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The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Perhaps reflecting the mindset of the European governments that dominate its membership, the Paris-based international bureaucracy has morphed into a cheerleader for statist policies.

All of which was just fine from the perspective of the Obama Administration, which doubtlessly appreciated the OECD’s partisan work to promote class warfare and pimp for wasteful Keynesian spending.

What is particularly irksome to me is the way the OECD often uses dishonest methodology to advance the cause of big government.

But my disdain for the leftist political appointees who run the OECD doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging that the professional economists who work for the institution occasionally generate good statistics and analysis.

For instance, I’ve cited two  examples (here and here) of OECD research showing that spending caps are only effective fiscal rule. And I praised another OECD study that admitted the beneficial impact of tax competition. I even listed several good example of OECD research on tax policy as part of a column that ripped the bureaucracy for some very shoddy work in favor of Obama’s redistribution agenda.

And now we have some more good research to add to that limited list. A new working paper by two economists at the OECD contains some remarkable findings about the negative impact of government spending on economic performance. If you’re pressed for time, here’s the key takeaway from their research.

Governments in the OECD spend on average about 40% of GDP on the provision of public goods, services and transfers. The sheer size of the public sector has prompted a large amount of research on the link between the size of government and economic growth. …This paper investigates empirically the effect of the size and the composition of public spending on long-term growth… The main findings that emerge from the analysis are…Larger governments are associated with lower long-term growth. Larger governments also slowdown the catch-up to the productivity frontier.

For those who want more information, the working paper is filled with useful information and analysis.

Here’s one of the charts from the study, showing how government spending is allocated in OECD nations.

The report also acknowledges that there’s a lot of preexisting research showing that government spending hinders economic growth.

There is a vast empirical literature investigating the relationship between the size of the government and economic growth (see Slemrod, 1995; Myles 2009; Bergh and Henrekson, 2011 for overviews). A review by Bergh and Henrekson (2011), based on papers published in peer reviewed journals after 2000, suggested a negative relationship in OECD countries. Likewise, a recent OECD study confirmed a negative relationship between the size of government and GDP growth (Fall and Fournier, 2015). …the link between the size of government and growth may vary with the income level and could be hump-shaped (Armey, 1995). A few studies have found support for the existence of a non-linear relationship between the size of government and growth (e.g. Vedder and Gallaway, 1998; Pevcin, 2004; Chen and Lee, 2005).

By the way, the reference to “hump-shaped” means that the OECD is even aware of the Rahn Curve.

The methodology in the paper is not ideal from my perspective. For all intents and purposes, the economists compare economic performance of the OECD’s big-government nations with the growth numbers from the OECD’s not-quite-as-big-government nations. But even with that limitation, the study generates some powerful results.

…the simulation assumes that in countries where the size of government is above the average level of countries in the bottom half of the sample, the government size will gradually converge to this level (36% of GDP). Similar to the spending mix reforms, this reform is phased in over 10 years. Such a reduction in the size of the government could increase long-term GDP by about 10%, with much larger effects in some countries with currently large or ineffective governments. …a reduction of the size of government has a positive, but moderate, effect on the income of the poor. The average disposable income also rises. However, the rich gain relatively more. Finally, in countries where the government is less effective (such as Italy) the growth effect dominates and a moderate reduction of the size of government would have a large growth effect, so that it would lift all boats.

And here’s a chart showing how much more growth would be possible if the countries with really-big government downsized their public sectors to the somewhat-big level.

Even with the methodology limitations I described, these results are astounding. Potential GDP gains of more than 30 percent for Greece and Italy. Gains of more than 20 percent for Slovenia, France, and Hungary. And more than 10 percent for Belgium, Czech Republic, Portugal, and Poland.

The working paper also looks at the composition of government spending. In other words, just as not all taxes are equally damaging, the same is true for spending programs.

The results from the estimation of the size of the government and the public spending mix illustrate that public spending matters for long-term growth…pension and subsidy spending [are] the two items with a significantly negative effect on growth. As each regression includes the size of government and one spending share, the estimates provide the effect of increasing this type of spending while decreasing spending on other items to keep the spending to GDP ratio unchanged… larger governments are in several specifications significantly and negatively associated with long-term growth. This is consistent with the literature… Larger governments can impede convergence (Table 8, columns 1 and 3), because they are associated with higher taxation that can discourage business investment including foreign investment and households to supply labour.

Pensions and subsidies seem to cause the most economic harm.

Reducing the share of pension spending in primary spending yields sizeable growth gains with no significant adverse effect on disposable income inequality. This reduction could be achieved by an increase in the effective retirement age or by cutting the replacement rate. …Cutting public subsidies boosts growth, as public subsidies…can distort the allocation of resources and undermine competition. …Education outcomes depend not only on education spending but also on the effectiveness of education policies, and the literature suggest the latter can be more important. Since the seminal work of Coleman (1966), a broad literature suggests that there is no clear link between education spending and education outcomes. …policies aimed at increasing education spending effectiveness can be more appropriate than an across-the-board rise of education spending. …It may be that, beyond a certain point, additional spending on investment has adverse effects, if poorly managed.

For those of you with statistical/econometric knowledge, here’s some relevant data from the study.

And you can match the numbers in Table 6 with these excerpts.

