This means that intervention by the bureaucracy necessarily distorts competitive markets. Any firm that gets money from the EBRD is going to have a significant advantage over rival companies. Preferential financing for hand-picked firms from the EBRD also is a way of deterring new companies from getting started since there is not a level playing field or honest competition. … cronyism is a threat to prosperity. It means the playing field is unlevel and that those with political connections have an unfair advantage over those who compete fairly. To make matters worse, nations that receive funds from the ERBD already get dismal scores from Economic Freedom of the World for the two subcategories (“government enterprises and investment” and “business regulations”) that presumably are the best proxies for cronyism.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that recipient nations already get low scores from Economic Freedom of the World for variables that reflect the degree of cronyism in an economy.

Last but not least, I warn that the EBRD enables and facilitates corruption.

When governments have power to arbitrarily disburse large sums of money, that is a recipe for unsavory behavior. For all intents and purposes, the practice of cronyism is a prerequisite for corruption. The EBRD openly brags about the money it steers to private hands, so is it any surprise that people will engage in dodgy behavior in order to turn those public funds into private loot? …Recipient nations get comparatively poor scores for “legal system and property rights” from Economic Freedom of the World. They also do relatively poorly when looking at the World Bank’s “governance indicators.” And they also have disappointing numbers from Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index.” So, it’s no surprise that monies ostensibly disbursed for the purpose of development assistance wind up lining the pockets of corrupt insiders. For all intents and purposes, the EBRD and other dispensers of aid enable and sustain patterns of corruption.

And here’s the chart showing that recipient nations have poor quality of governance, which means that EBRD funds are especially likely to get misused.

I also cite several EBRD documents that illustrates the bureaucracy’s hostility for free markets and limited government.

Just in case you didn’t want to watch the entire video, here’s the relevant slide from my presentation.

And remember that your tax dollars back this European bureaucracy. Indeed, American taxpayers have a larger exposure than any of the European countries.

P.S. I’m also not a fan of the United Nations, though I take comfort in the fact that the UN is not very effective in pushing statist policy.

P.P.S. I’m most tolerant of the World Bank, though that bureaucracy periodically does foolish things as well.

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The good news is that some honest leftists have thrown in the towel and now openly admit that capitalism generates more prosperity.

They still don’t want free markets, of course. For ideological reasons, they continue to push for a big welfare state. But at least they admit their redistributionist policies lead to weaker economic performance. Perversely, they are willing to reduce living standards for poor people so long as rich people suffer even bigger drops in their income (in other words, Thatcher was right).

Many statists, though, realize that this is not a compelling agenda.

So they try to claim – notwithstanding reams of evidence – that bigger government somehow enables more growth.

And they’re crafty. Most of them are clever enough that they don’t embrace full-scale socialism. Instead, they push for an ad hoc approach based on subsidies, bailouts, social engineering, price controls, and other forms of intervention.

If you want to get technical, they’re actually pushing a variant of fascism, with nominal private ownership but government direction and control.

But let’s avoid that loaded term and simply call it cronyism.

In a column for the Washington Post, Nicholas Borroz observes that this approach exists all over the world.

China’s consolidation of its state-owned enterprises (SOEs), Russia’s oligarch-led economy, the proliferation of sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and growing government intervention in the West are clear indicators of state-led capitalism… Controlling market activity gives governments obvious advantages when it comes to advancing political agendas at home and foreign policy abroad. …SWFs are an important feature of today’s global economic landscape; governments also use them as agents of statecraft. …State-led capitalism is even finding support in the West. …President Trump has bragged that he personally influences firms’ decisions about where to place their factories. …we have entered an era when state-led capitalism is firmly entrenched.

Unfortunately, I think Mr. Borroz is correct.

Though “state-led capitalism” an oxymoronic phrase.

Borroz also notes that the shift to cronyism reverses some of the progress that occurred at the end of the 20th century.

This is a dramatic reversal of the trend from two decades ago. In the 1990s, there was a rush around the world to liberalize economies. Capitalism’s defeat of communism made it seem that unfettered market activity was the key to success.

If you look at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, the period of liberalization actually began in the 1980s, but I’m being a nit-picker.

So let’s shift to parts of his column where I have substantive disagreements.

First, my jaw hit the proverbial floor when I read the part about the International Monetary Fund supposedly being a beacon of free-market reform.

Developing countries signed up with the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs (SAPs), gaining access to loans in exchange for adopting neoliberal economic prescriptions.

Since I’ve referred to the IMF as the “dumpster fire” or “Dr. Kevorkian” of the global economy, I obviously have a different perspective.

Though, to be fair, the bureaucrats at the IMF generally do advocate for deregulation and free trade. But they are bad news on fiscal policy and oftentimes misguided on monetary policy as well.

But here’s the part of the column that is even more galling. Borroz defends cronyism because free markets allegedly failed.

…a number of factors led to skepticism about free markets. One was the underwhelming developmental effect of SAPs and liberalization. …A further blow to the neoliberal model was a series of financial disasters caused by unrestricted flows of capital, notably the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis. Perhaps the factor that has most undermined neoliberalism’s attractiveness, though, is…countries with state-led economies, such as China and Russia…remain relevant not despite state intervention but because of it.

