Tag: incentives

Clinton, Obama, and Hayek

President Obama has been saying that if the United States government can find and eliminate Osama bin Laden after ten years of searching, it can do anything:

Already, in several appearances since the raid, Obama has described it as a reminder that “as a nation there is nothing that we can’t do,” as he put it during an unrelated White House ceremony Monday. On Sunday night, during his first comments about the operation, he linked it to American values, saying the country is “once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

This is, of course, nonsense. Finding bin Laden, difficult as it proved to be, was an incomparably simple task compared to using coercion and central planning to bring about desired results in defiance of economic reality. You can’t deliver better health care to more people for less money by reducing the role of incentives and markets, even if you set your mind to it. As Russell Roberts said about a similar concept, “If we can put a man on the moon, then…”:

Putting a man on the moon is an engineering problem. It yields to a sufficient application of reason and resources. Eliminating poverty is an economic problem (and by the word “economic” I do not mean financial or related to money), a challenge that involves emergent results. In such a setting, money alone—in the amounts that a non-economic approach might suggest, one that ignores the impact of incentives and markets—is unlikely to be successful.

Obama should listen to Bill Clinton, who last fall seemed to be channeling Hayek:

Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Bill Clinton, 9/21: “Do you know how many political and economic decisions are made in this world by people who don’t know what in the living daylights they are talking about?”

Random Assignment

The Brookings Institution released a new study today on charter schooling—assessing how well it’s working and what the federal government should do about it. One of the recommendations reads as follows:

Student participation in lotteries for admissions to any public [charter] school and the results of such lotteries should be a required student data element in state or district longitudinal data systems supported with federal funds.

Why? Because it would make it a lot easier to measure relative school quality, by permitting more widespread use of randomized, control group experiments. Experiments are certainly great from a researcher’s standpoint, but mandating that schools must admit students on a random basis has a catch:

an observer effect as subtle as an 80-foot fire-breathing robot. One of the reasons markets work is that exchanges are mutually voluntary, and producers and consumers don’t enter into an exchange unless each perceives it to be beneficial. If you eliminate the mutually voluntary character of an exchange in the process of trying to observe how beneficial it is to one of the parties, you’re affecting the very thing you’re trying to measure. It becomes more likely that you will have students assigned to schools that are not well equipped to serve their particular needs, injuring such students’ educational prospects.

Lottery admission to oversubscribed charter schools appeals to people’s desire for fairness, but a much better solution is to adopt a true market approach to education in which oversubscribed schools have not only the freedom but the incentives to expand as demand increases. For-profit enterprises, schools among them, do not generally ignore rising demand for their services. Kumon, the for-profit tutoring service, does not turn students away when it reaches capacity at a given location, it grows that location or opens a new one. As a result, it now serves about four million students in 42 countries.

Rather than figuring out how to ration good schools, why don’t we just unleash the market forces that will grow and replicate them?

Words I Don’t Say Very Often: ‘I Applaud Senate Republicans’

Much to my surprise, Senate Republicans held firm earlier today and blocked President Obama’s soak-the-rich proposal to raise tax rates next year on investors, entrepreneurs and small business owners.

I fully expected that GOPers would fold on this issue several months ago because Democrats were using the class-warfare argument that Republicans were holding the middle class hostage in order to protect “millionaires and billionaires.” Republicans usually have a hard time fighting back against such demagoguery, and I was especially pessimistic since every Republican senator had to stay united to block Senate Democrats from pushing through Obama’s plan for higher tax rates on the so-called rich.

But the GOP surprised me earlier this year with their united opposition to higher taxes, and they stayed strong again today in blocking a bill that would raise tax rates on upper-income taxpayers. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times.

Republicans voted unanimously against the House-passed bill, and they were joined by four Democrats — Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jim Webb of Virginia — as well as by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut. “You don’t raise taxes if your ultimate goal, if the main thing is to create jobs,” said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, echoing an argument made repeatedly by his colleagues during the floor debate. The Senate on Saturday also rejected an alternative proposal, championed by Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, to raise the threshold at which the tax breaks would expire to $1 million. Some Democrats said that the Republicans’ opposition to that plan showed them to be siding with “millionaires and billionaires” over the middle class.

Not only did GOPers stand firm, but they were joined by five other senators (including four that have to face the voters in 2012). This presumably means Democrats will now have to compromise and agree to a plan to extend all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

At the risk of being a Pollyanna, I wonder if the politics of hate and envy is falling out of fashion. Obama’s plan for higher tax rates hopefully is now dead, but that’s just one positive indicator. It’s also interesting that both of the big “deficit reduction” plans recently unveiled, the President’s Fiscal Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force Report, endorsed lower marginal tax rates - including lower tax rates for those evil rich people. Both proposals also included lots of tax increases, so the overall tax burden would be significantly higher under both plans, but it is remarkable that the beltway insiders who dominated the two panels understood the destructive impact of class-warfare tax rates. Maybe they watched this video.

Robert H. Frank’s Non-argument for Higher Tax Rates

In The New York Times, Robert H. Frank of Cornell University repeated his perpetual argument that high tax rates on the rich do no harm to demand (not supply) because the rich can just draw down savings, year after year,  to pay more taxes yet maintain a showy lifestyle.   Then he resorts to the old trick of asserting there is no “credible” evidence that tax disincentives and distortions have any ill effects on the economy.

