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Archive for the ‘Price Controls’ Category

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

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

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

Those are both excellent presentations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another bad feature of a very bad law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After Hitler’s National Socialists were defeated in World War II, the allies imposed price controls on the German economy for the ostensible purposes of fighting inflation and preventing “price gouging.”

That policy led to massive shortages, black markets, and hoarding. Fortunately, as described in this video, a very clever economist abolished those controls, thus setting the stage for Germany’s post-war economic miracle.

The lesson to be learned is that politicians should let markets determine prices. Price controls of any kind, as indicated by the cartoon, will cause people to withhold goods, services, and/or labor from the marketplace.

Unfortunately, many people overlook that lesson when there’s some sort of disaster.

In a column for Bloomberg, Scott Duke Kominers asserts that sellers should not be allowed to increase prices when there’s a sudden increase in demand.

One might think that steep prices for disinfectant in the middle of an epidemic are just markets at work — a way of getting scarce goods to the people who value them the most. I’m sure that’s what price gougers tell themselves. …But that’s not the right way to think about disinfectant at this particular moment. …if you can pay $87 for a bottle of Purell instead of the usual $2 that probably doesn’t mean you’re more concerned about the risk of infection than your neighbor; it just means that you have more disposable income. Thus buying low-priced disinfectant and selling it at steep markups effectively transfers disinfectant supplies from lower-income people to wealthier ones. …in situations such as this it may be best for society to force prices below market-clearing levels in order to make sure everyone has access; that’s exactly what laws prohibiting price gouging attempt to do. …There’s a serious consequence to keeping the price low, of course: we end up with rationing, since there’s not enough to go around. But that hits everyone — rich or poor — more or less equally.

Politicians obviously like this argument. Most states have laws against “price gouging.”

That may be smart politics, but it’s bad economics.

J.D. Tuccille of Reason explains why such laws are misguided.

…as common as accusations of “price gouging” are, the term has no fixed meaning. Asked when rising prices cross the line to become criminal, New York Attorney General Letitia James told NPR, “there’s no definitive answer to that question, but you know it when you see it.” …Someincluding Alabama, Florida, and Maineforbid selling at an “unconscionable” price. Idaho and Texas ban sales at an “exorbitant or excessive price.” And New York splits the difference with restrictions on “unconscionably excessive price” increases during an emergency… Laws can’t change the market conditions that drive prices up. Prices for hand sanitizer, face masks, and easily stored food are rising right now not because sellers are mean, but because demand is rising relative to the immediately available supply. Those rising prices tell…manufacturers and distributors that they should increase production, and where they should send the goodsif they’re allowed to. …Sure enough, GOJO industries is “operating around the clock” to produce hand sanitizer, 3M has “ramped up production” of respirators, and many other companies are responding to the messages they’re getting from the market. Allowed time, goods will get to where they’re needed, and prices will drop as supply meets demand. …Price-gouging laws, by contrast, falsely tell the public that politicians are watching out for them even as they extend shortages and the resulting pain. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic come and go, but “price-gouging” laws demonstrate that intrusive politicians are a recurring plague.

Art Carden, an economics professor at Samford University, shows why anti-gouging laws backfire on consumers.

You’ve seen the pictures on your social media feeds: Empty shelves across America. Panic-buying. Hoarding. …this is exactly what the supply-and-demand model we teach in introductory economics courses predicts when we actively prevent the free market from functioning. The shelves are…empty because…governments aren’t letting prices change to reflect new market conditions. …“price gougers”…get tarred as villains while it’s actually the politicians who are making the problem worse by interfering with prices. …the fact remains that we get a lot more hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other supplies when we make room for people who are just in it for the money. You may not like their motivations, but they’re doing something your state’s governor and attorney general aren’t doing. Namely, they’re getting valuable emergency supplies into your hands.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns about adverse consequences in her syndicated column.

It’s normal for people to stock up on supplies during crises. The immediate results are empty store shelves, soon followed by higher prices. When this happens, politicians around the globe demand an end to the price hikes. …such heavy-handed intervention is a mistake… If prices are kept artificially low, there’s little incentive for shoppers not to buy as much as they can. …The fact is there’s no better means of slowing the rising demand — and, especially, reducing excessive hoarding — than allowing the very price hikes that governments are trying to prevent. But price hikes have another important advantage: They create the necessary incentives for entrepreneurs to shift resources toward activities that increase the supply of these goods. The higher prices encourage higher levels of production for goods like masks and hand sanitizers, which then increases supply. …When governments prevent price hikes, they unwittingly create shortages of vital supplies. …Aren’t we better off when products are actually on the shelves and available for purchase, even if only at higher prices? When no such products are to be found, except by the politically and socially connected, ordinary citizens lose out.

John Hirschauer’s piece in National Review cites some academic research on this topic.

The unintended consequences of price controls have been confirmed…in empirical literature. Take, for instance, the study published by three scholars in the Journal of Competition Law and Economics who examined the merits of proposed price-control laws in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. …The researchers reviewed the historical data on gasoline price hikes and found that “price increases were due to the normal operation of supply and demand and not price manipulation.” Upon reviewing the body of gasoline price-control studies, the group found that “neither consumers nor the economy benefit [from price controls], because the apparent monetary savings to consumers are transformed into costs of waiting or other forms of nonmarket rationing that exceed the monetary savings.” Through econometric analysis, they estimated that the “economic damages would have been increased by $1.5–2.9 billion during the two-month period of price increases” if the federal government had instituted price controls.

The only thing I’ll add to this discussion is that people are sympathetic to anti-gouging laws because of a belief in social equality. We think that everyone – rich and poor – should be treated equally during a disaster.

And in some cases, such as a group of people stranded on a lifeboat, that’s the right approach. Nobody would argue that scarce supplies (limited emergency provisions of fresh water and food) belong to the person with the biggest bank account .

But the economy isn’t a lifeboat. As explained in the above excerpts, it’s possible to get more provisions with the right incentives. Higher prices will encourage entrepreneurs to produce more scarce supplies (in this case, everything from toilet paper and hand sanitizer to respirators and ventilators).

So what’s the bottom line? Price gouging is no fun if you need to buy supplies in an emergency. But a free market is better than the alternative of government controls that lead to shortages, black markets, and hoarding.

I’ll close with this cartoon, which Art Carden included at the end of his AIER column.

And I’ll also add this joke that Mark Perry shared on twitter.

P.S. This video explains why the price system is so important and these three videos explain why anti-gouging laws backfire because they hinder the price system.

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Yesterday, I shared part of an interview that focused on Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s scheme to give more subsidies to colleges, thus transferring money from poorer taxpayers to richer taxpayers.

Here’s the other part of the interview, which revolved around a very bad idea to copy nations that impose price controls on prescription drugs.

In some sense, this is a debate on price controls, which have a long history (going all the way back to Ancient Rome) of failure.

But my comments focused primarily on the adverse consequences of Pelosi’s approach.

And if you want more details, Doug Badger explained how Pelosi’s approach would backfire in a report for the Heritage Foundation. He starts with an explanation of the legislation.

The Lower Drug Costs Now Act of 2019 (H.R. 3), introduced last week with the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would double down on the failures of existing government policies that have distorted prescription drug prices and contributed to higher health care costs. …H.R. 3 would establish a system in which the U.S. government bases prices for cutting-edge drug treatments on those set by foreign governments. The measure would set an upper price limit at 1.2 times a drug’s average price in six other countries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom). The secretary of health and human services then would seek to “negotiate” prices below that upper limit for at least 25—and as many as 250—drugs each year. …A manufacturer that declined to negotiate the price of any of its products would incur an excise tax of up to 95% of the revenues it derived from that product in the preceding year.

Doug then warns against an expansion of government power.

The bill represents an unprecedented exercise of raw government power. The federal government already imposes price curbs across a range of programs, requiring manufacturers to pay the government rebates… These provisions all are confined to federal programs, but nonetheless have distorted drug prices throughout the health sector. It’s one thing for the government to dictate the prices it pays in programs it finances. It is quite another for the government to impose a price for a product’s private sale and to extract money from a company on a long-ago settled transaction.

He then concludes by showing some of the negative consequences.

