Tag: markets

You Do Know What Makes It a ‘Free’ Market, Right?

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of the Washington Post:

Health-care provision at center of Supreme Court debate was a Republican idea” [Mar. 27, A7] describes the health care law Mitt Romney signed while governor of Massachusetts as comprised of “free-market ideas.” Really?

RomneyCare’s individual mandate, now mirrored in ObamaCare, uses the power of the state to compel people to health insurance. What could be more un-free than that?

If Thomas Edison Had to Submit His Innovations to Medicare, You Would Be Reading This by Candlelight

Two articles in the Washington Post sparked these two poor, unsuccessful letters to the editor. First this:

I’m no Republican, but “‘Innovation advisers’ chosen for ideas to improve health care, cut costs” [Jan. 21] gives short shrift to those who oppose the new health care law’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation when it reports, “Some Republicans have questioned the value of investing in experimentation to produce results at a time of limited resources.”

If some critic of the law actually said, “Resource limitations prevent us from investing in innovations that stretch resources further,” please do print it. I could use the laugh. But that’s not why critics oppose the Center.

The argument against the health care law’s efforts to promote innovation is that they won’t work. The Congressional Budget Office recently reported that out of dozens of supposed Medicare innovations, only one met its goal of saving taxpayers money. That pilot program ended 16 years ago. Medicare has yet to adopt it program-wide.

This is an important debate. Readers deserve to hear both sides, not caricatures.

And then this:

Recent coverage of the new health care overhaul [“‘Innovation advisers’ chosen for ideas to improve health care, cut costs,” Jan. 21; “Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation aims to cut health-care costs,” Jan. 26] let defenders make outlandish claims about government efficiency, but gave short shrift to critics.

Government is not more innovative than private health insurance. It was private health plans that developed important innovations like prepayment, bundled payments, pay-for-performance, and penalties for medical errors. Government adoption typically lags private insurers by decades. In the rare instance where Medicare successfully tests an innovation (read: bundled payments for heart bypass surgery), it goes nowhere. If Thomas Edison had to submit his innovations to Medicare, you would be reading this by candlelight.

We don’t need more pilot programs to tell us that Medicare blocks innovation. What we need is a little skepticism when presented with the latest Bureau of Government Efficiency.

More on the Ex-Im Bank

Last week I blogged about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) proposal to devote $20 billion of the Export-Import Bank’s funds to promoting manufacturing exports, and why that was a bad idea.

But I realize that my recent call to “X Out the Ex-Im Bank” will be facing some very entrenched interests in Washington, and some well-funded lobby groups. The Bank has historically attracted bipartisan support, and a renewal of its charter sailed through the House Committee on Financial Services earlier this year. The Washington establishment loves this program.

My friend and long-time Ex-Im Bank supporter Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics published a critique a few weeks ago of my analysis, and calls for a doubling of Ex-Im’s authorization cap (from $100 billion to $200 billion). His piece is a fair characterization of my arguments, and at least Gary tries to counter them with actual facts and analysis (not always a given in an increasingly poisonous trade policy environment).  But it seems to me that Gary focuses his critique on my assessment of the effectiveness of the Bank. That’s fair enough, of course, but I tried in my paper to make the point that the efficiency or efficacy of the Ex-Im Bank’s activities is kind of irrelevant. The important point, which Gary did not address, is that it is simply not the proper role of the federal government to be in this business at all, even if they can operate “efficiently” (which I do not concede in any case). Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to be involved in the export credit business (a business, by the way, that benefits mainly large, profitable companies)?

My opposition to the Bank, in other words, is at a more fundamental level.  On an empirical level—and this is where Gary’s critique is focused—can markets work well enough in trade finance, and if not, can government intervention work better? Gary points to the Bank’s low default rate as evidence that private markets are missing good opportunities:

These figures suggest that the Ex-Im Bank plays a large role in facilitating exports to countries that encounter reluctance from private banks but nonetheless are not ‘bad risks.” Judging by its low default rate, the Ex-Im Bank’s risk assessment seems more correct than the private market.

But I would argue that its low default rate suggests the Ex-Im Bank’s backing is unnecessary. We don’t know that private credit wasn’t available to finance those exports. And even if it wasn’t, private credit not always being available on terms that the trading partners would like does not necessarily signify market failure. So a finance company missed an opportunity that may have paid out. So what? Maybe they had even better opportunities available to them that we (and bureaucratic Washington) don’t know about, or they simply wanted to hold on to their capital for future investment or to meet new reserve standards. The would-be exporter might miss out, but government intervention to direct that private capital (either through mandates, or siphoning it through the Ex-Im Bank) would come at another producer’s or bank shareholders’ expense.

