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Posts Tagged ‘Government intervention’

There’s a problem in California. No, I’m not referring to the punitive tax laws. Nor am I talking about the massive unfunded liabilities for bureaucrat pension.

Those are big problems, to be sure, but today’s topic is the state’s government-created housing crisis. The population keeps expanding, but local governments use zoning laws to restrict development of new homes and apartments.

And guess what happens when supply is constrained and demand keeps climbing? Even a remedial student in Economics 101 will probably understand that this is a recipe for ever-rising prices.

The solution, of course, is to expand the housing stock. Build more homes, apartments, and condos.

But local governments don’t like that option because existing homeowners (who vote) benefit from scarcity-induced increases in home values. And environmentalists also don’t like any development because of ideology.

Moreover, why fix the problem when politicians in Washington are willing to promote crackpot ideas. And that’s a very apt description of Senator Kamala Harris’ scheme to subsidize rental payments.

Why is this a crackpot idea? Because prices go up in every sector of the economy that is subsidized. This is why health care keeps getting more expensive. It’s why higher education keeps getting more expensive.

And if Washington politicians decide to subsidize rent, the same thing will happen.

Writing for National Review, Jibran Khan explains why Harris has the wrong solution for the wrong problem. He starts by explaining why there’s a housing shortage.

Harris’s subsidy won’t improve the situation, and could even make things worse by drawing attention away from actual solutions. The Bay Area’s rent crisis is driven by a drastic shortage in housing. Strict rent control in San Francisco and “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) zoning policies have ensured that the area constructs only a fraction of the housing it needs. The San Francisco metro area added 373,000 new jobs between 2012 and 2017, but it allowed the construction of only 58,000 new units of housing. …Per Lawrence Yun, an economist who studies housing trends, the norm is for one housing unit to be built for every two jobs created. In the San Francisco area, there is less than one unit built for every six jobs created. …under Harris’s proposal, the currently homeless would remain homeless, while renters would receive some very short-term relief at the cost of other taxpayers.

He then explains why a subsidy will lead to higher rents, and a windfall for landlords.

Why would the relief be short-term? Because as landlords become aware that renters are receiving a subsidy, they will simply raise rents by the amount of the subsidy. The cost will be the same for the renters — who today are lining up for a chance to rent, showing that they are willing to pay it. In the end, then, this would be an effective subsidy for landlords, not renters.

Which, as mentioned above, is exactly what’s happened in other sectors that have received subsidies.

It’s not just libertarians who understand that Harris will make a bad situation worse.

Matt Yglesias is hardly a small-government zealot. He’s accused me, for example, of being insane and irrational because of my libertarian views. But we both agree that the real problem in California is government rules that limit development.

And I assume he also would agree that Harris’ plan will wind up enriching landlords rather than helping renters.

So why, then, is Harris proposing such a destructive policy?

There are three possible answers.

  1. She’s ignorant, and her staff is ignorant. Simply stated, there’s no understanding of indirect effects. Bastiat would be very disappointed.
  2. She’s malicious. In other words, she’s smart enough to realize the policy is bad, but she doesn’t care. Call this the Venezuela approach.
  3. She’s ambitious. In this scenario, she has no intention of pushing a bad idea, but she thinks it’s a good way of getting votes from renters.

I assume #3 is the right answer.

Regardless of her motives, she’s doing the wrong thing.

I’ve shared this chart on many occasions because it does a great job of showing that subsidized sectors are characterized by rising prices.

Give politicians enough leeway and maybe the entire economy can be dysfunctional!

P.S. I’m not being partisan. Republicans are quite capable of supporting very stupid policies in exchange for votes or campaign contributions. Just look at the GOPers who support the Export-Import Bank, Fannie-Freddie subsidies, or ethanol handouts.

P.P.S. Needless to say, I also object to the Harris scheme because it would make the tax code an even bigger mess. I realize it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see a simple and fair flat tax, but is it too much to ask for politicians not to make the system even worse?

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I’ve been writing about proposed carbon taxes since 2012.

My message is simple and straightforward. It’s possible to design a carbon tax that is theoretically appealing. Simply use all the revenue to get rid of some other tax that causes greater economic harm, such as the corporate income tax.