…aggressive government price-setting has damaged innovation and limited access to new treatments in all six of the countries whose price controls the bill would import. If the U.S. adopts price controls, it risks the same results here. Access to new drugs is much greater in the U.S. than in countries with price controls, in part because of having shunned price controls. …This lack of access can have damaging effects. A study by IHS Markit…concluded that Americans gained 201,700 life years as a result of faster access to new medicines. …Countries with price controls also suffer a decline in pharmaceutical research and development. In 1986, European firms led the U.S. in spending on pharmaceutical research and development by 24%. After the imposition of price control regimes, they fell behind. By 2015, they lagged the U.S. by 40%. …the president’s Council of Economic Advisers…concluded that while price controls might save money in the short term, they would cost more money in the long run. Government price-setting, it wrote, “makes better health care costlier in the future by curtailing innovation.”

As you can see, price controls have a deadly effect in the short run (the 201,700 life years).

But as I stated in the interview, the far greater cost – in terms of needless deaths – would become apparent in the long run as new drugs no longer come to market.

By the way, it’s not just me, or folks on the right, who recognize that there will be adverse consequences from price controls.

Writing for left-leaning Vox, Sarah Kliff acknowledges that there are trade-offs.

The United States is exceptional in that it does not regulate or negotiate the prices of new prescription drugs when they come onto market. …And the problems that causes are easy to see, from the high copays at the drugstore to the people who can’t afford lifesaving medications. What’s harder to see is that if we did lower drug prices, we would be making a trade-off. Lowering drug profits would make pharmaceuticals a less desirable industry for investors. And less investment in drugs would mean less research toward new and innovative cures. …In other words: Right now, the United States is subsidizing the rest of the world’s drug research by paying out really high prices. If we stopped doing that, it would likely mean fewer dollars spent on pharmaceutical research — and less progress developing new drugs for Americans and everybody else.

Here’s a chart from her article, which I’ve modified (in red) to underscore how other nations are free-riding because American consumers are picking up the tab for research and development.

By the way, I have no idea where the red lines actually belong. I’m just trying to emphasize that consumers who pay the market price (or closer to the market price) are the ones why underwrite the cost of discovering new drugs and treatments.

And Ms. Kliff definitely agrees this trade-off exists.

Every policy decision comes with trade-offs… If the United States began to price regulate drugs, medications would become cheaper. That would mean Americans have more access to drugs but could also expect a decline in research and development of new drugs. We might have fewer biotech firms starting up, or companies deciding it’s worth bringing a new drug to market. …Are we, as a country, comfortable paying higher prices for drugs to get more innovation? Or would we trade some of that innovation to make our drugs more accessible to those of all income levels?

For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think there’s much of a trade-off. I choose markets, both for the moral reason and because I want to maximize long-run health benefits for the American people.

P.S. Because pharmaceutical companies got in bed with the Obama White House to support Obamacare, some people may be tempted to say Pelosi’s legislation is what they deserve. While I fully agree that it’s despicable for big companies to get in bed with big government, please remember that the main victims of Pelosi’s legislation will be sick people who need new treatments.

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Argentina is a sobering example of how statist policies can turn a rich nation into a poor nation.

I’m not exaggerating. After World War II, Argentina was one of the world’s 10-richest nations.

But then Juan Peron took power and initiated Argentina’s slide toward big government, which eroded the nation’s competitiveness and hampered growth.

Even the Washington Post‘s Bureau Chief shares my assessment.

Perón’s rise marked the start of the country’s long, slow slide. …big-government populism squandered Argentine’s fortunes on nationalized railroads and ports. Perón’s pro-labor policies cultivated devout working-class followers but also laid the groundwork for the conversion of his party into an entity that would mirror a corrupt union. …The country battled bouts of damaging inflation in 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1974. …in the 1980s, Argentina saw a bonanza of public-sector hiring, bloated budgets… Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Perónist ex-president, took the helm a decade ago, ushering in a new era of fudged financial data and populism.

Thanks to endless bouts of bad policy, the nation suffers from perpetual crisis.

…a country stuck in what has now become its natural state: crisis. As if living a deja vu, I flipped on the TV to once again hear Argentine newscasters fretting about bailouts, the diving peso and fears of default. Beggars — even more than before — panhandled on the same corner by an imposing church on Santa Fe Avenue. As others had done years before, stores advertised going-out-of-business sales. …Argentina is doomed to a repeating history of financial emergencies. You can almost set your watch to it, and, worryingly, the intervals between implosions are growing ever shorter.

If we focus on policy this century, there was plenty of bad policy under the previous Peronist-oriented Presidents.

And since government amassed so much power over the economy, nobody should be surprised by this BBC report about rampant corruption.

More than a dozen people have been arrested in Argentina after copies of notebooks were found detailing what seem to be illicit political payments. They were kept by Oscar Centeno, who was employed as a driver by a public works official and describe delivering bags of cash. The notebooks cover from 2003 to 2015, when Cristina Fernández and her late husband Néstor Kirchner were president. …She has previously said she is being politically persecuted by the current government, who want to distract people from the country’s economic problems. …the payments total around US$56m (£43m), but Judge Claudio Bonadio says the corruption network could reached up to US$160m.

The Economist reports that the current president, Mauricio Macri, is imposing his share of bad policies, including price controls.

The measures are a change of course for a president who sought to undo the effects of more than a decade of populist government. The most important one is a…revival of a price-control mechanism in force under the two Peronist presidents who preceded him, Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Mr Macri’s version, which he, like the Kirchners, calls “precios cuidados” (“curated prices”), the price of 64 consumer items, from milk to jam, will be frozen for six months (ie, until the eve of the election). An “army” of inspectors, under the direction of the production ministry, will enforce supermarkets’ adherence to the freeze.

Price controls are spectacularly misguided.

Politicians cause inflation by having the central bank create too much money. They then act as if the result rise in prices is the fault of “greedy businesses” and impose controls.

All of which never ends well (see Venezuela, for instance).

But Macri is also adopting other bad policies.

The government has also opened new credit lines for pensioners and families with children and expanded a plan to build new homes with state financing.

He obviously hopes his short-sighted policies will enable him to prevail in the upcoming elections.

And maybe he will if his main opponent is similarly bad.

But at least one candidate supports pro-market reforms.

Argentine economist José Luis Espert once described President Mauricio Macri’s political movement as “kirchnerism with good manners,”… Now a presidential candidate himself, Espert wants to make government a lot less polite. “We need to lay off approximately 1.5 million public employees,” Espert, the head of the newly-formed Libertarian party, told AQ in an exclusive interview. “What I propose is a complete U-turn.” …The economist claims that he is the only candidate who can actually turn around what he describes as “Argentina’s century-long failure, marked by economic populism.” …“We need to abandon our model of import substitution and of running budget deficits, and revise our labor laws, which are similar to those during Italian fascism. We need to have free trade and a state that can pay for itself through reasonable taxes,” added Espert, who on Feb. 2 released a book called The Complicit Society, in which he describes “the economic myths that led Argentina to decadency.”

Wouldn’t it be a great ending to the story if Argentina become another Chile?

My fingers certainly will be crossed (as they are currently for Brazil).

Ironically, even though the International Monetary Fund has subsidized bad policy in Argentina with periodic bailouts, some of the economists who work at the IMF actually understand what’s plaguing the country.

Here are some excerpts from their study, starting with a description of how big government is stifling prosperity.

Argentina’s economic fortune has been on a declining path for a long time. Argentina’s per capita output relative to that of advanced economies nearly halved over the past 50 years. …yearly labor productivity growth has been close to zero on average since 1980… Argentina’s regulatory and administrative burden on businesses is one of the heaviest among EMs… Argentina has the worst overall PMR index among 42 OECD and non-OECD countries, owing to high barriers to entrepreneurship (including complex regulatory procedures which impede firm entry/expansion, and barriers in network sectors), …high trade and other external barriers, and a significant involvement of the state in the economy, both through state-owned enterprises and price controls. …Stringent labor market regulations, such as high firing costs and restrictions on temporary employment, hamper efficient allocation of resources in the economy, discourage investment, and lead to labor underutilization and informality… High tax burden, especially on labor, have similar adverse effects on investment, labor utilization (particularly formal employment), and overall competitiveness of the economy.

Here’s a chart showing how Argentina is de-converging, which is remarkably depressing since conventional theory tells us that poor nations should be catching up with rich nations.

Here are the main findings from the study.

The main objective of this paper is to…assess the role of the reforms in boosting long-term GDP growth through their impact on (i) capital accumulation, (ii) labor utilization, and (iii) total factor productivity or efficiency. …The paper finds that structural reforms can have significant impact on long-term GDP growth through all three supply-side channels. …An ambitious reform effort, which were to improve business regulatory environment (closing half the gap with Australia and New Zealand over two decades), would add 1–1½ percent to average annual growth of GDP. Reducing trade tariffs and payroll taxes (closing half the gap with Australia and New Zealand) could each boost average annual real GDP growth by about 0.1 percent.

