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Posts Tagged ‘Cronyism’

Because of their aggressive support for bigger government, my least-favorite international bureaucracies are the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But I’m increasingly displeased by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is another international bureaucracy (like the OECD and IMF) that is backed by American taxpayers.

And what does it do with our money? As I explained earlier this month in this short speech to the European Resource Bank in Prague, the EBRD undermines growth with cronyist policies that distort the allocation of capital.

In some sense, the argument against the EBRD is no different than the standard argument against foreign aid. Simply stated, you don’t generate growth by having the government of a rich nation give money to the government of a poor nation.

Poor nations instead need to adopt good policy – something that’s less likely when profligate and corrupt governments in the developing world are propped up by handouts.

That being said, the downsides of the EBRD go well beyond the normal problems of foreign aid.

I recently authored a study on this bureaucracy for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Here are some of the main findings.

The EBRD was created with the best of intentions. The collapse of communism was an unprecedented and largely unexpected event, and policymakers wanted to encourage and facilitate a shift to markets and democracy. …But good intentions don’t necessarily mean good results. Especially when the core premise was that growth somehow would be stimulated and enabled by the creation of another multilateral government bureaucracy. …Unfortunately, even though its founding documents pay homage to markets…, there’s nothing in the track record of the EBRD that indicates it has learned from pro-intervention and pro-statism mistakes made by older international aid organizations. Indeed, there’s no positive track record whatsoever.

• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance grow faster than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance enjoy more job creation than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD,
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance have better social outcomes than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.

I also delved into three specific downsides of the EBRD, starting with its role in misallocating capital.

In a normal economy, savers, investors, intermediaries, entrepreneurs, and others make decisions on what projects get funded and what businesses attract investment. These private-sector participants have “skin in the game” and relentlessly seek to balance risk and reward. Wise decisions are rewarded by profit, which often is a signal for additional investment to help satisfy consumer desires. There’s also an incentive to quickly disengage from failing projects and investments that don’t produce goods and services valued by consumers. Profit and loss are an effective feedback mechanism to ensure that resources are constantly being reshuffled in ways that produce the most prosperity for people. The EBRD interferes with that process. Every euro it allocates necessarily diverts capital from more optimal uses.

I explain why taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing cronyism.

…the EBRD is in the business of “picking winners and losers.” This means that intervention by the bureaucracy necessarily distorts competitive markets. Any firm that gets money from the EBRD is going to have a significant advantage over rival companies. Preferential financing for hand-picked firms from the EBRD also is a way of deterring new companies from getting started since there is not a level playing field or honest competition. … cronyism is a threat to prosperity. It means the playing field is unlevel and that those with political connections have an unfair advantage over those who compete fairly. To make matters worse, nations that receive funds from the ERBD already get dismal scores from Economic Freedom of the World for the two subcategories (“government enterprises and investment” and “business regulations”) that presumably are the best proxies for cronyism.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that recipient nations already get low scores from Economic Freedom of the World for variables that reflect the degree of cronyism in an economy.

Last but not least, I warn that the EBRD enables and facilitates corruption.

When governments have power to arbitrarily disburse large sums of money, that is a recipe for unsavory behavior. For all intents and purposes, the practice of cronyism is a prerequisite for corruption. The EBRD openly brags about the money it steers to private hands, so is it any surprise that people will engage in dodgy behavior in order to turn those public funds into private loot? …Recipient nations get comparatively poor scores for “legal system and property rights” from Economic Freedom of the World. They also do relatively poorly when looking at the World Bank’s “governance indicators.” And they also have disappointing numbers from Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index.” So, it’s no surprise that monies ostensibly disbursed for the purpose of development assistance wind up lining the pockets of corrupt insiders. For all intents and purposes, the EBRD and other dispensers of aid enable and sustain patterns of corruption.

And here’s the chart showing that recipient nations have poor quality of governance, which means that EBRD funds are especially likely to get misused.

I also cite several EBRD documents that illustrates the bureaucracy’s hostility for free markets and limited government.

Just in case you didn’t want to watch the entire video, here’s the relevant slide from my presentation.

And remember that your tax dollars back this European bureaucracy. Indeed, American taxpayers have a larger exposure than any of the European countries.

P.S. I’m also not a fan of the United Nations, though I take comfort in the fact that the UN is not very effective in pushing statist policy.

P.P.S. I’m most tolerant of the World Bank, though that bureaucracy periodically does foolish things as well.

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The good news is that some honest leftists have thrown in the towel and now openly admit that capitalism generates more prosperity.

They still don’t want free markets, of course. For ideological reasons, they continue to push for a big welfare state. But at least they admit their redistributionist policies lead to weaker economic performance. Perversely, they are willing to reduce living standards for poor people so long as rich people suffer even bigger drops in their income (in other words, Thatcher was right).

Many statists, though, realize that this is not a compelling agenda.

So they try to claim – notwithstanding reams of evidence – that bigger government somehow enables more growth.

And they’re crafty. Most of them are clever enough that they don’t embrace full-scale socialism. Instead, they push for an ad hoc approach based on subsidies, bailouts, social engineering, price controls, and other forms of intervention.

If you want to get technical, they’re actually pushing a variant of fascism, with nominal private ownership but government direction and control.

But let’s avoid that loaded term and simply call it cronyism.

In a column for the Washington Post, Nicholas Borroz observes that this approach exists all over the world.

