New at Cato Unbound: Will Wilkinson Discusses Inequality and Justice

American income inequality is rising, we are told. By some measures, this is true – but what should we do about it? In this month’s Cato Unbound, Will Wilkinson discusses the politics of inequality. He asks a question that in my (perhaps biased) opinion deserves more attention: If income inequality is bad, and if it’s rising, why is income redistribution the answer? Shouldn’t we correct the underlying problem, rather than just one of its symptoms?

This underlying problem could be anything from high imprisonment rates, to inadequate schools, to corrupt CEOs – or a combination of these and other factors. It may be harder to fix these things than it would be to tax the rich more heavily. But correcting income inequality with redistribution may only mask an underlying injustice, or several of them, each with other bad effects on our society.

All through this week, we will have response essays by thoughtful commentators – sociologist Lane Kenworthy, economist John V. C. Nye, and philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. Be sure to stop by and see what they have to say about inequality in America, why it matters, and what we should do about it.

Are Industrialized Countries Responsible for Reducing the Well Being of Developing Countries?

A basic contention of developing countries (DCs) and various UN bureaucracies and multilateral groups during the course of International negotiations on climate change is that industrialized countries (ICs) have a historical responsibility for global warming.  This contention underlies much of the justification for insisting not only that industrialized countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions even as developing countries are given a bye on emission reductions, but that they also subsidize clean energy development and adaptation in developing countries. [It is also part of the rationale that industrialized countries should pay reparations for presumed damages from climate change.]

Based on the above contention, the Kyoto Protocol imposes no direct costs on developing countries and holds out the prospect of large amounts of transfer payments from industrialized to developing countries via the Clean Development Mechanism or an Adaptation Fund. Not surprisingly, virtually every developing country has ratified the Protocol and is adamant that these features be retained in any son-of-Kyoto.

For their part, UN and other multilateral agencies favor this approach because lacking any taxing authority or other ready mechanism for raising revenues, they see revenues in helping manage, facilitate or distribute the enormous amounts of money that, in theory, should be available from ICs to fund mitigation and adaptation in the DCs.

Continue reading here.

What Does the State Department Not Want Us to Know about Honduras?

Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina recently traveled to Honduras and found—no surprise—a peaceful country and broad support for the ouster of President Zelaya among members of civil society, the supreme court, political parties and others. In an op-ed in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, DeMint describes his trip in light of Washington’s continuing support of Zelaya and its condemnation of what it calls a “coup.” U.S. policy is mystifying since the ousted president’s removal from office was a rare example in Latin America of an institutional defense of democracy as envisioned by the constitution and interpreted by the Supreme Court that ruled that the president be removed. (For independent opinions on the case, see here and here.)

However, the Senator reports a legal analysis at the State Department prepared by its top lawyer that apparently has informed Washington’s policy but that has not been made public nor even released to DeMint despite his repeated requests. In the interest of democracy and transparency, the State Department should immediately release its legal report. Maybe then we (which includes much of the hemisphere) will be less mystified about what is driving Washington policy toward Honduras. Or at least we’ll have a better insight on the administration’s understanding of democracy.

Why the Democrats’ Health Care Overhaul May Die

The problem that Democrats have faced from Day One is finally coming to a head.

The Left and the health care industry both want universal health insurance coverage.  The industry, because universal coverage means massive new government subsidies. The Left, because that’s their religion.

But universal coverage is so expensive that Congress can’t get there without taxing Democrats.

  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is the biggest opponent of Sen. Max Baucus’ (D-MT) tax on expensive health plans because that tax would hit West Virginia coal miners.
  • Unions vigorously oppose that tax because it would hit their members.
  • Moderate Democrats in the House oppose Rep. Charlie Rangel’s (D-NY) supposed “millionaires surtax” because they know it would hit small businesses in their districts.

And on and on…

But if congressional leaders pare back those taxes, they lose the support of the health care industry, which wants its subsidies.

  • That’s why the health insurance lobby funded this PriceWaterhouseCoopers study saying that premiums would rise under the Baucus bill: the $500 billion bailout they would receive isn’t enough.  They also want – they demand –  steep taxes on Americans who don’t buy their products.
  • The drug companies, the hospitals, and the physician groups are likewise demanding big subsidies, and will run ads to kill the whole effort if those subsidies aren’t big enough.

