Topic: Regulatory Studies

Paul Light on Government Failure

Paul Light of Brookings and NYU is a top expert on the federal bureaucracy. He has a new study on federal government failures over the 2001 to 2014 period.

Light’s paper is useful. He identifies 41 major federal failures, examines the reports completed on each, and classifies the types of mistakes that took place. From the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the recent veterans health care scandal, Light points to failures in both “operations” and “oversight.”

Certainly, government operations and oversight fail frequently. But I look at many of Light’s 41 events and see more fundamental failures than he does. Federal policies, for example, often distort the economy in ways that are bound to cause problems. Federal interventions based on coercion are generally worse than solutions developed in the private, voluntary sphere of society.  

Light classifies the 2008 financial collapse as a failure of federal “oversight.” He says, “after years of risky investments and with little regulation, the banking system collapsed under the weight of toxic assets created by risky mortgage loans, poorly understood financial instruments, and a credit crisis that froze the economy.”

But it was government policies—such as Federal Reserve interest rate policies and federal housing subsidies—that incentivized the bad behavior on Wall Street. Federal oversight may have been poor, but the main problem was that government-created distortions cascaded and undermined markets.

On Hurricane Katrina, Light notes that the federal emergency response was a failure in operations, and it is true that FEMA officials were mired in confusion and indecision when the storm hit. However, it was decades of misguided policies that encouraged many people to live in low-lying and dangerous areas in New Orleans in the first place, which made the disaster much worse.

After an initial coding of failures between “operations” and “oversight,” Light does proceed to look more deeply into why the government failed in each of the events. He finds multiple causes behind all of the failures, with the most common factor being poorly designed policies.

Still, there are deeper reasons why the government fails than the potentially fixable problems that Light identifies. Superficially, the veterans health care scandal is just a failure of “operations,” but the fundamental problem is the federal attempt to centrally plan an industry rather than relying on markets.

Light’s study is a thoughtful piece that will hopefully generate a broader discussion about government failure. The 15 factors in this recent testimony are my initial stab at identifying some of the more fundamental reasons for government failure.

Bulgaria Wins Balkan Prize

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 89 countries based on misery. The table below is a sub-ranking of all Balkan states presented in the full index.

 

All of the Balkan states in my index suffer from high unemployment and relatively high levels of misery.

That said, the least miserable Balkan country is Bulgaria. For all of its problems, including a recent bank run, the country’s currency board system - which I, as President Stoyanov’s adviser, helped design and install in 1997 - provides monetary and fiscal discipline, and produces positive results in a region plagued with problems. 

UberX Launches in South Carolina

Yesterday Uber launched its ridesharing service, UberX, in four cities in South Carolina, offering residents of Charleston, Greenville, Columbia, and Myrtle Beach five free UberX rides each until July 24th. Unfortunately, the San Francisco-based technology company’s move into South Carolina could lead to conflicts with Palmetto State regulators.

According to reporting from Charleston’s newspaper, The Post and Courier, the executive director of the SC Office of Regulatory Staff believes that the main issue is whether the Uber business model would fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission’s regulatory authority. The Post and Courier mentioned that a taxi company in Charleston has developed its own smartphone app to compete with Uber. However, instead of just trying to offer a better rival service, the company, Yellow Cab of Charleston, is one of several taxi companies in South Carolina that are reportedly discussing calling for legislative action against Uber.

Uber and Lyft, another ridesharing company, have run afoul of regulators in numerous jurisdictions, including Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Ann Arbor, MI.

Lyft, which does not currently operate in South Carolina, announced this week that it would begin operating in New York City despite not having permission from the city’s Taxi and Limo Commission (TLC). Uber is now licensed by the TLC, although like Lyft it did not have TLC approval when it launched in NYC.

Companies in the so-called “sharing economy” do not fit well into existing regulatory frameworks. While Uber and Lyft are competitors to traditional taxi services, they are not taxi companies. Rather, they are technology companies that reduce the transaction costs of a familiar task (giving rides for money). It should not be surprising that existing regulations cannot keep up with such changes in technology.

