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Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

As a fiscal policy wonk, I’ve come across depressing examples of counterproductive tax provisions (health benefits exclusion, ethanol credits) and spending programs (the entire HUD budget, OECD subsidies).

But the folks who work on regulatory policy may get exposed to the most inane government policies (Fannie-Freddie mandate, EEOC rulings).

For example, consider how the government is undermining public health by going after e-cigarettes.

Sally Satel of the American Enterprise Institute offers a good introduction to the issue.

Strikingly, it is members of the public health establishment that have fanned the pessimism surrounding the battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine without the carcinogenic tar. One leading culprit is the Centers for Disease Control which refuses to acknowledge the steep risk reduction for smokers who switch to non-combustible tobacco, overlooks evidence of immediate gains in respiratory health when e-cigarettes are used as an alternative to smoking, and dramatizes as yet unrealized harm to children. …at the heart of this skepticism in the US is the FDA, who has devised an onerous rule that “deems” e-cigarettes to be tobacco products and thus subject to the same regulatory regime as combustible cigarettes. The rule…places undue regulatory burden and cost on vaping manufacturers. …the agency’s mandate for manufacturers to submit data prior to product approval is deeply misguided. Although patterns of youth uptake, flavor preferences, and nicotine level preferences are important data, they do not trump the benefit to adult smokers’ health. …The regulatory politics of non-combustible nicotine products stand as one of the great paradoxes in public health. While our health agencies now strongly champion harm reduction for opiate misuse, they are making it more and more difficult to improve and save the lives of smokers.

The Orange County Register is not a big fan of what’s been happening.

There’s a strange anti-vaping hysteria hitting governments. …The itch to treat vaping like smoking afflicting so many public health activists and government officials may be well-intentioned, but it is also misguided and harmful to the very goal of reducing smoking which these campaigners claim to champion. …Vapor products offer a way to consume nicotine without inhaling the lethal smoke that causes cancer and kills smokers. It has long been known that it is the smoke from burning tobacco, not the nicotine, that kills smokers. …Flavors are a critical ingredient to the success of tobacco harm reduction. According to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, of 4,618 vapers surveyed, more than 91 percent classified themselves as “former” smokers, with the majority saying flavor variety was “very important” to their efforts to quit smoking. The study also found the number of flavors a vaper used was independently associated with quitting smoking. Supporters of flavor bans argue these products appeal to children and will induce them to start smoking cigarettes. But the data fails to bear this out. A 2015 study from the Journal of Nicotine & Tobacco Research found nonsmoking teens’ interest in e-cigarettes was “very low” and didn’t change with the availability of flavors.

Looking at this debate motivated me to write an article on the story behind the story.

In an ideal world, the discussion and debate about how (or if) to tax e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn, and other tobacco harm-reduction products would be guided by science. …In the real world, however, politicians are guided by other factors. There are two things to understand… First, this is a battle over tax revenue. Politicians are concerned that they will lose tax revenue if a substantial number of smokers switch to options such as vaping. …Second, this is a quasi-ideological fight. Not about capitalism versus socialism, or big government versus small government. It’s basically a fight over paternalism, or a battle over goals. For all intents and purposes, the question is whether lawmakers should seek to simultaneously discourage both tobacco use and vaping because both carry some risk (and perhaps because both are considered vices for the lower classes)? Or should they welcome vaping since it leads to harm reduction as smokers shift to a dramatically safer way of consuming nicotine?

I used an analogy from the world of statistics.

…researchers presumably always recognize the dangers of certain types of mistakes, known as Type I errors (also known as a “false positive”) and Type II errors (also known as a “false negative”). …The advocates of high taxes on e-cigarettes and other non-combustible products are fixated on the possibility that vaping will entice some people into the market. Maybe vaping will even act as a gateway to smoking. So, they want high taxes on vaping, akin to high taxes on tobacco, even though the net result is that this leads many smokers to stick with cigarettes instead of making a switch to less harmful products. …At some point in the future, observers may joke that one side is willing to accept more smoking if one teenager forgoes vaping while the other side is willing to have lots of vapers if it means one less smoker.

On the issue of taxes, here’s a 2017 map from the Tax Foundation that shows state excise taxes on vaping.

There has been some pushback against the regulators.

The electronic cigarette industry and its free-market allies are seeing fresh opportunities to ease federal rules on e-cigarettes… More than a dozen conservative groups wrote to congressional leaders…, calling on them to add a pro-vaping provision to a spending measure… A rule issued…by the Obama administration “deems” e-cigarettes to be tobacco products and allows the FDA to retroactively examine all tobacco products on the market in February 2007. …industry advocates say the costly FDA approval process would force most e-cigarette companies to shut down. …The notion of “harm reduction” is the main argument pro-vaping forces use in their push to remove the requirement that tobacco companies retroactively prove their e-cigarettes are safe.

For what it’s worth, the FDA has kicked the can down the road, basically postponing its harsh new regulatory regime until 2022.

In the world of business, that’s just around the corner. Especially since investors and entrepreneurs have relatively long time horizons.

So let’s look at some evidence that hopefully will lead the bureaucrats at the FDA to make rational decisions.

The main argument, as noted in this column in the Wall Street Journal, is that vaping is the most effective way of reducing smoking.

Two major government surveys show that regular e-cigarette use by people who have never smoked is under 1%. Some 4.2% of high-school seniors report smoking conventional cigarettes daily, according to Monitoring the Future, and 9.7% reported smoking at least once in the previous month. These are “the high-risk youth” we need to worry about… Overheated worries about youth vaping are threatening to obscure the massive potential benefits to the nation’s 38 million cigarette smokers. Two million have already quit thanks to e-cigarettes. Vaping products are already the most widely used quit-smoking tool.

And smoking is the real danger to health, as Veronique de Rugy notes in a Reason article.

