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Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

Some policies will improve with Biden in the White House, most notably trade, but also government spending (not because Biden is good, but rather because Republicans will go back to pretending to be fiscally conservative).

But some policies will move in the wrong direction. Biden is awful on tax policy, for instance, though I expect Republicans in the Senate will block his class-warfare agenda.

Biden is also very bad on regulatory issues. Unfortunately, this is an area where the new President (and his appointees) will have plenty of authority to shift policy in the wrong direction.

I’m especially worried that Biden will resuscitate an Obama-era policy of strong-arming banks so they won’t do business with unpopular industries. This video, which I first shared back in 2016, explains this reprehensible policy.

Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation, in a column for Forbes, provides some additional background on the policy.

Choke Point consisted of bureaucrats in several independent federal agencies taking it upon themselves to shut legal businesses – such as payday lenders and firearms dealers – out of the banking system. Given the nature of the U.S. regulatory framework, this operation was easy to pull off. Officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for instance, simply had to inform the banks they were overseeing that the government considered certain types of their customers “high risk.” The mere implication of a threat was enough to pressure banks into closing accounts, because no U.S. bank wants anything to do with extra audits or investigations from their regulator, much less additional operating restrictions or civil and criminal charges. Banks are incredibly sensitive to any type of pressure from federal regulators, and they know that the regulators have enormous discretion.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Phil Gramm and Mike Solon elaborated on the left’s campaign to politicize the banking system.

Banking was used as a weapon against legal, solvent businesses by the Obama administration during Operation Choke Point, a program to deny the disfavored access to banking services. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. labeled certain businesses “high risk,” including firearms and ammunition dealers, check-cashers, payday lenders and fireworks vendors. Unelected regulators, not Congress or courts, marked these industries as “dirty business” and made it “unacceptable for an insured depository institution” to offer them banking services. …With Democrats unable to ban guns legislatively, Rep. Carolyn Maloney admonished banks at a recent hearing to not “finance gun slaughter.” When she urged JPMorgan to deny credit for legal firearm sales as other banks had done, the CEO responded, “We can certainly consider that. Yes.” At the same hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib challenged bank CEOs: “Will any of your banks make a commitment to phase out your investments in fossil fuels and dirty energy?” The CEOs declined to defend fossil fuels… Letting political intimidation dictate the availability of private credit endangers freedom and stifles productivity growth and job creation. …The use of political intimidation to allocate capital is an assault on economic efficiency and freedom.

There is, however, a bit of good news.

The Trump Administration ended Operation Choke Point back in 2017.

And, although it is happening at the last minute, the Trump Administration is now trying to strengthen the rule of law so banks won’t feel pressured to discriminate against certain industries in the future.

In a column published yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, Brian Brooks and Charles Calomiris of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) explain the new rule that their agency has unveiled.

…there have been too many allegations of banks cutting off vital services, credit and capital that legal businesses rely on to create jobs, meet community needs and support the economy. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, where we serve as acting comptroller and chief economist, respectively, on Friday proposed a rule to prevent banks from discriminating against legal businesses and individuals. The rule would require bankers to do what they do best: assess risk and underwrite credit decisions. …politically driven discrimination against particular industries has threatened fairness in banking. Under the Obama administration, Operation Choke Point, in which the OCC did not take part, involved regulators discouraging banks from serving legal and constitutionally protected businesses such as payday lenders and gun and ammunition sellers. …the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 added to the OCC’s traditional mission of safety and soundness the obligation to ensure fair access to financial services… Banks may not exclude entire parts of the economy for reasons unrelated to objective, quantifiable risks specific to an individual customer.

Sadly, if Biden has the same attitude as Obama about the rule of law, a future OCC can reverse anything Trump’s people adopt.

I’ll close with a libertarian-minded observation.

Because I believe in freedom of association, I think banks should have the liberty to discriminate against specific businesses, or even entire industries.

But there’s a big difference between banks choosing to discriminate and being coerced into such behavior by government regulators.

So it was disgusting that Obama’s regulators went after industries they didn’t like, such as gun dealers.

But it would be equally reprehensible if a Republican Administration went after an industry it didn’t like, such as legal marijuana.

P.S. The broader lesson to learn from Operation Choke Point is that regulatory power for governments is a vehicle for corruption and malfeasance.

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More than ten years ago, I narrated this video in hopes of convincing politicians and bureaucrats that anti-money laundering laws (and associated regulations) were a costly and intrusive failure.

Sadly, my efforts to bring sanity to so-called AML policy (sometimes known as know-your-customer rules, or KYC) have been just as much of a failure as my efforts to get a flat tax. Or my campaign for a spending cap.

I can’t event get my left-leaning friends to care about this issue, even though poor people are disproportionately harmed when governments impose AML mandates on financial institutions.

Worst of all, not only is AML policy not getting better, there are constant efforts to make it more onerous.

The most-recent example is a proposed regulation, which Andrea O’Sullivan discusses in an article for Reason.

…the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department have proposed expanding what is called the “travel rule” to capture international funds transfers above $250. Currently, financial institutions are required to make certain reports on customers when they send international transactions in excess of $3,000. This has been the threshold since the travel rule was first adopted in the U.S. in 1996… surveilled people are suspected of no crime, nor are they given any opportunity to opt out of this data collection. Still, the government preemptively requires that their transactions be tagged and tracked as if they had done something wrong. …it’s worrying that government agencies don’t even consider personal privacy when proposing new regulations. …By law, federal agencies must issue cost-benefit analyses that weigh the trade-offs of a proposed new rule to industry and society. The travel rule analysis only considers the costs that would be imposed on banks on regulators. The extreme cost to privacy for millions of Americans is not even an afterthought… America’s financial surveillance system…creates compliance and hacking risks for institutions that must store this data. And it doesn’t even work very well. Criminals are routinely able to get the finance they need despite this web of data tracking. Meanwhile, innocent people may have trouble making transactions or get caught in the hassle of some overzealous agent. It’s a big mess.

This is an absurd proposal. The odds of any criminal being caught by added red tape are trivially small. Yet the bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve and Treasury are pushing this new regulation because they don’t care about costs that are borne by others.

Ideally, the entire reporting regime should be scrapped. As an interim measure, the $3,000 figure should be adjusted for the inflation that’s occurred since 1996, which would push the reporting limit to about $5,000.

Since we’re on the topic of inflation and reporting requirements, Prof. Randall Holcombe wrote an article for the Foundation for Economic Education about the anti-privacy reporting rules for other financial transactions.

…the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act of 1970 requires that financial institutions must keep records of cash transactions summing to more than $10,000 in one day and report suspicious transactions to the federal government. …because the limit is stated as a dollar amount ($10,000), inflation lowers the real value of that limit year after year. Adjusting for inflation, $10,000 in 1970, when the Act was passed, would be $65,000 today. …it appears to me the Act violates the Fourth Amendment, which states in part, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

Let’s close with a story in the Wall Street Journal that highlights how ordinary people are victimized by AML laws.

Mary Ann Liegey, a retired teacher in Manhasset, N.Y., was shocked in March when she received a letter from her local parish: “Your $20 check payable to St. Mary’s Church…was returned due to Frozen/Blocked Account.” The 75-year-old Ms. Liegey discovered that Citigroup Inc. had blocked her checking and trust accounts after she didn’t respond to a notice asking her for personal information to verify the accounts—part of the bank’s efforts to comply with government-mandated rules referred to as “know your customer,” or KYC. The rules are designed to make it harder for money launderers, terrorists and other criminals to finance illicit activities, hide funds or move dirty money around the globe. …The difficulty and complexity of these reviews are exacerbated by advances in technology that have fundamentally changed the ways people interact with banks. More customers are opening accounts or interacting through mobile apps rather than by walking into a branch and presenting physical identification.

Ms. Liegey isn’t the only victim.

There’s also Mr. Laderer.

Bill Laderer, who owns a landscaping business in Sea Cliff, N.Y., groused that Capital One Financial Corp. suddenly cut off his credit card because he hadn’t provided an employee identification number for his business, which has operated since 1941.

And Ms. Griffit.

Donna Griffit has had a Citigroup account for her California-based business, which helps startups craft pitches, for more than a decade. At the beginning of February, she got a letter saying the bank needed unspecified information from her by month’s end or her account could be closed. When she called the bank a few days later, no one could figure out what was needed, and the bank said it would get back to her, she recalled. She thought it was resolved. But in June, she discovered her account had been frozen.

I’ll close with this excerpt, which shows that all of us are actually victims because banks are spending lots of money to comply with AML/KYC laws.

Needless to say, those costs are passed along to customers.

…the average spending on KYC-related procedures for corporate and asset-manager clients by financial institutions with more than $10 billion in revenue grew to $150 million last year, with each having about 300 employees directly involved, up from just 68 a year prior.

What makes these laws so perverse is that they impose high costs on both individuals and businesses.

Yet they don’t reduce crime.

They don’t reduce terrorism.

They don’t stop drug dealers.

They don’t stop the mafia.

The bottom line is that you don’t help law enforcement by creating haystacks of data and then expect them to find needles.

Nonetheless, politicians support these laws because they can tell their constituents that they’re fighting bad people.

P.S. A recent aspect of AML/KYC laws is that there are proposals to ban cash (including the $100 bill).

P.P.S. In my campaign to be a global money launderer, I have one victory and one defeat.

P.P.P.S. Statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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I’m a big fan of New Zealand because the nation is a great example of how sweeping free-market reforms lead to very good results.

Perhaps most impressive, New Zealand has very high levels of societal capital, ranking #1 in the new Global Index of Economic Mentality.

And the country also gets very high scores from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

But that doesn’t mean policy is perfect. The current Primer Minister already has demonstrated she has a very limited understanding of economics, and now she’s proving her lack of knowledge by imposing a version of “comparable worth.”

In a column for the New York Times, lavishes praise on this misguided scheme, which would give politicians and bureaucrats the power to decide that certain professions are systematically underpaid based on the share of female workers.

…a New Zealand law aimed at eliminating pay discrimination against women in female-dominated occupations…provides a road map for addressing the seemingly intractable gender pay gap. …Instead of “equal pay for equal work,” supporters of pay equity call for “equal pay for work of equal value,” or “comparable worth.” They ask us to consider whether a female-dominated occupation such as nursing home aide, for instance, is really so different from a male-dominated one, such as corrections officer… What is at stake is…a societywide reckoning with the value of “women’s work.” How much do we really think this work is worth? But also: How do we decide? …In effect, New Zealand is engaged in a countrywide effort to…fundamentally rethink the value of the work typically done by women. But where equal pay processes are relatively straightforward, pay equity, when done properly, challenges us to think deeply and objectively about a job and its components. …To negotiate the New Zealand social workers’ settlement, for instance, a working group composed of union officials, delegates from the Ministry of Children, social workers and employer representatives undertook a comprehensive assessment… Unions in New Zealand are currently pursuing over a dozen public sector claims, covering, among others, library assistants, clerical workers and customer-facing roles.

Ms. Sussman writes about an “intractable gender pay gap,” but the academic evidence suggests that this concept is nonsensical.

Simply stated, if women were systematically underpaid, investors and businesses would reap enormous profits by by setting up female-only firms to take advantage of pay differentials.

Heck, it’s worth noting that even a member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors refused to support similar arguments in the United States.

For what it’s worth, the New Zealand legislation mostly seems to be a back-door way to funnel more pay to bureaucrats.

New Zealand has, so far, been able to take the steps it has because the government pays for these wages. It’s not yet clear when, or whether, these efforts will work their way into the private sector. The vast majority of New Zealand’s businesses are small, with some 95 percent of firms employing fewer than 20 people. …proponents of pay equity say arguments about affordability miss the point. “Employers are not entitled to make even small profits on the backs of underpaid women,” said Linda Hill, a member of the Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay, a group of feminists who have worked in different fields on this issue for years. “Businesses that can’t pay fair wages aren’t viable businesses.”

Wow, Ms. Hill must be the New Zealand version of Hillary Clinton (who, when asked about the potential impact of the 1993 Hillarycare legislation, infamously and dismissively said that “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized entrepreneur in America”).

By the way, Ms. Sussman likes the idea of imposing comparable worth in the United States, which she explicitly acknowledges is the opposite of free markets.

In America, where state support for gender equality has never been less robust, pay equity’s financial obligation will likely fall on individuals. Are we willing to pay more, say, at the grocery store, or to the home health aides who look after our elderly? Are we willing to re-examine the assumptions embedded in what we have been told are “free markets” for labor?

The bottom line is that comparable worth is a form of government-imposed price controls, in this case dictating the price of labor.

And, as explained in videos from Marginal RevolutionLearn Liberty, and Russ Roberts, it’s a very bad idea to let politicians interfere with prices.

P.S. For those who want to fully understand the economics of “comparable worth,” read this superb report by one of my colleagues from grad school, Professor Deb Walker.

P.P.S. New Zealand was not included in the study I wrote about last week, so it’s unclear how much bureaucrats already are overpaid.

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Last night’s train-wreck debate reinforced my disdain for politicians.

But let’s ignore the immature theatrics from Trump and Biden and focus on one of their policy disagreements.

The two candidates squabbled over whether creating a government-administered health plan (see page 31 for a description of Biden’s so-called  “public option“) would lead to the demise of the current system of employer-provided health insurance.

For what it’s worth, there are two big reasons why I’m not a fan of the current employer-based system.

That being said, I’m very aware of the fact that politicians are always capable of making things worse (the “lather-rinse-repeat cycle” of government failure).

So let’s consider this key question: Government intervention has made our health system expensive and inefficient, but would a “public option” make things better or worse?

About two months ago, I shared this video which explains why the so-called public option will wind up being an expensive boondoggle.

Given the track record of health entitlements, I think the video you just watched is correct. A public option would be a fiscal nightmare.

But does that mean it also would be a threat to the employer-based system of private health insurance?

I think the answer is yes, largely because the subsidies that will make the system more expensive are also the subsidies that will make the public option seem like a good deal.

Let’s use two analogies to get this point across.

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dominate housing finance, not because government-created entities are efficient, but because they use subsidies from the federal government to under-price private competitors.
  • Parents know private schools produce much better educational outcomes than government schools, but most families opt for the inferior option because it’s already being financed by their tax dollars.

I fear the same thing will happen with the so-called public option. Politicians (in their never-ending efforts to but votes) will keep increasing the subsidies. That will make employer-based health plans seem less attractive by comparison.

And there will also be political pressure to provide an ever-more-extensive set of benefits (as illustrated by the cartoon). That will also make employer-based health plans seem less attractive by comparison.

The net result of all this is that even though the vast majority of workers are happy with their current employer-provided health plans, Biden’s public option will slowly but surely squeeze them out of the market.

The bottom line is that we’ll wind up with single-payer, government-run healthcare, but politicians would be sneaking it in the back door.

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Last November, I criticized Nancy Pelosi’s scheme to impose European-style price controls on pharmaceutical drugs in the United States.

I wasn’t the only one who objected to Pelosi’s reckless idea.

We have forty centuries of experience demonstrating that price controls don’t work. The inevitable result is shortages and diminished production (sellers won’t produce sufficient quantities of a product if they are forced to lose money on additional sales).

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal also was not a fan of Pelosi’s proposal

Here’s some of the paper’s editorial on the adverse impact of her proposed intervention.

Mrs. Pelosi’s legislation would direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to “negotiate” a “fair price” with drug manufacturers… Any company that refuses to negotiate would get slapped with a 65% excise tax on its annual gross sales that would escalate by 10% each quarter. Yes, 65% on sales. …The bill also sets a starting point for Medicare negotiations at 1.2 times the average price of drugs in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.—all of which have some form of socialized health system. …foreign price controls have reduced access to breakthrough treatments. …Price controls are also a prescription for less innovation since they reduce the payoff on risky research and development. …Only about 12% of molecules that enter clinical testing ultimately obtain FDA approval, and those successes have to pay for the 88% that fail. …Price controls would hamper competition by slowing new drug development. The U.S. accounts for most of the world’s pharmaceutical research and development, so there would be fewer breakthrough therapies for rare pediatric genetic disorders, cancers or hearing loss.

