Tag: entrepreneur

Economic Lessons from Obituaries

Where is the best place in the newspaper to learn about how the economy works?

In today’s Washington Post the business section has the usual stories about Ben Bernanke’s manipulations, government debt, and regulatory issues. But there is little on the innovation and dynamism that is at the heart of long-run economic growth.

It is entrepreneurs who create growth, and they are often best covered in the obituary section of the paper. Today the WaPo has a Bloomberg story about the passing of Albert Ueltschi, “who founded aviation-training company FlightSafety in 1951 [and] expanded it into an international powerhouse.”

Here are a few highlights:

As pilot of Pan American’s first corporate plane … Ueltschi hit upon the idea of opening a testing and training center for the booming aviation industry in the 1950s.

That company today is FlightSafety International Inc., which bills itself as the world’s leading aviation-training company, teaching pilots, aviation mechanics, flight attendants, dispatchers and others each year.

After graduating from high school in 1934, he opened a hamburger stand and used the proceeds to take flying lessons. A year later he borrowed $3,500 to buy an open-cockpit bi-wing airplane, the Waco 10, and made it his next business venture. “I took people up for a dollar a hop, gave lessons, and even put on air shows.”

[I]n 1951, Ueltschi borrowed $15,000 by mortgaging his house and opened FlightSafety at LaGuardia’s Marine Air Terminal.

In subsequent years, Mr. Ueltschi worked his tail off juggling two jobs and building what would become a multibillion part of the U.S. economy. The government did not build FlightSafety. Nor did the government build the thousands of other firms and industries that comprise the bulk of the U.S. economy, such as the electric guitar industry, as I discuss here.

To revive the economy, we need fewer central planners like Ben Bernanke and more decentralized business-builders like Albert Ueltschi. We need more firms like FlightSafety and less like Solyndra. Both candidates for president are promising to create jobs, but what we really need is for the government to get out of way of the people who create companies and industries.

A Few Notes:

Here’s a brief history of FlightSafety and pilot training. As in some other tech industries, it appears that the government helped to boost the demand for this industry’s services. But the basic innovations and advancements were made by gutsy individuals taking risks in the marketplace.

A final note is that the Washington Post does run some articles on live entrepreneurs, not just deceased ones. For example, Thomas Heath’s column is often very interesting and inspiring.

It Ain’t So, Joe

Vice President Joe Biden is an affable fellow, which sometimes makes his tendency to exaggerate the truth somewhat amusing. However, Biden’s latest tall tale is as unamusing as it is wrong.

From the New York Daily News:

“Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive,” he said. “In the middle of the Civil War you had a guy named Lincoln paying people $16,000 for every 40 miles of track they laid across the continental United States. … No private enterprise would have done that for another 35 years.”

I’ll go straight to the 19th century railroads issue by referencing the work of two Cato scholars who probably know a little bit more about the topic than Joe Biden.

First, Randal O’Toole discusses railroads and land grants in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It:

Early American railroads were built almost entirely with private funds. These railroads provided such superior transportation that by 1850 they had put most toll roads and canals out of business. Individual states still competed with one another for business—and may have offered various favors to the railroads serving those states…. For the most part, however, no federal and few state subsidies went to railroads in the eastern United States.

The Pacific Railway Act provided land grants and low-interest loans to the companies completing the railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa to California. Later laws provided land grants (but no low-interest loans) for railroads from St. Paul to the Puget Sound, Los Angeles to New Orleans, Los Angeles to St. Louis, and Portland to San Francisco. In total, about 170 million acres were granted to the railroads, but Congress eventually took back about 45 million acres for nonperformance, leaving the railroads a maximum of about 125 million acres.

Congress expected that the railroads would sell the land to help pay for construction. In many instances, there was no immediate market for the land. Much of it was not farmable, and the United States had a surplus of wood so there was little market for timberland. In the latter half of the 20th century, the energy and timber resources on lands granted to the Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, Sante Fe, and Union Pacific railroads proved very profitable. But this did not help them build the railroads in the first place.

In January 1893, the Great Northern Railway completed its route from St. Paul to Seattle without any land grants (except a small grant to a predecessor railroad) or other federal or state subsidies. The railway competed directly with the Northern Pacific, and to some extent with the Union Pacific, which served some of the same territory. The Great Northern’s builder, James J. Hill, knew that the other railroads had been built primarily for the subsidies, and as a result, they were poorly engineered and often followed circuitous routes. Hill built the Great Northern along the most direct route his engineers could find, so his operating costs were far lower than competitors’.

