Archives: 12/2014

Industrial Policy Courtesy of the Cromnibus…Because No More Inferior Potassium

Though a monument to the ravages of Soviet central planning, the barren Magnitogorsk steel works complex still inspires America’s industrial policy proponents.  “Failure to plan is a plan for failure,” said comrade Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), as he described the “pro-manufacturing” legislation he helped slip into the mammoth Cromnibus bill, which became law this month.

The Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act directs the Secretary of Commerce to establish a “Network for Manufacturing Innovation” to:

  • improve the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing and increase production of goods manufactured predominately within the United States;
  • stimulate U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing research, innovation, and technology;
  • accelerate the development of an advanced manufacturing workforce; and
  • create and preserve jobs

Of course, the verbs “revitalize,” “improve,” “stimulate,” “accelerate,” “create,” and “preserve” are euphemisms for protect, subsidize, regulate, and intervene.

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Happy New Year: A Time to Celebrate Human Progress

The media are full of headlines about war, sexual assault, inequality, obesity, cancer risk, environmental destruction, economic crisis, and other disasters. It’s enough to make people think that the world of their children and grandchildren will be worse than today’s world.

But the real story, which rarely makes headlines, is that, to paraphrase Indur Goklany’s book title, we are living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner and more peaceful planet. (Allister Heath summed up his argument in a cover story for the Spectator of London, without all the charts and tables.) Fortunately, beyond the headlines, more people do seem to be recognizing this.

The Cato Institute, for instance, has created an ever-expanding website on human progress, known simply as HumanProgress.org.

Here’s Steven Pinker expanding on the information in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined in Slate:

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. 

He has charts of the data in each of those areas. And here’s Pinker at the Cato Institute discussing why people are so pessimistic when the real trends are so good:

Close the Government to Close Bad Government Programs

The lame duck Congress suffered through its usual year end brinkmanship before avoiding a government shutdown.  Horrors! What would people do if politicians weren’t able to legislate, regulate, and dictate in the “public interest?” 

The traditional civics book notion of government is that the state does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  If the state focused on its most fundamental tasks, we might notice if it closed.

Unfortunately, the state has turned into something very different.  It’s now a welfare agency for the wealthy, a vast soup kitchen for special interests, an engine for social engineering at home and abroad, and a national nanny determined to run citizens’ lives.  Closing down Washington’s great income redistribution racket actually would help most Americans. 

Yet, as I point out in the American Spectator:  “perhaps the most irritating, even infuriating, government activity is paternalism.  There’s a basic difference between a gang of highwaymen and Congress.  The first group takes your cash and then leaves you alone.  The second group empties your wallet or purse, and then insists on sticking around for your benefit to manage your life.  Your new overseers expect not only regular payment but eternal gratitude.”

Consider the campaign against smoking.  Adults are entitled to smoke cancer sticks if they want.  The idea that not one restaurant or bar in a city of thousands or state of millions can allow someone to smoke is, well, outrageous.

Another “Oops” Moment for Paul Krugman

I’m tempted to feel a certain degree of sympathy for Paul Krugman.

As a leading proponent of the notion that bigger government stimulates growth (a.k.a., Keynesian economics), he’s in the rather difficult position of rationalizing why the economy was stagnant when Obama first took office and the burden of government spending was rising.

And he also has to somehow explain why the economy is now doing better at a time when the fiscal burden of government is declining.

But you have to give him credit for creativity. Writing in the New York Times, he attempts to square the circle.

Let’s start with his explanation for results in the United States.

…in America we haven’t had an official, declared policy of fiscal austerity — but we’ve nonetheless had plenty of austerity in practice, thanks to the federal sequester and sharp cuts by state and local governments.

If you define “austerity” as spending restraint, Krugman is right. Overall government spending has barely increased in recent years.

But then Krugman wants us to believe that there’s been a meaningful change in fiscal policy in the past year or so. Supposedly there’s been less so-called austerity and this explains why the economy is doing better.

The good news is that we…seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result. We are finally starting to see the kind of growth, in employment and G.D.P., that we should have been seeing all along… What held us back was unprecedented public-sector austerity…now that this de facto austerity is easing, the economy is perking up.

But where’s his evidence? Whether you look at OMB data, IMF data, or OECD data, all those sources show that overall government spending has been steadily shrinking as a share of GDP ever since 2009.

