DRI-174 for week of 7-26-15: Oncologists’ Plea for Government Regulation of Cancer-Drug Prices is Dead Wrong

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Oncologists’ Plea for Government Regulation of Cancer-Drug Prices is Dead Wrong

Economists learn to recognize a special-interest plea the way an ornithologist recognizes a bird call. The mellifluous sounds of special pleading were uttered last week by some 118 oncologists from leading cancer hospitals throughout the United States, who issued a statement calling for government regulations limiting prices of prescription drugs for the treatment of cancer. The statement was published in the form of an editorial in the medical journal of the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. The signers hailed not only from Mayo’s but from such distinguished institutions as M.D. Anderson in Houston, TX, the Dana Farber Institute in Boston, MA and the University of Chicago.

The Attack on Drug Prices

As Jeanne Whalen of The Wall Street Journal told it (“Doctors Attack Drug Prices,” 7/23/15), “more than 100 oncologists from top cancer hospitals around the United States have issued a harsh rebuke over soaring cancer-drug prices and called for new regulations to control them.” These are the “latest in a growing roster of objectors to drug prices,” from “doctors to insurers to state Medicaid officials” to “have voiced alarm about prescription-drug prices.” Prices of prescription drugs rose an estimated 12% last year, the largest annual increase in the U.S. in over a decade.

And why does a price increase call for protest by the nation’s doctors? According to the editorial in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “out-of-pocket costs are bankrupting many just as they’re fighting a deadly illness. Patients have to make difficult choices between spending their incomes (and liquidating their assets) on potentially lifesaving therapies or foregoing treatment to provide family necessities.” According to the authors, some 10-20% of cancer patients do not take their prescribed treatments because they lack sufficient funds to do so.

Congress consists of people who live for the purpose of getting elected and re-elected. They are alert to every opportunity for gaining political advantage in the same way that entrepreneurs are alert to profitable market-price discrepancies. Hence we expect members of Congress to jump on the bandwagon of objections to drug prices. And sure enough, “members of Congress have demanded that pharmaceutical companies justify the pricing of hepatitis C medication, which costs tens of thousands of dollars per patient. Sen. Bernie Sanders has advised the Department of Veterans Affairs to break the patents on hepatitis C drugs so that generics companies can manufacture them more cheaply for ailing veterans.”

Trustees of the Medicare system predict that average annual increases in prescription-drug spending will rise by 9.7% through 2024, compared to the 6.5% annual increase over the previous eight years. Naturally, high prices for new medications are viewed as the culprit for these projected increases and the budgetary problems that will ensue.

The word “cancer” serves as a lightning rod to attract a disproportionate share and level of all this criticism. In the last fifteen years, prices for drugs to treat the disease have risen “five- to tenfold.” In 2012, the average cancer patient’s prescription medication cost over $100,000 per year.  Today, some new immune-system-boosting drugs cost over $150,000 per year or more. When used in “cocktail”-type combinations, they can run up a tab exceeding $300,000.

A spokesman for the oncologists, Ayalew Tefferi of Mayo Clinic, hit the keynote for true believers in government regulation of markets. “What we’re fighting is the greed. The greed and the additional maneuvering that is being exercised after you’ve already recouped what you’ve invested. There is no control, no regulation.”

To summarize the position of the objectors to high drug prices: High prescription drug prices – and increases in those prices – are ipso facto a bad thing. The motive force behind that bad thing is the greed of the price-setters; namely, the executives of pharmaceutical companies who produce the drugs in question.

The “Neutral” Press

There is another interested party in this story whose stance has not yet been made clear. In principle, the press does not participate in the news stories it reports. It is merely the messenger reporting the news. Alas, that principle is freely disregarded. Today the press is a partisan with its own agenda.

That agenda is on display here. The author, Ms. Whalen, dutifully devotes a short paragraph of summary rebuttal to the position of pharmaceutical-company executives. Its medicines “provide great value to patients and the health-care system… high prices are needed to fund future research and development.” A spokesman for a pharmaceutical trade association is quoted in a single sentence citing the falling cancer death-rates, rising survival rates and improvement in quality of life for patients.

Then she gets down to making her case against the pharmaceutical companies and in favor of government regulation. “Yet critics increasingly question whether the industry’s U.S. pricing truly reflects the value and R&D costs of medication, or simply what the largely unregulated market will bear. In most other countries, including Canada and European nations, single-payer health-payer systems bargain hard with pharmaceutical companies, sometimes refusing to pay for drugs they deem unreasonably expensive. As a result, prices are often far lower in these markets.”

“The U.S., by contrast, finds it hard to say no. ‘The U.S. has always taken a very hands-off attitude, that patients are going to have access to new medical treatments regardless of the cost,’ said David Howard [a professor of health policy]. For a big payer to refuse to cover a drug would be ‘a highly unprecedented situation,’ he said.”

The Economics of (Drug) Prices

Conspicuous by its absence in this article is any comment by or reference to an economist. As a result, there is no semblance of economic sense to any statement made by anybody, including particularly reporter Whalen. To see this, ponder the role played by prices in markets.

Prices coordinate the activities of buyers and sellers by determining the value of goods and services. The implicit assumption of the WSJ story is that prices perform the sole function of distributing – and redistributing – income between people. A high price is neither good nor bad in and of itself if the price accurately reflects the valuations expressed by individuals in the marketplace. High prices may mean that consumers are beating down the store doors trying to get their hands on the good in question. Or the high price may mean that the inputs necessary to produce the good are in short supply and have shot up in price, so that the good is now more costly to produce. Either way, the high price has sent a message to market participants. In the first case, the message to producers is “produce more of this good.” In the second case, the message to consumers is “buy less of this good because less is being produced and less is available for sale.” In neither case do we want to do anything to interfere with the transmission of the message. 

Both high prices and low prices send vital information from some people to other people. Those messages are how the economic system operates. Garble or interdict them and you make people worse off, not better off. The objectors to high prescription-drug prices are making the classic mistake of killing the messenger of bad news in the childish belief that by killing the news they can change the reality contained in the message.

A Special Case of Textbook Economic Regulation: Pure Monopoly

Inevitably, it will occur to somebody to wonder whether government regulation of price can ever be a good thing. And since even Democrats and opponents of free markets can read, one of them will pick up an economics textbook and leaf through it in hopes of picking up a few ideas. This is sound strategy because within the economics profession the political bias skews to the left; there are more left-wing economists than right-wing economists.

Most mainstream textbooks in intermediate price theory or microeconomics will include a discussion of the optimal regulatory strategy for setting the price of a pure monopolist; e.g., a single seller of a good for which there are no close substitutes. The pure monopolist will face the entire market demand for the good it sells. It will maximize its profit by producing the rate of output at which its marginal revenue is equal to its marginal cost. The price it will charge its customers for this rate of output will greatly exceed both marginal revenue and marginal cost. (Why? The market demand curve confronting the pure monopolist is always downward-sloping, which implies that the marginal or incremental revenue associated with additional sales always falls. That is, marginal revenue is always less than price at any rate of output.)

The textbooks remind their readers that, if the monopolized industry were instead comprised of a large number of sellers, each small in size relative to the whole market, no individual seller could influence the market price by varying its rate of output. In this “perfectly competitive” environment, each small seller views itself as a “price-taker.” This perception creates a mindset in which each seller views its marginal revenue and price as identical because it views market price as a given, not something the firm can influence through its own actions. Profit maximization still implies that the firm will produce the rate of output at which marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost, but since price is treated as equal to marginal revenue, it is also equal to marginal cost. Since price is equal to marginal cost for each individual competitive firm, this outcome applies to the whole industry as well. And that will result in a lower price and higher rate of output that those chosen by the pure monopolist, for whom price is greater than marginal revenue and marginal cost.

In the textbook application, the hypothetical regulator will choose to regulate a pure monopolist by locating the rate of output at which its marginal cost is equal to its price. The pure monopolist would not itself choose that rate of output at which to operate, for its marginal cost (being equal to price) is greater than its marginal revenue at that output. It could increase its profits by producing less and charging a higher price. But when confronted with the regulated price chosen by the regulator, the monopolist will produce that rate of output now because the regulator has changed the monopolist’s marginal revenue by fixing price at the competitive level. That fixity means that marginal revenue no longer falls as the monopolist increases output. Now marginal revenue, marginal cost and price are all equal at the competitive rate of output, so the monopolist is induced to operate under the same price and production conditions as would a competitive industry.

This undoubtedly strikes students as very ingenious. However, there is one tacit premise underlying this old standby textbook argument.

The argument presumes that the government regulator has the information necessary to choose the correct price.

When the student is reading this discussion in the textbook, this doesn’t appear to be a problem. The textbook’s author has made the whole problem look very easy. He (or she) has illustrated the logic behind the technique with a graph showing a market demand curve, marginal revenue curse and marginal and average cost curves. All the student has to do is follow the lines, observe the results and check the logic in his or her mind. It is seductively easy to assume that the pure monopolist must have exactly the same diagram at his disposal. And from that assumption, it is only a short way to the further assumption that a government regulator must have the same information at his or her elbow as well.

In reality, though, individual businesses do not have the kind of information that economics textbooks assume they have. Indeed, the only way businesses can acquire the sort of information shown in the diagram is by gradually piecing it together from markets, but since market data is constantly changing they don’t have the time to do it. This would be true many times over for a pure monopolist, who would have to have information about an entire market that might consist of many thousands, millions or billions of customers.

If businesses don’t have this information at their fingertips, we can bet that government regulators don’t. Businesses have the strongest possible incentives to acquire and use the information. Government incentives are much weaker and don’t run in the direction of efficiency, since the care and feeding of a government bureaucracy doesn’t depend on serving the needs of the public. Indeed, the opposite is true.

So the upshot is that the practical value of the famous textbook of government price-regulation is somewhere between slim and none. There are apparently no known cases of this technique being applied successfully. That is not surprising, since there is not much scope for its being used experimentally. Even if there were lots of pure monopolies to practice on – which there aren’t – that practice would end up getting pretty expensive to the public welfare.

The political incentive for a regulator charged with setting the price of a pure monopolist would be to set the price as low as possible. But this is very likely to produce a worse result than simply allowing the pure monopolist to maximize its profit, since it will probably equate price, marginal revenue and marginal cost at a much lower rate of output than the monopolist would choose. This is pretty obvious to anybody who studies the textbook diagram while keeping in mind that in real life, a regulator would be flying blind in deciding what price to set. Textbook writers are not anxious to undercut their carefully developed analysis and therefore do not usually point out this inconvenient fact.

Why is that bad? Well, put yourself in the position of a consumer of the monopoly good. In the case of a cancer drug, what its consumers want more than anything else is to be able to actually use the drug. To do that, it has to be produced. They can’t consume a cancer drug that isn’t produced. So any outcome that results in less output is bad from their standpoint.

What Kind of “Regulation” Are the Oncologists, Et Al, Talking About?

This brings us back to our motley band of objectors to high drug prices. According to the Mayo editorial, they want “regulation.” This is the all-purpose mantra of the day. But what can the word possibly mean?

“What we’re fighting is the greed.” The word “the” suggests we are supposed to know or intuit the meaning of “greed,” and certainly if repetition could confer meaning then further explanation would be superfluous. But Ms. Whalen’s “critics increasingly question…” implies that these people are embarked on a new crusade here. Pharmaceutical companies began in the 19th century; did they just catch the virus of greed in the last few years? Or did 118 oncologists just wake up, like so many Rip van Winkles, to the intransigent fact that investors are seeking the highest possible rate of return for a given level of risk? And while this point is up for discussion, why are the prices charged by oncologists and hospitals to their uninsured patients never tarred by this same brush?

The Mayo editorial dabbles (badly) in economics by broaching the subject of recoupment of investment, which is not the relevant economic criterion for gauging return on investment. The objectors are criticizing prices, which are the province of the managers and executives who run the pharmaceutical companies. But these people are not the greedheads. The beneficiaries of investment are the residual claimants of profits – the owners of the company, the shareholders. The shareholders are not the ones who set prices, so it’s a waste of time to link prices and greed even if it otherwise made sense to do it – which it doesn’t.

Some of the richest people in history – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and their ilk – got that way by producing goods that were consumed by others. If we don’t begrudge them mind-blowing wealth, it stands to reason that the owners of companies producing cancer drugs are entitled to whatever wealth they get. What we really want is as many cancer drugs and as much effectiveness from those drugs as possible, not as little wealth accruing to pharmaceutical investors as possible.

Jeanne Whalen’s case for a single-payer system rests on the superior bargaining power of government vis-à-vis drug companies. In other words, the left wing that made its bones by painting “corporations” as monstrous behemoths crushing the little guy underfoot now wants us to trust our lives to a government whose efficacy depends on its relative size and coercive power against sellers unable to withstand the irresistible force of its buying power.

And will this massive power be used in a sensitive, compassionate way to tenderly protect the welfare of the consumers whose interests it places foremost? No, the government’s Food and Drug Administration has long been known for callously refusing efforts of the terminally ill to lawfully obtain promising experimental drugs. The FDA has long resisted efforts to reduce delay times to bring new drugs to market.

Ah, but perhaps those single-payer foreign governments extolled by Ms. Whalen are more solicitous of their citizens than is the U.S. government. No, if that were true, then U.S. citizens would be stampeding out of the country to receive treatment there. If anything, the reverse is true. Why, in spite of rising prices for prescription drugs and medical services of all kinds, is American health care still sought after by global consumers? Because foreign single-payer government health-care systems ration care among their citizens. They refuse to allow price to play its normal role in the marketplace, instead insisting on keeping official prices artificially low and forcing patients to suffer on waiting lists rather than allowing them to pay higher prices. (In the jargon of economics, this is called “rationing by queue.”) Oh, they bargain hard with doctors and drug companies, all right. They do so because all welfare states ultimately run out of other people’s money and go broke – and the health-care component is the first part of the system to break down, even before the pay-as-you-go old-age-and-survivor component that is following closely behind it. The single-payer systems bargain as follows: They hold a gun to the heads of patients, saying “Reduce prices or I’ll shoot.” This leaves doctors, hospitals and drug companies with the unenviable choice of cutting their own throats now or being forced to do it later after being publicly demonized as the villains by the government.

Even welfare states cannot afford to flatly deny medical care to their citizens. So those governments are forced to take over the medical sector completely. Pharmaceutical companies become wards of the state, consigned to the competitive limbo of companies that have been castrated but kept alive by government subsidies. Doctors become menial time-servers rather than true physicians. Hospitals become – well, take a look at our own state mental hospitals to get a general idea. Meanwhile, consumers are trapped in a downward spiral of deteriorating quantity and quality of medical care. Only those who can afford to travel abroad can escape. The rest can only hope to keep their health as long as possible; otherwise, they die on waiting lists cursing the system while the healthy young get free checkups and sing the praises of “free health care.” And nobody feels the sharp end of this system more keenly than cancer victims, whose care is the most expensive and who suffer the ultimate penalty from rationed care.

