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Updated: 1 hour 43 min ago

Congress Shouldn’t Sneak Insurance Handout into Next COVID Relief Package

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 12:17pm

Originally published by RealClearHealth on May 22, 2020.

 

While Congress debates a fourth relief package addressing the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers are risking their lives on the front lines to provide care for the sick. But instead of focusing on priorities like ensuring widespread availability of personal protective equipment for health care personnel, or on how best to provide relief for ordinary Americans denied the opportunity to work, some in Congress see this emergency as an opportunity to pass a so-called solution to surprise medical bills that would devastate an already strained health care system.

For health care providers, fallout from the pandemic is not limited to hotspots like New York City. Elective surgeries across most of the nation have been postponed indefinitely and physicians are seeing few patients in their offices to reduce the spread of disease. As a result, back line providers, such as dentists, pediatricians, and surgeons, are experiencing tremendous financial strain. Without the typical level of business, providers are having to cut costs by furloughing workers even as they attempt to prepare for a possible influx of coronavirus cases.

Against this backdrop you would think it insane that Congress would consider a dramatic change to the health care system that hospitals and doctors have consistently warned would be ruinous. Yet that is precisely what is happening as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), with the backing of insurers, once again push their proposal to impose government rate-setting as the answer to surprise medical bills. Unfortunately, it is a case of the cure being at least as bad if not worse than the disease.

Doctors are not the only ones raising the alarm. A letter from the Coalition Against Rate-Setting, signed by 27 taxpayer and consumer protection groups, argues that “it is deeply disturbing that special interest groups are still seeking to promote legislation which will short change our frontline medical workers and lead to reduced accessibility to health care through the nationwide consolidation of health care facilities.”

Having the government set the appropriate rate for out-of-network services would introduce all the usual negative consequences that come with price controls, such as shortages, quality reduction, and rationing. Basing that rate on a median in-network rate would also create a perverse incentive for insurers to narrow networks to get the most favorable price.

This is not mere theorizing. California has tried the rate-setting approach and the results are dismal. A survey by the California Medical Association reports that physicians in the state overwhelming found that California’s surprise billing law accelerated consolidation of independent practices, reduced access to emergency care, and led to a narrowing of insurance contracts.

In contrast, an approach tested in New York has produced promising results. The state reports that over 4 years it has seen a reduction in out-of-network billing of 34 percent, for a savings of $400 million for consumers. To get this result they enacted an arbitration system known as Independent Dispute Resolution that relies on neutral health care experts to adjudicate conflicting claims between insurers and providers, incentivizing robust networks and compromise. Best of all, patients are left out of it.

bipartisan bill (H.R. 3502) with 110 cosponsors, more than any other surprise billing legislation, would adopt the New York model. While this approach is not likely to prove perfect, it denies either insurers or providers a negotiating advantage and seems the best that can be achieved without a wholesale reimagining of our health care system.

The middle of a once-in-a-century health crisis is not the time to make far-reaching changes to the nation’s health care system. But if Congress insists on addressing surprise billing now instead of waiting until the crisis has passed, they should unquestionably choose the solution with a track record of success, and the most support within Congress, over the proven failure. A Congress grateful for the continued sacrifices of doctors and nurses won’t sell them out to the special interests of insurers.

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Image credit: CMSRC | CC BY-SA 3.0.

The HEROES Act Should Not Be Back Door for Price Controls

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 12:08pm

Originally published by Townhall on May 20, 2020.

Congress is digging in for another battle over the proper government response to high unemployment and the shuttering of the economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Multiple bills have passed to provide more testing, protective gear and financial aid and the House of Representatives has started the next legislative phase, the HEROES Act, as a $3 trillion follow up to the CARES Act. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has loaded up this bill with unrelated matter and partisan priorities.

President Donald J. Trump has signed into law several measures to respond to the crisis. The largest of those bills is the $2 trillion CARES Act, which included provisions that had zero to do with the coronavirus response effort. According to Rachel Bovard, of the Conservative Partnership Institute, the bill included $10 billion in aid to the U.S. Postal Service, $48 million in sex education funding, $25 million for salaries and expenses of Congress, and $25 million to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – a favorite of Members of Congress who frequent events there. That bill passed with unanimous support in the Senate and was voice voted in the House, because members feared opposing a bill that provided stimulus checks to Americans and attempted to aid small businesses shut down by government mandate.  Now comes the sequel to that massive piece of legislation and this new version has proven to be a partisan legislative effort even more loaded with pet projects unrelated to the coronavirus’ economic impact on Americans.

The HEROES Act included a second $25 billion bailout of the U.S. Postal Service, in addition to provisions to forgive up to $10,000 of student loans for every borrowerThe Heritage Foundation studied the bill and found that a provision to extend unemployment benefits to the end of the year will incentivize people not working. They also found that lifting the state and local tax deduction would be a Blue State tax cut that promotes higher state and local taxation and the $1 trillion promised to bailout states and localities will go to cover shortfalls that have nothing to do with state responses to the coronavirus. Those are big ticket items but expect more provisions to come to light when the American people have time to study the legislation.

There is likely to be an effort to revive a terrible idea that hikes cost on consumers called the “Durbin Amendment.” My group, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, signed a coalition letter that states “we are concerned by the push by lobbyists for restaurants and other retailers to expand Dodd-Frank’s Durbin Amendment price controls to credit cards as well as debit cards.”  This legislation is a priority that has nothing to do with the coronavirus economic response effort and will end up increasing costs on some businesses and consumers.

The Durbin Amendment hurts low income Americans and was an expensive provision buried in the so called ‘Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.’ That provision applied to debit cards and ended up hurting consumer and resulted in a spike in the fees associated with checking accounts. According to a Mercatus Center report from February of 2014, Dodd-Frank as a whole resulted in increased compliance costs, limited consumer access, and new burdens on small banks. While the law was marketed to help consumers, it may have hurt them more than it helped. Expanding the Durbin Amendment to credit cards would create even more hardship for Americans struggling to combat the economic impact of the coronavirus.

As the coalition argued, “consumers collect roughly $40 billion in annual rewards from credit cards ($167 per cardholder according to CFPB), and banks and credit unions’ ability to both provide free credit cards to consumers and consumer rewards could be imperiled” if this provision were to be added to the HEROES Act. Banks and credit unions would be forced to cut back on investments on cybersecurity and to hike fees on consumers, if this ‘consumer protection’ provision made it to the president’s desk.

Congress should resist efforts to load up the HEROES Act with matters unrelated to the coronavirus economic displacement and oppose any effort to bilk consumers when they are hurting the most. Now is not the time for partisans in the House of Representative to use the bill as a Christmas Tree for progressive priorities.

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Image credit: jarmoluk | Pixabay License.

New York vs. Florida, Round #4

Tue, 05/19/2020 - 12:47pm

Politicians from New York want states to get a big bailout from Uncle Sam. I explained earlier this month that this would be a bad idea.

Simply stated, the Empire State is in big trouble because it has a bloated government, not because of the coronavirus.

Probably the strongest piece of evidence is that New York is ranked #50 for fiscal policy according to Freedom in the 50 States.

If you want to understand how New York’s politicians have created a fiscal disaster, let’s compare the Empire State to Florida, which is ranked #1.

I’ve already done that three times (Round #1Round #2, and Round #3), so this will be Round #4.

The Wall Street Journal compared the two states in an editorial two days ago.

…let’s do the math to consider which state has managed its economy and finances better over the last decade. …Democrats in Albany are claiming to be victims of events that are out of their control. But they have increased spending by $43 billion since 2010—about $570,000 for each additional person. Florida’s budget has increased by $28 billion while its population has grown 2.7 million—a $10,400 increase per new resident. New York has a top state-and-local tax rate of 12.7%, while Florida has no income tax. Yet New York has a growing budget deficit, while Mr. Scott inherited a large deficit but built a surplus and paid down state debt. The difference is spending. …Blame New York’s cocktail of generous benefits, loose eligibility standards and waste. New York spends about twice as much per Medicaid beneficiary and six times more on nursing homes as Florida though its elderly population is 20% smaller. …The rate of private job growth in Florida has been about 60% higher than in New York from January 2010 to January 2020. Finance jobs expanded by 25% in Florida compared to 9.7% in New York. …The policy question is why taxpayers in Florida and other well-managed states should pay higher taxes to rescue an Albany political class that refuses to restrain its tax-and-spend governance. Public unions soak up an ever-larger share of tax dollars, but Albany refuses to change.

If you want further details on the difference between the two states, Chris Edwards takes a close look at the burden of government spending.

New York and Florida have similar populations of 20 million and 21 million, respectively. But governments in New York spent twice as much as governments in Florida, $348 billion compared to $177 billion. On some activities, spending in the two states is broadly similar… But in other budget areas, New York’s excess spending is striking. New York spent $69 billion on K-12 schools in 2017 compared to Florida’s $28 billion. Yet the states have about the same number of kids enrolled—2.7 million in New York and 2.8 million in Florida. New York spent $71 billion on public welfare compared to Florida’s $28 billion. Liberals say that governments provide needed resources to people truly in need. Conservatives say that generous handouts induce high demand whether people need it or not. Given that New York’s welfare costs are 2.5 times higher than Florida’s, the latter effect probably dominates. …New York governments employed 1,196,632 workers in 2017 compared to Florida’s 889,950 (measured in FTEs). …Most New York residents do not benefit from bloat in government payrolls, inefficient transit, excessive welfare, and deficit spending. To them, the high taxes are disproportionate to the government services received. That is why they are moving to better‐​managed states with lower taxes.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

And he also compares the level of bureaucracy in both states.

New York’s excess includes spending more on handouts such as welfare. Another cause of New York’s high spending is employment of more government workers and paying them more than in Florida. …New York governments employ 34 percent more workers than Florida governments. …The two states have similar K-12 school enrollments of 2.7 million in New York and 2.8 million in Florida. But New York employs 31 percent more teachers and administrators than Florida. Do the 111,000 extra staff in New York generate better school outcomes? Apparently not…study puts Florida near the top and New York in the middle on school quality. Does New York really need two times more highway workers than Florida and three times more welfare workers? …Government workers in New York make 42 percent more in wages than government workers in Florida, on average.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

The bottom line is that New York is a great place to be an over-paid bureaucrat in an over-staffed bureaucracy.