When the economic crash of 1893 took place a few months later, the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, and almost all other western railroads went into receivership…Many people predicted that the Great Northern would not be able to compete and would follow the others into bankruptcy. But Hill managed to stay out of receivership, and the Great Northern remained the only transcontinental built in North America without government subsidies that never went bankrupt.

By 1930, American railroad mileage peaked at about 260,000 miles…only 18,700 of these miles were built with land grants or other federal subsidies.

Second, Jim Powell writes about government corruption and 19th century railroad subsidies in his book on Teddy Roosevelt, Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy:

Whenever politicians interfered in the railroad business, however, corruption and inefficiency inevitably occurred. The most dramatic case involved construction of the first intercontinental railroad. Railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln supported the project, and he made it a priority after he became president in 1861…

Stephen Ambrose and other historians have faulted private markets for lacking the capital or the imagination to build the transcontinental railroad. Certainly it was true that private entrepreneurs and financiers did not see the point or risking huge sums to build a railroad across a vast, empty, and sometimes mountainous terrain. Private entrepreneurs and financiers added value by developing the rail network bit by bit, supporting the expanding freight business. The process was gradual. Grandiose schemes like the transcontinental railroad drained resources from some regions to benefit special interests.

There was no money to be made from operating a railroad through a desolate wasteland, yet the federal government rewarded railroad contractors with big subsidies: a thirty-year loan at below market interest rates; twenty sections (12,800 acres) of government-owned land for every mile of track; and an additional subsidy of $48,000 for every mile of track laid in mountainous regions.

Thomas Durant, Oakes Ames, and other officers of the Union Pacific Railroad, which went a thousand miles west from Council Bluffs, Iowa, started the Credit Mobilier company in 1867 and retained it to do the construction. Credit Mobilier distributed to shareholders profits estimated at between $7 million and $23 million, depleting the Union Pacific’s resources. In an effort to stop congressional investigations, the officers bribed Speaker of the House James G. Blaine and other congressmen with Credit Mobilier stock. Seldom modest about their thievery, congressmen voted themselves a 50 percent pay raise. The Union Pacific Railroad fell deep into debt, without enough revenue from passengers or shippers, and went bankrupt in 1893.

It is not surprising that Joe Biden, an individual who has spent his entire career in government, possesses a child-like devotion to the federal government’s capabilities. Biden is a major proponent behind the Obama administration’s misbegotten plan to build a national system of high-speed rail. That Biden stands to achieve historic notoriety for helping facilitate this latest government boondoggle is only fitting.

See Cato essays on federal transportation subsidies and the Department of Transportation timeline, which notes the Credit Mobilier scandal:

1872: The New York Sun exposes the Credit Mobilier scandal, perhaps the largest business subsidy scandal of the 19th century. Credit Mobilier is a construction company financially controlled by the leaders of the Union Pacific Railroad that makes huge profits at taxpayer expense. Congressman Oakes Ames (R-MA), who is an agent of Credit Mobilier and part-owner, distributes shares of the firm’s stock to members of Congress at a discounted value. In return, those members treat Credit Mobilier favorably in a variety of ways, such as by voting to appropriate funds for the firm. The scandal illustrates the corruption that usually results when the government intervenes in the economy and subsidizes businesses.

Thursday Links

  • Why the Tea Partiers should not date the GOP: “This movement is simply saying: ‘We are fine without you, Washington. Now for the love of God, go attend a reception somewhere, and stop making health care and entrepreneurship more expensive than they already are.’”
  • A growing disconnect: “A nasty spat has erupted between Washington and Beijing over the Obama administration’s arms sales to Taiwan….The bulk of the evidence suggests that storm clouds are building in the US-China relationship.”

Feds Giveth Jobs & Cars, Then Taketh Away Again

The bad news this morning on the impact of both the federal stimulus and the Cash for Clunkers program should not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the history of government intervention in the economy.

New data that the jobs created by the stimulus have been overstated by thousands is compelling, but it’s really a secondary issue. The primary issue is that the government cannot “create” anything without hurting something else. To “create” jobs, the government must first extract wealth from the economy via taxation, or raise the money by issuing debt. Regardless of whether the burden is borne by present or future taxpayers, the result is the same: job creation and economic growth are inhibited.

