Tag: free markets

Random Assignment

The Brookings Institution released a new study today on charter schooling—assessing how well it’s working and what the federal government should do about it. One of the recommendations reads as follows:

Student participation in lotteries for admissions to any public [charter] school and the results of such lotteries should be a required student data element in state or district longitudinal data systems supported with federal funds.

Why? Because it would make it a lot easier to measure relative school quality, by permitting more widespread use of randomized, control group experiments. Experiments are certainly great from a researcher’s standpoint, but mandating that schools must admit students on a random basis has a catch:

an observer effect as subtle as an 80-foot fire-breathing robot. One of the reasons markets work is that exchanges are mutually voluntary, and producers and consumers don’t enter into an exchange unless each perceives it to be beneficial. If you eliminate the mutually voluntary character of an exchange in the process of trying to observe how beneficial it is to one of the parties, you’re affecting the very thing you’re trying to measure. It becomes more likely that you will have students assigned to schools that are not well equipped to serve their particular needs, injuring such students’ educational prospects.

Lottery admission to oversubscribed charter schools appeals to people’s desire for fairness, but a much better solution is to adopt a true market approach to education in which oversubscribed schools have not only the freedom but the incentives to expand as demand increases. For-profit enterprises, schools among them, do not generally ignore rising demand for their services. Kumon, the for-profit tutoring service, does not turn students away when it reaches capacity at a given location, it grows that location or opens a new one. As a result, it now serves about four million students in 42 countries.

Rather than figuring out how to ration good schools, why don’t we just unleash the market forces that will grow and replicate them?

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.


Federal Bailout of GM Still Horribly Wrong

Our friends at The Economist magazine usually talk good sense about free trade and free markets, which makes their retrospective endorsement of the government bailout of General Motors all the more disappointing.

In a leader in the current issue, the editors write that critics of the bailout (count Cato scholars among them) owe President Obama an apology. “His takeover of GM could have gone horribly wrong, but it has not,” they opine.

The Economist argues that, in contrast to state coddling of industries in, say, France, President Obama has driven a hard bargain by requiring GM to fire top management, cut jobs, close plants, and reduce its brand names. The magazine grants that the president’s labor-union allies won special concessions that came at the expense of bondholders, but “by and large Mr. Obama has not used his stakes in GM and Chrysler for political ends.”

First, it’s a pretty low bar to say an intervention was right because it did not go horribly wrong. The editors then too quickly brush over the horrible injustice of stiffing the taxpayers of Indiana and others who bought GM bonds and should have been in line ahead of the more politically connected United Auto Workers union.

To curry favor with organized labor, President Obama put $50 billion of taxpayer resources at risk. A post-bankruptcy GM turned a profit last quarter, along with most other automakers, but it is doubtful its anticipated IPO in the next few months will raise anything like the $80 billion or more needed to return the “investment” to taxpayers.

On top of that, the bailout of GM went far beyond any valid power granted to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution, and it blatantly favored two companies over a multitude of others in the very competitive automobile market.

Remind me again who owes whom an apology?

Don’t Be Afraid of the Chinese Economic Tiger

The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy.

Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom — which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per-capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per-capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Scores have improved, but the Economic Freedom of the World report ranks China 82 out of 141 nations, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. That would be good for the Chinese people. And since rich neighbors are better than poor neighbors, it also would be good for America.

Obamacare Complexity vs Free Market Simplicity

Free markets are characterized by voluntary exchange between buyers and sellers. Mapping that relationship is absurdly simply, as this image indicates.

Indeed, the only reason I even bothered to include that image was for purposes of comparison. Here is a new flowchart prepared for the Joint Economic Committee showing the healthcare system under Obamacare.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the system already was a disaster even before Obamacare was enacted. In the health care sector, free markets are only allowed to operate in very rare cases, such as cosmetic surgery, laser eye surgery, and (for better or worse) abortion. The rest of the sector was heavily distorted by government intervention. Obamacare simply makes a bad situation worse.

Abortion, Third-Party Payer, and the Cost of Health Care

A major problem with America’s health care system, both before and after Obamacare, is the fact that consumers very rarely spend their own money when obtaining health care. Known as third-party payer, this problem exists in part because government directly finances almost 50 percent of health care expenditures. But even a majority of supposedly private health care spending is financed by employer-provided policies that are heavily distorted by a preference in the tax code that encourages insurance payments even for routine expenses. According to government data, only 12 percent of health care costs are financed directly by consumers. And since consumers almost always are buying health care with somebody else’s money, it should come as no surprise that this system results in rising costs and inefficiency. This is why repealing Obamacare is just the first step that is needed if policymakers genuinely want to restore a free market health care system (all of which is explained in this 4-minute video).

Unfortunately, many people think that market forces don’t work in the health care system and that costs will always rise faster than prices for other goods and services. There are a few examples showing that this is not true, and proponents of liberalization usually cite cosmetic surgery and laser-eye surgery as examples of treatments that generally are financed by out-of-pocket payments. Not surprisingly, prices for these treatments have been quite stable – particularly when increases in quality are added to the equation.

I just ran across another example, and this one could be important since it may resonate with those who normally are very suspicious of free markets. As the chart from the Alan Guttmacher Institute shows, the price of an abortion has been remarkably stable over the past 20-plus years. Let’s connect the dots to make everything clear. Abortions generally are financed by out-of-pocket payments. People therefore have an incentive to shop carefully and get good value since they are spending their own money. And because market forces are allowed, the cost of abortions is stable. The logical conclusion to draw from this, of course, is that allowing market forces for other medical services will generate the same positive results in terms of cost and efficiency.

None of this analysis, by the way, implies that abortion is good or bad, or that it should be legal or illegal. The only lesson to be learned is that market forces control costs and promote efficiency and that more government spending and intervention exacerbate the third-party payer crisis.

Evolution and Liberty

Political scientist Larry Arnhart heads this month’s Cato Unbound. He argues that libertarians need to integrate biological evolution into their thinking about human cultures and even politics.

More provocatively, he claims that the “a Darwinian science of human evolution supports classical liberalism.” This is the case, he argues, even though

market competition differ[s] radically from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another. In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. Smith concludes: “It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply.”

Our genes, however, help get us to where we are, and understanding their contribution to the formation of societies and institutions is one of the most important projects in evolutionary biology, helping to bridge the gap between the hard sciences and the social sciences.

To borrow a phrase used by Karl Popper and later by Daniel Dennett, in a free society, we may allow our ideas to die in our stead, in the course of experimenting with them, debating, and innovating within a framework of laws and rights. This ability is made possible by a set of inheritances – genetic, epigenetic, and cultural – that help make us who we are.

As usual, we have a panel of fascinating commentators lined up for the rest of the week, starting with science-blogging superhero PZ Myers, followed by eminent behavioral scientist Herbert Gintis, and rounded out by pathbreaking anthropologist Lionel Tiger. Stop by during the rest of the month for what’s sure to be a stimulating discussion.