Posts Tagged ‘Regulation’

I don’t have strong views on global warming. Or climate change, or whatever it’s being called today.

But I’ve generally been skeptical about government action for the simple reason that the people making the most noise are statists who would use any excuse to increase the size and power of government. To be blunt, I simply don’t trust them. In Washington, they’re called watermelons – green on the outside (identifying as environmentalists) but red on the inside (pushing a statist agenda).

But there are some sensible people who think some sort of government involvement is necessary and appropriate.

George Schultz and James Baker, two former Secretaries of State, argue for a new carbon tax in a Wall Street Journal column as part of an agenda that also makes changes to regulation and government spending.

…there is mounting evidence of problems with the atmosphere that are growing too compelling to ignore. …The responsible and conservative response should be to take out an insurance policy. Doing so need not rely on heavy-handed, growth-inhibiting government regulations. Instead, a climate solution should be based on a sound economic analysis that embodies the conservative principles of free markets and limited government. We suggest…creating a gradually increasing carbon tax…, returning the tax proceeds to the American people in the form of dividends. And…rolling back government regulations once such a system is in place.

A multi-author column in the New York Times, including Professors Greg Mankiw and Martin Feldstein from Harvard, also puts for the argument for this plan.

On-again-off-again regulation is a poor way to protect the environment. And by creating needless uncertainty for businesses that are planning long-term capital investments, it is also a poor way to promote robust economic growth. By contrast, an ideal climate policy would reduce carbon emissions, limit regulatory intrusion, promote economic growth, help working-class Americans and prove durable when the political winds change. …Our plan is…the federal government would impose a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It might begin at $40 per ton and increase steadily. This tax would send a powerful signal to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints. …the proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. With a carbon tax of $40 per ton, a family of four would receive about $2,000 in the first year. As the tax rate rose over time to further reduce emissions, so would the dividend payments. …regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

They perceive this plan as being very popular.

Environmentalists should like the long-overdue commitment to carbon pricing. Growth advocates should embrace the reduced regulation and increased policy certainty, which would encourage long-term investments, especially in clean technologies. Libertarians should applaud a plan premised on getting the incentives right and government out of the way.

I hate to be the skunk at the party, but I’m a libertarian and I’m not applauding. I explain some of my concerns about the general concept in this interview.

In the plus column, there would be a tax cut and a regulatory rollback. In the minus column, there would be a new tax. So two good ideas and one bad idea, right? Sounds like a good deal in theory, even if you can’t trust politicians in the real world.

However, the plan that’s being promoted by Schultz, Baker, Feldstein, Mankiw, etc, doesn’t have two good ideas and one bad idea. They have the good regulatory reduction and the bad carbon tax, but instead of using the revenue to finance a good tax cut such as eliminating the capital gains tax or getting rid of the corporate income tax, they want to create universal handouts.

They want us to believe that this money, starting at $2,000 for a family of four, would be akin to some sort of tax rebate.

That’s utter nonsense, if not outright prevarication. This is a new redistribution program. Sort of like the “basic income” scheme being promoted by some folks.

And it creates a very worrisome dynamic since people will have an incentive to support ever-higher carbon taxes in order to get ever-larger checks from the government. Heck, the plan being pushed explicitly envisions such an outcome.

I’ve made the economic argument against carbon taxes and the cronyism argument against carbon taxes. Now that we have a real-world proposal, we have the practical argument against carbon taxes.

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President Trump says he wants to roll back the burden of regulation. Give the morass of red tape that is strangling the economy, this is a very worthy goal.

It’s also a daunting task. Fixing the sprawling regulatory state is the modern version of cleaning the Augean stables and I’m not brimming with confidence that Trump and his appointees have Herculean powers.

That being said, if they’re deciding where to focus their deregulatory efforts, cost-benefit analysis would be a very useful guide. Simply stated, go after the red tape that imposes the highest costs while yielding the fewest benefits.

And if that’s the approach, so-called anti-money laundering regulations should be on the chopping block. Banks and other financial institutions are now being forced to squander billions of dollars in order to comply with laws, rules, and red tape that require them to spy on all their customers. The ostensible purpose of AML policies is to discourage criminal behavior, but experts have concluded that this approach has been a failure.

To the extent that AML policies have had an impact, it’s been negative. In addition to high costs and inefficiency, the laws and regulations have disproportionately harmed poor people.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, says AML laws are the modern version of prohibition, well-meaning in theory but counter-productive in practice.

