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Archive for the ‘Moral Hazard’ Category

There are many reasons to oppose the various bailouts of the Greek government. Here are my two main reasons.

  1. I don’t like rewarding investors who make imprudent decisions, and it really galls me to bail out the (mostly) rich people who bought Greek bonds.
  2. I don’t like rewarding politicians who make imprudent decisions, and it really galls me since bailouts encourage additional imprudent behavior.

Let’s focus today on the second point.

Here’s Greece’s score for the “Size of Government” component from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see, bailouts have actually subsidized a decline in fiscal responsibility.

And it’s worth pointing out that Greek politicians have been doing a bad job in other areas.

The burden of red tape has been, and remains, stifling.

Greece ranks at the top in difficulty in setting up and running a business among 75 countries, according to the Global Business Complexity Index for 2019. The difficulty in starting an enterprise in Greece is mainly due to a labyrinth bureaucracy, frequent changes in legislation, differences in taxation and VAT rates in regions and unpredictable treatment of businesses by authorities. Indonesia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Bolivia, and Slovakia follow Greece in the first six places. The easiest state to start and run a business is in the Cayman Islands.

Here are the rankings. Keep in mind that “01” is the worst score and “76” is the best score (kudos to the Cayman Islands for being the most entrepreneur-friendly).

Interestingly, voters ousted a left-wing government earlier this year.

And Bloomberg reports that Greece’s new right-of-center government intends to reduce the burden of government.

Mitsotakis presented his four-year economic agenda in his first plenary speech to parliament since winning national elections on July 7. …The premier’s priority is a reform of Greece’s complex tax system to create a more pro-business environment, necessary for attracting investment to boost the economy’s recovery. Mitsotakis wants to make good on election pledges to alleviate the tax burden for crisis-weary Greeks, specifically for the middle classes who were targeted the most by the previous administration. …Mitsotakis said he will introduce legislation…to reduce the so-called Enfia property tax by as much as 30%, according to the value of properties. …The government plans to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20% in two phases. The first step, in September, will cut the rate to 24% from 28% in 2019 and to 20% in 2020. The tax on dividend payments will be slashed by half to 5%… Also planned is the privatization of Hellenic Petroleum SA and the sale of a 30% stake in Athens Airport.

Indeed, a columnist for the New York Times frets that the new government is hard right.

New Democracy…seems to be a right-wing party… And Mr. Mitsotakis, who promised to unite the country, is following divisive and polarizing policies. …You don’t have to search far for evidence. …Three crucial regulatory agencies — protecting the country’s finances, work force and environment — have been effectively dissolved as part of a bill, recently passed by Parliament, to restructure government. …Domna Michailidou, the vice minister of labor, personifies the cabinet’s ideological agenda. In 2017, she openly praised cuts in wages as “necessary” for the sake of competitiveness. …Greece finished its third and last bailout program last August, but remains shellshocked after nearly a decade of austerity. Official unemployment is at 18 percent; youth unemployment scores a staggering 40 percent. …None of New Democracy’s vaunted policies — to cut corporation taxes and privatize industry in an effort to stimulate economic growth and create “new jobs” — are likely to address the country’s problems. They may well do the opposite.

Some of this sounds good, but I’ll have to see concrete results before I become a believer.

Most supposed right-of-center governments are either very inconsistent (think Trump) or generally bad (think Macri or Sarkozy).

I just focus on results.

Speaking of which this chart, based on the OECD’s fiscal database, shows what happened to revenue (left side) and spending (right side) between 2007 and 2018.

As you can see on the right side, the burden of spending has actually increased.  That’s not my idea of austerity.

The big change that stands out over the past 10 years, though, is that the burden of taxation has jumped. A lot.

In other words taxpayers have been forced to tighten their belts but politicians haven’t tightened government’s belt.

The moral of the story is that tax increases always make a bad fiscal situation worse. Greece has proved that over and over and over again.

P.S. I guess bad results should be expected in a nation where bureaucrats demand stool samples before you can set up an online company. Another sign of Greece’s moral and fiscal bankruptcy is that pedophiles can get disability payments.

