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Archive for the ‘Price Controls’ Category

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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