Tag: subsidies

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

First, in an effort to preempt any suggestion that China’s protectionism is nothing exceptional and can be remedied through the World Trade Organization and other channels, McGregor offers this blanket statement: “Chinese policymakers are masters of creative initiatives that slide through the loopholes of WTO and other international trade rules.”  I realize that op-ed writing forces one to economize on words, but that statement, which serves as McGregor’s springboard to socialism, cannot suffice for an analysis of the facts.  One of those facts is that the United States has been successful in compelling changes in China’s protectionist practices in all of the formal WTO disputes it has lodged that have been resolved thus far (6 of 8 formal cases have been resolved).  If China violates the agreed rules of trade, and its actions impair benefits or impose costs on U.S. interests that are too large to ignore, pursuing a WTO case is a legitimate and proven channel of resolution. Chinese protectionism can be addressed without the radical changes McGregor counsels. 

But I think McGregor—sharing the tactics of other in the media and politics—exploits public angst over a rising China to promote his idea as the obvious and only solution to what he sells as a rapidly-metastasizing problem.  McGregor argues that China is aiming to create national champions through subsidies and other preferential policies, while charging foreign companies admission to its market in the form of technology transfer, joint-venturing requirements, and local content rules.  McGregor claims, that this appropriation of foreign technology will be used to “create Chinese ‘indigenous innovations’ that will come back at us globally.”  Ultimately, McGregor fears that “American technology companies could be coerced to plant the seeds of their destruction in the fertile China market.”

It is telling that McGregor doesn’t consider U.S. government expropriation of those companies’ technology assets as planting the seeds of their own destruction.  Indeed, it is nothing short of expropriation when technology that is owned by individual companies in the private sector, making unique decisions to improve their own bottom-lines on behalf of their own shareholders is suddenly subject to the questions McGregor wants answered: What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?  Those questions, let alone the answers, imply that the U.S. government should have at least de facto ownership and control over these privately-held technology assets.

What is wrong with allowing each of these companies to decide for themselves whether they want to license or transfer some of their technology to Chinese companies, as the price of doing business in China?  Some will, some won’t, but the presupposition that those who do are selling the golden goose is not based on fact.  Let companies decide for themselves how to use their resources, and don’t treat industry as a monolith, as in “What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation?” 

Had we tried to answer and implement the answer to that question in the face the Japanese “threat” two decade ago, we’d be bereft of some of the most ingenious technological breakthroughs and the hundreds of industries and thousands of products that “our system of almost no national economic planning” has yielded.

When we peel away the chicken-little rhetoric, when we dispense with neo-Rahm Emanualism (“Never manufacture a good crisis and then let it go to waste”), when cooler heads and analytical minds prevail, the economic question boils down to this: What has been more successful at creating growth, central planning or decentralized dynamism?  For both China and the United States, it has been the latter. 

My bet is that China’s re-embrace of greater central planning will be brief, as it wastes resources, yields few -if any- national champions, and limits innovation.  For similar reasons, U.S. opinion leaders will eschew central planning, as well.

Internet Regulation: How About This Ad Hominem?

The New York Times starts its commentary on proposed Internet regulations with a clever ad hominem argument: “The Republican attack on the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to classify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service sounded a lot like the G.O.P. talking points on health care reform.”

The GOP are being like themselves. Accordingly, Times readers should think their viewpoint is yucky. It’s not the most substantive argument you’ll come across today.

There are good reasons not to encumber the Internet with regulations designed for the telephone system. Here are four: The Internet is not like the telephone system, and the FCC  doesn’t have the institutional ability to manage a changing, competitive system of networks. Extending “universal service” telephone taxes to the Internet will drive down adoption and frustrate universal service goals. The FCC is subject to capture by the very interests from which the Times thinks regulation would “protect.” The Internet’s large cadre of technologists and active consumers will do a better job than the FCC of protecting consumers’ interests. 

But ad hominem is more fun. So let’s ask why the New York Times didn’t disclose that, as a content provider, it has a dog in the fight? Net neutrality regulation would act as a subsidy to content providers like the Times, ultimately paid by consumers as higher prices for Internet access.

What Do The Economist’s Bloggers Think a Free Market Is, Anyway?

A correspondent for The Economist, whose initials are M.S., posts this on the Democracy in America blog:

[T]he new health-care-reform law passed in March is an entirely private-insurer, free-market-based reform. If someone were to refer to it as a “government takeover of the health-care sector”, that person would hold a factually incorrect ideological belief.

I wonder what convinced M.S. that the new health care law is an entirely free-market-based reform.  Was it the expansion of the government’s Medicaid program to another 16 million Americans?  Was it the 19-million-plus other Americans who will receive government subsidies to purchase private health insurance? Was it the new price controls that the law imposes on health insurance?  Or the price and exchange controls that it will extend to even more of the market?  Was it the dynamics those regulations set in motion, which will reduce variety and innovation in health insurance?  Was it the mandates that require private actors to spend their resources according to the wishes of the state?  Or the new federal regulations that will shape every health insurance plan in the United States, whether purchased through the employer-based market, the individual market, or the new health insurance “exchanges”?  Was it the half-trillion dollars of (explicit) tax increases over the next 10 years?  

I wonder what it is about this law that M.S. thinks is consonant with the principles of a free market.  Perhaps we have a different idea of what “free” means.

M.S. lists other “factually incorrect beliefs,” including:

that the Clinton plan would deny patients their choice of doctor, and that the health-care-reform bills in Congress at the time involved government “death panels” that could decide to withhold care from elderly patients on a cost-benefit basis.

