Free Markets, Free People

Government


The Farce Of A “Free Market”

We here at QandO are big fans of the free market.  But there are lots of enemies of the free market and they’re not just ideologies or governments.  Sometimes – no, many times – corporations or associations go into cahoots with government to use the power of government to limit competition.  Here’s an example of that:

A lot of focus has been directed toward the destruction of the world’s forests during the past few decades.  The truth is that deforestation is happening with alarming frequency.  Millions of acres of forest land are harvested illegally throughout the world every year, which contributes significantly to global warming and the destruction of wildlife habitat.  Because this activity adversely affects our environment, the National Wood Flooring Association worked diligently with several key organizations to promote the illegal logging ban with Congress. The ban was passed this past summer as an amendment to the US Lacey Act, which originally was mandated more than 100 years ago to prohibit the illegal trafficking of wildlife.  This new amendment has expanded the Lacey Act to include wood and wood products.  Specifically, the ban prohibits the import, sale or trade in the US of wood and other forest products that are harvested through illegal means.

This legislation is significant for a number of reasons.  First, and most importantly, it protects our world’s forests from irrecoverable loss of trees and wildlife habitat.  Second, it protects lumber buyers who verify the origin of lumber when importing wood into the United States from other countries.  Third, it eliminates the influx into the US of low-cost, low-quality wood flooring produced from illegally harvested forests.

The penalties for noncompliance with this new legislation are severe.  Penalties can include the forfeiture of the illegally harvested material, fines of up to $500,000, and jail time of up to five years.  From a consumer’s perspective, however, the ban helps you have confidence that the wood you are buying is not depleting our world’s forests.

This is classic stuff. Let’s look at their three “benefits”, shall we? First this ban no more “protects our world’s forests from irrecoverable loss of trees and wildlife habitat” than a gun ban keeps guns out of the hands of criminals. That’s because those who do actually engage in what this association would label “illegal logging” will simply sell to someone else. It’s not like wood isn’t in huge demand throughout the world or something.

The second “benefit” is a “join our club or pay the price” benefit at best. The obvious implication is if buyers don’t “verify the origin” to the satisfaction of the association (and the law), they’re open to accusations that what they’re bringing in are “illegal” whether true or not.

And, of course, in reality it all boils down to the last “benefit”. In fact it is a benefit only for the industry at the heart of writing this legislation. You the consumer, on the other hand, won’t get what the NWFA considers to be “low-cost, low-quality wood flooring” because, well, they’ve decided it just isn’t a decision which should be left up to you.

This is what passes for a “free market” these days. In this case, restricting the flow of goods to you in the name of a greater good, when, in fact, the greater good is just an excuse not to have to compete in the market place. It places the consumer’s right of access to such goods in second place to the association’s desire to “benefit” from special legislation which restricts that right.

When the price of that flooring you have been planning to buy goes through the roof, you’ll now know why.

~McQ


Stimulus II? Ponder This ….

You’ve just witness the unimaginable – Congress passes a 789 billion dollar pork-laden spending bill disguised as a “stimulus” bill and they may be contemplating “Unimaginable II”:

Despite the enormous size of the $787 billion stimulus plan, some economists worry that it won’t make a big enough dent in unemployment and that lawmakers will have to work on another stimulus in short order — something members of Congress are loathe to discuss.

“That’s possible,” said Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton administration budget director. “I think the economy is getting worse quite rapidly and this may not prove to be enough.”

And why is that, Ms. Rivlin? Why might it not be “enough”?

The stimulus got “less stimulative,” Rivlin said, as it passed through the Senate and some of the things that offered “the biggest bang for the buck” were scaled back, such as more money for food stamps.

*Gasp*

You mean it was exactly what those mean old Republicans said it was – more relief than stimulus. More social spending than jobs? That, in fact, any stimulative part of the bill was watered down or eliminated in favor of special interest spending on programs which are either years in the future or will provide no immediate jobs with which to help get the economy moving?

You mean, despite all the rhetoric and nonsense to the contrary by Obama and the Dems, we are on the road to repeating the mistakes Japan made that brought them their “lost decade”?

No kidding?

