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Posts Tagged ‘Government intervention’

Regulatory policy has been one of the bright spots of the Trump Administration (along with tax policy).

But it’s not a perfect record.

In a column for Townhall, Steve Sherman describes how the Labor Department launched a regulatory attack against Oracle in the final days of the Obama Administration.

President Obama was not a good president, but he was really good at issuing midnight regulations… Obama’s army of left-wing lawyers were also busy writing up last minute lawsuits… President Obama’s administration went after the tech companies Palantir, Google, then Oracle by alleging discrimination using statistics gathered as part of routine audits of these government contractors. In all of these suits, no actual evidence of discrimination was presented, merely statistics gathered that claimed to prove discrimination. This type of evidence would be tossed out in a real court, but with these suits, they were handled administratively and internally at the Department of Labor. …Oracle was so outraged by continued harassment that they fought back and sued the federal government for violating the Constitution’s separation of powers arguing that the lawsuits statutory authority.

So why am I criticizing the Trump Administration for regulatory harassment that was launched under Obama?

For the simple reason that some of Trump’s appointees have allowed the assault to continue, as former Congressman Bob Barr explained for the Daily Caller.

The Trump administration has performed admirably in reducing the regulatory red tape that has strangled American businesses… But for reasons not entirely clear, the Department of Labor has lagged behind other agencies in this regard. One clear example is the way the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has continued unnecessary and counterproductive Obama-era litigation against tech companies… In a 2017 study, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce…set forth in extensive detail that the OFCCP in recent years had become enamored of faulty, statistics-based challenges to companies engaged in federal contracts… A number of lawsuits reflecting this abusive approach to regulatory enforcement were filed against large tech companies in the waning months of the Obama administration. …the Department of Labor sued…, just two days before President Trump was sworn in, Oracle. …the Labor Department instead has become…a regulatory bully searching for ways to punish companies. …Hopefully, …Donald Trump and Eugene Scalia…will step in and make sure that the small but powerful agency…gets on board the administration’s drive to actually reduce federal regulatory burdens

The Washington Post has some details on the dispute between Oracle and the federal government.

…the Labor Department…alleges Oracle, the database management company founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, paid some women as much as 20 percent less than their male peers, or $37,000, in 2016. The lawsuit was filed by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which audits companies with government contracts worth more than $100 million a year. …The hearing in San Francisco has broad significance for the tech industry because the allegations against Oracle are similar to the department’s claims that other tech giants, including Google and Palantir, exercised systemic bias against minority and female employees in hiring, pay or promotion. …Oracle’s lawyer argued that the Labor Department’s expert witness compared employees based on broad job titles and failed to take into account that a software developer who worked on Oracle’s product PeopleSoft is valued differently in the market than developers who work on the artificial intelligence of machine learning. …The department claims Oracle’s college recruiting program hired 500 graduates between 2013 and 2016 for product development roles at its Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters, 90 percent of whom were Asian. During the same period, Oracle only hired six black people through the recruitment program. …The agency argues that pay disparities stem from Oracle’s practice of…relying on prior salaries to set their pay at Oracle.

The key thing to understand is that the federal government is unable to find any victims of actual discrimination.

As the Wall street Journal opines, bureaucrats are relying on statistical differences.

Protecting the constitutional separation of powers is back in political fashion as more businesses challenge abuses of administrative agencies. One case worth watching is Oracle’s lawsuit arguing that the Labor Department has usurped the federal judiciary and other executive agencies. Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) filed a discrimination complaint against Oracle in the waning days of the Obama Administration. During a routine audit, the OFCCP in 2014 conducted a statistical analysis of Oracle’s workforce. And what do you know? The agency says it discovered disparities based on race and sex that it claimed were prima facie evidence of discrimination. …In sum, the agency said Oracle discriminated against every class of worker in one way or another. It demanded that Oracle lose current and forgo future federal contracts plus pay up to $400 million in restitution to its alleged victims. Yet its case all but collapsed at an administrative trial this month. The Labor office presented no evidence of intentional discrimination or even witnesses who claimed as much. …Oracle is suing the OFCCP for violating the Administrative Procedure Act and separation of powers. …the agency investigates, prosecutes, tries and punishes businesses even though it has no legislative authority to do so.

I’ll close by citing Thomas Sowell’s column for Jewish World Review on how “disparate impact” is basically a scam.

“Disparate impact” statistics have for decades been used, in many different contexts, to claim that discrimination was the reason why different groups are not equally represented as employees or in desirable positions… The implicit assumption is that such statistics about particular outcomes would normally reflect the percentage of people in the population. But, no matter how plausible this might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life… Blacks are far more statistically “over-represented” among basketball stars in the NBA… Hispanics are similarly far more “over-represented” among baseball stars than in the general population. Asian Americans are likewise far more “over-represented” among students at leading engineering schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech than in the population as a whole. None of this is peculiar to the United States. You can find innumerable examples of such group disparities in countries around the world and throughout recorded history.

Sowell isn’t just theorizing.

He wrote a thoroughly researched book on exactly this issue.

The bottom line is that groups – on average – sometimes have different interests and aptitudes.

Walter Williams observed about ten years ago that, “Not every choice based on race represents racism and if you think so, you risk misidentifying and confusing human behavior.”

And there’s no evidence that Oracle even made decisions based on race to begin with.

So the bureaucrats at the Department of Labor are using bad methodology to harass and extort a company.

Left-leaning administrations have a track record of pushing bad policies on their way out of office, so I’m not surprised the Obama Administration launched the attack on Oracle. But I am surprised that the Trump Administration has allowed the legal assault against the company to continue.

P.S. While I normally don’t think the federal government should have any power to interfere with regards to market outcomes for hiring, pay, promotion, and association, it’s legitimate for Uncle Sam to put conditions on companies that bid on federal contracts. I just wish they would fight actual examples of bias, not mere statistical differences.

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Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there are some consistent patterns with government.

Politicians, for instance, will enact a policy that distorts the economy and causes damage (with regards to trade, bailouts, guns, health, whatever). And they’ll then point to the damage and assert that even more intervention is needed.

I call this Mitchell’s Law, though I certainly don’t claim to be the first to observe this distressing tendency.

Today, we’re going to examine a classic example of this phenomenon by looking at how politicians are distorting the housing market with supply restrictions that produce higher costs, and then compounding their mistake with subsidies and price controls.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute offers some economic analysis.

Recently there has been a flurry of legislative proposals to add yet more housing subsidies to the housing sector, already one of the most heavily subsidized. …These are the most recent in a long history of ill-conceived policies that increase housing demand but do nothing about supply. The result: higher home prices and rents, particularly for low-income and minority households, the very ones these initiatives profess to help. …layers of subsidies combined with federal, state, and local regulations act to drive up costs while simultaneously constraining supply. …For example, Los Angeles has a median home price that is 8.8 times median income, up from 4.2 times in 1979. And median rent in LA is 49% of the median income, up from 32% in 1979. These results are largely driven by (i) easy access to credit which drive demand and prices ever higher, (ii) local land use restrictions and regulations that constrain new supply and drive building costs higher, and (iii) housing subsidies that make it even more difficult for market rate housing to compete. …Market-based solutions are the only way to bring home prices and rents back in line with median incomes and improve accessibility.

While there are plenty of bad housing policies in Washington (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Department of Housing and Urban Development, mortgage-interest deduction, etc), much of the problem is caused by state and local governments.

Kevin Williamson of National Review cites a regulation in Dallas to show that government intervention causes problems.

…smaller secondary residences built on the lots of other houses..have long been a go-to source of cheap housing in college towns and other places with substantial itinerant populations of temporarily penniless young people. …Dallas…prohibited the building and rental of these residences in the 1970s on the theory that this would help to improve the living conditions on the south side of town… To the great surprise of nobody except politicians and their creatures, prohibiting the construction and rental of affordable housing did not do much to help poor people in Dallas connect with affordable housing. …The politicians have decided that there is an affordable-housing crisis in America. They should know: They created it. …Why? Because people who own homes have more political power than people who might want to buy one at some point in the future.

The Wall Street Journal opined today about the inane anti-housing policies in the Beaver State.

Politicians bemoan the lack of affordable housing, but their policies often create the problem. Look no further than Oregon… Oregon’s population grew by nearly 400,000 between 2010 and 2019. But the state added a mere 37 housing permits for every 100 new residents… Oregon’s land-use rules have been dysfunctional for decades. …strict limits on urban expansion…urban growth boundaries… Rising housing prices are the inevitable result of this government-imposed scarcity. …Portland has enforced an “inclusionary zoning” requirement on new residential buildings with 20 or more units. The city now compels many landlords to rent up to a fifth of new units at below-market rates. …Permits for 20-plus-unit residential buildings plummeted 64% in 25 months after inclusionary zoning took effect, while applications to build smaller multi-family structures spiked… The rest of Oregon is following Portland’s bad example with more price controls. Last year it became the first state to impose universal rent control.

To show the impact of regulatory restrictions, the invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has a must-read comparison of Los Angeles with two Texas cities.

Adjusting for population, there are about 600 homeless people per 1 million population in Houston and Dallas, but nearly five times as many in LA at 2,707. The comparisons…highlight the simple economic logic that if you restrict the supply of new housing units (especially multifamily homes, duplexes, and large apartment buildings) in states like California with onerous building, land use, and zoning regulations, those restrictions are guaranteed to result in higher housing costs, higher apartment rents, and ultimately a greater homeless population. …The increasing rents, escalating home prices, and growing homelessness problem in California cities like LA are a direct result of local and state restrictions that artificially constrict the supply of new housing units. The solution is therefore simple, but politically unpopular and probably not politically feasible: California should increase its supply of housing by reducing its onerous restrictions on building new housing units.

Here’s his accompanying table. Notice how Dallas and Houston are much more affordable than Los Angeles.

And there’s less homelessness as well, in large part because housing is cheaper.

Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review about the anti-housing policies of New York’s governor.

Some of the inflated expenses associated with life in New York can be avoided… But you have to live somewhere. As in the Bay Area, Washington, and other Democrat-dominated cities, housing is the real killer in New York City and environs. …Like most U.S. cities advertising themselves as “progressive,” New York has a lot of political leaders who talk about affordable housing and a lot of political policies that keep affordable housing — and many other kinds of housing — from being built. This is not accidental: People who already own property typically have a lot more political influence than people in the first-time home-buyer market. …At the behest of moneyed environmental interests, Cuomo has stood athwart the building of practically any new conventional energy infrastructure, including pipelines for clean-burning natural gas. …Much of New York’s gas comes from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but there isn’t enough carrying capacity to get it to New York. And New York has plenty of gas of its own, too, but New Yorkers can’t use it — thanks again to Cuomo, who has banned modern gas-extraction techniques in the state, again at the behest of the anti-energy ideologues who enjoy an outsized financial footprint in the Democratic party.

In addition to zoning laws and other land-use restrictions, the government also makes construction more expensive, as explained in a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The average cost for home builders to comply with regulations for new home construction has increased by nearly 30% over the last five years, according to new research from the National Association of Home Builders. Regulatory costs such as local impact fees, storm-water discharge permits and new construction codes, which have risen at roughly the same rate as the average price for new homes, make it increasingly difficult for builders to pursue affordable single-family construction projects… The cost of regulation imposed during the land development and construction process on average represented $84,671 of the cost of the average new single-family home in March. That is up from $65,224 in 2011, the last time the home-building industry group conducted a similar survey on regulatory costs. …A study this week from housing research firm Zelman & Associates found that local infrastructure “impact fees” have increased by 45% on average since 2005 in 37 key home building markets across the country, to about $21,000 per home.

Here’s a sobering graphic from the article.

All this regulation is bad for macroeconomic performance.

A recent study by two economists finds that land-use restrictions result in substantial misallocation of labor, causing a non-trivial reduction in economic output and family income.

The increase in spatial wage dispersion is driven at least in part by cities like New York, San Francisco, and San Jose, which…adopted land use restrictions that significantly constrained the amount of new housing that can be built. As described by Glaeser (2014), since the 1960s coastal US cities have gone through a property rights revolution that has significantly reduced the elasticity of housing supply… Instead of increasing local employment, productivity growth in housing-constrained cities primarily pushes up housing prices and nominal wages. The resulting misallocation of workers lowers aggregate output and welfare of workers in all US cities. This paper measures the aggregate productivity costs of local housing constraints… We use data from 220 metropolitan areas in the United States from 1964 to 2009… we calculate that increasing housing supply in New York, San Jose, and San Francisco by relaxing land use restrictions to the level of the median US city would increase the growth rate of aggregate output by 36.3 percent. In this scenario, US GDP in 2009 would be 3.7 percent higher, which translates into an additional $3,685 in average annual earnings. …We conclude that local land use regulations that restrict housing supply in dynamic labor markets have important externalities on the rest of the country. Incumbent homeowners in high productivity cities have a private incentive to restrict housing supply. …this lowers income and welfare of all US workers.

So how can this problem be fixed?

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Cathy Reisenwitz explains that state and local politicians need to remove barriers.

America is in the middle of a housing crisis. The cause is simple: we’re not building housing fast enough to keep up with jobs. While the number of U.S. households grew by 11.2 million between 2005 and 2015, we only added about 9.9 million new housing units. …this isn’t a problem Washington can fix. That’s because this problem, and its solution, lies in cities and towns across the country. …Cities across the country make it impossible to build enough housing to meet demand by blocking, restricting, and delaying housing developments. …Even in areas where you can technically build multi-unit homes, other land-use restrictions make it all-but-impossible. These exclusionary land use practices include height restrictions, setback requirements, parking minimums, community review, aesthetic considerations, and minimum lot sizes. …A recent statistical analysis…showed that in 44 out of 50 states, the more land-use regulations on the books, the more homes cost. Reducing land use regulations is the right move for getting Americans out of poverty and into work.

Let’s close with some good news.

Salim Furth has a new article for City Journal, and he argues that all the evidence is actually changing minds and leading to some deregulation.

Last year, Democratic- and Republican-led states and municipalities passed legislation addressing housing affordability, a hopeful sign that housing deregulation is beginning to attract bipartisan support… Encouragingly, Arkansas and Texas have squelched such requirements through bipartisan state legislation. Arkansas has restored autonomy to homeowners on virtually all building-design choices, from color to roof pitch, while Texas has purged local restrictions on building materials. …North Carolina and Texas…passed legislation requires cities and counties to issue project approvals within a few weeks. In Texas, a developer can now move forward with construction if a municipality takes more than 30 days to review a completed application. North Carolina now imposes a 15-business-day limit for building permits involving one- and two-family dwellings. …State legislators will likely continue to address housing-supply restrictions in the years ahead. …The battle over rent control and inclusionary zoning could intensify as well, as it already has in California and Oregon. …policymakers in blue and red states alike should consider how current regulations restrict housing supply and drive up prices.

The bottom line is that housing across the nation will be much more affordable if state and local governments let markets operate.

Here’s a map showing estimates of land-use restrictions in major metropolitan areas. The goal for the nation should be more green and less red.

Incidentally, Fairfax, VA, is part of the D.C. area, so that red spot indicates that my home’s value is being subsidized (as are the homes of Washington’s parasite class).

But since I believe in a just society, I hope my part of the map becomes green, even if it means my home becomes less valuable (folks on the left are willing to hurt the poor so long as they also hurt the rich, whereas I’m willing to sacrifice myself so long as unjust favoritism for others also vanishes).

 

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When I want to explain that excessive government shortens lifespans, I’m going to have a new and powerful argument thanks to the Trump  Administration’s misguided efforts to restrict vaping.

The issue is very simple.

Some people want nicotine. If vaping products are not available, they will opt for cigarettes, which are vastly more dangerous.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on the issue, echoing the point I made about how the Trump policy will open the door for higher-risk black-market products.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced a ban on flavored e-cigarettes…don’t think this will…make teens stop vaping. …it’s not clear how much good the FDA ban will do. It is already illegal for teens under age 18 to buy e-cigarettes, but that hasn’t stopped them. …One risk of the FDA’s flavor ban is more teens might buy e-cigarettes on the black market that are less safe. Illegal products are the main culprits in the recent cases of vaping-related lung illness.

Here’s some of what Jacob Sullum wrote on this topic.

In a wake-up call for people who claim to be concerned about smoking-related disease and death, five prominent public health scholars warn that the “tremendous” harm-reducing potential of e-cigarettes could be nullified by panicky political responses to underage consumption and vaping-related lung injuries. …”There is solid scientific evidence that vaping nicotine is much safer than smoking,” the authors note, while “evidence from multiple strong observational studies and randomized trials suggests that vaping nicotine is more appealing and more effective than [nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches and gum,] at displacing smoking.” …that displacement is not limited to adults. Fairchild and her co-authors point out that “population youth smoking rates dropped much faster in the years vaping surged the most (2013–2019) than in prior years, reaching record lows during that same period, which suggests that nicotine vape use may be replacing smoking more than promoting it.” E-cigarette prohibitionists may think they are acting “out of an abundance of caution,” but the policies they advocate look downright reckless when you consider the ongoing death toll from cigarette smoking.

In the interview, I mentioned that the United Kingdom has a far more sensible approach.

Matt Ridley wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about his country’s policy.

Nicotine itself is far less harmful to smokers than the other chemicals created during combustion. Heavyweight studies confirm that there are much lower levels of dangerous chemicals in e-cigarette vapor than in smoke and fewer biomarkers of harm in the bodies of vapers than smokers. …In both the U.K. and the U.S. the rapid growth in vaping has coincided with rapid reductions in smoking rates, especially among young people. Yet there is a stark contrast between the two countries in how vaping has been treated by public health authorities… Many British smokers have switched entirely to vaping, encouraged by the government, whose official position is that vaping is 95% safer than smoking, an assertion now backed by early studies of disease incidence. The organizations that have signed a statement saying that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking include Public Health England, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society for Public Health. …The argument for harm reduction is not one that comes easily to some public-health advocates, because it means promoting behaviors that may still be harmful, just less so than the alternative. Vaping doesn’t have to prove entirely safe for it to save lives, given that it mostly replaces smoking.

Brad Polumbo adds some details in a column for the Washington Examiner.

America’s war on vaping is in full swing. But when you consider the positive approach taken in the United Kingdom, the foolishness of this new conflict is laid bare. …Vaping is much healthier than smoking traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes do contain nicotine, but nicotine was never really the problem with traditional cigarettes in the first place — it’s essentially similar to caffeine. Rather, the enormous public health problem posed by cigarettes is due to the cancer-causing chemicals they contain, such as tar, for example. Vaping products do not contain similar chemicals, making them much, much less likely to cause cancer. …If the government is to do anything to address vaping, it should be to promote it as an alternative to smoking. This is what the U.K.’s government has done, to massive success. …A sober analysis reveals that we are doing exactly the opposite of everything we should be doing. We are putting up more barriers and restrictions on vaping, and instead, we should embrace the U.K.’s approach.

Let’s shift from international policy to state policy.