China’s consolidation of its state-owned enterprises (SOEs), Russia’s oligarch-led economy, the proliferation of sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and growing government intervention in the West are clear indicators of state-led capitalism… Controlling market activity gives governments obvious advantages when it comes to advancing political agendas at home and foreign policy abroad. …SWFs are an important feature of today’s global economic landscape; governments also use them as agents of statecraft. …State-led capitalism is even finding support in the West. …President Trump has bragged that he personally influences firms’ decisions about where to place their factories. …we have entered an era when state-led capitalism is firmly entrenched.

Unfortunately, I think Mr. Borroz is correct.

Though “state-led capitalism” an oxymoronic phrase.

Borroz also notes that the shift to cronyism reverses some of the progress that occurred at the end of the 20th century.

This is a dramatic reversal of the trend from two decades ago. In the 1990s, there was a rush around the world to liberalize economies. Capitalism’s defeat of communism made it seem that unfettered market activity was the key to success.

If you look at the data from Economic Freedom of the World, the period of liberalization actually began in the 1980s, but I’m being a nit-picker.

So let’s shift to parts of his column where I have substantive disagreements.

First, my jaw hit the proverbial floor when I read the part about the International Monetary Fund supposedly being a beacon of free-market reform.

Developing countries signed up with the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs (SAPs), gaining access to loans in exchange for adopting neoliberal economic prescriptions.

Since I’ve referred to the IMF as the “dumpster fire” or “Dr. Kevorkian” of the global economy, I obviously have a different perspective.

Though, to be fair, the bureaucrats at the IMF generally do advocate for deregulation and free trade. But they are bad news on fiscal policy and oftentimes misguided on monetary policy as well.

But here’s the part of the column that is even more galling. Borroz defends cronyism because free markets allegedly failed.

…a number of factors led to skepticism about free markets. One was the underwhelming developmental effect of SAPs and liberalization. …A further blow to the neoliberal model was a series of financial disasters caused by unrestricted flows of capital, notably the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis. Perhaps the factor that has most undermined neoliberalism’s attractiveness, though, is…countries with state-led economies, such as China and Russia…remain relevant not despite state intervention but because of it.

This is remarkably wrong. Three big mistakes in a handful of sentences.

  1. When IMF structural adjustment programs fail, that’s an unsurprising consequence of big tax increases, not the fault of capitalism.
  2. Government monetary policy deserves the bulk of the blame for financial crises with Fannie and Freddie also playing a role in the case of America.
  3. China and Russia are relevant from a geopolitical perspective, but their economies could be far more prosperous if government played a smaller role.

Heck, per-capita output in both China and Russia is far below U.S. levels, so the notion that they are role models is amazingly oblivious to reality.

Now let’s review some evidence about the downside of “state-led” economic policy.

The Economist notes that cronyism does not have a very successful track record.

Some argue it makes no sense for a government to place VC bets, directly or otherwise. …Massimo Colombo, an academic who studies government VC in Europe at the Polytechnic University of Milan, …admits that, when results are measured by jobs created or productivity boosted, the private sector is far better at deploying capital. Studying 25,000 government VC investments in 28 countries, between 2000 and 2014, he and colleagues concluded that they worked only when they did not compete directly with the private sector.

And research from three economists at Italy’s central bank specifically measured the loss of economic efficiency when governments operate and control businesses.

In OECD countries public services, especially at local level, are often provided by public enterprises (Saussier and Klien, 2014). Therefore, the efficiency of LPEs is important for the overall efficiency of the economy and the sustainability of public finances. …we are able to build a very detailed dataset that allows us to compare firms that are observationally equivalent, apart from the ownership indicator, thus making possible the definition of the appropriate set of comparison firms. …Although we focus on Italy, which represents a particularly interesting case to analyze for several reasons, the approach we have followed in this paper may be easily adapted to other countries. We find that the performance of Italian LPEs, measured in terms of total factor productivity, is on average lower than that of private enterprises by about 8%… our results show that the ownership structure is more important than the market structure in explaining the performance of LPEs with respect to their private sector counterparts. …Our results imply that policy measures aimed at privatizing LPEs (totally or, at least, partially) can improve their performance, by reducing the level of public control and promoting cost-benefit analysis for investments.

In other words, the type of statism doesn’t really matter.

The inevitable result is less growth and prosperity.

Which is why I advocate “separation of business and state.”

Simply stated, I want to reverse the data in this chart because I understand the data in this video and this chart.

P.S. If my statist friends disagree, accept my challenge and please show me a cronyist nation that is outperforming a market-oriented nation.

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I wrote last month about the risk of Trump harming American workers, consumers, and producers by pulling the United States out of NAFTA.

That’s still a danger to the U.S. economy, but it’s been pushed to the back burner by a more immediate threat – the President’s unilateral decision to impose big tax increases on steel and aluminum imports.

American trade law (specifically the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) does give Trump the authority to impose such taxes, but it’s worth noting that Congress has the power to change the law and negate the President’s short-sighted actions.

To be sure, such a change presumably would require two-thirds support to override a Trump veto. And I have no idea how many congressional Republicans are loyal to free markets rather than Trump, and I also don’t know how many congressional Democrats would vote against Trump’s protectionism, either because they support trade or because they simply don’t like the President.

But I do know that there would be lots of support. In today’s Washington Post, Charles Koch makes a principled case for open trade and condemns the President’s protectionism.