Which is basically the same argument that leads some folks to like the value-added tax.

But my argument against the carbon tax (like my argument against the VAT) is that we shouldn’t give politicians a new source of revenue without some sort of up-front, non-reversible repeal of an existing tax.

And since that’s not possible, the only good carbon tax is a dead carbon tax. However, it’s not very easy to kill this tax.

Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, working with several other organizations, just released four studies to boost the carbon tax.

Study #1.

Study #2.

Study #3.

Study #4.

And below you’ll see the most relevant table, which comes from study #4. It shows – in theory – what politicians might do with the additional money.

To add my two cents, I augmented the chart by numbering the options (in red) and then providing a short critique (in green).

In large part, I’m pointing out that “theory” may not resemble reality. For instance, how likely is it that politicians would impose this huge tax hike and allow all the funds to be used for deficit reduction (Option #3) instead of using a big chunk of the cash to buy votes?

Unfortunately, it’s not just academics and think tank people who are interested in this new tax.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a Republican congressman is pushing this levy.

A Florida Republican is set to propose a carbon-tax bill in Congress… The plan from Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents a Miami-area district…, would replace the federal gasoline tax with a tax on businesses including refineries, power plants and steel mills based on how much oil, coal and other fossil fuels they buy. The carbon tax would likely add three to 11 cents to the average pump price for a gallon of gasoline… he also views it as an infrastructure bill—it is crafted to raise additional revenue for bridges, roads and other projects—and as something he can sell as tax reform because it eliminates the gasoline tax. …Mr. Curbelo’s proposal would price carbon at $24 a metric ton and increase that every year by 2% plus the rate of inflation. It replaces the gasoline tax, which Mr. Cubelo frames as a version of tax overhaul. If enacted, his plan would raise an additional $57 billion to $106 billion a year.

Since Congressman Curbelo largely wants the new tax to fund bigger government, he’s proposing a version of Option #5.

Alex Brill of the American Enterprise Institute wants a different type of carbon tax.

One worthy candidate for the next tax reform effort is a cut in the most distortionary taxes in exchange for a tax on carbon emissions, combined with permanent carbon deregulation of the energy sector. …here are the three key components of a deregulatory carbon tax reform… Roll back burdensome carbon-related regulations. …The motivation is not disregard for the environment or climate, but distrust in the regulatory state as an efficient instrument. …A transparent carbon tax would…raise the price of certain consumer goods, including electricity and gasoline. That is a reality… It is, in fact, the policy’s intent. …a carbon tax would generate revenue that could be used to offset the cost of eliminating other taxes that impose greater harm on the economy. …Turning carbon tax revenues into universal welfare payments, as some have suggested, would not promote long-run economic growth.

The good news is that Alex wants Option #4 and is opposed to Option #2.

But that still doesn’t make it a good idea since Congress would never get rid of the corporate income tax.

Writing for the Washington Examiner, Michael Marlow also wants advocates of smaller government to support a carbon tax.

…conservatives should embrace the political opportunity it presents to reduce the harmful distortions imposed by other taxes and shrink the regulatory morass of federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. conservatives can achieve these goals with a well-crafted revenue-neutral carbon tax. …Because it would trade “good” policy (a carbon tax) for “bad” policy (regulations and taxes with high excess burdens), it would make government more efficient. And packaging together the benefits from deregulation and tax reform would compensate the public for any adverse economic impact… Ensuring that a carbon tax would not simply finance more government spending requires a strict commitment by conservatives that any legislation establishing a tax on carbon emissions must also include, first, an equal tax cut, preferably targeting existing taxes that impose the highest excess burdens on the economy, and second, a significant rollback of carbon regulations. On these points, conservatives should not negotiate.

Like Alex Brill, Michael Marlow is proposing to do the wrong thing in the best way.

But Option #4 would only be acceptable if the corporate tax is being totally abolished. And that’s not what he’s proposing.

Which is why many sensible voices are explaining that there’s no acceptable argument for a carbon tax.

The Wall Street Journal, for instance, opined on this issue last year.

