Law Of Unintended Consequences
One more time into the breach. The CBO has issued a warning to Congress about entitlement spending. Again. Here’s a key paragraph:
Almost all of the projected growth in federal spending other than interest payments on the debt comes from growth in spending on the three largest entitlement programs–Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
Most of you know that Medicare and Medicaid have an unfunded future liability of 36 trillion dollars. That’s about 3 times the annual total GDP of the US economy. And they are the very same type of “public option” program – i.e. government insurance – that the left says is so very necessary and crucial to real “health care reform”.
In other words, the left’s argument is that adding at least 47 million (presently uninsured), plus the possibility of adding 119 million who are shifted to the public option from private insurance (private insurance, btw, doesn’t have any effect on the deficit whatsoever since we, the private sector, are paying for it) will somehow make the deficit picture better?
I’m obviously missing something here.
With the public option, we’re adding a new entitlement (47 million who presently supposedly can’t afford insurance, meaning taxpayers will subsidize theirs). Assuming it is set up originally to be paid for by premiums, at some point, like Medicare and Medicaid, and every other government entitlement program I can think of, it will pay out more than it takes in. How can it not? It is a stated “non-profit” program and it will include subsidies. At some point, another revenue stream is going to be necessary as it burns through the premiums with its payouts.
Well, say the proponents of government involvement in your health care, we’re going to save money by doing preventive health care. Yes, preventive care is the key to lower costs because a healthier population is one which visits the doctor less. While that may seem to be at least partially true (you’d think a healthier population would, logically, visit the doctor less) the part that is apparently missed when touting this popular panacea is the cost of making the population healthier (and the fact that the assumption of less visits isn’t necessarily true) doesn’t cost less – it costs more:
If health care providers can prevent or delay conditions like heart disease and diabetes, the logic goes, the nation won’t have to pay for so many expensive hospital procedures.
The problem, as lawmakers are discovering to their frustration, is that the logic is wrong. Preventive care — at least the sort delivered by doctors — doesn’t save money, experts say. It costs money.
That’s old news to the analysts at the Congressional Budget Office, who have told senators on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that it cannot score most preventive-care proposals as saving money.
So with that myth blown to hell, we’re now looking at a government plan which will add cost to the deficit by subsidizing the insurance of 47 million and (most likely) many more, plus a plan to use a more costly form of medicine as its primary means of giving care.
But, back to the entitlement report – or warning. The CBO says that unless entitlements are drastically reformed (that means Medicare, Medicaid and to a lesser extent, Social Security) we’re in deep deficit doodoo:
The most frightening findings in this report are the deficit and debt projections. In this year and next year, the yearly budget shortfall, or deficit, will be the largest post-war deficits on record–exceeding 11 percent of the economy or gross domestic product (GDP)–and by 2080 it will reach 17.8 percent of GDP.
The national debt, which is the sum of all past deficits, will escalate even faster. Since 1962, debt has averaged 36 percent of GDP, but it will reach 60 percent, nearly double the average, by next year and will exceed 100 percent of the economy by 2042. Put another way, in about 30 years, for every $1 each American citizen and business earns or produces, the government will be an equivalent $1 in debt. By 2083, debt figures will surpass an astounding 306 percent of GDP.
The report also finds high overall growth in the government as a share of the economy and of taxpayers’ wallets that provides an additional area of concern. While total government spending has hovered around 20 percent of the economy since the 1960s, it has jumped by a quarter to 25 percent in 2009 alone and will exceed 32 percent by 2083. Taxes, which have averaged at 18.3 percent of GDP, will reach unprecedented levels of 26 percent by 2083. Never in American history have spending and tax levels been that high.
Here’s the important point to be made – these projections do not include cap-and-trade or health care reform.
Got that? We’re looking at the “highest spending and tax levels” in our history without either of those huge tax and spend programs now being considered included in the numbers above. Total government spending, as a percent of GDP is now at an unprecedented 25%. And they’re trying to add more while this president, who is right in the middle of it, tells us we can’t keep this deficit spending up forever.
For new readers the title is that for which the shortened “QandO” stands. This is the second in a series of questions and observations.