Money laundering fits under the definition of vague law because, unlike murder or robbery, it is not a crime of an act but one of “intent.” …This leads to many problems and substantial prosecutorial abuse. It is not only banks and financial institutions that are supposed to know the source of their clients’ funds, but also such diverse people as car dealers, pawnbrokers, real estate agents, and on and on. Often, it is not considered good enough to know the source of a customer’s funds (often a near-impossibility), but the source of the funds of the customer’s customer. …The result is that banks and other financial institutions increasingly refuse to open accounts for low-income people… There is a very high fixed cost for banks and others to do “due diligence” on their customers — the costs being roughly the same for a $5,000 deposit, a $500,000 deposit or a $5,000,000 deposit. Given the massive penalties banks and other financial institutions are subject to for making even an unintentional mistake, their safest course of action is to drop small customers. …Recent academic and think tank studies show the situation only getting worse — all cost and no gain. …the poor, including poor countries, and the honest pay a huge price for all of the additional compliance costs, which reduces productive global capital formation and real incomes.

And the price isn’t trivial for the nations that get targeted, as I pointed out in testimony to the Organization for American States.

A working paper from the Center for Global Development digs into the numbers.

The past fifteen years have seen an unprecedented level of attention on anti-money laundering…issues by financial regulators…the total value of fines levied by regulators peaked at $15 billion in 2014 in the US alone. …Between 2010 and 2015, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international group tasked with setting common AML standards across the globe, added over fifty different countries to an internationally-recognized list of high risk countries. …there are growing concerns that this increase in regulatory activity is leading to a chilling effect on cross-border economic activity as banks limit their exposure to high risk clients or jurisdictions, a process known as ‘de-risking’… This contraction of the correspondent banking network has sounded a number of alarm bells, as these services are seen as being crucial for most cross-border services… The ICC survey reported that over 40% of respondents felt that AML and know-your-customer (KYC) requirements were a significant impediment to trade finance, with nearly 70% reporting they declined transactions that year…a large number of money transfer companies in the US, the UK and Australia have lost access to banking services as a result of banks’ desire to reduce their exposure to regulatory risk, potentially leading to a reduction to a decrease in formal remittances to developing countries, a critical source of development finance… The combined effect of all of these pressures should be leading to declines in the aggregate flow of cross-border payments.

And here are the results of the new empirical research in the study.

The combination of large scale fines, higher compliance costs and international naming-and-shaming has – anecdotally – led many banks to withdraw from certain lines of business or geographic areas, to the potential detriment of cross-border economic activity. …We find evidence that greylisting by the FATF is consistent with up to a 10% reduction in the number of payments received by an affected country. …Issues of economic impact aside, these results suggest there is more work to be done on assessing both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the global AML/CFT regulatory regime. …First, the reduction in payments received by countries subject to greater regulatory scrutiny raises the spectre of potential losses to these countries. Second, that there is either no effect or a positive effect of FATF greylisting on the number of payments leaving a designated country suggests that increased scrutiny may not do much to prevent illicit money from leaving high risk countries and entering the international financial system at large.

In other words, lots of costs, mostly borne by poor people and poor nations, but no evidence that criminals and terrorists are being stopped.

Rather than imposing lots of red tape and requiring banks to spy on everybody, it would be much better if the government followed normal rules in the fight against crime. By all means, it should investigate real crimes, collect evidence and build cases (within proper limits), and work to punish those who inflict harm on others.

But don’t squander resources in ways that aren’t effective.

Some have suggested that it would make sense to have banks monitor a discrete list of potential bad guys rather than promiscuously spy on all customers.

That might be a step in the right direction, but this story from the UK-based Times shows that this approach leaves something to be desired.

A controversial “blacklist” used by British banks to identify terrorists and potential money launderers has grown so bloated that it includes details of a three-year-old member of the royal family… World-Check, a database of more than two million “high-risk” individuals including criminals and senior politicians, is used by 49 of the world’s 50 biggest banks to carry out compliance checks on existing and potential clients. Customers who are flagged up face extra scrutiny and their accounts…hundreds of individuals were included partly on the basis of unverified blog posts and even far-right or extremist websites.

Wow. Since some of my leftist friends consider International Liberty a “far-right” and “extremist” website, this doesn’t bode well for me. I guess I’m lucky that I still have a bank account.

Here’s more from the story.

Thousands of others were listed on the database, which dates from 2014, only because they were relatives or friends of minor public figures. …Maud Windsor…was listed at nine months old. The apparent justification was that she was a family member of a “politically exposed person” (PEP), a reference to her father, who is the son of Prince Michael of Kent and 43rd in line to the throne. …Other British PEPs on the database include Sir Neil Cossons, a historian and former chairman of English Heritage. …Heather Wheeler, a Conservative MP listed on the database, told parliament this year that her bank of 30 years informed her that she was “high risk” and that it “would not deal with me anymore and that it was closing my account.”

