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Industrial Policy Is a Recipe for Cronyism and Stagnation

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 12:42pm

Ronald Reagan must be turning over in his grave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some very sloppy assertions in the above passages.

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

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

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

More spending, more intervention, and more cronyism.

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

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

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

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

So what are his solutions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, Veronique is spot one.

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———
Image credit: cwizner | Pixabay License.

Workers and Capitalists of the World, Unite!

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 12:04pm

I’ve periodically explained that capital formation (more machines, technology, etc) is necessary if we want higher wages.

Simply stated, workers get paid on the basis of what they produce and the most effective way of boosting productivity is to have more saving and investment.

This is (one of the reasons) why I have so much disdain for politicians who try to foment discord and division between workers and capitalists.

To be sure, there will always be a tug of war between investors and employees over which group gets bigger or smaller slices. But so long as we have the right policies, they’ll be bickering over how to divide an ever-growing pie.

That’s a nice problem to have. Especially compared to what happens when politicians intervene – for the ostensible purpose of helping workers – and adopt policies that create economic stagnation.

Think Greece or Venezuela.

Larry Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education wrote with great insight about the link between labor and capital a few years ago. He starts with some basic economics.

…as complementary factors of production, labor and capital are not only indispensable but hugely dependent upon each other as well. Capital without labor means machines with no operators, or financial resources without the manpower to invest in. Labor without capital looks like Haiti or North Korea:plenty of people working but doing it with sticks instead of bulldozers, or starting a small enterprise with pocket change instead of a bank loan. …There may be no place in the world where there’s a shortage of labor but every inch of the planet is short of capital. There is no worker who couldn’t become more productive and better himself and society in the process if he had a more powerful labor-saving machine or a little more venture funding behind him. It ought to be abundantly clear that the vast improvement in standards of living over the past century is not explained by physical labor (we actually do less of that), but rather to the application of capital.

He concludes that we should be celebrating Labor Day and Capital Day.

I’m not “taking sides” between labor and capital. I don’t see them as natural antagonists in spite of some people’s attempts to make them so. Don’t think of capital as something possessed and deployed only by bankers, the college-educated, the rich, or the elite. We workers of all income levels are “capital-ists” too—every time we save and invest, buy a share of stock, fix a machine, or start a business. …I’ve traditionally celebrated labor on Labor Day weekend—not organized labor or compulsory labor unions, mind you, but the noble act of physical labor to produce the things we want and need. …on Labor Day weekend, I’ll also be thinking about the remarkable achievements of inventors of labor-saving devices, the risk-taking venture capitalists who put their own money (not your tax money) on the line and the fact that nobody in America has to dig a ditch with a spoon or cut his lawn with a knife. …Labor Day and Capital Day. I know of no good reason why we should have just one and not the other.

Courtesy of Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute, here’s a nice depiction of how labor and capital are interdependent.

P.S. When economists write about the relationship between capital and labor (savings => investment => productivity => wages), some critics assert this is nothing other than “trickle-down economics.”

Yet this is the mechanism for growth under every economic theory – even Marxism and socialism. The only thing that changes under those approaches is that politicians and bureaucrats control investment decisions. And we know that doesn’t work very well.

———
Image credit: Alfred Palmer | Public Domain.

A Primer on Tax Competition and the OECD

Sun, 09/01/2019 - 12:51pm

Speaking in Europe earlier this year, I tried to explain the entire issue of tax competition is less than nine minutes.

To some degree, those remarks were an updated version of a video I narrated back in 2010.

You’ll notice that I criticized the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in both videos.

And with good reason. The Paris-based OECD has been trying to curtail tax competition in hopes of propping up Europe’s uncompetitive welfare states (i.e., enabling “goldfish government“).

As I stated in the second video, the bureaucrats sometimes admit this is their goal. In recent years, though, OECD officials have tried to be more clever, even claiming that they’re pushing for higher taxes because that approach somehow is a recipe for higher growth.

Let’s look at a new example of OECD malfeasance.

We’ll start with something that appears to be innocuous. Or even good news. A report from the OECD points out that corporate tax rates are falling.

