Topic: Government and Politics

For Marriage Equality, Religious Liberty, and the Freedom of Association

Even though I’m for marriage equality – next week I’ll be filing a brief supporting the challenge to the marriage laws of Oklahoma and Utah in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit – I have no problem with Arizona’s SB 1062.

SB 1062 does nothing more than align state law with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which passed the House unanimously, the Senate 97-3, and was signed by President Clinton in 1993). That is, no government action can “substantially burden” religious exercise unless the government uses “the least restrictive means” to further a “compelling interest.” This doesn’t mean that people can “do whatever they want” – laws against murder would still trump religious human sacrifice – but it would prevent the government from forcing people to violate their religion if that can at all be avoided. Moreover, there’s no mention of sexual orientation (or any other class or category).

The prototypical scenario that SB 1062 is meant to prevent is the case of the New Mexico wedding photographer who was fined for declining to work a same-sex commitment ceremony. This photographer doesn’t refuse to provide services to gay clients, but felt that she couldn’t participate in the celebration of a gay wedding. There’s also the Oregon bakery that closed rather than having to provide wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies. Why should these people be forced to engage in activity that violates their religious beliefs?

Congress against Budget Reform: Voting to Hike Subsidies for People Who Build in Flood Plains

Uncle Sam is essentially broke.  But the federal government keeps spending.  The House is voting this week on a measure already adopted by the U.S. Senate to suspend money-saving reforms adopted less than two years ago.

In 1968 Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program, shifting the cost of disasters from people who chose to live in flood-prone areas to taxpayers who don’t.  Over time Congress kept cutting premiums.  By 1982 two-thirds of participants received a subsidy.

NFIP turned into foolishness squared.  The first cost is financial:  the federal government keeps insurance premiums low for people who choose to build where they otherwise wouldn’t.  The Congressional Research Service figured that the government charges about one-third of the market rate for flood insurance.  The second cost is environmental:  Washington essentially pays participants to build on environmentally-fragile lands that tend to flood. 

Uncle Sam also has a propensity to spend billions more to rebuild public buildings and infrastructure in flood zones. 

Although not every NFIP beneficiary is wealthy, CRS noted:  “Some critics point out that the costs—financial risk and ecological damage—are widely distributed to taxpayers across the country and the benefits, by contrast are disproportionately enjoyed by wealthy counties and by owners of vacation homes.”

NFIP’s overall liability is $1.3 trillion.  Today total program debt is about $25 billion.  Economists Judith Kildow and Jason Scorse warned that “the flood insurance program is a fiscal time bomb for the government.” 

So disastrous were the program’s finances that even Congress felt the need to act.  In July 2012 legislators approved the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in an attempt to make the NFIP more accurate, efficient, and solvent.  For different properties rates were increased and subsidies were cut.  Overall, the legislation was expected to save about $25 billion.

The amendment worked—too well.  Insurance bills began increasing.  People used to living well at taxpayer expense complained to their legislators.  Interest groups which profit from property sales also raced to Capitol Hill,  

So now reform co-sponsor Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) is pushing to delay the reforms until 2018.  Of course, in 2018 no one will be more willing to pay higher premiums, and undoubtedly will again lobby for further relief from Congress.

Explained Waters:  “Never in our wildest dreams did we think the premium increases would be what they appear to be today.”  Her new legislation, backed by a mix of Republicans and Democrats, would bar increases in premiums and reductions in subsidies for some properties, restore earlier subsidies for others, and mandate an “affordability study.”

Said Waters:  “neither Democrats nor Republican envisioned it would reap the kind of harm and heartache that may result from this law.”  She was echoed by Nicholas Pinter, a professor at Southern Illinois University, who advocated reforms but also “compassion for Americans living on flood-prone lands.” 

As I point out in my new article on Forbes online: 

Actually, those people need to be held responsible for their actions.  Compassion should be accorded taxpayers, who have suffered for decades.  Mississippi Commissioner of Insurance Mike Chaney said the NFIP should not make up its shortfall from homeowners who “simply followed the rules.”  But if not them, who?  After all, they received the benefits of the subsidized insurance.

At the end of January, the Senate voted to effectively kill the 2012 reform.  That would “return the program to a state of insolvency,” Shai Akabas of the Bipartisan Policy Center told the New York Times

The Republican House leadership has approved a vote on a companion measure.  Even the White House criticized Congress’ potential U-turn.

In fact, the 2012 measure didn’t go far enough.  Congress should eliminate federally-subsidized flood insurance—entirely.  There is no justification for turning Uncle Sam into a back-stop for wealthy vacationers and other privileged recipients of federal largesse.

Like Uncle Sam, NFIP is broke.  It should be killed, not reformed.  Legislators should start exhibiting compassion for American taxpayers.

The Missing Data in Krugman’s German Austerity Narrative

There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he often times doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Another $6.5 Billion in DOE Loan Guarantees

After Solyndra collapsed, the Department of Energy (DOE) should have learned its lesson. Guaranteeing loans for energy and industrial companies is a bad idea. The failures of Beacon Power and Fisker Automotive should have driven home the message. Now, we have further proof that the DOE isn’t paying attention.

Yesterday, DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz traveled to Georgia to announce $6.5 billion in loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors already under construction. 

The loan, like so many others, has the markings of an incredible risky use of taxpayer dollars. According to the Washington Post, the project is already 21 months behind schedule. Additionally, Southern Company, the largest shareholder of the project, had its ratings’ outlook downgraded from “stable” to “negative” by Standard and Poor’s last year, in part because of “cost overruns” at the Georgia facility.

Even more frustrating, the company already had private loans in place to finance construction. Now we, the taxpayers, will save the company $250 million a year in interest costs by bearing the full burden of default.

The company also benefits from $2 billion in other federal tax credits, according to its CEO.

