Tag: policymakers

The GM ‘Turnaround’ in Bastiat’s View

GM’s long-rumored initial public stock offering will take place Thursday and self-anointed savior of the U.S. auto industry, Steven Rattner, is pretty bullish about the prospect of investors turning out in droves. 

I’ve been saying for a while that I thought the government’s exposure [euphemism for taxpayer losses] in the auto bailout was in the $10-billion to $20-billion range.

But since investor interest has pushed the initial price up from the $26-to-$29 per share range to the $32-$33 range, Rattner now believes:

[T]his exposure is in the single-digit billion range, and arguably potentially better.

I won’t argue with Rattner’s numbers.  After all, they affirm one of my many criticisms of the bailout: that taxpayers would never recoup the value of their “investment.”  My bigger problem is with Rattner’s cavalier disregard for the other enduring—and arguably more significant—costs of the auto bailouts.

Rattner is like the foil in Frederic Bastiat’s excellent, but not-famous-enough, 1850 parable, That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen.    Rattner touts what is seen, namely that GM and Chrysler still exist.  And they exist because of his and his colleagues’ commitment to a plan to ensure their survival, along with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions, as some “estimates” had it) of jobs that were imperiled had those companies vanished.  (For starters, I very much question even what is seen here. I am skeptical of the counterfactual that GM and Chrysler would have disappeared and that there would have been significantly more job loss in the industry than there actually was during the recession and restructuring.  But I’ll grant his view of what is seen because, frankly, the specifics are irrelevant in the final analysis).

For what is seen, Rattner admirably admits of a cost.  And that cost is not insignificant.  It is anywhere from $65 billion to $82 billion (the range of the cost of the bailout) minus what is being paid back and what investors are willing to pay for GM shares—in the “single-digit billion range,” as Rattner says.  But Rattner is willing to stand by that trade-off, claiming his efforts and the billions in “government exposure” were a small price to pay for saving the U.S. auto industry, as it were.  It’s merely a difference in philosophy or compassion that animates bailout critics, according to this position.

No.  Not so fast.  All along (quite contemptuously in this op-ed, which I criticized here) Rattner has been unwilling to acknowledge the costs that are unseen.  Those unseen costs include:

  • the added uncertainty that pervades the private sector and assigns higher risks and thus higher costs to investing and hiring (whom might government favor or punish next?);
  • the diversion of resources from productive to political purposes in the business community (instead of buying that machinery to churn out better or more lawn mower engines, better to hire lobbyists to keep Washington apprised of how important we are or how this or that policy might be beneficial to the national employment picture!);
  • excessive risk-taking and other uneconomic behavior that falls under the rubric of moral hazard from entities that might consider themselves too-big-to-fail (perhaps, even, the New GM!);
  • growing aversion to—and rising cost of—corporate debt (don’t forget what happened to Chrysler’s “preferred” bondholders in the bankruptcy process!);
  • the sales and market share that should have gone to Ford or Honda or VW as part of the evolutionary market process;
  • the fruitful R&D expenditures of those more disciplined companies;
  • the expansion of job opportunities at those companies and their suppliers;
  • productivity gains passed on to workers in the form of higher wages or to consumers as lower prices;
  • the diminution of the credibility needed to discourage foreign governments from meddling in markets, often to the detriment of U.S. enterprises.

 The list goes on.

 Yet, Rattner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the economy remains stuck in the mire, speaks triumphantly of the successful auto bailout.  But nobody ever doubted that taxpayer resources in the hands of policymakers willing to push the bounds of legality could “rescue” GM from a fate it deserved.  The concern was that policymakers would do just that, leaving behind wreckage to our institutions not immediately discernible.  But anemic economic activity, 9.6 percent unemployment, and a private sector unwilling to invest is pretty darn discernible at this point.

Rattner should take off the tails, put down the champagne flute, and acknowledge what was originally unseen.

Obama to Increase FHA Risk

The Federal Housing Administration is heading toward a taxpayer bailout, yet the president’s latest mortgage modification plan would further increase the agency’s exposure to risky mortgages. Mark Calabria calls it a “Backdoor Bank Bailout.”

The administration’s plan would encourage borrowers who owe more than their house is worth to refinance into FHA-insured mortgages. Therefore, the risk of a future foreclosure on these mortgages would fall to the government and taxpayers instead of private lenders.

A recent study from economists at New York University found that the FHA is underestimating its risk exposure. One of the problems is that the FHA isn’t properly accounting for the risk to underwater FHA mortgages that have been refinanced into new FHA mortgages. So it’s hard to see how the president’s plan to refinance private underwater mortgages into FHA mortgages won’t further exacerbate the situation.