The irony is that Ms. Whalen began her article complaining that cancer victims have to make “difficult choices” and may well end up foregoing some care because prices are too high. She ends it criticizing the U.S. health care system because it “can’t say no!” Isn’t that exactly what the cancer victims she herself reports on are doing? The cancer victims she describes are making the tough choices and running their own lives, but she implies that they and the rest of us would be better off surrendering all our choices to a single-payer system. Ms. Whalen begins by subtly suggesting that in a single-payer system, cancer-drug prices will be lower and cancer victims magically will be able to buy all the drugs they want at those lower prices. Of course, that isn’t what actually happens. The truth is that a single-payer system achieves its artificial lower prices only at the cost of a lower supply of cancer drugs, which the government rations among the desperate consumers.  Apparently she expects us to believe that if cancer victims have no say in their own care, they won’t feel as bad as they do now when they have to forego treatment. Today, though, they have the hope of buying the drugs they need if they can get the money. Under the single-payer system, they have no hope unless they are among the lucky few who win the rationing lottery, because there aren’t enough drugs produced to accommodate the patients who need them. The laws of economics override any bureaucratic laws man can devise.

The Role of Monopoly

The recourse to regulation has become the knee-jerk reflex solution to every public-policy problem, despite its conspicuous lack of success in solving any of them. The concept of regulation is poorly defined and its actual workings are poorly understood. In the world of politics, this makes it the perfect solution – it is an empty vessel into which each citizen can pour his or her own personal dreams, ideals and vision.

The production-structure of pharmacology makes it a tempting target for this kind of hazy thinking. Patents are customarily granted on the formulas for complex new medicines. A patent is defined as a government grant of monopoly on the ownership rights to a product or process, which include the right to produce it and license its production and use. The general public is used to associating the notion of monopoly with regulation. It became accustomed to that from decades of exposure to public-utility regulation, in which privately owned utilities received a grant of monopoly in exchange for submission to rate-of-return regulation by state-government commissions.

The two situations have nothing in common. Public utilities are (or, more accurately, were) natural monopolies owing to the peculiar characteristics of their production functions. Pharmaceuticals have no natural-monopoly characteristics, so there is no inherent rationale to subject them to the same kind of regulation applied to electric, gas and phone companies – not that public-utility regulation compiled such a sterling record of success in any case. The purpose of the patent is to encourage innovation. The existence of drugs that patients want to take is evidence of success. This is not an argument for regulation – just the reverse, in fact.

The Role of the Private Sector

The prospect of death at the hands of a life-threatening, complex illness like cancer is by definition a catastrophic illness. We expect that catastrophic illnesses will impose severe and sudden financial burdens on patients even in a perfect, well-functioning health-care system. This is a classic case where insurance can and should function to protect both the patient and the public at large from the direct and indirect (spillover) effects of catastrophe.

Unfortunately, health-care insurance in America and elsewhere has gotten sidetracked from its proper function. Beginning in World War II, employers began offering more comprehensive health-care insurance as a means of evading wage and price controls and offering employees an effective increase in real income that, unlike wage increases, was not subject to taxation. The health-care insurance lost its focus on catastrophic illness and became more and more “first-dollar coverage” that paid for routine health-care procedures. In turn, this caused insurance companies to avoid paying the large claims that should and normally would have constituted their proper insurance province. Today, health insurance is upside down. Subsidization of most garden-variety health-care services has driven prices through the roof while the uninsured face sky-high prices.

The Mayo oncologists should be devoting themselves to the only problems worth solving. First, they should be reforming the system by returning it to its roots – fee-for-service medicine supplemented by catastrophic insurance policies with low premiums and inter-state competition between insurance companies. That is a reform program well worth the time of busy professionals like the Mayo 118.

Second, the oncologists should busy themselves in finding ways to get money to cancer patients who need it. This is the classic function of private charity. As it stands now, the oncologists support a program of reverse-reform that will succeed only in killing more of their patients.

Should any readers – or the oncologists themselves – indignantly insist that they know better than economists how the market works, let them prove it.

Since they claim that pharmaceutical companies are greedy and can subsist perfectly well by charging lower prices, let the oncologists start a pharmaceutical company or buy an existing company and make it thrive by putting their principles into practice. Rather than force existing companies to do it their way, they can prove their point the old-fashioned way by competing in the marketplace and winning out.

Judging by the popularity of politicians who demonize corporations and profit, they would have many people cheering them on.

What Could the Mayo Oncologists Have Been Thinking? 

Readers may be wondering what the Mayo oncologists could possibly have been thinking when they signed on to the editorial referred to above. The old adage “Never ascribe to venality that which can be explained by mere stupidity” may well apply here. On the other hand, it may also be true that the doctors hope to secure for themselves and their patients a favorable place in line in the future rationing regime of a single-payer health-care system that evolves as the natural heir to ObamaCare.

DRI-173 for week of 7-12-15: Beware Greeks Begging Gifts

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Beware Greeks Begging Gifts

By now everybody is acclimated to the crisis atmosphere pervading economic life. It is the antithesis of life in the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, when day-to-day rhythms had the hum of a well-oiled machine. Crises occasionally interrupted the era known as the Great Moderation, and they seemed all the more acute for their rarity. Events like the stock-market “crash” of 1987 or the technology bubble-burst of 1999 seem ridiculously tame and short-lived compared to the dragged-out, operatic and increasingly ominous spectacles of today. How fitting that the most meaningful one of all is a classic Greek tragedy unfolding in Greece itself.

Even Americans who shun economics and cover their ears to escape the business news know that the U.S. government is deeply in debt. Compared to its Greek counterpart, though, Uncle Sam is the Dave Ramsey of sovereign spenders. The Greek government defaulted on its debts for the first time in 2012 and recently became the first developed nation ever to default on a loan payment due the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Greece’s creditors consist mainly of five classes: its own citizens, institutional investors such as banks and private funds, international organizations to which it belongs such as the Eurozone, international agencies from which it has borrowed money like the European Commission, European lending facilities and the IMF, and fellow European nations such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain. The official members of those five classes – e.g., those in the last three categories – have ganged up to put heavy pressure on the Greek government to pay up. “Pay up” does not mean expunging its debt; it merely means getting current on the debt by making current interest payments and paying off principal as it comes due.

The most recently elected Greek government has refused to do this. The recent referendum showed that over 60% of Greek voters agree with their government. When an individual is hopelessly in debt and refuses to pay, that is bad news for him or her. When a recalcitrant government is likewise indebted, this is bad news – for somebody else.

How did this happen? How and why has it been allowed to persist? Who will suffer because of it? What are the implications of this for the rest of the world?

The Economics of International Debt

Margaret Thatcher once remarked that the trouble with socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s money. As the above classification of Greek-government debt suggests, Greece began by borrowing money from its own citizens for its government to spend. When its spending exhausted the willingness of its own citizens to lend, the government turned to other sources. One by one, Greece tapped them all until eventually they were tapped out. For a government, that point is reached when it loses the ability to pay interest on what it borrowed.

And when does that happen? Well, all of us have a pretty good instinctive grasp of how the process works at the household level. An individual or a family borrows until the size of its debt relative to its annual income gets too big. After all, the family has to eat, keep a roof over its head, get to and from work and clothe itself. It can’t devote all its income to paying interest, let alone paying down debt. The precise tipping point will differ between families, but it exists for everybody. What is the analogue of this for a country?

The standard tools of analysis are to treat the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) as the national analogue of family income. The size of the national debt relative to GDP is the trouble light that signals which nations are on the verge of suffering a debt crisis. As with individual families, there is no absolute red-line point, but it does provide a good means of comparison between nations at a point in time, and also over time for a particular country.

As of 1970, Greece’s debt/GDP ratio was only 17%. By 1980, it had barely risen to 21%. But in 1985 it was over 60%; the country had started down the road to ruin. By the new millennium, the ratio had climbed over 100% – the country owed more than the value of its annual production. As with individuals, sovereign debt tends to increase exponentially because of the power of compound interest, which works inexorably in favor of savers but just as implacably against chronic debtors.

Once a country gets itself in a fix like this, can it get out? One of the celebrated analytical exercises in economics is the transfer problem. After World War I, the victorious Allied powers imposed stiff war reparations on the defeated Axis powers, which included Germany. In the formal sense, the obligation to pay off war debt is analytically indistinguishable from any other kind of debt, such as the more familiar kind of government debt that nations incur when their governments borrow from domestic or foreign citizens.

As economic textbooks relate, the only way Germany could pay off this war debt was by generating an annual surplus of exports over imports in the current account of its national balance of payments. But it couldn’t do that because (1) Germany, like most of Europe, had lost the cream of its manhood to the wholesale slaughter on the battlefields; and (2) the productive capacity of Germany had been badly mauled by the war. It needed all the consumption goods it was capable of producing just to keep its remaining population on their feet and all the investment goods it could produce to restore its industry to a semblance of its pre-war strength. That left it very little for export. Forcing it to pay reparations was tantamount to heaping further punishment on a country that had already been badly punished by defeat in a dubious cause.

Students sometimes have a hard time getting their minds around the concept of repaying international debt via an export surplus, but – as a first approximation – this mimics what goes on at the individual level. Any listener to the Dave Ramsey program knows that the formula for escaping debt is (1) don’t get in debt in the first place; or (2) lower your standard of living (e.g., your personal consumption) as low as possible as quickly as possible for as long as necessary to pay down the debt. Do NOT borrow more money and pay as little interest as possible. What the debtor is doing is “exporting;” consuming less than the value of what is produced (income) in order to send the net surplus “abroad” (to outsiders).

One key difference between the German situation between the World Wars and the Greek situation over the last three decades is that the German war debt was forced upon them by the unwise provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, while the Greeks dug their own money pit by electing and re-electing politicians who celebrated the virtues of deficit spending.

The Greek Welfare State

The term “welfare state” is credited to the British Labor Party theoretician, Lord William Beveridge, who coined it in the famous “Beveridge Report” of 1941 that laid the foundation for British post-war socialism. But it is Greece that has brought the art of the welfare state to its apogee – the asymptotic approach to a condition in which everybody is paid by the government not to work. Only in Greece can one find a sighted citizen receiving a subsidy dedicated to the blind. Only in Greece is it commonplace to retire with full benefits at age fifty.

The Greek Underground Economy

When the government becomes the source of all benefit, we would expect the government to become all powerful and relentless in its search for wealth to confiscate. The problem with an omnipresent government is that it tends to discourage active cooperation by the citizenry. This is particularly true when John Q. Public’s job one is to wangle a subsidy from the government. What is the point of being subsidized when the government deposits the benefit in your left pocket only to yank it out of your right pocket in taxes? Thus, job two in Greece is to evade taxation in order to make your subsidy effective on net balance.

According to a service that studies these things, Greece ranks as the most corrupt of the 19 countries in the Eurozone. The value of goods and services produced “off the books” in the Greek economy – thus, untouched by taxation – is estimated at 24.3% of total Greek GDP. By way of comparison, Italy – another nation so legendary for fiddling on its taxes that Italian movies have been built around this premise – ranks second among European countries at 21.9%. It is estimated that the Greek government collect only about half of all taxes due it.

The structure of the Greek economy undoubtedly lends itself to tax evasion. Of all the world’s economies, Greece may have the biggest comparative advantage in tourism owing to its breathtaking Aegean scenery and stock of venerable historic ruins and temples. An astounding 31.5% of Greek employees are self-employed, which greatly eases the task of avoiding taxes, particularly when the employee is providing a service to foreigners who have no interest and little opportunity to cooperate with the tax man. (Self-employment elsewhere in Europe is nowhere nearly as high as in Greece, averaging only 15%.)

 

Syriza and Fairness 

The populist party Syriza has built a controlling interest among the Greek electorate by harping on the issue of fairness. How dare foreign creditors insist on lowering the standard of living of the average Greek? Why should poor Greeks suffer to feed the appetites of the 1%? The word “austerity” has become a code word for privilege and wealth gained at the expense of the masses of the common people.

Economic theory itself, in the narrow sense, has nothing to say about fairness for the same reasons that the theory of consumer demand makes no effort to compare the utility or satisfaction gained by one person with that of another. There is nothing in economics that says it is “fair” or unfair that so many Greeks are subsidized by other Greeks (and non-Greeks). Economics merely says that somebody must pay – the money that funds the subsidies is not spontaneously generated and it is diverted away from productive alternative uses. Within Greece itself, the unsubsidized are paying for the subsidies given to their countrymen.

The irony is that the populist left has succeeded so well in turning the logic of fairness on its head. By resorting to international borrowing, the government ensures that the burden of repayment will be spread across the Greek population at large, which is forced to repay the debt in real terms via exports. When repayment takes the form of exports, the burden is reflected in the prices and quantities of all goods and services, not merely those that are internationally traded. So even the hard-working, industrious poor are “taxed” to pay subsidies to the loafers and dissemblers. Even the tax-dodgers pay, since this form of implicit tax can’t be evaded by cheating on taxes.

Syriza is complaining that the inhumane austerity policies transfer real income away from their supporters to the hated capitalists. But economics says that the capitalists only get a “normal” rate of return and nowadays they don’t even get that. It is the input suppliers who are the long-run gainers and losers from the subsidies. We know that some Greeks – subsidy recipients and government employees – are net gainers and non-government non-recipients must be losers. Syriza is in fact complaining about the unfairness of policies that prevent this gravy train from running indefinitely. As a matter of fact, the government and agency negotiators such as the IMF, the European Commission and the Eurozone bailout funds have in the past cheerfully sold out the only participants who could be called “capitalists;” namely, private lenders holding Greek paper. Private lenders have taken haircuts that were publicly announced at 50% in previous negotiations and were probably as high as 74%, according to sources like The Wall Street Journal.

In this case, “indefinitely” definitely does not mean “forever.” When one group of Greeks is subsidizing another one, this gives the non-recipients an incentive to climb on the recipient bandwagon. But when everybody wants to stop working at the same time, the volume of output necessary to pay the subsidies not only begins to decline, but does so at an increasing rate. And that spells trouble, with a capital T and that rhymes with p and that stands for politics.

The Reckoning

In the last two years, unemployment in Greece has risen above 25%. Syriza has tried to put the blame on the austerity policies favored by creditors, but if anything the feeble attempts at reform put forward by the Greek government produced slight improvement. To be sure, higher taxes are not a recipe for higher living standards, but that applies only to taxes that actually get collected. The only fiscal effect one can predict with any confidence in Greece is the bandwagon effect produced by the subsidy gold-rush. It is akin to what happens in hyperinflations when everybody is so busy trying to spend their money before its value declines even further that nobody has time to work and produce. Here, everybody is so busy trying to promote themselves a subsidy – that is, to reach the status where they are not working – that work and production become an afterthought.