Some deal.

Water in the West: It’s Complicated

In the media, one hears two different stories regarding the drought in California and Western water problems in general. Liberals say that droughts are being made worse by climate change. Conservatives say that water shortages are being perpetrated by the EPA in a misguided effort to sacrifice farmers for some tiny fish. The Washington Times editorial today is of the latter genre.

The real story is more complicated. It’s not just Mother Nature, and it’s not just farmer vs. fish.

The fundamental problem is that the federal government has been heavily subsidizing Western water for decades, particularly for crop irrigation. Artificially low water prices have encouraged overconsumption and the planting of very dry areas where farming is inefficient and environmentally unsound. Subsidized irrigation farming has created major environmental problems in the San Joaquin Valley, for example.

To make matters worse, federal farm subsidies have boosted demand for irrigation water, which has further encouraged farmers to bring marginal lands into production.

So don’t blame the Delta smelt. Instead, blame antimarket policies going back eight decades in the case of farm subsidies and a century in the case of subsidized water from the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The long-term solution to the West’s growing water problems is free-market economics. Policymakers should end the farm subsidies, reform water property rights, transfer federal dams and aqueducts to state ownership, and move toward market pricing of water.

For more, see my essay with Peter Hill and check out the great work from the free-market environmentalists at PERC.

White House Stimulus Report Based on ‘Keynesian Fairy Dust’

Did you sing “Happy Birthday”?

The nation just “celebrated” the fifth anniversary of the signing of the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Political Cartoons by Nate Beelermore commonly referred to as the “stimulus.”

This experiment in Keynesian economics was controversial when it was enacted and it’s still controversial today.

The Obama administration tells us that the law has been a big success, but I have a far more dour assessment of the spending binge. Here’s some of what I wrote about the topic for The Federalist.

The White House wants us to think the legislation was a success, publishing a report that claims the stimulus “saved or created about 6 million job-years” and “raised the level of GDP by between 2 and 3 percent from late 2009 through mid-2011.”

Sounds impressive, right? Unfortunately, those numbers for jobs and growth are based on blackboard models that automatically assume rosy outcomes. Here’s how I explain it in the article:

[H]ow, pray tell, did the White House know what jobs and growth would have been in a hypothetical world with no stimulus? The simple answer is that they pulled numbers out of thin air based on economic models using Keynesian theory. … Keynesian economics is the perpetual motion machine of the left. They build models that assume government spending is good for the economy and they assume that there are zero costs when the government takes money from the private sector. That type of model then automatically generates predictions that bigger government will “stimulate’ growth and create jobs. The Keynesians are so confident in their approach that they’ll sometimes even admit that they don’t look at real world numbers. And that’s what the White House did in its estimate. The jobs number (or, to be more technical, the job-years number) is built into the model. It’s not a count of actual jobs.

Gap Pay Raise Follows Rand Not Obama

Clothing retailer Gap Inc. has won praise from the White House in announcing its decision to raise entry-level wages to $9 an hour this year, and $10 next year. President Obama applauded Gap and argued that Congress should follow suit by passing a bill to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by 2016.

But there’s a big difference between a voluntary increase in a market-determined wage rate and a government-mandated minimum wage.

Gap must report to shareholders and make a profit to stay in business; politicians report to voters and must win elections to stay in office. Polls show that the American public strongly support a higher federal minimum wage — but only if it appears to be costless.

President Obama, in promoting a higher minimum wage, argues that it would “lift wages for more than 16 million workers—all without requiring a single dollar in new taxes or spending.” This is the free lunch that politicians love to promise—and it is an illusion.

When the government arbitrarily pushes up wage rates above the competitive level, two things happen: some jobs are lost; and more workers look for jobs but can’t find them, so unemployment of lower-skilled workers increases. These effects are greater in the long run as employers switch to labor-saving technology.

When firms make adjustments in expectation of higher minimum wages (both federal and state), there will be a decrease in the number of jobs for lower-skilled workers (mostly younger, inexperienced, less-educated workers) but an increase in the demand for higher-productivity, skilled workers who complement the new technology.

Gap has already made significant investments in labor-saving technology and recently implemented a “reserve-in-store” computer program that relies on higher-skilled workers whom Gap invests in to enhance their human capital. Gone are the days when high-school dropouts could easily get a job with retailers. As Gap raises its starting wage, there will be more competition for a dwindling number of jobs. More workers will want a job, but fewer workers will be hired, and those that are will be of higher quality.

Glenn K. Murphy, Gap’s CEO, told the company’s employers upon announcing the change in policy, “To us, this is not a political issue. Our decision to invest in front-line employees will directly support our business, and is one that we expect to deliver a return many times over.”

This is free-market, Randian thinking: self-interest is the motivating factor, not altruism.

When President Obama says, “It’s time to pass [the minimum wage] bill and give America a raise,” he is making a promise that can’t be kept: some workers will gain (those who have higher productivity) but others (the least productive workers who most need a job to gain experience and move up the income ladder) will lose.

Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office now tells us that an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour could cost a loss of 500,000 jobs. Those most affected would be low-productivity workers in low-income families—making them poorer, not richer. (If the government promises a wage of $10.10 an hour but a worker loses her job or can’t find one, then her income is zero.) There is no free lunch!

People do what is in their own best interest. Gap may win some friends by increasing entry-level wages and saying this is in tune with company “values,” but unless that business decision is profitable Gap will lose sales, and its shares will drop in value. There is thus a market test of the decision to raise wages.

The government has no business telling private employers what to pay or telling workers they cannot offer their labor services at less than the legal minimum wage, even if they are willing to do so to retain or get a job. The President’s minimum wage is anti-economic freedom and violates personal freedom; Gap’s higher entry wage does neither. This is a case of “the emperor has no clothes!”