In another column for Reason, Jacob Sullum explains that awful politicians in Massachusetts want to combine two bad policies – vape bans and asset forfeiture.

Massachusetts has “the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country.” It looks like state legislators are about to outdo themselves. The Massachusetts House of Representatives…approved a bill that would ban flavored e-cigarettes, impose a 75 percent excise tax on “electronic nicotine delivery systems” (including e-liquids as well as devices), and authorize forfeiture of cars driven by vapers caught with “untaxed” products. …The bill also says a police officer who “discovers an untaxed electronic nicotine delivery system in the possession of a person who is not a licensed or commissioner-authorized electronic nicotine delivery system distributor” may seize both the product and the “receptacle” in which it is found, “including, but not limited to, a motor vehicle, boat or airplane in which the electronic nicotine delivery systems are contained or transported.” …Massachusetts is poised to deprive vapers of the harm-reducing products they used to quit smoking, then steal their cars if they dare to defy that unjust and irrational edict.

Needless to say, two negatives don’t make a positive.

Let’s close with this chart, which (in a logical world) should put an end to the debate.

Yes, it would be nice if nobody used any sort of dangerous product. But in the real world, where we face tradeoffs, I’d much prefer that people get nicotine from vaping.

P.S. And people should have the freedom to make choices that involve risk. Libertarianism is about treating people like adults.

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As I discuss in this recent interview, a higher minimum wage is a terrible idea if we care about facts and evidence (and also want to help poor people).

In the interview, I mentioned that minimum wage mandates aren’t good news for workers who lose their jobs.

One of them, Simone Barron, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about her unfortunate experience after the minimum wage was increased in Seattle.

This city’s minimum wage is rising to $16.39 an hour on Jan. 1. Instead of receiving a bigger paycheck, I’m left without any pay at all… That’s because the restaurant where I’ve worked for six years is closing as a consequence of the city’s harmful minimum-wage experiment. …When rent is too high, labor costs too much, and customers don’t want to pay $40 for a roast-chicken entree, the only way for many operators to ease the pain is to close. So now, after six years working at Mr. Douglas’s restaurant Tanakasan, I need to find a new work home. My first thought was to go back to Sitka & Spruce, a restaurant where I had once worked. …As it turns out, I can’t return to Sitka & Spruce. Its James Beard Award-winning owner, Matt Dillon, is closing Sitka after 14 years, defeated by the one-two punch of rising rents and labor costs. …I often hear people in Seattle lament that it’s becoming “more corporate.” The truth is that the city has made it nearly impossible for many small businesses to survive. …I’ve started applying for other open positions around town. I landed an interview at a restaurant called Super Bueno, owned by another established chef, Ethan Stowell. Before I could even confirm the interview, Mr. Stowell announced that he will close down Super Bueno at the end of the year.

Just in case you’re tempted to dismiss Ms. Barron’s story as a mere anecdote, let’s now look at some broader evidence.

There’s a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that measures the impact of minimum wage mandates. The results are not encouraging.

Using intertemporal variation in whether a state’s minimum wage is bound by the federal rate and credit-score data for approximately 15.2 million establishments for the period 1989–2013, we find that increases in the federal minimum wage worsen the financial health of small businesses in the affected states. Small, young, labor-intensive, minimum-wage sensitive establishments located in the states bound to the federal minimum wage and those located in competitive and low-income areas experience higher financial stress. Increases in the minimum wage also lead to lower bank credit, higher loan defaults, lower employment, a lower entry and a higher exit rate for small businesses. …Our results document some potential costs of a one-size-fits-all nationwide minimum wage, and we highlight how it can have an adverse effect on the financial health of some small businesses.

But not everybody cares about evidence.

The New York Times just opined in favor of the Bernie Sanders approach on the topic.

Over the past five years, a wave of increases in state and local minimum-wage standards has pushed the average effective minimum wage in the United States to the highest level on record. The average worker must be paid at least $11.80 an hour… Millions of workers are being left behind because 21 states still use the federal standard, $7.25 an hour… House Democrats passed legislation in July that would gradually increase the federal standard, to $15 an hour in 2025…the legislation also would require automatic adjustments in the minimum wage to keep pace with wage growth in the broader economy. …For most companies, the bill is relatively small, and it can be defrayed by giving less money to shareholders, or by raising prices. …The American economy is generating plenty of jobs; the problem is in the paychecks. The solution is a $15 federal minimum wage.

Interestingly, the editorial actually acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all $15 mandate would backfire.

It is possible that a national $15 standard would produce the kinds of damage critics have long predicted; the Congressional Budget Office puts the potential increase in unemployment…3.7 million people… Workers may be most vulnerable in areas where prevailing wages are relatively low. In California, for example, the minimum wage for large employers (more than 25 workers) will rise to $13 an hour on Wednesday. That is unlikely to cause problems in San Francisco — but the new minimum is quite close to the median hourly wage of $15.23 in the Visalia metropolitan area in the Central Valley. The federal minimum would apply to metropolitan areas like Daphne, Ala., and Sumter, S.C., where the median worker earned less than $15 an hour in 2018. One simple corrective, proposed by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, would be to include exemptions from the $15 standard for low-wage metropolitan areas and rural areas.

In other words, the NYT endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage, and then concluded by admitting it would be very bad if there actually was a $15 federal minimum wage.

This is why I prefer this editorial from the New York Times.

…there’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed. Raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would price working poor people out of the job market. …An increase in the minimum wage…would increase employers’ incentives to evade the law, expanding the underground economy. More important, it would increase unemployment: Raise the legal minimum price of labor above the productivity of the least skilled workers and fewer will be hired. …Those at greatest risk from a higher minimum would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs. …The idea of using a minimum wage to overcome poverty is old, honorable – and fundamentally flawed. It’s time to put this hoary debate behind us, and find a better way to improve the lives of people who work very hard for very little.

Sadly, that editorial was from 1987, back when the newspaper had a more rational perspective.

In those days, the New York Times also favored the flat tax.

Today, the publication is almost a parody of “woke” emotion since many reporters and editors push a statist agenda, presumably because (their perceptions of) good intentions matter more than good results.

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In order to protect against “Goldfish Government,” it’s very important to make sure that the powers of government are constrained by national borders.

This is the reason why I’m a passionate defender of tax competition and fiscal sovereignty (even if it means being subjected to slurs, attacks, and imprisonment!).

And it’s why I oppose extraterritorial tax laws such as FATCA.

The fight against extraterritoriality isn’t limited to fiscal issues. It’s also become a big problem in the area of financial regulation.

In a new study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, Bruce Zagaris addresses the over-use of sanctions and how they produce undesirable unintended consequences.

The widespread use of economic sanctions constitutes one of the paradoxes of contemporary American foreign policy. Although sanctions are often criticized, even derided, they are simultaneously and quickly becoming the policy mechanism of choice for the United States. The U.S. has economic sanctions against dozens of countries. Even though the success rate of sanctions is unimpressive, sanctions are so popular that they are being introduced by many states and municipalities. …In a global economy, unilateral sanctions tend to impose greater costs on U.S. businesses than on the target, which can usually find substitute sources of supply and financing. …As the U.S. is increasingly resorting to unilateral sanctions, they are inadvertently mobilizing a club of countries and international organizations, including U.S. allies, to develop ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions. …Sanctions are criticized due to their lack of effectiveness, adverse humanitarian effects, and adverse public health effects. Sanctions foment criminalization both during and after the sanctions as a way to circumvent sanctions. Sanctions also result in unintended negative effects on neighbor countries… The excessive use of economic sanctions, especially when U.S. allies oppose them and become targets, produces diplomatic tension, and damages the U.S.’s economy and reputation abroad. The growing number of countries in the club of targets has caused countries to develop innovative means to circumvent the use of the dollar.

I’ve previously written about how the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency could be threatened by extraterritoriality, so I fully agree with the concerns in Bruce’s study.

Interestingly, even the U.S. Treasury Secretary acknowledges that there is a problem.

The issue also has been featured on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.

Sahil Mahtani of Investec Asset Management opined that excessive sanctioning by Obama and Trump creates risks for the dollar.

Will the U.S. dollar soon lose its status as the world’s pre-eminent currency? …Developments in foreign-exchange markets during the past 18 months point toward dedollarization. …The increasing use of economic sanctions under Presidents Obama and Trump is the immediate cause of dedollarization. …the change in posture among the trans-Atlantic democracies is noteworthy. …the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world means the coming market cycle is likely to be different. The U.S. dollar may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

Other experts also have warned about how sanctions can backfire on the American economy.

 

The Economist also has highlighted how promiscuous use of sanctions is both wrong and could backfire against America.

The United States…has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. …America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. …as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems. …Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. …Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 BNP Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. …Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. …American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the DOJ for its role in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules. …escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar… Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

To be sure, not every issue should be decided solely on the basis of economics. More GDP is good, but not at the cost of sacrificing honor and dignity.

Some nations might be so evil that sanctions are justified.

But policy makers should be fully aware that there are costs when sanctions are imposed.

Those costs include foregone trade, which would be bad for American consumers, workers, and businesses.

Most important, those costs could mean the dollar gets weakened or dethroned as the world’s reserve currency and the U.S. loses its “exorbitant privilege.”

And that could mean less investment in America, which translates into fewer jobs and lower wages.

P.S. The study by Bruce Zagaris is the third in a series on why extraterritoriality is a bad idea. The first study focused on extraterritorial taxation. The second study analyzed extraterritorial financial regulation.

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In pure socialist systems, governments own and operate companies (the “means of production“). Such an approach also requires central planning and price controls.

But you don’t need socialism to have government-controlled companies. There are plenty of “state-owned enterprises” that exist in supposedly market-oriented nations.

Including in the United States. The federal government, for instance, owns and operates the air traffic control system and the postal service, to cite two big examples.

So what happens when politicians are de facto shareholders?

Today, thanks to some new research from the Asian Development Bank Institute, we’re going to look at the economic consequences of such firms.

Throughout history, and especially since the end of World War II, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been created in much of the world… Although private companies play a dominant role in market-based societies, enterprises with government ownership are still key players in the global economy, making their performance important for economic growth and competitiveness… Thus, scholars and policymakers around the world have been left with a task of reassessing the efficiency of state ownership. …In this paper, we aim to investigate whether certain ownership types consistently show superior economic performance relative to others when controlling for other economic factors. …we aim to fill in this gap and report further empirical evidence on the relative efficiency of public and private companies.

According to the study, state-run companies play a very large role in some countries.

The authors consider some of the theoretical reasons why state-run firms might not be very efficient, including “public choice.”

Agency theory…states that in a corporation, managers (or agents) may follow a personal agenda rather than work on behalf of, and for the interest of, the principals who own the corporation. Within a SOE, in particular, …the managers of SOEs are those who are appointed by the government…and seek firm-specific rents, such as high pay, fringe benefits, and low effort levels. Unlike their peers who operate in private-owned enterprises and may face the risk of replacement and dismissal due to their firms’ low performance…, the chief executive officers (CEOs) of SOEs are put under little financial constraint, and their compensation is not necessarily linked to firm performance… Public choice theory…also provides a cornerstone conceptual framework on which SOEs’ underperformance can be explained. This framework assumes that…special interests affect…governments’ own objectives.

They put together a dataset of more than 25,000 companies, both government and private, and then looked at key performance metrics.

Not surprisingly, government-run firms are not very efficient compared to their private counterparts.

…we find significant evidence that SOEs are outperformed by their POEs counterparts. The findings are consistent over both simple univariate comparisons and multivariate regressions. Government firms appear to be less profitable than POEs. They are also more dependent on debt and financial support from outside sources rather than equity. Hence, we provide support for the view that public firms are less efficient than private firms… The cross-sectional comparisons also show that government firms tend to be more labor intensive and have higher labor costs than non-government ones. …The differences in profitability appear to be economically important. The average return on assets for private firms is 8.010, almost twice that for SOEs. …SOEs have a higher liabilities-to-assets ratio, meaning that they tend to rely more on debt than shareholder funds. … state-owned companies…generate smaller sales volumes and have a higher cost per one employee. In other words, firms owned by private sectors are more labor efficient than government ones. …our findings suggest that privatization could be considered as a driver for firm efficiency.

For those that like perusing quantitative results, here are the results of their statistical regressions.

I’ve highlighted the key difference.

As already noted, government-run firms accumulate more debt.

This is presumably because investors assume that government-run companies won’t default.

Not because they don’t lose money, but rather because the political pressures that led to their creation also will prevent their demise.

SOEs can enjoy a “soft” budget constraint since they are backed by the government for their funding… They have the advantage of borrowing funds at a lower rate rather than accessing the equity market to raise capital… Thus, the discipline that capital markets impose on state-held firms and the threat of financial distress for them is less important than their private counterparts. …it is worth noting that such “soft” budget constraints, to a certain extent, could also be a source of inefficiency in government firms.

In other words, the growth-enhancing process of “creative destruction” is blocked when governments are in charge of companies.

For what it’s worth, this is a big problem in nations such as China.

Though we also saw a version of this in the United States, with the big bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which are government-sponsored enterprises (private ownership, but created by government and controlled by government).

And there are many other examples of bad results when the federal government has intervened in the business world.

The bottom line is that government should not be owning, operating, controlling, or directing private companies. These forms of intervention inevitably produce inefficiency, subsidies, cronyism, corruption, and waste.

And it means that people like you and me wind up with less income and lower living standards because politicians are misallocating labor and capital.

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I’m a big fan of Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator has been very good on some big issues and on some small issues. And he’s willing to fight important philosophical battles.

No politician is perfect (for instance, Rubio defends sugar subsidies), so I’ve always judged them by whether – on net – they’re on the side of more freedom or more statism.

Which is the ideal framework for today’s column.

Earlier this month, Rubio wrote a column for National Review asserting it is time for “common-good capitalism.”

Pope Leo XIII wrote that the ultimate goal for any society should be to “make men better” by providing people the opportunity to attain the dignity that comes from hard work, ownership, and raising a family. …What makes this society possible is the rights of both workers and businesses, but also their obligations to each other. …In the economy Pope Leo described, workers and businesses are not competitors for their share of limited resources, but partners in an effort that strengthens the entire nation. …This…doesn’t describe the economy we actually have today. Large corporations have become vehicles for shareholders and banks to assert claims to cash flows, rather than engines of productive innovation. Over the past 40 years, the financial sector’s share of corporate profits increased from about 10 to nearly 30 percent. The share of profits sent to shareholders increased by 300 percent. This occurred while investment of those profits back into the companies’ workers — and future — dropped 20 percent. …This is what it looks like when, as Pope Francis warned, “finance overwhelms the real economy.” …Diagnosing the problem is something we should be able to achieve… Ultimately, deciding what the government should do about it must be the core question of our politics. …What we need to do is restore common-good capitalism. …our nation does not exist to serve the interests of the market; the market exists to serve our nation.

Some of this rhetoric rubs me the wrong way (and citing an economic illiterate like Pope Francis is appalling), but what really matters is whether Rubio is proposing more power for government or less power for government.

That’s hard to say because he doesn’t offer much in terms of policy.

Though I’m not overly impressed by the handful of ideas that were mentioned.

I don’t pretend to know anything about rare-earth minerals, but it’s laughable to think the Small Business Administration is a wellspring of innovation, and there’s plenty of evidence that paid parental leave is bad policy (child tax credits aren’t bad, but there are other tax policies that are far better for families).

On the other hand, Rubio also has been making the case for “full expensing,” which is a very good policy.

Since we don’t have any additional details, I don’t know whether his new agenda is a net plus or a net negative.

Kevin Williamson of National Review, by contrast, is definitely not a fan of Rubio’s approach. Here’s some of what he wrote last week.

Senator Rubio…joins the ranks of those who propose to reinvent capitalism — “common-good capitalism,” he calls it. …Senator Rubio, working from remarks originally delivered in a speech at Catholic University, references a series of popes — Leo XIII, mostly, but also Benedict and Francis — to describe (whether the senator understands this or not) the familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking… I write this as a fellow Catholic: God defend us from these backward, primitive-minded Catholic social reformers. …power is what is at issue. Men such as Senator Rubio desire for themselves the power to overrule markets — to limit trade and property rights, enterprise and exchange — in the service of what Senator Rubio describes as the “common good.” The problems with that are…Senator Rubio does not know what the common good is and has no way of knowing. …What we need from men in government is not the quasi-metaphysical project of reinventing capitalism in the name of the “common good.” …This is not a brief for anarchism. …We need stability and predictability from a government that secures our liberty and our property in the least obtrusive way that can be managed.

And he followed up two days later with another critical column, even equating Rubio’s agenda to Elizabeth Warren’s loony proposal.

From Senator Marco Rubio and his “common-good capitalism” to Senator Elizabeth Warren and her “accountable capitalism,” politicians right and left who want politicians to have more power over private economic decisions assume a dilemma in which something called “capitalism” must be balanced against or made subordinate to something called the “common good.” This is the great forgetful stupidity of our time. …Capitalism, meaning security in one’s own property and in the right to work and to trade, is the common good… What is contemplated by Senator Rubio and Senator Warren — along with a few batty adherents of the primitive nonidea known in Catholic circles as “integralism” and everywhere else more forthrightly as “totalitarianism” — is to invert the purpose of the U.S. government. …We’re supposed to give up our property rights so that these two and their ilk can use corporate welfare to fortify their own political interests? …The “stakeholder” thesis put forward by Rubio and Warren would strip shareholders of control of their own property and use that property in the service of interests of other parties, who are not its rightful owners. …the great prosperity currently enjoyed by North Americans and Western Europeans — and, increasingly, by the rest of the world — is a product…of capitalism… It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t the cleverness of Senator Rubio or Senator Warren. It wasn’t the big ideas of Pope Francis, to the modest extent that he has any economic ideas worth identifying as such.

Oren Cass argues that Williamson is both unfair and wrong about Rubio.

Williamson believes that Rubio wants to “be . . . the bandit, taking control of other people’s property”; “strip shareholders of control of their own property,” which “is robbery”; “redefine away the property rights of millions of Americans”; “limit . . . property rights”; and “run Apple or Facebook or Ford.” …I’ve read the Rubio speech carefully and can find none of this. …Rubio’s project is to explore the vast gray expanse between the white of liberty and the black of property theft. …This is the terrain on which many of American history’s great public deliberations have unfolded, yielding policies from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures to the “internal improvements” of the early 1800s, the tariff debates between McKinley and Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s space race, and Reagan’s import quotas. Property theft all of it, at gunpoint no less, if I understand Williamson correctly. …Someone will have to make a value judgment as to what “goods” are in fact “good” and thus worthy of providing publicly.

Cass is right that there’s a lot of space between pure capitalism and awful statism. I’ve made the same point.

But it does worry me that he favorably cites a bunch of historical policy mistakes, such as protectionism, antitrust laws, and the New Deal.

Jonah Goldberg makes the should-be-obvious point that the United States is hardly a laissez-faire paradise.

