Tag: big government

The Hayek Boom

Bruce Caldwell, editor of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek and Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, writes in today’s Washington Post about the booming interest in Hayek:

Friedrich Hayek, Nobel-prize winning economist and well-known proponent of free markets, is having a big month. He was last seen rap-debating with John Maynard Keynes in the viral video above, (in which Hayek is portrayed as the sober voice of reason while Keynes overindulges at a party at the Fed). His 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom,” provided the theme for John Stossel’s Fox Business News program on Valentine’s Day.

Hayek, who died in 1992, is also reemerging as a bestselling author. A new edition of Hayek’s seminal book, “The Road to Serfdom,” was published in March 2007 by the University of Chicago Press as part of a series called “The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek,” for which I serve as editor. For over a year-and-a-half, the book sold respectably, at a clip of about 600 copies a month.

But then, in November 2008, sales more than quadrupled, and they haven’t slowed down since. What’s more, the Kindle edition went on sale in late May 2009 and is now the best-selling book that the University of Chicago Press has offered in that format.

I reported on the rising sales of The Road to Serfdom last July. I argued that a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Dick Armey had sent sales jumping in February. Caldwell has a slightly different answer. After noting the general concern about President Obama’s big-government program and the talk about socialized medicine, he writes:

But perhaps the biggest stimulus to sales was, well, the stimulus package. The macroeconomic analyses of John Maynard Keynes had gone quickly out of vogue in the 1970s, when a decade of stagflation delivered a death blow to the notion of Keynesian fine-tuning of the economy. But in early 2009, people were talking about Keynes again, and indeed the fiscal stimulus package, to the extent that it had a theoretical underpinning, would find one in Keynesian economics….

Because Keynes and Hayek actually did have a great debate over their rival theoretical models of a monetary economy in the early 1930s, just as the Slump of 1930 was turning into the Great Depression, it seemed natural for opponents of these policies to turn to Hayek’s writings. (For those who are interested in this episode, I recommend a perusal of volume 9 of The Collected Works, Contra Keynes and Cambridge.)

Not only is “The Road to Serfdom” still relevant in our own time, it has something else going for it, too. It is actually readable. Anyone who has tried to master Keynes’s “General Theory,” or for that matter Hayek’s rival title “Prices and Production,” will find the going pretty tough.

Not so for “The Road to Serfdom,” a book that was condensed by Reader’s Digest in April 1945, just as the war in Europe was ending. Plus, “The Road to Serfdom” is, simply put, a great, evocative title. And with 10 percent unemployment, people certainly have more time to read it.

In the end, however, I think that the underlying reason for the sustained interest in Hayek’s book is that it taps into a profound dissatisfaction in the public mind with the machinations of its government. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have presided over huge growth in the size of the federal government and in the size of the federal deficit, with little obvious effect on unemployment. Things seem out of control.

Whether it was the financial crisis, the stimulus package, Dick Armey’s endorsement, or general fears about the growth of government, I’m glad to see people rediscovering F. A. Hayek. His ideas are a good foundation for a coherent and consistent response to the collectivist resurgence that now seems to be on the defensive.

The Federal Government Is Bribing States to Create More Welfare Dependency?!?

If you want to get depressed or angry, the New York Times has an article celebrating the effort by politicians at all levels of government to lure more people into the food stamp program. New York City is running ads in foreign languagues asking people to stick their snouts in the public trough. The City is even signing up prisoners when they get out of jail. The state of New York, meanwhile, actually set up quotas for enrolling new recipients. And on the federal level, there apparently is a program that gives states “bonuses” for putting more people on the dole. No wonder one out of every eight Americans is receiving food stamps. By the way, this is not just the fault of Democrats. The ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee is a big defender of the program, in part because of the sordid pact among urban and rural politicians to support each other’s handouts. And President George W. Bush’s food stamp administrator actually had the gall to assert “food stamps is not welfare.” No wonder the burden of federal spending skyrocketed during the reign of so-called compassionate conservatism. The correct policy, of course, is to get the federal government out of the welfare business. If Mayor Bloomberg thinks it is a “civic duty” to expand food stamps, he should see whether New York City voters agree with him - and want to foot the bill.

A decade ago, New York City officials were so reluctant to give out food stamps, they made people register one day and return the next just to get an application. The welfare commissioner said the program caused dependency and the poor were “better off” without it. Now the city urges the needy to seek aid (in languages from Albanian to Yiddish). Neighborhood groups recruit clients at churches and grocery stores, with materials that all but proclaim a civic duty to apply — to “help New York farmers, grocers, and businesses.” There is even a program on Rikers Island to enroll inmates leaving the jail. “Applying for food stamps is easier than ever,” city posters say. …These changes, combined with soaring unemployment, have pushed enrollment to record highs, with one in eight Americans now getting aid. “I’ve seen a remarkable shift,” said Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and prominent food stamp supporter. “People now see that it’s necessary to have a strong food stamp program.” …The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter. “I assure you, food stamps is not welfare,” Mr. Bost said in a recent interview. Still, some critics see it as welfare in disguise and advocate more restraints. …The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people. …In 2008, the program got an upbeat new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP. …Since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office eight years ago, the rolls have doubled, to 1.6 million people… Albany made a parallel push to enroll the working poor, setting an explicit goal for caseload growth. “This is all federal money — it drives dollars to local economies,” said Russell Sykes, a senior program official. But Mr. Turner, now a consultant in Milwaukee, warns that the aid encourages the poor to work less and therefore remain in need. “It’s going to be very difficult with large swaths of the lower middle class tasting the fruits of dependency to be weaned from this,” he said.

