Tag: Arnold Kling

Giving Power to Experts Is No Way to Reform Health Care

In the latest Cato Policy Report, Cato adjunct scholar Arnold Kling’s essay on the (mis)rule of experts explains why ObamaCare will fail:

Despite the many pages contained in the health care legislation that Congress enacted, the health care system that will result is for the most part to be determined. The design and implementation of health care reform was delegated to unelected bureaucrats, as was done in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, the promises of proponents have proven false, and the predictions of skeptics have been borne out. Costs have not been contained; they have shot up. Emergency room visits have not been curtailed; they have increased. The mandate to purchase health insurance has not removed the problem of adverse selection and moral hazard; instead, thousands of residents have chosen to obtain insurance when sick and drop it when healthy. The officials responsible for administering the Massachusetts health care system are no longer talking about sophisticated ways of making health care more efficient.

Instead, they are turning to the crude tactic of imposing price controls.

Once again, we have legislators putting unrealistic demands on experts. This results in the selection of experts with the greatest hubris, shutting out experts who appreciate the difficulty of the problem. When the selected experts find that their plans go awry, they take out their frustrations by resorting to more authoritarian methods of control.

With ObamaCare, that dynamic took hold before the law even took effect.

Un-Stimulating Bureaucracy

An essay from economist Arnold Kling in the latest Cato Policy Report discusses what Kling calls the “knowledge-discrepancy problem.” This occurs when knowledge is dispersed but power is concentrated, and it is particularly acute in government.

In short, it’s impossible for government “experts” to aggregate the vast amount of knowledge that is dispersed throughout the economy in order to optimally direct economic activity. And as Kling notes, concentrating power over the economy in the hands of experts leads to ever more undesirable government interventions:

As we have seen, the expectations placed on government experts tend to be unrealistically high. This selects for experts with unusual hubris. The authority of the state gives government experts a dangerous level of power. And the absence of market discipline gives any errors that these experts make an opportunity to accumulate and compound almost without limit. In recent decades, this knowledge-power discrepancy has gotten worse. Knowledge has grown more dispersed, while government power has become more concentrated.

The failure of the administration’s stimulus plan illustrates the problem with empowering government experts to “fix” our incredibly diverse $14 trillion economy.

A Wall Street Journal article on the inability of government bureaucracies to utilize stimulus funds demonstrates the inherent inefficiency of government planning. For example, the stimulus provided $5 billion to the states for weatherization projects. But when a local official in Detroit began soliciting applications to weatherize houses, she ran into a buzz saw of federal and state red tape:

But on the same day in March 2009 that Shenetta Coleman picked up applications from 46 companies, she received an email from the Michigan Department of Human Services telling her she couldn’t award work to anyone.

The problem: Ms. Coleman hadn’t met requirements for her advertisement. Those included specifying the precise wages that contractors would have to pay, and posting the advertisement on a specific website. There were other rules—federal, state and local—for grant and contract-award processes, historic preservation and labor standards.

The bureaucratic obstacles Ms. Coleman hit took more than a year to clear. Some were mandated by the stimulus bill, the same legislation that was supposed to rapidly create jobs. For example, there is a union-backed provision that requires that weatherization workers receive the prevailing wages in the area.

The stimulus is also distorting employment by incentivizing workers to obtain job-skills on the basis of government planning. The WSJ article cites the example of an unemployed worker who enrolled in a weatherization training class when she learned that Detroit would be receiving $30 million in weatherization funds:

She studied energy-saving principles, practiced drilling holes into walls and blowing in insulation, and learned how to install windows. She graduated in March, at the top of her class. For the next four months, she couldn’t find work.  “I was hanging on by a thread,” said Ms. Wallisch. In July, she was hired for energy-conservation work funded not by the stimulus plan, but by Michigan’s utility companies.

The recession, and consequent rise in unemployment, led to demands for the government to “create jobs.” However, merely throwing taxpayer money at government job-creating schemes, which was the solution the government’s “experts” came up with, was never a viable solution. The experts simply do not have the requisite knowledge to match millions of workers possessing diverse job-skills with the diverse needs of millions of employers.

