Free Markets, Free People


I Don’t Think That Means What He Thinks It Means

Dan Neil, an LA Times entertainment writer, takes this lesson from the GM bankruptcy:

The final chapter of that merger plays out this week as GM weathers a reorganization that will leave the federal government owning 70% of the company. In the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s, it’s hard not to see GM’s bankruptcy as a signal moment in a larger history. If mighty GM can fail, cannot also the United States? And the answer is, absolutely.

This is the lesson of GM’s bankruptcy, and it has little to do with market share and miles per gallon. It’s a rebuff of the notion of exceptionalism. Any organization that fails to sufficiently safeguard its means of self-correction and reform, that forsakes long-term investment for short-term gain, that piles up debt year after year, will eventually fail, no matter how grand its history or noble its purpose. If you don’t feel the tingle of national mortality in all this, you’re not paying attention.

While I essentially agree with the thrust of his point, I don’t think the term “exceptionalism” as it is used when speaking of America, has anything to do with flouting the laws of economics. They are called “laws” for a reason, and no one has yet to find an “exception” to them. We have, however, discovered over and over again that attempts to make exceptions to them fail miserably.

The exceptionalism most speak of when they use the term in conjunction with America has to do with law, ethics and philosophy of life – the foundations of the country that make it exceptional. But economics? Of course we can “fail” if we do the stupid things we’re doing. And, unfortunately, we seem bound and determined right now to prove that point. But that has nothing to do with our “exceptionalism”.


Feldstein: Cap-and-Trade A “Bad Idea”

Martin Feldstein, a professor of economics at Harvard University, president emeritus of the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984 has concluded that the Waxman/Markey cap-and-trade legislation is a bad idea. He comes to that conclusion for a number of reasons.

First, his understanding of the legislation and its economic impact:

The leading legislative proposal, the Waxman-Markey bill that was recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would reduce allowable CO2 emissions to 83 percent of the 2005 level by 2020, then gradually decrease the amount further. Under the cap-and-trade system, the federal government would limit the total volume of CO2 that U.S. companies can emit each year and would issue permits that companies would be required to have for each ton of CO2 emitted. Once issued, these permits would be tradable and could be bought and sold, establishing a market price reflecting the targeted CO2 reduction, with a tougher CO2 standard and fewer available permits leading to higher prices.

Companies would buy permits from each other as long as it is cheaper to do that than to make the technological changes needed to eliminate an equivalent amount of CO2 emissions. Companies would also pass along the cost of the permits in their prices, pushing up the relative price of CO2-intensive goods and services such as gasoline, electricity and a range of industrial products. Consumers would respond by cutting back on consumption of CO2-intensive products in favor of other goods and services. This pass-through of the permit cost in higher consumer prices is the primary way the cap-and-trade system would reduce the production of CO2 in the United States.

Note that he doesn’t play any games when talking about where the cost of such permits will end up – passed through to consumers. He prefers the CBO’s lower estimate of the impact per family of about $1,600 per “typical” family to some of the higher estimates in the $3,000 t0 $4,000. But they’re all estimates and they all say, even at the low end, that the impact is going to be significant.

Feldstein then looks at the possible payoff and challenges Americans to ask a very pertinent question. He also calls the plan exactly what it is – a tax:

Americans should ask themselves whether this annual tax of $1,600-plus per family is justified by the very small resulting decline in global CO2. Since the U.S. share of global CO2 production is now less than 25 percent (and is projected to decline as China and other developing nations grow), a 15 percent fall in U.S. CO2 output would lower global CO2 output by less than 4 percent. Its impact on global warming would be virtually unnoticeable.

But its impact on the American economy? Well, you don’t have to be a Harvard economist to figure that out. And a quick glance at Europe and how quickly most of the countries there figured out a way to ignore Kyoto should tell you the rest of the story.

Feldstein may or may not believe the theory that says CO2 is a pollutant and the cause of “global climate change”. But what is clear is he certainly doesn’t believe our seeming desire to strap ourselves economically without the big emitters (China and India) doing the same is a) worth it economically and b) make a bit of difference in real terms.  Doing it without those two and all others included is about as smart as committing to unilateral nuclear disarmarment.

Feldstein goes on to attack the pending cap-and-trade legislation for other reasons as well – mostly on a revenue and impact basis (and how revenue can soften the impact – yeah, subsidy – at the “payee” end – i.e. consumers.  Of course, only a certain class of consumers would most likely be eligable and it will be up to the more well-to-do to pay their “fair share”).  But the two big points of his criticism are the most important in my thinking.

1. It will, regardless of how it is structured, have a negative economic impact on every American household and thus our economy.