…pension spending reduces growth (Table 6, columns 2, 5, 7 and 10). Increasing the share of pension spending in primary spending by one percentage point (offset by a reduction in other spending) would decrease potential GDP by about 2%. …Public spending on subsidies also reduces growth (Table 6, columns 3, 5, 8 and 10). …increasing the share of public subsidies in primary spending by one percentage point would decrease potential GDP by about 7%.

If you’re not a stats wonk, these two charts may be more helpful and easy to understand.

What jumped out at me is how the normally sensible nation of Switzerland is very bad about subsidies. That’s a policy they obviously need to fix (along with the fact that they also have a wealth tax, which is very uncharacteristic for that country).

But I’m digressing.

Let’s return to the study. One of the interesting things about the working paper is that it notes that bad fiscal policy can be somewhat mitigated by having market-oriented policies in other areas, which is a point I always make when writing about Scandinavian nations.

…countries with a high level of public spending may also be characterised by features that partly offset the adverse growth effect of government size. …in Sweden the mix of growth-friendly structural policies…may have offset the adverse growth effect of a large government sector.

In other words, the moral of the story is that smaller government is good and free markets are good. Mix the two together and you have best of all worlds.

P.S. Even if the OECD published dozens of quality studies like this one, I would still argue that American taxpayers should no longer be forced to subsidize the Paris-based bureaucracy. And even if the OECD’s political types stopped pushing statist policies, I would still have the same view about ending handouts from American taxpayers. This has nothing to do with the fact that the bureaucrats once threatened to have me arrested and thrown in a Mexican jail. I simply don’t think taxpayers should fund international bureaucracies.

P.P.S. Other international bureaucracies, including the World Bank and European Central Bank, also have published good research about the negative effect of excessive government spending.

P.P.P.S. My general disdain for the OECD (notwithstanding my qualified praise today for their new study on spending) may be exceeded by my hostility for the International Monetary Fund. I’ve referred to the IMF as both “the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy.”

There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a hard-nosed businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting – albeit depressing – article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

But let’s get back to Will’s article. He asserts that Wagner’s Law is bad news for advocates of smaller government.

…free-marketeers tend to insist that the key to achieving higher rates of economic growth is slashing the size of government. After all, it’s true that the private sector is better than government at putting resources to their most productive use and that some public spending crowds out private investment. If you’re really committed to the idea of stronger economic growth through government contraction, you’re pretty much committed to the idea that the pattern behind Wagner’s Law is a sort of fluke—a contingent correlation without any real cause-and-effect basis—and that there’s got to be some workaround or fix.

I don’t particularly agree with his characterization. You can believe (as I surely do) that smaller government would lead to faster growth without having to disbelieve, deny, or debunk Wagner’s Law.

  • First, it’s quite possible to have decent growth along with expanding government so long as other policy levers are moving in the right direction. Which is exactly what one Spanish scholar found when examining data for developed nations during the post-World War II period.
  • Second, it’s overly simplistic to characterize this debate as government or growth. The real issue is the rate of growth. After all, even France has a bit of growth in an average year. The real issue is whether there could be more growth with a lower level of taxes and spending. In other words, would the rest of the developed world grow faster with Hong Kong-sized government?

All that being said, Will certainly is right in his article when he points out that libertarians and other advocates of smaller government haven’t done a good job of constraining government spending.

He then examines some of the ideas have been proposed by folks on the right who want to constrain spending. Beginning with the starve-the-beast hypothesis.

The idea that it is possible to “starve the beast”—to reduce the size of government by starving the government of tax revenue—springs from this hope. But the actual effect of cutting taxes below the amount necessary to sustain current levels of government spending only underscores the unforgiving lawlikeness of Wagner’s Law. As our namesake Bill Niskanen showed, tax cuts that lead to budget shortfalls don’t lead to corresponding cuts in government spending. On the contrary, financing government spending through debt rather than taxes makes voters feel that government spending is cheaper than it really is, which makes them want even more of it.

Here’s my first substantive disagreement with Will. I’m definitely not in the all-we-have-to-do-is-cut-taxes camp, but I certainly like lower tax rates and I definitely believe that higher taxes would worsen our long-run fiscal outlook.

And I’ve looked closely at the starve-the-beast academic research. Niskanen’s study has some methodological problems and the Romer & Romer study that most people cite when arguing against the starve-the-beast hypothesis actually shows that cutting taxes is somewhat effective so long as tax cuts are durable.

Will then looks at whether it would be effective to end withholding.

…withholding made tax collection cheaper and more reliable. …paying taxes automatically and with a minimum of pain makes it less likely that you’ll be livid about them when you vote. The complaint…is the libertarian/conservative argument against a VAT or national sales tax in a nutshell. It’s the same line of reasoning that leads some libertarians and conservatives to flirt with the idea that we ought to pass a law that requires us to write a single, hugely infuriating check to the IRS each year.  The idea is that if voters are really ticked off about taxes, they’ll want lower tax rates. So taxes need to be as salient and painful—i.e., as inefficient and distortionary—as possible.

Will is skeptical of this approach, though I would point out that the one major developed economy that doesn’t have withholding is Hong Kong. And that’s a place that has successfully constrained government spending.

To be sure, the spending restraint could exist for other reasons (such as the spending cap in Article 107 of the jurisdiction’s Basic Law), but the hypothesis that people will want less government if taxes are painful is quite reasonable.

