Tag: economics

Bacon, Duct Tape, and the Free Market

It’s hard to imagine how we would get through life without necessities like bacon and duct tape. But have you ever thought about how the free market gives you so much for so little?

Here’s a video that should be mandatory viewing in Washington. Too bad politicians didn’t watch it before imposing government-run health care.

And since we’re contemplating the big-picture issue of whether markets are better than statism, here’s some very sobering polling data from EurActiv:

A recent survey has found deep pessimism among European Commission staff on a wide range of issues, including the course of European integration over the past decade and the likelihood of success of the EU’s strategy for economic growth. Some 63% partially or totally agreed that “the European model has entered into a lasting crisis.”

This is remarkable. Even the statist über-bureaucrats of the European Commission realize the big-government house of cards is collapsing, yet politicians in Washington still want to make America more like Europe.

Christina Romer’s Naïve Keynesianism

President Obama’s former head of the Council of Economic Advisers has taken to the pages of the New York Times to warn us against pursuing “fiscal austerity just now,” particularly not spending cuts.

Christina Romer’s views are Keynesian. She doesn’t use that word, but she is focused on juicing “demand” with optimally-targeted and well-managed government “investments.”

Economics has numerous schools of thought, but Romer’s writing reflects nothing but the most simplistic Keynesian framework. The fact that the huge Keynesian stimulus of recent years that she supported has coincided with the slowest economic recovery since World War II seems to be of little concern to her.

She also doesn’t seem to be interested in how government spending actually works in the real world. She assures us that “government spending on things like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure … helps increase future productivity.”

That view has a veneer of economic authenticity, but it leaves many issues unaddressed:

  • Most federal spending is on transfers and consumption, not investment. The debt crisis we face is driven mainly by entitlements, which is consumption spending. Romer’s talk of investment spending is a rhetorical bait-and-switch.
  • Romer doesn’t distinguish between average and marginal spending. If some federal investment spending has created positive net returns, that doesn’t mean that additional spending would. Governments already spend massive amounts on education, for example, so the marginal return from added spending is probably very low.
  • If the government investments that Romer touts are so valuable, then why hasn’t the government done them already? After all, federal, state, and local governments in this country already spend 41 percent of GDP.
  • If science, education, and infrastructure investments have the high returns that Romer seems to think they do, then why does the government need to be involved? Private firms seeking higher profits would be all over such investments.
  • Romer mentions that the “social returns” on some investments might be higher than purely private returns. However, that doesn’t mean that the government should automatically intervene. For one thing, the government suffers from all kinds of management failures and other pathologies.
  • Romer also ignores that the government imposes substantial deadweight losses on the economy when it commandeers the resources it needs for its “investments.”

So my reading assignment for Romer is www.DownsizingGovernment.org so she can get a better understanding of how federal programs actually operate.

And readers interested in all the economics of government spending that Romer doesn’t tell you about can consult Edgar Browning’s excellent book, Stealing From Each Other.

CAP Leftists Have Accidental Encounter with the Laffer Curve, Learn Nothing

The big-government advocates at the Center for American Progress recently released a series of charts designed to prove America is a low-tax nation. I wish this was the case.

The United States does have a lower overall tax burden than Europe, which is shown in one of the CAP charts, but that doesn’t exactly demonstrate that taxes are low in America. Unless, of course, you think weighing less than an offensive lineman in the NFL is proof of being skinny.

But the one chart that jumped out at me was the one showing that the United States collects less corporate tax revenue than other developed nations. The CAP document states, with obvious disapproval, that “Corporate income tax revenue in the United States is about 25 percent below the OECD average.”

The obvious implication, at least for the uninformed reader, is that the United States should increase the corporate tax burden.

But here’s some information that CAP didn’t bother to include in the study. The U.S. corporate tax rate is more than 39 percent and the average corporate tax rate in Europe is less than 25 percent.

So let’s ponder these interesting facts. CAP is right that the U.S. collects less tax revenue from corporations, but even they would be forced to admit (though they omit the info from their report) that the U.S. corporate tax rate is much higher. Let’s see…higher tax rate-lower revenue…lower tax rate-higher revenue…this seems vaguely familiar.

Could this possibly be an example of that “crazy” concept of (gasp!) a Laffer Curve? To be sure, it is only in rare cases, when tax rates get very high, that researchers find that high tax rates lose revenue. In most cases, the Laffer Curve simply implies that higher tax rates won’t raise as much money as politicians want.

But have our friends at CAP inadvertently identified one of those cases where a tax cut (i.e., a lower corporate tax rate) would “pay for itself”?