Tobacco kills 480,000 people a year in the United States. Yet when an innovative alternative that delivers nicotine and eliminates 95 percent of the harm of smoking is available, the wary Food and Drug Administration fails to embrace this revolutionary lifesaving technology. All in the name of the children, of course. Using e-cigarettes, known as vaping, has been around long enough for respected health authorities to conclude after many studies that it is eminently safer than smoking cigarettes. Britain’s Royal College of Physicians called any attempts by public officials to discourage smokers from switching to vaping “unjust, irrational and immoral.” …no one wants teens to vape, but we certainly don’t want them to smoke cigarettes and die an agonizing death later in life. As a parent, I tell my children that they shouldn’t do either. But the truth is that I know, as do they, that if they are going to do something as stupid as committing so much of their money to that sort of activity, vaping is the way to go. The bottom line is that government alarmists should back off. The first step is for the FDA to stick to its plan to postpone regulation until 2022 and create a clear pathway for the permanent approval of these products. It would allow the vaping companies time to establish their products as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

Here’s some scholarly research on the topic.

 US tobacco control policies to reduce cigarette use have been effective, but their impact has been relatively slow. This study considers a strategy of switching cigarette smokers to e-cigarette use (‘vaping’) in the USA to accelerate tobacco control progress. …Compared with the Status Quo, replacement of cigarette by e-cigarette use over a 10-year period yields 6.6 million fewer premature deaths with 86.7 million fewer life years lost in the Optimistic Scenario. Under the Pessimistic Scenario, 1.6 million premature deaths are averted with 20.8 million fewer life years lost. The largest gains are among younger cohorts, with a 0.5 gain in average life expectancy projected for the age 15 years cohort in 2016. …Our projections show that a strategy of replacing cigarette smoking with vaping would yield substantial life year gains, even under pessimistic assumptions regarding cessation, initiation and relative harm.

And the Wall Street Journal opines on the issue.

E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. They contain nicotine, a chemical derived from tobacco and other plants. Plain English was never a deterrent, though, to regulators on an empire-expanding mission. The Food and Drug Administration this week rolled out new regulations on e-cigarettes based on a 2009 law giving the agency power over products that “contain tobacco.” …Plain English also does not authorize inclusion of e-cigarettes under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the deal struck between the cigarette industry and 46 states that settled a bunch of lawsuits by imposing a government-run cartel to jack up the price of cigarettes (in the name of curbing consumption, naturally) and distribute the excess profits to the states and a handful of now-plutocrat trial lawyers. …Lovers of freedom and enemies of regulatory overkill do not exaggerate when they say FDA rules are designed to murder numerous small manufacturers and thousands of “vape” shops that account for about half the electronic-cigarette business.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the bureaucrats at the World Health Organization, who already are pushing for harmonized tobacco taxes, also want to go after vaping.

…who gets a say in what the WHO does is a hotly contest matter. Only thirty members of the public and selected members of the media are treated to limited, stage managed press conferences. Nations like China, with state-owned tobacco monopolies, are warmly welcomed, but anyone with the slightest connection to a private tobacco industry is shown the exit. Large pharmaceutical companies generously fund conference attendees, while their anti-tobacco products like Nicorette gum compete with products that the WHO views unfavorably, like electronic cigarettes. The secretive nature of the conference didn’t go over well with India’s tobacco farmers. After a few minutes of protest outside the convention, 500 farmers were corralled by police and detained inside this local police station. …it’s hard to understand why a $4 billion organization like the WHO feels threatened by the average Indian farmer who lives on $3 a day… Expanding its authority beyond tobacco control, e-cigarettes and vape products now find themselves potentially subject to a worldwide ban. Delegates to the convention have expressed support for “a complete ban on the sale, manufacture, import and export of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems”.

WHO bureaucrats are not the only ones to misbehave. Here’s a column from the Wall Street Journal exposing misbehavior in the United States.

There are many reasons to criticize the FDA’s action, but its most fundamental flaw—and the one that our legal foundation raises in three lawsuits on behalf of Ms. Manor and nine others—is that the rule was finalized by someone without authority to do so. The rule was not issued or signed by either the secretary of health and human services or the FDA commissioner, both Senate-confirmed officials. Instead, it was issued and signed by Leslie Kux, a career bureaucrat at FDA. …The attempted delegation of rule-making authority to someone not appointed as an “Officer of the United States” violates one of the most important separation-of-powers clauses in the Constitution. …Political accountability matters; that’s why the Framers included the Appointments Clause in Article II of the U.S. Constitution.

Last but not least, here’s a must-watch video on this issue from Prager University.

I’m not a big fan of the Food and Drug Administration, mostly because it delays the adoption of life-saving drugs and denies options for critically ill people.

Now that it’s going after e-cigarettes and other products that help smokers kick the habit, the FDA bureaucracy deserves ever-greater scorn.

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There are three reasons why the right kind of tax reform can help the economy grow faster.

  1. Lower tax rates give people more incentive to earn income.
  2. Less double taxation boosts incentives to save and invest.
  3. Fewer loopholes improves incentives for economic efficiency.

Let’s focus on the third item. I don’t like special preferences in the tax code because it’s bad for growth when the tax code lures people into misallocating their labor and capital. Ethanol, for instance, shows how irrational decisions are subsidized by the IRS.

Moreover, I’d rather have smart and capable people in the private sector focusing how to create wealth instead of spending their time figuring out how to manipulate the internal revenue code.

That’s why, in my semi-dream world, I’d like to see a flat tax.* Not only would there be a low rate and no double taxation, but there also would be no distortions.

But in the real world, I’m happy to make partial progress.

That’s why I was happy that last year’s tax bill produced a $10,000 cap for the state and local tax deduction and reduced the value of other write-offs by increasing the standard deduction. Yes, I’d like to wipe out the deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, but a limit is better than nothing.

And I’m also happy that lower tax rates are an indirect way of reducing the value of loopholes and other preferences.

To understand the indirect benefits of low tax rates, consider this new report from the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, we’re discovering that a less onerous death tax means less demand for clever tax lawyers.

