Topic: Regulatory Studies

The United States of Permanent Receivership

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the appearance of the second edition of Theodore J. Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, subtitled The Second Republic of the United States. The preface to the second edition ends, “I want to express a very belated thanks to Friedrich A. Hayek. His work had much more of an influence on me than I realized during the writing of the First Edition. I neither began nor ended as a Hayekist but instead found myself confirming, by process of elimination and discovery, many of his fears about the modern liberal state.”

Lowi argues that the Second Republic is marked by “the state of permanent receivership,” which is defined as “a state whose government maintains a steadfast position that any institution large enough to be a significant factor in the community may have its stability underwritten. It is a system of policies that sets a general floor under risk, either by attempting to eliminate risk or to reduce or share the costs of failure.” This state includes anticipatory receivership, which includes “businesses that are not actually on the brink of bankruptcy but are in a sector of the economy where bankruptcies or reorganizations are likely unless there is some kind of a preventive measure.”

Thirty years out, Ted Lowi looks pretty good this morning. Not much else looks good, but the second edition of The End of Liberalism shows that this dour morning has been coming for some time.

Read the book.

Be Afraid — Be Very Afraid

Light rail is on the ballot this November in Kansas City and Seattle. Commuter rail is on the ballot in Sonoma and Marin counties, California. BART heavy rail is on the ballot in San Jose.

These rail plans will cost billions of dollars each (hundreds of millions in the case of Sonoma-Marin), yet take few to no cars off the roads. The energy, pollution, and greenhouse gases generated during construction will vastly outweigh any operational savings, which in some cases will be nil. The plans are supported by a baptists-and-bootleggers combination of rail nuts and companies, like Parsons Brinckerhoff, that expect to make millions during construction.

But the real ballot measure to fear is California’s proposition 1A, which would authorize the sale of nearly $10 billion in general obligation bonds to build a high-speed rail network from Sacramento and San Francisco to Anaheim and San Diego. This $10 billion, combined with $10 billion from the feds and $5 billion in private money, was supposed to pay for the $25 billion system. The plan was to turn the system over to the private investors, who would operate it and keep 100 percent of the profits.

The first problem is that even the California High Speed Rail Authority admits that the real cost will be at least $43 billion. Considering the history of similar megaprojects – and this would be the largest state-sponsored megaproject in history – the final cost will probably be at least $60 billion.

The second problem is that the Authority has probably overestimated demand. It projects the system will carry 3 to 6 times as many passengers as Amtrak carries on its Northeast Corridor trains, which serve a higher population.

If the costs are high, the benefits are minuscule even if rail attracts the projected number of riders. The environmental impact statement for the project projects that it will take, at most, 3.8% of cars off the road, reduce air pollution by about 1%, and reduce transport-related greenhouse gases by 1.4%.

Considering the underestimated costs and overestimated ridership, it seems unlikely that private investors will put up $5 billion, much less a 20 percent share of whatever the final cost turns out to be. The danger for California taxpayers is that the Rail Authority will spend its $10 billion building as far as it can and then ask for more money. How far will $10 billion go? Not much further than San Francisco to San Jose.

Nor is there any guarantee that Congress will match the state’s money. But the danger for non-California taxpayers is that it does match the money – which will lead to demands for high-speed rail support from the rest of the country. Ten other high-speed corridors have received official recognition from the Federal Railroad Administration. Then there are various ad hoc proposals, such as Albuquerque to Casper and even Fargo to Missoula.

The likely cost of a national high-speed rail network will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Except to the contractors that build it, the benefits will be largely imaginary. We can see that by looking at high-speed rail elsewhere.

Japan’s bullet trains were a feather in that country’s technological cap, but they sent the formerly profitable Japanese National Railways (JNR) into virtual bankruptcy. The government was forced to absorb $200 billion in high-speed debt. Meanwhile, far from attracting people out of their cars, high-speed rail accelerated the growth in driving as JNR raised fares to cope with its losses.

Europe’s record with high-speed rail hasn’t been much better. Though nations in the European Union spend an estimated $100 billion per year subsidizing intercity rail, rail has slowly but steadily lost market share since Italy opened the continent’s first high-speed line in 1978. Today, less than 6 percent of passenger travel goes by rail.

We car-crazy Americans drive for 85 percent of our travel. Europeans drive for 79 percent. Spending several hundred billion dollars to get, at best, 5 or 6 percent of people out of their cars is not worthwhile. The real impact of high-speed rail is that it replaces private air service with heavily subsidized rail service.

