Archives: 11/2010

Bubbles, Uncertainty, and QE2

Within the Federal Reserve System, there is a tug of war over QE2 (2nd Quantitative Easing).  Some, mostly outside the system, are calling for $1 trillion-plus purchases of long-term bonds.  Within the Fed, there is little taste for purchases that large. I expect a compromise, with an initial purchase perhaps as low as $100 billion.

There is widespread doubt as to the efficacy of further purchases of long-term bonds. They will supply additional liquidity, but liquidity isn’t what is needed. Businesses and banks are suffering from fear and uncertainty: new taxes, new regulations, new mandates, and, for financial services, the uncertainty of the Dodd-Frank banking bill. 

Lower interest rates on long-term bonds will do nothing to diminish fear and uncertainty. Instead, QE2 will further inflate the bond bubble and the commodities bubbles.

What Spending Should the GOP Cut?

Congratulations to the wave of Republicans who successfully ran on promises to tackle rising government debt and cut the hugely bloated federal budget. On the campaign trail, most candidates were not very specific about how they would cut the budget, but when they come to Washington they will be looking for good reform targets.

Newcomers to Congress can find a wealth of budget-cutting ideas in recent plans by various D.C. think tanks:

Cato’s website, www.downsizinggovernment.org, also provides a treasure trove of spending cuts, and I will be publishing a detailed budget-reform plan in coming days. 

Some of the above budget plans include tax increases, but voters gave a resounding message yesterday that they want Congress to focus on cutting spending, not raising taxes.

Out of the starting gate next year, fiscal reformers in Congress should push for an across-the-board cut to discretionary spending for the rest of the current fiscal year. One approach would be for House leaders to propose a continuing resolution that extends spending at last year’s levels, less some substantial percentage cut applied to every program.

For the upcoming fiscal year of 2012, reformers need to carefully target some major program cuts and eliminations. The president and the Democrats in the Senate will likely resist proposed cuts, but the point is to further the national debate that has begun about the proper size and scope of the federal government.

Some initial targets for GOP reformers, with rough annual savings, could include: community development subsidies ($15 billion), public housing subsidies ($9 billion), urban transit subsidies ($9 billion), and foreign development aid ($18 billion). On the entitlement side, initial cuts could include raising the retirement age for Social Security and introducing progressive price indexing to reduce the growth rate of future benefits.

We will not get federal spending under control unless we begin a national discussion about specific cuts. And we won’t get that discussion unless enough members of Congress start pushing for specific cuts. Ronald Reagan was able to make substantial cuts to state grants in the early 1980s because policymakers had discussed such reforms throughout the 1970s. Republicans in the mid-1990s were able to reform welfare because of the extended debate on the issue that preceded it.

The electorate wants spending cuts, and they will support the policymakers who take the lead on cuts if they are pursued in a forthright and serious-minded manner.

Fed’s QEII Offers More Risk Than Reward

As the Federal Reserve Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meets today, it is widely expected that the Fed will announce a new round of quantitative easing (QE).  The first round began in March 2009, as the Fed started large-scale purchases of Fannie and Freddie debt and MBS.  The next round is expected to focus on purchases of long-dated US Treasuries.

The objective of QEII would be to reduce long-term interest rates, with the belief that such a reduction would spur investment and consumption, thus increasing employment.   Estimated impacts on rates range from zero to 80 basis points (80/100s of one percent).  

Given the large excess reserves in the banking system, it is likely that much of the monetary stimulus provided by QEII will simply be added to bank reserves, which would correspondingly have little to no impact on either lending or interest rates.  So its likely that we will get very little bang out of QEII.

Even if QEII did lower rates as much as some Fed leaders claim, the impact would still be relatively small, under one percent.  Given that mortgage rates have already fallen by that much over the last six months without changing the direction of the housing market, it is hard to see even a 1% decline in rates moving the economy.  Quite simply, the major problem facing the economy today is not high interest rates.

The real impact, and the greatest risk, of QEII is that it changes expectations of inflation.  It seems pretty clear that the Fed wants higher inflation than we have now.  QEII sends the signal that the Fed will do everything possible to create that additional inflation.  QEII also runs the real risk that the Fed ends up “monetizing the debt” - both reducing the political pressure to address our fiscal imbalances as well as undermining the dollar.  I see these risks as easily outweighing what little bump one might get from a few basis points decline in long-term interest rates.

More on the Siobhan Reynolds Case

Building on Ilya Shapiro’s post on the sealed grand jury proceedings against Siobhan Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network, and the sealed Reason Foundation/Institute for Justice amicus brief, here is some more background on the Wichita witch hunt:

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wichita, Kansas, indicted physician Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, a nurse, for illegal drug trafficking in December 2007. Reynolds found an eerie parallel between Schneider’s case and the prosecution that denied her husband pain medication, so she took action. Her public relations campaign on behalf of Dr. Schneider so annoyed Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway that Treadway sought a gag order to bar Reynolds’s advocacy. The presiding judge denied the gag order.