A single aging rich person would often hire more than a dozen people — accountants, estate administrators, insurance agents, bank attorneys, financial planners, stockbrokers — to make sure they paid as little as possible in taxes when they died. But David W. Klasing, an estate tax attorney in Orange County, Calif., said he’s seen a sharp drop in these kinds of cases. The steady erosion of the federal estate tax, shrunk again by the Republican tax law last fall, has dramatically reduced the number of Americans who have to worry about the estate tax — as well as work for those who get paid to worry about it for them, Klasing said. In 2002, about 100,000 Americans filed estate tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the IRS. In 2018, only 5,000 taxpayers are expected to file these returns… “You had almost every single tax professional trying to grab as much of that pot as they could,” Klasing said. “Now almost everybody has had to find other work.”

Needless to say, I’m delighted that these people are having to “find other work.”

By the way, I’m not against these people. They were working to protect families from an odious form of double taxation, which was a noble endeavor.

I’m simply stating that I’m glad there’s less need for their services.

Charles “Skip” Fox, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, said he frequently hears of lawyers shifting their focus away from navigating the estate tax, and adds that there has been a downturn in the number of young attorneys going into the estate tax field. Jennifer Bird-Pollan, who teaches the estate tax to law students at the University of Kentucky, said that nearly a decade ago her classes were packed with dozens of students. Now, only a handful of students every so often may be interested in the subject or pursuing it as a career. “There’s about as much interest in [the class] law and literature,” Pollan said. “The very, very wealthy are still hiring estate tax lawyers, but basically people are no longer paying $1,000 an hour for advice about this stuff. They don’t need it.”

Though I am glad one lawyer is losing business.

Stacey Schlitz, a tax attorney in Nashville, said when she got out of law school about a decade ago roughly 80 percent of her clients were seeking help with their estate taxes. Now, less than 1 percent are, she said, adding that Tennessee’s state inheritance tax was eliminated by 2016. “It is disappointing that this area of my business dried up so that such a small segment of society could get even richer,” Schlitz said in an email.

I hope every rich person in Nashville sees this story and steers clear of Ms. Schlitz, who apparently wants her clients to be victimized by government.

Now let’s shift to the business side of the tax code and consider another example showing why lower tax rates produce more sensible behavior.

Now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced, American companies no longer have as much desire to invest in Ireland.

US investment in Ireland declined by €45bn ($51bn) in 2017, in another sign that sweeping tax reforms introduced by US president Donald Trump have impacted the decisions of American multinational companies. …Economists have been warning that…Trump’s overhaul of the US tax code, which aimed to reduce the use of foreign low-tax jurisdictions by US companies, would dent inward investment in Ireland. …In November 2017, Trump went so far as to single out Ireland, saying it was one of several countries that corporations used to offshore profits. “For too long our tax code has incentivised companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. It happens—many, many companies. They’re going to Ireland. They’re going all over,” he said.

Incidentally, I’m a qualified fan of Ireland’s low corporate rate. Indeed, I hope Irish lawmakers lower the rate in response to the change in American law.

And I’d like to see the US rate fall even further since it’s still too high compared to other nations.

Heck, it would be wonderful to see tax competition produce a virtuous cycle of rate reductions all over the world.

But that’s a topic I’ve addressed before.

Today’s lesson is simply that lower tax rates reduce incentives to engage in tax planning. I’ll close with simple thought experiment showing the difference between a punitive tax system and reasonable tax system.

  • 60 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you only get to keep 40 cents of every additional dollar you earn. But if you find some sort of deduction, exemption, or exclusion, you increase your take-home pay by an additional 60 cents. That’s a good deal even if the tax preference loses 30 cents of economic value.
  • 20 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you get to keep 80 cents of every dollar you earn. With that reasonable rate, you may not even care about seeking out deductions, exemptions, and exclusions. And if you do look for a tax preference, you certainly won’t pick one where you lose anything close to 20 cents of economic value.

The bottom line is that lower tax rates are a “two-fer.” They directly help economic growth by increasing incentives to earn income and they indirectly help economic growth by reducing incentives to engage in inefficient tax planning.

*My semi-dream world is a flat tax. My dream world is when the federal government is so small (as America’s Founders envisioned) that there’s no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. It’s not the focus of today’s column, but since I talked about loopholes, it’s worth pointing out that they should be properly defined. Sadly, that simple task is too challenging for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office (or even the Republican party).

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Politicians can interfere with the laws of supply and demand (and they do, with distressing regularity), but they can’t repeal them.

The minimum wage issue is a tragic example. If lawmakers pass a law mandating wages of $10 per hour, that is going to have a very bad effect on low-skilled workers who can only generate, say, $8 of revenue per hour.

You don’t need to be a libertarian to realize this is a problem.

Catherine Rampell leans to the left, but she warned last year in the Washington Post about the danger of “helping” workers to the unemployment line.

…the left needs to think harder about the unintended consequences of…benevolent-seeming proposals. In isolation, each of these policies has the potential to make workers more costly to hire. Cumulatively, they almost certainly do. Which means that, unless carefully designed, a lefty “pro-labor” platform might actually encourage firms to hire less labor… It’s easier, or perhaps more politically convenient, to assume that “pro-worker” policies never hurt the workers they’re intended to help. Take the proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour… raising wages in Seattle to $13 has produced sharp cuts in hours, leaving low-wage workers with smaller paychecks. And that’s in a high-cost city. Imagine what would happen if Congress raised the minimum wage to $15 nationwide. …Why wouldn’t you want to improve the living standards of as many people as possible? The answer: You won’t actually be helping them if making their labor much more expensive, much too quickly, results in their getting fired.

By the way, while I’m glad Ms. Rampell recognizes how big increases in the minimum wage will have an adverse impact, I think she is rather naive to believe that there are “carefully designed” options that wouldn’t be harmful.

