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Posts Tagged ‘Government intervention’

I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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I like France, in part because it’s a nice place to visit, but also because I’ve been able to use the country as an example of bad public policy.

It’s hard to pick which policy does the most damage. As a fiscal policy wonk, I’m tempted to blame France’s woes on high taxes and wasteful spending.

However, there’s a strong case that labor law is the worst feature of economic policy. France has all sorts of rules that “protect” employees, but the net effect is that workers suffer because these laws discourage entrepreneurs from creating jobs.

And even though I get a lot of mileage out of making France a bad example, I actually hope that the nation’s new government will move policy in the right direction. Indeed, this is why I wanted France’s current President, Emmanuel Macron, to get elected.

Yes, he used to be part of the previous socialist government that sought to make things worse rather than better. But I figured he was most likely to enact some pro-market reforms. And it appears my hopes may be realized, at least with regard to labor policy.

The BBC reports on why Macron wants reform, what he wants to do, and what likely will happen.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has begun its drive to overhaul France’s rigid labour laws, vowing to “free up the energy of the workforce”. …France has an unemployment rate of 9.5%, double that of the other big European economies and Mr Macron has vowed to cut it to 7% by 2022.

Here’s what he is proposing.

The reforms aim to make it easier for bosses to hire and fire. …France’s labour code is some 3,000 pages long and is seen by many as a straitjacket for business. Among the biggest reforms, individual firms are to be offered more flexibility in negotiating wages and conditions. …If a business reached a deal with the majority of its workforce on working hours and pay that agreement would trump any agreement in the wider industry. …The government wants to facilitate deals at local level by encouraging companies with fewer than 50 employees to set up workers’ committees that can bypass unions. One of the thorniest problems for the government is how to make it easier for companies to dismiss staff. There is to be a cap on damages that can be awarded to workers for unfair dismissal. However, after months of consultations, ministers have agreed to increase the cap from their original proposal. The cap would be limited to three months’ pay for two years of work and 20 months’ pay for 30 years. Until now the minimum pay-out for two years’ employment was six months of salary.

And he’ll probably get what he wants, both because some of the bigger unions have decided to play ball and also because he’s been granted authority to unilaterally make changes.

Protests against the plan are expected next month, but two of the biggest unions say they will not take part. Jean-Claude Mailly, the leader of Force Ouvrière (FO), said that while the reforms were far from perfect, the government had carried out “real consultation” and FO would play no role in demonstrations on 12 September. The union with the biggest presence in the private sector, CFDT, said its members would not take to the streets either, although it was ultimately disappointed that its position was not reflected in the final text. …Mr Macron has already won parliamentary backing to push these reforms through by decree. An opinion poll on Wednesday showed that nine out of 10 French people agreed that their country’s labour code had to be reformed.

Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute has some analysis of what’s been proposed.

…the National Assembly and Senate…authorized France’s government to amend the country’s byzantine labor code by executive orders… Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveiled the details of the reform, divided into five decrees, on Thursday. So what exactly are they seeking to achieve? Perhaps most important is the introduction of caps on redundancy pay to those whose employment has been terminated without a just cause…stricter caps are introduced for small companies, for which large redundancy payments can be ruinous. It will also become easier for multinational companies to justify termination of employment on economic grounds. …it will be possible to downsize or close down French operations without having to subsidize them first from profits made overseas. …Companies with fewer than 20 employees will not have to rely on labor union representatives for their collective contracts. Subsidiaries of companies will have more freedom to offer temporary work contracts.

Dalibor is not overly impressed by this collection of changes.

…measured by the standards of what France needs, it is not much… The extent to which the reform elicits a strong reaction reflects purely the overregulated status quo, rather than the revolutionary nature of the proposed measures. …the government is doing something right, however timid.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial is a bit more optimistic.

French voters this spring gave themselves their best shot in a generation at reviving their moribund economy, and President Emmanuel Macron is now taking advantage of the opportunity. …the labor-market reforms he unveiled Thursday could remake the eurozone’s second-largest economy. …Mr. Macron will limit the severance payouts courts can mandate for fired workers. He will free small companies with nonunion workers from the straitjacket of national collective-bargaining agreements covering working hours, overtime pay, vacation benefits and the like. Companies will have more scope to negotiate labor deals at the firm level rather than being forced to abide by national agreements.

By reducing the potential cost of employing workers, the reforms will lead to more employment.

The severance overhaul will go a long way toward inducing businesses to hire more workers. Small- and medium-size French companies report pervasive fear of expanding their workforce lest they be stuck with problem employees or face ruinous expenses to lay off workers if economic conditions change.

And France desperately needs reform.