This is remarkably wrong. Three big mistakes in a handful of sentences.

  1. When IMF structural adjustment programs fail, that’s an unsurprising consequence of big tax increases, not the fault of capitalism.
  2. Government monetary policy deserves the bulk of the blame for financial crises with Fannie and Freddie also playing a role in the case of America.
  3. China and Russia are relevant from a geopolitical perspective, but their economies could be far more prosperous if government played a smaller role.

Heck, per-capita output in both China and Russia is far below U.S. levels, so the notion that they are role models is amazingly oblivious to reality.

Now let’s review some evidence about the downside of “state-led” economic policy.

The Economist notes that cronyism does not have a very successful track record.

Some argue it makes no sense for a government to place VC bets, directly or otherwise. …Massimo Colombo, an academic who studies government VC in Europe at the Polytechnic University of Milan, …admits that, when results are measured by jobs created or productivity boosted, the private sector is far better at deploying capital. Studying 25,000 government VC investments in 28 countries, between 2000 and 2014, he and colleagues concluded that they worked only when they did not compete directly with the private sector.

And research from three economists at Italy’s central bank specifically measured the loss of economic efficiency when governments operate and control businesses.

In OECD countries public services, especially at local level, are often provided by public enterprises (Saussier and Klien, 2014). Therefore, the efficiency of LPEs is important for the overall efficiency of the economy and the sustainability of public finances. …we are able to build a very detailed dataset that allows us to compare firms that are observationally equivalent, apart from the ownership indicator, thus making possible the definition of the appropriate set of comparison firms. …Although we focus on Italy, which represents a particularly interesting case to analyze for several reasons, the approach we have followed in this paper may be easily adapted to other countries. We find that the performance of Italian LPEs, measured in terms of total factor productivity, is on average lower than that of private enterprises by about 8%… our results show that the ownership structure is more important than the market structure in explaining the performance of LPEs with respect to their private sector counterparts. …Our results imply that policy measures aimed at privatizing LPEs (totally or, at least, partially) can improve their performance, by reducing the level of public control and promoting cost-benefit analysis for investments.

In other words, the type of statism doesn’t really matter.

The inevitable result is less growth and prosperity.

Which is why I advocate “separation of business and state.”

Simply stated, I want to reverse the data in this chart because I understand the data in this video and this chart.

P.S. If my statist friends disagree, accept my challenge and please show me a cronyist nation that is outperforming a market-oriented nation.

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I wrote last month about the risk of Trump harming American workers, consumers, and producers by pulling the United States out of NAFTA.

That’s still a danger to the U.S. economy, but it’s been pushed to the back burner by a more immediate threat – the President’s unilateral decision to impose big tax increases on steel and aluminum imports.

American trade law (specifically the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) does give Trump the authority to impose such taxes, but it’s worth noting that Congress has the power to change the law and negate the President’s short-sighted actions.

To be sure, such a change presumably would require two-thirds support to override a Trump veto. And I have no idea how many congressional Republicans are loyal to free markets rather than Trump, and I also don’t know how many congressional Democrats would vote against Trump’s protectionism, either because they support trade or because they simply don’t like the President.

But I do know that there would be lots of support. In today’s Washington Post, Charles Koch makes a principled case for open trade and condemns the President’s protectionism.

Countries with the freest trade have tended to not only be the wealthiest but also the most tolerant. Conversely, the restriction of trade — whether through tariffs, quotas or other means — has hurt the economy and pitted people against each other. Tariffs increase prices, limit choices, reduce competition and inhibit innovation. Equally troubling, research shows that they fail to increase the number of jobs overall. …History is filled with examples of administrations that have implemented trade restrictions with devastating results. At the dawn of the Great Depression, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act raised U.S. tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods, which accelerated our decline instead of correcting it. More recently, President George W. Bush’s 30 percent steel tariff led to increased consumer costs and higher unemployment. And President Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to raise tariffs on Chinese tires ultimately burdened consumers with $1.1 billion in higher prices. The cost per job saved was nearly $1 million , not considering all the lost jobs that went unmeasured.

And he specifically condemns the new trade taxes Trump has imposed.

The administration’s recent decision to impose major steel and aluminum tariffs — on top of higher tariffs on washing machines and solar panels — will have the same harmful effect. …those who can least afford it will be harmed the most. Having just helped consumers keep more of their money by passing tax reform, it makes little sense to take it away via higher costs.

Mr. Koch also observed that we’ve become richer during a period when trade taxes fell.

It is no coincidence that our quality of life has improved over the years as the average U.S. tariff on imported goods has fallen — from nearly 20 percent in 1932 to less than 4 percent in 2016.

This is an under-appreciated point. I’ve argued – and shared evidence – that trade liberalization played a key role in offsetting the damage of higher fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era. Yet Trump wants to reverse some or all of this progress.

The Wall Street Journal also opined on this issue.

