Three Months of Work to Write a Three-Week Bill

After nearly three months of debate, Congress has agreed to extend federal highway and transit spending for three weeks. Authority to spend federal dollars (mostly from gas taxes) on highways and transit was set to expire tomorrow. The three-week extension means that authority will expire on November 20.

Many members in Congress hope that the three-week delay will allow them to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a six-year bill. Among other things, the Senate version spends about $16.5 billion more than the House bill, $12.0 billion on highways and $4.5 billion on transit. The two bills also use different sources of revenue to cover the difference between gas tax revenues and the amounts many members of Congress want to spend.

To cover this difference, the Senate bill, known as the “Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy Act” or DRIVE Act, provides three years of funding by supplementing gas taxes with new customs, air travel, and mortgage-backed securities guarantee fees. The House bill, called the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, doesn’t offer any source of funds; instead, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chair Bill Shuster merely expressed hope that the House Ways & Means Committee would find a source of funds.

Despite the use of the word “reform,” the House bill doesn’t reform much other than to streamline environmental review, thus making it easier for cities and states to waste money faster. However, the bill does create new competitive grant programs, including a $4.5 billion program for “freight and highway projects” and a return to using competitive grants for buses and bus facilities. The Senate bill, meanwhile, creates a new “competitive grant” program aimed at “funding major projects.”

The Dark Side of Italy’s Postal Privatization

On this blog, Chris Edwards shared some hopeful thoughts on the fate of postal privatization - which people of a sound mind should certainly cherish. Mr. Edwards built on the news of the impending sale of a 40 percent stake in Italy’s mail delivery incumbent, Poste Italiane. If even Italians are privatizing, why are the US keeping loyal to the ideal of a government-owned post office? We certainly share Edward’s attitude towards privatization. But we are afraid that this time Italy (which indeed privatized much in the 90s, from the national telecom company to the highways) isn’t an example to imitate.

There was, indeed, a series of successful postal privatizations: Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK have shown the way. But we are afraid Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hasn’t followed their lead.

Poste Italiane is a strange animal. As with all national post services, for years now its traditional core business has been eaten up by the development of the e-mail. And yet the company ostensibly failed to adapt, for example by seizing the opportunities created by e-commerce. In seven years, revenues from mail and parcel delivery declined from 33% of total revenues to a mere 14%. Conversely, Poste Italiane diversified heavily: insurance and banking now rake in the bulk of its yearly income. This is an unhealthy paradox: the Italian government privatized its insurance company, INA, in 1994. The government-owned banks were likewise privatized in the early 90s. Now, with Poste Italiane, the government is back into the insurance business and owns the first Italian insurance companies by premiums collected.

At the same time, Poste Italiane started looking at new ventures, like mobile telecoms and retail, eventually turning its post offices into small convenience stores.

Private Science vs. Government Science

In researching an upcoming study on privatization, I came across an interesting illustration of the advantages of private science over government science. Private science focuses on efficiency and results, but government science maybe not so much.

The study by Jonathan Karpoff in the Journal of Political Economy found:

From 1818 to 1909, 35 government and 57 privately-funded expeditions sought to locate and navigate a Northwest Passage, discover the North Pole, and make other significant discoveries in arctic regions. Most major arctic discoveries were made by private expeditions. Most tragedies were publicly funded. By other measures as well, publicly-funded expeditions performed poorly. … Although public expeditions made some significant discoveries, they did so at substantially higher cost (as measured by crew size or vessel tonnage) than private discoveries.

Historical accounts indicate that, compared to private expeditions, public expeditions: (1) employed leaders that were relatively unmotivated and unprepared for arctic exploration; (2) separated the initiation and implementation functions of executive leadership; and (3) adapted slowly to new information about clothing, diet, shelter, modes of arctic travel, organizational structure, and optimal party size. These shortcomings resulted from, and contributed to, poorly aligned incentives among key contributors.

My upcoming study will look at the advantages of privatizing federal activities such postal services, air traffic control, and passenger rail. But policymakers should also explore the advantages of privatizing federal science activities.

Cato adjunct Terence Kealey has written about the advantages of private over government science, and he will discuss that topic at an upcoming Chicago seminar.

Meanwhile, if you plan to explore the Arctic, it would be best to go on a private rather than government ship. There would be less chance of getting scurvy–at least that’s the way it used to be, according to Karpoff.

Summarizing the New Budget Deal: Spend More Now and Promise to Spend Less in the Future

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan famously said “there you go again” when responding to one of Jimmy Carter’s attacks.

Well, the Gipper’s ghost is probably looking down from Heaven at the new budget deal between congressional leaders and the Obama Administration and saying “there they go again.”

That’s because we basically have a repeat of the distasteful 2013 budget deal.

The new agreement, like the 2013 deal, busts the budget caps. In this case, the politicians in DC have approved $50 billion of additional spending for the 2016 fiscal year (which started on October 1) and $30 billion of additional spending in the 2017 fiscal year (starting October 1, 2016).