A damning indictment of knee-jerk interventionism, to put it mildly.

Well, a bad idea from Democrats such as price controls doesn’t magically become a good idea simply because it subsequently gets pushed by a Republican (unless, of course, you qualify as a partisan as defined by my Ninth Theorem of Government).

Unfortunately, we now have a new example of bipartisan foolishness.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity opined on President Trump’s misguided plan to adopt European-style price controls.

…other nations have been free riders on America’s innovative pharmaceutical industry. …they have enacted socialist price controls to limit what they pay knowing that the largest market would pick up the slack to ensure a steady supply of new lifesaving drugs. It needs to stop, but President Trump’s recent executive order is not the right way to do it. …his “Most Favored Nations” Executive Order to…limit…prescription medication payments made through Medicare… But this is a flawed way of thinking about the problem. Other nations are…engaging in theft via price controls. …drugs can take months or even a year longer to arrive in countries with socialist healthcare systems. Patients suffer as a result… Another likely consequence is less innovation. Some drugs in this new price environment will no longer be cost effective to be developed. Patients again will suffer. …Getting foreign jurisdictions to pay for their share of pharmaceutical innovation by putting a stop to price manipulation is a noble goal. But it should not come at the expense U.S. industry and patients.

A study by Doug Badger for the Galen Institute points out that the Trump Administration’s approach – for all intents and purposes – would use Obamacare’s so-called Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to impose foreign price controls on prescription drugs in the United States.

The Affordable Care Act created CMMI and vested it with extraordinary powers. …The statute also shields CMMI projects against administrative and judicial review. …two HHS secretaries have claimed authority under CMMI to mandate a Medicare Part B payment mechanism without having to seek new legislation. …the Trump administration issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) announcing its intention to propose a far more sweeping Medicare Part B drug demonstration project….to…scrap the ASP Medicare reimbursement methodology in favor of one based on drug prices paid in other countries. …CMS is considering the establishment of an “international price index” (IPI). It would calculate the IPI based on the average price per standard unit of a drug in select foreign countries.

This is troubling for several reasons.

…the other countries on the proposed list have lower living standards than do Americans, as measured by per capita household disposable income… The median disposable per-capita income in the IPI countries is thus about one-third less than in the U.S. …Medicare reimbursement for physician-administered drugs would largely be based on international reference prices in which the regulatory agency of one government sets drug prices based at least in part on those set by regulatory agencies in other countries. …for all the different payment methodologies Congress has devised for medical goods and services, it has never based reimbursement on prices that prevail in foreign countries. The agency’s role is to implement congressionally-established reimbursement systems, not to create them out of whole cloth.

As you might expect, the Wall Street Journal has also weighed in on Trump’s plan.

The editorial points out there will be very adverse consequences if the President imposes European-style price controls.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order that could make…life-saving therapies less likely. Mr. Trump has been threatening drug makers for months with government price controls. …The President’s order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to require drug makers to give Medicare the “most favored nation” (i.e., lowest) price that other economically developed countries pay. …This ignores some crucial details. …Other countries also have to wait longer for breakthrough therapies, which is one reason the U.S. has much higher cancer survival rates. …The larger reality is that developing novel therapies isn’t cheap and can take years—sometimes decades—of research. Most products in clinical pipelines fail, and even those that succeed aren’t guaranteed to produce a profit. …The risk for all Americans is that drug makers will shelve therapies for hard-to-treat diseases that are in the early stages of development because of the high failure rate and low expected profit. This risk is most acute for therapies that treat rarer forms of diseases… The victims will be the cancer patients of the future, including perhaps some reading this editorial.

The bottom line, as I noted in the above interview and as many others have observed, is that other nations are free-riding on American consumers.

They get access to most of the drugs at low prices (since pharmaceuticals are cheap to produce once they are finally approved).

But the net result, as I tried to illustrate in this modified image, is that American consumers finance the lion’s share of new research and development.

This isn’t fair.

But we’d be jumping from the frying pan into the fire if we had European-type price controls that stifled innovation by pharmaceutical companies.

Sure, we’d enjoy lower prices in the short run, but we would have fewer life-saving drugs in the future.

P.S. There’s an analogy between prescription drugs and NATO since Americans bear a disproportionate share of costs for both. However, there’s a strong argument that there’s no longer a need for NATO. By contrast, I don’t think anyone thinks it would be a good idea to stifle the development of new drugs.

P.P.S. As an alternative, a friend has been urging me to support the idea of using the coercive power of government to mandate that American-based pharmaceutical companies charge market prices when selling overseas – an approach that would give foreign governments a choice of paying more or not getting the drugs. That seems like a better approach, at least in theory, but my friend has no answer when I point out that those companies would then have an incentive to leave the United States (as many firms did before Trump lowered the corporate tax rate to improve U.S. competitiveness).

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I’ve shared many videos (here, here, here, here, here, and here) explaining how government has made America’s health system expensive and inefficient. I especially recommend my 2019 speech to the European Resource Bank.

Now let’s add this video to our collection.

One lesson to take from all these videos is that the main problem with America’s health care system is multiple forms of government intervention (MedicareMedicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

And the main symptom of all that intervention is pervasive “third-party payer,” which is the term for a system where people buy goods and services with other people’s money.

And guess what happens when people go shopping with other people’s money?

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that third-party payer leads to higher costs.

One of the reasons that the costs of medical care services in the US have increased more than twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage of health care costs are paid out-of-pocket by consumers. …It’s no big surprise that overall health care costs have continued to rise over time as the share of third-party payments has risen to almost 90% and the out-of-pocket share approaches 10%. Consumers of health care have significantly reduced incentives to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical and hospital services when they pay only about $1 out of every $10 spent themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t paying out-of-pocket and aren’t price sensitive.

The best part of his article is when he compares cosmetic medical care to regular medical care to show how market forces – when allowed – lead to lower costs in the health sector.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients typically paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms.

Here’s Mark’s chart showing how costs have changed over the past 20 years.

Pay special attention to the bottom right, where I’ve highlighted in red  how competition and markets have lowered relative prices for cosmetic care – which starkly contrasts with the health sectors where government plays a dominant role.

Singapore seems to have the most-market-oriented system in the world.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, George Shultz and Vidar Jorgensen explain that the system is successful because people spend their own money.

If the U.S. wants lower costs, better outcomes, faster innovation and universal access, it should look to the country that has the closest thing to a functioning health-care market: Singapore. The city-state spends only 5% of GDP on medical care but has considerably better health outcomes than the U.S. …What does Singapore do that’s so effective? …All health-care providers in Singapore must post their prices and outcomes so buyers can judge the cost and quality. …Singaporeans are required to fund HSAs through a system called MediSave and to purchase catastrophic health insurance. As a result, patients spend their own money on health care and get to pocket any savings. …The combination of transparency and financial incentives has led to price and quality competition so intense that health-care costs are 75% lower in Singapore than in the U.S. …Singapore’s system of health-care finance shouldn’t seem foreign to Americans, nor should we doubt that it could work here. The U.S. has already seen that the combination of competition and price transparency can be successful: Witness the falling prices for Lasik and cosmetic surgery, which aren’t covered by insurance.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share this OECD data showing that almost all other member nations are better than the United States on this issue.

No wonder heathcare is more expensive in the United States.

P.S. There’s also more government spending on healthcare in the United States, per capita, than there is in almost every other nation.

P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also has led to higher costs and widespread inefficiency in higher education.

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During the Obama years, I frequently criticized the Administration’s bad policy choices. On a wide range of issues.

But I also expressed disappointment when President Obama arbitrarily and unilaterally decided to override or overlook laws that were inconvenient to his agenda.

Or when he asserted powers that didn’t exist.

Simply stated, I care about the rule of law.

And I care about the rule of law regardless of which political party holds power.

Which is why I’m disgusted that the Trump Administration has stretched the law beyond the breaking point so that the Centers for Disease Control can run roughshod over private rental contracts.

In his column for the Washington Post, George Will observes the CDC is engaged in an unprecedented power grab.

…the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…this month asserted a power to prohibit — through the end of 2020, but actually for as long as the CDC deems “necessary” — the eviction of private tenants from privately owned residences because of unpaid rent. This, even though eviction levels have been below normal during the lockdown. The CDC’s order protects tenants earning up to $99,000 — almost quadruple the official poverty line of $26,200 for a family of four. Or, for those filing joint tax returns, tenants earning up to $198,000, who are in the top quintile of U.S. households. …Noncompliant landlords can be fined up to $100,000 and incarcerated for up to a year. …A regulation promulgated by the executive branch grants vast — almost limitless, the CDC clearly thinks — discretion to an executive branch bureaucrat, the CDC director… And, if today’s director is correct, the director is authorized to curtail some property rights and abrogate some contracts nationwide, to suspend some state laws and strip state courts of jurisdiction in eviction cases. …The CDC presents all this as just another anti-infection protocol. Try, however, to imagine an activity or legal arrangement that the CDC, citing the regulation, could not overturn by fiat in the context of even a seasonal infectious disease such as the flu. Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University and another Cato adjunct scholar, notes: “Pretty much any economic transaction or movement of people and goods could potentially spread disease in some way.”

Christian Britschgi opines for Reason about the Trump Administration’s assault on property rights.

…the CDC’s eviction moratorium is an excellent example of how a patchwork of extreme, temporary policy interventions intended to stem the coronavirus pandemic has created a self-perpetuating justification for expanding government power across the board. …Over time, the economic damage and mass unemployed caused by a prolonged pandemic and continually extended shelter-in-place orders have fueled justifications for extending and expanding eviction moratoriums. After all, how can someone be expected to pay the rent if they aren’t legally allowed to work? Now a federal eviction moratorium covering all rental properties is being justified as necessary to ensure compliance with shelter-in-place orders. …the CDC’s order..ratchets up the government’s power in a way that won’t be easily undone.

Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo explains why the CDC’s actions are so worrisome.

Under the direction of the Trump administration, the CDC instituted a unilateral order halting many evictions. It essentially nationalizes millions of private rental properties and strips landowners of their basic rights. …For legal justification, the Trump administration cites one vague law that says during a pandemic the CDC director “may take such measures to prevent such spread of the diseases as he/she deems reasonably necessary, including inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of animals or articles believed to be sources of infection.” ….Across the country, millions of landlords will have tenants occupying their property and have no way to force them to pay rent or remove them if they won’t. …the federal government is trampling over private contracts and essentially seizing all affected rental properties as the domain of the state. …

Brad also makes the all-important point that the CDC’s regulation will actually make rental housing more expensive in the long run (sort of like the way rent control backfires).

…the CDC’s overreach will undoubtedly have severe economic consequences. This move will worsen the housing crisis in the long-run and make housing more expensive for everyone by decreasing supply. Many landlords will be unable to make their mortgage and property tax payments without rental income or any remedy for nonpayment. This will result in them losing their property and its eventual removal from the market. …this unprecedented invasion of contract rights and private property is sure to discourage future would-be landlords from renting out their property or entering the market. The long-term impact will be less housing overall, which means higher prices.

Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky is one of the nation’s most principled lawmakers.

Here’s his succinct analysis of what just happened.

Though I have a slight disagreement with Massie’s tweet.

This latest power grab by the federal government isn’t socialism. That would involve the government owning and operating rental properties.

Under the CDC edict, rental properties are still privately owned. It’s just that government controls how the property is used.

That’s a different economic system, as Thomas Sowell has explained.

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Politicians often support “industrial policy,” which means they get to grant special favors to well-connected companies or industries.

But as explained by Professor Burton Folsom, this approach didn’t work very will in the 1800s.

It’s not surprising, of course, that politicians like having the power to grant favors. It makes them feel important.

But such policies don’t work. At least if our measure of success includes things like competitiveness and efficiency. Or of if we care about the best interests of consumers and taxpayers.

Which is why is better to be on the correct side of this spectrum. In other words, as far from Soviet-style central planning as possible (I used to cite Hong Kong as an example of laissez-faire, but that may no longer be accurate).

By the way, the video also makes a good point about how the United States was not a laissez-faire paradise back in the 1800s.

While we didn’t have an income tax or a welfare state, there were other forms of intervention, as illustrated by the video, as well as lots of protectionism and regulation.

And don’t forget slavery, which was an especially grotesque anti-market policy.

The bottom line is that only politicians benefit when government has more power over the economy.

For the rest of us, the lesson to be learned is that government intervention doesn’t work. Not in the 1800s. Not in the 1900s. And not in this century, either.

If we want more prosperity, we should stick with the tried-and-true recipe for growth.

P.S. Professor Folsom also narrated a video showing how government intervention failed in the 1800s (railroads) and early 1900s (airplanes).

P.P.S. It’s especially disappointing that some self-styled conservatives are supporting industrial policy since – in practice – it means awful policies like Solyndra-style handouts and power-grab schemes like the Green New Deal.

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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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From the perspective of lifestyle (factors such as climate, scenery, and recreational opportunities), there’s probably no better state in which to live than California.

But if you want to be an entrepreneur, start a business, and create jobs, the Golden State is one of the worst places in America.

I’ve already written about the state’s punitive tax system. The 13.3 percent tax rate is far higher than any other state. That’s an acceptable burden to rich folks in Silicon Valley since they amass their wealth in the form of unrealized (and untaxable) capital gains.

But it’s a crippling burden for regular business owners.

California also has a very unfriendly regulatory regime, ranking a lowly 48 out of 50 according a comprehensive study.

What does that mean, in practical terms?

Let’s look at a few examples to understand the state’s hostile business environment.

We’ll start with the high-profile case of Elon Musk, who is openly rebelling against government red tape by restarting production in his Tesla factory.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirmed Monday he’s flouting county rules by reopening a Northern California plant amid concerns over safety during the coronavirus crisis, tweeting: “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” …Musk tweeted, “Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. …all other auto companies in US are approved to resume. Only Tesla has been singled out. This is super messed up!” …The county later responded in a statement: “We have notified Tesla that they can only maintain Minimum Basic Operations until we have an approved plan…and we hope that Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures.” …a frustrated Musk wrote that he was filing a lawsuit to halt the local restrictions and predicted relocating Tesla’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters to Texas or Nevada.

To be sure, this is a very unusual example, one where the battle is complicated by the very difficult issue of how to deal with a serious virus.

So let’s zoom out and consider other examples that existed well before the pandemic.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains for Townhall that California has a long history of policies that discourage entrepreneurship and job creation.

To climb out of the massive pit the economy has been thrown into, it will take not just the release of workers from their homes, but also entrepreneurs and innovators capable of adapting to a new economic environment. Unfortunately, innovators are often treated very poorly by all levels of government. And the worst offender is arguably California… Consider last year’s passage of AB 5. It upended California’s gig economy by requiring that contractors be reclassified as employees, even against their will, when certain thresholds were met. The arbitrary caps were set so low that self-employed freelancers have been devastated by a loss of work as many companies suddenly stopped working with California workers. …The state’s regulators are also unfairly attacking an innovative hotel business. OYO Hotels…focuses on the small hotels ignored by the large chains, offering them proprietary technology and marketing assistance to dramatically improve their ability to reach and attract customers, along with capital to ensure their rooms are up to the company’s standards… But California’s regulators have other ideas. They…claim that OYO’s activities make it a franchise, and therefore it was required to seek approval before ever operating in the state.

John Moorlach, a senator in California’s legislature, wrote a column for the Orange County Register about the Golden State’s anti-growth mentality.