P.P.S. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s also enjoy some Greek-related humor. This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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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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I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund and I regularly criticize the international bureaucracy for its relentless advocacy in favor of higher taxes.

But that’s not what worries me most about the IMF.

To be sure, higher fiscal burdens undermine economic vitality, and I regularly warn that such policies will reduce an economy’s potential long-run growth rate.

That being said, tax increases generally don’t threaten macroeconomic stability.

If we’re looking at policies that can trigger short-run crises, I’m more concerned about the IMF’s bailout policies. For all intents and purposes, the IMF subsidizes “moral hazard” by reducing the perceived cost (to financial institutions) of lending money to dodgy governments and reducing the perceived costs (to governments) of incurring more debt.

Why not take more risk, after all, if you think the IMF will step in to socialize any losses? In other words, when the IMF engages in a few bailouts today, it increases the likelihood of more bailouts in the future.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that the bureaucrats want a bigger figurative checkbook to enable even bigger future bailouts.

The good news is that the U.S. government can say no.

But will it? The U.K.-based Financial Times reported a few days ago that the United States might support an expansion of the IMF’s bailout capacity.

The Trump administration has left the door open for a US funding boost to the IMF, calling for a “careful evaluation” of the global lender’s finances to make sure it has enough money to rescue struggling economies. …The IMF — led by Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister — is hoping to get its members to increase the fund’s permanent reserves… This year, the Trump administration has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the IMF’s $57bn loan package to Argentina— its largest in history.

The next day, the FT augmented its coverage.

The IMF is set to embark on a major fundraising drive…the success of Ms Lagarde’s campaign is highly uncertain, with potentially profound consequences not only for the fund but for the global economy. …supporters of the fund say there are many possible scenarios in which it would be essential. If a recession and financial crisis were to hit in the coming years,central bankers may well struggle to find monetary remedies… a US Treasury spokesman left the door open to new possible contributions from America to the IMF. …Optimists point to a surprise decision by the Trump administration in April to support a $13bn boost to World Bank resources… there is still scepticism of the IMF among his top lieutenants at the Treasury department, including David Malpass, the undersecretary for international affairs. …Even if they were on board, economic and national security hawks at the White House who disdain multilateralism as a loss of sovereignty could be an additional obstacle, not to mention Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The previous IMF quota increase, pushed by the Obama administration — which raised America’s permanent commitment to the fund to about $115bn — finally scraped through Congress in 2016, after a half-decade delay.

I was very saddened a couple of years ago when the GOP Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s bailout authority, especially since a similar effort was blocked in 2014 when Democrats still controlled the Senate.

The issue today is whether the Trump Administration will repeat that mistake.

Back in 2012, I stated that the IMF issue was a “minimum test” for Republicans. Well, the issues haven’t changed. Everything I wrote then still applies today.

I hope Trump does the right thing and rejects expanded bailout authority for the IMF for the sensible reason that it’s foolish to subsidize more borrowing by badly governed nations.

But I’m not picky. I’ll also be happy if Trump says no simply because he’s miffed that the IMF attacked him (accurately but unfairly) during the 2016 campaign and dissed his tax plan earlier this year.

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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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As a general rule, I’m not overly concerned about debt, even when looking at government red ink.

I don’t like deficit and debt, to be sure, but government borrowing should be seen as the symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of a balanced budget amendment, Based on the experiences of American states and European countries, I fear politicians in Washington would use any deficit-limiting requirement as an excuse to raise taxes.

I much prefer spending caps, such as those found in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Colorado. If you cure the disease of excessive government, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of too much borrowing.

That being said, the fiscal chaos plaguing European welfare states is proof that there is a point when a spending problem can also become a debt problem. Simply stated, the people and institutions that buy government bonds at some point will decide that they no longer trust a government’s ability to repay because the public sector is too big and the economy is too weak.

And even though the European fiscal crisis no longer is dominating the headlines, I fear this is just the calm before the storm.

For instance, the data in a report from Citi about the looming Social Security-style crisis are downright scary.

…the total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for twenty OECD countries is a staggering $78 trillion, or almost double the $44 trillion published national debt number.

