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Archive for the ‘Cronyism’ Category

When I wrote yesterday that Trump’s overall rating on economic policy was “bad,” a few people wrote to complain.

I did acknowledge in the column that it may be too soon to give the current president a grade, but it’s not looking good. He not only has a bad record on big issues such as spending and trade, but he also is prone to cronyist policies in other areas.

Such as goodies for the coal industry.

Such as goodies for the housing lobby.

And goodies for corn growers, which is the topic of today’s column.

But we’re not going to look at traditional agriculture subsidies (which are awful in their own right). Instead we’re going to focus on government handouts that bribe corn growers and others into turning crops into fuel.

This is a policy that’s bad for taxpayers, bad for consumers, bad for the environment, and probably bad for motherhood and apple pie.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote last year about this boondoggle.

President Trump has again sought changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)… The previous reform effort granted ethanol producers and corn growers their request to raise the amount of ethanol allowed year-round in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent (E-15)… But this did not create peace. Pro-RFS forces soon demanded both E-15 and fewer small refinery waivers. Now, the administration has announced that, while it will still grant small refinery exemptions, it will reallocate the waived amounts to non-exempt refineries and thus preserve the 15 billion gallon maximum set out in the law. It will also ease the labelling requirements for gas stations selling E-15. …Lost in the debate between the biofuels industry and the petroleum industry is what the RFS means for consumers. Gasoline prices are relatively low right now, but not because of the RFS. And we are always one bad corn crop away from an ethanol-induced price spike. …The proposed changes can only add to the upward pressure on pump prices.

The year before, the Independent Institute criticized Trump’s approach.

…instead of terminating the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) — which mandates a sharp increase in renewable fuel consumption by 2022 — the Trump administration has doubled-down on biofuels. President Trump has said that he supports ramping up ethanol production even further by allowing gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol to be sold year-round. Doing so would expand ethanol use and encourage the EPA to ratchet that percentage up in subsequent years. …a comprehensive meta-analysis in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found the greenhouse gas benefits of ethanol to be almost zero. For other pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone, ethanol actually is worse than gasoline. Because 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop is used in the production of biofuels, ethanol production also raises food costs. As a result, consumers pay higher prices for beef, milk, poultry and pork, among other items. …Because the RFS moved corn growing to areas that require more water, more fertilizer, and more acreage, prairies and other wild-lands are disappearing, soil is eroding, groundwater is being depleted, and ocean dead zones are expanding. …If ethanol truly were a good substitute for gasoline, no E10 or E15 mandate would be necessary.

Ironically, Trump’s misguided handouts aren’t necessarily buying him any friends.

As reported by Bloomberg, one of the big recipients says it may diversify away from ethanol unless subsidies are increased.

American ethanol makers have for years been reliant on a government policy that mandates biofuel use. But industry stalwart Green Plains Inc. wants to break away from that dependence… The Omaha, Nebraska-based company has lost faith that the ethanol industry will get the support it needs from parts of the Trump administration, said Chief Executive officer Todd Becker. …“We are going to spend half a billion dollars transforming this company to be not dependent on government policy,” Becker said in an interview. The EPA is “no friend of ethanol. They’ve done everything they can to destroy the market for us. They’ve done everything they can to destroy this industry.” …The U.S. ethanol industry was born out of government support. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter asked agribusiness leaders to make biofuels… The industry got another boost in 2007, when the Renewable Fuels Standard expanded the mandate to blend ethanol into gasoline.

This takes chutzpah. Ethanol arguably could be the most subsidized product in the United States, yet beneficiaries say they may exit the industry without ever-increasing handouts.

I’m not sure how to react to this supposed threat.

  • Should I say, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry”?
  • Should I channel Clint Eastwood and say, “Go ahead, make my day”?
  • Or should I simply say, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”?

The bottom line is that ethanol handout were bad policy when they were first created and they are bad policy today. These handouts are misguided when Democrats are in charge, and they’re misguided when Republicans are in charge.

I’d like Trump to switch his position because of a newfound appreciation for free enterprise, but I’ll be happy if he shifts in the right direction simply because he doesn’t appreciate greedy complaints from the ethanol industry.

P.S. Trump isn’t the only Republican who is bad on this issue. Indeed, the GOPers who support free markets – such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – may be in the minority of the Party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In pure socialist systems, governments own and operate companies (the “means of production“). Such an approach also requires central planning and price controls.

But you don’t need socialism to have government-controlled companies. There are plenty of “state-owned enterprises” that exist in supposedly market-oriented nations.

Including in the United States. The federal government, for instance, owns and operates the air traffic control system and the postal service, to cite two big examples.

So what happens when politicians are de facto shareholders?

Today, thanks to some new research from the Asian Development Bank Institute, we’re going to look at the economic consequences of such firms.

Throughout history, and especially since the end of World War II, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been created in much of the world… Although private companies play a dominant role in market-based societies, enterprises with government ownership are still key players in the global economy, making their performance important for economic growth and competitiveness… Thus, scholars and policymakers around the world have been left with a task of reassessing the efficiency of state ownership. …In this paper, we aim to investigate whether certain ownership types consistently show superior economic performance relative to others when controlling for other economic factors. …we aim to fill in this gap and report further empirical evidence on the relative efficiency of public and private companies.

According to the study, state-run companies play a very large role in some countries.

The authors consider some of the theoretical reasons why state-run firms might not be very efficient, including “public choice.”

Agency theory…states that in a corporation, managers (or agents) may follow a personal agenda rather than work on behalf of, and for the interest of, the principals who own the corporation. Within a SOE, in particular, …the managers of SOEs are those who are appointed by the government…and seek firm-specific rents, such as high pay, fringe benefits, and low effort levels. Unlike their peers who operate in private-owned enterprises and may face the risk of replacement and dismissal due to their firms’ low performance…, the chief executive officers (CEOs) of SOEs are put under little financial constraint, and their compensation is not necessarily linked to firm performance… Public choice theory…also provides a cornerstone conceptual framework on which SOEs’ underperformance can be explained. This framework assumes that…special interests affect…governments’ own objectives.

They put together a dataset of more than 25,000 companies, both government and private, and then looked at key performance metrics.

Not surprisingly, government-run firms are not very efficient compared to their private counterparts.

…we find significant evidence that SOEs are outperformed by their POEs counterparts. The findings are consistent over both simple univariate comparisons and multivariate regressions. Government firms appear to be less profitable than POEs. They are also more dependent on debt and financial support from outside sources rather than equity. Hence, we provide support for the view that public firms are less efficient than private firms… The cross-sectional comparisons also show that government firms tend to be more labor intensive and have higher labor costs than non-government ones. …The differences in profitability appear to be economically important. The average return on assets for private firms is 8.010, almost twice that for SOEs. …SOEs have a higher liabilities-to-assets ratio, meaning that they tend to rely more on debt than shareholder funds. … state-owned companies…generate smaller sales volumes and have a higher cost per one employee. In other words, firms owned by private sectors are more labor efficient than government ones. …our findings suggest that privatization could be considered as a driver for firm efficiency.

For those that like perusing quantitative results, here are the results of their statistical regressions.

I’ve highlighted the key difference.

As already noted, government-run firms accumulate more debt.

This is presumably because investors assume that government-run companies won’t default.

Not because they don’t lose money, but rather because the political pressures that led to their creation also will prevent their demise.

SOEs can enjoy a “soft” budget constraint since they are backed by the government for their funding… They have the advantage of borrowing funds at a lower rate rather than accessing the equity market to raise capital… Thus, the discipline that capital markets impose on state-held firms and the threat of financial distress for them is less important than their private counterparts. …it is worth noting that such “soft” budget constraints, to a certain extent, could also be a source of inefficiency in government firms.

In other words, the growth-enhancing process of “creative destruction” is blocked when governments are in charge of companies.

For what it’s worth, this is a big problem in nations such as China.

Though we also saw a version of this in the United States, with the big bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which are government-sponsored enterprises (private ownership, but created by government and controlled by government).

And there are many other examples of bad results when the federal government has intervened in the business world.

The bottom line is that government should not be owning, operating, controlling, or directing private companies. These forms of intervention inevitably produce inefficiency, subsidies, cronyism, corruption, and waste.

And it means that people like you and me wind up with less income and lower living standards because politicians are misallocating labor and capital.

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The 2008 financial crisis was largely the result of bad government policy, including subsidies for the housing sector from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This video is 10 years old, but it does a great job of explaining the damaging role of those two government-created entities.

The financial crisis led to many decisions in Washington, most notably “moral hazard” and the corrupt TARP bailout.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that Fannie and Freddie were placed in “conservatorship,” which basically has curtailed their actions over the past 10 years.

Indeed, some people even hoped that the Trump Administration would take advantage of their weakened status to unwind Fannie and Freddie and allow the free market to determine the future of housing finance.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Cronyists in the Treasury Department unveiled a plan earlier this year that will resuscitate Fannie and Freddie and recreate the bad incentives that led to the mess last decade.

This proposal may be even further to the left than proposals from the Obama Administration. And, as Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, this won’t end well.

…the president’s Memorandum on Housing Finance Reform…is a major disappointment. It will keep taxpayers on the hook for more than $7 trillion in mortgage debt. And it is likely to induce another housing-market bust, for which President Trump will take the blame.The memo directs the Treasury to produce a government housing-finance system that roughly replicates what existed before 2008: government backing for the obligations of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , and affordable-housing mandates requiring the GSEs to encourage and engage in risky mortgage lending. …Most of the U.S. economy is open to the innovation and competition of the private sector. Yet for no discernible reason, the housing market—one-sixth of the U.S. economy—is and has been controlled by the government to a far greater extent than in any other developed country. …The resulting policies produced a highly volatile U.S. housing market, subject to enormous booms and busts. Its culmination was the 2008 financial crisis, in which a massive housing-price boom—driven by the credit leverage associated with low down payments—led to millions of mortgage defaults when housing prices regressed to the long-term mean.

Wallison also authored an article that was published this past week by National Review.

He warns again that the Trump Administration is making a grave mistake by choosing government over free enterprise.

Treasury’s plan for releasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their conservatorships is missing only one thing: a good reason for doing it. The dangers the two companies will create for the U.S. economy will far outweigh whatever benefits Treasury sees. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will be fully recapitalized… The Treasury says the purpose of their recapitalization is to protect the taxpayers in the event that the two firms fail again. But that makes little sense. The taxpayers would not have to be protected if the companies were adequately capitalized and operated without government backing. Indeed, it should have been clear by now that government backing for private profit-seeking firms is a clear and present danger to the stability of the U.S. financial system. Government support enables companies to raise virtually unlimited debt while taking financial risks that the market would routinely deny to firms that operate without it. …their government support will allow them to earn significant profits in a different way — by taking on the risks of subprime and other high-cost mortgage loans. That business would make effective use of their government backing and — at least for a while — earn the profits that their shareholders will demand. …This is an open invitation to create another financial crisis. If we learned anything from the 2008 mortgage market collapse, it is that once a government-backed entity begins to accept mortgages with low down payments and high debt-to-income ratios, the entire market begins to shift in that direction. …why is the Treasury proposing this plan? There is no obvious need for a government-backed profit-making firm in today’s housing finance market. FHA could assume the important role of helping low- and moderate-income families buy their first home. …Why this hasn’t already happened in a conservative administration remains an enduring mystery.

I’ll conclude by sharing some academic research that debunks the notion that housing would suffer in the absence of Fannie and Freddie.

A working paper by two economists at the Federal Reserve finds that Fannie and Freddie have not increased homeownership.

The U.S. government guarantees a majority of mortgages, which is often justified as a means to promote homeownership. In this paper, we estimate the effect by using a difference-in-differences design, with detailed property-level data, that exploits changes of the conforming loan limits (CLLs) along county borders. We find a sizable effect of CLLs on government guarantees but no robust effect on homeownership. Thus, government guarantees could be considerably reduced,with very modest effects on the homeownership rate. Our finding is particularly relevant for recent housing finance reform plans that propose to gradually reduce the government’s involvement in the mortgage market by reducing the CLLs.

For those who care about the wonky details, here’s the most relevant set of charts, which led the Fed economists to conclude that, “There appears to be no positive effect of the CLL increases in 2008 and no negative effect of the CLL reductions in 2011.”

And let’s not forget that other academic research has shown that government favoritism for the housing sector harms overall economic growth by diverting capital from business investment.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie are cronyist institutions that hurt the economy and create financial instability, while providing no benefit except to a handful of insiders.

As I suggested many years ago, they should be dumped in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is choosing Obama-style interventionism over fairness and free markets.

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The great French economist from the 1800s, Frederic Bastiat, famously explained that good economists are aware that government policies have indirect effects (the “unseen”).

Bad economists, by contrast, only consider direct effects (the “seen”).

Let’s look at the debate over stadium subsidies. Tim Carney of the American Enterprise Institute narrates a video showing how the “unseen” costs of government favoritism are greater than the “seen” benefits.