But if you’re a taxpayer, Florida is the easy winner – which may explain why so many productive people are leaving the Empire State and permanently migrating to the Sunshine State.

P.S. The same pattern exists all across the United States. Taxpayers are escaping the poorly managed states and fleeing to low-tax states. Especially ones with no income taxes.

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Image credit: Zack Seward | CC BY-ND 2.0.

Coronavirus, Federal Spending, and Media Innumeracy

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 12:41pm

When I write enough columns with the same underlying point, I sometimes create a special page to highlight the theme, such as the “Bureaucrat Hall of Fame” and “Poverty Hucksters.”

I may have to do something similar for people who assert that America’s response to the coronavirus has been hampered because the federal government is too small.

For instance, Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post last month that “anti-government conservatism…caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government.”

Ironically, the nations he cited for their successful approach – Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – all have a much smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Which actually supports my argument that bigger governments are less effective and competent.

But evidence doesn’t seem to matter to some journalists.

One of Milbank’s colleagues, Dan Balz, has just authored a long article that regurgitates the assertion that there’s been “underinvestment” in the federal government.

The government’s halting response to the coronavirus pandemic represents the culmination of chronic structural weaknesses, years of underinvestment and political rhetoric that has undermined the public trust… The nation is reaping the effects of decades of denigration of government and also from a steady squeeze on the resources needed to shore up the domestic parts of the executive branch. This hollowing out has been going on for years as a gridlocked Congress preferred continuing resolutions and budgetary caps… The question is whether the weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed by the current crisis will generate a newfound interest among the nation’s elected officials — and the public — in repairing the infrastructure of government. …“We don’t want to invest in the capacity of government to get the job done,” Kettl said. …said David E. Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University…“We’re seeing a government that is suffering now from a long period of neglect that began well before this administration. And that neglect has accelerated during this administration.”

What’s especially remarkable is that the article cites the government’s lack of testing capacity as evidence of “underinvestment.”

Over these years, there have been a series of major government breakdowns that helped shake confidence in government’s competence. …The pandemic has forced another critical look at government’s competence. …more tests might have helped contain the spread. It is the case now as businesses look to reopen but cannot assure safety for workers or their communities without the widespread availability of tests, which so far does not exist.

Yet the bureaucracies with responsibility for testing – the FDA and CDC – have received big budget increases.

Was that money well spent?

Hardly. Not only have they failed in their mission, their red tape and inefficiency have hindered the private sector’s ability to develop and deploy tests.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, Balz wants readers to believe that people don’t have faith in government because of hostile rhetoric from politicians.

Marc Hetherington, a professor at the University of North Carolina, said the public conversation about government began to shift with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. …“What changed with Reagan and the decades since is that the conversation moves away from what government ought to do to government is incompetent to do things,” he said. …Democratic politicians have engaged in some of the same kind of thing. “Every candidate has campaigned on a bureaucracy-bashing theme,” Nabatchi said. “That message has gotten through to affect people’s confidence in government.”

The alternative explanation, needless to say, is that people don’t have confidence in the public sector because government has a long track record of mistakes and incompetence.

But I guess that’s merely my opinion.

So let’s instead close today’s column with some hard data.

Here’s a chart I shared last month while debunking an article by George Packer for the Atlantic (he claimed we have “a federal government crippled by years of…steady defunding”).

It shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Which led me to observe that, “The bottom line is that I can’t figure out whether to be more dismayed that journalists are innumerate or that major publications apparently don’t have fact checkers.”

That same sentiment obviously applies to Dan Balz and the Washington Post.

P.S. While Balz and Milbank were guilty of avoiding numbers, the Washington Post doesn’t have a great track record when its journalists try to use numbers. In other words, maybe the problem is bias rather than innumeracy.

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Image credit: Martin Jacobsen | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Restoring Fiscal Sanity, Post-Coronavirus

Sat, 05/16/2020 - 12:07pm

The good news is that there will be a record reduction next year in the burden of government spending. Unfortunately, the bad news is that this reduction will only occur because of gigantic spending increases this year.

In this webinar, I explain how fiscal policy is being affected by coronavirus, and then explain why a spending cap is the way to restore fiscal sanity.

You can watch the full webinar, organized by Lebanon’s Modern University for Business and Science, by clicking here.

But if you don’t want to watch the entire event, or even my 11-minute presentation, all you really need to understand is that red ink is exploding this year. Not just in the United States, but in other nations as well.

The fiscal wreckage, as illustrated in this chart I shared for the audience, is greater than the world experienced during the financial crisis/great recession.

For what it’s worth, I wish the chart specified how much of the debt is caused by additional spending and how much is caused by declining tax revenues.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers will probably deteriorate even further over the next few months. Politicians are likely to approve more handouts and subsidies. And if there’s not a rapid economic recovery (I express doubt about that outcome in my remarks), tax revenue will continue to fall far short of baseline estimates.

The sad reality is that we don’t know the full degree of the coronavirus-caused fiscal wreckage. That being said, it’s safe to assume that – sooner or later – there will be a big debate in Washington over how to reverse the damage. And in other nations as well.

In my presentation, I explained why a Swiss-style spending cap is the right approach. In other words, simply impose a limit so that government grows slower than the private economy – i.e., fiscal policy’s Golden Rule.

I’d like to be able to specifically show how a spending cap would undo the current mess, but that’s not possible because we can only make wild guesses about the full extent of the fiscal fallout.

That being said, I’ll share two pieces of evidence to show the value of a spending cap.

First, here’s an estimate I prepared earlier this year to show how America’s fiscal situation would have been much stronger today if a spending cap had been imposed back in 2000.

Needless to say, it would have been nice if the U.S. had big surpluses when the coronavirus hit.

Our second piece of evidence is the experience of the U.S., France, and the U.K. in the decades before World War I.

All three nations had enormous debt burdens as a result of previous conflicts.

And all three countries dramatically reduced debt by using the same strategy of long-run spending restraint.

The bottom line is that spending restraint has worked in the past and it can work in the future.

Unfortunately, I doubt that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is interested in that approach.

P.S. One thing we can say for certain is that responding with tax increases almost surely will make a bad situation even worse.

The WTO Should Be Preserved, but Bilateral Free-Trade Pacts Are the Way Forward for Future Liberalization

Fri, 05/15/2020 - 12:56pm

Last year, I released this video to help explain why the World Trade Organization has been a good deal for the United States.

My argument was – and still is – very straightforward, and it’s based on two simple propositions.

  1. Free trade is good because societies are more prosperous with free markets and open competition.
  2. The WTO has helped nations move in that direction by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

This outcome is particularly beneficial for the United States since other countries tend to be more protectionist.

But not everyone agrees with this position.

President Trump is a notorious critic of the WTO, for instance, which isn’t surprising since he doesn’t understand trade.

There are also plenty of opponents on the left, which also isn’t surprising since they don’t like capitalism and competition.

What is somewhat surprising, however, is that some Republican lawmakers also have decided to oppose the WTO.

In a column last week for the New York Times, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri actually argued that it’s time to get rid of the World Trade Organization. Here’s his argument against the Geneva-based body.

The global economic system as we know it is a relic; it requires reform, top to bottom. We should begin with one of its leading institutions, the World Trade Organization. We should abolish it. …Its mandate was to promote free trade, but the organization instead allowed some nations to maintain trade barriers and protectionist workarounds, like China, while preventing others from defending themselves, like the United States. …Meanwhile, the W.T.O. required American workers to compete against Chinese forced labor but did next to nothing to stop Chinese theft of American intellectual property and products. …too many jobs left America’s borders for elsewhere. As factories closed, workers suffered, from small towns to the urban core. …Enough is enough. The W.T.O. should be abolished, and along with it, the new model global economy. The quest to turn the world into a liberal order of democracies was always misguided.

And here’s what he wants as a replacement.

The only sure way to confront the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century, Chinese imperialism, is to rebuild the U.S. economy and to build up the American worker. And that means reforming the global economic system. …The United States must seek new arrangements and new rules, in concert with other free nations, to restore America’s economic sovereignty and allow this country to practice again the capitalism that made it strong. …For nearly 50 years before the W.T.O.’s founding, the United States and its allies maintained a network of reciprocal trade that protected our national interests and the nation’s workers. We can do it again …It means striking trade deals that are truly mutual and truly beneficial for America and walking away when they are not. It means building a new network of trusted friends and partners to resist Chinese economic imperialism.

Since Hawley doesn’t seem to appreciate the benefits of trade, the simple approach would be to criticize him for wanting politicians and bureaucrats to have the power to interfere with voluntary exchange across borders.

Such criticism is warranted, of course, but I want to take this opportunity to make four points about how there may be hope for the future.

1. Hawley is actually endorsing the status quo. After World War II, the US took the lead in creating the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), a multilateral system of agreements which produced successive rounds of trade liberalization. The US then took the lead in creating the WTO so there would be a system (dispute resolution) to encourage nations to comply with their GATT commitments. But the dispute resolution process is now toothless because there are no longer enough judges for the system to operate (Trump has blocked the appointment of new judges). For all intents and purposes, the world is now operating under the pre-WTO rules – which seems to be what Hawley is calling for in his column.

2. The WTO no longer is a vehicle for global trade liberalization. The WTO is a consensus-based organization, which means unanimity is required for additional GATT-style reductions in global trade barriers. But since membership has expanded to include a number of countries with a protectionist mindset (most notably India, but China and Brazil also are a problem), it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see another multilateral agreement for additional tariff reductions. This doesn’t change the fact that GATT was a big past success, and it doesn’t change the fact that it would be nice if the WTO’s dispute-resolution mechanism was back in operation. It simply means that we won’t be able to build on that progress.

3. Hawley is also endorsing, practically speaking, the best path forward. Another round of multilateral trade liberalization is off the table, but that doesn’t prevent nations from moving forward with bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs are consistent with WTO rules). Interestingly, Hawley seems to support that approach. The U.S. already has nearly 20 of these pacts and is engaged in major negotiations with the United Kingdom for a new FTA that hopefully will be a template for future FTAs with other market-friendly nations.

4. Beware of the regulatory-harmonization wolf in FTA clothes. While bilateral trade pacts are desirable, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. The European Union wants to hijack FTAs and make them vehicles for regulatory harmonization (meaning other nations have to agree to the EU’s onerous approach to red tape). If the goal is to have more trade, more competition, and more dynamism, the United States and other pro-market countries should make “mutual recognition” the foundation of future free-trade pacts.

The bottom line is that Hawley is wrong about the WTO, but he may actually be right about the best way of achieving future trade liberalization. Assuming, of course, that he actually means what he wrote about striking new deals.

In an ideal world, needless to say, these new bilateral FTAs (or even multi-nation FTAs) should be in addition to the WTO.

P.S. An under-appreciated aspect of the WTO is that it gives nations like the US a more-effective way of pressuring China to eliminate subsidies and other trade-distorting practices.

P.P.S. I’m normally very skeptical of international organizations. But the WTO encourages globalization rather than global governance, a key distinction.

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Image credit: World Trade Organization | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Coronavirus and the Failure of Big Government: A Closer Look at the CDC

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 12:52pm

I’ve written four columns (hereherehere, and here) on the general failure of government health bureaucracies to effectively respond to the coronavirus.

The pattern was so pronounced that it even led me to unveil a Seventh Theorem of Government.

I’m not surprised at this outcome, of course, given the poor overall track record of the public sector.

But I was negatively surprised to learn how red tape from these bureaucracies prevented the private sector from quickly reacting to the crisis.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of those bureaucracies, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Eric Boehm, writing for Reason, has a nice summary of the CDC’s failures.

Over the past three decades, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has seen its taxpayer-funded budget doubled. Then doubled again. Then doubled again. And then nearly doubled once more. But spending nearly 14 times as much as we did in 1987 on the agency whose mission statement says it “saves lives and protects people from health threats” did not, apparently, help the CDC combat the emergence of the biggest disease threat America has faced in a century. In fact, …inflating the CDC’s budget may have weakened the agency’s ability to handle its core responsibility by giving rise to mission creep and bureaucratic malaise. …the CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today. …Has all that extra funding made America safer? …hindsight now suggests that the CDC should have spent more time and money researching emergent influenza-like infectious diseases, a project that received just $185 million in funding… Instead, the CDC was doing things like spending $1.75 million on the creation of a “Hollywood liaison”.

A big problem with bureaucracies is that they engage in mission creep. They concoct new roles and responsibilities in hopes of justifying bigger budgets and more staff.

The CDC certainly is no exception. In its early years, the bureaucracy had a targeted mission, focusing on diseases posing a major threat to public health, such as malaria, plague, and tuberculosis.

Over the years, though, it has lost focus and become involved with social issues.

Daniel Greenfield opines on the CDC’s foolish diversions on issues such as obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control has…one job which it messes up every time. The last time the CDC had a serious workout was six years ago during the Ebola crisis. Back then CDC guidelines allowed medical personnel infected with Ebola to avoid a quarantine and interact with Americans… There were no protocols in place for treating the potentially infected resulting in the further spread of the disease inside the United States. …Meanwhile, CDC personnel had managed to mishandle Ebola virus samples, accidentally sending samples of the live virus to CDC labs. …During the Ebola crisis, the CDC had been spending…$2.6 million on gun violence studies. But the CDC has a history of wasting money on everything from a $106 million visitor’s center with Japanese gardens, a $200K gym, a transgender beauty pageant, not to mention promoting bike paths. …the CDC’s general incompetence…, like that of other government agencies, just ticks along wasting money. In 1999, the CDC announced a plan to end syphilis in 5 years…an unserious social welfare proposal that wanted to battle racism and was such a success that by 2018, syphilis rates had hit a new record high. … The CDC’s fight against the “obesity epidemic” is even sillier. That includes…giving LSU over a million bucks to work with farmers’ markets. Obesity obviously can kill people, but it’s not something that the CDC can or should be trying to fix. …Unfortunately, the CDC, like every federal agency, has drifted from its core mission into social welfare. …No one thinks about the CDC until we need it and discover it doesn’t work. And then the same story repeats itself a few years later while the CDC goes back to battling obesity and racism. …We don’t need a CDC that changes people’s minds about eating chocolate or engaging in unprotected sex. There are already multiple redundant parts of the government that are trying and failing there.

In a column for Forbes, Larry Bell reviewed the history of the CDC’s politicized campaigning against gun ownership.

In 1996, the Congress axed $2.6 million allocated for gun research from the CDC out of its $2.2 billion budget, charging that its studies were being driven by anti-gun prejudice. …There was a very good reason for the gun violence research funding ban. Virtually all of the scores of CDC-funded firearms studies conducted since 1985 had reached conclusions favoring stricter gun control.  This should have come as no surprise, given that ever since 1979, the official goal of the CDC’s parent agency, the U.S. Public Health Service, had been “…to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership”… Sociologist David Bordura and epidemiologist David Cowan characterized the public health literature on guns at that time as “advocacy based upon political beliefs rather than scientific fact”. …Dr. Katherine Christoffel, head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan”, a CDC-funded organization…said: “guns are a virus that must be eradicated…”

Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote for Inside Sources about the CDC’s senseless efforts to restrict vaping.

Our health agencies had the information and the resources, so they should have been planning for this, but they weren’t. The problem isn’t because they’re underfunded, it’s that they are bloated and mismanaged. …a close look at how CDC spends its budget reveals it has strayed from this mission of protecting Americans from communicable diseases, turning more toward influencing people’s lifestyle choices. …Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC and other agencies were busy sounding the alarm about the nonexistent “epidemic” of youth vaping. Collectively, they spent billions on anti-vaping advertisements, biased research and lobbying, wasted countless hours of congressional hearing time, and squandering public trust. Had they remained focused on infectious disease, might have been prepared to fight real epidemics, like the COVID-19. …there’s nothing new about exploiting a crisis to expand budgets and score political points. Similar claims of inadequate funding were made during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, for which various health agencies got an additional $5.4 billion. And what do we have to show for it now?

Let’s wrap up by noting that squandering money should be viewed as the CDC’s indirect failure.

The direct failure was how the bureaucracy bungled its one legitimate function of fighting infectious disease.

Jacob Sullum, writing for the New York Post, explains what happened.

The grand failure of federal health bureaucrats foreclosed the possibility of a more proactive and targeted approach… At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ­monopolized COVID-19 tests. When the CDC began shipping test kits to state laboratories in early February, they turned out to be defective. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration initially blocked efforts by universities and businesses to develop and conduct tests… The CDC still insists that “not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19.” But without testing everyone — or at least representative samples — for both the virus itself and the antibodies to it, we can do little better than guess its prevalence, its lethality and the extent of immunity among the general public. …Our ignorance about COVID-19 will have profound consequences, potentially leading to an overreaction that wrecks the economy while saving relatively few lives… You can thank the same agencies on which we are relying to guide us through this crisis.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center summarizes the issue, noting that the CDC is a monumental failure.

The lack of preparedness at every level of government (federal, state, and local) has nothing to do with a lack of funding or inadequate staffing. Instead, it has everything to do with governments’ bloat, mismanagement, cronyism, and poor focus. That’s particularly true of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). …it is no secret how much the CDC is to blame for the country’s lack of preparedness to take on the coronavirus (followed very closely in ineptitude by the Food and Drug Administration). …By now, every major newspaper has reported on the incredible failure of the CDC during this crisis. …Messing up is not a new thing for the CDC. However, unlike what its employees and political allies like to claim, the agency’s poor record and its lack of preparedness has nothing to do with a lack of funding. …For instance, funding for its National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases—which aims to prevent diseases like Ebola—received only $514 million in 2018, a tiny sliver (less than 5%) of total CDC funding. And less than half of that $514 million went to emerging diseases like COVID-19. The rest of that budget is spent on stuff like chronic fatigue. Meanwhile, funding…to prevent smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor diets…received nearly $1 billion over that same time, almost double the funding for infectious-disease prevention.

Here’s a look (courtesy of Chris Edwards) at what’s happened to the CDC budget over time.

As you can see, the bureaucrats got more and more funding. Yet when America needed competence, they didn’t deliver.

P.S. The bureaucrats are not the only ones to blame. A big reason for the CDC’s lack of focus is that headline-seeking and vote-buying politicians created new roles and responsibilities. The CDC was happy to get more power, staff, and money, of course (just as it will be happy to get more power, staff, and money as a reward for its failure to deal with the coronavirus).

P.P.S. It’s almost as if there’s a lesson to be learned.

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Image credit: Raed Mansour | CC BY 2.0.

What Lessons Can the Country Learn from California’s Red-Tape Nightmare?

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 12:50pm

From the perspective of lifestyle (factors such as climate, scenery, and recreational opportunities), there’s probably no better state in which to live than California.

But if you want to be an entrepreneur, start a business, and create jobs, the Golden State is one of the worst places in America.

I’ve already written about the state’s punitive tax system. The 13.3 percent tax rate is far higher than any other state. That’s an acceptable burden to rich folks in Silicon Valley since they amass their wealth in the form of unrealized (and untaxable) capital gains.

But it’s a crippling burden for regular business owners.

California also has a very unfriendly regulatory regime, ranking a lowly 48 out of 50 according a comprehensive study.

What does that mean, in practical terms?

Let’s look at a few examples to understand the state’s hostile business environment.

We’ll start with the high-profile case of Elon Musk, who is openly rebelling against government red tape by restarting production in his Tesla factory.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk confirmed Monday he’s flouting county rules by reopening a Northern California plant amid concerns over safety during the coronavirus crisis, tweeting: “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” …Musk tweeted, “Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. …all other auto companies in US are approved to resume. Only Tesla has been singled out. This is super messed up!” …The county later responded in a statement: “We have notified Tesla that they can only maintain Minimum Basic Operations until we have an approved plan…and we hope that Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures.” …a frustrated Musk wrote that he was filing a lawsuit to halt the local restrictions and predicted relocating Tesla’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters to Texas or Nevada.

To be sure, this is a very unusual example, one where the battle is complicated by the very difficult issue of how to deal with a serious virus.

So let’s zoom out and consider other examples that existed well before the pandemic.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains for Townhall that California has a long history of policies that discourage entrepreneurship and job creation.

To climb out of the massive pit the economy has been thrown into, it will take not just the release of workers from their homes, but also entrepreneurs and innovators capable of adapting to a new economic environment. Unfortunately, innovators are often treated very poorly by all levels of government. And the worst offender is arguably California… Consider last year’s passage of AB 5. It upended California’s gig economy by requiring that contractors be reclassified as employees, even against their will, when certain thresholds were met. The arbitrary caps were set so low that self-employed freelancers have been devastated by a loss of work as many companies suddenly stopped working with California workers. …The state’s regulators are also unfairly attacking an innovative hotel business. OYO Hotels…focuses on the small hotels ignored by the large chains, offering them proprietary technology and marketing assistance to dramatically improve their ability to reach and attract customers, along with capital to ensure their rooms are up to the company’s standards… But California’s regulators have other ideas. They…claim that OYO’s activities make it a franchise, and therefore it was required to seek approval before ever operating in the state.

John Moorlach, a senator in California’s legislature, wrote a column for the Orange County Register about the Golden State’s anti-growth mentality.

If you were a corporate manager looking to build or lease a plant and hire workers, where would you look first? California, with a $13 minimum wage rising to $15 in 2022? …Then there’s the state income tax. During times of plenty, maybe it’s worthwhile to put up with California’s 13.3% top state personal income tax rate… But during tough times? …If you needed that 13.3 percent to re-invest in your company, instead of going to a poorly run state government, where would you go? …Companies that play by the rules, paying all the taxes and observing every labor regulation, will be at a disadvantage… The cost structure will just be too high. So many of these honest firms will go out of business, join the underground economy or move to Texas. …Every state needs a healthy economy in order to survive. …over-burdening its entrepreneurial sector…becomes an abuse.

Now you know why many people are “voting with their feet” and leaving the state.

Let’s close with my home-made visual that illustrates what red tape means for entrepreneurs.

Yes, there are some entrepreneurs who can make it all the way, but many others don’t have the time, money, energy, or expertise the navigate the entire course.

And others can get through eventually, but only at the cost of shrinking their businesses and hiring fewer workers.

Here’s the bottom line: This isn’t a binary no-regulation-vs-all-regulation choice. The states with the best scores for regulation (the top 5 are Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Iowa, and Indiana) have red tape, but it’s a question of degree.

Sensible jurisdictions give entrepreneurs more “breathing room” to start businesses and create jobs. Which is why the scholarly evidence shows that less regulation is good for prosperity.

P.S. The good news is that entrepreneurs can escape California’s red tape by moving across the border. The bad news is that this strategy doesn’t solve the problem of federal rules and mandates.

P.P.S. Since I’m always asked about this comparison, you can review data comparing Texas and California by clicking hereherehere, and here.

P.P.P.S. Here’s my favorite California vs Texas joke.

P.P.P.P.S. Libertarian readers will appreciate the argument for private regulation.

Taxes and Growth

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 12:44pm

I’ve explained the economics of taxation, which is based on the common-sense notion that you get less productive economic activity when taxes drive a bigger wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of it, and this applies to taxes on labor and taxes on capital.

Today, let’s examine some empirical evidence. I’ve done that before (see herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here), but it’s always good to expand the collection.

Three Italian professors, in a new working paper for the Centre for Economic and International Studies, investigated the relationship between taxes and growth.

We’ll start with a description of the methodology.

In this paper, we revisit a traditional issue in the empirics of growth and economic policy: whether taxation has long-lasting effects on real GDP dynamics. …we focus on the impact that taxes may have on the rates of physical and human capital accumulation. …our main departure from the existing literature is the use of a semi-parametric technique, which allows for countries’ unobserved heterogeneity in the input effects on per capita GDP. …we test our model, using a sample of 21 OECD countries over the period 1965-2010.

Here are the key findings.

Our main finding is that taxation negatively affect per capita GDP growth rates, both directly and indirectly, via physical and human capital saving rates. …Our cross-country analysis makes a clear point on this, at least for our sample of OECD countries: on average, tax cuts produce a beneficial impact on GDP dynamics but of modest size. In our baseline specification, a cut by 10% in personal income tax rate generates an change in the real per capita GDP growth rate of +1% while a cut by 10% in corporate income tax rate increases the rate of growth of real per capita GDP by 0.9%. …The main message of our empirical exercise is that, across various samples and specifications, taxes are harmful for growth.

These are very strong results.

Though I find it very interesting that the authors say they are “of modest size.”

I guess that depends on expectations and perspective. I’ll simply repeat the point I made two years ago about the importance of even small increases in the long-run growth rate.

The bottom line is that future Americans would enjoy significantly greater prosperity with better tax policy.

That’s a desirable outcome at any point in time, and it’s even more important today as we consider how to recover from the economic wreckage caused by the coronavirus.

Interestingly, the study ends with some interesting estimates on the impact of lower tax rates on labor and capital.

Table 10 reports the results of a “what if”exercise, in which we compute the change in GDP growth rate generated by a ceteris paribus cut by 10 % in τw and τk.

And here is the aforementioned Table 10 (“τw” is the tax rate on labor and “τk” is the tax rate on capital).

There are two big takeaways from this research.

First, it’s further evidence that Trump’s tax reform, which lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, was a very good step for the American economy.

Second, it’s further evidence that it’s a big mistake for Biden and other folks on the left to push for higher tax rates, including big increases in tax rates on personal income.

P.S. Just in case those last two sentences sound overly favorable to Trump, I’ll remind people that reckless spending increases – sooner or later – will lead to punitive tax increases. In other words, if Biden wins and there are big tax hikes, Trump will deserve some of the blame (just as Bush’s irresponsible policies set the stage for some of Obama’s irresponsible policies).

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Image credit: Shaw Girl | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Overregulation More Damaging Than Ever

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 12:36pm

Originally published by Townhall on May 11, 2020.

April’s jobs report was the worst in U.S. history, with 20.5 million jobs lost thanks to the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns. Some layoffs are temporary and likely to return as soon as lockdowns are lifted, but a full recovery could take quite some time. Exactly how long will depend in large part on the degree to which government policy prevents market dynamism.

To climb out of the massive pit the economy has been thrown into, it will take not just the release of workers from their homes, but also entrepreneurs and innovators capable of adapting to a new economic environment. Unfortunately, innovators are often treated very poorly by all levels of government. And the worst offender is arguably California, which, as the largest state, has a profound impact on the national economy.

Consider last year’s passage of AB 5. It upended California’s gig economy by requiring that contractors be reclassified as employees, even against their will, when certain thresholds were met. The arbitrary caps were set so low that self-employed freelancers have been devastated by a loss of work as many companies suddenly stopped working with California workers. They were forced to choose between giving up the flexibility and control that comes with self-employment or being newly unable to take on sufficient work to pay their bills.

The legislation looks particularly short-sighted in the era of social distancing, where Americans are looking for opportunities to work from home now more than ever.

The state’s regulators are also unfairly attacking an innovative hotel business. OYO Hotels has disrupted traditional business models in the industry, but its entrance into the US market has been beset by government obstacles.

OYO focuses on the small hotels ignored by the large chains, offering them proprietary technology and marketing assistance to dramatically improve their ability to reach and attract customers, along with capital to ensure their rooms are up to the company’s standards, and their partners typically see a significant jump in occupancy. Started in India, it quickly grew to become the second largest chain in the world, spanning 80 countries, and is now looking to establish a presence in the United States.

But California’s regulators have other ideas. They are determined to force a new business model into an old template. Specifically, they claim that OYO’s activities make it a franchise, and therefore it was required to seek approval before ever operating in the state.

Requiring permission from the local czars to engage in economic activity does not lead to a robust economy. But the bigger issue in OYO’s case is that they are not even operating as a franchise in California.

Where a franchise model requires an upfront payment from the franchisee in exchange for access to a brand, OYO puts skin in the game. It partners with hotels to make improvements and then shares in the success. It also offers a minimum gross revenue guarantee, tailored to the financial situation of each hotel, as part of its agreement.

OYO does also have a franchise model that it has deployed in some other markets, and may yet bring to the U.S., but the determination of whether that is the best approach should be made by market participants, not unelected bureaucrats.

Treating OYO as a franchise even when it does not meet the statutory requirements would impose unnecessary and costly regulatory burdens. Unfortunately, regulations tend to be written with the last business model in mind, while innovators are always looking for the next one. Regulators need to remember that they exist to cater to the needs of the market, not the other way around.

In response to economic pressure surrounding the coronavirus, states have suspended hundreds of regulations that were never actually needed in the first place. These range from restrictions on telehealth services to prohibitions on alcohol delivery.

Given the financial hit that the coronavirus has had on the travel industry, innovation and investment of the sort brought by OYO should be welcomed with open arms. Policymakers ought to reel in regulators who refuse to do so.

In good times it is easy to tolerate a certain number of bad policies, or to justify inaction on the grounds that there may be higher priorities than removing regulatory barriers. But when every policy could mean the difference between bouncing back economically and a prolonged depression, a critical look at the nation’s regulatory landscape is warranted.

The Bizarre Attack on Vaping

Mon, 05/11/2020 - 12:52pm

Since I’ve never smoked or vaped, I have no personal interest in the the regulatory battle over vaping and e-cigarettes.

That being said, I started writing about this issue back in 2016 because it involves several important principles.

  1. The libertarian argument that people should be free to do what they want with their own bodies
  2. Whether the “administrative state” should be able to unilaterally grab more regulatory power.
  3. The degree to which “harm reduction” or “zero tolerance” should guide government policies.