Every country in the Eurozone is a welfare state, but not all are in the same stage of decay. For example, Great Britain under the long period of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was able to divest itself of the state-ownership features of British Labor Party socialism, thereby reversing its label as carrier of the “British disease” to that of the “British miracle.” Thatcher’s economic program was not eviscerated by the subsequent Labor administration of Tony Blair and the current Conservative government has restored a modicum of it, which explain why British unemployment stands around 5.5%. At one end of the spectrum, we have the Eurozone basket cases: Spain (over 23%), Cyprus (over 16%), Portugal (over 13%) and Italy (over 12%). Germany (over 7%) ranks just above, or rather below, Great Britain at the other end. In the middle, are Ireland (just below 10% and on its way down after regaining fiscal discipline) and France (over 10% and rising as it bids to join the basket cases). We can use these unemployment rates as a rough proxy for the progression of this anti-productivity virus throughout the Eurozone. That is, the higher the unemployment rate, the closer is a particular country to eventual collapse when it faces the same day of reckoning that confronts Greece.

What About the Truly Needy?

The public face of Syriza’s constituents, those being subsidized by the Greek government – hence by multiple foreign governments and international agencies – is not a shifty-eyed tax dodger. It is not a blind beggar lifting up his eye patch to count the day’s takings. No, it is a homeless orphan starving on the street. It is a poor widow working two jobs to feed her children. It is an amputee propelling himself on a cart and subsisting on the charity of tourists. These are the deserving poor, the “truly needy.” They constitute the ultimate, conversation-stopping rejoinder to anyone having the temerity to tell the truth about Greece’s descent into subsidy hell.

In fact, the question should be turned back on the questioner. What, indeed, about the truly needy? For over a century, the political left has been allowed to get away with peddling the fantasy that they will disappear if only government gets big enough, intrusive enough and profligate enough. But the actual experience with the welfare state, as epitomized by Greece, is that the truly needy has gone from being cared for by their nearest and dearest relatives and/or friends to being cared for by charitable institutions to being cared for by local government to being cared for by state government to being cared for by a federal (national) government. In this final, terminal, phase, a nation’s truly needy are now at the mercy of foreign governments and international agencies. In other words, the progression puts the truly needy in the hands of ever more impersonal, less caring, more callous, less sensitive, less knowledgeable wards. The truly needy have become political pawns of big government and its fawning acolytes, neither of which gives a rap about them.

What in God’s name is so compassionate about this?

There is one and only one way to serve the truly needy well. It is by producing the largest possible flow of output from which charity can flow. Charity must originate from within the human heart, the geographic production point most efficiently located to serve those in need. Government inherently operates via coercion and compulsion, which is the enemy of the compassion and sensitivity required to serve the truly needy.

To be sure, charity is not an easy product to produce under the best of circumstances. But government is the worst producer, not the best one – and certainly not the only possible one. The appeal to human need is the most cynical and despicable Trojan horse being rolled out by those supporting a bailout of Greece.

Is There No Hope Without a Bailout?

Implicit in the story told by the mainstream media about Greece is the presumption that, absent a bailout, the country can only spiral to destruction. That is standard operating procedure for big government: “Without big government/ regulation/ programs/ planning, civilization as we know it will soon end and chaos will ensue.” Consigned to the memory hole is the last 35 years of Greek history, which began with Greece enjoying unprecedented prosperity under the commercial shelter of intra-European free trade.

Greece became a top-10 nation worldwide in tourism, astonishing considering that it is only in the top 50 in absolute size. Its shipping and fishing industries boomed. The country even developed a modestly successful manufacturing sector. It is only in the last 10 years that its political choices and subsidy mania overtook and tackled its productivity. This is only the most extreme case of a disease afflicting almost all of Europe. Although the Great Recession intensified its effects, it began years earlier.

This history proves conclusively that Greece can and should succeed economically. Like a convert to Dave Ramsey’s debt-elimination lifestyle, it needs to take the cure and swear fealty to free markets and free trade. Remember that Greece’s travails are nowhere near those suffered by Germany under the Weimar Republic. The Germans were decimated physically and demographically by war. The Greeks have merely suffered a recession, something every developed country suffers periodically.

So What If Greece Leaves the Eurozone?

Numerous commentators have shrugged their shoulders at the prospect of a Greek exit from the Eurozone due to debt default. Why should we care? And, apart from departments of revenue, why should people in the other 18 Eurozone countries care if Greece leaves? (This omits the seven non-Euro members and two “Euro opt-out” members of the European Union.) Germany will be relieved of the necessity of subsidizing Greece. Everybody will be relieved of the wearisome laments and regular bulletins of distress emanating from Athens.

To understand why so many people don’t care whether Greece stays in the Eurozone or not, we have to understand why some people do care. To understand that, we have to understand that the “Eurozone” is two things. In economic theory, it is a customs and (quasi-) monetary union, a group of nations united by a common commercial policy and (mostly) by a common currency. Since the customs union creates a free-trade zone, the mutual trade benefits provide a good reason for consumers in all countries to regret the exit of Greece. The general public gratefully exercises the prerogatives of international trade but somehow overlooks them when contemplating the subject in a public-policy context.

The Eurozone is also a gigantic bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. The bureaucracy ostensibly exists to run the Eurozone. It actually exists to benefit the people who comprise it and its political patrons, just as all giant bureaucracies do. They are desperate to keep Greece in the Eurozone for a perfectly logical reason: all bureaucracies resist getting smaller. If Eurozone countries somehow got it in their heads that they could come and go from the confederation as they pleased, then all those countries on the basket-case list above might decide to exit for roughly the same reasons as Greece. Then that giant bureaucracy would be up the Mediterranean without a paddle. And where do all the newspaper and online stories about the Greece debt crisis originate? From official sources; i.e., from Brussels or the IMF or some other agency with a vested interest in Greece’s Eurozone membership. Thus, while op-eds may display a carefree insouciance to Greece’s peregrinations, the front-page stories will reflect nothing but verbal hand-wringing and grave concern over the crisis.

The Rest of the World

To the world outside of Europe, Greece mostly represents a cautionary tale. Take the United States. We are a welfare state. In terms of unemployment, we are apparently with Great Britain – at the early stages of decay. But this is misleading, because Federal Reserve monetary policy and the Obama administration have combined to drive us far down F. A. Hayek’s “road to serfdom.” If we array countries on a debt/GDP scale ratio scale, for example, we compare less favorably. And our trend is directly opposite to that in Great Britain or Ireland.

Of all recurring headline stories that have preoccupied the public’s attention over the last five years, it is doubtful whether any other has embodied such a gulf between underlying truth and the picture provided to the public in news reports. The reports constantly speculate on the chances that a deal will be struck between Greek politicians and international creditors. This has nothing to do with the underlying economic reality staring Greece in the face – only with the chances of the Eurocracy cutting a deal to keep Greece in the Eurozone a while longer. Which of these two is of life-and-death interest to ordinary people the world over – the latest can-kicking exercise going in between Brussels and Athens or the preview of coming attractions now on view in Greece that will eventually face every welfare state in the world, including ours?

DRI-172 for week of 7-5-15: How and Why Did ObamaCare Become SCOTUSCare?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

How and Why Did ObamaCare Become SCOTUSCare?

On June 25, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered its most consequential opinion in recent years in King v. Burwell. King was David King, one of various Plaintiffs opposing Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. The case might more colloquially be called “ObamaCare II,” since it dealt with the second major attempt to overturn the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement.

The Obama administration has been bragging about its success in attracting signups for the program. Not surprisingly, it fails to mention two facts that make this apparent victory Pyrrhic. First, most of the signups are people who lost their previous health insurance due to the law’s provisions, not people who lacked insurance to begin with. Second, a large chunk of enrollees are being subsidized by the federal government in the form of a tax credit for the amount of the insurance.

The point at issue in King v. Burwell is the legality of this subsidy. The original legislation provides for health-care exchanges established by state governments, and proponents have been quick to cite these provisions to pooh-pooh the contention that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) ushered in a federally-run, socialist system of health care. The specific language used by PPAACA in Section 1401 is that the IRS can provide tax credits for insurance purchased on “exchanges run by the State.” That phrase appears 14 times in Section 1401 and each time it clearly refers to state governments, not the federal government. But in actual practice, states have found it excruciatingly difficult to establish these exchanges and many states have refused to do so. Thus, people in those states have turned to the federal-government website for health insurance and have nevertheless received a tax credit under the IRS’s interpretation of statute 1401. That interpretation has come to light in various lawsuits heard by lower courts, some of which have ruled for plaintiffs and against attempts by the IRS and the Obama administration to award the tax credits.

Without the tax credits, many people on both sides of the political spectrum agree, PPACA will crash and burn. Not enough healthy people will sign up for the insurance to subsidize those with pre-existing medical conditions for whom PPACA is the only source of external funding for medical treatment.

To a figurative roll of drums, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) released its opinion on June 25, 2015. It upheld the legality of the IRS interpretation in a 6-3 decision, finding for the government and the Obama administration for the second time. And for the second time, the opinion for the majority was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Roberts’ Rules of Constitutional Disorder

Given that Justice Roberts had previously written the opinion upholding the constitutionality of the law, his vote here cannot be considered a complete shock. As before, the shock was in the reasoning he used to reach his conclusion. In the first case (National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, 2012), Roberts interpreted a key provision of the law in a way that its supporters had categorically and angrily rejected during the legislative debate prior to enactment and subsequently. He referred to the “individual mandate” that uninsured citizens must purchase health insurance as a tax. This rescued it from the otherwise untenable status of a coercive consumer directive – something not allowed under the Constitution.

Now Justice Roberts addressed the meaning of the phrase “established by the State.” He did not agree with one interpretation previously made by the government’s Solicitor General, that the term was an undefined term of art. He disdained to apply a precedent established by the Court in a previous case involving interpretation of law by administration agencies, the Chevron case. The precedent said that in cases where a phrase was ambiguous, a reasonable interpretation by the agency charged with administering the law would rule. In this case, though, Roberts claimed that since “the IRS…has no expertise in crafting health-insurance policy of this sort,” Congress could not possibly have intended to grant the agency this kind of discretion.

No, Roberts is prepared to believe that “established by the State” does not mean “established by the federal government,” all right. But he says that the Supreme Court cannot interpret the law this way because it will cause the law to fail to achieve its intended purpose. So, the Court must treat the wording as ambiguous and interpret it in such a way as to advance the goals intended by Congress and the administration. Hence, his decision for defendant and against plaintiffs.

In other words, he rejected the ability of the IRS to interpret the meaning of the phrase “established by the State” because of that agency’s lack of health-care-policy expertise, but is sufficiently confident of his own expertise in that area to interpret its meaning himself; it is his assessment of the market consequences that drives his decision to uphold the tax credits.

Roberts’ opinion prompted one of the most scathing, incredulous dissents in the history of the Court, by Justice Antonin Scalia. “This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits,” begins Scalia. “You would think the answer would be obvious – so obvious that there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it… Under all the usual rules of interpretation… the government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court – the Affordable Care Act must be saved.”

The reader can sense Scalia’s mounting indignation and disbelief. “The Court interprets [Section 1401] to award tax credits on both federal and state exchanges. It accepts that the most natural sense of the phrase ‘an exchange established by the State’ is an exchange established by a state. (Understatement, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act!) Yet the opinion continues, with no semblance of shame, that ‘it is also possible that the phrase refers to all exchanges.’ (Impossible possibility, thy name is an opinion on the Affordable Care Act!)”

“Perhaps sensing the dismal failure of its efforts to show that ‘established by the State’ means ‘established by the State and the federal government,’ the Court tries to palm off the pertinent statutory phrase as ‘inartful drafting.’ The Court, however, has no free-floating power to rescue Congress from their drafting errors.” In other words, Justice Roberts has rewritten the law to suit himself.

To reinforce his conclusion, Scalia concludes with “…the Court forgets that ours is a government of laws and not of men. That means we are governed by the terms of our laws and not by the unenacted will of our lawmakers. If Congress enacted into law something different from what it intended, then it should amend to law to conform to its intent. In the meantime, Congress has no roving license …to disregard clear language on the view that … ‘Congress must have intended’ something broader.”

“Rather than rewriting the law under the pretense of interpreting it, the Court should have left it to Congress to decide what to do… [the] Court’s two cases on the law will be remembered through the years. And the cases will publish the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court favors some laws over others and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites… We should start calling this law SCOTUSCare.”

Jonathan Adler of the much-respected and quoted law blog Volokh Conspiracy put it this way: “The umpire has decided that it’s okay to pinch-hit to ensure that the right team wins.”

And indeed, what most stands out about Roberts’ opinion is its contravention of ordinary constitutional thought. It is not the product of a mind that began at square one and worked its way methodically to a logical conclusion. The reader senses a reversal of procedure; the Chief Justice started out with a desired conclusion and worked backwards to figure out how to justify reaching it. Justice Scalia says as much in his dissent. But Scalia does not tell us why Roberts is behaving in this manner.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we do not know why Roberts is saying what he is saying. Beyond question, it is arbitrary and indefensible. Certainly it is inconsistent with his past decisions. There are various reasons why a man might do this.

One obvious motivation might be that Roberts is being blackmailed by political supporters of the PPACA, within or outside of the Obama administration. Since blackmail is not only a crime but also a distasteful allegation to make, nobody will advance it without concrete supporting evidence – not only evidence against the blackmailer but also an indication of his or her ammunition. The opposite side of the blackmail coin is bribery. Once again, nobody will allege this publicly without concrete evidence, such as letters, tapes, e-mails, bank account or bank-transfer information. These possibilities deserve mention because they lie at the head of a short list of motives for betrayal of deeply held principles.

Since nobody has come forward with evidence of malfeasance – or is likely to – suppose we disregard that category of possibility. What else could explain Roberts’ actions? (Note the plural; this is the second time he has sustained PPACA at the cost of his own integrity.)

Lord Acton Revisited

To explain John Roberts’ actions, we must develop a model of political economy. That requires a short side trip into the realm of political philosophy.

Lord Acton’s famous maxim is: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are used to thinking of it in the context of a dictatorship or of an individual or institution temporarily or unjustly wielding power. But it is highly applicable within the context of today’s welfare-state democracies.

All of the Western industrialized nations have evolved into what F. A. Hayek called “absolute democracies.” They are democratic because popular vote determines the composition of representative governments. But they are absolute in scope and degree because the administrative agencies staffing those governments are answerable to no voter. And increasingly the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the governments wield powers that are virtually unlimited. In practical effect, voters vote on which party will wield nominal executive control over the agencies and dominate the legislature. Instead of a single dictator, voters elect a government body with revolving and rotating dictatorial powers.

As the power of government has grown, the power at stake in elections has grown commensurately. This explains the burgeoning amounts of money spent on elections. It also explains the growing rancor between opposing parties, since ordinary citizens perceive the loss of electoral dominance to be subjugation akin to living under a dictatorship. But instead of viewing this phenomenon from the perspective of John Q. Public, view it from within the brain of a policymaker or decisionmaker.