Gary argues that:

Ex-Im’s capability should be strengthened so that the United States can respond when official finance offered by other countries violates the principles of fair competition…Successful multilateral negotiations…are certainly a superior option to tit-for-tat retaliation…[but]…without sufficient leverage…it is difficult to see what will bring China and India to the negotiating table.

But will China and India (and others) see higher Ex-Im funding as “leverage” to bring them to the table, or will it be seen as just the next step in the escalating arms race of subsidized export credit? I suspect, and fear, the latter.

Gary rejects my call to dismantle the Ex-Im Bank, and in fact suggests the government increase the scope of Ex-Im financing to cover 5 percent (rather than the current 2 percent) of total U.S.exports. That seems pretty arbitrary to me. Why stop at 5 percent? Heck, with the Ex-Im Bank being “self-financing” and all, why not go for 100 percent?

Lastly, Gary repudiates my “orthodox free-market reasoning” and the suggestion, attributed to me, that “… the dollar exchange rate alone determines the volume of U.S. exports or the size of the U.S. trade deficit.”  Exchange rates do not equilibrate to keep trade balances at zero, but to keep them in line with the savings and investment balance. The United States has been running persistent deficits because savings has fallen short of investment for many years.

Similarly, Gary takes issue with my analysis on the net effect of Ex-Im financing on jobs:

 …nor do we agree that free markets are sufficiently self- regulating to ensure a constant and low rate of unemployment…If [that proposition] described the American economy, the United States [unemployment would not be stuck at 9 percent-plus.

Here Gary seems to ignore the many interventions in labor markets that can keep unemployment high, no matter what the exchange rate. I’m certainly not under any illusions that the U.S. economy would be totally free market were it not for the existence of the Ex-Im Bank, and I don’t think my paper implied that, either.

Gary and I, not to mention others who study the Ex-Im Bank, will no doubt continue to debate these issues as the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expiry date comes closer.

Clinton, Obama, and Hayek

President Obama has been saying that if the United States government can find and eliminate Osama bin Laden after ten years of searching, it can do anything:

Already, in several appearances since the raid, Obama has described it as a reminder that “as a nation there is nothing that we can’t do,” as he put it during an unrelated White House ceremony Monday. On Sunday night, during his first comments about the operation, he linked it to American values, saying the country is “once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

This is, of course, nonsense. Finding bin Laden, difficult as it proved to be, was an incomparably simple task compared to using coercion and central planning to bring about desired results in defiance of economic reality. You can’t deliver better health care to more people for less money by reducing the role of incentives and markets, even if you set your mind to it. As Russell Roberts said about a similar concept, “If we can put a man on the moon, then…”:

Putting a man on the moon is an engineering problem. It yields to a sufficient application of reason and resources. Eliminating poverty is an economic problem (and by the word “economic” I do not mean financial or related to money), a challenge that involves emergent results. In such a setting, money alone—in the amounts that a non-economic approach might suggest, one that ignores the impact of incentives and markets—is unlikely to be successful.

Obama should listen to Bill Clinton, who last fall seemed to be channeling Hayek:

Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Bill Clinton, 9/21: “Do you know how many political and economic decisions are made in this world by people who don’t know what in the living daylights they are talking about?”

Postal Vision 2020

Postal Vision 2020 is a conference scheduled for June in Arlington, VA, that will discuss the U.S. Postal Service’s long-term prospects in our increasingly digitized world. Here’s how the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe frames the gathering:

As mail volume continues to plummet and more Americans use the Internet to pay bills and keep in touch, Google executives, social media experts and some of the most passionate tech evangelists are planning to meet in Crystal City in mid-June to sort out how to save and remake the nation’s mail delivery service.

That sounds like a good group for discussing ideas on how to “remake the nation’s mail delivery service” given that the USPS is the antithesis of companies like Google. Creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and competitive are words that one would associate with Google—not the government’s mail monopoly. However, should these folks be getting together to discuss saving the USPS? That notion strikes me as akin to having Henry Ford come up with ideas on saving the horse and buggy.