I won’t dredge up the Clinton health plan.  But I have previously demonstrated that, when Sarah Palin claimed that President Obama wanted to give a government panel the power to deny medical care to the elderly and disabled based on cost-effectiveness criteria, the president had in fact proposed a panel with the power to do exactly that.

I agree with M.S. about this much: “once people are exposed to false information, it’s extremely difficult to convince them it’s false.”

Peterson (Finally) Changes His Tune

I’ve written before about Rep. Collin Peterson’s (D, MN) disdain for the World Trade Organization, and its rulings against U.S. farm programs. However, in launching his 2012 Farm Bill listening tour, the Brownfield blog reports that he sees that perhaps some changes might be necessary after all. And, lo and behold, he cites the WTO rulings as the reason:

One of the key issues [in the 2012 Farm Bill] will be what to do about the way that cotton farmers are subsidized. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said today that the cotton program will have to be overhauled in the wake of Brazil’s successful challenge to the subsidies at the World Trade Organization. The Obama administration agreed to change the program in a deal to avert retaliation against U.S. exports to Brazil. [link added]

Subsidies for cotton currently mirror those for corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodities, but there’s no reason why they have to be the same for each crop in the future, said Peterson. “In the past we’ve tried to have a one-size-fits-all approach, but maybe that’s not the case in the future. I’m willing to consider that,” he said. “If we don’t address it, we may be back in the soup again with potential retaliation issues.” [emphasis mine]

Finally, the penny drops.

Play Ball! But Not With Taxpayer Money

As we enjoy the opening week of the new baseball season, we should reflect on the dastardly organization that spends too much money and raises the price of baseball for everyone.

No, it’s not the New York Yankees: it’s the United States government.

You see, as discussed in this recent New York Times op-ed, the price of baseball has increased all across the Major Leagues because of the tax write-off (read: subsidy) that businesses get to treat clients and employees to ball games:

There are many reasons for the price explosion, but a critical factor has been the ability of businesses to write off tickets as entertainment expenses — essentially a huge, and wholly unnecessary, government subsidy.

These deductions have led to higher ticket prices in two ways. On the demand side, they have fueled competition for scarce seats, with business taxpayers bidding in part with dollars they save through the deductions.

While baseball parks built in the 1960s and before held as many as 56,000 seats, the modern trend is toward smaller-capacity parks, with a higher percentage of total space dedicated to skyboxes. The new Yankee Stadium, the only major-league park built since 2000 with more than 44,000 seats, has 3,000 fewer seats than its 1923 predecessor but almost three times as many skybox suites.

Of course, libertarians support low general taxes for a variety of reasons, but targeted tax breaks for luxury items pad the pockets of billionaire sports team owners, give a discount to companies showing off their “generosity” to clients, and generally distort the economy, all at a cost to taxpayers (including those who aren’t even baseball fans).

Boo! America’s national pastime of baseball should not be corrupted by national and state governments’ parochial pastime of corporate welfare.

For more in-depth analysis on the business of sports, read anything by Andrew Zimbalist or Home Team by my former professor Michael Danielson.  (Danielson taught a great class on the political economy of sports; my classmates who thought it would be a gut were in for a rude awakening.)

H/T: Above the Law

ObamaCare: Still a Bad Deal for Young Adults

The Associated Press reports that young adults will face higher premiums under ObamaCare:

Beginning in 2014, most Americans will be required to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty. That’s when premiums for young adults seeking coverage on the individual market would likely climb by 17 percent on average, or roughly $42 a month, according to an analysis of the plan conducted for The Associated Press. The analysis did not factor in tax credits to help offset the increase.

The higher costs will pinch many people in their 20s and early 30s who are struggling to start or advance their careers with the highest unemployment rate in 26 years.

The article cited additional studies estimating premiums increases young adults as high as 50 percent. That was essentially the message of my recent Cato briefing paper, “ObamaCare: A Bad Deal for Young Adults.”

Supporters claim the new law provides subsidies that would help people afford the higher premiums. As I write in my paper, however:

The money for those subsidies has to come from somewhere, though. Presumably, some of it would come from young adults themselves in the form of higher taxes or the tax penalties imposed on those who do not purchase insurance…So the presence of subsidies does not necessarily mean that young adults would come out winners. Ironically, all the complexity may actually help the legislation pass Congress precisely because it obscures whom the legislation would tax.

Supporters also claim that although the higher premiums might be actuarially unfair for people who are young and healthy today, those people will eventually be old and unhealthy. Over the course of a lifetime, they reason, such policies would be closer to actuarially fair.

The problem is that we’ve heard this line before. Inter-generational redistribution is fundamentally unfair to the young because it creates a situation where the old, who vote, have incentives to ratchet up benefits – and to ratchet up taxes on the young, who don’t vote. Social Security collects from the young and gives to the old, and is clearly a net tax on the young. As Jonathan Gruber reports, the young have very little confidence – deservedly so – in Social Security’s implicit promises. Experience shows that whatever new taxes ObamaCare imposes on the young will grow over time.

Regardless, most young uninsured people already obtain insurance as they get older. As I report in my paper, 30.4 percent of those age 20-29 were uninsured in 2008 (including 33.8 percent of 23-year-olds), but only 13.4 percent of those aged 50-64 years were uninsured. So a significant number of uninsured young adults naturally transition into insured older adults. The main effect of the new law will be to take young adults who think health insurance is a bad deal at today’s prices and force them to health insurance at even higher prices.

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.