Which means that the President gets to further undo his biggest fiscal defeat.

And what do Republicans get in exchange?

Many of them want higher defense spending, of course, and some of them doubtlessly are happy to have more domestic spending as well. Those politicians are presumably happy, at least behind closed doors.

Minimum Wage Hikes in Theory and Reality

Don Boudreaux recently despaired that only 26 percent of economists surveyed agreed that

If the federal minimum wage is raised gradually to $15-per-hour by 2020, the employment rate for low-wage US workers will be substantially lower than it would be under the status quo.

In the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’s regular survey of distinguished policy economists chosen for ideological diversity, 24 percent disagreed with the statement, and 38 percent said they were uncertain.

Some said that employment effects were likely, but they might not be “substantial.” That’s an empirical question, of course, and knowing the direction of a change doesn’t necessarily tell us its magnitude. In addition, each person’s definition of “substantial” might be different. Boudreaux doesn’t think there should be much uncertainty:

Would 74 percent of my fellow economists either disagree that, be “uncertain” that, or have no opinion on the question of whether a forced 107 percent increase in the price of the likes of 737, 777, and 787 jetliners would cause airlines to cut back substantially on the number of new jetliners they buy from Boeing?  Or what if the question were about the prices of fast-food?  Would 74 percent of these economists either disagree that, be “uncertain” that, or have no opinion on the question of whether a forced 107 percent increase in the prices of the likes of Big Macs, Baconators, and buckets of KFC fried chicken would cause consumers to cut back substantially on the amount of food they purchase at fast-food restaurants?

But who am I to jump into this battle of economists? Just a lowly newspaper reader, that’s all. And as it happens, Boudreaux posted his critique on Sunday, and on Monday I read an interview in the Wall Street Journal with Sally Smith, CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings. She runs a chain of more than 1,000 sports bars, and she’s trying to expand. Here’s part of her interview:

WSJ: How are minimum-wage increases affecting the way you make business decisions?

MS. SMITH: You look at where you can afford to open restaurants. We have one restaurant in Seattle, and we probably won’t be expanding there. That’s true of San Francisco and Los Angeles, too. One of the unintended consequences of rising minimum wages is youth unemployment. Almost 40% of our team members are under age 21. When you start paying $15 an hour, are you going to take a chance on a 17-year-old who’s never had a job before when you can find someone with more experience?

WSJ: Are you turning to automation to reduce labor costs?

MS. SMITH: We are testing server hand-held devices for order-taking in 30 restaurants now, and we’ll roll them out to another 30 in the next month and another 30 by the end of the year. Servers like it because they can take on more tables and earn more tips. Eventually we’ll have tablets where guests can place their own order from the table and pay for it.

Ms. Smith is no economist. (She has a BSBA in accounting and finance, and served as CFO of Buffalo Wild Wings and other companies for about 10 years before becoming CEO in 1996.) She’s just a CEO trying to make revenues come out ahead of costs. And when she thinks about a substantial increase in the minimum wage, her thoughts turn to not expanding, hiring more experienced workers, and using technology so fewer servers can serve more customers.

She doesn’t seem as uncertain about the effects on employment as the academic economists do.  

A Million Homes Taken Since Kelo

It has been just over a decade since the Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. New London that local governments can take private property by eminent domain under a very broad reading of “public use”.  Cato held an event earlier this year to examine the legal impact of Kelo, featuring remarks from George Mason Law Professor Ilya Somin based upon his recent book, The Grasping Hand.  Not only has Kelo spawned widespread public backlash, but its also given birth to renewed interest by legal scholars.  As an economist, I am a little more interested in the direct impact on families.

Unfortunately, I have had no luck finding a database of all U.S. takings.  The American Housing Survey (AHS), conducted by the Census Bureau every two years, does, however, offer some estimates.  For survey respondents who moved within the previous year, the AHS asks respondents the “main reason” for leaving their previous unit.  One option offered is “government displacement”. For the survey years since Kelo, the average has been 109,000 households who state that government action displaced them from their previous home.  If that average holds for non-survey years, then a good estimate is that just over a million households have been displaced by government action since Kelo

Everything Is On Sale Compared to 1979

Wage appreciation, or lack thereof, does not tell us everything we need to know about our standard of living. Wages often fail to capture changes that come from competition and technological breakthroughs. 

One—much underutilized—way in which we can get a sense of the improvements in our standard of living is to look at the number of hours an average employee needs to work in order to buy commonly used items. When cost is measured in terms of hours worked, almost everything in 2015 is “on sale” when compared to the same product in 1979. 

Consider two common kitchen appliances: the microwave and the refrigerator.

Those are some impressive discounts! Look at the data for yourself and you will find that the trend of falling prices, when measured in hours of labor, is widespread. The main exceptions when it comes to the cost of living are the highly distorted healthcare, education and housing markets. In contrast, when market competition thrives, it tends to bring down prices and raise living standards for all of us.