…never changing is the call from some Republicans to neutralize the issue by handing more economic power to the federal government through a tax on carbon. …George Shultz and James Baker…have joined a group of GOP worthies for a carbon tax… They propose a gradually increasing tax that would be redistributed to Americans as a “dividend.” This tax on fossil fuels would replace the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and a crush of other punitive regulations. …A carbon tax would be better than bankrupting industries by regulation and more efficient than a “cap-and-trade” emissions credit scheme. Such a tax might be worth considering if traded for radically lower taxes on capital or income.

The WSJ shares my concern that Option #4 eventually would turn into Option #2 or Option #5.

…in the real world the Shultz-Baker tax is likely to be one more levy on the private economy. Even if a grand tax swap were politically possible, a future Congress might jack up rates or find ways to reinstate regulations. Another problem is the “dividend.” …the purpose of taxes is to fund government services, not shuffle money from one payer to another. No doubt politicians would take a cut to funnel into renewable energy or some other vote-buying program. The rebates would also become a new de facto entitlement… all methods of calculating a price for carbon are susceptible to political manipulation. The Obama Administration spent years fudging “social cost of carbon” estimates to justify its regulatory agenda. The tax rate would also be influenced by international climate models that have overestimated the increase in global temperature for nearly two decades.

A column in National Review is similarly skeptical.

…a small but persistent group of Republicans are trying to persuade conservatives to abandon…principles and embrace a national energy tax. …the Climate Leadership Council, a group led by James Baker and George Shultz…recently met with the Trump administration to encourage the adoption of a $40-per-ton carbon tax. …There is nothing free-market about their massive new tax hike… A carbon tax would punish users of natural gas, oil, and coal, which make up 80 percent of the energy we consume. This means that all American families would face higher electricity bills and gasoline prices. In fact, it’s estimated that the Council’s carbon tax would hike gasoline prices by 36 cents per gallon. …these hikes would have a disproportionate impact on poor and middle-class families, who spend a higher percentage of their income on energy.

The column discusses a specific plan that envisions a new entitlement (Option #2), warning that it eventually would trigger other types of new spending (Option #5).

Shultz and Halstead want to offset the tax by redistributing to the American people the $300 billion in anticipated revenue from the carbon tax. This is not practical in the real world. The idea that Washington politicians would perpetually refund a massive new revenue stream is incredibly naïve… The more likely scenario is that the government would eventually begin to spend the new revenue… Carbon taxes make energy more expensive. They also destroy jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

Benjamin Zycher of AEI also has a skeptical assessment.

The view is widespread among economists that a (Pigouvian) tax on emissions would be more efficient than the regulatory approach because regulations impose a rough, one-size-fits-all framework for reducing emissions, while a tax allows each emitter to find the least expensive method of achieving its emissions goal. …The central problem with the consensus view is straightforward: The emissions goal is not fixed. Instead, it must be chosen. …Once government derives revenues from a system of carbon taxes, with ensuing political competition for those revenues, it is not difficult to predict that under a broad range of conditions the emissions reduction goal will be inefficiently stringent. That is, the tax rate will be too high.

And what about the notion that at least the revenues can be used to reduce other taxes?

Fanciful thinking, Zycher explains.

Why should we predict that the interests benefiting from the reduction in the corporation income tax would prove to be the marginal members of whatever congressional coalition imposes the carbon tax? That certainly is possible, but other outcomes seem far more likely. Some industries and geographic regions will bear disproportionate burdens attendant upon the carbon tax, and their votes will be necessary to enact it, particularly in the US Senate. …The list of potential supplicants is long indeed, each comprising some combination of constituencies to protect and campaign contributions and votes to offer.

For all intents and purposes, he’s explaining that “public choice” will turn a bad idea into a really bad reality.

Paul Blair of Americans for Tax Reform summarizes another new proposal for a carbon tax, which is largely a version of Option #2.

Just last month, seven-figure swamp lobbyists Trent Lott and John Breaux rolled out their support for a “simple and elegant” tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Realizing the insufficient appetite for a new “tax,” the former senators disingenuously relabeled it as a “fee.” Their $40 per ton carbon tax would immediately result in a 36 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax. Proponents of the tax admit that the price of home heating would increase by 22 percent and coal would increase by an average of 264 percent. The revenue generated from this tax would constitute the largest tax increase in U.S. history. To offset some of these astronomical increases in energy costs, the plan would create a new national federally managed welfare program, paying the average family of four $2,000 a year…a program of that scale would greatly exceed the size of Obamacare, giving Uncle Sam the responsibility of managing another $1.7 trillion over a decade.