There certainly is strong evidence for this proposition. In a 2007 study, Alex Brill and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute found that the revenue-maximizing corporate tax rate is about 25 percent (click chart to enlarge).

Somehow, I suspect this wasn’t their intention, but I want to thank the statists at CAP for reminding us about the self-destructive impact of high tax rates. 

For those who want to learn more about the Laffer Curve, these three videos will make you more knowledgeable than 99 percent of people in Washington (not a big achievement, I realize, but the information is still useful).

 

The “Tax Expenditure” Con Job

For both political and policy reasons, the left is desperately trying to maneuver Republicans into going along with a tax increase. And they are smart to make this their top goal. After all, it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to increase the burden of government spending without more revenue coming to Washington.

But how to make this happen? President Obama is mostly arguing in favor of class-warfare tax increases, but that’s a non-serious gambit driven by 2012 political considerations. Moreover, there’s presumably zero chance that Republicans would surrender to higher tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

The real threat is back-door hikes resulting from the elimination and/or reduction of so-called tax breaks. The big spenders on the left are being very clever about this effort, appealing to anti-spending and pro-tax reform sentiments by arguing that it is important to get rid of “tax expenditures” and “spending in the tax code.”

recently warned, however, that GOPers shouldn’t fall for this sophistry, noting that “If legislation is enacted that results in more money coming into Washington, that is a tax increase.” I also explained that tax breaks are not spending, stating that “When politicians tax (or borrow) money from one person and give it to another, that’s government spending. But if politicians allow a person keep more of their own money, that’s a tax cut.”

To be sure, the tax code is riddled with inefficient and corrupt loopholes. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax. More specifically, every penny of revenue generated by shutting down tax preferences should be used to lower tax rates. This is a win-win situation that would make America more prosperous and competitive.

It’s also important to understand what’s a loophole and what isn’t. Ideally, you determine special tax breaks by first deciding on the right benchmark and then measuring how the current tax system deviates from that ideal. That presumably means all income should be taxed, but only one time.

So what can we say about the internal revenue code using this neutral benchmark? Well, there are lots of genuine loopholes. The government completely exempts compensation in the form of employer-provided health insurance, for instance, and everyone agrees that’s a special tax break. There’s also the standard deduction and personal exemptions, but most people think it’s appropriate to protect poor people from the income tax (though perhaps we’ve gone too far in that direction since only 49 percent of households now pay income tax).

Sometimes the tax code goes overboard in the other direction, however, subjecting some income to double taxation. Indeed, because of the capital gains tax, corporate income tax, personal income tax, and death tax, it’s possible for some types of income to be taxed as many of three or four times.

Double taxation is a special tax penalty, which is the opposite of a special tax break. The good news is that there are some provisions in the tax code, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that reduce these tax penalties.

The bad news is that these provisions get added to “tax expenditure” lists, and therefore get mixed up with the provisions that provide special tax breaks. This may sound too strange to be true, but here’s a list of the biggest so-called tax expenditures from the Tax Policy Center (which is a left-leaning organization, but their numbers are basically the same as the ones found at the Joint Committee on Taxation).

Since this post already is too long, I’ll close by simply noting that items 2, 4, 7, 8, 11, and 12 are not loopholes. They are not “tax expenditures.” And they are not “spending in the tax code.” Every one of those provisions is designed to mitigate a penalty in the tax code.

So even if lawmakers have good motives (i.e., pursuing real tax reform such as the flat tax) when looking to get rid of special tax breaks, they need to understand what’s actually a loophole.

But since politicians rarely have good motives, there’s a real threat that they will take existing tax penalties and make them even worse. That’s another reason why tax increases should be a non-starter.

100,000+ Cribs May Be Headed for Dumpsters Today

Last December the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) adopted new standards for crib design, a step mandated by the famously overreaching Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). The commission decided to go well beyond a set of voluntary design standards that had been widely adopted the year before; it also chose to make the new rules retroactive, rendering unlawful the sale of many existing cribs whose overall safety record is otherwise acceptable—no one would think of subjecting them to a recall, for instance. Commissioner Nancy Nord:

The day care industry did protest that the rule, as proposed, would result in approximately a $1/2 billion hit to a group that could not immediately absorb costs of such magnitude, especially on the heels of having just bought new cribs to meet the standards of 2009. As a result, at the last minute just before finalizing the rule, the Commission agreed to amend the proposed rule to delay the effective date for this group by 18 months. There was no analysis behind this date; basically, it was pulled out of a hat.