From Kling:

What the issue of job creation illustrates is the problem of treating government experts as responsible for a problem that cannot be solved by a single person or a single organization.

Economic activity consists of patterns of trade and specialization. The creation of these patterns is a process too complex and subtle for government experts to be able to manage.

The issue also illustrates the way hubris drives out true expertise. The vast majority of economists would say that we have very little idea how much employment is created by additional government spending. However, the economists who receive the most media attention and who obtain the most powerful positions in Washington are those who claim to have the most precise knowledge of “multipliers.”

As I have previously discussed, the average citizen has become conditioned to reflexively turn to the government to in times of crisis. Government officials are only too happy to oblige as they are naturally inclined to operate on a short-term horizon (i.e., the next election). Fortunately, more and more Americans appear to be realizing that the government and its experts are the problem rather than the solution.

Should We Break Up the Banks?

When it comes to banking policy, there are few people I respect more than Jonathan Macey and Arnold Kling; so when these two, independently, argue that we should be breaking up the largest banks, it is idea that merits consideration.  Yet I still have my doubts.

First, lets start with what we are fairly certain of.  There is a large empirical literature that suggest most US mega-banks are beyond their efficient size.  There is a good survey of the literature by former Fed Economist Allen Berger .  So, at a minimum, the academic literature suggests the largest banks are beyond a size that is justified by the social benefits.

However, there is also a small literature that suggests more concentrated banking systems are more stable, and less prone to crisis.  Some of this literature has grown out of research efforts by the World Bank.  While this literature is largely cross-country comparisons, recalling our own banking history gives several examples - the savings & loan crisis, the mass of small banks failures in the 1920s and 1930s, and current day Georgia - where lots of small bank failures have been associated with significant economic damage.  So, at minimum, there is some question of whether breaking up the largest banks would give us a more stable, less crisis-prone system.  In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that breaking up the banks would make our financial system more fragile.

To some extent, the debate over breaking up the large banks is about reducing political power.  The argument is that, because of their vast resources, these large banks unduly influence and capture our political system.  Undoubtedly, I believe the largest banks have substantial influence over both our legislative and regulatory systems.  However, so do smaller banks.  From my seven years as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I would definitely argue that the Independent Community Banks Association (ICBA), as a group, has far more pull than does say Bank of America, as a single company.  One need only witness the various exemptions for small banks in the Dodd bill, for instance from the consumer protection bureau, to illustrate the lobbying power of small bankers.  One could also argue that the economic history of progressive era legislation, like the Sherman Act, is one of smaller, organized interests winning against larger sized firms.  Despite its appeal, the assertion that bigger is always better in politics is just an assertion.  Yet this is at heart an empirical argument, and perhaps one that can be tested.  Until then, I still have my doubts.

The Case for Auditing the Fed

Recently, the Federal Reserve has significantly altered the procedures and goals that it had followed for decades. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has introduced a bill calling for an audit of the Fed.

Remarkably, there is significant opposition to such oversight, and the political prospects for undertaking such an audit are relatively bleak. In a new paper, Cato scholar Arnold Kling examines the processes and outcomes on which an audit should focus, and looks at opposition to the audit:

We should document why the Fed took each step, what the expected results were, and whether those results were achieved. …The profit or loss of the Fed’s investments would provide a very helpful indicator of whether the Fed’s actions served the economy as a whole or merely transferred wealth from ordinary taxpayers to bank shareholders.

Read the whole thing.

Thursday Links

  • A few things you might not know about rail travel: “Automobiles in intercity travel are as energy efficient as Amtrak. Cars are getting more energy efficient, while boosting Amtrak trains to higher speeds will make them less energy efficient.” The list goes on…
  • Quiz Time! Which was the only country in the 27-nation European Union to register economic growth without going through a recession last year? The answer might surprise you.

The Cost of Health Care

From a patient’s point of view, the ideal health insurance policy would offer unlimited access to medical services at no charge. Unfortunately, it is not feasible to offer this to everyone.

The key to sustainable health care reform is restraining the use of services that have high costs and low benefits, says Cato adjunct scholar Arnold Kling.  In the video below, Kling examines the challenges facing health reformers and the feasibility of alternative proposals.