For as long as I can remember, people on the left have complained about “unfettered capitalism.” …Senator Bernie Sanders said earlier this year that “we have to talk about democratic socialism as an alternative to unfettered capitalism.” …Recently, the concern with capitalism’s unfetteredness has become bipartisan. Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have taken up the cause in a series of speeches and policy proposals. Conservative intellectuals such as Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony have taken dead aim at unrestrained capitalism. J. D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News have suggested that economic policy is run by . . . libertarians. My response to this dismaying development is: What on earth are these people talking about? …If you think there are no restraints on the market or on economic activity, why on earth do we have the Department of Labor, HHS, HUD, FDA, EPA, OSHA, or IRS? The United States has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world (i.e., the share of taxes paid by the rich versus everyone else). If you take into account all social-welfare spending, we spend more on entitlements than plenty of rich countries. Now, if you think we don’t spend, regulate, or tax enough, fine. Make your case. If you think we should spend and tax differently, I’m right there with you. But the notion that the United States is a libertarian fantasyland is itself a fantasy.

Amen.

And this brings me to my modest contribution to this discussion.

I’ve already admitted that Rubio hasn’t provided enough details to assess whether he wants more liberty or more statism.

That being said, I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and we know for a fact that “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” meant more statism).

So here’s my challenge to Rubio and Cass (as well as everyone else who proposes an alternative to Reagan-style small-government conservatism). Please specifically identify how much government you want. Yes, there is a “vast gray expanse” between pure laissez-faire and pure statism, as Cass noted. But he didn’t say where in that expanse he wants America to be.

To help people respond to this challenge, here’s a chart, based on the data from Economic Freedom of the World. In that “vast gray expanse” between pure capitalism and pure statism, should policy makers try to shift America in the direction of Hong Kong? Or in the direction of Sweden, or even Greece?

The bottom line is that we need to climb the scale (i.e., have more overall economic liberty) if we want more prosperity.

That’s what will help facilitate all the things, such as good jobs and strong communities, that Senator Rubio wants for America.

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As part of National Education Week, I’ve looked at the deterioration of K-12 government schools and also explained why a market-based choice system would be a better alternative.

The good news is that we have a choice system for higher education. Students can choose from thousands of colleges and universities.

The bad news is that federal subsidies are making that system increasingly expensive and bureaucratic.

That’s today’s topic.

The underlying problem is “third-party payer,” which is a wonky term to describe what happens when students are buying education with money from somebody else. When this happens, they tend to not care about the price, which then makes it possible for colleges and universities to increase tuition so they become the real beneficiaries of the subsidies.

So nobody should be surprised that college costs are skyrocketing upwards, both in absolute terms and relative terms.

It’s a bubble, but one that probably won’t pop because of the ongoing stream of subsidies.

Jon Miltimore has a very good summary of the perverse incentives created by government.

Federal loans have made tuition far more expensive. Universities get paid up front—so whether students graduate, drop out, or default on the loan doesn’t matter. Departing students are easily replaced. Confident that students have access to cheap money (which can be expensive in the long run), colleges have no incentive to control or cut back the prices of housing, tuition, fees, and meals. …The best solution is to get the federal government out of the loan business altogether. If universities themselves offered loans, incentives would push them toward controlling costs and maximizing student success after graduation. Another option is income share agreements, which allow potential employers or independent organizations to pay tuition in exchange for a percentage of the students’ future earnings. …When markets seem to falter—recent, painful examples include the student loan bubble and housing crisis—the culprit is often government intervening in a way that warps incentives.

In a study for the Mercatus Center, Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon compile numbers and analyze studies.

The evidence broadly suggests that institutions of higher education are capturing need-based federal aid and responding to increased federal aid generosity by reducing institutional aid. …federal and state student aid funding expanding significantly over time, from just under $3 billion in 1970 to just under $160 billion in 2017. …Increased eligibility over time has led to a large and growing proportion of college students who receive federal financial aid. …there is a growing strand of economic literature examining the relationship between federal aid and tuition prices. …A study by Bradley Curs and Luciana Dar…finds that…institutions actually raise tuition levels and reduce their institutional aid when the state increases need-based awards. …A study by Stephanie Cellini and Claudia Goldin…finds that for comparable full-time nondegree programs in the same field over 2005–2009, institutions that are eligible for federal aid raised tuition by about 78 percent more than institutions that are ineligible. …Grey Gordon and Aaron Hedlund…develop a quantitative model for higher education to test explanations for the steep rise in college tuition between 1987 and 2010. …These results reveal that increased federal aid is responsible for more than doubling the cost of tuition over a 23-year period.

Here’s a chart from the study showing the explosion of federal subsidies.

By the way, Paul Krugman actually thinks taxpayers have been “starving” higher education.

Let’s get back to exploring the analysis of more sensible economists. Professor Antony Davies and James Harrigan make two key points in their FEE column.

First, subsidies are producing consumers who don’t make sensible education purchases.

…total student debt in the United States passed the $1.5 trillion mark. …the total has been growing at around $80 billion per year. …Around 11 percent of student debt is either delinquent or in default, which is more than four times the delinquency rates for credit cards and residential mortgages. …the problem with making college “free…” that a student must repay a college loan gives him tremendous incentive to at least consider what jobs he could obtain with the college education he must pay for after graduation. A student who is unencumbered by the need to repay a college loan faces little cost when choosing to major in something with little to no future value. …It’s well worth taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to pay for a degree that increases a student’s expected lifetime earnings by millions of dollars. But taking out tens of thousands in loans to pay for a degree that increases a student’s expected lifetime earnings by the same tens of thousands or less is, financially, a terrible investment.

Here’s a chart from their article, which looks at the value of various majors.

Second, the problems are caused by bad government policy.

We are in the midst of a college loan bubble for almost all of the same reasons that, a decade ago, we found ourselves in the midst of a housing loan bubble. …In both bubbles, the government interfered in markets in two critical ways. First, the government stepped in as a lender. Second, it shielded private lenders from the consequences of making bad loans. …Making college “free” will simply double-down on the very problem we already face. With “free” college, not only will colleges not have to care whether students can repay their loans, but the students themselves will also not have to care. Meanwhile, taxpayers will be on the hook for the numerous imprudent decisions by both colleges and students. It will bring about the worst of all possible worlds.

Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution used to be a Classics Professor at California State University. So he’s well positioned to provide a then-now comparison.

Here’s what he experienced in his early years.

Overwhelmingly liberal and often hippish in appearance, American faculty of the early 1970s still only rarely indoctrinated students or bullied them to mimic their own progressivism. Rather, in both the humanities and sciences, students were taught the inductive method of evaluating evidence… As an undergraduate and graduate student at hotbeds of prior 1960s protests at UC Santa Cruz and Stanford, I don’t think I had a single conservative professor. Yet there were few faculty members, in Western Civilization, history, classics, or mandatory general education science and math classes, who either sought to indoctrinate us with their liberal world view or punished us for remaining conservative. …Administrators in the 1960s and 1970s were relatively few. Most faculty saw administration as a temporary if necessary evil that took precious time away from teaching and research and so were admired for putting up with it. …Professors taught large loads—four or five classes a semester for California State University faculty. …The result was that both college tuition and room and board stayed relatively inexpensive.

And here’s what it’s become.

What went wrong? …Politics increasingly infected courses as competence eroded—logical for faculty and students since the former required far less of the latter. Across the curriculum, race, class, and gender studies found their way into art, music, literature, philosophy and history classes. Deduction now replaced the old empiricism. Grades inflated… Universities emulated the ethos of loan sharks and shake-down businesses. The con was as simple as it was insidiously brilliant. Academic lobbyists pressed the government for billions in guaranteed student loans… The federal government-backed student loans. That guarantee greenlighted cash-flush universities to pay inter alia for diversity czars, assistant provosts of “inclusion,” and armies of woke aides and facilitators, to reduce teaching loads, and to open more race/class/gender “centers” on campus—by jacking up college costs higher than the rate of inflation. Student debt soared. …A new generation owes $1.5 trillion in student debt… One’s 20s are now redefined as the lost decade, as marriage, child-rearing, and home buying are put off, to the extent they still occur, into one’s 30s. …The result was reduced teaching, a bonanza of release time, administrative bloat, Club Med dorms, gyms, and student unions, and epidemics of highly paid but non-teaching careerist advisors, and counselors.

So what’s his solution?

Universities should be held responsible for repaying a large percentage of the loans they issued and yet in advance knew well could not and would not be repaid. The government should get out of the campus loan insurance business.

Amen.

As I said at the end of this recent TV interview, colleges and universities need to have some skin in the game.

Daniel Kowalski explains for FEE that government policy is causing ever-higher costs.

Student loans did not exist in their present form until the federal government passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which had taxpayers guaranteeing loans made by private lenders to students. While the program might have had good intentions, it has had unforeseen harmful consequences. …Secured financing of student loans resulted in a surge of students applying for college. This increase in demand was, in turn, met with an increase in price because university administrators would charge more if people were willing to pay it… According to Forbes, the average price of tuition has increased eight times faster than wages since the 1980s. …The government’s backing of student loans has caused the price of higher education to artificially rise…the current system of student loan financing needs to be reformed. Schools should not be given a blank check, and the government-guaranteed loans should only cover a partial amount of tuition. Schools should also be responsible for directly lending a portion of student loans so that it’s in their financial interest to make sure graduates enter the job market with the skills and requirements needed to get a well-paying job. If a student fails to pay back their loan, then the college or university should also share in the taxpayer’s loss.

All this government-fueled debt has real consequences. Three economists from the Federal Reserve found it hinders home ownership.

To estimate the effect of the increased student loan debt on homeownership, we tracked student loan and mortgage borrowing for individuals who were between 24 and 32 years old in 2005. Using these data, we constructed a model to estimate the impact of increased student loan borrowing on the likelihood of students becoming homeowners during this period of their lives. We found that a $1,000 increase in student loan debt (accumulated during the prime college-going years and measured in 2014 dollars) causes a 1 to 2 percentage point drop in the homeownership rate for student loan borrowers during their late 20s and early 30s. …According to our calculations, the increase in student loan debt between 2005 and 2014 reduced the homeownership rate among young adults by 2 percentage points. The homeownership rate for this group fell 9 percentage points over this period (figure 2), implying that a little over 20 percent of the overall decline in homeownership among the young can be attributed to the rise in student loan debt.

For those interested, here are some of their empirical findings.

By the way, I discussed the negative interaction of student debt and housing in the second half of this TV interview.

Professor Richard Vedder explains for the Wall Street Journal that this subsidized system has resulted in an environment in which neither students nor faculty work very hard.

One reason college is so costly and so little real learning occurs is that collegiate resources are vastly underused. Students don’t study much, professors teach little, few people read most of the obscure papers the professors write, and even the buildings are empty most of the time. …Surveys of student work habits find that the average amount of time spent in class and otherwise studying is about 27 hours a week. The typical student takes classes only 32 weeks a year, so he spends fewer than 900 hours annually on academics—less time than a typical eighth-grader… As economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have demonstrated, students in the middle of the 20th century spent nearly 50% more time—around 40 hours weekly—studying. They now lack incentives to work very hard, since the average grade today—a B or B-plus—is much higher than in 1960… Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have demonstrated, using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, that the typical college senior has only marginally better critical reasoning and writing skills than a freshman. Federal Adult Literacy Survey data, admittedly somewhat outdated, shows declining literacy among college grads in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. …the typical professor is in class around one-third fewer hours than his 1965 counterpart. …The litany of underused resources goes on. In 1970 at a typical university there were perhaps two professors for each administrator. Today, there are usually more nonteaching administrators than professors.

Unfortunately, many politicians respond to these government-caused problems by proposing even more government.

That’s what Hillary Clinton did in 2016 and it’s what politicians – most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – are doing for 2020.

But that will make a bad situation even worse.

Paul Boyce, writing for FEE, explains that free college will lower standards and make college degrees relatively meaningless.

…college enrollment rates reached more than 40 percent in 2017. Of those, nearly one in three (31 percent) drop out entirely. Why should the average taxpayer subsidize this? …If college is free, it is likely that this rate will increase further. Students won’t have any skin in the game because they won’t be picking the tab up at the end. This effects efficient decisionmaking. In France, for example, the dropout rate is as high as 50 percent. …Government has a track record of underfunding. …This is demonstrated in France, which runs a “free” system. Its universities are heavily underfunded and unable to satisfy student enrollment. …As college enrollment has increased, standards have fallen to accommodate for this. …it defeats the goal of creating a well-educated workforce. …it dilutes the importance and value of a degree. …Undergraduate degrees will become the norm, and the financial return will become negligible.

And the experience of other nations isn’t a cause for optimism.

Andrew Hammel, an American who taught for many years at a German university, is not overly impressed by that nation’s free-tuition regime.

…in their early teen years, the brightest German students are sent to the most prestigious form of German high school, the Gymnasium. Currently, over 50 percent of German students earn this privilege (this number has jumped in the last 30 years, prompting charges of grade inflation). Gymnasium graduates with reasonable grades are guaranteed a place in a German university; there is no entrance exam. 95 percent of German students attend public universities, where they are charged fees, but not formal tuition. All professors at public universities are civil servants. …Supporters of the tuition-free system note that 65 percent of Germans say university should be tuition-free, “even if this means the quality of education is slightly worse.” …The system also gives students extra freedom: you can study art history or sociology, knowing that you won’t be hounded by creditors if you later find only spotty employment. …one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree… German universities punch below their weight in international rankings… Gather any group of German professors, and talk will immediately turn to the burgeoning bureaucracy which distracts them from teaching and research. …Americans who teach ordinary classes in Germany find average German students somewhat less motivated than their dues-paying American counterparts. The top third of motivated students would succeed anywhere, and the bottom third, as we have seen, drop out.

I’ll close with an observation about inefficiency in higher education.

Here’s a chart I shared a few years ago. I’m sure the problem is even worse today.

The bottom line is that student debt, administrative bloat, and expensive tuition are all predictable consequences of federal subsidies.

P.S. If you’re worried about political correctness in higher education (and you have the appropriate subscriptions), I recommend this column in the Wall Street Journal and this George Will column in the Washington Post.

P.P.S. Here’s a video interview with Richard Vedder about high costs and inefficiency in higher education. And I also recommend this video explanation by Professor Daniel Lin.

P.P.P.S. It also turns that all these subsidies have a negative correlation with private-sector employment.

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The World Bank has released its annual report on the Ease of Doing Business.

Unsurprisingly, the top spots are dominated by market-oriented jurisdictions, with New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong (at least for now!) winning the gold, silver, and bronze. The United States does reasonably well, finishing in sixth place.

It’s also worth noting that Nordic nations do quite well. Denmark even beats the United States, and Norway and Sweden are both in the top 10.

Georgia gets a very good score, as does Taiwan. And I’m sure Pope Francis will be irked to see that Mauritius ranks highly.

I’m surprised, though, to see Russia at #28 and China at #31. That’s better than France!

And I’m even more surprised that normally laissez-faire Switzerland is down at #36.

What economic lessons can we learn from the report? First, the authors remind us that less red tape means more prosperity.

Research demonstrates a causal relationship between economic freedom and gross domestic product (GDP) growth, where freedom regarding wages and prices, property rights, and licensing requirements leads to economic development. … The ease of doing business score serves as the basis for ranking economies on their business environment: the ranking is obtained by sorting the economies by their scores. The ease of doing business score shows an economy’s absolute position relative to the best regulatory performance, whereas the ease of doing business ranking is an indication of an economy’s position relative to that of other economies.

By the way, here’s a simple depiction of the World Bank’s methodology.

It’s also worth noting that less intervention means less corruption.

There are ample opportunities for corruption in economies where excessive red tape and extensive interactions between private sector actors and regulatory agencies are necessary to get things done. The 20 worst-scoring economies on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index average 8 procedures to start a business and 15 to obtain a building permit. Conversely, the 20 best-performing economies complete the same formalities with 4 and 11 steps, respectively. Moreover, economies that have adopted electronic means of compliance with regulatory requirements—such as obtaining licenses and paying taxes—experience a lower incidence of bribery.

Poor countries, not surprisingly, have more red tape.

An entrepreneur in a low-income economy typically spends around 50 percent of the country’s per-capita income to launch a company, compared with just 4.2 percent for an entrepreneur in a high-income economy. It takes nearly six times as long on average to start a business in the economies ranked in the bottom 50 as in the top 20. There’s ample room for developing economies to catch up with developed countries on most of the Doing Business indicators. Performance in the area of legal rights, for example, remains weakest among low- and middle-income economies.

Africa and Latin America are especially bad.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the weak-performing regions on the ease of doing business with an average score of 51.8, well below the OECD high-income economy average of 78.4 and the global average of 63.0. …Latin America and the Caribbean also lags in terms of reform implementation and impact. …not a single economy in Latin America and the Caribbean ranks among the top 50 on the ease of doing business.

I’m disappointed, by the way, that Chile is only ranked #59.

Now let’s shift to some very important graphs about the relationship between economic freedom and national prosperity.

We’ll start with a look at the relationship between employment regulation and per-capita income. Not surprisingly, countries that make it hard to hire workers and fire workers have lower levels of prosperity.

Here’s a chart showing the relationship between employment regulation and the underground economy.

The moral of the story is that lots of red tape drives employers and employees to the black market.

Perhaps most important, there’s a very clear link between good regulatory policy and overall entrepreneurship.

Here’s a bit of good news.

Developing nations have reduced the burden of red tape in some areas, in part because Ease of Doing Business puts pressure on governments.

We can see the results in this chart.

I’ll close with a look at the regulatory burden in the United States, which also can be considered good news.

Here’s the annual score for the past five years (a higher number is better).

I’m frequently critical of this White House, but I also believe in giving credit when it’s deserved. The bottom line is that Trump’s policies have been a net plus for businesses.

In other words, lower tax rates and less red tape have more than offset the pain of protectionism.

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For a multitude of reasons, I wasn’t a fan of Mitt Romney’s candidacy in 2012. But when supporters of Barack Obama accused him of somehow being responsible for a woman who died from cancer, I jumped to his defense by pointing out the link between unnecessary deaths and bad economic policy.

Simply stated, market-friendly policies produce more prosperity and wealthier societies enjoy longer lifespans. Indeed, even one of Obama’s top appointees openly acknowledged that wealthier is healthier.

Which is why folks on the left are failing to do proper cost-benefit analysis when they assert that we need redistribution and intervention to help people live longer.

This issue was hot in 2017 when Republicans briefly toyed with the idea of fulfilling a campaign promise and repealing Obamacare.

Defenders of the law said repeal would cause needless deaths.

In a column for National Review, Oren Cass debunked those assertions.

