Government’s Unwelcome Economic Distortions

A couple of weeks ago, David Boaz discussed the Old Testament story in which the people of Israel ask Samuel for a king to rule over them. God’s instructions to Samuel can be summed up as “tell them to be careful of what you wish for.” David brought up the passage in the context of civil liberties, but the story’s lesson also applies to economic liberties.

Over the past eighty years, the public has become conditioned in times of crisis to turn to their rulers and demand that they “do something.” That the rulers had a hand in the crisis is all too often either unrecognized or it’s a secondary concern. As Robert Higgs demonstrated in his seminal book, Crisis and Leviathan, the rulers will willingly oblige the public and, in the process, come away with more power and control than they had prior to the crisis. Unfortunately, the rulers’ enhanced authority begets more crises in the future.

The latest chapter in this story is the economic downturn. Many of the “seeds” for the recession were planted by government. Regardless, the average citizen reflexively looked toward Washington to quickly fix the economy. The public’s limited patience meshes well with policymakers who are naturally inclined to operate on a short-term horizon (i.e., the next election). Therefore, policymakers responded with quick-fix measures with almost no regard to the long-term consequences.

The long-term economic problems caused by massive deficit spending and mounting debt are the most obvious. But as two stories in the news show, short-term measures implemented by policymakers to “fix” the economy have also introduced unwelcome economic distortions.

First, following the expiration of the federal homebuyer tax credit, home sales have fallen off the cliff. The Christian Science Monitor asks: was the homebuyer tax credit the “scam of the century?” The program was riddled with fraud, some folks who were induced to purchase a house are already underwater or are headed in that direction, and the billions of dollars spent on the program did zilch for the long-term health of the housing market.

When one looks at ultimate beneficiaries of the tax credit, it’s easy to see why the CSM calls it a “scam:”

[I]n trying to fully understand why the government undertook such a useless and poorly calculated program, it’s important to recognize those who truly walk away from this policy in better standing.

Realtors, home builders and mortgage bankers… some of the most notable culprits of the housing bubble years… all walk away cleanly skimming the proceeds coming from the transactions of an estimated 2 million temporarily stimulated home purchases.

It should come as no surprise that these were the very same industry groups that worked tirelessly lobbying to enact this failed policy… it was a simple exchange… your tax dollars to their wallets.

Second, we go from “scam of the century” to the “the dumbest program ever.” The latter refers to the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which Chris Edwards submitted for nomination in August 2009. Chris cited numerous problems with the program, including that “Low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.”

A senior editor at Edmunds.com tells a reporter from WIOD news radio in Miami that used-car prices are way up (h/t Radley Balko):

If buying a used car is among your cost-cutting measures… be prepared to pay up to 30-percent more than you did last year.

It is a simple case of supply and demand.

Trouble is … there are fewer used cars.

The cash-for-clunkers program took a bunch off the market.

Plus, Edmunds Senior Editor Bill Visnick says 5-million fewer new cars were sold last year…which pares down the used car supply even more.

As Radley sarcastically notes, you can’t blame those supposedly selfish limited government types for this one:

[W]e have a government program whose stated aim was to shore up huge, failed corporations by giving public money to mostly upper-income people that in the end will penalize low and middle-income people. But remember folks, it’s the libertarians—who opposed C4C—who are greedy corporatists who hate the poor.

There could be a silver lining in the cloud if more Americans start to realize that asking policymakers to quickly fix problems that government policies helped foster isn’t much different than asking the arsonist to put out the fire.