Topic: Regulatory Studies

The GM ‘Turnaround’ in Bastiat’s View

GM’s long-rumored initial public stock offering will take place Thursday and self-anointed savior of the U.S. auto industry, Steven Rattner, is pretty bullish about the prospect of investors turning out in droves. 

I’ve been saying for a while that I thought the government’s exposure [euphemism for taxpayer losses] in the auto bailout was in the $10-billion to $20-billion range.

But since investor interest has pushed the initial price up from the $26-to-$29 per share range to the $32-$33 range, Rattner now believes:

[T]his exposure is in the single-digit billion range, and arguably potentially better.

I won’t argue with Rattner’s numbers.  After all, they affirm one of my many criticisms of the bailout: that taxpayers would never recoup the value of their “investment.”  My bigger problem is with Rattner’s cavalier disregard for the other enduring—and arguably more significant—costs of the auto bailouts.

Rattner is like the foil in Frederic Bastiat’s excellent, but not-famous-enough, 1850 parable, That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen.    Rattner touts what is seen, namely that GM and Chrysler still exist.  And they exist because of his and his colleagues’ commitment to a plan to ensure their survival, along with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions, as some “estimates” had it) of jobs that were imperiled had those companies vanished.  (For starters, I very much question even what is seen here. I am skeptical of the counterfactual that GM and Chrysler would have disappeared and that there would have been significantly more job loss in the industry than there actually was during the recession and restructuring.  But I’ll grant his view of what is seen because, frankly, the specifics are irrelevant in the final analysis).

For what is seen, Rattner admirably admits of a cost.  And that cost is not insignificant.  It is anywhere from $65 billion to $82 billion (the range of the cost of the bailout) minus what is being paid back and what investors are willing to pay for GM shares—in the “single-digit billion range,” as Rattner says.  But Rattner is willing to stand by that trade-off, claiming his efforts and the billions in “government exposure” were a small price to pay for saving the U.S. auto industry, as it were.  It’s merely a difference in philosophy or compassion that animates bailout critics, according to this position.

No.  Not so fast.  All along (quite contemptuously in this op-ed, which I criticized here) Rattner has been unwilling to acknowledge the costs that are unseen.  Those unseen costs include:

  • the added uncertainty that pervades the private sector and assigns higher risks and thus higher costs to investing and hiring (whom might government favor or punish next?);
  • the diversion of resources from productive to political purposes in the business community (instead of buying that machinery to churn out better or more lawn mower engines, better to hire lobbyists to keep Washington apprised of how important we are or how this or that policy might be beneficial to the national employment picture!);
  • excessive risk-taking and other uneconomic behavior that falls under the rubric of moral hazard from entities that might consider themselves too-big-to-fail (perhaps, even, the New GM!);
  • growing aversion to—and rising cost of—corporate debt (don’t forget what happened to Chrysler’s “preferred” bondholders in the bankruptcy process!);
  • the sales and market share that should have gone to Ford or Honda or VW as part of the evolutionary market process;
  • the fruitful R&D expenditures of those more disciplined companies;
  • the expansion of job opportunities at those companies and their suppliers;
  • productivity gains passed on to workers in the form of higher wages or to consumers as lower prices;
  • the diminution of the credibility needed to discourage foreign governments from meddling in markets, often to the detriment of U.S. enterprises.

 The list goes on.

 Yet, Rattner, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the economy remains stuck in the mire, speaks triumphantly of the successful auto bailout.  But nobody ever doubted that taxpayer resources in the hands of policymakers willing to push the bounds of legality could “rescue” GM from a fate it deserved.  The concern was that policymakers would do just that, leaving behind wreckage to our institutions not immediately discernible.  But anemic economic activity, 9.6 percent unemployment, and a private sector unwilling to invest is pretty darn discernible at this point.

Rattner should take off the tails, put down the champagne flute, and acknowledge what was originally unseen.

Lame-Duck Menace: The Paycheck Fairness Act

At Compensation Cafe, Stephanie Thomas explores some of the “nonsensical implications” of a misnamed bill that’s a high Obama administration priority in the lame duck session:

Let’s assume that John and Jane have identical characteristics (education, work experience, etc.) except for gender. ABC Company makes offers of employment to John and Jane on the same day, for the same position, for the same starting salary: $45,000. Jane accepts the offer, but John negotiates the salary, and ends up with $50,000. Under the current equal pay laws, there’s no problem; John is earning more because he negotiated and Jane did not. Makes sense, right? Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, ABC Company would be guilty of gender discrimination.

