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Posts Tagged ‘Bastiat’

I’ve periodically cited the great 19th-century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, for his very wise words about the importance of looking at both the seen and the unseen when analyzing public policy.

Those that fail to consider secondary or indirect effects of government, such as Paul Krugman, are guilty of the “broken window” fallacy.

There are several examples we can cite.

A sloppy person, for instance, will think a higher minimum wage is good because workers will have more income. But a thoughtful analyst will think of the unintended consequence of lost jobs for low-skilled workers.

An unthinking person will conclude that government spending is good for growth because the recipients of redistribution have money to spend. But a wiser analyst will understand that such outlays divert money from the economy’s productive sector.

A careless person will applaud when government “creates” jobs. Sober-minded analysts, though, will wonder about the private jobs destroyed by such policies.

It’s time, though, to give some attention to another important contribution from Bastiat.

He also deserves credit for the pithy and accurate observation about government basically being a racket or a scam.

And what’s really amazing is that he reached that conclusion in the mid-1800s when the burden of government spending – even in France – was only about 10 percent of economic output. So Bastiat was largely limited to examples of corrupt regulatory arrangements and protectionist trade policy.

One can only imagine what he would think if he could see today’s bloated welfare states and the various ingenious ways politicians and interest groups have concocted to line their pockets with other people’s money!

Which brings us to today’s topic. We’re going to look at venal, corrupt, wasteful, incompetent, and bullying government at the federal, state, and local level in America.

We’ll start with the clowns in Washington, DC.

Remember when the unveiling of the Obamacare turned into a cluster-you-know-what of historic proportions?

Well, the Daily Caller reports that the IRS has just signed an Obamacare-related contract with an insider company that recently became famous for completely botching its previous Obamacare-related contract.

Seven months after federal officials fired CGI Federal for its botched work on Obamacare website Healthcare.gov, the IRS awarded the same company a $4.5 million IT contract for its new Obamacare tax program. …IRS officials signed a new contract with CGI to provide “critical functions” and “management support” for its Obamacare tax program, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, a federal government procurement database. The IRS contract is worth $4.46 million, according to the FPDS data.

Just one more piece of evidence that Washington is a town where failure gets rewarded.

And CGI is an expert on failure.

A joint Senate Finance and Judiciary Committee staff report in June 2014 found that Turning Point Global Solutions, hired by HHS to review CGI’s performance on Healthcare.gov, reported they found 21,000 lines of defective software code inserted by CGI. Scott Amey, the general counsel for the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, which reviews government contracting, examined the IRS contract with CGI. “CGI was the poster child for government failure,” he told The Daily Caller. “I am shocked that the IRS has turned around and is using them for Obamacare IT work.” Washington was not the only city that has been fed up with CGI on healthcare. Last year, CGI was fired by the liberal states of Vermont and Massachusetts for failing to deliver on their Obamacare websites. The Obamacare health website in Massachusetts never worked, despite the state paying $170 million to CGI.

For a company like this to stay in business, you have to wonder how many bribes, pay-offs, and campaign contributions are involved.

Now let’s look at an example of state government in action.

Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a column about a blatantly corrupt deal between slip-and-fall lawyers and the second most powerful Democrat in the Empire State.

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was last week arrested and accused by the feds of an elaborate kickback scheme. …Mr. Silver is alleged to have pocketed more than $5 million in a set-up in which he directed state funds to the clinic of an asbestos doctor, who in turn provided him with patients who could be turned into jackpot plaintiffs. Weitz & Luxenberg, a class-action titan, paid Mr. Silver huge referral fees for these names, off which the firm stands to make many millions. …when the Silver headlines broke, Weitz & Luxenberg founder Perry Weitz said he was “shocked”… The firm quickly put the Albany politician on “leave.”

A logical person might ask “on leave” from what? After all, he didn’t do anything.

But he did do something, even if it was corrupt and sleazy.