And the accompanying chart is rather appropriate since it portrays this giant pile of future spending promises as an iceberg.

And when you look at projections for ever-rising spending (and therefore big increases in red ink) in America, it’s easy to see why I’m such a strong advocate of genuine entitlement reform.

But it’s also important to realize that government policies also can encourage excessive debt in the private sector.

Before digging into the issue, let’s first make clear that debt is not necessarily bad. Households often borrow to buy big-ticket items like homes, cars, and education. And businesses borrow all the time to finance expansion and job creation.

But if there’s too much borrowing, particularly when encouraged by misguided government policies, then households and businesses are very vulnerable if there’s some sort of economic disruption and they no longer have enough income to finance debt payments. This is when debt becomes excessive.

Yet this is what the crowd in Washington is encouraging.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, George Melloan warns that misguided “stimulus” and “QE” policies have created a debt bubble.

…while Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen were trying to prevent deflation, the federal government was engineering its cause, excessive debt. And the Fed abetted the process by purchasing trillions of dollars of government paper, aka quantitative easing. Near-zero interest rates also have encouraged consumers and business to releverage. Cars are now financed with low or no-interest five-year loans. With the 2008 housing debacle forgotten, easier mortgage terms have made a comeback. Corporations also couldn’t let cheap money go to waste, so they have piled up debts to buy back their own stock. Such “investment” produces no economic growth, but it has to be paid back nonetheless. Amid the Great Recession, many worried that the entire economy of the U.S., or even the world, would be “deleveraged.” Instead, we have a new world-wide debt bubble.

The numbers he shares are sobering.

Global debt of all types grew by $57 trillion from 2007 to 2014 to a total of $199 trillion, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in February last year. That’s 286% of global GDP compared with 269% in 2007. The current ratio is above 300%.

Professor Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg about research showing that debt-fueled bubbles are especially worrisome.

…since debt bubbles damage the financial system, they endanger the economy more than equity bubbles, which transmit their losses directly to households. Financial institutions lend people money, and if people can’t pay it back — because the value of their house has gone down — it could cause bank failures. …Economists Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor recently did a historical study of asset price crashes, and they found that, in fact, debt seems to matter a lot. …To make a long story short, they look at what happened to the economy of each country after each large drop in asset prices. …bubbles make recessions longer, and credit worsens the effect. …the message is clear: Bubbles and debt are a dangerous combination.

To elaborate, equity and bubbles aren’t a good combination, but there’s far less damage when an equity bubble pops because the only person who is directly hurt is the person who owns the asset (such as shares of a stock). But when a debt bubble pops, the person who owes the money is hurt, along with the person (or institution) to whom the money is owed.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute adds his two cents to the issue.

…the world is presently drowning in debt. Indeed, as a result of the world’s major central banks for many years having encouraged markets to take on more risk by expanding their own balance sheets in an unprecedented manner, the level of overall public and private sector indebtedness in the global economy is very much higher today than it was in 2008 at the start of the Great Economic Recession. Particularly troublesome is the very high level of corporate debt in the emerging market economies and the still very high public sector debt levels in the European economic periphery. …the Federal Reserve’s past policies of aggressive quantitative easing have set up the stage for considerable global financial market turbulence. They have done so by artificially boosting asset prices and by encouraging borrowing at artificially low interest rates that do not reflect the likelihood of the borrower eventually defaulting on the loan.

In other words, artificially low interest rates are distorting economic decisions by making something (debt) seem cheaper than it really is. Sort of financial market version of the government-caused third-party payer problem in health care and higher education.

And Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal makes the very important point that debt is encouraged by bailouts and subsidies.

Big banks aren’t automatically bad or badly managed because they are big, but it’s hard to believe big banks would exist without an explicit and implicit government safety net underneath them. …None of this has changed since Dodd-Frank, none of it is likely to change. …we know where the crisis will come from and how it will be transmitted to the financial system. The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999. …Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

The bottom line is that government spending programs directly cause debt, but we should be just as worried about the private debt that is being encouraged and subsidized by other misguided government policies.

And surely we shouldn’t forget to include the pernicious role of the tax code, which further tilts the playing field in favor or debt.