Manufacturers and sellers fared less well, however, and were stuck with a deadline of June 28, 2011, that is, today. Commission staff predicted that retailers would not suffer significant economic harm, which turned out to be wrong, as the commission learned when they began hearing from “small retailers who are stuck with stranded inventory that they cannot sell, also asking for a delay,” according to Nord.

How much stranded inventory? Quite a lot, says Commissioner Anne Northup:

The retailers of these cribs, which the Commission deemed were safe enough to continue to be used for another two years in day care facilities, stand to lose at least $32 million dollars when they are required to throw out noncompliant cribs on June 28.

That’s a lot of landfill space that may be needed in coming days. Nord again:

An internal survey of 5 retailers found that those companies had at least 100,000 non-complying cribs in inventory. A survey done by a trade association representing one part of the small retailer community found that 35 companies had 17,500 cribs that cannot legally be sold in two weeks.

Retailers pleading for a longer transition period got no mercy from the hard-line pro-regulation Commission majority led by Obama appointee Inez Tenenbaum. In a similar way, the much vaster stranded-inventory problems and compliance nightmares engendered by CPSIA as a whole keep getting worse rather than better, due to an equally obdurate attitude from the commission’s current leadership and its Democratic allies in Congress. Politically and with the press, there seems to be little downside in striking cost-no-object For the Children postures, even if the result is to place untenable burdens on the sorts of local shopkeepers and service providers who specialize in meeting the everyday needs of children.

Related, at my website Overlawyered: “Thanks for standing by for eight months after we told you to stop selling your infant slings pending a recall. We’ve decided no recall is needed. What, you’re out of business? Never mind.”

Andrew Sullivan Has No Idea What He’s Talking about, but I Agree with His Conclusion

Even though he’s become more partisan in recent years, I still enjoy an occasional visit to Andrew Sullivan’s blog. But I was disappointed last night when I read one of his posts, in which he discussed whether government spending helps or hurts economic performance. He took the view that a bigger public sector stimulates growth, and criticized those who want to reduce the burden of government spending, snarkily observing that, “The notion that Herbert Hoover was right has become quite a dogged meme on the reality-challenged right.”

Since I’m one of those “reality-challenged” people who prefer smaller government, I obviously disagree with his analysis. But his reference to Hoover set off alarm bells. As I have noted before, Hoover increased the burden of government during his time in office.

But maybe my memory was wrong. So I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget and looked up the annual spending data. As you can see from the chart (click for larger image), it turns out that Hoover increased government spending by 47 percent in just four years. (If you adjust for falling prices, as Russ Roberts did at Cafe Hayek, it turns out that Hoover increased real government spending by more than 50 percent.)

I suppose I could make my own snarky comment about being “reality-challenged,” but Sullivan’s mistake is understandable. The historical analysis and understanding of the Great Depression is woefully inadequate, and millions of people genuinely believe that Hoover was an early version of Ronald Reagan.

I will say, however, that I agree with Sullivan’s conclusion. He closed by saying it would be “bonkers” to replicate Hoover’s policies today. I might have picked a different word, but I fully subscribe to the notion that making government bigger was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now.

Barack Obama, Luddite?

In the video clip above, President Obama blames America’s current unemployment problem on… automation. ATMs and airport kiosks are singled out.

These words could only be uttered by someone who knows very little about economics or the history of human progress. In fact, they could only be uttered by someone who has never reflected on this question before in his  life. Because if you reflect for one moment, you come up with this glaringly obvious counterfactual: we use a lot more  labor-saving technology today than in previous generations, and yet we also employ far more people. Therefore, increased automation does not lead to decreased national employment.

If you do more than just think for a second – if you read an economic history book, for instance – you discover that increased automation doesn’t even necessarily lead to decreased employment in the industry being automated! The classic example is the 19th century British textile industry. The so-called “Luddites” smashed automated looms fearing that they would lead to rampant unemployment in their industry. But, as the new technology proliferated, textile industry employment rose. Among other reasons, increased efficiency drastically lowered the prices of textile goods, that shot demand through the roof, and to meet the new demand new workers were required to operate and maintain the new machinery.

There are other examples, of course, and the president will save the American people a great deal of hardship, and himself further embarrassment,  if he familiarizes himself with them. Here’s a good brief introduction from the British Secretary of State… under Margaret Thatcher.

Update:

For those having trouble viewing the video, here is a transcript of the relevant Q&A:

Q: Why, at a time of record profits, have you been unable to convince businesses to hire more people Mr. President?

A: [….] the other thing that happened, though, and this goes to the point you were just making: there are some structural issues with our economy, where a lot of businesses have learned to be a lot more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and there’s an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller. Or you go to the airport, and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.