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Posts Tagged ‘Central planning’

The current crisis teaches us that excessive regulation and bureaucratic sloth can have deadly consequences.

Here’s John Stossel’s video with another lesson, explaining that we need more capitalism rather than more government.

This seems like a no-brainer, especially given the wretched economic performance of countries where the government owns or controls the means of production.

But not everyone agrees. The appropriately named Paris Marx wants government to have more power, making the case for nationalization of Amazon in an article for Jacobin.

The government needs to…respond to the needs of people across the country as the pandemic situation deteriorates. The response should be to nationalize Amazon and integrate it with the USPS. …Nationalizing the company would also allow Amazon workers to get covered by the same union as postal workers… Amazon isn’t just an online e-commerce marketplace. …Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud computing platform…the cloud should be placed under public ownership. Taking control of AWS would allow the government to…ensure the cloud platform is serving the public good… We have a rare opportunity to fundamentally alter the economy to serve the needs of people instead of private profit, and it’s time to seize it.

Call me crazy, but if the government takes over Amazon and merges it with the Postal Service, I’m guessing that what emerges will have the inefficiency of the latter rather than the nimbleness of the former.

Just imagine a giant Department of Motor Vehicles (or, on a related note, the government’s track record on teaching kids to drive).

Which is why the U.K.-based Economist warned back in 2017 about the dangers of government-run companies.

Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments. For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. …But in the 1970s economists came to see state ownership as a costly fix to such problems. Owners of private firms benefit directly when innovation reduces costs and boosts profits; bureaucrats usually lack such a clear financial incentive to improve performance. Firms with the backing of the state are less vulnerable to competition; as they lumber on they hoard resources that could be better used elsewhere. …economists saw in the productivity slowdown of the 1970s evidence that an overreaching state was throttling economic dynamism. …State-owned firms pose risks beyond that to dynamism. Government-run companies may prioritise swollen payrolls over customer satisfaction. More worryingly, state firms can become vehicles for corruption, used to dole out the largesse of the state to favoured backers or to funnel social wealth into the pockets of the powerful. As state control over the economy grows, political connections become a surer route to business success than entrepreneurialism.

The good news is that very few politicians are supporting explicit nationalization.

The bad news is that there’s plenty of support for intermediate steps involving cronyism, industrial policy, and various types of direct and indirect subsidies.

Including in the legislation recently approved in Washington (not that anyone should be surprised).

Professor Amit Seru from Stanford and Professor Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago warn, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has take a dangerous step on the road to central planning.

The need to help individuals and small firms has provided cover to the largest corporate subsidy program in U.S. history. Under intense pressure from lobbyists, the Cares Act allocates $510 billion to support loans for large businesses. A small chunk of this money ($56 billion) will be used directly by the Treasury to grant loans to airlines and other “strategic” firms (read: Boeing). The Treasury will then confer the rest ($454 billion) to the Federal Reserve to absorb losses the Fed might incur in lending to firms in the private sector. The expectation is that the central bank will leverage this money… This is the largest step toward a centrally planned economy the U.S. has ever taken. And it socializes only losses. Profits, when they come, remain private. …The urgency of the moment facilitated a giveaway to vested interests. Now that the Cares Act is law, policy makers need to find ways to impose restrictions on how the money is deployed. It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence; the nature of American capitalism is at stake.

In other words, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction on my “Industrial Policy Spectrum.”

The key unanswered question is whether the government’s new powers will be temporary or permanent.

There’s a legitimate argument for some form of intervention while the crisis in ongoing. But what happens once things go back to normal? Will politicians allow the “creative destruction” of capitalism, or will they use their expanded power to permanently interfere with market forces?

If they choose the latter, there will be less long-run prosperity.

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The coronavirus obviously is bad news, but I repeated my long-held view in this interview that excessive government intervention is the greatest threat to China’s prosperity.

My hypothesis is that the coronavirus almost certainly will be a short-term challenge.

What’s far more worrisome, especially in the long run, is that government has far too large a role in China’s economy. Yes, there was a good period of pro-market liberalization starting in 1979, but there’s been very little progress this century.

As a result, China only ranks #113 according to Economic Freedom of the World. Which makes the Chinese tiger a paper tiger.

Let’s look at five potential threats to China’s economy.

1. Coronavirus. We don’t know whether the disease is contained or getting worse. But unless it becomes a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu, the effects presumably will be transitory. This is why I downplayed its importance during the interview.

2. Trump’s trade war. I gave this issue a passing mention in the discussion. Trump is hurting both America and China with his trade war, but China is probably bearing a heavier burden. In an ideal world, China wouldn’t practice mercantilism. But in that ideal world, Trump would have addressed the issue more effectively by utilizing the World Trade Organization.

3. Hong Kong. The host gave this issue a passing mention at the end of the interview. I’ll merely note that a Chinese crackdown would have an adverse impact on how global investors view China.

Now let’s look at the two biggest threat’s to China’s long-run prosperity.

And we’ll start with an issue that I failed to mention in the interview (though I have discussed it in the past).

4. Bad demographics. This is a global problem, but it is especially acute in China because of the coercive one-child policy. That oppressive system has been relaxed, but that may be too little, too late. Here are some excerpts from a column by George Will.