Countries have used recent tax reforms to lower taxes on businesses… Across countries, the report highlights the continuation of a trend toward corporate income tax rate cuts, which has been largely driven by significant reforms in a number of large countries with traditionally high corporate tax rates. The average corporate income tax rate across the OECD has dropped from 32.5% in 2000 to 23.9% in 2018. …the declining trend in the average OECD corporate tax rate has gained renewed momentum in recent years.

Sounds good, right?

From the OECD’s warped perspective, however, good news for the private sector is bad news for governments.

As a result, the bureaucrats are pushing for policies that would penalize jurisdictions with low tax rates.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is going to propose a global minimum tax that would apply country by country before the next meeting of G‑20 finance ministers and central bankers set for 17 Oct. in Washington, DC. …The OECD’s head of tax policy, Pascal Saint-Amans, said a political push was needed to relaunch the discussions and used the case of the Cayman Islands to explain the proposal. “The idea is if a company operates abroad, and this activity is taxed in a country with a rate below the minimum, the country where the firm is based could recover the difference.” …While this framework is based on an average global rate, Saint-Amans said the OECD is working on a country-by-country basis. Critics of the proposal have said that this would infringe on the fiscal sovereignty of countries.

And as I’ve already noted, the U.S. Treasury Department is not sound on this issue.

This would work in a similar way to the new category of foreign income, global intangible low-tax income (GILTI), introduced for US multinationals by the 2017 US tax reform. GILTI effectively sets a floor of between 10.5% and 13.125% on the average foreign tax rate paid by US multinationals.

There are two aspects of this new OECD effort that are especially disturbing.

In a perverse way, I admire the OECD’s aggressiveness.

Whatever is happening, the bureaucrats turn it into a reason why tax burdens should increase.

The inescapable conclusion, as explained by Dominik Feusi of Switzerland, is that the OECD is trying to create a tax cartel.

Under the pretext of taxing the big Internet companies, a working group of the OECD on behalf of the G-20 and circumventing the elected parliamentarians of the member countries to a completely new company taxation. …The competition for a good framework for the economy, including low corporate taxes, will not be abolished, but it will be useless. However, if countries no longer have to take good care of the environment, because they are all equally bad, then they will increase taxes together. …This has consequences, because wages, wealth, infrastructure and social security in Western countries are based on economic growth. Less growth means lower wages. The state can only spend what was first earned in a free economy… The OECD was…once a platform for sharing good economic policy for the common good. This has become today a power cartel of the politicians… They behave as a world government – but without democratic mission and legitimacy.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center examined the OECD and decided that American taxpayers should stop subsidizing the Paris-based bureaucracy.

Taxpayers are spending millions of dollars every year funding an army of bureaucrats who advocate higher taxes and bigger government around the globe. Last year, the United States sent $77 million to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the largest single contribution and fully 21 percent of the Paris-based bureaucracy’s $370 million annual budget.Add to that several million dollars in additional expenses for special projects and the U.S. mission to the OECD. …despite the OECD’s heavy reliance on American taxpayer funds, the organization persistently works against U.S. interests, arguing for international tax cartels, the end of privacy, redistribution schemes and other big-government fantasies. Take its campaign for tax harmonization, begun as a way to protect high-tax nations from bleeding more capital to lower-tax jurisdictions. …The OECD may recognize competition is good in the private sector, but promotes cartelization policies to protect politicians. …The bureaucrats, abetted by the European Union and the United Nations, even started clamoring for the creation of some kind of international tax organization, for global taxation and more explicit forms of tax harmonization.

These articles are spot on.

As you can see from this interview, I’ve repeatedly explained why the OECD’s anti-market agenda is bad news for America.

Which is why, as I argue in this video, American taxpayers should no longer subsidize the OECD.

It’s an older video, but the core issues haven’t changed.

Acting on behalf of Europe’s uncompetitive welfare states, the OECD relentlessly promotes a statist agenda.

That’s a threat to the United States. It’s a threat to Europe. And it’s a threat to every other part of the globe.

P.S. To add more insult to all the injury, the tax-loving bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries. Must be nice to be exempt from the bad policies they support.

P.P.S. If you’re not already sick of seeing me on the screen, I also have a three-part video series on tax havens and even a video debunking some of Obama’s demagoguery on the topic.