Here’s another example. Assume that Sam and Sally have the same education, work experience, etc., and are both hired by WidgetCo on the same day. WidgetCo sets Sam and Sally’s starting salary at $2,500 more than they were making at their previous job. Sam was earning $37,500 at his previous job, and Sally was earning $36,000; their starting salaries at WidgetCo are $40,000 and $38,500. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? Under the Paycheck Fairness Act, WidgetCo would be guilty of gender discrimination.

One final example. Assume that Brad and Bridget both work for Alpha Inc., have the same job title, same level of responsibility, etc., and they are both earning $100,000 per year. Brad asks for a 5% raise, but Bridget doesn’t ask for a raise. Brad gets the raise and ends up earning more than Bridget. Again, no problems here, right? Wrong - under the Paycheck Fairness Act, Alpha Inc. would be guilty of gender discrimination.

“Making matters worse, under the new law, damage awards would be uncapped, and class-action procedures loosened. Bring on the trial lawyers,” notes a Chicago Tribune editorial. For more on this very bad bill, check out the papers and presentations from a panel last week put on by our friends at the Hudson Institute. Earlier here and, at Overlawyered, here, here, etc.

VIDEO: Joe Biden’s Weak Case for Government Meddling

Vice President Joe Biden believes that human progress depends almost entirely on government vision and government incentive. Donald J. Boudreaux, Cato Institute adjunct scholar and George Mason University economics professor, details why Biden is wrong both generally and in the specific case he touts:



Produced by Caleb O. Brown. Shot and edited by Evan Banks.

This Month at Cato Unbound

This month at Cato Unbound we’re debating campaign finance regulation, with a panel of notable contributors and a big, new idea.

That idea is semi-disclosure, in which information about campaign funding is collected and disseminated, but, much like the census, personal names and addresses aren’t attached. Political scientist Bruce Cain suggests semi-disclosure might break the impasse between privacy and the right to know. Others? Well… you’ll just have to wait and see. Joining us will be Nikki Willoughby of Common Cause, election law scholar Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School, and the Cato Institute’s own John Samples. Discussion will run through the rest of the month on this vital issue to our nation’s democracy.

A Grimm Proceeding

On Tuesday — you may have missed this because of some political developments that day — the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association.  This case is a First Amendment challenge to a California law that prohibits selling violent video games to minors. 

Cato had filed a brief pointing out that, to paraphrase the Four Tops, it’s just the same ol’ song, but with a different meaning whenever a new form of entertainment comes along.  In other words, it is difficult to find any form of entertainment that did not once suffer the ire of parents’ groups, smoldering church bonfires, and would-be government protectors of children. From the Brothers Grimm, to “penny dreadful” novels, to comic books, to movies, to video games, each new entertainment medium was said to achieve innovative levels of mind control that corrupted children with flashing pictures, bright colors, or suggestive mental imagery.  

And it seems like the justices were listening.

Throughout a lively oral argument that primarily dealt with the vagueness of trying to define a “violent video game,” justices and counsel consistently discussed the rogues gallery of past entertainment industries that were said to corrupt our children. At one point Justice Scalia asked California’s attorney what “deviant violence” is, to which the attorney responded, “deviant would be departing from established norms.” Scalia asked incredulously, “There are established norms of violence?” The attorney began to say “Well, if we look back…” before Scalia cut him off with, “Some of the Grimm’s fairy tales are quite grim, to tell you the truth.” When California’s attorney said he would not advocate banning Grimm’s fairy tales, Justice Ginsburg came back, asking, “What’s the difference?…[I]f you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books? Grimm’s fairy tales?”

Later in the argument, Paul Smith, attorney for the Entertainment Merchants Association, referenced Cato’s argument: “We do have a new medium here, Your Honor, but we have a history in this country of new mediums coming along and people vastly overreacting to them, thinking the sky is falling, our children are all going to be turned into criminals.”

Granted, these arguments could have been raised even without Cato’s brief, but exchanges like these demonstrate the value of amicus briefs. Along with novel legal arguments, they can supply the Court with historical, statistical, sociological, and other information that is relevant to deciding the case.