Demography does not dictate any nation’s destiny, but it shapes every nation’s trajectory… Although China’s working-age population (there, 15-64) almost doubled between 1975 and 2010, fertility has been below the replacement level for at least 25 years. China’s population will shrink after 2027; its working-age population has been shrinking for five years and will be at least 100 million smaller by 2040… Furthermore, there will be “tens of millions of surplus men” in China because during the “one-child” policy (1979-2015), many parents chose abortion rather than the birth of a girl.

5. Bad public policy. I’ve saved this issue for last because it’s the most important and merits the most attention.

A column in the Wall Street Journal by the Hudson Institute’s John Lee neatly summarizes the problem.

The model involves offering state-owned enterprises and national champions such as Huawei cheap finance and privileged domestic-market access at the expense of an independent private sector. China showers state businesses with subsidies… The current Chinese model is self-defeating. Less-deserving companies continue to receive the bulk of finance and opportunity. The staggering misallocation of capital is worsening, which makes the mushrooming debt even harder to manage. And allocation of opportunity is political. This means that the private sector, and therefore household income, will continue to remain artificially suppressed… China’s economy is inefficient, bloated, dysfunctional—plagued by institutions and policies that are not fit for their purposes.

I mentioned in the interview that President Xi may be moving China in the wrong direction.

This article, published last month in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, augments my concern.

China has implemented a new regulation to officially put Communist Party committees at the centre of power in running state-owned enterprises, a move reflecting Beijing’s strong desire to enhance the control of its vast state sector. …“All major business and management decisions must be discussed by the Communist Party organ before being presented to the board of directors or management for decision,” according to the regulation. …For those enterprises under the direct control of the central government, the board of directors must include a “special deputy party secretary” who takes no management role and is exclusively responsible for “party building”. The first role of the directors or executives who are party members is to execute the will of the party in performing their duties, it added.

I’ll cite one more article, this one by Desmond Lachman for the Bulwark.

In much the same way as our fears about Soviet and Japanese economic dominance proved to be illusory, there is good reason to think that China’s rapid economic rise will prove to be another paper tiger. …One factor..that does not bode well for China’s future economic performance is President Xi’s apparent intention to destroy the foundation on which China’s economic miracle rested. He is reversing the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, aimed at giving the private sector increased room to breathe dynamism into the Chinese economy. Fearful of the challenge that a thriving Chinese private sector might pose to the Communist Party’s political hold on the country, President Xi is now reestablishing party discipline and increasing the role of China’s state enterprises. …Even more troubling for China’s long-run economic outlook are its highly unbalanced economy and it’s gargantuan credit bubble. …China has a massive amount of unused industrial capacity and an enormous overhang of unoccupied housing and commercial property.

The bottom line, as I stated in the interview, is that China is in trouble. It’s been pursuing a toxic combination of Keynesianism and industrial policy.

My hope, for what it’s worth, is that China’s leaders reverse the current trend and resume the 1979-2000 path of economic liberalization that was so successful in reducing mass poverty.

To modify an existing phrase, let’s call it Reaganism with Chinese characteristics. If this chart is any indication, that would be a good idea.

Or how about Hong Kong with Chinese characteristics?

P.S. Amazingly, both the IMF and OECD want to further hurt the Chinese economy with big tax hikes.

P.P.S. Discouragingly, there are folks in the United States (advocates of ideas such as “national conservatism” and “common-good capitalism“) who think the United States should mimic aspects of China’s failed industrial policy.

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Politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say that their goal of “democratic socialism” is very different from the socialism of Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, as well as the socialism of the former Soviet Union.

And they doubtlessly would get very upset if anyone equated their ideology with the “national socialism” of Hitler’s Germany.

Such angst would be understandable. There are profound differences among the various versions of socialism. At the risk of understatement, a politician who wants to take my money is much better than one who wants to take my life.

From the perspective of economic policy, though, there’s a common link. All strains of socialism reject free enterprise. They want to replace capitalism with some sort of regime based on government planning and coercion.

This observation gets some people rather upset.

In a column for the Washington Post, Ronald Granieri of the Foreign Policy Research Institute expresses dismay that some people are pointing out that Hitler’s National Socialist Workers’ Party was, well, socialist.

Did you know that “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist”? That means that Hitler and his henchmen were all socialists. …There is only one problem: This argument is untrue. Although the Nazis did pursue a level of government intervention in the economy that would shock doctrinaire free marketeers, their “socialism” was at best a secondary element in their appeal. …The Nazi regime had little to do with socialism, despite it being prominently included in the name of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. …The NSDAP’s 1920 party program, the 25 points, included passages denouncing banks, department stores and “interest slavery,” which suggested a quasi-Marxist rejection of free markets. But these were also typical criticisms in the anti-Semitic playbook …linking socialism and Nazism to critique leftist ideas became a political weapon in the post-World War II period, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the Cold War followed directly on the heels of World War II. Scholars as diverse as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hannah Arendt used the larger concept of “totalitarianism” to fuse the two. …National Socialism preserved private property, while also putting the entire resources of society at the service of an expansionist and racist national vision, which included the conquest and murderous subjugation of other peoples. It makes no sense to think that the sole, or even the primary, negative aspect of this regime was the fact that it used state power to allocate financial resources.

Mr. Granieri makes some very good points. I’m not a historian, but I assume he’s correct in stating that Nazis hated capitalism in large part because it was associated with Jews.