Keep in mind, by the way, that even small increments of sustained growth make a huge difference to a nation’s long-run prosperity.

Here’s a table showing the IMF’s suggested reforms.

I actually agree with almost everything on the list.

The only mistake is calling for aggressive anti-trust laws. Yet history teaches us that such laws wind up being tools to protect incumbent companies.

Moreover, the best way to fight monopolies is to have completely open entry to the marketplace.

But I don’t want to quibble. By IMF standards, that list of proposed policies is excellent.

P.S. Pope Francis inexplicably wants to export the failed Argentine model to the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, I think Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have a better approach.

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People sometimes ask me how I’ve managed to write a column every single day since November 2009.

Sadly, the answer has a lot to do with politicians having a vote-buying and power-grabbing incentive to produce a never-ending supply of bad policies.

Consider what just happened in Oregon.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a first-in-the-nation rent control bill Thursday…Senate Bill 608′s rent control and eviction protections go into effect immediately. …The law caps annual rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation throughout the state, which amounts to a limit of just over 10 percent this year. …The bill passed quickly through the House and Senate amid a Democratic supermajority.

This is spectacularly bad policy.

  • My first reaction is that such laws should be unconstitutional since politicians are violating a provision of the Bill of Rights by taking part of the value of private property without compensation.
  • My second reaction is that such laws will backfire because they address (in a bone-headed fashion) the symptom of rising rents rather than the (usually government-caused) problem of inadequate housing supply.
  • My third reaction is that price controls never work, regardless of the market or sector, so limits on rent will exacerbate housing problems.

By the way, economic illiteracy is not confined to Oregon. Or even to the United States

Berlin is contemplating rent control as well.

…local politicians here have proposed a radical idea to tackle the problem: introducing a rent cap that would freeze all existing rents for the next five years. …By freezing existing rents for five years, Zado said, the city could help prevent massive increases. …but there could also be significant downsides. Such a policy could exacerbate the city’s existing housing shortage: some experts say it might lead developers to seek buyers, not renters, for their new apartments. …said Michael Voigtländer of the German Economic Institute in Cologne. “That lack of housing won’t be solved if the rents are capped.” …head of the German Housing Industry association, told German newspaper Die Zeit it could even keep developers from building additional housing in the coming years: “A rent stop would lead to our member companies building about 50,000 fewer apartments in the next five years,” he said.

The national government also is acting in a self-destructive manner.

Germany has taken nationwide action in recent years to begin grappling with this problem: in 2015, parliament passed a law restricting how much landlords could raise rents. Under that legislation, the rental price on a new contract should be no more than 10% higher than the average price in that particular neighbourhood.

Let’s see what experts have to say about this issue.

We’ll start with the perspective of landlords, which was included in this New York Times report.

…landlords say that the legislation will compel owners to take their properties off the rental market because they will no longer be able to earn enough rent from them — deepening the housing crisis rather than easing it. …Mr. DiLorenzo said his primary fear was that lawmakers would ultimately bar rents from rising more than a bare minimum, which would prevent landlords from meeting their expenses and eventually drive them out of business. The real solution to rising rents, he said, is to make it easier to build decent and affordable housing in Oregon by eliminating a multitude of fees and regulations.

Landlords have an obvious interest in this issue, so let’s now share some insights from people who don’t have a dog in the fight, but who understand economics.

Megan McArdle debunks this inane example of price controls.

Serial experimentation with this policy has repeatedly shown the same result. Initially, tenants rejoice, and rent control looks like a victory for the poor over the landlord class. But the stifling of price signals leads to problems. …incomes rise, and rents don’t. People with higher incomes have more resources to pursue access to artificially cheap real estate: friends who work for management companies, “key fees” or simply incomes that promise landlords they won’t have to worry about collecting the rent. …lucky insiders come to dominate rent-controlled apartments, especially because having gotten their hands on an absurdly cheap apartment, said elites are loathe to move and free up space for others. The longer the rent-control policies remain, the more these imbalances grow. …Deprived of the ability to make a profit, landlords skimp on maintenance and refuse to build new housing.

Megan also explains that the damage of rent control is compounded by policies that restrict the development of additional housing.

Rent control is one of the most effective ways to destroy a city’s housing stock, but it’s far from the only one. You can also enact extremely strict building codes, with lengthy and highly bureaucratic processes, which will restrict the supply of housing. This is what has happened in many American cities… policymakers should remember that a price is just the intersection of supply and demand. If you alter the price, but don’t alter the supply or the demand, the problem doesn’t go away; rationing just shows up in different forms.

Mark Hemingway, originally from Oregon, explains in the Wall Street Journal what is happening in the state.

Virtually every mainstream economist, from Paul Krugman to Thomas Sowell, has condemned rent control as bad policy. Oregon’s problem isn’t rising rents. It’s the lack of affordable housing… the state remains resistant to new development. Oregon adopted widely hailed “smart growth” policies in the 1970s, imposing “urban growth boundaries” around cities to prevent sprawl. …This has artificially inflated the price of land within the boundaries. …On top of all this, Oregon has a red-tape problem that skews developer incentives. “Systems and development charges and permit fees for even a 500-square-foot unit in the city of Eugene right now are close to about $20,000 per unit,” says real-estate agent James St. Clair. “There’s no incentive to build small affordable units…” Rather than addressing the lack of housing supply, legislators have seized on rent control.

For those who prefer videos over words, here’s a succinct video from Johan Norberg on the folly of rent control.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute summarize the real problem in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

…rent control is making a comeback in response to rising housing prices in urban areas across the country in states like California, Illinois, Washington, and Massachusetts. …As the graphical Supply/Demand analysis…illustrates very clearly, rent control laws that artificially force the rental price of housing (Pabove) below the market-clearing equilibrium price (P0) are guaranteed to create a housing shortage by: a) increasing the number of rental units demanded at the artificially low rents (QD) and b) decreasing the number of rental units supplied to the market (QS). You can artificially restrict the amount of rent a landlord can legally charge for a rental unit, but you can’t force developers, builders, and landlords to build or supply more rental housing in the future. And the supply of rental housing in markets with rent control is guaranteed to decline. …Price controls aren’t the answer. Building more housing is the only real solution to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Here’s Mark’s graph.

In another column for FEE, Luis Pablo de la Horra summarizes why rent control is so misguided.

Rent control is one of those policies that continues to attract the favor of the public despite the fact it has repeatedly proven to be ineffective when it comes to improving the lives of those it is aimed at. …Rent controls often lead to a shortage of rental houses since landladies and landlords find it unprofitable to rent out their apartments at capped prices. In addition, the stock of dwellings tends to deteriorate because home-owners will have little incentive to invest in the maintenance and refurbishment of their houses. …here is some empirical evidence. A 2017 paper published by three Stanford economists shows that rent controls in San Francisco reduced rental housing supply by 15 percent, which in turn increased rental prices in the other parts of the city by around 5 percent. Another recent paper blames restrictions on the use of land (the so-called zoning) for the increasing housing prices in large US cities.

Let’s see what the other side has to say on the topic. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times is on the wrong side.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial that is a case study of economic illiteracy.

New York’s system of rent regulation, limiting how much landlords can charge tenants, began in the 1940s to help a growing middle class. There are about one million apartments covered under rent-restricting regulations now… here are some actions lawmakers can take: …Return control of the rent laws to New York City… Landlords’ ability to raise the rent by 20 percent every time an apartment is vacated is a perverse incentive… Lawmakers should scrap this incentive entirely. …the state agency that enforces rent laws…needs more funding… require landlords to submit receipts for improvements to individual apartments to the agency and the tenant.

This is remarkably bad. And sad as well. The New York Times in recent memory was actually economically sensible, endorsing a flat tax and urging elimination of the minimum wage.

Now it fully embraces policies that even rational left-leaning economists condemn.

Indeed, you can probably tell a lot about the ethics of your left-wing friends if you ask them about rent control.

The ones with good intentions will reject rent control while the demagogues (and the ignorant) will applaud this foolish example of price controls.

Minneapolis provides a good example of ethical leftists, as Elliot Kaufman explains in the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier this month the City Council overwhelmingly approved an ambitious plan to encourage higher-density development and increase the supply of housing. …The Comp Plan would allow the construction of duplexes and triplexes in areas once reserved for single-family homes, rezoning areas near public transportation for larger apartment buildings, and doing away with parking requirements for new housing. …The Comp Plan takes a market-based approach but proclaims left-wing goals. It vows to “eliminate” racial and economic disparities and aggressively fight climate change. …The Comp Plan promotes denser development, which urbanists on both left and right see as the solution to a host of problems. More density in a city like Minneapolis could help renew both geographic and economic mobility.