If you are going to claim that someone’s policy will cause upward of 200,000 deaths, I feel that you should have relevant supporting evidence. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way. Certainly, no such standards seem to hamper the editors at Vox. Instead, they’ve just published “208,500 additional deaths could occur by 2026 under the Senate health plan,” in which Ann Crawford-Roberts et al. assure readers that they are using “solid estimates firmly rooted in scientific evidence — unlike the dubious claim that the ACA has saved ‘zero’ lives.” Except here’s the thing: That claim about zero lives saved is supported by multiple independent lines of analysis. …There are the numerous studies showing that patients on Medicaid achieve worse health outcomes than those without any insurance. There is the “gold-standard” randomized controlled trial in Oregon that found no significant improvement in physical health from Medicaid coverage. …There is a paper from Yale researchers that found states achieve better health outcomes when they allocate less of their social spending toward health care. And now we even have data from the ACA itself. …the nation’s mortality rate stopped decreasing and actually increased when the ACA was implemented, and matters were worst in the states that accepted the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. …None of that makes Medicaid worthless. It does not mean that Medicaid, or the ACA generally, is killing people (though the evidence for that proposition looks as good as the evidence for the idea that it is saving many lives).

Max Bloom also wrote that year about the controversy for National Review.

Repealing Obamacare will kill 24,000 people a year! No, 36,000! No, 43,000! The tax cuts are blood money! There is more than a little hyperbole about the overhaul of Obamacare proposed by the House and the Senate, and the rhetoric about tens of thousands of deaths is not a bad example. …The only thing better than a natural experiment is a random experiment, in which people are randomly distributed into groups that, in this case, either receive health insurance or don’t. Exactly this happened in Oregon in 2008, when the state randomly selected 30,000 from a waiting list of 90,000 low-income adults to participate in a limited expansion of Medicaid. In theory, this should have produced a perfect test of the effects of insurance on health-care outcomes — indeed, as Peter Suderman notes, a bevy of liberal writers touted an early analysis of the experiment as a conclusive vindication of the effects of health insurance. Until they saw the final data, that is. The Oregon study found that “Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first two years.” …In short, the only problem with the estimate that Obamacare repeal will kill tens of thousands is that it cherry-picks one study out of several, ignores the limitations of that study, assumes that private insurance and Medicaid are equivalent, assumes that losing health insurance and gaining health insurance are precisely symmetric, uses implausible estimates of coverage loss, and relies on an idiosyncratic definition of the word “kill.” Otherwise, it’s fine.

By the way, these two articles didn’t even consider the “cost” side of cost-benefit analysis.

The columns simply noted that there’s no evidence for the notion that Obamacare-type subsidies help people live longer. In other words, the “benefit” side of cost-benefit equation is empty.

So imagine what we would discover about health outcomes if various Obamacare costs (job losses, tax increases, lower income, etc) were added to the analysis.

A similar debate is happening on the other side of the ocean.

In a column for CapX, Guy Dampier addresses the silly claim that spending restraint kills people.

…a November 2017 paper in the British Medical Journal…found a link between restrictions on health and social care spending – austerity – and 120,000 additional deaths between 2010 and 2017. The paper’s authors..reached this by extrapolating from an estimated 45,000 “higher than expected” number of deaths between 2011 and 2014 and then projecting that to cover 2010 to 2017. …although even they had to admit they had only captured association and not discovered causation. …The medical community responded to the BMJ paper with scepticism. …Others pointed out the many issues in the methodology. …the IPPR, a think tank with close links to Labour, published a report in June this year with a similar claim: that if trends in mortality between 1990 and 2012 had continued there “could have been 130,000 deaths averted between 2012 and 2017”. …When pressed the IPPR admitted that the apparent spike in mortality had started two years before austerity began… The years of austerity have been tough for many people, without doubt. But these issues show that neither claim – of 120,000 or 130,000 deaths – stands up to scrutiny.

Once again, the left’s numbers only look at one side of the equation.

There’s no attempt to measure the health benefits of a faster-growing, less-encumbered economy.

Yet even using incomplete analysis, they don’t have any persuasive evidence for bigger government.

Let’s now close by looking at a global example.

Last year, the Washington Post published a fascinating article on pollution and life expectancy, and it included analysis on which parts of the world are getting cleaner and dirtier.

University of Chicago researchers wanted to make air quality measurements less abstract and more relatable — and what is more relatable than years of life? The pollution most responsible for shortening lives consists of the tiniest airborne particles, called PM2.5. They are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing breathing and cardiovascular problems, cancer and possibly even dementia. They’re bad for healthy people and terrible for young children, the elderly and anyone who already has heart or respiratory problems. …The Chicago team started with satellite data that mapped the annual PM2.5 concentration in air all over the world, from 1998 to 2016. …Then they calculated how much longer people would live if the air they breathe had fewer — or none — of these particles. The result of the project is the Air Quality Life Index.

Here’s the accompanying map, which shows good news for most parts of the world other than China, India, and Indonesia.

The obvious takeaway from this article is that nations should strive mightily to reduce this type of air pollution. Especially in Asia.

And maybe that’s actually true.

But let’s consider both sides of the equation. These Asian nations are in the process of industrialization, which means they are getting much richer and therefore have the ability to enjoy much better levels of food, housing, and health care.

We also know that life expectancy has significantly improved in China. So the bad impact of pollution obviously is being offset by something.

And the article notes that China is now working to curtail pollution, which makes sense since nations become more environmentally conscious as incomes increase.

By the way, I’m not trying to identify the right tradeoff between pollution and growth. Or the ideal tradeoff between redistribution and growth.

Instead, I’m simply pointing out that tradeoffs exist, even if some of my friends on the left like to pretend otherwise.

If you’ve been diligent enough to get to this point, you deserve to enjoy this very topical Remy video.

Rather appropriate that Elizabeth Warren plays a starring role.

P.S. You can enjoy more Remy videos by clicking here, hereherehere, and here.

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The 2008 financial crisis was largely the result of bad government policy, including subsidies for the housing sector from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This video is 10 years old, but it does a great job of explaining the damaging role of those two government-created entities.

The financial crisis led to many decisions in Washington, most notably “moral hazard” and the corrupt TARP bailout.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that Fannie and Freddie were placed in “conservatorship,” which basically has curtailed their actions over the past 10 years.

Indeed, some people even hoped that the Trump Administration would take advantage of their weakened status to unwind Fannie and Freddie and allow the free market to determine the future of housing finance.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Cronyists in the Treasury Department unveiled a plan earlier this year that will resuscitate Fannie and Freddie and recreate the bad incentives that led to the mess last decade.

This proposal may be even further to the left than proposals from the Obama Administration. And, as Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, this won’t end well.

…the president’s Memorandum on Housing Finance Reform…is a major disappointment. It will keep taxpayers on the hook for more than $7 trillion in mortgage debt. And it is likely to induce another housing-market bust, for which President Trump will take the blame.The memo directs the Treasury to produce a government housing-finance system that roughly replicates what existed before 2008: government backing for the obligations of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , and affordable-housing mandates requiring the GSEs to encourage and engage in risky mortgage lending. …Most of the U.S. economy is open to the innovation and competition of the private sector. Yet for no discernible reason, the housing market—one-sixth of the U.S. economy—is and has been controlled by the government to a far greater extent than in any other developed country. …The resulting policies produced a highly volatile U.S. housing market, subject to enormous booms and busts. Its culmination was the 2008 financial crisis, in which a massive housing-price boom—driven by the credit leverage associated with low down payments—led to millions of mortgage defaults when housing prices regressed to the long-term mean.

Wallison also authored an article that was published this past week by National Review.

He warns again that the Trump Administration is making a grave mistake by choosing government over free enterprise.

Treasury’s plan for releasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their conservatorships is missing only one thing: a good reason for doing it. The dangers the two companies will create for the U.S. economy will far outweigh whatever benefits Treasury sees. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will be fully recapitalized… The Treasury says the purpose of their recapitalization is to protect the taxpayers in the event that the two firms fail again. But that makes little sense. The taxpayers would not have to be protected if the companies were adequately capitalized and operated without government backing. Indeed, it should have been clear by now that government backing for private profit-seeking firms is a clear and present danger to the stability of the U.S. financial system. Government support enables companies to raise virtually unlimited debt while taking financial risks that the market would routinely deny to firms that operate without it. …their government support will allow them to earn significant profits in a different way — by taking on the risks of subprime and other high-cost mortgage loans. That business would make effective use of their government backing and — at least for a while — earn the profits that their shareholders will demand. …This is an open invitation to create another financial crisis. If we learned anything from the 2008 mortgage market collapse, it is that once a government-backed entity begins to accept mortgages with low down payments and high debt-to-income ratios, the entire market begins to shift in that direction. …why is the Treasury proposing this plan? There is no obvious need for a government-backed profit-making firm in today’s housing finance market. FHA could assume the important role of helping low- and moderate-income families buy their first home. …Why this hasn’t already happened in a conservative administration remains an enduring mystery.

I’ll conclude by sharing some academic research that debunks the notion that housing would suffer in the absence of Fannie and Freddie.

A working paper by two economists at the Federal Reserve finds that Fannie and Freddie have not increased homeownership.

The U.S. government guarantees a majority of mortgages, which is often justified as a means to promote homeownership. In this paper, we estimate the effect by using a difference-in-differences design, with detailed property-level data, that exploits changes of the conforming loan limits (CLLs) along county borders. We find a sizable effect of CLLs on government guarantees but no robust effect on homeownership. Thus, government guarantees could be considerably reduced,with very modest effects on the homeownership rate. Our finding is particularly relevant for recent housing finance reform plans that propose to gradually reduce the government’s involvement in the mortgage market by reducing the CLLs.

For those who care about the wonky details, here’s the most relevant set of charts, which led the Fed economists to conclude that, “There appears to be no positive effect of the CLL increases in 2008 and no negative effect of the CLL reductions in 2011.”

And let’s not forget that other academic research has shown that government favoritism for the housing sector harms overall economic growth by diverting capital from business investment.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie are cronyist institutions that hurt the economy and create financial instability, while providing no benefit except to a handful of insiders.

As I suggested many years ago, they should be dumped in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is choosing Obama-style interventionism over fairness and free markets.

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The great French economist from the 1800s, Frederic Bastiat, famously explained that good economists are aware that government policies have indirect effects (the “unseen”).

Bad economists, by contrast, only consider direct effects (the “seen”).

Let’s look at the debate over stadium subsidies. Tim Carney of the American Enterprise Institute narrates a video showing how the “unseen” costs of government favoritism are greater than the “seen” benefits.

Unfortunately, stadium subsidies are just the tip of the cronyism iceberg.

In a column for the Dallas Morning News, Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University discussed some of his research on the topic.

While state and local economic development incentives may seem to help the local economy, the offsetting costs are usually ignored, so the overall effect is unclear. Furthermore, from the perspective of the nation as a whole, these policies are clearly a net loss. …In a new research paper, my colleague, Meg Tuszynski, and I examined whether there is any relationship between economic development incentive programs and five measures of entrepreneurial activity. Like the previous literature in this area, we found virtually no evidence of a positive relationship. In fact, we found a negative relationship with patent activity, a key measure of new innovation. …A recent study by the Mercatus Center found that 12 states could reduce their corporate income tax by more than 20 percent if incentive programs were eliminated. That includes a 24 percent cut in Texas’ business franchise tax. In six states, it could either be completely eliminated or reduced by more than 90 percent. These are big savings that would provide substantial tax relief to all businesses, both big and small, not just those with political influence. …That would provide a more level playing field in which all businesses can thrive.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal editorial from earlier the year.

Amazon left New York at the altar, turning down a dowry of $3 billion in subsidies. Foxconn’s promised new factory in Wisconsin, enticed with $4 billion in incentives, has fallen into doubt. …Now add General Electric , which announced…it will renege on its plan to build a glassy, 12-story headquarters on Boston’s waterfront. …The company reportedly…pledged to bring 800 jobs to Boston. In exchange, the city and state offered $145 million in incentives, including tax breaks and infrastructure funds. GE’s boss at the time, Jeff Immelt, said not to worry: For every public dollar spent, “you will get back one thousand fold, take my word for it.” …two CEOs later, a beleaguered GE won’t be building that fancy tower at all. There won’t even be 800 jobs. …GE will lease back enough space in two existing brick buildings for 250 employees. …what a failure of corporate welfare.

Let’s wrap this up with a look at some additional scholarly research.

Economists for the World Bank investigated government favoritism in Egypt and found that cronyism rewards politically connected companies at the expense of the overall economy.

This paper presents new evidence that cronyism reduces long-term economic growth by discouraging firms’ innovation activities. …The analysis finds that the probability that firms invest in products new to the firm increases from under 1 percent for politically connected firms to over 7 percent for unconnected firms. The results are robust across different innovation measures. Despite innovating less, politically connected firms are more capital intensive, as they face lower marginal cost of capital due to the generous policy privileges they receive, including exclusive access to input subsidies, public procurement contracts, favorable exchange rates, and financing from politically connected banks. …The findings suggest that connected firms out-rival their competitors by lobbying for privileges instead of innovating. In the aggregate, these policy privileges reduce…long-term growth potential by diverting resources away from innovation to the inefficient capital accumulation of a few large, connected firms.

For economics wonks, here’s Table 2 from the study, showing how subsidies are associated with less innovation.

The World Bank also found awful results because of cronyism in Ukraine.

But this isn’t a problem only in developing nations.

There’s some depressing research about the growing prevalence of cronyism in the United States (ethanol handouts, the Export-Import Bankprotectionismtax favoritismbailoutssubsidies, and green energy are just a few examples of how the friends of politicians get unearned wealth).

Cronyism is bad under Democrats and it’s bad under Republicans. Time for separation of business and state!

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Identifying the worst government policy would be a challenge. Would it be minimum wage laws, which deprive low-skilled workers of a chance for employment and upward mobility? Would it be class-warfare tax rates that generate large amounts of economic damage compared to potential (if any) revenue?

Those are tempting choices, but there’s a strong case that nothing is as foolish as rent control.

Here’s a map showing which states impose or allow this destructive form of intervention.

California politicians are very susceptible to bad ideas.

True to form, as reported by the New York Times, they actually want to impose statewide rent control.

California lawmakers approved a statewide rent cap on Wednesday covering millions of tenants, the biggest step yet in a surge of initiatives to address an affordable-housing crunch nationwide. The bill limits annual rent increases to 5 percent after inflation and offers new barriers to eviction… a momentous political swing. For a quarter-century, California law has sharply curbed the ability of localities to impose rent control. Now, the state itself has taken that step. …Economists from both the left and the right have a well-established aversion to rent control, arguing that such policies ignore the message of rising prices, which is to build more housing. Studies in San Francisco and elsewhere show that price caps often prompt landlords to abandon the rental business by converting their units to owner-occupied homes. And since rent controls typically have no income threshold, they have been faulted for benefiting high-income tenants.

I’m glad the article included the evidence from economists, especially since the headline is grossly inaccurate. If we care about evidence, it’s far more accurate to say that rent control will exacerbate the state’s housing problems.

Which is why the Wall Street Journal opined that this type of intervention is especially destructive.

California already boasts the highest housing costs in the country, and even liberals have come around to acknowledging that not enough homes are built to meet demand. The state has added about half as many housing units as needed to accommodate population growth, and more than half of Californians spend 30% of their income on rent.Blame a thousand regulatory burdens. Local governments limit what housing developers can build and where. They layer on permitting fees, and then there are the state’s high labor costs and expensive green-energy mandates and restrictions that opponents can exploit to block projects for years. …The upshot is that an “affordable” housing unit in California costs $332,000 to build and nearly $600,000 in San Francisco, according to state budget figures. Developers can’t turn a profit on low- and middle-income homes… And now Democrats want to constrain housing prices by fiat. Mr. Newsom and Democratic legislators are pushing a law to limit annual rent increases across the state to 5% plus inflation. …Building permits in the first seven months this year have fallen 17% compared to 2018 despite an increase in state subsidies. …California’s progressive regulatory complex is contributing to this housing slowdown by driving businesses and people from the state. More than 700,000 residents have left since 2010.

By the way, the politicians in Albany already made the same mistake.

And, as you might expect, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page had the correct response.

Law by law, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats are chipping away at the policies that made New York City livable after decades of decline… Democrats this week are ramming through rent-control bills that…effectively dictates rents for one million or so rent-regulated apartments and restricts landlords’ ability to evict tenants who don’t pay. …Once a tenant moves out—which doesn’t happen often since folks can pass on the entitlement to friends and relatives—landlords would be required to offer the unit to another tenant at restricted rates. …Nor could they raise rates by more than 2% annually to pay for improvements or evict a nonpaying tenant who “cannot find a similar suitable dwelling in the same neighborhood.” Since landlords would have less incentive to make fixes, more apartments will deteriorate and come to resemble New York City’s squalid public housing. …One result will be less housing investment… Progressives are vindicating CEO Jeff Bezos ’s decision to pull Amazon’s second headquarters out of New York. Don’t be surprised if other businesses follow.

You won’t be surprised to learn that politicians in other nations sometimes make the same mistake.

The U.K.-based Guardian wrote about how rent control has backfired in Sweden.

Half a million are on the waiting list for rent-controlled flats in Stockholm, meaning a two-tier system, bribes and a thriving parallel market… the system is experiencing acute pressures. Building of rental homes almost dried up after a financial crisis in the early 1990s, and there is a dire shortage of properties. Demand is such that it is almost impossible to get a direct contract. With nearly half of all Stockholmers – about 500,000 people – in the queue, it can take 20 or 30 years to get to the top of the pile. …The result is a thriving rental property black market, with bribes of as much as 100,000 kronor per room to obtain a direct contract, McCormac says. Many people sublet space in their rental apartments. …“Rent controls were supposed to enable people to live in central locations, but now it is having the opposite effect,” McCormac says. “People without social connections will have a very hard time finding a flat,” says Kleberg.

And Germany is making the same mistake – even though it should have learned from the mistakes under Hitler’s national socialism and East Germany’s communism.

…the kinds of ideas traditionally associated with planned economies are gaining more and more support all over Germany. …Substantial numbers of people have moved to Germany’s major cities…the supply of housing has failed to keep pace with these significant developments, and this is largely because construction approval processes are so long-winded and the latest environmental regulations have made building prohibitively expensive. …In Germany’s capital, Berlin, …it now takes 12 years to draft and approve a zoning plan, which in many cases is a prerequisite for the development of new dwellings. …An initiative in Berlin calling for the expropriation of private real estate companies has collected three times as many signatures as it needed to initiate a petition for a referendum. …Kevin Kühnert, chairman of the youth organization of the center-left SPD…has gone as far as calling for a complete ban on private property owners renting out their apartments. …Berlin’s Senate approved the main components of a rent freeze in the German capital. …Advocates of such central economic planning react sensitively when they are reminded that it has already been tried… An earlier rent freeze was approved in Germany on April 20, 1936, as a gift from the National Socialist Party to the citizens of Germany on Adolf Hitler’s 47th birthday. The National Socialists’ rent cap was adopted into the GDR’s socialist law by Price Regulation No. 415 of May 6, 1955, and it remained in force until the collapse of the GDR in 1989.

Now let’s review some economic research.

Three Stanford professors researched the issue, looking specifically as San Francisco’s local rent control rules.