It remains to be seen how regulators and taxi companies respond to Uber’s expansion into South Carolina. Regulators and lawmakers should consider removing already existing regulations in order to allow for Uber and taxis to compete in a fair and free market. Unfortunately, the history of Uber’s expansion is full of examples of regulators favoring out-of-date legislation over the necessary pro-consumer reforms. 

Google Co-Founders Sergey Brin & Larry Page: Health Care Regulation Is Blocking Innovation

At a forum sponsored by Khosla Ventures, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page discussed the burden of health care regulations in the United States. When asked, “Can you imagine Google becoming a health company?”, Brin responded:

Health is just so heavily regulated, it’s just a painful business to be in. It’s just not necessarily how I want to spend my time. Even though we do have some health projects, and we’ll be doing that to a certain extent. But I think the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.

Page agreed:

I am really excited about the possibility of data also to improve health. But I think that’s what Sergey’s saying. It’s so heavily regulated, it’s a difficult area…I do worry, you know, we kind of regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities.

But surely, the United States does not have government-run health care.

The discussion begins at about 29:00.

Subsidies Make Businesses Weaker

The technical arguments against the Export-Import Bank are provided in this excellent summary by Veronique de Rugy. However, one argument against Ex-Im and other business subsidies is not stressed enough in policy debates: subsidies weaken the businesses that receive them.

Subsidies change the behavior of recipients. Just like individual welfare reduces work incentives, corporate welfare dulls business competitiveness. Subsidies give companies a crutch, an incentive not to improve efficiency or to innovate, as I noted here.

Yesterday, I looked at Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsom’s new book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, which examines federal fur trading boondoggles of 1795-1822. 

Now let’s look at Chapter 2, which focuses on the steamboat industry of the 19th century. The historical lesson is clear: subsidies make companies weak, inefficient, and resistant to innovation.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the Folsoms’ steamboat story:

  • In 1806 New York gives Robert Fulton a legal monopoly on steamboat travel in the state. Breaking this misguided law, a young Cornelius Vanderbilt launches a competitive service in 1817.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the New York law in 1824. The effect is to usher in an era of steamboat innovation and falling prices for consumers.
  • Vanderbilt launches many new steamboat routes whenever he sees an opportunity to drive down prices.
  • With subsidies from the British government, Samuel Cunard launches a steamship service from England to North America in 1840. In response, Edward Collins successfully lobbies Congress to give him subsidies to challenge Cunard on the Atlantic route. With this unfortunate precedent, Congress proceeds to hand out subsidies to steamship firms on other routes.
  • By the 1850s, Congress is providing Collins a huge annual subsidy of $858,000. Irked by the subsidies and Collins’ inefficient service, Vanderbilt builds a better and faster ship and launches his own Atlantic service.
  • In 1856 two of Collins’ inferior ships sink, killing almost 500 people. Collins builds a new ship, but it is so shoddy that it is scrapped after only two trips.
  • Congress finally realizes that the aid to Collins is damaging, as it has spawned an inferior and mismanaged business. Congress cuts off the subsidies in 1858. Without subsidies, Collins’ steamship company collapses.
  • Vanderbilt also out-competes subsidized steamship companies on the East Coast-to-West Coast route through Central America.
  • In England, an unsubsidized competitor to Cunard—the Inman Line—is launched and begins out-competing and out-innovating the subsidized incumbent.
  • The subsidized Cunard and Collins aim their services at the high-end luxury market. The more efficient and unsubsidized Vanderbilt and Inman focus on driving down prices for people with more moderate incomes.
  • Government subsidies “actually retarded progress because Cunard and Collins both used their monopolies to stifle innovation and delay technological changes in steamship construction.”

Government subsidies have similar negative effects today, whether it is subsidies to energy companies, aid to farm businesses, or the Ex-Im program.

The difference is that in the 19th century Congress eventually cut off subsidies when the damage became clear, as it did with steamship subsidies in 1858 and fur trading subsidies in 1822. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but I can’t think of a business subsidy program terminated by Congress in recent years, or even in recent decades.  

New York Caps Uber “Surge” Pricing

Yesterday the New York attorney general reached a deal with the company Uber to cap its “surge” pricing during emergencies. The company, which uses an app to summon cars via a user’s smartphone, uses an algorithm that increases prices during periods of high demand, including emergencies and bad weather, to encourage more of its drivers to work. The agreement was reached in accordance with the City of New York’s law against price gouging, passed in 1979.  