The Recycling Folly

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 12:38pm

While it’s very good to have a clean environment, many environmentalists don’t understand cost-benefit analysis. As such, they make our lives less pleasant –inferior light bulbssubstandard toiletsinadequate washing machinescrummy dishwashersdribbling showers, and dysfunctional gas cans – for little if any benefit.

We can add recycling to that list.

To be sure, all the hassle and time of sorting our garbage might be an acceptable cost if something was being achieved.

Unfortunately, as Jeff Jacoby has explained, that’s not the case. Not even close.

Let’s explore the issue.

In an article for the American Institute for Economic Research, Professor Michael Munger explains that most recycling actually is a net negative for the environment.

…I was invited to a conference called Australia Recycles! …Everyone there, everyone, represented either a municipal or provincial government, or a nonprofit recycling advocacy group, or a company that manufactured and sold complicated and expensive recycling equipment. …Recycling requires substantial infrastructure for pickup, transportation, sorting, cleaning, and processing. …For recycling to be a socially commendable activity, it has to pass one of two tests: the profit test, or the net environmental-savings test. If something passes the profit test, it’s likely already being done. People are already recycling gold or other commodities from the waste stream, if the costs of doing so are less than the amount for which the resource can be sold. …The real question arises with mandatory recycling programs — people recycle because they will be fined if they don’t, not because they expect to make money… If you add up the time being wasted on recycling rituals, it’s even more expensive to ask each household to do it. The difference is that this is an implicit tax, a donation required of citizens, and doesn’t cost money from the public budget. But time is the least renewable of all resources… For recycling to make any sense, it must cost less to dispose of recycled material than to put the stuff in a landfill. But we have plenty of landfill space, in most of the country. And much of the heaviest material we want to recycle, particularly glass, is chemically inert and will not decompose in a landfill. …landfilling glass does no environmental harm… So, is recycling useful? As I said at the outset, for some things it is. Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard, if they can be collected clean and at scale, are highly recyclable. …But for most other things, recycling harms the environment. …If you care about the environment, you should put your bottles and other glass in the regular garbage, every time.

Jon Miltimore explains, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, that hundreds of cities have repealed recycling mandates because they simply don’t make sense.

…after sending my five-year-old daughter off to school, she came home reciting the same cheerful environmental mantra I was taught in elementary school. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” she beamed, proud to show off a bit of rote learning. The moral virtue of recycling is rarely questioned in the United States. …recycling is tricky business. A 2010 Columbia University study found that just 16.5 percent of the plastic collected by the New York Department of Sanitation was “recyclable.” “This results in nearly half of the plastics collected being landfilled,” researchers concluded. …hundreds of cities across the country are abandoning recycling efforts. …Like any activity or service, recycling is an economic activity. The dirty little secret is that the benefits of recycling have been dubious for some time. …How long? Perhaps from the very beginning. …there are the energy and resources that go into recycling. How much water do Americans spend annually rinsing items that end up in a landfill? How much fuel is spent deploying fleets of barges and trucks across highways and oceans, carrying tons of garbage to be processed at facilities that belch their own emissions? …It’s time to admit the recycling mania is a giant placebo. It makes people feel good, but the idea that it improves the condition of humans or the planet is highly dubious.

On a related topic, another FEE column even shows that anti-waste campaigns may actually increase waste.

To reduce waste, most governments run communication campaigns. Many try to make consumers feel guilty by telling them how much people like them waste (food, paper, water…). …The idea is that once people realise how much they waste,they will stop. Unfortunately, research has shown that when people are told that people like them misbehave, this makes them act worse, not better. In a June 2018 study, we confirm this backfiring effect in a series of studies on waste… Indeed, we found that backfiring effects of anti-waste messages happened because of difficulty. When consumer read that everyone wastes a lot, they think that it must be difficult to cut waste – so they don’t even try.

Let’s get back to the specific issue of recycling.

The fact that it doesn’t make sense is hardly a new revelation.

Way back in 1996, John Tierny had a very thorough article in the New York Time Magazine that summarized the shortcomings of recycling.

If you don’t want to read this long excerpt, all you need to know is that landfills are cheap, safe, and plentiful.

Believing that there was no more room in landfills, Americans concluded that recycling was their only option. Their intentions were good and their conclusions seemed plausible. Recycling does sometimes makes sense — for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs…offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources. …Americans became racked with garbage guilt…  Suddenly, just as central planning was going out of fashion in eastern Europe, America devised a national five-year plan for trash. The Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a “Waste Hierarchy” that ranked trash-disposal options: recycling at the top, composting and waste-to-energy incinerators in the middle, landfills at the bottom. …Politicians across the country…enacted laws mandating recycling and setting arbitrary goals…, typically requiring that at least 40 percent of trash be recycled, often even more — 50 percent in New York and California, 60 percent in New Jersey, 70 percent in Rhode Island. …The Federal Government and dozens of states passed laws that required public agencies, newspapers and other companies to purchase recycled materials. …America today has a good deal more landfill space available than it did 10 years ago. …there’s little reason to worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for underground leaks. …Clark Wiseman, an economist at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has calculated that if Americans keep generating garbage at current rates for 1,000 years, and if all their garbage is put in a landfill 100 yards deep, by the year 3000 this national garbage heap will fill a square piece of land 35 miles on each side. …This doesn’t seem a huge imposition in a country the size of America. …The millennial landfill would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the range land now available for grazing in the continental United States. …many experts and public officials acknowledge that America could simply bury its garbage, but they object to this option because it diverts trash from recycling programs. Recycling, which was originally justified as the only solution to a desperate national problem, has become a goal in itself… The leaders of the recycling movement…raise money and attract new members through their campaigns to outlaw “waste” and prevent landfills from opening. They get financing from public and private sources (including the recycling industry) to research and promote recycling. By turning garbage into a political issue, environmentalists have created jobs for themselves as lawyers, lobbyists, researchers, educators and moral guardians.

The bottom line is that most recycling programs impose a fiscal and personal cost on people for very meager environmental benefits.

Indeed, the benefits are often negative once indirect costs are added to the equation.

So why is there still support in some quarters?

In part, it’s driven by contributions from the companies that get paid to process recycled material.

But that’s only part of the story. Recycling is a way for some people to feel better about themselves. Sort of an internalized version of virtue-signalling.

That’s not a bad thing. I like a society where people care about the environment and feel guilty about doing bad things, like throwing trash out car windows.

But I’m a bit old fashioned in that I want them to feel good about doing things that actually make sense.

P.S. There’s a Washington version of recycling that is based on taxpayer money getting shifted back and forth between politicians and special interests.

The Economics of Socialism (10 Seconds) and Unintended Consequences (4 Seconds)

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 12:30pm

Three years ago, I shared a cartoon that succinctly summarized the problem with socialism and the welfare state.

It’s the same lesson that we also get from Thomas Sowell, which is that redistribution over time creates an ever-larger number of dependents financed by ever-higher taxes on workers.

Or, as this Wizard-of-Id parody and this Little-Red-Hen parody make clear, why work hard if you can get things for free?

Now I have a different way of illustrating the problem with socialism. Here’s a very clever tweet from Young Americans Against Socialism.

Under socialism, both of these dogs would be paid the same. pic.twitter.com/81bM3NKgVz

— Young Americans Against Socialism (@YAAS_America) August 27, 2019

Very clever and amusing. I will add this short video to my collection of socialism humor, but it actually makes a very serious point. Socialists and other redistributionists want equality of outcomes, but they don’t think about the unintended consequences of such an approach. Some people will be lured into sloth and dependency, for instance, while others – particularly those with greater ability and/or greater work ethic – will choose to be less productive (especially because they also get hit with higher tax burdens to finance all the handouts). Bastiat wrote that the failure to consider the “unseen” was the defining quality of a bad economist. And since we’re on that topic, here’s an example of Crazy Bernie failing to appreciate that actions have unintended consequences.

Sen. @BernieSanders takes on a speed bag. pic.twitter.com/HwLQLOqO0s

— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) August 27, 2019

A perfect metaphor for what would happen to the economy if some of his policies were imposed on the economy.

Except Bernie would still have his comfortable life. It’s the rest of us who would suffer.

———
Image credit: Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Gun Control Humor

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 12:07pm

It’s time to add some new material to our collection of gun control satire.

We’ll start with this clever use of rhetoric from the debate over illegal immigration.

Seems like a very humane approach.