- In the “you can’t make this up” department, China will block the sale of Hummer for “environmental concerns”. I guess that’s their nod to the rest of the world after flatly refusing cut CO2 emissions in the future.
- Ezra Klein is suddenly for smaller government, specifically the elimination of the Agriculture Committee. Of course the only reason he’d like to see it given the deep 6 is because it has, in Klein’s opinion, badly weakened cap-and-trade by extracting “a truly mind-boggling array of tax breaks, exemptions, and straight subsidies”. I guess Klein would like to temporarily make government smaller to make it larger.
- Yes, Michael Jackson is dead – but for heaven sake, do we have to devote every minute of the news day to running “Thriller” vid and spreading rumors about the possible cause of his death? Is this what “news” organizations have become?
- Apparently we’re still stalking the North Korean ship enroute to either Singapore or Burma. For those who are waiting for us to confront it and board it, that’s not going to happen. The “tough” UN resolution only provides for boarding if the North Koreans agree. And, while we can demand that they then go to the nearest port for inspection, the North Koreans can refuse that as well. The plan, it seems, is to convince the refueling port the NoKos pull into to refuse to refuel the ship. Then, when the NoKo ship runs out of fuel, put it under tow and then inspect it. As I understand it – they can then inspect it legitimately. Amazing.
- Waxman-Markey, aka cap-and-trade, survived an earlier test vote that moved the bill to the floor for a 5pm vote. As I recall the margin was 5 votes. It is a job destroyer in the middle of a recession. The Center for Data Analysis of the Heritage Foundation figures it will cost 50,000 jobs in the transportation equipment sector alone. Their data for other sectors is available here.
- House liberals have staked out a bit of ground on the health care bill saying they will not vote for it if it doesn’t include a public option – period. That is actually good news as the public option does seem to be in trouble. Any bill showing up without it will most likely not get the 80 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to vote for it. Add in the Republicans and the Blue Dogs, and it may be in very serious trouble without just the sticker shock of 1 to 3 trillion dollars of cost.
- Mark Sanford? He should resign. The affair is between he and his family. He should resign because he was derelict in his duty and he misappropriated government funds to pay for his trip to Argentina. Kinda like Bill Clinton should have resigned, not for the affair, but for lying under oath to a grand jury and attempting to obstruct justice.
Apparently it will according to some who have actually beaten their way through the entire bill and read the contents:
The Ways and Means Committee’s proposed bill language (pdf) would virtually require that the president impose an import tariff on any country that fails to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course in this full bore onslaught of major life changing legislation which the Democrats seem determined to push through the Congress as quickly as they can (citing the imminent crisis it will foment if they don’t), this issue seems to be lost in the shuffle:
“This is a sleeper issue that lawmakers have not been paying enough attention to,” said Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents multinational corporations like Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp. advocating for an open international trading system.
“The danger is, you focus so much on leveling the playing field for U.S. firms, that you neglect the potentially serious consequences that this could have on the international trading system,” Colvin said.
Nancy Peolosi is aiming for a vote in the House this Friday, before the July 4th recess. That obviously will mean very, very limited debate, if any. As NRO notes:
Not content to tempt political fate by imposing huge carbon taxes on the American middle class, Democrats have added a provision which imposes stiff tariffs on our trading partners if they don’t adopt aggressive carbon restrictions of their own.
You heard correctly: progressives have authored a bill that earns the mortal enmity of domestic energy consumers and our most crucial trading partners at the same time. Economy-killing climate policies and a trade war — together at last!
The devil is in the details:
Leaks from Hill offices indicate that the president would now be forced to impose the carbon tariffs — and could only opt out of doing so with permission from both chambers of Congress. Carbon-intensive imports would be subject to penalties at the border unless the country of origin requires emission reduction measures at least 80 percent as costly as ours. (The original Waxman-Markey bill had a threshold of 60 percent.)
Brilliant. Of course, some are going to argue that such measures surely will not be in the Senate version and not survive the reconciliation process when the two versions are merged. With this Congress I wouldn’t bet the farm on that.
