Brother, Can You Spare a Z$200,000 Note?

Hyperinflations would be almost comic if it were not for the misery they inflict on the people they affect. In the misruled African country of Zimbabwe, the inflation rate of the Zimbabwean dollar has reached an annualized rate of 13,000 percent. According to a story Thursday in the Financial Times, an IMF official predicts the annual rate could be heading towards an incredible 100,000 percent.

One sure sign of a hyperinflation is that the central bank must issue new currency notes in ever higher denominations so that people won’t have to carry bags or wheelbarrows of money around to make everyday purchases. Sure enough, the government of Zimbabwe is now wrestling with that very question. According to the FT story:

The launch yesterday of a new large-denomination bank note of Z$200,000—worth [US$13] at the official exchange rate and [US$1.30] at the more realistic parallel rate—underlines the disarray. The central bank had wanted to issue a Z$500,000 note, but a bank official said this was vetoed by the finance ministry because senior staff thought such a large denomination would have reinforced an impression that inflation was out of control.

At a 13,000 percent rate, that cat is probably already out of the bag.

If You’re Not a Farmer, Then Shut Up

I blogged about the arrogance of some members of Congress during last week’s farm debate in the House.

From the Congressional Record, check out this bluster from farm committee member Tim Walz (D-MN) during the floor debate. (Note that he is objecting to reforms proposed by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ):

I rise in opposition to my good friend from Wisconsin’s piece of legislation. It’s well meaning, but I believe it does not address the needs of my district. The people of the First District of Minnesota, I think, can probably lay claim to one of the richest agricultural pieces of land in the entire world … I had 14 hearings throughout my district with universal acceptance of making sure the safety net is maintained … When I need advice on the farm bill, I go to a couple of good farmers in my district, Kevin Papp, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, and Doug Peterson, president of Minnesota’s Farmers Union. I don’t need to go to the ideologues at the Cato Institute or Club for Growth to know what’s good for rural America.

Have you got it? If you are a taxpayer footing the bill for $30 billion or so of farm subsidies each year, then tough beans–just sit down and let Mr. Walz spend your money on his special interest friends.

A few questions to ponder:

Do you think that there was “universal acceptance” of big farm subsidies at his meetings because they were meetings of farmers?

If Mr. Walz’s district is “one of the richest agricultural pieces of land in the entire world” then why the heck does it need subsidies?

What They Say It Does

Over at Eduwonk, there’s a little discussion about a finding in a new Education Next poll that 57 percent of Americans like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and want it reauthorized more or less as-is. What interests the Wonk is that when NCLB is referred to simply as “federal legislation,” support rises to 71 percent:

What jumped out at me is how much language matters. If you ask people about a generic law that does what No Child Left Behind does they are more favorably disposed to it than if you ask them about “No Child Left Behind” specifically.

The Wonk is right – language does matter. But here’s the thing: The Education Next pollsters didn’t tell respondents what NCLB actually does, they very superficially told them what it is supposed to do: force “states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met.”

The language matters because many people aren’t all that familiar with the law, and many such folks would not oppose NCLB if they were told that all it does is require states to set standards and track student mastery of them. The reality, however, is that NCLB does a lot more than that, and is rife with problems that have made it a scourge in many people’s minds, including encouraging states to actually push standards down, not up.

It is perhaps that people have a general sense of how bad NCLB truly is, even if they can’t remember specific problems, that led to a June Educational Testing Service finding that, when asked for their views about NCLB without being given any description of the law, only 41 percent of respondents favored NCLB, while 43 percent viewed it unfavorably. Unfortunately, ETS went on to ask the question with a description even more candy-coated than Education Next’s, raising favorable responses to 56 percent. The public’s true feelings about NCLB were, nonetheless, clear: when not biased by loaded descriptions, Americans simply do not much care for the No Child Left Behind Act.

State and Local Workers Retain Advantage

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its annual data on employee compensation by industry. (See tables 6.2, 6.3, 6.5, and 6.6).

The new data for 2006 show that the nation’s 16 million state and local government workers earned an average $61,727 in total compensation (wages plus benefits). That is 11 percent more than the $55,470 average earned by U.S. private sector workers.