If you were a corporate manager looking to build or lease a plant and hire workers, where would you look first? California, with a $13 minimum wage rising to $15 in 2022? …Then there’s the state income tax. During times of plenty, maybe it’s worthwhile to put up with California’s 13.3% top state personal income tax rate… But during tough times? …If you needed that 13.3 percent to re-invest in your company, instead of going to a poorly run state government, where would you go? …Companies that play by the rules, paying all the taxes and observing every labor regulation, will be at a disadvantage… The cost structure will just be too high. So many of these honest firms will go out of business, join the underground economy or move to Texas. …Every state needs a healthy economy in order to survive. …over-burdening its entrepreneurial sector…becomes an abuse.

Now you know why many people are “voting with their feet” and leaving the state.

Let’s close with my home-made visual that illustrates what red tape means for entrepreneurs.

Yes, there are some entrepreneurs who can make it all the way, but many others don’t have the time, money, energy, or expertise the navigate the entire course.

And others can get through eventually, but only at the cost of shrinking their businesses and hiring fewer workers.

Here’s the bottom line: This isn’t a binary no-regulation-vs-all-regulation choice. The states with the best scores for regulation (the top 5 are Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Iowa, and Indiana) have red tape, but it’s a question of degree.

Sensible jurisdictions give entrepreneurs more “breathing room” to start businesses and create jobs. Which is why the scholarly evidence shows that less regulation is good for prosperity.

P.S. The good news is that entrepreneurs can escape California’s red tape by moving across the border. The bad news is that this strategy doesn’t solve the problem of federal rules and mandates.

P.P.S. Since I’m always asked about this comparison, you can review data comparing Texas and California by clicking here, herehere, and here.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my favorite California vs Texas joke.

P.P.P.P.S. Libertarian readers will appreciate the argument for private regulation.

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Since I’ve never smoked or vaped, I have no personal interest in the the regulatory battle over vaping and e-cigarettes.

That being said, I started writing about this issue back in 2016 because it involves several important principles.

  1. The libertarian argument that people should be free to do what they want with their own bodies
  2. Whether the “administrative state” should be able to unilaterally grab more regulatory power.
  3. The degree to which “harm reduction” or “zero tolerance” should guide government policies.

From a public health perspective, the third point is most important.

It’s a fight between those who want the Food and Drug Administration to use its self-anointed regulatory authority to ban e-cigarettes (because vaping is worse than not vaping) and those who explain that e-cigarettes are helpful (because vaping is far less risky than smoking).

This fight has a September 9 deadline. The Food and Drug Administration decided several years ago that its power to regulate tobacco somehow meant it also has the power to regulate vaping. The bureaucrats then created a system requiring future approval for marketing and sale of e-cigarettes and related products (originally to be unveiled in 2022 but a federal judge has ordered an earlier deadline).

The FDA has basically given itself the power to prohibit these products, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the battle, here are two short articles (pro and con) about that effort.

I want to focus today on whether it makes sense to impose prohibition, and it’s a simple matter of cost-benefit analysis. Some people want to enjoy nicotine, so is it better for them to vape or to smoke?

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Roger Bate points out that smoking is far worse.

…there is an increasing amount of evidence to support it over smoking. As Michael Siegel — a public health Professor at Boston University — says “there is overwhelming evidence that smoking is more hazardous than vaping. One of the most compelling lines of evidence is a series of studies showing that when smokers switch to e-cigarettes, they experience immediate and dramatic improvement in both their respiratory and cardiovascular health, measured both subjectively and objectively.” Cancer rates are at an all-time low partially due to the introduction of vaping and subsequent reduction in smoking.

And if people can’t vape, that leads to more smoking.

Six scholars, in a new study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that higher taxes on vaping led to more cigarette consumption.

We explore the effect of e-cigarette taxes enacted in eight states and two large counties on e-cigarette prices, e-cigarette sales, and sales of other tobacco products. …We then calculate an e-cigarette own-price elasticity of -1.5 and a positive cross-price elasticity of demand between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes of 0.9, suggesting that e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes are economic substitutes. We simulate that for every one standard e-cigarette pod (a device that contains liquid nicotine) of 0.7 ml no longer purchased as a result of an e-cigarette tax, the same tax increases traditional cigarettes purchased by 6.4 extra packs.

If you don’t want to read an academic study, a press release from Georgia State University (home to one of the scholars) summarizes the key findings.

Increasing taxes on e-cigarettes in an attempt to cut vaping may cause people to purchase more traditional cigarettes according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health. For every 10 percent increase in e-cigarette prices, e-cigarette sales drop 26 percent while traditional cigarette sales jump by 11 percent. …“Vaping-related illnesses are a public health concern. However, cigarettes continue to kill nearly 480,000 Americans each year, and several research reviews support the conclusion that e-cigarettes contain fewer toxicants and are safer for non-pregnant adults,” said co-author Erik Nesson of Ball State University. …Michael F. Pesko from Georgia State University. “We estimate that for every 1 e-cigarette pod no longer purchased as a result of an e-cigarette tax, 6.2 extra packs of cigarettes are purchased instead,” he said. “The public health impact of e-cigarette taxes in this case is likely negative.”

Needless to say, if higher taxes on vaping lead to more smoking, one can only imagine how much additional cigarettes will be consumed if vaping is outlawed.

And that means more cancer, more heart disease, and other illnesses.

The folks who support anti-vaping policies respond by arguing that vaping enables nicotine consumption by some young people and may even be a gateway to smoking.

That’s probably true, but it’s also true that some of those young people would opt for smoking if they didn’t have the option to vape.

From a utilitarian perspective, the bottom line is that vaping saves lives.

The anti-vaping crowd might even admit that’s true, but they presumably would then argue in favor of banning cigarettes.

But why stop there? Obesity also is a major threat to health, so why not ban cakes, pies, pasta, and french fries? And big gulps (oh, wait, that’s already happening)?

And mandate broccoli consumption as well, along with a government-required five-mile jog on days that end in “y”.

At the risk of understatement, the right solution is to let adults make their own decisions. The FDA should quit its harassment campaign against vaping.

P.S. If FDA bureaucrats actually want to save lives, they should focus on their onerous rules and silly regulations that have hampered the private economy’s ability to respond to the coronavirus.

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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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Exactly one month ago, I wrote “A Primer on Price Gouging” to explain why government-mandated price controls are an unwise response when prices for certain goods climb after a disaster.

Here’s a video from Johan Norberg on the topic.

And here’s Professor Michael Munger from Duke University on the same issue.

Those are both excellent presentations.

In a column for the Nashville Business Journal, Professor Daniel Smith explains in written form why laws against price gouging inevitably backfire.

High prices in the wake of a disaster or in the face of uncertainty often spark consumer outrage and calls for stricter price-gouging laws. Such measures, however, would actually harm consumers searching for necessities in emergencies. …in the face of uncertainty, such as the coronavirus, it is instinctive for consumers to stock up on goods, such as water, toilet paper, and nonperishable food. Stores need some way to discourage consumers from hoarding or wasting necessities as well as to encourage the increased manufacture and delivery of necessities to the affected area. Higher prices, driven by the increase in demand for these goods, naturally incentivize both of these important functions. …higher price encourages consumers outside of the affected area to also economize on their purchases. The increased demand for building materials for rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina drove building material prices up across the nation, leading unaffected consumers to delay less essential building or remodeling projects. …Higher prices also encourage the manufacture and delivery of necessities to the affected area. …higher market prices, by increasing the supply of necessary goods, is the driving force that will ultimately push the price back down. …there is always concern for providing for low-income residents. But the empty shelves created by price gouging laws do little to help them.

It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that workers can engage in “price gouging” as well.

This tweet from Mark Perry cites a story about nurses being able to earn much more money if they agree to work in New York City.

For what it’s worth, I fully support those nurses extracting much higher pay. They’re going into the medical equivalent of a war zone.

And that’s a good outcome for society. Allowing prices (whether for goods or labor) to rise and fall in response to market conditions ensures that resources go where they have the most value.

Sadly, many politicians in Washington either don’t know or don’t care about the harmful impact of intervention.

Indeed, the House of Representatives wants to demonize so-called price gougers, as reported by Billy Billion of Reason.

When it comes to the federal government’s coronavirus response, there is much room for self-criticism. But that won’t come from the House’s new select oversight committee, announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.)… House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D–S.C.), telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that the committee will instead focus on things like “price gouging” and “profiteering.” …In other words, if Clyburn’s description is to be taken at face value, lawmakers will scapegoat private businesses, as opposed to delving into the list of ways the government has failed the American public. …The South Carolina representative said the House will…punish those that set high prices on essential goods, though he didn’t say how this would work in practice.

What’s really galling about the actions of Pelosi, Clyburn, and other politicians is that they’re insulated from the policies they impose on the rest of us.

They have voted themselves generous pensions, so they they don’t have to worry about a bankrupt Social Security system.

They have voted themselves lavish fringe benefits, so they don’t have to worry about dealing with the Obamacare disaster.

And they doubtlessly have arranged to be first in line for goods and services if there are shortages caused by anti-gouging laws.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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An unfettered “price system” is a core feature of capitalism, as explained in videos from Marginal Revolution, Learn Liberty, and Russ Roberts.

This video from Don Boudreaux is a great addition to that collection.

What happens, though, when politicians interfere with this system by dictating minimum or maximum prices?

I’ve previously addressed why price controls are misguided, looking at the sector-specific impact of government price-rigging for items such as rental housing, labor, and pharmaceuticals.

Now let’s consider the macroeconomic impact of price controls.

The World Bank has just published a new working paper on this issue. Here are some of the key findings.

Price controls have a long history with well documented examples… In the 20th century, these policies were used extensively in several Western countries…, culminating with widespread controls in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970s… Price controls were also ubiquitous in communist countries with planned economies. …Price controls can be imposed in a variety of ways. They may involve price ceilings, or price floors, imposed on selected goods and services by the authorities. …this study seeks to enumerate the challenges that price controls impose for growth and development and government policies. While they may be introduced with the best intentions to improve social outcomes, available evidence suggests that price controls often undermine growth and development, impose fiscal burdens…price control measures frequently morph into distortive subsidy regimes. Important social, fiscal and environmental costs are likely to follow, as well as adverse consequences for investment and employment, and productivity growth.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that price controls are more common in emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs), especially in low-income countries (LICs).

Price controls are widely employed across advanced economies and EMDEs. They tend to be much more pervasive in EMDEs than in advanced economies… Among EMDEs, they are more prevalent in LICs… In EMDEs that have become middle-income countries (MICs) since 2001, price controls are somewhat less common than in the average EMDE

The logical conclusion, of course, is that the existence of price controls helps to explain why these countries have lower levels of economic development.

Here’s a chart from the study showing the prevalence of price controls.

The study goes on to list all the negative effects associated with price controls.

If you don’t want to read a lengthy excerpt, I’ve highlighted some of the adverse consequences.

The use of price controls can have adverse consequences for growth for several reasons. Price ceilings can depress producer margins and discourage domestic investment and entrepreneurial activity…they can discourage foreign investment in those sectors by increasing the country risk premium facing global firms…where the controlled price is above that required for a competitive return to investment, its maintenance requires barriers to entry or costly government stockpiling of excess supply… Price-support controls can depress competition… Price control regimes may also tilt the allocation of resources towards the subsidized sector. …such policies can end up reducing productivity, and worsening income inequality… They may lead to inefficient use of subsidized inputs… They can also adversely affect incentives to adopt productivity-raising new technologies. Empirical evidence suggests that market-oriented structural reforms, including the reduction of price controls and their related subsidies, are strongly associated with improved firm-level productivity in EMDEs… Moreover, price controls that distort consumption towards price-controlled goods, can cause chronic shortages of these goods… Price controls in the financial sector, such as ceilings on interest rates, can distort financial markets… These measures reduce the supply of credit to safer borrowers and small and medium-sized enterprises, increase the level of non-performing loans, reduce competition and innovation in lending markets, and increase informal lending. Moreover, they can exacerbate inequality by limiting the poor’s access to lending. …Replacing price controls…, coupled with structural reforms, can be both pro-poor and pro-growth. Indeed, policies to lower subsidies that underpin price controls appear to be associated with higher per capita output growth.

An exhaustive list, to put it mildly. I’m almost surprised that lung cancer and tooth decay weren’t included as well.

Let’s now shift from macro impact to micro examples.

Writing for the Hill, Professor J.W. Verret of George Mason University Law School looked at price controls on payment processing.

In 2011, the Federal Reserve adopted rules implementing fee caps on debit card transactions, pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. These rules have led to diminished access to credit products for consumers and have failed in their promise to lower consumer debit fees. The last eight years have shown this to be a failed experiment. …The amendment’s direct price control has gotten most of the attention and well-deserved criticism, having resulted in the same consequences as all price controls. Every college student taking Economics 101 learns that keeping prices at an artificially low level results in an undersupply of vital goods or services. …Supporters of the Durbin amendment’s price controls and exclusivity ban argued that the provision would pass cost savings on to consumers. That alone was not a legitimate argument in the first place, as it would merely reflect use of government power to take property rights from innovators and redistribute them to politically sympathetic beneficiaries. Even if one were willing to accept that as a legitimate policy goal, the fact is it didn’t happen. Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond demonstrate that the Durbin amendment didn’t even fulfill its intended purpose. Retailers simply kept the cost savings. Thus, the Durbin Act merely reflected a very successful act of lobbying by retailers.

Yet another bad feature of a very bad law.

We also have a story in the Washington Post regarding price controls on brides in China.

The new rule was taped onto doorways around town: Officials were limiting what a groom-to-be could pay for a bride. The going rate was about $38,000, or five times the average annual salary in this village about four hours outside of Beijing. Now, families were told to keep it below $2,900. Anything more and they would risk being accused of human trafficking. The “bride price”…has been part of the marriage pact in most of China for centuries. The costs, though, are swelling as China copes with one of the biggest demographic imbalances in history. …There are an estimated 30 million or so more men then women in China… So officials in Da’anliu and other villages have taken matters into their own hands on one thing they can control: the bride price. …The controls are good if you have a son. Not so good for families with a daughter. Ask Liang, a pear farmer in Da’anliu. He has one daughter. When it comes time for her to marry, “I will ask whatever amount I want,” he said. “It’s not fair otherwise.” …“It’s the market,” he said. “I’m allowed to charge what the market will bear for my pears. Why not my daughter?” …The Da’anliu Communist Party secretary, Liang Huabin, has seen the way families scrimp and save and panic over the bride price. …He was not sure what to do about it until one of his constituents sent him a picture of a bride price limit instituted in another Chinese village. He decided to try something similar. …Wang Feng, a sociologist who studies Chinese demography at the University of California at Irvine, said…families…would find ways around any regulation — even limits on bride price. “It’s trying to cure a symptom, not the root issue,” he said

Yet another bit of evidence that price controls don’t work, even in a market that shouldn’t exist (at the risk of coming across as a chauvinistic westerner, Chinese daughters should be able to make their own marriage choices).

Since I started this column with a video, I’ll recycle a video I first shared nearly 10 years ago.

It shows how removal of price controls triggered the post-war economic miracle in West Germany.

For those who want more information on this topic, the Mises Institute has an online version of Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls, authored in 1978 by Robert L. Scheuttinger and Eamonn F. Butler.

These first few sentences from Chapter 1 aptly summarize the lessons from history.

From the earliest times, from the very inception of organized government, rulers and their officials have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to “control” their economies. The notion that there is a “just” or “fair” price for a certain commodity, a price which can and ought to be enforced by government, is apparently coterminous with civilization. For the past forty-six centuries (at least) governments all over the world have tried to fix wages and prices from time to time. When their efforts failed, as they usually did, governments then put the blame on the wickedness and dishonesty of their subjects, rather than upon the ineffectiveness of the official policy. The same tendencies remain today.

Last but not least, here’s a cartoon from the book.