French unemployment is still 9.5% even at its five-year low. That’s double the rate in Germany, and French unemployment has become a social crisis, especially for young people frozen out of the job market. The jobless rate for French between age 15 and 24 is 25%—for those who haven’t moved to London or the U.S.

Though the WSJ does recognize that the reforms are merely a modest step in the right direction.

France isn’t becoming a laissez-faire paradise. Even if Mr. Macron’s labor overhaul takes effect, the French workplace will still be considerably more regulated than America’s.

Let’s close with some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

…the government announced sweeping changes on Thursday with the potential to radically shift the balance of power from workers to employers. …an invigorated France is considered critical to the survival of a European Union that is finally showing signs of revival after a lost decade. …Economists in France and across Europe expressed optimism about the new law… France has stagnated for years under chronically elevated unemployment and slow growth. The country’s strong worker protections and expensive benefits have been blamed by some for being at least partly at the root of the problem.

Wow, it must be bad if even the NYT is acknowledging that government is causing the economy to stutter.

Amazingly, the story even admits that economic liberalization is the right way to get more job creation.

Germany crossed that Rubicon in the 1990s under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. …Roughly 15 years ago, “France and Germany had economies that were more or less comparable, and that ceased to be the case because the Germans wisely did micro-reforms and the French did not,” said Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. So the French ended up with “high unemployment, which fed populism, and getting out of that trap is vital

For what it’s worth, I think the reference to German reforms is key.

Under a left-leaning government, Germany liberalized labor markets. The so-called Hartz reforms were a huge success, slashing the jobless rate by more than 50 percent.

I don’t know whether Macron’s reforms are as bold as what happened in Germany, but any movement in the right direction will create more employment.

P.S. If Macron wants to save France, he better deal with the tax system as well. The problems are nicely captured by two videos, one about how young people are fleeing the nation and another showing a Hollywood celebrity reacting when told about the tax burden.

P.P.S. Whenever I give a speech in France, I ask the audience whether their government (which consumes for the half of economic output) gives them more and better services than the Swiss government (which consumes about one-third of economic output). The answer is always an overwhelmingly no.

P.P.P.S. I (sort of) agreed with Paul Krugman in 2013 that there is a plot against France.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, the French people occasionally do support good policy (and they’re willing to escape to America if things don’t get better).

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Government subsidies have an unfortunate habit of causing widespread economic damage and often result in huge burdens for taxpayers (though sometimes consumers are the ones getting pillaged).

The common thread is that government intervention interferes with the normal operation of the price system and thus leads to distortions since markets are prevented from functioning properly.

Let’s add another example, and it’s very timely because of the flooding in Texas. The federal government subsidizes flood insurance. And it does so in a way that is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment, while also giving a windfall to rich people and putting lives at risk.

That’s an impressive list, even by government standards.

In a must-read column for USA Today, my old friend Jim Bovard is very critical of the program.

Hurricane Harvey…offers the clearest lesson why Congress should not perpetuate the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)… The ravages in Houston and elsewhere would be far less if the federal government had not offered massively subsidized flood insurance in high risk, environmentally perilous locales. …NFIP embraced a “flood-rebuild-repeat” model that has spawned an almost $25 billion debt.

And when Jim says “flood-rebuild-repeat,” he’s not joking.

NFIP paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in 18 years, spending almost a million dollars to perpetually restore a house worth less than $120,000. Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), has almost 10,000 properties which have filed repetitive flood insurance damage claims. The Washington Post recently reported that a house “outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims.

And he points out that the program is reverse class warfare.

Flood insurance subsidies benefit well-off households, and payouts disproportionately go to areas with much higher than average home values. Working stiffs in Idaho and Oklahoma are taxed to underwrite mansions for the elite. …NBC News revealed in 2014 that FEMA revised its flood maps to give 95%+ discounted insurance premiums to “hundreds of oceanfront condo buildings and million-dollar homes,” including properties on its “repetitive loss list.”

My colleague Chris Edwards has a comprehensive study of the federal government’s role in disaster relief. Here’s some of what he wrote about the history of subsidized flood insurance.

In 1968 the National Flood Insurance Act offered federal insurance to properties at risk for flooding. A key justification by supporters of federal flood insurance was that it would alleviate the need to pass special aid legislation after each flood disaster. As it has turned out, however, taxpayers are now both subsidizing flood insurance and paying for special relief bills passed after floods. …NFIP was supposed to save taxpayers money by alleviating the need for Congress to pass emergency aid packages after floods. Taxpayers were also not supposed to be burdened by the program itself because insurance premiums were to cover the system’s costs. Also, the NFIP included floodplain regulations that are imposed on communities adopting the program. These regulations were supposed to mitigate the harm from floods. None of the promises panned out. …Most importantly, rather than reducing the nation’s flooding problems, the NFIP has likely made flood damage worse by encouraging more development in hazardous areas. Since 1970, the estimated number of Americans living in coastal areas designated as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) by FEMA has increased from 10 million to more than 16 million. Subsidized flood insurance has backfired by helping to draw more people and development into flood zones.

