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Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Identifying the worst government policy would be a challenge. Would it be minimum wage laws, which deprive low-skilled workers of a chance for employment and upward mobility? Would it be class-warfare tax rates that generate large amounts of economic damage compared to potential (if any) revenue?

Those are tempting choices, but there’s a strong case that nothing is as foolish as rent control.

Here’s a map showing which states impose or allow this destructive form of intervention.

California politicians are very susceptible to bad ideas.

True to form, as reported by the New York Times, they actually want to impose statewide rent control.

California lawmakers approved a statewide rent cap on Wednesday covering millions of tenants, the biggest step yet in a surge of initiatives to address an affordable-housing crunch nationwide. The bill limits annual rent increases to 5 percent after inflation and offers new barriers to eviction… a momentous political swing. For a quarter-century, California law has sharply curbed the ability of localities to impose rent control. Now, the state itself has taken that step. …Economists from both the left and the right have a well-established aversion to rent control, arguing that such policies ignore the message of rising prices, which is to build more housing. Studies in San Francisco and elsewhere show that price caps often prompt landlords to abandon the rental business by converting their units to owner-occupied homes. And since rent controls typically have no income threshold, they have been faulted for benefiting high-income tenants.

I’m glad the article included the evidence from economists, especially since the headline is grossly inaccurate. If we care about evidence, it’s far more accurate to say that rent control will exacerbate the state’s housing problems.

Which is why the Wall Street Journal opined that this type of intervention is especially destructive.

California already boasts the highest housing costs in the country, and even liberals have come around to acknowledging that not enough homes are built to meet demand. The state has added about half as many housing units as needed to accommodate population growth, and more than half of Californians spend 30% of their income on rent.Blame a thousand regulatory burdens. Local governments limit what housing developers can build and where. They layer on permitting fees, and then there are the state’s high labor costs and expensive green-energy mandates and restrictions that opponents can exploit to block projects for years. …The upshot is that an “affordable” housing unit in California costs $332,000 to build and nearly $600,000 in San Francisco, according to state budget figures. Developers can’t turn a profit on low- and middle-income homes… And now Democrats want to constrain housing prices by fiat. Mr. Newsom and Democratic legislators are pushing a law to limit annual rent increases across the state to 5% plus inflation. …Building permits in the first seven months this year have fallen 17% compared to 2018 despite an increase in state subsidies. …California’s progressive regulatory complex is contributing to this housing slowdown by driving businesses and people from the state. More than 700,000 residents have left since 2010.

By the way, the politicians in Albany already made the same mistake.

And, as you might expect, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page had the correct response.

Law by law, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats are chipping away at the policies that made New York City livable after decades of decline… Democrats this week are ramming through rent-control bills that…effectively dictates rents for one million or so rent-regulated apartments and restricts landlords’ ability to evict tenants who don’t pay. …Once a tenant moves out—which doesn’t happen often since folks can pass on the entitlement to friends and relatives—landlords would be required to offer the unit to another tenant at restricted rates. …Nor could they raise rates by more than 2% annually to pay for improvements or evict a nonpaying tenant who “cannot find a similar suitable dwelling in the same neighborhood.” Since landlords would have less incentive to make fixes, more apartments will deteriorate and come to resemble New York City’s squalid public housing. …One result will be less housing investment… Progressives are vindicating CEO Jeff Bezos ’s decision to pull Amazon’s second headquarters out of New York. Don’t be surprised if other businesses follow.

You won’t be surprised to learn that politicians in other nations sometimes make the same mistake.

The U.K.-based Guardian wrote about how rent control has backfired in Sweden.

Half a million are on the waiting list for rent-controlled flats in Stockholm, meaning a two-tier system, bribes and a thriving parallel market… the system is experiencing acute pressures. Building of rental homes almost dried up after a financial crisis in the early 1990s, and there is a dire shortage of properties. Demand is such that it is almost impossible to get a direct contract. With nearly half of all Stockholmers – about 500,000 people – in the queue, it can take 20 or 30 years to get to the top of the pile. …The result is a thriving rental property black market, with bribes of as much as 100,000 kronor per room to obtain a direct contract, McCormac says. Many people sublet space in their rental apartments. …“Rent controls were supposed to enable people to live in central locations, but now it is having the opposite effect,” McCormac says. “People without social connections will have a very hard time finding a flat,” says Kleberg.

And Germany is making the same mistake – even though it should have learned from the mistakes under Hitler’s national socialism and East Germany’s communism.

