The Auto Bailout Warrants No Pride, Mr. President

President Obama is in Michigan today, which means his handlers at the White House recently consulted their very thin manila file folder labeled “Economic Successes or Anything That Might Pass for Such” to cull talking points about the auto bailout. Of course, nothing has been more celebrated as an economic policy success of this administration by this administration than the “rescue” of GM and Chrysler.
 
I spent a good deal of time in 2008-2010 analyzing, commenting, and testifying about the collateral damage–the often unseen but important externalities and longer term costs–that was being inflicted on third parties, the U.S. economy, and the rule of law, all for the purpose of ensuring that specific interests were insulated from the consequences of their behavior. So let me just summarize by repeating some previous thoughts.
 
It is galling to hear the auto bailouts characterized as “successful.” The word should be off-limits when describing this unfortunate chapter in U.S. economic history. GM and Chrysler, through their own relatively poor decisions with respect to labor contracts, product offerings, and quality management, failed by the market’s judgment and were rightful candidates for downsizing or liquidation. The bailouts essentially deprived the better auto companies of the spoils of competition and forestalled a capacity reckoning, which meaning that in the years ahead, auto workers in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana, and even Michigan and Ohio may lose their jobs because GM and Chrysler were propped up beginning in 2009.
 
Calling the bailouts “successful” is to whitewash:
  • the diversion of funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program by two administrations for purposes unauthorized by Congress;
  • the looting and redistribution of claims against GM’s and Chrysler’s assets from shareholders and debt-holders to pensioners;
  • the use of questionable tactics to bully stakeholders into accepting terms to facilitate politically desirable outcomes;
  • the unprecedented encroachment by the executive branch into the finest details of the bankruptcy process to orchestrate what bankruptcy law experts describe as “sham” sales of Old Chrysler to New Chrysler and Old GM to New GM;
  • the costs of denying Ford and the other more deserving automakers greater market share and access to GM’s and Chrysler’s best workers and capital;
  • the costs of insulating irresponsible actors, such as the United Auto Workers, from the outcomes of an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding, and;
  • the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against similar market interventions, to name some.
Acceptance of the president’s claim of auto bailout success demands profound gullibility or willful ignorance and virtually guarantees similar interventions in the future. 

State Spending Machine Keeps on Rolling during Recession

While other matters dominate the headlines, American governments continue to spend more money, despite the presumed effects of the Great Recession. Washington Post reporter Abha Bhattarai lays out the latest details:

State and local governments in Maryland, Virginia and the District spent $7.82 billion more than they collected in revenue between 2007 and 2012, during the throes of the economic downturn, according to data released from the U.S. Census Bureau last month….

State and local governments in Virginia spent $1.03 billion more than they took in between 2007 and 2012, while expenditures in Maryland outpaced earnings by $6.07 billion….

Nationally, state and local governments spent $118.15 billion more than they collected between 2007 and 2012. Total expenditures during that period increased by 18.2 percent, from $2.7 trillion to $3.2 trillion, while total revenue declined 3.2 percent over the same five-year period, from $3.1 trillion to $3.0 trillion.

Over that five-year period, plenty of businesses, families, and nonprofits found their revenue declining by more than three percent, and most responded by spending less.

Of course, it’s often said that governments spend when times are good and the tax revenue is rolling in, then find themselves over-extended and facing painful cuts when growth slows down. But the evidence above suggests that governments just keep spending even as the money stops rolling in. It’s exceedingly difficult to get governments to spend less, especially when every government dollar helps to create pro-spending constituencies who will resist cuts. Spending interests never rest; taxpayer groups have to work twice as hard just to hold the line.

One side note: The online headline for this article is

State, local governments continue to spend more than they earn

Actually, I don’t think governments “earn” money. Merriam-Webster defines “earn” as “to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.” Governments don’t earn, they take. Just try saying “I don’t find your services worth the money, and I won’t be renewing my contract.”

For more on state government spending, see Cato’s latest “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.”

 

Nine TEN! Questions on the House Vote to Tweak ObamaCare’s Employer Mandate

Tomorrow, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will vote on a measure that would alter the definition of full-time work, for purposes of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate, from 30 hours per week to 40 hours per week. The measure is likely to pass. The House approved a similar measure last Congress, but it never went anywhere in the Senate, which was then under Democratic control. Now that Republicans have a majority in the Senate, there’s a chance the measure could clear both chambers of Congress. The president threatens a veto. Yuval Levin writes this change “seems likely to be worse than doing nothing.”