These absurd results are driven by government policies that force financial institutions to treat all customers as potential crooks.

And given the huge fines that are being levied on banks and other firms, you can understand why they drop customers and charge high fees. They are forced to act defensively.

Thomson Reuters, the media company that makes millions of pounds compiling and selling the database, does not inform individuals if they are included and banks have no obligation to tell clients why they have been denied services. …Many financial institutions have become risk-averse… “You have an arms race where there’s this immense pressure to build a ‘robust’ database,” one expert on World-Check said. “They’ll pack this database with as many names of individuals as possible. You end up getting a ton of false positives.”

And some of those “false positives” are mentioned in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. Statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one supposed haven among the 28 nations listed.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one featuring former President Obama.

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

P.P.P.P.S. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the statists have learned the wrong lesson. They see that AML laws have been a failure and think the right response is to go nuclear and ban cash entirely.

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Red tape is a huge burden on the American economy, with even an Obama Administration bureaucracy acknowledging that costs far exceed supposed benefits.

And the problem gets worse every year.

If I had to pick the worst example of foolish regulation, there would be lots of absurd examples from the federal government, and the crazy bureaucrats at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission probably would be at the top of the list.

But the worst regulations, at least if measured by the harm to lower-income Americans, probably are imposed by state governments. Yes, I’m talking about the scourge of occupational licensing.

A report published by The American Interest elaborates on this problem.

…it’s important that policymakers don’t lose sight of more subtle ways the government has distorted the economy to favor the politically connected. One example: Onerous occupational licensing laws that force people to undergo thousands of hours of often redundant and gratuitous training to perform jobs like auctioneering, tree trimming, and hair styling. …licensing laws are the result of higher-skilled professionals seeking to protect their market share at the consumers’ expense. …This not just a minor concern for a few key industries; it is a weight dragging down the entire economy, raising prices while blocking access to less-skilled trades. The Obama administration has already recommended that states look at ways to loosen these requirements.

Yes, you read correctly. This is an issue where the Obama Administration was basically on the right side.

I’m not joking. Here are excerpts from a White House statement last year.

Today nearly one-quarter of all U.S. workers need a government license to do their jobs. The prevalence of occupational licensing has risen from less than 5 percent in the early 1950s with the majority of the growth coming from an increase in the number of professions that require a license rather than composition in the workforce. …the current system often requires unnecessary training, lengthy delays, or high fees. This can in turn artificially create higher costs for consumers and prohibit skilled American workers like florists or hairdressers from entering jobs in which they could otherwise excel.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah is a strong advocate of curtailing these protectionist regulations and allowing capitalism to flourish. Using teeth-whitening services as an example, he explained the downside of government-enforced cartels in an article for Forbes.

Should only dentists be allowed to whiten people’s teeth? …This may sound like a silly question… Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration already regulates teeth-whitening products for safety and that virtually no one has ever been injured by someone administering these products. But in a number of states throughout the country, dentists began losing teeth-whitening customers to non-dentists who had set up kiosks in shopping malls and were charging less money for the same teeth-whitening services. These upset dentists then went to their state dental-licensing boards and urged those boards to add teeth whitening to the definition of “the practice of dentistry.” These state boards complied… The results were unemployed teeth whiteners, more expensive teeth whitening, and higher profits for the dentists. …An organized cartel (the dentists)…used the threat of government punishment to enforce their monopoly.

Unfortunately, Senator Lee explains, this is a problem that goes way beyond teeth whitening.

…when the deeper question of occupational licensing is applied to the broader economy, it turns out that there are millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake. …dentists are not the only professionals using government power to harm consumers and line their pockets. A 2013 study found that 25% of today’s workforce is in an occupation licensed by a state entity, up from just 5% in 1950. And the number of licensed professionals is not growing because everyone is suddenly becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, it is the number of professions requiring licenses that is growing. Security guards, florists, barbers, massage therapists, interior decorators, manicurists, hair stylists, personal trainers, tree trimmers and auctioneers work in just some of the many, many professions that state legislatures have seen fit to cartelize.

But do consumers get some sort of benefit as a result of all this red tape?