2. It won’t make a bit of real difference unless everyone is involved in such reductions.  Exclusion of the big emitters makes our “economic sacrifice” literally worthless in terms of the supposed overall goal of cutting CO2 worldwide.

Because of those two points alone, we should demand that such legislation be voted down.  I think the focus on CO2 is a load of unscientific nonsense, but politically that has no legs at this time.  But what does have legs is the argument summed up in those two points and opponents of cap-and-trade should use them (and Feldstein’s name) to make the argument against the pending legislation.


Money? Or Receipts?

Recently, while listening to the Opie and Anthony show, I heard an interview with Loius CK, the comedian.  And he said something that struck me as quite profound.  And quite true.

Back in olden times–i.e., prior to the 1930s–our paper money wasn’t actually money, as such.  Instead, it was a receipt for the real money–gold, or silver–that we had stored in the bank.  And the amount of gold we had determined how many of those receipts we could get.  The gold or silver we held had an intrinsic value, and the paper currency we carried was simply a representation of that intrinsic value.

Then, in the 1930s, we simply got rid of the metal, and kept the receipts.  Ever since then, the paper money we carry around with us has no intrinsic value.  And the value of that receipt is worth whatever the government says it’s worth.  It is a medium of exchange, and nothing more.

You may have $1,000,000 in the bank.  And if the government says that it’s only worth a cup of coffee in exchange, then that’s exactly what it’s worth.  It doesn’t matter if acquiring that million bucks was the work of a lifetime.  The government can, if it wishes or is unwise, reduce the stored value of your life’s work to a trip to Starbucks.

Just something to think about.

Our Inordinate Fear of Inflation

That’s the subject Paul Krugman addresses in his NYT Op/Ed piece today.  In fact, he implies that even talking up the possibility of inflation comes solely from bad political motives, mostly from people who don’t grasp The Fierce Moral Urgency of Change™.

Why shouldn’t we worry about inflation, according to Prof. Krugman?

Now, it’s true that the Fed has taken unprecedented actions lately. More specifically, it has been buying lots of debt both from the government and from the private sector, and paying for these purchases by crediting banks with extra reserves. And in ordinary times, this would be highly inflationary: banks, flush with reserves, would increase loans, which would drive up demand, which would push up prices.

But these aren’t ordinary times. Banks aren’t lending out their extra reserves. They’re just sitting on them — in effect, they’re sending the money right back to the Fed. So the Fed isn’t really printing money after all.

But, let’s grant that the current monetary moves aren’t immediately inflationary.  What happens when the economy recovers and the banks do begin to spnd those extra reserves?  Krugman attempts some sleight of hand, in an effort to make it appear that he addresses that concern.

Still, don’t such actions have to be inflationary sooner or later? No. The Bank of Japan, faced with economic difficulties not too different from those we face today, purchased debt on a huge scale between 1997 and 2003. What happened to consumer prices? They fell.

Yes, they did.  But since Japan hasn’t had a real economic recovery even today, and is entering its third “Lost Decade”, that really isn’t a compelling argument.  Since 1999, Japan’s rate of GDP growth has averaged 1.31%, which is less than half of the average GDP growth rate of 3% a mature economy should experience.  Indeed, over the last decade, Japan has experienced exactly 5 quarters where GDP growth was at 3% or more. In that same period, there have been 9 quarters when GDP contracted.  The highest annual rate of growth was in 2000, when the annual GDP growth was 2.85%.

So, let’s not pretend we know how the inflationary pressures fall out in Japan once a recovery hits…until there actually is a recovery.

ON the other hand, since our policymakers seem hell-bent on following the same path the Japanese did in the 1990s, the return of inflation when the economy recovers might turn out to be worry we can avoid until sometime in the relatively distant future.

Stimulus bill costs $746k per job

Washington Watch notes that the Obama Administration put out a paper presumably touting the success of the so-called “economic stimulus” bill. The paper says:

In the first 100 days since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, we have obligated more than $112 billion, created more than 150,000 jobs and helped communities and tribes in every state and territory. But recovery is more than just a compilation of statistics; it’s the return of hope and optimism about the future that comes with making life better for communities and families across the country. And it’s proof of America’s vast capacity to create real progress in the short term as we emerge from an economic crisis that was years in the making.

Jim Harper of Washington Watch comments:

Well, I feel better already!

For perspective, $112 billion is just shy of $370 per person or $1,150 per U.S. family.

Even more perspective…that’s more than $746,000 per job “created.” The United States has lost almost $2.5 million jobs in the first four months this year, 539,000 in April alone. So let’s be honest here, the “stimulus” bill is having no real impact on the job market.