From a public health perspective, the third point is most important.

It’s a fight between those who want the Food and Drug Administration to use its self-anointed regulatory authority to ban e-cigarettes (because vaping is worse than not vaping) and those who explain that e-cigarettes are helpful (because vaping is far less risky than smoking).

This fight has a September 9 deadline. The Food and Drug Administration decided several years ago that its power to regulate tobacco somehow meant it also has the power to regulate vaping. The bureaucrats then created a system requiring future approval for marketing and sale of e-cigarettes and related products (originally to be unveiled in 2022 but a federal judge has ordered an earlier deadline).

The FDA has basically given itself the power to prohibit these products, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the battle, here are two short articles (pro and con) about that effort.

I want to focus today on whether it makes sense to impose prohibition, and it’s a simple matter of cost-benefit analysis. Some people want to enjoy nicotine, so is it better for them to vape or to smoke?

Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Roger Bate points out that smoking is far worse.

…there is an increasing amount of evidence to support it over smoking. As Michael Siegel — a public health Professor at Boston University — says “there is overwhelming evidence that smoking is more hazardous than vaping. One of the most compelling lines of evidence is a series of studies showing that when smokers switch to e-cigarettes, they experience immediate and dramatic improvement in both their respiratory and cardiovascular health, measured both subjectively and objectively.” Cancer rates are at an all-time low partially due to the introduction of vaping and subsequent reduction in smoking.

And if people can’t vape, that leads to more smoking.

Six scholars, in a new study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that higher taxes on vaping led to more cigarette consumption.

We explore the effect of e-cigarette taxes enacted in eight states and two large counties on e-cigarette prices, e-cigarette sales, and sales of other tobacco products. …We then calculate an e-cigarette own-price elasticity of -1.5 and a positive cross-price elasticity of demand between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes of 0.9, suggesting that e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes are economic substitutes. We simulate that for every one standard e-cigarette pod (a device that contains liquid nicotine) of 0.7 ml no longer purchased as a result of an e-cigarette tax, the same tax increases traditional cigarettes purchased by 6.4 extra packs.

If you don’t want to read an academic study, a press release from Georgia State University (home to one of the scholars) summarizes the key findings.

Increasing taxes on e-cigarettes in an attempt to cut vaping may cause people to purchase more traditional cigarettes according to a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health. For every 10 percent increase in e-cigarette prices, e-cigarette sales drop 26 percent while traditional cigarette sales jump by 11 percent. …“Vaping-related illnesses are a public health concern. However, cigarettes continue to kill nearly 480,000 Americans each year, and several research reviews support the conclusion that e-cigarettes contain fewer toxicants and are safer for non-pregnant adults,” said co-author Erik Nesson of Ball State University. …Michael F. Pesko from Georgia State University. “We estimate that for every 1 e-cigarette pod no longer purchased as a result of an e-cigarette tax, 6.2 extra packs of cigarettes are purchased instead,” he said. “The public health impact of e-cigarette taxes in this case is likely negative.”

Needless to say, if higher taxes on vaping lead to more smoking, one can only imagine how much additional cigarettes will be consumed if vaping is outlawed.

And that means more cancer, more heart disease, and other illnesses.

The folks who support anti-vaping policies respond by arguing that vaping enables nicotine consumption by some young people and may even be a gateway to smoking.

That’s probably true, but it’s also true that some of those young people would opt for smoking if they didn’t have the option to vape.

From a utilitarian perspective, the bottom line is that vaping saves lives.

The anti-vaping crowd might even admit that’s true, but they presumably would then argue in favor of banning cigarettes.

But why stop there? Obesity also is a major threat to health, so why not ban cakes, pies, pasta, and french fries? And big gulps (oh, wait, that’s already happening)?

And mandate broccoli consumption as well, along with a government-required five-mile jog on days that end in “y”.

At the risk of understatement, the right solution is to let adults make their own decisions. The FDA should quit its harassment campaign against vaping.

P.S. If FDA bureaucrats actually want to save lives, they should focus on their onerous rules and silly regulations that have hampered the private economy’s ability to respond to the coronavirus.

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Image credit: Vaping360 | CC BY 2.0.

Coronavirus Is Worsening America’s Grim Fiscal Outlook

Sat, 05/09/2020 - 12:22pm

I’ve warned that the budgetary impact of the coronavirus may trigger another fiscal crisis in Europe.

Especially Italy.

But what about the United States? Will we reach a point, as Margaret Thatcher famously warned, of running out of other people’s money?

We probably still have a couple of decades before that happens, as I speculated at the end of a recent interview, but that doesn’t mean we should continue down our current path.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic yesterday, citing newly released estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

Friday’s Congressional Budget Office report on the federal fisc for April…usually a surplus month as tax payments roll in, but the Treasury postponed tax day this year until July 15. We are grateful for such small government favors. Spending more than doubled in April from the year before and revenue fell by 55%. …we are all apparently supposed to be converts to Modern Monetary Theory. This is the view that governments can spend whatever they like because the Federal Reserve can monetize it without economic harm. We may get to test this proposition. …the damage from so much spending will come in two ways. First, in resources misallocated to government rather than into private hands to invest. Second, in the tax increases that the political class will eventually impose, perhaps starting as early as 2021.

As is so often the case, the WSJ is correct in its analysis.

The fiscal crisis won’t be too much red ink. That’s merely the symptom of the real disease, which is that government is getting far too big.

As the editorial warns, this undermines prosperity because resources get diverted from the economy’s productive sector.

And as that spending burden increases, it means more and more pressure for tax increases, which further penalize growth. I’ve already noted that politicians will try to exploit the crisis by imposing a wealth tax, but I think the real prize – in the mind of statists – is a money-gobbling value-added tax.

I’ll close by sharing a chart from Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute, which estimates the per-capita burden of inflation-adjusted federal spending in the United States.

The red portion of the chart is coronavirus-related spending, plus future interest payments on the additional borrowing for all that spending, and the blue portion is spending in prior years plus estimates of future spending (already on an upward trajectory because of poorly designed entitlement programs).

That chart does not paint a pretty picture, but Brian’s numbers may be too optimistic. He assumes that the coronavirus-related emergency spending is just temporary and that additional interest on a bigger debt is the only long-run impact.

But if politicians make some of that spending permanent (which will be in their self-interest), then we’ll be traveling even faster in the wrong direction.

All the more reason to impose a spending cap, which is the only major fiscal reform with a track record of success.

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Image credit: Max Pixel | CC0 Public Domain.

A Real-World Depiction of Life under Socialism

Fri, 05/08/2020 - 12:20pm

When making the case against socialism, I’ve pointed out how that coercive ideology is an evil and immoral failure.

But maybe the best argument is contained in this very short video that was shared by a group of Tory activists in the United Kingdom.

Ms. Badenoch is now a member of the United Kingdom’s Parliament, and she was describing what it was like to grow up in Nigeria, a country where capitalism was not allowed to flourish.

Given the upside-down incentive system created by socialism, it’s no surprise that she endured hardship.

And while her story is just an anecdote, there is overwhelming evidence that nations with more economic liberty generate much better outcomes for ordinary people.

If you’re interested in learning more Ms. Badenoch, the U.K.-based Daily Mail profiled her back in 2017.

Kemi Badenoch is black; although British-born, she was raised in Nigeria by African parents, returned to England when she was 16 and rose from impoverished first-generation immigrant to parliamentarian in just 21 years. …Kemi, 37, married with two young children, won her safe seat in rural Essex with a 24,966-seat majority after Sir Alan Haselhurst, 80, stood down after 40 years. …What’s more, she was chosen ahead of Theresa May’s special adviser Stephen Parkinson, a Cambridge-educated white male. Kemi’s maiden Commons speech…marked her as a rising star. She spoke of her African childhood, saying: …‘Unlike many colleagues born since 1980, I was unlucky enough to live under socialist policies. It is not something I would wish on anyone, and it is just one of the reasons why I am a Conservative.’ …Kemi has a refreshing view of politics. …She supports Brexit — ‘the greatest ever vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom’ — and her heroes are Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher…she made a last-minute decision in favour of Leave. ‘And since, I’ve felt more and more confident that it was the right one,’ she says. ‘Many people who voted Brexit warmed to me because they felt I wasn’t a typical Leave voter. I’ve no time for those who say, “Brexit is all about racism.” That’s offensive. ‘It’s about sovereignty, bureaucracy and how we make our laws. …Kemi is fired up by the patriotism of the emigre who chose to live in Britain. ‘I’m Conservative because of the experiences I’ve had,’ she says. ‘I know what it’s like to live in a Third World country run by a regime with Socialist principles. It shaped my outlook and helped me appreciate how great Britain is.’

She was on the correct side on Brexit and Thatcher was one of her heroes. And she got the seat after beating out an ally of Theresa May, who was on the wrong side of Brexit.

That’s a very nice combination, but I want to zoom out and make a big-picture observation about how Ms. Badenoch’s move to the United Kingdom is part of a global pattern.

Simply stated, people vote with their feet against socialism.

People didn’t try to escape from West Germany to East Germany.

There are no caravans marching toward Venezuela (notwithstanding this satire).

Refugees aren’t in ramshackle boats trying to go from Florida to Cuba.

By the way, people also vote with their feet against big government inside the United States.

Needless to say, there’s a lesson to be learned from these migratory patterns.

P.S. If you like first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live under socialism, I recommend these videos from Gloria AlvarezThomas Peterffy, and two Venezuelans.

P.P.S. Ms. Badenoch’s video is only 37 seconds, but you can also learn about socialism in videos that last 10 seconds or less.

Recognizing the Deadly Impact of Economic Lockdowns

Thu, 05/07/2020 - 12:26pm

Last October, before coronavirus became the world’s dominant issue, I shared this clever Remy video to help make the point that policies designed to save lives can go too far. Indeed, if they do enough harm to the economy, they can actually cause additional death.

I’ve written about this tradeoff in the context of the coronavirus, pointing out that policymakers should look at total deaths, not just deaths from the virus.

In a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Professors Antony Davies and James Harrigan elaborate on these tradeoffs.

