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Archive for the ‘Government intervention’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then explains some basic economics.

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

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

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

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

But I’m digressing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This chart shows the effect of increased demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are just two principles you need to understand.

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

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

But let’s look at additional information and analysis.

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

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

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

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

Barry Brownstein has a sober assessment of the underlying problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such as repeated bailouts for certain properties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s also the “Houston Navy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, let’s apply the lesson more broadly.

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

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

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

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

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

Investor’s Business Daily opines about the program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They start with the challenge of trying to measure cronyism.

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

Here are some of their empirical results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s a problem in California. No, I’m not referring to the punitive tax laws. Nor am I talking about the massive unfunded liabilities for bureaucrat pension.

Those are big problems, to be sure, but today’s topic is the state’s government-created housing crisis. The population keeps expanding, but local governments use zoning laws to restrict development of new homes and apartments.

And guess what happens when supply is constrained and demand keeps climbing? Even a remedial student in Economics 101 will probably understand that this is a recipe for ever-rising prices.

The solution, of course, is to expand the housing stock. Build more homes, apartments, and condos.

But local governments don’t like that option because existing homeowners (who vote) benefit from scarcity-induced increases in home values. And environmentalists also don’t like any development because of ideology.

Moreover, why fix the problem when politicians in Washington are willing to promote crackpot ideas. And that’s a very apt description of Senator Kamala Harris’ scheme to subsidize rental payments.

Why is this a crackpot idea? Because prices go up in every sector of the economy that is subsidized. This is why health care keeps getting more expensive. It’s why higher education keeps getting more expensive.

And if Washington politicians decide to subsidize rent, the same thing will happen.

Writing for National Review, Jibran Khan explains why Harris has the wrong solution for the wrong problem. He starts by explaining why there’s a housing shortage.

Harris’s subsidy won’t improve the situation, and could even make things worse by drawing attention away from actual solutions. The Bay Area’s rent crisis is driven by a drastic shortage in housing. Strict rent control in San Francisco and “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) zoning policies have ensured that the area constructs only a fraction of the housing it needs. The San Francisco metro area added 373,000 new jobs between 2012 and 2017, but it allowed the construction of only 58,000 new units of housing. …Per Lawrence Yun, an economist who studies housing trends, the norm is for one housing unit to be built for every two jobs created. In the San Francisco area, there is less than one unit built for every six jobs created. …under Harris’s proposal, the currently homeless would remain homeless, while renters would receive some very short-term relief at the cost of other taxpayers.

He then explains why a subsidy will lead to higher rents, and a windfall for landlords.

Why would the relief be short-term? Because as landlords become aware that renters are receiving a subsidy, they will simply raise rents by the amount of the subsidy. The cost will be the same for the renters — who today are lining up for a chance to rent, showing that they are willing to pay it. In the end, then, this would be an effective subsidy for landlords, not renters.

Which, as mentioned above, is exactly what’s happened in other sectors that have received subsidies.

It’s not just libertarians who understand that Harris will make a bad situation worse.

Matt Yglesias is hardly a small-government zealot. He’s accused me, for example, of being insane and irrational because of my libertarian views. But we both agree that the real problem in California is government rules that limit development.

And I assume he also would agree that Harris’ plan will wind up enriching landlords rather than helping renters.

So why, then, is Harris proposing such a destructive policy?

There are three possible answers.

  1. She’s ignorant, and her staff is ignorant. Simply stated, there’s no understanding of indirect effects. Bastiat would be very disappointed.
  2. She’s malicious. In other words, she’s smart enough to realize the policy is bad, but she doesn’t care. Call this the Venezuela approach.
  3. She’s ambitious. In this scenario, she has no intention of pushing a bad idea, but she thinks it’s a good way of getting votes from renters.

I assume #3 is the right answer.

Regardless of her motives, she’s doing the wrong thing.

I’ve shared this chart on many occasions because it does a great job of showing that subsidized sectors are characterized by rising prices.

Give politicians enough leeway and maybe the entire economy can be dysfunctional!

P.S. I’m not being partisan. Republicans are quite capable of supporting very stupid policies in exchange for votes or campaign contributions. Just look at the GOPers who support the Export-Import Bank, Fannie-Freddie subsidies, or ethanol handouts.

P.P.S. Needless to say, I also object to the Harris scheme because it would make the tax code an even bigger mess. I realize it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see a simple and fair flat tax, but is it too much to ask for politicians not to make the system even worse?

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