We’ll close with this great quote from a Swedish economist.

P.S. Rent control can be a great scam for privileged insiders.

P.P.S. Rent control also rewards and empowers unscrupulous and reprehensible people.

P.P.P.S. Amazingly, California voters actually rejected a state referendum to allow rent control (though this isn’t stopping one of their politicians from trying to muck up rental markets).

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It seems like every Democrat in the country plans to run against Trump in 2020 and presumably all of them will feel compelled to issue manifestos outlining their policy agendas.

Which gives me lots of material for my daily column. I’ve previously written about statist initiatives from Bernie Sanders and bizarre ideas put forth by Elizabeth Warren.

Today, let’s review the two big ideas that have been unveiled by Kamala Harris, the Senator from California who just announced her bid for the White House.

We’ll start with her idea to create a federal subsidy for rent payments. I wrote about this new handout last year, and warned that it would enrich landlords (much as tuition subsidies enrich colleges and health subsidies enrich providers).

Here’s some of what Professor Tyler Cowen wrote for Bloomberg about the proposal.

One of the worst tendencies in American politics is to restrict supply and subsidize demand. …The likely result of such policies is high and rising prices, restricted access and often poor quality. If you limit the number of homes and apartments, for example, but give buyers subsidies, that is a formula for exorbitant prices. That is what makes early accounts of Senator Kamala Harris’s economic plans so disappointing. …Consider Harris’s embrace of subsidies for renters, as reflected by her recent sponsorship of the Rent Relief Act of 2018. Given the high price of housing in many parts of the U.S., it is easy to see why the idea might have appeal. But the best and most sustainable way of producing cheaper housing is to build more homes and apartments. The resulting increase in supply will cause prices to fall… That is basic supply and demand, with supply doing the active work. The Harris bill, in contrast, calls for tax credits to renters. …There is an obvious problem with this approach. If you subsidize renters, that will push up the price of apartments. Furthermore, economic logic suggests that big rent increases are most likely in those cases where the supply of apartments is relatively fixed, a basic principle of what is called “tax incidence theory.” In sum, most of the gains from this policy would go to landlords, not renters.

In other words, this is a perfect plan for a politician who understands “public choice” theory.

Ordinary voters think they’re getting a freebie, but the benefits actually go to those with political influence and power.

Now let’s look at her $2.7 trillion tax cut. I believe that people should be allowed to keep the lion’s share of any money they earn, so my gut instinct is to cheer.

But it’s always good to be skeptical when a politician is offering something that sounds too good to be true.

Kyle Pomerlau of the Tax Foundation has done the heavy lifting and looked closely at the details. He has a thorough explanation of her plan and its likely impact.

The “LIFT the Middle-Class Act” (LIFT) would create a new refundable tax credit available to low- and middle-income taxpayers. …LIFT would provide a refundable credit that would match a maximum of $3,000 in earned income ($6,000 for married couples filing jointly). …The credit would begin to phase out for single taxpayers starting at $30,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI) and $80,000 for single taxpayers with children, and begin phasing out for married taxpayers at $60,000 of AGI. The phaseout rate for all taxpayers would be 15 percent. …LIFT’s impact on the economy is primarily through its effect on the labor force. LIFT phases in from the first dollar of earned income to the maximum credit of $3,000 per tax filer. It then phases out starting at different levels of income, depending on a tax filer’s marital status and whether they have children. These phase-ins and phaseouts create implicit marginal subsidies and tax rates that impact individuals’ incentive to work.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Harris is proposing a new version of the earned income credit.

And that means some taxpayers get subsidized for working and some taxpayers get penalized.

For taxpayers in the credit phaseout range, tax liability would increase by 15 cents for each additional dollar earned. This means that these taxpayers would face an additional implicit marginal tax rate of 15 percent, which would reduce these taxpayers’ incentive to work additional hours. In contrast, taxpayers in the phase-in range of the credit would get $1 for each additional $1 of income they earn. As such, these taxpayers would benefit from an effective marginal subsidy rate, or negative marginal tax rate, of 100 percent. A negative tax rate of 100 percent would increase the incentive for these taxpayers to work additional hours.

Kyle crunches the numbers to determine the overall economic impact.

While the positive labor force effects of the phase-in of the credit could offset the negative effect of the phaseout, we find that, on net, the size of the total labor force would shrink under this policy. This is primarily due to the large number of taxpayers that would fall in the phaseout range of the credit relative to the number of individuals that would benefit from the phase-in. …We estimate that the credit…would reduce economic output by 0.7 percent and result in about 825,906 fewer full-time equivalent jobs.

Here’s the relevant table from the Tax Foundation’s report.

This is remarkable. It would seem impossible to design a $2.7 trillion tax cut that actually hurts the economy, but Sen. Harris has succeeded in that dubious achievement.

For all intents and purposes, she has figured out how to have an anti-supply-side tax cut.

And there are two other problems that deserve attention.

  • First, as noted in Kyle’s paper, the tax cut is “refundable.” This means that money goes to people who don’t pay taxes. In other words, it is government spending being laundered through the tax code. So Harris claims to be cutting taxes, but part of what she’s doing is expanding redistribution and making government bigger (and encouraging more fraud).
  • Second, Harris is very cagey about how the numbers work in her proposal. Does she want the tax cuts (and new spending) financed by more borrowing? By printing money? By offsetting class-warfare tax increases? Some combination of the three? Whatever the answer, the negative economic damage will be substantially higher if financing costs are included.

Considering the poor design and upside-down economics of the rent subsidy scheme and the new tax credit, the bottom line is rather obvious: Kamala Harris wants to buy votes, and she has decided that it is okay to hurt the economy in hopes of achieving her political ambitions.

No wonder she fits in so well in Washington!

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While I have no objection to applauding Donald Trump’s good policies such as tax reform and deregulation, I also don’t hesitate to criticize his bad policies.

His big missteps are protectionism and fiscal profligacy, but he also does small things that are misguided.

I’ve already written about his energy socialism and his increased handouts to the World Bank.

Today, we’re going to analyze his proposal for price controls on certain prescription drugs.

For some background on the topic, we’ll start with a very sound editorial from the Wall Street Journal. Here are the key passages.

…the U.S. shouldn’t put the world’s most innovative drug market at the mercy of what Greece is willing to pay for a cancer treatment. …a potential rule…would tether what Medicare Part B pays for certain drugs to a price index of what other developed countries pay. The goal is to bring prices down to 126% of what other countries pay, versus 180% today. …The reason European countries pay less for drugs is because they run single-payer health systems and dictate the prices they’re willing to pay. …Other countries have the luxury of extortion because the U.S. produces more drugs than the rest of the world combined. Mr. Trump mentioned these realities in his speech but blew past them to suggest importing the same bad behavior.

If we import bad policies, we import bad outcomes.

Europe does pay more—in the form of reduced access. Of 74 cancer drugs launched between 2011 and 2018, 70 (95%) are available in the United States. Compare that with 74% in the U.K., 49% in Japan, and 8% in Greece. This should cure anyone of the delusion that these countries will simply start to pay more for drugs. They’re willing to deny treatments… Better quality care in the U.S. is why America outpaces 10 European countries on cancer survival rates… Any investor who wants to bankroll the cure for Alzheimer’s is already staring at a very small chance of success—and the Trump HHS proposal adds another a potential limit on return that will be restricted further if Democrats retake power and use it as a precedent.

Here’s the bottom line.

Mr. Trump is right that Europe, Australia and many others are freeloaders on U.S. innovation, and better intellectual property protections in trade deals might help. But that is no reason to repeat their price-control mistake and undermine the reasons the United States is the last, best hope for medical progress.

Sadly, there aren’t many politicians willing to say and do the right thing.

Which is why Congressman Bucshon of Indiana deserves praise. Here are some details from a report by the Hill.

Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) on Friday criticized a drug pricing proposal President Trump made last month, marking some of the first public resistance to the move from congressional Republicans. Bucshon told The Hill that Trump’s proposal to lower some drug prices in Medicare by tying them to cheaper prices in other countries is too far of a move toward “price controls.” …“I understand that we do want to get drug prices down but I think that any proposal that would lead to government price-fixing in that space is a pathway we don’t want to follow.” Trump’s move, announced in October, went farther in the direction of price controls on drugs than what Republicans typically support. Some Democrats praised his move… Bucshon helped lead opposition to a somewhat similar Medicare drug pricing proposal from former President Obama in 2016.