And I doubt many would call Ms. Rivlin a right-wing reactionary economist spouting Republican talking points, would they?

So now that the Dems have fulfilled their 40 year social program spending spree, it appears they may now try to actually stimulate the economy with a few more hundred billions of your great, great, great grandchildren’s money.

More future theft.

“Son of Stimulus”, coming to a wallet near you soon?

~McQ


Guess Who Is Back, Hat In Hand?

I suppose this too will somehow come as a surprise the left:

General Motors Corp., nearing a federally imposed deadline to present a restructuring plan, will offer the government two costly alternatives: commit billions more in bailout money to fund the company’s operations, or provide financial backing as part of a bankruptcy filing, said people familiar with GM’s thinking.

The competing choices, which highlight GM’s rapidly deteriorating operations, present a dilemma for Congress and the Obama administration. If they refuse to provide additional aid to GM on top of the $13.4 billion already committed they risk seeing an industrial icon fall into bankruptcy.

Tired of throwing money at a company which has a failing business model? Not interested in throwing good money after bad?

Well, then let them seek protection under the bankruptcy laws, reorganize (which means getting out from the labor contract the UAW refuses to renegotiate) and let them stand a company back up that’s able to compete. Heck, this is as good a time as any – they’re not selling any cars anyway.

Oh, and as an afterthought, if bank execs have to have salary caps, how about auto execs and labor leaders? No I’m not for any of that, but it does provide a vivid example of how arbitrary the rules Congress imposes are, doesn’t it?

~McQ


Spinning The Census Move

I guess this is “excitable Andy” day, but Andrew Sullivan is engaged in some pretty poor spin today. Calling it a canard, Sullivan has this to say about the proposed census move to the White House by the Obama administration:

Again, this is not a real issue. It’s an issue driven by the paranoid GOP base. The census has not been removed from the Commerce Department’s purview, as Ambers explains below. And past censuses have long been conducted with coordination from the White House staff.

The explanation Sullivan offers says:

“This administration has not proposed removing the Census from the Department of Commerce and the same Congressional committees that had oversight during the previous administration will retain that authority.” …

Kenneth Prewitt, who served as Census director from 1998 to 2001, said he worked with White House staff during the 2000 Census on budgeting, advertising and outreach efforts.

But as Jeff Zeleny of the NYT reminds us, that’s not at all what the White House proposed:

The White House signaled last week that it would exert greater control over the Census Bureau, in part because of a concern among minority groups over Gregg leading the Commerce Department. Then, in response to complaints by Republicans, the administration said it would work closely with the director of the census, but it would not be under the direction of the White House.

Those “minority groups” were the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses. So it was political pressure that precipitated the move. Additionally the move was to have the director of the census bureau work with and report directly to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief-of-staff.

Now the claim is that nothing different was planned, and it all was a misunderstanding and that it will be business as usual (now that it appears a Republican isn’t going to be running Commerce).

A "Spinorama" Adventure

A "Spinorama" Adventure

Of course, that’s nonsense. But not to excitable Andy. He, with his fine tuned discrimination antenna says:

This issue was championed by Republicans for the usual “the-darkies-are-taking-over!” reasons.

Lost in his sloppy analysis is the fact that the announcement by the Obama administration was very specific about the move and why – complaints from the CBC and Hispanic caucus. Also missing is the fact that the move was overtly political and meant to placate the complaining political special interest groups. For a guy who constantly complained about the politicization of the Justice Department, he seems fine with covering an attempt to do the same thing with the census. Coordinating budget and outreach with the executive department isn’t at all the same as proposing a move of the entire census bureau out from under the Commerce Dept. – where it has always been – to the White House.

Sullivan will be fun to watch as he becomes part of the effort to backtrack and coverup for the new administration.

~McQ


Free Market Bashing

Since the inception of the current downturn, free market capitalism has taken quite the bashing. Supporters of significant government involvement in the economy deride the horrors of “unfettered capitalism” and a “free market run amuck.” Frequently, deregulation of capital markets is singled out as the most dastardly culprit, to which Pres. Obama seems to be alluding when he blames “relying on the worn-out dogmas of the past,” and “too little regulatory scrutiny.” Yet, after the last eight years in which we witnessed Sarbanes-Oxley, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and numerous attempts to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shoved aside by legislators, evidence of unregulated economic activity being the source of our crisis seems rather scant.