You can read the argument transcript here and the audio will be available tomorrow at this site.  Thanks to Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus for his continuing work on this case (including with this blogpost).

Ballot Initiatives Provide Underappreciated Election-Night Victories

Last week, I highlighted nine ballot initiatives that were worth watching because of their policy implications and/or their role is showing whether voters wanted more or less freedom. The results, by and large, are very encouraging. Let’s take a look at the results of those nine votes, as well as a few additional key initiatives.

1. The big spenders wanted to impose an income tax in the state of Washington, and they even had support from too-rich-to-care Bill Gates. The good news is that this initiative got slaughtered by a nearly two-to-one margin.  I was worried about this initiative since crazy  Oregon voters approved higher tax rates earlier this year. In a further bit of good news, Washington voters also approved a supermajority requirement for tax increases by a similar margin.

2. Nevada voters had a chance to vote on eminent domain abuse. This is an initiative that I mischaracterized in my original post. The language made it sound like it was designed to protect private property, but it actually was proposed by the political elite to weaken a property rights initiative that the voters previously had imposed. Fortunately, Nevada voters did not share my naiveté and the effort to weaken eminent domain protections was decisively rejected.  This is important, of course, because of the Supreme Court’s reprehensible Kelo decision.

3. California voters were predictably disappointing. They rejected the initiative to legalize marijuana, thus missing an opportunity to adopt a more sensible approach to victimless crimes. The crazy voters from the Golden State also kept in place a suicidal global warming scheme that is driving jobs out of the state. The only silver lining in California’s dark cloud is that voters did approve a supermajority requirement for certain revenue increases.

4. Nearly 90 percent of voters in Kansas approved an initiative to remove any ambiguity about whether individuals have the right to keep and bear arms. Let that be a warning to those imperialist Canadians, just in case they’re plotting an invasion.

5. Arizona voters had a chance to give their opinion on Obamacare. Not surprisingly, they were not big fans, with more than 55 percent of them supporting an initiative in favor of individual choice in health care. A similar initiative was approved by an even greater margin in Oklahoma. Shifting back to Arizona, voters also strongly rejected racial and sexual discrimination by government, but they narrowly failed to approve medical marijuana.

6. Shifting to the local level, San Francisco, one of the craziest cities in America rejected a proposal to require bureaucrats to make meaningful contributions to support their bloated pension and health benefits. On the other hand, voters did approve a proposal to ban people from sleeping on sidewalks. Who knew that was a big issue?

7. Sticking with the ever-amusing Golden State, voters unfortunately eliminated the requirement for a two-thirds vote in the legislature to approve a budget, thus making it even easier for politicians to increase the burden of government spending. The state almost certainly is already on a path to bankruptcy, and this result will probably hasten its fiscal demise. Hopefully, the new GOP majority in the House of Representatives will say no when soon-to-be Governor Brown comes asking for a bailout.

8. The entire political establishment in Massachusetts was united in its opposition to an initiative to to roll back the sales tax from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, and they were sucessful. But 43 percent of voters approved, so maybe there’s some tiny sliver of hope for the Bay State.

9. Louisiana voters approved an initiative to require a two-thirds vote to approve any expansion of taxpayer-financed benefits for government employees. With 65 percent of voters saying yes to this proposal, this is a good sign that the bureaucrat gravy train may finally be slowing down.

At the risk of giving a grade, I think voters generally did a good job when asked to directly make decisions. I give them a solid B.

Bootleggers & Baptists, a Welcome Correction

In my recent “Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition” post, I wrote that environmentalists and agribusiness team up to support ethanol subsidies. An alert Cato@Liberty reader writes to my colleague Jerry Taylor:

[Cannon] is no doubt right that environmentalists and agribusiness worked together to promote government subsidies to ethanol through about 2006. But by 2007 (when the ethanol mandate was doubled) the environmentalists had dropped out of the pro-ethanol coalition, to be replaced by national-security hawks! If you run into him, please tell him to stop blaming environmentalists for current biofuels policies!

If environmentalists have recently dropped their support for ethanol subsidies, they deserve credit for that. Mea culpa.

I would rather have been completely wrong about the environmentalists’ support for ethanol subsidies. But I’ll settle for being partly wrong.