Tag: Ezra Klein

Saving Hayek from the People Who Think They’re Saving Hayek

I’ve been noticing a game lately played in the bookish corners of the left side of American politics. We’ll call it “We Know Hayek Better Than You.” It’s a game not without some attendant dangers. But it’s nothing if not fun.

Writing at Ezra Klein’s spot in the Washington Post, Karl Smith quotes Friedrich Hayek as follows:

That the ideal of justice of most socialists would be satisfied if merely private income from property were abolished and the differences between the earned incomes of different people remained what they are now, is true. What these people forget is that in transferring all property in the means of production to the state they put the state in a position whereby its action must in effect decide all other incomes.

He glosses:

That is, as Hayek goes on to explain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with communal ownership of the means of production. The mistake is to think that the government could facilitate such ownership because then the government is effectively a monopolist and that would give the government almost unlimited power.

The idea that in principle it would be okay to completely redistribute all capital wealth is far to the left of anything proposed in modern America.

I hate to say it, but this is quite the dog’s breakfast of confusion, misinterpretation, and strained reading. One ought to be suspicious when your author writes an entire book entitled The Mirage of Social Justice. Perhaps he’s not really too enthused about social justice, you know.

Although it’s probably true that most socialists’ idea of justice would be satisfied if income from private property were abolished, it does not follow that this was Hayek’s idea of justice. Hayek didn’t think it was “okay” to collectivize the entire means of production, whether by the state or by private action.

The ability to accumulate capital and to believe that one held it justly was, for Hayek, a most important incentive for the formation of responsible individuals. If the means of production were collectivized, individual character would suffer, and society would suffer with it. He wrote:

A free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept it as due to his own action. Though it can offer to the individual only chances and though the outcome of his efforts will depend on innumerable accidents, it forcefully directs his attention to those circumstances that he can control as if they were the only ones that mattered (The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 78).

The sense of responsibility has been weakened in modern times as much by overextending the range of an individual’s responsibilities as by exculpating him from the actual consequences of his actions… To be effective, responsibility must be both definite and limited, adapted both emotionally and intellectually to human capacities. It is quite as destructive of any sense of responsibility to be taught that one is responsible for everything as to be taught that one cannot be held responsible for anything…

Responsibility, to be effective, must be individual responsibility. In a free society there cannot be any collective responsibility of the members of a group as such, unless they have, by concerted action, all made themselves individually and severally responsible… If the same concerns are made the responsibility of many without at the same time imposing a duty of joint and agreed action, the result is usually that nobody really accepts responsibility. As everybody’s property in effect is nobody’s property, so everybody’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility (ibid., p 83).

So no, Hayek wouldn’t have thought it was a good idea to collectivize the means of production. There are some interesting theoretical questions hereabouts regarding corporations, their appropriate size, responsibilities, and attendant knowledge problems, but I suspect that my friends on the left aren’t actually pining for one megacorporation to rule them all. (Are they? I know it can be tough to keep up, but really, this is too much. Even I don’t support that.)

Hayek tells us we have private property and private capital because it does good things to the individual character. While there will be accidents, and while life is sometimes truly unfair, the best course of action is nonetheless for everyone to work as though their efforts actually mattered. And the best way to ensure that they will do so is to allow their efforts, whenever possible, to matter.

And when individual initiative has failed, what did Hayek want then? He wanted a modest system of social insurance – with emphasis on the modesty. After that, he wanted very stern incentives for people to get back up on their feet and leave that system.

One incentive that he considered at least reasonable was to forbid welfare recipients (and government workers!) from voting – an idea far to the right of anything now being considered in America. But not a bad idea in the abstract. He wrote:

It is also possible for reasonable people to argue that the ideals of democracy would be better served if, say, all the servants of government or all recipients of public charity were excluded from the vote (ibid., 105).

I look forward to my friends on the left continuing to deepen their knowledge of Hayek, and maybe entertaining this modest proposal. Were it not for my overwhelming concerns about how our current welfare system entraps its recipients, I might even support it myself.