…the kinds of ideas traditionally associated with planned economies are gaining more and more support all over Germany. …Substantial numbers of people have moved to Germany’s major cities…the supply of housing has failed to keep pace with these significant developments, and this is largely because construction approval processes are so long-winded and the latest environmental regulations have made building prohibitively expensive. …In Germany’s capital, Berlin, …it now takes 12 years to draft and approve a zoning plan, which in many cases is a prerequisite for the development of new dwellings. …An initiative in Berlin calling for the expropriation of private real estate companies has collected three times as many signatures as it needed to initiate a petition for a referendum. …Kevin Kühnert, chairman of the youth organization of the center-left SPD…has gone as far as calling for a complete ban on private property owners renting out their apartments. …Berlin’s Senate approved the main components of a rent freeze in the German capital. …Advocates of such central economic planning react sensitively when they are reminded that it has already been tried… An earlier rent freeze was approved in Germany on April 20, 1936, as a gift from the National Socialist Party to the citizens of Germany on Adolf Hitler’s 47th birthday. The National Socialists’ rent cap was adopted into the GDR’s socialist law by Price Regulation No. 415 of May 6, 1955, and it remained in force until the collapse of the GDR in 1989.

Now let’s review some economic research.

Three Stanford professors researched the issue, looking specifically as San Francisco’s local rent control rules.

Using a 1994 law change, we exploit quasi-experimental variation in the assignment of rent control in San Francisco to study its impacts on tenants and landlords. Leveraging new data tracking individuals’ migration, we find rent control limits renters’ mobility by 20% and lowers displacement from San Francisco. Landlords treated by rent control reduce rental housing supplies by 15% by selling to owner-occupants and redeveloping buildings. Thus, while rent control prevents displacement of incumbent renters in the short run, the lost rental housing supply likely drove up market rents in the long run, ultimately undermining the goals of the law. …In the long run, landlords’ substitution toward owner-occupied and newly constructed rental housing not only lowered the supply of rental housing in the city, but also shifted the city’s housing supply towards less affordable types of housing that likely cater to the tastes of higher income individuals. Ultimately, these endogenous shifts in the housing supply likely drove up citywide rents, damaging housing affordability for future renters…it appears rent control has actually contributed to the gentrification of San Francisco, the exact opposite of the policy’s intended goal. …rent control has contributed to widening income inequality of the city.

To be fair, rent control is just one of several bad policies that mess up the city’s housing market.

Now let’s shift to the other side of the country.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe shared evidence from a disastrous experiment in Massachusetts.

…a handful of Democratic lawmakers want to bring the horror of rent control… This isn’t happening only in Massachusetts. …Oregon’s governor just signed a statewide rent-control law and efforts to overturn rent-control bans are underway in Illinois, Colorado, and Washington state. …the folly of rent control is so well-established that to deny it requires, as Hillary Clinton might say, a willing suspension of disbelief. Massachusetts and most other states have banned rent control because the harm it causes far outweighs any benefit it confers. When politicians impose a ceiling on rent, the results are invariable: housing shortages, depressed real estate values, increased decay, less new construction. …The longer rent control persists, and the more harshly it is enforced, the worse the problem grows. …in New York City, where strict rent controls date back to World War II, the annual rate at which apartments turn over is less than half the national average, while the share of tenants who haven’t moved in more than 20 years is more than double the national average. …Acknowledging the damage caused by rent control is neither a right- nor left-wing issue. …the communist foreign minister of Vietnam…made…the…point in 1989: “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi,” Nguyen Co Thach remarked, “but we have destroyed our city by very low rents.” …When Massachusetts voters struck down rent control in 1994, it was in the teeth of preposterous fearmongering by hardline tenant activists… What happened in reality was that tens of thousands of apartments were decontrolled with no ill effects… When tenants were analyzed by occupation, it was high-earning professionals and managers who predominated among the beneficiaries of rent control; semi-skilled and unskilled workers lagged far behind. Rent control always ends up benefiting the young, strong, and well-to-do at the expense of the old, weak, and poor.

Meanwhile, Meghan McArdle opined in the Washington Post about the perverse economic consequences of rent control.