Amen.

A bad Obama policy of intervention doesn’t suddenly become a good policy simply because Trump has adopted it.

Here’s some of what I wrote about the issue in a column for FEE.

…prescription drug prices are typically higher in the US than many other nations. That’s both because bad domestic policies restrict the kind of competition that would keep prices in check and the fact that many foreign governments enact price controls while threatening to steal patents from companies that don’t cooperate. So, it’s especially troubling to see a proposed rule from the Trump administration that would index prescription drug reimbursements under Medicare Part B—which covers drugs exclusively handled by physicians and hospitals like vaccines and cancer medications—based on the prices paid in other countries, including those with nationalized health care systems. To borrow a legal metaphor, it’s fruit of the poisonous tree.

And what happens when we import bad policies?

At stake aren’t just high-minded free-market principles but the vitality of the most innovative pharmaceutical market in the world. US drug companies have only weathered the abuses of foreign governments because the domestic market is large enough that they can recoup the losses. That’s why the president is right to call it “very, very unfair” for other countries to keep their prices artificially low at the expense of American patients; but importing those losses by allowing foreign abuses to set US prices will mean no more market in which to offset losses to socialized systems and thus an inevitable decline in research and development of new medications.

What’s the bottom line? As I noted, we’ll get bad results.

From rent control to the gasoline lines of the 1970s, the connection between price controls and shortages has been well established.

In the case of pharmaceuticals, I fear the main result will be a decline in innovation. The drug companies make nice profits in drugs that already are developed and approved, so I doubt they’ll have much incentive to withhold production on existing drugs if price controls are imposed.

But those profits help to offset the very high cost of development and testing. Including for all the research and development that doesn’t produce marketable products.

So the real victims will be all of us since we won’t have access to the potentially life-saving and life-improving drugs that might be created in the future – assuming an absence of price controls.

The economics of price controls are clear. The consequences are always bad, whether we’re looking at price controls on labor, price controls on gasoline, or price controls on other products.

Which is why such policies generally are supported by the world’s most economically illiterate governments (or, in the case of Nixon, the most venal politicians). Oh, and don’t forget Puerto Rico.

We need Ludwig Erhard, but we got Donald Trump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then explains some basic economics.

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

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

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

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

But I’m digressing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This chart shows the effect of increased demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I generally use Texas as a good example when discussing public policy. Particularly compared to places such as California.

I like the sensible attitude about guns, but the absence of an income tax is particularly admirable when considering economic issues, and I confess to being greatly amused when I read about jobs and investment escaping high-tax states like California and moving to the Lone Star State.

But being more pro-market than California is a low bar to clear. And I’ve written that government is too big in Texas.

And now, because of Hurricane Harvey, I have another reason to criticize the state.

Texas has a law against “price gouging,” which means politicians there (just like the politicians in places like Venezuela) think they should get to determine what’s a fair price rather than allow (gasp!) a free market.

The state’s Republican Attorney General is even highlighting his state’s support for this perverse example of price controls.

>Price gouging by Texas merchants in the path of Hurricane Harvey has drawn the attention of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said Saturday that his office is looking into such cases. …”We’ll be dealing with those people as we find them,” he said. …Paxton issued a warning about price gouging Friday as the hurricane approached the Texas coast. Texas law prohibits businesses from charging exorbitant prices for gasoline, food, water, clothing and lodging during declared disasters.

Paxton is right about Texas law, but he is threatening to enforce a terrible policy.

To help explain why Texas law is bad and why the Attorney General is misguided, here’s a video from John Stossel on so-called price gouging.

It’s disgusting that Mississippi arrested John. The guy should have received a medal for putting his money at risk to serve others.

To augment Stossel’s analysis, here’s a video from Learn Liberty that explains why politicians shouldn’t interfere with the price system.

And here’s Walter Williams discussing the role of “windfall profits” and how high returns encourage the reallocation of resources in ways that benefit consumers.

The bottom line on this issue is that buyers understandably want low prices, particularly in emergency situations.

But that makes no economic sense. However, since buyers generally outnumber sellers, politicians will always have an incentive to demagogue on the issue.

I’m not surprised when we get economic illiteracy from certain politicians. Nonetheless, it’s very disappointing when Texas lawmakers sink to that level. I hope Mr. Paxton at least is feeling guilty.

P.S. But I’ll close on an upbeat note by sharing my collection of Texas-themed humor: Here, here, here, and here.

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When discussing government involvement in the health sector, I usually focus on the budgetary implications. Which makes sense since I’m a fiscal wonk and programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare are diverting ever-larger amounts of money from the economy’s productive sector.

I also look at the tax side of the fiscal equation and complain about how the healthcare exclusion mucks up the tax code.

Though it’s important to understand that government involvement doesn’t just cause fiscal damage. All these programs and policies contribute to the “third-party payer” problem, which exists when people make purchases with other people’s money. Such a system is a recipe for inefficiency and rising prices since consumers generally don’t care about cost and providers have no incentive to be efficient. And since government figures show that nearly 90 percent of health care expenditures are financed by someone other than the consumer, this is a major problem. One that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s another economic problem caused by government – price controls on insurance – that is very important. Indeed, the fights over “community rating” and “pre-existing conditions” are actually fights about whether politicians or competition should determine prices.

Simply stated, politicians want insurance companies to ignore risk when selling insurance. They want artificially low premiums for old people, so they restrict differences in premiums based on age (i.e., a community rating, enforced by a guaranteed-issue mandate), even though older people are statistically far more likely to incur health-related expenses. They also want artificially low premiums for sick people, so the crowd in Washington requires that they pay the same or similar premiums as healthy people (i.e., a pre-existing conditions mandate), even though they are statistically far more likely to incur health-related expenses.

Set aside that the entire purpose of insurance is to guard against risk. Instead, let’s focus on what happens when these types of price controls are imposed. For all intents and purposes, insurance companies are in a position where they have to over-charge young and healthy people in order to subsidize the premiums of old and sick people. That’s sounds great if you’re old and sick, but young and healthy people respond by choosing not to purchase insurance. And as fewer and fewer young and healthy people are in the system, that forces premiums ever higher. This is what is meant by a “death spiral.”

The pro-intervention crowd has a supposed solution to this problem. Just impose a mandate that requires the young and healthy people to buy insurance. Which is part of Obamacare, so there is a method to that bit of madness. But since the penalties are not sufficiently punitive (and also because the government simply isn’t very competent), the system hasn’t worked. And to make matters worse, Obamacare exacerbated the third-party payer problem, thus leading to higher costs, which ultimately leads to higher premiums, which further discourages people from buying health insurance.

So how do we solve this problem?

One of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Michael Cannon, is a leading expert on these issues. And he’s also a leading pessimist. Here’s some of what he wrote a week ago as part of a column on the Senate bill to modify Obamacare.

ObamaCare’s “community rating” price controls are causing premiums to rise, coverage to get worse for the sick and insurance markets to collapse across the country. The Senate bill would modify those government price controls somewhat, allowing insurers to charge 64-year-olds five times what they charge 18-year-olds (as opposed to three times, under current law). But these price controls would continue to make a mess of markets and cause insurers to flee.

But he wasn’t enamored with the House proposal, either. Here are some excerpts from his analysis earlier this year of that proposal.

The House leadership bill retains the very ObamaCare regulations that are threatening to destroy health insurance markets and leave millions with no coverage at all. ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls literally penalize insurers who offer quality coverage to patients with expensive conditions, creating a race to the bottom in insurance quality. Even worse, they have sparked a death spiral that has caused insurers to flee ObamaCare’s Exchanges nationwide… The leadership bill would modify ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls by expanding the age-rating bands (from 3:1 to 5:1) and allowing insurers to charge enrollees who wait until they are sick to purchase coverage an extra 30 percent (but only for one year). It is because the House leadership would retain the community-rating price controls that they also end up retaining many other features of the law.

Though existing law also is terrible, largely because of Obamacare. Here are passages from Michael’s column in the Hill.

ObamaCare’s core provisions are the “community rating” price controls and other regulations that (supposedly) end discrimination against patients with preexisting conditions. How badly do these government price controls fail at that task? Community rating is the reason former president Bill Clinton called ObamaCare “the craziest thing in the world” where Americans “wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Community rating is why women age 55 to 64 have seen the highest premium increases under ObamaCare. It is the principal reason ObamaCare has caused overall premiums to double in just four years. …Why? Because community rating forces insurance companies to cover the sick below cost, which simply isn’t sustainable. The only solution ObamaCare supporters offer is to keep throwing more money at the problem — which also isn’t sustainable.