There’s some talk that the blue dogs are going to oppose this bill. Obviously you would expect the GOP to oppose it as well. Are there enough other Dems to oppose so as to defeat it? Pelosi may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to many things, but over the years she has learned to count votes I’m sure.
Bottom line: this bill is an economy killer, plain and simple. But it is also a progressive wet-dream shared by Pelosi. She is going to do everything in her power to push it through the House.
And apparently force you into those electric cars the government is dumping all that money into.
According to API president Jack Gerard, in a letter he sent to members of Congress, the plan included in Waxman-Markey is pretty darn clear:
The legislation will drive up individual and commercial consumer’s fuel prices because it inequitably distributes free emissions “allowances” to various sectors. Electricity suppliers are responsible for about 40% of the emissions covered by the bill and receive approximately 44% of the allowances – specifically to protect power consumers from price increases. However the bill holds refiners responsible for their own emissions plus the emissions from the use of petroleum products. In total refiners are responsible for 44% of all covered emissions, yet the legislation grants them only 2% of the free allowances.
Upon reading that I assume anyone with the IQ of warm toast can see where that is headed. It is a targeted tax on oil and gas which will be passed on to the consumer in just about every conceivable way possible. Both at the pump and in the cost increases rolled into products we buy due to increased transportation costs, etc.
Electricity, however, whose coal plants are supposedly one of the primary producers of CO2 and very much responsible for the emissions problems we supposedly have get a pass. Does that even begin to hint that this legislation isn’t just about controlling CO2 emissions?
In fact, it shouts it out fairly clearly doesn’t it. Keep the proles happy by ensuring their power to the house is subsidized and stick it to them at the pump where government (who now has a stake in the game) wants consumers buying “green” cars. Don’t you just love it when a plan begins to come together?
Moving on, Gerard’s letter lays out some sobering numbers:
This places a disproportionate burden on all consumers of gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, jet fuel, propane and other petroleum products. An analysis of the Congressional Budget Office Report indicates that it could add as much as 77 cents to a gallon of gasoline over the next decade. And, according to the Heritage Foundation this legislation could cause gas prices to jump 74% by 2035. That means, at today’s prices, gasoline would be well over $4 a gallon.
Of course by 2035 we’ll all be riding around in vehicles powered by uincorn methane. And everyone knows that unicorn methane is nontoxic, environmentally friendly, smells good and is eco friendly.
That said, there is the cap and trade plan as it pertains to one vital segment of our economy in all its simple glory. It will force you to pay outrageous prices to use petroleum products in order to move you to the desired, but not yet available, means of conveyance. In the meantime, and until it is available, you’ll just have to suffer with the cost increases. Also remember that government estimates of cost are notoriously conservative and the real cost of such legislation is likely to be much higher than anticipated.
And don’t laugh too hard when they try to sell that to you by saying they’re attempting to save the planet. They’re exempting coal fired power plants for heaven sake. Trust me, this isn’t about emissions. If it were, they wouldn’t treat natural gas the way they do in the legislation as the letter points out.
After all, they’re the government and they’re there to help.
Nothing makes it clearer than a real world examples. From socialized Canada:
The Lower Mainland’s health authorities will have to dig more than $4 million a year out of their already stretched budgets to pay B.C.’s carbon tax and offset their carbon footprints.
Critics say the payments mean the government’s strategy to fight climate change will further exacerbate a crisis in health funding.
“You have public hospitals cutting services to pay a tax that goes to another 100 per cent government-owned agency,” NDP health critic Adrian Dix said.
“That just doesn’t make sense.”
Heh … it would really be funny if it wasn’t so absurd or headed in our direction like a runaway freight train.
Enjoy those “little green shoots” of growth, because they’re going to be as dead as the Mojave desert if “health care reform” and “cap and tax trade” are passed.
And don’t even try to throw the “these people have your best interest at heart” canard out there either:
Dix warned that some of the potential cuts – such as closing the ER at Mission Memorial Hospital – would actually increase carbon emissions by sending patients further afield.
“Obviously when you shut down regional centres it makes people travel farther to get to their health care facility,” he said.
Vancouver Coastal chief financial officer Duncan Campbell said his health authority believes the payments are appropriate and isn’t asking for any exemption from Victoria.