And he’s definitely correct in stating that there are much more important reasons to despise Nazis other than their version of socialism (private ownership, but government control, often referred to as fascism).

But none of that changes that fact that all forms of socialism involve hostility to capitalism. Especially among the most repugnant forms of socialism.

Indeed, Nazism and communism are like different sides of the same coin. Joshua Hofford, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, examines the commonalities and differences between the two ideologies.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are the fathers of both…the swastika and the hammer-and-sickle. …The platform for Soviet socialism was nearly identical to that of National Socialism under the Nazi Party. Though the application of Soviet socialism was Marxian in nature—committed to international socialist revolution and the elimination of class enemies—and National Socialism under the Nazi Party was instituted to the elimination of racial enemies, both were dedicated to the remaking of mankind… Endemic to both Soviet and Nazi socialism, the destruction of class and racial enemies was a literal, not figurative, stage of revolution. …both versions of socialism were dedicated to constructing a new social reality by any means necessary… In addition to belonging to the shared brotherhood of worldwide socialism, clearly, both communism and Nazism were equally totalitarian. …The Nazis rejected the call to international revolution and the class warfare of their Soviet Marxist kin, however, this made them no less socialist. All substantial power and ownership of German business under the Third Reich, while managed and owned by individuals, was in the hands of the state. Price controls, salary caps, and production quotas were set by the nation and left owners to navigate a glut of bureaucracy.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Juliana Pilon shares a historical tidbit to illustrate the disdain for capitalism that characterized Nazis and communists.

Known officially as the Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Hitler-Stalin pact…stunned the world. …As German negotiator Karl Schnurre had observed…, “there is one common element in the ideologies of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies. Neither we nor Italy have anything in common with the capitalist West. Therefore it seems to us rather unnatural that a socialist state would stand on the side of the Western democracies.” …capitalist democracy was their common enemy.

And Michael Rieger, writing for FEE, notes that there are genuine differences among different strains of socialism, though all involve a powerful state.

The Nazis didn’t call their ideology “national socialism” because they thought it sounded good. They were fervently opposed to capitalism. The Nazi Party’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, even once remarked that he’d sooner live under Bolshevism than capitalism. …why…would the Nazis call themselves “socialists”? In part, it’s because the term “socialism” has been constantly evolving and changing since its inception. …Marxist-Leninists came to more narrowly define “socialism” to mean the intermediary period between capitalism and communism where the state owned the means of production and centrally managed the economy. In establishing national socialism, the Nazis sought to redefine socialism yet again. National socialism began as a fusion of socialist ideas of a technocratically-managed economy with Völkisch nationalism, a deeply anti-Semitic form of German nationalism. …The Nazis also distinguished themselves from Marxists in their support for private property, although this came with some caveats. The Nazi government did not own the means of production in Germany, but they certainly controlled them. They set up control boards, cartels, and state-sponsored monopolies and konzerns, which they then carefully planned and regulated. …democratic socialists don’t believe in total government ownership of the means of production, nor do they wish to technocratically manage the economy as the Nazis did. …The wide variance between utopian socialism, communism, national socialism, and democratic socialism makes it remarkably easy for members of each ideology to wag their fingers at the others and say, “That wasn’t real socialism.” …all self-described socialists have shared the belief that top-down answers to society’s problems are superior to the bottom-up answers created by the free market.

To add to the above excerpts, here are two passages from Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties.

  • Page 133: “Hitler took over a small proletarian group called the German Workers’ Party…and reorganized its economic aims into a radical twenty-five point programme: …abolition of unearned incomes, state to take over trusts and share profits of industry, land for national needs to be expropriated without compensation. he also added the words ‘National Socialist’ to its title. …the radical and socialist element in his programme always remained strong.”
  • Page 293: “He regarded himself as a socialist, and the essence of his socialism was that every individual or group in the state should unhesitatingly work for national policy. So it did not matter who owned the actual factory so long as those managing it did what they were told. …’Our socialism reaches much deeper. …Why should we need to socialize the banks and the factories? We are socializing the people.”

I’ll close by re-sharing my humble contribution to this discussion, which is a triangle to replace the traditional right-vs-left line.

My triangle acknowledges that there are differences between communists and Nazis (as well as between populists and democratic socialists, and between Republicans and Democrats).

But it makes the key point that there are ever-greater losses of economic liberty as one descends from libertarianism.

And the closer you get to the bottom of the triangle, the greater the likelihood that you lose political liberty as well.

P.S. I also recommend reading what Friedrich Hayek, Dan Hannan, and Thomas Sowell have written on this topic.

P.P.S. I also think we can learn something from this tweet by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

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Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

This newfound flirtation with industrial policy, mostly from nationalist conservatives, is especially noxious since you open the door to cronyism and corruption when you give politicians and bureaucrats the power to play favorites in the economy.

I’m going to cite three leading proponents of industrial policy. To be fair, none of them are proposing full-scale Soviet-style central planning.

But it is fair to say that they envision something akin to Japan’s policies in the 1980s.

Some of them even explicitly argue we should copy China’s current policies.

In a column for the New York Times, Julius Krein celebrates the fact that Marco Rubio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both believe politicians should have more power over the economy.