Next, fans of Willy Wonka will appreciate this side trip into the land of make-believe.

By the way, I’m always happy to share clever humor from the other side, such as this depiction of an American breakfast.

So enjoy this German-language explanation of how to smuggle candy into an American theater.

Mit diesem genialen Trick kann man leicht einen Schokoriegel in ein US-amerikanisches Kino schmuggeln! pic.twitter.com/CMk4vlKxce

— Johannes Köpl (@JohannesKoepl) August 24, 2019

This next bit of satire is amusing, though I wish its creator just used a random collection of David Hogg-types for the lower frame. As explained by the Pink Pistols, gun rights are especially important for sometimes-persecuted groups.

Three years ago, I shared an amusing comparison of how Europeans and Texans respond to terrorism.

Well, here’s a left-wing version of Paul Revere, warning neighbors of a looming terror attack.

Finally, let’s close with an amusing modification of the one-liner that Elizabeth Warren uses to denigrate gun owners.

We can safely assume that Ms. Warren has never seen this image. Or, if she has, she reached the wrong conclusion.

P.S. On a more serious note about gun control, I invite readers to peruse my collection (herehereherehere, and here) of honest leftists.

Don’t Trust Economists, Part III

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 12:40pm

A few days ago, I observed in a television interview that economists are lousy forecasters.

This was not a new revelation. Back in early 2010, I shared a graph that succinctly illustrated why economists shouldn’t be trusted when they make economic forecasts (later that year, I pointed out that macroeconomists were the real problem).

In 2013, I wrote “Don’t Trust Economists, Part II” based on a remarkable example of fraud in Portugal.

Now it’s time for Part III.

We’ll start with a reminder that economists can’t forecast their way out of a wet paper bag. Here’s an excerpt from a 2001 article in the Economist.

As recently as February, 95% of American economists said it wouldn’t happen, but it has. America is now in recession… Even in early September few economists were forecasting a recession. Now it appears that one had already been under way for almost six months.…Why are recessions so hard to forecast? A study published last year by the International Monetary Fund looked at the economists’ record. It is bad. Of 60 recessions in developed and developing economies during the 1990s, two-thirds remained undetected by consensus forecasts as late as April of the year in which the recessions occurred. In one-quarter of cases, the consensus forecast in October of that year still expected positive growth.

Robert Samuelson has a more recent and comprehensive list of how economists are miserably bad when they try to forecast major economic trends.

The most intriguing and indisputable thing we have learned about economists in recent decades is that they don’t know nearly as much as they thought they knew. …As an economic journalist for roughly half a century, I have slowly and somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that many economists (and this applies across the political spectrum) often don’t know what they’re talking about… Time after time, economists have failed to foresee major economic trends. In recent years, global interest rates have plunged to historically low levels. …But most economists did not anticipate the declines and still can’t fully explain them. Going back a bit further, economists did not predict double-digit inflation (monthly peaks of 12 percent in 1974 and 1975 and 15 percent in 1980). …Now, ironically, inflation has unexpectedly remained low (generally less than 2 percent annually ), and many economists have been baffled by that, too. …Over the past five decades, I cannot remember one instance when economists have correctly forecast a major shift in productivity growth, whether up or down. …Of course, the most conspicuous example of this ignorance gap is the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the Great Recession. “Why did nobody notice it?” Queen Elizabeth famously asked. …The larger cause of the ignorance gap is the very complexity and obscurity of a $20 trillion economy (the United States) or an $85 trillion economy (the world). To say it is changing in detailed and often-unanticipated ways is simply to affirm that mere mortals, including economists, have never been very good at predicting the future.

In other words, this cartoon is very accurate.

So what’s the solution?

In my fantasy world, everyone would simply ignore economic forecasts and instead would focus on the conditions necessary for stronger long-run growth.

Sadly, that won’t happen.

So what about some sort of “quality control”?

That might be nice in theory, but it wouldn’t work in practice.

Which is why I’m happy that there isn’t much support in the profession for occupational licensing.

Let’s set aside the problem of economic forecasting.

Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times has a column that criticizes economists for a different reason.

He frets that economists have enabled a big shift toward free markets.