It shows (I think) the former head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, in the role of Darth Vader and Jimmy Carter as a hapless version of Luke Skywalker.

This was back when wage and price controls were a government-imposed response to government-created inflation (a classic example of Mitchell’s Law).

Nowadays, price controls are primarily a tool for various interest groups to tilt the playing field.

P.S. The late Jeff MacNelly was the Michael Ramirez of the Reagan generation. For example, see these cartoons about government shutdowns, the tax code, and the United Nations.

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The current crisis teaches us that excessive regulation and bureaucratic sloth can have deadly consequences.

Here’s John Stossel’s video with another lesson, explaining that we need more capitalism rather than more government.

This seems like a no-brainer, especially given the wretched economic performance of countries where the government owns or controls the means of production.

But not everyone agrees. The appropriately named Paris Marx wants government to have more power, making the case for nationalization of Amazon in an article for Jacobin.

The government needs to…respond to the needs of people across the country as the pandemic situation deteriorates. The response should be to nationalize Amazon and integrate it with the USPS. …Nationalizing the company would also allow Amazon workers to get covered by the same union as postal workers… Amazon isn’t just an online e-commerce marketplace. …Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud computing platform…the cloud should be placed under public ownership. Taking control of AWS would allow the government to…ensure the cloud platform is serving the public good… We have a rare opportunity to fundamentally alter the economy to serve the needs of people instead of private profit, and it’s time to seize it.

Call me crazy, but if the government takes over Amazon and merges it with the Postal Service, I’m guessing that what emerges will have the inefficiency of the latter rather than the nimbleness of the former.

Just imagine a giant Department of Motor Vehicles (or, on a related note, the government’s track record on teaching kids to drive).

Which is why the U.K.-based Economist warned back in 2017 about the dangers of government-run companies.

Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments. For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. …But in the 1970s economists came to see state ownership as a costly fix to such problems. Owners of private firms benefit directly when innovation reduces costs and boosts profits; bureaucrats usually lack such a clear financial incentive to improve performance. Firms with the backing of the state are less vulnerable to competition; as they lumber on they hoard resources that could be better used elsewhere. …economists saw in the productivity slowdown of the 1970s evidence that an overreaching state was throttling economic dynamism. …State-owned firms pose risks beyond that to dynamism. Government-run companies may prioritise swollen payrolls over customer satisfaction. More worryingly, state firms can become vehicles for corruption, used to dole out the largesse of the state to favoured backers or to funnel social wealth into the pockets of the powerful. As state control over the economy grows, political connections become a surer route to business success than entrepreneurialism.

The good news is that very few politicians are supporting explicit nationalization.

The bad news is that there’s plenty of support for intermediate steps involving cronyism, industrial policy, and various types of direct and indirect subsidies.

Including in the legislation recently approved in Washington (not that anyone should be surprised).

Professor Amit Seru from Stanford and Professor Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago warn, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has take a dangerous step on the road to central planning.

The need to help individuals and small firms has provided cover to the largest corporate subsidy program in U.S. history. Under intense pressure from lobbyists, the Cares Act allocates $510 billion to support loans for large businesses. A small chunk of this money ($56 billion) will be used directly by the Treasury to grant loans to airlines and other “strategic” firms (read: Boeing). The Treasury will then confer the rest ($454 billion) to the Federal Reserve to absorb losses the Fed might incur in lending to firms in the private sector. The expectation is that the central bank will leverage this money… This is the largest step toward a centrally planned economy the U.S. has ever taken. And it socializes only losses. Profits, when they come, remain private. …The urgency of the moment facilitated a giveaway to vested interests. Now that the Cares Act is law, policy makers need to find ways to impose restrictions on how the money is deployed. It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence; the nature of American capitalism is at stake.

In other words, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction on my “Industrial Policy Spectrum.”

The key unanswered question is whether the government’s new powers will be temporary or permanent.

There’s a legitimate argument for some form of intervention while the crisis in ongoing. But what happens once things go back to normal? Will politicians allow the “creative destruction” of capitalism, or will they use their expanded power to permanently interfere with market forces?

If they choose the latter, there will be less long-run prosperity.

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Most economic downturns are caused by misguided government policy, which leads to predictable battles over how to address the fallout as well as battles over how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Today’s crisis is different. It’s more akin to a natural disaster. But it’s not a one-off event like a big hurricane or earthquake. It’s an ongoing pandemic, which is having a terrible impact on many sectors of the economy. And if it lasts a long time, the consequences will be catastrophic depression rather than ordinary recession (which is why it is reasonable to contemplate the economic and health tradeoffs of re-opening the economy).

To deal with the immediate consequences of this crisis, Washington has responded by approving a mutli-trillion dollar relief package. And I won’t be surprised if politicians come back with another huge package.

Since responding to a pandemic is a legitimate function of government, I don’t have a principled objection to emergency legislation (for wonky readers, there’s an interesting debate in libertarian circles about whether government assistance – even bailouts – can be justified because government has ordered a shutdown of economic activity, which can be viewed as a “regulatory taking“).

That being said, I worry that self-interested politicians will use the crisis as an excuse to shovel goodies to their friends and cronies.

And I also want to minimize the danger that politicians will use the crisis as a reason to permanently expand the size and scope of government.

I’ve already written about how the crowd in Washington is exploiting the crisis with regards to three different issues.

Today, let’s consider a potential downside of providing assistance to companies. We’ll focus on airlines, but the lessons apply to any businesses that get government assistance.

A Bloomberg report explains why this issue, in general, is controversial.

…the administration may consider asking for an equity stake in corporations that want coronavirus aid from taxpayers. …Against that, there’s the potential for political risk. During the financial crisis, some Republicans decried a tilt toward European-style socialism. The current crisis coincides with the — albeit fading — candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and his democratic socialist platform. …“This is a very big slippery slope because the ownership of private capital by government is not traditionally consistent with capitalism,” said Kevin Caron, portfolio manager for Washington Crossing.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on this issue focuses on the airline industry and makes some very important points.

America’s beleaguered passenger airlines are allocated roughly $50 billion in the coronavirus relief bill… The idea is simply to freeze the staff list for six months, at which point the pandemic might have receded and air travel recovered. In exchange, Congress has authorized the Treasury Secretary, at his sole discretion, to “receive warrants, options, preferred stock, debt securities, notes, or other financial instruments” that constitute “appropriate compensation to the Federal Government.” …The desire to get something for the taxpayer’s buck is understandable, but there’s a real risk here of a long-term nationalization. …Washington should have no role in directing the business of a private company, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin perhaps would agree. What if his successor turns out to be Treasury Secretary Elizabeth Warren? …Helping the airlines weather a 100-year pandemic might be, arguably, within the government’s job description. Owning them isn’t.

The bad news is that are no good options.

It’s not a good idea to simply give taxpayer money to airlines. And it’s also not a good outcome for airlines to go bankrupt, perhaps leading to a total shutdown rather than a reorganization.

Some outcomes, however, are worse than others. And having government as a major shareholder is the option with the greatest long-run risk. Simply stated, it’s a recipe for cronyism and industrial policy.

Based on what’s already happened on issues such as energy and trade, I don’t trust President Trump and his team to have a hands-off attitude. What will happen, as we approach the November election, if the White House thinks it can win a key state by forcing a company (either an airline or any other affected firm) to increase jobs and/or pay?

Or, if you happen to trust Trump, what happens if Joe Biden wins in November and – as the Wall Street Journal warned – a dogmatic interventionist like Elizabeth Warren becomes Treasury Secretary.

She already has a very bad track record on issues of corporate governance. Do you want her to have the power that comes with being a major shareholder?

For all intents and purposes, this is why I unveiled the Fifth Theorem of Government last September.

I’ll close with some troubling observations about where we may be heading.

  1. The technical definition of fascism (at least with regards to its economic policy) is nominal private ownership of business but government control.
  2. The technical definition of socialism is outright government ownership and control of business (along with other policies such as central planning and price controls).

Which raises the depressing issue of how much government ownership is required to get to #1 and how much additional government ownership is required to get to #2.

Could it be that Bernie Sanders may be the real winner, regardless of who is in the White House next year?

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Five days ago, I wrote “Coronavirus and Big Government” to highlight how sloth-like bureaucracy and stifling red tape deserve much of the blame for America’s slow response to the crisis.

And I started that column by sharing four points from a previous column on “Government, Coronavirus, and Libertarianism.” I’ll start today’s column by repeating the final observation.

4. The federal government has hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Here’s a video from John Stossel documenting the federal government’s clumsy incompetence.

And here are a bunch of stories and tweets that provide additional elaboration.

Feel free to click on the underlying stories if you want to get even angrier about the deadly impact of big government.

The silver lining to all the bad news is that politicians and bureaucrats have been relaxing regulatory barriers.

But will they learn the right lesson and permanently repeal government-created barriers that hinder the provision of health care?

Is it true, as Robert Tracinski wrote for the Bulwark, that “We’re All Libertarians now”?

This talking point has since been taken up by others in a more technically accurate form: there are no libertarians in a pandemic. The idea is that when a crisis hits, everyone suddenly realizes how much they need Big Government. This is a bizarre argument to make about a virus that got a foothold partly because of the corrupt and tyrannical policies of a communist government in China. The outbreak is currently at its worst in Italy, where socialized medicine has not turned out to be a panacea. And it was allowed to get out of control in America because the feds imposed an incompetent government monopoly on COVID-19 testing, blocking the use of better and faster tests developed by private companies. …There has been a surge of emergency deregulation to lift artificial barriers that prevent people from solving problems. …the loosening of federal controls on the private development of diagnostic testing, after the disastrous attempt to centralize it all at the CDC. We’re also seeing the suspension of restrictive licensing requirements on doctors and nurses to allow them to work across state lines, so they can go where the shortages are worst. There has also been a whole series of waivers on restrictions on the transportation and serving of food and beverages in order to help restaurants stay in business and feed their customers by offering curb-side service.

Needless to say, I hope Tracinski is right.

But I worry that the net result of this crisis is that we’ll have more red tape and the CDC and FDA will have bigger budgets.

If you think I’m being too pessimistic, just remember that the Department of Veterans Affairs was rewarded with more money after letting veterans die on secret waiting lists, the IRS was rewarded with more money after persecuting Tea Party groups to help Obama’s political prospects, and the education monopoly endlessly gets rewarded with more money even though student outcomes stagnate or deteriorate.

All as predicted by the First Theorem of Government.

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Back in 2013, I joked that “you get bipartisanship when the Stupid Party and the Evil Party both agree on something.”

That generally means bad outcomes, with the TARP bailout being a prime illustration.

We now have another example since many Republicans and Democrats want to restrict – or even ban – companies from buying shares from owners (i.e., company shareholders).

Known as stock buybacks, these share purchases should be viewed as an innocuous way of distributing profits.

But you’ll see below that many politicians think they be able to dictate how private businesses operate.

First, let’s look at some excerpts from the Tax Foundation’s very useful primer on the issue.

It’s important to understand why stock buybacks occur and the economic role they play. The new tax law lowered the corporate income tax rate… A lower rate also means that corporations will receive larger profits than anticipated on investments they made in the past—it should be expected that companies would share at least some of this unexpected increase in cash with their shareholders. …Stock buybacks are complements to investment, not substitutes for it. Research shows that stock buybacks do not deprive firms of capital that they would otherwise invest, and further, that stock buybacks can facilitate long-term investment by redirecting funds from lower growth firms to higher growth firms. …Limiting the ability of a corporation to return value to shareholders—value which was created by productive investments made in the past—will not improve economic conditions.

Many experts from the worlds of finance, business, and public policy have tried to explain why stock buybacks should not be viewed as controversial.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, for instance, Donald Luskin and Chris Hynes explain why it’s a bad idea to curtail buybacks.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren would require, among other things, that to receive aid…companies receiving aid be permanently barred from executing share buybacks, even after the aid is repaid. This is an opportunistic mutation of the left’s longstanding claim that buybacks are a uniquely evil form of predatory capitalism. In reality, buybacks create benefits for shareholders large and small… Shareholders must receive a dividend when it’s declared and pay taxes on it. In a share buyback, investors who want cash can sell some shares and pay taxes. If they don’t want cash, they can choose to hold on to their shares. …Some opponents of buybacks…argue that they waste company cash that ought to be reinvested in plant and equipment. But not every company is in growth mode, and even those that are might have more cash than growth ideas. …Paying money out to shareholders frees them to reinvest in new companies with big growth ideas. This is the best way to promote growth for the economy as a whole.

The Washington Post is not exactly a hotbed of libertarian thinking, so it’s noteworthy that its editorial warned that politicians shouldn’t be dictating private business choices.

the practice by which public corporations use spare cash to buy back their own stock has turned into a policy flash point for both Democrats and Republicans. The basic allegation is that profits devoted to stock buybacks…are profits not plowed back into new plants, equipment or higher wages. …Contrary to the concerns about diverting investment funds, U.S. nonresidential investment and job creation have been rising for most of the past decade. When shareholders get cash for their stocks, the money doesn’t disappear; it flows through the economy, often as productive investment elsewhere. …Perhaps a tax change would accomplish something — though companies would still have an incentive to give spare cash back to shareholders as long as there is no clearly superior investment alternative. Critics of stock buybacks are saying, in effect, that elected officials or regulators may know better than companies themselves what should be done with extra cash.

Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Ethan Lamb points out why Senator Cory Booker doesn’t understand the economics of buybacks.

Senator Cory Booker…reintroduced the “Workers Dividend Act,” which would mandate corporations match every dollar spent on buybacks with compensation toward employees. …this bill presupposes that stock buybacks are inherently bad for society. …Booker doesn’t understand the function of stock buybacks. …Buybacks are just another mechanism, like dividends, to return money to shareholders. …Booker and company will also argue that stock buybacks come at the expense of investment, whether it be in the form of wages or capital expenditures. …none of that is true. …stock buybacks are a brilliant example of the free-market system offering a win-win to both parties. In other words, when the corporation purchases its own stock, the money from that exchange has to go somewhere. Presumably, the investor that just received the money would re-invest in another company that would be more inclined to use that money on investments in labor, R&D, or capital.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal warned about the risks of government intervention.

Stock buybacks are the latest bipartisan piñata, whacked by politicians on the left and right who misunderstand capital markets. …Repurchasing shares is simply one way a company can return cash to owners if it lacks better ideas for investment. …Senators complain that “when corporations direct resources to buy back shares on this scale, they restrain their capacity to reinvest.” But the money doesn’t fall into a black hole. An investor who sells stock into a buyback will save or reinvest the proceeds. …Banning buybacks won’t create better investment options inside companies. Instead CEOs may spend more on corporate jets or pet projects with marginal economic returns. …A recent report from Mr. Rubio floats the idea of raising tax rates on buybacks. …For example: “An increased tax rate on repurchases might raise revenue to finance other incentives for capital investment.” In other words, Mr. Rubio wants politicians to have more leverage to direct how businesses deploy their capital. This would produce less investment, not more, with corresponding damage to workers and federal revenue.

Jon Hartley, in an article for National Review, debunks the notion that there’s some sort of special tax favoritism for buybacks.