…a few years ago, the phrase “industrial policy” was employed mainly as a term of abuse. Economists almost universally insisted that state interventions to improve competitiveness, prioritize investment in strategic sectors and structure market incentives around political goals were backward policies doomed to failure — whether applied in America, Asia or anywhere in between. …In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal consensus seems intellectually and politically bankrupt. …a growing number of politicians and intellectuals…are finding common ground under the banner of industrial policy. Even the typically neoliberal Financial Times editorial board recently argued in favor of industrial policy, calling on the United States to “drop concerns around state planning.” …Why now? The United States has essentially experienced two lost decades, and inequality has reached Gilded Age levels. …United States industry is losing ground to foreign competitors on price, quality and technology. In many areas, our manufacturing capacity cannot compete with what exists in Asia.

There are some very sloppy assertions in the above passages.

You can certainly argue that Reagan and Clinton had similar “neoliberal” policies (i.e., classical liberal), but Bush was a statist.

Also, the Financial Times very much leans to the left. Not crazy Sanders-Corbyn leftism, but consistently in favor of a larger role for government.

Anyhow, what exactly does Mr. Krein have in mind?

More spending, more intervention, and more cronyism.

A successful American industrial policy would draw on replicable foreign models as well as take lessons from our history. Some simple first steps would be to update the Small Business Investment Company and Small Business Innovation Research programs — which played a role in catalyzing Silicon Valley decades ago — to focus more on domestic hardware businesses. …Government agencies could also step in to seed investment funds focused on strategic industries and to incentivize commercial lending to key sectors, policies that have proven successful in other countries… the United States needs to invest more in applied research… Elizabeth Warren has also proposed a government-sponsored research and licensing model for the pharmaceutical industry, which could be applied to other industries as well. …Senator Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, has called for the creation of a National Institute of Manufacturing, taking inspiration from the National Institutes of Health. …A successful industrial policy would aim to strengthen worker bargaining power while organizing and training a better skilled labor force. Industrial policy also involves, and even depends upon, rebuilding infrastructure.

In other words, if you like the so-called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and Elizabeth Warren’s corporate cronyism, you’ll love all the other ideas for additional government intervention.

Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute also wants to give politicians more control over the private economy.

My argument rests on three claims… First, that market economies do not automatically allocate resources well across sectors. Second, that policymakers have tools that can support vital sectors that might otherwise suffer from underinvestment—I will call those tools “industrial policy.” Third, that while the policies produced by our political system will be far from ideal, efforts at sensible industrial policy can improve upon our status quo, which is itself far from ideal. …Our popular obsession with manufacturing isn’t some nostalgic anachronism. …manufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. …the case for industrial policy requires recognition not only of certain sectors’ value, but also that the market will overlook the value in theory and that we are underinvesting in practice. That the free market will not solve this should be fairly self-evident… Manufacturing output is only 12% of GDP in America… Productivity growth has slowed nationwide, even flatlining in recent years. Wages have stagnated. Our trade deficit has skyrocketed.

So what are his solutions?

Like Julius Krein, he wants government intervention. Lots of it.

Fund basic research across the sciences… Fund applied research… Support private-sector R&D and commercialization with subsidies and specialized institutes… Increase infrastructure investment… Bias the tax code in favor of profits generated from the productive use of labor… Retaliate aggressively against mercantilist countries that undermine market competition… Tax foreign acquisition of U.S. assets, making U.S. goods relatively more attractive… Impose local content requirements in key supply chains like communications… Libertarians often posit an ideal world of policy non-intervention as superior to the messy reality of policy action. But that ideal does not exist—messy reality is the only reality… That’s especially the case here, because you can have free trade, or you can have free markets, but you can’t have both.

I’m not sure what’s worse, an infrastructure boondoggle or a tax on inbound investment?

More tinkering with the tax code, or more handouts for industries?

And here are excerpts from a column for the Daily Caller by Robert Atkinson.

When the idea first surfaced in the late 1970s that the United States should adopt a national industrial policy, mainstream “free market” conservatives decried it as one step away from handing the reins of the economy over to a state planning committee like the Soviet Gosplan. But now, …the idea has been getting a fresh look among some conservatives who argue that, absent an industrial strategy, America will be at a competitive disadvantage. …Conservatives’ skepticism of industrial policy perhaps stems from the idea’s origins. It started gaining currency during the Carter administration, with many traditional Democratic party interests, including labor unions and politicians in the Northeast and Midwest, arguing for a strong federal role… However, over the next decade, as economic competitors like Germany and Japan began to challenge the United States in consumer electronics, autos, and even high-tech industries like computer chips, the focus of debates about industrial policy broadened to encompass overall U.S. competitiveness. …There was a bipartisan response…that collectively amounted to a first draft of a national industrial policy… But as the economic challenge from Japan receded…, interest in industrial policies waned. …The newly dominant neoclassical economists preached that the U.S. “recipe” of free markets, property rights, and entrepreneurial spirit inoculated America against any and all economic threats.

As with Krein and Cass, Atkinson wants to copy the failed interventionist policies of other nations.