As the quarter century of growth that followed World War II sputtered to a close, economists moved into the halls of power, instructing policymakers that growth could be revived by minimizing government’s role in managing the economy. They also warned that a society that sought to limit inequality would pay a price in the form of less growth. …In the four decades between 1969 and 2008, economists played a leading role in slashing taxation of the wealthy and in curbing public investment. They supervised the deregulation of major sectors, including transportation and communications. …they demonized trade unions and opposed worker protections like minimum wage laws.

While I hope his overall premise is accurate, his specific assertions are an incoherent mess.

He wants readers to believe that economists were largely ignored prior to 1969 and suddenly wielded great influence thereafter. Yet he offers zero evidence for that hypothesis.

Moreover, it was Arthur Okun’s work for Brookings (hardly a citadel of libertarian thinking) that increased awareness of the tradeoff between redistribution and growth.

Much more troubling, though, is his assertion that the free-market orthodoxy ruled between 1969-2008.

That’s ahistorical nonsense. The Nixon years, for instance, were probably the most statist period in America’s post-WWII history.

And we also got plenty of bad policy under Bush IBush II, and Obama.

Yes, policy did shift in the right direction under Reagan and Clinton. And it’s also quite possible that the progress during those years more than offset the bad policies of other presidents.

But it’s utterly absurd to think of 1969-2008 as an era of continuous economic liberty.

Here are some further excerpts.

Economists even persuaded policymakers to assign a dollar value to human life — around $10 million in 2019 — to assess whether regulations were worthwhile.

This is actually part of life-saving cost-benefit analysis.

And it’s not some sort of libertarian scheme, unless Applebaum thinks the folks at Brookings are part of some laissez-faire conspiracy.

Though I’m glad he gives some credit (from his perspective, blame) to Milton Friedman.

The most important figure, however, was Milton Friedman, an elfin libertarian who refused to take a job in Washington, but whose writings and exhortations seized the imagination of policymakers. Friedman offered an appealingly simple answer for the nation’s problems: Government should get out of the way. He joked that if bureaucrats gained control of the Sahara, there would soon be a shortage of sand.

He concludes by fixating on inequality.

The rise of economics is a primary reason for the rise of inequality. …Markets are constructed by people…and people can change the rules. It’s time to discard the judgment of economists that society should turn a blind eye to inequality. Reducing inequality should be a primary goal of public policy. …Willful indifference to the distribution of prosperity over the last half century is an important reason the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues. …our shared bonds will last longer if we can find ways to reduce the strain.

If he cares about the well-being of poor people, he should be fixated instead on growth.

For what it’s worth, I suspect he shares the IMF’s perspective and would willing to subject the poor to lower living standards if the rich suffered even bigger losses.

By the way, Ramesh Ponnuru is also quite critical of Applebaum’s column.

Let’s close with some humor.

Professor Michael Munger wrote a column for FEE analyzing economist jokes.

The whole thing is worth reading, but I’ll limit myself to sharing two of the jokes.

An economics graduate student was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said, “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.” He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will stay with you for one week.”The graduate student took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it, and returned it to his pocket. Desperate, the frog then cried out, “If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you and do anything you want.” Again the grad student took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket. Finally, the frog asked, “What is the matter? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess, that I’ll be your girlfriend and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?” The grad student said, “Look, I’m an economist. I have no idea what it would even be like to have a girlfriend. But a talking frog has got to be worth a fortune.”

And here’s the second example.

A physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A box washes ashore, and when they open it, it turns out to be a box of canned soup. But how to open the cans? The physicist says, “Let’s break the can open with a rock, using precisely the correct vector of force so the contents aren’t spilled.” The chemist says, “Let’s build a fire and heat the can just to the point where the contents break the metal but don’t explode.” The economist says, “Well, let’s do this in an a priori manner. First, assume that we have a can-opener…”

Last but not least, here’s Adam Smith’s contribution to the game of rock-paper-scissors.

Not as good as my collection of jokes about communism and socialism, but clever is a subtle way.

P.S. Are economists useless, despicable, and loathsome? I report, you decide.

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Image credit: Kai Hendry | CC BY 2.0.

A Prosperity Contest: America’s Poor Vs. the Middle Class in Other Nations

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 12:10pm

My primary job is dealing with misguided public policy in the United States.