According to a study by University of Minnesota Professor Morris Kleiner, “Occupational licensing has either no impact or even a negative impact on the quality of services provided to customers by members of the regulated occupation.” Occupational licensing has grown not because consumers demanded it, but because lobbyists recognized a business opportunity where they could use government power to get rich at the public’s expense. …Consumers end up paying $200 billion in higher costs annually, prospective professionals lose an estimated three million jobs, and millions more Americans find it harder to live where they want due to licensing requirements.

By the way, the barriers to mobility are a major problem. A professor at Yale Law School crunched the numbers and found that occupational licensing has undermined the great America tradition of moving where the jobs are.

Here are some details from the abstract of the study.

Rates of inter-state mobility, by most estimates, have been falling for decades. Even research that does not find a general decline finds that inter-state mobility rates are low among disadvantaged groups and are not increasing despite a growing connection between moving and economic opportunity. …governments, mostly at the state and local levels, have created a huge number of legal barriers to inter-state mobility. Land-use laws and occupational licensing regimes limit entry into local and state labor markets.

In an article for Reason, Ronald Bailey highlights some of the key findings from the scholarly study.

From the end of World War II through the 1980s, the Census Bureau reports, about 20 percent of Americans changed their residences annually, with more than 3 percent moving to a different state each year. Now more are staying home. In November, the Census Bureau reported that Americans were moving at historically low rates: Only 11.2 percent moved in 2015, and just 1.5 percent moved to a different state. …Yale law professor David Schleicher blames bad public policy. …Schleicher identifies and analyzes the policies that limit people’s ability to enter job-rich markets and exit job-poor ones. …Why? First, lots of job-rich areas have erected barriers that keep job-seekers from other regions out. The two biggest barriers are land use and occupational licensing restrictions. …Schleicher notes that more than 1,100 occupations require licensing in at least one state, but fewer than 60 are regulated in all states. A 2015 White House report on occupational licensing found that “interstate migration rates for workers in the most licensed occupations are lower by an amount equal to nearly 15 percent of the average migration rate compared to those in the least licensed occupations.”

Let’s close by putting this in practical terms.

Imagine you don’t have a lot of education. And you definitely don’t have out-of-state licenses that are necessary for dozens of professions.

Are you going to move where there are more jobs?

Several decades ago, the answer likely was yes. Now, the incentive for mobility has been curtailed thanks to licensing laws that are really nothing more than regulatory protectionism.

Such laws should be repealed, or struck down by the courts as illegal restraints on trade.

P.S. Here’s some dark libertarian humor on this topic.

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All things considered, I like small businesses more than big businesses.

Not because I’m against large companies, per se, but rather because big businesses often use their political influence to seek unearned and undeserved wealth. If you don’t believe me, just look at the big corporations lobbying for bad policies such as the Export-Import Bank, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, bailouts, and the green-energy scam.

It’s almost as if cronyism is a business model.

By contrast, the only bad policy associated with modest-sized firms is the Small Business Administration. And I suspect the majority of little firms wouldn’t even notice or care if that silly bit of intervention was shut down.

Rather than seeking handouts, small businesses generally are more focused on fighting back against excessive government.

That’s because taxes and red tape can be a death sentence for a mom-and-pop firm. Literally, not just figuratively.

The Daily News reports on the sad closing of popular restaurant in New York City.

For 25 years, China Fun was renowned…the restaurant’s sudden Jan. 3 closing, blamed by management on suffocating government demands. …“The state and municipal governments, with their punishing rules and regulations, seems to believe that we should be their cash machine to pay for all that ails us in society.” …Albert Wu, whose parents Dorothea and Felix owned the eatery, said the endless paperwork and constant regulation that forced the shutdown accumulated over the years. …Wu cited one regulation where the restaurant was required to provide an on-site break room for workers despite its limited space. And he blamed the amount of paperwork now required — an increasingly difficult task for a non-chain businesses. “In a one-restaurant operation like ours, you’re spending more time on paperwork than you are trying to run your business,” he griped. Increases in the minimum wage, health insurance and insurance added to a list of 10 issues provided by Wu. “And I haven’t even gone into the Health Department rules and regulations,” he added. …“For smaller businesses like China Fun, each little thing that occurs makes it harder,” said Malpass. “Each regulation, each tax — you put it all together and it’s just a hostile business environment.”

This is rather unfortunate, but perhaps it is a “teachable moment.”

There are two things that came to mind as I read this story.