Why Won’t This Pig Fly? I’ve Tried Everything …

It’s fascinating to read Progressives as they think through a difficult policy problem. Kevin Drum writes (at Mother Jones!) that we can’t improve education or mitigate poverty:

“I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers… You can go down the list of every ed reform ever touted, and they either can’t scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time…

So is the answer to address concentrated poverty? Sure. Except that, if anything, attempts to address poverty have a worse track record than attempts to improve education.

I would really, really like someone to tell me I’m wrong. So far, though, no one has. At least, not to my satisfaction. But I’m willing to be schooled if anyone thinks I’m missing the big picture here.”

Wow, Progressives really are depressed this year. Ezra Klein, mostly agrees, Matt Yglesias and Kevin Carey seem more optimistic. But I doubt any of them have compelling answers for Drum’s concerns.

So Kevin, Ezra, I’m here to tell you … you’re wrong. Let me rephrase that. You are right that all your Progressive solutions to these problems are perpetual and necessary failures. But there is a solution.

We know what improves education, allows success to scale quickly, and saves money as well; a real market in education, aka private school choice, the freer and broader the better. The education problem is intractable only if the government continues to monopolize education services.

As I noted just the other day in response to Rhee’s resignation, the government school system is unreformable.

Meanwhile, the evidence is consistent and clear that private school choice, markets in education, work. And private school choice even helps the kids who remain in government schools. Ah, and it saves a lot of money.

I really can’t say it any better than Andrew Coulson, our director here at CEF, slightly edited; “Given that quality and productivity in every other sector of human activity have been maximized through the operation of minimally regulated markets, and that the same pattern can be seen in the field of education, it seems to me that we should emphasize the need to ensure the broadest possible access to the freest possible education marketplace.”

I can feel it … Drum and company are just this close to being mugged by reality.

Shifting the Blame for America’s Health Care Woes

I must be losing my touch. I’ve let nearly two months pass without responding to Ezra Klein’s defense of RomneyCare, ObamaCare, and other centrally planned health care systems.  (For those who want to get up to speed: his original post, my reply, and his response.)  So here goes.

Klein notes that he and I had each used flawed measures of RomneyCare’s impact on health insurance premiums in Massachusetts.  Fair enough.  But Klein ignores the study I cited by John Cogan, Glenn Hubbard, and Dan Kessler, which estimates that RomneyCare increased premiums in Massachusetts by 6 percent.  The CHK study has limitations, but it is the best estimate available.  I hope Klein addresses it.

Klein’s fallback position is that even if RomneyCare increases premiums, that’s not an indictment of the law because cost-control was not one of its goals.  Never mind that Mitt Romney boasted, “the costs of health care will be reduced.”  Klein knows political rhetoric when he sees it.  Yet he oddly sees no parallels between the phony-baloney promises of cost-control used to sell RomneyCare and the phony-baloney promises of cost-control used to sell ObamaCare – despite ample assistance from people like Medicare’s chief actuary and Alain Enthoven (“the American people are being deceived”).

Then Klein throws down his trump card:

[E]ven a cursory read of the evidence would show that whatever the drawbacks of central planning, it covers people at an extremely low cost. Romney Care’s cost problem is a result of pasting a coverage-oriented quick fix atop our insane health-care system. Compare its costs to the British system, the French system, the German system, or any other system, and whatever your conclusions, you won’t walk away unimpressed by the ability of centralized systems to cover whole populations for much less money than we spend.

Oy, where to begin?  First, Klein violates Cannon’s First Rule of Economic Literacy: he writes that centrally planned systems cost less, when what he means is that they spend less.

Second, the phrase “whatever the drawbacks of central planning” is some serious hand-waving.  Those “drawbacks” include (among other things): the Medicare program’s suppression of comparative-effectiveness research, error-reduction efforts, care coordination, and other delivery innovations; Canada’s human-rights violating Medicare system; and the suppression of untold innovations in health insurance and medical treatment by government price controls.  Other than a few drawbacks, Mrs. Lincoln…

Third, our “insane health-care system,” as I blogged previously, “is the product of the old raft of government price & exchange controls, mandates, and subsidies.”  Prior to ObamaCare, government already controlled half of all U.S. health care spending directly, granted control over another quarter to employers, and regulated health care more heavily than perhaps any other sector of the economy.  Klein and his fellow central planners can’t deny paternity.  Our “insane health-care system” is the product of central planning.