Anyone who wants to really understand this issue should read all of Michael’s work on health care issues.

But if you don’t have the time or energy for that, here’s an image that I found on Reddit‘s libertarian page. Using not-so-subtle sarcasm, it tells you everything you need to know about why price controls ultimately will kill health insurance.

P.S. None of this suggests we should feel sorry for health insurance companies. They got in bed with the previous administration and endorsed Obamacare, presumably because they figured a mandate (especially with all the subsidies) would create captive customers. Now that it’s clear that the mandate isn’t working very well and that increased Medicaid dependency accounts for almost all of the additional “insurance coverage,” they’re left with an increasingly dysfunctional system. As far as I’m concerned, they deserve to lose money. And I definitely don’t want them to get bailout money.

P.P.S. Republicans aren’t doing a very good job of unwinding the Obamacare price controls, but they deserve a bit of credit for being bolder about trying to undo the fiscal damage.

Addendum: A comment from Seb reminds me that I was so fixated on criticizing price controls that I never bothered to explain how to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions and therefore cannot get health insurance. I’m guessing the answer is “high-risk pools” where the focus of policy is directly subsidizing the relatively small slice of the population that has a problem (as opposed to price controls and other interventions that distort the market for everyone). But the main goal, from my perspective, is to have states handle the issue rather than Washington. A federalist approach, after all, is more likely to give us the innovation, diversity, and competition that produces the best approaches. States may discover, after all, that insurance doesn’t make sense and choose to directly subsidize the provision of health care for affected people. In the long run, part of the solution is to get rid of the health care exclusion in the internal revenue code as part of fundamental tax reform. If that happened, it’s less likely that health insurance would be tied to employment (and losing a job is one of the main ways people wind up without insurance).

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When contemplating the importance of good public policy, we can learn a lot from bad examples.

The answer, in no small part, is that economies suffer immensely when politicians don’t allow markets to function. An unfettered price system plays an enormously important role in allocating capital and labor to their most-valued uses (based on the preferences of consumers).

With central planning, by contrast, capital and labor are allocated based on the preferences of politicians and bureaucrats. And even if you assume those officials have good motives, there’s no way they can replicate the efficiency of private markets.

Capitalism is amazing because, in a system based on voluntary exchange, people can only make themselves richer by serving the needs of others. Consider, for instance, this excellent new video on the market for bread. We should all be profoundly appreciative of how the invisible hand of free enterprise produces such amazing results.

The good news is that we don’t have central planning in the United States. As such, we’re not in any danger of complete economic breakdown because of government intervention (our long-run danger is instead the result of a metastasizing welfare state).

But the bad news is that we have sectors of our economy where government intervention prevents the efficient operation of the price system.

And we have other sectors where government intervention causes considerable inefficiency.

And keep in mind that almost all intervention is not the result of well-meaning but misguided decisions.

It is driven by various interest groups scheming with politicians to manipulate the system in order to obtain unearned wealth.

In other words, it’s “public choice.”

Which is why it doesn’t make any sense to give politicians more power to solve supposed problems. Especially when the problems are probably the result of government intervention in the first place.

It’s like rewarding an arsonist for starting fires (also see this poster or the image at the bottom of this column).

But let’s not dwell on the negative.

The good news is that America ranks relatively high according to some important measures.

There’s not much economy-wide business regulation, at least compared to most other nations. And we also don’t have much “employment-protection” legislation, which means American workers are much more likely to have jobs.

And less regulation is an important ingredient in the recipe for growth and prosperity. And nations that do a better job of following that recipe get to enjoy higher living standards, so we are fortunate not to have made as many policy mistakes as other countries.

P.S. Since bread played a starring role in today’s video, it’s worth remembering what it taught us about antitrust laws in The Incredible Bread Machine.

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When I point out that Puerto Rico got in trouble by allowing the burden of government spending to grow faster than the private economy, thus violating my Golden Rule, honest leftists will admit that’s true but then challenge me on what should happen next.

That’s a very fair – and difficult – question. The amount of government debt in Puerto Rico is so large that repayment would be a big challenge. In effect, today’s taxpayers and tomorrow’s taxpayers would suffer because of the reckless choices of yesterday’s politicians.

It could be done, to be sure, just like Greece could dig its way out of debt with a sufficient degree of spending restraint.

That being said, I’m not necessarily opposed to debt relief. Whether you call it default, restructuring, or something else, debt relief would give Puerto Rico a better chance of getting back on its feet. Moreover, I’m not exactly overflowing with sympathy for investors who lent money to Puerto Rico’s profligate government. Maybe they’ll be more prudent in the future if they lose some of their money today.

But here’s my quandary (and I feel the same way about Greece): I don’t mind debt relief if it’s part of a deal that actually produces better policy.

But I’m opposed to debt relief if it simply gives an irresponsible government “fiscal space” to maintain wasteful programs and other counterproductive forms of spending.

And I see very little evidence that Puerto Rico is interested in making the needed structural reforms to alter the long-run trend of ever-rising outlays.

Nor do I see any evidence that Puerto Rican officials are pushing for much-needed reforms in areas other than fiscal policy. Where’s the big push to get exempted from the Jones Act, a union-friendly piece of legislation that significantly increases the cost of shipping goods to and from the mainland? Where are the calls to get Puerto Rico an exemption from minimum wage laws that are harmful on the mainland but devastating in a less-developed economy?

These are some of the reasons why I don’t want to reward Puerto Rico’s feckless political class by granting debt relief.

And here’s something else to add to the list. Notwithstanding 40 centuries of evidence that price controls are a form of economic malpractice, the government has decided to use coercion to prohibit voluntary transactions between consenting adults.

The excuse is the Zika virus, but the result will be failure. Here’s some of what CNN is reporting.

The government of Puerto Rico has ordered a price freeze on condoms… Any store that hikes prices to try to capitalize on people’s fears of the virus will be fined up to $10,000. Other items on the price-freeze list: insect repellent, hand sanitizer and tissues. …The price gauging [sic] ban went into effect at the end of January on mosquito repellents. Condoms were added to the list in early February… “The price freeze remains in effect until after the emergency is over,” Nery Adames, Secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs, tells CNN.

By the way, you’ll notice that the government didn’t address the one thing it legitimately could have done to reduce condom prices.

Condoms are subject to the island’s 11.5% sales tax, one of the highest in the nation.

But let’s focus on the policy of price controls.

With his usual clarity, Professor Don Boudreaux explains the consequences of these horrid restrictions on market forces.

 The price freeze will prevent the Zika-inspired rise in the demand for condoms from calling forth an increase in the quantity of condoms supplied to satisfy that higher demand.  The resulting shortage of condoms will prompt some people to wait in queues to buy condoms, cause other people to turn to black-market suppliers, and cause yet other people simply to not use condoms during sex.  Each of these consequences reflects the reality that the price freeze, rather than keeping the cost of condoms “cheap,” will raise that cost inordinately – and, in the process, further promote the spread of Zika.

Amen. Don is spot on about the negative consequences of allowing politicians and bureaucrats to interfere with market prices.

So we have a government “solution” that actually makes a problem worse.

Just as price controls have contributed to economic misery in Venezuela.

Or caused shortages after hurricanes in the United States.

Puerto Rico needs its version of Ludwig Erhard. Instead, it’s governed by people who apparently learned economics from Hugo Chavez.

P.S. Speaking of condoms, I hope I’m not the only one who is both amused and disgusted that politicians and bureaucrats simultaneously squander money to discover men don’t like poorly-fitting condoms while also imposing regulations that prevent condom companies from offering a greater variety of sizes.

P.P.S. Though I guess those examples of government foolishness are comparatively frugal compared to the “stimulus” grant that spent $6,000 per interview to discover why some men don’t get “stimulus.”

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The communist economic system was a total disaster, but it wasn’t because of excessive taxation. Communist countries generally didn’t even have tax systems.

The real problem was that communism was based on central planning, which is the notion that supposedly wise bureaucrats and politicians could scientifically determine the allocation of resources.

But it turns out that even well-meaning commissars did a terrible job. There was massive inefficiency and widespread shortages. Simply stated, notwithstanding the delusions of some left-wing economists (see postscript of this column), the system was an economic catastrophe.

Why? Because there were no market-based prices.

And, as explained in this video from Learn Liberty, market-based prices are like an economy’s central nervous system, sending signals that enable the efficient and productive allocation of resources in ways that benefit consumers and maximize prosperity.

And just in case it’s not obvious from the video, a price system can’t be centrally planned. Or, to be more precise, you won’t get good results if central planners are in charge.