Or does she have a cutoff point for acceptable casualties? Maybe she thinks that an increase in the minimum wage is bad if it throws 500,000 people into unemployment, but a small increase that leads to 200,000 fewer jobs is acceptable?

In any event, the voters of DC apparently didn’t read her column and they voted earlier this year to restrict the freedom of employers and employees in the restaurant sector to engage in voluntary exchange.

But then something interesting happened. Workers and owners united together and urged DC’s government to reverse the referendum.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this development.

…last week Washington, D.C.’s Democratic city councillors moved to overturn a mandatory minimum wage for tipped workers after bartenders, waiters and restaurant managers served up a lesson in economics. …The wage hike was billed as a way to give workers financial stability… But tipped workers realized the policy came with serious unintended consequences. …workers pushed for repeal. Though restaurants pay a $3.89 hourly wage to tipped workers, “we choose these jobs because we make far more than the standard minimum wage” from tips, bartender Valerie Graham told the City Council. …“Increasing the base wage for tipped workers who already make well above minimum wage threatens those who do not make tips,” such as cooks, dishwashers and table bussers, Rose’s Luxury bartender Chelsea Silber told the City Council. …Repeal requires a second council vote, but Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser says she agrees. Congratulations on the revolt of the restaurant masses.

Let’s review another example.

There’s now a mandate for a higher minimum wage in New York. Ellie Bufkin explains some of the consequences in a column for the Federalist.

This minimum wage spike has forced several New York City businesses to shutter their doors and will claim many more victims soon. Businesses must meet the $15 wage by the end of 2018, the culmination of mandatory increment increases that began in 2016. …For many businesses, this egregious law is not just an inconvenience, it is simply unaffordable. The most recent victim is long-time staple, The Coffee Shop… In explaining his decision to close following 28 years of high-volume business, owner Charles Milite told the New York Post, “The times have changed in our industry. The rents are very high and now the minimum wage is going up and we have a huge number of employees.” …Of all affected businesses, restaurants are at the greatest risk of losing their ability to operate under the strain of crushing financial demands. They run at the highest day-to-day operational costs of any business, partly because they must employ more people to run efficiently. …Eventually, minimum wage laws and other prohibitive regulations will cause the world-renowned restaurant life in cities like New York, DC, and San Francisco to cease to exist.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think restaurants will “cease to exist” because of mandates for higher minimum wages.

But there will definitely be fewer establishments with fewer workers.

Why? Because business aren’t charities. They hire workers to increase profits, so it’s unavoidable that we get bad results when government mandates result in some workers costing more than the revenue they generate.

Which is what we’re now seeing in Seattle.

I’ll close by recycling this debate clip from a few years ago. I made the point that faster growth is the right way to boost wages.

And I also gave a plug for federalism. If some states want to throw low-skilled workers out of jobs, I think that will be an awful outcome. But it won’t be as bad as a nationwide scheme to increase unemployment (especially for minorities).

P.S. As is so often the case, the “sensible Swiss” have the right perspective.

P.P.S. Here’s a video making the case against government wage mandates. And here’s another interview I did on the topic.

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Responding to Hurricane Harvey last year, I shared three very good videos explaining why laws against “price gouging” are misguided.

Simply stated, politicians can’t wave a legislative wand and change underlying conditions of supply and demand.

Laws that artificially dictate the price of something almost surely will have adverse consequences (just as artificially setting the price of labor causes some joblessness and artificially controlling price of health insurance can cause a death spiral).

Needless to say, this is not a welcome observation in some quarters.

John Stossel addresses price gouging in a new Townhall column. He starts by describing the political response.

Officials in states hit by Hurricane Florence are on the lookout for “price gouging.” People who engage in “excessive pricing” face up to 30 days jail time, said North Carolina’s attorney general. South Carolina passed a “Price Gouging During Emergency” law that imposes a $1,000 fine per violation. …These are “bad people,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi angrily during a previous storm.

He then explains some basic economics.

Pursuing profit is simply the best mechanism for bringing people supplies we need. Without rising prices indicating which materials are most sought-after, suppliers don’t know whether to rush in food, or bandages, or chainsaws. …Who will bring supplies to a disaster area if it’s illegal to make extra profit? It’s risky to invest in 19 generators, leave home, rent a U-Haul and drive 600 miles. …If prices don’t shoot up during disasters, consumers hoard. We rush to gas stations to top off our tanks. Stores run out of batteries because early customers stock up. Late arrivals may get nothing. … America should have learned that when Richard Nixon imposed price controls on gasoline. That gave us gasoline shortages and long gas lines. …allowing prices to rise, even sharply, is the best way to help desperate people get supplies they need. As supplies rush in, prices quickly return to normal. We shouldn’t call it gouging. It’s just supply and demand.

He concludes with some advice that politicians almost certainly will ignore.

The best thing “price police” can do in a disaster is stay out of the way.

Price police? I wonder if they get the same training as the milk police and bagpipe police?

But I’m digressing.

I’m going to augment Stossel’s analysis with some simple supply-and-demand curves. We’ll start with a look at a normal, competitive market. The supply curve shows producers are willing to provide ever-larger amounts of a product at higher and higher prices.

Conversely, the demand curve shows that consumers are willing to buy a lot of a product when prices are low, but the quantity they want declines as prices increase.

The “equilibrium price” is where the two curves intersect.

Now imagine you live in North Carolina and the hurricane is wreaking havoc. Two things are likely to happen. First, some sellers will be knocked out of the market. Maybe they lost power, got flooded, or went someplace safe for the duration of the storm.

The real-world impact is shown by this next graph. The supply curve has shifted to the left, meaning that there is less product available at any given prices. The net result is that the market price will go up.

The second effect is that there presumably will be more demand. Consumers will suddenly decide that certain goods (milk, bread, candles, batteries, generators, plywood, etc) are more valuable than they were last month.

This chart shows the effect of increased demand.

By the way, the way I randomly created the charts shows the quantity staying roughly the same, but that all depends on market conditions. Prices can rise a lot or a little, and quantity demanded can fall a lot or rise a lot.