Countries with the freest trade have tended to not only be the wealthiest but also the most tolerant. Conversely, the restriction of trade — whether through tariffs, quotas or other means — has hurt the economy and pitted people against each other. Tariffs increase prices, limit choices, reduce competition and inhibit innovation. Equally troubling, research shows that they fail to increase the number of jobs overall. …History is filled with examples of administrations that have implemented trade restrictions with devastating results. At the dawn of the Great Depression, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act raised U.S. tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods, which accelerated our decline instead of correcting it. More recently, President George W. Bush’s 30 percent steel tariff led to increased consumer costs and higher unemployment. And President Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to raise tariffs on Chinese tires ultimately burdened consumers with $1.1 billion in higher prices. The cost per job saved was nearly $1 million , not considering all the lost jobs that went unmeasured.

And he specifically condemns the new trade taxes Trump has imposed.

The administration’s recent decision to impose major steel and aluminum tariffs — on top of higher tariffs on washing machines and solar panels — will have the same harmful effect. …those who can least afford it will be harmed the most. Having just helped consumers keep more of their money by passing tax reform, it makes little sense to take it away via higher costs.

Mr. Koch also observed that we’ve become richer during a period when trade taxes fell.

It is no coincidence that our quality of life has improved over the years as the average U.S. tariff on imported goods has fallen — from nearly 20 percent in 1932 to less than 4 percent in 2016.

This is an under-appreciated point. I’ve argued – and shared evidence – that trade liberalization played a key role in offsetting the damage of higher fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era. Yet Trump wants to reverse some or all of this progress.

The Wall Street Journal also opined on this issue.

President Trump could reduce the benefits of his tax cuts and regulatory rollback with protectionism. This risk became more serious after the Commerce Department…recommended broad restrictions on aluminum and steel imports that would punish American businesses and consumers. …the wide-ranging economic damage from restricting imports would overwhelm the narrow benefits to U.S. steel and aluminum makers.

The protectionists try to justify tariffs on the basis of national defense, but this is a silly argument since we’re not relying on potential enemies.

Canada accounts for 43% of aluminum imports—more than twice as much as China and Russia combined. Steel imports are also diversified with Canada (17%), South Korea (12%) and Mexico (9%) accounting for three of the top four foreign sources. China accounts for about 2% of steel and 10% of aluminum imports.

The WSJ then lists some of the harmful effects of trade taxes.

About 16 times more workers are employed today in U.S. steel-consuming industries than the 140,000 American steelworkers. Economists Joseph Francois and Laura Baughman found that more U.S. workers lost jobs (200,000) due to George W. Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs than were employed by the entire steel industry (187,500) at the time. …Raising the cost of steel and aluminum inputs would impel many manufacturers to move production abroad to stay competitive globally. Does Mr. Trump want more cars made in Mexico? …Oh, and don’t forget that other countries could retaliate with trade barriers that hurt American exporters. …Why would Mr. Trump undercut his achievements with trade barriers that harm American workers and consumers?

Irwin Stelzer, writing for the Weekly Standard, also is quite critical.

…the president doesn’t like trade deficits—job killers as he sees it—and so he has put tariffs on washing machines and solar panels and now is deciding what costs and restrictions to place on imports of steel and aluminium. …Never mind that such measures will raise the costs of steel and aluminum-using industries such as autos, making them less competitive with imports that can keep their costs down by buying cheaper, un-tariffed metals. One economic study after George W. Bush imposed tariffs on steel in 2002 concluded that job losses in steel-consuming industries exceeded the number that would have been lost had the entire American steel industry gone out of business. …if that causes job losses scattered among a lot of other industries and states, then so be it. Trump figures that those voters won’t make the connection between the job losses and the steel tariffs.

Last but not least, Tom Mullen eviscerates protectionism in a piece for CapX.

When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, it…was to refute the kinds of protectionist ideas championed by conservatives like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton in Smith’s day, Abraham Lincoln eighty years later, and Trump today. Bastiat remade Smith’s case in 1848. Henry Hazlitt did so again in 1946. …What is unseen is the money American consumers no longer have when the tariffs are put in place. For example, the tariff may result in them paying $200 for the same pair of sneakers they previously paid $100 for. That means they no longer have $100 they previously had after buying the sneakers, which they could spend on other products. Whatever jobs they were supporting with that $100 are now lost. …When the ledger is balanced, Americans, in general, are far better off without the tariff.

Here’s more on the economic poison of protectionism.

The lower prices Americans pay for automobiles, clothing, Apple iPhones, and Bobcats allow them to patronise those American industries which operate more efficiently than their overseas competitors. That’s called “comparative advantage,” something else free market advocates since Adam Smith have been educating people about. …No matter what spurious arguments special interests make in favour of tariffs, they are, at the end of the day, just another tax. …And don’t forget, all the unseen, negative consequences of tariffs apply equally to foreigners. If they are taxing imports on automobiles, their citizens have less money to spend on other products. Their businesses that use imported materials must raise their prices and become less competitive. Any advantage they appear to gain in one sector, they lose in another, with the same overall net loss as we experience.

Amen.

Protectionism is a no-win game. Politicians in Country A take aim at businesses in Country B, but the main casualties are inside their own borders. Consumers lose, taxpayers lose, and all the upstream and downstream businesses in the supply chain lose.

Which is why researchers inevitably find that trade barriers are associated with net job losses. In other words, the “unseen” losses are far larger than the “seen” gains.

Which is exactly what Bastiat warned about more than 150 years ago.