As I discuss in a Cato essay on the USPS, the socialist mail enterprise cannot survive in its current form—at least not without a reintroduction of taxpayer subsidies. The USPS’s revenue base has been irrevocably undermined by the growth in digital communications, and congressional micromanagement makes sufficient cost-cutting extremely difficult. Thus, I would argue that the goal should be to create a market for postal services rather than to “save” the USPS:

Policymakers resistant to reform often depict the USPS as a “national asset” that “binds the nation together.” But these days, it’s the Internet and our telecommunications networks that bind families and businesses together across the nation. It’s time to let go of the nostalgia for the USPS and bring America’s postal services into the 21st century with privatization, open competition, and entrepreneurial innovation.

Unfortunately, the sclerosis at the USPS is a reflection of the sclerosis in Congress. As Chris Edwards and I have repeatedly discussed with each other, it is incredibly difficult for Congress to think outside the box on policy. One reason is that because the federal government has become so massive, policymakers have little time to devote to big ideas like transforming the USPS. That, of course, assumes that policymakers are interested in such big ideas. For many members of Congress, interest in the USPS doesn’t go much further than franking privileges and naming post offices.

The Private Sector Lacks What?!?

So there I was, checking e-mail this morning on my JooJoo when I came across this editorial about how the private sector lacks accountability unless the government provides it through regulation! This naturally caused me to expectorate New Coke all over over myself and my Apple III, forcing me to toss my Levi’s Type 1 jeans in the wash and hop back in the shower. (You know, that Touch of Yogurt shampoo by Clairol is really… uh… something).

Twenty minutes later I was still so preoccupied about responding to the editorial that I backed over my neighbor’s Segway as I pulled the Edsel out of the garage. Oops. Sorry Dean.

Anyway, once I got into the office I popped a couple of Ben Gay Aspirin to ease my now ferocious headache, but realized as I did so that I’d left my Colgate Kitchen Entree frozen dinner at home. Argh!

You get the idea, yes?

The fact that consumers have demands, and that they can go elsewhere if you fail to meet them, makes producers accountable. We see this in every sector of the economy. Provide a product or service that people don’t want, take away one that they do want, or charge more than they are willing to pay, and they will kick you right in the bottom line.

The result is the same in education as in other fields: the least regulated, most market-like education systems consistently outperform highly regulated state-run school systems such as we have in this country—across every measure people care about.

Regulations are an attempt, crude and usually unsuccessful, to imitate the accountability inherent in competitive markets. So as long as you allow market forces to work in education, and you allow people to allocate their own money rather than taxing it and spending it through the state, regulations are not only unnecessary they are generally counterproductive. (Milton and Rose Friedman had a good chapter on this in Free to Choose.)

Note that this is true under both personal use education tax credits (for parents’ own education costs) and scholarship donation tax credits (in which taxpayers donate to non-profit organizations that subsidize education for the poor). If a scholarship organization becomes corrupt or inefficient, taxpayers can easily redirect their donations to better-run competing organizations. The accountability is built into the system’s design. No other private school choice program has this feature, and certainly public schools do not.

There is no evidence that layering government regulations on top of this market accountability system improves outcomes, and ample evidence that heavily regulated school systems perform badly. Unless those facts change, there is good reason to fight off attempts to regulate private schools under education tax credit programs.

The Bogus Charge of ‘Shipping Jobs Overseas’

In the final push before Election Day, President Obama has been traveling the country criticizing Republicans for favoring tax breaks for U.S. companies that supposedly ship U.S. jobs overseas. It’s a bogus charge that I dismantle in an op-ed in this morning’s New York Post:

The charge sounds logical: Under the US corporate tax code, US-based companies aren’t taxed on profits that their affiliates abroad earn until those profits are returned here. Supposedly, this “tax break” gives firms an incentive to create jobs overseas rather than at home, so any candidate who doesn’t want to impose higher taxes on those foreign operations is guilty of “shipping jobs overseas.”

In fact, American companies have quite valid reasons beyond any tax advantage to establish overseas affiliates: That’s how they reach foreign customers with US-branded goods and services.

Those affiliates allow US companies to sell services that can only be delivered where the customer lives (such as fast food and retail) or to customize their products, such as automobiles, to better reflect the taste of customers in foreign markets.

I go on to point out that close to 90 percent of what U.S.-owned affiliates produce abroad is sold abroad; that those foreign affiliates are now the primary way U.S. companies reach global consumers with U.S.-branded goods and services; and that the more jobs they create in their affiliates abroad, the more they create in their parent operations in the United States. If Congress raises taxes on those foreign operations, it will only force U.S. companies to cede market share to their German and Japanese (and French and Korean) competitors.

I unpack the issue at greater length in a Free Trade Bulletin published last year, and on pages 99-104 of my recent Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization.