Archives: 10/2010

The ‘Every Economist’ Myth

Just days after we rapped Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) for claiming that “every economist from the far left to the far right was saying the government needs to step in because there was absolutely no private sector investment,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) tells the Washington Post,

You’re darn right I voted for the stimulus. Every economist, including [some] Republican economists … said, for God’s sake, don’t let it go off the cliff.

This is the myth that just won’t die. Markey and Connolly are echoing similar claims by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and even the notoriously unreliable Robert Reich. When Biden said it, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw asked if he was “disingenuous or misinformed” and pointed out:

That statement is clearly false. As I have documented on this blog in recent weeks, skeptics about a spending stimulus include quite a few well-known economists, such as (in alphabetical order) Alberto AlesinaRobert BarroGary BeckerJohn CochraneEugene FamaRobert LucasGreg MankiwKevin MurphyThomas SargentHarald Uhlig, and Luigi Zingales–and I am sure there many others as well. Regardless of whether one agrees with them on the merits of the case, it is hard to dispute that this list is pretty impressive, as judged by the standard objective criteria by which economists evaluate one another. If any university managed to hire all of them, it would immediately have a top ranked economics department.

When Robert Reich tried to claim that “economic advisers across the political spectrum support Obama’s plan,” I pointed out that that claim depended on exactly two names and that the Washington Post had demonstrated that neither of them was in fact a Republican supporter of the $787 billion stimulus bill.

In fact, of course, hundreds of economists went on record against the stimulus bill. The Cato Institute’s full-page ad with their names appeared in all the nation’s major newspapers. The ad and the economists were featured on dozens of television programs.

Which brings us back to the question that Mankiw asked of Biden and that I asked of Markey. Is Representative Connolly really unaware that there was vigorous debate among economists about the so-called stimulus bill, and that hundreds of economists expressed their opposition in every major newspaper? Connolly has lived in Washington his entire adult life. He spent 19 years on a Senate committee staff. He served for 14 years on the Fairfax County Board. He worked as vice president at two large government contractors. Is it possible that he doesn’t read the Washington Post – or the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill? If so, then maybe he really believes that “every economist, including Republican economists” endorsed the stimulus. Someone should ask him: misinformed or disingenuous?

The Tea Party and Foreign Policy

There has been an on-going discussion recently about the Tea Party’s foreign policy views and how this might influence the upcoming election and new members of Congress.  In an essay at the Daily Caller last week, the Heritage Foundation’s Jim Carafano addressed this question and the claim that the new “Defending Defense” initiative— led by Heritiage, AEI, and the Foreign Policy Initiative—is aimed at co-opting the Tea Party movement (for more on the substance, or lack thereof, of “Defending Defense,” see Justin Logan’s response here).

Over at The Skeptics blog, I take issue with Carafano’s assessment of the Tea Party’s foreign policy views:

With respect to Carafano’s assessment of the Tea Partiers’s views on foreign policy and military spending, most of what he puts forward is pure speculation. Little is actually known about the foreign policy views of a movement that is organized primarily around the idea of getting the government off the people’s backs. It seems unlikely, however, that a majority within the movement like the idea of our government building other people’s countries, and our troops fighting other people’s wars.

Equally dubious is Carafano’s claim that the Tea Party ranks include “many libertarians who don’t think much of the Reagan mantra ‘peace through strength’ ” but an equal or larger number who are enamored of the idea that the military should get as much money as it wants, and then some. Carafano avoids a discussion of what this military has actually been asked to do, much less what it should do. By default, he endorses the tired status quo, which holds that the purpose of the U.S. military is to defend other countries so that their governments can spend money on social welfare programs and six-week vacations.

Tea Partiers are many things, but defenders of the status quo isn’t one of them. This movement is populated by individuals who are incensed by politicians reaching into their pockets and funneling money for goo-goo projects to Washington. It beggars the imagination that they’d be anxious to send money for similar schemes to Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and yet that is precisely what our foreign policies have done – and will do – so long as the United States maintains a military geared more for defending others than for defending us.

Click here to read the entire post.

Jack Conway’s Ugly Campaign

Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway’s Senate campaign, previously chided here for a TV ad’s “dishonest twisting of [Rand] Paul’s statements,” has released another one that is so bigoted it caused even liberal partisan Jonathan Chait of the New Republic to blanch. Chait writes,

The trouble with Conway’s ad is that it comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office. That’s a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign. [Not that Rand Paul has in fact demonstrated any non-belief in Christianity, but Conway is dredging up allegations from Paul’s college days.]

Here’s the ad:

It puts one in mind of Bob Schieffer’s stunned question to David Axelrod: Is that the best you can do?

Rand Paul is not a perfect libertarian, as Cato colleagues and others have noted. And surely Jack Conway could engage him in robust debate on legitimate issues from Obamacare to the national debt and the Iraq war. But looking at the actual ads Conway has chosen to run, I’ll repeat what I said about the previous ad: “the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Kentucky should be embarrassed.”

The Alaska Version of Big Government Means Big Corruption

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is an expert on graft and sleaze inside the Beltway, and his column this morning is a perfect example. He shows how corrupt insiders in Alaska use something known as the “Rent-an-Eskimo” scam to pull in hundreds of millions of tax dollars from no-bid federal contracts. These insiders, meanwhile, steers big bucks to Washington lobbyists (almost all of whom worked for politicians like Lisa Murkowski), who then provide campaign cash to the corrupt officials who pass the laws that enable the circle of graft to continue. Here are some key passages from Tim’s column.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in candidacy is being funded by $100,000 contributions from a handful of Alaska corporations that have been handsomely subsidized by the federal government. These six-figure donors have pulled in billions of taxpayer dollars thanks to special legislative favors from Murkowski and her mentors – the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R), and Lisa’s father, former senator and governor, Frank Murkowski (R). …In late September AST took in $800,000 from nine Alaska Native Corporations – unique, privileged, and politically connected for-profit entities created in the 1970s by legislation written by Stevens.  While the companies are technically owned by the natives, the taxpayer-funded spoils from these contracts accrue to the well-connected nonnative lobbyists, subcontractors, and executives in the “Alaska mafia” made up of aides, friends and donors of Stevens, the Murkowskis, and Rep. Don Young (R). Meanwhile the 130,000 Alaska Natives, who are shareholders in the ANCs, have received $720 million over the last nine years, which comes to $615 per native annually. In effect, the natives are unwitting frontmen for this racket. Critics on Capitol Hill say this is worse than Jack Abramoff’s exploitation of Indian tribes, and, in a dark joke, dub the ANCs with the politically incorrect name “rent-an-Eskimo. …These multimillion-dollar (in some cases billion-dollar) corporations are exempt from competition requirements that cover most federal contracts because they are automatically treated as small businesses from socially and economically disadvantaged populations – although their success in pulling in federal contracts would suggest otherwise. …These overpriced no-bid contracts aren’t welfare for poor natives as much as they are patronage for politically connected lobbyists and executives, most of whom are not natives. …The ANCs highlight the truly corrupt aspect of pork-barrel spending, especially in Alaska. “Bringing home the bacon” is not simply about transferring wealth north from the Lower 48 – it’s often about using taxpayer money to line the pockets of the politically connected, who return the favor in the form of campaign contributions. Much of the pork doesn’t make it all the way to Alaska – it stays right here on K Street.

This is just one example of how big government creates a breeding ground for corruption. The circle of graft is Washington’s version of recycling. Money gets taken from taxpayers and then winds up getting passed back and forth among special interests, lobbyists, and politicians. This video provides more of the sordid details.

President Klaus: The IMF Is a ‘Barbaric Relic’

President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has just given an important speech in Prague on Central and Eastern Europe and on the IMF. Among other lessons of the global financial crisis he points to the growing menace of the IMF:

I consider the IMF a barbaric relic from the Keynesian and fixed-exchange rate era. I know it is a harsh verdict but Keynes himself repeatedly used similar strong statements about his colleagues which justifies my using such a terminology.  

I am convinced the IMF should be dismantled or radically restructured as soon as possible. To do the opposite, to increase its role as it happened as a result of the last year’s G20 decision in the middle of the panic connected with the then looming crisis or to speculate about creating similar institutions on individual continents (especially in Europe) is a wrong way to go. It is yet another manifestation of a mistaken and dangerous global governance mindset which – to my great regret – has been getting more and more support in the intellectual and political circles these days. To whom and how at all can the IMF be held responsible for its activities? And if its proposals or measures turn out to be mistaken (and this can happen very easily), who will face the consequences? Certainly not the IMF. (emphasis in original)

The Importance of Incentives

NPR reports on more doctors giving up private practices and going to work for hospitals. Hospitals think they can manage care better and get more patients, and doctors like being relieved of administrative headaches. But it isn’t a perfect solution. Reporter Jenny Gold notes one of the problems:

GOLD: This isn’t the first time hospitals have gone doctor shopping. In the 1990s, hospitals bought up as many practices as possible. Dr. Bill Jessee is the president of the Medical Group Management Association. He remembers the ’90s as something of a disaster.

Dr. BILL JESSEE (President, Medical Group Management Association): The first thing a lot of physicians did was took a vacation. And when they came back, they weren’t working as hard as they were before their practice was acquired.

Indeed. This is a standard insight of economics. People work harder when they have something to gain. There are real benefits to the division of labor, including corporations where salaried employees contribute to a joint product, but there are also risks that employees won’t work as hard when their compensation isn’t directly tied to their output. Managers and economists have searched for solutions to the “shirking” problem. In this case the hospitals are experimenting with bonus systems based on how many patients the doctors see. The problem is much more significant, of course, in government, which is far more restricted in its ability to use merit pay, bonuses, or other performance-related pay systems. Thus the widespread impression that government employees don’t work as hard as private-sector employees – and one reason that it’s a good idea to leave as many services as possible in the private sector.

The NPR story also reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Gladwell dismisses the romantic notion of the lone inventor and says that Farnsworth would have been better off working for a big corporation, where other people would have worried about raising capital, fending off lawsuits, and all the little details of management and left Farnsworth free to invent:

Farnsworth was forced to work in a state of chronic insecurity. He never had enough money….he did not understand how to raise money or run a business or organize his life. All he really knew how to do was invent, which was something that, as a solo operator, he too seldom had time for.

This is the reason that so many of us work for big companies, of course: in a big company, there is always someone to do what we do not want to do or do not do well–someone to answer the phone, and set up our computer, and arrange our health insurance, and clean our office at night, and make sure the building is insured. In a famous 1937 essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist Ronald Coase said that the reason we have corporations is to reduce the everyday transaction costs of doing business: a company puts an accountant on the staff so that if a staffer needs to check the books all he has to do is walk down the hall. It’s an obvious point, but one that is consistently overlooked, particularly by those who periodically rail, in the name of efficiency, against corporate bloat and superfluous middle managers. Yes, the middle manager does not always contribute directly to the bottom line. But he does contribute to those who contribute to the bottom line, and only an absurdly truncated account of human productivity–one that assumes real work to be somehow possible when phones are ringing, computers are crashing, and health insurance is expiring–does not see that secondary contribution as valuable….

Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for RCA. He would still have been the father of television, and he might have died a happy man.