P.S. Shifting gears, I’ve periodically complained about the immoral and amoral actions of large corporations. Simply stated, big businesses oftentimes are perfectly happy to use the coercive power of government to grab unearned wealth.

Koch Industries is a noble exception. Here’s another excerpt from Charles Koch’s Washington Post column.

One might assume that, as the head of Koch Industries — a large company involved in many industries, including steel — I would applaud such import tariffs because they would be to our immediate and financial benefit. But corporate leaders must reject this type of short-term thinking, and we have. …We only support policies that are based on equality under the law and that help people improve their lives. This is why we successfully lobbied to end direct ethanol subsidies, despite being one of the largest ethanol producers in the United States. It is why we fought against the inclusion of a border adjustment tax in the tax-reform package, even though it would have greatly increased our profits by increasing costs to consumers.

I’m obviously pleased that the folks at Koch are on the right side of the ethanol and BAT issues, but that’s a secondary matter. What’s praiseworthy is that the company rejects all cronyism. Even when it would benefit.

If more businesses acted that way, there would be a lot more support for free enterprise.

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Government intervention is not good for economic prosperity. That general observation is both accurate and appropriate, but it might also be helpful to contemplate what sector of the economy suffers the most damage and distortion because of government.

Speaking of agriculture, let’s commemorate Valentine’s Day by exploring how politicians shower sugar producers with undeserved wealth every time one of us buys something sweet for a sweetheart.

Vincent Smith of the American Enterprise Institute shares some grim news on who is reaping unearned benefits.

Valentine’s Day is here again, and still the US sugar lobby has its hand in everyone’s wallet when they buy chocolate and other candy for their friends and families. For over four decades, the sugar lobby has managed to persuade Congress to maintain a Soviet-style supply control program that, by sharply limiting imports and curtailing domestic production, keeps US sugar prices well above free market levels. The program costs US consumers an average of about $3.4 billion every year, effectively a hidden annual tax of over $40 for a typical family of four, all to benefit fewer than 5,000 farm businesses. Further, the program raises production costs for the US food processing industry, damaging the food industry’s ability to compete in export markets and causing them to sacrifice a share of the domestic market to exporters from other countries. The impact of the US sugar program on employment for US citizens consistently has been estimated to be negative, costing the US economy between 10,000 and 20,000 jobs on a net basis. While the program creates employment for some workers in sugar refineries, it destroys far more employment opportunities in the US food processing sector by making the sector less competitive.

Two of his colleagues, John C. Beghin and Amani Elobeid, produced a detailed study on the topic for AEI. Here are the key findings.

The sugar program is a protectionist policy, which increases the domestic price of sugar above the corresponding world price. It restricts imports of raw and refined sugar, depresses world sugar prices, and substantially changes the mix of sweeteners used in processed food. Domestic markets are distorted, sugar users are effectively taxed by the program, and sugar producers are subsidized by it. The welfare transfer to sugar growers and processors is quite large in the aggregate, hovering around $1.2 billion. Losses to households are diffused, about $10 per person per year but large for the population as a whole, in the range of $2.4–$4 billion. …Gains to producers are concentrated in a few hands, especially in the cane sugar industry. Labor effects from lost activity in food industries are between 17,000 and 20,000 jobs annually.

For those who like the quantitative details, here’s a table with the most important numbers in the study.

Writing for the Federalist, Eric Peterson explains the high costs and inefficiency associated with this bit of central planning.

The history of candy canes dates back over 300 years… While this iconic symbol of Christmas saw its first mass production in America, Washington politicians have too often behaved like Scrooge, enacting policies that have sent all but one maker of this holiday classic fleeing abroad. One reason for the mass exodus is the little known U.S. sugar program. …Government interference in the sugar market comes in four flavors: Price supports, marketing allotments, import quotas, and the Feedstock Flexibility Program. …Although programs such as price supports (which mandate domestic prices for sugar at nearly double the world price) are fairly straightforward, programs such as Feedstock Flexibility are far more opaque. It allows sugar producers to sell sugar to the government at above market value, which the government then sells to ethanol producers at a loss. …Companies that need sugar for their products…can’t even import cheaper sugar from abroad thanks to import quotas that strictly limit foreign sugar. It’s no one wonder that some companies like Atkinson Candy Co have responded by moving some of their peppermint-candy production to Guatemala, where sugar is cheap and plentiful. …Consumers pay higher prices on everything from chocolate to cranberry sauce thanks to these big-government mandates, with the estimated annual costs to consumers and food manufacturers adding up to a whopping $3.5 billion annually. …Since 1997, for example, over 120,000 jobs have been lost in the sugar industry. It’s estimated for every job subsidies prop up, three are destroyed.

Notice, by the way, the consistent theme that subsidies and protectionism result in fewer jobs. This is not a surprising result for anybody who has looked at the fourth item in this column.

Let’s continue with some more analysis. The Foundation for Economic Education has a column by Ted Ellis on the program.