Finally, only a cursory read of the evidence could lead to the conclusion that central planning contains health care spending.  Klein posts the following charts and concludes that since all those (other) centrally planned systems spend less on health care than the United States, central planning must result in lower health care spending.

Photo credit: By Robert Giroux/Getty Images

But if that were true, then one would expect per-capita spending on elderly Americans – who have universal coverage through the centrally planned Medicare program – would not be far out of line when compared to how much other nations spend per elderly resident.  Yet the United States is just as far out of here as overall.  According to the OECD, the United States spends about twice as much per elderly person as Canada, and more than twice as much as Australia spends.  (Alas, I’m not cherry-picking; these are the only four nations for which the OECD provides recent data.)

Source: OECD, author’s calculations

(One could argue that the reason for this is that Medicare exists alongside the world’s largest (ostensibly) private health care sector, whose evils spill over into Medicare.  If that were the case, then moving all Americans into Medicare should reduce U.S. health care spending, bringing it back into line with other nations.  But consider that Klein and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait both acknowledge that Congress had to throw $2 at the health care industry for every $1 that ObamaCare cut from future Medicare spending. How exactly could Congress move 250 million Americans into Medicare (which presumably would reduce overall spending), or reduce Medicare spending later, given those constraints?  How, exactly, would an independent rationing board survive the political dynamics that produce such outcomes? Prediction: it won’t.  The narrative that central planning contains health care spending just doesn’t hold water.)

Klein, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, and others have taken a big step by acknowledging that RomneyCare is struggling.  When they shift the blame to “the American health care system,” however, they obscure what’s really happening.  As I closed my previous post: “RomneyCare and its progeny ObamaCare are attempts by the Left’s central planners to clean up their own mess.  If Klein and Cohn want to defend those laws, pointing to the damage already caused by their economic policies won’t do the trick.  They need to explain why government price & exchange controls, mandates, and subsidies will produce something other than what they have always produced.”

What’s the Ideal Point on the Laffer Curve?

There’s been a bit of chatter in the blogosphere about a recent post on Ezra Klein’s blog, featuring estimates from various economists about the revenue-maximizing tax rate. It won’t come as a surprise that people on the right tended to give lower estimates and folks on the left had higher guesses. Donald Luskin of National Review estimated 19 percent, for instance, while Emmanuel Saez, Dean Baker, Bruce Bartlett, and Brad DeLong all gave answers around 70 percent.

There are two things that are worth noting.

First, every single answer is to the right of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The revenue-estimators on Capitol Hill assume that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance. As such, even confiscatory tax rates have very little impact on taxable income. The JCT operates in a totally non-transparent fashion, so it is difficult to know whether they would say the revenue-maximizing tax rate is 90 percent, 95 percent, or 100 percent, but it is remarkable that a mini-bureaucracy with so much power is so far out of the mainstream (it’s even more remarkable that Republicans controlled Congress for 12 years, yet never fixed this problem, but that’s a separate story).

Second, very few of the respondents made the critically important observation that it should not be the goal of tax policy to maximize revenue. After all, the revenue-maximizing point is where the damage to the overall economy is so great that taxable income falls enough to offset the impact of the higher tax rates. Greg Mankiw of Harvard and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal indicated they understood this point since they both explained that the long-run revenue-maximizing rate was lower than the short-run revenue-maximizing rate. But Martin Feldstein of Harvard explicitly addressed this issue and hit the nail on the head.

Why look for the rate that maximizes revenue? As the tax rate rises, the “deadweight loss” (real loss to the economy) rises. So as the rate gets close to maximizing revenue the loss to the economy exceeds the gain in revenue…. I dislike budget deficits as much as anyone else. But would I really want to give up say $1 billion of GDP in order to reduce the deficit by $100 million? No. National income is a goal in itself. That is what drives consumption and our standard of living.