Compare and contrast this rehabilitation effort of Timothy Geitner:

After his hellish opening weeks, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner started inviting White House economic officials across the street to his conference room for hours-long working dinners that have helped get — and keep — the whole team on the same page.


Geithner, a former president of the New York Federal Reserve who once looked like he was floundering in one of the administration’s most scrutinized jobs, is emerging in a new position of strength with the media and the markets, just as he launches President Barack Obama’s high-stakes effort to re-regulate the nation’s financial markets.


The secretary’s advisers acknowledge that his newfound political standing is tied, in part, to the state of the economy, which is now showing early signs of improvement. But Treasury officials also have updated their playbook after his Feb. 10 speech on financial recovery, which was panned by the press and blamed for a 381-point slide in the stock market.

They decided to “let Tim be Tim” and accepted the fact that his strength wasn’t giving a speech in front of a bunch of flags. Rather, they let reporters see him in off-camera, pen-and-pad settings, where he fielded questions with the confidence that his staff saw behind the scenes. He aced an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, thriving in a relaxed setting where he could explain issues at length.

… with this bit of economic reality:

China has warned a top member of the US Federal Reserve that it is increasingly disturbed by the Fed’s direct purchase of US Treasury bonds.

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, said: “Senior officials of the Chinese government grilled me about whether or not we are going to monetise the actions of our legislature.”

“I must have been asked about that a hundred times in China. I was asked at every single meeting about our purchases of Treasuries. That seemed to be the principal preoccupation of those that were invested with their surpluses mostly in the United States,” he told the Wall Street Journal.


The Oxford-educated Mr Fisher, an outspoken free-marketer and believer in the Schumpeterian process of “creative destruction”, has been running a fervent campaign to alert Americans to the “very big hole” in unfunded pension and health-care liabilities built up by a careless political class over the years.

“We at the Dallas Fed believe the total is over $99 trillion,” he said in February.

“This situation is of your own creation. When you berate your representatives or senators or presidents for the mess we are in, you are really berating yourself. You elect them,” he said.

His warning comes amid growing fears that America could lose its AAA sovereign rating.

I guess since the media tried to talk down the economy for the previous eight years, they may as well try and talk it up now that their boy is in the White House. The shame of it is that as the economy worsens, a lot of people are going to be shocked.

Health Care Is Why We’re Broke?

The more I listen to Obama, the more of an ideologue I realize he is and how willing he is to use any opportunity to “justify” his agenda, even those that don’t fit. For instance:

In a sobering holiday interview with C-SPAN, President Obama boldly told Americans: “We are out of money.”

C-SPAN host Steve Scully broke from a meek Washington press corps with probing questions for the new president.

SCULLY: You know the numbers, $1.7 trillion debt, a national deficit of $11 trillion. At what point do we run out of money?

OBAMA: Well, we are out of money now. We are operating in deep deficits, not caused by any decisions we’ve made on health care so far. This is a consequence of the crisis that we’ve seen and in fact our failure to make some good decisions on health care over the last several decades.

This is about as twisted a bit of reasoning as I’ve seen in a while. We’re “out of money” because of “health care decisions?”

What total nonsense. This is a politician using a crisis unrelated to “health care decisions” to push his ideology (i.e. that it is government that is the answer in all areas of life). As Glenn Reynolds says:

“I’ve bankrupted the nation, so now your only hope is to pass my healthcare plan.” That goes beyond chutzpah to the edge of pathological dishonesty. Except, I guess, that it’s not pathological if you get away with it. And so far, he has.

Very true – but at some point, as his favorite pastor likes to say, the chickens have got to come home to roost.

From the same interview:

SCULLY: States like California in desperate financial situation, will you be forced to bail out the states?

OBAMA: No. I think that what you’re seeing in states is that anytime you got a severe recession like this, as I said before, their demands on services are higher. So, they are sending more money out. At the same time, they’re bringing less tax revenue in. And that’s a painful adjustment, what we’re going end up seeing is lot of states making very difficult choices there..

Painful choices? But for the federal government – unprecedented spending spree. The cognitive dissonance there is mind boggling.


GM To Be “Chryslered”

I hesitate to call it bankruptcy when it is really a sham of a bankruptcy. In fact, it is the same sham that Chrysler has undergone:

The government previously indicated that it planned to take at least 50 percent of the restructured company, and likely would take the right to name members to its board of directors, as it has at Chrysler, where the government will control four of nine seats.

The United Auto Workers retiree health fund is set to own as much as 39 percent of the restructured GM, in exchange for giving up its claim to at least $10 billion that the company owes it. Yesterday, the union announced that it reached an agreement with GM that will reduce the company’s labor costs.