His conclusion is not subtle.

It’s a plan designed to harm American manufacturers, raise prices for every single American consumer, and prop up uncompetitive expensive sources of energy like solar and wind. It places trust in the federal government to manage yet another massive welfare program, while giving the Left a significant opportunity to extract more and more money from taxpayers. Killing a carbon tax dead in its tracks isn’t only good policy, it’s a basic IQ test for modern day conservatives.

Since Republicans have failed many IQ tests in recent years (see here, here, and here), this doesn’t leave me overflowing with optimism.

Last but not least, Ryan Ellis opines on Cong. Curbelo’s carbon tax.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., will introduce a costly carbon tax bill on manufacturers… Curbelo’s own press release indicate that his carbon tax is structured to be a net tax increase. While it will eliminate the $0.184 per gallon federal tax on gasoline, the carbon tax will raise taxes higher (on net?) to the tune of $57 billion to $106 billion per year. Over a decade that’s a trillion dollar tax increase… Structurally, the Curbelo carbon tax is typical tax-and-spend liberalism. With the extra resources from the net tax increase, the plan proposes throwing money at so-called “infrastructure projects,” which comes right out of the 2009 Obama stimulus playbook.

As you can see, Ryan is not a fan of what Curbelo is proposing, which is a version of Option #5.

And Ryan also doesn’t want to enrich and empower the swamp.

While the bill by statute includes coal, petroleum, and natural gas, the EPA administrator is also given free rein to expand this carbon taxable list of industries at will. Imagine what an Obama administration would have done with that kind of power. …the Curbelo carbon tax also creates a United Nations NGO-style “National Climate Commission.” If that doesn’t sound scary enough, it also empowers this commission with an unlimited authorization to procure the services of “experts and consultants.” This section of the bill might as well be called the “DC swamp deep state full employment act.” How many of these taxpayer-funded “consultants” would an Obama-like administration use to enforce left-wing policies on the rest of us?

This is a long column, so let me conclude by noting that my opposition to a new tax has nothing to do with partisan politics. I’ve criticized Republicans for backing a carbon tax and I’ve also skewered Democrats for supporting that levy.

Heck, I’ve even gone after self-styled libertarians who advocate for this new tax. Especially when they pull a bait and switch, claiming initially that the revenue from a carbon tax could be used to lower other taxes, but then later admitting that they’re willing to acquiesce to a huge net tax increase.

Which confirms all my fears that a carbon tax would wind up being a gusher of money that would trigger an orgy of new spending in Washington.

P.S. I hope nobody will be surprised to learn that both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development support higher energy taxes for the United States.

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I very much suspect Obama partisans and Trump partisans won’t like this column, but the sad reality is that both Obamacare and Trump’s protectionism have a lot in common.

  • In both cases, government is limiting the freedom of buyers and sellers to engage in unfettered exchange.
  • In both cases, the fiscal burden of government increases.
  • In both cases, politicians misuse statistics to expand the size and scope of government.

Today, let’s add another item to that list.

  • In both cases, the Washington swamp wins thanks to increased cronyism and corruption.

To see what I mean, let’s travel back in time to 2011. I wrote a column about Obamacare and cited some very persuasive arguments by Tim Carney that government-run healthcare (or, to be more accurate, expanded government control of healthcare) was creating a feeding frenzy for additional sleaze in Washington.

Congress imposes mandates on other entities, but gives bureaucrats the power to waive those mandates. To get such a waiver, you hire the people who used to administer or who helped craft the policies. So who’s the net winner? The politicians and bureaucrats who craft policies and wield power, because this combination of massive government power and wide bureaucratic discretion creates huge demand for revolving-door lobbyists.

I then pointed out that the sordid process of Obamacare waivers was eerily similar to a passage in Atlas Shrugged.

Wesley Mouch…issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found proof of the need satisfactory. …One was not supposed to speak about the men who…possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar, or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.

Well, the same thing is happening again. Only this time, as reported by the New York Times, protectionism is the policy that is creating opportunities for swamp creatures to line their pockets.