Here’s all you really need to understand. If the government has anti-gouging laws that prevent prices from adjusting to market conditions, the result will be a shortage.

Which is what’s depicted in this chart. Consumers will want a lot of the product, but they won’t be able to find enough willing sellers.

That might seem like a good outcome if you were one of the lucky people who was willing to wait in line or otherwise got lucky (the “seen”). But it means a lot of consumers get left out (as Bastiat points out, those are the “unseen”).

For instance, look at what happened after Hurricane Sandy, for instance.

Perhaps most important, it means that there’s very little incentive for entrepreneurs to incur a lot of expense and effort to get much-needed supplies to a disaster area.

So people would be left waiting for the government, which means a sluggish reaction and often the wrong kind of help.

None of this suggests that “price gougers” are heroes. Yes, some of them take a risk with time and money (and maybe even personal safety) by rushing to a disaster zone. But others simply want to take advantage of an opportunity to jack up prices and get a windfall.

My point is simply that laws against gouging are bad since many consumers will be denied the opportunity to get desperately needed goods and services.

P.S. If you want more evidence of the folly of price controls, see how they backfired in Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

P.P.S. The post-war German economic miracle was triggered by the removal of price controls.

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With Florence about to hit, it’s time to preemptively explain how the federal government makes damage more likely and why post-hurricane efforts will make future damage more likely.

There are just two principles you need to understand.

  1. When Washington subsidizes something, you get more of it, and the federal government subsidizes building – and living – in risky areas.
  2. When Washington provides bailouts, you incentivize risky behavior in the private sector and “learned helplessness” from state and local governments.

If I wanted to be lazy (or to be merciful and spare readers from a lengthy column), this satirical image is probably all that’s necessary to explain the first point. The federal government’s flood insurance program gives people – often the very rich, which galls me – an incentive to build where the risk of flooding and hurricanes is very high.

But let’s look at additional information and analysis.

We’ll start with this excellent primer on the issue from Professor William Shughart.

Disaster relief arguably is, in short, something of a public good that would be undersupplied if responsibility for providing it were left in the hands of the private sector. If this line of reasoning is sound, the activity of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or something like it is a proper function of the national government. …even if disaster relief is thought of as a public good—a form of “social insurance” against fire, flood, earthquake, and other natural catastrophes—it does not follow that government provision is the only or necessarily the best option. …both economic theory and the historical record point to the conclusion that the public sector predictably fails to supply disaster relief in socially optimal quantities. Moreover, because it facilitates corruption, creates incentives for populating disaster-prone areas, and crowds out self-help and other local means of coping with disaster, government provision of assistance to disaster’s victims actually threatens to make matters worse. …Government agencies are created by legislation, overseen by elected officials, and operated by huge bureaucracies. Public employees’ fear of being blamed for doing something wrong (or failing to do something right) produces risk aversion…the people who set priorities and make decisions are often separated by multiple layers of management from those on the ground who know what really needs to be done.

Professor Shughart explains that “public choice” and “moral hazard” play a role.

FEMA has been shown to be responsive more to the political interests of the White House than to the needs of disaster victims on the ground. …federal emergency relief funds tend to be allocated disproportionately to electoral-vote-rich states that are important to the sitting president’s reelection strategy. …The term moral hazard refers to the reduction in the cost of carelessness… The prospect of receiving federal and state reconstruction assistance after the next hurricane creates an incentive for others to relocate their homes and businesses from inland areas of comparative safety to vulnerable coastal areas. …The expectation of receiving publicly financed disaster relief may explain why 69 percent of the residents of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast did not have federal flood insurance when Katrina hit. …the immediate reactions of for-profit businesses, nongovernmental organizations large and small, and countless individual volunteers amply demonstrate that the private sector can and will supply disaster relief in adequate and perhaps socially optimal quantities

Barry Brownstein has a sober assessment of the underlying problem.

…federal flood insurance was amplifying the impact of storms by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in areas prone to flooding. …the case against subsidized flood insurance is not a case against growth; it is a case against distorted growth. Federally supported insurance overrides the risk-reducing incentives that insurance premiums provide and results in building in vulnerable areas. …In a free market, insurance premiums on cars, for instance, tend to settle toward an “actuarially fair price.” …If you have a history of drunk driving, that increases the chances you’ll make an insurance claim on your car – so your premiums will be higher, and that encourages you not to drive in the future (or to drive sober in the first place). …Getting the government out of the flood insurance business and having insurance companies determine actuarially sound premiums is the only way for homeowners, businesses, and builders to know the real risk they are assuming.

And here are excerpts from a column by David Conrad and Larry Larson.

…the Great Flood of 1993 in the upper Midwest. After that disaster, the Clinton administration directed an experienced federal interagency task force to report on the flood and its causes. That report…made more than 100 recommendations for policy and program changes… The government found that many policies were encouraging — rather than discouraging — people to build homes and businesses in places with increasingly high risks of flooding… That often compounded the costs and problems caused by floods. …Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. …substantial benefits for property owners and taxpayers could be gleaned by simply removing damaged buildings, rather than repairing them only to see them flooded out again. …many flood insurance policies were heavily subsidized and underestimated risk, leading to premiums that were far too low. …Americans facing some new devastation in the future will be looking back at Harvey and wondering why we didn’t act now.

Even the Washington Post has a reasonable perspective on this issue.

National Flood Insurance Program…an…increasingly dysfunctional program. Enacted 50 years ago…, the program made a certain sense in theory…in return for appropriate local land-use and other measures to prevent development in low-lying areas and for actuarially sound premiums. Politics being what they are, the program gradually fell prey to pressure from developers and homeowners in the nation’s coastal areas. Arguably, the existence of flood insurance encouraged development in flood zones that would not have occurred otherwise. …Ideally, more of the costs of flood insurance would be shouldered by the people and places who benefit most from it; modern technology and financial tools should enable the private sector to handle more of the business, too. Such radical reform is not on Congress’s agenda, of course.