…for taxpayers, …sweetness doesn’t come cheap. For decades, domestic sugar producers have been protected from fair competition. In recent years, their influential lobby has ensured producers’ inflated profits through $260 million worth of federal subsidies and restrictions on fairly priced imported sugar. …these handouts rarely accrue to anyone but the industry’s largest and most well-connected players. …The National Confectioners’ Association, a trade group, agrees…that “the benefits of sugar subsidies and protections go directly to just 14 sugar beet and sugarcane producers in a few states.” …inflated prices disrupt domestic supply chains, threatening thousands of well-paying American manufacturing jobs, all while nibbling away at American taxpayers’ wallets. …the sugar program costs American businesses and consumers more than $3 billion every year. …the cost of special-interest lobbying in the sugar industry is felt most heavily by US workers laid off by companies that have been forced to move abroad, where sugar prices are cheaper. A 2006 report by the US International Trade Administration found that as many as 10,000 American jobs were lost as confectioners such as Hershey Co. and Lifesavers were forced by government-inflated domestic sugar prices to move plants out of the US. The same report found that the many jobs lost on account of federal intervention in sugar production far outweigh the few jobs saved for growers. In fact, it found that “for each one sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high US sugar prices, nearly three confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost.”

If you’re tired of reading about the senselessness of sugar subsidies, here’s a video on the topic from Reason. It has a Halloween theme instead of a Valentine’s Day theme, but that doesn’t change anything.

Let’s conclude with some hard-hitting analysis by Jim Bovard, who explains the tangled web of cronyism for CapX.

…the federal government has maintained an array of sugar import quotas and/or tariffs for most of the last 200 years. The regulatory regime has provided windfalls for generations of politicians and jobs for legions of bureaucrats while destroying more than a hundred thousand private, productive jobs. …The sugar program illustrates why politicians cannot be trusted to competently manage anything more complex than a lemonade stand. In 1816, Congress imposed high tariffs on sugar imports in part to prop up the value of slaves in Louisiana. In 1832, a committee of Boston’s leaders issued a pamphlet denouncing sugar tariffs as a scam on millions of low-paid American workers to benefit fewer than 500 plantation owners. …Despite perpetual aid, the number of sugar growers has declined by almost 50% in recent decades to fewer than 6,000. Federal policy failed to countervail the fact that the climate in the mainland U.S. is relatively poorly suited for sugarcane production. …Federal sugar policy costs consumers $3 billion a year and is America’s least efficient welfare program. In the 1980s, sugar import restrictions cost consumers $10 for each dollar of sugar growers’ income. …producing candy and many other food products is far more expensive here than abroad. Since 1997, sugar policy has zapped more than 120,000 jobs in food manufacturing… More than 10 jobs have been lost in manufacturing for every remaining sugar grower in the U.S. …The sugar lobby showers Congress with money, including almost $50 million in campaign contributions and lobbying between 2008 and 2013. In return, members of Congress license sugar growers to pilfer consumers at grocery checkouts and rob hardworking Americans of their jobs.

That last segment is the key. Sugar subsidies are a class case of “public choice,” with special interests and politicians both benefiting while ordinary people pay the price.

There are many reasons to shut down the Department of Agriculture. But it’s hard to imagine a bigger reason than getting rid of handouts for Big Sugar. Maybe ultra-corrupt ethanol handouts are even worse, but that’s a judgement call.

P.S. Since today is Valentine’s Day, here’s a very topical explanation of why unfettered prices are desirable.

P.P.S. And here’s a Libertarian Valentine’s Day. Or, for my statist readers, here’s Obama’s vision of Valentine’s Day.

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I explained back in 2013 that there is a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.

Pro-market is a belief in genuine free enterprise, which means companies succeed of fail solely on the basis of whether they produce goods and services that consumers like.

Pro-business, by contrast, is a concept that opens the door to inefficient and corrupt cronyism, such as bailouts and subsidies.

It basically means big business and big government get in bed together. And that’s going to mean bad news for taxpayers and consumers.

Washington specializes in this kind of cronyism. The Export-Import Bank, ethanol handouts, TARP, and Obamacare bailouts for big insurance firms are a few of my least-favorite examples.

But state politicians also like giving money to rich insiders.

A report in the Washington Post reveals how states are engaged in a bidding war to attract Amazon’s big new facility, dubbed HQ2.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will offer more than $3 billion in tax breaks and grants and about $2 billion in transportation upgrades to persuade Amazon.com to bring its second headquarters and up to 50,000 jobs to Montgomery County. …It appears to be the second-most generous set of inducements among the 20 locations on Amazon’s shortlist. Of the offerings whose details have become public, either through government or local media accounts, only New Jersey’s is larger, at $7 billion.

Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto, explains to CNN why this approach is troubling.

…there’s one part of Amazon’s HQ2 competition that is deeply disturbing — pitting city against city in a wasteful and economically unproductive bidding war for tax and other incentives. As one of the world’s most valuable companies, Amazon does not need — and should not be going after — taxpayer dollars… While Amazon may have the deck stacked in picking its HQ2 location, the mayors and elected leaders of these cities owe it to their tax payers and citizens to ensure they are not on the hook for hundreds of millions and in some cases as much as $7 billion in incentives to one of the world’s most valuable companies and richest men. …The truly progressive thing to do is to forge a pact to not give Amazon a penny in tax incentives or other handouts, thereby forcing the company to make its decision based on merit.

It’s not just a problem with Amazon.

Here’s are excerpts from a column in the L.A. Times on crony capitalism for Apple and other large firms.