When the judge denied Treadway’s gag order, Treadway instead subpoenaed Reynolds for records related to Reynolds’s PR campaign against the prosecution of the Scheiders. Ms. Reynolds resisted the subpoena and tried to challenge it in court, but the $200 daily fine intended to ensure compliance with the subpoena has left Reynolds pretty much bankrupt.

This case represents the worst of government excesses in federal overcriminalization and overzealous prosecution. The federal government continues to treat doctors as drug dealers, as Ronald Libby points out in this Cato policy analysis. The grand jury, intended as a check on prosecutorial power, instead acts as an inquisitorial bulldozer that enhances the power of the government. My colleague Tim Lynch examined this phenomenon in his policy analysis A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by Government.

Cato Adjunct Scholar Harvey Silverglate examined the case of Dr. William Hurwitz in his book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. The DEA turned a few of Hurwitz’s patients into informants and prosecuted Hurwitz. When Hurwitz shuttered his practice, two of his patients killed themselves because they could not get prescriptions for necessary painkillers. Siobhan Reynolds’s husband, another of Hurwitz’s patients, could not get essential medication and died of a brain hemorrhage, likely brought on by the blood pressure build-up from years of untreated pain.

Ninja bureaucrats continue to treat doctors that prescribe painkillers as tactical threats on par with terrorist safehouses. When the DEA raided the office of Dr. Cecil Knox in 2002, one clinic worker “thought she and her husband, who was helping her in the office that day, would be shot. She looked on in horror as an agent put a gun to his head and ordered, ‘Get off the phone! Now!’” Radley Balko chronicles this unfortunate trend in Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, and the Raidmap has a separate category for unnecessary raids on doctors and sick people (sorted at the link).

A Little More Support for Killing Fed Ed

Yesterday, I wrote that rather than counseling incoming Republican Congress members to bolster federal intrusions in education, now is the time to start dismantling Washington’s unconstitutional education apparatus.  Exit polling from yesterday’s election, while certainly not focused on education, offers some support for this.

Quite simply, voters want less government in their lives, not more. Support for the Tea Party was very high considering that many people consider it something of a fringe movement, with 41 percent of voters saying they either “strongly” or “somewhat support” the Tea Party. Only 31 percent expressed opposition to the movement. Just as telling, if not more so, 56 percent of respondents said they thought “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Only 38 percent thought “government should do more to solve problems.”

It could be argued that the beginning of the end for the most recent Republican congressional majority was the No Child Left Behind Act, the party’s first major repudiation of what had been a core principle; in this case, that the federal government must stay out of education. Responding to voters now – not to mention following basic principles and the Constitution – by withdrawing federal tentacles from the nation’s classrooms would be a terrific way to start getting the party’s desperately needed credibility back.

Oh, and as I noted yesterday, it would also be the right thing to do for taxpayers and, most importantly, the children.

A New Day? Obama Faces Reality

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

The president will address this new political reality at a 1 p.m. news conference. What should President Obama say to reckon with the reality of the Democratic debacle?

My response:

What the president should say and what he will say at his press conference this afternoon are likely to be two different things. He should say that he and his party seriously misread the 2008 election results: Americans were rejecting the Bush administration’s eight years of expansive government. But he can hardly say that without repudiating the last two years: After all, he doubled down on Bush’s policies. Yesterday the vast majority of Americans said, in effect, “And we mean it!”

Not everywhere, to be sure, but look at the House map this morning: It’s almost all red, with scattered pockets of blue. Obama should recognize that reality, but to do so would be to abandon the dream, and he is nothing if not a dreamer. Throughout this campaign administration apologists kept saying that the problem was not in the product but in the packaging – in the delivery. No. It was the product. Americans didn’t want it.

So Obama will doubtless give lip service to yesterday’s results and talk about the need for all to work together “to solve America’s problems” – as though we were all on some grand collective mission. But in his subsequent actions he will likely turn to the elites in those isolated urban and academic blue pockets on the map to try to fashion a comeback consistent with his dream, because a Bill Clinton pivot would be wholly out of character with a man who branded opponents as “the enemy.” We’re probably in for two years of gridlock before we can return to fundamental principles of limited government, and that’s good.

Yglesias on High-Speed Rail

On November 1, the Washington Post published a devastating critique of high-speed rail written by journalist Robert Samuelson. In fewer than 800 words, Samuelson blows up just about all the arguments put forth in favor of rail. An 8-word summary: costs are too high and benefits too low.