Now let’s look at a bunch of economic policy questions that seem unrelated.

What’s the underlying reason why minimum wages are bad? We know they lead to bad effects such as higher unemployment, particularly for vulnerable populations, but how do these bad effects occur?

Why is it bad to have export subsidies such as the Export-Import Bank? It’s easy to understand the negative effects, such as corrupt cronyism, but what’s the underlying economic concern?

Or what’s the real reason why third-party payer is misguided? And why should people be concerned about high marginal tax rates or double taxation? Or Obamacare subsidies? Or unemployment insurance?

These questions involve lots of different issues, so at first glance there’s no common theme.

But that’s not true. In every single case, bad effects occur because politicians are distorting the workings of the price system with preferences and penalties.

And that’s today’s message. We generally don’t have politicians urging the kind of comprehensive central planning found is genuinely socialist regimes. Not even Bernie Sanders. But we do have politicians who advocate policies that undermine the price system on an ad-hoc basis.

Every tax, every regulation, every subsidy, and every handout is going to distort incentives for some people. And the cumulative effect of all these interventions is like a cancer that eats away at prosperity.

The good news is that we don’t have nearly as many of these bad policies as places such as France and Mexico.

But the bad news is that we have more of these policies than Hong Kong and Singapore.

The bottom line is that America could be much richer with less intervention. But that would require less ad-hoc interventionism.

P.S. There’s a bit of economic wisdom in these jokes that use two cows to explain economic systems.

P.P.S. Here are two other videos on the price system, both of which help explain why only a decentralized market system can allocate resources in ways that benefit consumers.

P.P.P.S. A real-world example of the price system helped bring about the collapse of communism.

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Last year, I shared some libertarian humor relating to Valentine’s Day.

This year, we’re going to be a bit more on the wonky side.

Using roses as an example, we’re going to explore how the invisible hand of the market produces amazing results.

Here’s a great new video from Marginal Revolution University. Narrated by Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University’s economics department, it explains how consumers have amazing access to millions of roses even though (actually because) there’s no agency or department in charge of Valentine’s Day.

And here’s a related video from MRU elaborating on the role of the price system.

The moral of the story in these videos is that a free and unfettered market is far and away the best method of allocating resources.

And the flip side of that lesson is that you get very bad results when politicians replace the invisible hand of the market with the visible foot of government.

Here’s some of what I wrote, for instance, when discussing proposals to give politicians power over wage levels.

…what’s really at stake is whether we want resources to be allocated by market forces instead of political edicts. This should be a no-brainer. If we look at the failure of central planning in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a fundamental problem was that government officials – even assuming intelligence and good intentions – did not have the knowledge needed to make decisions on prices. And in the absence of a functioning price system, resources get misallocated and growth suffers. So you can imagine the potential damage of giving politicians, bureaucrats, and courts the ability to act as central planners for the wage system.

And here are some excerpts from a post about the damaging impact of subsidies to higher education.

Interfering with the price system is an especially pernicious form of intervention. When functioning properly, prices enable the wants and needs of consumers to be properly channeled to producers and suppliers in a way that promotes prosperity and efficiency. Unfortunately, governments hinder this system with all sorts of misguided policies such as subsidies and price controls. One of the worst manifestations of this type of intervention is the system of third-party payer, which occurs when government policies artificially reduce the perceived prices of goods and services.

And I could cite lots of other examples on issues such as the minimum wage, health care, housing, and agriculture.

Simply stated, you get all sorts of perverse results when politicians interfere with prices.

And that means lower living standards over time as the economy operates less efficiently.

Especially if a government really goes overboard and tries to regulate and control the entire economy rather than “just” interfere with a few sectors. Let’s look at the case of Venezuela. I’ve already written about how first Chavez and now Maduro have turned that nation into an economic hellhole.

It’s so bad that even the establishment media are taking notice.

Here are some passages from Matt O’Brien’s Wonkblog column in the Washington Post.

Venezuela…has the largest oil reserves in the world. It should be rich. But it isn’t, and it’s getting even poorer now, because of economic mismanagement on a world-historical scale. The problem is simple: Venezuela’s government thinks it can have an economy by just pretending it does. That it can print as much money as it wants without stoking inflation by just saying it won’t. And that it can end shortages just by kicking people out of line. It’s a triumph of magical thinking that’s not much of one when it turns grocery-shopping into a days-long ordeal that may or may not actually turn up things like food or toilet paper.

The government is trying to paper over its incompetence by printing money.

…the Bolivarian regime is to blame. The trouble is that while it has tried to help the poor, which is commendable, it has also spent much more than it can afford, which is not. Indeed, Venezuela’s government is running a 14 percent of gross domestic product deficit right now, a fiscal hole so big that there’s only one way to fill it: the printing press. But…paying people with newly printed money only makes that money lose value, and prices go parabolic. It’s no wonder then that Venezuela’s inflation rate is officially 64 percent, is really something like 179 percent, and could get up to 1,000 percent, according to Bank of America, if Venezuela doesn’t change its byzantine currency controls. Venezuela’s government, in other words, is playing whac-a-mole with economic reality.

And there’s also a pervasive system of price controls.

Venezuela’s government wants to wish away the inflation it’s created, so it tells stores what prices they’re allowed to sell at. These bureaucrat-approved prices, however, are too low to be profitable, which is why the government has to give companies subsidies to make them worthwhile. Now when these price controls work, the result is shortages, and when they don’t, it’s even worse ones. …it’s not profitable for the unsubsidized companies to stock their shelves, and not profitable enough for the subsidized ones to do so, either.

In the ultimate triumph of big government, Venezuela is even imposing controls on rationing!

…shortages, which had already hit 30 percent of all goods before the central bank stopped keeping track last year, have gone from being a fact of life to the fact of life. …People have lined up for days to try to buy whatever they can, which isn’t much, from grocery stores that are even more empty than usual. The government has been forced to send the military in to these supermarkets to maintain some semblance of order, before it came up with an innovative new strategy for shortening the lines: kicking people out of them. Now they’re rationing spots in line, based on the last digit of people’s national ID cards.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that all the problems are the fault of the private sector.

It’s a man-made tragedy, and the men who made it won’t fix it. Maduro, for his part, blames the shortages on the “parasitic” private sector.

It goes without saying, of course, that Maduro and the rest of the political elite avoid the consequences of bad economic policy. They all enjoy luxurious lifestyles, financed at the expense of ordinary Venezuelans. Moreover, I’m sure that Maduro and his cronies all have big bank accounts in New York or London.

So I can understand why they like the current system.

I’m genuinely mystified, though, why there are still people who think statism is better than capitalism.

I guess it’s mostly naiveté, a triumph of good intentions over real-world results.

Even though most of these leftists presumably would go crazy if they had to live without the products made possible by capitalism.

Just as portrayed in this video. And this satirical image.

Those of us who reside in the real world, by contrast, already understand the difference between capitalism and statism.

P.S. Venezuela is an economic basket case, but that apparently means it ranks higher than the United States on the “happy planet index” put together by some clueless statists.

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I’ve written a couple of serious posts about the death panels at the VA’s government-run health facilities.

I think it’s particularly important to understand that the problem has nothing to do with funding levels. Instead, it’s about the chronic inefficiency of government.

But sometimes mockery is more effective than analysis, and this Remy video, produced by Reason TV, is definitely worth sharing.

Enjoy.

By the way, if you like the Remy videos from Reason TV, here’s one about Sandra Fluke and the birth control mandate, one about the TSA Hokey Pokey, and two more Christmas-themed songs about the TSA (here and here).

But I want to spend the rest of today’s column celebrating the fact that America is not Venezuela. No matter how much we complain about the inefficiency, waste, and corruption in Washington, things could be worse.

Much worse.

Here are three stories to give you an idea what total statism produces.

First, I’ve written about how government intervention is causing toilet paper shortages and food shortages in Venezuela (also in Cuba). Well, there’s also a shortage of water, as reported by Bloomberg.

The rationing of tap water amid a drought and a shortage of bottles because of currency controls are forcing people to form long lines at grocery stores and bottle shops as soon as deliveries are made. …a government-mandated water rationing plan in Caracas and hot weather are fueling demand as supply shrinks. “I haven’t been able to find 5-liter bottles of water in the supermarket for the past two weeks, and there haven’t been half-liter bottles this week,” Maria Hernandez, a 36-year-old secretary, said in an interview in Caracas today. “I have four at home, but I’m afraid that they’ll run out and that I won’t be able to find more. They ration water at my house on Wednesdays.”