But that was then and this is now — a now where we face intense competition from China. …Increasingly leaders across the political spectrum are returning to a notion that we should put the national interest at the center of economic policies, and that free-market globalization doesn’t necessarily do that… Conservatives increasingly realize that without some kind of industrial policy the United States will fall behind China, with significant national security and economic implications. …So, what would a conservative-inspired, market-strengthening industrial policy look like? …it would acknowledge that America’s “traded sector” industries are critical to our future competitiveness… The right industrial policy will advance prosperity more than laisse-faire capitalism would. …there are a significant number of market failures around innovation, including externalities, network failures, system interdependencies, and the public-goods nature of technology platforms. …this is why only government can “pick winners.” …It should mean expanding supports for exporters by ensuring the Ex-Im Bank has adequate lending authority… this debate boils down to a fundamental choice for conservatives: small government and liberty versus stronger…government that delivers economic security

What’s a “market-strengthening industrial policy”? Is that like a “growth-stimulating tax increase”? Or a “work-ethic-enhancing welfare program”?

I realize I’m being snarky, but how else should I respond to someone who actually wants to expand the cronyist Export-Import Bank?

Let’s now look at what’s wrong with industrial policy.

In a column for Reason, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center warns that American politicians who favor industrial policy are misreading China’s economic history.

…calls from politicians on both sides of the aisle to implement industrial policy. …These policies are tired, utterly uninspiring schemes that governments around the world have tried and, invariably, failed at. …As for the notion that “other countries are doing it,” I’m curious to hear what great successes have come out of, say, China’s industrial policies. In his latest book, The State Strikes Back: The End of Economic Reform in China?, Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that China’s growth since 1978 has actually been the product of market-oriented reforms, not state-owned programs. …Why should we want America to become more like China? Here’s yet another politician thinking that somehow, the same government that…botched the launch of HealthCare.gov, gave us the Solyndra scandal, and can keep neither Amtrak nor the Postal Service solvent, can effectively coordinate a strategic vision for American manufacturing. …The real problem with industrial policy, economic development strategy, central planning, or whatever you want to call these interventions is that government officials…cannot outperform the wisdom of the market at picking winners. In fact, government intervention in any sector creates distortions, misdirects investments toward politically favored companies, and hinders the ability of unsubsidized competitors to offer better alternatives. Central planning in all forms is poisonous to innovation.

As usual, Veronique is spot one.

I’ve also explained that China’s economy is being held back by statist policies.

Veronique also addressed the topic of industrial policy in a column for the New York Times,

With “Made in China 2025,” Beijing’s 2015 anticapitalist plan for an industrial policy under which the state would pick “winners,” China has taken a step back from capitalism. …China’s new industrial policy has worked one marvel — namely, scaring many American conservatives into believing that the main driver of economic growth isn’t the market but bureaucrats invested with power to control the allocation of natural and financial resources. …I thought we learned this lesson after many American intellectuals, economists and politicians were proven spectacularly wrong in predicting that the Soviet Union would become an economic rival. …government officials cannot outperform the market at picking winners. In practice it ends up picking losers or hindering the abilities of the winners to achieve their greatest potential. Central planning is antithetical to innovation, as is already visible in China. …the United States has instituted industrial policies in the past out of unwarranted fears of other countries’ industrial policies. The results have always imposed great costs on consumers and taxpayers and introduced significant economic distortions. …Conservatives…should learn about the failed United States industrial policies of the 1980s, which were responses to the Japanese government’s attempt to dominate key consumer electronics technologies. These efforts worked neither in Japan nor in the United States. The past has taught us that industrial policies fail often because they favor existing industries that are well connected politically at the expense of would-be entrepreneurs… We shouldn’t allow fear-mongering to hobble America’s free enterprise system.

Amen.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share one of my experiences as a relative newcomer to D.C. in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I had to fight all sorts of people who said that Japan was eating our lunch and that the United States needed industrial policy.

I kept pointing out that Japan deserved some praise for its post-WWII shift to markets, but that the country’s economy was being undermined by corporatism, intervention, and industrial policy.

At the time, I remember being mocked for my supposed naivete. But the past 30 years have proven me right.

Now it’s deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.

Except now China is the bogeyman. Which doesn’t make much sense since China lags behind the United States far more than Japan lagged the U.S. in the 1980s (per-capita output in China, at best, in only one-fourth of American levels).

And China will never catch the U.S. if it relies on industrial policy instead of pro-market reform.

So why should American policy makers copy China’s mistakes?

P.S. There is a separate issue involving national security, where there may be legitimate reasons to deny China access to high-end technology or to make sure American defense firms don’t have to rely on China for inputs. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

P.P.S. There is a separate issue involving trade, where there may be legitimate reasons to pressure China so that it competes fairly and behaves honorably. But that’s not an argument for industrial policy.

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Earlier this year, I identified Trump’s “worst ever tweet.”

I was wrong. That tweet, which displayed an astounding level of economic ignorance, is now old news.

Trump issued a tweet yesterday that is far worse because it combines bad economic theory with horrifying support for massive economic intervention. Pay special attention to the part circled in red.

Huh?!?

Since when does the President get to dictate where companies can do business?

Unfortunately, whenever he wants to.

Congress has delegated to the President massive “emergency” powers over the economy. Specifically, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is a blank check.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the Congressional Research Service.