New Study Finds More Evidence of Poverty Traps in the Welfare System

A new study from the Illinois Policy Institute analyzes the welfare benefits package available at different levels of earnings in that state. The authors find that low-income workers have limited economic incentive to increase their earnings from the minimum wage, and at some higher levels of earnings these workers actually see a reduction in net income. America’s complex welfare system can too often create these perverse situations where beneficiaries are financially worse off as they increase work effort and earned income. In these poverty traps, lost benefits and increased taxes outweigh any additional earnings, making it harder for beneficiaries to escape from poverty and reach the middle class

Author Erik Randolph finds that a single mother with two children who increases her hourly earnings from the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 to $12 only sees her net income increase by less than $400. For many low-income workers striving to climb the ladder of prosperity, our welfare system takes away almost all of their incentive to move up from an entry-level job as they do not get to realize almost any of these gains. Even worse, someone in this scenario who works hard and increases her earnings all the way to $18 an hour, a wage level which would place her in the middle class, would actually see her net income decrease by more than $24,800 due to benefit reductions and tax increases. Instead of making it easier for beneficiaries to become independent and achieve a level of prosperity, the welfare system traps them into low levels of earnings. This parent would have to increase her earnings all the way to $38 an hour in order to replace the lost benefits and achieve the same standard of living.

These findings echo some of the insights from our Work versus Welfare Trade-off paper, in which we compared the benefits available to a similar family in each state to the equivalent wage that family would have to earn to obtain the same level of net income. Our study found that the high level of benefits available combined with benefit cliffs created situations that would deter work. In 34 states, the parent would have to earn well above the minimum wage to achieve the same standard of living she had when not working.

This new report from the Illinois Policy Institute illustrates some of the biggest problems with our current welfare system and corroborates many of the findings of our past work. Work versus Welfare looked at two situations, one where the parent worked and one where she had no earned income. This new study from the Illinois Policy Institute provides valuable additional insight, as it looks at this tradeoff at different levels of earned income to analyze the poverty traps in place as beneficiaries move to higher levels of earned income. Instead of encouraging work, the current welfare system often takes away much of the incentive for low-income workers to increase work effort and earnings. As Randolph puts it, “[r]ather than providing a hand up, Illinois’ welfare system can become a trap,” and this is unfortunately the case throughout the country. This study shows yet another reason why our welfare system needs fundamental reform.  

Cato will host a conference in New York January 29th to further explore poverty and the welfare system. The conference agenda and registration information can be found here

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Obamacare and the Rule of Law

This spring, the Affordable Care Act will make its third trip to the Supreme Court. But King v. Burwell is different from its predecessors. Instead of challenging Obamacare’s constitutionality, or the way certain regulations burden particular types of plaintiffs, this lawsuit questions how the executive branch has enforced the law generally—or, more precisely, modified, delayed, and suspended it.

After supporting the challengers’ successful request that the Supreme Court take up this case, the Cato Institute has now joined with Professor Josh Blackman on an amicus brief that alerts the Court to the separation-of-powers and rule-of-law violations attending the ACA’s implementation. Through a series of memoranda, regulations, and even blog posts, President Obama has disregarded statutory text, ignored legislative history, and remade the law in his own image.

King focuses on tax credits—the subsidies that allow people to pay increased premiums—one of the key pillars of Obamacare that the administration has toppled. To assist those who lack employer-sponsored insurance, and because it couldn’t command states to establish exchanges, Congress authorized these credits for residents of states that do create the exchanges. The statute expresses this design in language that is clear as day: Individuals receive tax credits if they bought a qualifying health plan “through an Exchange established by the State.”

In other words, if a state failed to establish an exchange, its residents—who would end up buying plans through the federal HealthCare.gov—would not be eligible for the subsidies. (The ACA’s Medicaid expansion plan operated with a similar carrot-and-stick approach until the Supreme Court rewrote it.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia: only 14 states set up exchanges, meaning that the text of the law denied subsidies in nearly three-quarters of states. This result was untenable to an administration intent on pain-free implementation. To obviate the uncomfortable compromises Congress reached, the executive engaged in its own lawmaking process, issuing a regulation that nullifies the relevant ACA provision.

U.S. Must Tell Ukraine No to Joining NATO

The Ukrainian parliament has repealed the law barring participation in NATO. The U.S. should respond no.

Right before Christmas Ukraine’s Rada repealed legislation mandating “nonparticipation of Ukraine in the military-political alliances.” Said President Petro Poroshenko: “Ukraine’s nonaligned status is out.”

Russia’s foreign minister called the move “counterproductive.” An alliance spokesman said “Our door is open and Ukraine will become a member of NATO if it so requests and fulfills the standards and adheres to the necessary principles.”

In fact, joining could be counterproductive for Kiev. Some Ukrainians may imagine that NATO would protect them from Vladimir Putin. But if the consequence was a full-blown war, as is likely, it would be a disaster for Ukraine.

Moreover, the West doesn’t have the will to act. In 2008 Georgians expected the American military to come to their rescue in their war with Russia. However, Washington would not go to war with Russia over such minimal geopolitical stakes.

The allies made a similar assessment of Ukraine. Despite abundant verbal support, practical aid has been limited.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated international norms, unleashed bitter conflict, upset the regional order, and disturbed his European neighbors. Nevertheless, his actions have had little impact on America and Europe. Keeping Ukraine whole simply doesn’t warrant playing international chicken with a nuclear-armed power.

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