Though maybe water rationing is a good thing. At least when you live in a nation where the water that does (sporadically) materialize is contaminated.

Some areas of the city receive water service only three days a week, with most neighborhoods going without water at least one day a week. When water does flow, few residents dare to drink it because of contamination.

So why is there a problem? Because the government doesn’t let the market operate.

Regulated prices for bottled water have not been raised since November 2011, industry association Anber said in a May 19 statement. Since then, consumer prices have risen 110 percent, according to central bank data, while the bolivar has lost 87 percent of its value on the black market, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the value on the Colombian border.

Our second story also comes from Bloomberg. It’s about the one thriving sector of the Venezuelan economy.

The arrival of a Liberian-flagged freighter with Ukrainian, Arab and Filipino sailors spells one thing for Elena — dollars. And greenbacks are king in Venezuela, the 32-year-old prostitute says. …Prostitutes more than double their earnings by moonlighting as currency traders in Puerto Cabello. They are the foreign exchange counter for sailors in a country where buying and selling dollars in the streets is a crime — and prostitution isn’t. Greenbacks in the black market are worth 11 times more than the official rate as dollars become more scarce.

Indeed, some women may be turning to prostitution because the government is doing so much damage to the economy.

Prostitution has become the only boom industry in Venezuela’s biggest port. …“Before I was working to support my kid and my mom; now I support my entire family,” said Paola, a prostitute who like Elena comes from Zulia and declines to give her real name. “Dollars are the only way to get by. The bolivar wages of my uncles and cousins barely mean anything now.” …“We can make more in two hours here than working in a shop in a month,” said a prostitute who calls herself Giselle. …For women like Giselle, Elena and Paola, prostitution for dollars has become a lifeline keeping them from poverty. “We haven’t studied, we have no education. What would we do now if we stopped?” said Giselle. “Work for a minimum wage that doesn’t even pay for food? If we wouldn’t be here working the scene, we would be living on the streets.”

Amazing. Venezuelan women are famous for their beauty, but the economy is such a mess that they earn twice as much money by trading currency. Way to go, big government!

Last but not least, our third story shows that government intervention is even making death more difficult. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Guardian.

…even in death, Venezuelans are afflicted by shortages. Coffin production has dropped between 20% and 30% this year for lack of materials, forcing funeral and burial delays… Pedro Navarro, former president of Venezuela’s funeral parlor association, has blamed lagging production at the state-run foundry Sidor. …Demand for coffins has grown in recent years. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates. People have been coping with shortages since 2006, long before the death from cancer last year of the pro-socialist president, Hugo Chávez.

The moral of the story is that government interventions such as price controls and government policy mistakes such as inflation have very negative consequences for ordinary people. It’s not just shortages of water and a prostitution-encouraging desire to escape the local currency.

The entire economy is a mess.

Empty shelves in shops and long queues have become a fixture of the daily hunt for staples such as milk, cooking oil and flour. Pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are also scarce. The anti-government street protests that began in February by an emboldened opposition have grown with the shortages.

So when someone tells you that big government is good for people, ask them for an example of successful statism.

And if they’re open to rational evidence, show them this chart. It shows that Venezuela used to be twice as prosperous as Chile.

But Venezuela has stagnated because of statism and Chile has boomed because of free markets. Kind of hard to argue with these facts (though Chile’s current crop of politicians apparently don’t like success and are seeking to expand the burden of government).

Let’s close with some very accurate humor. This poster nicely summarizes the difference between capitalism and statism.

Or the parable of the two cows also does the job.

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Price controls are a spectacularly foolish idea, and that’s true whether they’re imposed by thugs such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s why one of the 20th Century’s economic heroes is Ludwig Erhard, who unleashed the post-war German miracle by abolishing the price controls imposed by the allied powers.

Notwithstanding all this history, politicians oftentimes can’t resist doing the wrong thing, as you can see from this new Reason TV video.

A simple explanation for the stupidity of politicians is that there are more consumers than gas station owners. But I also think this is an example of their illiteracy about what Bastiat referred to as the seen and the unseen.

I hope you’re familiar with Reason TV, by the way. If not, you should peruse the great work they do. Some of my favorites include:

And if you enjoy humor, here are some more great videos from Reason TV:

Feel free to share these examples with friends and colleagues.

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Haiti may be the poorest nation in the Americas. Cuba may have the dictator with the longest lifespan. But Venezuela arguably has the worst government.

Not the clownish dictator, Hugo Chavez, is trying to repeal the laws of economics. How’s that working out for him?

Well, here’s some of what the New York Times wrote.

By 6:30 a.m., a full hour and a half before the store would open, about two dozen people were already in line. They waited patiently, not for the latest iPhone, but for something far more basic: groceries. …Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices, yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition. Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil. The shortages affect both the poor and the well-off, in surprising ways. A supermarket in the upscale La Castellana neighborhood recently had plenty of chicken and cheese — even quail eggs — but not a single roll of toilet paper. Only a few bags of coffee remained on a bottom shelf. Asked where a shopper could get milk on a day when that, too, was out of stock, a manager said with sarcasm, “At Chávez’s house.” At the heart of the debate is President Hugo Chávez’s socialist-inspired government, which imposes strict price controls that are intended to make a range of foods and other goods more affordable for the poor. They are often the very products that are the hardest to find. …many economists call it a classic case of a government causing a problem rather than solving it. Prices are set so low, they say, that companies and producers cannot make a profit. So farmers grow less food, manufacturers cut back production and retailers stock less inventory. Moreover, some of the shortages are in industries, like dairy and coffee, where the government has seized private companies and is now running them, saying it is in the national interest.

Here’s a chart that I’ve used before, using international data to compare living standards in Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile since 1980. One nation (take a wild guess) has tried statism, one nation has tried a mix of statism and capitalism, and the other has tried capitalism.

And just in case you need one more reason to despise Chavez’s despotic government, the regime is copying Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other murderous tyrants in imposing gun control.

(h/t: Greg Mankiw)

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I’m still at the Liberty Camp in Slovenia, doing my best to teach young Europeans about the importance of individual liberty, free markets, and small government. (also doing a bit of sightseeing, as you can see from the pictures below)

This morning, one of the other presenters showed a short video taken from the first-rate “Commanding Heights” program. It told the brief story of how one man, Ludwig Erhard, single-handedly put Germany on the road to post-war recovery by doing away with price controls.

This video is a lesson in character – and an example of doing what’s right.

Erhard did not have authority to change the price controls, but, with a certain degree of cleverness that would make Bill Clinton proud, he decided that this didn’t preclude him from simply abolishing them.

In doing this, he showed personal courage. He did something bold. And he went against so-called expert opinion.

And he helped millions of people enjoy a better life by reducing the burden of government.

We need more people with this integrity. In America and everywhere else.

People who will go against the grain to promote freedom.

People who will take risks to advance liberty.

People who will do the right thing, even if it doesn’t advance their career.

Not that I’m asking for selfless gestures. As Erhard’s episode demonstrates, sometimes doing the right thing at least means people say nice things about you.

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While the politicians in Washington are poised to undermine the healthcare system with additional layers of taxes, spending, and regulation, Steven Chapman proposes to use markets to improve a part of the system that is suffering from a punitive form of price controls. Orgain donors are allowed zero compensation for their sacrifice. This policy – driven by an ideological impulse against markets and voluntary exchange – directly leads to the death of thousands of people each year

Consider the economics of an organ transplant. Everyone involved gets something of value. The doctors and nurses are paid. The hospital receives money. The organ recipient gets something that will save her life. …since 1984, it has been illegal to pay someone to surrender a body part, even posthumously. Campaigns to browbeat Americans into signing organ donor cards, however, haven’t sufficed. The transplant organ shortage has grown. Since 1989, kidney donations have doubled. But the number of patients in need of them is five times higher than it was then. Last year, 4,456 people died while waiting for a kidney transplant. The story with livers follows the same line. Among the losers from this guaranteed-shortage policy are victims of cancer and other lethal diseases who need bone marrow transplants. Some of them have filed a lawsuit, which goes to court in Los Angeles this week, asking to be allowed to offer compensation to donors — which is now a felony punishable by five years in prison. …The ban is particularly indefensible in this realm. Someone giving up a kidney loses an important organ for good. But bone marrow donors produce new marrow to replace what is lost. Given that it’s legal under federal law to buy and sell blood and sperm, why is bone marrow treated differently? …If Americans could be paid for bone marrow, more would step forward. Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, in a 2007 paper written with Julio Jorge Elias of the State University of New York at Buffalo, figured the kidney shortage could be eliminated for $15,000 per organ.

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