The idea that “deregulation” was somehow responsible for the mortgage meltdown is a particularly shaky proposition. Shannon Love explains why:

Leftists have to answer a question: if greedy, irresponsible, unregulated etc. capitalism caused the housing bubble, why didn’t we see a similar bubble in commercial real-estate markets which operate under even less regulation than the residential markets? Why does the politically neglected and unregulated commercial real-estate market exhibit much milder swings?

[...]

The differences between residential and commercial real estate provide the means to test the hypothesis that government intervention or the lack thereof caused the housing bubble and subsequent collapse of the financial system. We can compare the two markets because the same institutions ultimately make residential and commercial loans. They make loans in the same communities and regions. Changes in the economy affect both types of real estate at the same time and to the same rough degree. The only major difference between the two markets lies in the degree of government intervention.

After dispensing with some obvious questions about the comparison, Love highlights how the residential market was essentially turned into a Lemon’s Market:

More than any other policy, the creation of Freddie Mac and Fanny May distorted the residential mortgage market in a way that the commercial market escaped. The FMs exist solely to induce lenders to make residential loans that the free market judged too risky. The FMs buy up residential mortgages from primary lenders and bundle them together in securities. They do so precisely in order to short-circuit the free-market feedback system that communicates to banks when the financial system as a whole has lent out as much money as it safely can. That feedback system worked like a governor on an engine. It kept the system from running away and lending more money than it could recoup, but also prevented people with poorer credit from getting loans.

Politicians who wanted the engine to run faster created the FMs to bypass the governor in order to get higher performance in the short run. Since the FMs would buy up almost any mortgage, lenders could make riskier and riskier loans without suffering any negative consequence. The FMs replaced the self-interested secondary-market buyers with people playing with government money and a mandate to induce more and more lending. Special dodgy accounting rules allowed the FMs to hide the risk behind the securitized mortgages they sold.

Deregulation caused the residential mortgage meltdown?

Deregulation caused the residential mortgage meltdown?

As Love points out, the commercial real estate market has no such mechanism muddying its waters, and information is comparatively less asymmetric. Without the government interference, commercial mortgage lenders let the potential for bad outcomes drive their decision making:

Tellingly, no such intervention occurred in commercial markets. The FMs’ charters expressly prevented them from buying commercial mortgages. As a result, the commercial mortgage market functioned with a free-market governor. When lenders made too many risky loans, free-market secondary buyers stopped buying their mortgages and the system cooled down. As a result, commercial markets saw no runaway boom and subsequent colossal bust.

Although I think that laying the crisis solely at the feet of the residential mortgage market is overly simplistic (for example, what was up with the ratings agencies?), Love does point to a very apt comparison as to how government intervention in the market changes incentives and behavior. If you guarantee risks against bad loans, and subsidize the debtors, then more of such loans will be made. Remove such a guarantees and subsidies and market forces will severely punish improperly compensated risk taking.

The trade off, of course, is that free markets do not allow much opportunity for rent-seeking. Which is why Love’s final lament is so true:

Sadly, experience suggests that mere empiricism has no place in political economics.

That’s because empiricism does not buy votes.


Details, Promises And Other “Stimulus” Package Fun Stuff

As the details of the compromise stimulus package come out, most will find plenty to not like.

For instance, those stimulative tax cuts for 95% of Americans:

Q: What are some of the tax breaks in the bill?

A: It includes Obama’s signature “Making Work Pay” tax credit for 95 percent of workers, though negotiators agreed to trim the credit to $400 a year instead of $500 — or $800 for married couples, cut from Obama’s original proposal of $1,000. It would begin showing up in most workers’ paychecks in June as an extra $13 a week in take-home pay, falling to about $8 a week next January.

$13 bucks a week for 6 months, down to $8 bucks a week by January. $338 in ’09, and, if it stays in place for all of ’10, $416.

Wow. 800 billion of your dollars and in the next year and a half you’re going to see $754 of it. Go make that down payment on the new house or car now!