To get these mortgages in better shape so the FHA can insure them, $14 billion in TARP money is going to be used to pay private lenders to reduce the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages. Some of this money will also be used to cover eventual losses on these loans. As a taxpayer whose mortgage is underwater, and who would rather go bankrupt than accept a government handout, I find it infuriating that my tax dollars are being used to bail out others in a similar situation.

But with government housing programs, it’s standard practice for officials to cannonball into the pool and worry about who gets splashed by the water later. On Sunday, CNN.com reported on “FHA’s Florida Fiasco,” where the collapse of the heavily FHA-insured condo market has contributed to the possibility of a FHA bailout. The FHA has now tightened its condo standards, but once again it’s a day late and possibly more than few bucks short.

The new FHA initiative is the latest in a series of efforts to “stabilize” the housing market with more subsidies. Policymakers seem oblivious that it was government interventions that helped instigate the housing meltdown to begin with. The housing market would stabilize itself if the supply of and demand for housing was allowed to be brought back into equilibrium. There would be pain in the short-term, but in the long-term we would have a smoother functioning housing market. Unfortunately, for politicians the long-term means the next election.

Will America Keep “Bending the Productivity Curve”?

Most international comparisons conclude that America’s health care sector under-performs those of other advanced nations.  Aside from other serious flaws, those studies typically ignore each nation’s contribution to medical innovation – the discovery of new knowledge and practices that improve health in all nations. Today, the Cato Institute releases a new study – the most comprehensive study of its kind – that helps fill that void.

In “Bending the Productivity Curve: Why America Leads the World in Medical Innovation,” economist Glen Whitman and physician Raymond Raad conclude that the United States far and away outperforms other nations on medical innovation, but that the legislation moving through Congress threatens America’s ability to innovate.  From the executive summary:

To date…none of the most influential international comparisons have examined the contributions of various countries to the many advances that have improved the productivity of medicine over time…

In three of the four general categories of innovation examined in this paper — basic science, diagnostics, and therapeutics — the United States has contributed more than any other country…In the last category, business models, we lack the data to say whether the United States has been more or less innovative than other nations; innovation in this area appears weak across nations.

In general, Americans tend to receive more new treatments and pay more for them — a fact that is usually regarded as a fault of the American system. That interpretation, if not entirely wrong, is at least incomplete. Rapid adoption and extensive use of new treatments and technologies create an incentive to develop those techniques in the first place. When the United States subsidizes medical innovation, the whole world benefits. That is a virtue of the American system that is not reflected in comparative life expectancy and mortality statistics.

Policymakers should consider the impact of reform proposals on innovation. For example, proposals that increase spending on diagnostics and therapeutics could encourage such innovation. Expanding price controls, government health care programs, and health insurance regulation, on the other hand, could hinder America’s ability to innovate.

Raad will discuss the study this Friday at noon at a policy forum at the Cato Institute.

The Constitution? Not That Old Thing!

ConstitutionOver at Flypaper, Andy Smarick can’t figure out what the Obama administration thinks is the proper federal role in education.

A couple of weeks ago, commenting on a speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Smarick couldn’t tell whether Duncan was advocating that the feds be friendly Helpy Helpertons, no-excuses disciplinarians, or something in between. Yesterday, Smarick revisited the whither-the-feds theme, pointing out the frustrating contradiction when Duncan both praises local and state education control and blasts states for doing stuff he doesn’t like.

But Duncan isn’t alone in his fuzziness, according to Smarick, who says he’s “yet to come across anyone with a comprehensive, water-tight argument for what the feds should and should not do.”

I’m sure this is not the case, but from reading that you’d think Smarick had never run across a little thing called “the Constitution,” which furnishes just the “water-tight argument for what the feds should and should not do” that he seeks.  It also appears that he’s never encountered numerous things that I’ve written pointing this out. For instance, in Feds in the Classroom I wrote:

Because two of the sundry words that do not appear among the few legitimate federal functions enumerated in the Constitution are “education” and “school,” the federal government may have no role in schooling.

Ah, but what of the “general welfare” clause that comes before the enumerated powers in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8? Doesn’t that give the feds authority to do anything that is in the nation’s best interest? At the very least, doesn’t it break the water-tight seal against federal education intervention?

Nope. I give you James Madison on the general welfare clause in Federalist no. 41:

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

The general welfare clause confers no authority on the federal government, it just introduces the specific, enumerated powers that follow it. Among them, you’ll find not a peep about education.