I spend much of my time either trying to undo bad policies with good reform (flat taxspending restraintregulatory easingtrade liberalization) or fighting off additional bad interventions (Green New DealprotectionismMedicare for Allclass warfare taxes).

Seems like there is a lot to criticize, right?

Yes, but sometimes the key to success is being “less worse” than your competitors. So while I’m critical of many bad policies in the United States, it’s worth noting that America nonetheless ranks #6 for overall economic liberty according to the Fraser Institute.

As such, it’s not surprising that America has higher living standards than most other developed nations according to the “actual individual consumption” data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And America’s advantage isn’t trivial. We’re more than 46 percent higher than the average for OECD member nations.

The gap is so large that I’ve wondered how lower-income people in the United States would rank compared to average people in other countries.

Well, the folks at Just Facts have investigated precisely this issue using World Bank data and found some remarkable results.

…after accounting for all income, charity, and non-cash welfare benefits like subsidized housing and Food Stamps—the poorest 20% of Americans consume more goods and services than the national averages for all people in most affluent countries. …In other words, if the U.S. “poor” were a nation, it would be one of the world’s richest. …The World Bank publishes a comprehensive dataset on consumption that isn’t dependent on the accuracy of household surveys and includes all goods and services, but it only provides the average consumption per person in each nation—not the poorest people in each nation. However, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis published a study that provides exactly that for 2010. Combined with World Bank data for the same year, these datasets show that the poorest 20% of U.S. households have higher average consumption per person than the averages for all people in most nations of the OECD and Europe… The high consumption of America’s “poor” doesn’t mean they live better than average people in the nations they outpace, like Spain, Denmark, Japan, Greece, and New Zealand. …Nonetheless, the fact remains that the privilege of living in the U.S. affords poor people with more material resources than the averages for most of the world’s richest nations.

There are some challenges in putting together this type of comparison, so the folks at Just Facts are very clear in showing their methodology.

They’ve certainly come up with results that make sense, particularly when compared their results with the OECD AIC numbers.

Here’s one of the charts from the report.

You can see that the bottom 20 percent of Americans do quite well compared to the average persons in other developed nations.

By the way, the report from Just Facts also criticizes the New York Times for dishonest analysis of poverty. Since I’ve felt compelled to do the same thing, I can definitely sympathize.

The bottom line is that free markets and limited government are the best way to help lower-income people enjoy more prosperity.

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Image credit: Steven Depolo | CC BY 2.0.

Bernie Sanders Humor

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 12:08pm

I’m getting worried that Senator Bernie Sanders is fading in the polls.

That doesn’t make me happy. I want Crazy Bernie to stay relevant.

Why? Because he’s an endless source of clever satire.

Previous editions of Bernie humor can be found here and here.

For today’s edition, let’s start with the fact that Bernie has used political office to become a millionaire, yet he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is (the federal government actually has a website for people who are foolish enough to pay extra tax).

Bernie also has an opinion on the protests in Hong Kong. At least according to the satirists at the Babylon Bee.

As soon as Bernie Sanders heard about the democratic protesters in Hong Kong, he knew something had to be done. The U.S. senator quickly chartered a flight to Hong Kong… Sanders bravely stood in the middle of the conflict between police and protesters, shouting at the “ungrateful little dissenters”… “Remember, you could have it a lot worse—you could be in America!” Sanders bellowed as police officers for the totalitarian regime beat protesters in the background. …Sanders continued his long-winded rant about the need for the government to own the means of production, how great breadlines are, and how bad things are in capitalist America as protesters got dragged away by police to be disappeared. “Just think—in America, we have to pick between 14 different types of deodorant!” he said, his fingers flopping around like limp sausages.

While this story is amusing, the folks at Babylon Bee screwed up. The people of Hong Kong aren’t protesting because they live in a communist system.

They’re protesting because they’re worried that China will sooner or later absorb them into a communist system.

But since so much real media is “fake but accurate” (or is it “accurate but fake”?), I’m not going to worry about details.

Let’s now shift to another example of Babylon Bee satire.