To add insult to injury, the program is poorly run.

The GAO has had the NFIP on its “high-risk” list of troubled programs for years. …In recent years, the program has accumulated more than $24 billion in debt because payouts have far exceeded premiums. Today, the program is in financial crisis and taxpayers will likely bear the burden of its large debt. The NFIP’s financial shortcomings are typical of government-run businesses. Unlike private insurance, the NFIP charges artificially low rates, does not build capital surpluses, and does not purchase reinsurance to cover catastrophic losses. …The GAO says that “by design, NFIP is not an actuarially sound program.” …A 2011 insurance industry study found that overall NFIP premiums are only half the level needed to cover the system’s full costs, and property owners in high-risk areas pay just one-third of full market rates.

But the biggest problem is that the program encourages imprudent – and even dangerous – behavior.

…artificially low rates subsidize people to live in high-risk flood areas. …NFIP is that it has encouraged development in hazardous areas. As Duke University coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey puts it, “we are subsidizing, even encouraging, very dangerous development.” Federal flood insurance has incentivized individuals and developers to build in hazardous areas…more lives and property are put in harm’s way.

And the program has plenty of repeat business.

…some property owners repeatedly rebuild in hazardous locations knowing that the government will bail them out after each flood. Repetitive loss properties account for only about 1 percent of all policies, but are responsible for about one-third of all NFIP claims. …One Mississippi home valued at $69,900 has flooded 34 times since 1978, and the owner has received $663,000 in NFIP payments over the years.

Here’s an image from Reddit’s libertarian page. Very appropriate given today’s topic.

An article for The Week looks specifically at how the program lured the people of Houston into taking excessive risk.

Why would the practical, fiscally conservative people of Texas anchor their financial security in houses that are now literally underwater? …a major culprit is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically its subsidiary, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). …Well-meaning but drenched in perverse incentives, they are complicit in the horrifying destruction now racking the Texas gulf coast. …a normal insurance company would jack up the premium price to cover the high risk of floodplain construction, thus discouraging vulnerable building plans among those who cannot afford to cover the cost of disaster, the NFIP will insure this construction at a discount. …an artificially low premium like the NFIP offers cruelly deludes homeowners into believing their flood-prone houses are far safer than they are. …NFIP has taxpayers subsidizing unrealistically low premiums that incentivize new construction on dangerous land, and its discounts are available even to wealthy homeowners with pricey properties. “About 80 percent of NFIP households are in counties that rank in the top income quintile,” notes a recent report at Politico, and “[w]ealthier households also tend to receive larger subsidies.”

How do we solve this government-created problem?

With the same answer that Chris gave.

Axing the NFIP and transitioning back to private flood insurance, with its accurate risk signaling, is much overdue.

Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey explains the perverse incentives created by the program.

The main lesson that the public and policymakers ought to learn from Harvey is: Don’t build in flood plains, and especially don’t rebuild in flood plains. Unfortunately, the flood insurance program teaches the exact opposite lesson, selling subsidized insurance whose premiums do not come close to covering the risks home and business owners in flood prone areas face. As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt. Federally subsidized flood insurance represents a moral hazard, Kevin Starbuck, Assistant City Manager and former Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo, argues, because it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards.

And, in many cases, bear those costs over and over and over again.

Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that from 1978 through 2015, 3.8 percent of flood insurance policyholders have filed repetitively for losses that account for a disproportionate 35.5 percent of flood loss claims and 30.5 percent of claim payments, Starbuck says.

The solution, once again, is obvious.

…taxpayers should not be required to subsidize people who choose to build and live on flood plains. When Congress reauthorizes the NFIP, it should initiate a phase-in of charging grandfathered properties premiums commensurate with their risks. This will likely lower the market values of affected homes and businesses and thus send a strong signal to others to avoid building and living in such risky areas.

A couple of months ago, before Harvey, the Wall Street Journal presciently opined about the downside of government-provided flood insurance.

A classic example of government dysfunction is a federal insurance program that helps pay to drain basements in millions of America’s second homes. …The 1968 program insures more than $1 trillion in property, with about five million policies in 2016 for those who live in areas prone to flooding. The program is more than $24 billion in debt. One reason for the hole is that about 20% of policies are directly subsidized. More than 75% of such policies are in counties in the top 30% for home values, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis, and many dot the affluent coasts of Florida, California and Texas. In other words, this is a wealth transfer from low and middle-income families to the folks who own real estate on Nantucket. …The best reform would be to convert the program into a private operation, though Members of both parties would pile together like sandbags to block it.