Using a 1994 law change, we exploit quasi-experimental variation in the assignment of rent control in San Francisco to study its impacts on tenants and landlords. Leveraging new data tracking individuals’ migration, we find rent control limits renters’ mobility by 20% and lowers displacement from San Francisco. Landlords treated by rent control reduce rental housing supplies by 15% by selling to owner-occupants and redeveloping buildings. Thus, while rent control prevents displacement of incumbent renters in the short run, the lost rental housing supply likely drove up market rents in the long run, ultimately undermining the goals of the law. …In the long run, landlords’ substitution toward owner-occupied and newly constructed rental housing not only lowered the supply of rental housing in the city, but also shifted the city’s housing supply towards less affordable types of housing that likely cater to the tastes of higher income individuals. Ultimately, these endogenous shifts in the housing supply likely drove up citywide rents, damaging housing affordability for future renters…it appears rent control has actually contributed to the gentrification of San Francisco, the exact opposite of the policy’s intended goal. …rent control has contributed to widening income inequality of the city.

To be fair, rent control is just one of several bad policies that mess up the city’s housing market.

Now let’s shift to the other side of the country.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe shared evidence from a disastrous experiment in Massachusetts.

…a handful of Democratic lawmakers want to bring the horror of rent control… This isn’t happening only in Massachusetts. …Oregon’s governor just signed a statewide rent-control law and efforts to overturn rent-control bans are underway in Illinois, Colorado, and Washington state. …the folly of rent control is so well-established that to deny it requires, as Hillary Clinton might say, a willing suspension of disbelief. Massachusetts and most other states have banned rent control because the harm it causes far outweighs any benefit it confers. When politicians impose a ceiling on rent, the results are invariable: housing shortages, depressed real estate values, increased decay, less new construction. …The longer rent control persists, and the more harshly it is enforced, the worse the problem grows. …in New York City, where strict rent controls date back to World War II, the annual rate at which apartments turn over is less than half the national average, while the share of tenants who haven’t moved in more than 20 years is more than double the national average. …Acknowledging the damage caused by rent control is neither a right- nor left-wing issue. …the communist foreign minister of Vietnam…made…the…point in 1989: “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi,” Nguyen Co Thach remarked, “but we have destroyed our city by very low rents.” …When Massachusetts voters struck down rent control in 1994, it was in the teeth of preposterous fearmongering by hardline tenant activists… What happened in reality was that tens of thousands of apartments were decontrolled with no ill effects… When tenants were analyzed by occupation, it was high-earning professionals and managers who predominated among the beneficiaries of rent control; semi-skilled and unskilled workers lagged far behind. Rent control always ends up benefiting the young, strong, and well-to-do at the expense of the old, weak, and poor.

Meanwhile, Meghan McArdle opined in the Washington Post about the perverse economic consequences of rent control.

…there are a few questions where there’s near unanimity, and rent control is one of them. Pretty much every economist agrees that rent controls are bad. …the policy appears to be making a comeback. …City governments may have to relearn why their predecessors pruned back rent-control policies. Rent control is supposed to protect poor, deserving tenants from the depredations of greedy landlords. And it does, up to a point. …The problem is that rent control doesn’t do anything about the reason that rents are rising, which is that there are more people who want to live in desirable areas than there are homes for them to live in. Housing follows the same basic laws of economics as other goods that consumers need… rent control also reduces the incentive to supply rental housing. …an actual solution to skyrocketing rents: Build more housing, so that the rent controls won’t be necessary… To do that, cities would need to ease the costly land-use regulations that make it so difficult for developers to fill the unmet demand. …Alas, that’s not going to happen… Declining housing stock is just one of the many potential costs of rent controls; others include a deteriorating housing stock as landlords stop investing in their properties, and higher rents. Yes, higher, because rent control creates a two-tier housing market. There are cheap, price-stabilized apartments that rarely turn over, because why would you give up such a great deal? Then there are the uncontrolled apartments, which everyone else in the city has to fight over, bidding up the price. …the people getting the biggest benefit are white, affluent Manhattanites.

By the way, you hopefully have noticed a pattern.

Rich people generally get the biggest benefits under rent control.

Let’s close with a look at how economists from across the philosophical spectrum view rent control

Here’s some survey data from the University of Chicago.

Incidentally, there’s an obvious reason why politicians persist in pushing bad policy. In the case of rent control, it’s because tenants outnumber landlords.

So even if politicians understand that the policy will backfire, their desire to get votes will trump common sense. Especially if they assume they can blame “greedy landlords” for the inevitable housing shortages and then push for government housing subsidies as an ostensible solution.

Another example of Mitchell’s Law.

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Something really strange is happening. Yesterday, I wrote about how I agreed with Trump on a trade issue.

Today, I’m going to agree with Crazy Bernie about a moral hazard issue.

Shocking, but true. The Vermont socialist actually understands that it makes no sense to subsidize new homes in flood-prone areas.

I’ll probably never again have a chance to write this next sentence, so it deserves an exclamation point. Bernie is completely correct!

Flood insurance encourages people to take on excessive risk (i.e., it creates moral hazard). And the subsidies often benefit rich people with beachfront homes (which may explain why Senator Sanders is on the right side)

If nothing else, politicians are very clever about doing the wrong thing in multiple ways.

So we’re not merely talking about luring people into flood-prone areas with subsidized insurance.

Sometimes government uses rental subsidies to put people in flood-prone areas.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

When a deadly rainstorm unloaded on Houston in 2016, Sharobin White’s apartment complex flooded in up to six feet of water. She sent her toddler and 6-year-old to safety on an air mattress, but her family lost nearly everything, including their car. When Hurricane Harvey hit the next year, it happened all over again: Families rushed to evacuate, and Ms. White’s car, a used Chevrolet she bought after the last flood, was destroyed. …But Ms. White and many of her neighbors cannot afford to leave. They are among hundreds of thousands of Americans — from New York to Miami to Phoenix — who live in government-subsidized housing that is at serious risk of flooding… But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees some of the at-risk properties, does not currently have a universal policy against paying for housing in a designated flood zone. …Nationwide, about 450,000 government-subsidized households — about 8 to 9 percent — are in flood plains…

While FEMA and government-subsidized flood insurance wouldn’t even exist in my libertarian fantasy world, I’m willing to acknowledge that government sometimes does things that aren’t completely foolish.

For instances, it’s better to subsidize people to move out of flood-prone areas instead of subsidizing them to rebuild in those areas.

Nashville is trying to move people…away from flood-prone areas. The voluntary program uses a combination of federal, state and local funds to offer market value for their homes. If the owners accept the offer, they move out, the city razes the house and prohibits future development. The acquired land becomes an absorbent creekside buffer, much of it serving as parks with playgrounds and walking paths. …While a number of cities around the country have similar relocation projects to address increased flooding, disaster mitigation experts consider Nashville’s a model that other communities would be wise to learn from: The United States spends far more on helping people rebuild after disasters than preventing problems. …research shows that a dollar spent on mitigation before a disaster strikes results in at least six dollars in savings. There are many reasons more people end up rebuilding in place than moving away. Reimbursement is relatively quick, while FEMA’s buyout programs tend to be slow and difficult to navigate.

While it’s encouraging to see a better approach, we wouldn’t need to worry about the issue if government got out of the business of subsidizing flood insurance.

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal expressed disappointment last year when Republicans blew a golden opportunity to fix the program.

One disappointment you can count on is a GOP failure to fix one of the worst programs in government: taxpayer subsidized flood insurance. …The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program was set to expire on Nov. 30, and Congress rammed through a temporary extension to buy more time. Congress was supposed to deal with the program as part of the end-of-the-year rush. The program runs a $1.4 billion annual deficit, which comes from insurance priced too low to compensate for the risk of building homes near water. Congress last year forgave $16 billion of the program’s $24 billion debt to Treasury, not that anyone learned anything. The program then borrowed another $6 billion. …If Republicans can’t fix this example of failed government because it might upset parochial interests, they deserve some time in the political wilderness.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is better on this issue than last year’s GOP Congress.

I’ve criticized Republicans on many occasions, but this must rank as the most damning comparison.

But let’s set aside politics and partisanship.

What matters is that the federal government is operating an insanely foolish program that puts people at risk, soaks taxpayers, and destroys wealth.

Gee, maybe Reagan was right when he pointed out that government is the problem rather than the solution.

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Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some very sloppy assertions in the above passages.

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

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

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

More spending, more intervention, and more cronyism.

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

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

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

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

So what are his solutions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, Veronique is spot one.

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When I wrote last month about the Green New Deal, I warned that it was cronyism on steroids.

Simply stated, the proposal gives politicians massive new powers to intervene and this would be a recipe for staggering levels of Solyndra-style corruption.

Well, the World Bank has some new scholarly research that echoes my concerns. Two economists investigated the relationship with the regulatory burden and corruption.

Empirical studies such as Meon and Sekkat (2005) and De Rosa et al. (2010) show that corruption is more damaging for economic performance at higher levels of regulation or lower levels of governance quality. …Building on the above literature, in this paper, we use firm-level survey data on 39,732 firms in 111 countries collected by the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys between 2009 and 2017 to test the hypothesis that corruption impedes firm productivity more at higher levels of regulation. …estimate the model using sample weighted OLS (Ordinary Least Squares) regression analysis.

And what did they discover?

We find that the negative relationship between corruption and productivity is amplified at high levels of regulation. In fact, at low levels of regulation, the relationship between corruption and productivity is insignificant. …we find that a 1 percent increase in bribes that firms pay to get things done, expressed as the share of annual sales, is significantly associated with about a 0.9 percent decrease in productivity of firms at the 75th percentile value of regulation (high regulation). In contrast, at the 25th percentile value of regulation (low regulation), the corresponding change is very small and statistically insignificant, though it is still negative. …after we control for investment, skills and raw materials, the coefficients of the interaction term between corruption and regulation became much larger… This provides support for the hypothesis that corruption is more damaging for productivity at higher levels of regulation.

Lord Acton famously wrote that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Based on the results from the World Bank study, we can say “regulation corrupts, and added regulation corrupts additionally.”

Not very poetic, but definitely accurate.

Figure 4 from the study shows this relationship.

Seems like we need separation of business and state, not just separation of church and state.

This gives me a good excuse to recycle this video I narrated more than 10 years ago.

P.S. Five years ago, I cited a World Bank study showing that tax complexity facilitates corruption. Which means a simple and fair flat tax isn’t merely a way of achieving more prosperity, it’s also a way of draining the swamp.

The moral of the story – whether we’re looking at red tape, taxes, spending, trade, or any other issue – is that smaller government is the most effective way of reducing sleaze and corruption.

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Having been inspired by Ronald Reagan’s libertarian-ish message (and track record), I’ve always been suspicious of alternative forms of conservatism for the simple reason that they always seem to mean bigger government.

To be fair, proponents of all these approaches always paid homage to the role of markets, so we’re not talking about Bernie Sanders-type nuttiness.

But I don’t want to travel in the wrong direction, even if only at 10 miles-per-hour rather than 90 miles-per-hour.

Now there’s a new alternative to Reaganism called “national conservatism.” It’s loosely defined, as you can see by reports from both left-leaning outlets (New York, New Republic) and right-leaning outlets (Townhall, Daily Signal).

There are parts of this new movement that are appealing, at least if I’m reading them correctly. Proponents are appropriately skeptical of global governance, though maybe not for the reasons that arouse my antipathy. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this battle.

They also don’t seem very fond of nation building, which also pleases me. And I also am somewhat sympathetic to their arguments about national unity – assuming it’s based on the proper definition of patriotism.

But their economic views, at best, are worrisome. And, as George Will opines, they’re sometimes awful.

…“national conservatives”…advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. …The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocates “industrial policy” — what other socialists call “economic planning”… He especially means subsidizing manufacturing..he admits that as government, i.e., politics, permeates the economy on manufacturing’s behalf, “regulatory capture,” other forms of corruption and “market distortions will emerge.” Emerge? Using government to create market distortions is national conservatism’s agenda. …Their agenda is much more ambitious than President Richard M. Nixon’s 1971 imposition of wage and price controls, which were temporary fiascos. Their agenda is even more ambitious than the New Deal’s cartelization of industries, which had the temporary (and unachieved) purpose of curing unemployment. What national conservatives propose is government fine-tuning the economy’s composition and making sure resources are “well” distributed, as the government (i.e., the political class) decides, forever. …Although the national conservatives’ anti-capitalism purports to be populist, it would further empower the administrative state’s faux aristocracy of administrators who would decide which communities and economic sectors should receive “well”-allocated resources. Furthermore, national conservatism is paternalistic populism. This might seem oxymoronic, but so did “Elizabeth Warren conservatives” until national conservatives emerged as such.

Since Nixon and FDR were two of America’s worst presidents, Will is drawing a very harsh comparison.

To give the other side, here are excerpts from a New York Times column by Oren Cass.

…a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy. Genuine prosperity depends upon people working as productive contributors to their society, through which they can achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, participate in their communities, and raise children prepared to do the same.

None of this sounds bad.

Heck, it sounds good. I’m in favor of strong families and strong communities.

But what does this rhetoric mean? Here’s where I start to worry.

Crucially, while a labor market left alone will seek an efficient equilibrium, economic theory never promises that the equilibrium will be a socially desirable, inclusive one. A genuine conservatism values markets as powerful mechanisms that foster choice, promote competition and deliver growth, but always in service to the larger end of a cohesive society in which people can thrive. …In some cases, …conservatives will head in new directions or even reverse course. …an insistence that workers throughout the labor market share in productivity growth……longstanding hostility toward organized labor will give way to an emphasis on reform. …new forms of organizing through which workers can support one another, engage with management and contribute to civil society should be a conservative priority.

And my worry turns to unfettered angst when I read some of the specific ideas that Cass mentions.

…a wage subsidy delivered directly into each low-wage paycheck…skepticism of unfettered international trade…legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to close the trade deficit by taxing foreign purchases of American assets.

To put it mildly, more redistribution, more protectionism, and taxes on investment is not a Reaganite agenda.

I’ll close with a political observation. Defenders of national conservatism have told me that the Reagan message is old and stale. It supposedly doesn’t apply to new problems in a new era.

Yet non-conservative Republicans lost twice to Obama while a hypothetical poll in 2013 showed Reagan would trounce Obama.

Some national conservatives point to Trump’s victory as an alternative, but I think that had more to do with Hillary Clinton. In any event, I very much doubt Trumpism is a long-term model for political success. Or economic success.

Maybe the real lesson is that good policy is good politics?

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In my libertarian fantasies, we dramatically shrink the size of the federal government and return to pre-1913 policy by getting rid of the income tax.

But if I’m forced to be at least vaguely realistic, the second-best option is scrapping the current tax code and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax based on the “Holy Trinity” of good policy.

The third-best option (i.e., the best we can hope for in the real world) is to adopt incremental reforms that move the tax code in the right direction.

That happened in 2017. I’ve written many times about why it was a very good idea to reduce the tax rate on corporate income. And I’ve also lauded the 2017 law’s limitation on the state and local tax deduction.

Today, let’s focus on the changes in that law that reduced the tax preference for residential real estate.

The housing lobby (especially builders and realtors) tried to scare lawmakers that any reduction in their privileged tax status would cause a large amount of damage.

Yet, as reported last year by the New York Times, there was no adverse effect in the first year of the new tax law.

It wasn’t supposed to take long for the Trump tax cuts to hobble housing prices… Nearly nine months later, those warnings have not materialized. …Economists see only faint effects from the new law so far in housing data. They’re small, and they’re contained to a few high-priced, highly taxed ZIP codes, largely in blue states. They’re nothing close to the carnage that real estate groups warned about when the law was under debate last fall. …the tax law has unquestionably diminished the value of several federal subsidies for homeowners. It limits deductions for state and local taxes, including property taxes, to $10,000 per household, which hurts owners of expensive homes in high-tax states. It lowers the cap on the mortgage interest deduction, which raises housing prices by allowing homeowners to write off the interest payments from their loans, to $750,000 for new loans, down from $1 million.

To the extent the impact could even be measured, it was a net plus for the economy.

After the law passed, ZIP codes in the Boston area saw a 0.6 percentage point slowdown in home appreciation on the Massachusetts side — and a 0.1 percent acceleration on the New Hampshire side. The effect there is “not huge, it’s small,”… Experts say several forces are helping to counteract the diminished federal home-buying subsidies. …said Kevin Hassett, “…if you’re getting a lot of income growth, the income growth increases the demand for housing, and the mortgage interest deduction reduces it. And the effects offset.”

This chart from the story is particularly persuasive. If anything, it appears housing values rose faster after the law was changed (though presumably due to bad policies such as building restrictions and zoning laws, not just the faster growth caused by a a shift in tax policy).

There’s also no negative effect one year later. A report from today’s New York Times finds that the hysterical predictions of the housing lobby haven’t materialized.

Even though the tax preference was significantly reduced.

The mortgage-interest deduction, a beloved tax break bound tightly to the American dream of homeownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it nearly vanished in middle-class neighborhoods across the country, and it appears that hardly anyone noticed. …The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction — to $24,000 for a couple filing jointly — on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming itemized deductions. As a result, far fewer families — and, in particular, far fewer middle-class families — are claiming the itemized deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, about one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, Internal Revenue Service statistics show. This year, that number fell to less than one in 10. The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it once was: The 2017 law capped the maximum value of new mortgage debt eligible for the deduction at $750,000, down from $1 million.

Once again, the evidence shows good news.

…housing professionals, home buyers and sellers — and detailed statistics about the housing market — show no signs that the drop in the use of the tax break is weighing on prices or activity. …Such reactions challenge a longstanding American political consensus. For decades, the mortgage-interest deduction has been alternately hailed as a linchpin of support for homeownership (by the real estate industry)…. most economists on the left and the right…argued that the mortgage-interest deduction violated every rule of good policymaking. It was regressive, benefiting wealthy families… Studies repeatedly found that the deduction actually reduced ownership rates by helping to inflate home prices, making homes less affordable to first-time buyers. …In the debate over the tax law in 2017, the industry warned that the legislation could cause house prices to fall 10 percent or more in some parts of the country. …Places where a large share of middle-class taxpayers took the mortgage-interest deduction, for example, have not seen any meaningful difference in price increases from less-affected areas.

Incidentally, here’s a chart from the story. It shows that the rich have always been the biggest beneficiaries of the tax preference.

And now the deduction that remains is even more skewed toward upper-income households.

As far as I’m concerned, the tax code shouldn’t punish people simply because they earn a lot of money.

But neither should it give them special goodies.

For what it’s worth, the mortgage interest deduction is not a left-vs-right or statism-vs-libertarian issue.

I’ve crossed swords on a few occasions with Bill Gale of the Brooking Institute, but his column a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal wisely calls for full repeal of this tax preference.

