Archives: July, 2011

Parallels to 1995 in Spending Fight

The American welfare state has been in crisis for decades. Many of the problems faced in 1995 fight have become less tractable problems today. John Samples comments in yesterday’s Cato Daily Podcast.

One notable difference between 1995 and today, Samples says, is that the GOP of 1995 kept Social Security off the chopping block for spending cuts.

Subscribe to the podcast here (RSS) and here (iTunes).

Should There Be ‘Shared Sacrifice’?

At the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, I take on the argument made, for instance, by President Obama in his Friday news conference:

We should not be asking sacrifices from middle-class folks who are working hard every day, from the most vulnerable in our society – we should not be asking them to make sacrifices if we’re not asking the most fortunate in our society to make some sacrifices as well.

I call that a fundamentally flawed argument:

The main thing our government does these days, despite the lack of any constitutional authority for it, is tax some people and transfer money to other people. …But there is no moral equivalence in the two sides of the transfer system. On the one hand, the government takes money by force from people who have earned it. On the other hand, it gives some of that money to people who have not earned it. Taking yet more money that people have earned is simply not equivalent to reducing the size of a government transfer.

There is, however, one way that we could ask businesses and the rich to join in the deficit-reduction effort:

But here’s a way to satisfy both those who see spending as the problem and those who want the highest-taxed Americans to pay yet more: Start cutting subsidies to businesses and the rich. Let’s cut out the big-business subsidy machine, the Export-Import Bank. Let’s get rid of farm subsidies. Let’s tell affluent people who build houses in coastal flood areas to pay for their own flood insurance at market prices.

Read the whole thing.

Federal Government Subsidizes and Penalizes Boeing Co.

When an entity is as mammoth and undisciplined as the $3.8 trillion U.S. federal government, it’s inevitable that its programs will be working at cross purposes. Just ask the civil aircraft manufacturer Boeing Company.

Politicians love Boeing because it not only makes valuable products but it also exports billions of dollars worth around the globe. To give a boost to those exports and supposedly create more jobs in the United States, the federal government’s Export-Import Bank offers preferential loans to foreign governments and airlines to help them buy more Boeing aircraft.

As my Cato colleague Sallie James documents in a new study, “Time to X Out the Ex-Im Bank,”

the number-one user of the Ex-Im Bank is the Boeing Company. Of the 35 aircraft sales supported by Ex-Im in FY2010, 28 were Boeing products, and the Congressional Research Service estimates that more than 60 percent of the value of Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees supported Boeing aircraft sales in that year.

No wonder critics refer to the Ex-Im as “Boeing’s Bank.”

Yet the same federal government is making it more difficult for Boeing to manufacture its airliners cost-effectively in the United States. Under the sway of organized labor, the National Labor Relations Board is seeking to prevent Boeing from expanding its production in South Carolina, a right-to-work state where the company’s employees are non-unionized.

In a column at Bloomberg.com today, Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser rightly worries that the NLRB action is undermining one of the most important advantages enjoyed by American-based companies—the freedom of labor, capital, and goods to move freely within the United States. As Glaeser notes:

The profound role that mobility has played in our country, enabling repeated reinvention, causes me to be deeply worried about the possibility that a National Labor Relations Board complaint will prevent Boeing Co. from moving plane production from [unionized] Washington state to South Carolina.

In the spirit of compromise, Congress should eliminate the Ex-Im Bank, while telling the NLRB to back off and let U.S. companies deploy their productive resources in whatever locations within the United States that make the most competitive sense.

The Gang of Six Is Back from the Dead: Contemplating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Their Budget Plan

The on-again, off-again “Gang of Six” has come back on the scene and is offering a “Bipartisan Plan to Reduce Our Nation’s Deficits.”

The proposal is quite similar to the one put forth by the President’s Simpson-Bowles Commission, which isn’t too surprising since some of the same people are involved.

At this stage, all I’ve seen is this summary (A BIPARTISAN PLAN TO REDUCE OUR NATIONS DEFICITS v7), so I reserve the right to modify my analysis as more details emerge (and since I fully expect the plan to look worse when additional information is available, the following is an optimistic assessment.

The Good

  • Unlike President Obama, the Gang of Six is not consumed by class-warfare resentment. The plan envisions that the top personal income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent.
  • The corporate income tax rate will fall to no higher than 29 percent as well, something that is long overdue since the average corporate tax rate in Europe is now down to 23 percent.
  • The alternative minimum tax (which should be called the mandatory maximum tax) will be repealed.
  • The plan would repeal the CLASS Act, a provision of Obamacare for long-term-care insurance that will significantly expand the burden of federal spending once implemented.
  • The plan targets some inefficient and distorting tax preference such as the health care exclusion.