President Trump could reduce the benefits of his tax cuts and regulatory rollback with protectionism. This risk became more serious after the Commerce Department…recommended broad restrictions on aluminum and steel imports that would punish American businesses and consumers. …the wide-ranging economic damage from restricting imports would overwhelm the narrow benefits to U.S. steel and aluminum makers.

The protectionists try to justify tariffs on the basis of national defense, but this is a silly argument since we’re not relying on potential enemies.

Canada accounts for 43% of aluminum imports—more than twice as much as China and Russia combined. Steel imports are also diversified with Canada (17%), South Korea (12%) and Mexico (9%) accounting for three of the top four foreign sources. China accounts for about 2% of steel and 10% of aluminum imports.

The WSJ then lists some of the harmful effects of trade taxes.

About 16 times more workers are employed today in U.S. steel-consuming industries than the 140,000 American steelworkers. Economists Joseph Francois and Laura Baughman found that more U.S. workers lost jobs (200,000) due to George W. Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs than were employed by the entire steel industry (187,500) at the time. …Raising the cost of steel and aluminum inputs would impel many manufacturers to move production abroad to stay competitive globally. Does Mr. Trump want more cars made in Mexico? …Oh, and don’t forget that other countries could retaliate with trade barriers that hurt American exporters. …Why would Mr. Trump undercut his achievements with trade barriers that harm American workers and consumers?

Irwin Stelzer, writing for the Weekly Standard, also is quite critical.

…the president doesn’t like trade deficits—job killers as he sees it—and so he has put tariffs on washing machines and solar panels and now is deciding what costs and restrictions to place on imports of steel and aluminium. …Never mind that such measures will raise the costs of steel and aluminum-using industries such as autos, making them less competitive with imports that can keep their costs down by buying cheaper, un-tariffed metals. One economic study after George W. Bush imposed tariffs on steel in 2002 concluded that job losses in steel-consuming industries exceeded the number that would have been lost had the entire American steel industry gone out of business. …if that causes job losses scattered among a lot of other industries and states, then so be it. Trump figures that those voters won’t make the connection between the job losses and the steel tariffs.

Last but not least, Tom Mullen eviscerates protectionism in a piece for CapX.

When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, it…was to refute the kinds of protectionist ideas championed by conservatives like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton in Smith’s day, Abraham Lincoln eighty years later, and Trump today. Bastiat remade Smith’s case in 1848. Henry Hazlitt did so again in 1946. …What is unseen is the money American consumers no longer have when the tariffs are put in place. For example, the tariff may result in them paying $200 for the same pair of sneakers they previously paid $100 for. That means they no longer have $100 they previously had after buying the sneakers, which they could spend on other products. Whatever jobs they were supporting with that $100 are now lost. …When the ledger is balanced, Americans, in general, are far better off without the tariff.

Here’s more on the economic poison of protectionism.

The lower prices Americans pay for automobiles, clothing, Apple iPhones, and Bobcats allow them to patronise those American industries which operate more efficiently than their overseas competitors. That’s called “comparative advantage,” something else free market advocates since Adam Smith have been educating people about. …No matter what spurious arguments special interests make in favour of tariffs, they are, at the end of the day, just another tax. …And don’t forget, all the unseen, negative consequences of tariffs apply equally to foreigners. If they are taxing imports on automobiles, their citizens have less money to spend on other products. Their businesses that use imported materials must raise their prices and become less competitive. Any advantage they appear to gain in one sector, they lose in another, with the same overall net loss as we experience.

Amen.

Protectionism is a no-win game. Politicians in Country A take aim at businesses in Country B, but the main casualties are inside their own borders. Consumers lose, taxpayers lose, and all the upstream and downstream businesses in the supply chain lose.

Which is why researchers inevitably find that trade barriers are associated with net job losses. In other words, the “unseen” losses are far larger than the “seen” gains.

Which is exactly what Bastiat warned about more than 150 years ago.

P.S. Shifting gears, I’ve periodically complained about the immoral and amoral actions of large corporations. Simply stated, big businesses oftentimes are perfectly happy to use the coercive power of government to grab unearned wealth.

Koch Industries is a noble exception. Here’s another excerpt from Charles Koch’s Washington Post column.

One might assume that, as the head of Koch Industries — a large company involved in many industries, including steel — I would applaud such import tariffs because they would be to our immediate and financial benefit. But corporate leaders must reject this type of short-term thinking, and we have. …We only support policies that are based on equality under the law and that help people improve their lives. This is why we successfully lobbied to end direct ethanol subsidies, despite being one of the largest ethanol producers in the United States. It is why we fought against the inclusion of a border adjustment tax in the tax-reform package, even though it would have greatly increased our profits by increasing costs to consumers.

I’m obviously pleased that the folks at Koch are on the right side of the ethanol and BAT issues, but that’s a secondary matter. What’s praiseworthy is that the company rejects all cronyism. Even when it would benefit.

If more businesses acted that way, there would be a lot more support for free enterprise.

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Government intervention is not good for economic prosperity. That general observation is both accurate and appropriate, but it might also be helpful to contemplate what sector of the economy suffers the most damage and distortion because of government.