State and local officials in Iowa have been working hard to rationalize their handout of more than $208 million in tax benefits to Apple, one of the world’s richest companies, for a data facility that will host 50 permanent jobs. …the Apple deal shows the shortcomings of all such corporate handouts, nationwide. State and local governments seldom perform cost-benefit studies to determine their value — except in retrospect, when the money already has been paid out. They seldom explain why some industries should be favored over others — think about the film production incentives offered by Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia and, yes, Iowa, which never panned out as profit-makers for the states. …the handouts allow big companies to pit state against state and city against city in a competition that benefits corporate shareholders almost exclusively. Bizarrely, this process has been explicitly endorsed by Donald Trump. …politicians continue to shovel out the benefits, hoping to steer their economies in new directions and perhaps acquire a reputation for vision. Nevada was so eager to land a big battery factory from Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk that it offered him twice what Musk was seeking from the five states competing for the project. (In Las Vegas, this is known as “leaving money on the table.”) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave a big incentive deal to a furniture factory even though it was laying off half its workforce. He followed up last month with an astronomical $3-billion handout to electronics manufacturer Foxconn for a factory likely to employ a fraction of the workforce it forecasts.

And here’s an editorial from Wisconsin about a bit of cronyism from the land of cheese.

The Foxconn deal…should be opposed by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. There are no partisan nor ideological “sides” in this debate. The division is between those who want to create jobs in a smart and responsible way that yields long-term benefits and those who propose to throw money at corporations that play states and nations against one another. The Foxconn deal represents the worst form of crony capitalism — an agreement to transfer billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to a foreign corporation. …Walker offered the company a massive giveaway — discussions included a commitment to hand the Taiwanese corporation nearly $3 billion in taxpayer funds (if it meets hazy investment and employment goals), at least $150 million in sales tax exemptions…the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which analyzes bills with budget implications…pointed out that Foxconn would receive at least $1.35 billion and possibly as much as $2.9 billion in tax incentive payments even if it didn’t owe any Wisconsin tax… This is a horrible deal.

Let’s now circle back to Amazon and consider how it gets preferential treatment from the Post Office.

I don’t feel guilty ordering most of my family’s household goods on Amazon. …But when a mail truck pulls up filled to the top with Amazon boxes for my neighbors and me, I do feel some guilt. Like many close observers of the shipping business, I know a secret about the federal government’s relationship with Amazon: The U.S. Postal Service delivers the company’s boxes well below its own costs. Like an accelerant added to a fire, this subsidy is speeding up the collapse of traditional retailers in the U.S. and providing an unfair advantage for Amazon. …First-class mail effectively subsidizes the national network, and the packages get a free ride. An April analysis from Citigroup estimates that if costs were fairly allocated, on average parcels would cost $1.46 more to deliver. It is as if every Amazon box comes with a dollar or two stapled to the packing slip—a gift card from Uncle Sam. Amazon is big enough to take full advantage of “postal injection,” and that has tipped the scales in the internet giant’s favor. …around two-thirds of Amazon’s domestic deliveries are made by the Postal Service. It’s as if Amazon gets a subsidized space on every mail truck.

In this last example, the real problem is that we’ve fallen behind other nations and still have a government-run postal system.

The way to avoid perverse subsidies is privatization. That way Amazon deliveries will be based on market prices and we won’t have to worry about a tilted playing field.

And that last point is critical.

Yes, cronyism and corporate welfare is an economic issue. It is bad for long-run growth when political favors distort the allocation of capital.

But an unlevel playing field is also a moral issue. It’s simply not fair or not right for politicians to give their buddies special advantages.

And it’s both economically harmful and morally harmful to create a system where the business community views Washington as a handy source of unearned wealth.

For what it’s worth, I also think it should be a legal issue. For those of us who believe in the rule of law, a key principle is that everyone should be treated equally. Heck, that principle is enshrined in the Constitution.

So I’ve always wondered why courts haven’t rejected special deals for specific companies because of the equal-protection clause?

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t wonder. After all, the Supreme Court twisted itself into a pretzel to miraculously rationalize Obamacare.

But none of this changes the fact that it’s time to wean big business off corporate welfare.

P.S. Just in case you harbor unwarranted sympathy for big companies, remember that these are the folks who are often keen to undermine support for the entire capitalist system.

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With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, here’s the opening of the big-business version of Sonnet 43.

How do I hate thee, capitalism? Let me count the ways.
I hate thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, for I am big and competition is a threat
Better to have bailouts, subsidies, mandates, protectionism, and cronyism.

I wish this was just empty satire. Sadly, however, there are many examples of big businesses fighting against free enterprise.

And now we have a new example.

The head of a huge investment fund has implied that businesses should become social justice warriors, a missive that (predictably) led to some fawning coverage in the New York Times.

Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, is going to inform business leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock. …“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” he wrote in a draft of the letter that was shared with me.

Actually, as Walter Williams has eloquently explained, businesses perform a very valuable social purpose when they earn profits.

Indeed, the free enterprise system is why we enjoy unimaginable prosperity and why poor people in the United States have higher living standards than the average person in a socialist economy.

But that’s not the point Mr. Fink is making. Instead, he’s giving aid and comfort to the interventionists and redistributionists who want politicians and bureaucrats to have more power.

Which is, of course, the angle the New York Times chose to highlight.

It may be a watershed moment on Wall Street, one that raises all sorts of questions about the very nature of capitalism. …for the world’s largest investor to say it aloud — and declare that he plans to hold companies accountable — is a bracing example of the evolution of corporate America. …Mr. Fink’s declaration…pits him, to some degree, against many of the companies that he’s invested in, which hold the view that their only duty is to produce profits for their shareholders, an argument long espoused by economists like Milton Friedman.

Friedman was right, of course.