Frank asks, rhetorically, if an increase in top tax rates might reduce economic growth.  And he replies, “There’s no credible evidence that it would.”   This is a timeworn trick among people too intellectually lazy to look for a single academic study or statistical fact.  

As I have shown before, Mr. Frank has a history of abusing bogus statistics culled from dubious sources. 

To simply assert “there’s no credible evidence,” however, is much worse than distorting the facts. 

It amounts to claiming that he has the ability and the right to suppress facts not to his liking. 

Over the past year I have repeatedly cited several major studies showing that pushing the highest marginal tax rates even higher is extremely dangerous to economic growth; Stanford economist Michael Boskin lists half a dozen of them in his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed.   

For Mr. Frank to assert that such studies are not “credible” simply reveals his own inability to find credible evidence to support his own untenable position.

Should We Blame Obama, Rangel, and Baucus if People Die to Escape the Death Tax?

The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses – “their life’s work” – to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

The Importance of Incentives

NPR reports on more doctors giving up private practices and going to work for hospitals. Hospitals think they can manage care better and get more patients, and doctors like being relieved of administrative headaches. But it isn’t a perfect solution. Reporter Jenny Gold notes one of the problems:

GOLD: This isn’t the first time hospitals have gone doctor shopping. In the 1990s, hospitals bought up as many practices as possible. Dr. Bill Jessee is the president of the Medical Group Management Association. He remembers the ’90s as something of a disaster.

Dr. BILL JESSEE (President, Medical Group Management Association): The first thing a lot of physicians did was took a vacation. And when they came back, they weren’t working as hard as they were before their practice was acquired.

Indeed. This is a standard insight of economics. People work harder when they have something to gain. There are real benefits to the division of labor, including corporations where salaried employees contribute to a joint product, but there are also risks that employees won’t work as hard when their compensation isn’t directly tied to their output. Managers and economists have searched for solutions to the “shirking” problem. In this case the hospitals are experimenting with bonus systems based on how many patients the doctors see. The problem is much more significant, of course, in government, which is far more restricted in its ability to use merit pay, bonuses, or other performance-related pay systems. Thus the widespread impression that government employees don’t work as hard as private-sector employees – and one reason that it’s a good idea to leave as many services as possible in the private sector.

The NPR story also reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television. Gladwell dismisses the romantic notion of the lone inventor and says that Farnsworth would have been better off working for a big corporation, where other people would have worried about raising capital, fending off lawsuits, and all the little details of management and left Farnsworth free to invent:

Farnsworth was forced to work in a state of chronic insecurity. He never had enough money….he did not understand how to raise money or run a business or organize his life. All he really knew how to do was invent, which was something that, as a solo operator, he too seldom had time for.

This is the reason that so many of us work for big companies, of course: in a big company, there is always someone to do what we do not want to do or do not do well–someone to answer the phone, and set up our computer, and arrange our health insurance, and clean our office at night, and make sure the building is insured. In a famous 1937 essay, “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist Ronald Coase said that the reason we have corporations is to reduce the everyday transaction costs of doing business: a company puts an accountant on the staff so that if a staffer needs to check the books all he has to do is walk down the hall. It’s an obvious point, but one that is consistently overlooked, particularly by those who periodically rail, in the name of efficiency, against corporate bloat and superfluous middle managers. Yes, the middle manager does not always contribute directly to the bottom line. But he does contribute to those who contribute to the bottom line, and only an absurdly truncated account of human productivity–one that assumes real work to be somehow possible when phones are ringing, computers are crashing, and health insurance is expiring–does not see that secondary contribution as valuable….

Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for RCA. He would still have been the father of television, and he might have died a happy man.

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Obama’s Wants a 23.9% Capital Gains Tax, but the Rate Actually Will Be Much Higher Because of Inflation

Thanks to the Obamacare legislation, we already know there will be a new 3.9 percent payroll tax on all investment income earned by so-called rich taxpayers beginning in 2013. And the capital gains tax rate will jump to 20 percent next year if the President gets his way. This sounds bad (and it is), but the news is even worse than you think. Here’s a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that exposes the atrociously unfair practice of imposing this levy on inflationary gains.

The mini-documentary uses a simple but powerful example of what happens to an investor who bought an asset 10 years ago for $5,000 and sold it this year for $6,000. The IRS will want 15 percent of the $1,000 gain (Obama wants the tax burden on capital gains to climb to 23.9 percent, but that’s a separate issue). Some people may think that a 15 percent tax is reasonable, but how many of those people understand that inflation during the past 10 years was more than 27 percent, and $6,000 today is actually worth only about $4,700 after adjusting for the falling value of the dollar? I’m not a math genius, but if the government imposes a $150 tax (15 percent of $1,000) on an investor who lost nearly $300 ($5,000 became $4,700), that translates into an infinite tax rate. And if Obama pushed the tax rate to almost 24 percent, that infinite tax rate gets…um…even more infinite.

The right capital gains tax, of course, is zero.