For example, suppose you are a completely fictional Chairman of a completely hypothetical Federal Reserve Board. We will call you “Bernanke.” During a long period of absurdly low interest rates, a huge speculative boom has produced unprecedented levels of real-estate investment by banks and near-banks. After stoutly insisting for years on the benign nature of this activity, you suddenly perceive the likelihood that this speculative boom will go bust and some indeterminate number of these financial institutions will become insolvent. What do you do? 

Actually, the question is really more “What do you say?” The actions of the Federal Reserve in regulating banks, including those threatened with or undergoing insolvency, are theoretically set down on paper, not conjured up extemporaneously by the Fed Chairman every time a crisis looms. These days, though, the duties of a Fed Chairman involve verbal reassurance and massage as much as policy implementation. Placing those duties in their proper light requires that our side trip be interrupted with a historical flashback.

Let us cast our minds back to 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression in the United States. At that time, virtually nobody foresaw the coming of the Depression – nobody in authority, that is. For many decades afterwards, the conventional narrative was that President Herbert Hoover adopted a laissez faire economic policy, stubbornly waiting for the economy to recover rather than quickly ramping up government spending in response to the collapse of the private sector. Hoover’s name became synonymous with government passivity in the face of adversity. Makeshift shanties and villages of the homeless and dispossessed became known as “Hoovervilles.”

It took many years to dispel this myth. The first truthteller was economist Murray Rothbard in his 1962 book America’s Great Depression, who pointed out that Hoover had spent his entire term in a frenzy of activism. Far from remaining a pillar of fiscal rectitude, Hoover had presided over federal deficit spending so large that his successor, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, campaigned on a platform of balancing the federal-government budget. Hoover sternly warned corporate executives not to lower wages and officially adopted an official stance in favor of inflation.

Professional economists ignored Rothbard’s book in droves, as did reviewers throughout the mass media. Apparently the fact that Hoover’s policies failed to achieve their intended effects persuaded everybody that he couldn’t have actually followed the policies he did – since his actual policies were the very policies recommended by mainstream economists to counteract the effects of recession and Depression and were largely indistinguishable in kind, if not in degree, from those followed later by Roosevelt.

The anathematization of Herbert Hoover drover Hoover himself to distraction. The former President lived another thirty years, to age ninety, stoutly maintaining his innocence of the crime of insensitivity to the misery of the poor and unemployed. Prior to his presidency, Hoover had built reputation as one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century by deploying his engineering and organizational skills in the cause of disaster relief across the globe. The trashing of his reputation as President is one of history’s towering ironies. As it happened, his economic policies were disastrous, but not because he didn’t care about the people. His failure was ignorance of economics – the same sin committed by his critics.

Worse than the effects of his policies, though, was the effect his demonization has had on subsequent policymakers. We do not remember the name of the captain of the California, the ship that lay anchored within sight of the Titanic but failed to answer distress calls and go to the rescue. But the name of Hoover is still synonymous with inaction and defeat. In politics, the unforgivable sin became not to act in the face of any crisis, regardless of the consequences.

Today, unlike in Hoover’s day, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is the quarterback of economic policy. This is so despite the Fed’s ambiguous status as a quasi-government body, owned by its member banks with a leader appointed by the President. Returning to our hypothetical, we ponder the dilemma faced by the Chairman, “Bernanke.”

Bernanke only directly controls monetary policy and bank regulation. But he receives information about every aspect of the U.S. economy in order to formulate Fed policy. The Fed also issues forecasts and recommendations for fiscal and regulatory policies. Even though the Federal Reserve is nominally independent of politics and from the Treasury department of the federal government, the Fed’s policies affect and are affected by government policies.

It might be tempting to assume that Fed Chairmen know what is going to happen in the economic future. But there is no reason to believe that is true. All we need do is examine their past statements to disabuse ourselves of that notion. Perhaps the popping of the speculative bubble that Bernanke now anticipates will produce an economic recession. Perhaps it will even topple the U.S. banking system like a row of dominoes and produce another Great Depression, a la 1929. But we cannot assume that either. The fact that we had one (1) Great Depression is no guarantee that we will have another one. After all, we have had 36 other recessions that did not turn into Great Depressions. There is nothing like a general consensus on what caused the Depression of the 1920s and 30s. (The reader is invited to peruse the many volumes written by historians, economic and non-, on the subject.) About the only point of agreement among commentators is that a large number of things went wrong more or less simultaneously and all of them contributed in varying degrees to the magnitude of the Depression.

Of course, a good case might be made that it doesn’t matter whether Fed Chairman can foresee a coming Great Depression or not. Until recently, one of the few things that united contemporary commentators was their conviction that another Great Depression was impossible. The safeguards put in place in response to the first one had foreclosed that possibility. First, “automatic stabilizers” would cause government spending to rise in response to any downturn in private-sector spending, thereby heading off any cumulative downward movement in investment and consumption in response to failures in the banking sector. Second, the Federal Reserve could and would act quickly in response to bank failures to prevent the resulting reverse-multiplier effect on the money supply, thereby heading off that threat at the pass. Third, bank regulations were modified and tightened to prevent failures from occurring or restrict them to isolated cases.

Yet despite everything written above, we can predict confidently that our fictional “Bernanke” would respond to a hypothetical crisis exactly as the real Ben Bernanke did respond to the crisis he faced and later described in the book he wrote about it. The actual and predicted responses are the same: Scare the daylights out of the public by predicting an imminent Depression of cataclysmic proportions and calling for massive government spending and regulation to counteract it. Of course, the real-life Bernanke claimed that he and Treasury Secretary Henry O’Neill correctly foresaw the economic future and were heroically calling for preventive measures before it was too late. But the logic we have carefully developed suggests otherwise.

Nobody – not Federal Reserve Chairmen or Treasury Secretaries or California psychics – can foresee Great Depressions. Predicting a recession is only possible if the cyclical process underlying it is correctly understood, and there is no generally accepted theory of the business cycle. No, Bernanke and O’Neill were not protecting America with their warning; they were protecting themselves. They didn’t know that a Great Depression was in the works – but they did know that they would be blamed for anything bad that did happen to the economy. Their only way of insuring against that outcome – of buying insurance against the loss of their jobs, their professional reputations and the possibility of historical “Hooverization” – was to scream for the biggest possible government action as soon as possible. 

Ben Bernanke had been blasé about the effects of ultra-low interest rates; he had pooh-poohed the possibility that the housing boom was a bubble that would burst like a sonic boom with reverberations that would flatten the economy. Suddenly he was confronted with a possibility that threatened to make him look like a fool. Was he icy cool, detached, above all personal considerations? Thinking only about banking regulations, national-income multipliers and the money supply? Or was he thinking the same thought that would occur to any normal human being in his place: “Oh, my God, my name will go down in history as the Herbert Hoover of Fed chairmen”?

Since the reasoning he claims as his inspiration is so obviously bogus, it is logical to classify his motives as personal rather than professional. He was protecting himself, not saving the country. And that brings us to the case of Chief Justice John Roberts.

Chief Justice John Roberts: Selfless, Self-Interested or Self-Preservationist?

For centuries, economists have identified self-interest as the driving force behind human behavior. This has exasperated and even angered outside observers, who have mistaken self-interest for greed or money-obsession. It is neither. Rather, it merely recognizes that the structure of the human mind gives each of us a comparative advantage in the promotion of our own welfare above that of others. Because I know more about me than you do, I can make myself happier than you can; because you know more about you than I do, you can make yourself happier than I can. And by cooperating to share our knowledge with each other, we can make each other happier through trade than we could be if we acted in isolation – but that cooperation must preserve the principle of self-interest in order to operate efficiently.

Strangely, economists long assumed that the same people who function well under the guidance of self-interest throw that principle to the winds when they take up the mantle of government. Government officials and representatives, according to traditional economics textbooks, become selfless instead of self-interested when they take office. Selflessness demands that they put the public welfare ahead of any personal considerations. And just what is the “public welfare,” exactly? Textbooks avoided grappling with this murky question by hiding behind notions like a “social welfare function” or a “community indifference curve.” These are examples of what the late F. A. Hayek called “the pretense of knowledge.”

Beginning in the 1950s, the “public choice” school of economics and political science was founded by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. This school of thought treated people in government just like people outside of government. It assumed that politicians, government bureaucrats and agency employees were trying to maximize their utility and operating under the principle of self-interest. Because the incentives they faced were radically different than those faced by those in the private sector, outcomes within government differed radically from those outside of government – usually for the worse.

If we apply this reasoning to members of the Supreme Court, we are confronted by a special kind of self-interest exercised by people in a unique position of power and authority. Members of the Court have climbed their career ladder to the top; in law, there are no higher rungs. This has special economic significance.

When economists speak of “competition” among input-suppliers, we normally speak of people competing with others doing the same job for promotion, raises and advancement. None of these are possible in this context. What about more elevated kinds of recognition? Well, there is certainly scope for that, but only for the best of the best. On the current court, positive recognition goes to those who write notable opinions. Only Judge Scalia has the special talent necessary to stand out as a legal scholar for the ages. In this sense, Judge Scalia is “competing” with other judges in a self-interested way when he writes his decisions, but he is not competing with his fellow judges. He is competing with the great judges of history – John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, and Learned Hand – against whom his work is measured. Otherwise, a judge can stand out from the herd by providing the deciding or “swing” vote in close decisions. In other words, he can become politically popular or unpopular with groups that agree or disagree with his vote. Usually, that results in transitory notoriety.

But in historic cases, there is the possibility that it might lead to “Hooverization.”

The bigger government gets, the more power it wields. More government power leads to more disagreement about its role, which leads to more demand to arbitration by the Supreme Court. This puts the Court in the position of deciding the legality of enactments that claim to do great things for people while putting their freedoms and livelihoods in jeopardy. Any judge who casts a deciding vote against such a measure will go down in history as “the man who shot down” the Great Bailout/the Great Health Care/the Great Stimulus/the Great Reproductive Choice, ad infinitum.

Almost all Supreme Court justices have little to gain but a lot to lose from opposing a measure that promotes government power. They have little to gain because they cannot advance further or make more money and they do not compete with J. Marshall, Holmes, Brandeis or Hand. They have a lot to lose because they fear being anathematized by history, snubbed by colleagues, picketed or assassinated in the present day, and seeing their children brutalized by classmates or the news media. True, they might get satisfaction from adhering to the Constitution and their personal conception of justice – if they are sheltered under the umbrella of another justice’s opinion or they can fly under the radar of media scrutiny in a relatively low-profile case.

Let us attach a name to the status occupied by most Supreme Court justices and to the spirit that animates them. It is neither self-interest nor selflessness in their purest forms; we shall call it self-preservation. They want to preserve the exalted status they enjoy and they are not willing to risk it; they are willing to obey the Constitution, observe the law and speak the truth but only if and when they can preserve their position by doing so. When they are threatened, their principles and convictions suddenly go out the window and they will say and do whatever it takes to preserve what they perceive as their “self.” That “self” is the collection of real income, perks, immunities and prestige that go with the status of Supreme Court Justice.

Supreme Court Justice John Roberts is an example of the model of self-preservation. In both of the ObamaCare decisions, his opinions for the majority completely abdicated his previous conservative positions. They plumbed new depths of logical absurdity – legal absurdity in the first decision and semantic absurdity in the second one. Yet one day after the release of King v. Burwell, Justice Roberts dissented in the Obergefell case by chiding the majority for “converting personal preferences into constitutional law” and disregarding clear meaning of language in the laws being considered. In other words, he condemned precisely those sins he had himself committed the previous day in his majority opinion in King v. Burwell.

For decades, conservatives have watched in amazement, scratching their heads and wracking their brains as ostensibly conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents unexpectedly betrayed their principles when the chips were down, in high-profile cases. The economic model developed here lays out a systematic explanation for those previously inexplicable defections. David Souter, Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor were the precursors to John Roberts. These were not random cases. They were the systematic workings of the self-preservationist principle in action.

DRI-192 for week of 6-7-15: Adding Entrepreneurship to Economics Makes ‘Disruptive’ Innovations Coordinative

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Adding Entrepreneurship to Economics Makes ‘Disruptive’ Innovations Coordinative

Journalism pretends to be an objective profession. In reality, it is a subjective business. The subjective component derives from the normal limitations nature places on human perception; journalists may aspire to Olympian standards of accuracy and detachment, but they labor under the same biases as everybody else. The need to make a profit causes journalistic enterprises to cater to intellectual fads and fashions just as haute couture does when selling clothes.

The trendy business buzzword these days is “disruptive.” Ever since the Internet began revolutionizing life on the planet, technology has been occupying a bigger part of our lives. Somebody started saying “disruptive” to define new businesses that seemed to usher in noticeable changes in the status quo. When it comes to vocabulary, journalists imitate each other like parrots and chatter like magpies. Now slick magazines, websites and blogs are crawling with articles like “The 10 Most Disruptive Technologies/50 Most Disruptive Firms,” “How to Identify the Next Big Disruptive Technology” and “Which Sector Needs Disrupting the Most?”

It isn’t hard to identify disruptive firms; just picture the firms that have garnered the biggest and most recurring headlines – Apple, Amazon, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, SpaceX and such. Our job here is to ascertain whether a systematic logic unites the success of these firms and whether the term “disruptive” is economically descriptive – or not. Business writers often associate disruptive technologies with economist Joseph Schumpeter, whose work we examined in last week’s EconBrief.

This association is understandable, but unfortunate. Schumpeter’s linking of entrepreneurial progress and capitalism with technological innovation is not the general case, but only a special case. That is, it is only a small part of the reason why capitalism has been so successful. Schumpeter’s view of the forest was obscured by a few redwoods, figuratively speaking. Even worse, the term “disruptive” – like Schumpeter’s famous phrase “creative destruction” – conveys an utterly misleading impression about the impact of entrepreneurial progress and technological innovation under capitalism.

Journalists and business analysts were right in looking to economics for an understanding of technological innovation. And, as we saw last week, they certainly didn’t get much help from traditional economic theory. But they picked the wrong maverick economist to consult.

A Brief Review 

Our previous EconBrief identified a serious lacuna in economic theory. No, make that multiple lacunae – certain simplifying assumptions that have alienated academic economics from reality. The pervasive use of high-level mathematics and statistical testing encouraged these assumptions because they kept economic theory tractable. Without them, economic models would not have been spare and abstract enough for mathematical and statistical purposes. In effect, the economics profession has chosen theoretical models useful for its own professional advancement but well-nigh useless for the practical benefit of the general public.

Evidence of this is supplied by the traditional indifference to entrepreneurship and innovation shown by mainstream theorists and textbooks. For contrast, we analyzed two striking exceptions to this pattern: the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter and F. A. Hayek. Schumpeter was contemptuous of the mainstream obsession with perfectly competitive equilibrium. He believed that economic development under capitalism was accomplished by a process of “creative destruction.” This did not involve small, incremental increases in output and decreases in price by perfectly competitive firms, each one of which had insignificant shares of its market. Instead, Schumpeter envisioned competition as a life-and-death struggle between large monopoly firms, each producing new products that replaced existing goods and improved consumer welfare by leaps and bounds. “Creative destruction” was a hugely disruptive process, a wholesale overturning of the status quo.