The Trump administration granted seven companies the first set of exclusions from its metal tariffs this week and rejected requests from 11 other companies, as the Commerce Department began slowly responding to the 20,000 applications that companies have filed for individual products. …several companies whose applications were denied faced objections from American steel makers. …companies that have applied for the exclusions criticized the exercise as both long and disorganized. “This is the most screwed-up process,” said Mark Mullen, president of Griggs Steel, a steel distributor in the Detroit area. “This is a disservice to our industry and the biggest insult to our intelligence that I have ever seen from the government.”

From an economic perspective, it certainly is true that this new system is “disorganized” and “a disservice” and an “insult to our intelligence.” Those same words could be used to describe the welfare state, the EEOC, farm subsidies, the tax code, and just about everything else the government does.

But there’s one group of people who are laughing all the way to the bank, The lobbyists, consultants, fixers, and other denizens of the swamp are getting rich. Whether they’re preparing the applications, lobbying for the applications, or lobbying against the applications, they are getting big paychecks.

And the longer this sordid protectionist process continues, we will see a repeat of what happened with Obamacare as senior-level people in government move through the revolving door so they can get lucrative contracts to help clients manipulate the system (yes, Republicans can be just as sleazy as Democrats).

Washington wins and we lose.

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Back in January, I compared Reagan’s pro-trade views with Trump’s cramped protectionism.

Well, here’s another video of the Gipper talking about trade. I especially like how he used “destructionism” to describe protectionism.

And let’s consider exactly the kind of destruction that may occur.

ScotiaBank in Canada has crunched numbers on the possible consequences to North America in a world of Trump-style tariffs. The “good news” is that the United States suffers the least amount of damage.

The bad news (actually the worse news) is that the American people will suffer a significant and sustained loss of economic growth. And that has very negative implications for long-run prosperity.

But this isn’t just about macroeconomic aggregates.

Here’s an example from the Wall Street Journal of how protectionism backfires.

Lyon Group Holding…is struggling to survive as Donald Trump’s steel tariff gives his Chinese competitors an unfair advantage. Meet the law of unintended tariff consequences with arbitrary harm to the innocent. …Steel has long accounted for 45% of the cost of making lockers at Lyon and Republic, the single biggest expense. Mr. Trump’s 25% tariff has driven up the price of foreign steel and given domestic steel the chance to raise prices. American hot-rolled steel coil recently sold for $900 per short ton…up 38%, or $248 per ton, since the beginning of January. …Raising locker prices isn’t an option. Even before the tariffs, Lyon and Republic’s clients were paying a 10% premium for the convenience of buying American instead of Chinese, and they can’t afford to go any higher, Mr. Altstadt says. …foreign manufacturers are benefiting from Mr. Trump’s steel protectionism.

And here are some of the real-world costs.

If the tariffs remain in place, Mr. Altstadt says he’ll have no choice but to buy foreign-made locker components. Reluctantly, he’s visited factories in China to consider his options. But if Lyon and Republic outsource locker parts from abroad, Mr. Altstadt says he’ll have to lay off at least one-fourth of his American workforce and perhaps shutter and sell one of his metalworking factories. …he is haunted by “the devastating effect on real people.” Two-thirds of his workforce is unskilled.

I feel sorry for Mr. Altstadt, but I won’t lose sleep about his plight. I assume he’s at least in the top-5 percent for income and wealth.

The real victims of Trump’s protectionism are the ordinary workers at the company. These people may not have high skills, but they are playing by the rules and doing the right thing instead of living off the government. Yet now many of them may lose their jobs because the President doesn’t like America’s system of free enterprise.

Disgusting. Protectionism isn’t just bad economics. It’s immoral as well.

P.S. Reagan’s rhetoric on trade was perfect, but not his policy. As I explained last year, his generally strong economic record was marred by some protectionist initiatives.

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During the Obama years, I criticized the President for various green-energy scams that squandered money and produced scandals such as Solyndra.

And I also noted that many Republicans were happy to support corrupt subsidies to inefficient sources of energy so long as their voters got a slice of the loot.

Sadly, the same thing is happening with Trump in the White House. All that’s changed is that there are different groups sucking at the federal teat.