The editorial noted that Representative Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, has tried to limit the program. Since he’s a Texan, it will be interesting to see if his pro-market principles remain in the aftermath of Harvey (based on his record, I’m guessing yes).

In another Reason column, Katherine Mangu-Ward put together a list of things politicians shouldn’t do once the storm is over.

Here are a few things Trump and his pals absolutely shouldn’t do in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but probably will: …Increase funding for the federal flood insurance program. When it comes time to rebuild, everyone will studiously avoid discussing the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be using a massive federal insurance program to incentivize building in areas that are repeatedly hit by storms. There’s a reason private insurers don’t offer policies to many coastal dwellers, and it ain’t “market failure.”

Needless to say, I’m not optimistic that her advice will be heeded.

Though you would think some Democrats would be on the correct side, if for no other reason than the program is a big fat subsidy for rich people.

One of those fat cats even confessed that the program is a boondoggle that lines his pockets. Here are some excerpts from a 2004 column by John Stossel.

…the biggest welfare queens are the already wealthy. Their lobbyists fawn over politicians, giving them little bits of money — campaign contributions, plane trips, dinners, golf outings — in exchange for huge chunks of taxpayers’ money.

John then confesses that he put his snout if the taxpayer trough.

I got some of your money too. …In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: “Don’t do it; it’s too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.” But I built anyway. Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, “Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.” What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane. But the architect was right. If the ocean took my house, Uncle Sam would pay to replace it under the National Flood Insurance Program. Since private insurers weren’t dumb enough to sell cheap insurance to people who built on the edges of oceans or rivers, Congress decided the government should step in and do it. …I did have to pay insurance premiums, but they were dirt cheap — mine never exceeded a few hundred dollars a year.

Lots of rich people like this subsidy.

The insurance, of course, has encouraged more people to build on the edges of rivers and oceans. …Subsidized insurance goes to movie stars in Malibu, to rich people in Kennebunkport (where the Bush family has its vacation compound), to rich people in Hyannis (where the Kennedy family has its), and to all sorts of people like me who ought to be paying our own way.

John was even an example of the “flood-rebuild-repeat” syndrome.

…just four years after I built my house, a two-day northeaster swept away my first floor. …After the water receded, the government bought me a new first floor. Federal flood insurance payments are like buying drunken drivers new cars after they wreck theirs. I never invited you taxpayers to my home. You shouldn’t have to pay for my ocean view.

More than once!

On New Year’s Day, 1995, …The ocean had knocked down my government-approved flood-resistant pilings and eaten my house. It was an upsetting loss for me, but financially I made out just fine. You paid for the house — and its contents.

Though now another rich person will get the subsidy.

I could have rebuilt the beach house and possibly ripped you taxpayers off again, but I’d had enough. I sold the land. Now someone’s built an even bigger house on my old property. Bet we’ll soon have to pay for that one, too.

Let’s close with some systematic data on the regressivity of the program.

Two of my other colleagues, Ike Brannon and Ari Blask, authored a study on the flood insurance program. They covered lots of material, but here’s what they wrote about poor-to-rich redistribution.

Wealthier households benefit disproportionately from the reduced average cost of flood insurance brought about by government intervention. Of course, not all NFIP-insured properties are high value, but insured homes are on average more valuable than noninsured homes. …In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a report containing statistics on the average and median values of properties in the NFIP. …The median value of properties in the NFIP exceeded the median value of an American home across all four categories, as shown in Table 1. …40 percent of coastal properties receiving subsidies were worth more than $500,000 and 12 percent were worth more than $1 million. …Comparisons of NFIP premiums with potential private premiums show that NFIP policyholders with the most risk exposure tend to receive the largest subsidy, with 80 percent of explicit subsidy recipients living in counties in the top income quintile.

And here’s Table 1 from their study.

My guide to having an ethical bleeding heart is very straightforward.

If taking money from rich people to give to poor people is wrong, then taking money from poor people to line the pockets of rich people is utterly reprehensible.

I’ll write in the near future about why the federal government shouldn’t be involved in disaster relief. But I wanted to specifically highlight the wretched impact of subsidized flood insurance because it is such a perverse example of how government promotes unjust inequality.

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In my 30-plus years in Washington, I’ve lived through some very bad pieces of legislation.

But the most depressing experience was probably the TARP bailout. In part, it was depressing because bad government policy created the conditions for the crisis, so it was frustrating to see the crowd in Washington blame capitalism (in effect, a repeat of what happened in the 1930s).

Far more depressing, however, was the policy response. Thanks largely to the influence of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the Bush Administration decided to bail out the big firms on Wall Street rather than use “FDIC resolution,” which would have bailed out depositors but at least shut down big institutions that were insolvent.