The Bad

  • The much-heralded spending caps do not apply to entitlement programs. This is like going to the doctor because you have cancer and getting treated for a sprained wrist.
  • A net tax increase of more than $1 trillion (I expect that number to be much higher when further details are divulged).
  • The plan targets some provisions of the tax code – such as IRAs and 401(k)s) – that are not preferences, but instead exist to mitigate against the double taxation of saving and investment.
  • There is no Medicare reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.
  • There in no Medicaid reform, just tinkering and adjustments to the current system.

The Ugly

  • The entire package is based on dishonest Washington budget math. Spending increases under the plan, but the politicians claim to be cutting spending because the budget didn’t grow even faster.
  • Speaking of spending, why is there no information, anywhere in the summary document, showing how big government will be five years from now? Ten years from now? The perhaps-all-too-convenient absence of this critical information should set off alarm bells.
  • There’s a back-door scheme to change the consumer price index in such a way as to reduce expenditures (i.e., smaller cost-of-living-adjustments) and increase tax revenue (i.e., smaller adjustments in tax brackets and personal exemptions). The current CPI may be flawed, but it would be far better to give the Bureau of Labor Statistics further authority, if necessary, to make changes. A politically imposed change seems like nothing more than a ruse to impose a hidden tax hike.
  • A requirement that the internal revenue code maintain the existing bias against investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers. This “progressivity” mandate implies very bad things for the double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

This quick analysis leaves many questions unanswered. I particularly look forward to getting information on the following:

  1. How fast will discretionary spending rise or fall under the caps? Will this be like the caps following the 1990 tax-hike deal, which were akin to 60-mph speed limits in a school zone? Or will the caps actually reduce spending, erasing the massive increase in discretionary spending of the Bush-Obama years?
  2. What does it mean to promise Social Security reform “if and only if the comprehensive deficit reduction bill has already received 60 votes.” Who defines reform? And why does the reform have to focus on “75-year” solvency, apparently to the exclusion of giving younger workers access to a better and more stable system?
  3. Will federal spending under the plan shrink back down to the historical average of 20 percent of GDP? And why aren’t those numbers in the summary? The document contains information of deficits and debt, but those figures are just the symptoms of excessive spending. Why aren’t we being shown the data that really matters?

Over the next few days, we’ll find out what’s really in this package, but my advice is to keep a tight hold on your wallet.

What to Read on the Financial Crisis, Part I

I really couldn’t find anything in John Tamny’s fairly critical review of Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner to disagree with, but still I liked the book.  That may be because I spent most of the last decade as a staffer on the Senate Banking Committee, and I know that Josh was one of the few raising the early alarm bells about Fannie, Freddie (and FHA).

But I’ve also come to conclude that I liked the book because pretty much everything I’ve read on the financial crisis, regardless of who wrote it, has some pretty big flaws.  So now I have a pretty low bar for what’s acceptable.  While Reckless Endangerment has lots of flaws too, it has fewer than the typical book on the crisis.

Anyway, in thinking about the many books out there, only one really strikes me as being anywhere near a full and perfect story.  Unfortunately said book has a low readership, and gotten almost no coverage.  So here it is: If you are only going read one book on the financial crisis, read Alchemists of Loss by Kevin Dowd* and Martin Hutchinson.  It isn’t an easy read, but you won’t find a better one – at least not yet.

Now I hope you don’t stop at reading just one, and so to assist in that endeavor, my Part II will be a longer list of fun summer reading on the financial crisis.

——
*Full disclosure, Kevin Dowd has had a long affiliation with Cato.

Shocker Reported from Delaware Judiciary

“[The] Delaware [court system] is now almost actively hostile toward cases they think are without merit,” Widener lawprof Larry Hamermesh tells the Wall Street Journal, regarding flimsily based suits in which lawyers seek to block corporate mergers and then collect fees when the target agrees to settle in order to get the deal done. Imagine that – almost actively hostile. If this keeps up, are lawyers supposed to hold back on unmeritorious cases, and only file the meritorious sort? Wouldn’t that be, like, monotonous?

Giving Medicaid to Very Poor & Sick Folks, Who Go out of Their Way to Request It, Makes Them Report Feeling Healthier

Robin Hanson has a post on the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment over at Overcoming Bias.  He concludes:

So far, the new Oregon Health Insurance Experiment shows that for very poor and sick folks who go out of their way to request medical insurance, giving them such insurance makes them report feeling healthier. Two-thirds of this effect appears immediately on granting their request, and before they actually got more medical treatment. It remains to be seen if these healthy feelings will be reflected in more direct health measures, though that seems plausible, and we’ll probably never see mortality effects. The main results of the RAND [health insurance] experiment, which looked at all sorts of people, suggests doubts about presuming that if medicine helps the very poor and sick, it on average helps everyone.

Here’s my take, and some follow-up here and here.