Catherine Rampell’s column points out how Trump wants the government to pick winners and losers in energy markets.

The GOP…definition of free markets turns out to be pretty confusing… It apparently includes allowing the president to personally dictate what companies must buy, from whom, and at what price; what products they should sell; which employees they should hire and fire; where they should locate… The Trump administration has taken action or raised questions in all these areas… And President Trump’s supposedly laissez-faire co-partisans in Congress have barely said boo. …If that doesn’t count as “picking winners and losers,” it’s hard to say what would. Efforts to prop up inefficient coal-fired plants are…a terrible idea from an economic perspective. The reason these plants are struggling, after all, is that they can’t compete with cheaper natural gas and renewables. Trump is wielding the power of the state to keep uncompetitive companies in business, and costing taxpayers and consumers lots of money in the process.

And remember that this intervention will destroy more jobs than it saves, just as was the case with Obama’s interventions.

This sordid story also is a perfect example of why politicians should never be granted open-ended power.

Trump is now defiantly claiming that “national security” requires bailing out his political allies in the coal industry. It’s the same absurd rationale he has lately invoked for other unfree-market interventions — including, ironically, our military-alliance-straining steel and aluminum tariffs and, perhaps soon, automobile tariffs. …Leave it to Trump to try to strong-arm the invisible hand.

The Wall Street Journal has a hard-hitting editorial castigating the Trump Administration for considering back-door bailouts and special subsidies.

…all of a sudden the Administration wants to do a Barack Obama imitation and play energy favorites. …The supposed problem is that the U.S. is producing an abundance of cheap natural gas thanks to the shale fracking revolution. As a result, national electric wholesale prices for natural gas have plunged by half since 2008… Meanwhile, government subsidies such as the 30% federal investment tax credit have boosted solar and wind production while driving down the wholesale cost. Many nuclear and coal plants unable to compete with renewables and natural gas may have to shut down over the next few years. …Thus, the rescue plan—er, regulatory bailout. According to the Trump memo, Section 202 of the 1920 Federal Power Act lets the Energy Secretary mandate the delivery or generation of electricity during an emergency. It also suggests that the President could use his authority under the 1950 Defense Production Act to “construct or maintain energy facilities” to protect national defense. …Mandating that grid operators buy more expensive coal and nuclear power would raise consumer prices and could reduce natural gas production that has been a boon to many states. And note to Mr. Trump: Energy is one of the biggest costs for steel and aluminum manufacturers. The government rescue for coal and nuclear is as politically abusive as Mr. Obama’s lawless policy to punish fossil fuels. A better way to make coal and nuclear more competitive is to keep chipping away at renewable subsidies and cutting regulation.

The editorial concludes with a very appropriate observation.

As Governor of Texas, Mr. Perry often visited our offices to explain why the U.S. government shouldn’t pick energy winners and losers. He’s still right even if he has moved to Washington.

Amen. Intervention in energy markets is bad when “green” groups get the handouts, and intervention also is bad when coal gets the goodies. That’s true in America and it’s true in other nations.

The Washington Post also correctly opined against this heavy-handed government intervention.

President Trump is preparing what could be the most astonishing and counterproductive instance of central planning the nation has seen in decades.

Mr. Trump last Friday ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to recommend ways to prop up struggling coal and nuclear power plants. …One option would require the purchase of electricity from coal and nuclear plants under a law meant to keep power flowing during emergencies, such as hurricanes. Another scheme would hijack the 1950 Defense Production Act, which allows presidential intervention to secure critical goods when national security is at stake. …Americans could pay hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, more every year for energy. Wholesale electricity markets could collapse as efficient power plants failed to compete with subsidized dinosaurs.

The editorial wisely notes that Trump’s intervention will create a bad precedent that will be abused by a future Democrat president (actually, he’s building on Obama’s bad precedent, but it doesn’t help that Trump is making intervention a pattern).

If Mr. Trump proceeds and the courts somehow allow such a perversion of the law, it would be hard to stop the next Democratic president from, say, using emergency powers to force the purchase of renewables at the expense of coal, oil and natural gas. The president’s latest turn toward economic statism should be no surprise; it has been an animating principle of his presidency. …Mr. Trump is in the midst of picking unnecessary and increasingly costly trade fights with once-close allies, while assuring U.S. farmers that he will use state power — and, presumably, everyone else’s tax dollars — to preserve their margins. Now he is on the verge of asserting dictatorial control over energy markets, using powers meant to be reserved for real emergencies.

