Tag: capitalism

Pro-Choice Activists Become Skeptics of Regulation

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Barton Hinkle notes that the Virginia General Assembly has just passed “tough new regulations on abortion clinics.” And

Suddenly, outraged liberals are sounding remarkably like libertarian advocates of laissez-faire capitalism and the industries they defend.

For instance, abortion-rights supporters already are warning that the heavy hand of government will impose requirements so absurd and so economically burdensome that they will force clinics to close their doors. “What they’ll do is put a burden of extra cost that is not backed up by sound science,” said one abortion provider who spoke on condition of … whoops! Actually, those were the words of Alva Carter Jr., chairman of a New Mexico dairy industry group, who was protesting new groundwater pollution regulations last April.

“The scale of the … current assault is unprecedented,” complained Planned Parenthood spokes — no, that was The Wall Street Journal, raging last November against the EPA. The paper said the agency “has turned a regulatory firehose on U.S. business and the power industry in particular.”

“The massive red tape … threatens to strangle … the industry,” complained — well, that was Investor’s Business Daily, writing about the Dodd-Frank financial bill last year. The paper cited a report by the American Bankers Association warning that “the coming ‘tsunami of regulations’ could wipe out hundreds of smaller banks.” Substitute “abortion clinics” for “smaller banks,” and you have the Virginia debate in a nutshell. (And yes, let’s stipulate right here that many so-called conservatives believe in limited government everywhere except the uterus.)

“They could require things that are completely unnecessary.” That actually was a quote from an abortion-rights supporter: Shelley Abrams, the director of A Capital Women’s Clinic in Richmond.

And she is entirely right. Sometimes government does require things that are not strictly necessary. And those requirements impose a heavy financial burden. This is hardly a revelation. Small-government advocates have been saying it for many years. Yelling it, actually, at the top of their lungs. To little avail.

Example: Supporters of abortion rights now worry that even existing clinics might have to obtain a Certificate of Public Need from the state. To which one might reply: Why should they be different? For years, certain voices in Virginia have been suggesting that the COPN process — essentially, a government permission slip for health-care providers — creates an unnecessary market entry barrier. They have argued that government has no business deciding whether a particular community needs a particular health-care facility.

He goes on to note that

when free-marketeers and industry groups gripe about the burden of governmental regulation, they often get truth-squadded by deeply skeptical liberals. On Monday, the AP’s “Spin Meter” gave the gimlet eye to predictions that the Obama administration’s new smog regulations could destroy more than 7 million jobs. The news service pointed out that the researcher who came up with the number was “industry-sponsored.” (Boo.) It lamented the “imprecise economic models” used. (Hiss.) And it pointed out that “those opposed to government regulations rarely mention the potential benefits to society.” Amen, brother.

Hinkle hopes that people concerned about the burden that regulation imposes on abortion clinics will eventually come to recognize that regulation also imposes costs and burdens on every other business.

Jerry Taylor and I have both noted in the past the differing media treatment of abortion and other science and health issues. Looking at two NPR stories on the same day, I praised one on the dangers of abortion pills:

It was a good example of careful, cautious reporting. But why are journalists seemingly much more cautious in reporting medical risks involving abortion than in reporting other kinds of risks? There are plenty of critics of the “junk science” involved in the Vioxx stories; why aren’t they interviewed in Vioxx stories? The numbers were small in the Vioxx study, as in the case of the abortion drugs, but that fact was dismissed in one report and emphasized in the other.

Cato’s Jerry Taylor noticed something similar in a Wall Street Journal column 11 years ago (January 3, 1995; not online). He noted that the Journal of the National Cancer Institute

caused quite a stir by publishing an epidemiological study suggesting that women who have abortions are 50% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not….”Not so fast,” countered epidemiologists; a 1.5 risk ratio (as epidemiologists put it) “is not strong enough to call induced abortion a risk factor for breast cancer.”

Taylor agreed that a 1.5 risk ratio is below the appropriate level of concern. But he wondered why “the same risk ratio that was so widely pooh-poohed by scientists as insignificant and inconclusive when it comes to abortion was deemed by the very same scientists an intolerable health menace when it comes to secondhand smoke. Actually, that’s not quite true. The 1.3 risk factor for a single abortion was significantly greater than the really hard to detect 1.19 risk ratio for intensive, 40-year, day-in-day-out pack-a-day exposure to secondhand smoke (as figured by the EPA).”

How Capitalism Saved the Pilgrims

When I was growing up, my father would occasionally tell me the story around this time of year of how private property rights saved the Pilgrims from starvation.