With any luck, the 2017 tax overhaul will prove to be only the first step toward eventually replacing the century-old housing subsidy… This is a welcome change. The mortgage-interest deduction has existed since the income tax was created in 1913, but it has never been easy to justify. …Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have no mortgage-debt subsidies, yet their homeownership rates are slightly higher than in the U.S. A large reduction in the mortgage-interest deduction in Denmark in 1987 had virtually no effect on homeownership rates. …The next step should be to eliminate the deduction altogether. The phaseout should be gradual but complete.

Here’s another example.

Nobody would ever accuse the folks at Slate of being market friendly, so this article is another sign that there’s a consensus against using the tax code to tilt the playing field in favor of residential real estate.

One of the most remarkable things about the tax bill Republicans passed last year was how it took a rotary saw to the mortgage interest deduction. The benefit for homeowners was once considered a politically untouchable upper-middle-class entitlement, but the GOP aggressively curtailed it in order to pay for cuts elsewhere in the tax code. …just 13.8 million households will subtract mortgage interest from their 2018 returns, down from 32.3 million in 2017. …if Democrats ever get a chance to kill off the vestigial remains of the mortgage interest deduction down the line, they might as well. …any negative effect of the tax law seems to have been drowned out by a healthy economy.

I’ll close by digging into the archives at the Heritage Foundation and dusting off one of my studies from 1996.

Analyzing the flat tax and home values, I pointed out that rising levels of personal income were the key to a strong housing market, not the value of the tax deduction.

Everything that’s happened over the past 23 years – and especially the past two years – confirms my analysis.

Simply stated, economic growth is how we get more good things in society. That’s true for housing, as explained above, and it’s also true for charitable giving.

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Two months ago, I pointed out that San Francisco’s housing crisis was a “learnable moment” because some folks on the left actually now understand the negative consequences of government intervention.

Now I’m wondering if we might actually have a learnable moment on the issue of minimum wages for Crazy Bernie.

The Vermont socialist is experiencing something akin to what it’s like to be an entrepreneur or business owner. He’s having to generate revenue for his campaign and figure out the best way to allocate the funds.

And – surprise, surprise – he doesn’t want to pay above-market wages. Which makes him a giant hypocrite since he wants to use government coercion to impose higher minimum wages on the private sector.

Professor Art Carden highlights three things that Bernie should learn from this experience.

Bernie Sanders is having trouble with his unionized–and apparently underpaid–labor force. …the Sanders campaign “will limit the amount of time his organizers can work to guarantee that no one is making less than $15 per hour.” …I see three takeaways. First, …this is pretty much exactly what that story predicts. Firms don’t wish to hire as much labor as workers wish to supply at what is apparently an above-market wage. …Second, a $15 per hour national minimum wage will not be a free lunch, even for the people we claim we want to help. …there are a lot of hidden costs to higher minimum wages, like less-generous fringe benefits and stricter scheduling. A higher minimum wage will…also create a lot of losers: according to the Congressional Budget Office’s median estimate, “…1.3 million other workers would become jobless.” Third, this whole episode should make you more skeptical of socialism, even watered-down “democratic socialism.” …Sanders and his staff are struggling to manage an ideologically homogeneous group of people with similar worldviews…and a very well-defined end goal of “elect Bernie Sanders to the presidency.” Suffice it to say this does not make me confident that they can be trusted to organize something as complex and mind-bogglingly diverse as the US economy

So will this episode teach Crazy Bernie a lesson about the downside of minimum-wage laws?

Will his clueless volunteers now understand there are tradeoffs in the real world and that government can’t make people richer by waving a magic wand?

I won’t hold my breath, but it would be nice.

In the meantime, here’s a great video on the topic by John Stossel.

This confirms all the other research (see here, here, here, and here) we’ve seen on the negative impact of Seattle’s destructive new law.

Let’s close with an amusing Branco cartoon

P.S. Another Democratic presidential candidate also is a big hypocrite.

P.P.S. Actually, there are at least three hypocrites running for the Democratic nomination.

P.P.P.S. Here’s another video reviewing the evidence about Seattle’s job-killing increase in the minimum wage.

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I’m not a big fan of the current tax system. I’m also not supportive of America’s bankrupt Social Security system.

The country would be much better off with fundamental reform of both the tax system and Social Security.

Some groups will be reap especially large rewards if that happens.

For instance, a new report from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines the impact of taxes and Social Security on female labor supply.

…we ask to what extent the fact that taxes and old age Social Security benefits depend on one’s marital status discourages female labor supply and affect welfare. …as couples file taxes jointly, the secondary earner in the married couple faces a higher marginal tax rate, which tends to discourage their labor supply. …reduced labor supply does not necessarily imply lower Social Security benefits. Since women have historically been the secondary earners, both provisions tend to discourage female labor supply… to what extent are these disincentives holding it back? …We estimate our dynamic structural model using…data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) for the cohort born in 1941-1945 (the “1945” cohort). …we also estimate our model for the 1951-1955 cohort (the “1955” cohort),

This chart from the study shows that married women face a tax penalty – i.e., higher marginal tax rates – compared to single women.

The main takeaway is that this marriage penalty, combined with discriminatory features of Social Security, discourages women from working.

How big is the effect?

The report, authored by Margherita Borella, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Fang Yang, finds that government policies have a significant adverse impact on labor-force participation.

For the 1945 cohort, we find that Social Security spousal and survivor benefits and the current structure of joint income taxation provide strong disincentives to work to married women and single women who expect to get married… For instance, the elimination of all of these marriage-based rules raises participation at age 25 by over 20 percentage points for married women and by five percentage points for single women. At age 45, participation for these groups is, respectively, still 15 and 3 percentage point higher without these marital benefits provisions. In addition, these marriage-based rules reduce the participation of married men starting at age 55, resulting in a participation that is 8 percentage points lower by age 65. Finally, for these cohorts, these marital provisions decrease the savings of married couples by 20.3% at age 66.1 In terms of welfare, abolishing these marital provisions would benefit…over ninety percent of the people in this cohort. …We find that the effects for the 1955 cohort on participation, wages, earnings, and savings are large and similar to those in the 1945 cohort, thus indicating that the effects of marriage-related provisions are large also for cohorts in which the labor participation of married women is higher.

What if these discriminatory policies were fixed?

It depends, of course, on how the problems are addressed.

The report finds that a budget-neutral approach (i.e., returning any budgetary windfall to taxpayers) would be a significant net plus.

…there would also be large aggregate gains from removing marriage related provisions and reducing the income tax… Overall our policy experiments thus indicate that removing marriage related taxes and Social Security benefits would increase female labor supply and the welfare of the majority of the populations.

Here are a couple of charts from the study, showing both an increase in labor supply and an increase in labor income.

I’ll close with a final point about family structure.

Some people will argue that the current penalties in the tax code and Social Security system are desirable because they don’t punish stay-at-home moms as much as working women.

That’s a very strange argument. Sort of like the folks on the left, including the IMF, who advocate policies that hurt the poor if rich people suffer even more.

P.S. If there’s reform, older people also will enjoy significant gains.

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When I assess President Trump’s economic policy, I generally give the highest grade to his tax policy.

But as I pointed out in this interview from last year, there’s also been some progress on regulatory policy, even if only in that the avalanche of red tape we were getting under Bush and Obama has abated.

But perhaps I need to be even more positive about the Trump Administration.

For instance, I shared a graph last year that showed a dramatic improvement (i.e., a reduction) in the pace of regulations under Trump.

For all intents and purposes, this means the private sector has had more “breathing room” to prosper. Which means more opportunity for jobs, growth, investment, and entrepreneurship.

To what extent can we quantify the benefits?

Writing for the Washington Post, Trump’s former regulatory czar said the administration has lowered the cost of red tape, which is a big change from what happened during the Obama years.

Over the past two years, federal agencies have reduced regulatory costs by $23 billion and eliminated hundreds of burdensome regulations, creating opportunities for economic growth and development. This represents a fundamental change in the direction of the administrative state, which, with few exceptions, has remained unchecked for decades. The Obama administration imposed more than $245 billion in regulatory costs on American businesses and families during its first two years. The benefits of deregulation are felt far and wide, from lower consumer prices to more jobs and, in the long run, improvements to quality of life from access to innovative products and services. …When reviewing regulations, we start with a simple question: What is the problem this regulation is trying to fix? Unless otherwise required by law, we move forward only when we can identify a serious problem or market failure that would be best addressed by federal regulation. These bipartisan principles were articulated by President Ronald Reagan and reaffirmed by President Bill Clinton, who recognized that “the private sector and private markets are the best engine for economic growth.”

But how does this translate into benefits for the American people?

Let’s look at some new research from the Council of Economic Advisers, which estimates the added growth and the impact of that growth on household income.

Before 2017, the regulatory norm was the perennial addition of new regulations.Between 2001 and 2016, the Federal government added an average of 53 economically significant regulations each year. During the Trump Administration, the average has been only 4… Even if no old regulations were removed, freezing costly regulation would allow real incomes to grow more than they did in the past, when regulations were perennially added… The amount of extra income from a regulatory freeze depends on (1) the length of time that the freeze lasts and (2) the average annual cost of the new regulations that would have been added along the previous growth path. …In other words, by the fifth year of a regulatory freeze, real incomes would be 0.8 percent (about $1,200 per household in the fifth year) above the previous growth path. …As shown by the red line in figure 3, removing costly regulations allows for even more growth than freezing them. As explained above, the effect, relative to a regulatory freeze, of removing 20 costly Federal regulations has been to increase real incomes by 1.3 percent. In total, this is 2.1 percent more income—about $3,100 per household per year—relative to the previous growth path.

Here’s the chart showing the benefits of both less regulation and deregulation.

The chart makes the change in growth seem dramatic, but the underlying assumptions aren’t overly aggressive.

What you’re seeing echoes my oft-made point that even modest improvements in growth lead to meaningful income gains over time.

P.S. My role isn’t to be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. Instead, I praise what’s good and criticize what’s bad. While Trump gets a good grade on taxes and an upgraded positive grade on regulation, don’t forget that he gets a bad grade on trade, a poor grade on spending, and a falling grade on monetary policy.

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A couple of years ago, I praised federalism in part because state and local governments would be less likely to adopt bad policy (such as higher minimum wages) if they understood that jobs and investment could simply migrate to jurisdictions that didn’t adopt bad policy.

But “less likely” isn’t the same as “never.” Some state and local politicians can’t resist the temptation to raise taxes, even though that means workers “vote with their feetfor places with lower tax burdens.

And some state and local politicians continue to mandate higher minimum wages (see here, here, here, and here), even though that means workers have fewer job opportunities.

Today, we’re going to look at some fresh evidence from Emeryville, California.

The local newspaper has an impressively detailed look at what’s happened to the town’s labor market.

Representatives from the Mills College Lokey School presented data from its recent ‘business conditions’ survey to our City Council on Tuesday. The study confirmed what restaurant owners warned when the ordinance was hastily passed in 2015. They are struggling, rapidly raising menu prices and increasingly looking to leave. …It’s getting harder to find small food service businesses that were around in 2015 when the MWO was passed. Emeryville institution Bucci’s, Commonwealth, Farley’s, Scarlet City … all gone. In fact, nearly all the brick & mortar businesses that comprised the short-lived Little City Emeryville small business advocacy group have moved, folded or sold. …The survey also identified that “the restaurant industry is clearly struggling.” Specifically, small, independent, non-franchise establishments are having the most difficulty.

Here’s some of the survey data on the negative effect.

Here’s some specific information on how restaurants have been adversely impacted.

…nearly all the new businesses that have opened have embraced the counter service model that requires fewer employees. Paradita Eatery, whose original plan was for a full service sit-down restaurant, cited Emeryville’s wage ordinance specifically for ‘pivoting’ to a counter service model. Counter service models require fewer employees to offset higher labor costs. …The only full service restaurant that has opened since the Minimum Wage was passed was 612One Asian Fusion which folded after just two years in business.

One of the reasons for the economic damage is that Emeryville has gone further and faster in the wrong direction.

The local law is more onerous than the state law and more onerous than other nearby communities.

But it’s not just workers who are suffering.

Consumers are adversely impacted as well.

One commenter, who identified herself as a resident, questioned why the survey did not include consumer data noting her dining frequency was altered by the drastic price increases she’s observed. …She noted that she used to frequent her local Doyle Street Cafe 2-3 times per month but last year went only twice. …Once franchise owner noted that the price increases they’ve been forced to pass along have ironically had the biggest impact on vulnerable communities that are more price-sensitive. “Our largest decrease in guests are folks over 50. Obviously our elderly, disabled, and folks on fixed incomes are unable increase their income to compensate for the price increases.”

Let’s close with a new video from Johan Norberg, which looks at the impact of minimum wage increases in San Diego.

P.S. If local communities are allowed to mandate minimum wages higher than the state level or federal, shouldn’t they also have the freedom to allow minimum wages that are lower than the state level or federal level?

P.P.S. A number of European nations have no mandated minimum wage. As explained in this video, that’s an approach we should copy.

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

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While I constantly criticize the statist policies that are imposed in California, I can understand why people want to live there.

There’s plenty of sunshine, a temperate climate, low humidity, and nice scenery.

I even realize that lots of people like San Francisco, even though it’s too chilly and too urban (and too officious and too regulatory) for my tastes.

And too expensive. Not just for me. For almost everyone.

In a column for the Washington Post, Karen Heller opines that San Francisco faces some serious problems. Here are some excerpts from her piece.

In a time of scarce consensus, everyone agrees that something has rotted in San Francisco. Conservatives have long loathed it as the axis of liberal politics and political correctness, but now progressives are carping, too. They mourn it for what has been lost, a city that long welcomed everyone and has been altered by an earthquake of wealth. …Real estate is the nation’s costliest. …a median $1.6 million for a single-family home and $3,700 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment. …In the shadow of such wealth, San Francisco grapples with a very visible homeless crisis of 7,500 residents, some shooting up in the parks and defecating on the sidewalks, which a 2018 United Nations report deemed “a violation of multiple human rights.” Last year, new Mayor London Breed assigned a five-person crew, dubbed the “poop patrol,” to clean streets and alleys of human feces. …“Our rich are richer. Our homeless are more desperate. Our hipsters are more pretentious,” says Solnit, who once wrote that “San Francisco is now a cruel place and a divided one.” …San Francisco has…the lowest percentage of children, 13.4 percent, of any major American city, and is home to about as many dogs as humans under the age of 18. …the African American population has withered to 5.5 percent compared to 13.4 percent a half century ago.

While Ms. Heller does a good job of describing how San Fran has become a city that’s unaffordable for anyone who’s not a rich, single, hipster, she doesn’t explain why that’s the case.

Though she does quote one resident who says it’s the fault of the free market.

“This is unregulated capitalism, unbridled capitalism, capitalism run amok. There are no guardrails,” says Salesforce founder and chairman Marc Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who in a TV interview branded his city “a train wreck.”

Is Mr. Benioff right? Has San Francisco become Hong Kong on the Bay?

Interestingly, Farhad Manjoo also wrote about the city.

But his column for the New York Times puts the blame on his fellow leftists.

…look at San Francisco… One of every 11,600 residents is a billionaire, and the annual household income necessary to buy a median-priced home now tops $320,000. Yet the streets there are a plague of garbage and needles and feces… At every level of government, our representatives, nearly all of them Democrats, prove inadequate and unresponsive to the challenges at hand. …Creating dense, economically and socially diverse urban environments ought to be a paramount goal of progressivism. …Urban areas are the most environmentally friendly way we know of housing lots of people. We can’t solve the climate crisis without vastly improving public transportation and increasing urban density. …Yet where progressives argue for openness and inclusion as a cudgel against President Trump, they abandon it on Nob Hill and in Beverly Hills.

And he argues that the solution is…gasp…capitalism!

More specifically, he says government-imposed zoning must be curtailed so the market can provide more housing.

…California lawmakers used a sketchy parliamentary maneuver to knife Senate Bill 50, an ambitious effort to undo restrictive local zoning rules and increase the supply of housing. …because the largest American cities are populated and run by Democrats — many in states under complete Democratic control — this sort of nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is a particular shame of the left. …This explains the opposition to SB 50, which aimed to address the housing shortage in a very straightforward way: by building more housing. The bill would have erased single-family zoning in populous areas near transit locations. …wealthy progressive Democrats are…keeping housing scarce and inaccessible…to keep people out. “We’re saying we welcome immigration, we welcome refugees, we welcome outsiders — but you’ve got to have a $2 million entrance fee to live here, otherwise you can use this part of a sidewalk for a tent,” said Brian Hanlon, president of the pro-density group California Yimby.

This is very remarkable analysis, especially since it comes from someone who is so far to the left that he actually proposed to criminalize billionaires.

By the way, I’m obviously not a fan of zoning laws, but it’s easy to understand why some people defend them.

In part, they like the fact that such laws artificially increase the value of their property. And I’m sure some of them are genuinely fond of their neighborhoods and don’t want things to change.

And I’ll even admit they have a point when they argue that changing zoning laws is a bit like breach of contract. After all, people move into a neighborhood under a certain set of rules and regulations.

But my sympathy has very narrow limits. And if you want to understand why, watch this video from the folks at Reason.

The bottom line is that the mess in San Francisco is a teachable moment. It’s helping folks on the left understand that government regulations impose very real costs.

And the fact that Farhad Manjoo is on the right side (at least on this one issue) means a teachable moment actually became a learnable moment.

P.S. San Francisco also has onerous rent control laws. So local officials not only make it difficult to build housing, they also make it difficult to make a profit on housing that’s already there. That means big windfalls for a few insiders, but scarce housing for everyone else.

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I’m not a big fan of so-called anti-money laundering (AML) requirements.

And things are getting worse because these laws and rules increasingly are part of a Byzantine web of extraterritorial mandates – meaning nations trying to impose their laws on things that happen outside their borders.

Bruce Zagaris, a lawyer with special expertise in international legal issues, just wrote a study on this issue for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

Here’s how he frames the issue.

From the introduction of anti-money laundering laws in 1986, the United States government has led international efforts to prevent and prosecute money laundering…the U.S.’s unilateralism in the financial enforcement arena has alienated smaller jurisdictions and led to a substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions. This article examines the trade-offs of the U.S.’s unilateral approach and argues for a rebalancing of the expanding financial enforcement regime. …under the “territorial” theory of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the U.S. has proactively asserted that it has the right to regulate criminal acts occurring outside the U.S. as long as they produce effects within the United States. …A criminal statute which Congress intends to have extraterritorial application may reach a defendant who has never even entered the U.S. if s/he participated in a conspiracy in which a co-conspirator’s activities occurred within the U.S.

In part, this is a problem of the United States trying to dictate policy in other nations.

But what goes around, comes around. As Bruce explains,the European Commission is trying to coerce American territories into changing their policies.

On February 13, 2019, the European Commission blacklisted 23 jurisdictions for their weak regulation of AML/CTF policy, increasing the level of oversight that European banks would have to overcome in conducting business with said jurisdictions. The list included four U.S. territories – Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands… The U.S. Treasury Department immediately and swiftly condemned the blacklist, noting that it had “significant concerns about the substance of the list and the flawed process by which it was developed.” The Treasury further stated that it did not expect U.S. financial firms to pay any heed to the blacklist.