Speaking of agriculture, let’s commemorate Valentine’s Day by exploring how politicians shower sugar producers with undeserved wealth every time one of us buys something sweet for a sweetheart.

Vincent Smith of the American Enterprise Institute shares some grim news on who is reaping unearned benefits.

Valentine’s Day is here again, and still the US sugar lobby has its hand in everyone’s wallet when they buy chocolate and other candy for their friends and families. For over four decades, the sugar lobby has managed to persuade Congress to maintain a Soviet-style supply control program that, by sharply limiting imports and curtailing domestic production, keeps US sugar prices well above free market levels. The program costs US consumers an average of about $3.4 billion every year, effectively a hidden annual tax of over $40 for a typical family of four, all to benefit fewer than 5,000 farm businesses. Further, the program raises production costs for the US food processing industry, damaging the food industry’s ability to compete in export markets and causing them to sacrifice a share of the domestic market to exporters from other countries. The impact of the US sugar program on employment for US citizens consistently has been estimated to be negative, costing the US economy between 10,000 and 20,000 jobs on a net basis. While the program creates employment for some workers in sugar refineries, it destroys far more employment opportunities in the US food processing sector by making the sector less competitive.

Two of his colleagues, John C. Beghin and Amani Elobeid, produced a detailed study on the topic for AEI. Here are the key findings.

The sugar program is a protectionist policy, which increases the domestic price of sugar above the corresponding world price. It restricts imports of raw and refined sugar, depresses world sugar prices, and substantially changes the mix of sweeteners used in processed food. Domestic markets are distorted, sugar users are effectively taxed by the program, and sugar producers are subsidized by it. The welfare transfer to sugar growers and processors is quite large in the aggregate, hovering around $1.2 billion. Losses to households are diffused, about $10 per person per year but large for the population as a whole, in the range of $2.4–$4 billion. …Gains to producers are concentrated in a few hands, especially in the cane sugar industry. Labor effects from lost activity in food industries are between 17,000 and 20,000 jobs annually.

For those who like the quantitative details, here’s a table with the most important numbers in the study.

Writing for the Federalist, Eric Peterson explains the high costs and inefficiency associated with this bit of central planning.

The history of candy canes dates back over 300 years… While this iconic symbol of Christmas saw its first mass production in America, Washington politicians have too often behaved like Scrooge, enacting policies that have sent all but one maker of this holiday classic fleeing abroad. One reason for the mass exodus is the little known U.S. sugar program. …Government interference in the sugar market comes in four flavors: Price supports, marketing allotments, import quotas, and the Feedstock Flexibility Program. …Although programs such as price supports (which mandate domestic prices for sugar at nearly double the world price) are fairly straightforward, programs such as Feedstock Flexibility are far more opaque. It allows sugar producers to sell sugar to the government at above market value, which the government then sells to ethanol producers at a loss. …Companies that need sugar for their products…can’t even import cheaper sugar from abroad thanks to import quotas that strictly limit foreign sugar. It’s no one wonder that some companies like Atkinson Candy Co have responded by moving some of their peppermint-candy production to Guatemala, where sugar is cheap and plentiful. …Consumers pay higher prices on everything from chocolate to cranberry sauce thanks to these big-government mandates, with the estimated annual costs to consumers and food manufacturers adding up to a whopping $3.5 billion annually. …Since 1997, for example, over 120,000 jobs have been lost in the sugar industry. It’s estimated for every job subsidies prop up, three are destroyed.

Notice, by the way, the consistent theme that subsidies and protectionism result in fewer jobs. This is not a surprising result for anybody who has looked at the fourth item in this column.

Let’s continue with some more analysis. The Foundation for Economic Education has a column by Ted Ellis on the program.

…for taxpayers, …sweetness doesn’t come cheap. For decades, domestic sugar producers have been protected from fair competition. In recent years, their influential lobby has ensured producers’ inflated profits through $260 million worth of federal subsidies and restrictions on fairly priced imported sugar. …these handouts rarely accrue to anyone but the industry’s largest and most well-connected players. …The National Confectioners’ Association, a trade group, agrees…that “the benefits of sugar subsidies and protections go directly to just 14 sugar beet and sugarcane producers in a few states.” …inflated prices disrupt domestic supply chains, threatening thousands of well-paying American manufacturing jobs, all while nibbling away at American taxpayers’ wallets. …the sugar program costs American businesses and consumers more than $3 billion every year. …the cost of special-interest lobbying in the sugar industry is felt most heavily by US workers laid off by companies that have been forced to move abroad, where sugar prices are cheaper. A 2006 report by the US International Trade Administration found that as many as 10,000 American jobs were lost as confectioners such as Hershey Co. and Lifesavers were forced by government-inflated domestic sugar prices to move plants out of the US. The same report found that the many jobs lost on account of federal intervention in sugar production far outweigh the few jobs saved for growers. In fact, it found that “for each one sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high US sugar prices, nearly three confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost.”

If you’re tired of reading about the senselessness of sugar subsidies, here’s a video on the topic from Reason. It has a Halloween theme instead of a Valentine’s Day theme, but that doesn’t change anything.