Was the agreement a good idea?  In the cover story of the Spring 2011 issue of Regulation, Texas Tech researcher Michael Giberson examines the role of high prices and the resistance to them during emergencies.

Many people object to high prices during emergencies. The use of high prices by Uber after Hurricane Sandy prompted a Time writer to describe Uber’s pricing as “economically sound, ethically dubious.”  Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard, is quoted in the Regulation article saying “A society in which people exploit their neighbors for financial gain in times of crisis is not a good society… . By punishing greedy behavior rather than rewarding it, society affirms the civic virtue of shared sacrifice for the common good.”

In response, Giberson argues “If it is admitted that giving merchants the freedom to pick their own prices does a better job than alternative ways of getting goods and services to where they are needed, then interference with that pricing freedom … harms precisely those persons who have been already harmed by the disaster, a result that suggests neither shared sacrifice nor promotion of a common good.”  In addition, he argues it is unfair to “place a particularized obligation to sacrifice on a discrete segment of society, namely merchants. Addressing the particular hardships faced by the poor during emergencies is a task better left to government agencies or charities.” 

Price gouging laws are an attempt to deny the economic realities of emergency situations. Price gouging laws reduce the incentives to provide needed goods and services in areas affected by emergencies and disasters. The cap on Uber’s surge pricing may make its customers happy now, but they may not be so happy when they wait hours for an Uber during the next blizzard, thunder storm, or other disaster. The writer concluded that “Price gouging might, at least in theory, help shrink lines and reduce shortages. But I think most people would rather wait in line than have someone make a windfall profit off their desperation.”  With this agreement we will conduct the experiment to test his theory.

For more on Uber, see the recent blog posts by Cato’s Matthew Feeney and this article from the Summer 2013 issue of Regulation. 

Federal Follies 200 Years before Ex-Im

Anyone who thinks that Washington waste is something new should examine the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This essay discusses the mismanagement, corruption, and failures of the BIA since it was created in 1824.

As early as 1828, Indian expert H. R. Schoolcraft concluded: “The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme. One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork … there is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere.”

By the 1860s and 1870s, New York Times editorials were railing against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau,” and arguing that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful.”

In their recent book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, Burton and Anita Folsom describe the failure of a major Indian policy even before 1824. Here is the basic story:

• Unhappy that British fur traders were out-competing American traders, Congress appropriated $50,000 in 1795 to create frontier posts stocked with American goods to trade with the Indians for furs.

• These government-run fur “factories” were supposed to earn a return, but they “were so poorly run that many Indians held them in contempt and refused to trade there.” Congress had to heavily subsidize the system to keep it operating.

• Rather than respond to the market demands of the Indians, as private traders did, the official running the government system, Thomas McKenney, tried to push products on the Indians that he thought they ought to have.

• The government set up its trading posts at substantial distances from Indians. By contrast, private fur trader John Jacob Astor had his agents build close relationships with Indians, and he made trading easy for the tribes.

• Astor instituted pay for performance, while the government paid its fur bureaucrats fixed salaries.

• Astor watched international fur markets closely and adjusted his operations and marketing accordingly. The government ignored markets, and simply dumped furs in Washington for auction.

• Thomas McKenney was embarrassed by the government’s falling market share and the huge success of Astor. So, in 1818, McKenney began lobbying Congress to ban private fur traders. When that attempt at monopolization failed, McKenney lobbied to impose large fees on private traders and to boost taxpayer subsidies for the government system.

• Despite a new fee on private traders in 1820, the government system was falling apart because of plunging sales. An official report exposed the huge inefficiencies of the government system, and Congress finally voted to end it in 1822.

Long before Solyndra and the Export-Import Bank, politicians should have learned some basic lessons about why Washington ought to stay out of business. Unfortunately, each new generation of politicians are tempted to believe that enlightened federal planners can run the economy better than businesspeople and markets. Rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars as it did two centuries ago, Congress blows billions of dollars today on new versions of its fur-trading folly.