…there are a few questions where there’s near unanimity, and rent control is one of them. Pretty much every economist agrees that rent controls are bad. …the policy appears to be making a comeback. …City governments may have to relearn why their predecessors pruned back rent-control policies. Rent control is supposed to protect poor, deserving tenants from the depredations of greedy landlords. And it does, up to a point. …The problem is that rent control doesn’t do anything about the reason that rents are rising, which is that there are more people who want to live in desirable areas than there are homes for them to live in. Housing follows the same basic laws of economics as other goods that consumers need… rent control also reduces the incentive to supply rental housing. …an actual solution to skyrocketing rents: Build more housing, so that the rent controls won’t be necessary… To do that, cities would need to ease the costly land-use regulations that make it so difficult for developers to fill the unmet demand. …Alas, that’s not going to happen… Declining housing stock is just one of the many potential costs of rent controls; others include a deteriorating housing stock as landlords stop investing in their properties, and higher rents. Yes, higher, because rent control creates a two-tier housing market. There are cheap, price-stabilized apartments that rarely turn over, because why would you give up such a great deal? Then there are the uncontrolled apartments, which everyone else in the city has to fight over, bidding up the price. …the people getting the biggest benefit are white, affluent Manhattanites.

By the way, you hopefully have noticed a pattern.

Rich people generally get the biggest benefits under rent control.

Let’s close with a look at how economists from across the philosophical spectrum view rent control

Here’s some survey data from the University of Chicago.

Incidentally, there’s an obvious reason why politicians persist in pushing bad policy. In the case of rent control, it’s because tenants outnumber landlords.

So even if politicians understand that the policy will backfire, their desire to get votes will trump common sense. Especially if they assume they can blame “greedy landlords” for the inevitable housing shortages and then push for government housing subsidies as an ostensible solution.

Another example of Mitchell’s Law.

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Something really strange is happening. Yesterday, I wrote about how I agreed with Trump on a trade issue.

Today, I’m going to agree with Crazy Bernie about a moral hazard issue.

Shocking, but true. The Vermont socialist actually understands that it makes no sense to subsidize new homes in flood-prone areas.

I’ll probably never again have a chance to write this next sentence, so it deserves an exclamation point. Bernie is completely correct!

Flood insurance encourages people to take on excessive risk (i.e., it creates moral hazard). And the subsidies often benefit rich people with beachfront homes (which may explain why Senator Sanders is on the right side)

If nothing else, politicians are very clever about doing the wrong thing in multiple ways.

So we’re not merely talking about luring people into flood-prone areas with subsidized insurance.

Sometimes government uses rental subsidies to put people in flood-prone areas.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

When a deadly rainstorm unloaded on Houston in 2016, Sharobin White’s apartment complex flooded in up to six feet of water. She sent her toddler and 6-year-old to safety on an air mattress, but her family lost nearly everything, including their car. When Hurricane Harvey hit the next year, it happened all over again: Families rushed to evacuate, and Ms. White’s car, a used Chevrolet she bought after the last flood, was destroyed. …But Ms. White and many of her neighbors cannot afford to leave. They are among hundreds of thousands of Americans — from New York to Miami to Phoenix — who live in government-subsidized housing that is at serious risk of flooding… But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees some of the at-risk properties, does not currently have a universal policy against paying for housing in a designated flood zone. …Nationwide, about 450,000 government-subsidized households — about 8 to 9 percent — are in flood plains…

While FEMA and government-subsidized flood insurance wouldn’t even exist in my libertarian fantasy world, I’m willing to acknowledge that government sometimes does things that aren’t completely foolish.

For instances, it’s better to subsidize people to move out of flood-prone areas instead of subsidizing them to rebuild in those areas.

Nashville is trying to move people…away from flood-prone areas. The voluntary program uses a combination of federal, state and local funds to offer market value for their homes. If the owners accept the offer, they move out, the city razes the house and prohibits future development. The acquired land becomes an absorbent creekside buffer, much of it serving as parks with playgrounds and walking paths. …While a number of cities around the country have similar relocation projects to address increased flooding, disaster mitigation experts consider Nashville’s a model that other communities would be wise to learn from: The United States spends far more on helping people rebuild after disasters than preventing problems. …research shows that a dollar spent on mitigation before a disaster strikes results in at least six dollars in savings. There are many reasons more people end up rebuilding in place than moving away. Reimbursement is relatively quick, while FEMA’s buyout programs tend to be slow and difficult to navigate.

While it’s encouraging to see a better approach, we wouldn’t need to worry about the issue if government got out of the business of subsidizing flood insurance.

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal expressed disappointment last year when Republicans blew a golden opportunity to fix the program.