In times of crisis, people want someone to do something, and don’t want to hear about tradeoffs. This is the breeding ground for grand policies driven by the mantra, “if it saves just one life.” …Rational people understand this isn’t how the world works. …Unfortunately, even mentioning tradeoffs in a time of crisis brings the accusation that only heartless beasts would balance human lives against dollars. …Five-thousand Americans die each year from choking on solid food. We could save every one of those lives by mandating that all meals be pureed. Pureed food isn’t appetizing, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. …Legislating…these things would be ridiculous, and most sane people know as much. How do we know? Because each of us makes choices like these every day that increase the chances of our dying. …The uncomfortable truth is that no policy can save lives; it can only trade lives. Good policies result in a net positive tradeoff. But we have no idea whether the tradeoff is a net positive until we take a sober look at the cost of saving lives. …It’s time we took a sober look at what this shutdown is costing us.

Opining for the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Sternberg warns that all options are bad, but herd immunity may be the least-worst approach.

The experts might have been right the first time. …The stated goal was not to vanquish the virus but merely to try to control its spread so as not to overwhelm health-care systems. …Those opinions now are widely derided, often in insulting terms. Yet subsequent events suggest they’re mainly correct. …The trouble started in mid-March when “herd immunity,” previously the tacit or acknowledged endgame for most of the world, became a toxic phrase. Critics pointed out that allowing the virus to spread in a controlled manner would cost lives. …But if those experts have a more plausible plan than taking a controlled path to herd immunity, the world is waiting to hear it. …A vaccine is a year or more in the future, if one ever emerges. An effective mass test-and-trace regime would require a level of competence and focus that typically eludes modern governments.

The tradeoffs are especially important in poor countries.

A new report in South Africa, largely prepared by actuaries, finds that the health costs of the lockdown could be 29 times greater than the health costs of the virus. Here are some details in a story published by the Financial Mail.

The lockdown will lead to 29 times more lives lost than the harm it seeks to prevent from Covid-19 in SA, according to…a new model developed by local actuaries. …They have sent a letter…to President Cyril Ramaphosa…they call for an end to the lockdown, a focus on isolating the elderly and allowing children to go back to school, while ensuring the economy restarts so that lives can be saved. …The actuaries used a model comparing “years of lives lost” from Covid-19, to “years of lives lost” from the lockdown. …their model translated into a minimum of 26,800 “years of lives lost” due to Covid-19, and a maximum of 473,500 years. …The actuaries then used the figures predicted by the National Treasury to model the impact on poverty. … their model showed that the number of years lost owing to the economic contraction caused by lockdown lies between 14-million and 24-million.

I have no idea, of course, whether these numbers are correct. Especially since even the world’s biggest experts are still learning about the disease.

But the underlying methodology is sensible. Policies that cause a weaker economy (and South Africa already has plenty of those) will make a country poorer and its people poorer.

And poorer people in poorer nations will die at younger ages.

Somebody sent me this image, which helps to capture the health costs of lockdowns.

P.S. Back in 2012, I pointed out that the economy’s sub-par performance under Obama would lead to almost 60,000 premature deaths. I openly acknowledged that this back-of-the-envelope calculation was very speculative, but what’s not speculation is that richer societies are healthier societies.

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Image credit: Liberty Junkies | .

English Hypocrite Joins the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame

Wed, 05/06/2020 - 12:21pm

One of the most-nauseating features of government is how politicians and bureaucrats impose lots of restrictions on ordinary people, yet then officially or unofficially create exemptions for themselves.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a new opportunity for the political class to flaunt its privileged status while stepping on the rights of ordinary people.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this issue today and noted plenty of elected officials have decided to exempt themselves from lockdown rules.

A good sign that a government policy is misconceived is that its most energetic promoters can’t abide by it. The coronavirus outbreak has exposed this sort of hypocrisy more than a few times. Mayor Bill de Blasio famously visited his favorite YMCA for a workout even as his office was telling the rest of New York City to stay home. In Chicago, salons and barbershops were shut down while Mayor Lori Lightfoot allowed herself a haircut. Beaumont, Texas, Mayor Becky Ames flouted her city’s shelter-in-place order to have her nails done.

But these examples are trivial compared to the actions of Neil Ferguson, the officious British government employee who has been publicly hectoring his countrymen to follow stay-at-home orders, but decided those rules didn’t apply to his f*buddy.

Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist at Imperial College,…led the researchers who predicted that, absent a forceful governmental response on movement and commerce, Covid-19 could cause more than 500,000 deaths. That modeling was soon scaled back, but Mr. Ferguson has since become a familiar figure in Britain for urging the government to impose strict shelter-in-place orders. It appears Mr. Ferguson wasn’t sheltering in place. Or, rather, he was but his paramour, Antonia Staats, wasn’t. …Ms. Staats had crossed London at least twice since citywide lockdowns were imposed in March—a clear violation of government rules. He has resigned from his position as government adviser.

I’m not surprised Ferguson is a hypocrite. It goes with the territory.

But I do wonder how he became a government adviser with the Conservative Party supposedly in charge? I thought Republicans were the “stupid party.”

In any event, the U.K.-based Sun is famous for its clever headlines (sort of like the New York Post), and this latest scandal is no exception.

Let’s conclude that Ferguson deserves to be the second Brit in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame (joining the chap who worked in law enforcement while moonlighting as a jihadist).

P.S. For what it’s worth, Ms. Staats is a left-wing activist, so she’s part of a long tradition of statists who want more power for government, but conveniently don’t think they should be subject to the rules imposed on the rest of us.

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Image credit: David Iliff | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Does Sweden Have the Right Response to the Coronavirus?

Tue, 05/05/2020 - 12:47pm

Having already written several dozen columns on public policy and the coronavirus, it’s time to add my two cents to the debate over Sweden’s (comparatively) laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.

If nothing else, it’s remarkable that the nation Bernie Sanders praised for socialism (albeit incorrectly) is now the poster child for (some) libertarians.

What makes Sweden special, as depicted in this graphic from CNN, is a more lenient attitude about letting ordinary life continue.

Did Sweden make the right choice?

Let’s review several analyses, starting with Hilary Brueck’s article for Business Insider.

In Sweden, bars and restaurants are open to the public, you can go get a haircut, and primary school is in session. …life goes on. …If anyone can have success with such a low-enforcement disease-fighting strategy, it may be Sweden. …The Swedish prerogative asks citizens to act like adults, and then trusts that, left to their own devices, people will. …The Swedes are also seriously weighing concerns that have been taken as inevitable, if unfortunate, collateral damage in other countries, such as the mental health risks of being stuck inside, rising rates of abuse, and substance use disorders. …Other countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, originally toyed with the idea… Both were accused of heartlessness: sacrificing the old and vulnerable… But Sweden has persevered. …The economy has…taken a hit. …8% of the country is now unemployed, a figure that’s projected to continue to rise, possibly hitting 10% by this summer.

Writing for Reason, Johan Norberg explains his nation’s strategy.

The Swedish government has declared no state of emergency and no orders to shelter in place. …Those who want to show how great Sweden is doing have produced charts comparing us to countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. Those who want to prove the opposite replace those countries with Norway, Denmark, and Finland, all of which have fewer deaths. …Sweden has had more COVID-19 deaths per capita than our Nordic neighbors. But that is an obvious result of those countries’ decisions to postpone cases and deaths by locking down whole societies for a period of time. The thing to watch is what happens when they begin to open up again and will face a new wave of COVID-19. …A Harvard model projects that a 60 percent suppression of the disease will result in a higher peak later on and a higher number of total deaths than a mitigation strategy like the one Sweden used, where the spread is reduced by no more than 20 or 40 percent, so that the disease can pass through the population to create herd immunity during a period when the vulnerable are protected. Other models come to other conclusions, of course… We just don’t know yet, and only time will tell. Herd immunity might yet beat herd mentality. …our economy still hurts… But losing two-thirds of your revenue rather than 100 percent might mean the difference between life and death for many entrepreneurs. …Perhaps Sweden will do worse long term… Or perhaps Sweden is the one place that is succeeding in limiting long-term damage, caring for the sick, and protecting the vulnerable, all while working toward herd immunity. …What we do know is that Sweden has not cracked down on basic liberties like others have, and has not wrecked society and the economy to the same extent.

In a column for the New York Times, Ian Bremmer, Cliff Kupchan, and Scott Rosenstein cast doubt on Sweden’s approach.

In Sweden, business is not actually proceeding as usual. …But restrictions from government are considerably less severe than many other countries. …The results have been mixed. Sweden has the highest fatalities and case count per capita in Scandinavia, but is lower than some of its neighbors to the south. Economic disruption has been significant but not as debilitating as other countries. …the nation’s top infectious disease official recently estimated that approximately 25 percent of the population has developed antibodies. …But if immunity is short-lived and only present in some individuals, that already uncertain 25 percent becomes even less compelling. We also still don’t know what total population percentage would be necessary to reach the herd immunity goal. …there are huge risks with copying the strategy in a country like the United States. The American people are far less healthy than Swedes.

The Wall Street Journal opined this morning about Sweden’s strategy.

While its neighbors and the rest of Europe imposed strict lockdowns, Stockholm has taken a relatively permissive approach. It has focused on testing and building up health-care capacity while relying on voluntary social distancing, which Swedes have embraced. The country isn’t a free-for-all. Restaurants and bars remain open, though only for table service. Younger students are still attending school, but universities have moved to remote learning. …the country’s strategy…is to contain the virus enough to not overwhelm its health system. …Sweden has been clear it is aiming for a “sustainable” strategy that it can practice until there is a vaccine or cure while also being economically tolerable. The lockdown countries have held the virus in relative check for now, though probably with less broad immunity in the population. They appear to be delaying some deaths but at the risk of a larger outbreak once they open up if there is no cure. …No one knows which mitigation strategy will save the most lives while doing the least economic harm. But the rush to condemn Sweden isn’t helpful.

In a column for National Review, John Fund and Joel Hay argue for the Swedish approach.