  • First, at some point a camel’s back is broken by too much straw. Politicians often claim that a particular tax or regulation imposes a very small burden. Perhaps that is true, but when you have dozens of taxes and hundreds of regulations, those various and sundry small burdens become very onerous. I’ve made the point before that you don’t need perfect policy for the economy to function. You just need “breathing room.” Well, China Fun ran out of breathing room. A casualty of big government, though it remains to be seen if anyone learns from this experience.
  • Second, complicated taxes and regulations are a much bigger burden for small companies compared to big corporations. Every large firm has teams of lawyers and accountants to deal with tax and regulatory compliance. That’s expensive and inefficient, of course, but such costs nonetheless consume only a very small fraction of total revenue. For small businesses, by contrast, those costs consume an enormous percentage of time, energy, and resources for owners. For all intents and purposes, bad government policy creates a competitive advantage for big firms over small firms.

The moral of the story is that we should have smaller government. Not just lower taxes (and simpler taxes), but also less regulation and red tape.

Not just because such policies are good for overall economic performance, but also because small businesses shouldn’t be disadvantaged.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of how government tilts the playing field in favor of big companies (at least the corrupt big companies), let’s enjoy some humor on that topic.

Starting with Uncle Sam’s universal bailout application form. And we also have the fancy new vehicle from Government Motors.

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More than two years ago, I shared a couple of humorous images showing the languorous lifestyle of lazy bureaucrats.

While those images were amusing, they didn’t really capture the true nature of bureaucracy.

For a more accurate look at life inside Leviathan, here’s a video showing an unfortunate woman trying to get a permit from a government agency.

It should probably be accompanied by a trigger warning lest it cause flashbacks for readers who have been in the same situation.

Very well done, I think you’ll agree. I especially like the subtle features of the video, such as the bureaucrat’s competitive desire to show his coworker that he won’t let a mere citizen prevail. And the part at the end showing the disappointment by all the bureaucrats also was a good touch.

Sadly, the story in the video isn’t just satire.

First, there are many absurd rules that require people to get permission from bureaucrats in order to work. All those laws and rules should be repealed. If consumers value certification and training, that can be handled by the private sector.

Second, it does seem as if bureaucrats relish the opportunity to torment taxpayers. I recall having to make four trips to the DMV when helping my oldest kid get his learner’s permit. Each time, I was told an additional bit of paperwork that was required, but at no point was I told all the forms and paperwork needed. Hence I had the pleasure of waiting in lines over and over again.

Though I did learn as time passed. By the time my last kid needed his permit, it only took two trips.

Since we’re on the topic of bureaucrat humor, regular readers know about the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Well, just as the Baseball Hall of Fame has a committee that looks back in time to find players who were overlooked and deserve membership, we need something to recognize deserving bureaucrats who somehow escaped my attention.

And if we travel back in time to 2013, John Beale of the Environmental Protection Agency clearly can make a strong case that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

The EPA’s highest-paid employee and a leading expert on climate change was sentenced to 32 months in federal prison Wednesday for lying to his bosses and saying he was a CIA spy working in Pakistan so he could avoid doing his real job. …Beale told the court…that he got a “rush” and a “sense of excitement” by telling people he was worked for the CIA. …He perpetrated his fraud largely by failing to show up at the EPA for months at a time, including one 18-month stretch starting in June 2011 when he did “absolutely no work,” as his lawyer acknowledged in a sentencing memo filed last week.

Though, in his defense, he wasn’t goofing off all the time.

He also spent time trying to learn about new ways to hinder the private sector.

…he used the time “trying to find ways to fine tune the capitalist system” to discourage companies from damaging the environment. “I spent a lot of time reading on that,” said Beale.

For what it’s worth, he probably spent most of his time figuring out how to bilk colleagues.

Nor was that Beale’s only deception, according to court documents. In 2008, Beale didn’t show up at the EPA for six months, telling his boss that he was part of a special multi-agency election-year project relating to “candidate security.” He billed the government $57,000 for five trips to California that were made purely “for personal reasons,” his lawyer acknowledged. (His parents lived there.) He also claimed to be suffering from malaria that he got while serving in Vietnam. According to his lawyer’s filing, he didn’t have malaria and never served in Vietnam. He told the story to EPA officials so he could get special handicap parking at a garage near EPA headquarters. …Beale took 33 airplane trips between 2003 and 2011, costing the government $266,190. On 70 percent of those, he traveled first class and stayed at high end hotels, charging more than twice the government’s allowed per diem limit. But his expense vouchers were routinely approved by another EPA official

Not surprisingly, the EPA took years to figure out something was amiss.

After all, why care about malfeasance when you’re spending other people’s money?

Beale was caught when he “retired” very publicly but kept drawing his large salary for another year and a half.

Heck, I’m surprised the EPA’s leadership didn’t award themselves bonuses for incompetence, like their counterparts at the VA and IRS.