One disappointment you can count on is a GOP failure to fix one of the worst programs in government: taxpayer subsidized flood insurance. …The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program was set to expire on Nov. 30, and Congress rammed through a temporary extension to buy more time. Congress was supposed to deal with the program as part of the end-of-the-year rush. The program runs a $1.4 billion annual deficit, which comes from insurance priced too low to compensate for the risk of building homes near water. Congress last year forgave $16 billion of the program’s $24 billion debt to Treasury, not that anyone learned anything. The program then borrowed another $6 billion. …If Republicans can’t fix this example of failed government because it might upset parochial interests, they deserve some time in the political wilderness.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is better on this issue than last year’s GOP Congress.

I’ve criticized Republicans on many occasions, but this must rank as the most damning comparison.

But let’s set aside politics and partisanship.

What matters is that the federal government is operating an insanely foolish program that puts people at risk, soaks taxpayers, and destroys wealth.

Gee, maybe Reagan was right when he pointed out that government is the problem rather than the solution.

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Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

This newfound flirtation with industrial policy, mostly from nationalist conservatives, is especially noxious since you open the door to cronyism and corruption when you give politicians and bureaucrats the power to play favorites in the economy.

I’m going to cite three leading proponents of industrial policy. To be fair, none of them are proposing full-scale Soviet-style central planning.

But it is fair to say that they envision something akin to Japan’s policies in the 1980s.

Some of them even explicitly argue we should copy China’s current policies.

In a column for the New York Times, Julius Krein celebrates the fact that Marco Rubio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both believe politicians should have more power over the economy.

…a few years ago, the phrase “industrial policy” was employed mainly as a term of abuse. Economists almost universally insisted that state interventions to improve competitiveness, prioritize investment in strategic sectors and structure market incentives around political goals were backward policies doomed to failure — whether applied in America, Asia or anywhere in between. …In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal consensus seems intellectually and politically bankrupt. …a growing number of politicians and intellectuals…are finding common ground under the banner of industrial policy. Even the typically neoliberal Financial Times editorial board recently argued in favor of industrial policy, calling on the United States to “drop concerns around state planning.” …Why now? The United States has essentially experienced two lost decades, and inequality has reached Gilded Age levels. …United States industry is losing ground to foreign competitors on price, quality and technology. In many areas, our manufacturing capacity cannot compete with what exists in Asia.

There are some very sloppy assertions in the above passages.

You can certainly argue that Reagan and Clinton had similar “neoliberal” policies (i.e., classical liberal), but Bush was a statist.

Also, the Financial Times very much leans to the left. Not crazy Sanders-Corbyn leftism, but consistently in favor of a larger role for government.

Anyhow, what exactly does Mr. Krein have in mind?

More spending, more intervention, and more cronyism.

A successful American industrial policy would draw on replicable foreign models as well as take lessons from our history. Some simple first steps would be to update the Small Business Investment Company and Small Business Innovation Research programs — which played a role in catalyzing Silicon Valley decades ago — to focus more on domestic hardware businesses. …Government agencies could also step in to seed investment funds focused on strategic industries and to incentivize commercial lending to key sectors, policies that have proven successful in other countries… the United States needs to invest more in applied research… Elizabeth Warren has also proposed a government-sponsored research and licensing model for the pharmaceutical industry, which could be applied to other industries as well. …Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, has called for the creation of a National Institute of Manufacturing, taking inspiration from the National Institutes of Health. …A successful industrial policy would aim to strengthen worker bargaining power while organizing and training a better skilled labor force. Industrial policy also involves, and even depends upon, rebuilding infrastructure.

In other words, if you like the so-called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and Elizabeth Warren’s corporate cronyism, you’ll love all the other ideas for additional government intervention.

Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute also wants to give politicians more control over the private economy.

My argument rests on three claims… First, that market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors. Second, that policymakers have tools that can support vital sectors that might otherwise suffer from underinvestment—I will call those tools “industrial policy.” Third, that while the policies produced by our political system will be far from ideal, efforts at sensible industrial policy can improve upon our status quo, which is itself far from ideal. …Our popular obsession with manufacturing isn’t some nostalgic anachronism. …manufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. …the case for industrial policy requires recognition not only of certain sectors’ value, but also that the market will overlook the value in theory and that we are underinvesting in practice. That the free market will not solve this should be fairly self-evident… Manufacturing output is only 12% of GDP in America… Productivity growth has slowed nationwide, even flatlining in recent years. Wages have stagnated. Our trade deficit has skyrocketed.

So what are his solutions?

Like Julius Krein, he wants government intervention. Lots of it.