All this cross-border bullying would be bad news even if the underlying laws were reasonable.

But Bruce concludes by explaining that this is not the case.

The result of over-aggressive application of extraterritorial jurisdiction by the U.S. and the EU for anti-money laundering and prosecution of financial institutions and officials, together with the use of informal organizations, such as FATF, to establish new AML/CFT standards, has led to increasing exclusion of countries (called de-risking) and other depositors, especially in small jurisdictions. It has also led to substantial increase of costs for cross-border transactions, as financial institutions must increase AML due diligence, including Know Your Customer, Customer Due Diligence, and the requirement to report suspicious transactions, as well as be subject to prosecution and regulatory enforcement actions. National laws and international standards should have a cost-effect requirement, especially as they continually impose new requirements on the private sector and impede normal commerce and privacy.

All this extraterritoriality has economic implications.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, opines about the CF&P report.

…rarely do government leaders fully think through the effects of their actions — extraterritorial application of law being a prime example. …Noted legal scholar Bruce Zagaris, who specializes in international financial crime, has written a new paper for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation… the United States has proactively asserted it “has the right to regulate criminal acts by non-U.S. citizens occurring outside the U.S., as long as they produce effects in the U.S.” As can easily be seen, such a definition is a never-ending slippery-slope, which is causing great conflicts among governments. As a result of the increasingly expansive view of U.S. courts to take cases and enforce judgments extraterritorially, courts and legislatures in other countries are also asserting extraterritorial enforcement authority.

Richard explains why this is bad news for those who care about economic growth.

…It is difficult enough for businesses and individuals in any one jurisdiction to understand all the laws and regulations that apply to them, but once governments begin to extend their laws and regulations to foreign jurisdictions, the global financial and legal system begins to melt down. Laws and regulations are often in conflict, so those who are engaged in multiple legal jurisdictions are increasingly at risk — which causes them to rationally de-risk by withdrawing investment from those entities least able to defend themselves. The result is slower world growth and job creation. …Clear global rules need to be established as to when extraterritorial application of laws is justified and not justified. Issues like dual criminality in tax, anti-money laundering and terrorist finance need to be addressed to bring some rationality and fairness to the system. And finally, procedures need to be established so that any jurisdiction can challenge a rule that does not meet a reasonable cost-benefit test.

I’ll close by making two points.

First, politicians and bureaucrats claim that laws and regulations against money laundering are designed to fight crime. Don’t believe them. Money laundering is mostly a problem in “onshore” nations. The real motive is to undermine financial privacy so governments can track – and tax – capital around the world.

Second, American politicians and bureaucrats are playing with fire. The more we try to bully other nations to enforce our bad tax laws, the greater the risk that other governments no longer will use the dollar as a reserve currency. That would be costly to the U.S. economy.

P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few heroes on this issue.

P.P.S. Click here for a good summary article on why laws should be limited by borders.

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What’s the biggest problem with the Federal Reserve?

The obvious answer is that the Central Bank is susceptible to Keynesian monetary policy, which results in a harmful boom-bust cycle.

For instance, the Fed’s artificially low interest rates last decade played a key role (along with deeply misguided Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac subsidies) is causing the 2008 crisis.

And let’s not forget the Fed’s role in the Great Depression.

Today, though, let’s focus on a narrower topic.

As Norbert Michel explains for the Heritage Foundation, the central bank is trying to expand its power in the financial system.

…one of the “potential actions” the Fed Board is considering is to develop its very own real-time settlement system. This approach makes many private sector actors anxious because no private company wants to compete with the feds. …Since its inception, the Fed has been heavily involved in the U.S. payments system. And one can easily argue that the system has lagged behind precisely because the Fed has been too involved. …The Fed also effectively took over the check-clearing business even though the economic case for such a move was highly suspect. Private firms were doing fine. In fact, there is a long history of the Fed usurping the private market.

Here are some details on the Fed’s most-recent power grab.

…the government is once again angling to take over a function that private firms are already providing. The Clearinghouse, a private association owned by 25 large banks, launched its own system—Real-Time Payments (RTP)—in November 2017. …the private sector is better than the government at providing more goods and services to more people. In the private sector, competitive forces and the need to satisfy customers create constant pressure to innovate and improve. Government entities are wholly insulated from these pressures. The government should not provide a good or service unless there is some sort of clear market failure, where the private sector has failed to provide it. This type of failure clearly does not exist in the payments industry.

Norbert is right. Competition is the way to get better outcomes for consumers.

As such, it’s rather absurd to think a government-operated monopoly will produce good results (look, for instance, at its cronyist behavior during the financial crisis).

Now let’s zoom out and consider the big picture.

Richard Rahn has a column in the Washington Times that raises questions about the Fed’s role in a modern economy.

Is there a need for the Fed? …The Fed has an extensive history of policy mistakes, (too long to even summarize here). The problem has been the assumption that the Fed had better information and tools than it had. At times, it was expected to “lean against the wind” as if it had information not available to the market — or smarter people. In Hayekian terms, it suffered from “the pretense of knowledge.” At this point, it may be beyond fixing. Several very knowledgeable economists who have held high-level positions at the Fed, including regional bank presidents, have begun discussions about setting up a new commission to rethink the whole idea of a Fed and its activities. The structure that now exists is a jerry-built concoction that has been assembled in bits and pieces for more than a century — and increasingly appears to be past its expiration date.

I’ve written about the need to clip the Fed’s wings, but Richard’s column suggests even bolder action is needed.

Larry White and John Stossel also have questioned the role and power of the Federal Reserve.

In any event, one thing that should be clear is that the Fed hasn’t used its existing powers either wisely or effectively.

Thomas Sowell is right. Don’t reward a bureaucracy’s poor performance by giving it even more power.

P.S. Here’s a video I narrated on the Fed and central banking.

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I have this quaint notion that the Constitution guarantees economic liberty by limiting the power of Washington. Needless to say, parental leave is not one of the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8.

Sadly, many people (include the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) don’t share my view.

So let’s set aside that objection and focus on the policy implications of a new entitlement program.

I’ve already explained why the federal government shouldn’t have a policy on parental leave, but the topic isn’t going away so let’s look at the issue again.

The first thing to realize is that the fight over “parental leave” involves several competing options.

Here are the four alternatives.

  1. A “conservative” plan to allow new parents to finance time off by tapping into the bankrupt Social Security system.
  2. A plan from the left to make parental leave an entitlement financed by payroll taxes.
  3. A plan from the left to mandate that employers provide paid leave.
  4. The libertarian notion that it’s none of the government’s business.

Let’s address Option #1.

Writing for National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis argues for an expansion of government’s role.

Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah recently introduced the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment (CRADLE) Act, the latest conservative effort to develop a paid-leave policy that enables parents to stay home with their newborns. …It would amend the Social Security Act to allow parents to take up to three months off from work by drawing on their retirement benefits early in exchange for delaying their benefits after retiring.

You can read my concerns about this approach in this column from last March, so I don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

But Ms. DeSanctis makes some new arguments that cry out for rebuttal.

Starting with the notion that we should be ashamed that we’re not copying Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — an intergovernmental economic alliance of 36 member countries — that doesn’t have a national paid-leave program.

Wow, I never expected to see this type of argument in National Review. William F. Buckley must be spinning in his grave.

Heck, I made that argument a punchline in my recent collection of anti-Bernie Sanders satire.

She also wants to water down the definition of conservatism so that it means whatever is convenient for certain politicians.

The conservative argument against the proposal is intriguing as a matter of principle, but it is worth noting that the Republican politicians offering these paid-family-leave bills in recent years are also some of the most conservative policymakers in the Senate. …This new proposal is an effort not to expand the government but to protect and cultivate family life, which ought to be the chief goal of any country that cares about its future. …as the Right grapples with populist arguments for greater government prioritization of the needs of working-class Americans negatively affected by globalization, conservatives should embrace efforts to incentivize family growth and offer parents more flexibility in caring for their newborns.

I’m also less than impressed by her argument that Congress should “cultivate family life.”

Indeed, it’s precisely because strong families are good that Washington shouldn’t be involved.

Which is why I prefer what Rachel Greszler wrote for the Heritage Foundation. Here are some excerpts.

…a new national entitlement…could expand as other federal entitlements have, potentially costing hundreds of billions of dollars per year. …the role for the federal government is to remain neutral with regard to parents’ decisions to stay home or work outside the home. The government can, however, make it easier and less costly for workers to take family leave by reducing marginal tax rates so that workers have larger paychecks, supporting, instead of impeding, flexible work arrangements between employees and employers, and cutting costly regulations so that businesses can afford to provide paid leave.

And I definitely like articles that make the principled case against more government.

For instance, here are excerpts from a column by Veronique de Rugy.

Even if we pretend that it doesn’t change the size of government because the increased spending in the beginning will perfectly offset a few decades later with delayed benefit payments and increases in revenue (i.e., parents delay retirement and hence continue to send taxes to Uncle Sam), the plan increases the scope of the government immediately. You can’t wish away the fact that it drags the government into an area where it played no role before.

And George Leef, writing for Forbes, has similar concerns.

The notion that the government should help cover the costs of having a child springs naturally from the “progressive” mindset that government should be there to provide in case anyone needs (or merely prefers) assistance. It also dovetails with the liberal political mentality that many votes are to be won by giving people stuff. …But the big problem with this idea is not the dollars and cents one. Rather, it is the way it perpetuates and spreads the idea that the purpose of the federal government is to provide for our needs. …Kindly old Uncle Sam will be there to help when you need it. …This is the sort of thing Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he warned against ‘wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.’

What about other ways to address the issue?

Regarding Option #2 (an entitlement funded by payroll taxes), Vanessa Brown Calder’s article in National Review is must-reading on the issue.

…government-supported paid leave is costly. Paid-leave proposals such as the FAMILY Act would result in new payroll taxes on all current workers, whether or not they intend to use benefits. …realistic assumptions based on the national use of the federal unpaid FMLA program…suggest the FAMILY Act would result in costs of around $450 per year in taxes for the average worker. …the program is likely to expand, as similar programs have in other OECD countries. For example, the average length of paid maternity, parental, and home-care leave available to mothers in OECD-30 countries in 1970 was 17.2 weeks. In 2016 that number had tripled, to an average of 52.5 weeks, or over a year in benefits. Large expansions of programs are accompanied by large expansions in program costs. For example, Norway expanded leave from 18 to 35 weeks between 1987 and 1992, which nearly doubled the cost to taxpayers from $12,354 to $24,022 per eligible birth.

Imposing taxes to finance that much new spending isn’t very popular, even in left-wing states.

For instance, the New York Times reports that politicians in California want to impose a paid-leave mandate, but they are having a hard time figuring out how to make the numbers work.

The United States has long been the only industrialized country not to offer paid leave to new parents. Instead of waiting for the federal government, the incoming governor of California intends to change that… What’s unclear is how California would pay for it. The proposal, which the governor-elect, Gavin Newsom, is expected to include with his budget after he is sworn in on Monday, would be the most generous state policy in the nation, at a time when federal paid leave proposals have stalled. Yet it does not include a plan to finance it… California’s existing paid leave program is financed by a 1 percent payroll tax. Increasing that tax would require the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature, not assured despite Democratic control.

Interestingly, folks on the left are making the same argument that Ms. DeSanctis used in National Review.

“…we’re falling behind our economic competitors,” said Heather Boushey, the executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, who advised Hillary Clinton on economic issues during her 2016 presidential campaign.

I’ll merely add that “we’re falling behind” only in the race to impose more government.

We’re way ahead in the race for more prosperity.

I also found this passage to be laughable.

California has a history of fervent opposition to taxes. Democrats now have supermajorities in both the Senate and the House, but many of them have embraced fiscally conservative policies.

You almost have to assume that the reporter who wrote this piece never visited the state.

California has the nation’s most onerous state income tax. And it ranks very low in measures of fiscal policy.

Yes, there is a supermajority requirement to raise taxes, but politicians in Sacramento have been very successful in overcoming that barrier.

Let’s shift to Option #3 (mandating the employers provide leave).

Vanessa Brown Calder authored a comprehensive study on parental leave last year. She included a section on how this approach would harm female workers.

Economist Lawrence Summers studied the effects of mandating government benefits and concluded that women’s wages would be reduced to reflect the cost. Summers states that “if wages could freely adjust, these differences in expected costs would be offset by differences in wages.” If not, “there will be efficiency consequences as employers seek to hire workers with lower benefit costs.” …Economist Jonathan Gruber studied maternity-benefit mandates in Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, and his findings “consistently suggest” women’s wages were reduced to reflect the cost of benefits. The estimated reduction in wages was around 100 percent of the cost of benefits. Government-mandated leave has similar effects internationally. A study of 16 European countries over a period of around 20 years found that “parental leave is associated … with reductions in [women’s] relative wages at extended durations.” Other researchers have noted that “work-family policies … have also contributed to … lower wage-levels for women relative to men.”

This data is especially noteworthy since there is additional evidence that women get hurt when government intervenes on their behalf.

To conclude, let’s look at how her research supports Option #4 (no interference from Washington).

Here are her main findings.

…ample data show that the private market provides paid leave at rates about 30 to 50 percentage points higher than proponents claim. Private paid leave provision has grown three- or fourfold over 50 years and continues to grow. This trend indicates industry is responsive to employee demands. …Government intervention is also unlikely to correct gender or labor-market inequality in ways proponents desire. For example, families may respond to the policy by increasing women’s household work contributions relative to men’s. Redistributive effects of government intervention are likely to harm workers.

This chart shows how markets are naturally responsive when government doesn’t intervene.

And this chart from her study shows that women do better in the United States than in other nations.

In other words, benign neglect is the policy that produces the best outcomes.

Sadly, this is one of the many issues where the Trump Administration is on the wrong side.

The bottom line is that Option #4 is the only choice that is good for freedom, good for women, and good for the economy.

Option #1 is not as bad as Options #2 and #3, but it is still a step in the wrong direction (as I noted last year, supporters “are proposing to do the wrong thing in the best possible way”).

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During my early years in public policy, back in the late 1980s, I repeatedly crossed swords with people who argued that Washington should have more power over the economy so that the United States could compete with Japan, which supposedly was an economic juggernaut because of “industrial policy” directed by wise and far-sighted bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Given Japan’s subsequent multi-decade slump, it certainly seems like I was right to warn against giving American politicians the power to pick winners and losers.

But not everybody learned from that experience. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again,” only this time we’re supposed to be terrified because the Chinese government wants to subsidize and promote certain industries as part of “Made in China 2025”.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not scared.

Yes, China has enjoyed some impressive growth since it partially liberalized its economy in the late 1900s, but it will remain far behind the United States unless – as I recently explained on CNBC – there is a new wave of free-market reforms.

Needless to say, a government initiative to favor certain industries is hardly a step in that direction.

Some Chinese policy makers even realize that it’s counterproductive to give that kind of power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the South China Morning Post.

“Made in China 2025” has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, China’s former finance minister Lou Jiwei has said…“[Made in China] 2025 has been a lot of talking but very little was done,” Lou, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, said on Wednesday… “those industries are not predictable and the government should not have thought it had the ability to predict what is not foreseeable.” …“The negative effect of [the plan] is to have wasted taxpayers’ money.” He suggested the market should have played a greater role in developing the industries that MIC2025 was designed to push. “The [resources] should have been allocated by the market; the government should give the market a decisive role,” Lou said. “Why has the government pushed so hard on this strategy? [Hi-tech industry prospects] can all change in a few years, it is too unforeseeable.”

Sounds like Mr. Lou learned from Obama’s Solyndra fiasco that cronyism doesn’t work.

But some of his colleagues still need to be educated.

Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategy, Beijing’s blueprint for tech supremacy. …Since the plan’s launch in 2015, the government has poured money into MIC2025 to try to turn a number of domestic industries – including artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles – into global leaders by 2025. …Lou said: “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it.

I hope senior government officials change their minds about this harmful exercise in central planning.

Not because I’m afraid it will work, but rather because I like China and I want the country to prosper. The partial reforms from last century produced great results for China, including huge reductions in poverty.

Additional reforms could lead to mass prosperity. But that won’t happen if the Chinese government tries to control the allocation of resources.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at central planning and industrial policy, starting with the common-sense observation that there are degrees of intervention.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope perspective. We have examples of nations, such as the Soviet Union, where the government had near-total control over the allocation of labor and capital. And I suppose Hong Kong would be the closest example of a laissez-faire jurisdiction. And then there’s everything in between.

I’ve already shared two great videos on government planning versus the market. I strongly recommend this Prager University video, narrated by Professor Burton Folsom, on the failure of government-dictated investment. And also this video narrated by Professor Russ Roberts, which shows how a decentralized market efficiently provides a bounty to consumers.

Here’s a third, which celebrates the work of the late Don Lavoie, one of my professors when I studied at George Mason University.

By the way, there is a terrible flaw in the video. The photo that appears at 1:38 shows select faculty and students in 1987. Why is that a flaw? For the simple reason that I was part of the photo but got cropped out in the video.

P.S. Some people worry that China’s industrial policy will have a negative spillover effect on the United States because American companies will lose market share to the subsidized Chinese companies. That’s a legitimate concern and American officials should use the World Trade Organization to counter mercantilist policies.

P.P.S. To my dismay, some people don’t want China to become a rich nation. I assume those people are hoping China follows the advice of the OECD and IMF.

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What’s the worst thing the government does?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve argued that giving U.S. tax dollars to the OECD is the worst item in the budget, on a per-dollar-spent basis.

And I’ve expressed scathing disdain for the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. There are also really destructive features of the tax system, such as FATCA and the death tax.

But you could make a strong case for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well.

These two government-created corporations not only reduce long-run growth by distorting the allocation of capital, they also bear considerable responsibility for last decade’s financial crisis since they played a major role in fueling the housing bubble.

The U.K.-based Economist describes America’s interventionist regime as a form of socialism.

…the mortgage system…is…largely nationalised and subject to administrative control. …America’s mortgage-finance system, with $11 trillion of debt, is probably the biggest concentration of financial risk to be found anywhere. …The supply of mortgages in America has an air of distinctly socialist command-and-control about it. …The structure of these loans, their volume and the risks they entail are controlled not by markets but by administrative fiat. …the subsidy for housing debt is running at about $150 billion a year, or roughly 1% of GDP. A crisis as bad as last time would cost taxpayers 2-4% of GDP, not far off the bail-out of the banks in 2008-12. …the securitisation of loans, most of which used to be in the private sector, is now almost entirely state-run. …There are at least 10,000 relevant pages of federal laws, regulatory orders and rule books. …In the land of the free, where home ownership is a national dream, borrowing to buy a house is a government business for which taxpayers are on the hook.

In other words, our system of housing finance is mucked up by government intervention (very much akin to the way healthcare is a mess because of government).