And, by the way, requiring lump-sum payments rather than withholding wouldn’t change the degree to which taxes are distortionary.

Will then turns his attention to the ‘supply-side” argument about lower tax rates.

Supply-siders generally present two scenarios, and neither helps reduce the size of government. One: If the tax cuts pushed by ticked-off taxpayers create supply-side stimulus and increase rather than decrease revenue, there’s no downward pressure on spending. …But it doesn’t make government smaller. Two: If tax cuts aren’t self-funding and simply leave a hole in the budget, the beast (as Niskanen showed) does not therefore get starved. Instead, spending feels cheap, the beast grows even more, and the tax bill gets shifted to the future.

Since I’ve already addressed the starve-the-beast issue, I’ll simply note that self-financing tax cuts (which do exist, though only in rare cases) are only possible if there’s a big uptick in growth and/or compliance. And to the extent that the revenue feedback is due to growth, that will mean that the burden of government spending will fall relative to the size of the private sector even if actual outlays stay the same.

Maybe I’m insufficiently libertarian, but I’ll take that outcome every day of the week. Heck, I’m willing to let government get bigger so long as the private sector gets to grow at a faster pace.

Now we get to Will’s main point. He suggests that maybe libertarians shouldn’t be so fixated on the size of government.

…well-funded and well-organized attempts “to convince voters to reduce their demand for the services financed by federal spending” so far have all failed. It’s time to consider the possibility that there’s no convincing them. …If we look at the world, what we see is that when people get richer, they want more welfare state. Maybe there’s nothing much we can do about that. …When people get richer, they want more welfare state. You can want Americans to get continuously wealthier and also want the government to consume a smaller share of national economic output, but there’s very little reason to think you can have both of those things. That is what the world is telling us.

To the extent that Will is simply making a prediction about the likelihood of continued government expansion, I assume (and fear) he’s right.

But to the degree he’s arguing that we should meekly acquiesce to that outcome, then I’ll strongly disagree. I may lose the fight against big government, but I intend to go down swinging.

Interestingly, Will and I may not actually disagree. This passage points out that it’s a good idea to fight against ineffective programs and to support entitlement reform.

…accepting that it’s probably not possible to shrink government would have a transformative effect on right-leaning politics. We would focus on figuring out the best ways to match receipts to outlays… You start to accept that spending cuts are ultimately more about optimizing the composition and effectiveness of spending than about the overall level of spending or its rate of growth. This doesn’t mean not fighting like hell to slash nonsense programs, or not prioritizing reforms to make entitlement programs fiscally sustainable, or not trying to balance budgets from the spending side, or not trying to minimize the rate of spending growth. This just means that you do it all knowing that the rate of spending growth isn’t going to go negative unless you hit a recession, a debt crisis, or end a major war.

And, most important, this passage also highlights the desirability of a policy to “minimize the rate of spending growth.”

Gee, I think I know someone who relentlessly argues in favor of that approach. Indeed, this guy is so fixated on that policy that he even created a “Rule” to give the concept more attention.

I can’t remember his name right now, but I’m sure he’s a swell guy.

More seriously (and to echo the point I made above), it would be a libertarian victory to have government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy. To be sure, obeying my rule (which actually does happen every so often) doesn’t mean we’ll soon reach the libertarian Nirvana of the “night watchman” state set forth in the Constitution.

But the real fiscal fight in America is whether government is becoming a bigger burden, relative to the private economy, or whether its growth is being constrained so that it’s becoming a smaller burden.

Will closes with a very sensible point about not overlooking the other policy areas where government is hindering prosperity (though that doesn’t require us to give up on the very practical quest to limit the growth of government).

Giving up on the quixotic quest to…falsify Wagner’s Law would also lead us to…focus our energy on removing regulatory barriers to economic participation, innovation, and growth.

And his concluding passage is correct, but too pessimistic.

This is just a conjecture. But when…the United States—where the freedom-as-small-government philosophy is most powerfully promoted and most widely accepted—has lost ground in economic freedom year after year for nearly two decades, it’s a conjecture worth taking very seriously.

Yes, he’s right that overall economic freedom has declined during the Bush-Obama years.

But what about the fact that overall economic freedom increased during the ReaganClinton years? And what about the fact that we achieved a five-year nominal spending freeze even with Obama in the White House?

In other words, there’s no need to throw in the towel. I may not be overflowing with optimism about whether we ultimately succeed in sufficiently constraining the growth of government, but I feel very confident that it’s a worthwhile fight.

P.S. While I disagree with a few of Will’s points, I think his article is very worthwhile. Moreover, a consensus on restraining the growth of government would be an excellent outcome to the debate he has triggered.

But I can’t resist being a bit more critical about something Noah Smith wrote about Will’s article. In his Bloomberg column discussing the hypothesis that libertarians should focus less on (or perhaps even give up on) the battle against government spending, he has a passage that is designed to lure readers into thinking that small government is associated with economic deprivation.

…a stark fact — the richer a country is, the more its government tends to spend. …Today, the top spenders include countries such as France, Denmark and Finland, while the small-government ranks include Sudan, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

Sigh.

It’s true that the burden of government spending is much higher in France, Denmark, and Finland than in Sudan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, but let’s take a look at the overall data from Economic Freedom of the World.