And not just about the value of profits. He also pointed out that people like Mr. Fink play a very destructive role.

Friedman wrote…in this very newspaper. “Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Amen.

So why would a fabulously rich man like Mr. Fink engage in this kind of stunt.

There are three possible explanations.

  1. He’s stupid. But I think we can eliminate that possibility by virtue of what he has achieved.
  2. He sincerely believes that businesses should sacrifice profits to pursue social justice. If that’s the case, I would suggest he lead by example by voluntarily giving the government 90 percent of his income over $200,000 per year (sort of a do-it-yourself version of 1950s tax policy). Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath. Rich people who decide to become left-wing always seem to want to appease their feelings of guilt by coercing other people into giving more money to politicians.
  3. He realizes his letter is a bunch of nonsense, but he wants to appease the left in order to shield his industry from bad policies such as an increase in capital gains taxes on “carried interest.” If this is the right answer, I sympathize with Mr. Fink’s policy objective (especially since higher taxes on carried interest would be the precursor for higher taxes on other forms of capital gains), but I very much disagree with his tactics.

Indeed, I have a suggestion for Republicans on Capitol Hill, one that I’ve made in the past when big businesses have urged tax hikes.

They should invite Mr. Fink to testify and ask him whether he supports higher taxes to achieve warm and fuzzy goals. Assuming he then says yes, they should then ask how much of his income he is voluntarily giving to Washington.

He’ll presumably say none (like all the other rich leftists), at which point they should rake him over the coals for hypocrisy,

And then they should ask him for a yes-or-no answer on whether he will support legislation specifically increasing the tax rate on CEOs of investment funds.  And follow that with a question of whether he endorses higher capital gains taxes on carried interest (a class-warfare levy that would be very painful for firms that specialize in private equity investments.

Last but not least, they should ask him for examples of BlackRock choosing unprofitable (or even less-profitable) investments in order to “serve a social purpose.” It would be somewhat amusing to see the reaction of investors if Fink actually named examples (and amusing to expose an additional layer of hypocrisy if he didn’t).

Here’s my bottom line on this issue. If Mr. Fink wants to be an effective advocate of social justice, properly defined, then he should concentrate on making very wise (i.e., profitable) investments. Because getting a healthy return on his investments would be the best possible evidence that he was helping the poor.

P.S. The first dictator of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, is rumored to have said that “capitalists will sell us the rope we will hang them with.” There’s no proof he actually said that, but the “Order of Lenin” was the highest civilian award granted by the Soviet Union.

So maybe we should mix the two concepts and create “The Lenin Award for Rich People Who Want to Destroy Free Enterprise.” Or something like that.

It definitely would be more meaningful than the Bob Dole Award or the Charlie Brown Award, and I know a good candidate for the inaugural prize.

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Experts in the field of political marketing periodically tell me that you need to have sympathetic victims when trying to change policy.

That’s probably good advice. When people have real-world examples – especially ones they can relate to – that presumably helps them understand the need for a reform.

I have to admit, however, that my approach is generally more wonky. Whether I’m meeting with a policymaker, giving a speech, or writing a column, I view my role as trying to help people understand one or more basic economic concepts (the importance of lower marginal tax rates, for example).

I think there’s value in my approach (if people grasp an underlying principle, that can impact their understanding of both current and future policy fights). But there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do both.

So I’m going to begin today’s column about occupational licensing (when state governments impose restrictions and regulations that limit who can work in a particular field) with a sympathy-eliciting example that hopefully will resonate with readers.

Consider what happened in New York City recently now that bureaucrats have decided that people couldn’t be dog sitters without going through all the red tape to become a licensed kennel.

Pet lovers are barking mad over a little-known city rule that makes dog-sitting illegal in New York. Health Department rules ban anyone from taking money to care for an animal outside a licensed kennel — and the department has warned a popular pet-sitting app that its users are breaking the law. “The laws are antiquated,” said Chad Bacon, 29, a dog sitter in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with the app Rover. “If you’re qualified and able to provide a service, I don’t think you should be penalized.” Bacon, a former zookeeper and wildlife researcher, signed up for the app to help make ends meet while he was between jobs, but did enough business that he now makes his living from it full-time.

Now that we’ve identified Mr. Bacon as our sympathetic example, let’s look at the broader issue of the government creating barriers to employment and entrepreneurship.

The health code bans boarding, feeding and grooming animals for a fee without a kennel license — and says those licenses can’t be issued for private homes. …at least two apartment residents were slapped with violations in November and December for caring for pets without a permit. Fines start at $1,000. “If you’ve got a 14-year-old getting paid to feed your cats, that’s against the law right now,” said Rover’s general counsel John Lapham. “Most places right now continue to make it easier to watch children than animals, and that doesn’t make any sense.”

By the way, that’s not an argument for regulating babysitting (the kind of nonsense you might find in California). Instead, it’s a reason why state governments shouldn’t be going overboard with licensing rules.

The Institute for Justice just released a study on licensing rules for jobs that generally employ lower-skilled individuals.

Occupational licensing is, put simply, government permission to work in a particular field. In the 1950s, about one in 20 American workers needed an occupational license before they could work in the occupation of their choice. Today, that figure stands at about one in four. Securing an occupational license may require education or experience, exams, fees, and more, and working without one can mean fines or even jail time. …Policymakers, scholars and opinion leaders left, right and center are increasingly recognizing that licensing comes with high costs—fewer job opportunities and steeper prices—and does little to improve quality or protect consumers. …Most of the 102 occupations are practiced in at least one state without state licensing and apparently without widespread harm. Only 23 of these occupations are licensed by 40 states or more.