Hayek criticized mainstream theory just as strongly, but from a different angle. Hayek maintained that mainstream, textbook economic theory started out by assuming the things it should be explaining. Where did consumers and producers get the “perfect information” that traditional theory assumed was “given” to them? In effect, Hayek grumbled, it was “given” to them by the economists in their textbooks, not actually given in reality. He had the same complaint about product quality, an issue traditional theory assumed away by treating goods as homogeneous in nature. The trouble is that the vast quantity of information needed by consumers and producers isn’t available in one place; it is dispersed in fragmentary form inside billions of human brains. Only the price system, operating via a functioning free-market system, can collate and transmit this information to all market participants.

Hayek saw the true nature of equilibrium differently than did mainstream economists. The latter took their cue from mathematical economists such as 19th-century pioneer Leon Walras, who formulated equations for supply and demand curves and solved them algebraically to derive an equilibrium at which the quantity demanded and quantity supplied were equal. To Hayek, equilibrium meant that the plans human beings make in the course of living daily life turn out to be compatible, not chaotically inconsistent. That is the true Economic Problem – how to collect and transmit the dispersed information necessary to market functioning among billions of people in order to allow their plans to be mutually compatible.

Entrepreneurship – the Engine of Capitalism

Hayek’s work opened the door to an understanding of capitalism. We had long known that capitalism worked and socialism failed. But we could not supply a nuts-and-bolts, nitty-gritty explanation for why and how this was so. Theory is given little importance by the general public, but it is honored in the breach. The lack of a thoroughgoing theory of capitalist superiority has allowed a myth of socialist superiority to survive and even thrive despite the utter failure of socialism to prosper in practice. A disciple of Hayek and Hayek’s mentor, Ludwig von Mises, utilized the intellectual capital created by his teachers to complete their work.

Israel Kirzner was taught at New York University by Ludwig von Mises. His dissertation became an intermediate textbook on price theory, The Economic Point of View. In 1973, Kirzner synthesized the ideas of Mises and Hayek in a book called Competition and Entrepreneurship. For the first time, we had an explicit justification and explanation of the vital role played by the entrepreneur in economic life.

Heretofore, the entrepreneur had been the mystery figure of economic theory, akin to the Abominable Snowman or Bigfoot. To some, he was simply the organizer of production. To others, he was a salesman or promoter. To Schumpeter, he was an innovator who created new products using the lever of technology. Israel Kirzner took a completely different tack.

The keynote in Kirzner’s view of the entrepreneur is alertness to opportunity within a market framework. As a first approximation, the entrepreneur’s attention is fixed upon the price system. He or she is constantly searching for “value discrepancies;” that is, differences between the price(s) of input(s) and output. For example, he may observe that a, b and c can combine in production to produce D. The price of amounts of a, b and c sufficient to produce one unit of D is $5, while the entrepreneur sees (or envisions) that D will sell for $10. This act of intellectual visualization itself is what constitutes entrepreneurship in Israel Kirzner’s theory. Acting upon entrepreneurial observation requires productive activity.

There is a family resemblance between Kirzner’s concept of entrepreneurship and what is often termed “arbitrage.” But the two are far from identical. Arbitrage is loosely defined as buying and selling in different markets to profit from price differentials. Often, the same good is purchased and sold – simultaneously if possible – to reduce or even eliminate any risk of financial loss. Kirznerian entrepreneurship is far more comprehensive. Different goods may be involved, purchases need not be simultaneous or even close to it; indeed, markets for some of the goods or inputs involved may not even exist at the point of visualization! The entrepreneur may be contemplating the introduction of an entirely new good, a la Schumpeter. At the other extreme, the entrepreneur may be hoping to profit from the smallest price discrepancy in the most homogeneous good, as banks or traders do when they arbitrage away tiny price differences in stocks, bonds or foreign currencies in different exchanges.

In fact, the entrepreneur need not even be a producer or a seller at all. Consumers can and do engage in entrepreneurial activity all the time. Consumers clip and redeem coupons. They scan newspapers and online ads for sales and comparative prices. This activity is analytically indistinguishable from the activity of producers, Kirzner claims, because in both cases there is a net increase in value derived by consumers – and consumption is the end-in-view behind all economic activity.

The Consumer as Entrepreneur – A Case Study

In 1965, Samuel Rubin and a few friends were dismayed by the vanishing interest in, and availability of, silent movies. They held a small film festival for silent-movie enthusiasts and created the Society for Cinephiles. This gathering became the first classic-movie film festival. Fifty years later, Cinecon remains the oldest and most respected of this now-worldwide genre. Three years later, Steven Haynes, John Baker and John Stingley hosted a small gathering for classic-movie lovers in Columbus, Ohio. This year, Mr. Haynes died after planning the 47th meeting of the Cinevent festival, which annually attracts a few hundred dedicated lovers of silent and studio-system-era movies. In 1980, classic-movie fanatic Phil Serling began the Cinefest gathering in Syracuse, New York with a few close friends. 2015 marked the final meeting of this festival, which attracted attendees from around the world. Today the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a headline-making event featuring the latest newly found and restored rarities.

This genre of classic-movie worship was begun by consumers, not by profit-motivated producers. But these consumers nevertheless were alert to opportunity – the discrepancy in value between the movies currently available for viewing and those of the past. Prior to the digital age, older movies (particularly silent movies) were seldom screened and hard to view. Moreover, they were disintegrating rapidly and dangerous to maintain because of the fire-danger posed by nitrate film stock. Yet thanks to the efforts of these pioneering consumers, today we have multiple television channels exclusively, primarily or secondarily devoted to showing classic films, including silent movies. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) leads the way, while the Fox Channel is close behind. Over twenty thousand people attend the Turner Classic Movies Festival in Hollywood every year and TCM’s annual cruise and other promotions attract thousands more. Film preservation is a major endeavor, with new discoveries of heretofore “lost” movies occurring every year. Classic movies is big business, thanks to the dispersed entrepreneurship efforts of the scattered but determined few decades ago. The small net gains in value experienced by the silent-movie lovers in 1965 multiplied millions-fold into the consumption gains of millions worldwide today on television and in person.

Schumpeter Vs. Hayek/Kirzner: Away from Equilibrium or Towards It?

Contemporary business analysts take an ambivalent attitude toward innovation and entrepreneurship. They give lip service toward its benefits – new products and services, the benefits reaped by consumers. But they imply in no uncertain terms that these benefits carry a terrible price. Terms like “creative destruction,” with heavy emphasis placed on the second word, directly state that there is a tradeoff between consumer gains and destructive loss suffered by workers, owners of businesses driven into insolvency and even members of the general public who lose non-human resources that are somehow vaporized by the awesome power of technology. Instead of stressing the labor-saving properties of technology, commentators are more apt to refer to labor-killing innovations. No wonder, then, that journalists have turned to Schumpeter, whose apocalyptic view of capitalism was that its superior productivity would ultimately prove its undoing. With friends like Schumpeter, capitalism has grown ever more defenseless against its enemies.

Schumpeter believed that entrepreneurial innovation was both creative and destructive – creative because its products were new, destructive because they completely supplanted the replaced competing products, driving their competition from the field. In the technical sense, then, Schumpeter saw entrepreneurs as a dysequilibrating force, spearheading a movement away from one stable equilibrium position to a different one. Schumpeter himself recognized that, in practice and unlike the blackboard transitions that academic economists effect in the blink of an eye, these movements would often be wrenching. But the analysis of Kirzner, using the framework built by Hayek and Mises, leads to different conclusions.

Kirzner acknowledged the validity of Schumpeter’s form of entrepreneurship. But he recognized that it was only the exceptional case. The garden variety, everyday forms of entrepreneurship – practiced by consumers as well as producers – produce movements toward equilibrium, not away from it. This is true for two reasons. First, entrepreneurship does not lead away from equilibrium because the traditional concept of equilibrium is a myth; reality changes far too quickly for actual equilibrium ever to be reached, let alone be maintained. Second, entrepreneurship leads toward equilibrium because it enables human beings to better coordinate their plans by allowing a more efficient exchange of information. Hayek objected to the traditional economic assumption of “perfect information” because he claimed that this assumed the existence of equilibrium at the outset. Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship tells us that the so-called “disruptive” businesses of today are pushing us closer and closer to that condition of perfect information – which means we are getting closer and closer to perfectly coordinated equilibrium. Of course, we never reach this blissful state, but capitalism keeps us steadily on the move in the right direction.

What is Google, with its search-engine technology, if not the search for the economist’s informational Shangri-La of perfect information? Wikipedia, a user-created encyclopedia, is the archetype of Hayek’s model of a world in which information exists in dispersed, fragmentary form that is unified by a voluntary, beneficial market. Facebook has become a colossus by making it easy for people to provide information about themselves to others – and in the process become a kind of worldwide clearinghouse for information of all kinds. Pinterest has narrowed this same type of focus to photos, but the key is still information. Newer technology businesses like Crowd Strike, specializing in cyber intelligence and security, and the Chinese company Tencent, with its emphasis on mobile advertising, are also informational in character.

In each of these cases, entrepreneurs were alert to the market opportunities opened by technology and signaled by the low prices ushered in by the digital age. The entrepreneurial character of some of these businesses has baffled the business establishment because it has not emulated the conventional, profit-seeking model. That is usually because the initial entrepreneurs have been consumers striving to create value for their own direct use. Only later have they realized the potential for exporting the value surplus created to the rest of the world. This looks outré to most observers but it is fully consistent with Israel Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship.

Another of the unrealistic simplifying assumptions deplored by Hayek was “costless” transactions, particularly entry, exit and determination of product quality. This was another case of economists assuming what they should be proving, or at least investigating; it started out by assuming equilibrium and skipped the market process necessary to produce – or, more realistically, approach – an eventual equilibrium. The technological innovations of the last two decades that weren’t information in character were mostly directed at reducing various costs, either natural or man-made costs.

The Internet itself is a mammoth exercise in reducing the costs of transport and communication. Instead of calling in the telephone, we can now send an e-mail. By inventing smartphones, Apple has one-upped the Internet and desktop computers by making this communication mobile. In between these two inventions, of course, came cell phones – invented decades earlier but made practical when Moore’s Law eventually shrank them to pocket size. The shocking thing is how little economics had to say about any of these revolutionary human innovations – because traditional economic theory had long assumed zero transport and transactions costs. Why concern yourself with an innovation when your theory says there is no need for it in the first place?

The development of cell phones was held back for years by government regulation of telecommunications, which fought tooth and claw to prevent competition between phone companies and innovation by monopoly providers. In formal logic, the effect of government regulation is best envisioned as equivalent to the effect of a mountain range or an ocean on transportation. Alternatively, think of costs as being like taxes. Transport costs are “levied” by nature, while taxes are levied by governments. Transactions costs may be either natural or man-made. And a review of recent “disruptive” businesses shows many designed specifically to overcome either natural or man-made costs.

The entrepreneurs of Uber and Lyft observed the artificially high taxi fares created by local-government regulation in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. They envisioned lower prices and faster response-times resulting from assembling a voluntary workforce of casual drivers and independent professionals, operating free from the stranglehold of regulation. Airbnb looked at the rental market for habitation and saw the potential for achieving the same kind of economies by enlisting owners as vendors. Jeff Bezos of Amazon envisioned consumers freed from the shackles of traveling to retail stores and a supplier with transport costs lowered by economies of scale. The result has shaken the world of retail sales to its foundations. (We should note that this combines the lowering of natural transport costs and the lowering of artificial man-made sales taxes.) Driverless cars threaten an even bigger revolution in the world of transportation by overcoming the costs of human error and accidents – if they can overcome the “tax” of government regulation to achieve liftoff. Body sensors are a revolutionary innovation triggered by the consumer desire to overcome high medical costs of maintaining good health, which are an artifact of regulation. The new website Open Bazaar dubs itself “a decentralized peer-to-peer marketplace” whose goal “is to give everyone in the world the ability to directly engage in trade with each other.” In other words, it is dedicated to reducing transactions costs to the irreducible minimum.

Once again, these cost-based innovations are entrepreneur-driven. Again, some of them were pioneered by consumers rather than by the corporate or venture-capital establishment. This is exactly what we would expect, given the theory developed by Israel Kirzner.

Monopoly or Competition? 

Schumpeter believed that true progress came from monopoly, not competition. He meant monopoly in the effective, substantial sense, not merely the formalistic sense of a transitory market hegemony enjoyed by the innovator. Events have clearly proven Schumpeter wrong. It is hard to find a case today that would correspond to Schumpeter’s archetype; instead, the initial innovator has been superseded by somebody else. Market leadership has been the result of performance, not entry barriers or patents or government pull. And the innovators themselves have often been “nobodies” rather than monopolists boasting war chests heavy with monopoly profits.

Pattern Prediction

In 1929, Ludwig von Mises predicted a “great crash” and refused to take a position in the Austrian government for fear of association with the economic downturn he anticipated. F.A. Hayek predicted a sharp recession, pursuant to the business-cycle theory he had recently developed. Later, Hayek predicted the failure of Keynesian counter-cyclical fiscal and monetary policies and the high worldwide inflation of the 1970s, coupled with the recession that followed measured taken to break the inflation.

In general, Hayek did not believe that accurate quantitative prediction of economic events was possible. At most, he felt, economic theory could offer “pattern predictions” of a more general nature. His own statements, both in economics and political philosophy, tended to support this approach.

Israel Kirzner did not “predict” the advent of the Internet or the invention of the smartphone. But the technological revolution and the businesses spearheading it conformed to the general pattern of entrepreneurship outlined in Israel Kirzner’s theory. In this sense, while this revolution came as a complete surprise to the mainstream economics profession, it can hardly have surprised Kirzner. The revolution was led by people behaving just as Kirzner hypothesized that entrepreneurs do behave.

Can the Status Quo be “Disruptive?”

Based on our analysis and Israel Kirzner’s theory of entrepreneurship, the business buzzword “disruptive” is misleading when applied to the cutting-edge firms and technologies of today. It is indeed true that these technologies overturn the status quo. But the status quo is hindering human progress and preventing attainment of true economic equilibrium; it is hurting people rather than helping them. If transport costs or transaction costs or taxes or regulation are hurting people – and helping at most only a minority vested interest in the process – then changing the status quo is the indicated action. “Stability” is not always good. After all, Stalin’s Soviet Union was stable. Fortunately, the Soviet Union later collapsed when that stability disintegrated.

As Israel Kirzner himself has always maintained, economics is all about making people better off. When this criterion is placed foremost, discarding the pure formalism of mainstream theory, is becomes clear that Mises, Hayek and Kirzner were right and Schumpeter was wrong. Entrepreneurship is equilibrating because it tends to better coordinate the plans made by individual human beings.

The process by which Nobel Prizes are awarded is highly secretive. The Nobel committee keeps their candidate “cards” close to their vests. Rumors have circulated, however, placing Israel Kirzner’s name on the short list of potential awardees. No man alive has done more than he to redeem the tarnished prestige of economics as a subject worth studying for its practical value to humanity.