Still unknown is what part the Canadian government might play in the ongoing GM restructuring.

GM operates several plants north of the border. The Canadians agreed to invest about $3.5 billion in the Chrysler restructuring and control one of the nine board seats.

Sound familiar? So government will now have 5 of 9 board seats, the union has a huge share of the company and bondholders?

The chief obstacle to an out-of-court settlement for GM remains: There has been no agreement between the company and the investors who hold $27 billion worth of GM bonds.

Under orders from the Obama administration, GM has offered to give the bondholders a 10 percent equity stake in the restructured company in exchange for giving up their bonds.

That’s the offer made and, as you might imagine, bondholders are resisting this. That, of course, gives the administration the same excuse it used to take Chrysler to bankruptcy under its apparently newly written rules which gave government the lion’s share of ownership.

As you might imagine, not everyone is happy. And since this “bankruptcy” is now being politically managed, more politicians are getting into the act.

For instance, on the subject of cutting Chrysler dealerships:

There are also challenges outside court. Chrysler has moved to close 789 dealerships on June 9. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has introduced legislation that would withhold federal funding if the automaker does not give dealers an extra 60 days to close down operations and sell remaining inventory. Her amendment has won the backing of a number of other senators.

Should such legislation pass, you can expect something similar with GM.

And some Democrats aren’t particularly happy either:

Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he hopes to meet with White House officials today to discuss changing Chrysler’s bankruptcy plan and GM’s future. Conyers did not outline what he wanted, but a nine-person panel he assembled for a hearing yesterday offered a hint. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a conservative Heritage Foundation analyst and minority auto dealers all criticized the automakers’ restructuring.

Conyers and other committee members attacked the administration for abusing bankruptcy laws, unfairly eliminating dealerships and jeopardizing consumer safety.

Yup, looks like the political bureaucracy is kicking into high-gear and you can just imagine how well this is going to work out, can’t you? That and the fact that contracts will never be viewed in the same light again have to make you fear for our economic future.


Apparently the Fed has decided that their doubling of the monetary base in the last 7 months has done so fantastically, that they’re ready to do more of it.

Some Federal Reserve officials are open to raising the amounts of mortgage and Treasury securities purchase programs beyond the $1.75 trillion that they have already committed to buying, according to minutes from the Fed’s April meeting.

Please pay no attention to the inflation lurking behind the curtain.  Our benevolent overlords have everything under control.  So, why more monetary loosening.

Officials, meanwhile, projected an even deeper recession than they expected three months earlier and a more sluggish recovery over the next two years as labor markets remain under pressure.

Huh.  So much for that “turned the corner’ crap from last month.  But that’s OK.  because, you see, if you’re in the middle of a bursted bubble cused by overly loose monetary policy in the first place, then the way to get back on track is an even looser monetary policy.  That’ll fix you right up, you see.

At least, that’s what the Harvard econo-boys tell us.  And they are, of course, the Best and Brightest.

Meanwhile, the DoL reports that weekly claims for unemployment for last week were revised upwards to 643,000, but this week’s numbers were only 628,500.  So, that’s a nice little downward tick.  Except that we’ve got all those upcoming claims from shutting down car dealerships for Chrysler and GM.  Let’s call that 2,000 dealerships with an average of–I’m just spit-balling, here–25 persons per dealership left unemployed.  Let’s call it 50,000 new claims ahead.

So Will The Federal Government Bail Out California?

Is it too big to fail? Megan McArdle believes the possibility certainly exists (I mean was Arnie really in DC yesterday just to see the sights). Says McArdle:

If the government does bail out the muni bond market, how should it go about things? The initial assumption is that they’ll only guarantee existing debt. Otherwise, it would be like handing the keys to the treasury to every mayor, county board, and state legislature, and telling them to go to town.

But once the treasury has bailed out a single state, there will be a strongly implied guarantee on all such debt. So you don’t give them the keys to the vaults, but you do leave a window open, point out where the money’s kept, and casually mention that you’ve given the armed guards the week off.

Of course the right answer is not to bail out either. Failure is a great teacher. And then there’s the moral hazzard angle.

But in this day and age, that’s approach is almost unthinkable apparently. Government, as we’re being told, is the answer to everything.

My fear, based on what the federal government has done to this point, is they’ll “hand the keys to the treasury” on both the muni bond market and the states (with bailouts). They have no business doing anything in either place, but we’ve already seen that the arbitrary assessment that some entity is too big to fail apparently takes priority over economic law.

Once a single state is bailed out, there is nothing to stop other states from making a similar claim on the treasury.

Should such a thing happen in either case (or both), Federalism, which is on its last legs anyway, will be officially dead.