Now, here’s the rope-a-dope:

Q: How will infrastructure spending affect jobs?

A: The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that every $1 billion the federal government spends on infrastructure projects translates to 35,000 jobs. Collins put the total infrastructure spending — including highways, mass transit, environmental cleanups and broadband facilities — at $150 billion. Do the math and that translates into more than 5 million jobs, based on the highway administration’s assumptions.

Senate leaders have offered their own estimate — they said Wednesday that the total stimulus package will sustain some 3.5 million jobs.

Most of that work will go to people who already have jobs. And those who are hired will be hired on a temporary basis. When the revenue stream for that job ends, so will the temporary jobs.

And one other thing to keep in mind – these people are estimating based on nothing more than some assumptions they’ve decided look rosy and fit their narrative. They have no freakin’ idea how many jobs, if any, their spending will bring.

Q: How long would it take for highway projects to begin?

A: Lawmakers say most of the projects could be up and running within 90 days, although it could take somewhat more time in northern states with longer winters. Highway construction groups have estimated that there are thousands of projects that could be started within that 90 days.

Here’s a dirty little secret about this answer – projects that are 90 days from beginning have most likely already been funded and those who are going to work on them have been hired.

All the rest of the projects in the bill will have to go through the normal years long bidding process that is required by government. So “shovel ready” does not necessarily mean an infusion of new cash or jobs.

Q: Does the bill include federal aid to the states?

A: Yes. It includes major contributions to states to help with their budget shortfalls and assure the viability of Medicaid and education programs.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the moderate Republican who helped broker the deal, said the spending includes about $90 billion in increased federal matches to states to help pay for Medicaid, along with a $54 billion “fiscal stabilization” fund that states could use to build and repair schools and improve facilities at institutions of higher learning.

This bill is the “State Fiscal Mismanagement Bailout Bill” which rewards states for budget busting.

Tell me, in life, what is one of the major means of changing behavior?

Pain. No pain, nothing learned. Be it emotional, physical or financial pain, unless you suffer it, you have no reason to change your behavior. Given this bill, profligate state governments have no reason to change their spendthrift ways.

BTW, none of that spending will stimulate anything but more government.

More:

Q: What are some of the other main focuses of the bill?

A: Here are some highlights:

Education: The package has some $11.5 billion to support the IDEA program for special education. There’s another $10 billion for a federal program to help low-income students.

Energy: The package includes funds to modernize the electrical grid — in part by incorporating renewable energy resources — and to make federal buildings more energy efficient and help low-income households weatherize their homes.

Health: The plan includes subsidies to allow people who are laid off to purchase health insurance through the federal COBRA plan. There is also money to support hospitals seeking to modernize health information technology.

Infrastructure: The infrastructure section of the package includes funds for building and repairing highways and bridges, expanding transit systems, upgrading airports and rail systems and building and repairing federal buildings — with the focus on making them more energy efficient. Funds are available for clean water projects, cleanup of environmental waste areas and nuclear waste cleanups.

Nothing listed here is stimulative. Nothing. This is all the pork that everyone has denied is in the bill. This is the left’s shopping list of the last 40 years rolled into one big raid on your wallet.

And what about the engine of productivity, the creator of jobs and wealth? Not much at all:

From auto dealers to the home-building industry, big business appears to be the biggest loser in the final economic stimulus plan being pieced together Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Negotiators from the House and Senate sliced billions of dollars in tax incentives for businesses and slashed huge tax breaks for consumers that were strongly backed by industry lobbyists.

Many of the business tax provisions were added to the stimulus legislation in the Senate in an effort to attract Republican votes. President Barack Obama wants bipartisan support for the plan and was dealt a setback when no Republicans voted for the House version of the plan two weeks ago.

But when only three Republican senators voted for the Senate version of the bill Tuesday, Democrats slashed the business tax proposals in an effort to bring the total cost of the bill under $789 billion.

That’s right, Democratic spite and their propensity toward government as the solution have mostly driven tax breaks for business, the one sector that can, in fact, create real jobs that produce wealth, out of the bill.