Call me crazy, but I want consumers to have the power. And that means allowing competitive markets to allocate resources and determine profitability.

Trump, by contrast, doesn’t seem to have any guiding principles. Yes, he sometimes supports good policy, but he’s also just as likely to favor intervention.

By the way, the Washington Post picked the wrong word in the title of its editorial. At least in theory, socialism means government ownership of the “means of production.” Trump doesn’t want the government to own energy companies. Instead, he wants to control them.

As Thomas Sowell observed when writing about Obama-era intervention, that’s technically fascism.

But since that term is now associated with other nasty attributes, let’s call Trump’s policy statism, corporatism, or cronyism. Or, if you like oxymorons, call it state-led capitalism.

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When I wrote about “crazy Bernie Sanders” in 2016, I wasn’t just engaging in literary hyperbole. The Vermont Senator is basically an unreconstructed leftist with a disturbing affinity for crackpot ideas and totalitarian regimes.

His campaign agenda that year was an orgy of new taxes and higher spending.

Though it’s worth noting that he’s at least crafty enough to steer clear of pure socialism. He wants massive increases in taxes, spending, and regulation, but even he doesn’t openly advocate government ownership of factories.

Then again, there probably wouldn’t be any factories to nationalize if Sanders was ever successful in saddling the nation with a Greek-sized public sector.

He’s already advocated a “Medicare-for-All” scheme with a 10-year price tag of $15 trillion, for instance. And now he has a new multi-trillion dollar proposal for guaranteed jobs.

In a column for the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson dissects Bernie’s latest vote-buying scheme. Here’s a description of what Senator Sanders apparently wants.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants the federal government to guarantee a job for every American willing and able to work. The proposal sounds compassionate and enlightened, but in practice, it would almost certainly be a disaster. …Just precisely how Sanders’s scheme would work is unclear, because he hasn’t yet submitted detailed legislation. However, …a job-guarantee plan devised by economists at Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute…suggests how a job guarantee might function. …anyone needing a job could get one at a uniform wage of $15 an hour, plus health insurance (probably Medicare) and other benefits (importantly: child care). When fully deployed, the program would create 15 million public-service jobs, estimate the economists. …the federal government would pay the costs, the program would be administered by states, localities and nonprofit organizations.

As you might expect, the fiscal costs would be staggering (and, like most government programs, would wind up being even more expensive than advertised).

This would be huge: about five times the number of existing federal jobs (2.8 million) and triple the number of state government jobs (5 million). …The proposal would add to already swollen federal budget deficits. The Bard economists put the annual cost at about $400 billion. …overall spending is likely underestimated.

But the budgetary costs would just be the beginning.

Bernie’s scheme would basically destroy a big chunk of the job market since people in low-wage and entry-level jobs would seek to take advantage of the new government giveaway.

…uncovered workers might stage a political rebellion or switch from today’s low-paying private-sector jobs to the better-paid public-service jobs… The same logic applies to child-care subsidies.

And there are many other unanswered questions about how the plan would work.

Does the federal government have the managerial competence to oversee the creation of so many jobs? …Can the new workers be disciplined? …Finally, would state and local governments substitute federally funded jobs for existing jobs that are supported by local taxes?

If the plan ever got adopted, the only silver lining to the dark cloud is that it would provide additional evidence that government programs don’t work.

The irony is that, by assigning government tasks likely to fail, the advocates of activist government bring government into disrepute.

But that silver lining won’t matter much since a bigger chunk of the population will be hooked on the heroin of government dependency.

In other words, just as it’s now difficult to repeal Obamacare even though we know it doesn’t work, it also would be difficult to repeal make-work government jobs.

So we may have plenty of opportunity to mock Bernie Sanders, but he may wind up with the last laugh.

P.S. Regarding getting people into productive work, I figure the least destructive approach would be “job training” programs.

Beyond that, I’m not sure whether make-work government jobs are more harmful or basic income is more harmful.

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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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