Let’s conclude with some hard-hitting analysis by Jim Bovard, who explains the tangled web of cronyism for CapX.

…the federal government has maintained an array of sugar import quotas and/or tariffs for most of the last 200 years. The regulatory regime has provided windfalls for generations of politicians and jobs for legions of bureaucrats while destroying more than a hundred thousand private, productive jobs. …The sugar program illustrates why politicians cannot be trusted to competently manage anything more complex than a lemonade stand. In 1816, Congress imposed high tariffs on sugar imports in part to prop up the value of slaves in Louisiana. In 1832, a committee of Boston’s leaders issued a pamphlet denouncing sugar tariffs as a scam on millions of low-paid American workers to benefit fewer than 500 plantation owners. …Despite perpetual aid, the number of sugar growers has declined by almost 50% in recent decades to fewer than 6,000. Federal policy failed to countervail the fact that the climate in the mainland U.S. is relatively poorly suited for sugarcane production. …Federal sugar policy costs consumers $3 billion a year and is America’s least efficient welfare program. In the 1980s, sugar import restrictions cost consumers $10 for each dollar of sugar growers’ income. …producing candy and many other food products is far more expensive here than abroad. Since 1997, sugar policy has zapped more than 120,000 jobs in food manufacturing… More than 10 jobs have been lost in manufacturing for every remaining sugar grower in the U.S. …The sugar lobby showers Congress with money, including almost $50 million in campaign contributions and lobbying between 2008 and 2013. In return, members of Congress license sugar growers to pilfer consumers at grocery checkouts and rob hardworking Americans of their jobs.

That last segment is the key. Sugar subsidies are a class case of “public choice,” with special interests and politicians both benefiting while ordinary people pay the price.

There are many reasons to shut down the Department of Agriculture. But it’s hard to imagine a bigger reason than getting rid of handouts for Big Sugar. Maybe ultra-corrupt ethanol handouts are even worse, but that’s a judgement call.

P.S. Since today is Valentine’s Day, here’s a very topical explanation of why unfettered prices are desirable.

P.P.S. And here’s a Libertarian Valentine’s Day. Or, for my statist readers, here’s Obama’s vision of Valentine’s Day.

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I explained back in 2013 that there is a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

Pro-market is a belief in genuine free enterprise, which means companies succeed of fail solely on the basis of whether they produce goods and services that consumers like.

Pro-business, by contrast, is a concept that opens the door to inefficient and corrupt cronyism, such as bailouts and subsidies.

It basically means big business and big government get in bed together. And that’s going to mean bad news for taxpayers and consumers.

Washington specializes in this kind of cronyism. The Export-Import Bank, ethanol handouts, TARP, and Obamacare bailouts for big insurance firms are a few of my least-favorite examples.

But state politicians also like giving money to rich insiders.

A report in the Washington Post reveals how states are engaged in a bidding war to attract Amazon’s big new facility, dubbed HQ2.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will offer more than $3 billion in tax breaks and grants and about $2 billion in transportation upgrades to persuade Amazon.com to bring its second headquarters and up to 50,000 jobs to Montgomery County. …It appears to be the second-most generous set of inducements among the 20 locations on Amazon’s shortlist. Of the offerings whose details have become public, either through government or local media accounts, only New Jersey’s is larger, at $7 billion.

Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, explains to CNN why this approach is troubling.

…there’s one part of Amazon’s HQ2 competition that is deeply disturbing — pitting city against city in a wasteful and economically unproductive bidding war for tax and other incentives. As one of the world’s most valuable companies, Amazon does not need — and should not be going after — taxpayer dollars… While Amazon may have the deck stacked in picking its HQ2 location, the mayors and elected leaders of these cities owe it to their tax payers and citizens to ensure they are not on the hook for hundreds of millions and in some cases as much as $7 billion in incentives to one of the world’s most valuable companies and richest men. …The truly progressive thing to do is to forge a pact to not give Amazon a penny in tax incentives or other handouts, thereby forcing the company to make its decision based on merit.

It’s not just a problem with Amazon.

Here’s are excerpts from a column in the L.A. Times on crony capitalism for Apple and other large firms.

State and local officials in Iowa have been working hard to rationalize their handout of more than $208 million in tax benefits to Apple, one of the world’s richest companies, for a data facility that will host 50 permanent jobs. …the Apple deal shows the shortcomings of all such corporate handouts, nationwide. State and local governments seldom perform cost-benefit studies to determine their value — except in retrospect, when the money already has been paid out. They seldom explain why some industries should be favored over others — think about the film production incentives offered by Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia and, yes, Iowa, which never panned out as profit-makers for the states. …the handouts allow big companies to pit state against state and city against city in a competition that benefits corporate shareholders almost exclusively. Bizarrely, this process has been explicitly endorsed by Donald Trump. …politicians continue to shovel out the benefits, hoping to steer their economies in new directions and perhaps acquire a reputation for vision. Nevada was so eager to land a big battery factory from Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk that it offered him twice what Musk was seeking from the five states competing for the project. (In Las Vegas, this is known as “leaving money on the table.”) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave a big incentive deal to a furniture factory even though it was laying off half its workforce. He followed up last month with an astronomical $3-billion handout to electronics manufacturer Foxconn for a factory likely to employ a fraction of the workforce it forecasts.