Tthe Democrats like to use the term “trickle down” derisively, but as Karl Rove notes, you’re  about to see their version of it. The difference is the money will “trickle down” through the government filter. Any guess as to how much will actually reach down to where it is needed?

Well, don’t bet that whopping $754 bucks you’ll be seeing over the next year and a half that it will do any good. Instead you might consider buying gold with it, since my guess is it isn’t going to be worth $754 when the Democrats get done with screwing around with the economy.

~McQ


When “Green” Turns Deadly

Some real anger is welling up down under against some “green” laws which prevented residents from taking prudent fire control measures which may have prevented both property destruction and deaths:

ANGRY residents last night accused local authorities of contributing to the bushfire toll by failing to let residents chop down trees and clear up bushland that posed a fire risk.

During question time at a packed community meeting in Arthurs Creek on Melbourne’s northern fringe, Warwick Spooner — whose mother Marilyn and brother Damien perished along with their home in the Strathewen blaze — criticised the Nillumbik council for the limitations it placed on residents wanting the council’s help or permission to clean up around their properties in preparation for the bushfire season. “We’ve lost two people in my family because you dickheads won’t cut trees down,” he said.

As many as 230 feared dead in Australian bushfire

As many as 230 feared dead in Australian bushfire

Sound familiar California? And there are other places as well where environmental activists have successfully blocked forest management procedures which help inhibit the type of holocaust loosed in the bush of Australia and in the California fires of a year or so ago.

It seems, when given the opportunity, environmentalists tend toward the extreme. The result in Australia, of course, just as in California, was the total destruction of all the trees they were supposedly saving. Not doing what anyone with common sense would call prudent has also lead to the deaths of not only masses of wildlife, but fellow human beings as well.

There was widespread applause when Nillumbik Mayor Bo Bendtsen said changes were likely to be made about the council’s policy surrounding native vegetation.

But his response was not good enough for Mr Spooner: “It’s too late now mate. We’ve lost families, we’ve lost people.”

Congratulations.

~McQ


Government: Always Late To The Recession

How does one demonstrate that if left alone, the economy will recover from a recession without government intervention?

Charts like this are helpful:

Quite a track record.

Quite a track record.

As Nick Gillespie says, if the chart is true, we must be beginning the recovery. Of course the larger point is, economies do recover without intervention and, in many cases, intervention comes as too late.

What it does, however, is give politicians a means of claiming credit for something that was already underway. And, as is obvious, putting you in debt up to your ears is fine with them if it buys them another 2, 4 or 6 years.

~McQ


Poll Battle

Do Americans support the stimulus bill proposed by Congress, or hate it? The only way to glean a credible answer is by looking to reliable polls. Bruce did that earlier with respect to the ATI-News/Zogby poll which found that:

Amidst all the rhetoric surrounding President Barack Obama’s first signature piece of legislation, a massive $800 billion economic “stimulus” bill, one thing is clear: a majority of Americans reject the President’s handiwork. A just-released ATI-News/Zogby International poll shows that clear majorities of Republicans and Independents are against it.

On the other hand, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that support for the bill has dramatically risen [HT: Hot Air]:

Public support for an $800 billion economic stimulus package has increased to 59% in a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Tuesday night, up from 52% in Gallup polling a week ago, as well as in late January.

So which is it? Is support up or down? Frankly, I don’t think we can really tell. Here’s why.

Both polls reveal the number of people questioned, and break down the results by party affiliation (although the ATI-News commissioned poll did not provide any numbers for Democrats). However, neither poll details how many participants of each party were polled, and/or whether the results were weighted. In short, if the ATI-News poll included substantially more Republicans and Republican leaning people among the 7,010 voters questioned, then the results should predictably skew towards the Republican side of the issue. Similarly, if there were significant number of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents among those 1,021 national adults polled by the USA Today poll, then we should expect that poll to favor the Democratic side.

Because we aren’t informed as to the breakdown of the total by party affiliation, we really can’t say how reflective the polls are of the country as a whole. Seeing as how the polls contradict one another, it’s safe to say that neither one accomplishes that task.