One person who remains unconvinced is Matthew Yglesias, who dismisses most of Samuelson’s arguments because some of them resemble the work of a “car-subsidy shill,” namely me. Apparently, if you believe, as I do, that all modes of transportation should be paid for by users, and not by tax subsidies, then you, too, are a “car-subsidy shill.”

Yglesias did not even read Samuelson’s article, instead reading only a Cato-at-Liberty blog post by Tad DeHaven about that article. But after a mere three or four paragraphs of analysis, Yglesias somehow concludes that $1 trillion for high-speed rail is “a bargain.” His analysis, such as it is, comes down to two points. First, Randal O’Toole opposes high-speed rail, so therefore it must be a good thing. Second (pulling out his mortgage calculator), at 4.1 percent interest over 30 years, $1 trillion is really “only” $58 billion per year. “Let’s do it!” he concludes.

I’ve never met Yglesias, so he probably doesn’t know that I personally love trains and hate driving. But as an policy analyst, I have to put my personal preferences aside and ask a couple of questions that never seem to occur to Yglesias. First, what are the benefits? Second, what do you have to give up to pay the costs?

The answer to the first question is: negligible. High-speed trains will carry less than 10 percent of the number of passenger miles carried by the Interstate Highway System (all the cost of which was paid out of user fees), and virtually no freight (interstate highways not only carry 20 percent of all passenger miles but about 15 percent of all freight ton-miles in the United States).

The history of transportation shows that new technologies succeed when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than existing technologies. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and (based on Amtrak’s Acela) at least five times more expensive than either. That means, as Samuelson says, “High-speed rail would subsidize a tiny group of travelers and do little else.”

Moreover, really successful new transportation technologies significantly increase mobility. Yet Florida predicts that only 4 percent (see p. 13) of the riders on its 168-mph trains would be new mobility. California’s 220-mph trains would create even less new mobility: the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s latest estimate predicts that less than 1 percent (see p. 9) of its ridership would be new mobility. Here’s an arithmetic lesson for Yglesias: something that creates almost no new mobility, and merely substitutes high-cost transportation for a few marginal travelers previously using low-cost modes, is not a good deal.

Nor is high-speed rail the environmental answer to anything. The environmental costs of construction are high, while the environmental benefits of operations are low, leading Florida to conclude in its environmental impact statement that “the environmentally preferred alternative is the no build alternative” (see p. 2-38). In fact, both cars and airplanes are becoming more energy efficient so rapidly that, by the time a national high-speed rail system could be built, rail would be the brown form of passenger travel.

On the cost side, Yglesias only asks whether my $1 trillion estimate, which is “based on the costs estimates of the California system,” is valid considering that “California is an above-average cost jurisdiction.” That’s a legitimate question that would have been answered if he had bothered to read the footnoted reference. (I divided routes into low-cost and high-cost lines and used different estimates for each.)

Samuelson’s cost estimate was only $200 billion, but that was for high-speed rail in California and Florida and moderate-speed rail (90- to 110-mph) everywhere else. The $1 trillion is for a true national network of high-speed (150-220-mph) rail. I was not the first to use a $1 trillion estimate; that was Matt Rose, the CEO of the BNSF Railway, who probably knows a little more about rail costs than either Yglesias or me.

Beyond that, how could anyone conclude that $58 billion per year is a low price for anything, especially in today’s economy? Where is this money going to come from? Not the states, most of which are financially strapped. Perhaps we could cut all other federal spending on surface transportation–but that was only $54 billion in 2009. I know: let’s pass a health care law that will save money. But we already did that, and now federal health-care costs are projected to rise by, coincidentally, $58 billion between 2009 and 2011. Darn–there goes the money for high-speed rail. (All these numbers are from page 69 of the 2011 federal budget historical tables.)

High-speed rail riders aren’t going to pay $59 billion per year–they won’t even pay the operating costs of high-speed rail on most routes, which Yglesias managed to ignore. Amtrak claims its Acela trains earn a profit (not counting capital costs), but the Acela shares a lot of its operating costs with other Boston-to-Washington trains, which lose money. Between the two of them, they barely broke even in 2009 (see p. C-1). No other high-speed rail route in this country is likely to do as well.

By the way, in order to break even on Boston-to-Washington trains, Amtrak charged Acela riders 72 cents per passenger mile. That’s more than five times the average fares charged by airlines and intercity bus companies. Fares on Amtrak’s low-speed trains are only twice air and bus fares, which I am sure Yglesias thinks is a bargain.

I don’t know why Matt Yglesias thinks spending $1 trillion on trains that only a few people will ride would be a bargain. But I have no doubt that high-speed rail would be a high-cost burden on taxpayers.