…here’s the revealing bit. Queried by prosecutors as to what exactly the firm did hire Mr. Silver to do—since he performed no legal work—Weitz & Luxenberg admitted that he was brought on “because of his official position and stature.” In other words, this was transactional. Weitz & Luxenberg gave Mr. Silver a plum job, and Mr. Silver looked out for the firm—namely by blocking any Albany bills that might interfere with its business model.

So workers, consumers, and businesses get screwed by a malfunctioning tort system, while insider lawyers and politicians get rich. Isn’t government wonderful!

Just one example among many of how state governments are a scam. Perhaps now folks will understand why I’m not very sympathetic to the notion of letting them take more of our money.

Last but not least, let’s look at a great moment in local government.

As we see from a report in USA Today, a village in New Jersey is dealing with the scourge of…gasp…unlicensed snow removal!

Matt Molinari and Eric Schnepf, both 18, also learned a valuable lesson about one of the costs of doing business: government regulations. The two friends were canvasing a neighborhood near this borough’s border with Bridgewater early Monday evening, handing out fliers promoting their service, when they were pulled over by police and told to stop. …Bound Brook, like many municipalities in the state and country, has a law against unlicensed solicitors and peddlers. … anyone selling goods and services door to door must apply for a license that can cost as much as $450 for permission that is valid for only 180 days. …Similar bans around the country have put the kibosh on other capitalist rites of passage, such as lemonade stands and selling Girl Scouts cookies.

Though, to be fair, it doesn’t seem like the cops were being complete jerks.

Despite the rule, however, Police Chief Michael Jannone said the two young businessmen were not arrested or issued a ticket, and that the police’s concern was about them being outside during dangerous conditions, not that they were unlicensed. “We don’t make the laws but we have to uphold them,” he said Tuesday after reading some of the online comments about the incident. “This was a state of emergency. Nobody was supposed to be out on the road.”

But the bottom line is that it says something bad about our society that we have rules that hinder teenagers from hustling for some money after a snowstorm.

Just like these other examples of local government in action also don’t reflect well on our nation.

Let’s close with my attempt to re-state Bastiat’s wise words. Here’s my “First Theorem of Government.”

And if you think what I wrote, or what Bastiat wrote, is too cynical, then I invite you to check out how politicians are bureaucrats are squandering money on Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the Agriculture Department, Medicaid, the Patent and Trademark Office, the so-called Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Institutes of Health, Food Stamps, , the Government Services Administration, unemployment insurance, the Pentagon

Well, you get the idea.

Which is why this poster is a painfully accurate summary of government.

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The President’s “green energy” loan program has turned into an embarrassment for the White House, in part because of the sordid corruption associated with the bankruptcy of Solyndra.

But the subsidy program also has attracted some negative attention for its failure to create jobs – even from media outlets that normally are sympathetic to big government.

Here’s a passage from a story in today’s Washington Post.

A $38.6 billion loan guarantee program that the Obama administration promised would create or save 65,000 jobs has created just a few thousand jobs two years after it began, government records show. The program — designed to jump-start the nation’s clean technology industry by giving energy companies access to low-cost, government-backed loans — has directly created 3,545 new, permanent jobs after giving out almost half the allocated amount, according to Energy Department tallies.

Wow, more than $19 billion lent out, and only 3,545 jobs created.  I’m not a math genius, but that seems to be more than $5 million per job.

But let’s suspend reality and accept the Administration’s nonsensical projections that the full $38.6 billion will lead to more than 60,000 jobs. That still works out to be in the neighborhood of $600,000 per job.

Even using that ultra-optimistic scenario, this certainly seems to be a case of government spending far too much money to achieve a particular goal.

But this analysis is grossly inadequate, and White House critics are understating the argument against the scandal-tainted green energy program.

You don’t measure the job impact of a government program simply by dividing the number of jobs into the amount of money that has been spent. That only gives you part of the answer.