“For us to go back and ask for an exemption wouldn’t fit in well with our green care plans,” he said.
IOW, your health is secondary to their sacred green mission.
Freakin’ amazing. And yes, it is entirely possible you’d be treated the same way here when government controls health care and is collecting on “cap and trade”. Remember, it was Obama who said he didn’t believe in cap and trade exemptions.
[HT: Wm Teach, RWN]
That Obama guy really knows what he’s doing! Yessir – we’re in good hands. And he’s sure making our friends in the world like us more than when that evil Bush was in the White House. Umm hmm:
The British Government responded with ill-disguised fury tonight to the news that four Chinese Uighurs freed from Guantanamo Bay had been flown for resettlement on the Atlantic tourist paradise of Bermuda.
The four arrived on Bermuda in the early hours, celebrating the end of seven years of detention after learning that they were to be accepted as guest workers.
But it appears that the Government of Bermuda failed to consult with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the decision to take in the Uighurs – whose return is demanded by Beijing – and it could now be forced to send them back to Cuba or risk a grave diplomatic crisis.
Foreign Policy 101 – coordination and negotiation with friendly countries before doing something like this for which they now have to take responsibility.
What has happened to our State Department? Lobotomies?
UPDATE: It only gets worse:
Pressed on whether the US had told the British government, an unnamed state department official was quoted as saying: “We did talk to them before the Uighurs got on the plane.”
Now a senior US official has told the BBC it was a deliberate decision not to consult London on the resettlement, after other countries came under pressure from China not to accept the Uighurs.
In a highly unusual move, a senior US official said Washington opted to keep details of the deal from London until the last minute to enable Britain to deny all knowledge of the deal and thus avoid China’s anger, says the BBC’s Washington correspondent Kim Ghattas.
The official said they expected London to be upset but added he felt the deal was made on solid ground, in direct talks with the Bermuda government, who accepted the men as part of guest worker programme.
Yeah — no arrogance there, huh? Kind of like the UK doing the same thing on Puerto Rico. Who would China go after – the governor or PR or the US?
Is definitely worth a thousand words.
Or a chart.
Arthur Laffer is not amused:
Here we stand more than a year into a grave economic crisis with a projected budget deficit of 13% of GDP. That’s more than twice the size of the next largest deficit since World War II. And this projected deficit is the culmination of a year when the federal government, at taxpayers’ expense, acquired enormous stakes in the banking, auto, mortgage, health-care and insurance industries.
With the crisis, the ill-conceived government reactions, and the ensuing economic downturn, the unfunded liabilities of federal programs — such as Social Security, civil-service and military pensions, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, Medicare and Medicaid — are over the $100 trillion mark. With U.S. GDP and federal tax receipts at about $14 trillion and $2.4 trillion respectively, such a debt all but guarantees higher interest rates, massive tax increases, and partial default on government promises.
But as bad as the fiscal picture is, panic-driven monetary policies portend to have even more dire consequences. We can expect rapidly rising prices and much, much higher interest rates over the next four or five years, and a concomitant deleterious impact on output and employment not unlike the late 1970s.
And what have those “panic-driven monetary policies” brought us? Well, first the picture:
The chart is certainly no laffer.
Remember, we’re being told by “experts” (*cough* Krugman *cough*) that we’ll be able to handle this with no problem, really, if we just manage it properly. A tweak here, a tweak there and bingo – no inflation.
Hmmm … let’s get a little context here, shall we?
The percentage increase in the monetary base is the largest increase in the past 50 years by a factor of 10 (see chart nearby). It is so far outside the realm of our prior experiential base that historical comparisons are rendered difficult if not meaningless. The currency-in-circulation component of the monetary base — which prior to the expansion had comprised 95% of the monetary base — has risen by a little less than 10%, while bank reserves have increased almost 20-fold. Now the currency-in-circulation component of the monetary base is a smidgen less than 50% of the monetary base.
So that means that what? Well Laffer goes into a good explanation of bank reserves and how they function, etc. etc. – bottom line, banks are going to be loaning a bunch of money, thereby injecting liquidity into the marketplace.
