Topic: Government and Politics

Our Sensitive President-Elect

Yesterday the President-elect of the United States tweeted:

Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!

This view directly contradicts First Amendment doctrine established in the case of Texas v. Johnson (1989). Texas had outlawed desecration of venerated objects including the American flag. The state argued this prohibition protected a symbol of national unity and precluded breaches of the peace by those who would take offense at the flag being burned.

Gregory Johnson, a demonstrator at the 1984 Republican Convention, burned a flag as part of a protest. Johnson and his fellow protesters chanted “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you” while the flag burned. He was convicted of destroying the flag and sentenced to a year in jail and fined $2,000. Texas thus did exactly what the President-elect wants concerning flag burning.

A five-member majority of the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning constituted “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, Johnson burned the flag in 1984 to express a series of political views. The Court ruled that prohibiting this speech did not and was unlikely to prevent violence. As to national unity, Justice William Brennan noted an earlier statement by the Court:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Concurring with the opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.

This tweet marks at least the second time the President-elect has repudiated settled First Amendment doctrine. He earlier criticized the broad protection for free speech enunciated in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), a decision that complicated suing speakers for libel.

Donald Trump wishes to criminalize flag burning for giving offense to those who value what the American flag represents. Many others have called for limiting speech that offends religions or ethnic groups. In The Tyranny of Silence, Cato’s own Flemming Rose recounts that some Muslim clerics in Europe called for censorship of speech giving offense to Islam. No doubt Mr. Trump would not join their calls for protecting the faith. But he does agree with those radical clerics that giving offense should justify government limits on free speech.

I wonder if the President-elect understands why his comments disturb so many people who differ otherwise about so much. He appears to oppose basic ideals underpinning liberal democracy. He is also the President-elect.

DC’s Paid Family Leave Bucks the Trend—and Economics

As the Washington DC City Council prepares to vote on a bill that would provide workers in Washington, DC up to 11 weeks of paid family leave upon the birth of a child, a fundamental question remains unanswered: how much should government intervene in how employers compensate workers?

The federal government does so quite a bit at present. By exempting employer-provided health insurance from income taxes, our tax law is responsible for the fact that a majority of Americans get their health insurance from their employer. The exemption is also largely responsible for the fact that so many of these employers have what can only be described as overly generous health insurance plans, which can cover health care expenses both routine and exceptional.

The tax code also nudged American businesses to provide pensions as well, since the money set aside in a defined benefit plan generally isn’t taxed. When pension law created the tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance these spouted up instead.

In the heyday of unionism, labor union leaders pushed for more fringe benefits for their workers, often more fervently than they sought out wage increases. They did so in part because of the tax break—why not get a tax-free benefit for workers rather than have workers pay for the same benefit with after-tax wages, they reasoned—and partly because such benefits could be made more durable than other forms of compensation. For instance, the UAW contracts in the 1970s-1990s typically provided health insurance for laid-off workers for up to a year after they were let go, and sometimes longer.

This wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the U.S. economy. Rigid compensation meant that companies resorted to overtime when demand picked up rather than hire more workers. While it also deterred them from laying off workers when there was a downturn in demand since the attendant cost savings would be slight, the short-term stability was an ephemeral benefit to workers. There were fewer jobs available as a result and it did nothing to encourage employment growth in such industries.

Some of these benefits were jettisoned—or at least scaled back—after the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler in 2008—fifteen years after at Caterpillar—and today the manufacturing workers in a union are much more likely to have a 401k, health insurance with co-pays, deductibles and a monthly contribution, and modest ancillary benefits.

Unions changed course only in part because of their reduced leverage after the diminution of manufacturing in the U.S. economy. They also perceived that their workers would rather have money than an additional benefit. Also, the realization that many workers’ manufacturing jobs may be less permanent than a generation ago also helped change demand. A long-term benefit means little for someone who worries that their job may not exist after the next recession.

Does “Wagner’s Law” Mean Libertarians Should Acquiesce to Big Government?