I have a few questions about this supposed threat to ObamaCare:

  1. This legislation would reduce the burden of ObamaCare’s employer mandatem but it would also increase government spending by making more workers eligible for health-insurance subsidies through ObamaCare’s Exchanges. How is that a policy victory?
  2. The legislation would therefore shift part of ObamaCare’s cost from an organized and influential interest group (employers) to a disorganized and less-influential interest group (taxpayers). How is that strategically smart?
  3. The legislation would make ObamaCare more tolerable for an organized and influential interest group (again, employers), thereby reducing their incentive to lobby for full repeal. How is that strategically smart?
  4. House Republicans say they are committed to repealing ObamaCare entirely. If so, why is this bill, rather than a full-repeal bill, the first item on their agenda? 
  5. House Republicans say this bill will show they can govern. But they also acknowledge the president will veto it. How is that governing?
  6. This legislation would merely lessen the burden of the employer mandate, and only for some employers. By June, however, the Supreme Court could completely invalidate employer-mandate penalties for all employers across 36 states. (See King v. Burwell.) How is this legislation a wise use of Congress’ time, when a Supreme Court ruling could go much farther in just a few months?
  7. A King ruling could also invalidate Exchange subsidies in 36 states, thereby exposing millions of Americans to the full cost of ObamaCare’s hidden taxes. That would give Congress more leverage than ever before to reopen and repeal the law. With this legislation, House Republicans are playing small ball with no leverage. How is that strategically smart?
  8. If enacted, this legislation would actually reduce the leverage a King ruling would give Congress to reopen and repeal ObamaCare. How is that strategically smart?
  9. The president has said he would veto this legislation. Given the above, should Republicans believe him?

Note that many of these questions also apply to repeal of the employer mandate before a King ruling, and sometimes after.

Update: I forgot a question. (Ten questions!)

10. This legislation would repeal a perverse incentive for employers to cut workers’ hours from just above to below 30 hours per week. It would replace that perverse incentive with a perverse incentive to cut the hours of other workers from just above to below 40 hours per week. Those other workers would complain that Republicans just made ObamaCare worse for them. How is that a political win, or strategically smart?

(Cross-posted at Darwin’s Fool.)

The Potential Long-Term Consequences of the Paris Shooting

The horrific killing of 12 people who ran the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which published the controversial Mohammed cartoons in 2011, by suspected Muslim extremists is likely to have serious consequences. In the short run, it will result in shock, grief, and possibly counterattacks on some innocent Muslims living in France. The long-term consequences of the shooting could be monumental.

First, the French could get their first female head of state since Queen Anne’s regency during the minority of Louis XIV. Queen Anne faced a massive revolt of the nobles known as the Fronde and a subsequent civil war. Ms. Marine Le Pen’s presidency could be similarly eventful.

While, as libertarians, we despise much of what Ms. Le Pen stands for, the two mainstream political parties in France, Mr. Sarkozy’s socialist center-right UPM and Mr. Hollande’s Socialist Party, have totally failed to address the legitimate concerns of the French citizens, chief among them the failure of multiculturalism and high unemployment. The country is ready to hand the reins of power to someone else.

Second, the euro will end its role as a global currency and remain a legal tender in something akin to Großdeutschland greater Germany, composed of Germany and her satellites, like the hapless Slovakia. Ms. Le Pen is mistaken in thinking that the French withdrawal from the euro will revive the French economy. French economic difficulties are primarily structural (i.e., high taxes and over-regulation), not monetary.

Be that as it may, Ms. Le Pen has set her sights on exiting the euro and, at least as far as this author is concerned, the sooner she puts the euro out of its misery, the better. They might even build her a statue in Athens. (Perhaps 2,000 years from now, it will be admired with as much reverence as Venus de Milo is revered today, but I digress…).

Third, on day two of a Le Pen presidency, border guards will return to the French frontiers. Of course, the end of the freedom of movement will be in full breach of all sorts of European treaties and conventions. (The British, by the way, would love to do the same, but cannot, because the British, being British, follow the rules. In contrast, the French, being French, will do what they have always done: follow their national interest.)

France will not be stopped. Because as it is big and powerful, it is not subject to the same rules that govern the rest of the EU. That is why the French have been allowed to make mincemeat out of the Maastricht Treaty without any consequences.