With the present size of the monetary base, and …
With an increased trust in the overall banking system, the panic demand for money has begun to and should continue to recede. The dramatic drop in output and employment in the U.S. economy will also reduce the demand for money. Reduced demand for money combined with rapid growth in money is a surefire recipe for inflation and higher interest rates. The higher interest rates themselves will also further reduce the demand for money, thereby exacerbating inflationary pressures. It’s a catch-22.
And what does that mean could happen? Well again, we’re in uncharted territory, but the last time we had anything even similar, eh, not so good:
It’s difficult to estimate the magnitude of the inflationary and interest-rate consequences of the Fed’s actions because, frankly, we haven’t ever seen anything like this in the U.S. To date what’s happened is potentially far more inflationary than were the monetary policies of the 1970s, when the prime interest rate peaked at 21.5% and inflation peaked in the low double digits. Gold prices went from $35 per ounce to $850 per ounce, and the dollar collapsed on the foreign exchanges. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Yeah. I remember it well. And here we are again – on steriods. So now what?
Per Laffer, the Fed must contract the money supply back to where it was plus a little increase for economic expansion. And if it can’t do that, it should increase the reserve requirement on banks to soak up the excess.
But Laffer doubts that can or will be done:
Alas, I doubt very much that the Fed will do what is necessary to guard against future inflation and higher interest rates. If the Fed were to reduce the monetary base by $1 trillion, it would need to sell a net $1 trillion in bonds. This would put the Fed in direct competition with Treasury’s planned issuance of about $2 trillion worth of bonds over the coming 12 months. Failed auctions would become the norm and bond prices would tumble, reflecting a massive oversupply of government bonds.
In addition, a rapid contraction of the monetary base as I propose would cause a contraction in bank lending, or at best limited expansion. This is exactly what happened in 2000 and 2001 when the Fed contracted the monetary base the last time. The economy quickly dipped into recession. While the short-term pain of a deepened recession is quite sharp, the long-term consequences of double-digit inflation are devastating. For Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke it’s a Hobson’s choice. For me the issue is how to protect assets for my grandchildren.
Yes friends – we’re in the best of hands. I’m just wondering how the present administration is going to attempt the blame shifting when the inevitable happens.
A few new developments, none of them good.
One – Obama has indicated his willingness to entertain legislation that would tax your private health care benefits. What that means is you’ll be taxed on the money your employer spends on your health care insurance. Of course the obvious immediate effect would be to raise revenue to pay for the public portion of his health care plan.
Two – Obama has decided that making insurance mandatory may not be such a bad idea. This is 180 degree change from candidate Obama who attempted to hide his statist tendencies by pretending that he wouldn’t require mandatory insurance for Americans.
He told Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) that their legislation must include a government-run insurance option that would compete against the private sector. He also reaffirmed his support for a Massachusetts-style insurance exchange.
What do you suppose will happen if government-run insurance is an option for all? Depending on how it is structured (if, for instance, if it is a universal pool), we could see massive dumping of private insurance by businesses pointing their employees to the government option.
[I]mbuing a federal panel with the power to make Medicare payment recommendations that Congress must either accept or reject in their entirety.
Obama likens this proposal, based on the current Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, to the way military base closure decisions are made. To Republicans, however, the notion smacks of the kind of “rationing” dictated by government-run healthcare programs in Europe and Canada.
Ezra Klein explains the “federal panel’s” proposed role:
The health system changes too quickly for Congress to address through massive, infrequent, efforts at total reform. New technologies and new care structures create new problems. A health care reform package signed in 2009 might miss some real deficiencies, or real opportunities, that present themselves in 2012. A health reform process that recognizes that fact is a health reform process that is continual, rather than episodic.
But the reason health reform is so infrequent is that it’s structurally difficult. Small tweaks are too technically complex for Congress to easily conduct and so are dominated by lobbyists. Large reforms attract broad interest but are impeded by polarization and the threat of the filibuster. The MedPAC changes under discussion are, in other words, nothing less than a new process for health care cost reforms. They empower experts who won’t be intimidated by the intricacy of the issues and sidestep the filibuster’s ability to halt change in its tracks.