Many educationists will think me hopelessly retrograde for bringing up the Constitution, although Duncan at least mentioned the dusty old document in his recent federalism speech. Unfortunately, he engaged it with all the courage and gusto of Sir Robin. But at least he acknowledged its existence – too many policymakers and wonks ignore the Constitution completely because it forbids Washington from doing the sundry things they want it to do.

But why shouldn’t the Constitution be treated like an ancient grandfather, a nice old guy whose utterances, in a half-hearted effort to be respectful, we acknowledge in the same tone we’d use with a toddler and then promptly ignore?

Because it is the Constitution that clearly establishes the bounds of what the federal government can and cannot do, that’s why! And because when we ignore the Constitution we get exactly the sort of government that is confounding Smarick: government that is capricious, often incoherent, and is ultimately an existential threat to freedom because government officials can claim power without bounds. See TARPcampaign finance, and executive pay for just a few examples of this last threat coming to fruition.

Which leaves all of the people who want Washington to have some role in education, but are frustrated by not knowing what else the feds might do, with only one choice. They can either continue to face inscrutable and ultimately unlimited federal power in hopes of getting what they want, or they can acknowledge what they keep choosing to ignore: That the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it gives the federal government no authority to govern American education.

Understanding the Consequences of Internet Regulation

In an effort to achieve “network neutrality” online, the FCC is starting to write new regulations for Internet providers.  Reuters reports:

U.S. communications regulators voted unanimously Thursday to support an open Internet rule that would prevent telecom network operators from barring or blocking content based on the revenue it generates.

The proposed rule now goes to the public for comment until Jan. 14, after which the Federal Communications Commissions will review the feedback and possibly seek more comment. A final rule is not expected until the spring of next year.

Cato Director of Information Policy Studies Jim Harper appeared on Fox News this week to discuss the FCC decision. “This is governmental tinkering with a market place that is working really well and growing right now,” said Harper. “The last thing we need is to cut that off.”

Watch:

There are ways to achieve net neutrality without regulation, says Timothy B. Lee:

An important reason for the Internet’s remarkable growth over the last quarter century is the “end-to-end” principle that networks should confine themselves to transmitting generic packets without worrying about their contents. Not only has this made deployment of internet infrastructure cheap and efficient, but it has created fertile ground for entrepreneurship. On a network that respects the end-to-end principle, prior approval from network owners is not needed to launch new applications, services, or content.

…Like these older regulatory regimes, network neutrality regulations are likely not to achieve their intended aims. Given the need for more competition in the broadband marketplace, policymakers should be especially wary of enacting regulations that could become a barrier to entry for new broadband firms.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday Links

  • “Checks and balances” be damned: “In a democratic country, you’d think that before the executive branch could regulate CO2–a ubiquitous substance essential to life–the legislature would have to vote on the issue. But you’d be wrong.” Somewhere, Thomas Friedman is smiling.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Americans Should Not Expect Much from Obama’s Visit to the UN

Barack Obama speaks at the UN general assembly. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/GettyPresident Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this morning, and his chairing of the UN Security Council on Thursday, is a grand attempt to tell the world–after eight years of George W. Bush–that the United States will no longer go it alone.

The president has a very difficult task, however, if he expects to invest the United Nations with renewed credibility. The UN is a weak and fractured institution, whose limited power and authority has been steadily undermined by a progression of U.S. presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. We should not forget that President Bill Clinton explicitly circumvented the UN Security Council when he chose to intervene militarily in Kosovo in 1999. Clinton’s evasion of the UNSC established a precedent for future military intervention that the Bush administration happily capitalized upon to send troops into Iraq in 2003.

Susan Rice, our current UN ambassador, endorsed this approach in 2006 when she called for U.S. military action against Sudan. Prior UN approval of such a mission was unlikely, but ultimately unnecessary, Rice argued at the time, because of the precedent set by President Clinton in Kosovo.

For American policymakers who have demonstrated such disdain for the UN in the past to now profess great respect for the institution should not surprise us. The UN is only as relevant as the member states wish it to be. In areas of common concern, the desire to cooperate and compromise may temporarily trump concerns over protecting state sovereignty and preserving freedom of action to deal with urgent security threats. In most cases, however, we can expect the member states, with the United States in the lead, to pursue policies that they believe (not always correctly, as we learned in Iraq) will advance their security. And if the UN weakly sanctions such actions after the fact, or refuses to do so, that will only reveal its irrelevance.

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