As you might expect, Steve Chapman has a very clear understanding of what’s happening.

The National Flood Insurance Program, created in 1968 under LBJ on the theory that the private insurance market couldn’t handle flood damage, presumed that Washington could. Like many of his Great Society initiatives, it has turned out to be an expensive tutorial on the perils of government intervention. …A house outside of Baton Rouge, La., assessed at $56,000, has soaked up 40 floods and over $428,000 in insurance payouts. One in North Wildwood, New Jersey has been rebuilt 32 times. Nationally, some 30,000 buildings classified as “severe repetitive loss properties” have been covered despite having been swamped an average of five times each. Homes in this category make up about one percent of the buildings covered by the flood insurance program—but 30 percent of the claims. Their premiums don’t cover the expected losses. But as National Resources Defense Council analyst Rob Moore told The Washington Post, “No congressman ever got unelected by providing cheap flood insurance.” …The root of the problem is a familiar one: the people responsible for these decisions are not spending their own money. They find it easier to indulge the relative handful of flood victims than to attend to the interests of millions of taxpayers in general.

Now let’s look at some of the perverse consequences of federal intervention.

Such as repeated bailouts for certain properties.

Brian Harmon had just finished spending over $300,000 to fix his home in Kingwood, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey sent floodwaters “completely over the roof.” The six-bedroom house, which has an indoor swimming pool, sits along the San Jacinto River. It has flooded 22 times since 1979, making it one of the most flood-damaged properties in the country. Between 1979 and 2015, government records show the federal flood insurance program paid out more than $1.8 million to rebuild the house—a property that Mr. Harmon figured was worth $600,000 to $800,000 before Harvey hit late last month. …Homes and other properties with repetitive flood losses account for just 2% of the roughly 1.5 million properties that currently have flood insurance, according to government estimates. But such properties have accounted for about 30% of flood claims paid over the program’s history. …Nearly half of frequently flooded properties in the U.S. have received more in total damage payments than the flood program’s estimate of what the homes are worth, according to the group’s calculations.

Disaster legislation, Rachel Bovard explained, is often an excuse for unrelated pork-barrel spending.

In 2012, President Obama requested a $60.4 billion supplemental funding bill from Congress, ostensibly to fund reconstruction efforts in the parts of the country most impacted by Hurricane Sandy. However, that’s not what Congress gave him, or what he signed. Instead, the bill was loaded up with earmarks and pork barrel spending, so much so that only around half of the bill ended up actually being for Sandy relief. Consider just a handful of the goodies contained in the final legislation…$150 million for Alaska fisheries (Hurricane Sandy was on the east coast of the US; Alaska is the country’s western most tip)…$8 million to buy cars and equipment for the Homeland Security and Justice departments (at the time of the Sandy supplemental, these agencies already had 620,000 cars between them)…$821 million for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge waterways with no relation to Hurricane Sandy (the Corps never likes to waste a disaster)…$118 million for AMTRAK ($86 million to be used on non-Sandy related Northeast corridor upgrades). …the Sandy supplemental represented the worst of special interest directed, unaccountable, pork-barrel spending in Washington.

And as seems to always be the case with government, Jeffrey Tucker explains that disaster relief subsidizes corrupt favors for campaign contributors.

Look closely enough and you find corruption at every level. I recall living in a town hit by a hurricane many years ago. The town mayor instructed people not to clean up yet because FEMA was coming to town. To get the maximum cash infusion, the inspectors needed to see terrible things. When the money finally arrived, it went to the largest real estate developers, who promptly used it to clear cut land for new housing developments. …It does seem highly strange that this desktop operation in Montana would be awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild the electrical grid in Puerto Rico. That sounds outrageous. But guess what? …Zinke claims that he had “absolutely nothing to do” with selecting the company that got the contract, even though the company is in his hometown and his own son worked there. And yet there is more. The Daily Beast discovered that the company that is financing Whitefish’s expansions, HBC Investments, was founded by its current general partner Joe Colonnetta. He and his wife were larger donors to Trump campaign, in every form permissible by law and at maximum amounts. …FEMA has long been used as a pipeline to cronies.

The ideal solution is to somehow curtail the role of the federal government.

Which is what Holman Jenkins suggests in this column for the Wall Street Journal, even though he is pessimistic because rich property owners capture many of the subsidies.

What’s really missing in all such places is…proper risk pricing through insurance. …Now we wonder if it can even be ameliorated. …our most influential citizens all have one thing in common: a house in Florida. An unfortunate truth is that the value of their Florida coastal property would plummet if they were made to bear the cost of their life-style choices. A lot of ritzy communities would shrink drastically. Sun and fun would still attract visitors, but property owners and businesses would face a new set of incentives. Either build a lot sturdier and higher up. Or build cheap and disposable, and expect to shoulder the cost of totally rebuilding every decade or two. Faced with skyrocketing insurance rates, entire communities would have to dissolve themselves or tax their residents heavily to invest in damage-mitigation measures. …With government assuming the risk, why would businesses and homesteaders ever think twice about building in the path of future hurricanes?

Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason offered some very sensible suggestions after Hurricane Harvey.

Many of the folks who take on the risk of heading into an unstable area do so because they are driven by the twin motivations of fellow-feeling and greed. These people are often the fastest and most effective at getting supplies where they are most needed, because that’s also where they can get the best price. This is just as true for Walmart as it is for the guy who fills his pickup with Poland Spring and batteries. Don’t use the bully pulpit to vilify disaster entrepreneurs, small or large. …by trying to control who gets into a storm zone to help, governments can wind up blockading good people who could do good while waiting for approval from Washington in a situation where communications are often bad. Ordinary people see and know things about what their friends and neighbors need and want that FEMA simply can’t be expected to figure out. …Emergency workers and law enforcement shouldn’t waste post-storm effort rooting around in people’s homes for firearms. Law-abiding gun owners do not, by and large, turn into characters from Grand Theft Auto when they get wet.