Looking just at wages, state and local workers earned an average $46,937, which is similar to the $45,995 average earned by private sector workers. Thus the primary state and local advantage is the generous fringe benefits.

The figure below shows that the state and local worker advantage has remained fairly constant since at least 1990. Private pay boomed in the late-1990s, but state and local pay has grown faster this decade.

Source: Chris Edwards, Cato Institute, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data

For those interested in the welfare of teachers, the BEA data shows that teacher compensation has closely tracked the overall state and local average since 1990. The average compensation in state and local education in 2006 was $62,371

State and local workers are not paid as well as federal workers, on average, but they usually receive similar generous fringe benefits including high job security, and lucrative pension and health care plans.

Federal Pay: Shoot the Messenger ran a commentary today about the new data I cited on average federal worker compensation.

Most of the 31 comments on my blog and the commentary so far are hostile, and many take a “shoot the messenger” approach. Folks, it’s not my data. I didn’t use “fuzzy math” or “twist” the data. The data comes straight from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Yes, averages are only one indicator of pay gaps. But is it justified that the federal average has grown so much more quickly than the private sector average? Why should fringe benefits in the government workforce be so much more generous than in the private workforce?

And shouldn’t we have a “government of the people” rather than a class of elite overlords increasingly separated from the realities of taking risks, being fired, facing salary cuts in downturns, and having to work hard to get pay raises?

More E-voting Security Flaws

There’s been a lot of e-voting news this week. A California research team released a report demonstrating serious security flaws in the touch-screen voting machines in use there. And a Florida study found that some of the previously-uncovered flaws in the voting machines in use there had not been fixed.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there have been intense negotiations under way on the Holt-Davis legislation, which would outlaw paperless voting machines and require random audits of voting results. Under the legislation, every voting system would be required to produce a voter-verified paper ballot that would be the official record in the case of a recount.

It’s far from a perfect bill. My preference would be to outlaw touch-screen voting entirely, with or without a paper trail. One of the biggest flaws in the legislation is that it will allow states to use touch-screen voting machines with cheap cash-register-style thermal printers in the 2008 and 2010. In my view, using cheap printers would be a serious mistake; thermal printers frequently jam, and the paper tapes they produce are brittle and hard to deal with. Using such cheap printers dramatically increases the danger that election officials won’t take the paper trail requirement seriously.

Crucially, the Holt-Davis bill doesn’t require states to use touch-screen voting machines at all. States may, and in my opinion should, return to using old-fashioned optical-scan paper ballots. States have been using optical-scan technology for decades, and it has far fewer security flaws than computerized voting machines.

But if states are going to have time to implement changes in time for the 2008 election, Congress needs to act quickly. It would be unfair to state officials to pass legislation in 2008, just months before the election. The Holt-Davis bill isn’t perfect, but as Lawrence Nordin and I argue in an op-ed in The Hill today, it’s a step in the right direction.

Life without Farm Subsidies

When the House passed a massive farm bill last month, supporters justified ongoing subsidies as a “safety net” for family farmers. But a story in the New York Times this morning on the New Zealand dairy industry shows that farmers can survive and thrive in a free market without subsidies.

The story begins by describing how technologically sophisticated the country’s export-oriented dairy industry has had to become to meet global competition.

Dairy farming in New Zealand was not always this sophisticated. But ever since a liberal but free-market government swept to power in 1984 and essentially canceled handouts to farmers — something that just about every other government in an advanced industrial nation has considered both politically and economically impossible — agriculture here has never been the same.

The farming community was devastated — but not for long. Today, agriculture remains the lifeblood of New Zealand’s economy. There are still more sheep and cows here than people, their meat, milk and wool providing the country with its biggest source of export earnings. Most farms are still owned by families, but their incomes have recovered and output has soared.

For more on the lessons we should learn from New Zealand’s successful reforms, check out a Free Trade Bulletin we published in 2005 titled, “Miracle Down Under: How New Zealand Farmers Prosper without Subsidies or Protection.” The Kiwi example also featured prominently in an online debate I had in May with the chief economist of the American Farm Bureau.

The New Zealand dairy industry and our own fruit and vegetable sectors prove that farmers can thrive without government subsidies and trade protection. Yet it looks like we will be saddled for another five years with an expensive and anti-market farm bill.