And here’s an editorial from Wisconsin about a bit of cronyism from the land of cheese.

The Foxconn deal…should be opposed by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. There are no partisan nor ideological “sides” in this debate. The division is between those who want to create jobs in a smart and responsible way that yields long-term benefits and those who propose to throw money at corporations that play states and nations against one another. The Foxconn deal represents the worst form of crony capitalism — an agreement to transfer billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to a foreign corporation. …Walker offered the company a massive giveaway — discussions included a commitment to hand the Taiwanese corporation nearly $3 billion in taxpayer funds (if it meets hazy investment and employment goals), at least $150 million in sales tax exemptions…the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which analyzes bills with budget implications…pointed out that Foxconn would receive at least $1.35 billion and possibly as much as $2.9 billion in tax incentive payments even if it didn’t owe any Wisconsin tax… This is a horrible deal.

Let’s now circle back to Amazon and consider how it gets preferential treatment from the Post Office.

I don’t feel guilty ordering most of my family’s household goods on Amazon. …But when a mail truck pulls up filled to the top with Amazon boxes for my neighbors and me, I do feel some guilt. Like many close observers of the shipping business, I know a secret about the federal government’s relationship with Amazon: The U.S. Postal Service delivers the company’s boxes well below its own costs. Like an accelerant added to a fire, this subsidy is speeding up the collapse of traditional retailers in the U.S. and providing an unfair advantage for Amazon. …First-class mail effectively subsidizes the national network, and the packages get a free ride. An April analysis from Citigroup estimates that if costs were fairly allocated, on average parcels would cost $1.46 more to deliver. It is as if every Amazon box comes with a dollar or two stapled to the packing slip—a gift card from Uncle Sam. Amazon is big enough to take full advantage of “postal injection,” and that has tipped the scales in the internet giant’s favor. …around two-thirds of Amazon’s domestic deliveries are made by the Postal Service. It’s as if Amazon gets a subsidized space on every mail truck.

In this last example, the real problem is that we’ve fallen behind other nations and still have a government-run postal system.

The way to avoid perverse subsidies is privatization. That way Amazon deliveries will be based on market prices and we won’t have to worry about a tilted playing field.

And that last point is critical.

Yes, cronyism and corporate welfare is an economic issue. It is bad for long-run growth when political favors distort the allocation of capital.

But an unlevel playing field is also a moral issue. It’s simply not fair or not right for politicians to give their buddies special advantages.

And it’s both economically harmful and morally harmful to create a system where the business community views Washington as a handy source of unearned wealth.

For what it’s worth, I also think it should be a legal issue. For those of us who believe in the rule of law, a key principle is that everyone should be treated equally. Heck, that principle is enshrined in the Constitution.

So I’ve always wondered why courts haven’t rejected special deals for specific companies because of the equal-protection clause?

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t wonder. After all, the Supreme Court twisted itself into a pretzel to miraculously rationalize Obamacare.

But none of this changes the fact that it’s time to wean big business off corporate welfare.

P.S. Just in case you harbor unwarranted sympathy for big companies, remember that these are the folks who are often keen to undermine support for the entire capitalist system.

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With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here’s the opening of the big-business version of Sonnet 43.

How do I hate thee, capitalism? Let me count the ways.
I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, for I am big and competition is a threat
Better to have bailouts, subsidies, mandates, protectionism, and cronyism.

I wish this was just empty satire. Sadly, however, there are many examples of big businesses fighting against free enterprise.

And now we have a new example.

The head of a huge investment fund has implied that businesses should become social justice warriors, a missive that (predictably) led to some fawning coverage in the New York Times.

Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, is going to inform business leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock. …“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” he wrote in a draft of the letter that was shared with me.

Actually, as Walter Williams has eloquently explained, businesses perform a very valuable social purpose when they earn profits.

Indeed, the free enterprise system is why we enjoy unimaginable prosperity and why poor people in the United States have higher living standards than the average person in a socialist economy.

But that’s not the point Mr. Fink is making. Instead, he’s giving aid and comfort to the interventionists and redistributionists who want politicians and bureaucrats to have more power.

Which is, of course, the angle the New York Times chose to highlight.

It may be a watershed moment on Wall Street, one that raises all sorts of questions about the very nature of capitalism. …for the world’s largest investor to say it aloud — and declare that he plans to hold companies accountable — is a bracing example of the evolution of corporate America. …Mr. Fink’s declaration…pits him, to some degree, against many of the companies that he’s invested in, which hold the view that their only duty is to produce profits for their shareholders, an argument long espoused by economists like Milton Friedman.

Friedman was right, of course.

And not just about the value of profits. He also pointed out that people like Mr. Fink play a very destructive role.

Friedman wrote…in this very newspaper. “Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Amen.

So why would a fabulously rich man like Mr. Fink engage in this kind of stunt.

There are three possible explanations.

  1. He’s stupid. But I think we can eliminate that possibility by virtue of what he has achieved.
  2. He sincerely believes that businesses should sacrifice profits to pursue social justice. If that’s the case, I would suggest he lead by example by voluntarily giving the government 90 percent of his income over $200,000 per year (sort of a do-it-yourself version of 1950s tax policy). Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath. Rich people who decide to become left-wing always seem to want to appease their feelings of guilt by coercing other people into giving more money to politicians.
  3. He realizes his letter is a bunch of nonsense, but he wants to appease the left in order to shield his industry from bad policies such as an increase in capital gains taxes on “carried interest.” If this is the right answer, I sympathize with Mr. Fink’s policy objective (especially since higher taxes on carried interest would be the precursor for higher taxes on other forms of capital gains), but I very much disagree with his tactics.

Indeed, I have a suggestion for Republicans on Capitol Hill, one that I’ve made in the past when big businesses have urged tax hikes.

They should invite Mr. Fink to testify and ask him whether he supports higher taxes to achieve warm and fuzzy goals. Assuming he then says yes, they should then ask how much of his income he is voluntarily giving to Washington.

He’ll presumably say none (like all the other rich leftists), at which point they should rake him over the coals for hypocrisy,

And then they should ask him for a yes-or-no answer on whether he will support legislation specifically increasing the tax rate on CEOs of investment funds.  And follow that with a question of whether he endorses higher capital gains taxes on carried interest (a class-warfare levy that would be very painful for firms that specialize in private equity investments.

Last but not least, they should ask him for examples of BlackRock choosing unprofitable (or even less-profitable) investments in order to “serve a social purpose.” It would be somewhat amusing to see the reaction of investors if Fink actually named examples (and amusing to expose an additional layer of hypocrisy if he didn’t).

Here’s my bottom line on this issue. If Mr. Fink wants to be an effective advocate of social justice, properly defined, then he should concentrate on making very wise (i.e., profitable) investments. Because getting a healthy return on his investments would be the best possible evidence that he was helping the poor.

P.S. The first dictator of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, is rumored to have said that “capitalists will sell us the rope we will hang them with.” There’s no proof he actually said that, but the “Order of Lenin” was the highest civilian award granted by the Soviet Union.

So maybe we should mix the two concepts and create “The Lenin Award for Rich People Who Want to Destroy Free Enterprise.” Or something like that.

It definitely would be more meaningful than the Bob Dole Award or the Charlie Brown Award, and I know a good candidate for the inaugural prize.

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I have a fantasy of junking the entire corrupt tax system and adopting a simple and fair flat tax.

I have an even bigger fantasy of shrinking the size and scope of the federal government to what America’s Founders intended, in which case Washington wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

But in the real world, where I know “public choice” determines political behavior, I have much more limited hopes and dreams.

I’ve been saying for months that tax reform will be a worthwhile success if it leads to a significantly lower corporate tax rate and the elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes.

And I recently added repeal of the death tax as a third item that would make me very happy.

Now let’s add a fourth item to my wish-list. The House version of tax reform actually does  a decent job of curtailing some of the egregious distortions that line the pocket of companies that peddle so-called green energy.

I know it must be a decent job since the GOP plan is causing angst for leftist journalists.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives…bill would slash incentives for renewable energy and the electric car industry. Environmental groups are frantic. …The House provision raising the most ire are proposed changes to the renewable electricity production tax credit, which benefits producers of wind, solar, geothermal and other types of renewable energy. …The House GOP plan would also repeal the Investment Tax Credit for big solar projects that start construction after 2027. House Republicans also propose eliminating the $7,500 credit for electric vehicle purchases. …the Senate bill may not include all of the House’s cuts to clean energy.

It is true that the Senate bill is very timid. But given that there will be a lot of pressure to find “offsets” in any final deal, I’m vaguely hopeful that some of the good provisions in the House bill will survive.

Let’s explore why that would be a very good outcome.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is not a fan of cronyist subsidies to solar energy.

Under President Barack Obama, green energy subsidies were given out like candy. The failure of solar panel company Solyndra is well-known, but the problem extends well beyond the shady loan deal and its half-billion-dollar cost to taxpayers. Between 2010 and 2013, federal subsidies for solar energy alone increased by about 500 percent, from $1.1 billion to $5.3 billion (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), and all federal renewable energy subsidies grew from $8.6 billion to $13.2 billion over the same period. …However, that didn’t stop the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer, SolarWorld, from filing for bankruptcy earlier this year despite $115 million in federal and state grants and tax subsidies since 2012, along with $91 million in federal loan guarantees. SolarWorld and fellow bankrupt manufacturer Suniva are now begging for even more government assistance, in the form of a 40-cent-per-watt tariff on solar imports and a minimum price of 78 cents (including the 40-cent tariff) a watt on solar panels made by foreign manufacturers.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that wind energy is reliant on taxpayer handouts.