DRI-184 for week of 5-31-15: Why is Economic Theory MIA Amidst Humanity’s Biggest Innovation Boom?

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

Why is Economic Theory MIA Amidst Humanity’s Biggest Innovation Boom?

It is obvious even to casual observers that humanity has experienced an unprecedented boom in technological improvements in recent decades. Apparently even greater advances lie in store, although some contrarians insist that the best is behind us. We might expect to find economists in the thick of all this – spotting trends, lauding entrepreneurs and listing the factors responsible for their success, toting up the gains in real income, output and wealth, applauding the effects on rich and poor alike and approving the nosediving rate of world poverty.

Those expectations would be disappointed, at least by a perusal of mainstream sources. True, there are periodic ex cathedra pronouncements by stray economists on these matters. Scattered foundations, think tanks and institutes devoted to entrepreneurship pop up. The continuing popularity of the late maverick economist Joseph Schumpeter ensures that the subject of innovative entrepreneurship does not fade entirely from the public consciousness or the minds of economists. But the leading professional journals in economics, such as The American Economic Review and the Journal of Political Economy, remain preoccupied with the perennial concerns of the profession. And those do not include the topics of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why not? What have critics of mainstream theory suggested to improve matters? Those are the subjects of this EconBrief. Next week we will see how non-traditional economic theory can improve our understanding of revolutionary technological innovation.

The Wrong Turns in Economic Theory

In the 1870s, economic theory underwent a revolution. Prior to that time, a vital element was missing from economics. Its theory of value was defective. The Classical Economists believed that the value of economic goods depended on the objective cost of the inputs that went into their production. They lacked a solid, systematic theory of consumer demand. Beginning in 1871, three different economists – working independently in England, Switzerland and Austria – developed the concept of marginal utility, thereby laying the foundation for the modern theory of consumer demand. This Marginal Revolution presaged the Laws of Supply and Demand and the famous diagram depicting equilibrium price formation via the junction of the supply and demand curves. (The diagram was dubbed the “Marshallian Cross,” after the great English economist who popularized it, Alfred Marshall.)

One of the original three founders of marginal utility, Leon Walras, was also the modern developer of mathematical economics. Walras believed that the most concise and precise means of depicting economic relationships was by expressing them in mathematical form. He envisioned an economy as a mathematical model consisting of supply-curve equations for all goods and demand-curve equations for all consumers. He stated that such a system of equations could be solved simultaneously – that is, algebraically – to yield an equilibrium solution. That equilibrium would be one in which the quantity of each good chosen by all consumers and the quantity supplied by all producers would be identical. Eighty years later, two economists proved Walras’s conjecture correct and later received a Nobel Price for their efforts.

Walras believed that his procedure was more scientific than that followed heretofore by economists because it imitated the procedures of the physical sciences like biology, chemistry and astronomy. Despite his scientific pretensions, he also believed that economists could never hope to actually formulate a full set of general equilibrium equations in which actual coefficients were calculated for the variables. As the years went on, Walras’s mathematical approach gained steadily in popularity, but economists inherited none of his realism. Meanwhile, the canons of statistical inference developed by the English mathematical statistician Ronald Fisher also gained favor and were applied to the social science of economics as well as to the natural sciences. After World War II, economists increasingly practiced their craft by developing a mathematical model to express a theoretical hypothesis and using statistical methods to “test” its validity and quantitative boundaries.

This modus operandi seduced the economics profession en masse. In view of its disastrous effects, we might well ponder why this research agenda proved so irresistible. First, it provided a made-to-order research agenda to justify diverting attention away from instruction. Second, it provided an apparently objective standard by which to evaluate faculty for tenure and later promotion. This, in turn, allowed administrators to press graduate students and non-tenured adjunct faculty into service as cut-price teachers of the undergraduate curriculum while the faculty did research and earned money from consulting contracts. It turned economics departments of public universities into sausage factories for producing research studies for academic journals. This made politicians and bureaucrats happy because it gave them several excellent excuses for spending more money – “investing” in research, democratizing higher education by loaning money to students in an effort to create “universal” higher education. (“Universal service” and “affordability” are the two leading political excuses for redistributive spending.) The face that this “research” was completely worthless to everybody except economists meant that the public wouldn’t poke its nose too deeply into the process – which suited everybody involved.

Indeed, the output of this research agenda turned out to be of little value even within the economics profession. The fact that a mathematical model is “precise” and “rigorous” means nothing in itself. The question is: Can the mathematical models of economists capture human action sufficiently well to be of practical use? In the mid-1990s, the noted economists Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Ziliak discovered that economists (and many other scientists) had been misusing the statistical tools of Fisher, et al for years, thereby vitiating the empirical as well as the theoretical basis of most economic research.

Mathematics and statistics work well in the natural sciences because the phenomena are under study in controlled circumstances, which enables the staging of meaningful experiments. This permits the finding of empirical regularities or laws in the natural sciences. But human action, unlike that of inanimate objects and simple life forms, is both purposeful and full of complexity and ambiguity. Moreover, economic life is ordinarily not subject to controlled experimentation. Consequently, the practical results of the economic research model using mathematical models and statistical testing have been hugely disappointing.

The model still lingers on because it is so convenient for the people whose preferences matter most in universities; namely, government, administrators and faculty. The people badly served – undergraduate and graduate students – are the lowest forms of animal life in the university setting.

It is highly interesting to observe that this outcome is directly counter to the very logic taught by economics. Consumption is the end-in-view behind all economic activity. This includes university study and research. Thus, economic logic counsels removing universities from the aegis of government and subjecting them to market competition by abolishing tenure, privatizing research funding and separating the functions of teaching and research. Unfortunately, the two vested interests who have the most to lose from this change in approach, faculty and administrators, are the ones most powerfully in control of the present system.

If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich? 

Inevitably, some readers will disagree with the foregoing, perhaps even find it outrageous. The dissenters should ask themselves what the distinguished economic historian and statistician Donald (now Deirdre) McCloskey called “the American question:” If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” Here, the “you” are economists who devise theoretical models for stock and options prices, bond prices, GDP and interest rates. If those models really work – if they are statistically “robust” – why haven’t economists become rich as Croesus from using them to predict the future course of financial markets? For that matter, why were economists generously willing to publish their results for the world to see rather than jealously hoarding them as a source of income?

Most people couldn’t care less whether economist themselves make money from their work, but they are passionately convinced that government should somehow “regulate” the economy to make good things happen for them and prevent bad things from happening. Where did governments, which have existed for thousands of years of human history in myriad forms, suddenly acquire this mystical power to control human behavior and steer the course of future events?

Well, if the alleged control relates to the so-called “macro economy,” it clearly dates back to 1936 and the publication of John Maynard Keynes’ famous treatise on employment, interest and money. Here, the version of the American question relates to policy: Why hasn’t Keynesian economics worked as advertised? After forty years of the most intensive research ever expended on a scientific topic and forty more years of attempts to modify Keynesian theory and put it into practice, the world finds itself perched on a financial precipice.

Then then there are those who apply the term “regulation” in an administrative sense to individual industry sectors, or even to individual firms. In this case, the “American question” should be modified to “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you running the business?” Agency regulation is such a nebulous concept that any attempt to criticize it allows proponents to slide out from under by changing the terms of the argument. But proponents cannot be permitted this luxury; regulation must have some definite purpose. And in practice, government regulation of business fails every test known to mortal man. The things that most people claim they want from regulation are precisely the things that can only be supplied by market completion rather than by regulation. Regulation is not a supplement or corrective to competition; it is an inferior substitute for it.

This failure of economic theory is particularly important because it drags the research model down to failure along with it. The majority of academic economists are left-wing in political orientation. (After all, they work for government.) In practice, their theoretical model and statistical tests have been designed to demonstrate the failure of free markets and the need for government intervention to produce an optimal result. The optimal result is the one that would obtain if private markets worked perfectly. Since they don’t, so runs the academic party line, we need government intervention and regulation to correct the market failures.

But real life has overtaken the academic research model. It is free markets, not government- controlled ones, that deliver the goods. This is still another argument for junking the current research model. It’s hard to do good research starting with a bad economic theory.

The Nitty-Gritty: Where Does Mainstream Economic Theory Go Wrong?

We have said that the mathematical model seduces economists into wrongly specifying their theoretical models. Exactly what does this mean?

Go back to Walras’s model of supply and demand. He, or rather his successors, assumed that we could model consumer demand as a function of consumers’ incomes, tastes and the prices of substitutes and complements for the good under study. But this implicitly assumes that consumers know all this information. As we all realize, they don’t. Nevertheless, it was long traditional for economists to begin by assuming the existence of “perfect information.” Since people consume not only in the present moment but also save for future consumption, this perfection of knowledge applied to the future as well as the present.

How’s that for an abstract model with no relationship to reality?

The same consideration applies on the supply side of the market, where producers are assumed to know not only every price relevant to the production of their own product – all input prices, the prices of all competing goods and so on – but also all technological facts relevant to production of their product and related products. And that’s not all, folks.

When devising models of general equilibrium, economists long assumed that all firms were “price-takers.” That simply meant that each firm supplied such a miniscule fraction of total market output that its contribution to that output had virtually no effect on the market price. That is, regardless of whether it operated at maximum production or went out of business, the market supply curve didn’t budge enough to change the equilibrium price materially. Therefore each firm took the market price as a parameter and treated the quantity it supplied as its only decision variable.

What about the quality of the good it produced? That led to still another simplifying assumption. Since “quality” was a variable that seemed to defy quantification, economists at first sought to treat the output of all firms as homogeneous – thereby removing product quality from discussion.

At this point, readers are probably experiencing the same mixture of disillusion and disbelief that hits college freshmen and sophomores when they are exposed to the economic concept of “perfect competition” for the first time. “What planet do economists live on” is a representative specimen of the thoughts running through student heads at this moment.

As a temporary venture in devil’s advocacy, it is worth noting that an individual farmer operating in certain industries may meet some of these criteria. It is not too big a stretch to treat a particular variety of (say) wheat as a homogeneous good and it is definitely no stretch to treat the output of (say) one family farmer as an insignificant fraction of industry output. But even this kind of partial correspondence between model and reality is the exception, not the rule.

Over the decades, economists have modified the stringent assumptions listed above in various ways. But these modifications have been minor in their practical consequences. Instead of assuming perfect knowledge, for example, economists assumed that market participants possessed probability distributions about the outcome of future events or the existence of certain kinds of information. This minor concession didn’t add much value to their models. If I can play blackjack using the “card-counting” technique, this shifts the odds slightly in my favor. I will always win in the long run, assuming that my initial stake is big enough to withstand any runs of bad luck and I can play “forever.” Unfortunately, most economic decisions do not offer even this probabilistic level of certainty, let alone the perfect information available in the less sophisticated version of economic theory. (And in real life, blackjack doesn’t either; the casinos will ban me if they catch me card-counting.)

Economists introduced even more modifications on the supply side of markets. Beginning in the 1930s, they began to contemplate alternatives in between the polar opposites of perfectly competitive markets and pure monopoly. But these alternatives, such as product differentiation and strategic interaction among a small number of large firms, were so slow to catch on that economists became habituated to focusing only on the equilibrium outcomes of markets and not on market processes. This meant that even when more sophisticated models began utilizing game theory and other non-traditional approaches, their focus was still directed away from entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Effects on the Study of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The esoteric assumptions behind mainstream, traditional economic theory have backed that theory into a corner. Economists came to depend on the research model behind the theory for their livelihood. This gave them an underlying, unconscious identification with its biases and conclusions.

When Alfred Marshall first promoted his supply-demand Marshallian Cross, he viewed it as a valuable teaching tool for educating the masses. But economists became so obsessed with the concept of equilibrium that it became the primary focus of every theoretical model. The conditions necessary for equilibrium and the conditions prevailing at the state of equilibrium became the centerpiece of nearly every journal article. Little or nothing was said about the time-path to equilibrium and what might affect it.

The noted economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) prided himself on his personal and professional eccentricity. (He is said to have espoused the goals of being the best horseman in Vienna, the best lover in Europe and the best economist in the world.) In his theory of economic development, he derided the mainstream obsession with equilibrium, perfect competition, perfect information and – most of all – product homogeneity. Schumpeter believed that economic progress was made primarily by firms that created entirely new products. This could come about only as a result of innovation.

But Schumpeter knew that the mainstream world inhabited by his colleagues was hostile to the notion of innovation. In traditional economic theory, perfectly competitive firms were each earning a “normal” profit in long-run equilibrium. That is another way of saying that each firm’s books recorded exactly enough money under the heading “profit” to prevent shareholders from withdrawing their money and investing elsewhere, but not enough to attract the entry of new competitors into the industry. (Another way of putting it would be to say that the firm’s investment earned an amount equal to the best alternative investment of equal risk; e.g., its “opportunity cost” of investment was exactly covered.) In such an environment, an innovator would find that any temporary profits from creating a new product would soon – in principle, instantaneously – be competed away by a horde of imitative firms entering the market. After all, with “perfect information” all relevant information necessary for production would be publicly known.

According to Schumpeter, innovative firms strive not only to erect but to maintain durable monopoly positions in the products they create. The resulting monopoly profits not only reward owners for the risks they take but also bankroll the research necessary to improve their product and create new innovative products. The actual world of imperfect information makes it harder on producers but it also makes it easier to maintain monopoly status once it is attained.

Mainstream economists couldn’t stomach this analysis because they had been preaching (and practicing) a doctrine of enforced competition and government intervention to eradicate monopoly. How could they now praise the monopoly structure that they had made their bones by condemning? (Of course, economists were all-too-willing to relax their standards and overlook monopoly when it was organized and enforced by government itself because they viewed government as the sole economic actor not actuated by self-interest. In effect, economists of Schumpeter’s day were, and remain today, employees of Government R’Us.)

Schumpeter replied to his mainstream colleagues by pointing out that innovating monopolists did face competition even if they were able to exclude direct competitors from their market by (for example) obtaining patent protection for their new products. That competition came from other creative would-be monopolists. After all, the demand for the original monopolist’s product had to come from people shifting purchases from goods being produced by competitive firms. Why wasn’t the monopolist also vulnerable to the same line of attack from other innovators?

For Schumpeter, “competition” was not merely a dull, incremental process of bland, homogeneous products duking it out for tiny shares of a market and a normal profit. He called his model of competition between monopolists “creative destruction,” implying that innovation can occur only by destroying or disrupting the existing order in favor of a new creative equilibrium – which will eventually be toppled by a new innovator. Thus, said Schumpeter, “…competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization… which… strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives,” is the true explanation behind the superiority of free-market capitalism to other systems. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter cited the example of ALCOA, a “monopoly” so notorious that it would soon be convicted under U.S. antitrust laws. Yet between 1890 and 1929, the price it charged for aluminum had fallen by 91% and its output had risen by a factor of 30,000! Schumpeter believed that the company had, in effect, been competing against the threat posed by potential competition.

