Topic: Government and Politics

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.

President-elect Trump

President-elect Donald Trump. That’s a phrase I never expected to see. Like most Washingtonians, journalists, and political observers around the country, I never took his candidacy seriously. And now here we are, in thoroughly uncharted waters. I don’t think we’ve ever had a president with less apparent knowledge of or interest in policy, which makes it difficult to assess the direction of policy over the next few years. The few issues that did seem to motivate Trump were strikingly unattractive from a libertarian perspective, notably his hostility to international trade and immigration.

Back in January I wrote this in a National Review symposium:

From a libertarian point of view—and I think serious conservatives and liberals would share this view—Trump’s greatest offenses against American tradition and our founding principles are his nativism and his promise of one-man rule.

Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign. Trump launched his campaign talking about Mexican rapists and has gone on to rant about mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, and building a wall around America. America is an exceptional nation in large part because we’ve aspired to rise above such prejudices and guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone. Equally troubling is his idea of the presidency—his promise that he’s the guy, the man on a white horse, who can ride into Washington, fire the stupid people, hire the best people, and fix everything. He doesn’t talk about policy or working with Congress. He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat. It’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.

Nothing much changed over the ensuing 10 months. Except that Trump won the election. He is now president-elect, and scholars and activists on all sides are waiting to see what his actual policies will be. Some of my friends are excited about the prospects for tax cuts, deregulation, repeal of Obamacare, the appointment of conservative or classical liberal Supreme Court justices, and a change in our interventionist foreign policy. Others—and sometimes the same people—worry about threats to world trade and an open society, religious tests, and a president who seems vindictive, inclined to conflate his private business with public affairs, and predisposed toward an authoritarian mindset.

Go Big and Grant Milton Friedman His Wish

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) held a press conference a few days ago where he said that GOP control of the Congress and White House afforded his party the opportunity “to go big, to go bold.”  There has been talk of rolling back regulations and Obamacare.  That’s good news, but Ryan should consider a bigger and bolder move: End federal income tax withholding. 

The “political establishment” has created a situation where the U.S. is trillions of dollars in debt.  How will the new Congress address that?  The fiscal scandal is too abstract for many voters to grasp so too many of them don’t think twice about supporting new spending measures, such as free college tuition or what have you.  To build the necessary political support for otherwise unpopular spending cuts, Ryan should quickly move to end federal income tax withholding.  If American households would stop viewing their tax refund checks as happy windfalls from politicians and instead better understood how much big government is costing them every year, one would expect to see louder demands to bring runaway spending under control and to downsize the scope of federal programs and operations.  The GOP honeymoon will be over in a few months.  Ending federal withholding will help build support for spending cuts over the next few years and perhaps beyond.

Ironically, it was the late, great Milton Friedman who helped devise the modern income tax withholding system when he worked in the Treasury Department during World War II.  He was fixated on tax collection efficiency at that time, not limiting the size of government.  Late in his life, Friedman said that he wished “there were some way of abolishing withholding now.”  Former congressman Dick Armey (R-Tex) proposed ending withholding when the GOP took control of the House in 1994, but Bill Clinton was never going to sign that measure into law.  Now that the GOP has both the Congress and the White House, it has a real opportunity to go big and bold.  Grant Friedman his wish and get our fiscal house in order.

For related Cato scholarship, go here.

How President Trump Can Fix Veterans’ Benefits Once And For All

Another Veterans Day brought another round of lamentations about the Department of Veterans Affairs and promises to fix it.

President-elect Donald Trump promised to do so throughout the campaign. Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is skeptical. Veterans are “used to big promises and disappointing results,” he says. “Fixing the VA might be one of the biggest challenges for President Trump. Every president says they’re going to do it, yet we’ve still got a VA with backlogs and massive problems.”

If Trump tries to fix the VA the same way other presidents have, he will fail. But there is a way he can succeed.

Trump’s predecessors failed because they tried to work within a model of top-down, centralized economic planning. The Veterans Health Administration is America’s only purely government-run health system. Its closest analogue is probably the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. The VHA even produces the same results as the NHS: chronic shortages and long waits for care alongside idle and wasted resources, instances of horrific care, and often good care, you know, if you can get it.

Presidents can and have fixed such problems temporarily by moving resources from here to there, or investing in some new system. It never lasts, though. The VHA is a socialist enterprise. Unlike a market system, it has no price mechanism or competitive pressures that automatically fix such problems when they re-emerge. And not only do they always re-emerge, Congress usually takes forever to get off its duff. If Trump retains the VA’s basic structure, he will join a long line of presidents who have failed our nation’s veterans.

How to Privatize the VA 

Trump can distinguish himself from other presidents by working with Congress to create a system of veterans benefits that fixes problems automatically. Here’s how.

First, the federal government should increase military pay sufficient to enable workers to purchase–from private insurers at actuarially fair rates–a package of life, disability, and health benefits equivalent to what the VA provides. Benefits would kick in as soon as they leave active duty and cover veterans’ service-related disabilities or illnesses for life.

Second, having privatized the insurance component of veterans benefits, the federal government should then privatize the delivery component. It should incorporate the VHA as a private company and issue shares to active-duty personnel and veterans based on length of service or other criteria.

You read that right. Military personnel and veterans would literally own the VHA, including its many hospitals and other facilities. Privatizing the VA would both increase the pay of active-duty personnel, and create a massive wealth transfer to active-duty personnel and veterans. Veterans would be able to receive medical care from health systems owned and operated by veterans, for veterans.

Third, the federal government should give current veterans vouchers to purchase insurance and medical care from the insurers and health systems of their choice, including the new veteran-owned and -operated systems.

Privatization Means Better Benefits for Veterans 

Privatization would improve the quality of veterans’ benefits immeasurably.

The federal government promises veterans’ benefits to military personnel once they leave active duty. Only it’s not an explicit promise. And Congress doesn’t fund it. As a result, Congress can–and does–renege on that commitment.