With a death rate significantly lower than that of France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Italy, and other European Union countries, Swedes can enjoy the spring without panic or fears of reigniting a new epidemic as they go about their day in a largely normal fashion. …Dr. Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist of Sweden, …heroically bucked the conventional wisdom of every other nation and carefully examined the insubstantial evidence that social-isolation controls would help reduce COVID-19 deaths over the full course of the virus. …Tegnell has looked at other nations that are loosening their lockdowns. “To me it looks like a lot of the exit strategies that are being discussed look very much like what Sweden is already doing,” he told Canada’s Globe & Mail. …Jan Albert, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Tumor, and Cell Biology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, told CNN that strict lockdowns “only serve to flatten the curve, and flattening the curve doesn’t mean that cases disappear — they are just moved in time.” …Initially, the main justification for the global lockdowns was that they were necessary to prevent a crush of patients from overwhelming hospital intensive-care units. …Despite no lockdowns and few social-isolation controls other than proper spacing in restaurants and a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, the Swedish hospital system never experienced anything remotely like the crush of ICU patients in Italy, Spain, and New York City. …Of course, Sweden paid a price during the pandemic. …they will tell you it was worth it. And it is easy to figure out that price. They never cratered their economy… Now many countries and U.S. states are beginning to follow Sweden’s lead.

So who is right, the optimists or the pessimists?

The honest answer is that we don’t know, though it probably depends on how quickly (if ever) someone develops either a vaccine or a cure.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope comparison of Sweden’s laissez-faire approach and the lock-down approach in the United States.

In the short run, Sweden has more cases and less economic damage.

But what really matters is how things evolve in the long run. If no vaccine or treatment materializes, then other nations will eventually be forced to copy Sweden’s approach. That presumably will mean a similar number of cases over time, so all the additional short-run economic damage will have been pointless.

But if a vaccine or treatment appears relatively soon, then people presumably will conclude that Sweden made the wrong choice (though even that will be a matter for debate depending on the degree to which people understand the long-run relationship between health outcomes and national prosperity).

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Image credit: Bengt Nyman | CC BY 2.0.

Coronavirus and the Future of Public Policy

Mon, 05/04/2020 - 12:34pm

I spoke last week about the “Economic Consequences of the Crisis” for a webinar organized by the Estonian Business School.

My remarks focused on the severity of the downturn, the likelihood of a new fiscal crisis in Europe, and how to balance the costs and benefits of re-opening the economy.

The full program, which was part of the Digital Free Market Road Show, can be viewed by clicking here.

For today’s column, I want to focus on my final slide, which asks whether politicians will use the crisis to permanently expand the size and scope of government.

I didn’t make any sweeping predictions when discussing this slide, though my tone was somewhat pessimistic. Simply stated, I fear we’ll have a bigger burden of government when the coronavirus crisis abates.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be the outcome. As I wrote two years ago, it’s possible for a crisis to produce either more statism or more liberalization.

Robert Higgs and Don Boudreaux, writing about this topic for Reason, fear that politicians will succeed in using the crisis to move the needle in the wrong direction.

Although everyone seems to agree that these measures are to be employed only in the short run, until the incidence of the disease has been reduced either by herd immunity or by new medical treatments, no one at the start put together an exit strategy from these extraordinary increases in governments’ size, scope, and power. Everything was done on a piecemeal basis from day to day, on the assumption that when an endgame came into view the governments would terminate their crisis actions. This assumption runs counter to how crisis-borne increases in government’s size, scope, and power have played out in the past. …the growth of government that attends national emergencies is not surrendered fully when the crisis ends. Instead, a ratchet effect operates whereby much of the crisis-borne growth of government becomes institutionalized in agencies and practices and, more important, in the dominant ideology of political elites and the general public.

Higgs and Boudreaux use insights from “public choice” to describe the process that produces ever-larger government.

As crisis followed crisis—World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the multifaceted turmoil of the Johnson-Nixon years, the 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession that began in 2008—the ratchet effect ensured that government’s growth trajectory was displaced upward, time after time. …People sometimes regretted actions taken hastily during a crisis but found that reversing them was diabolically difficult. …The ratchet effect operates because of incentives and constraints built into the political and economic structure. …To disable the ratchet effect, people must rouse themselves to think more seriously about the long-run consequences of actions taken hastily in response to national emergencies—and about whether they want to keep their remaining economic freedoms and civil liberties or be content to surrender them one crisis at a time.

It’s hard to argue with their analysis, but I’ll close with a bit of optimism.

Here’s a chart based on data from Economic Freedom of the World, including research extending estimates back to 1950. It shows that – notwithstanding various crises – there has not been a decline in liberty for the United States since World War II.

This suggests that Higgs and Boudreaux are too gloomy.

I wonder, however, when going as far back as the 1950s-1970s, if the data is good enough to produce reliable estimates of economic liberty.

How can it be true, for instance, that overall economic liberty increased during the 1970s, when we had Nixon’s awful statism?

Though maybe I have tunnel vision because of my focus on fiscal policy. A Spanish scholar who put together long-run data on non-fiscal policy (going all the way back to 1850) found that economic liberty has been increasing.

In any event, let’s hope that economic liberty doesn’t shrink in the future. Assuming, of course, we care about national prosperity and poverty reduction.

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Image credit: Erik Scheel | Pexels License.

Seattle Suicide

Sat, 05/02/2020 - 12:27pm

What’s the most poorly governed city in the United States?

Those are all good options, but Seattle may deserve this award. Following municipal elections last November, the City Council is controlled by hard-left members who want to impose the local version of “democratic socialism.”

In a National Review article from February, Christopher Rufo describes their agenda.

Seattle has effectively become the nation’s laboratory for socialist policies. Since the beginning of the year, the socialist faction on the Seattle City Council has proposed a range of policies on taxes, housing, homelessness, and criminal justice that put into practice the national democratic-socialist agenda. In the most recent session, socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant and her allies have proposed massive new taxes on corporations, unprecedented regulations on landlords (including rent control and a ban on “winter evictions”), the mandated construction of homeless encampments, and the gradual dismantling of the criminal justice system, beginning with the end of cash bail. …In order to consolidate their newfound power, the progressive-socialists have begun to manipulate the democratic process in their own favor: first, by providing all Seattle voters with $100 in taxpayer-funded “democracy vouchers,” which are easily collected by unions, activists, and socialist groups; and second, by implementing a ban on corporate spending in local elections… the progressive-socialists are no longer interested in gaining reasonable concessions; they intend to overthrow capitalism itself.

The Wall Street Journal opined this week on the latest development in Seattle’s suicidal approach.

The economy is on life support, but that isn’t stopping the Seattle City Council from trying to soak employers with a new tax on hiring. …The proposal is a reprise of the council’s 2018 tax on each new hire that was repealed amid public opposition. The new proposal “is 10 times larger than the 2018 version, and it’s also in an economy that’s about 1,000 times worse,” says James Sido of the Downtown Seattle Association…a 1.3% payroll tax on most Seattle businesses with $7 million or more in payroll. …Businesses would be assessed based on the prior year’s payroll, but revenue has cratered this year amid the pandemic. …businesses on the margin that have been forced to lay off or furlough employees may not bring them back if it means crossing that $7 million payroll threshold. The tax would discourage smaller companies from growing in Seattle. …Seattle is the hardest hit city in the U.S., with unemployment rising 105.92% between January and March. Only a socialist would think now is the time to further punish job creation.

Good points.

Though I would add that it’s never a good time to raise taxes and punish job creation.

Here’s what the greedy members of the City Council don’t understand (or pretend not to understand):

It’s complicated and difficult to move out of a country.

It’s a potentially expensive hassle to move out of a state.

It’s relatively easy to move out of a city.

And that’s why Seattle’s experiment with socialism is bound to fail.

If the socialists on the City Council impose this tax, there inevitably will be an out-migration of entrepreneurs and businesses to surrounding suburbs. That will be bad for ordinary people in the city (a point that workers in the economy’s productive sector already understand).

And when that happens, I wonder if they’ll learn that it is possible to run out of other people’s money?

P.S. Seattle’s politicians already have destroyed jobs and ruined businesses with a big increase in the minimum wage.

P.P.S. The constitution of the state of Washington prohibits an income tax, so there’s an ongoing debate whether Seattle’s tax grab – if enacted – would survive a court challenge.

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Image credit: Rattlhed | Public Domain.

Coronavirus and the States: Spending Restraint, Bailouts, Default, or Bankruptcy?

Fri, 05/01/2020 - 12:21pm

A Supreme Court Justice pointed out in 1932 that “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Well, we’ve had several experiments in higher taxes and higher spending, and they don’t work.

States with heavier fiscal burdens are accumulating ever-higher levels of debt (especially unfunded liabilities) while also causing an ever-greater exodus of taxpayers to other states.

In the long run, this is a recipe for fiscal crisis since it’s hard to give away lots of money if there aren’t enough taxpayers to finance that profligacy (as illustrated by this set of cartoons).

Well, with the help of the coronavirus, the long run may have arrived.

But the pandemic only exposed a problem that already existed.

Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, wrote two years ago in the Washington Post that poorly manged states like Connecticut shouldn’t be bailed out by taxpayers in better-run states.

…several of today’s 50 states have descended into unmanageable public indebtedness. …in terms of per capita state debt, Connecticut ranks among the worst in the nation, with unfunded liabilities amounting to $22,700 per citizen. Each profligate state is facing its own budgetary perdition for different reasons, but most share common factors. The explosion of Medicaid spending, even before Obamacare, has devoured state funds… In parallel, public pensions of sometimes grotesque levels guarantee that the fiscal strangulation will soon get much worse. In California, some retired lifeguards are receiving more than $90,000 per year. A retired university president in Oregon received $76,000 per month — and no, that’s not a typo. These are the modern-day welfare queens… More and more desperate tax increases haven’t cured the problem; it’s possible that they are making it worse. When a state pursues boneheaded policies long enough, people and businesses get up and leave, taking tax dollars with them.

In a remarkably prescient passage, Daniels speculates about a future emergency that will lead to pressure for a federal bailout.