For more information, I think my three-part video series on the Laffer Curve is a good summary of the key issues. I posted them in May 2009, but Cato-at-Liberty has been growing rapidly and many people have not seen them. Part I addresses the theory, and explicitly notes that policy makers should target the growth-maximizing tax rate rather than the revenue-maximizing tax rate. Part II reviews some of the evidence, including analysis of the huge increase in taxable income and tax revenue from upper-income taxpayers following the Reagan tax-rate reductions. Part III looks at the Joint Committee on Taxation’s dismal performance.

 

When Keynesians Attack, Part II

I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued a critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

Last but not least, I try to make these arguments to the folks watching MSNBC.

When Keynesians Attack

If I was organized enough to send Christmas cards, I would take Richard Rahn off my list. I do one blog post to call attention to his Washington Times column and it seems like everybody in the world wants to jump down my throat. I already dismissed Paul Krugman’s rant and responded to Ezra Klein’s reasonable criticism. Now it’s time to address Derek Thompson’s critique on the Atlantic’s site.

At the risk of re-stating someone else’s argument, Thompson’s central theme seems to be that there are many factors that determine economic performance and that it is unwise to make bold pronouncements about Policy A causing Result B. If that’s what Thompson is saying, I very much agree (and if it’s not what he’s trying to say, then I apologize, though I still agree with the sentiment). That’s why I referred to Reagan decreasing the burden of government and Obama increasing the burden of government — I wanted to capture all the policy changes that were taking place, including taxation, spending, monetary policy, regulation, etc. Yes, the flagship policies (tax reduction for Reagan and so-called stimulus for Obama) were important, but other factors obviously are part of the equation.

The biggest caveat, however, is that one should always be reluctant to make sweeping claims about what caused the economy to do X or Y in a given year. Economists are terrible forecasters, and we’re not even very proficient when it comes to hindsight analysis about short-run economic fluctuations. Indeed, the one part of my original post that causes me a bit of regret is that I took the lazy route and inserted an image of the chart from Richard’s column. Excerpting some of his analysis would have been a better approach, particularly since I much prefer to focus on the impact of policies on long-run growth and competitiveness (which is what I did in my New York Post column from earlier this week  and also why I’m reluctant to embrace Art Laffer’s warning of major economic problems in 2011).

But a blog post is no fun if you just indicate where you and a critic have common ground, so let me identify four disagreements that I have with Thompson’s post:

(1) To reinforce his warning about making excessive claims about different recessions/recoveries, Thompson pointed out that someone could claim that Reagan’s recovery was associated with the 1982 TEFRA tax hike. I’ve actually run across people who think this is a legitimate argument, so it’s worth taking a moment to explain why it isn’t true.

When analyzing the impact of tax policy changes, it’s important to look at when tax changes were implemented, not when they were enacted (data on annual tax rates available here). Reagan’s Economic Recovery Tax Act was enacted in 1981, but the lower tax rates weren’t fully implemented until 1984. This makes it a bit of a challenge to pinpoint when the economy actually received a net tax cut. The tax burden may have actually increased in 1981, since the parts of the Reagan tax cuts that took effect that year were offset by the impact of bracket creep (the tax code was not indexed to protect against inflation until the mid-1980s). There was a bigger tax rate reduction in 1982, but there was still bracket creep, as well as previously-legislated payroll tax increases (enacted during the Carter years). TEFRA also was enacted in 1982, which largely focused on undoing some of the business tax relief in Reagan’s 1981 plan. People have argued whether the repeal of promised tax relief is the same as a tax increase, but that’s not terribly important for this analysis. What does matter is that the tax burden did not fall much (if at all) in Reagan’s first year and might not have changed too much in 1982.

In 1983, by contrast, it’s fairly safe to say the next stage of tax rate reductions was substantially larger than any concomitant tax increases. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one should attribute all changes in growth to what’s happening to the tax code. But it does suggest that it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in 1981 and tax increases in 1983.

One final point: The main insight of supply-side economics is that changes in the overall tax burden are not as important as changes in the tax structure. As such, it’s also important to look at which taxes were going up and which ones were decreasing. This is why Reagan’s 1981 tax plan compares so favorably with Bush’s 2001 tax plan (which was filled with tax credits and other policies that had little or no impact on incentives for productive behavior).