Fund basic research across the sciences… Fund applied research… Support private-sector R&D and commercialization with subsidies and specialized institutes… Increase infrastructure investment… Bias the tax code in favor of profits generated from the productive use of labor… Retaliate aggressively against mercantilist countries that undermine market competition… Tax foreign acquisition of U.S. assets, making U.S. goods relatively more attractive… Impose local content requirements in key supply chains like communications… Libertarians often posit an ideal world of policy non-intervention as superior to the messy reality of policy action. But that ideal does not exist—messy reality is the only reality… That’s especially the case here, because you can have free trade, or you can have free markets, but you can’t have both.

I’m not sure what’s worse, an infrastructure boondoggle or a tax on inbound investment?

More tinkering with the tax code, or more handouts for industries?

And here are excerpts from a column for the Daily Caller by Robert Atkinson.

When the idea first surfaced in the late 1970s that the United States should adopt a national industrial policy, mainstream “free market” conservatives decried it as one step away from handing the reins of the economy over to a state planning committee like the Soviet Gosplan. But now, …the idea has been getting a fresh look among some conservatives who argue that, absent an industrial strategy, America will be at a competitive disadvantage. …Conservatives’ skepticism of industrial policy perhaps stems from the idea’s origins. It started gaining currency during the Carter administration, with many traditional Democratic party interests, including labor unions and politicians in the Northeast and Midwest, arguing for a strong federal role… However, over the next decade, as economic competitors like Germany and Japan began to challenge the United States in consumer electronics, autos, and even high-tech industries like computer chips, the focus of debates about industrial policy broadened to encompass overall U.S. competitiveness. …There was a bipartisan response…that collectively amounted to a first draft of a national industrial policy… But as the economic challenge from Japan receded…, interest in industrial policies waned. …The newly dominant neoclassical economists preached that the U.S. “recipe” of free markets, property rights, and entrepreneurial spirit inoculated America against any and all economic threats.

As with Krein and Cass, Atkinson wants to copy the failed interventionist policies of other nations.

But that was then and this is now — a now where we face intense competition from China. …Increasingly leaders across the political spectrum are returning to a notion that we should put the national interest at the center of economic policies, and that free-market globalization doesn’t necessarily do that… Conservatives increasingly realize that without some kind of industrial policy the United States will fall behind China, with significant national security and economic implications. …So, what would a conservative-inspired, market-strengthening industrial policy look like? …it would acknowledge that America’s “traded sector” industries are critical to our future competitiveness… The right industrial policy will advance prosperity more than laisse-faire capitalism would. …there are a significant number of market failures around innovation, including externalities, network failures, system interdependencies, and the public-goods nature of technology platforms. …this is why only government can “pick winners.” …It should mean expanding supports for exporters by ensuring the Ex-Im Bank has adequate lending authority… this debate boils down to a fundamental choice for conservatives: small government and liberty versus stronger…government that delivers economic security

What’s a “market-strengthening industrial policy”? Is that like a “growth-stimulating tax increase”? Or a “work-ethic-enhancing welfare program”?

I realize I’m being snarky, but how else should I respond to someone who actually wants to expand the cronyist Export-Import Bank?

Let’s now look at what’s wrong with industrial policy.

In a column for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that American politicians who favor industrial policy are misreading China’s economic history.

…calls from politicians on both sides of the aisle to implement industrial policy. …These policies are tired, utterly uninspiring schemes that governments around the world have tried and, invariably, failed at. …As for the notion that “other countries are doing it,” I’m curious to hear what great successes have come out of, say, China’s industrial policies. In his latest book, The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?, Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that China’s growth since 1978 has actually been the product of market-oriented reforms, not state-owned programs. …Why should we want America to become more like China? Here’s yet another politician thinking that somehow, the same government that…botched the launch of HealthCare.gov, gave us the Solyndra scandal, and can keep neither Amtrak nor the Postal Service solvent, can effectively coordinate a strategic vision for American manufacturing. …The real problem with industrial policy, economic development strategy, central planning, or whatever you want to call these interventions is that government officials…cannot outperform the wisdom of the market at picking winners. In fact, government intervention in any sector creates distortions, misdirects investments toward politically favored companies, and hinders the ability of unsubsidized competitors to offer better alternatives. Central planning in all forms is poisonous to innovation.

As usual, Veronique is spot one.

I’ve also explained that China’s economy is being held back by statist policies.