Marco Rubio’s plan to tax stock buybacks in the hopes of spurring investment…is heavily flawed for multiple reasons. …the senator seems to be operating under the incorrect belief that buybacks are tax-advantaged, when in fact buybacks are already taxed in the form of capital-gains taxes. Since 2003, when the dividend-tax rate was lowered to remove the tax advantage then afforded buybacks, the tax rates on qualified dividends and long-term capital gains have been the same. …let’s take a hypothetical example: Say an investor bought a stock at $100 and over the period of a year, the stock price appreciated by 10 percent to $110 after the company increased its profits and paid corporate taxes (at today’s 21 percent rate) on its earnings. If the company pays a $2 dividend at the end of the year and the investor sells the stock at $108 (ex-dividend), the investor pays the 23.8 percent dividend tax on the $2 dividend received and 23.8 percent on the $8 capital gain. If the company buys back some of its stock at $110 instead of paying a dividend and the investor sells his shares at $110, the investor pays the long-term capital-gains tax of 23.8 percent on the $10 he made. …Now, let’s imagine that Senator Rubio’s legislation is passed and a tax on buybacks goes into effect. …A transaction that was previously subject to two layers of taxation (corporate and capital-gains taxes) is suddenly subject to three layers of taxation (corporate taxes, capital-gains taxes, and buyback taxes), yielding a higher overall tax bill.

Ted Frank, writing for the Washington Examiner, adds further analysis.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, proposed banning buybacks as one of a series of conditions of government relief. Anyone making blanket condemnations of stock buybacks is either confused or otherwise fundamentally unserious — and proposing counterproductive policies that will slow the recovery. …It’s economically indistinguishable from a special dividend, where a corporation pays out money to every shareholder, except it permits shareholders to elect their own tax consequences, unlike a dividend that creates a tax event immediately. …Proposals to ban buybacks are effectively proposals to demand corporations hold such huge stockpiles of cash, depriving shareholders of investment choices. Such proposals will backfire by slowing down the economic recovery when money that could be invested is instead held in corporate bank accounts, doing nothing.

I want to close by sharing two additional columns that argue against restrictions on stock buybacks, but also suggest that there may be some desirable reforms that might – as a side effect – lead to fewer buybacks.

Clifford Asness recently opined for the Wall Street Journal about buybacks and investment, echoing many of the points included in the above excerpts.

Share buybacks are when a company purchases its own common shares on the open market. After a buyback, a company is left with less cash and fewer shares outstanding. Buybacks, along with ordinary dividends, are one of the main ways companies return cash to investors—the ultimate objective of any investment. So why have buybacks become the subject of vitriolic criticism? …The lead accusation against buybacks is that they “starve investment.” …Related to the claims of starving investment, some argue that today’s buybacks are a form of “self-liquidation” in which companies are systematically shrinking away. This ignores that…the net cash outflow from share buybacks has been more than replaced by cash inflow due to new borrowing (think of this as a debt-for-equity swap). Despite buybacks, on net companies have been raising money, not liquidating. …Buybacks…facilitate a movement of capital from companies that don’t need it to those that do. That’s how markets are supposed to work.

But he then notes that the tax code’s bias for debt could be a problem.

…there are some possible problems with buybacks. If taken to excess far beyond today’s levels and financed with debt, they could lead to too much leverage.

Noah Smith explains for Bloomberg that banning stock buybacks is the wrong response to the wrong question.

Stock buybacks are a fraught and confusing issue. …A number of politicians have decried this practice, and sought restrictions or a ban. …Many observers are mystified by this animosity. …share repurchases are like dividends — a way to return money to shareholders. When companies don’t have any way to invest their money profitably, they might as well give the money back to investors.

But he then suggests other government policy mistakes that could be artificially boosting the level of buybacks.

…many of the concerns people have with buybacks probably could be better addressed by reforming other parts of the corporate system. If executive short-termism is the problem, stock- and option-based compensation should be discouraged. If debt is the problem, tax corporate borrowing more heavily. …instead of attacking buybacks, reformers should focus on fixing other parts of corporate America.

Since I just wrote about the tax code being biased in favor of debt, I obviously am very sympathetic to tax reforms that would put debt and equity on a level-playing field.

Noah Smith raised the issue of whether stock- and option-based compensation arrangements for company executives are artificially encouraging buybacks.

Well, my modest contribution to this discussion is to explain that such compensation packages became more prevalent after Bill Clinton’s failed 1993 tax hike imposed a significant indirect tax increase on corporate salaries of more than $1 million. That tax hike, however, did not apply to performance-based compensation, such as measures tied to a stock’s performance.

So what we’re really looking at are a couple of example’s of Mitchell’s Law in action.

Politicians adopt bad policies (favoritism for debt in the tax code and higher taxes on regular salaries), which lead to unintended consequences (more stock buybacks), which then gives politicians an excuse to further expand the size and scope of the federal government (restrictions and bans on buybacks).

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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I wrote last week about the libertarian response to the coronavirus crisis and made four simple points.

  1. Governments should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property. That includes fighting pandemics.
  2. A big sprawling federal government will be less capable and competent when responding to a real crisis.
  3. International evidence suggests greater government control is not a good recipe for success.
  4. Domestic evidence indicates that bureaucracies such as the FDA and CDC are exacerbating the problem.

That column led to an invitation, from the folks at Pairagraph, to participate in a debate with Jason Furman, a Harvard professor who served as Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Here are some excerpts from Jason’s opening statement.

Dan, you wrote a thoughtful piece the other day on a “Libertarian Perspective on the Coronavirus Response.” …But, I would also hope you would support me…in supporting a temporary increase in the share of Medicaid costs paid by the federal government. …health treatment is essential, and extra money…will help hospitals expand capacity as needed. After the pandemic is over we can take more time to debate the cost-benefit of this public funding for a low-income entitlement.

He then lists these four fiscal proposals.

Here’s some of what I wrote in my opening response.

Regarding potential steps to boost the economy, …conventional remedies may not be effective in the current environment. I don’t think my preferred policies (lower tax rates, for instance) will have much impact when people and businesses are focused on curtailing the spread of the virus. And I also don’t think Keynesian policies will be effective… That being said, we are facing a black-swan environment. …there is enormous pressure for Washington to do something.

What about Jason’s four proposals?

I agree on his first suggestion, but not on the mechanism.

…more health infrastructure would be very helpful. Which is why I want the private sector to take the lead. We’ll get faster results at lower cost.

As you might guess from what I wrote two days ago about paid sick leave, I’m very skeptical about program expansions.

I don’t want politicians to exploit a crisis to impose their long-standing policy preferences – especially when taxpayers, consumers, and workers will be burdened with long-run costs.

However, I’m open to his other two proposals.

I don’t think universal payments and/or business loans will prevent short-term economic harm. But if the federal government is going to do something, then payments and loans at least address a real problem (temporary loss of income) with a plausible action (temporary provision of cash).

Though I do warn that these ideas will have adverse unintended consequences.

In an ideal world, firms would guard against black-swan events by having business interruption insurance and households would similarly protect themselves by setting aside funds in savings accounts. Those prudent steps will be less likely in a world where people expect government intervention.

Our submissions are limited to 500 words, so neither of us had much opportunity to share details (there will be a second round, so the debate isn’t over yet).

Even with that limit, I made sure to mention Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs’ must-read book about the unfortunate history of politicians using crises as an excuse to seize more power and control over the private economy.

That’s because my biggest fear is that this temporary crisis will lead to permanent expansions in the size and scope of government.

Libertarians don’t fear the “slippery slope” because we’re paranoid. We fear it because we understand the perverse incentive structure of politicians.

I don’t know whether we’ll become Greece or Venezuela if we tumble down that slope. But I know it will lead to a bad outcome.

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I’m not a big fan of paternalism because of my libertarian belief that people should be free to govern their own lives.

That’s true even if they make choices that I think are foolish.

Needless to say, many politicians don’t share this laissez-faire perspective.

But not all governments are equally intrusive. Epicenter has released a new version of the Nanny State Index, allowing us to see which EU nations have the most onerous rules governing private behavior.

The Index has been charting the slide towards coercive paternalism since 2016 and there is little good news to report this year. Once again, Finland tops the league table but although it maintains a strong lead, other countries are closing the gap. …Whether it is food, drink, vaping or smoking, the lifestyle regulators have the wind in their sails… In general, the story is one of a constantly expanding nanny state raising prices and trampling freedom. The blame lies overwhelmingly with domestic governments, not with the European Union. Although the EU has made the situation worse with its counter-productive policies on tobacco and e-cigarettes, it cannot be held responsible for regressive taxation, draconian smoking bans and excessive regulation of alcohol and food. The gulf between the more liberal countries at the bottom of the Index and the more heavy-handed countries at the top shows how much latitude member states have. Treating your citizens like children is, by and large, a domestic policy choice.

As you can see from this table, Finland is the worst, followed by two of the (otherwise sensible) Baltic nations.

Meanwhile, Germany gets the best score, followed by Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The report’s author, Christopher Snowdon of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs, observes that nanny-state policies don’t even achieve their putative goal of longer lifespans.

Insofar as ‘public health’ campaigners acknowledge the damage done by their policies, they argue that it is more than offset by the benefit to health – the ends justify the means. But there is little evidence that countries with more paternalistic policies enjoy greater health or longevity. As Figure 1 shows below, there is no correlation whatsoever between Nanny State Index scores and life expectancy.

Here’s the chart showing the lack of a relationship between paternalism and longevity.

By contrast, there is a correlation between economic prosperity and life expectancy.

…there is a strong, statistically significant relationship between health and wealth. Figure 4 shows the relationship between life expectancy and economic prosperity as measured by per capita GDP. This suggests that pursuing economic growth would bring much greater benefits to health than coercive efforts to control personal behaviour with bans and taxes.

Here’s the chart from the study showing the relationship between the two variables.

The obvious takeaway is that European governments should focus on policies that expand economic liberty if they truly care about the well-being of their citizens.

P.S. What about the United States? I’m not sure where we would rank in the Nanny State Index. Though we do have some indication of which states have a more laissez-faire attitude. When I wrote about Freedom in the 50 States back in 2013, I noted that Massachusetts ranked #1 in the “bachelor party” category (based on issues such as booze, hookers, fireworks, and drugs). That category doesn’t exist int he most-recent edition, but Nebraska ranks #1 in the “victimless crimes” category.

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The most obvious threat to free enterprise is Bernie Sanders, though other prominent leftists are giving “Crazy Bernie” plenty of competition.

But I sometimes wonder whether the more tangible threat to capitalism comes from self-described conservatives who say they support markets but embrace trendy ideas that would expand the size and scope of the federal government.

The people who gravitate to these ideas inevitably argue that a Reagan-style agenda of free markets and limited government is somehow inadequate.

They even make the laughable claim that the Republican Party in recent decades has been dominated by libertarian economic thinking. I’m not joking.

And they come up with creative justifications for bad ideas.

For instance, Oren Cass has concocted a “cost of thriving index” that purports to show ever-increasing economic pressure on families.

Cost-of-Thriving Index (COTI): the number of weeks of the median male wage required to pay for rent on a three-bedroom house at the 40th percentile of a local market’s prices, a family health insurance premium, a semester of public college, and the operation of a vehicle. …The COTI shows a declining capacity of a worker to meet the major costs of a typical middle-class household. As the COTI basket has become unaffordable, families have found workarounds, like having more household members work more hours, making do without, borrowing, and relying on government support. Each of these comes with its own costs, undermines the stability of families and the rationale for their formation, and creates high levels of stress and uncertainty. …The U.S. economy of recent decades has eroded, rather than reinforced, the American model of thriving, self-sufficient fami­lies.

Here’s his COTI graph, which supposedly shows that a breadwinner would have to work 53 weeks per year to buy what was easily affordable back in 1985.

A number of experts have identified serious methodological problems with his work (see Scott Winship, Mark Perry, Robert Verbruggen, Stan Veuger, Matt Yglesias, Don Boudreaux, and Andrew Biggs).

I want to make a different point. So I’m going to ignore all the problems that exist with the methodology and data, and I’m going to assume – for the sake of argument – that Cass’ chart is accurate.

And the reason I’m willing to make that heroic assumption is that Cass inadvertently shows why bigger government and more intervention is a bad idea.

Here are the numbers he used to create his chart.

If you examine what’s happened with the different categories, you’ll quickly notice that almost all the increase in his index is the result of ever-high costs for health care and college.

Yet those are precisely the areas where there the role of government has increased.

More specifically, we have a massive third-party-payer problem with health care caused by Medicare, Medicaid, and the tax code’s healthcare exclusion.

And we have a massive third-party-payer problem in higher education thanks to a big expansion of loans, grants, and other subsidies.

In both cases, providers have responded to government intervention with higher prices and massive inefficiency.

The bottom line is that the chart should be modified to show the harmful impact of government.

The challenge for Cass is to somehow explain why more government is a good idea when his own numbers show that we’re getting bad results in the sectors where we already have lots of government.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson to be learned. Or a principle that should be applied.

P.S. Or we could just listen to Ronald Reagan (see 2nd and 8th videos).

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The main problem with America’s health care system is government intervention (Medicare, Medicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

The main symptom of all that intervention is pervasive “third-party payer,” which is the term for a system where people buy goods and services with other people’s money.

And pervasive is no exaggeration. According to government data, nearly 90 percent of health care expenditures are paid for by someone other than the consumer.

And that means buyers are not sensitive to price. Which means sellers have little incentive to be efficient and keep prices under control.

The net effect is that the free market is not allowed to operate in most parts of the health care system. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we have ever-rising costs and lots of bureaucracy.

Let’s look at an example.

One of my former colleagues, Michael Cannon, recently wrote about what happened when Obamacare mandated that birth control be covered by insurance (third-party payer) rather than being directly purchased by consumers.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) dramatically expanded insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives such as “the pill.” From August 2012 through January 2014, the federal government phased in the ACA’s requirement that nearly all private health insurance plans must cover all Food and Drug Administration‐​approved prescription contraceptives with no cost‐​sharing. …As a result of these changes, the share of consumers who are sensitive to the price of contraceptives plummeted. …among women with large‐​employer coverage who use oral contraceptives, “the share experiencing out‐​of‐​pocket spending…declined from 94 percent in 2012 to 11 percent in 2017.” …The ACA’s reshaping of the market for oral contraceptives precisely coincided with a dramatic increase in prices for those items. …As the mandate began to take effect and as the ACA made oral contraceptives seem “free” to more purchasers, prices for hormones and oral contraceptives began to rise. …Once the mandate took full effect, prices began to rise rapidly. From May 2013 through May 2019, while real prices for non‐​prescription drugs and prescription drugs overall rose just 12 percent and 37 percent, respectively, prices for hormones and oral contraceptives rose 108 percent. …these data suggest that trying to make oral contraceptives “free” for insured consumers had the unintended consequence of making them far more expensive.

Here’s the chart, which is a powerful – and depressing – illustration of how government intervention leads to rising prices.

Notice how birth control costs (the orange line) begin to skyrocket as the Obamacare mandate took effect.

Another depressing thing to consider is that consumers get tricked into thinking that birth control is free.

In reality, of course, the higher costs get built in to the price of health insurance, which then means less take-home pay for the people who thought they were benefiting. But since they don’t understand that this is what’s happening, they decide their employers are too greedy or that compensation is stagnant.

Sigh.

Needless to say, the companies selling birth control lobbied to get their product automatically covered. After all, they knew they could raise prices (as shown in the chart) once customers started buying with other people’s money.

P.S. Several years ago, Sandra Fluke got her 15 minutes of fame by asserting that she had a right to third-party-financed birth control. That led to some clever jokes, including this cartoon, these images, this cartoon, and this video.

P.P.S. When markets are allowed to operate in healthcare, relative prices fall.

P.P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer is also generating higher costs and needless bureaucracy in higher education.

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Regulatory policy has been one of the bright spots of the Trump Administration (along with tax policy).

But it’s not a perfect record.

In a column for Townhall, Steve Sherman describes how the Labor Department launched a regulatory attack against Oracle in the final days of the Obama Administration.

President Obama was not a good president, but he was really good at issuing midnight regulations… Obama’s army of left-wing lawyers were also busy writing up last minute lawsuits… President Obama’s administration went after the tech companies Palantir, Google, then Oracle by alleging discrimination using statistics gathered as part of routine audits of these government contractors. In all of these suits, no actual evidence of discrimination was presented, merely statistics gathered that claimed to prove discrimination. This type of evidence would be tossed out in a real court, but with these suits, they were handled administratively and internally at the Department of Labor. …Oracle was so outraged by continued harassment that they fought back and sued the federal government for violating the Constitution’s separation of powers arguing that the lawsuits statutory authority.