When the Pilgrims first arrived in 1620, as my father told the story, they tried to live communally according to the spirit of the Mayflower Compact. What crops they grew were put in a common storehouse and then apportioned according to each family’s need. The small colony struggled to survive for two or three years until its leaders declared that every family henceforth would be responsible for growing its own food. The new system proved much superior at putting food on the table.

Years later, when I was writing editorials for the Colorado Springs Gazette, I would tell the story in print on Thanksgiving Day, this time quoting from Governor William Bradford’s first-hand account. One of my fellow editors objected to my version, claiming it was Squanto the friendly Indian who saved the Pilgrims by teaching them how to fertilize their crops with dead fish. We agreed to disagree and I stuck to my version.

Earlier this year, as I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (New York: Penguin Books, 2007, paperback edition), I came across a passage that weighs in decisively on our editorial dispute. It appears my father did know best after all.

From page 165 of Mayflower:

The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally–the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield.

In April, Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.

Among the many things I’m thankful for this week is that I live in a country that was founded on the solid rock of property rights and free markets.


First World War Ends

On September 26, 2010 – 92 years after the WWI officially ended – Germany made her last payment of $94 million in reparations “to private individuals, pension funds and corporations holding debenture bonds as agreed under the Treaty of Versailles.” As Keynes rightly predicted, the unreasonably high French demands for financial reparations led to German economic weakness. The end result was hyperinflation, which was one of the principal causes of Hitler’s rise to power and the start of the Second World War. In spite of losing two world wars, Germany did eventually become the most powerful nation in Europe – through trade, capitalism and German ingenuity.

Cuban Government Will Choke the Nascent Private Sector

Following the announcement of massive layoffs in the public sector, the Cuban government published today new guidelines that will allow private employment in 178 economic activities. Among the newly authorized private occupations are masseurs, clowns, shoemakers, locksmiths, and gardeners.

However, these new entrepreneurs will face a few hurdles before enjoying the benefits of their own work. Not only must they get a government license in order to operate (according to official sources the number of permits will be capped at 250,000), but they will also have to pay high taxes. A leaked document from the Communist Party says that small businesses will pay between 10 to 40 percent of their gross income in taxes. On top of that, they will have to contribute 25 percent of their incomes to social security.

Don’t expect a thriving private sector in Cuba any time soon.

Cuba Needs A Swift Transition Towards Capitalism

Confirming Fidel Castro’s recent confession that “the Cuban model doesn’t even works for us anymore” (did it ever work?), Havana has announced the massive layoff of 500,000 state workers in the upcoming months. This is approximately 12 percent of the government workforce (and 10 percent of the total labor force).

The big question is whether the meager non-state sector can absorb such an influx of workers in such a short period of time. My take is that the only way Cuba can accomplish this is by aggressively liberalizing its economy: privatizing most industries and farmland, cutting red tape, freeing prices, lowering taxes (which fall heavily on the tiny private sector), and getting rid of thousands of restrictions on private businesses that currently thwart entrepreneurship. This, of course, means abandoning altogether the current communist model and moving towards a capitalist system. So far, the reforms introduced by Raúl Castro since becoming president three years ago have been far too timid and in some instances even counterproductive.

As Oleh Havrylyshyn, former Ukrainian deputy minister of finance, wrote in a paper published by Cato three years ago on the transformation of post-communist economies, rapid reforms (as opposed to gradual ones) bring about better results in terms of higher growth rates, lower unemployment, higher investment, etc. Interestingly, Havrylyshyn also found that “all of the rapid reformers developed into liberal democracies, whereas in many of the gradual reformers… small groups of super-wealthy oligarchs captured the state and dominated its economic decisionmaking.”

The Cuban ruling elite cannot afford to waste time. Very soon, hundreds of thousands of Cubans will be looking for a job in the dilapidated private sector. Social unrest could easily erupt if their search for a job or occupation goes unfulfilled. In the end, only a swift transition towards capitalism can rescue the Cuban people.

Lessons in Crony Capitalism

From this week’s Washington Post:

Afghanistan’s Central Bank has taken control of the country’s biggest and most politically potent private bank and ordered its chairman to hand over $160 million worth of luxury villas and other real estate purchased in Dubai for well-connected insiders, according to Afghan bankers and officials.

Farther down the page the article continues:

Kabul Bank previously had been shielded by the political clout of its shareholders who, in addition to Mahmoud Karzai [President Hamid Karzai’s brother, who partly owns Kabul Bank], include Haseen Fahim, the brother of Vice President Mohammed Fahim.

