Tag: robert higgs

Government’s Unwelcome Economic Distortions

A couple of weeks ago, David Boaz discussed the Old Testament story in which the people of Israel ask Samuel for a king to rule over them. God’s instructions to Samuel can be summed up as “tell them to be careful of what you wish for.” David brought up the passage in the context of civil liberties, but the story’s lesson also applies to economic liberties.

Over the past eighty years, the public has become conditioned in times of crisis to turn to their rulers and demand that they “do something.” That the rulers had a hand in the crisis is all too often either unrecognized or it’s a secondary concern. As Robert Higgs demonstrated in his seminal book, Crisis and Leviathan, the rulers will willingly oblige the public and, in the process, come away with more power and control than they had prior to the crisis. Unfortunately, the rulers’ enhanced authority begets more crises in the future.

The latest chapter in this story is the economic downturn. Many of the “seeds” for the recession were planted by government. Regardless, the average citizen reflexively looked toward Washington to quickly fix the economy. The public’s limited patience meshes well with policymakers who are naturally inclined to operate on a short-term horizon (i.e., the next election). Therefore, policymakers responded with quick-fix measures with almost no regard to the long-term consequences.

The long-term economic problems caused by massive deficit spending and mounting debt are the most obvious. But as two stories in the news show, short-term measures implemented by policymakers to “fix” the economy have also introduced unwelcome economic distortions.

First, following the expiration of the federal homebuyer tax credit, home sales have fallen off the cliff. The Christian Science Monitor asks: was the homebuyer tax credit the “scam of the century?” The program was riddled with fraud, some folks who were induced to purchase a house are already underwater or are headed in that direction, and the billions of dollars spent on the program did zilch for the long-term health of the housing market.

When one looks at ultimate beneficiaries of the tax credit, it’s easy to see why the CSM calls it a “scam:”

[I]n trying to fully understand why the government undertook such a useless and poorly calculated program, it’s important to recognize those who truly walk away from this policy in better standing.

Realtors, home builders and mortgage bankers… some of the most notable culprits of the housing bubble years… all walk away cleanly skimming the proceeds coming from the transactions of an estimated 2 million temporarily stimulated home purchases.

It should come as no surprise that these were the very same industry groups that worked tirelessly lobbying to enact this failed policy… it was a simple exchange… your tax dollars to their wallets.

Second, we go from “scam of the century” to the “the dumbest program ever.” The latter refers to the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which Chris Edwards submitted for nomination in August 2009. Chris cited numerous problems with the program, including that “Low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.”

A senior editor at Edmunds.com tells a reporter from WIOD news radio in Miami that used-car prices are way up (h/t Radley Balko):

If buying a used car is among your cost-cutting measures… be prepared to pay up to 30-percent more than you did last year.

It is a simple case of supply and demand.

Trouble is … there are fewer used cars.

The cash-for-clunkers program took a bunch off the market.

Plus, Edmunds Senior Editor Bill Visnick says 5-million fewer new cars were sold last year…which pares down the used car supply even more.

As Radley sarcastically notes, you can’t blame those supposedly selfish limited government types for this one:

[W]e have a government program whose stated aim was to shore up huge, failed corporations by giving public money to mostly upper-income people that in the end will penalize low and middle-income people. But remember folks, it’s the libertarians—who opposed C4C—who are greedy corporatists who hate the poor.

There could be a silver lining in the cloud if more Americans start to realize that asking policymakers to quickly fix problems that government policies helped foster isn’t much different than asking the arsonist to put out the fire.

Uncertainty More Than Anecdotal

During a recent CNBC debate on federal spending, I argued that government policies are creating uncertainty in the business community. Businesses are reluctant to invest or hire because they’re concerned that the president’s big government agenda will mean higher taxes and more onerous regulations.

I mentioned that every business owner I’ve spoken with has expressed this concern. In fact, the owner of the TV studio I was in told me that he wants to hire more employees but is afraid he may have to turn around and fire them later on thanks to Washington. My debate opponent dismissed my argument on the basis that “you cannot conduct macroeconomic policy by anecdote.”

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to support my concern beyond what I’ve heard from folks in the business community. Yesterday, the chairman of the Business Roundtable, which the Washington Post calls “President Obama’s closest ally in the business community,” said that the president and his Democratic allies are creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.”

From the article:

Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability … to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.”

“In our judgment, we have reached a point where the negative effects of these policies are simply too significant to ignore,” Seidenberg said in a lunchtime speech to the Economic Club of Washington. “By reaching into virtually every sector of economic life, government is injecting uncertainty into the marketplace and making it harder to raise capital and create new businesses.”

Big businesses aren’t the only ones complaining. Surveys of small businesses conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business continue to point to government taxes and regulations as their single biggest obstacle.

Even the Washington Post’s editorial page is now acknowledging that government-induced uncertainty is an issue:

But as analysts ponder the mystery of weak private-sector hiring despite signs of economic growth, it’s worth asking what role is played by government-induced uncertainty. With the federal government promoting major changes in health care, financial regulation and energy law, it wouldn’t be surprising if some companies are more inclined to wait and see than they might otherwise be. And that’s especially true when they look at looming American indebtedness and the effect that could have on long-term interest rates.

The uncertainty caused by expanding government that we are facing today isn’t a new phenomenon. Economist Robert Higgs coined the phrase “regime uncertainty” in a study that showed that FDR’s anti-business policies prolonged the Great Depression. Had the Roosevelt administration heeded the “anecdotes” from the business community in the 1930s, perhaps the country could have been spared some pain. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

Washington Post Cites ‘Regime Uncertainty’

I’ve been arguing for a while that “regime uncertainty” is stifling the economy’s ability to recover. Businesses are more reluctant to invest or hire when Washington pursues a policy agenda that could be detrimental to their bottom lines. The phrase was coined by economist Robert Higgs who observed that FDR’s anti-business policies prolonged the Great Depression.

Unfortunately, the media has generally ignored the possibility that uncertainty being generated by the president’s policies has been contributing to the nation’s continuing economic problems. However, an editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post could be a welcome sign that the media is beginning to take notice:

But as analysts ponder the mystery of weak private-sector hiring despite signs of economic growth, it’s worth asking what role is played by government-induced uncertainty. With the federal government promoting major changes in health care, financial regulation and energy law, it wouldn’t be surprising if some companies are more inclined to wait and see than they might otherwise be. And that’s especially true when they look at looming American indebtedness and the effect that could have on long-term interest rates.

The latest survey from the National Federation of Independent Business shows that big government remains the chief concern of the business community. When asked what their single most important problem was, 35 percent of small business owners cited “taxes” or “government regulations and red tape.” “Poor sales” was second at 30 percent.

The NFIB also cites uncertainty caused by Washington as a problem:

A huge help in moving toward a stronger economy for small business owners would be to “do no harm”. But Congress continues to pass and propose legislation that increases the cost of running a business and create huge uncertainty about future costs.

Only 3 percent of business owners cited finance as their chief problem. Yet, President Obama is pushing a $30 billion package to increase lending to small businesses. The business community doesn’t need more subsidized credit backed by taxpayers – it needs relief from the president’s agenda.