Unfortunately, stadium subsidies are just the tip of the cronyism iceberg.

In a column for the Dallas Morning News, Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University discussed some of his research on the topic.

While state and local economic development incentives may seem to help the local economy, the offsetting costs are usually ignored, so the overall effect is unclear. Furthermore, from the perspective of the nation as a whole, these policies are clearly a net loss. …In a new research paper, my colleague, Meg Tuszynski, and I examined whether there is any relationship between economic development incentive programs and five measures of entrepreneurial activity. Like the previous literature in this area, we found virtually no evidence of a positive relationship. In fact, we found a negative relationship with patent activity, a key measure of new innovation. …A recent study by the Mercatus Center found that 12 states could reduce their corporate income tax by more than 20 percent if incentive programs were eliminated. That includes a 24 percent cut in Texas’ business franchise tax. In six states, it could either be completely eliminated or reduced by more than 90 percent. These are big savings that would provide substantial tax relief to all businesses, both big and small, not just those with political influence. …That would provide a more level playing field in which all businesses can thrive.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal editorial from earlier the year.

Amazon left New York at the altar, turning down a dowry of $3 billion in subsidies. Foxconn’s promised new factory in Wisconsin, enticed with $4 billion in incentives, has fallen into doubt. …Now add General Electric , which announced…it will renege on its plan to build a glassy, 12-story headquarters on Boston’s waterfront. …The company reportedly…pledged to bring 800 jobs to Boston. In exchange, the city and state offered $145 million in incentives, including tax breaks and infrastructure funds. GE’s boss at the time, Jeff Immelt, said not to worry: For every public dollar spent, “you will get back one thousand fold, take my word for it.” …two CEOs later, a beleaguered GE won’t be building that fancy tower at all. There won’t even be 800 jobs. …GE will lease back enough space in two existing brick buildings for 250 employees. …what a failure of corporate welfare.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at some additional scholarly research.

Economists for the World Bank investigated government favoritism in Egypt and found that cronyism rewards politically connected companies at the expense of the overall economy.

This paper presents new evidence that cronyism reduces long-term economic growth by discouraging firms’ innovation activities. …The analysis finds that the probability that firms invest in products new to the firm increases from under 1 percent for politically connected firms to over 7 percent for unconnected firms. The results are robust across different innovation measures. Despite innovating less, politically connected firms are more capital intensive, as they face lower marginal cost of capital due to the generous policy privileges they receive, including exclusive access to input subsidies, public procurement contracts, favorable exchange rates, and financing from politically connected banks. …The findings suggest that connected firms out-rival their competitors by lobbying for privileges instead of innovating. In the aggregate, these policy privileges reduce…long-term growth potential by diverting resources away from innovation to the inefficient capital accumulation of a few large, connected firms.

For economics wonks, here’s Table 2 from the study, showing how subsidies are associated with less innovation.

The World Bank also found awful results because of cronyism in Ukraine.

But this isn’t a problem only in developing nations.

There’s some depressing research about the growing prevalence of cronyism in the United States (ethanol handouts, the Export-Import Bankprotectionismtax favoritismbailoutssubsidies, and green energy are just a few examples of how the friends of politicians get unearned wealth).

Cronyism is bad under Democrats and it’s bad under Republicans. Time for separation of business and state!

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From a macroeconomic perspective, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a flop. The federal government borrowed and redistributed almost $1 trillion, yet the economy stagnated.

From a microeconomic perspective, the faux stimulus may have been an even bigger failure. One of the worst features was the laughable and scandal-ridden green energy program, which featured corrupt boondoggles such as Solyndra.

Well, if you liked Solyndra, you’ll love the “Green New Deal,” a proposal to dramatically expand Washington’s power over the private economy.  As I explained in an article for the American Conservative, the plan introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is cronyism on steroids.

Looking at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, one is reminded of Voltaire’s comment that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But that might be slightly unfair. There is some Green in the GND, though the ideas aren’t New, and it’s definitely not a Deal. At least not for taxpayers. …budget gurus have examined the GND wish list and they calculate that the 10-year cost could reach $90 trillion. That’s trillion, not billion—a staggering amount of money. For all intents and purposes, Ocasio-Cortez wants to expand the burden of federal spending from 21 percent of economic output to about 50 percent of economic output. …The economic implications of these policies are horrifying. The GND would mean Greek-style fiscal policy in the United States, with concomitant economic stagnation.

But it’s not just bad fiscal policy.

The scheme would give politicians and bureaucrats immense powers to micro-manage the productive sector of the economy.

It’s equally important to consider how the GND would dramatically expand Washington’s power over the economy—above and beyond new taxes and higher spending. …the government would be obliged to end any and all reliance on fossil fuels and shift the nation to 100 percent renewable energy. …the government would be obliged to provide universal and unrestricted access to health care for everyone. …the government would be obliged to provide everybody with a job that includes generous benefits, including paid vacations and a comfortable retirement. …the government would be obliged to create a nationwide system that was so quick and so effective that commercial air travel could be ended. …the government would be obliged to gut and rebuild every single structure in the country so that they all met a zero-net-carbon goal.

What would this mean?

A feeding frenzy of well-connected special interests at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, which would be very unseemly.

That’s the direct cost.

But from an economic perspective, what matters is that labor and capital increasingly would be allocated by political forces (i.e., cronyism) rather than market forces (i.e., the preferences of consumers).

For all intents and purposes, the GND is a form of central planning. Not full Soviet style steering of the economy, but nonetheless a step in that direction.

And this indirect costs imposed by this approach wouldn’t be trivial.

Every single one of these costly ideas will serve as a magnet for consultants, contractors, administrators, and others who will want to profit by “helping” to implement the various pieces of the GND. For those who remember the corruption and cronyism of the Obama administration’s green energy program (part of the failed stimulus), Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing. But far more extensive. …what happens if the “invisible hand” of consumer-driven competition is replaced (or substantially weakened) because politicians adopt something like the Green New Deal? …market forces will get squeezed as politicians directly allocate resources in the economy. …cronyism and regulation undermine the free market just as taxes and spending undermine the free market. The mechanism—direct versus indirect—isn’t the same, but in both cases the preferences of consumers no longer drive the economy.

The bottom line is that the GND is a corporatist scheme using the environment as a pretext.

If you don’t believe me, just look at what AOC’s top aide said about the proposal.

The chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that her signature Green New Deal was not really about saving the planet after all. In a report by the Washington Post, Saikat Chakrabarti revealed that “it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all … we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” …The Green New Deal itself was fraught with complications in its February roll-out, which included confusing language and contradictions in the “Frequently Asked Question” section. …The Green New Deal, which some estimated could cost upwards of $93 trillion to enact, also promised “economic prosperity for all.”

Refreshingly honest on the part of Mr. Chakrabarti, but also a stark warning to the rest of us.

By the way, the excerpt mentions the “confusing language” in the original GND documents. I would call is terrifying language. This section is particularly crazy.

David Harsanyi highlighted 10 of the most bizarre provisions in a column for the Federalist.

It is not hyperbole to contend that GND is likely the most ridiculous and un-American plan that’s ever been presented by an elected official to voters. …the plan’s authors assure us that this “massive transformation of our society” needs some “clear goals and a timeline.” The timeline is ten years. Here are some of the goals: …Ban affordable energy. …Eliminate nuclear energy. …Eliminate 99 percent of cars. …Gut and rebuild every building in America. …Eliminate air travel. …A government-guaranteed job. ….Free education for life. …A salubrious diet. …A house. …Free money. …Bonus insanity: Ban meat.

And remember, all these provisions are enforced by politicians and bureaucrats repressing market forces and replacing them with political pull.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute summarizes why this is a bad idea.

…funding allocations will undoubtedly be determined by political forces rather than market forces. …final allocation will depend on the relative clout of the lawmakers and will inefficiently differ from the allocations that consumers and producers would demand. In short, the Green New Deal would be a deficit financed expansion of federal bureaucratic power to dictate investment decisions in one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy. …further centralizing energy market decisions puts at risk the free market economy that our nation has relied on for economic growth for more than two centuries.

Exactly right, which is why the GND would translate to fewer jobs and lower living standards.

Here are two real-world examples from the Wall Street Journal showing why green cronyism is a bad idea.

The first is from the United States.

…consider the public housing projects near Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York office. The New York City Housing Authority (Nycha)…is switching to LED lighting, which lasts longer than incandescent bulbs and consumes less energy. Sounds smart, until you see how many union workers it takes to screw in a light bulb. One recent project focused on 23 housing developments, and changing the light bulbs and fixtures there cost $33.2 million. Supplies account for a fraction of that cost. Under Nycha’s Project Labor Agreement, electricians make $81 in base pay and $54 in fringe per hour, and overtime is usually time and a half. Add administrative and contracting expenses. All in, Nycha paid an average of $1,973 per apartment to install LEDs. …In the private economy, $1,973 could go a long way toward improving a dilapidated apartment. Only in the world of green government spending is replacing light bulbs for two grand a unit a cost-saving measure.

Don’t forget, by the way, that light bulbs also are more expensive once government is part of the equation.

The second is from Australia.

The Green New Deal…calls among other things for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States…” We’ve tried it in Australia—on a much smaller scale—and it didn’t go well. On Feb. 3, 2009, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, announced the Energy Efficient Homes Package. “To support jobs and set Australia up for a low carbon future the Rudd Government will install free ceiling insulation in around 2.7 million Australian homes…” There were only 250 registered insulation businesses in Australia when the package was announced. That number quickly blew out to 7,000 because the government was handing out free money to installers. …They received their rebates directly from the government rather than from homeowners, who therefore had little incentive to check if the work had been done well or even at all. …Almost every insulation job went right up to the $1,600 cap, regardless of size or ceiling area. …Nearly 100 houses caught fire. …In February 2010, a year after the Energy Efficient Homes Package was announced, it was abandoned.

I also recommend this column about what happened in Germany.

Let’s close with a bit of humor.

Our first example is a modification of the famous map of the Korean Peninsula showing the difference between capitalism and communism.

In this case, however, we show a “successful” low-carbon economy.

By the way, some people don’t get the joke. Jeffrey Sachs actually ranks hellholes such as Cuba ahead of the United States in part because impoverished people don’t consume much energy.

And some environmentalists put together a grotesquely misnamed “Happy Planet Index” that also ranked the grim disaster of Venezuela ahead of America.

To conclude, here’s a cartoon strip that nicely summarizes how the GND is fueled.

In other words, the middle class will pay a lot more if AOC’s scheme is ever adopted.

P.S. Donald Trump is also at least somewhat guilty of wanting to replace market forces with government intervention.

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One of the worst examples of Washington cronyism is the Export-Import Bank, which has provided subsidies for big companies that sell to foreign buyers.

Corrupt firms such as Boeing and General Electric argue that they need help from the Ex-Im Bank in order make those sales.

Is that true?

Interestingly, we had a real-world test earlier this decade when the Ex-Im Bank was temporarily shut down and then, after re-opening, was largely unable to provide subsidies to big corporations.

So what happened? Veronique de Rugy of Mercatus explains that exporters did just fine when the Ex-Im Bank was curtailed.

Back in 2015, there was widespread agreement in Congress that the Export-Import Bank — the U.S. government’s export credit agency — was nothing but a crony bank, mostly serving the greedy interests of Boeing and other large companies. As a result, Congress let the bank’s charter expire. It was reauthorized a few months later but in a much-diminished form, operating at 15% capacity. …A thorny problem for those supporting Ex-Im’s revival is that we now have nearly a half-decade’s worth of data on what happened to U.S. exports, economic growth, jobs and beneficiaries while the institution was mostly dormant between 2015 and 2019. During that time, …its activities dropped from $21 billion in 2014 (the last year the bank functioned at full capacity) to $3.6 billion in 2018. …Back in 2014, 65% of the bank’s activities benefited 10 giant companies. Boeing alone got 40% of Ex-Im’s largesse. On the foreign side, the bank’s clients belong to a who’s who list of large, wealthy, successful and often state-owned companies. …Most of this profligacy ended between 2015 and 2018. During that time, the share of funding that benefited large firms dropped by 93%. …once Ex-Im stopped extending giant deals to giant companies, American taxpayers’ liability fell from $112 billion in 2014 to $72.5 billion in 2018. U.S. exports continued to grow without being impacted whatsoever by Ex-Im limitations, and many beneficiaries of the bank had their best year ever in 2018, demonstrating that none of these subsidies are necessary for their success.

Sadly, the Ex-Im Bank is now back in business (and President Trump deserves a big chunk of the blame).

But its charter has to be renewed this year.

There’s no chance of killing the program, but there may be an opportunity to at least curtail its power and authority.

Negotiations on Capitol Hill have produced a compromise package between the top Democrat and top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.

But not everyone is a fan. The Washington Examiner opined that the deal should be rejected.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has drafted a bill that would expand the Ex-Im Bank, rename it, free it from oversight, and charge it with a handful of irrelevant liberal mandates. The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., has unfortunately agreed to Waters’ bill. …Republicans should outright reject Waters’ proposal. It’s pitched as a compromise, but the Senate GOP has no reason to compromise. Either fix Waters’ bill or let the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expire in the fall. The “reforms” in Waters’ bill are weak tea. They don’t do anything to steer the Ex-Im Bank away from being welfare for America’s largest corporations.

So did House Republicans kill the deal, which should have been an easy decision?

Not exactly. According to a Politico report, House Democrats stopped it.

But not because they’re opposed to corporate welfare. They rebelled because they want a deal that’s even worse.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters on Wednesday shelved a bipartisan Export-Import Bank bill that sparked a fierce backlash from her own caucus… The delay raises questions about the fate of the beleaguered bank, which, without action by Congress, will see its operating charter lapse in September. …the original compromise she drafted with McHenry ignited criticism from a wide swath of the Democrats on the committee… They objected to new restrictions that would be imposed on the bank and big manufacturers such as Boeing, that benefit from its loan guarantees… Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.)…had been raising concerns about sections of the bill that would impose new disclosure requirements on major manufacturers and restrict the agency from providing financial support for deals with Chinese state-owned enterprises. …The restrictions turned out to be one of the biggest sticking points for Democrats. …The bank is only now returning to full operation after years of being hobbled by conservative Republican lawmakers who criticized the agency as engaging in “crony capitalism” and posing a risk to taxpayers.

The moral of the story is that big government and big business shouldn’t be in bed together.

The federal government shouldn’t redistribute money, and it’s especially offensive to have programs that give handouts to rich and powerful companies.

And it’s not just the Ex-Im Bank.

P.S. If you want to understand why export subsidies are economically harmful, I strongly recommend this video from Mercatus.

P.P.S. I have no objection to companies getting profits, but I want them to earn money by serving consumers and not steal money by fleecing taxpayers.

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During my early years in public policy, back in the late 1980s, I repeatedly crossed swords with people who argued that Washington should have more power over the economy so that the United States could compete with Japan, which supposedly was an economic juggernaut because of “industrial policy” directed by wise and far-sighted bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Given Japan’s subsequent multi-decade slump, it certainly seems like I was right to warn against giving American politicians the power to pick winners and losers.

But not everybody learned from that experience. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again,” only this time we’re supposed to be terrified because the Chinese government wants to subsidize and promote certain industries as part of “Made in China 2025”.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not scared.

Yes, China has enjoyed some impressive growth since it partially liberalized its economy in the late 1900s, but it will remain far behind the United States unless – as I recently explained on CNBC – there is a new wave of free-market reforms.

Needless to say, a government initiative to favor certain industries is hardly a step in that direction.

Some Chinese policy makers even realize that it’s counterproductive to give that kind of power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the South China Morning Post.

“Made in China 2025” has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, China’s former finance minister Lou Jiwei has said…“[Made in China] 2025 has been a lot of talking but very little was done,” Lou, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, said on Wednesday… “those industries are not predictable and the government should not have thought it had the ability to predict what is not foreseeable.” …“The negative effect of [the plan] is to have wasted taxpayers’ money.” He suggested the market should have played a greater role in developing the industries that MIC2025 was designed to push. “The [resources] should have been allocated by the market; the government should give the market a decisive role,” Lou said. “Why has the government pushed so hard on this strategy? [Hi-tech industry prospects] can all change in a few years, it is too unforeseeable.”

Sounds like Mr. Lou learned from Obama’s Solyndra fiasco that cronyism doesn’t work.

But some of his colleagues still need to be educated.

Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategy, Beijing’s blueprint for tech supremacy. …Since the plan’s launch in 2015, the government has poured money into MIC2025 to try to turn a number of domestic industries – including artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles – into global leaders by 2025. …Lou said: “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it.

I hope senior government officials change their minds about this harmful exercise in central planning.

Not because I’m afraid it will work, but rather because I like China and I want the country to prosper. The partial reforms from last century produced great results for China, including huge reductions in poverty.

Additional reforms could lead to mass prosperity. But that won’t happen if the Chinese government tries to control the allocation of resources.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at central planning and industrial policy, starting with the common-sense observation that there are degrees of intervention.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope perspective. We have examples of nations, such as the Soviet Union, where the government had near-total control over the allocation of labor and capital. And I suppose Hong Kong would be the closest example of a laissez-faire jurisdiction. And then there’s everything in between.

I’ve already shared two great videos on government planning versus the market. I strongly recommend this Prager University video, narrated by Professor Burton Folsom, on the failure of government-dictated investment. And also this video narrated by Professor Russ Roberts, which shows how a decentralized market efficiently provides a bounty to consumers.

Here’s a third, which celebrates the work of the late Don Lavoie, one of my professors when I studied at George Mason University.

By the way, there is a terrible flaw in the video. The photo that appears at 1:38 shows select faculty and students in 1987. Why is that a flaw? For the simple reason that I was part of the photo but got cropped out in the video.

P.S. Some people worry that China’s industrial policy will have a negative spillover effect on the United States because American companies will lose market share to the subsidized Chinese companies. That’s a legitimate concern and American officials should use the World Trade Organization to counter mercantilist policies.

P.P.S. To my dismay, some people don’t want China to become a rich nation. I assume those people are hoping China follows the advice of the OECD and IMF.

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What’s the worst thing the government does?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve argued that giving U.S. tax dollars to the OECD is the worst item in the budget, on a per-dollar-spent basis.

And I’ve expressed scathing disdain for the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. There are also really destructive features of the tax system, such as FATCA and the death tax.

But you could make a strong case for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well.

These two government-created corporations not only reduce long-run growth by distorting the allocation of capital, they also bear considerable responsibility for last decade’s financial crisis since they played a major role in fueling the housing bubble.

The U.K.-based Economist describes America’s interventionist regime as a form of socialism.

…the mortgage system…is…largely nationalised and subject to administrative control. …America’s mortgage-finance system, with $11 trillion of debt, is probably the biggest concentration of financial risk to be found anywhere. …The supply of mortgages in America has an air of distinctly socialist command-and-control about it. …The structure of these loans, their volume and the risks they entail are controlled not by markets but by administrative fiat. …the subsidy for housing debt is running at about $150 billion a year, or roughly 1% of GDP. A crisis as bad as last time would cost taxpayers 2-4% of GDP, not far off the bail-out of the banks in 2008-12. …the securitisation of loans, most of which used to be in the private sector, is now almost entirely state-run. …There are at least 10,000 relevant pages of federal laws, regulatory orders and rule books. …In the land of the free, where home ownership is a national dream, borrowing to buy a house is a government business for which taxpayers are on the hook.

In other words, our system of housing finance is mucked up by government intervention (very much akin to the way healthcare is a mess because of government).

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Fannie and Freddie have been in “conservatorship” every since they got a big bailout last decade. And that means the two cronyist firms are now somewhat constrained. They can’t lobby, for instance (though Republicans and Democrats still seek to expand subsidies in response to campaign cash from other housing-related lobbyists).

But the worst news is that there are people in the Trump Administration who want to go back to the bad ol’ pre-bailout days.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue as Trump prepared to take office. The editorial noted that the implicit government guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to an explicit bailout.

Fan and Fred’s owners feasted for decades on an implied taxpayer guarantee before the housing crisis. Since everyone knew the two government-created mortgage giants would receive federal help in a crisis, they were able to run enormous risks and still borrow cheaply as they came to own or guarantee $5 trillion of mortgage paper. When the housing market went south, taxpayers had to stage a rescue in 2008 and poured nearly $190 billion into the toxic twins.

As part of that bailout and the subsequent “conservatorship,” Fannie and Freddie still get to operate, and they still have a big implicit subsidy that allows near-automatic profits (at least until and unless there’s another big hiccup in the housing market), but the Treasury Department gets those profits.

Needless to say, this upsets the shareholders. They bought stock so they could get a slice of the undeserved profits generated by the Fannie/Freddie cronyist business model.

They claim going back to the pre-bailout days would be a form of privatization, but the WSJ editorial correctly warns that it’s not pro-free market to allow these two government-created companies to distort housing markets with their government-granted favors, preferences, and subsidies.

…the expectation that Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin is going to revive the Beltway model of public risk and private reward. …private shareholders of these so-called government-sponsored enterprises keep pretending that something other than the government is responsible for their income streams. As if anyone would buy their guarantees—or give them cheap financing—if Uncle Sam weren’t standing behind them. …what they really want is to liberate for themselves the profits that flow from a duopoly backed by taxpayers. …We’re all for businesses getting out of government control—unless they’re playing with taxpayer money. Americans were told that Fannie and Freddie were safe for years before the last crisis. The right answer is to shut them down.

Amen. Not just shut them down, dump them in the Potomac River.

The Wall Street Journal then revisited the issue early last year, once again expressing concern that the Treasury Secretary wants to go back to the days of unchecked cronyism.

Fannie Mae is again going hat in hand to taxpayers… Washington should take this news as a kick in the keister to finally start winding down the mortgage giant and its busted brother, Freddie Mac . But the Trump Administration seems to be moving in the opposite direction. …The pair, now in “conservatorship,”…were left in limbo. Hedge funds bought up their shares, betting they could pressure Washington into bringing back the old business model of public risk and private reward. …Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee: “I think it’s critical that we have a 30-year mortgage. I don’t believe that the private markets on their own could support it.” But many countries have robust housing markets and ownership rates without a 30-year mortgage guarantee. Mr. Mnuchin sounds like his predecessor, Democrat Jack Lew. Wasn’t Donald Trump elected to eliminate crony capitalism?

This issue is now heating up, with reports indicating that the Treasury Secretary is pushing to restore the moral hazard-based system that caused so much damage last decade.

The Trump administration is at war with itself over who should take the lead in the reform of the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac… The battle centers on whether the Treasury Department should continue to advocate what it views as a plan for the future of the mortgage companies or cede control of those efforts to the incoming chief of the Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), economist Mark Calabria.

The good news is that Trump has nominated a sensible person to head FHFA, which has some oversight authority over Fannie and Freddie.

And it’s also good news that some of the economic people at the White House understand the danger of loosening the current limits on Fannie and Freddie.

White House economic officials…are seeking to prevent a repeat of the risk-taking activities by the companies that contributed to the mortgage bubble, leading to its 2008 collapse and $200 billion government bailout. These officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also say any reform must have the blessing of Calabria, a long-time libertarian economist and frequent critic of the outfit’s pre-crisis business model. ..He is also wary of returning Fannie and Freddie to their previous incarnations as private companies that have shareholders, but also receive backing from the federal government if they get in trouble as they did in 2008.

But it seems that the Treasury Department has some officials who – just like their predecessors in the Obama Administration – learned nothing from the financial crisis.

They want to give Fannie and Freddie free rein, perhaps in order to help some speculator buddies.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his top house advisor Craig Phillips, have so far taken the lead… In January, acting director of the Federal Housing Agency Joseph Otting privately told employees about plans…, referring to Mnuchin’s past statements on the matter… Mnuchin also has business ties with at least one of the major investors in the GSE’s stock that has benefited amid the speculation… Paulson – who has stakes in the GSE’s preferred class of stock — has also submitted a proposal… A key feature of the framework touted by Mnuchin, Phillips, Otting and Paulson is that both Fannie and Freddie would have some backing from the federal government in times of emergency while remaining public companies, a business model similar to the one the GSEs operated with before 2008.

Given the Treasury Department’s bad performance on other issues, I’m not surprised that they’re on the wrong side on this issue as well.

Tobias Peter of the American Enterprise Institute outlines the correct approach.

The GSEs, however, do very little that cannot be done – and is not already done – by the private sector. In addition, these institutions pose a significant financial risk to U.S. taxpayers. Weighing this cost against the minimal benefits makes the case that the GSEs should be eliminated. …regulators have tilted the playing field in favor of the GSEs. …GSE borrowers can thus take on more debt to offset higher prices. With inventories lower than ever, this extra debt ends up driving prices even higher, creating a vicious cycle of more debt, higher prices, greater risk and, ironically, more demand for the GSEs. What keeps the GSEs in business are the same failed housing policies that brought us the last financial crisis. The GSEs are not needed in the housing market – and they have become detrimental to the market’s long-term health. They could be eliminated… This would create space for the re-emergence of an active private mortgage-backed securities market that ensures a safer and more stable housing finance system with access for all while letting taxpayers off the hook.

Mr. Peter is correct.

Here’s a flowchart that shows what happened and the choice we now face.

At the risk of stating the obvious, real privatization is the right approach. This would mean an end to the era of special favors and subsidies.

  • No taxpayers guarantees for mortgage-backed securities
  • No special exemption from complying with SEC red tape.
  • No more special tax favors such as special exemptions.

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen.

The real battle in DC is between conservatorship and fake privatization (which really should be called turbo-charged and lobbyist-fueled cronyism).

And if that’s the case, then the obvious choice is to retain the status quo.

P.S. This is a secondary issue, but it’s worth noting that Fannie and Freddie like to squander money. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Washington Free Beacon.

Fannie Mae is charging taxpayers millions for upgrades to its new headquarters, including $250,000 for a chandelier. The inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which acts as a conservator for the mortgage lender, recently noted $32 million in questionable costs in an audit for Fannie Mae’s new headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. …The inspector general reported that costs for the new headquarters have “risen dramatically,” to $171 million, up from $115 million when the consolidated headquarters was announced in 2015. …After the inspector general inquired about the chandelier, officials scrapped plans for a $150,000 “hanging key sculpture,” and $985,000 for “decorative screens” in a conference room.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie, at best, undermine prosperity by diverting money from productive investment, and, at worst, they saddle the nation with financial crisis.

They should be shut down, not resuscitated.

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Since trade promotes prosperity, I want increased market-driven, cross-border commerce between China and the United States.

But you can see in this CNBC interview that I’m worried about achieving that outcome given protectionism from President Trump and mercantilism from President Xi in China.

There’s never much chance to elaborate in short interviews, so here’s some additional analysis on the key points.

1. China’s economy is weak because of insufficient liberalization.

I have written about how China got great results – especially huge reductions in poverty – thanks to partial economic liberalization last century. But those reforms were just a step in the right direction. The country currently ranks only #107 according to Economic Freedom of the World, largely because so much of the economy is hampered by subsidies, regulation, protectionism, and cronyism. Sweeping pro-market reforms are needed if China’s leaders want their country to become rich.

2. Trump’s unthinking protectionism hurts both sides, but China may be more vulnerable.

I mentioned in the interview that Trump’s protectionism meant that he was harming both nations. This is what always happens with protectionism, so I wasn’t saying anything insightful. But it is quite likely that China will suffer more because its economy doesn’t have the flexibility and durability of America’s more market-oriented system.

That is one of the conclusion from a recent news report.

Policymakers in Europe have spared no effort to emphasize that there can be no winners in an escalated trade conflict between the United States and China. But a fresh study shows there are several beneficiaries. …But a study by research network EconPol Europe suggests such an assertion isn’t quite true — in fact, it isn’t true at all. The survey analyzes the impact of tariffs imposed by the US on China and the effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs. …The EconPol Europe study calculates that Chinese exporters are bearing approximately 75 percent of the costs… in Asia, Vietnam has been gaining the most from firms relocating their production away from China. Malaysia, Singapore and India have also been profiting from this development.

3. China’s cronyism presents a challenge for supporters of unilateral free trade.

I’m a supporter of unilateral free trade. America should eliminate all trade barriers, even if other nations want to hurt themselves by maintaining their restrictions. That being said, it’s not genuine free trade if another country has direct or indirect subsidies for its companies. As I noted in the interview, some economists say we shouldn’t worry since the net result is a wealth transfer from China’s taxpayers to America’s consumers. On the other hand, that approach means that some American workers and companies are being harmed. And if supporters of free markets are upset when American workers and companies are hurt by domestic cronyism, we also should be upset when the same thing happens because of foreign cronyism.

The challenge, of course, is whether you can use trade barriers to target only cronyism. I worry that such an effort would get hijacked by protectionists, though Professor Martin Feldstein makes a good argument in the Wall Street Journal that it’s the right approach.

China’s strategy is to give large government subsidies to state-owned companies and supplement their research with technology stolen from American and other Western companies. …That is the real reason why the Trump administration has threatened tariffs of 25% on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S.—nearly half the total—unless Beijing reforms its policies. …The purpose of the tariffs is not to reduce the bilateral trade deficit but to counter Chinese technology theft and forced transfer. …the U.S. could impose heavier tariffs and other economic penalties in order to force China to play by the rules, ending its attempt to dominate global markets through subsidies and technology theft.

4. Trump should have used the World Trade Organization to encourage Chinese liberalization.

I wrote last year that the President would enjoy more success if he used the WTO to apply pressure on China.

It’s not just me making this claim. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Post.

Pressure from Europe and Japan is amplifying the president’s vocal complaints about Chinese trade practices… “it wasn’t a Trump issue; it was a world issue,” said Jorge Guajardo, …a former Mexican ambassador to China. “Everybody’s tired of the way China games the trading system and makes promises that never amount to anything.” …Germany and the United Kingdom joined the United States this year in tightening limits on Chinese investment. …In September, trade ministers from the United States, European Union and Japan issued a joint statement that blasted the use of subsidies in turning “state owned enterprises into national champions and setting them loose in global markets.” The statement…also rejected forced technology transfer… The United States did win E.U. and Japanese support for a complaint to the WTO alleging China has violated U.S. intellectual property rights. But rather than use the global trade body for a broader attack on China, the administration has demanded changes in the way the organization operates. To critics, the administration missed an opportunity to marshal China’s trading partners behind an across-the-board indictment of its state-led economy.

5. The imperfect Trans-Pacific Partnership was an opportunity to pressure China to reduce cronyism.

Because of my concerns about regulatory harmonization, I wasn’t grievously disappointed when the United States chose not to participate in the TPP, but I fully recognized that the pact had very positive features. Including the pressure it would have placed on China to shift toward markets and away from cronyism.

6. Additional Chinese reform is the ideal outcome, both for China and the rest of the world.

Three years ago, I wrote that China needs a Reagan-style revolution of economic liberalization. That’s still true today. The bottom line is that China’s leaders should look at the progress that was achieved last century when the economy was partially liberalized and decide that the time is ripe for the free-market version of a great leap forward. In other words, the goal should be great economic success, not modest economic success.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that I don’t want China to copy the United States, even though that would be a step in the right direction.

According to data from Economic Freedom of the World, there’s a much better role model.

Indeed, I would like the United States to copy Hong Kong as well.

The recipe for prosperity is the same all over the world. The challenge is getting politicians to do what’s best for citizens rather than what’s best for themselves.

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When I think of over-bearing governments with myopic enforcement of silly rules, I obviously think of the United States, especially the IRS, EEOC, FDA, and EPA.

And I also think of Germany, Japan, and other straight-laced societies.

But I don’t think of Canada. After all, that’s the home of Dudley Do-Right. Canadians are too nice to do dumb things!

However, I shouldn’t be basing my views on a cartoon from my childhood. It seems that Canadians are quite capable of bizarre behavior. At least when you look at their legal system.

Let’s review three additional examples.

I’ve written about some of the mistakes that American states (California and Colorado, for instance) have made when legalizing marijuana. Well, there are similar mistakes in Canada according to the Washington Post.

When the government launched Canada’s official recreational-pot market on Oct. 17, it was banking on the idea that many users would prefer to buy legally and that the black market would quickly begin to fade. …things aren’t going as expected. …a month after legalization, more than a third of Canadian cannabis users said they were still buying from their regular dealers and hadn’t even tried the legal system. Five illegal sellers in Quebec told The Washington Post their sales are slightly up.

It turns out that the legal system is a mess of harsh regulation.

In 2015, when the government first committed to legalization, many of them planned to apply to open private shops. “All of us thought, ‘Okay . . . I’m going to be able to come out of the shadows and I’m going to be able to pay taxes,’ ” David said. “As time went on, it became clear that’s not what they were after.” In Quebec and several other Canadian provinces, all cannabis stores are government-run, leaving no path to legality… said Lewis Koski, former director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and now a consultant on legalization. “I can’t think of a state here in the U.S. that has a government-control model similar to . . . Canada’s.” Even in provinces that do allow private shops or dispensaries, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, small businesses face high barriers. It costs almost $5,000 just to apply for a license, and if approved, $23,000 each year thereafter in regulatory fees, with provinces often adding their own charges.

Let’s now look at a government-enforced Canadian cartel.

The maple syrup farmers of Québec have been saddled with compulsory membership to the Federation of Québec Maple Syrup Producers (FPAQ, according to the native French abbreviation) since 1990. The Federation holds monopoly rights over all maple syrup produced in the province, controlling wholesale distribution and prices. Anyone who dares to sell more than five litres of their boiled tree sap on their own farm or to local grocery stores faces a prison sentence and a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars. …Angele Grenier and her husband, decades-long syrup farmers, have been smuggling their contraband syrup to the neighboring province of New Brunswick. In the dark of the night, they load barrels onto trucks and sneak across the province border to market freedom. For this terrible black market act of choosing their own customers and prices, Angele is one of Canada’s most wanted women. She has appealed the charges brought against her by the FPAQ, and her case is being taken up by the Supreme Court.

Maybe Canadian syrup smugglers can learn lessons from Norwegian butter smugglers?

Last but not least, the Toronto Star reports that Canadian law enforcement is capable of government thuggery.

At about 5 p.m. on May 13, 2009, Kosoian stepped on the down escalator at a subway station in Laval. She was heading to her history class at a university in downtown Montreal. Kosoian had used that same escalator almost every day for four years. She knew that at the front of the escalator, as well as at a spot halfway down, were yellow pictograms that said, “Caution … hold handrail.” She deemed the pictogram nothing more than a warning or recommendation. Besides, the H1N1 virus was making the rounds, and Kosoian considered the handrail a cesspool of microbes. …A police officer…stopped in front of Kosoian on the step below when the escalator had taken her about halfway down. The officer, Fabio Camacho, …ordered her to hold the handrail. Kosoian says she responded: “It’s my right to hold the handrail or not to hold it.” …when Kosoian reached the bottom of the escalator, Camacho and his partner, the officer who initially walked past Kosoian, grabbed her by the arms and took her to a nearby locked room that also contained a jail cell. …Camacho and his partner cuffed Kosoian’s hands behind her back and sat her in a chair. He searched her bag, found her driver’s licence and began writing her two tickets: a $100 fine for not holding the handrail, and a $320 fine for obstructing the work of a police officer.

It’s quite possible that Kosoian was being obnoxious and baiting the cops, but none of that changes the fact that not holding a handrail shouldn’t be a criminal offense.

Do cops in Canada bust into people’s houses to see if mattress tags are still attached (though perhaps only the U.S. is dumb enough to have such a rule)?

Interestingly, this episode from 2009 is now going to the Canadian Supreme Court.

The Laval police force and the transit agency…pressed for the fines to be paid, and Kosoian’s refusal triggered a municipal court hearing in May 2011. In March 2012, Judge Florent Bisson acquitted Kosoian of the tickets… Kosoian…launched a lawsuit against Camacho, the STM and the City of Laval. In August 2015, the Quebec Court dismissed it with a legal tongue lashing. …She appealed and, on Dec. 5, 2017, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled against her in a 2-1 decision. …Kosoian and her lawyer again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court. …the Supreme Court has only granted about 10 per cent of the 500 or so requests for appeals it receives each year. So Thomas Slade, a lawyer who is not involved in the case, says he was initially surprised when the court agreed to hear Kosoian.

I’m not overflowing with sympathy for Ms. Kosoian, but there’s not much doubt that getting rid of stupid laws is the best way of avoiding this type of mess.

I’ll close with two observations. First, Americans can’t throw stones at our Canadian friends since we live in a glass house.

Second, Canada obviously needs to change some of its silly laws, but I don’t want this to be interpreted as an indictment of the entire country (notwithstanding Prime Minister Zoolander).

In recent decades, Canada has dealt with several issues (spending restraintwelfare reformcorporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, school choice, and privatization of air traffic control) in a very sensible fashion.

P.S. Though a Canadian politician is eligible for the hypocrite-of-the-century award.

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Since I’m a proponent of tax reform, I don’t like special favors in the tax code.

Deductions, exemptions, credits, exclusions, and other preferences are back-door forms of cronyism and government intervention.

Indeed, they basically exist to lure people into making decisions that otherwise aren’t economically rational.

These distortionary provisions help to explain why we have a hopelessly convoluted and deeply corrupt tax code of more than 75,000 pages.

And they also encourage higher tax rates as greedy politicians seek alternative sources of revenue.

This current debate over “tax extenders” is a sad illustration of why the system is such a mess.

Writing for Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how special interests work the system.

Tax extenders are temporary and narrowly targeted tax provisions for individuals and businesses. Examples include the deductibility of mortgage-insurance premiums and tax credits for coal produced from reserves owned by Native American tribes. …These tax provisions were last authorized as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which retroactively extended them through the end of 2017, after which they have thus far been left to remain expired. If Congress indeed takes up extenders during the current lame-duck session, any extended provisions are likely to once again apply retroactively through the end of 2018, or perhaps longer. There are several problems with this approach to tax policy. Frequently allowing tax provisions to expire before retroactively reauthorizing them creates uncertainty that undermines any potential benefits from incentivizing particular behaviors.

To make matters more complicated, a few of the extenders are good policy because they seek to limit double taxation (a pervasive problem in the U.S. tax system).

…not all tax extenders are a problem. Some are meant to avoid or limit the double taxation of income that’s common in our tax code. Those extenders should be preserved. Yet others are straightforward giveaways to special interests. Those should be eliminated.

Veronique suggests a sensible approach.

It’s time for a new approach under which tax extenders are evaluated and debated on their individual merits. The emphasis should be on eliminating special-interest handouts or provisions that otherwise represent bad policy. Conversely, any and all worthy provisions should be made permanent features of the tax code. …The dire need to fix the federal budget, along with the dysfunctional effects from extenders, should provide the additional motivation needed to end this practice once and for all.

Needless to say, Washington is very resistant to sensible policies.

In part, that’s for the typical “public choice” reasons (i.e., special interests getting into bed with politicians to manipulate the system).

But the debate over extenders is even sleazier than that.

As Howard Gleckman explained for Forbes, lobbyists, politicians, and other insiders relish temporary provisions because they offer more than one bite at the shakedown apple.

If you are a lobbyist, this history represents scalps on your belt (and client fees in your pocket). If you are a member of Congress, it is the gift that keeps on giving—countless Washington reps and their clients attending endless fundraisers, all filling your campaign coffers, election after election. An indelible image: It is pre-dawn in September, 1986. House and Senate tax writers have just completed their work on the Tax Reform Act.  A lobbyist friend sits forlornly in the corner of the majestic Ways & Means Committee hearing room. “What’s wrong,” I naively ask, “Did you lose some stuff?” Oh no, he replies, he got three client amendments in the bill. And that was the problem. After years of billable hours, his gravy train had abruptly derailed. The client got what it wanted. Permanently. And it no longer needed him. Few make that mistake now. Lawmakers, staffs, and lobbyists have figured out how to keep milking the cash cow. There are now five dozen temporary provisions, all of which need to be renewed every few years. To add to the drama, Congress often lets them expire so it can step in at the last minute to retroactively resurrect the seemingly lifeless subsidies.

In other words, the temporary nature of extenders is a feature, not a bug.

This is a perfect (albeit depressing) example of how the federal government is largely a racket. It enriches insiders (as I noted a few days ago) and the rest of us bear the cost.

All of which reinforces my wish that we could rip up the tax code and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax. Not only would we get more growth, we would eliminate a major avenue for D.C. corruption.

P.S. I focused today on the perverse process, but I can’t help but single out the special tax break for electric vehicles, which unquestionably is one of the most egregious tax extenders.

EV tax credits…subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Recent research by Dr. Wayne Winegarden of the Pacific Research Institute shows that 79 percent of EV tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes greater than $100,000. Asking struggling Americans to subsidize the lifestyles of America’s wealthiest is perverse… Voters also shouldn’t be fooled by the promise of large environmental benefits. Modern internal combustion engines emit very little pollution compared to older models. Electric vehicles are also only as clean as the electricity that powers them, which in the United States primarily comes from fossil fuels.

I was hoping that provisions such as the EV tax credit would get wiped out as part of tax reform. Alas, it survived.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I especially dislike government flood insuranceSocial Security, government-run lotteries, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts. Let’s add the EV tax credit to this shameful list.

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Some departments of the federal government should be shut down because of federalism. High on that list would be the Department of Education and Department of Transportation.

Other departments should be shut down because there is simply no role for any government involvement at any level.

I usually cite the Department of Housing and Urban Development as an example, but the Department of Agriculture also should be terminated.

It’s a rat’s nest of special interest favors. I’ve previously written about inane intervention to enrich Big Dairy, Big Sugar, and Big Corn.

But I confess that I was unaware of Big Cranberry.

The Wall Street Journal opines about the nonsensical nature of cranberry intervention.

As you dip into the Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, here’s a tart story that may make you want to drain the bog. This fall the U.S. Agriculture Department gave cranberry growers its approval to dump a quarter of their 2018 crop. Tons of fruit and juice—in the ballpark of 100 million pounds—will be turned into compost, used as animal feed, donated or otherwise discarded. The goal is to prop up prices.

Needless to say, there’s nothing about propping up cranberry prices in Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution.

This is also a common-sense issue, as the WSJ explains.

The USDA rule caps growers’ production based on their historical output, with some exemptions. Small cranberry processors aren’t covered, and neither are those that don’t have inventory left over from last year. The trouble is that this reduces everyone’s incentive to downsize… Among the many economic perversities of agricultural policy, this is merely a vignette. Still, America is growing 100 million pounds of cranberries and then throwing them away to raise prices per government order. Wouldn’t it be better—and easier—to let the market work?

By the way, Trump’s protectionism is also part of the problem.

President Trump’s trade war hasn’t helped. About a third of production usually goes overseas. But in June the European Union put a 25% tariff on U.S. cranberry-juice concentrate in retaliation for U.S. steel tariffs. A month later, China bumped its tariff on dried cranberries to 40% from 15%. Mexico and Canada also added duties.

A typical Washington cluster-you-know-what.

Though I don’t recommend thinking about it too much, lest you get indigestion.

The solution is to copy New Zealand and get rid of all agriculture handouts.

P.S. If you like Thanksgiving-themed libertarian humor, the image at the bottom of this column augments the image to your right.

P.P.S. And if you like Thanksgiving-themed videos with libertarian messages, here’s one option and here are two others.

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I want higher wages.

Indeed, that’s a big reason why I favor better tax policy. I want low rates and less double taxation so we get more entrepreneurship and investment, which then will lead to higher productivity and more compensation for workers.

With this in mind, let’s look at some good news from a story in the New York Times.

Amazon said on Tuesday that it would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for its United States employees, a rare acknowledgment that it was feeling squeezed by…a tight labor market. The raises apply for part-time workers and those hired through temporary agencies. …The new wages will apply to more than 250,000 Amazon employees, including those at the grocery chain Whole Foods, as well as the more than 100,000 seasonal employees it plans to hire for the holiday season.

This is an encouraging development. My support for pro-market policies is partly driven by philosophy (freedom to engage in voluntary exchange, etc), but also motivated by a desire to help people become more prosperous.

It’s too soon to say for sure, but perhaps we’re seeing evidence that last year’s tax reform is paying dividends. Of course, it’s also possible that we’re in a bubble that’s about to pop, but let’s hope that’s not the case.

In any event, there’s also some bad news in the story. Amazon’s decision may not simply be a business decision. It also might be a way of appeasing the crowd in Washington.

The company now employs about 575,000 people worldwide, up more than 50 percent in the past year…the pay of those workers has become a growing issue for activists… “I think they saw the writing on the wall…,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said in an interview after the announcement. …Mr. Sanders and labor organizers have criticized the wages and conditions of Amazon’s work force. …As recently as last month Amazon was resisting the pressure.

The most nauseating aspect of this is that Amazon’s boss issued a groveling tweet to Crazy Bernie.

Since I’ve shared the good news and bad news, now let’s look at the ugly news.

Having decided to boost wages for his workers, Bezos now want to impose higher costs on smaller companies that compete against Amazon.

The company said it would also lobby Washington to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been set at $7.25 for almost a decade.

This is a classic example of cronyism. A big company is using the coercive power of government to unfairly tilt the playing field.

The Wall Street Journal opined about this oleaginous development.

Jeff Bezos…the Amazon CEO showed he also has impeccable political timing. His decision to raise Amazon’s minimum wage to $15 an hour will buy the tech company some political insurance… Mr. Bezos also announced that Amazon will now lobby Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. If Amazon is already paying $15, it’s no competitive sweat for Mr. Bezos to look virtuous for the media and politicians.

The WSJ also commented on the implicit extortion.

Speaking of government, Amazon’s wage increase may also buy some insurance against a looming assault from Congress. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist and likely presidential candidate in 2020, has introduced the Stop Bezos Act that would tax Amazon to finance government transfer payments like food stamps. …Mr. Bezos also wants to hold off the federal antitrust cops, but that may cost more than $15 an hour. Politics aside, Amazon’s wage increase wouldn’t be possible if the U.S. economy hadn’t risen out of its eight-year Obama doldrums. As always, the best way to raise living standards is faster growth, not political coercion.

Amen.

Sadly, this is not the first time Amazon has climbed into bed with politicians. It is currently seeking special handouts from state and local governments for a new headquarters complex.

P.S. If you want to understand why government-imposed mandates for higher minimum wages are misguided, there’s very powerful evidence from Seattle. Simply stated, workers lose jobs and income.

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I don’t like it when poor people receive handouts from government, though not because I think they’re being grifters. I mostly view them as victims who are vulnerable to getting trapped in the quicksand of government dependency.

The people I despise are the rich people who manipulate the levers of power to get undeserved goodies. These well-heeled sleazeballs generally have the brains and ability to earn money honestly, but they decide it’s more lucrative to steal money from ordinary people, using government as the middleman.

That’s the moral argument for separation of business and state. But there’s also an economic argument against government cronyism.

There’s a very interesting new study from the World Bank that estimates the impact of government favoritism in Ukraine. Here’s how the authors define the problem.

Rent seeking is the manipulation of public institutions to obtain…income…without the creation of new wealth. …Rent seeking is sometimes legal. …In Ukraine, rent seeking includes the award of public resources to companies through tax exemptions, direct subsidies and procurement contracts to connected companies that cannot be justified in terms of the economic benefits to society as a whole. The rent seeking activities provide a basis for the existence of so-called “crony capitalism” ….Crony capitalism allows politically connected businesses to enjoy benefits that other companies cannot access. It allows politically connected businesses to create barriers to entry in those sectors where they operate. As a result, crony capitalism allocates resources inefficiently, restricts competition, increases economic costs and limits economic opportunity. …This paper estimates the economic cost of crony capitalism in Ukraine.

They start with the challenge of trying to measure cronyism.

If we are to assess the impact of crony capitalism in Ukraine, we must first define political connection and distinguish politically-connected firms from non-connected firms. …We use two approaches to identify politically connected firms. The first approach is based on publicly available information on the ownership and control of businesses by politically exposed persons. …A PEP is a person who has been entrusted with prominent public functions, including senior politicians and party officials, senior government, judicial or military officials, and senior executives of state-owned corporations. …The second approach is…to include companies that are not formally controlled by PEPs, but enjoy a political connection through an oligarch or a business group they belong to. …Between half a percent and 2 percent of the total number of firms in Ukraine are politically connected. However, politically connected firms controlled over 20 percent of the total turnover of all Ukrainian companies.

Here are some of their empirical results.

The economic performance of politically-connected firms in Ukraine is significantly different from that of their non-connected peers. …Politically-connected firms are larger than their non-connected peers. …Politically-connected firms pay a lower effective tax rate. …Politically-connected firms are less productive. Politically-connected firms have a negative Total Factor Productivity (TFP) gap compared to non-connected firms. …This indicates that there could be a potentially large pay-off from policies that promote competition. …Politically-connected firms grow slower than non-connected firms. …Such firms tend to have better access to rents and less incentives to compete. …The politically-connected firms reap the benefits from preferential treatment when interacting with the state and limiting market competition.

The bottom line, as illustrated by this chart, is that cronyism promotes and protects inefficiency. And when an economy is less productive, that results in lower incomes and diminished living standards.

Sadly, this isn’t just a problem in developing and transition nations.

Cronyism exists wherever governments have a lot of power, and that includes the United States.

The federal government has myriad policies that tilt the playing field in favor of connected companies. The purpose of policies such as ethanol handouts, the Export-Import Bank, protectionism, tax favoritism, bailouts, subsidies, and green energy is to provide unearned wealth to the friends of politicians.

Here’s a recent example of how Obamacare is a vehicle for cronyism, as explained by the Wall Street Journal.

Big business feasts on big government, and ObamaCare has been a bonanza for companies that have figured out how to exploit it. …Ohio contracts with five managed-care organizations (MCOs) to administer Medicaid benefits, four of which outsource their drug benefits management to CVS Caremark… CVS appears to be billing the state for far more than what it is paying pharmacies, driving up taxpayer costs. …CVS is also attempting to drive independent pharmacists out of business and expand its retail market share. …Ohio’s Medicaid enrollment has swelled by more than half to 21.4% of the state population, driven in large part by ObamaCare’s expansion to people earning up to 133% of the poverty line. …In the last three years, Ohio has lost 164 independent pharmacies while CVS has added 68. …States ostensibly have an incentive to curb their Medicaid spending… Yet many may be turning a blind eye because they can pass on the bills to the federal government, which picks up 63% of the costs for Ohio’s pre-ObamaCare population and 94% for the expansion population.

But cronyism isn’t just enabled by bad policies from Washington.

State governments also are guilty of favoritism, even when the feds aren’t involved. Consider the oleaginous handouts for Foxconn in Wisconsin.

…the Foxconn deal is a condemnable example of corporate welfare in its most egregious form. …Wisconsin could end up delivering $3 billion in tax credits to Foxconn. …If the jobs target of 13,000 is met, Wisconsin taxpayers will pay $219,000 per job. If only 3,000 jobs are created, they will pay $587,000 per job in the form of a $1.7 billion tax credit. …Who wins? The politicians. Who loses? Fiscal sanity and those footing the bill for political pet projects.

And the goodies for Foxconn are just the tip of the iceberg.

States and cities dole out billions of dollars every year to attract businesses through cash grants, tax breaks, and new infrastructure. …The search for Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2), for instance, has left around 230 state and local governments genuflecting before the altar of the Seattle-based tech deity, offering tributes amounting, in several cases, to billions of dollars. …The cost of these kind of incentives is astoundingly high — there is little research that points to their success.

As I’ve previously argued, the pro-growth way for governments to compete is having low tax rates for everyone.

…the most effective solution is the simplest. New Hampshire is a dark horse candidate to receive HQ2, and its pitch is entirely reasonable: Low tax rates for every business, across the board. That approach removes the incentive to attract businesses through what amounts to legal, nonsensical bribery.

Let’s close with this visual from libertarian Reddit. It’s simple, but a very accurate summary of how the real world operates.

P.S. Elizabeth Warren wants to turn all big companies into cronyist entities.

P.P.S. American taxpayers are subsidizing cronyism in Ukraine.

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During America’s early history, trade taxes were the major source of government revenue, but they were “revenue tariffs” rather than “protectionist tariffs.”

Lawmakers didn’t necessarily want to block imports. This was before America was plagued by an income tax and some source of revenue was needed to finance the government.

And since the central government back then was very small, as the Founders envisioned, the first tariff was only 5 percent and it applied equally to all imports.

Compared to what we have today, that was a pretty good system. But it seems inevitable that politicians – sooner or later – will manipulate and abuse any power they have.

It didn’t take long for that original tariff of just 5 percent to climb higher. And it also was just a matter of time before politicians begin imposing special tariffs on selected imports in response to pleading (and goodies) from various interest groups.

Today, government’s power over trade enables some utterly disgusting and oleaginous examples of insider dealing and rank corruption.

For instance, the Wall Street Journal is reporting about an odious example of unjust enrichment thanks to protectionism.

…tariffs on imports of newsprint…have been cause for celebration at private-equity firm One Rock Capital Partners LLC. Government records show that a team from the New York-based firm approached the Commerce Department, including one meeting with Secretary Wilbur Ross, saying Canadian newsprint imports were hurting One Rock’s investment in North Pacific Paper Co., a paper mill also known as Norpac. Commerce responded to One Rock’s appeal by setting tariffs on Canadian imports, causing newsprint prices to jump by as much as 30%, significantly lifting Norpac’s business prospects.

Yes, your read correctly.

Some bigwigs bought a paper mill and then used their connections to undermine competition from Canadian paper mills.

They get rich, but only by manipulating the levers of power, not because they provide value to consumers.

…the price surge threatens the viability of small-town papers across the country, forcing reduced publication days, layoffs and other cut backs. Canadian mills have historically supplied a large portion of U.S. newsprint. “This whole play by Norpac basically disrupted an entire industry,” said Paul Boyle, senior vice president at the News Media Alliance… The tariffs represent a remarkable success by a relatively little-known private-equity firm at pulling the levers of power in Washington for advantage. …Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton called Norpac a “rogue actor seeks to game American trade laws for its own short-term advantage, while putting thousands of U.S. and Canadian jobs at risk.”

The obvious takeaway from this story is that protectionism is bad for the U.S. economy. Yes, a few rich insiders pocket some undeserved profits and there will be a few more workers at one plant, but those results will be easily offset by the loss of jobs and income elsewhere in the economy because of the adverse impact on newspapers, advertising, and related sectors.

But I want to highlight another negative effect. I wrote back in 2011 that there are many well-meaning folks on the left that support class-warfare policies because they assume that rich people got their money illegitimately.

Well, this story is sad confirmation that this is often true.

I tell all my statist friends that punitive and destructive taxation is not the right response to this kind of sleaze. Instead, we need to get rid of protectionism (and subsidies, cronyism, and other forms of special favoritism). Make sure we have a system where people instead get rich by satisfying the needs and wants of consumers.

And I tell my Republican friends that if they don’t want crazies like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to wind up in charge of Washington, they need to stop playing footsie with special interests and instead fight for genuine free markets.

Sadly, neither group is taking my advice.

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Donald Trump wants to make protectionism great again. Bernie Sanders wants to make socialism great again.

And if we continue with sarcastic headlines, Elizabeth Warren wants to make cronyism great again.

She has a plan, which she explained in a column for the Wall Street Journal and also in this press release on her Senate website, that would give politicians and bureaucrats sweeping powers over large companies.

There’s a technical term for this system of private ownership/government control. It’s called fascism, though I prefer referring to it as corporatism or dirigisme to distinguish what Warren is doing from the racist and militaristic version of that ideology.

Or we can just call it crazy. Kevin Williamson summarizes this dangerous proposal for National Review.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has one-upped socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: She proposes to nationalize every major business in the United States of America. If successful, it would constitute the largest seizure of private property in human history. …Senator Warren’s proposal entails the wholesale expropriation of private enterprise in the United States, and nothing less. It is unconstitutional, unethical, immoral, irresponsible, and — not to put too fine a point on it — utterly bonkers. …To propose such a thing for sincere reasons would be ghastly stupidity. …Politicians such as Senator Warren lack the courage to go to the American electorate and say: “We wish to provide these benefits, and they will cost an extra $3 trillion a year, which we will pay for by doubling taxes.” …It treats the productive capacity of the United States as a herd of dairy cows to be milked by Senator Warren et al. at their convenience. And, of course, Senator Warren and her colleagues get to decide how the milk gets distributed, too. …Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hugo Chávez, Huey Long: The rogues’ gallery of those who sought to fortify their political power by bullying businesses is long, and it is sickening. Senator Warren now nominates herself to that list

Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University exposes Warren’s economic illiteracy.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)…outlined her new bill that “would require corporations to answer to employees and other stakeholders as well.” …If this mandate is ever enacted, it would radically restructure corporate law, governance, and finance, which is especially frightening because seldom have I encountered so many fallacies…no company in a market economy can force anyone to buy its outputs or to supply it with labor and other inputs, every company, to survive, must continually make attractive offers to consumers, workers, and suppliers. The ability of consumers, workers, and suppliers to say no combines with the law of contract — which requires parties to honor whatever commitments they voluntarily make to each other — to guarantee that companies are fully accountable to everyone with whom they exchange. Companies therefore are fully accountable to their customers and to their workers… the senator offers absolutely no evidence — not even a single anecdote — that companies are unaccountable to consumers.

Not that we needed more evidence that she doesn’t understand economics.

Walter Olson points out that Warren’s legislation would expropriate wealth, presumably in violation of the Constitution’s taking clause.

Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has introduced legislation that would radically overhaul corporate governance in America, requiring that the largest (over $1 billion) companies obtain revocable charters from the federal government to do business, instituting rules reminiscent of German-style co-determination… Sen. Warren’s proposal would pull down three main pillars of U.S. corporate governance: shareholder primacy, director independence, and charter federalism. …Warren-style rules…would in effect confiscate at a stroke a large share of stockholder value, transferring it to some combination of worker and “community” interests. …This gigantic expropriation, of course, might be a Pyrrhic victory for many workers and retirees whose 401(k) values would take a huge hit… some early enthusiasts for the Warren plan are treating the collapse of shareholder value as a feature rather than a bug, arguing that it would reduce wealth inequality. …it would test the restraints the U.S. Constitution places on the taking of property without compensation.

Wow, it belies belief that some leftists support policies that will hurt everyone so long as rich people suffer the most. The ghost of Jonathan Swift is smiling.

Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center explains why Warren’s scheme would be devastating to fast-growing innovative companies.

The United States is home to 64 percent of the world’s billion-dollar privately held companies and a plurality of the world’s billion-dollar startups. Known in the industry as “unicorns,” they cover industries ranging from aerospace to biotechnology, and they are the reason America remains the engine of innovation for the entire world. Unless Elizabeth Warren gets her way. In a bill unveiled this week, the Massachusetts senator has put forward a proposal that threatens to force America’s unicorns into a corral and domesticate the American economy indefinitely. …the Accountable Capitalism Act is in many ways the most radical proposal advanced by a mainstream Democratic lawmaker to date. …Warren’s proposal is to fundamentally upend the way the most productive companies in the American economy work from the top down.

Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman wisely warns that Warren’s power-grab will undermine productivity.

…her federal charter system would make large firms accountable to politicians – not the people. And that, given the current occupant of the White House, it is surprising that someone from the left of the Democratic party cannot see how this isn’t just deeply illiberal but really rather dangerous. …much beyond the imposition of costly and inefficient box-ticking exercises. Firms will hold meetings with communities, conduct internal reviews and, in all likelihood, reach the same decision they would have reached anyway. Only more slowly and at greater expense. …If you are worried about stagnating wages, you should be preoccupied by one thing above all else: how to boost productivity. Warren’s vision for “accountable capitalism” not only has nothing to say on the issue, it would chip at way at the dynamism that has been the engine of America’s economic success. …The proposals in the Accountable Capitalism Act are drawn up by someone interested in how the pie is sliced up, not the size of the pie. …According to the economist William Nordhaus, innovators keep just 2 per cent of the social value of their innovations. The rest of us enjoy 98 per cent of the upside.

Amen. When there’s less innovation, investment, and productivity, that means lower wages for the rest of us.

Ryan Bourne highlights for the Weekly Standard how political meddling would create uncertainty and will harm both workers and shareholders.

While she might want businesses to notionally be private entities, the “Accountable Capitalism Act” she unveiled last week represents pure, unadulterated European corporatism… Warren’s proposal would establish in the Commerce Department an Office of United States Corporations to review and grant charters… This office is an almighty and arbitrary Damocles sword, with the politicians that control it able to hold companies in breach of charter for anything and everything they are thought not to have considered. …To say the Act would muddy the waters and create perverse incentives is an understatement. … A 1995-96 meta-analysis of 46 studies on worker participation by economist Chris Doucouliagos found that…co-determination laws were a drag. This all means lower wages for employed workers and huge losses for pension funds and other shareholders.

Last but not least, Barry Brownstein, in an article for FEE, is concerned about politicians holding the whip hand over the economy.

Senator Elizabeth Warren… Her ignorance is bold. …Under her proposed law, Warren and others in government will pretend to know much about that which they know nothing—running every large business in America. …In a few years, under a democratic socialist president—I almost wrote national socialist president—Warren’s dystopia could become a reality. …Imagine a major bear market and the resulting spike in fear. Then, it is not so hard to imagine a future president, with a mindset like that of Senator Warren, barnstorming the country dispensing field guidance. Is not President Trump managing trade via “bold ignorance” paving the way for more politicians like Senator Warren?

These seven articles do a great job of documenting the myriad flaws with Warren’s scheme.

So the only thing I’ll add is that we also need to realize that this plan, if ever enacted, would be a potent recipe for corruption.

We already have many examples of oleaginous interactions between big business and big government. Turbo-charging cronyism is hardly a step in the right direction.

Let’s wrap up. I used to have a schizophrenic view of Elizabeth Warren. Was she a laughable crank with a side order of sleazy ambition? Or was she a typical politician (i.e., a hypocrite and cronyist)?

Now I worry she’s something worse. Sort of a Kamala Harris on steroids.

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I very much suspect Obama partisans and Trump partisans won’t like this column, but the sad reality is that both Obamacare and Trump’s protectionism have a lot in common.

  • In both cases, government is limiting the freedom of buyers and sellers to engage in unfettered exchange.
  • In both cases, the fiscal burden of government increases.
  • In both cases, politicians misuse statistics to expand the size and scope of government.

Today, let’s add another item to that list.

  • In both cases, the Washington swamp wins thanks to increased cronyism and corruption.

To see what I mean, let’s travel back in time to 2011. I wrote a column about Obamacare and cited some very persuasive arguments by Tim Carney that government-run healthcare (or, to be more accurate, expanded government control of healthcare) was creating a feeding frenzy for additional sleaze in Washington.

Congress imposes mandates on other entities, but gives bureaucrats the power to waive those mandates. To get such a waiver, you hire the people who used to administer or who helped craft the policies. So who’s the net winner? The politicians and bureaucrats who craft policies and wield power, because this combination of massive government power and wide bureaucratic discretion creates huge demand for revolving-door lobbyists.

I then pointed out that the sordid process of Obamacare waivers was eerily similar to a passage in Atlas Shrugged.

Wesley Mouch…issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found proof of the need satisfactory. …One was not supposed to speak about the men who…possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar, or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.

Well, the same thing is happening again. Only this time, as reported by the New York Times, protectionism is the policy that is creating opportunities for swamp creatures to line their pockets.

The Trump administration granted seven companies the first set of exclusions from its metal tariffs this week and rejected requests from 11 other companies, as the Commerce Department began slowly responding to the 20,000 applications that companies have filed for individual products. …several companies whose applications were denied faced objections from American steel makers. …companies that have applied for the exclusions criticized the exercise as both long and disorganized. “This is the most screwed-up process,” said Mark Mullen, president of Griggs Steel, a steel distributor in the Detroit area. “This is a disservice to our industry and the biggest insult to our intelligence that I have ever seen from the government.”

