Topic: General

Turn “Banned Books Week” into “Educational Freedom Week”

We are in the midst of “Banned Books Week,” a time dedicated not so much to shining light on books that have actually been banned—that no one may legally read—but that parents object to their children being forced or encouraged to read by the public schools for which they must pay and, de facto, use. Such parents are frequently accused of “banning,” but are often really objecting to a public school—a government school—pushing their children to read material they think violates their religious convictions, is offensive, or is just age-inappropriate. They aren’t trying to ban books, they are trying to escape government-privileged reading they do not think is right for their kids. It is parents doing what school boards, librarians, and teachers do whenever they assign or purchase one book, and reject another.

The more basic violation is not parents objecting to books—a free society lets people freely choose what they read, and parents are the guardians of their children—but government placing some people’s speech above others. Indeed, public schools are supposedly democratically controlled, so in theory every parent is supposed to be able to raise objections to any book, and if they can convince a majority to remove it that is supposed to be just fine. But the country is not supposed to be a democracy. Rather, it is built on individual liberty that is to be defended even against—perhaps especially against—the majority will.

But how do you protect liberty with a public schooling system? How can one elementary school, or district, to which people are assigned based on their home address, tailor instruction and readings to each individual family and child?

The answer is it can’t, and one consequence is wrenching, divisive conflict. You can get a sense for this with Cato’s interactive Public Schooling Battle Map, which contains summaries of more than 220 book battles in public schools. And the map only contains conflicts that have made headlines or been reported to the American Library Association. Likely many others have occurred that did not make the news, and no doubt many parents object to readings but do not feel they can fight.

Infrastructure Spending and the Charleston Seaport

George Will’s oped the other day argued that Congress should hurry up and fund an expansion in the Charleston, South Carolina, seaport. But his piece revealed why the federal government should reduce its intervention in the nation’s infrastructure, not increase it, as Clinton and Trump are proposing.

The Charleston seaport has become crucial to South Carolina’s economy. Will notes that “1 of every 11 South Carolina jobs — and $53 billion in economic output are directly or indirectly related to Charleston’s port.”

There is a problem, however. The Charleston seaport:

needs further dredging in order to handle more of the biggest ships, which is where Congress enters the picture: Unless it authorizes the project and appropriates the federal portion of the $509 million cost to augment South Carolina’s already committed $300 million, the project will be delayed a year. The deepening project is only 14 percent of the $2.2 billion South Carolina is investing in its port facilities and related access.

The biggest ships pay more than $1 million to transit the [Panama] canal; if they miss their transit time, their fee is doubled. Until the port is deepened, too few can be handled here simultaneously, and they can enter and leave the port only at high tide.

Work “Nonprofit”? Get Free Grad School!

The Cato Institute is a 501(c)(3)—a nonprofit organization. Of course, as an employee I get paid more than my job costs me—I make what you might call “profit”—but because of the tax designation of my employer, I could be getting big forgiveness on any federal student loans I might have. Indeed, a new, quick-read report from the Brookings Institution shows that someone could potentially get all of their graduate schooling covered for free through the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program which, by the way, is expected to cost the American taxpayer a lot more than originally anticipated.

The general way PSLF operates is if you work for government, a 501(c)3 organization, or some other qualifying entity like a public interest law firm, you can get the remainder of your federal student loans forgiven after 10 years of regular payments. Sound great? Well don’t order yet! Those payments are also controlled, capped at 10 percent of income above 150 percent of the poverty line. So a single person would pay nothing on income below $17,820, and 10 percent on income above that. And it doesn’t matter if you get paid more than your job-description doppelganger in a for-profit venture—as long as you work for a “nonprofit” you qualify for PSLF.

The Brookings report describes how someone could essentially get a graduate degree for free through PSLF as long as he had substantial—but not huge—undergraduate debt and worked in a relatively low-paid field. Of course, many people will want to earn more than low pay, but PSLF furnishes strong incentives to stick with a low-paying job for awhile, or more likely, take on much bigger debt and all the nice-to-have college stuff that goes with big college revenue.

Go ahead, future Jack McCoy, take that dip in the lazy river!

Of course, this is not free to taxpayers, many of whom have not gone to college, or may work in struggling for-profit businesses, or may even have thought the right thing to do was to get an inexpensive—and frill free—education. But according to the report, their PSLF bill is rising as enrollment in the program is much higher than anticipated, and nearly one-third of enrollees have debt exceeding $100,000. The report doesn’t give estimated total costs because those are very hard to predict, but estimates of what would be saved with controls such as capping forgivable amounts have risen by more than 2000 percent just from 2014 to 2016! The figures are in the billions of dollars.

There is a strong argument, of course, that there is nothing more noble about working for government, or a nonprofit hospital, or even a think tank, than owning a neighborhood shoe store, or being an accountant at Apple, or risking all you have on a new, entrepreneurial venture, all of which seek to offer things of value to other people. Heck, it is the production of goods and services for profit that gives us the “excess” wealth that enables us to pay for government and all its programs. But few employees, regardless for whom they work, are losing money on their jobs, and many—see, for instance, federal workers—make big profits from their nonprofit jobs not just financially, but also with lots of vacation time, or job security, or simply doing something fun every day.

We’re all working for profit. Why should we be treated—especially given big costs and unintended consequences—differently just because of our employers’ tax designation?

The Unsung Economic Success Story of New Zealand

When writing a few days ago about the newly updated numbers from Economic Freedom of the World, I mentioned in passing that New Zealand deserves praise “for big reforms in the right direction.”

And when I say big reforms, this isn’t exaggeration or puffery.