Veronique also addressed the topic of industrial policy in a column for the New York Times,

With “Made in China 2025,” Beijing’s 2015 anticapitalist plan for an industrial policy under which the state would pick “winners,” China has taken a step back from capitalism. …China’s new industrial policy has worked one marvel — namely, scaring many American conservatives into believing that the main driver of economic growth isn’t the market but bureaucrats invested with power to control the allocation of natural and financial resources. …I thought we learned this lesson after many American intellectuals, economists and politicians were proven spectacularly wrong in predicting that the Soviet Union would become an economic rival. …government officials cannot outperform the market at picking winners. In practice it ends up picking losers or hindering the abilities of the winners to achieve their greatest potential. Central planning is antithetical to innovation, as is already visible in China. …the United States has instituted industrial policies in the past out of unwarranted fears of other countries’ industrial policies. The results have always imposed great costs on consumers and taxpayers and introduced significant economic distortions. …Conservatives…should learn about the failed United States industrial policies of the 1980s, which were responses to the Japanese government’s attempt to dominate key consumer electronics technologies. These efforts worked neither in Japan nor in the United States. The past has taught us that industrial policies fail often because they favor existing industries that are well connected politically at the expense of would-be entrepreneurs… We shouldn’t allow fear-mongering to hobble America’s free enterprise system.

Amen.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share one of my experiences as a relative newcomer to D.C. in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I had to fight all sorts of people who said that Japan was eating our lunch and that the United States needed industrial policy.

I kept pointing out that Japan deserved some praise for its post-WWII shift to markets, but that the country’s economy was being undermined by corporatism, intervention, and industrial policy.

At the time, I remember being mocked for my supposed naivete. But the past 30 years have proven me right.

Now it’s deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.

Except now China is the bogeyman. Which doesn’t make much sense since China lags behind the United States far more than Japan lagged the U.S. in the 1980s (per-capita output in China, at best, in only one-fourth of American levels).

And China will never catch the U.S. if it relies on industrial policy instead of pro-market reform.

So why should American policy makers copy China’s mistakes?

P.S. There is a separate issue involving national security, where there may be legitimate reasons to deny China access to high-end technology or to make sure American defense firms don’t have to rely on China for inputs. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

P.P.S. There is a separate issue involving trade, where there may be legitimate reasons to pressure China so that it competes fairly and behaves honorably. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

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When I wrote last month about the Green New Deal, I warned that it was cronyism on steroids.

Simply stated, the proposal gives politicians massive new powers to intervene and this would be a recipe for staggering levels of Solyndra-style corruption.

Well, the World Bank has some new scholarly research that echoes my concerns. Two economists investigated the relationship with the regulatory burden and corruption.

Empirical studies such as Meon and Sekkat (2005) and De Rosa et al. (2010) show that corruption is more damaging for economic performance at higher levels of regulation or lower levels of governance quality. …Building on the above literature, in this paper, we use firm-level survey data on 39,732 firms in 111 countries collected by the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys between 2009 and 2017 to test the hypothesis that corruption impedes firm productivity more at higher levels of regulation. …estimate the model using sample weighted OLS (Ordinary Least Squares) regression analysis.

And what did they discover?

We find that the negative relationship between corruption and productivity is amplified at high levels of regulation. In fact, at low levels of regulation, the relationship between corruption and productivity is insignificant. …we find that a 1 percent increase in bribes that firms pay to get things done, expressed as the share of annual sales, is significantly associated with about a 0.9 percent decrease in productivity of firms at the 75th percentile value of regulation (high regulation). In contrast, at the 25th percentile value of regulation (low regulation), the corresponding change is very small and statistically insignificant, though it is still negative. …after we control for investment, skills and raw materials, the coefficients of the interaction term between corruption and regulation became much larger… This provides support for the hypothesis that corruption is more damaging for productivity at higher levels of regulation.

Lord Acton famously wrote that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Based on the results from the World Bank study, we can say “regulation corrupts, and added regulation corrupts additionally.”

Not very poetic, but definitely accurate.

Figure 4 from the study shows this relationship.

Seems like we need separation of business and state, not just separation of church and state.

This gives me a good excuse to recycle this video I narrated more than 10 years ago.

P.S. Five years ago, I cited a World Bank study showing that tax complexity facilitates corruption. Which means a simple and fair flat tax isn’t merely a way of achieving more prosperity, it’s also a way of draining the swamp.

The moral of the story – whether we’re looking at red tape, taxes, spending, trade, or any other issue – is that smaller government is the most effective way of reducing sleaze and corruption.

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Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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