You also have to estimate how many jobs would have been created if the $19 billion (or full $38.6 billion) had been left in the private sector rather than being diverted by the heavy hand of government.

In other words, to paraphrase Bastiat, we want to look not only as the “seen” of government spending, but we also want to look at the “unseen” of how the money otherwise would have been allocated. What modern economists sometimes refer to as the “opportunity cost.”

It is not easy, of course, to estimate the number of jobs that would have been created if the government wasn’t diverting money into a green energy program. Ask 10 economists and you’ll get 15 answers.

But we know these effects are real.

To understand what this means, let’s create a rough-and-ready rule of thumb.

According to Tables B-102 and B-103 of the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds report, the combined non-financial capital of non-farm businesses is about $20.7 trillion. And the Labor Department says we have close to 140 million people employed, which means the average amount of capital per job is about $155,000.

You can also take a different approach and look at the non-financial capital of households from Table B-100, which is a bit over $23 trillion. Using that number, the average amount of capital is about $165,000 per job.

In either case, it’s quite obvious that the private sector utilizes capital far more efficiently than government. Instead of using $5 million of capital to create a job, as has been the case so far with the Administration’s green energy program, the private sector requires about $160 thousand.

But let’s not forget that we want to give the White House the benefit of the doubt, so we will use the Administration’s future projection that each job will cost “only” $600,000. That’s still almost four times as much as it costs to create a job in the private sector.

Keeping in mind that good analysis requires us to measure the “seen” and “unseen,” let’s now look at net job creation, which is where the rubber meets the road. The federal government is going to divert $38.6 billion from private capital markets for its green energy program, and the Administration claims this will lead to 60,000-65,000 jobs.

However, based on the existing ratio of non-financial capital to employment, that same $38.6 billion, if left in the productive sector of the economy, would create about 240,000 jobs.

In other words, for every one job “created” by the government, almost four jobs will be foregone. The Obama White House isn’t defending a program that spends a lot of money to create very few jobs. The Administration is defending a program that spends a lot of money and – as a result – reduces total jobs by perhaps 180,000.

P.S. This analysis, by the way, is incomplete. You also should estimate how many jobs might be lost because of secondary economic effects such as the expectation of higher taxes caused by additional red ink. And what about the tertiary effects such as companies and investors responding to big government by inefficiently allocating  resources to lobby for DC handouts.

P.P.S. This analysis applies to all government spending, whether it is for short-run Keynesian stimulus or long-run entitlement programs. The relevant question, from an economic perspective, is whether the government can utilize resources more efficiently and productively than the private sector. Needless to say, there are not many types of government spending that meet this test. This is why the academic research, as explained in this video, shows that we would be much more prosperous if government was much smaller.

P.P.P.S There are any number of ways one can measure the amount of capital per job. Very broad measures, such as total net worth in the economy, would push the number higher, but presumably would overstate the amount of capital needed to create an average job in the private sector. Narrower measures, such as the value of business equipment and structures, would generate a much smaller number, but presumably understate the amount of capital needed to create an average job in the private sector. Or, instead of looking at the stock of capital and the total number of jobs, we could look at incremental flows of capital and incremental employment changes. I don’t pretend that my rule-of-thumb estimate is ideal. The goal is simply to create an example so we can understand why it is important to consider both the “seen” and the “unseen.” And using that approach helps explain why the economy gets weaker as the government gets bigger.

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Tom Palmer of the Atlas Network has a very concise – yet quite devastating – video exposing the Keynesian fallacy that the destruction of wealth by calamities such as earthquakes or terrorism is good for economic growth. Tom cites the work of Bastiat, who sagely observed that, “There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.” As you can see from the video, many who pontificate about economic matters today miss this essential insight:

I can’t resist the opportunity to also plug a couple of my own videos that touch on the same issues. Here’s one of Keynesian economics, one on the failure of Obama’s faux stimulus, and another on the policies that actually promote prosperity.

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