(2) In addition to wondering whether one could argue that higher taxes triggered the Reagan boom, Thompson also speculates whether it might be possible to blame the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus for the economy’s subsequent sub-par performance. There are two problems with that hypothesis. First, a substantial share of the tax cuts in the so-called stimulus were actually new spending being laundered through the tax code (see footnote 3 of this Joint Committee on Taxation publication). To the extent that the provisions represented real tax relief, they were much more akin to Bush’s non–supply side 2001 tax cuts and a far cry from the marginal tax-rate reductions enacted in 1981 and 2003. And since even big tax cuts have little or no impact on the economy if incentives to engage in productive behavior are unaffected, there is no reason to blame (or credit) Obama’s tax provisions for anything.

(3) Why doesn’t anyone care that the Federal Reserve almost always is responsible for serious recessions? This isn’t a critique of Thompson’s post since he doesn’t address monetary policy from this angle, but if we go down the list of serious economic hiccups in recent history (1974-75, 1980-82, and 2008-09), bad monetary policy inevitably is a major cause. In short, the Fed periodically engages in easy-money policy. This causes malinvestment and/or inflation, and a recession seems to be an unavoidable consequence. Yet the Fed seems to dodge any serious blame. At some point, one hopes that policy makers (especially Fed governors) will learn that easy-money policies such as artificially low interest rates are not a smart approach.

(4) Thompson writes, “Is Mitchell really saying that $140 billion on Medicaid, firefighters, teachers, and infrastructure projects are costing the economy five percentage points of economic growth?” No, I’m not saying that and didn’t say that, but I have been saying for quite some time that taking money out of the economy’s left pocket and putting it in the economy’s right pockets doesn’t magically increase prosperity. And to the extent money is borrowed from private capital markets and diverted to inefficient and counter-productive programs, the net impact on the economy is negative. Thompson also writes that, “Our unemployment picture is a little more complicated than ‘Oh my god, Obama is killing jobs by taking over the states’ Medicaid burden!’” Since I’m not aware of anybody who’s made that argument, I’m not sure how to respond. That being said, jobs will be killed by having Washington take over state Medicaid budgets. Such a move would lead to a net increase in the burden of government spending, and that additional spending would divert resources from the productive sector of the economy.

The moral of the story, though, is to let Richard Rahn publicize his own work.

Responding to Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein

I seem to have touched a raw nerve with my post earlier today on my International Liberty blog,  comparing Reagan and Obama on how well the economy performed coming out of recession. Both Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman have denounced my analysis (actually, they denounced me approving of Richard Rahn’s analysis, but that’s a trivial detail). Krugman responded by asserting that Reaganomics was irrelevant (I’m not kidding) to what happened in the 1980s. Klein’s response was more substantive, so let’s focus on his argument. He begins by stating that the recent recession and the downturn of the early 1980s were different creatures. My argument was about how strongly the economy rebounded, however, not the length, severity, causes, and characteristics of each recession. But Klein then cites Rogoff and Reinhardt to argue that recoveries from financial crises tend to be less impressive than recoveries from normal recessions.

That’s certainly a fair argument. I haven’t read the Rogoff-Reinhardt book, but their hypothesis seems reasonable, so let’s accept it for purposes of this discussion. Should we therefore grade Obama on a curve? Perhaps, but it’s also true that deep recessions usually are followed by more robust recoveries. And since the recent downturn was more severe than the the one in the early 1980s, shouldn’t we be experiencing some additional growth to offset the tepidness associated with a financial crisis?

I doubt we’ll ever know how to appropriately measure all of these factors, but I don’t think that matters. I suspect Krugman and Klein are not particularly upset about Richard Rahn’s comparisons of recessions and recoveries. The real argument is whether Reagan did the right thing by reducing the burden of government and whether Obama is doing the wrong thing by heading in the opposite direction and making America more like France or Greece. In other words, the fundamental issue is whether we should have big government or small government. I think the Obama Administration, by making government bigger, is repeating many of the mistakes of the Bush Administration. Krugman and Klein almost certainly disagree.