By the twentieth century, …Congress created statutory bases permitting the President to declare a state of emergency and make use of extraordinary delegated powers. …The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is one such example of a twentieth-century delegation of emergency authority. …IEEPA grants the President extensive power to regulate a variety of economic transactions during a state of emergency. …Since 1977, Presidents have invoked IEEPA in 54 declarations of national emergency. On average, these emergencies last nearly a decade. Most emergencies have been geographically specific, targeting a specific country or government. …No President has used IEEPA to place tariffs on imported products from a specific country or on products imported to the United States in general. However, …such an action could happen. In addition, no President has used IEEPA to enact a policy that was primarily domestic in effect. Some scholars argue, however, that the interconnectedness of the global economy means it would probably be permissible to use IEEPA to take an action that was primarily domestic in effect. …Neither the NEA nor IEEPA define what constitutes a “national emergency.” …While IEEPA nominally applies only to foreign transactions, the breadth of the phrase, “any interest of any foreign country or a national thereof” has left a great deal of room for executive discretion.

You can click here for the actual legislative language of IEEPA.

You’ll see that the President has the power, for all intents and purposes, to severely disrupt or even block financial transactions between people and/or companies in the United States and people and/or companies in a designated foreign country.

And there’s no limit on the definition of “emergency.”

One could argue that an emergency declaration and a ban on the movement of money wouldn’t necessarily prohibit a company from doing business in a particular jurisdiction, but it surely would have that effect.

The economic consequences would be profound. In a negative way.

By the way, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post responded to Trump’s tweet with one of his own.

He says the President, who criticizes socialism, is acting like a socialist.

He’s actually wrong, at least technically.

Socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production.

What Trump is seeking is private ownership and government control. And there’s a different word for that economic policy.

P.S. It’s a good idea for the U.S. government to have powers to respond to a genuine emergency. But it shouldn’t be the decision of one person in our separation-of-powers system. It was a bad idea when Obama was in the White House, and it’s a bad idea with Trump in the White House.

In peacetime, an emergency should require the approval of Congress. In wartime, it should require approval of the House and Senate leadership from both parties.

P.P.S. Trade laws are another example of Congress delegating too much power to the executive branch.

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From a macroeconomic perspective, President Obama’s so-called stimulus was a flop. The federal government borrowed and redistributed almost $1 trillion, yet the economy stagnated.

From a microeconomic perspective, the faux stimulus may have been an even bigger failure. One of the worst features was the laughable and scandal-ridden green energy program, which featured corrupt boondoggles such as Solyndra.

Well, if you liked Solyndra, you’ll love the “Green New Deal,” a proposal to dramatically expand Washington’s power over the private economy.  As I explained in an article for the American Conservative, the plan introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is cronyism on steroids.

Looking at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, one is reminded of Voltaire’s comment that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But that might be slightly unfair. There is some Green in the GND, though the ideas aren’t New, and it’s definitely not a Deal. At least not for taxpayers. …budget gurus have examined the GND wish list and they calculate that the 10-year cost could reach $90 trillion. That’s trillion, not billion—a staggering amount of money. For all intents and purposes, Ocasio-Cortez wants to expand the burden of federal spending from 21 percent of economic output to about 50 percent of economic output. …The economic implications of these policies are horrifying. The GND would mean Greek-style fiscal policy in the United States, with concomitant economic stagnation.

But it’s not just bad fiscal policy.

The scheme would give politicians and bureaucrats immense powers to micro-manage the productive sector of the economy.

It’s equally important to consider how the GND would dramatically expand Washington’s power over the economy—above and beyond new taxes and higher spending. …the government would be obliged to end any and all reliance on fossil fuels and shift the nation to 100 percent renewable energy. …the government would be obliged to provide universal and unrestricted access to health care for everyone. …the government would be obliged to provide everybody with a job that includes generous benefits, including paid vacations and a comfortable retirement. …the government would be obliged to create a nationwide system that was so quick and so effective that commercial air travel could be ended. …the government would be obliged to gut and rebuild every single structure in the country so that they all met a zero-net-carbon goal.

What would this mean?

A feeding frenzy of well-connected special interests at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, which would be very unseemly.

That’s the direct cost.

But from an economic perspective, what matters is that labor and capital increasingly would be allocated by political forces (i.e., cronyism) rather than market forces (i.e., the preferences of consumers).

For all intents and purposes, the GND is a form of central planning. Not full Soviet style steering of the economy, but nonetheless a step in that direction.

And this indirect costs imposed by this approach wouldn’t be trivial.

Every single one of these costly ideas will serve as a magnet for consultants, contractors, administrators, and others who will want to profit by “helping” to implement the various pieces of the GND. For those who remember the corruption and cronyism of the Obama administration’s green energy program (part of the failed stimulus), Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing. But far more extensive. …what happens if the “invisible hand” of consumer-driven competition is replaced (or substantially weakened) because politicians adopt something like the Green New Deal? …market forces will get squeezed as politicians directly allocate resources in the economy. …cronyism and regulation undermine the free market just as taxes and spending undermine the free market. The mechanism—direct versus indirect—isn’t the same, but in both cases the preferences of consumers no longer drive the economy.

The bottom line is that the GND is a corporatist scheme using the environment as a pretext.

If you don’t believe me, just look at what AOC’s top aide said about the proposal.

The chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that her signature Green New Deal was not really about saving the planet after all. In a report by the Washington Post, Saikat Chakrabarti revealed that “it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all … we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” …The Green New Deal itself was fraught with complications in its February roll-out, which included confusing language and contradictions in the “Frequently Asked Question” section. …The Green New Deal, which some estimated could cost upwards of $93 trillion to enact, also promised “economic prosperity for all.”

Refreshingly honest on the part of Mr. Chakrabarti, but also a stark warning to the rest of us.