If this hostile takeover wasn’t questionable enough, the article goes on to report:

Kabul Bank’s biggest creditor, bank insiders said, is Haseen Fahim, a minority shareholder, who borrowed tens of millions of dollars to fund various business ventures, which in turn won contracts at U.S. bases and sites in Afghanistan operated by the CIA.

So, in an effort to stamp out corruption, which U.S. officials have prodded Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to do, he orders his Central Bank to take managing control of the country’s largest private bank, which, I might add, “also contributed to President Karzai’s reelection campaign last year.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, the above-cited transaction sounds like a stark lesson in crony capitalism: an allegedly capitalist economy based on close relationships between politically connected business figures and the state. This U.S.-led nation-building charade in Afghanistan sounds eerily reminiscent of the state-controlled corruption surrounding Afghanistan’s mineral mining laws:

“Article 4: Ownership of Minerals

(1) All naturally occurring Minerals and all Artificial Deposits of Minerals on surface or subsurface of the territory of Afghanistan or in its water courses (rivers and streams) are the exclusive property of the State.”

Well, it’s nice to see that we are exporting our system around the world!

Pearlstein Wants Tough Trade Measures Against China…and the U.S.

Steven Pearlstein’s ready for the nuclear option.  With the conviction of a man who knows he won’t be held accountable for the consequences of his prescriptions, Pearlstein says the time has come for action against China.  Hopefully, those whose fingers are actually near the button will recognize Pearlstein’s suggestion for what it is: an outburst of frustration over what he considers China’s insubordination.

In his Washington Post business column yesterday, Pearlstein criticizes U.S. policymakers for blindly adhering to the view that China will inevitably transition to democratic capitalism, while they’ve excused market-distorting protectionism, mercantilism, and state dominance over the economy in China.  Pearlstein writes:

Up to now, a succession of administrations has argued against directly challenging China over its mercantilist policies, figuring it would be more effective in the long run to let the economic relationship grow deeper and give the Chinese the time and respect their culture demands to make the inevitable transition to democratic capitalism.

What we have discovered, however, is that the Chinese don’t view the transition as inevitable and that, in any case, they really aren’t much interested in relationships. If anything, they’ve proven to be relentlessly transactional. And their view of business and economics remains so thoroughly mercantilist that they not only can’t imagine any other way, but assume that everyone else thinks the way they do. To try to convince them otherwise is folly.

Pearlstein’s suggestion that the Chinese “aren’t much interested in relationships” strikes me as frustration over the fact that China is no longer a U.S. supplicant.  Perhaps the truth is that China isn’t much interested in a one-way relationship, where it is expected to meet all U.S. demands, while seeing its own wishes ignored.  Calling them “relentlessly transactional” is accusing them of naivety for missing the bigger picture, which, for Pearlstein, is that the U.S. is still top dog and China ignores that at its peril. 

Pearlstein is not the first columnist to criticize the Chinese government for putting its interests ahead of America’s (or, more accurately, putting what it believes to be its best interests ahead of what U.S. policymakers believe to be in their own interests).  In a recent Cato policy paper titled Manufacturing Discord: Growing Tensions Threaten the U.S.-China Economic Relationship, I was addressing opinion leaders who have staked out positions similar to Pearlstein’s when I wrote:

Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes….

One explanation for the change in tenor is that media pundits, policymakers, and other analysts are viewing the relationship through a prism that has been altered by the fact of a rapidly rising China.  That China emerged from the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession wealthier and on a virtually unchanged high-growth trajectory, while the United States faces slow growth, high unemployment, and a large debt (much of it owned by the Chinese), is breeding anxiety and changing perceptions of the relationship in both countries….

Of course, the U. S. is the larger economy and the chief designer of the still-prevailing global economic architecture.  But the implication that that distinction immunizes the U. S. from costly repercussions if U.S. sanctions were imposed against China is foolish.  But that’s exactly where Pearlstein’s going when he writes:

Getting this economic relationship back into balance is the single biggest challenge to the global economy, not just because of its direct effects on China and the United States, but the indirect effects it has on the rest of the world. The alternative is a return to living beyond our means, a further erosion of our industrial and technological base and a continued loss of ownership of business and financial assets.

By balancing the economic relationship, presumably Pearlstein is speaking about the need to reduce the bilateral trade deficit, which spurs a net outflow of dollars to China, some of which the Chinese lend back to Americans, who in turn can then buy more imports from China, and the cycle continues.  But to tip the scales in favor of the blunt force action he recommends later, Pearlstein characterizes Chinese investment in the United States as living beyond our means, losing ownership of “our” assets, and eroding our industrial and technological base.  That is a paternalistic and inaccurate characterization of the dynamics of capital inflows from China.