In other words health care decisions that will directly effect you will be in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable panel of bureaucrats just as all the critics of this sort have program have been claiming since the beginning of the debate.
MedPAC, of course, is restricted to Medicare. But there’s little doubt that where Medicare leads, the health care industry follows. Private insurers frequently set their prices in relation to Medicare’s payment rates. Hospitals are sufficiently dependent on Medicare that a reform instituted by the entitlement program becomes a de facto change for the whole institution, and thus all patients. A process that empowers Medicare to aggressively and fluidly reform itself would end up dramatically changing the face of American health care in general.
Klein is exactly right, but most likely not for the reasons he thinks he is. The level of care, innovation and incentive will follow the decline in prices driven by MedPAC. What the nation needs is insurance reform, not “health care reform”. And while that is how the proponents of this try to spin the issue as just that, MedPAC’s existence and proposed expanded role argues persuasively against that spin.
Watch carefully – the Democrats are going to try to move this quickly and with little debate.
UPDATE: Apparently the letter from Obama I spoke about above also had another effect:
President Obama’s letter to Senate lawmakers yesterday saying a healthcare package must include a public option may have stalled progress on a bipartisan deal, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Thursday.
Gregg said that the president’s letter, which said a public option should be included in the legislation, stalled “significant progress” in negotiations.
“We were making great progress up until yesterday, in my opinion,” Gregg said during an interview on CNBC. “There’s a working group under Sen. Baucus that involves senior Republican and Senate senior members who are involved in the healthcare debate, and we were, I thought, making some fairly significant progress.”
The most discouraging thing about this update is the fact that Republicans, who are claiming government is too big and we’re spending too much are knee deep in negotiating more government and more spending (i.e. selling out – again) having apparently swallowed the Democratic premise that this is necessary whole.
It certainly seems like it. Reason magazine finds the current way the US is addressing the economic crises to be pretty familiar:
The scenario was eerily familiar. A long real estate bubble that had expanded extra rapidly for the previous five years suddenly burst, and asset prices came crashing back down to earth. Banks and financial institutions were left holding piles of worthless paper, and the economy soon headed south. The national government responded to the crisis by encouraging more lending and spending previously unfathomable amounts of money on public works projects in an effort to stimulate consumer spending and restart growth.
Of course that’s where we are now and what that led too in Japan has come to be known as the “lost decade” (now three decades old).
One of the things we’ve pointed out is there is an element within this model that both Japan and now the US has used that is focused on “pain avoidance” (GM and Chrysler are prefect examples of that). Part of that is driven by the belief by those in power that the government can address problems within markets and lessen the impact. The second part of that, of course, is by convincing the public that’s the case, they then have to try to do what they claim they can do. But the law of unintended consequences has a bad habit of pushing its way into such situations and turning them sour:
The Japanese experience shows that when the government is an active participant in the market, many firms would rather accept state support than initiate the inevitable financial reckoning. Such a status quo does not provide a sustainable foundation for the economy. Instead, it restricts economic growth and creates a cycle of stagnation.
A friend, talking about the recession and eventual recovery, said that we’ll come out of it “okay” because “Americans are neurotically productive”. True. But so are the Japanese. While we have a fantastic workforce which is among the most productive in the world, even they won’t be able to overcome restricted economic growth caused by the government’s deep intrusion into various markets.
Comparing Japan’s reaction to the US reaction in similar circumstances is instructive:
When a recession began to set in after the 1990 stock market crash, Japan responded by reversing its tight money policy, cutting rates to 4.5 percent in 1991, 3.25 percent in 1992, 1.75 percent from 1993 to 1994, 0.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, and as low as 0.1 percent in September 2001.
A similar pattern took place in the United States. From 2000 to 2002, the Federal Reserve slashed the target discount rate from 6 percent to 0.75 percent. Fearing irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, the Fed then raised the rate as high as 6.25 percent in June 2006. But now that the bubble has burst and the economy contracted, the Fed has cut the discount rate 12 times, lowering it to the current 0.5 percent. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeatedly stated that he sees interest rate cuts as a way to “support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks.”