Back in 1975, New Zealand’s score from EFW was only 5.60. To put that in perspective, Greece’s score today is 6.93 and France is at 7.30. In other words, New Zealand was a statist basket cast 40 years ago, with a degree of economic liberty akin to where Ethiopia is today and below the scores we now see in economically unfree nations such as Ukraine and Pakistan.

But then policy began to move in the right direction; between 1985 and 1995 especially, the country became a Mecca for market-oriented reforms. The net result is that New Zealand’s score dramatically improved and it is now comfortably ensconced in the top-5 for economic freedom, usually trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

To appreciate what’s happened in New Zealand, let’s look at excerpts from a 2004 speech by Maurice McTigue, who served in the New Zealand parliament and held several ministerial positions.

He starts with a description of the dire situation that existed prior to the big wave of reform.

Did The U.S. Lose 2.4 Million Jobs from China Imports?

A major Wall Street Journal article claims, “A group of economists that includes Messrs. Hanson and Autor estimates that Chinese competition was responsible for 2.4 million jobs lost in the U.S. between 1999 and 2011.”  In a recent interview with the Minneapolis Fed, however, David Autor said, “That 2 million number is something of an upper bound, as we stress.” The central estimate was a 10% job loss which works out to 1.2 million jobs in 2011, rather than 2.4 million.  Since 2011, however, the U.S. added 600,000 manufacturing jobs – while imports from China rose by 21% – so both the job loss estimate and its alleged link to trade (rather than recession) need a second look.

“The China Shock,” by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson examined the effect of manufactured imports from one country (China) on local U.S. labor markets. That is interesting and useful as far as it goes.  But a microeconomic model designed for local “commuting zones” cannot properly be extended to the entire national economy without employing a macroeconomic model.  

For one thing, the authors look only at one side of trade – imports – and only between two countries.  They ignore rising U.S. exports to China - including soaring U.S. service exports to China.  They are at best discussing one side of bilateral trade. And they fail to consider spillover effects of China’s soaring imports from other countries (such as Australia, Hong Kong and Canada) which were then able to use the extra income to buy more U.S. exports. 

Autor, Dorn and Hanson offer a seemingly rough estimate that “had import competition not grown after 1999” then there would have been 10% more U.S. manufacturing jobs in 2011.  In that hypothetical “if-then” sense, they suggest that “direct import competition [could] amount to 10 percent of the realized job loss” from 1999 to 2011. 

Micro-Housing, Meet Modern Zoning

Beginning in 2009, developers in Seattle became leaders in micro-housing. As the name suggests, micro-housing consists of tiny studio apartments or small rooms in dorm-like living quarters. These diminutive homes come in at around 150–220 sq. ft. each and usually aren’t accompanied by a lot of frills. Precisely because of their size and modesty, this option provides a cost-effective alternative to the conventional, expensive, downtown Seattle apartment model.

Unfortunately, in the years following its creation, micro-housing development has all but disappeared. It isn’t that Seattle prohibited micro-housing outright. Instead, micro-housing’s gradual demise was death by a thousand cuts, with a mushroom cloud of incremental zoning regulation finally doing it in for good. Design review requirements, floor space requirements, amenity requirements, and location prohibitions constitute just a few of the Seattle Planning Commission’s assorted weapons of choice.

As a result of the exacting new regulations placed on tiny homes, Seattle lost an estimated 800 units of low-cost housing per year. While this free market (and free to the taxpayer) solution faltered, Seattle poured millions into various housing initiatives that subsidize housing supply or housing demand, all on the taxpayer’s dole.

Sadly, Seattle’s story is anything but unusual. Over the past almost one hundred years, the unintended consequences of well-meaning zoning regulations have played out in counterproductive ways time and time again. Curiously, in government circles zoning’s myriad failures are met with calls for more regulations and more restrictions—no doubt with more unintended consequences—to patch over the failures of past regulations gone wrong.

In pursuit of the next great fix, cities try desperately to mend the damage that they’ve already done. Euphemistically-titled initiatives like “inclusionary zoning” (because who doesn’t want to be included?) force housing developers to produce low-cost apartments in luxury apartment buildings, thereby increasing the price of rent for everyone else. Meanwhile, “housing stabilization policies” (because who doesn’t want housing stabilized?) prohibit landlords from evicting tenants that don’t pay their rent, thereby increasing the difficulty low-income individuals face in getting approved for an apartment in the first place.

The thought seems to be that even though zoning regulations of the past have systematically jacked up housing prices, intentionally and unintentionally produced racial and class segregation, and simultaneously reduced economic opportunities and limited private property rights, what else could go wrong?

Perhaps government planners could also determine how to restrict children’s access to good schools or safe neighborhoods. Actually, zoning regulations already do that, too.

Given the recent failures of zoning policies, it seems prudent for government planners to begin exercising a bit of humility, rather than simply proposing the same old shtick with a contemporary twist.

After all, they say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Another Lesson from Bastiat: So-Called Employment Protection Legislation Is Bad News for Workers

Frederic Bastiat, the great French economist (yes, such creatures used to exist) from the 1800s, famously observed that a good economist always considers both the “seen” and “unseen” consequences of any action.

A sloppy economist looks at the recipients of government programs and declares that the economy will be stimulated by this additional money that is easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that the government can’t redistribute money without doing unseen damage by first taxing or borrowing it from the private sector.

A sloppy economist looks at bailouts and declares that the economy will be stronger because the inefficient firms that stay in business are easily seen, whereas a good economist recognizes that such policies imposes considerable unseen damage by promoting moral hazard and undermining the efficient allocation of labor and capital.

We now have another example to add to our list. Many European nations have “social protection” laws that are designed to shield people from the supposed harshness of capitalism. And part of this approach is so-called Employment Protection Legislation, which ostensibly protects workers by, for instance, making layoffs very difficult.