P.S. Let’s briefly divert to another issue. I wrote last Christmas that President Obama may have given the American people a present.

But the Washington Examiner reports that gift has turned into a lump of coal.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it is resuming its Equitable Sharing program…that allows state and local police to get around tough state laws that limit how much property can be taken from citizens without being charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted of a crime. …money-hungry police departments can exploit these lax federal rules about confiscating people’s property. The feds like this because they get a cut of the loot. …there is no presumption of innocence. …civil forfeitures by the feds amounted to $4.5 billion in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that all of America’s burglars stole that year. It’s hard to imagine more compelling evidence of gross wrong.

Wow, so the government steals more money than burglars. I guess I’m not surprised.

But if you really want to get upset, check out real-world examples of asset forfeiture by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Thankfully, some states are seeking to curtail this evil practice.

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Remember the odious, immoral, and corrupt TARP bailout?

Well, it’s becoming an issue in the 2016 presidential race, with some folks criticizing Donald Trump for siding with Bush and Obama on the issue.

I suppose I could make a snide observation about the absurdity of Trump being perceived as an anti-establishment candidate when he supported a policy that had unanimous support from political insiders.

But I would much rather focus on the policy implications. So when Neil Cavuto asked me to comment on Chris Christie’s rejection of bailouts, I took the opportunity to stress (once again) that it wasn’t a TARP-or-nothing choice and that there was a sensible, non-corrupt, way of dealing with failing financial firms. Simply stated, only bail out depositors and let bondholders and shareholders take the hit.

For the geeks who are reading this, you’ll recognize that the policy I’m advocating is often called the FDIC-resolution approach.

And it’s worth noting that this was used at the beginning of the financial crisis. As I pointed out in the discussion, two of the big financial institution that first got in trouble – WAMU and IndyMac – were liquidated.

But once Bush’s execrable Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, took control of the process, decisions were made to rescue the fat cats as well as the depositors.

The bottom line is that a lot of establishment figures, including GOPers like Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney, argue that TARP was necessary because the financial system needed to be recapitalized.

Yet that’s also what happens with the FDIC-resolution approach. The only real difference is whether financial institutions should be rescued along with depositors.

Well, my view is that capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.

P.S. The other guest in the interview made a very good point about America becoming “bailout nation.” I fully agree. To the extent that we have private profits and socialized losses, we’ll have bigger and bigger problems with moral hazard. After all, if you’re in Las Vegas and someone else is covering your losses, why not make high-risk/high-reward bets.

P.P.S. If anyone cares, my driveway is finally clear. A special thanks to the family next door. Not only were they smarter than me (as I wrote yesterday, they parked their cars near the end of their driveway), they’re also nicer than me. They came over and helped me finish when they were done!

Actually, I like to think I’d be equally thoughtful. I’ll have to look for a chance to repay their good deed.

By the way, I should add that the father next door works for a social conservative organization, which is one more piece of evidence for my view that so-cons and libertarians should be allies.

Tim Carney explains that natural alliance much better.

P.P.P.S. In hopes of convincing some of my leftist friends, I can’t resist making one final point.

When government gets to pick winners and losers, it’s highly probable that those who get the handouts, bailouts, and subsidies will be rich, powerful, and politically connected. Heck, just think of the Ex-Im Bank.

As noted by my former colleague, Will Wilkinson, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

I realize that statists won’t agree with me that it’s wrong for the federal government to redistribute from rich to poor. But I hope they’ll be on my side in fighting against redistribution from poor to rich!

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Is the third time the charm, at least for bailouts?

First, we had the TARP bailout in the United States, and that turned out to be a corrupt mess.

Second, we had the Greek bailout, which has squandered hundreds of billions of euros to prop up a welfare state.

Now we have a third big bailout, with China seeking to stabilize that nation’s faltering stock market. So anybody want to guess how this will work out?

To put it mildly, the Wall Street Journal does not have a favorable opinion of this financial market intervention.