In both the Japanese and the American cases, post-bubble policy makers believed that lowering interest rates would make credit easier to obtain, thus recreating the environment that had spurred economic growth to begin with. But this meant that the supposed cure for a bubble created by easy credit was to extend even more easy credit.
These rate cuts only perpetuated the distortion of economic decisions and prevented savings, investment, and consumption from realigning with true preferences, as opposed to the illusory ones created by easy credit and artificially low interest rates. The lesson is that when monetary policy is used to “smooth” or “tweak” the market, it inevitably causes unintended consequences that in some cases can be very damaging to long-term economic growth.
Of course it is hard to say what future growth might be had the US government not done what it has done. But again, using Japan of that era vs. the US of that era, the difference is between 1.3% growth on average vs. 3.5% growth here. In economic terms that is a huge difference.
Reason also does a nice job of dismantling the “failure of regulation” argument. As they point out, what must be examined is how the regulatory environment then in place spawned the crisis vs. the claim that not enough regulation was in place.
For instance, government housing policy of the era:
The push to expand homeownership had two big effects. First, it greatly increased the number of buyers, driving up housing prices. Second, it provided mortgages to a large number of people who had a high risk of default.
That policy was further enabled by the capital reserve requirements which, in effect, encouraged heavy lending and an insensitivity to risk. Instead of admitting that and understanding that such policies are dangerous, the reaction has mostly been to ignore that and shift the blame to the private sector with calls for “more regulation”.
And then, going back to the “pain avoidance” point (justified as “too big to fail” by the government), what has happened is, as in the case of GM and Chrysler before the bankruptcies, government propping up failed businesses:
The Bank of Japan tried to ease economic pain by loaning large amounts to businesses. But the attempts to recapitalize the market ignored underlying management problems in the dying firms. It was a costly mistake. Intense lobbying from special-interest groups representing various sectors of the Japanese economy perpetuated the ill-fated loans and funneled government money to zombie businesses.
The United States has already begun to copy this policy, lending billions of dollars to financial institutions and auto companies and buying up billions more in bank equity in an effort to recapitalize the marketplace. The effect has been to keep poorly managed firms alive with taxpayer money.
Had they been allowed to fail and go through the reorganization process, those problems would have at least been addressed. They haven’t, at this point, in most of the financial sector and in the auto sector, it remains to be seen.
Of course the government’s deep involvement in these sectors and businesses sets up a natural conflict of interests. While a business is market oriented, and takes signals from consumers, governments are agenda driven and politically oriented. And it then comes down to a matter of incentives. In the first case the incentive of a business is to serve its consumer base. But that’s not the case with politicians necessarily, is it?
Lawmakers’ incentives are to serve their constituencies or their own political careers. This can put them at odds with the businesses they are suddenly attempting to manage. The more the government is involved in directing business activity, the less likely those firms will succeed in maintaining long-term growth, and the more likely they will turn into Japanese-style zombies.
While we’d like to believe that lawmaker’s constituencies consist of the people in their state or district, in reality they consist of special interests who help keep them in office. The ability to deliver to those special interests and keep their support and dollars flowing is just to much to resist for most.
Studies from Okimoto’s center and the Bank of Japan concluded that data revealing the scope of the economic malaise were suppressed and that regulations were developed with governmental interests in mind.
Given how the discussion has been driven here by the likes of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, there’s little doubt that regulations will be “developed with governmental interests in mind”.
In reality it all comes down to power, or the illusion of power, and politics. Short-term politics with no real eye on the future impact of actions taken today. And these actions are based in a false premise that the market is not self-correcting and that it must be both controlled and tweaked by government.
Japan bought into that premise, and so has the US:
The principle of creative destruction—the economic mutation that continuously breaks down old forms and creates newer, more productive and efficient ones—was ignored in the hope that legacy corporations could somehow save Japan. From Wall Street to Detroit, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the American government has been equally unwilling to let once-formidable companies fail.
And that, in my opinion, will see us repeat the Japanese experience, despite the small glimmers of hope we’ve been seeing in the reports in recent days. This isn’t about short term increases in home sales and construction spending. This is about the long term economic health of our economy.
Unsurprisingly, I’m not seeing moves by the government that work toward the most positive outcome in that regard.
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.