France (#57), Denmark (#21), and Finland (#20) are all much more market-oriented than Sudan (unrated, but would have an awful score), Nigeria (#113), and Bangladesh (#121). Smith’s argument is akin to me saying that government-built roads cause economic misery because that’s how they do it in the hellhole of North Korea.

More important, he either ignores or is unaware of the research showing that nations such as France, Denmark, and Finland became rich when government spending was very small. Sigh, again.

Do politicians celebrate the life of Osama bin Laden? Or fondly remember the supposed contributions of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Workers Party? Or wax poetic about the memory of Pol Pot?

Maybe in some backwater of the third world, but no politician from a civilized nation would be remotely tempted to say anything nice about these evil people.

So why, then, are some of these clowns falling all over themselves to lionize one of the world’s worst people, the former communist dictator of Cuba? Why would any sentient adult say anything nice about Fidel Castro, a vicious and brutal tyrant who imposed such hardship on his people?

Yet there are people with this perverse degree of moral blindness.

Including the head of the European Commission.

And the Prime Minister of Canada, who actually referred to the former dictator as Cuba’s “longest serving President.” I guess the boy wonder of Ottawa doesn’t understand that you can rule for a long time when you don’t allow free elections. Now you can understand why I am so quick to believe that he’ll say really stupid things.

Almost nobody in the world would recognize the President of Ireland. But since he didn’t like the fact that Ireland’s economy boomed, it’s understandable that he is despondent about the death of a man who did so much to keep Cuba mired in poverty.

And, of course, Jimmy Carter couldn’t resist showing why he was a one-term blunder.

The nutjob leader of the British Labour Party predictably fawned over Castro with a series of laughably inaccurate assertions.

I’m relieved, by the way, that Barack Obama resisted the temptation to say anything overly vacuous about Castro (even if he did say something stupid about Cuba’s totalitarian regime earlier this year). His statement is mostly mush. And even though I have my doubts about Trump, his statement hit the nail on the head.

But let’s set aside Castro’s brutal treatment of dissidents and denial of basic human rights. Let’s ignore the fact that tens of thousands of people have risked their lives to escape his island prison. And let’s instead look at the economic misery of Cuban communism.

In a column back in 2014, I noted that living standards in Cuba and Hong Kong were identical in the 1950s.

But the two nations then conducted an experiment. Hong Kong chose laissez-faire capitalism while Cuba chose communism.

The result, as you can see in the graph, is that Hong Kong has enjoyed decades of strong growth while Cuba has stagnated.

I’m not alone in noticing the onerous economic cost of Cuban oppression.

This academic article has a devastating summary.

We examine Cuban GDP over time and across space. We find that Cuba was once a prosperous middle-income economy. On the eve of the revolution, incomes were 50 to 60 percent of European levels. They were among the highest in Latin America at about 30 percent of the United States. In relative terms, Cuba was richer earlier on. Income per capita during the 1920s was in striking distance of Western Europe and the Southern United States. After the revolution, Cuba slipped down the world income distribution. Current levels of income per capita appear below their pre-revolutionary peaks.

Now let me make a new contribution to the discussion.

I went again to the Angus Maddison database and decided to compare historical numbers for per-capita GDP, looking at Cuba, Chile, and the world average.

As you can see, Cuba has been a disaster for ordinary people. Living standards used to be near the world average. Now the average Cuban is at half the world average.

Meanwhile, Chileans also had a period of stagnation during their era of statism. But once free-market reforms were adopted, the notion started a lengthy boom and per-capita GDP is now almost twice world average.

That’s the real-world consequence of statism. Deprivation and hardship.

To get an idea what it’s like in a communist prison nation, slaves in the 1800s actually got more food than what Castro allowed when the government took control of food production and distribution.

The good news, so to speak, is that the rationing has moved from starvation levels to hunger-and-misery levels.

The Guardian has a summary of the current system.

Every Cuban family registers with a local supply store, where they can use a libreta or ration book. This typically provides about 10kg (22lb) of rice, 6kg of white sugar, 2kg of brown sugar, 250 millilitres (1 cup) of cooking oil, five eggs and a packet of coffee per person per month, along with 2kg of meat (usually chicken) every 10 days, a bun every day and a bag of salt every three months. Milk is provided for pregnant women and children under seven years of age. The basic libreta products are guaranteed, but they are not enough – so people often have to travel to several places on several different days to make up the shortfall.

Not as bad as 1962, but still a miserable life.

Here are portions of a very appropriate obituary in the Washington Post by a Yale professor.

One of the most brutal dictators in modern history has just died. Oddly enough, some will mourn his passing, and many an obituary will praise him. Millions of Cubans who have been waiting impatiently for this moment for more than half a century will simply ponder his crimes and recall the pain and suffering he caused. …deceit was one of Fidel Castro’s greatest talents, and gullibility is one of the world’s greatest frailties. …Many intellectuals, journalists and educated people in the First World fell for this myth, too — though they would have been among the first to be jailed or killed by Castro in his own realm — and their assumptions acquired an intensity similar to that of religious convictions. Pointing out to such believers that Castro imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands more of his own people than any other Latin American dictator was usually futile. His well-documented cruelty made little difference.

He highlights 13 reasons to despise Castro. Here are the one that stood out to me.

●He was responsible for so many thousands of executions and disappearances in Cuba that a precise number is hard to reckon.