Rail is not just a waste of money, it is an intrusion on personal freedom. That’s because it is inevitably accompanied by restrictions on people’s property rights. Buses and airlines can follow demand by changing routes. Rails cannot, so rail agencies conspire with land-use planners to reshape society and make it more “rail friendly.” That means upzoning areas near rail stations to higher-than-marketable densities while downzoning other areas to keep developers from building the kind of low-density housing most Americans prefer.

For more information about high-speed rail, see the Antiplanner, which is blogging about it in a series of nine posts.

Space Privatization—from Cato to the BBC

In the premier issue of BBC Knowledge, the Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin Rees makes several provocative arguments about manned space flight. They are:

  • The completion of the International Space Station (ISS) comes with a price tag of $50 billion, with the only profit being the cooperation with foreign partners.
  • There is no scientific, commercial, or military value in sending people to space.
  • Future expeditions to the Moon and beyond will only be politically and financially feasible if they are cut-price ventures.

He concludes that fostering good relations with other countries is insufficient justification for the expenditures, and that NASA should move aside and allow the private sector to play a role in manned space flight. The cost of these activities must lessen if they are to continue, and that will only happen with a decrease or removal of government involvement. Rees observes that only NASA deals with science, planetary exploration, and astronauts, while the private sector is allowed to exploit space commercially for things such as telecommunications. However, there is no shortage of interest in space entrepreneurship: wealthy people with a track record of commercial achievement are yearning to get involved. Rees sees space probes plastered with commercial logos in the future, just as Formula One racers are now.

Those ideas may sound radical, but not if you’ve been following the work of the Cato Institute. As long ago as 1986, Alan Pell Crawford wrote hopefully that “space commercialization … is a reality,” and looked forward to the country making progress toward a free market in space. The elimination of NASA was a recommendation in the Cato Handbook for Congress in 1999.

Edward L. Hudgins, former editor of Regulation magazine, wrote a great deal about private options in space. In 1995, he testified before the House Committee on Appropriations that the government should move out of non-defense related space activities, noting the high costs and wastefulness incurred by NASA. In 2001, Hudgins wrote “A Plea for Private Cosmonauts,” in which he  urged the United States to follow the Russians (!) in rediscovering the benefits of free markets after NASA refused to honor Dennis Tito’s request for a trip to the ISS. Hudgins testified again before the House in 2001, this time before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. He noted that since the beginning of the Space Age, NASA has actively discouraged and barred many private space endeavors. This effectively works against the advancement and expansion of technology, while pushing out talent to foreign countries who court American scientists and researches to launch from their less-regulated facilities. In “Move Aside NASA,” Hudgins reported that neither the station nor the shuttle does much important science. This makes the price tag of $100 billion for the ISS, far above its original projected cost, unjustifiable.

Michael Gough in 1997 argued that the space “shuttle is a bust scientifically and commercially” and that both successful and unsuccessful NASA programs have crowded out private explorers, eliminating the possibility of lessening those problems. Molly K. Macauley of Resources for the Future argued in the Summer 2003 issue of Regulation that legislators and regulators had failed to take into account “the ills of price regulation, government competition, or command-and-control management” in making laws for space exploration.

We welcome the BBC and the Astronomer Royal to the cause of private, entrepreneurial exploration of the cosmos.

Hat tip to Michael Gough and Diana Lopez.

DoJ Trustbusters to Attack Google?

C|Net’s Charles Cooper reports today that Department of Justice trustbusters are considering a comprehensive antitrust attack on Google.

Sources who have provided testimony to the government say a departmental debate revolves around whether antitrust regulators should challenge Google’s proposed revenue-sharing deal with Yahoo, or go for the whole enchilada–and haul Google into court on broader charges related to its dominance in search advertising.

C|Net’s Declan McCullagh speculated earlier this week about how Google would fare under an Obama administration:

[Obama’s] technology campaign platform pledges to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement” and “step up review of merger activity.” He complained to the American Antitrust Institute that “the current administration has what may be the weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century.” If the Bush administration’s current antitrust probe of Google, coupled with this week’s apparent threat of a federal lawsuit, amounts to a “weak” record, imagine what antitrust true believers in an Obama administration might do. (A three-way split of Google into search, applications, and display ads, anyone?)

I’m not sure whether structural separation is on Google’s near-term horizon, but Washington, D.C.’s parasite economy will make its move.

New at Cato Unbound: Responsible Drug Use

What would we do without drug prohibition?  Well, we’d probably have to think for ourselves, make informed choices about drug use, and behave responsibly.  A scary thought.

But in a sense, we already have to do these things, because prohibition has completely failed at keeping illegal drugs out of American life. Making wise decisions is already important, and prohibition hasn’t changed much about the need to be informed and responsible.  Prohibition has, however, encouraged a great deal of misinformation about drugs, harmed our civil liberties, promoted violence, wrecked the usual market safeguards that apply to consumer goods, and made the most dangerous drugs more prevalent.