There Is Some Budget Good News, but It Is Actually Really Bad News

The Office of Management and Budget has released the President’s FY2011 budget and the Congressional Budget Office has released its semi-annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Much of the coverage of these documents has focused on deficit numbers. This is not a trivial concern, particularly since the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have dramatically boosted red ink.

But the most important numbers in the budget documents are the estimates of what is happening to government spending. The good news is that burden of government spending is projected to decline over the next few years from about 25 percent of GDP to less than 23 percent of GDP.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal government outlays only consumed 18.2 percent of economic output when Bush took office. In other words, notwithstanding the good news cited above, the size and scope of government has increased dramatically since 2001. The worse news is that the long-run spending forecasts show a cataclysmic expansion in the burden of government. The “optimistic” estimate is that the federal government will consume more than 30 percent of GDP by 2050 and 40 percent of GDP by 2080.

Obama’s Spending Freeze: Is It Real or Is He Copying Bush?

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Obama Administration will propose a three-year freeze for a portion of the budget known as “non-defense discretionary” spending. Many critics will correctly note that this is like going on a drunken binge in Vegas and then temporarily joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Others will point out that more than 80 percent of the budget has been exempted, which also is an accurate criticism. Nonetheless, even a partial freeze would be a semi-meaningful achievement.

But don’t get too excited yet. It is not clear whether the White House is proposing a genuine spending freeze, meaning “budget outlays” for these programs stay at $447 billion for three years, or a make-believe freeze that applies only to “budget authority.” This is an enormously important distinction. Budget outlays matter because they represent the actual burden of government spending. Budget authority, by contrast, is a bookkeeping measure that – at best – signals future intentions. During the profligate Bush years, for instance, apologists for the Administration tried to appease fiscal conservatives by asserting that budget authority was growing at ever-slower rates. In some cases, they were technically correct, but their arguments were deceptive because real-world spending kept climbing to record levels. And needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), future intentions never became reality.

Domestic discretionary spending soared from less than $350 billion to more than $600 billion during the Bush years (and rose almost another $100 billion in Obama’s first year!). If the Obama Administration proposes a genuine outlay freeze, he will be taking a genuine (albeit small) step in the right direction. If the “freeze” applies only to budget authority, however, that will be another indication we are in George W. Bush’s third term.

To attack the $1.4 trillion deficit, the White House will propose limits on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It’s designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared with what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation. …administration officials acknowledged the freeze is directed at only a small part of overall spending, but that fiscal discipline has to start somewhere. President Obama had requested a 7.3% increase last year in the areas he now seeks to freeze.

Making Government Bigger Is Not Stimulus - and It Won’t Create Jobs

This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains how last year’s so-called stimulus was a flop - and also reveals why politicians are pushing for another big-government spending bill.

Interestingly, since last year’s stimulus was such a disaster, the redistributionists in Washington are calling their new proposal a “jobs bill.” But as I say in the video, this is akin to putting perfume on a hog.

For further background, here is a video explaining why Keynesian economics is wrong and another predicting (in advance!) that last year’s stimulus would be a mistake. And just in case anyone actually wants the economy to grow faster, here’s one about policies that actually increase prosperity.

Thursday Links

  • Nat Hentoff: If you’re looking for reform in Cuba, don’t rest your hopes on Raul Castro.
  • Tim Carney, author of Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses gives the inside scoop on why big government is good for big business.

H&R Block and the IRS: An Unholy Alliance to Ransack Taxpayers

The late George Stigler, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, is famous in part because of his work on “regulatory capture,” which occurs when interest groups use the coercive power of government to thwart competition and undeservedly line their own pockets. A perfect (and distasteful) example of this can be found in today’s Washington Post, which reports that the IRS plans to impose new regulations dictating who can prepare tax returns. Not surprisingly, the new rules have the support of big tax preparation shops such as H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt, which see this as an opportunity to squeeze smaller competitors out of the market. The IRS and the big firms claim more regulations are needed to protect consumers from shoddy work, but this is the usual rationale for licensing laws and other government-imposed barriers to entry and the Institute for Justice has repeatedly shown such rules are designed to benefit insiders rather than consumers.

Tax preparers do make many mistakes, to be sure, but that is a reflection of a nightmarish tax code, and the annual tax test conducted by Money magazine showed that even the most-skilled professionals – such as CPAs, tax lawyers, and enrolled agents – were unable to figure out how to correctly fill out a hypothetical family’s tax return. But since the IRS routinely makes major mistakes as well, perhaps the moral of the story is that we need fundamental tax reform, not IRS rules to create a cartel for the benefit of H&R Block and other big firms. Would any of this be an issue if we had a flat tax or national sales tax?