By the way, the excerpt mentions the “confusing language” in the original GND documents. I would call is terrifying language. This section is particularly crazy.

David Harsanyi highlighted 10 of the most bizarre provisions in a column for the Federalist.

It is not hyperbole to contend that GND is likely the most ridiculous and un-American plan that’s ever been presented by an elected official to voters. …the plan’s authors assure us that this “massive transformation of our society” needs some “clear goals and a timeline.” The timeline is ten years. Here are some of the goals: …Ban affordable energy. …Eliminate nuclear energy. …Eliminate 99 percent of cars. …Gut and rebuild every building in America. …Eliminate air travel. …A government-guaranteed job. ….Free education for life. …A salubrious diet. …A house. …Free money. …Bonus insanity: Ban meat.

And remember, all these provisions are enforced by politicians and bureaucrats repressing market forces and replacing them with political pull.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute summarizes why this is a bad idea.

…funding allocations will undoubtedly be determined by political forces rather than market forces. …final allocation will depend on the relative clout of the lawmakers and will inefficiently differ from the allocations that consumers and producers would demand. In short, the Green New Deal would be a deficit financed expansion of federal bureaucratic power to dictate investment decisions in one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy. …further centralizing energy market decisions puts at risk the free market economy that our nation has relied on for economic growth for more than two centuries.

Exactly right, which is why the GND would translate to fewer jobs and lower living standards.

Here are two real-world examples from the Wall Street Journal showing why green cronyism is a bad idea.

The first is from the United States.

…consider the public housing projects near Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York office. The New York City Housing Authority (Nycha)…is switching to LED lighting, which lasts longer than incandescent bulbs and consumes less energy. Sounds smart, until you see how many union workers it takes to screw in a light bulb. One recent project focused on 23 housing developments, and changing the light bulbs and fixtures there cost $33.2 million. Supplies account for a fraction of that cost. Under Nycha’s Project Labor Agreement, electricians make $81 in base pay and $54 in fringe per hour, and overtime is usually time and a half. Add administrative and contracting expenses. All in, Nycha paid an average of $1,973 per apartment to install LEDs. …In the private economy, $1,973 could go a long way toward improving a dilapidated apartment. Only in the world of green government spending is replacing light bulbs for two grand a unit a cost-saving measure.

Don’t forget, by the way, that light bulbs also are more expensive once government is part of the equation.

The second is from Australia.

The Green New Deal…calls among other things for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States…” We’ve tried it in Australia—on a much smaller scale—and it didn’t go well. On Feb. 3, 2009, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his treasurer, Wayne Swan, announced the Energy Efficient Homes Package. “To support jobs and set Australia up for a low carbon future the Rudd Government will install free ceiling insulation in around 2.7 million Australian homes…” There were only 250 registered insulation businesses in Australia when the package was announced. That number quickly blew out to 7,000 because the government was handing out free money to installers. …They received their rebates directly from the government rather than from homeowners, who therefore had little incentive to check if the work had been done well or even at all. …Almost every insulation job went right up to the $1,600 cap, regardless of size or ceiling area. …Nearly 100 houses caught fire. …In February 2010, a year after the Energy Efficient Homes Package was announced, it was abandoned.

I also recommend this column about what happened in Germany.

Let’s close with a bit of humor.

Our first example is a modification of the famous map of the Korean Peninsula showing the difference between capitalism and communism.

In this case, however, we show a “successful” low-carbon economy.

By the way, some people don’t get the joke. Jeffrey Sachs actually ranks hellholes such as Cuba ahead of the United States in part because impoverished people don’t consume much energy.

And some environmentalists put together a grotesquely misnamed “Happy Planet Index” that also ranked the grim disaster of Venezuela ahead of America.

To conclude, here’s a cartoon strip that nicely summarizes how the GND is fueled.

In other words, the middle class will pay a lot more if AOC’s scheme is ever adopted.

P.S. Donald Trump is also at least somewhat guilty of wanting to replace market forces with government intervention.

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Donald Trump is an incoherent mix of good policies and bad policies.

Some of his potential 2020 opponents, by contrast, are coherent but crazy.

And economic craziness exists in other nations as well.

In a column for the New York Times, Jochen Bittner writes about how a rising star of Germany’s Social Democrat Party wants the type of socialism that made the former East Germany an economic failure.

Socialism, the idea that workers’ needs are best met by the collectivization of the means of production… A system in which factories, banks and even housing were nationalized required a planned economy, as a substitute for capitalist competition. Central planning, however, proved unable to meet people’s individual demands… Eventually, the entire system collapsed; as it did everywhere else, socialism in Germany failed. Which is why it is strange, in 2019, to see socialism coming back into German mainstream politics.

But this real-world evidence doesn’t matter for some Germans.

Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the Social Democrats’ youth organization and one of his party’s most promising young talents, has made it his calling card. Forget the wannabe socialism of American Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old Mr. Kühnert is aiming for the real thing. Socialism, he says, means democratic control over the economy. He wants to replace capitalism… German neo-socialism is profoundly different from capitalism. …Mr. Kühnert took specific aim at the American dream as a model for individual achievement. …“Without collectivization of one form or another it is unthinkable to overcome capitalism,” he told us.

In other words, he wants real socialism (i.e., government ownership). And that presumably means he also supports central planning and price controls.