From an economic perspective, it certainly is true that this new system is “disorganized” and “a disservice” and an “insult to our intelligence.” Those same words could be used to describe the welfare state, the EEOC, farm subsidies, the tax code, and just about everything else the government does.

But there’s one group of people who are laughing all the way to the bank, The lobbyists, consultants, fixers, and other denizens of the swamp are getting rich. Whether they’re preparing the applications, lobbying for the applications, or lobbying against the applications, they are getting big paychecks.

And the longer this sordid protectionist process continues, we will see a repeat of what happened with Obamacare as senior-level people in government move through the revolving door so they can get lucrative contracts to help clients manipulate the system (yes, Republicans can be just as sleazy as Democrats).

Washington wins and we lose.

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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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Experts in the field of political marketing periodically tell me that you need to have sympathetic victims when trying to change policy.

That’s probably good advice. When people have real-world examples – especially ones they can relate to – that presumably helps them understand the need for a reform.

I have to admit, however, that my approach is generally more wonky. Whether I’m meeting with a policymaker, giving a speech, or writing a column, I view my role as trying to help people understand one or more basic economic concepts (the importance of lower marginal tax rates, for example).

I think there’s value in my approach (if people grasp an underlying principle, that can impact their understanding of both current and future policy fights). But there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do both.

So I’m going to begin today’s column about occupational licensing (when state governments impose restrictions and regulations that limit who can work in a particular field) with a sympathy-eliciting example that hopefully will resonate with readers.

Consider what happened in New York City recently now that bureaucrats have decided that people couldn’t be dog sitters without going through all the red tape to become a licensed kennel.

Pet lovers are barking mad over a little-known city rule that makes dog-sitting illegal in New York. Health Department rules ban anyone from taking money to care for an animal outside a licensed kennel — and the department has warned a popular pet-sitting app that its users are breaking the law. “The laws are antiquated,” said Chad Bacon, 29, a dog sitter in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with the app Rover. “If you’re qualified and able to provide a service, I don’t think you should be penalized.” Bacon, a former zookeeper and wildlife researcher, signed up for the app to help make ends meet while he was between jobs, but did enough business that he now makes his living from it full-time.

Now that we’ve identified Mr. Bacon as our sympathetic example, let’s look at the broader issue of the government creating barriers to employment and entrepreneurship.

The health code bans boarding, feeding and grooming animals for a fee without a kennel license — and says those licenses can’t be issued for private homes. …at least two apartment residents were slapped with violations in November and December for caring for pets without a permit. Fines start at $1,000. “If you’ve got a 14-year-old getting paid to feed your cats, that’s against the law right now,” said Rover’s general counsel John Lapham. “Most places right now continue to make it easier to watch children than animals, and that doesn’t make any sense.”

By the way, that’s not an argument for regulating babysitting (the kind of nonsense you might find in California). Instead, it’s a reason why state governments shouldn’t be going overboard with licensing rules.

The Institute for Justice just released a study on licensing rules for jobs that generally employ lower-skilled individuals.

Occupational licensing is, put simply, government permission to work in a particular field. In the 1950s, about one in 20 American workers needed an occupational license before they could work in the occupation of their choice. Today, that figure stands at about one in four. Securing an occupational license may require education or experience, exams, fees, and more, and working without one can mean fines or even jail time. …Policymakers, scholars and opinion leaders left, right and center are increasingly recognizing that licensing comes with high costs—fewer job opportunities and steeper prices—and does little to improve quality or protect consumers. …Most of the 102 occupations are practiced in at least one state without state licensing and apparently without widespread harm. Only 23 of these occupations are licensed by 40 states or more.

The last section of that excerpt is critically important. Special interests argue that occupational licensing somehow protects people, yet we have real-world examples for all 102 professions of states that have zero licensing restrictions and we don’t have examples of people dying or being harmed because of unregulated florists or rogue cosmetologists.

And shouldn’t there be some evidence of societal benefit before government restricts economic freedom (the same argument I’ve used when analyzing OSHA)?

As you might imagine, some states are worse than others. Here’s a map showing the degree to which state politicians conspire with special interests to create cartels in various fields. Louisiana and Washington are the worst (based on number of licensed professions) and Wyoming and Vermont (yes, that Vermont) are the least onerous.

Having written about a horrible example of occupational licensing in DC, I’m surprised that the District of Columbia isn’t at the bottom of the rankings. Or Alabama.

Though I’m not surprised to see that Oregon is green.

Here’s the report’s accompany video.

If you liked that video, you can click here for another video on occupational licensing.

A column by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic highlights some of the findings in the IJ study.

…in Connecticut, a home-entertainment installer is required to obtain a license from the state before serving customers. It costs applicants $185. To qualify, they must have a 12th-grade education, complete a test, and accumulate one year of apprenticeship experience in the field. A typical aspirant can expect the licensing process to delay them 575 days. …Occupational-licensing obstacles are much more common than they once were. “In the 1950s, about one in 20 American workers needed an occupational license before they could work in the occupation of their choice,” the report states. “Today, that figure stands at about one in four.”

And he points out that consumers and workers (those outside the cartel) are the victims.

These requirements…are at their most pernicious when they are both needless and most burdensome to the middle class, the working class, and recent immigrants to a society. The IJ report focuses its attention on these cases, surveying 102 lower-income occupations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It concludes that “most of the 102 occupations are practiced in at least one state without state licensing and apparently without widespread harm.” In other words, dropping many of those requirements likely wouldn’t do any harm. …Too often, occupational-licensing laws are less about protecting workers or consumers as a class than they are about protecting the interests of incumbents. Want to compete with me? Good luck, now that I’ve lobbied for a law that requires you to shell out cash and work toward a certificate before you can begin.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about IJ’s new report.

More than ever, the government requires Americans to get permission to earn a living. In the 1950s one in 20 workers needed a license to work; now about one in four do. The rules hurt the working poor in particular, but everyone suffers in states with the most licensing requirements… Hawaii’s prerequisites are the most grueling while Louisiana and Washington regulate the most professions, with both states requiring a license for 77 lower-income fields. …California has the most dysfunctional regime. Across professions, it has established “a nearly impenetrable thicket of bureaucracy” where “no one could” provide a “list of all the licensed occupations,” as one state oversight agency admitted last year. …The cost and time to obtain a license is no accident, as professional guild members sit on state licensing boards and reinforce the racket. They want to limit competition to keep prices high. …Stiff licensing requirements are often prohibitive for America’s working poor, keeping them trapped in low-wage, low-skill jobs. …Nationwide, licensing drives up prices by as much as $203 billion annually. The requirements also hurt consumers by restricting access to goods and services.

The WSJ editorial points out that both political parties are guilty of supporting these insidious cartels.

Here’s an example, from Reason, of Democrats behaving badly.

California Democrats prattle endlessly about helping the working poor, but their latest vote against a bill that would tangibly help financially struggling people shows that Democratic leaders are more interested in serving their real constituencies: state bureaucracies, unions and other interest groups that want to keep out the competition. …California has the nation’s highest poverty rates, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau standard that includes cost-of-living factors. A good starting place to address that problem is to chip away at unnecessary barriers to work. Trade groups, however, recognize that the best way to inflate their members’ pay is to raise the cost of entry for others—and the more fields regulated this way, the more it keeps poor people in the welfare lines. …Such concerns prompted even the Democratic Obama administration to call for far-reaching licensing reforms, yet California’s Democrats don’t even seem to understand the point of such efforts. Or maybe they just won’t let themselves understand the argument, given their political alliances.

And Reason also identifies a Republican behaving badly.

Otter is bending to the wishes of other special interests. In vetoing the licensing reform bill—a bill that would have done little more than reduce the number of hours of training before someone could be licensed to cut hair or apply makeup from 800 to 600—Otter said objections voiced by the state Board of Cosmetology and the State Board of Barber Examiners should overrule the majority of the state legislature. …”For years, Butch Otter has given great speeches about the need for a free economy and limited, constitutionally-based government,” said Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a free market think tank, in a statement about the two vetoes. “Yet once again, Gov. Otter has rejected sensible, conservative, bipartisan liberty-based legislation that would have put Idaho entrepreneurs back to work and would have protected constitutional rights of Idahoans.”

Let’s close with an image that is both amusing and sad. Amusing because it mocks government and sad because it’s true. It’s basically the cartoon version of something I shared last year.

P.S. Returning to the issue of political marketing, I actually do use real-world examples for some purposes. My Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is nothing but horror stories about specific government employees pillaging taxpayers. and my collection of honest leftists also is based on specific stories of statists inadvertently revealing something important.

P.P.S. Business permits at the local level also are akin to occupational licenses. Governments are making people pay to become entrepreneurs. Which oftentimes translates into painful lessons for young people about government greed.

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I fully agree with my leftist friends who say that corporations want to extract every penny they can from consumers. I also (mostly) agree with them when they say corporations are soulless entities that don’t care about people.

But after they’re done venting, I then try to educate them by pointing out that the only way corporations can separate consumers their money is by vigorously competing to provide desirable goods and services at attractive prices.

Moreover, their “soulless” pursuit of those profits (as explained by Walter Williams) will lead them to be efficient and innovative, which boosts overall economic output.

Moreover, in a competitive market, it’s not consumers vs. corporations, it’s corporations vs. corporations with consumers automatically winning.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute makes a very valuable point about what happens in a free economy.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2017 Fortune 500, there are only 59 companies that appear in both lists (see companies in the graphic above). In other words, fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and more than 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged with (or were acquired by) another firm, or they still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).

It’s not just the Fortune 500.

…corporations in the S&P 500 Index in 1965 stayed in the index for an average of 33 years. By 1990, average tenure in the S&P 500 had narrowed to 20 years and is now forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. At the current churn rate, about half of today’s S&P 500 firms will be replaced over the next 10 years.

Here’s Mark’s list of companies that have stayed at the top of the Fortune 500 over the past 62 years.

Mark then offers an economic lesson from this data.

The fact that nearly 9 of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction over the last six decades. It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2077, almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries, and for that we should be extremely thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy.

He also emphasizes that consumers are the real beneficiaries of this competitive process.

…the creative destruction that results in the constant churning of Fortune 500 (and S&P 500) companies over time is that the process of market disruption is being driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high-quality products and services, and great customer service. If we think of a company’s annual sales revenues as the number of “dollar votes” it gets every year from providing goods and services to consumers… As consumers, we should appreciate the fact that we are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Schumpeterian creative destruction that drives the dynamism of the market economy and results in a constant churning of the firms who are ultimately fighting to attract as many of our dollar votes as possible.

Incidentally, Mark did this same exercise in 2014 and 2015 and ascertained that there were 61 companies still remaining on the list.

So creative destruction apparently has claimed two more victims.

Or, to be more accurate, the needs and desires of consumers have produced more churning, leading to greater material abundance for America.

I’ll close with two points.

All of which explains why I want separation of business and state.

The bottom line is that an unfettered market produces the best results for the vast majority of people. Yes, people are greedy, but that leads to good outcomes in a capitalist environment.

But we get awful results if cronyism is the dominant system, and that seems to be the direction we’re heading in America.

P.S. Even when corporations try to exploit people in the third world, the pursuit of profits actually results in better lives for the less fortunate.

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In my 30-plus years in Washington, I’ve lived through some very bad pieces of legislation.

But the most depressing experience was probably the TARP bailout. In part, it was depressing because bad government policy created the conditions for the crisis, so it was frustrating to see the crowd in Washington blame capitalism (in effect, a repeat of what happened in the 1930s).

Far more depressing, however, was the policy response. Thanks largely to the influence of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the Bush Administration decided to bail out the big firms on Wall Street rather than use “FDIC resolution,” which would have bailed out depositors but at least shut down big institutions that were insolvent.

In other words, TARP was pure cronyism. Wall Street firms had “invested” in Washington by giving lots of contributions to politicians and TARP was their payoff.

With this background, you’ll understand why I asserted in this interview that the dissolution of two business advisory councils is the silver lining to the black cloud of Charlottesville.

Since that was just one segment of a longer interview and I didn’t get a chance to elaborate, here are some excerpts from an article in Harvard Business Review by Robert Litan and Ian Hathaway about the connection between anemic productivity numbers (which I wrote about last week) and cronyism.

Baumol’s writing raises the possibility that U.S. productivity is low because would-be entrepreneurs are focused on the wrong kind of work. In a 1990 paper, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” Baumol argued that the level of entrepreneurial ambition in a country is essentially fixed over time, and that what determines a nation’s entrepreneurial output is the incentive structure that governs and directs entrepreneurial efforts between “productive” and “unproductive” endeavors. Most people think of entrepreneurship as being the “productive” kind, as Baumol referred to it, where the companies that founders launch commercialize something new or better, benefiting society and themselves in the process. A sizable body of research establishes that these “Schumpeterian” entrepreneurs, those that are “creatively destroying” the old in favor of the new, are critical for breakthrough innovations and rapid advances in productivity and standards of living. Baumol was worried, however, by a very different sort of entrepreneur: the “unproductive” ones, who exploit special relationships with the government to construct regulatory moats, secure public spending for their own benefit, or bend specific rules to their will, in the process stifling competition to create advantage for their firms. Economists call this rent-seeking behavior.