So why am I criticizing the Trump Administration for regulatory harassment that was launched under Obama?

For the simple reason that some of Trump’s appointees have allowed the assault to continue, as former Congressman Bob Barr explained for the Daily Caller.

The Trump administration has performed admirably in reducing the regulatory red tape that has strangled American businesses… But for reasons not entirely clear, the Department of Labor has lagged behind other agencies in this regard. One clear example is the way the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has continued unnecessary and counterproductive Obama-era litigation against tech companies… In a 2017 study, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce…set forth in extensive detail that the OFCCP in recent years had become enamored of faulty, statistics-based challenges to companies engaged in federal contracts… A number of lawsuits reflecting this abusive approach to regulatory enforcement were filed against large tech companies in the waning months of the Obama administration. …the Department of Labor sued…, just two days before President Trump was sworn in, Oracle. …the Labor Department instead has become…a regulatory bully searching for ways to punish companies. …Hopefully, …Donald Trump and Eugene Scalia…will step in and make sure that the small but powerful agency…gets on board the administration’s drive to actually reduce federal regulatory burdens

The Washington Post has some details on the dispute between Oracle and the federal government.

…the Labor Department…alleges Oracle, the database management company founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, paid some women as much as 20 percent less than their male peers, or $37,000, in 2016. The lawsuit was filed by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which audits companies with government contracts worth more than $100 million a year. …The hearing in San Francisco has broad significance for the tech industry because the allegations against Oracle are similar to the department’s claims that other tech giants, including Google and Palantir, exercised systemic bias against minority and female employees in hiring, pay or promotion. …Oracle’s lawyer argued that the Labor Department’s expert witness compared employees based on broad job titles and failed to take into account that a software developer who worked on Oracle’s product PeopleSoft is valued differently in the market than developers who work on the artificial intelligence of machine learning. …The department claims Oracle’s college recruiting program hired 500 graduates between 2013 and 2016 for product development roles at its Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters, 90 percent of whom were Asian. During the same period, Oracle only hired six black people through the recruitment program. …The agency argues that pay disparities stem from Oracle’s practice of…relying on prior salaries to set their pay at Oracle.

The key thing to understand is that the federal government is unable to find any victims of actual discrimination.

As the Wall street Journal opines, bureaucrats are relying on statistical differences.

Protecting the constitutional separation of powers is back in political fashion as more businesses challenge abuses of administrative agencies. One case worth watching is Oracle’s lawsuit arguing that the Labor Department has usurped the federal judiciary and other executive agencies. Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) filed a discrimination complaint against Oracle in the waning days of the Obama Administration. During a routine audit, the OFCCP in 2014 conducted a statistical analysis of Oracle’s workforce. And what do you know? The agency says it discovered disparities based on race and sex that it claimed were prima facie evidence of discrimination. …In sum, the agency said Oracle discriminated against every class of worker in one way or another. It demanded that Oracle lose current and forgo future federal contracts plus pay up to $400 million in restitution to its alleged victims. Yet its case all but collapsed at an administrative trial this month. The Labor office presented no evidence of intentional discrimination or even witnesses who claimed as much. …Oracle is suing the OFCCP for violating the Administrative Procedure Act and separation of powers. …the agency investigates, prosecutes, tries and punishes businesses even though it has no legislative authority to do so.

I’ll close by citing Thomas Sowell’s column for Jewish World Review on how “disparate impact” is basically a scam.

“Disparate impact” statistics have for decades been used, in many different contexts, to claim that discrimination was the reason why different groups are not equally represented as employees or in desirable positions… The implicit assumption is that such statistics about particular outcomes would normally reflect the percentage of people in the population. But, no matter how plausible this might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life… Blacks are far more statistically “over-represented” among basketball stars in the NBA… Hispanics are similarly far more “over-represented” among baseball stars than in the general population. Asian Americans are likewise far more “over-represented” among students at leading engineering schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech than in the population as a whole. None of this is peculiar to the United States. You can find innumerable examples of such group disparities in countries around the world and throughout recorded history.

Sowell isn’t just theorizing.

He wrote a thoroughly researched book on exactly this issue.

The bottom line is that groups – on average – sometimes have different interests and aptitudes.

Walter Williams observed about ten years ago that, “Not every choice based on race represents racism and if you think so, you risk misidentifying and confusing human behavior.”

And there’s no evidence that Oracle even made decisions based on race to begin with.

So the bureaucrats at the Department of Labor are using bad methodology to harass and extort a company.

Left-leaning administrations have a track record of pushing bad policies on their way out of office, so I’m not surprised the Obama Administration launched the attack on Oracle. But I am surprised that the Trump Administration has allowed the legal assault against the company to continue.

P.S. While I normally don’t think the federal government should have any power to interfere with regards to market outcomes for hiring, pay, promotion, and association, it’s legitimate for Uncle Sam to put conditions on companies that bid on federal contracts. I just wish they would fight actual examples of bias, not mere statistical differences.

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Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there are some consistent patterns with government.

Politicians, for instance, will enact a policy that distorts the economy and causes damage (with regards to trade, bailouts, guns, health, whatever). And they’ll then point to the damage and assert that even more intervention is needed.

I call this Mitchell’s Law, though I certainly don’t claim to be the first to observe this distressing tendency.

Today, we’re going to examine a classic example of this phenomenon by looking at how politicians are distorting the housing market with supply restrictions that produce higher costs, and then compounding their mistake with subsidies and price controls.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute offers some economic analysis.

Recently there has been a flurry of legislative proposals to add yet more housing subsidies to the housing sector, already one of the most heavily subsidized. …These are the most recent in a long history of ill-conceived policies that increase housing demand but do nothing about supply. The result: higher home prices and rents, particularly for low-income and minority households, the very ones these initiatives profess to help. …layers of subsidies combined with federal, state, and local regulations act to drive up costs while simultaneously constraining supply. …For example, Los Angeles has a median home price that is 8.8 times median income, up from 4.2 times in 1979. And median rent in LA is 49% of the median income, up from 32% in 1979. These results are largely driven by (i) easy access to credit which drive demand and prices ever higher, (ii) local land use restrictions and regulations that constrain new supply and drive building costs higher, and (iii) housing subsidies that make it even more difficult for market rate housing to compete. …Market-based solutions are the only way to bring home prices and rents back in line with median incomes and improve accessibility.

While there are plenty of bad housing policies in Washington (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Department of Housing and Urban Development, mortgage-interest deduction, etc), much of the problem is caused by state and local governments.

Kevin Williamson of National Review cites a regulation in Dallas to show that government intervention causes problems.

…smaller secondary residences built on the lots of other houses..have long been a go-to source of cheap housing in college towns and other places with substantial itinerant populations of temporarily penniless young people. …Dallas…prohibited the building and rental of these residences in the 1970s on the theory that this would help to improve the living conditions on the south side of town… To the great surprise of nobody except politicians and their creatures, prohibiting the construction and rental of affordable housing did not do much to help poor people in Dallas connect with affordable housing. …The politicians have decided that there is an affordable-housing crisis in America. They should know: They created it. …Why? Because people who own homes have more political power than people who might want to buy one at some point in the future.

The Wall Street Journal opined today about the inane anti-housing policies in the Beaver State.

Politicians bemoan the lack of affordable housing, but their policies often create the problem. Look no further than Oregon… Oregon’s population grew by nearly 400,000 between 2010 and 2019. But the state added a mere 37 housing permits for every 100 new residents… Oregon’s land-use rules have been dysfunctional for decades. …strict limits on urban expansion…urban growth boundaries… Rising housing prices are the inevitable result of this government-imposed scarcity. …Portland has enforced an “inclusionary zoning” requirement on new residential buildings with 20 or more units. The city now compels many landlords to rent up to a fifth of new units at below-market rates. …Permits for 20-plus-unit residential buildings plummeted 64% in 25 months after inclusionary zoning took effect, while applications to build smaller multi-family structures spiked… The rest of Oregon is following Portland’s bad example with more price controls. Last year it became the first state to impose universal rent control.

To show the impact of regulatory restrictions, the invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has a must-read comparison of Los Angeles with two Texas cities.

Adjusting for population, there are about 600 homeless people per 1 million population in Houston and Dallas, but nearly five times as many in LA at 2,707. The comparisons…highlight the simple economic logic that if you restrict the supply of new housing units (especially multifamily homes, duplexes, and large apartment buildings) in states like California with onerous building, land use, and zoning regulations, those restrictions are guaranteed to result in higher housing costs, higher apartment rents, and ultimately a greater homeless population. …The increasing rents, escalating home prices, and growing homelessness problem in California cities like LA are a direct result of local and state restrictions that artificially constrict the supply of new housing units. The solution is therefore simple, but politically unpopular and probably not politically feasible: California should increase its supply of housing by reducing its onerous restrictions on building new housing units.

Here’s his accompanying table. Notice how Dallas and Houston are much more affordable than Los Angeles.

And there’s less homelessness as well, in large part because housing is cheaper.

Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review about the anti-housing policies of New York’s governor.

Some of the inflated expenses associated with life in New York can be avoided… But you have to live somewhere. As in the Bay Area, Washington, and other Democrat-dominated cities, housing is the real killer in New York City and environs. …Like most U.S. cities advertising themselves as “progressive,” New York has a lot of political leaders who talk about affordable housing and a lot of political policies that keep affordable housing — and many other kinds of housing — from being built. This is not accidental: People who already own property typically have a lot more political influence than people in the first-time home-buyer market. …At the behest of moneyed environmental interests, Cuomo has stood athwart the building of practically any new conventional energy infrastructure, including pipelines for clean-burning natural gas. …Much of New York’s gas comes from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but there isn’t enough carrying capacity to get it to New York. And New York has plenty of gas of its own, too, but New Yorkers can’t use it — thanks again to Cuomo, who has banned modern gas-extraction techniques in the state, again at the behest of the anti-energy ideologues who enjoy an outsized financial footprint in the Democratic party.

In addition to zoning laws and other land-use restrictions, the government also makes construction more expensive, as explained in a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The average cost for home builders to comply with regulations for new home construction has increased by nearly 30% over the last five years, according to new research from the National Association of Home Builders. Regulatory costs such as local impact fees, storm-water discharge permits and new construction codes, which have risen at roughly the same rate as the average price for new homes, make it increasingly difficult for builders to pursue affordable single-family construction projects… The cost of regulation imposed during the land development and construction process on average represented $84,671 of the cost of the average new single-family home in March. That is up from $65,224 in 2011, the last time the home-building industry group conducted a similar survey on regulatory costs. …A study this week from housing research firm Zelman & Associates found that local infrastructure “impact fees” have increased by 45% on average since 2005 in 37 key home building markets across the country, to about $21,000 per home.

Here’s a sobering graphic from the article.

All this regulation is bad for macroeconomic performance.

A recent study by two economists finds that land-use restrictions result in substantial misallocation of labor, causing a non-trivial reduction in economic output and family income.

The increase in spatial wage dispersion is driven at least in part by cities like New York, San Francisco, and San Jose, which…adopted land use restrictions that significantly constrained the amount of new housing that can be built. As described by Glaeser (2014), since the 1960s coastal US cities have gone through a property rights revolution that has significantly reduced the elasticity of housing supply… Instead of increasing local employment, productivity growth in housing-constrained cities primarily pushes up housing prices and nominal wages. The resulting misallocation of workers lowers aggregate output and welfare of workers in all US cities. This paper measures the aggregate productivity costs of local housing constraints… We use data from 220 metropolitan areas in the United States from 1964 to 2009… we calculate that increasing housing supply in New York, San Jose, and San Francisco by relaxing land use restrictions to the level of the median US city would increase the growth rate of aggregate output by 36.3 percent. In this scenario, US GDP in 2009 would be 3.7 percent higher, which translates into an additional $3,685 in average annual earnings. …We conclude that local land use regulations that restrict housing supply in dynamic labor markets have important externalities on the rest of the country. Incumbent homeowners in high productivity cities have a private incentive to restrict housing supply. …this lowers income and welfare of all US workers.

So how can this problem be fixed?

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Cathy Reisenwitz explains that state and local politicians need to remove barriers.

America is in the middle of a housing crisis. The cause is simple: we’re not building housing fast enough to keep up with jobs. While the number of U.S. households grew by 11.2 million between 2005 and 2015, we only added about 9.9 million new housing units. …this isn’t a problem Washington can fix. That’s because this problem, and its solution, lies in cities and towns across the country. …Cities across the country make it impossible to build enough housing to meet demand by blocking, restricting, and delaying housing developments. …Even in areas where you can technically build multi-unit homes, other land-use restrictions make it all-but-impossible. These exclusionary land use practices include height restrictions, setback requirements, parking minimums, community review, aesthetic considerations, and minimum lot sizes. …A recent statistical analysis…showed that in 44 out of 50 states, the more land-use regulations on the books, the more homes cost. Reducing land use regulations is the right move for getting Americans out of poverty and into work.

Let’s close with some good news.

Salim Furth has a new article for City Journal, and he argues that all the evidence is actually changing minds and leading to some deregulation.

Last year, Democratic- and Republican-led states and municipalities passed legislation addressing housing affordability, a hopeful sign that housing deregulation is beginning to attract bipartisan support… Encouragingly, Arkansas and Texas have squelched such requirements through bipartisan state legislation. Arkansas has restored autonomy to homeowners on virtually all building-design choices, from color to roof pitch, while Texas has purged local restrictions on building materials. …North Carolina and Texas…passed legislation requires cities and counties to issue project approvals within a few weeks. In Texas, a developer can now move forward with construction if a municipality takes more than 30 days to review a completed application. North Carolina now imposes a 15-business-day limit for building permits involving one- and two-family dwellings. …State legislators will likely continue to address housing-supply restrictions in the years ahead. …The battle over rent control and inclusionary zoning could intensify as well, as it already has in California and Oregon. …policymakers in blue and red states alike should consider how current regulations restrict housing supply and drive up prices.

The bottom line is that housing across the nation will be much more affordable if state and local governments let markets operate.

Here’s a map showing estimates of land-use restrictions in major metropolitan areas. The goal for the nation should be more green and less red.

Incidentally, Fairfax, VA, is part of the D.C. area, so that red spot indicates that my home’s value is being subsidized (as are the homes of Washington’s parasite class).

But since I believe in a just society, I hope my part of the map becomes green, even if it means my home becomes less valuable (folks on the left are willing to hurt the poor so long as they also hurt the rich, whereas I’m willing to sacrifice myself so long as unjust favoritism for others also vanishes).

 

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When I want to explain that excessive government shortens lifespans, I’m going to have a new and powerful argument thanks to the Trump  Administration’s misguided efforts to restrict vaping.

The issue is very simple.

Some people want nicotine. If vaping products are not available, they will opt for cigarettes, which are vastly more dangerous.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the issue, echoing the point I made about how the Trump policy will open the door for higher-risk black-market products.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced a ban on flavored e-cigarettes…don’t think this will…make teens stop vaping. …it’s not clear how much good the FDA ban will do. It is already illegal for teens under age 18 to buy e-cigarettes, but that hasn’t stopped them. …One risk of the FDA’s flavor ban is more teens might buy e-cigarettes on the black market that are less safe. Illegal products are the main culprits in the recent cases of vaping-related lung illness.

Here’s some of what Jacob Sullum wrote on this topic.