Schumpeter was the most popular of the economic heretics because his model corresponds much more closely with certain aspects of reality. New products and product heterogeneity are a fact of life. Market uncertainty faces every participant, none more so than the would-be innovator. If injected with truth serum, every economist would be forced to admit that the concept of equilibrium is best conceived as a constantly changing point toward which competitive markets tend, rather than a point of rest actually attained by real-world markets.

The more telling critique of traditional economic theory, though, was made by Schumpeter’s fellow Austrian, F.A. Hayek (1899-1992), from a different theoretical perspective. Hayek pointed out that the term “perfect competition” violates every commonsense precept of the word competition. Under perfect competition, each firm has no sense of any other firm as a rival, hence does not perceive itself as “competing” with anybody. It has no incentive to lower its price for competitive reasons since it can already sell all it produces at the prevailing market price. If it attempted to raise its price arbitrarily, its sales would fall to zero. Every firm produces exactly the same product, so there is no competition on the basis on product quality.

Another simplifying assumption of traditional theory has been that no barriers to entry or exit exist in a “competitive” industry. This absence of barriers was formalized mathematically as costless entry and exit, meaning that the emergence of profits above those available in comparable investments elsewhere would instantly attract new entrants. The additional supply provided by that new entry would lower market price until the supra-normal profits were fully eroded.

What is there left to compete about? Nothing. Each firm selects the rate of output optimal to its situation; that is all. “Price-taking behavior” is the antithesis of “competition” as it is commonly understood. In “The Meaning of Competition” (1946), Hayek observes that the array of simplifying assumptions made by traditional theory assume competitive equilibrium to exist – the process that brings it about it not explained by the theory but merely assumed at the outset. Nowhere does the theory explain how or why information should be so perfect, entry should be so easy, goods should be homogeneous and so many firms should exist.

Hayek found the assumption of “perfect information” especially paradoxical. Assuming that everybody knows everything is really just a way of evading the issue that economists should be making the central issue of their studies; namely, how is information transmitted and acquired in a market economy? We know that people know some of the things that economists assume they know – the question is how they came to know them.

When Hayek broached this issue in a seminal article – “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in 1945 – the fashion among economists was to treat information about prices and goods as “given data.” He wondered to whom the data were “given?” The phrase must have meant “given to the observing economist” rather than actually given to the people who were supposed to possess it, since there was no agency that literally gave people such information. “The data from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society ‘given’ to a single mind… and can never be so given.” In fact, no one person or institution possessed it in its totality. It existed only in dispersed, fragmentary form in the minds of many millions (today, read “billions”) of people.

There is only one way for people to acquire the invaluable information they need to participate effectively in a market economy. They get from markets themselves. That is why free markets are a necessary prerequisite for economic prosperity.

In another article (1937’s “Economics and Knowledge”), Hayek illumined the concept of equilibrium even more brightly than did Schumpeter. Rather than treating equilibrium merely by defining it as the correspondence of quantity demanded with quantity supplied in a market or markets, Hayek looked at the human implications of this fact. People order their lives by making plans that guide their behavior. When their individual plan is optimal when juxtaposed with the galaxy of facts at their disposal, the individual is said to be “in equilibrium.” But each individual’s plan is typically made independently of others; all plans need not automatically or necessarily be compatible with each other a priori. A market is said to be in equilibrium when all plans do mesh and are compatible. Thus, the impersonal workings of a free market serve to coordinate the plans of individuals by collating the dispersed information existing in the minds of its participants and using it to reconcile the wants and needs of all.

Writers of economics textbooks have traditionally begun by outlining what they call the Economic Problem. Since the resources necessary to produce economic goods are scarce and have alternative uses, we must allocate them logically in order to best satisfy the infinite wants of consumers. Optimal allocative logic is what textbook writers envision as economic theory.

Hayek redefined the Economic Problem. Because economists themselves do not possess the knowledge that mainstream theory has assumed market participants possess, they cannot “allocate” resources. Neither can government, for the same reason. The knowledge exists only in dispersed form, and the only way to unlock and make use of it is by utilizing markets to collate it and distribute it. That same market process then coordinates the plans of market participants to make them (more) compatible. The true Economic Problem is how to coordinate the plans of individuals by distributing the dispersed information not possessed by any one individual or institution.

We know that free markets perform this function better than government central planning and regulation. For over seventy years, central planning reigned in the Soviet Union. The result was the antithesis of coordination, in which an ordinary citizen might spend as much as six hours per day standing in line or hiring substitutes to do it for him. And the reward was a level of income and wealth equal to a small fraction of that obtainable in free societies without having to stand in line.

The Revised Economic Theory: Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Hayek’s work paved the way for an explicit economic theory of entrepreneurship and innovation, one that not only corrected the errors of mainstream theory but also put the work of Schumpeter in its proper perspective. In this space next week, we will explain how one man – now apparently on the short list for the Nobel Prize in economics – extended and refined Hayek’s analysis.

DRI-192 for week of 5-24-15: Why Incremental Reform of Government Is a Waste of Time

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Why Incremental Reform of Government Is a Waste of Time

Any adult America who follows politics has seen it, heard it and read it ad infinitum. A person of prominence proposes to reform government. The reform is supposed to “make government work better.” Nothing earthshaking, understand, just something to improve the dreadful state that confronts us. And if there’s one thing that everybody agrees on, it’s that government is a mess.

Newspapers turn them out by the gross – it’s one of the few things that newspapers still publish in bulk. They can be found virtually every day in opinion sections. Let’s look at a brand-spanking new one, bright and shiny, just off the op-ed assembly line. It appeared in The Wall Street Journal (5/27/2015).The two authors are a former governor of Michigan (John Engler) and a current President of the North America Building Trades Unions (Sean McGarvey). The title – “It’s Amazing Anything Ever Gets Built” – aptly expresses the current level of exasperation with day-to-day government.

The authors think that infrastructure in America – “airports, factories, power plants and factories” are cited specifically – is absurdly difficult to build, improve and replace. The difficulty, they feel, is mostly in acquiring government permission to proceed. “The permitting process for infrastructure projects… is burdensome, slow and inconsistent.” Why? “Gaining approval to build a new bridge or factory typically involves review by multiple federal agencies – such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the Interior Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management – with overlapping jurisdictions and no real deadlines. Often, no single federal entity is responsible for managing the process. Even after a project is granted permits, lawsuits can hold things up for years – or, worse, halt a half-completed construction project.”

Gracious. These are men with impressive-sounding titles and prestigious resumes. They traffic in the measured prose of editorialists rather than the adjective-strewn rhetoric of alarmists. And their language seems all the more reasonable for its careful wording and conclusions. Naturally, having taken good care to gain the reader’s attention, they now hold it with an example: “The $3 billion Transwest Express [is] a multi-state power line that would bring upward of 3,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity from Wyoming to about 1.8 million homes and businesses from Las Vegas to San Diego. The project delivers on two of President Obama’s priorities, renewable power and job creation, so the administration in October 2011 named [it] one of seven transmission projects to ‘quickly advance’ through federal permitting.”

You guessed it; the TransWest Express “has languished under federal review since 2007.” That’s eight (count ’em) years for a project that the Obama administration favors; we can all imagine how less well-regarded projects are doing, can’t we? In fact, we don’t have to use our imaginations, since we have the example of the Keystone XL Pipeline before us.

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management pronounced the ink dry on an environmental-impact statement well done. That left only the EPA, the Federal Highway Administration, the Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (!) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (!!) to be heard from. At the rate these agencies are careening through the approval process, the TransWest Express should come online about the time that the world supply of fossil fuels is entirely extinguished – a case of exquisitely timed federal permitting.

According to Messrs. Engler and McGarvey, the worst thing about this egregious case study in federal-government overreach is that it leaves “thousands of skilled craft construction workers [to] sit on their hands.” Apparently, the Obama administration was in general agreement with this line of thought, because “President Obama’s Jobs Council examined how other countries expedite the approval of large projects” and its gaze fell upon Australia.

“Australia used to be plagued with overlapping layers of regulatory jurisdiction that resemble the current regulatory structure in the U.S.” before it installed the type of reform that the two authors are laying before us. The Australian province of New South Wales “now prioritizes permit applications based on their potential economic impact, and agreements among various reviewing agencies ensure that projects are subject to a single set of requirements.” As a result of this sunburst of reformist illumination, “permitting times have shrunk… from a once-typical 249 days to 134 days.”

Mind you, that was the President’s Jobs Council talking, not the authors. And the President, listening intently, created an “interagency council… dedicated to streamlining the permitting process.” Just to make sure we knew the President wasn’t kidding, “the White House also launched an online dashboard to track the progress of select federal permit applications.”

At this point, readers might envision the two authors reading their op-ed to a live audience consisting of Wall Street Journal readers – who would greet the previous two paragraphs with a few seconds of incredulous silence, followed by gales of hilarious laughter. Doubtless sensing the pregnancy of these passages, the authors follow with some rhetorical throat-clearing: “It has become clear, however, that congressional action is needed to make these improvements permanent and to require meaningful schedules and deadlines for permit review. Fortunately, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have introduced the Federal Permitting Improvement Act.”

“The bill would require the government to designate a lead agency to manage the review process when permits from multiple agencies are needed. It would establish a new executive office to oversee the speed of permit processing and to maintain the online dashboard that tracks applications.”

“The bill would also impose sensible limits on the subsequent judicial review of permits by reducing the statute of limitations on environmental lawsuits from six years to two years and by requiring courts to weigh potential job losses when considering injunction requests.”

Ah-hah. Let’s summarize this. President Obama, whose world renown for taking unilateral action to achieve his ends was earned by his selective ignoring and rewriting of law, confronted a situation in which two of his administration’s priorities were being thwarted by federal agencies over which he, as the nation’s Chief Executive, wielded administrative power. What action did he take? He turned to a presidential council – a century-old political buckpassing dodge to avoid making a decision. The council proceeded to do a study – another political wheeze that dates back at least to the 19th century and has never failed to waste money while failing to solve the problem at hand. When the study ostensibly uncovered an administrative reform purporting to achieve incremental gains in efficiency, the President (a) “streamlined the process” by telling two of the agencies who were creating the worst problems in the first place to cooperate with each other via an additional layer of bureaucracy (an “interagency council”) and created an “online dashboard” so that we could all watch the ensuing slow-motion failure more closely. All these Presidential actions took place in 2011. It is now mid-2015.

And what do our two intrepid authors propose to deal with this metastatic bureaucratic cancer? Congress will point its collective finger at one of the agencies causing the original problem and give it more power by making it “manager” of the review process. (This action implies that the root cause of the problem is that somebody in government doesn’t have enough power.) Of course, the premise that “permits from multiple agencies are needed” is taken completely for granted. Next, Congress would establish still another layer of bureaucracy (the “executive office”) to “oversee” the very problem that is supposedly being solved (e.g., “speed of permit processing”). (This implies that we have uncovered two more root causes of the problem – not enough layers of bureaucracy and not enough oversight exercised by bureaucrats.) A classic means of satisfying everybody in government is by getting every branch of government into the act. Accordingly, Congress points its collective finger at “the courts” and tells them to “weigh” job losses when considering requests for injunctions against projects. (The fact that this conflicts with the original “potential economic impact” mandate doesn’t seem to have concerned Congress or, for that matter, Messrs. Engler and McGarvey.) Finally, Congress throws a last glance at this unfolding Titanic scenario and, collective chins resting on fists, rearranges one last deck chair with a four-year reduction in the statute of limitations on environmental lawsuits.

The most amazing thing is not that anything ever gets built, but that these two authors could restrain their own laughter long enough to submit this op-ed for publication. The above summary reads more like a parody submitted for consideration by Saturday Night Live or Penn and Teller.

Two questions zoom, rocket-like, to the reader’s lips upon reading this op-ed and the above summary. What good, if any, could possibly result from this kind of proposal? Why do these proposals pop up with monotonous regularity in public print? The answers to those questions give rise in turn to a third question: What are the elements of a truly effective program for government reform and why has it not emerged?

Why Doesn’t Incremental Reform Work? 

The reform proposed by Messrs. Engler and McGarvey is best characterized as “incremental” because it does not change the structure of government in any fundamental way; it merely tinkers with its operational details. It aims merely to change one small part of the vast federal regulatory apparatus (permitting) by improving one element (its speed of operation) to a noticeable but modest degree (reduce average [?] time needed to secure a permit from 269 days to 134 days). And the rhetoric employed by the authors stresses this point – aside from the attention-grabbing headline, they are at pains to emphasize their modest goal as a major selling point of their proposal. They’re not trying to change the world here. “Americans of all stripes know that something is seriously wrong when other advanced countries can build infrastructure faster and more efficiently than the U.S., the country that built the Hoover Dam.” They use words like “bipartisan proposal” and “strengthen the administration’s efforts” rather than heaping ridicule on the blatant hypocrisy and stark contradiction of the Obama administration’s actions. They want to get a bill passed. But do they want actual reform?

Superficially, it seems odd that two authors would propose reform while opposing reform. Yet close inspection confirms that hypothesis not only for this op-ed, but in general. The authors deploy the standard op-ed bureaucratic argle-bargle that we have absorbed by osmosis from thousands of other op-eds – “infrastructure,” “permitting,” “priorities,” “job creation,” “streamline [government] process,” “expedite approval,” “implemented reforms,” “economic impact,” “manage the review process,” “lead agency,” “executive office.” The trouble is that if all this really worked, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The TransWest Express review wouldn’t have begun in 2007 and still be in limbo today. The Obama Administration wouldn’t have started remedial measures in 2011 and still be waiting on them to take effect in 2015. The U.S. wouldn’t be staggering under a cumulative debt load exceeding its GDP. The federal government wouldn’t have unfunded liabilities exceeding $24 trillion. The Western world wouldn’t be supporting a welfare state that is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Who are John Engler and Sean McGarvey? John Engler was formerly the Governor of Michigan. At one time, he was considered the bright hope of the Republican Party. He began by trying to reform state government in Michigan. He failed. Instead, he was co-opted by big government. Detroit went on to declare bankruptcy. John Engler left office and went to work for the Business Roundtable. Business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce exist today for the same reason that other special-interest organizations like La Raza and AARP exist – to secure special government favors for their members and protect them from being skewered by the special favors doled out to other special-interest organizations. Sean McGarvey is President of North America’s Building Trades Unions, a department of the AFL-CIO that performs coordinative, lobbying and “research” (i.e., public-relations) functions. Unions can achieve higher wages for their members only by affecting either the supply of labor or the demand for it. There is precious little they can do to affect the demand for labor, which comes from businesses, not unions. Unions can affect the supply of labor only by reducing it, which they do in various ways. This causes unemployment, which in turn exerts continuous public-relations pressure on unions to support “job creation” measures. But true job creation can come only from the combination of consumer demand and labor productivity, which underlie the economic concept of marginal value productivity of labor.