…government data shows that offshore wind power cannot survive in a competitive environment without huge taxpayer subsidies. Today, wind power receives subsidies greater than any other form of energy per unit of actual energy produced. …public subsidies for wind on a per megawatt-hour basis are 26 times those for fossil fuels and 16 times those for nuclear power. …The tax credit gives $23 for every megawatt-hour of electricity a wind turbine generates during the first 10 years of operation. …Yet, even with these incentives, only 4.7 percent of the nation’s electricity is currently supplied by wind power and that is entirely wind power from on-land turbines. …Think about it: Four large power plants could produce as much electricity as offshore wind turbines placed side by side along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida. Moreover, power plants last longer than wind turbines. A British study found that turbines need to be replaced within 12 to 15 years, and they must be imported from Europe.

Given the disgusting nature of ethanol subsidies, I wonder whether Mark’s headline can possibly be accurate.

In any event, Senator Alexander of Tennessee agrees that wind subsidies are a bad idea.

As we look at all the wasteful and unnecessary tax breaks that are holding us back, I have a nomination: At the top of the list should be ending the quarter-century-old wind production tax credit now — not two years from now. This giveaway to wind developers was meant to end in 1999 but has been extended by Congress ten different times. While the wind production tax credit is scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2019, we should do better and end it at the end of this year, and use the $4 billion in savings to lower tax rates. …Congress needs to stop its habit of picking winners and losers in the marketplace. Twenty-five years of picking wind developers over more-reliable sources of electricity hasn’t paid off. Imagine what innovation we might unleash if we used the billions wasted on wind energy to invest in research to help our free-enterprise system provide the abundance of cheap, clean, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy.

A recipient of tax preferences discusses his undeserved benefits in a Wall Street Journal column.

…it’s only appropriate that I express appreciation for the generous subsidy you provided for the 28-panel, four-array, 8,540-watt photovoltaic system I installed on my metal roof last year. Thanks to the investment tax credit, I slashed my 2016 federal tax bill by $7,758. …thanks to the incentives for rooftop solar, I’ve snared three subsidies. …fewer rooftop solar projects are being installed in low-income neighborhoods. …According to a study done for the California Public Utility Commission, residents who have installed solar systems have household incomes 68% higher than the state average. Ashley Brown, executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, calls the proliferation of rooftop solar systems and the returns they provide to lucky people like me, “a wealth transfer from less affluent ratepayers to more affluent ones.” It is, Mr. Brown says, “Robin Hood in reverse.” Do I feel bad about being a solar freeloader? Yes, a little. …the local barista or school janitor—people who likely can’t afford solar panels—are paying incrementally more for the grid’s maintenance and operation. And the more that people like me install panels, the more those baristas and janitors have to pay.

By the way, the United States is not the only nation with green-energy boondoggles (remember Solyndra?).

I’ve previously written about the failure of such programs in Germany.

Let’s add to that collection with an all-too-typical story from the United Kingdom.

Britain is wasting hundreds of millions of pounds subsidising power stations to burn American wood pellets that do more harm to the climate than the coal they replaced, a study has found. Chopping down trees and transporting wood across the Atlantic Ocean to feed power stations produces more greenhouse gases than much cheaper coal, according to the report. It blames the rush to meet EU renewable energy targets… Green subsidies for wood pellets and other biomass were championed by Chris Huhne when he was Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government. Mr Huhne, 62, who was jailed in 2013 for perverting the course of justice, is now European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US supplier of wood pellets.

In a perverse way, I admire Mr. Huhne, who didn’t follow the usual revolving-door strategy of politician-to-cronyist. He apparently went politician-to-prisoner-to-cronyist.

If you head north in Great Britain, the foolishness mostly revolves around wind power.

…the blackmailing, money-printing sausage factory is a wind farm in Scotland. There are currently about 750 wind farms north of the border, with roughly 3,000 wind turbines. …The wind farms are distributed across Scotland, sometimes in very remote regions, so there is a real problem in getting their energy down to the English border – let alone getting it across. …Why has so much been built? Partly, it is because of income-support subsidies. This top-up of nearly 100 per cent over the wholesale price – funded, of course, from consumer bills – makes wind farms very attractive… Subsidies to onshore wind in the UK now cost a little under £600 million a year, with Scottish wind taking about half, yet the Scottish government continues to ignore the protests and consent to new wind farms as if they cost almost nothing at all. Which as far as Holyrood is concerned, is in fact true. Part of the attraction for Scottish politicians is that the subsidies that pay for Scottish wind farms come from consumers all over Great Britain. Scottish consumption is about 10 per cent of the British total – so when the Scottish government grants planning permission to the wind industry, it is simply writing a cheque drawn overwhelmingly on English and Welsh accounts. …The result is that there is a perverse incentive to locate wind farms in Scotland, even though they aren’t welcome and the grid can’t take their output.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that taxpayers in the U.K. have been subsidizing green groups.

From an economic perspective, the bottom line is that green energy is more expensive and it requires subsidies that line the pockets of politically connected people and companies. That’s true in America, and it’s true in other nations.

Which is unfortunate, because it gives a bad name to energy sources that probably will be capable of producing low-cost energy in some point in the future.

Indeed, my long-run optimism about green energy is one of the reasons why I’m such a big believer in capitalism and private property. I just don’t want politicians to intervene today and make it harder to achieve future innovation.

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