P.S. Here’s a new element discovered inside the bureaucracy, and a letter to the bureaucracy from someone renewing a passport.

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It’s time to channel the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat.

There are many well-meaning people who understandably want to help workers by protecting them from bad outcomes such as pay reductions, layoffs and discrimination.

My normal response is to remind them that the best thing for workers is a vibrant and growing economy. That’s the kind of environment that produces tight labor markets and more investment, both of which then lead to higher pay.

Even statists sort of understand that this is true, but it’s sometimes difficult to get them to grasp the implications. They oftentimes are drawn to specific forms of government intervention, even if you explain that there are adverse unintended consequences.

Let’s explore this issue further.

In a column for the New York Times, Megan McGrath writes about a big new mining project in a remote part of Australia that “has the potential to create 10,000 jobs.” While that’s obviously good news, she worries that the company “will repeat the mistakes made by companies during the last mining boom by using workplace practices that hurt workers and their families.”

And what are these mistaken “workplace practices”? Apparently she thinks it is terrible that workers don’t want to move to the outback and instead prefer to continue living in cities and suburbs. So she think it is bad that they fly in for multi-week shifts, stay in temporary housing, and then fly back (at company expense) to their homes.

Employees…fly to remote mines from major cities to work weeks at a time, and fly home for several days off before starting the cycle again. These so-called fly-in, fly-out jobs, which offer hefty pay, are widely known here as “fifo.” At the peak of the boom in 2012, …more than 100,000 of these held fifo positions.

Though it seems these workers are making very rational decisions on how to maximize the net benefits of these positions.

…fifo workers in the last boom were young, undereducated men lured by salaries that far surpassed what they could earn for similar work outside the industry — up to $100,000 a year to shift earth and drive trucks. The average full-time mining employee in 2016 earned $1,000 more per week than other Australians.

So what’s the downside? Why are workers supposedly being exploited by these lucrative jobs?

According to McGrath, the mining camps don’t have a lot of amenities.

…fifo life comes at a steep price. The management in many mines controls the transient workers’ schedules — setting times for meals, showers and sleep. The workers often can’t visit nearby towns and recreational facilities such as gyms and swimming pools because of a lack of transportation. Many employees have to share beds. They work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, up to three weeks at a time.

That doesn’t sound great, but this also explains why the mining companies have to pay a boatload of money to attract workers. This is a well-established pattern that is familiar to labor economists. If working conditions are unpalatable, then employers have to compensate with more remuneration.

But Ms. McGrath doesn’t think workers should get extra cash. She would rather the mining company compensate workers indirectly.

A lot can be done to improve life in the camps. Shorter swings would help workers maintain bonds with their families. More stable living situations, with less sharing of living spaces, would increase a sense of value and belonging. Workers should be encouraged to visit nearby towns to reduce their isolation. The Adani megamine could be in operation for 60 years, experts say. Roads for the mine and the region should be improved so employees can move with their families to existing townships and drive to work.

Of course, she doesn’t admit that she wants workers to get less cash compensation, but that would be the real-world impact of her proposed policies.

She says that the mining companies should “put people ahead of profits.” But that’s a vacuous statement. Projects like this new mine only exist because investors expect to earn a return. Otherwise, they wouldn’t take the enormous risk of sinking so much capital into such endeavors.

All this new investment is good news for unemployed or under-employed Australians since they’ll now have an opportunity to compete for jobs that pay very well, particularly for workers without a lot of education.

By the way, if workers really valued all the things that are on Ms. McGrath’s list, the company would offer those fringe benefits instead of higher wages. But that’s obviously not the case. The market has spoken.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that she also does not understand tax policy. In a sensible system, companies calculate their taxable profit by adding up their total revenue and then subtracting all their costs. What’s left is profit, a slice of which is then grabbed by government.

But that’s not enough for Ms. McGrath. She apparently believes that mining companies shouldn’t be allowed to subtract many of the costs associated with so-called fifo workers when calculating their annual profit. I’m not joking.

Mining companies are encouraged through tax incentives to use the transient workers. Some costs associated with a fifo worker — meals, transportation and airline tickets — can be claimed as production expenses, helping to lower a company’s tax bill.

I hope the Australian government isn’t dumb enough to buy this argument. Allowing a firm to subtract costs when calculating profit is simply common sense. And if doesn’t matter if those costs reflect fifo costs, investment expenditures, luxury travel, or band costumes.

For what it’s worth, if the government does get pressured into forcing companies to pay tax on these various business expenses, one very safe prediction is that the net effect will be to lower the wages offered to workers. Or, if the mandates, taxes, and regulations reach a certain level, the business will simply close down or new projects will be abandoned.