●He brooked no dissent and built concentration camps and prisons at an unprecedented rate, filling them to capacity, incarcerating a higher percentage of his own people than most other modern dictators, including Stalin.

●He condoned and encouraged torture and extrajudicial killings.

●He forced nearly 20 percent of his people into exile, and prompted thousands to meet their deaths at sea, unseen and uncounted, while fleeing from him in crude vessels.

●He outlawed private enterprise and labor unions, wiped out Cuba’s large middle class and turned Cubans into slaves of the state.

●He persecuted gay people and tried to eradicate religion.

●He censored all means of expression and communication.

And the Caracas Chronicles also summed it up nicely.

Has any other Latin American done as much damage in a single lifetime as Fidel Castro? It’s…not even close. From his roots as a student gangster and two-bit murderer in Havana in the 40s, through a succession of catastrophes on four continents, Fidel Castro punched far, far above his weight. The guy who pleaded with Khrushev to start a nuclear holocaust, who sent tens of thousands of Cuban farm kids to dole out lead in a crazy, murderous war in Angola, thousands to attack Israel in the Yom Kipur War, thousands more to stand with the genocidal communist Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, who tried and failed to destabilize Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, el Salvador, Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Guatemala, who tried and succeeded in destabilizing Nicaragua, Chile, Granada and — alas — Venezuela is finally, finally dead at 90.

Keep all this in mind the next time you hear some leftist says something nice about Castro. Or the racist murder Che Guevera.

P.S. For what it’s worth, Castro did have a late-in-life epiphany about the failure of communism.

Earlier this year, I criticized the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for endorsing an orgy of Keynesian spending.

Did my criticism have an effect? Well, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that bluntly suggests a reorientation of fiscal policy to achieve more growth.

…the global economy remains in a low-growth trap with weak investment, trade, productivity and wage growth and rising inequality in some countries. …a stronger fiscal policy response is needed to boost near-term growth and strengthen long-term prospects for inclusive growth.

Sounds good to me. I welcome sinners who want to repent. Is the OECD now recommending corporate tax rate reductions? A flat tax? Entitlement reform? Elimination of wasteful departments, agencies, and programs? A spending cap?

Don’t be silly. This is the OECD. Some of the professional economists are sensible and competent, but major policy initiatives almost always are determined by the high-level hacks who crank out proposals designed to give cover to politicians that want ever-more taxes and spending.

So when the bureaucrats in Paris suggest “a stronger fiscal policy response,” they’re actually advocating for more government. Which is exactly what they did back in February. And what they’ve been repetitively doing all during the Obama Administration. I’m not joking. Here are some further excerpts.

…this chapter emphasises the need for a fiscal initiative…to foster productivity in the medium to long term. Measures should be chosen depending on each country’s most pressing needs and could include not only raising soft and hard infrastructure or education spending… In many countries, such a package could be deficit-financed for a few years, before turning budget-neutral.

The OECD says that “stimulus” would be a good idea because nations now have more “fiscal space,” which is bureaucrat-speak for an estimate of how much additional red ink is supposedly feasible feasible given interest rates, existing debt levels, and other variables.

I’m more worried, for what it’s worth, about the level of spending. And on that basis, there’s less fiscal space. Here’s a comparison (based on the OECD’s own dataset) of the burden of spending before the great recession/global financial crisis and today. As you can see, government outlays are consuming almost 2-percentage points more of economic output.

Needless to say, there’s hasn’t been much “austerity” over the past decade (other than higher income taxes and higher VAT taxes, which means taxpayers have taken a hit but not bureaucrats and interest groups).

In any event, the OECD ignores all this evidence and thinks today is the perfect time for another spending binge. Here are additional details from the report.

OECD governments could finance a ½ percentage point of GDP productivity-enhancing fiscal initiative, for three to four years on average in OECD countries without raising the debt-to-GDP ratio in the medium term, provided the selected activities and projects are sound. Such an initiative could encompass high-quality spending on education, health and research and development as well as green infrastructure that all bring significant output gains in the long run. …the average output gains for the large advanced economies of such a fiscal initiative amount to 0.4-0.6% in the first year.

It’s laughable that the bureaucrats project more growth as a result of Keynesian “stimulus” even though we just suffered through the failure of Obama’s 2009 program (not to mention the repeated failure of Keynesian economics in Japan and elsewhere).

The only good news, if we grade on a curve, is that the bureaucrats apparently don’t think Keynesian “stimulus” would be that helpful for the American economy.

Though I’m worried this Table, buried four pages from the end of the report, won’t get much attention (just as other decent portions of the report, such as commentary about the damage caused by bad tax policy, also will get ignored).

If you think I’m being paranoid, check out these passages from a news report in the Wall Street Journal. The main takeaway from the OECD’s new publication, according to the reporter, is that politicians around the world have a green light for more wasteful spending.

Adding detail to earlier calls for a switch to budget stimulus from exhausted monetary policies, the Paris-based think tank said most governments have room to boost spending by half a percentage point of economic output over a period of three to four years without risking an increase in their already high debts. …The think tank calculates that an increase in spending on the scale it recommends would lift economic growth in the countries involved by between 0.4 and 0.6 of a percentage point, with an additional 0.2 percentage point boost if the effort were to be coordinated internationally. …If governments were to follow the OECD’s advice, it would mark a further turn away from the policies of austerity that were an immediate response to surging government debts in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. …A slow shift toward a greater reliance on fiscal policy has been under way since last year, when Canada embarked on a fiscal stimulus, while the OECD noted that increases in spending are also under way in Germany, Italy and China. …“There is quite a bit more receptivity to the notion of using fiscal policy more actively,” said Ms. Mann.