Sometime in the next few years, we are likely to go through our own version of the recent euro-zone drama with, let’s say, Connecticut in the role of Greece and maybe a larger, “too big to fail” partner such as Illinois as Italy. Adding up the number of federal legislators from the 15 or 20 fiscally weakest states, one can count something close to half the votes in the House.

Which brings us to the current situation.

The crowd in Washington has already funneled several hundred billion dollars to state and local governments.

But politicians like Governor Cuomo in New York and Governor Pritzker in Illinois view all that money as an appetizer and now they want the fiscal equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal are not sympathetic to these fiscal pyromaniacs.

The question to ask is why taxpayers in Appleton and Sarasota should rescue politicians and unions in Albany and Springfield? …states like New York were already in trouble from their own mismanagement. …take Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker…raised taxes in 2019 and wants to make the state’s current flat tax progressive… Yet he and the unions who own the state house have blocked pension or spending reforms. They’ve long bet on a federal bailout, and they see Covid-19 as their main chance. …President Trump has signaled he’s open to a state bailout because, well, he’s open to anything these days. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell caused a stir…when he said states should consider bankruptcy rather than get a bailout. …Mr. McConnell’s larger point is that states shouldn’t get more no-strings cash. Private companies that borrow from the Fed and Treasury have to meet stiff conditions, including limits on compensation, and the same should apply to state governments. Bailout conditions should include cuts in nonessential spending, immediate and permanent reductions in public pension benefits.

Kevin Williamson explains in National Review that the problem is a pre-existing penchant for over-spending and vote-buying.

Bailing out the Illinois state pension system is the worst idea from a week in which we were discussing the health benefits of mainlining Lysol. Irresponsible state and local governments are attempting to exploit the fear and disruption of the coronavirus epidemic to push off the consequences of their decades of reckless and culpably dishonest policies onto the federal government. … One of the largest problems facing state and local governments, from Illinois to Oklahoma and from Los Angeles to Dallas, is “unfunded liabilities,” meaning the differences between the promises governments have made to their employees and the money they have set aside to pay for those things. …Government workers are a powerful political constituency — they run California — and they want the same thing everybody else does: more. …If Washington were to dump a few billion dollars into the lap of the feckless cartwheeling goobers who run Illinois, the underlying problem of chronic underfunding of future pension liabilities would remain, and Illinois would be right back where it is today in a year or two. A bailout would not solve the problem — it would keep the problem from being solved.

Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation explains how bailouts create the wrong incentives.

The prospect of federal tax dollars creates an incentive for state legislatures to both expand existing programs beyond sustainable levels, and to simultaneously underfund those programs in hopes of further federal support. …One example is how states often delay needed infrastructure projects (for which funds are locally available) in hopes of one day receiving federal funds to cover the project costs. …An unrestricted bailout of the states could be highly unequal, forcing taxpayers in well-run states to subsidize those who have systematically underfunded their pensions and rainy day funds, or those states who have particularly volatile revenue systems. …Federal aid tends to expand state budgets and make them less resilient during future crises. Simply moving state funding to the federal government does little more than redistribute local costs to federal taxpayers across all 50 states.

Senator Rick Scott of Florida opines for the Wall Street Journal that taxpayers in his state shouldn’t pick up the tab for New York’s profligate politicians.

…one thing we absolutely shouldn’t do is shield states from the consequences of their own bad budgetary decisions over the past few decades. …Democrats’ true aim: using federal taxpayer dollars to bail out poorly run states—typically, states controlled by Democrats. …Florida is well-positioned to address the coming shortfall in revenue without a bailout. The state may need to make some choices, which is what grown-ups do in tough economic times. And if we need to borrow a small amount in the short term to get us through this economic crisis, that borrowing will be cheaper thanks to our AAA bond rating and the reduction in state debt. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was “irresponsible” and “reckless” not to bail out states like his, a state with two million fewer people than Florida and a budget almost double the size of ours.

Well stated. Any comparison of Florida and New York shows the benefit of limited government.

Jonathan Williams and Lee Schalk of the American Legislative Exchange Council, opining for the Hill, argue against a bailout.

A growing chorus of governors is calling on Congress to “bail out” state governments. …Their plea comes on the heels of the $2 trillion CARES Act, which included a general $150 billion COVID-19 relief fund, a $30 billion education costs fund, a $45 billion disaster relief fund and more for state and local governments. …History suggests that federal bailouts…incentivize future fiscal irresponsibility and create a moral hazard problem. Bailouts reward fiscally reckless states at the expense of fiscally responsible ones. Academic research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University shows that federal bailouts could even lead to higher state level taxes. According to their research, every dollar of federal aid to states drives state taxes higher by 33 to 42 cents. …State and local governments do not lack revenue. They lack spending restraint. Over the past 40 years, after fully accounting for increases in population and inflation, state and local direct general spending has grown by 88 percent.

The last sentence in the excerpt is key. State politicians have been violating fiscal policy’s Golden Rule by letting spending grow too fast.

What’s needed is TABOR-style spending restraint, as Williams pointed out in a 2015 speech.

So if a bailout is the wrong solution, what’s the right solution? There are three potential options.

Ramesh Ponnuru writes that states should have a process for declaring bankruptcy.

Some states have made exorbitant promises to their employees over the years without providing adequate funding. They made up the difference, on paper, by projecting unrealistically high returns on pension investments. The Federal Reserve, applying a better projection of returns, estimates that pensions are underfunded by $4 trillion. McConnell is right to think that it would be unfair to make Florida’s teachers and firefighters pay for benefits for their counterparts in Illinois, and unwise to create an incentive for further irresponsibility by state officials. …Federal law currently makes no provision for states to re-organize their commitments through bankruptcy proceedings. Creating one would not keep the coronavirus from crushing state budgets. It could, however, prevent, or at least limit, future federal bailouts for state mismanagement of pensions.

His colleague at National Review, Kevin Williamson, has a different perspective. His article argues that default is better than a Washington-dictated process for bankruptcy.

The several states are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government. They are powers in their own right, superseded by the U.S. government only in certain matters that involve more than one state: Washington can declare war or write immigration law, but it cannot tell Austin how to run the Texas Rangers or Sacramento how to prioritize its finances. Because bankruptcy law is federal law, putting states into bankruptcy reorganization would upend our basic constitutional arrangement, making state governments answerable to federal bankruptcy judges and, behind them, to Congress. …Sovereigns don’t go bankrupt. Sovereigns default. And that is what is likely to happen with the pension crisis, at least as far as states’ creditors are concerned. It is what should happen. …we should not use the coronavirus as an excuse to federalize the consequences of culpably irresponsible and fundamentally dishonest governance at the state and local level. …If we want debt markets to work, then investors have to pay the price for bad investments. (Lending money to an organization run by Bill de Blasio is a bad decision.) Making creditors take a painful haircut creates incentives to discourage such willy-nilly lending and profligate spending in the future. …Government debt should in this respect be treated like any other debt — and we should change the law to strip municipal bonds of their tax-free status, which creates a subsidy for debt.

And Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute argues in the Wall Street Journal that – if a bailout is offered – it should be accompanied by strict conditions.

Congress may want to offer assistance, but it should come with strict conditions: Any state looking for a pension handout must either live by the stricter accounting rules federal law imposes on private pension plans or freeze its pension and shift all employees to defined-contribution retirement plans. Private-sector plans must assume more-conservative investment returns than public-sector plans and address unfunded liabilities more rapidly. As a result, private pensions today have set aside more than twice as much funding per dollar of promised future benefits than have state and local pensions. …Freezing a pension doesn’t make its unfunded liabilities go away. But it caps existing liabilities while shifting employees to plans in which the government’s funding obligation is clearly defined and can’t be evaded using actuarial or accounting tricks.

Of these options, a conditional bailout is not a good idea, even though it is the best way of doing the wrong thing.

Either bankruptcy or default would be a much better choice, and I lean in the direction of default (the same view I have when contemplating Europe’s failing welfare states).

But the right option is to avoid getting in trouble in the first place.

And that means low taxes, spending restraint, and other market-friendly policies.

I’ll simply note that the states most anxious for bailouts are near the bottom in rankings of small government and economic liberty.

If Washington provides a bailout, that’s a reward for statism and irresponsibility (sort of like foreign aid subsidizing bad policy overseas).

P.S. One month ago, I wrote that the worst coronavirus-related proposal would be restoring the federal tax deduction for state and local tax payments.

I still think that is a terrible idea, of course, but a big bailout from Washington would be even worse.

Coronavirus and the Risky Mix of Bailouts, Big Business, and Big Government

Wed, 04/29/2020 - 12:16pm

Since government officials have imposed severe restrictions on economic activity, I’m sympathetic to the notion that businesses should be compensated.

But, as I warn in this CNBC interview, I have major concerns about big government and big business getting in bed together.

As is so often the case with interviews on live TV, there are many issues that didn’t get appropriate attention (either because there was too little time or because I failed to address a key point).

  • major risk of bailouts is that politicians will insist on having a say in how companies operate. Indeed, that’s what Christian Weller was calling for in the final part of the interview. I should have pointed out the huge economic downside of having government in the boardroom.
  • There’s a rationale for short-run emergency legislation, but we should be very concerned that self-interested politicians and power-hungry bureaucracies will use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to permanently expand their power and control over the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. I usually try to avoid making predictions (economists are lousy forecasters), but I feel confident in asserting that my friends on the left – once the coronavirus crisis has ended – will be complaining about big businesses having too much power.

I’m not against large companies, per se. But I don’t want bigger firms to gain an advantage over small companies by getting in bed with government.

If we want fair and honest competition, we need separation of business and state. No bailouts, no cronyism, no subsidies, and no favoritism.

That’s the part folks on the left don’t understand.

P.S. If you want more information on the economic damage caused by bailouts, watch this video and this video.

P.P.S. Speaking of videos, here’s some satire about the toys that politicians get for their children.

P.P.P.S. I wish this was satire, but American taxpayers are helping to underwrite cronyism in other countries.

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Image credit: Andy Withers | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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