Beijing…officials pumped public money into the market. It hasn’t worked; the Shanghai Composite Index closed Thursday at 3661, 29% below its June peak. …Peking University economist Christopher Balding has added up the bailout and stimulus measures announced since the market panic started in late June. They total $1.3 trillion, or more than 10% of GDP.

So why is this a bad thing?

For two reasons, as the WSJ explains. First, it’s an unjustified wealth transfer. Second, it creates an economic environment contaminated by moral hazard.

Investors who bought when the market was already frothy are getting a chance to exit with some of their profits intact. But Chinese who don’t own stocks are justified in asking why they must subsidize their fellow citizens’ poor decisions. Mr. Balding’s spreadsheet shows that the market-rescue measures represent a huge transfer of wealth to investors who should have been prepared to shoulder the risks when they bought shares. The failed bailout reinforces the expectation that Beijing will attempt to manage the financial markets in the future. This moral hazard means the volatility will continue, along with the costs of future bailouts.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I share the Wall Street Journal’s skepticism. In a recent interview with Neil Cavuto, I said the Chinese government (like just about all governments) is too focused on short-run pain avoidance.

In other words, by trying to prop up markets in the short run, I think the Chinese government will cause a far greater amount of economic pain in the long run.

Two other points from the interview deserve highlighting.

  1. China’s economy needs more economic liberalization (as opposed to the snake oil being peddled by the IMF) if it hopes to become a first-world nation. While there’s been a lot of progress since the wretched deprivation and poverty of Mao’s era, China is still way behind the United States and other nations with more capitalistic systems. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are appropriate role models.
  2. Whenever folks on the left point to a “success story” that ostensibly proves big government and central planning are more successful that capitalism, it’s just a matter of time before they’re proven wrong. Some of them were delusional enough to think the Soviet Union was economically successful (see bottom of this post) and events proved them wrong. As I pointed out in the interview, some of them thought Japan’s model of central planning was the ticket for prosperity and events proved them wrong. More recently, some of them have argued that China’s state-driven economy was a role model and they’re now being shown to be wrong.

P.S. Let’s close with some economic humor.

Fans of old-time comedy are probably familiar with the famous who’s-on-first exchange between Abbott and Costello.

Well, here’s a modern version of that exchange that showed up in my mailbox yesterday, only it deals with joblessness. I won’t strain credibility by asserting it’s as funny as the original sketch, but it does indirectly highlight the fact that we should focus primarily on labor force participation since that measure how many people are producing wealth for the nation.

COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.

ABBOTT: Good Subject. Terrible times. It’s 5.6%.

COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?

ABBOTT: No, that’s 23%.

COSTELLO: You just said 5.6%.

ABBOTT: 5.6% unemployed.

COSTELLO: Right, 5.6% out of work.

ABBOTT: No, that’s 23%.

COSTELLO: Okay, so it’s 23% unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, that’s 5.6%.

COSTELLO: Wait a minute! Is it 5.6% or 23%?

ABBOTT: 5.6% are unemployed. 23% are out of work.

COSTELLO: If you are out of work, you are unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, Congress said you can’t count the “out of work” as the unemployed. You have to look for work to be unemployed.

COSTELLO: But they are out of work!

ABBOTT: No, you miss his point.

COSTELLO: What point?

ABBOTT: Someone who doesn’t look for work can’t be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn’t be fair.

COSTELLO: To whom?

ABBOTT: The unemployed.

COSTELLO: But ALL of them are out of work.

ABBOTTNo, the unemployed are actively looking for work. Those who are out of work gave up looking; and if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.

COSTELLO: So if you’re off the unemployment rolls, that would count as less unemployment?

ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!

COSTELLOThe unemployment rate just goes down because you don’t look for work?

ABBOTTAbsolutely it goes down. That’s how it gets to 5.6%. Otherwise it would be 23%.

COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means there are two ways to bring down the unemployment number?

ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.

COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?

ABBOTT: Correct.

COSTELLO: And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?

ABBOTT: Bingo.

COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to have people stop looking for work.

ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like an economist.

COSTELLO: I don’t even know what the hell I just said!

ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like a politician.

P.P.S. While economists deservedly get mocked, we’re not totally useless. We occasionally show a bit of cleverness.

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