That’s the theory.

What about evidence? Well, Obamacare could be considered a case study since it basically was a giveaway to big pharmaceutical firms and big health insurance companies.

But the authors look at the issue more broadly to see if there is an economy-wide problem.

Do we…see a rise in unproductive entrepreneurship, as Baumol theorized? …James Bessen of Boston University has provided suggestive evidence that rent-seeking behavior has been increasing. In a 2016 paper Bessen demonstrates that, since 2000, “political factors” account for a substantial part of the increase in corporate profits. This occurs through expanded regulation that favors incumbent firms. Similarly, economists Jeffrey Brown and Jiekun Huang of the University of Illinois have found that companies that have executives with close ties to key policy makers have abnormally high stock returns.

This is very depressing.

I don’t want companies to do well because the CEOs cozy up to politicians. If entrepreneurs and corporations are going to be rolling in money, I want that to happen because they are providing valued goods and services to consumers.

I wrote about Bessen’s research last year. It’s very unsettling to think that companies make more money because of political connections than they do from research and development.

There are two reasons this is troubling.

First, it means slower growth because government intervention is undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital that occurs with productive entrepreneurship.

Second, cronyism is very corrosive because people equate business with capitalism, so their support for capitalism declines when they see companies getting special favors.

I wish ordinary people understood that big business and free enterprise are not the same thing.

Though I fully understand their disdain for certain big companies. Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits. How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam. Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market. Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians. Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs. Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors. And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

The bottom line is that it’s time to save capitalism from the rent seekers in the business community.

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When I write about the actions of state governments, it’s usually to highlight a specific bad policy. As you can imagine, states like California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey give me a never-ending amount of material.

But I frequently run across things that are happening in the states that don’t really merit an entire column, but they nonetheless are worthy of attention since they symbolize the venality and incompetence of politicians.

So I’ve decided that it’s time for a series on “great moments in state government” to augment my already well-developed series on “great moments in local government.”

Let’s start by looking at a truly bizarre example of occupational licensing from Tennessee.

A decade ago, Martha Stowe founded True Equine, an equine-services company, a few miles south of Nashville, Tenn., in Williamson County. After earning a certificate in equine myofascial release, a massage technique that releases tension and pain in a horse’s body, Martha soon acquired a large clientele. …In April 2016, however, Stowe’s well-established business was upended when she received a threatening letter from the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a board within Tennessee’s Department of Health. Only licensed veterinarians are permitted to massage horses, the board’s attorney explained, and if Stowe continued to practice myofascial release, she could be fined up to $500 and receive a six-month jail sentence. …The board also sent the letter to fellow Williamson County resident Laurie Wheeler, a professional jazz musician and licensed massage therapist who, like Stowe, is certified in equine myofascial release. …Upon receiving the veterinary board’s letter, Wheeler was stunned — after all, she was certified, and not only that, she had never even accepted money for her services. But, she says, the government threatened to “fine me and put me in jail for voluntarily working on animals.” For Wheeler, helping horses is more than a volunteer position or an occupation; it’s a call to duty.

But there is some good news.

A pro-market think tank is helping the women fight back.

Both women disregarded the veterinary board’s warnings and subsequently looked to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, for legal representation. According to Braden Boucek, director of litigation for the Beacon Center, the board’s decision to allow only licensed veterinarians to massage horses is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause. Moreover, because the Constitution protects private property, which in turn protects the right to acquire property and the right to earn a living, the board’s decision violates the 14th Amendment. …Threatening to jail an individual for massaging a horse is absurd. These women aren’t giving medical advice to owners, or surgically operating on horses, or doing anything that only a licensed veterinarian could do. Remember, this kind of massage is not even taught in veterinary school. Under Tennessee’s logic, why shouldn’t massage therapists who practice exclusively on people be required to hold a medical degree? The veterinary board ought to take the necessary steps to begin updating this illogical statute. If it doesn’t, it will need to explain in court why it’s permissible to deprive Stowe and Wheeler of their fundamental constitutional rights.

Amen. I admire Tennessee for not having an income tax. It’s time, though, for the Volunteer State to extend economic freedom to horse masseurs.

Now let’s shift to Wisconsin, where we have another example of cronyism.

State lawmakers may be brave when it comes to curtailing special privileges for government employees, but they like special protections for private industry.

Wisconsin state regulators…[are]…banning state grocery stores from selling one of the Emerald Isle’s most popular (and tasty) products: Kerrygold butter. Never mind that Wisconsinites have been buying Kerrygold for years with no problems. Or that it remains legal in the 49 other states. Badger State bureaucrats, trying to protect the state dairy industry, are suddenly enforcing a 1970 law that requires all butter sold in the state to go through a complicated evaluation by a state panel. This is the same state that once banned margarine because it was a competitive threat to local dairies. …as a result of the ban, Kerrygold-loving Wisconsinites have been forced to make butter runs across the state border, bringing back suitcases stuffed with the import. In Ireland, meanwhile, the ban is leading to headlines such as this in the Irish Mirror: “Shopkeepers in Wisconsin could face JAIL if they sell Kerrygold butter.”

Maybe butter consumers in Wisconsin can fly to Norway and learn how to get around misguided policies that make butter a black-market commodity.

Remember, if you outlaw butter, only outlaws will have butter.

Now let’s look at some onerous government intervention in my state of Virginia. And this one is personal since I don’t like the hassle of annual vehicle inspections.

…my annual Virginia motor vehicle safety inspection was due in a month. I knew my car wouldn’t pass and that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay on the road with that light on. Never mind that the light has nothing to do with the safe operation of the vehicle. And also never mind that in a 2015 study the Government Accountability Office “examined the effect of inspection programs on crash rates related to vehicle component failure, but showed no clear influence.” AAA Public Affairs Vice President Mike Wright said, “Nobody can prove with any degree of certainty that spending the money, suffering the inconvenience of getting your vehicle inspected, actually produces desired results.” …Virginia has a personal vehicle safety program overseen by the state police that cannot be shown to enhance public safety. The people who perform inspections are often the same people who fix any identified deficiencies. …A government program that requires the purchase of a good or service in return for a nonexistent public benefit is illiberal and anti-consumer. Two-thirds of states see no need to impose the burden of annual personal vehicle safety inspections on their citizens; Virginia should end its inspection requirement.

For what it’s worth, the People’s Republic of the District of Columbia doesn’t have this requirement. Kind of embarrassing that Virginia is more interventionist.

Our final example come from Illinois, where a local newspaper has a superb editorial on a sordid example of wasteful sleaze in the state budget.

Let’s eliminate the Illinois Arts Council Agency from the state budget. They must have taken lessons on government efficiency from our local townships, spending $1 million on staff and overhead in 2016 to hand out $834,900 in grants. The council is chaired by Shirley Madigan, who has been in that position since 1983. Funny, her husband, Mike, has been Illinois House Speaker since then, too. …guess who gets the money? Their well-heeled friends. Madigan’s alma mater received $95,100, another board member’s employer received $165,650 and yet another board member’s pet opera company received $503,000. Surprise! …Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has an opportunity to let someone else be a matron of the arts and appoint a majority of board members dedicated to either eliminating the council or at least making it a transparent organization that helps local artists rather than makes your taxes a minor revenue source for well-connected, large arts institutions.

Needless to say, the first option (eliminating the council) is the superior choice, just like we should shut down the National Endowment for the Arts in D.C.

But let’s set that aside. I’m still scratching my head about a bureaucracy that spends $1 million to give away $834.9 thousand. Though that’s actually efficient if you compare it with the German tax that resulted in €30 euros of government expense for every €1 collected.

To conclude, there’s a common thread in these four stories. In each case, politicians at the state level have policies to enable unearned wealth to flow to the pockets of their friends and allies.

In other words, the First Theorem of Government doesn’t just apply to what’s happening in Washington.

P.S. I’ve only had a few previous “great moments” for state governments. One from Florida involved a felony arrest of some luckless guy who was simply trying to impress his girlfriend by releasing some balloons, and the other from Virginia involved three misdemeanors for the horrid crime of rescuing a wounded deer.

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Time for another trip down Memory Lane to the early years of the Obama Administration.

Two days ago, I wrote about the market-wrecking price controls in Obamacare. And yesterday, I shared a new study exposing the utter failure of Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme. Now let’s take a look at the track record of the “Obamaphone.”

Though let’s start by noting that federal subsidies for phone service existed well before Obama took office. He simply took a misguided program and made it bigger. Here’s a concise explanation of the program from a story I shared in 2014.

The Federal Communications Commission program…charges a dollar or two per line on every American’s phone bill. The revenue generated by the “Universal Service Fund fee” is then used to pay select phone companies $9.25 per month for each poor person they sign up for a free phone. …its cost doubled in five years to $1.75 billion in 2011, and in some states, the number of phones given out exceeded the total eligible population.

But since big government is a recipe for big corruption, you won’t be surprised to learn that a bigger program of phone subsidies has produced scandalous levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The Government Accountability Office has just released a report revealing widespread incompetence and malfeasance in the “Lifeline” program. Here are some highlights from GAO’s one-page summary.

GAO found weaknesses in several areas. For example, Lifeline’s structure relies on over 2,000 Eligible Telecommunication Carriers that are Lifeline providers to implement key program functions, such as verifying subscriber eligibility. This complex internal control environment is susceptible to risk of fraud, waste, and abuse as companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible.

Yes, you read correctly. The private companies that are mooching off this program are in charge of determining eligibility, even though they get more handouts by signing up more recipients.

As you might expect, this is a green light for massive fraud.

Based on its matching of subscriber to benefit data, GAO was unable to confirm whether about 1.2 million individuals of the 3.5 million it reviewed, or 36 percent, participated in a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid, as stated on their Lifeline enrollment application.

Readers are welcome to plow their way through GAO’s full 89-page report, but news reports have teased out the most important details.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Times.

The controversial “Obamaphone” program, which pays for cellphones for the poor, is rife with fraud, according to a new government report released Thursday that found more than a third of enrollees may not even be qualified. Known officially as the Lifeline Program, the phone giveaway became a symbol of government waste in the previous administration. …the program has stashed some $9 billion in assets in private bank accounts rather than with the federal treasury, further increasing risks and depriving taxpayers of the full benefit of that money. “…everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” said Mrs. McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s chief oversight committee and who is a former state auditor in Missouri. “We’re currently letting phone companies cash a government check every month with little more than the honor system to hold them accountable, and that simply can’t continue,” she said. …More than 5,500 people were found to be enrolled for two phones, while the program was paying for nearly 6,400 phones for persons the government has listed as having died. Investigators also submitted fraudulent applications to see what would happen, and 12 of the 19 phone carriers they applied to approved a phone.

The Daily Caller’s report also highlighted the program’s rampant fraud.

A massive portion of Obamaphone recipients are receiving the benefit after lying on their applications, according to a new 90-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An undercover sting operation showed ineligible applications were approved 63 percent of the time, and a review that found that 36 to 65 percent of beneficiaries in various categories had lied in easily-detectable ways but were approved anyway. The fraud reached unheard-of proportions because the Federal Communications Commission let the task of screening for eligibility fall to phone companies that profit off of enrolling as many people as possible. …All someone has to do to apply for free cell phone service is say that they are on another welfare program, such as food stamps or disability, known as SSI. But nationwide, “only 35.5 percent of people claiming eligibility based on SSI could actually be confirmed as eligible,” the GAO found. …Special interests have aggressively employed a bootleggers-and-Baptists model, with companies who profit greasing the wheels of government with donations and influence-peddling and using poor people as props in marketing campaigns. …The wife of the CEO of TracFone, the largest beneficiary of Obamaphones, was a mega-fundraiser for former President Barack Obama. …And a Pew Research Center report found that the problem of lack of access to technology is far less than it once was, the GAO noted. The FCC’s own data shows that “millions of Lifeline-eligible households are obtaining voice service without Lifeline,” while the fraud rates show that many of the people who do sign up are wealthier than those who don’t.

Again, keep in mind that subsidized telephone service isn’t an Obama invention.

He merely built upon a bad idea that existed for decades.

But also keep in mind that the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Obamaphone program is an inherent part of big government.

There’s fraud in the Medicare program. There’s fraud in the EITC program. There’s fraud in food stamps. There’s fraud in Medicaid. There’s fraud in the disability program. There’s welfare fraud.

But I don’t want to merely pick on what are perceived to be Democrat programs.

There’s also lots of waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon.

Simply stated, when you give away free money, people will do dodgy things to get some of it.

P.S. Given the pervasive parasitical corruption of Washington, nobody should be surprised to learn that plenty of Republican lobbyists are willing to shill for the Obamaphone program.

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