The last section of that excerpt is critically important. Special interests argue that occupational licensing somehow protects people, yet we have real-world examples for all 102 professions of states that have zero licensing restrictions and we don’t have examples of people dying or being harmed because of unregulated florists or rogue cosmetologists.

And shouldn’t there be some evidence of societal benefit before government restricts economic freedom (the same argument I’ve used when analyzing OSHA)?

As you might imagine, some states are worse than others. Here’s a map showing the degree to which state politicians conspire with special interests to create cartels in various fields. Louisiana and Washington are the worst (based on number of licensed professions) and Wyoming and Vermont (yes, that Vermont) are the least onerous.

Having written about a horrible example of occupational licensing in DC, I’m surprised that the District of Columbia isn’t at the bottom of the rankings. Or Alabama.

Though I’m not surprised to see that Oregon is green.

Here’s the report’s accompany video.

If you liked that video, you can click here for another video on occupational licensing.

A column by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic highlights some of the findings in the IJ study.

…in Connecticut, a home-entertainment installer is required to obtain a license from the state before serving customers. It costs applicants $185. To qualify, they must have a 12th-grade education, complete a test, and accumulate one year of apprenticeship experience in the field. A typical aspirant can expect the licensing process to delay them 575 days. …Occupational-licensing obstacles are much more common than they once were. “In the 1950s, about one in 20 American workers needed an occupational license before they could work in the occupation of their choice,” the report states. “Today, that figure stands at about one in four.”

And he points out that consumers and workers (those outside the cartel) are the victims.

These requirements…are at their most pernicious when they are both needless and most burdensome to the middle class, the working class, and recent immigrants to a society. The IJ report focuses its attention on these cases, surveying 102 lower-income occupations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It concludes that “most of the 102 occupations are practiced in at least one state without state licensing and apparently without widespread harm.” In other words, dropping many of those requirements likely wouldn’t do any harm. …Too often, occupational-licensing laws are less about protecting workers or consumers as a class than they are about protecting the interests of incumbents. Want to compete with me? Good luck, now that I’ve lobbied for a law that requires you to shell out cash and work toward a certificate before you can begin.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about IJ’s new report.

More than ever, the government requires Americans to get permission to earn a living. In the 1950s one in 20 workers needed a license to work; now about one in four do. The rules hurt the working poor in particular, but everyone suffers in states with the most licensing requirements… Hawaii’s prerequisites are the most grueling while Louisiana and Washington regulate the most professions, with both states requiring a license for 77 lower-income fields. …California has the most dysfunctional regime. Across professions, it has established “a nearly impenetrable thicket of bureaucracy” where “no one could” provide a “list of all the licensed occupations,” as one state oversight agency admitted last year. …The cost and time to obtain a license is no accident, as professional guild members sit on state licensing boards and reinforce the racket. They want to limit competition to keep prices high. …Stiff licensing requirements are often prohibitive for America’s working poor, keeping them trapped in low-wage, low-skill jobs. …Nationwide, licensing drives up prices by as much as $203 billion annually. The requirements also hurt consumers by restricting access to goods and services.

The WSJ editorial points out that both political parties are guilty of supporting these insidious cartels.

Here’s an example, from Reason, of Democrats behaving badly.

California Democrats prattle endlessly about helping the working poor, but their latest vote against a bill that would tangibly help financially struggling people shows that Democratic leaders are more interested in serving their real constituencies: state bureaucracies, unions and other interest groups that want to keep out the competition. …California has the nation’s highest poverty rates, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau standard that includes cost-of-living factors. A good starting place to address that problem is to chip away at unnecessary barriers to work. Trade groups, however, recognize that the best way to inflate their members’ pay is to raise the cost of entry for others—and the more fields regulated this way, the more it keeps poor people in the welfare lines. …Such concerns prompted even the Democratic Obama administration to call for far-reaching licensing reforms, yet California’s Democrats don’t even seem to understand the point of such efforts. Or maybe they just won’t let themselves understand the argument, given their political alliances.

And Reason also identifies a Republican behaving badly.

Otter is bending to the wishes of other special interests. In vetoing the licensing reform bill—a bill that would have done little more than reduce the number of hours of training before someone could be licensed to cut hair or apply makeup from 800 to 600—Otter said objections voiced by the state Board of Cosmetology and the State Board of Barber Examiners should overrule the majority of the state legislature. …”For years, Butch Otter has given great speeches about the need for a free economy and limited, constitutionally-based government,” said Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a free market think tank, in a statement about the two vetoes. “Yet once again, Gov. Otter has rejected sensible, conservative, bipartisan liberty-based legislation that would have put Idaho entrepreneurs back to work and would have protected constitutional rights of Idahoans.”

Let’s close with an image that is both amusing and sad. Amusing because it mocks government and sad because it’s true. It’s basically the cartoon version of something I shared last year.

P.S. Returning to the issue of political marketing, I actually do use real-world examples for some purposes. My Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is nothing but horror stories about specific government employees pillaging taxpayers. and my collection of honest leftists also is based on specific stories of statists inadvertently revealing something important.

P.P.S. Business permits at the local level also are akin to occupational licenses. Governments are making people pay to become entrepreneurs. Which oftentimes translates into painful lessons for young people about government greed.

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