In other words, TARP was pure cronyism. Wall Street firms had “invested” in Washington by giving lots of contributions to politicians and TARP was their payoff.

With this background, you’ll understand why I asserted in this interview that the dissolution of two business advisory councils is the silver lining to the black cloud of Charlottesville.

Since that was just one segment of a longer interview and I didn’t get a chance to elaborate, here are some excerpts from an article in Harvard Business Review by Robert Litan and Ian Hathaway about the connection between anemic productivity numbers (which I wrote about last week) and cronyism.

Baumol’s writing raises the possibility that U.S. productivity is low because would-be entrepreneurs are focused on the wrong kind of work. In a 1990 paper, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive,” Baumol argued that the level of entrepreneurial ambition in a country is essentially fixed over time, and that what determines a nation’s entrepreneurial output is the incentive structure that governs and directs entrepreneurial efforts between “productive” and “unproductive” endeavors. Most people think of entrepreneurship as being the “productive” kind, as Baumol referred to it, where the companies that founders launch commercialize something new or better, benefiting society and themselves in the process. A sizable body of research establishes that these “Schumpeterian” entrepreneurs, those that are “creatively destroying” the old in favor of the new, are critical for breakthrough innovations and rapid advances in productivity and standards of living. Baumol was worried, however, by a very different sort of entrepreneur: the “unproductive” ones, who exploit special relationships with the government to construct regulatory moats, secure public spending for their own benefit, or bend specific rules to their will, in the process stifling competition to create advantage for their firms. Economists call this rent-seeking behavior.

That’s the theory.

What about evidence? Well, Obamacare could be considered a case study since it basically was a giveaway to big pharmaceutical firms and big health insurance companies.

But the authors look at the issue more broadly to see if there is an economy-wide problem.

Do we…see a rise in unproductive entrepreneurship, as Baumol theorized? …James Bessen of Boston University has provided suggestive evidence that rent-seeking behavior has been increasing. In a 2016 paper Bessen demonstrates that, since 2000, “political factors” account for a substantial part of the increase in corporate profits. This occurs through expanded regulation that favors incumbent firms. Similarly, economists Jeffrey Brown and Jiekun Huang of the University of Illinois have found that companies that have executives with close ties to key policy makers have abnormally high stock returns.

This is very depressing.

I don’t want companies to do well because the CEOs cozy up to politicians. If entrepreneurs and corporations are going to be rolling in money, I want that to happen because they are providing valued goods and services to consumers.

I wrote about Bessen’s research last year. It’s very unsettling to think that companies make more money because of political connections than they do from research and development.

There are two reasons this is troubling.

First, it means slower growth because government intervention is undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital that occurs with productive entrepreneurship.

Second, cronyism is very corrosive because people equate business with capitalism, so their support for capitalism declines when they see companies getting special favors.

I wish ordinary people understood that big business and free enterprise are not the same thing.

Though I fully understand their disdain for certain big companies. Consider the way a select handful of big companies use the Export-Import Bank to obtain undeserved profits. How about the way big agri-businesses rip off consumers with the ethanol scam. Don’t forget H&R Block is trying to get the IRS to drive competitors out of the market. Big Sugar also gets a sweet deal by investing in politicians. Another example is the way major electronics firms enriched themselves by getting Washington to ban incandescent light bulbs. Needless to say, we can’t overlook Obama’s corrupt green-energy programs that fattened the wallets of well-connected donors. And General Motors became Government Motors thanks to politicians fleecing ordinary Americans.

The bottom line is that it’s time to save capitalism from the rent seekers in the business community.

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When I debate my leftist friends on the minimum wage, it’s often a strange experience. When other people are listening or watching, they’ll adopt a very extreme position and basically claim that politicians have the power to dramatically boost take-home pay by simply mandating higher levels of pay. And somehow there won’t be any noticeable negative impact on employment and labor markets, even though businesses only create jobs if they expect some net profit.

But when we talk privately, they have a more nuanced argument. They’ll confess that higher minimum wages will cause some low-skilled workers to become unemployed, but then justify that outcome using either or both of these arguments.

  • Amoral utilitarianism – A large number of people will get pay raises and only a small handful will lose their jobs, and this is okay if policy is based on some notion of greatest good for the greatest number. In other words, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
  • Keynesian stimulus – Some people will lose their jobs, but the income gains for those who keep their jobs will boost “aggregate demand” and thus provide a boost for the economy. Sort of like they also claim giving people unemployment benefits will somehow generate more economic activity.

I’ve always rejected the first argument because I believe in the individual right of contract. The government should not prevent an employer and employee from engaging in voluntary exchange.

And I’ve always rejected the second argument because there can’t be any net “stimulus” since any additional income for workers is automatically offset by less income for employers.