And those options obviously are not good news for workers.

Let’s now shift from the specific example of fifo workers to the broader issue of labor regulation. What happens if governments listen to people like Ms. McGrath and impose all sorts of rules that prevent flexible labor markets? According to recent scholarly research from three European economists, the consequence is more unemployment.

They start by pointing out that European nations with mandates and red tape have a lot more unemployment (particularly when the economy is weak) than countries with lightly regulated labor markets.

The Great Recession has brought a substantial increase in unemployment in Europe. Overall, unemployment rate in the euro area has grown from 8 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2014. The change in unemployment has been very heterogenous. In northern Europe, unemployment did not grow substantially or even fell: in Germany, for example, unemployment rate has actually declined from 7 to 5 percent. At the same time, in Greece unemployment has grown from 8 to 26 percent, in Spain — from 8 to 24 percent, and in Italy — from 6 to 13 percent. Why has unemployment dynamics been so different in European countries? The most common explanation is the difference in labor market institutions that prevents wages from adjusting downward. If wages cannot decline, negative aggregate demand shocks (such as the Great Recession) result in growth of unemployment.

The three economists wanted some way to test the impact of regulation, so they looked at the labor market for immigrants in Italy since some of them work in the formal (regulated) economy and some of them work in the shadow (unregulated) economy.

While this argument is straightforward, it is not easy to test empirically. Cross-country studies of labor markets are subject to comparability concerns. The same problems arise in comparing labor markets in different industries within the same country. In order to construct a convincing counterfactual for a regulated labor market, one needs to study a non-regulated labor market in the same sector within the same country. This is precisely what we do in this paper through comparing formal and informal markets in Italy over the course of 2004-12. We use a unique dataset, a large annual survey of immigrants working in Lombardy carried out by ISMU Foundation since 2004. …Our data cover 4000 full-time workers every year; one fifth of them works in the informal sector. The dataset is therefore sufficiently large to allow us comparing the evolution of wages in the formal and in the informal sector controlling for occupation, skills and other individual characteristics.

And what did they find?

In the absence of regulation, labor markets can adjust. The bad news for workers is that they get less pay. But the good news is that they’re more likely to still have jobs.

Our main result is presented in Figure 1. We do find that the wage differential between formal and informal sector has increased after 2008. Moreover, while the wages in the informal sector decreased by about 20 percent in 2008-12, the wages in the formal sector virtually did not fall at all. This is consistent with the view that there is substantial downward stickiness of wages in the regulated labor markets. …we find that both before and during the crisis, undocumented immigrants (those without a regular residence permit) are 9 percentage points more likely than documented immigrants to be in the labor force

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And here are some concluding thoughts from the study.

…despite the substantial growth of unemployment in 2008-12, the wages in the formal labor market have not adjusted. In the meanwhile, the wages in the unregulated informal labor market have declined substantially. The wage differential between formal and informal market that has been constant in 2004-08 has grown rapidly in 2008-12 from 18 to 35 percentage points. …These results are consistent with the view that regulation is responsible for lack of wage adjustment and increase in unemployment during the recessions.

For what it’s worth (and this is an important point), this helps explain why the Great Depression was so awful. Hoover and Roosevelt engaged in all sorts of interventions designed  to “help” workers. But the net effect of these policies was to prevent markets from adjusting. So what presumably would have been a typical recession turned into a decade-long depression.

So what’s the moral of the story? Good intentions aren’t good if they lead to bad results. Which brings me back to my original point about helping workers by minimizing government intervention.

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Since yesterday’s column was a look back on the good and bad things of 2016, let’s now look forward and speculate about the good and bad things that may happen in 2017.

I’m not pretending any of this is a forecast, particularly since economists have a miserable track record in that regard. Instead, the following lists are simply things I hope may happen or fear may happen.

We’ll start with the things I want.