At the same time the government is taking undeserved credit for “creating jobs,” a new analysis of the Cash for Clunkers program by Edmunds.com shows that most cars bought with taxpayer help would have been purchased anyhow. The same analysis finds the post-Clunker car sales would have been higher in the absence of the program, which proves that the program merely altered the timing of auto purchases.

Once again, the government claims to have “created” economic growth, but the reality is that Cash for Clunkers had no positive long-term effect and actually destroyed wealth in the process.

Right now businesses and entrepreneurs are hesitant to make investments or add new workers because they’re worried about what Washington’s interventions could mean for their bottom lines. The potential for higher taxes, health care mandates, and costly climate change legislation are all being cited by businesspeople as reasons why further investment or hiring is on hold. Unless this “regime uncertainty” subsides, the U.S. economy could be in for sluggish growth for a long time to come.

For more on the topic of regime uncertainty and economic growth, please see the Downsizing Government blog.

Want to Know Why the U.K. Tory Party Is Revamping its Development Policy?

If so, just pick up a copy of James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

The Tories have looked at the evidence amassed by James and his colleagues (see p. 36 of their new report) and concluded that the best way to advance education in developing countries is to encourage and support existing entrepreneurial schools that are already serving the poor. And if the polls are any guide, that will likely be official government policy in the U.K. before too long.

Congratulations to James, Pauline Dixon, and their wonderful team for bringing sanity to the development policy debate.

“Sweet” Victory in Oregon

As a follow-up to Jason Kuznicki’s post from January, I am pleased to report that yesterday Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed HB 2817—a bill that eliminates the cartelization of the moving business in the Beaver state.

The old law required the Oregon Department of Transportation to notify existing moving companies of businesses that wanted to enter into their market. What’s more, those companies were given a veto over the would-be market entrants thereby locking out all competition to maintain artificially high prices—all with the government’s help.

The owner of a new moving company, Adam Sweet, enlisted the help of Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer and Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur to litigate against the old law. That lawsuit, once it cleared challenges for dismissal, prompted several pieces of legislation that culminated into the bill that the governor signed yesterday.

Congratulations to Mr. Sweet, Tim, and PLF for their well-fought victory for economic liberty for the entrepreneurs and consumers of Oregon!

More details from PLF here.

Canada and Jefferson’s Natural Progress

Thomas Jefferson famously opined that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” but Canada has bucked that gloomy forecast in recent years. As my co-authored op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday showed, Canada has:

  • Cut government spending
  • Cut government debt
  • Balanced its budget consistently
  • Pre-funded its version of Social Security to make it solvent
  • Decentralized power within its federation of provinces
  • Cut taxes, particularly corporate taxes 

Meanwhile, the United States has headed in the opposite direction in each of these policy areas. Consider further that Canada has other economic policy advantages over the increasingly uncompetitive welfare state to its south:

  • Canada has more liberal immigration policies for highly skilled workers than does the United States, which has added greatly to the entrepreneurial vibrancy of Canada’s economy.
  • Canada has long had a stable,  efficient, and competitive financial sector, which avoided the government-assisted meltdown that occurred in the United States.
  • Canada has a home ownership rate as high as the United States, yet it does not have a distortionary mortgage interest tax deduction.
  • Canada recently implemented large Roth IRA style savings accounts, which are much more flexible than the U.S. version.
  • The Canadian federal capital gains tax rate is 14.5 percent, which compares to the current 15 percent in the United States and 20 percent under Obama’s tax plan.
  • Canada has no federal ministry or department of education. The K-12 schools are the sole responsibility of the provinces, yet Canadian kids  generally do better than American kids on international tests.
  • In recent years, Canada has probably been more supportive of NAFTA, and free trade in general, than its main trading partner, the United States.

Major pro-market reforms are possible in advanced welfare states – Jefferson can be proven wrong, as Canada illustrates. U.S policymakers can prove Jefferson wrong as well. They can start by cutting spending, decentralizing power out of Washington, and making pro-growth tax reforms in response to globalization, as Canada has, rather than imposing self-defeating “Buy America” provisions and making childish rants about “corporations moving jobs offshore.”