There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a budget-cutting businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting—albeit depressing—article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

Defending Privilege in a World of Disruptive Innovation

Two front-page stories in the Metro section of Monday’s Washington Post depict protected service providers desperately trying to fight off innovations that might serve customers better and threaten the comfortable incomes of the established providers.

First up, Tesla and the automobile dealers:

Don Hall, president of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, was making the hard sell.

Staring directly into the camera, using the language of war, he urged car dealers to unite against a force that he said threatened their livelihoods: electric-car-maker Tesla….

The reason that Hall was sounding the alarm: Tesla, which sells its cars directly to consumers rather than through franchise dealers, is trying to open a second store in Virginia.

Car dealers in Virginia and across the country have been fighting Tesla, seeing the company’s direct-to-consumer sales model as a threat to the franchise system that they say protects consumers as well as their own business interests.

In Virginia, as in most states, it is generally illegal for manufacturers to sell cars directly to consumers.
Like all regulatory rent-seekers, the automobile dealers have some public interest rationales, such as the claim that customers benefit by being able to shop for service among multiple dealers of the same automobile. But their arguments may rest more firmly on the fact that “over the past decade, VADA has given Virginia politicians $4 million in campaign contributions.”
 
Private companies aren’t the only protected providers. Just below the Tesla story was one about advocates of the federally funded school voucher program in the District of Columbia hoping that a new president will be more supportive of school choice than President Obama has been. Defenders of the traditional school monopoly are not giving up:

The prospect of an expanded voucher program is not a welcome one among the District’s elected officials, who chafe as Congress — where the District has no vote — passes laws that shape the landscape of city education. Many also are ideologically opposed and worry that an expanded voucher program could threaten the progress and growth of the city’s traditional public and public charter schools.

“I’m 100 percent opposed to public dollars going to private schools like this,” said D.C. Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has spoken forcefully against the voucher program for years.

In a world where millions of students, especially low-income and urban kids, are getting a poor education, teachers unions and school bureaucracies have been fighting choice programs for more than two decades. Just like automobile dealers, they put their own interests ahead of those of their customers.

I should note that Clayton Christensen, who coined the term “disruptive innovation,” would probably say that these examples don’t qualify. Maybe I should just use the older term “creative destruction.” By any name, it’s people trying to protect their own lucrative position against competitors who think they can serve consumer needs better.

Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Andrew Jackson, and Infrastructure

On his radio show last night, Mark Levin asked his audience whether they thought President-elect Donald Trump would turn out to be a big-government Richard Nixon or a small-government Ronald Reagan. On the infrastructure issue, I fear that we may be headed in a big government direction.

Trump, of course, is a “populist,” not a small-government conservative. His advisor, Stephen Bannon, indicated the other day what that means:

Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” Stephen K. Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.

Bannon should know that on fiscal policy, Jackson’s populism was anti-debt and small government. Echoing Thomas Jefferson’s views, Jackson thought that federal debt undermined liberty, and he pushed to eradicate it. Jackson’s views were in tune with the public, which strongly supported frugality in the federal government.

Jackson and his allies were dubious of federal investments in infrastructure (“internal improvements”). His vice president, Martin Van Buren, thought that “Congress had no power to construct roads and canals within the states.” He said that spending on such projects “was sure in the end to impoverish the National Treasury by improvident grants to private companies and State works, and to corrupt Federal legislation by the opportunities it would present for favoritism.”

On assuming office, Jackson made a list of his priorities, including “the Public debt paid off, the Tariff modified and no power usurped over internal improvements.” In his first inaugural address, he promised “extinguishment of the national debt, the unnecessary duration of which is incompatible with real independence.” Jackson famously vetoed funding of Kentucky’s Maysville Road in 1830, citing constitutional objections and his goal of debt elimination.

Jackson was also skeptical of federal investments for practical reasons. In his 1830 message to Congress, he said, “Positive experience, and a more thorough consideration of the subject, have convinced me of the impropriety as well as inexpediency of such investments.” One practical concern was what we now call “crony capitalism.” Jackson noted that when the government gave some initial subsidies to companies, they tended to get hooked on the hand-outs and kept coming back for more.