  • Reform of healthcare entitlements – Republicans in 2017 will control Congress and the White House, so they’ll have the power to fix our broken entitlement system and dramatically improve America’s long-run outlook. And since the House and Senate GOPers have voted for budgets that presume much-need structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid, that bodes well for reform. The wild card is Donald Trump. He said some rather irresponsible things about entitlements during the campaign, which suggests he will leave policy on autopilot (which is not a good idea when we’re heading for a fiscal iceberg). On the other hand, politicians oftentimes disregard their campaign commitments (remember Obama and “you can keep your doctor“?), especially when they get in power and finally take a hard look at budget numbers. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that Trump has appointed Budget Committee Chairman Congressman Tom Price to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Congressman Mick Mulvaney to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget.  I very much hope Trump seriously addresses the health entitlements.
  • A lower corporate tax rate, “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax – During the campaign, Trump proposed a very large tax cut. With Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, some sort of significant tax cut should be feasible. It’s highly unlikely that Trump will get everything he wants, but the three items at the top of my wish list are lowering the corporate tax rate, ending the tax code’s bias against new investment by replacing punitive “depreciation” rules with “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax. Those reforms would have the strongest impact on long-run growth. And the icing on the cake would be a repeal of the state and local tax deduction, which subsidizes high-tax states such as California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey (I’d also like to see repeal of the healthcare exclusion, but I’m focusing on things that might actually happen in 2017 rather than what’s on my fantasy list).
  • Regulatory reform – The tentacles of the regulatory octopus are stifling the American economy. There’s no single fix for this problem. The overall system for approving regulations should be changed (I will write on the “REINS Act” in a few days), but that’s a partial solution for future red tape. To deal with the existing burden of red tape, a different set of answers will be necessary, including sensible political appointees so that bureaucrats will have a harder time pushing for regulations that are needlessly expensive and misguided and instead will be charged with undoing existing red tape. In some cases (Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, etc), it will be necessary to change current law in order to roll back regulatory excess.
  • Italian default – I’m not hoping for Italy to face a fiscal crisis, but it almost certainly will happen in the near future. The nation’s demographic decline, combined with its bloated welfare state, are a horrible recipe. And while it’s theoretically possible to avert a mess by capping spending and fixing programs (just as it is still possible to fix the mess in Greece), I don’t think good policy is very likely. So Italy will soon face a fiscal crisis and the real question is whether there’s a good response. Ideally, if this happens in 2017, Italy will be allowed to default (presumably because Trump’s representative at the International Monetary Fund vetoes any sort of bailout). This will mean, a) the people and institutions who were silly enough to lend money to a profligate government will suffer losses, making them more prudent in the future, b) Italy will lose the ability to borrow more money, putting an end to additional red ink, c) Italian politicians will be forced to immediately balance the government’s budget, which hopefully means genuine budget cuts, and d) the Italian people will (hopefully) realize that a system based on looting and mooching can no longer be maintained.

Now here’s a list of things I’m afraid may happen.

  • Punting on entitlement Reform – As noted above, the wild card for any sort of genuine entitlement reform is Donald Trump. If he decides to to be President Santa Claus by appeasing various interest groups (like the previous GOPer in the White House), then reform will be dead. Simply stated, House and Senate Republicans will not push good changes without support from the White House. But that’s only a partial worst-case scenario. Trump may choose to be like the previous Republican President and actually expand entitlements (perhaps by borrowing a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook and expanding Social Security). If Trump decides to punt (or, gulp, make things worse), that has very grim implications. Reform will be dead for at least eight years (either because Trump gets reelected or because he’s replaced by a Democrat who also opposes reform) and the longer we wait to address the problem, the harder it will be to save America from a Greek fiscal future.
  • A “Poison Pill” in tax reform – While there is a great opportunity to fix some of the biggest warts in the internal revenue code, I worry that lawmakers will include some bad revenue raisers to help “pay for” the good provisions. I don’t think there’s any danger (at least for 2017) of a value-added tax, but the plan from House Republicans includes a “border adjustable”/”destination based” tax on imports (known as a DBCFT) that is not only protectionist, but could eventually morph into a VAT. A smaller tax cut without a DBCFT would be better than a bigger tax cut with a DBCFT.
  • An infrastructure boondoggle – It appears that some sort of infrastructure plan will be approved in 2017. I wrote last year to suggest three guidelines for the incoming Trump Administration on this issue, but I fear that this initiative will become a typical DC feeding frenzy. Lots of spending with no accountability.
  • Italian bailout – If the inevitable Italian fiscal crisis occurs in 2017, the worst possible outcome would be a Greek-style bailout. That approach has several undesirable implications. It will a) exacerbate moral hazard by rewarding the investors who bought Italian bonds, b) it will enable Italian politicians to incur more debt, and c) it will enable the Italian people to continue thinking that big government is good because someone else is paying for it. To be sure, because there’s so much more debt involved, bailing out Italy will be much harder than bailing out Greece. But so long as the corrupt and venal IMF plays a role, it’s always prudent to assume the worst policy will be imposed.

I hope all readers have a happy new year. And I hope. for the sake of America and the rest of the world, that the first half of today’s column is more accurate than the second half.

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