In a wake-up call for people who claim to be concerned about smoking-related disease and death, five prominent public health scholars warn that the “tremendous” harm-reducing potential of e-cigarettes could be nullified by panicky political responses to underage consumption and vaping-related lung injuries. …”There is solid scientific evidence that vaping nicotine is much safer than smoking,” the authors note, while “evidence from multiple strong observational studies and randomized trials suggests that vaping nicotine is more appealing and more effective than [nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches and gum,] at displacing smoking.” …that displacement is not limited to adults. Fairchild and her co-authors point out that “population youth smoking rates dropped much faster in the years vaping surged the most (2013–2019) than in prior years, reaching record lows during that same period, which suggests that nicotine vape use may be replacing smoking more than promoting it.” E-cigarette prohibitionists may think they are acting “out of an abundance of caution,” but the policies they advocate look downright reckless when you consider the ongoing death toll from cigarette smoking.

In the interview, I mentioned that the United Kingdom has a far more sensible approach.

Matt Ridley wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about his country’s policy.

Nicotine itself is far less harmful to smokers than the other chemicals created during combustion. Heavyweight studies confirm that there are much lower levels of dangerous chemicals in e-cigarette vapor than in smoke and fewer biomarkers of harm in the bodies of vapers than smokers. …In both the U.K. and the U.S. the rapid growth in vaping has coincided with rapid reductions in smoking rates, especially among young people. Yet there is a stark contrast between the two countries in how vaping has been treated by public health authorities… Many British smokers have switched entirely to vaping, encouraged by the government, whose official position is that vaping is 95% safer than smoking, an assertion now backed by early studies of disease incidence. The organizations that have signed a statement saying that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking include Public Health England, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society for Public Health. …The argument for harm reduction is not one that comes easily to some public-health advocates, because it means promoting behaviors that may still be harmful, just less so than the alternative. Vaping doesn’t have to prove entirely safe for it to save lives, given that it mostly replaces smoking.

Brad Polumbo adds some details in a column for the Washington Examiner.

America’s war on vaping is in full swing. But when you consider the positive approach taken in the United Kingdom, the foolishness of this new conflict is laid bare. …Vaping is much healthier than smoking traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes do contain nicotine, but nicotine was never really the problem with traditional cigarettes in the first place — it’s essentially similar to caffeine. Rather, the enormous public health problem posed by cigarettes is due to the cancer-causing chemicals they contain, such as tar, for example. Vaping products do not contain similar chemicals, making them much, much less likely to cause cancer. …If the government is to do anything to address vaping, it should be to promote it as an alternative to smoking. This is what the U.K.’s government has done, to massive success. …A sober analysis reveals that we are doing exactly the opposite of everything we should be doing. We are putting up more barriers and restrictions on vaping, and instead, we should embrace the U.K.’s approach.

Let’s shift from international policy to state policy.

In another column for Reason, Jacob Sullum explains that awful politicians in Massachusetts want to combine two bad policies – vape bans and asset forfeiture.

Massachusetts has “the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country.” It looks like state legislators are about to outdo themselves. The Massachusetts House of Representatives…approved a bill that would ban flavored e-cigarettes, impose a 75 percent excise tax on “electronic nicotine delivery systems” (including e-liquids as well as devices), and authorize forfeiture of cars driven by vapers caught with “untaxed” products. …The bill also says a police officer who “discovers an untaxed electronic nicotine delivery system in the possession of a person who is not a licensed or commissioner-authorized electronic nicotine delivery system distributor” may seize both the product and the “receptacle” in which it is found, “including, but not limited to, a motor vehicle, boat or airplane in which the electronic nicotine delivery systems are contained or transported.” …Massachusetts is poised to deprive vapers of the harm-reducing products they used to quit smoking, then steal their cars if they dare to defy that unjust and irrational edict.

Needless to say, two negatives don’t make a positive.

Let’s close with this chart, which (in a logical world) should put an end to the debate.

Yes, it would be nice if nobody used any sort of dangerous product. But in the real world, where we face tradeoffs, I’d much prefer that people get nicotine from vaping.

P.S. And people should have the freedom to make choices that involve risk. Libertarianism is about treating people like adults.

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As I discuss in this recent interview, a higher minimum wage is a terrible idea if we care about facts and evidence (and also want to help poor people).

In the interview, I mentioned that minimum wage mandates aren’t good news for workers who lose their jobs.

One of them, Simone Barron, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about her unfortunate experience after the minimum wage was increased in Seattle.

This city’s minimum wage is rising to $16.39 an hour on Jan. 1. Instead of receiving a bigger paycheck, I’m left without any pay at all… That’s because the restaurant where I’ve worked for six years is closing as a consequence of the city’s harmful minimum-wage experiment. …When rent is too high, labor costs too much, and customers don’t want to pay $40 for a roast-chicken entree, the only way for many operators to ease the pain is to close. So now, after six years working at Mr. Douglas’s restaurant Tanakasan, I need to find a new work home. My first thought was to go back to Sitka & Spruce, a restaurant where I had once worked. …As it turns out, I can’t return to Sitka & Spruce. Its James Beard Award-winning owner, Matt Dillon, is closing Sitka after 14 years, defeated by the one-two punch of rising rents and labor costs. …I often hear people in Seattle lament that it’s becoming “more corporate.” The truth is that the city has made it nearly impossible for many small businesses to survive. …I’ve started applying for other open positions around town. I landed an interview at a restaurant called Super Bueno, owned by another established chef, Ethan Stowell. Before I could even confirm the interview, Mr. Stowell announced that he will close down Super Bueno at the end of the year.

Just in case you’re tempted to dismiss Ms. Barron’s story as a mere anecdote, let’s now look at some broader evidence.

There’s a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that measures the impact of minimum wage mandates. The results are not encouraging.

Using intertemporal variation in whether a state’s minimum wage is bound by the federal rate and credit-score data for approximately 15.2 million establishments for the period 1989–2013, we find that increases in the federal minimum wage worsen the financial health of small businesses in the affected states. Small, young, labor-intensive, minimum-wage sensitive establishments located in the states bound to the federal minimum wage and those located in competitive and low-income areas experience higher financial stress. Increases in the minimum wage also lead to lower bank credit, higher loan defaults, lower employment, a lower entry and a higher exit rate for small businesses. …Our results document some potential costs of a one-size-fits-all nationwide minimum wage, and we highlight how it can have an adverse effect on the financial health of some small businesses.

But not everybody cares about evidence.

The New York Times just opined in favor of the Bernie Sanders approach on the topic.

Over the past five years, a wave of increases in state and local minimum-wage standards has pushed the average effective minimum wage in the United States to the highest level on record. The average worker must be paid at least $11.80 an hour… Millions of workers are being left behind because 21 states still use the federal standard, $7.25 an hour… House Democrats passed legislation in July that would gradually increase the federal standard, to $15 an hour in 2025…the legislation also would require automatic adjustments in the minimum wage to keep pace with wage growth in the broader economy. …For most companies, the bill is relatively small, and it can be defrayed by giving less money to shareholders, or by raising prices. …The American economy is generating plenty of jobs; the problem is in the paychecks. The solution is a $15 federal minimum wage.

Interestingly, the editorial actually acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all $15 mandate would backfire.

It is possible that a national $15 standard would produce the kinds of damage critics have long predicted; the Congressional Budget Office puts the potential increase in unemployment…3.7 million people… Workers may be most vulnerable in areas where prevailing wages are relatively low. In California, for example, the minimum wage for large employers (more than 25 workers) will rise to $13 an hour on Wednesday. That is unlikely to cause problems in San Francisco — but the new minimum is quite close to the median hourly wage of $15.23 in the Visalia metropolitan area in the Central Valley. The federal minimum would apply to metropolitan areas like Daphne, Ala., and Sumter, S.C., where the median worker earned less than $15 an hour in 2018. One simple corrective, proposed by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, would be to include exemptions from the $15 standard for low-wage metropolitan areas and rural areas.

In other words, the NYT endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage, and then concluded by admitting it would be very bad if there actually was a $15 federal minimum wage.

This is why I prefer this editorial from the New York Times.

…there’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed. Raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would price working poor people out of the job market. …An increase in the minimum wage…would increase employers’ incentives to evade the law, expanding the underground economy. More important, it would increase unemployment: Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and fewer will be hired. …Those at greatest risk from a higher minimum would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs. …The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable – and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.

Sadly, that editorial was from 1987, back when the newspaper had a more rational perspective.

In those days, the New York Times also favored the flat tax.

Today, the publication is almost a parody of “woke” emotion since many reporters and editors push a statist agenda, presumably because (their perceptions of) good intentions matter more than good results.

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In order to protect against “Goldfish Government,” it’s very important to make sure that the powers of government are constrained by national borders.

This is the reason why I’m a passionate defender of tax competition and fiscal sovereignty (even if it means being subjected to slurs, attacks, and imprisonment!).

And it’s why I oppose extraterritorial tax laws such as FATCA.

The fight against extraterritoriality isn’t limited to fiscal issues. It’s also become a big problem in the area of financial regulation.

In a new study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, Bruce Zagaris addresses the over-use of sanctions and how they produce undesirable unintended consequences.

The widespread use of economic sanctions constitutes one of the paradoxes of contemporary American foreign policy. Although sanctions are often criticized, even derided, they are simultaneously and quickly becoming the policy mechanism of choice for the United States. The U.S. has economic sanctions against dozens of countries. Even though the success rate of sanctions is unimpressive, sanctions are so popular that they are being introduced by many states and municipalities. …In a global economy, unilateral sanctions tend to impose greater costs on U.S. businesses than on the target, which can usually find substitute sources of supply and financing. …As the U.S. is increasingly resorting to unilateral sanctions, they are inadvertently mobilizing a club of countries and international organizations, including U.S. allies, to develop ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions. …Sanctions are criticized due to their lack of effectiveness, adverse humanitarian effects, and adverse public health effects. Sanctions foment criminalization both during and after the sanctions as a way to circumvent sanctions. Sanctions also result in unintended negative effects on neighbor countries… The excessive use of economic sanctions, especially when U.S. allies oppose them and become targets, produces diplomatic tension, and damages the U.S.’s economy and reputation abroad. The growing number of countries in the club of targets has caused countries to develop innovative means to circumvent the use of the dollar.

I’ve previously written about how the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency could be threatened by extraterritoriality, so I fully agree with the concerns in Bruce’s study.

Interestingly, even the U.S. Treasury Secretary acknowledges that there is a problem.

The issue also has been featured on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

Sahil Mahtani of Investec Asset Management opined that excessive sanctioning by Obama and Trump creates risks for the dollar.

Will the U.S. dollar soon lose its status as the world’s pre-eminent currency? …Developments in foreign-exchange markets during the past 18 months point toward dedollarization. …The increasing use of economic sanctions under Presidents Obama and Trump is the immediate cause of dedollarization. …the change in posture among the trans-Atlantic democracies is noteworthy. …the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world means the coming market cycle is likely to be different. The U.S. dollar may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

Other experts also have warned about how sanctions can backfire on the American economy.

 

The Economist also has highlighted how promiscuous use of sanctions is both wrong and could backfire against America.

The United States…has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. …America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. …as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems. …Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. …Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 BNP Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. …Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. …American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the DOJ for its role in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules. …escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar… Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

To be sure, not every issue should be decided solely on the basis of economics. More GDP is good, but not at the cost of sacrificing honor and dignity.

Some nations might be so evil that sanctions are justified.

But policy makers should be fully aware that there are costs when sanctions are imposed.

Those costs include foregone trade, which would be bad for American consumers, workers, and businesses.

Most important, those costs could mean the dollar gets weakened or dethroned as the world’s reserve currency and the U.S. loses its “exorbitant privilege.”

And that could mean less investment in America, which translates into fewer jobs and lower wages.

P.S. The study by Bruce Zagaris is the third in a series on why extraterritoriality is a bad idea. The first study focused on extraterritorial taxation. The second study analyzed extraterritorial financial regulation.

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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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I’m a big fan of Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator has been very good on some big issues and on some small issues. And he’s willing to fight important philosophical battles.

No politician is perfect (for instance, Rubio defends sugar subsidies), so I’ve always judged them by whether – on net – they’re on the side of more freedom or more statism.

Which is the ideal framework for today’s column.

Earlier this month, Rubio wrote a column for National Review asserting it is time for “common-good capitalism.”

Pope Leo XIII wrote that the ultimate goal for any society should be to “make men better” by providing people the opportunity to attain the dignity that comes from hard work, ownership, and raising a family. …What makes this society possible is the rights of both workers and businesses, but also their obligations to each other. …In the economy Pope Leo described, workers and businesses are not competitors for their share of limited resources, but partners in an effort that strengthens the entire nation. …This…doesn’t describe the economy we actually have today. Large corporations have become vehicles for shareholders and banks to assert claims to cash flows, rather than engines of productive innovation. Over the past 40 years, the financial sector’s share of corporate profits increased from about 10 to nearly 30 percent. The share of profits sent to shareholders increased by 300 percent. This occurred while investment of those profits back into the companies’ workers — and future — dropped 20 percent. …This is what it looks like when, as Pope Francis warned, “finance overwhelms the real economy.” …Diagnosing the problem is something we should be able to achieve… Ultimately, deciding what the government should do about it must be the core question of our politics. …What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism. …our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market; the market exists to serve our nation.

Some of this rhetoric rubs me the wrong way (and citing an economic illiterate like Pope Francis is appalling), but what really matters is whether Rubio is proposing more power for government or less power for government.

That’s hard to say because he doesn’t offer much in terms of policy.

Though I’m not overly impressed by the handful of ideas that were mentioned.

I don’t pretend to know anything about rare-earth minerals, but it’s laughable to think the Small Business Administration is a wellspring of innovation, and there’s plenty of evidence that paid parental leave is bad policy (child tax credits aren’t bad, but there are other tax policies that are far better for families).

On the other hand, Rubio also has been making the case for “full expensing,” which is a very good policy.

Since we don’t have any additional details, I don’t know whether his new agenda is a net plus or a net negative.

Kevin Williamson of National Review, by contrast, is definitely not a fan of Rubio’s approach. Here’s some of what he wrote last week.

Senator Rubio…joins the ranks of those who propose to reinvent capitalism — “common-good capitalism,” he calls it. …Senator Rubio, working from remarks originally delivered in a speech at Catholic University, references a series of popes — Leo XIII, mostly, but also Benedict and Francis — to describe (whether the senator understands this or not) the familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking… I write this as a fellow Catholic: God defend us from these backward, primitive-minded Catholic social reformers. …power is what is at issue. Men such as Senator Rubio desire for themselves the power to overrule markets — to limit trade and property rights, enterprise and exchange — in the service of what Senator Rubio describes as the “common good.” The problems with that are…Senator Rubio does not know what the common good is and has no way of knowing. …What we need from men in government is not the quasi-metaphysical project of reinventing capitalism in the name of the “common good.” …This is not a brief for anarchism. …We need stability and predictability from a government that secures our liberty and our property in the least obtrusive way that can be managed.

And he followed up two days later with another critical column, even equating Rubio’s agenda to Elizabeth Warren’s loony proposal.

From Senator Marco Rubio and his “common-good capitalism” to Senator Elizabeth Warren and her “accountable capitalism,” politicians right and left who want politicians to have more power over private economic decisions assume a dilemma in which something called “capitalism” must be balanced against or made subordinate to something called the “common good.” This is the great forgetful stupidity of our time. …Capitalism, meaning security in one’s own property and in the right to work and to trade, is the common good… What is contemplated by Senator Rubio and Senator Warren — along with a few batty adherents of the primitive nonidea known in Catholic circles as “integralism” and everywhere else more forthrightly as “totalitarianism” — is to invert the purpose of the U.S. government. …We’re supposed to give up our property rights so that these two and their ilk can use corporate welfare to fortify their own political interests? …The “stakeholder” thesis put forward by Rubio and Warren would strip shareholders of control of their own property and use that property in the service of interests of other parties, who are not its rightful owners. …the great prosperity currently enjoyed by North Americans and Western Europeans — and, increasingly, by the rest of the world — is a product…of capitalism… It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t the cleverness of Senator Rubio or Senator Warren. It wasn’t the big ideas of Pope Francis, to the modest extent that he has any economic ideas worth identifying as such.