It’s tempting to conclude that, since the ATI-News poll was conducted over 5 days, as opposed to one, and interviewed almost 7 times as many people as the USA Today poll, the larger sample provides a more accurate picture. Moreover, the poll showing that the public is against the stimulus bill claims a margin of error (+/- 1.2%) that is far lower than the other poll (+/- 3.5%). Yet, the confidence interval for the latter poll is 95% and none is given for the ATI-News offering. If it was only 90%, I think (but could be wrong) that makes the USA Today poll slightly more accurate. In addition, without knowing how many answers came from each party (D/R/I), it’s impossible to say just how representative the poll actually is.

By the same token, the USA Today poll appears to offer a more comprehensive look at those questioned, and the questions asked seem less likely to evoke biased answers. For example, the main USA Today poll question was this:

As you may know, Congress is considering a new economic stimulus package of at least $800 billion. Do you favor or oppose Congress passing this legislation?

Compare that question to the following:

Most Republicans oppose the currently proposed stimulus bill supported by President Obama because they say there is too much money being spent for non-stimulus items. Do you agree or disagree that too much money is being spent on items that won’t improve the economy?

The first question above is simple, straightforward, and doesn’t present any potential bias words with respect to the issue. The second, however, sets up a premise, attaches “Republican” to it, and then asks for agree or disagree. Not surprisingly, the second question elicited a much stronger response from Republicans (93% agreed) and Independents (66%) than the first (56% Independents; 28% Republicans). Perhaps then the USA Today poll, despite its small sample, is the more accurate?

Once again, we don’t know how many of each party were questioned. If it was overwhelmingly Democratic Party leaners, then the results would have to be expected. In addition, the USA Today poll questioned all adults, while the ATI-News poll only queried voters, whom one might assume are somewhat better informed. Finally, the fact that any poll of voters could find a string correlation between the words “agree” and “Republicans” suggests that the wording was not causing any undue bias (unless, of course, it was mostly Republicans interviewed, which is pretty unlikely).

In the end, I don’t know how to view these two contradictory polls in a way that sheds any light on how the populace is actually feeling about the stimulus bill. Other than the glaring fact that Democrats overwhelmingly favor its passage, while Republicans do not, there is nothing definitive to be learned. I do agree with Bruce’s assessment that Independents are the best to look for answers, however the poll numbers we have don’t seem to match up.

I guess its possible that the a majority of people are ambivalent about the stimulus bill — yeah it’ll probably be a big screw up, but we have to do something, don’t we? — which would explain some of the apparent contradiction. And maybe Obama’s sales job made the difference in the numbers (the ATI-News poll ended on the 9th, while the USA Today poll was taken on the 10th).

Whatever the reason for the contradiction, I think it’s interesting that each day we have a different poll telling us that the public loves/hates the stimulus package, yet we never see any polls testing the public’s knowledge of what’s in the bill (much less anyone in Congress). Maybe if people were better informed about the contents of the legislation we see more consistent polling. Instead of constantly reading polls asking if the Republicans are right or wrong, or if $800 billion is a good number to spend, perhaps we’d learn more about what the public really thinks if we asked them how stimulated they would be by $4.2 billion for “neighborhood stabilization activities,” or $34 million to renovate the Department of Commerce headquarters, or $88 million to help move the Public Health Service into a new building, or $55 million for Historic Preservation Fund, or $6.2 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program, or $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects. Now there’s a poll I’d like to see.


Don’t Worry Julio!

Julio works at Mickey D’s and has for the last 4 years. President Obama tells him not to worry, that upcoming legislation is going to cover him up with money he didn’t earn (“refundable tax credits”) and help pay for his college too!

Watch this performance – on both sides:

Maybe that car and mortgage payment aren’t such a wild thought after all.

But as Walter Williams reminds us:

“In stimulus package language, if Congress taxes to hand out money, one person is stimulated at the expense of another, who pays the tax and is unstimulated. A visual representation of the stimulus package is: Imagine you see a person at work taking buckets of water from the deep end of a swimming pool and dumping them into the shallow end in an attempt to make it deeper. You would deem him stupid. That scenario is equivalent to what Congress and the new President proposes for the economy.”

Welcome to the deep end. You’re going to be putting Julio through college. Do you think he’ll even send you a thank you note?

~McQ

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