In his book about the Jackson era, Carl Lane concluded that federal debt elimination, “Americans in the Jacksonian era believed, would improve the material quality of life in the United States. It would reduce taxes, increase disposable income, reduce the privileges of the creditor class, and, in general, generate greater equality as well as liberty.”

Back then, the belief was that a frugal federal government that balanced its books and did not interfere in state and local matters would secure liberty and benefit average citizens. That is the type of Jacksonian populism that Bannon and Trump should pursue.

The Simple Analytics of Why President-Elect Trump’s Policies Will Probably Result in a Trade War with China

The United States has recorded a trade deficit in each year since 1975. This is not surprising. After all, we spend more than we save, and this deficit is financed via a virtually unlimited U.S. line of credit with the rest of the world. In short, foreigners in countries that save more than they spend (read: record trade surpluses) ship the U.S. funds to finance America’s insatiable spending appetites.

Japan and more recently China have been the primary creditors for the savings-deficient U.S. And since their exports are largely manufactured goods, the real counterpart of their buildup of dollar claims on Americans is for them to run export surpluses in manufactured goods with the U.S. The accompanying chart shows the contribution of Japan and China to the U.S. trade deficit since the late 70s.

Percentage Contribution to U.S. Trade Deficit by Country

So, the U.S. savings deficiency has contributed to the hollowing out of American manufacturing. But, you wouldn’t know it by listening to President-elect Trump. He never mentions America’s savings deficiency. Instead, he claims that American manufacturing has been eaten alive by foreigners who use unfair trade practices and manipulate their currencies to artificially weak levels. This is nonsense.

To get a handle on why the President-elect Trump – and many others in Washington, including the newly-elected Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer – are so misguided and dangerous, let’s take a look at Japan. From the early 1970s until 1995, Japan was America’s economic enemy. The mercantilists in Washington asserted that unfair Japanese trading practices caused the trade deficit and destroyed U.S. manufacturing. Washington also asserted that, if the yen appreciated against the dollar, America’s problems would be solved.

Supreme Court Takes on the Empire State’s Language Police

In Federalist 10, James Madison warned of “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” These groups—“factions” in Madison’s terms—come together to seek concentrated benefits from favorable legislation and regulation rather than competing in the marketplace, while spreading the costs throughout society.

While Madison conceded that such interests could not be stopped completely, he suggested that certain steps could be taken to mitigate the “effects” of these groups, and the damage that they can do to the public interest. The First Amendment is one such protection.

The New York legislature, however, ignored the First Amendment rights of both merchants and consumers when—at the behest of the credit-card lobby—it passed a law restricting how retailers can convey pricing schemes, as well as the public’s right to know about them. New York’s no-surcharge law—like those in 10 other states—insulate credit-card companies from consumer knowledge about who is actually causing the higher prices on goods when they use their credit card (“swipe fees”). The law does this not by restricting the merchants’ ability to charge different prices as between cash and credit payments—that’s legal everywhere—but by regulating the communications about the different prices.

To put it simply: the law allows merchants to offer “discounts” to cash-paying customers, but makes it a crime to impose economically equivalent “surcharges” on those who use plastic. By mandating how these merchants convey their pricing structure, New York is restricting speech on the basis of its content, which would seem to be an obvious First Amendment violation.

A federal district court agreed—as have two other federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit when it struck down a similar Florida law. The district court held that the law “plainly regulates speech”—not conduct—by drawing a line between prohibited “surcharges” and permissible “discounts” based solely on words and labels. The Second Circuit disagreed, however, holding that the law regulates “merely prices,” not speech. Cato filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take up this important case, and the Court has agreed to do so.

Along with the Pacific Legal Foundation, we have now filed another brief asking the Court to rule that collusion between business interests and state government can’t be used to circumvent constitutional rights. Indeed, the Framers sought to protect speech from the type of cronyism and rent-seeking the New York’s no-surcharge law manifests.