After admitting that “just ban them all” is not a viable answer, the next step in getting past drug prohibition is the search for sensible ways to interact with psychoactive drugs.  The real choice isn’t between prohibition and a final drug binge that wipes out America once and for all.  It’s between prohibition and individual responsibility – a responsibility that might mean saying “no,” but could sometimes mean saying “yes.”

This isn’t an easy message to sell, but two people have been trying for more than a decade, and their efforts have been extraordinary.  They are the pseudonymous authors Earth and Fire Erowid, who together maintain the drug information archive, the largest and most often visited drug information site on the Internet.

They are also the lead authors at Cato Unbound this month, and they’ve produced a remarkable essay criticizing drug prohibition, encouraging free inquiry, and insisting that sound drug policy begins with individual choice and individual responsibility.

No Dice, Pickens!

Last Thursday on public radio’s Marketplace Morning Report, Bob Moon interviewed billionaire T. Boone Pickens about his highly self-publicized energy plan, which centers on using wind power to replace a portion of the natural gas used to create electricity, and then using that replaced natural gas to power cars. As it happens, Pickens has invested in a big way in windmills and is extremely well placed to profit from an increase in the use of natural gas-powered vehicles. But the part that bothers me most isn’t the fact that a billionaire is running a propaganda campaign in an effort to rig the regulatory structure to force consumers to buy what he sells – though that bothers me plenty. The part that bothers me most is the mixture of toxic nationalism and egregious economic illiteracy in the ads Pickens is airing to plump for his plan. Which brings us back to Moon’s interview with Pickens:

Moon: Let me ask you to respond to something that Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute said in a commentary on Marketplace the other day. Here’s some of his criticism of you:

Will Wilkinson clip: He’s leaning hard on our worst nationalist impulses. What he’s really saying is, why buy the things you need from dangerous foreigners when you could be paying more to buy them from rock-ribbed Americans, like T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens: It’s more than me. I mean, this is about America. This isn’t about Boone Pickens and whether Pickens’ wind farm makes money or whatever happens to it. But I mean, here with $700 billion going out of the country, and let’s say that we could cut it in half – $350 billion in the United States, can you imagine how that would multiply for jobs here. I’d much rather that gonna $350 billion was being used here than to give some for foreign oil.

Allow me to point out that Pickens’ reply is nonsense. He continues to insist on characterizing mutually-beneficial exchange across borders as hundreds of billions of American dollars “going out of the country.” But, in a nutshell, the reason Americans bought all this oil from abroad was that they had no way to get more energy bang for their energy buck. Unless the prices of domestic energy sources decline relative to that of foreign oil, shifting domestic consumption to energy from domestically-produced sources will  require Americans to pay more for energy–leaving them less for everything else.

This is not a recipe for multiplying jobs. Rather, it would leave less money in the economy to start new businesses and to expand successful ones. This is a recipe to make ordinary American consumers poorer and energy corporations, like the ones Pickens owns, richer. If Pickens was making sense, the implication would be that Americans would be better off if we “in-sourced” everything. T. Boone Pickens, meet David Ricardo.

Either one of the world’s wealthiest men doesn’t understand elementary economics, which clearly tells us that his plan will make Americans poorer, or his plan is not really “about America.”

Here’s my July 31st Marketplace commentary on Pickens. And here’s Cato’s Jerry Taylor in March debunking “energy independence.”

New European Regulation Belongs in the This-Can’t-Possibly-Be-True Category

According to the Irish Times, European Union bureaucrats in Brussels have decided that people no longer should be allowed to eat cakes, tarts, and other treats entered in baking competitions. American bureaucrats love to concoct senseless rules, but can anyone think of a regulation in the United States that matches this gem?

New EU regulations have banned the consumption of cakes and confectionary entered at country fairs and agricultural shows immediately after baking competitions.

The chairman of Mayo County Council, Cllr Joe Mellett, said the new rules were the “death knell” for the Irish agricultural show.”

When you see things like this it’s no wonder the people voted No to the Lisbon Treaty. This will be the end of the traditional baking competition at local shows across the country, therefore impacting on local revenue. It’s just ridiculous.”

Under the rules adjudicators of bakery sections in local shows are only permitted to taste the traditional favourites such as apple tarts or cheese cakes. Once the judging is over, the produce must be immediately destroyed. As a result, only bite-sized versions of the cakes will be entered in shows…

…Mr Mellett, one of the founding members of his own local agricultural show in Swinford, said he “could not believe” the latest EU directive.

“Honestly, when I saw this first I thought it was something to do with April Fools’ Day. I just couldn’t imagine someone sitting down and coming up with this rule.”