Amen to her point about so-called price gouging. The politicians who demagogue against price spikes either don’t understand supply-and-demand, or they don’t care whether people suffer. Probably both.

Sadly, FEMA, federal flood insurance, and other forms of intervention now play a dominant role when disasters occur.

That being said, let’s wrap up today’s column with some examples of how the private sector still manages to play a very effective role. We’ll start with this article from the Daily Caller.

Faith-based relief groups are responsible for providing nearly 80 percent of the aid delivered thus far to communities with homes devastated by the recent hurricanes… The United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has 20,000 volunteers trained to serve in disaster response teams, not only helps clean up the mess and repair the damage inflicted on homes by disasters, but also helps families… The Seventh Day Adventists help state governments with warehousing various goods and necessities to aid communities in the aftermath of a disaster. …Non-denominational Christian relief organization Convoy of Hope helps to provide meals to victims of natural disasters by setting up feeding stations in affected communities.

And I strongly recommend this video by Professor Steve Horwitz, my buddy from grad school.

The famous “Cajun Navy” is another example, as noted by the Baton Rouge Advocate.

The Pelican State managed Sunday to avoid most of Harvey’s fury. But around Baton Rouge, Lafayette and other parts of the state, members of the Cajun Navy sprung into action… Many who spent last August wading around south Louisiana’s floodwaters in boats packed them up Sunday and headed west to help rescue Texans caught in the floods. …”I can’t look at somebody knowing that I have a perfect boat in my driveway to be doing this and to just sit at home,” said Jordy Bloodsworth, a Baton Rouge member of the Cajun Navy who flooded after Hurricane Katrina when he lived in Chalmette. “I have every resource within 100 feet of me to help.” Bloodsworth was heading overnight on Sunday to Texas to help with search and rescue. …Others arrived in Texas earlier on Sunday. Toney Wade had more than a dozen friends…in tow as he battled rain and high water to get to Dickinson, Texas. Wade is the commander of an all-volunteer group of mostly former law enforcement officers and former firefighters called Cajun Coast Search and Rescue, based in Jeanerette. They brought boats and high-water rescue vehicles with them, along with food, tents and other supplies.

There’s also the “Houston Navy.”

Here’s another good example of how the private sector – when it’s allowed to play a role – acts to reduce damage.

Increasingly, insurance carriers are finding wildfires, such as those in California, are an opportunity to provide protection beyond what most people get through publicly funded fire fighting. Some insurers say they typically get new customers when homeowners see the special treatment received by neighbors during big fires. “The enrollment has taken off dramatically over the years as people have seen us save homes,” Paul Krump, a senior executive at Chubb, said of the insurer’s Wildfire Defense Services. …Tens of thousands of people benefit from the programs. …The private-sector activity calls to mind the early days of fire insurance in the U.S., in the 18th and 19th centuries before municipal fire services became common. Back then, metal-plaque “fire marks” were affixed to the front of insured buildings as a guide for insurers’ own fire brigades.

It’s also important to realize that armed private citizens are the ones who help maintain order following a disaster, as illustrated by this video of a great American (warning: some strong language).

I imagine that guy would get along very well with the folks in the image at the bottom of this column.

Last but not least, here’s some analysis for history buffs of what happened after the fire that leveled much of Chicago in the 1800s.

…does the current emphasis on top-down disaster relief favored in the US and beyond represent the best strategy? Emily Skarbek, a professor at Brown University, approached this question by studying one of the most famous catastrophes of the 19th century, the Chicago fire of 1871. …scholars and laypeople alike are convinced that there is no substitute for the resources and direction that centralized governments can provide in the wake of a disaster. …This maxim was apparently inconsistent with the Chicago fire, however, as the Midwestern city was reconstructed in a remarkably short period of time, and without the supervision of an overbearing central government. …in 1871 there was no analogue to the present-day, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), meaning that relief efforts had to be decentralized. Moreover, there was no institutionalized source of government financial aid…it was up to Chicago’s residents to develop solutions to the calamity that they faced. …The Chicago Relief and Aid Society was founded, and set about coordinating the funds and efforts, including sophisticated bylaws regarding who merited support, and at what level. …the society exhibited the flexibility and adaptability necessary for it to expand dramatically immediately after the fire…and to subsequently contract once the needs for its services fell. This latter feature distinguishes Chicago’s relief efforts from those of 21st century government agencies.

Since I started with an image that summarizes the foolishness of government-subsidized risk, let’s end with another visual showing the impact of government.

Or, let’s apply the lesson more broadly.

Sadly, I predict that politicians will ignore these logical conclusions and immediately clamor after Hurricane Florence for another wasteful package of emergency spending, most of which will have nothing to do with saving lives and have everything to do with buying votes. Trump, being a big spender, will be cheering them on.

Which will then encourage more damage and risk more lives in the future. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Of all the senseless things that happen in Washington, farm subsidies are especially foolish. They are a classic example of “public choice” in action, with a handful of rich (and well-connected) producers getting big bucks by ripping off consumers and taxpayers.

The entire Department of Agriculture should be abolished. Yesterday, if possible.

If we first need a show trial, dairy subsidies could be the main example.

Investor’s Business Daily opines about the program.

In what other industry would you find producers continuing to ramp up production while demand slides, and then stuffing the growing pile of surplus into warehouses, hoping the federal government will buy some of it? What makes the dairy industry different is decades of government efforts to “support” dairy farmers with various subsidy schemes. …By interfering with pricing signals, the effect of these subsidies has been to encourage production, almost regardless of market demand. …Dairy farmers say they need these programs to survive. We doubt that. Like every other industry, they’d learn to adapt to market changes. In the meantime, ask yourself this question: Why should taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to protect other people’s jobs in a declining industry?

Here’s a one-minute video from the American Enterprise Institute that gives a quick overview of how government doesn’t allow markets to function.

Congress currently is contemplating a new farm bill. As you might expect, there’s pressure from agriculture lobbyists for further subsidies and handouts.

Fortunately, there is also some opposition, including a recent column in the Hill.

Like spoiled milk, market-distorting dairy industry handouts need to be thrown out. …Washington doles out enormous subsidies to the largest conventional animal agriculture industries through the farm bill. …The dairy industry…receives their millions as a straight-up handout, with no strings (or string cheese) attached. The USDA should not pick winners or losers. The government should not distort the market or continually prop up non-competitive businesses. …American taxpayers don’t need to prop up a system of socialized cheese. American consumers deserve to make their choices in a fair and equitable marketplace. This next farm bill should remedy clear instances of government waste and distortion and move beyond funneling taxpayer handouts into conventional agribusiness.

The United States is not the only nation with a corrupt and distorting system of subsidies. Similar handouts exist in Canada and have become part of NAFTA negotiations, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. farmers are treated unfairly by the complex “supply management” system that governs Canada’s dairy market, under which the government sets milk prices and imposes quotas on domestic producers to keep supplies in check. As part of this system, Canada limits dairy imports and imposes steep tariffs of more than 200% on products that exceed those limits. President Trump has called Canada’s dairy protectionism a disgrace. …Critics say Canada’s system unfairly limits market access and distorts prices. …Canada’s 11,000 commercial farms hold substantial political sway. The bulk of them are in vote-rich pockets of rural central Canada, especially French-speaking Quebec. …Dairy farming “is a motherhood issue here,” said Jon Johnson, senior fellow at Toronto-based C.D. Howe Institute and former government trade negotiator.

There’s no question the Canadians are guilty, but the United States is hardly in a position to throw stones.

Milk supply in the U.S. has in the past been seen as a national security interest, important to the well-being of babies and children. The U.S. government, for that reason and others, has had a long and historic involvement in domestic dairy farming, with a pricing system whose roots go back to the Great Depression. U.S. dairy imports are restricted through quotas, tariffs and licensing requirements. Prices are regulated through a complex system managed by the USDA, which sets minimum prices. When prices fall below regulated minimums, farmers can apply for federal assistance.

I suppose one silver lining to all this nonsense is that dairy farmers on each side of the border now have an incentive to calculate the subsidies received by their competitors.

…the American government continues to provide massive levels of support to its agri-food sector at federal, state, and local levels. …in 2015, the American government doled out approximately $22.2 billion dollars in direct and indirect subsidies to the U.S dairy sector. …said Mr. Clark. “When it comes to farm support, the U.S. has the deepest pockets; deeper even than the European Union…” in 2015, the support granted to U.S dairy producers represented approximately C$35.02/hectolitre – the equivalent of 73% of the farmers’ marketplace revenue. …While the American dairy industry has repeatedly pointed fingers and demanded increased access to Canada’s dairy market, the extent of subsidies to the U.S. dairy industry is an 800-pound gorilla in the room.

My hope, needless to say, is that taxpayers in both nations look at these numbers and conclude that we follow the example of New Zealand and get rid of farm handouts.

Not just for dairy. Abolish the entire Department of Agriculture.

P.S. It’s a close race, but I suspect that sugar subsidies are even more corrupt than dairy subsidies.

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Back in 2012, I was both amused and horrified to learn that the Greek government actually required entrepreneurs to submit…um…stool samples if they wanted to set up online companies.

Well, there’s apparently a surplus of that…er…material on the streets of San Francisco. A local radio station even shared a map of places to avoid (or to seek out, who am I to judge?).

It’s become such a big problem that the city’s government decided to act. But instead of enforcing rules against public defecation, they’ve created a new bureaucracy. I’m not joking.

Some people are questioning the city’s priorities, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

San Francisco’s…flush with potty problems — the city has received 14,597 complaints about feces on its sidewalks since January… Now city leaders have unveiled plans for a six-person poop patrol to try to address the issue… But the very concept of a poop patrol inspired skepticism, mockery and, yes, poop emojis… “Instead of telling people to USE A BATHROOM!! San Francisco is going to send out a pooper scooper Patrol to pick it up,” wrote one person. “Lord help us all.” …Others posting to Twitter had questions. “Will the poop patrol get hazardous duty pay?” asked one person, while another wanted to know.

Business Insider has details about this new “poop patrol.”

In San Francisco, you can earn more than $184,000 a year in salary and benefits for cleaning up feces. As members of the city’s “Poop Patrol,” workers are entitled to $71,760 a year, plus an additional $112,918 in benefits… The staffers will begin their efforts each afternoon equipped with a steam cleaner for sanitizing the streets. The full budget for the initiative, $830,977, signifies a concerted effort to address the city’s mounting feces problem, which has resulted in more than 14,500 calls to 311.

That’s a lot of money, though this is a rare instance of where I won’t make my usual argument about bureaucrats being overpaid.

In any event (as is so often the case), bad government policy is the root cause of the problem.

While the high salaries of sanitation workers may incentivize further cleanup, the city will ultimately have to contend with its affordability crisis if it hopes to eliminate the problem. That would mean addressing restrictive zoning laws that make it both difficult and expensive to add affordable developments.

Yes, there’s this simple concept called supply and demand. And when San Francisco politicians don’t let people use their property to create more housing, then ever-higher prices are an inevitable result. But I guess they are too busy dealing with real problems…such as toys in Happy Meals.

To be sure, I’m not under any illusion that abolition of zoning laws and creation of a laissez-faire housing market would completely solve the poop problem. Much of that anti-social behavior is probably linked to mental illness and/or drug abuse.

But less zoning would mean less s**t. Seems like a compelling bumper sticker to me.

P.S. I don’t know if this story belong in my series on “Great Moments in Local Government” or if the poop patrol belongs in the “Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.”

P.P.S. Things can always get worse. Senator Kamala Harris has a hare-brained proposal that would trigger even higher prices for rental housing.

P.P.P.S. San Francisco also has a poop problem even when people use toilets instead of sidewalks.

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