Showing himself to be a compassionate man of the people who cares deeply about the plight of the downtrodden, Senator Bernie Sanders selflessly offered a stack of bills to a homeless man on the street Monday after fishing the money out of a purse sitting next to a woman on a park bench. Sanders had been…on the prowl for people who looked like they had too much money when he leaped out to steal the wallet from the purse… The Vermont senator..saw a homeless man sitting nearby, begging for money. Moved by the pathetic sight of the man’s disheveled appearance, Sanders found it in his heart to commit a random act of kindness, digging through the wallet until he was able to find several $20 bills and slipping them into the man’s hand. “It’s not theft—it’s redistribution,” he told reporters later. “I was simply…doing what any old citizen couldn’t do without committing a crime. But it’s different because I’m the government, see?” At publishing time, the Senator was seen pocketing the rest of the money.

How very generous he is with other people’s money!

Last but not least, here’s a game from Imgur that allows anyone to prepare a Bernie speech. For some reason, it reminds me of State-of-the-Union bingo during the Obama years.

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Red Tape and Corruption

Sun, 08/25/2019 - 12:53pm

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

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

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

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

And what did they discover?

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

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

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

Not very poetic, but definitely accurate.

Figure 4 from the study shows this relationship.

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

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

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

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

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Image credit: Kiwiev | CC0 1.0.

Trump, China, and Trade: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid of I.E.E.P.A.

Sat, 08/24/2019 - 12:44pm

Earlier this year, I identified Trump’s “worst ever tweet.”

I was wrong. That tweet, which displayed an astounding level of economic ignorance, is now old news.

Trump issued a tweet yesterday that is far worse because it combines bad economic theory with horrifying support for massive economic intervention. Pay special attention to the part circled in red.

Huh?!?

Since when does the President get to dictate where companies can do business?

Unfortunately, whenever he wants to.

Congress has delegated to the President massive “emergency” powers over the economy. Specifically, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is a blank check.

Here are some excerpts from a report by the Congressional Research Service.

By the twentieth century, …Congress created statutory bases permitting the President to declare a state of emergency and make use of extraordinary delegated powers. …The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is one such example of a twentieth-century delegation of emergency authority. …IEEPA grants the President extensive power to regulate a variety of economic transactions during a state of emergency. …Since 1977, Presidents have invoked IEEPA in 54 declarations of national emergency. On average, these emergencies last nearly a decade. Most emergencies have been geographically specific, targeting a specific country or government. …No President has used IEEPA to place tariffs on imported products from a specific country or on products imported to the United States in general. However, …such an action could happen. In addition, no President has used IEEPA to enact a policy that was primarily domestic in effect. Some scholars argue, however, that the interconnectedness of the global economy means it would probably be permissible to use IEEPA to take an action that was primarily domestic in effect. …Neither the NEA nor IEEPA define what constitutes a “national emergency.” …While IEEPA nominally applies only to foreign transactions, the breadth of the phrase, “any interest of any foreign country or a national thereof” has left a great deal of room for executive discretion.

You can click here for the actual legislative language of IEEPA.

You’ll see that the President has the power, for all intents and purposes, to severely disrupt or even block financial transactions between people and/or companies in the United States and people and/or companies in a designated foreign country.

And there’s no limit on the definition of “emergency.”

One could argue that an emergency declaration and a ban on the movement of money wouldn’t necessarily prohibit a company from doing business in a particular jurisdiction, but it surely would have that effect.

The economic consequences would be profound. In a negative way.

By the way, the White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post responded to Trump’s tweet with one of his own.

He says the President, who criticizes socialism, is acting like a socialist.

Trump spends a lot of time calling Democrats socialist, but a head of state ordering companies to do things is, well, socialism. https://t.co/CkTKXqEDkP

— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) August 23, 2019

He’s actually wrong, at least technically.

Socialism is government ownership and control of the means of production.

What Trump is seeking is private ownership and government control. And there’s a different word for that economic policy.

P.S. It’s a good idea for the U.S. government to have powers to respond to a genuine emergency. But it shouldn’t be the decision of one person in our separation-of-powers system. It was a bad idea when Obama was in the White House, and it’s a bad idea with Trump in the White House.

In peacetime, an emergency should require the approval of Congress. In wartime, it should require approval of the House and Senate leadership from both parties.

P.P.S. Trade laws are another example of Congress delegating too much power to the executive branch.

———
Image credit: Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0.

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