First, let’s remember that the Chinese aren’t holding a gun to the heads of the chairs of our congressional appropriations committees demanding that politicians borrow and spend more on senseless programs.  It’s absolutely priceless when spendthrift members of Congress, oblivious to the irony, blame the Chinese for having caused the U.S. financial crisis for providing cheap credit to fuel asset bubbles when it was their own profligacy that brought the Chinese to U.S. debt markets in the first place.  Stop deficit spending and the need to borrow from China (or anywhere else) goes away. 

Likewise, it is a sad commentary on the state of individual responsibility in the U.S. when a prominent business writer thinks the only way to keep consumers from living beyond their means is to deprive their would-be-creditors of capital.  It sounds a bit like the same tactics deployed in the U.S. War on Drugs.  Blame the suppliers.  The fact that U.S. savings rates have been rising for two years suggests that responsible Americans are interested in rebuilding their assets without need of such measures.

There are other destinations for capital inflows from China, which (despite Pearlstein’s disparaging allusions) should be entirely unobjectionable.  Chinese investment in U.S. corporate debt, equities markets, real estate markets, and direct investment in U.S. manufacturing and services industries does not erode our industrial and technological base.  It enhances it.  It does not constitute a loss of ownership of business and financial assets, but rather a mutual exchange of assets at an agreed price.  When Chinese investors compete as buyers in U.S. markets, the value of the assets in those markets rises, which benefits the owners of those assets when there is an exchange.  Chinese purchases of anything American, with the exception of debt, do not constitute claims on the future.  Accordingly, the economic relationship can achieve the much vaunted need for rebalancing without need of attempting to forcefully reduce the trade deficit by restraining imports.

Pearlstein continues:

So if the urgent need is to rebalance the global economy by rebalancing the U.S.-China economic relationship, we are probably going to have to begin this process on our own. And that means establishing some sort of tariff regime that will increase the cost of imports not just from China, but other countries that keep their currencies artificially low, restrict the flow of capital or maintain significant barriers to imports of goods and services. The proceeds of those tariffs should be used to encourage exports in some fashion…

This relationship, however, is one that must be actively managed by the two governments. It should be obvious by now that their government is rather effective at managing their end of things. It should be equally obvious that we cannot continue to rely on free markets to manage our end.

So Pearlstein comes full circle.  He wants the U. S. to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, subsidize U.S. exports, and institute top-down industrial policy.  In other words, he wants the U.S. to be more like China. 

Of course, I would argue, we already have something that encourages exports.  They’re called imports.  Over half of the value of U.S. imports are intermediate goods—capital equipment, components, raw materials—that are used by American-based producers to make goods for their customers in the U. S. and abroad.  Furthermore, foreigners need to be able to sell to Americans if they are going to have the dollars to buy products from Americans.  And finally, if the U.S. implements trade restrictions on China to compel currency revaluation or anything else, retaliation against U.S. exports is a given.

In short, imports are a determinant of exports.  If you impede imports, you impede exports.  So Pearlstein’s idea that we can somehow subsidize exports by taxing and reducing imports is not particularly well-considered.  And though it may be tempting to look at China’s economic success as an endorsement or vindication of industrial policy, it is difficult to discern how much of China’s growth can be attributed to central planning, and how much has happened despite it.  But in the U.S., where one of our unique and core strengths has been the relative dynamism that has produced more inventions, more patents, more actionable industrial ideas, more freeedom, and more wealth than at any other time in any other nation-state in the world, it would be imprudent bordering on reckless to suppress those synergies in the name of industrial policy.

In the end, I rather doubt that Pearlstein is truly on board with the course of action he suggests.  In response to a question presented to him on the Washington Post live web chat yesterday about how the Chinese would react if his proposal were implemented, Pearlstein wrote:

They’d make a huge stink. They’d cancel some contracts. They’d slap on some tariffs of their own. They’d launch an appeal with the World Trade Organization. It would not be costless to us – getting into fights never is. But after a year, once they saw we were serious, they would find a way to begin accomodating [sic] us in significant ways, and if we respond with a positive tit for tat, things could finally improve. They’ve been testing us for years and what they discovered was that we were easy to push around. So guess what – they pushed us around.

I’m willing to chalk up Pearlstein’s diatribe to pent-up frustration.  But let me end with this admonition from that May Cato paper:

 [I]ndignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying “How high?” when the U.S. government says “Jump!” is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.  China is a sovereign nation.  Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people).  Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous.  Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft.  These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.