As always, health economist Uwe Reinhardt put it colorfully:

It’s no different from Iraq with all the different tribes…‘How does it affect the money flow to my interest group?’  They are all sitting in the woods with their machine guns, waiting to shoot.

Once the shooting starts, industry opposition will sway even Democratic members, because there are physicians and hospitals and employers and insurance-industry employees in every state and congressional district.

Can President Obama and the congressional leadership satisfy both groups?  My guess is, probably not, and this misguided effort at “reform” will therefore die.  Again.

Columbus Day Links

  • A strategy for Afghanistan: Instead of sending thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan, the US should focus on assisting and training Afghan forces.

Paul Krugman vs. The Daily Show

In a recent New York Times column (“The Uneducated American”), Paul Krugman writes that, “for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” As a result, Krugman continues, U.S. education has been “neglected” and “has inevitably suffered.”

Readers who put their trust in Krugman might thus conclude that per pupil spending has stagnated or declined. In reality, as the chart below reveals, it has more than doubled since 1970, after adjusting for inflation.

Paul Krugman may not be an “uneducated American,” but he’s certainly a badly misinformed one.

andrew coulson cato education spending

Much more troubling is the fact that Krugman and the Times are spreading this misinformation on a grand scale. And that got me thinking about Jon Stewart. When Time magazine recently asked Americans to name their most trusted newscaster, the comic and Daily Show host won in a landslide.  Many pundits have taken this as a sign of the Apocalypse, worrying that so many Americans are getting their facts from a presumptively unreliable source. But is the Daily Show really less reliable than Paul Krugman and the New York Times?

To find out how they stack up on this particular question, I Googled the Daily Show’s website for any discussion of education spending. The most relevant hit was an exchange in the show’s on-line forum. In it, a commenter claims that spending per pupil has risen by a factor of 10 since 1945, after adjusting for inflation. That’s not too far off the mark. The actual multiple is just under 8. So folks who get their facts from the Daily Show’s website will be better informed on this subject than those who trust the Nobel Prize winning New York Times economist.

Not only is Krugman wrong to claim that public schools have been financially “neglected,” he is wrong to imagine that higher public school spending spurs economic growth – which is the central point of his column. Better academic achievement does help the economy – but, as the chart above illustrates and many scholarly studies have demonstrated, higher public school spending does not improve achievement. And by raising taxes without improving achievement, it may actually slow economic growth.

Media elites have been wringing their hands over the collapse in public demand for their products, over the two thirds of Americans who now doubt their credibility, and over the fact that more people now get their information from the Daily Show’s website than the New York Times’s.

Perhaps the media might attract more readers and rebuild trust if they were to stop publishing material less reliable than the blog discussions on a comedy show’s website. Just a thought.

Perpetuating Bad Housing Policy

Perhaps the worst feature of the bailouts and the stimulus has been that, whatever their merits as short terms fixes, they have done nothing to improve economic policy over the long haul; indeed, they compound past mistakes.

Here is a good example:

For months, troubled homeowners seeking to lower their mortgage payments under a federal plan have complained about bureaucratic bungling, ceaseless frustration and confusion. On Thursday, the Obama administration declared that the $75 billion program is finally providing broad relief after it pressured mortgage companies to move faster to modify more loans.

Five hundred thousand troubled homeowners have had their loan payments lowered on a trial basis under the Making Home Affordable Program.

The crucial words in the story are “$75 billion” and “pressured.”

No one should object if a lender, without subsidy and without pressure, renegotiates a mortgage loan. That can make sense for both lender and borrower because the foreclosure process is costly.

But Treasury’s attempt to subsidize and coerce loan modifications is fundamentally misguided. It means many homeowners will stay in homes, for now, that they cannot really afford, merely postponing the day of reckoning.

Treasury’s policy is also misguided because it presumes that everyone who owned a house before the meltdown should remain a homeowner. Likewise, Treasury’s view assumes that all the housing construction over the past decade made good economic sense.

Both presumptions are wrong. U.S. policy exerted enormous pressure for increased mortgage lending in the years leading up to the crisis, thereby generating too much housing construction, too much home ownership and inflated housing prices.

The right policy for the U.S. economy is to stop preventing foreclosures, to stop subsidizing mortgages, and to let the housing market adjust on its own. Otherwise, we will soon see a repeat of the fall of 2008.