So who is right?

Well, the real world just kicked advocates of higher minimum wages in the teeth. Or maybe even someplace even more painful. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at the impact of the $11 and $13 minimum wages in the city of Seattle and finds very bad results.

Let’s start by simply citing what the local government did.

This paper, using rich administrative data on employment, earnings and hours in Washington State, re-examines this prediction in the context of Seattle’s minimum wage increases from $9.47 to $11/hour in April 2015 and to $13/hour in January 2016.

And here’s a table from the study, showing details on the minimum-wage mandate.

And what’s been happening as a result of this intervention in the labor market?

Unsurprisingly, the jump to $13 has been much more damaging that the jump to $11.

…conclusion: employment losses associated with Seattle’s mandated wage increases are in fact large enough to have resulted in net reductions in payroll expenses – and total employee earnings – in the low-wage job market. …We show that the impact of Seattle’s minimum wage increase on wage levels is much smaller than the statutory increase, reflecting the fact that most affected low-wage workers were already earning more than the statutory minimum at baseline. Our estimates imply, then, that conventionally calculated elasticities are substantially underestimated. Our preferred estimates suggest that the rise from $9.47 to $11 produced disemployment effects that approximately offset wage effects, with elasticity estimates around -1. The subsequent increase to as much as $13 yielded more substantial disemployment effects, with net elasticity estimates closer to -3.

Here’s a chart from the study looking at the impact on hours worked.

If you want a healthy labor market, it’s not good to be below the line.

And here’s some of the explanatory text.

…Because the estimated magnitude of employment losses exceeds the magnitude of wage gains in the second phase-in period, we would expect a decline in total payroll for jobs paying under $13 per hour relative to baseline. Indeed, we observe this decline in first-differences when comparing “peak” calendar quarters, as shown in Table 3 above. …point estimates suggest payroll declines of 4.0% to 7.6% (averaging 5.8%) during the second phase-in period. This implies that the minimum wage increase to $13 from the baseline level of $9.47 reduced income paid to low-wage employees of single-location Seattle businesses by roughly $120 million on an annual basis. …Our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs.

But the biggest takeaway from the report is that hours dropped so much that the average low-wage worker wound up with less income

The reduction in hours would cost the average employee $179 per month, while the wage increase would recoup only $54 of this loss, leaving a net loss of $125 per month (6.6%), which is sizable for a low-wage worker.

Here’s the relevant chart.

Once again, it’s not good to be below the line.

This data is remarkable because it shows that higher minimum wages are a bad idea, even according to the metrics of our friends on the left.

  • The amoral utlitarianism argument doesn’t apply because it’s no longer possible to claim that income gains for those keeping jobs will more than offset income losses for those who become unemployed.
  • The Keynesian aggregate-demand argument doesn’t apply because it’s no longer possible to assert macroeconomic benefits based on the assumption of a net increase in “spending power” in the economy.

Let’s close with a couple of observations from others who have looked at the new study.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute (and formerly Chief Economist at the Department of Labor) highlights the most relevant findings.

Raising the pay floor has led to net losses in payroll expenses and worker incomes for low-wage workers. …When hourly wages rose from $11 to $13 in 2016, hours of work and earnings for low-wage workers were reduced by 9 percent for the first three calendar quarters, resulting in 3.5 million fewer hours worked for each calendar quarter.  The number of jobs declined by 7 percent, with the result that 5,000 jobs were lost. …The evidence shows that in Seattle, low-wage workers got less money in their pockets, rather than more.

Some proponents of intervention and mandates may want to dismiss Diana’s analysis since of her reputation as a market-friendly scholar.

But even Ben Casselman and Kathryn Casteel of FiveThirtyEight basically reach the same conclusion.

As cities across the country pushed their minimum wages to untested heights in recent years, some economists began to ask: How high is too high? Seattle, with its highest-in-the-country minimum wage, may have hit that limit. …New research released Monday by a team of economists at the University of Washington suggests the wage hike may have come at a significant cost: The increase led to steep declines in employment for low-wage workers, and a drop in hours for those who kept their jobs. Crucially, the negative impact of lost jobs and hours more than offset the benefits of higher wages — on average, low-wage workers earned $125 per month less because of the higher wage.

I’m amused to find more evidence that left-leaning economists admit that higher minimum wages cause damage, albeit never on the record.

Even some liberal economists have expressed concern, often privately, that employers might respond differently to a minimum wage of $12 or $15, which would affect a far broader swath of workers.

I’m wondering how they can look at themselves in the mirror. It seems very immoral (in other words, beyond amoral) to publicly defend a policy that you privately admit is bad.