And I’m worried that this kind of bad advice may influence President-Elect Trump, who already has made worrisome comments about spending for infrastructure and entitlements.

P.S. But I’m semi-hopeful that Trump won’t be a fan of the OECD in general, if for no other reason than the head bureaucrat in Paris called him a racist and was remarkably open about favoring Hillary Clinton’s election.

Gurria tells UpFront’s Mehdi Hasan: “I would tend to agree with those who say that this is not only misinformed, but yes, I think the word racist can be applied. “I think that because the American public is wise, it will then act in consequence,” Gurria adds.

I’ve previously argued that ending American subsidies for the OECD (and its leftist agenda) is an IQ test for Republicans. In prior years, GOPers on Capitol Hill have failed this test. Maybe Trump, if for no other reason than Secretary General Gurria’s harsh attack, will finally end the gravy train for this parasitical bureaucracy.

What’s the fundamental problem with redistributionist economic policy?

As a libertarian, I would answer with a philosophical argument against coercion. I think it is immoral for vote-seeking politicians, using the threat of imprisonment, to rob Peter to subsidize Paul.

But as an economist, the problem is incentives. Simply stated, redistribution from Peter to Paul undermines the incentive of either to produce. And the greater the level of plunder, as we see from extreme examples such as Venezuela and North Korea, the greater the damage.

This is a lesson that we should have learned from the earliest days of American history.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Richard Ebeling explains a very important lesson about incentives and human behavior. He begins by pointing out how the Pilgrims initially created a collectivist economic system.

The English Puritans…wanted to turn their backs on what they viewed as the materialistic and greedy corruption of the Old World. …they wanted to erect a New Jerusalem that would not only be religiously devout, but be built on a new foundation of communal sharing and social altruism. …all would work and share in common, knowing neither private property nor self-interested acquisitiveness.

But this system – what a shock – didn’t work.

What resulted is recorded in the journal of Governor William Bradford, the head of the colony. …The less industrious members of the colony came late to their work in the fields, and were slow and easy in their labors. Knowing that they and their families were to receive an equal share of whatever the group produced, they saw little reason to be more diligent their efforts. The harder working among the colonists became resentful that their efforts would be redistributed to the more malingering members of the colony. Soon they, too, were coming late to work and were less energetic in the fields.

Commenting about the downside of a system based on communal sharing, Richard shares a simple lesson in economics.

Because of the disincentives and resentments that spread among the population, crops were sparse and the rationed equal shares from the collective harvest were not enough to ward off starvation and death. Two years of communism in practice had left alive only a fraction of the original number of the Plymouth colonists.

And he also shows the economic lesson to be learned when the Pilgrims abandoned collectivism for private property.

Private ownership meant that there was now a close link between work and reward. Industry became the order of the day as the men and women in each family went to the fields on their separate private farms. When the harvest time came, not only did many families produce enough for their own needs, but they had surpluses that they could freely exchange with their neighbors for mutual benefit and improvement. …Hard experience had taught the Plymouth colonists the fallacy and error in the ideas of that since the time of the ancient Greeks had promised paradise through collectivism rather than individualism. …This is the lesson of the First Thanksgiving. …the triumph of capitalism over the failure of collectivism in all its forms.

The adverse consequences of 17th-century collectivism are examined in this video from Reason, which I try to share every Thanksgiving.

By the way, the Pilgrims weren’t the only early Americans to make the mistake of collectivist economics.

An article from the Mises Institute discusses a similar failed experiment in Jamestown.

The Jamestown colony in Virginia had similar experiences as they started under the same rules:

  1.  They were to own nothing.
  2.  They were to receive only as much food and clothing as they needed.
  3.  Everything that the men secured from trade or produced from the land had to go into the common storehouse.

Of the 104 men that started the Jamestown colony in 1607 only 38 survived the first year and even those had to be marched to the fields “to the beat of a drum” simply to grow food to keep them alive in the next year.

Fortunately, the Jamestown settlers learned that socialism doesn’t work.

And when a system based on private property was created, the results were spectacular.

Captain John Smith writes after the common store concept was abandoned:

When our people were fed out of the common store, and labored jointly together, glad was he could slip from his labor, or slumber over his task he cared not how, nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true pains in a week, as now for themselves they will do in a day. … We reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty, as now three or four do provide for themselves.

Gee, people produce much more when they keep the fruits of their labor. What a radical concept!

On a more serious note, the lessons from Plymouth and Jamestown are the same lessons from France and Cuba.

The more government there is in a nation (imagine a spectrum of statism), the worse its economy will perform.

Let’s close with a Thanksgiving-themed addition to our collection of libertarian humor. This guy obviously prefers the moral argument against statism.

Not that I would recommend going overboard with libertarian intensity at a family gathering. Then you come across like the libertarian chicken, or the “missionary” from the 24-types-of-libertarians collage.

Just have friends and family sign up for International Liberty!

I routinely grouse about the heavy economic cost of red tape.

I’ve also highlighted agencies (such as the EEOC) that seem especially prone to senseless regulations.