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Fannie and Freddie have been in “conservatorship” every since they got a big bailout last decade. And that means the two cronyist firms are now somewhat constrained. They can’t lobby, for instance (though Republicans and Democrats still seek to expand subsidies in response to campaign cash from other housing-related lobbyists).

But the worst news is that there are people in the Trump Administration who want to go back to the bad ol’ pre-bailout days.

The Wall Street Journal opined on the issue as Trump prepared to take office. The editorial noted that the implicit government guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac led to an explicit bailout.

Fan and Fred’s owners feasted for decades on an implied taxpayer guarantee before the housing crisis. Since everyone knew the two government-created mortgage giants would receive federal help in a crisis, they were able to run enormous risks and still borrow cheaply as they came to own or guarantee $5 trillion of mortgage paper. When the housing market went south, taxpayers had to stage a rescue in 2008 and poured nearly $190 billion into the toxic twins.

As part of that bailout and the subsequent “conservatorship,” Fannie and Freddie still get to operate, and they still have a big implicit subsidy that allows near-automatic profits (at least until and unless there’s another big hiccup in the housing market), but the Treasury Department gets those profits.

Needless to say, this upsets the shareholders. They bought stock so they could get a slice of the undeserved profits generated by the Fannie/Freddie cronyist business model.

They claim going back to the pre-bailout days would be a form of privatization, but the WSJ editorial correctly warns that it’s not pro-free market to allow these two government-created companies to distort housing markets with their government-granted favors, preferences, and subsidies.

…the expectation that Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin is going to revive the Beltway model of public risk and private reward. …private shareholders of these so-called government-sponsored enterprises keep pretending that something other than the government is responsible for their income streams. As if anyone would buy their guarantees—or give them cheap financing—if Uncle Sam weren’t standing behind them. …what they really want is to liberate for themselves the profits that flow from a duopoly backed by taxpayers. …We’re all for businesses getting out of government control—unless they’re playing with taxpayer money. Americans were told that Fannie and Freddie were safe for years before the last crisis. The right answer is to shut them down.

Amen. Not just shut them down, dump them in the Potomac River.

The Wall Street Journal then revisited the issue early last year, once again expressing concern that the Treasury Secretary wants to go back to the days of unchecked cronyism.

Fannie Mae is again going hat in hand to taxpayers… Washington should take this news as a kick in the keister to finally start winding down the mortgage giant and its busted brother, Freddie Mac . But the Trump Administration seems to be moving in the opposite direction. …The pair, now in “conservatorship,”…were left in limbo. Hedge funds bought up their shares, betting they could pressure Washington into bringing back the old business model of public risk and private reward. …Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told the Senate Banking Committee: “I think it’s critical that we have a 30-year mortgage. I don’t believe that the private markets on their own could support it.” But many countries have robust housing markets and ownership rates without a 30-year mortgage guarantee. Mr. Mnuchin sounds like his predecessor, Democrat Jack Lew. Wasn’t Donald Trump elected to eliminate crony capitalism?

This issue is now heating up, with reports indicating that the Treasury Secretary is pushing to restore the moral hazard-based system that caused so much damage last decade.

The Trump administration is at war with itself over who should take the lead in the reform of the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac… The battle centers on whether the Treasury Department should continue to advocate what it views as a plan for the future of the mortgage companies or cede control of those efforts to the incoming chief of the Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), economist Mark Calabria.

The good news is that Trump has nominated a sensible person to head FHFA, which has some oversight authority over Fannie and Freddie.

And it’s also good news that some of the economic people at the White House understand the danger of loosening the current limits on Fannie and Freddie.

White House economic officials…are seeking to prevent a repeat of the risk-taking activities by the companies that contributed to the mortgage bubble, leading to its 2008 collapse and $200 billion government bailout. These officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also say any reform must have the blessing of Calabria, a long-time libertarian economist and frequent critic of the outfit’s pre-crisis business model. ..He is also wary of returning Fannie and Freddie to their previous incarnations as private companies that have shareholders, but also receive backing from the federal government if they get in trouble as they did in 2008.

But it seems that the Treasury Department has some officials who – just like their predecessors in the Obama Administration – learned nothing from the financial crisis.

They want to give Fannie and Freddie free rein, perhaps in order to help some speculator buddies.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his top house advisor Craig Phillips, have so far taken the lead… In January, acting director of the Federal Housing Agency Joseph Otting privately told employees about plans…, referring to Mnuchin’s past statements on the matter… Mnuchin also has business ties with at least one of the major investors in the GSE’s stock that has benefited amid the speculation… Paulson – who has stakes in the GSE’s preferred class of stock — has also submitted a proposal… A key feature of the framework touted by Mnuchin, Phillips, Otting and Paulson is that both Fannie and Freddie would have some backing from the federal government in times of emergency while remaining public companies, a business model similar to the one the GSEs operated with before 2008.

Given the Treasury Department’s bad performance on other issues, I’m not surprised that they’re on the wrong side on this issue as well.

Tobias Peter of the American Enterprise Institute outlines the correct approach.

The GSEs, however, do very little that cannot be done – and is not already done – by the private sector. In addition, these institutions pose a significant financial risk to U.S. taxpayers. Weighing this cost against the minimal benefits makes the case that the GSEs should be eliminated. …regulators have tilted the playing field in favor of the GSEs. …GSE borrowers can thus take on more debt to offset higher prices. With inventories lower than ever, this extra debt ends up driving prices even higher, creating a vicious cycle of more debt, higher prices, greater risk and, ironically, more demand for the GSEs. What keeps the GSEs in business are the same failed housing policies that brought us the last financial crisis. The GSEs are not needed in the housing market – and they have become detrimental to the market’s long-term health. They could be eliminated… This would create space for the re-emergence of an active private mortgage-backed securities market that ensures a safer and more stable housing finance system with access for all while letting taxpayers off the hook.

Mr. Peter is correct.

Here’s a flowchart that shows what happened and the choice we now face.

At the risk of stating the obvious, real privatization is the right approach. This would mean an end to the era of special favors and subsidies.

  • No taxpayers guarantees for mortgage-backed securities
  • No special exemption from complying with SEC red tape.
  • No more special tax favors such as special exemptions.

Sadly, I’m not holding my breath for any of this to happen.

The real battle in DC is between conservatorship and fake privatization (which really should be called turbo-charged and lobbyist-fueled cronyism).

And if that’s the case, then the obvious choice is to retain the status quo.

P.S. This is a secondary issue, but it’s worth noting that Fannie and Freddie like to squander money. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the Washington Free Beacon.

Fannie Mae is charging taxpayers millions for upgrades to its new headquarters, including $250,000 for a chandelier. The inspector general for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which acts as a conservator for the mortgage lender, recently noted $32 million in questionable costs in an audit for Fannie Mae’s new headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. …The inspector general reported that costs for the new headquarters have “risen dramatically,” to $171 million, up from $115 million when the consolidated headquarters was announced in 2015. …After the inspector general inquired about the chandelier, officials scrapped plans for a $150,000 “hanging key sculpture,” and $985,000 for “decorative screens” in a conference room.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie, at best, undermine prosperity by diverting money from productive investment, and, at worst, they saddle the nation with financial crisis.

They should be shut down, not resuscitated.

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People sometimes ask me how I’ve managed to write a column every single day since November 2009.

Sadly, the answer has a lot to do with politicians having a vote-buying and power-grabbing incentive to produce a never-ending supply of bad policies.

Consider what just happened in Oregon.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a first-in-the-nation rent control bill Thursday…Senate Bill 608′s rent control and eviction protections go into effect immediately. …The law caps annual rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation throughout the state, which amounts to a limit of just over 10 percent this year. …The bill passed quickly through the House and Senate amid a Democratic supermajority.

This is spectacularly bad policy.

  • My first reaction is that such laws should be unconstitutional since politicians are violating a provision of the Bill of Rights by taking part of the value of private property without compensation.
  • My second reaction is that such laws will backfire because they address (in a bone-headed fashion) the symptom of rising rents rather than the (usually government-caused) problem of inadequate housing supply.
  • My third reaction is that price controls never work, regardless of the market or sector, so limits on rent will exacerbate housing problems.

By the way, economic illiteracy is not confined to Oregon. Or even to the United States

Berlin is contemplating rent control as well.

…local politicians here have proposed a radical idea to tackle the problem: introducing a rent cap that would freeze all existing rents for the next five years. …By freezing existing rents for five years, Zado said, the city could help prevent massive increases. …but there could also be significant downsides. Such a policy could exacerbate the city’s existing housing shortage: some experts say it might lead developers to seek buyers, not renters, for their new apartments. …said Michael Voigtländer of the German Economic Institute in Cologne. “That lack of housing won’t be solved if the rents are capped.” …head of the German Housing Industry association, told German newspaper Die Zeit it could even keep developers from building additional housing in the coming years: “A rent stop would lead to our member companies building about 50,000 fewer apartments in the next five years,” he said.

The national government also is acting in a self-destructive manner.

Germany has taken nationwide action in recent years to begin grappling with this problem: in 2015, parliament passed a law restricting how much landlords could raise rents. Under that legislation, the rental price on a new contract should be no more than 10% higher than the average price in that particular neighbourhood.

Let’s see what experts have to say about this issue.

We’ll start with the perspective of landlords, which was included in this New York Times report.

…landlords say that the legislation will compel owners to take their properties off the rental market because they will no longer be able to earn enough rent from them — deepening the housing crisis rather than easing it. …Mr. DiLorenzo said his primary fear was that lawmakers would ultimately bar rents from rising more than a bare minimum, which would prevent landlords from meeting their expenses and eventually drive them out of business. The real solution to rising rents, he said, is to make it easier to build decent and affordable housing in Oregon by eliminating a multitude of fees and regulations.

Landlords have an obvious interest in this issue, so let’s now share some insights from people who don’t have a dog in the fight, but who understand economics.

Megan McArdle debunks this inane example of price controls.

Serial experimentation with this policy has repeatedly shown the same result. Initially, tenants rejoice, and rent control looks like a victory for the poor over the landlord class. But the stifling of price signals leads to problems. …incomes rise, and rents don’t. People with higher incomes have more resources to pursue access to artificially cheap real estate: friends who work for management companies, “key fees” or simply incomes that promise landlords they won’t have to worry about collecting the rent. …lucky insiders come to dominate rent-controlled apartments, especially because having gotten their hands on an absurdly cheap apartment, said elites are loathe to move and free up space for others. The longer the rent-control policies remain, the more these imbalances grow. …Deprived of the ability to make a profit, landlords skimp on maintenance and refuse to build new housing.

Megan also explains that the damage of rent control is compounded by policies that restrict the development of additional housing.

Rent control is one of the most effective ways to destroy a city’s housing stock, but it’s far from the only one. You can also enact extremely strict building codes, with lengthy and highly bureaucratic processes, which will restrict the supply of housing. This is what has happened in many American cities… policymakers should remember that a price is just the intersection of supply and demand. If you alter the price, but don’t alter the supply or the demand, the problem doesn’t go away; rationing just shows up in different forms.

Mark Hemingway, originally from Oregon, explains in the Wall Street Journal what is happening in the state.

Virtually every mainstream economist, from Paul Krugman to Thomas Sowell, has condemned rent control as bad policy. Oregon’s problem isn’t rising rents. It’s the lack of affordable housing… the state remains resistant to new development. Oregon adopted widely hailed “smart growth” policies in the 1970s, imposing “urban growth boundaries” around cities to prevent sprawl. …This has artificially inflated the price of land within the boundaries. …On top of all this, Oregon has a red-tape problem that skews developer incentives. “Systems and development charges and permit fees for even a 500-square-foot unit in the city of Eugene right now are close to about $20,000 per unit,” says real-estate agent James St. Clair. “There’s no incentive to build small affordable units…” Rather than addressing the lack of housing supply, legislators have seized on rent control.

For those who prefer videos over words, here’s a succinct video from Johan Norberg on the folly of rent control.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute summarize the real problem in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

…rent control is making a comeback in response to rising housing prices in urban areas across the country in states like California, Illinois, Washington, and Massachusetts. …As the graphical Supply/Demand analysis…illustrates very clearly, rent control laws that artificially force the rental price of housing (Pabove) below the market-clearing equilibrium price (P0) are guaranteed to create a housing shortage by: a) increasing the number of rental units demanded at the artificially low rents (QD) and b) decreasing the number of rental units supplied to the market (QS). You can artificially restrict the amount of rent a landlord can legally charge for a rental unit, but you can’t force developers, builders, and landlords to build or supply more rental housing in the future. And the supply of rental housing in markets with rent control is guaranteed to decline. …Price controls aren’t the answer. Building more housing is the only real solution to increase the supply of affordable housing.

Here’s Mark’s graph.

In another column for FEE, Luis Pablo de la Horra summarizes why rent control is so misguided.

Rent control is one of those policies that continues to attract the favor of the public despite the fact it has repeatedly proven to be ineffective when it comes to improving the lives of those it is aimed at. …Rent controls often lead to a shortage of rental houses since landladies and landlords find it unprofitable to rent out their apartments at capped prices. In addition, the stock of dwellings tends to deteriorate because home-owners will have little incentive to invest in the maintenance and refurbishment of their houses. …here is some empirical evidence. A 2017 paper published by three Stanford economists shows that rent controls in San Francisco reduced rental housing supply by 15 percent, which in turn increased rental prices in the other parts of the city by around 5 percent. Another recent paper blames restrictions on the use of land (the so-called zoning) for the increasing housing prices in large US cities.

Let’s see what the other side has to say on the topic. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times is on the wrong side.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial that is a case study of economic illiteracy.

New York’s system of rent regulation, limiting how much landlords can charge tenants, began in the 1940s to help a growing middle class. There are about one million apartments covered under rent-restricting regulations now… here are some actions lawmakers can take: …Return control of the rent laws to New York City… Landlords’ ability to raise the rent by 20 percent every time an apartment is vacated is a perverse incentive… Lawmakers should scrap this incentive entirely. …the state agency that enforces rent laws…needs more funding… require landlords to submit receipts for improvements to individual apartments to the agency and the tenant.

This is remarkably bad. And sad as well. The New York Times in recent memory was actually economically sensible, endorsing a flat tax and urging elimination of the minimum wage.

Now it fully embraces policies that even rational left-leaning economists condemn.

Indeed, you can probably tell a lot about the ethics of your left-wing friends if you ask them about rent control.

The ones with good intentions will reject rent control while the demagogues (and the ignorant) will applaud this foolish example of price controls.

Minneapolis provides a good example of ethical leftists, as Elliot Kaufman explains in the Wall Street Journal.

Earlier this month the City Council overwhelmingly approved an ambitious plan to encourage higher-density development and increase the supply of housing. …The Comp Plan would allow the construction of duplexes and triplexes in areas once reserved for single-family homes, rezoning areas near public transportation for larger apartment buildings, and doing away with parking requirements for new housing. …The Comp Plan takes a market-based approach but proclaims left-wing goals. It vows to “eliminate” racial and economic disparities and aggressively fight climate change. …The Comp Plan promotes denser development, which urbanists on both left and right see as the solution to a host of problems. More density in a city like Minneapolis could help renew both geographic and economic mobility.

We’ll close with this great quote from a Swedish economist.

P.S. Rent control can be a great scam for privileged insiders.

P.P.S. Rent control also rewards and empowers unscrupulous and reprehensible people.

P.P.P.S. Amazingly, California voters actually rejected a state referendum to allow rent control (though this isn’t stopping one of their politicians from trying to muck up rental markets).

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I’ve periodically opined about why politicians should not try to control people’s behavior with discriminatory taxes, such as the ones being imposed on soda.

And I’ve cited some examples of how these taxes backfire.

If the following headlines are any indication, we can add Philadelphia to that list.

For instances, this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Or this story from the local CBS affiliate.

These examples reinforce my view that it is not a good idea to let meddling politicians impose more taxes in an effort to control people’s behavior.

Some of my left-leaning friends periodically remind me, however, that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence. There’s a lot of truth to that cautionary observation.

To be sure, I could simply respond by saying a pattern is evident when a couple of anecdotes turns into dozens of anecdotes. And when dozens become hundreds, surely it’s possible to say the pattern shows causality.

That being said, it is good to have rigorous, statistics-based analysis if we really want to convince skeptics.

So let’s look at the results of some new academic research from scholars at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Minnesota. We’ll start with the abstract, which nicely summarizes their findings about the impact of Philadelphia’s big soda tax.

We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beverages for a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely o↵sets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

Here are some of their conclusions.

We draw several lessons about the effectiveness of local sweetened-beverage taxes from these analyses. First, the tax was ineffective at reducing consumption of unhealthy products. Second, in terms of revenue generation, the tax was only partly effective due to consumers substituting to stores outside of Philadelphia. Third, low income households are less likely to engage in cross-shopping, and instead are more likely to continue to purchase taxed products at a higher price at stores in Philadelphia. The lower propensity for low income households to avoid the tax through cross-shopping leads to a relatively larger tax burden for those households. In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue.

If you’re wondering why consumers responded so strongly, here’s a chart from the study showing the price difference after the tax was imposed.

The bottom numbers in Figure 3 show that some sales still occurred in the city, but a persistent gap between city sales and suburban sales appeared.

And here’s what happened to sales inside the city (taxed) and outside the city (untaxed).

Wow. This data makes me wonder if suburban sellers will start contributing to the Philadelphia politicians who have generated this windfall?

Others have noticed how the tax is hurting rather than helping.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the failure of Philly’s soda tax.

When Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would improve public health while funding universal pre-K. Two years in, the policy hasn’t delivered on that elite ideological goal. But the tax has come at the expense of working people… On Jan. 2, Brown’s Super Stores announced the closure of a ShopRite on Haverford Avenue. The supermarket is close to the city limit, and customers discovered they could avoid the soda tax by shopping outside Philly. …the once-profitable store began losing about $1 million a year. …That means fewer opportunities for workers with a criminal record. Mr. Brown’s supermarkets employ more than 600 of them, with the majority in Philadelphia. Some of the ex-cons have become his most-valued employees.

And Kyle Smith explained in National Review how the tax backfired.

Philadelphia’s outlandish soda tax is what Democratic-party politics looks like when it lets its freak flag fly. So many classic elements are there: (failed) social engineering and “think of the children!” on one side, paid for with a punitive tax on poor people and destroyed businesses, which means destroyed jobs, which in turn means lives upended. …Now that beer is, in some cases, cheaper than soda in Philadelphia, alcohol sales are up sharply. …the total loss attributable to the tax in sales of all items was $300,000 a month per store. Other, untaxed drinks also suffered sales declines within the city, suggesting people were simply saving up their shopping trips for when they left town.

I don’t feel compelled to add much to what’s been cited.

Though I will cite a headline from the Seattle Times to reinforce one of the points in the academic study about consumers bearing the cost of the tax rather than the soda companies.

And my one modest contribution to all this analysis is this comparison of the winners and loser from Philadelphia’s new tax.

For what it’s worth, similar comparisons could be developed for just about every action by every government. Academics call this “public choice” while ordinary people realize it’s just common sense.

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