What makes Kühnert’s view so absurd is that he obviously knows nothing about his nation’s history.

Just in case he reads this, let’s look at the evidence.

Jaap Sleifer’s book, Planning Ahead and Falling Behind, points out that the eastern part of Germany was actually richer than the western part prior to World War II.

The entire country’s economy was then destroyed by the war.

What happened afterwards, though, shows the difference between socialism and free enterprise.

Before…the Third Reich the East German economy had…per capita national income…103 percent of West Germany, compared to a mere 31 percent in 1991. …Here is the case of an economy that was relatively wealthy, but lost out in a relatively short time… Based on the official statistics on national product the East German growth rates were very impressive. However, …the actual performance was not that impressive at all.

Sleifer has two tables that are worth sharing.

First, nobody should be surprised to discover that communist authorities released garbage numbers that ostensibly showed faster growth.

What’s really depressing is that there were more than a few gullible Americans – including some economists – who blindly believe this nonsensical data.

Second, I like this table because it confirms that Nazism and communism are very similar from an economic perspective.

Though I guess we should give Germans credit for doing a decent job on product quality under both strains of socialism.

For those who want to read further about East German economic performance, you can find other scholarly articles here, here, and here.

I want to call special attention, though, to a column by an economist from India. Written back in 1960, even before there was a Berlin Wall, he compared the two halves of the city.

Here’s the situation in the capitalist part.

The contrast between the two Berlins cannot miss the attention of a school child. West Berlin, though an island within East Germany, is an integral part of West German economy and shares the latter’s prosperity. Destruction through bombing was impartial to the two parts of the city. Rebuilding is virtually complete in West Berlin. …The main thoroughfares of West Berlin are near jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic, the German make of cars, big and small, being much in evidence. …The departmental stores in West Berlin are cramming with wearing apparel, other personal effects and a multiplicity of household equipment, temptingly displayed.

Here’s what he saw in the communist part.

…In East Berlin a good part of the destruction still remains; twisted iron, broken walls and heaped up rubble are common enough sights. The new structures, especially the pre-fabricated workers’ tenements, look drab. …automobiles, generally old and small cars, are in much smaller numbers than in West Berlin. …shops in East Berlin exhibit cheap articles in indifferent wrappers or containers and the prices for comparable items, despite the poor quality, are noticeably higher than in West Berlin. …Visiting East Berlin gives the impression of visiting a prison camp.

The lessons, he explained, should be quite obvious.

…the contrast of the two Berlins…the main explanation lies in the divergent political systems. The people being the same, there is no difference in talent, technological skill and aspirations of the residents of the two parts of the city. In West Berlin efforts are spontaneous and self-directed by free men, under the urge to go ahead. In East Berlin effort is centrally directed by Communist planners… The contrast in prosperity is convincing proof of the superiority of the forces of freedom over centralised planning.

Back in 2011, I shared a video highlighting the role of Ludwig Erhard in freeing the West German economy. Given today’s topic here’s an encore presentation.

Samuel Gregg, writing for FEE, elaborates about the market-driven causes of the post-war German economic miracle.

It wasn’t just Ludwig Erhard.

Seventy years ago this month, a small group of economists and legal scholars helped bring about what’s now widely known as the Wirtschaftswunder, the “German economic miracle.” Even among many Germans, names like Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke, and Franz Böhm are unfamiliar today. But it’s largely thanks to their relentless advocacy of market liberalization in 1948 that what was then West Germany escaped an economic abyss… It was a rare instance of free-market intellectuals’ playing a decisive role in liberating an economy from decades of interventionist and collectivist policies.

As was mentioned in the video, the American occupiers were not on the right side.

Indeed, they exacerbated West Germany’s economic problems.

…reform was going to be easy: in 1945, few Germans were amenable to the free market. The Social Democratic Party emerged from the catacombs wanting more top-down economic planning, not less. …Further complicating matters was the fact that the military authorities in the Western-occupied zones in Germany, with many Keynesians in their contingent, admired the economic policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in Britain. Indeed, between 1945 and 1947, the Allied administrators left largely in place the partly collectivized, state-oriented economy put in place by the defeated Nazis. This included price-controls, widespread rationing… The result was widespread food shortages and soaring malnutrition levels.

But at least there was a happy ending.

Erhard’s June 1948 reforms…abolition of price-controls and the replacement of the Nazi-era Reichsmark with much smaller quantities of a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. These measures effectively killed off…inflation… Within six months, industrial production had increased by an incredible 50 percent. Real incomes started growing.

And Germany never looked back. Even today, it’s a reasonably market-oriented nation.

I’ll close with my modest contribution to the debate. Based on data from the OECD and Wikipedia, here’s a look at comparative economic output in East Germany and West Germany.

You’ll notice that I added some dotted lines to illustrate that both nations presumably started at the same very low level after WWII ended.

I’ll also assert that the blue line probably exaggerates East German economic output. If you doubt that claim, check out this 1990 story from the New York Times.

The bottom line is that the economic conditions in West Germany and East Germany diverged dramatically because one had good policy (West Germany routinely scored in the top 10 for economic liberty between 1950 and 1975) and one suffered from socialism.

These numbers should be very compelling since traditional economic theory holds that incomes in countries should converge. In the real world, however, that only happens if governments don’t create too many obstacles to prosperity.

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