I understand that this type of dishonesty happens all the time in the political world (for example, some Republicans are now supporting Trump’s plans for infrastructure boondoggles and parental leave when they would have been strongly opposed if the same policies had been proposed by Obama).

But what’s the point of being a tenured academic if you can’t at least be honest?

Though maybe there’s some sort of cognitive dissonance at play, where they feel the rules of honesty don’t apply in the political world. For instance, both Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have acknowledged in their academic work that unemployment benefits lead to more unemployment. But they pretend that’s not the case when commenting on the policy debate.

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by recycling this video on minimum wages from the Center for Prosperity.

P.S. If you want some minimum-wage themed humor, you can enjoy cartoons here, here, here, here, and here.

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In a recent interview on the new Trump budget, I hit on some of my usual topics such as growth, real-world fiscal numbers, tax reform, fake budget cuts, entitlement reform, and my Golden Rule.

But I want to call attention to the part of the discussion that started a bit before the one-minute mark. This is the point where I expressed concern about Donald Trump’s proposed parental leave entitlement.

I’ve written about Trump’s childcare scheme, but that’s a different intervention than what we’re talking about today.

Government-mandated paid parental leave is just as misguided childcare subsidies. It may even be worse. Let’s look at some details.

The Wall Street Journal is unimpressed by Trump’s plan to expand the welfare state.

Mr. Trump’s budget would require states to provide six weeks of paid family leave for new mothers and fathers, as well as adoptive parents. States would have “broad latitude to design and finance” the benefit, which would be delivered through unemployment insurance. States would be forced to work out how much to pay parents, whether to ban a beneficiary from working during the leave, and dozens of other details. The budget says the program will cost the feds $25 billion. The cost is offset in theory by reducing waste and abuse in unemployment insurance. The left is naturally panning the plan as stingy. …Once an entitlement is codified it expands. Proponents note that underwriting the benefit requires only a tiny increase in taxes, or some other levy on businesses. But wait until Democrats double or triple the duration of the leave, which they will do as soon as they are in power. The idea that Republicans can propose a cost-effective entitlement is delusional… The left chants that every industrialized country in the world offers some form of paid family leave—even Oman!—but one reason European countries have inflexible labor markets and higher unemployment is because they make hiring more expensive.

The final sentence is the key.

Why on earth should the United States mimic the policies of nations that have less growth, more unemployment, and lower per-capita economic output?

And James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute agrees that if Republicans start the program, Democrats will expand it. But his citation of some academic research is the best part of his article.

…how could the left not be secretly thrilled? Even if Trump’s bare-bones plan doesn’t become law, it sets a sort of precedent for Republicans supporting paid leave. And should the plan pass Congress and get signed by Trump, it establishes a program that future Democratic presidents and lawmakers can expand. …A 2017 study, by UC Santa Barbara economist Jenna Stearns, of maternity leave policy in Great Britain found that…there’s a tradeoff: Expanding job protected leave benefits led to “fewer women holding management positions and other jobs with the potential for promotion.” Likewise, a 2013 study by Cornell University’s Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found family-friendly policies…also “leave women less likely to be considered for high-level positions. One’s evaluation of such policies must take both of these effects into account.” …In a classic 1983 paper on mandated benefits like paid leave, former Obama economist Lawrence Summers explained businesses would offset higher benefits with lower pay or hiring workers with lower potential benefit costs. You know, tradeoffs.

Amen.

And this is why even a columnist for the New York Times has pointed out that self-styled feminist policies actually are bad for women.

The best policies for women are the same as the best policies for men (not to mention all the other genders that now exist). Simply stated, allow free markets and small government.

P.S. Government-mandated paid parental leave is a bad idea even when the idea is pushed by people at right-wing think tanks.

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In the Dirty Harry movies, one of Clint Eastwood’s famous lines is “Go ahead, make my day.”

I’m tempted to say the same thing when I read about politicians proposing economically destructive policies. Indeed, I sometimes even relish the opportunity. I endorsed Francois Hollande back in 2012, for instance, because I was confident he would make the awful French tax system even worse, thus giving me lots of additional evidence against class-warfare policies.

Mission accomplished!

Now we have another example. Politicians in California, unfazed by the disaster of Obamacare (or the nightmare of the British system), want to create a “single-payer” healthcare scheme for the Golden State.

Here’s a description of the proposal from Sacramento Bee.

It would cost $400 billion to remake California’s health insurance marketplace and create a publicly funded universal health care system, according to a state financial analysis released Monday. California would have to find an additional $200 billion per year, including in new tax revenues, to create a so-called “single-payer” system, the analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee found. …Steep projected costs have derailed efforts over the past two decades to establish such a health care system in California. The cost is higher than the $180 billion in proposed general fund and special fund spending for the budget year beginning July 1. …Lara and Atkins say they are driven by the belief that health care is a human right and should be guaranteed to everyone, similar to public services like safe roads and clean drinking water. …Business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, have deemed the bill a “job-killer.” …“It will cost employers and taxpayers billions of dollars and result in significant loss of jobs in the state,” the Chamber of Commerce said in its opposition letter.