That will cause a major crisis in the EU and lead to a clarification of what the EU is–a cooperative arrangement between sovereign states–and what the EU is not–the United States of Europe.

Winter Regulation: Your Health Choices and Government

The latest issue of Regulation, which has just been released, examines several public health topics.

Many economists argue that “choice architects” should “nudge” Americans toward healthier decisions about their diets and physical activity. These nudges can come from government in the form of food taxes, information requirements, and other mechanisms, or through markets in the form of diet plans, reduced-calorie products, and fitness programs. Cal Poly professor Michael Marlow questions the scientific evidence supporting the governmental nudges because many promote weight-loss strategies that have proven ineffective or even counterproductive.

Cigarette taxes are rationalized as providing public health benefits.  But Professors Kevin Callison and Robert Kaestner demonstrate that because smoking rates are now so low further cigarette tax increases will have very little effect on smoking rates.  Thus future tax increase proposals cannot be justified by health benefits and instead should be debated on traditional public finance criteria.

Thomas Hemphill and Syagnik Banerjee explore the effects of some states enacting mandatory genetically modified organism(GMO) labeling.  These requirements would raise food prices nationwide by requiring fully independent food distribution networks for GMO and non-GMO foods, while implicitly and falsely suggesting to the public that GMO foods are unsafe. 

An article by American University’s Lewis Grossman argues consumers are much more empowered now than 50 years ago in areas of life regulated by the FDA.  The availability of medicines—and even of information about their efficacy and use—were once tightly controlled so that only physicians would have access.  Today, an ever-growing number of drugs are available over the counter, drugmakers can advertise direct to consumers, and drug labels are intended to be comprehensible to the layman.

Saving New England’s Cod Fishery

On Friday, the New York Times ran an op-ed by University of New Hampshire historian W. Jeffrey Bolster describing the long history of the decline of the stock of cod off the coast of New England.  The article corrects the misperception that the decline is recent or the result of modern industrial fishing methods.  Instead the decline started more than 150 years ago and is the not the result of deliberate action by anyone in particular, but the “system” itself.  By “system” he means the exploitation of an open access resource, in which no one owns the rights to harvest the stock.  In such an environment overfishing is the inevitable result because all have incentive to take as much as they can because others will if you do not.  Thus individual efforts at conservation are irrational.

Unfortunately his essay ends there and does not describe policy innovations that would create a better “system.”  In the Spring issue of Regulation, Jonathan Adler and Nathaniel Stewart argue that the best way to regulate fisheries for sustainable exploitation over long periods of time is a system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs), better known as catch shares.  In ITQ systems, the total allowable catch in a fishery is set by biologists to allow sustainable fishing without degradation of the stock. The rights to particular shares of the total catch are allocated to individuals, who may fish themselves, or sell or rent the rights to others. These systems have been successfully in use in a number of countries for decades.  Implementing them in the New England cod fishery would yield similar results.

EU Demand for US Subprime: the Case of Germany

The growth of the U.S. subprime mortgage market was made possible only by the willingness of investors to fund that market.  The largest single investors in the market for private label subprime securities appears to have been Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose market share reached almost 40% of private label subprime mortgage-backed securties (MBS) in 2004.  A less recognized driver was investment demand coming from the European Union.  Perhaps the role of EU has been less appreciated due to data limitations, which will soon become apparent.

What we do know is that as of June 30, 2008, just before the crisis hit, almost $460 billion in non-agency residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) was held outside the US (see table 24 here). This represented almost a fourth of total US-issued RMBS at that time.  Of course not all non-agency MBS is subprime.  For instance a significant share are jumbo prime mortgages.  Estimates suggest subprime were a little more than half of outstanding non-agency MBS.  This breakdown does not appear to be available for EU holdings, which were almost half of non-US holdings.  More than $30 billion was held by German institutions.

One reason Germany merits special discussion is that some research has been done on who exactly these institutions were.  Germany is also interesting because of the diversity of its financial system and the special role of state-owned banks.  Almost half of banking in Germany is conducted by the public sector.  The most prominent of this being the Landesbanken, which are owned by the German regional governments.  One study found losses from US subprime MBS to be “on average three times as large for state-owned banks compared to privately owned banks.” Overall about two-thirds of losses in Germany on US subprime MBS were from holdings by state owned banks.