Oren Cass argues that Williamson is both unfair and wrong about Rubio.

Williamson believes that Rubio wants to “be . . . the bandit, taking control of other people’s property”; “strip shareholders of control of their own property,” which “is robbery”; “redefine away the property rights of millions of Americans”; “limit . . . property rights”; and “run Apple or Facebook or Ford.” …I’ve read the Rubio speech carefully and can find none of this. …Rubio’s project is to explore the vast gray expanse between the white of liberty and the black of property theft. …This is the terrain on which many of American history’s great public deliberations have unfolded, yielding policies from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures to the “internal improvements” of the early 1800s, the tariff debates between McKinley and Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s space race, and Reagan’s import quotas. Property theft all of it, at gunpoint no less, if I understand Williamson correctly. …Someone will have to make a value judgment as to what “goods” are in fact “good” and thus worthy of providing publicly.

Cass is right that there’s a lot of space between pure capitalism and awful statism. I’ve made the same point.

But it does worry me that he favorably cites a bunch of historical policy mistakes, such as protectionism, antitrust laws, and the New Deal.

Jonah Goldberg makes the should-be-obvious point that the United States is hardly a laissez-faire paradise.

For as long as I can remember, people on the left have complained about “unfettered capitalism.” …Senator Bernie Sanders said earlier this year that “we have to talk about democratic socialism as an alternative to unfettered capitalism.” …Recently, the concern with capitalism’s unfetteredness has become bipartisan. Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have taken up the cause in a series of speeches and policy proposals. Conservative intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony have taken dead aim at unrestrained capitalism. J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News have suggested that economic policy is run by . . . libertarians. My response to this dismaying development is: What on earth are these people talking about? …If you think there are no restraints on the market or on economic activity, why on earth do we have the Department of Labor, HHS, HUD, FDA, EPA, OSHA, or IRS? The United States has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world (i.e., the share of taxes paid by the rich versus everyone else). If you take into account all social-welfare spending, we spend more on entitlements than plenty of rich countries. Now, if you think we don’t spend, regulate, or tax enough, fine. Make your case. If you think we should spend and tax differently, I’m right there with you. But the notion that the United States is a libertarian fantasyland is itself a fantasy.

Amen.

And this brings me to my modest contribution to this discussion.

I’ve already admitted that Rubio hasn’t provided enough details to assess whether he wants more liberty or more statism.

That being said, I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and we know for a fact that “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” meant more statism).

So here’s my challenge to Rubio and Cass (as well as everyone else who proposes an alternative to Reagan-style small-government conservatism). Please specifically identify how much government you want. Yes, there is a “vast gray expanse” between pure laissez-faire and pure statism, as Cass noted. But he didn’t say where in that expanse he wants America to be.

To help people respond to this challenge, here’s a chart, based on the data from Economic Freedom of the World. In that “vast gray expanse” between pure capitalism and pure statism, should policy makers try to shift America in the direction of Hong Kong? Or in the direction of Sweden, or even Greece?

The bottom line is that we need to climb the scale (i.e., have more overall economic liberty) if we want more prosperity.

That’s what will help facilitate all the things, such as good jobs and strong communities, that Senator Rubio wants for America.

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As part of National Education Week, I’ve looked at the deterioration of K-12 government schools and also explained why a market-based choice system would be a better alternative.

The good news is that we have a choice system for higher education. Students can choose from thousands of colleges and universities.

The bad news is that federal subsidies are making that system increasingly expensive and bureaucratic.

That’s today’s topic.

The underlying problem is “third-party payer,” which is a wonky term to describe what happens when students are buying education with money from somebody else. When this happens, they tend to not care about the price, which then makes it possible for colleges and universities to increase tuition so they become the real beneficiaries of the subsidies.

So nobody should be surprised that college costs are skyrocketing upwards, both in absolute terms and relative terms.

It’s a bubble, but one that probably won’t pop because of the ongoing stream of subsidies.

Jon Miltimore has a very good summary of the perverse incentives created by government.

Federal loans have made tuition far more expensive. Universities get paid up front—so whether students graduate, drop out, or default on the loan doesn’t matter. Departing students are easily replaced. Confident that students have access to cheap money (which can be expensive in the long run), colleges have no incentive to control or cut back the prices of housing, tuition, fees, and meals. …The best solution is to get the federal government out of the loan business altogether. If universities themselves offered loans, incentives would push them toward controlling costs and maximizing student success after graduation. Another option is income share agreements, which allow potential employers or independent organizations to pay tuition in exchange for a percentage of the students’ future earnings. …When markets seem to falter—recent, painful examples include the student loan bubble and housing crisis—the culprit is often government intervening in a way that warps incentives.

In a study for the Mercatus Center, Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon compile numbers and analyze studies.

The evidence broadly suggests that institutions of higher education are capturing need-based federal aid and responding to increased federal aid generosity by reducing institutional aid. …federal and state student aid funding expanding significantly over time, from just under $3 billion in 1970 to just under $160 billion in 2017. …Increased eligibility over time has led to a large and growing proportion of college students who receive federal financial aid. …there is a growing strand of economic literature examining the relationship between federal aid and tuition prices. …A study by Bradley Curs and Luciana Dar…finds that…institutions actually raise tuition levels and reduce their institutional aid when the state increases need-based awards. …A study by Stephanie Cellini and Claudia Goldin…finds that for comparable full-time nondegree programs in the same field over 2005–2009, institutions that are eligible for federal aid raised tuition by about 78 percent more than institutions that are ineligible. …Grey Gordon and Aaron Hedlund…develop a quantitative model for higher education to test explanations for the steep rise in college tuition between 1987 and 2010. …These results reveal that increased federal aid is responsible for more than doubling the cost of tuition over a 23-year period.

Here’s a chart from the study showing the explosion of federal subsidies.

By the way, Paul Krugman actually thinks taxpayers have been “starving” higher education.

Let’s get back to exploring the analysis of more sensible economists. Professor Antony Davies and James Harrigan make two key points in their FEE column.

First, subsidies are producing consumers who don’t make sensible education purchases.

…total student debt in the United States passed the $1.5 trillion mark. …the total has been growing at around $80 billion per year. …Around 11 percent of student debt is either delinquent or in default, which is more than four times the delinquency rates for credit cards and residential mortgages. …the problem with making college “free…” that a student must repay a college loan gives him tremendous incentive to at least consider what jobs he could obtain with the college education he must pay for after graduation. A student who is unencumbered by the need to repay a college loan faces little cost when choosing to major in something with little to no future value. …It’s well worth taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay for a degree that increases a student’s expected lifetime earnings by millions of dollars. But taking out tens of thousands in loans to pay for a degree that increases a student’s expected lifetime earnings by the same tens of thousands or less is, financially, a terrible investment.

Here’s a chart from their article, which looks at the value of various majors.

Second, the problems are caused by bad government policy.

We are in the midst of a college loan bubble for almost all of the same reasons that, a decade ago, we found ourselves in the midst of a housing loan bubble. …In both bubbles, the government interfered in markets in two critical ways. First, the government stepped in as a lender. Second, it shielded private lenders from the consequences of making bad loans. …Making college “free” will simply double-down on the very problem we already face. With “free” college, not only will colleges not have to care whether students can repay their loans, but the students themselves will also not have to care. Meanwhile, taxpayers will be on the hook for the numerous imprudent decisions by both colleges and students. It will bring about the worst of all possible worlds.

Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution used to be a Classics Professor at California State University. So he’s well positioned to provide a then-now comparison.

Here’s what he experienced in his early years.

Overwhelmingly liberal and often hippish in appearance, American faculty of the early 1970s still only rarely indoctrinated students or bullied them to mimic their own progressivism. Rather, in both the humanities and sciences, students were taught the inductive method of evaluating evidence… As an undergraduate and graduate student at hotbeds of prior 1960s protests at UC Santa Cruz and Stanford, I don’t think I had a single conservative professor. Yet there were few faculty members, in Western Civilization, history, classics, or mandatory general education science and math classes, who either sought to indoctrinate us with their liberal world view or punished us for remaining conservative. …Administrators in the 1960s and 1970s were relatively few. Most faculty saw administration as a temporary if necessary evil that took precious time away from teaching and research and so were admired for putting up with it. …Professors taught large loads—four or five classes a semester for California State University faculty. …The result was that both college tuition and room and board stayed relatively inexpensive.

And here’s what it’s become.

What went wrong? …Politics increasingly infected courses as competence eroded—logical for faculty and students since the former required far less of the latter. Across the curriculum, race, class, and gender studies found their way into art, music, literature, philosophy and history classes. Deduction now replaced the old empiricism. Grades inflated… Universities emulated the ethos of loan sharks and shake-down businesses. The con was as simple as it was insidiously brilliant. Academic lobbyists pressed the government for billions in guaranteed student loans… The federal government-backed student loans. That guarantee greenlighted cash-flush universities to pay inter alia for diversity czars, assistant provosts of “inclusion,” and armies of woke aides and facilitators, to reduce teaching loads, and to open more race/class/gender “centers” on campus—by jacking up college costs higher than the rate of inflation. Student debt soared. …A new generation owes $1.5 trillion in student debt… One’s 20s are now redefined as the lost decade, as marriage, child-rearing, and home buying are put off, to the extent they still occur, into one’s 30s. …The result was reduced teaching, a bonanza of release time, administrative bloat, Club Med dorms, gyms, and student unions, and epidemics of highly paid but non-teaching careerist advisors, and counselors.

So what’s his solution?

Universities should be held responsible for repaying a large percentage of the loans they issued and yet in advance knew well could not and would not be repaid. The government should get out of the campus loan insurance business.

Amen.

As I said at the end of this recent TV interview, colleges and universities need to have some skin in the game.

Daniel Kowalski explains for FEE that government policy is causing ever-higher costs.

Student loans did not exist in their present form until the federal government passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which had taxpayers guaranteeing loans made by private lenders to students. While the program might have had good intentions, it has had unforeseen harmful consequences. …Secured financing of student loans resulted in a surge of students applying for college. This increase in demand was, in turn, met with an increase in price because university administrators would charge more if people were willing to pay it… According to Forbes, the average price of tuition has increased eight times faster than wages since the 1980s. …The government’s backing of student loans has caused the price of higher education to artificially rise…the current system of student loan financing needs to be reformed. Schools should not be given a blank check, and the government-guaranteed loans should only cover a partial amount of tuition. Schools should also be responsible for directly lending a portion of student loans so that it’s in their financial interest to make sure graduates enter the job market with the skills and requirements needed to get a well-paying job. If a student fails to pay back their loan, then the college or university should also share in the taxpayer’s loss.

All this government-fueled debt has real consequences. Three economists from the Federal Reserve found it hinders home ownership.

To estimate the effect of the increased student loan debt on homeownership, we tracked student loan and mortgage borrowing for individuals who were between 24 and 32 years old in 2005. Using these data, we constructed a model to estimate the impact of increased student loan borrowing on the likelihood of students becoming homeowners during this period of their lives. We found that a $1,000 increase in student loan debt (accumulated during the prime college-going years and measured in 2014 dollars) causes a 1 to 2 percentage point drop in the homeownership rate for student loan borrowers during their late 20s and early 30s. …According to our calculations, the increase in student loan debt between 2005 and 2014 reduced the homeownership rate among young adults by 2 percentage points. The homeownership rate for this group fell 9 percentage points over this period (figure 2), implying that a little over 20 percent of the overall decline in homeownership among the young can be attributed to the rise in student loan debt.

For those interested, here are some of their empirical findings.

By the way, I discussed the negative interaction of student debt and housing in the second half of this TV interview.

Professor Richard Vedder explains for the Wall Street Journal that this subsidized system has resulted in an environment in which neither students nor faculty work very hard.

One reason college is so costly and so little real learning occurs is that collegiate resources are vastly underused. Students don’t study much, professors teach little, few people read most of the obscure papers the professors write, and even the buildings are empty most of the time. …Surveys of student work habits find that the average amount of time spent in class and otherwise studying is about 27 hours a week. The typical student takes classes only 32 weeks a year, so he spends fewer than 900 hours annually on academics—less time than a typical eighth-grader… As economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have demonstrated, students in the middle of the 20th century spent nearly 50% more time—around 40 hours weekly—studying. They now lack incentives to work very hard, since the average grade today—a B or B-plus—is much higher than in 1960… Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have demonstrated, using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, that the typical college senior has only marginally better critical reasoning and writing skills than a freshman. Federal Adult Literacy Survey data, admittedly somewhat outdated, shows declining literacy among college grads in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. …the typical professor is in class around one-third fewer hours than his 1965 counterpart. …The litany of underused resources goes on. In 1970 at a typical university there were perhaps two professors for each administrator. Today, there are usually more nonteaching administrators than professors.

Unfortunately, many politicians respond to these government-caused problems by proposing even more government.

That’s what Hillary Clinton did in 2016 and it’s what politicians – most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – are doing for 2020.

But that will make a bad situation even worse.

Paul Boyce, writing for FEE, explains that free college will lower standards and make college degrees relatively meaningless.

…college enrollment rates reached more than 40 percent in 2017. Of those, nearly one in three (31 percent) drop out entirely. Why should the average taxpayer subsidize this? …If college is free, it is likely that this rate will increase further. Students won’t have any skin in the game because they won’t be picking the tab up at the end. This effects efficient decisionmaking. In France, for example, the dropout rate is as high as 50 percent. …Government has a track record of underfunding. …This is demonstrated in France, which runs a “free” system. Its universities are heavily underfunded and unable to satisfy student enrollment. …As college enrollment has increased, standards have fallen to accommodate for this. …it defeats the goal of creating a well-educated workforce. …it dilutes the importance and value of a degree. …Undergraduate degrees will become the norm, and the financial return will become negligible.

And the experience of other nations isn’t a cause for optimism.

Andrew Hammel, an American who taught for many years at a German university, is not overly impressed by that nation’s free-tuition regime.

…in their early teen years, the brightest German students are sent to the most prestigious form of German high school, the Gymnasium. Currently, over 50 percent of German students earn this privilege (this number has jumped in the last 30 years, prompting charges of grade inflation). Gymnasium graduates with reasonable grades are guaranteed a place in a German university; there is no entrance exam. 95 percent of German students attend public universities, where they are charged fees, but not formal tuition. All professors at public universities are civil servants. …Supporters of the tuition-free system note that 65 percent of Germans say university should be tuition-free, “even if this means the quality of education is slightly worse.” …The system also gives students extra freedom: you can study art history or sociology, knowing that you won’t be hounded by creditors if you later find only spotty employment. …one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree… German universities punch below their weight in international rankings… Gather any group of German professors, and talk will immediately turn to the burgeoning bureaucracy which distracts them from teaching and research. …Americans who teach ordinary classes in Germany find average German students somewhat less motivated than their dues-paying American counterparts. The top third of motivated students would succeed anywhere, and the bottom third, as we have seen, drop out.

I’ll close with an observation about inefficiency in higher education.

Here’s a chart I shared a few years ago. I’m sure the problem is even worse today.

The bottom line is that student debt, administrative bloat, and expensive tuition are all predictable consequences of federal subsidies.

P.S. If you’re worried about political correctness in higher education (and you have the appropriate subscriptions), I recommend this column in the Wall Street Journal and this George Will column in the Washington Post.

P.P.S. Here’s a video interview with Richard Vedder about high costs and inefficiency in higher education. And I also recommend this video explanation by Professor Daniel Lin.

P.P.P.S. It also turns that all these subsidies have a negative correlation with private-sector employment.

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