Yes, you read correctly. In one fell swoop, California politicians would more than double the fiscal burden of government. Without doubt, the state would take over the bottom spot in fiscal rankings (it’s already close anyhow).

Part of me hopes they do it. The economic consequences would be so catastrophic that it would serve as a powerful warning about the downside of statism.

The Wall Street Journal opines that this is a crazy idea, and wonders if California Democrats are crazy enough to enact it.

…it’s instructive, if not surprising, that Golden State Democrats are responding to the failure of ObamaCare by embracing single-payer health care. This proves the truism that the liberal solution to every government failure is always more government. …California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the frontrunner to succeed Jerry Brown as Governor next year, is running on single-payer, which shows the idea is going mainstream. At the state Democratic convention last weekend, protesters shouted down speakers who dared to ask about paying for it. The state Senate Appropriations Committee passed a single-payer bill this week, and it has a fair chance of getting to Mr. Brown’s desk.

I semi-joked that California was committing slow-motion suicide when the top income tax rate was increased to 13.3 percent.

As the editorial implies, the state’s death will come much faster if this legislation is adopted.

A $200 billion tax hike would be equivalent to a 15% payroll tax, which would come on top of the current 15.3% federal payroll tax. …The report dryly concludes that “the state-wide economic impacts of such an overall tax increase on employment is beyond the scope of this analysis.”

California’s forecasting bureaucrats may not be willing to predict the economic fallout from this scheme, but it’s not beyond the scope of my analysis.

If this legislation is adopted, the migration of taxpayers out of California will accelerate, the costs will be higher than advertised, and I’ll have a powerful new example of why big government is a disaster.

Ed Morrissey, in a column for The Week, explains why this proposal is bad news. He starts by observing that other states have toyed with the idea and wisely backed away.

Vermont had to abandon its attempts to impose a single-payer health-care system when its greatest champion, Gov. Peter Shumlin, discovered that it would cost far more than he had anticipated. Similarly, last year Colorado voters resoundingly rejected ColoradoCare when a study discovered that even tripling taxes wouldn’t be enough to keep up with the costs.

So what happens if single payer is enacted by a state and costs are higher than projected and revenues are lower than projected (both very safe assumptions)?

The solutions for…fiscal meltdown in a single-payer system…all unpleasant. One option would be to cut benefits of the universal coverage, and hiking co-pays to provide disincentives for using health care. …The state could raise taxes for the health-care system as deficits increased, which would amount to ironic premium hikes from a system designed to be a response to premium hikes from insurers. Another option: Reduce the payments provided to doctors, clinics, and hospitals for their services, which would almost certainly drive providers to either reduce their access or leave the state for greener pastures.

By the way, I previously wrote about how Vermont’s leftists wisely backed off single-payer and explained that this was a great example of why federalism is a good idea.

Simply stated, even left-wing politicians understand that it’s easy to move across state lines to escape extortionary fiscal policy. And that puts pressure on them to be less greedy.

This is one of the main reasons I want to eliminate DC-based redistribution and let states be in charge of social welfare policy.

Using the same reasoning, I’ve also explained why it would be good news if California seceded. People tend to be a bit more rational when it’s more obvious that they’re voting to spend their own money.

Though maybe there’s no hope for California. Let’s close by noting that some Democrat politicians in the state want to compensate for the possible repeal of the federal death tax by imposing a huge state death tax.

In a column for Forbes, Robert Wood has some of the sordid details.

California…sure does like tax increases. …The latest is a move by the Golden State to tax estates, even if the feds do not. …A bill was introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), asking voters to keep the estate tax after all. …if the feds repeal it, and California enacts its own estate tax replacement, will all the billionaires remain, or will high California taxes spark an exodus? It isn’t a silly question.

Of course billionaires will leave the state. And so will many millionaires. Yes, the weather and scenery are nice, but at some point rich people will do a cost-benefit analysis and decide it’s time to move.

And lots of middle-class jobs will move as well. That’s the inevitable consequence of class-warfare policy. Politicians say they’re targeting the rich, but the rest of us are the ones who suffer.

Will California politicians actually move forward with this crazy idea? Again, just as part of me hopes the state adopts single-payer, part of me hopes California imposes a confiscatory death tax. It’s useful to have examples of what not to do.

The Golden State already is in trouble. If it becomes an American version of Greece or Venezuela, bad news will become horrible news and I’ll have lots of material for future columns.

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