And I’ve explained why private regulation actually is a very effective way of promoting health and safety.

Today, let’s get specific and look at the Food and Drug Administration. This bureaucracy ostensibly is supposed to protect us by making sure drugs and medical devices are safe and effective before getting approval, which seems like it might be a reasonable role for government.

But the FDA routinely does really foolish things that undermine public health. The likely reason is that the bureaucracy has a bad incentive structure. As Professor Alex Tabarrok has explained.

…the FDA has an incentive to delay the introduction of new drugs because approving a bad drug (Type I error) has more severe consequences for the FDA than does failing to approve a good drug (Type II error). In the former case at least some victims are identifiable and the New York Times writes stories about them and how they died because the FDA failed. In the latter case, when the FDA fails to approve a good drug, people die but the bodies are buried in an invisible graveyard.

This video from Learn Liberty looks at some data on how the FDA’s Type II errors have led to thousands of deaths, but mostly focuses on whether people and medical professionals should have the freedom to makes choices different from what the FDA has officially blessed.

It’s also worth mentioning that the process of drug approval is jaw-droppingly expensive, as Professor Tabarrok noted in another column.

It costs well over a billion dollars to get the average new drug approved and much of that cost comes from FDA required clinical trials. Longer and larger clinical trials mean that the drugs that are eventually approved are safer. But longer trials also mean that good drugs are delayed. And the more expensive it is to produce new drugs the fewer new drugs will be produced. In short, longer and larger trials mean drug delay and drug loss.

The FDA bureaucracy can’t even approve things it already has approved. There was a big controversy a few months ago about the EpiPen, which is a very expensive device that auto-injects medication to people suffering severe allergic reactions.

But the device is only costly because the FDA is hindering competition, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Epinephrine is a basic and super-cheap medicine, and the EpiPen auto-injector device has been around since the 1970s. Thus EpiPen should be open to generic competition, which cuts prices dramatically for most other old medicines. Competitors have been trying for years to challenge Mylan’s EpiPen franchise with low-cost alternatives—only to become entangled in the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory afflatus. …the FDA maintains no clear and consistent principles for generic drug-delivery devices like auto injectors or asthma inhalers. …injecting a kid in anaphylactic shock with epinephrine…is not complex medical engineering. But no company has been able to do so to the FDA’s satisfaction.

Research from the Mercatus Center reveals that the FDA imposes ever-higher costs and gets ever-higher budgets, but also how the bureaucracy fails to deliver on its obligation to facilitate innovation.

The expense of putting drugs and devices through this system is almost unimaginable. The cost of bringing low- to medium-risk 510(k) medical devices to market averages $31 million, $24 million (75 percent) of which is dedicated solely to attaining FDA approval within an average of about six months. Any significant improvement to the device requires reapplication. For higher-risk medical devices where there may be significant health gains, the costs are about $94 million, $75 million (80 percent) of which is dedicated to attaining FDA approval. For drugs, the situation is much worse. It costs an average of $2.6 billion simply to get a drug through the FDA process and onto the market. This does not include postmarket monitoring, the terms of which are laid out by FDA upon approval. These costs have increased from about $1 billion between 1983 and 1994. …we continue to increase the funding and authority for FDA and assume that we will somehow boost innovation in medical products (drugs and devices) despite the growing obstacles. This has not happened. …Congress continues to increase funding for FDA through both the general fund and industry user fees…with the hope that performance goals and additional funding would increase FDA’s performance and lead to an increase in innovations. …but FDA finds strategic ways to narrowly meet each goal while frustrating the original goal of improving health outcomes through innovation.

By the way, the FDA also does really bone-headed things. I’ve previously written about the bureaucracy’s war against unpasteurized milk (including military-style raids on dairies!). Now the bureaucrats think soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to get cigars.

The Wall Street Journal has the details of this silly nanny-state intervention.

You might think GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan have enough to worry about with Islamic State and the Taliban. But it turns out they’ve also got a problem called the Food and Drug Administration. In August a new FDA rule went into effect that forbids tobacco makers and distributors from handing out free samples. Some companies that have been donating cigars to service members for decades have now stopped for fear that this is now illegal. The FDA nuttiness has attracted the attention of Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 14th district, which includes “Cigar City,” or Tampa. She has introduced a bill to “reinstate the tradition of donating cigars to our military members to provide them with a taste of home while deployed.” Her press release notes that cigars are the “second-most requested item” from troops overseas. …cigars for service members is in question because it’s a proxy for the political war on tobacco, but the first casualty is common sense. The FDA’s bureaucrats are happy to have U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines dodge bullets overseas but they’re horrified they might relax by lighting up a stogie.

But the nanny-state war against soldiers enjoying cigars is downright trivial compared to the deadly impact of the FDA’s attack on vaping.

Jacob Sullum of Reason outlines some of the horrifying details.

The Food and Drug Administration’s e-cigarette regulations, which took effect last week, immediately struck two blows against public health. As of Monday, companies that sell vaping equipment and the fluids that fill them are forbidden to share potentially lifesaving information about those products with their customers. They are also forbidden to make their products safer, more convenient, or more pleasant to use. The FDA’s censorship and its ban on innovation will discourage smokers from switching to vaping, even though that switch would dramatically reduce the health risks they face. That effect will be compounded by the FDA’s requirement that manufacturers obtain its approval for any vaping products they want to keep on the market for longer than two years. The cost of meeting that requirement will force many companies out of business… All of this is unambiguously bad for consumers and bad for public health. Yet the FDA took none of it into account…the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act…gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, a category to which it has arbitrarily assigned tobacco-free e-cigarettes, even when they contain nicotine that is not derived from tobacco or no nicotine at all. …A brief that 16 advocates of tobacco harm reduction filed last week in support of Nicopure’s lawsuit notes that the cost of the FDA’s regulations will far outweigh their benefit if they cause even a small percentage of vapers to start smoking again or deter even a small percentage of current smokers from switching. That’s because of the huge difference in risk between e-cigarettes and the conventional kind (at least 95 percent, according to the Royal College of Physicians)… The FDA acknowledges that its regulations might also harm public health by retarding the substitution of vaping for smoking. But it does not include that cost in its analysis, deeming it too speculative. The FDA literally assigns zero value to the lives of smokers who would have quit were it not for the agency’s heavy-handed meddling.

Oh, I suppose I also should mention that FDA red tape is responsible for the fact that Americans have a much more limited selection of condoms than Europeans.

I’m sure there’s a good joke to be made about the bureaucrats screwing us in ways that interfere with us…um…well, you know.

Let’s wrap up with some tiny bits of good news. First, Arizona’s Goldwater Institute has been remarkably successful in getting states to adopt “Right to Try” laws that give seriously ill people the right to try investigational medications.

Sadly, those laws will have limited use until there’s also reform in Washington. Fortunately, there’s some movement. Here’s a video from a congressional hearing organized by Senator Johnson of Wisconsin.

Here’s a second item that sort of counts as good news.

If there is one silver lining to the dark cloud of FDA incompetence, it’s that the bureaucrats haven’t figured out how to criminalize those who use drugs for “off-label” purposes (i.e., for reasons other than what was approved by the government). A good example, as reported by the New York Times, is a tooth desnsitizer that’s only been recently approved by the FDA (after being available for decades in nations such as Japan), and already dentists are using it to fight cavities.

Nobody looks forward to having a cavity drilled and filled by a dentist. Now there’s an alternative: an antimicrobial liquid that can be brushed on cavities to stop tooth decay — painlessly. The liquid is called silver diamine fluoride, or S.D.F. It’s been used for decades in Japan, but it’s been available in the United States, under the brand name Advantage Arrest, for just about a year. The Food and Drug Administration cleared silver diamine fluoride for use as a tooth desensitizer for adults 21 and older. But studies show it can halt the progression of cavities and prevent them, and dentists are increasingly using it off-label for those purposes. …Silver diamine fluoride is already used in hundreds of dental offices. Medicaid patients in Oregon are receiving the treatment…it’s relatively inexpensive. …The noninvasive treatment may be ideal for the indigent, nursing home residents and others who have trouble finding care. …But the liquid may be especially useful for children. Nearly a quarter of 2- to 5-year-olds have cavities

Since I’m not familiar with the history of the FDA, I wonder whether the bureaucrats have ever tried to block medical professionals from using drugs and devices for “off-label” purposes.

Let me close with one final point. Our leftist friends aren’t very interested in reforming the FDA.

Instead, they argue that the big problem is greedy pharmaceutical companies and suggest European-style price controls.

That could save consumers money in the short run, I’m sure, but it would gut the incentive to develop new medications.

One expert looked at the Rand Corporation estimates that such policies would lead to a decline in life expectancy of 0.7 years by 2016. He then crunched the numbers and concluded that the aggregate impact would be worse thing to ever happen. Even worse than the brutality of Mao’s China.

…let me put this in context. In 2060 there will probably be 420 million Americans and 523 million Europeans. And suppose that whatever changes we make in drug regulations today last for one human lifespan, so that everybody has a chance to be 55-60. So about a billion people each losing about 0.7 years of their life equals 700 million life-years. Since some people live in countries outside the US and Europe [citation needed] and they also benefit from First-World-invented medications, let’s round this up to about a billion life-years lost. What was the worst thing that ever happened? One strong contender is Mao’s Great Leap Forward, in which ineffective agricultural reforms and very effective purges killed 45 million people. Most of these people were probably already adults, and lifespan in Mao’s China wasn’t too high, so let’s say that each death from the Great Leap Forward cost what would otherwise be twenty healthy life years. In that case, the worst thing that has ever happened until now cost 45 million * 20 = 900 million life-years. Once again, RAND’s calculations plus my own Fermi estimate suggest that prescription drug price regulation would cost one billion life-years, which would very slightly edge out Communist China for the title of Worst Thing Ever.

I guess the bottom line is that the FDA is a typical regulatory agency, both incompetent and expensive. But if the statists have their way, things could get a lot worse.

P.S. While the regulatory burden in the United States is stifling and there are some really inane examples of silly rules such as the FDA’s war on vaping, I think Greece and Japan win the record if you want to identify the most absurd specific examples of red tape.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Noah tried to comply with today’s level of red tape when building an ark. And here’s some clever anti-libertarian humor about deregulated breakfast cereal.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you think regulation is “merely” a cost imposed on businesses, hopefully today’s column drives home that red tape can have terrible consequences for human health. And don’t forget that bureaucratic red tape is the reason we’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, second-rate dishwashers, and inadequate washing machines.

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