In the jargon of economics, all these organizations are rent-seekers that seek benefits unobtainable in the marketplace. They represent their members in their capacities as producers or input suppliers, not in their capacities as consumers. In other words, rent-seekers and the op-eds they write structure their pleas for “reform” to raise the prices of goods and inputs supplied by their member/constituents and/or provide jobs to them. Virtually all the op-eds appearing in print are written by rent-seekers striving to shape pseudo-reforms in ways that suit their particular interests.

In the Engler-McGarvey case, there are two possibilities. Possibility number 1: The Federal Permitting Improvement Act actually passes Congress and actually achieves the incremental improvement promised. In this wildly unlikely case, Mr. Engler’s business clients benefit from the modest reduction in permitting times. Since the entire wage and hiring process for infrastructure processes – government or otherwise – is grossly biased in favor of union labor, Mr. McGarvey’s clients benefit as well. Possiblity 2: As the above Summary suggests, the likelihood of actual incremental improvement is infinitesimal even if the legislation were to pass, since it requires efficient behavior by the same government bureaucracy that has caused the problems requiring reform in the first place. So the chances are that the result of the reform proposal will be nil.

As far as you and I are concerned, this represents a colossal waste of time and money. But for Messrs. Engler and McGarvey, this is not so. They are creatures of government. The next-best alternative to positive benefits for their client-constituents is no change in the status quo. For Mr. Engler, the status quo gives the biggest companies big advantages over smaller competitors. For Mr. McGarvey, the status quo gives unions and union labor big advantages that they cannot begin to earn in the competitive marketplace. Unions have been losing market share steadily in the private sector for many years. But they have been gaining influence and membership in the government sector, which is ruled by legislation and lobbyists.

Op-eds and reform proposals like this one allow people like Mr. Engler and Mr. McGarvey to earn their lucrative salaries as lobbyist and union president/lobbyist, respectively, by sponsoring and promoting pseudo-reform policies whose effects on their client-constituents can be characterized as “heads we win, tails we break even.”

But what about the effects on the rest of us?

What Would Real Reform Require – and Why Don’t We Get It?

A fundamental insight of economics – we might even call it THE fundamental insight – is that consumption is the end-in-view behind all economic activity. All of us are consumers. But this very fact works against us in the realm of big government, because this diffuses the monetary stake each one of us has in any one particular issue as a consumer. A tax on an imported good will raise its price, which rates to be a bad thing for millions of Americans. But because that good forms only a small part of the total consumption of each person, the money it costs him or her will be small. The cost will not be enough to motivate him or her to organize politically against the tax. On the other hand, a worker threatened with losing his or her job to the competition posed by the imported good may have a very large sum of money at stake – or may believe that to be true. The same is true for owners of domestic import-competing firms. Consequently, there are many lobbyists for legislation against imports and almost no lobbyists in favor of free, untaxed international trade. Yet economists know that free international trade will create more happiness, more overall goods and services and almost certainly more jobs than will international trade that is limited by taxes and quotas.

This explains why so many op-ed writers are rent-seekers and so few argue in favor of economic efficiency. True reform of government would not focus on the aims of rent-seekers. It would not strive to preserve the artificial advantages currently enjoyed by large companies – neither, for that matter, would it seek to preserve the presence of small companies merely for their own sake. True reform would allow businesses to perform their inherent function; namely, to produce the goods and services that consumers value the most. The only way to effect that reform is to remove the artificial influence of government from markets and confine government to its inherent limited role in preventing fraud and coercion.

Based on this evaluation, we might expect to see economists writing op-eds opposing the views of rent-seekers. Instead, this happens only occasionally. Economists are just as keenly attuned to their self-interest as other people. Most economists are employed by government, either directly as government employees or indirectly as teachers in public universities or fellows in research institutions funded by government. At best, these economists will favor the status quo rather than true reform. Only the tiny remnant of economists who work outside government for free-market oriented research organizations can be relied upon to support true reform.

Incremental Reform Vs. Structural Reform 

Incremental reforms are sponsored by rent-seekers. They are designed either to fail or, if they succeed, to yield rents to special interests instead of real reform. Real reform must be pro-consumer in nature. But the costs of organizing consumers are vast. In order to mobilize a reform of that scale, it must offer benefits that are just as vast or greater in size and scope. That means that true reform must be structural rather than incremental. It cannot merely preserve the status quo; it must overturn it.

In other words, true reform must be revolutionary. This does not imply that it must be violent. The reform that overturned Soviet Communism, perhaps the most powerful totalitarian dictatorship in human history, was almost completely non-violent. Admittedly, it had outside help from the international community in the political and moral form from people like Lech Walesa, Pope John, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, most of all, President Ronald Reagan.

As the efforts of the Tea Party have recently demonstrated, pro-consumer reform cannot be “organized” in the mechanistic sense. It can only arise spontaneously because that is the least costly way – and therefore the only feasible way – to achieve it.

We are unlikely to read about such a reform in the public prints because most of them are owned or sponsored by people who have vested interests in big government. These interests are usually financial but may sometimes be purely ideological. Big government may be a means of suppressing competition. It may be a means of subsidizing their enterprise. It may be a means of providing a bailout when digital competition becomes too fierce. In any event, we cannot look to the op-ed pages for leadership of real government reform.

DRI-168 for week of 5-17-15: Who Killed the Amtrak 8?

An Access Advertising EconBrief: 

Who Killed the Amtrak 8?

At 9:21 PM on Tuesday, May 12, 2015, Amtrak Northeast Regional passenger train 188 was proceeding northeast en route from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Specifically, it was traveling through Philadelphia a few miles north of 30th Street station in an area called Frankford Junction. Passing through a short stretch of eastbound track, it came to a fairly sharp northeast curve. The speed limit for a train entering the curve was 50 mph. According to the train’s “black box,” or data recorder, it was traveling at 106 mph as it entered the curve. The train’s engineer apparently applied emergency brakes immediately after reaching the curve, but a few seconds later – the point at which the data recorder stopped receiving data – the train had slowed only to 102 mph.

The reason the data recorder ceased operations was that the train derailed at that point. Seven people were killed at the crash site and one died subsequently; around thirty others were hospitalized with injuries of varying severity. The dead included the CEO of a technology firm and a naval-academy midshipman.

Reactions were predictable. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter solemnly, somberly lamented the tragedy. Federal-government regulators stressed the desirability of transportation safety and passage of time necessary to decelerate a train. And, most predictable of all, politicians and political commentators placed blame on their political opponents.

Murdering Republicans Strike Again

An activist liberal policy group called “Agenda Project Action Fund” made a video giving their version of the events leading up to and including the derailment. It was titled “Republican Cuts Kill Again.” The “cuts” referred to were budget cuts by the U.S. Congress, a majority of whose members are currently Republican. An author named Josh Israel of “Think Progress” wrote an article titled “Currently Available Technology May Have Prevented Fatal Amtrak Crash, But Congress Never Funded It.” Politico.com chipped in with the headline “House panel votes to cut Amtrak budget hours after deadly crash.” Rep. Nita Lowey sententiously volunteered that “starving rail of funding will not enable safer train travel” – without, of course, mentioning that the combined federal and state Amtrak budgets have increased every year since 2008.

The immediate questions that arise are: What is this “currently available technology?” Why didn’t Congress fund it? But that doesn’t begin to exhaust the relevant sources of curiosity. How long has the technology been available? Why is Congressional funding even an issue in the first place, since Amtrak is nominally a for-profit corporation? Most importantly of all, what is the optimal framework for providing transportation services in general and passenger-rail services in particular – and how does Amtrak fit into that framework?

What is Amtrak and Why are People Saying These Terrible Things About It?

“Amtrak” is a hybrid name for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. It is one of those centaur-like organizations common to modern big government – a nominally for-profit corporation that is nevertheless publicly funded. It receives annual appropriations from the federal government that have averaged around $1.4 billion in recent years. It also receives annual funding from various state-level sources, particularly about 14 state governments and the three largest Canadian provinces.

Amtrak serves 46 U.S. states and those three Canadian provinces. But the bulk of its business is provided in what is called the “Northeast Corridor” of the U.S. Although Amtrak’s routes comprise over 500 destinations, more than two-thirds of its nearly 31 million passengers come from the ten largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.; 83% travel routes of less than 400 miles.

Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971. Today it runs over 300 trains per day across 21,000 miles of track. It has over $2 billion in annual revenue. But it has yet to turn a profit. It has always required subsidies. During the Reagan administration, these subsidies hit an annual low of $600 million before rising again subsequently. They have waxed and waned, but state-level subsidies have recently tended to compensate for cuts at the federal level. Government has also provided capital subsidies for investment; this explains why the left wing can call for Congress to fund safety improvements.

Although Congress provided limited authorization for Amtrak to deviate from labor-union agreements in the late 1990s, Amtrak has long employed union labor. It negotiates with 14 separate unions and has 24 separate agreements with those unions. For many decades under federal regulation by the ICC, the railroad business was a classic case of “featherbedding,” or the employment of superfluous workers in union-protected jobs. This remains true today with Amtrak. It is no coincidence that Amtrak’s national headquarters is Washington, D.C.

Amtrak is a lightning rod for political controversy. The left wing loves it because mass transit is a sacred cow of both the old left and environmentalists. The fact that Amtrak is horrendously inefficient is politically advantageous to the left because it means that it employs more labor than necessary to produce a given output – the very thing that outrages any competent economist delights the left wing.

It is true that left-wingers cite cost comparisons claiming that train travel is the most efficient form of passenger transportation. Unfortunately for their argument, the comparisons are bogus. They use “on-time” as a criterion for comparing airlines and trains while rigging the definitions to allow trains absurd margins of lateness. Even more telling is the fact that they completely ignore the element of consumer demand. The reason most people do not ride trains is the same reason that they prefer to drive automobiles – cars provide point-to-point transportation and maximum personal convenience. This economizes on the value of an individual’s time. Since we are all mortal and have limited hours in the day and in our lifetime, this is a vast benefit to us. But this is completely ignored in the cost comparisons claiming superiority for train travel. When economists conduct the comparisons and account for human time preference, this claimed superiority for mass transit vanishes.

The right wing hates Amtrak, but that doesn’t mean that it is unpopular with Republicans. Amtrak is popular in the most populous parts of the country, which means that most of the geographic U.S. (but a minority of the population) is subsidizing a relatively small part of the country (but a majority of the population). Consequently, Republicans – most of whom have the political backbone of invertebrates – tend to support subsidies. (This is particularly true in the House of Representatives, which is based on population.) How else have they continued, year after year after year? Instead of cutting Amtrak loose or voting for privatization, Republicans content themselves with rhetorical volleys against it and cosmetic measures designed to “make it work better.”

The “Currently Available Technology”

The “currently available technology” referred to by the liberal activist group is the Positive Train Control (PTC) system. It uses a combination of radio signals and GPS technology to pinpoint the position of all trains. Not only can slow speeding trains, it can also prevent collisions between trains, prevent trains from proceeding through wrongly positioned switches and prevent trains from entering work zones. In other words, PTC is an all- (or at least, multi-)purpose train safety system.

In 2008, Amtrak suffered a derailment in California with loss of life. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal), one of the most powerful Senate Democrats, did not let this crisis go to waste. She seized the chance to push through legislation mandating full installation of PTS for both passenger and freight railroad systems in the U.S. by 2015.

So what, many readers are doubtless thinking to themselves? Isn’t that the way the system is supposed to work? Isn’t this a victory for big government, the regulatory state?

Not hardly. Just the opposite, in fact.

Why PTS Is DOA

To an economist, the first thing that pops into mind is the question: If PTC is the greatest thing since sliced bread, why does Congress have to mandate its adoption? After all, freight railroads have been an extremely successful industry for years. Those ads touting their success in squeezing efficiency from train fuel are not hyperbole. Warren Buffett didn’t buy Burlington Northern because he thought its management was brain-dead. Why in the world wouldn’t the industry rush to adopt PTC if it were the last word in safety, since safety is vital to any successful freight operation?

The answer to that question was provided by the Reason Foundation. Thanks to the expertise of its founder, Robert Poole, the Foundation has long been recognized as the ranking expert in transportation. Policy analyst Baruch Feigenbaum gave his readers the lowdown on PTC.

The Federal Railroad Administration performed a cost-benefit study on PTC technology. It found a projected benefit range (discounted present value) of $0-$400 million. But the cost was $13 billion. Whoops. That means that for every $1 of (maximum) benefit, it cost $20 to install.

But because Congress, in its infinite wisdom, forced both passenger and freight railroads to install it, the entire railroad business has been laboriously slaving away at it for the last seven years. Of course, nobody is too crazy about throwing money down this rathole. The use of radio signals requires coordination with the FCC, and Amtrak, which can’t even coordinate with itself well enough to make a profit, is finding that difficult. Then there are the various regulatory hurdles. Yes, that’s right – the same government which has legislatively mandated the adoption of PTC is throwing up regulatory hurdles to it in the form of environmental and historic-preservation review for each of the 20,000 required communications antennas in the system. This has led to a year-long moratorium on installation, according to Association of American Railroads’ CEO Edward Hamberger in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

But..uh, well, at least PTC is better than nothing, right? Wouldn’t we be stuck with no safety at all if we hadn’t passed that unbelievably dumb, wildly wasteful law? Apparently that’s what the political left wants us to believe; that is its intellectual fall-back position when confronted with the facts about PTC. Presumably, that is as far as the average person’s thinking goes on the subject.

But the inherent meaning of cost-benefit analysis is that “cost” refers to foregone alternatives. When cost exceeds benefit, there are better, more beneficial ways of spending the money than on the project being analyzed because the foregone alternatives represent benefits available elsewhere.

And in this particular case, some of those benefits are alternative safety projects within the railroad industry itself.

ATC – A Better, Lower-Cost Alternative

Both Feigenbaum and Hamberger describe another type of railroad safety technology now in use. Amtrak and freight railroads currently utilize a type of safety technology that relates specifically to speeding trains. It is called “Automatic Train Control” (ATC). It is installed on the tracks and sends signals to trains telling them what the speed limit is, allowing the train to automatically slow itself before reaching the speed-change point. In short, it is a mechanism for eliminating the particular type of human (engineer) error apparently responsible for the Philadelphia derailment. It would have prevented the Philadelphia accident.

It is quite true that ATC handles only this particular type of error; it lacks the all-encompassing scope of PTC. But ATC has the advantage of being relatively cheap and easy to install. We know this because after the recent Philadelphia derailment, Amtrak quietly installed ATC on the section of track where the accident occurred. It accomplished the installation in one weekend.

Nor is this the only type of alternative safety improvement to ponder. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute recently noted that about 270 people die every year in accidents at train crossings. Why not take some of that $13 billion and devote it instead to improving crossing safety in various low-cost ways, thereby saving dozens of lives every year instead of 8-10 lives every 7 years or so?

Both Amtrak and private freight railroads have installed ATC. Why haven’t they completed that installation? Well, they both labor under the burden of meeting mandatory legal deadlines for which they will eventually be fined when 2015 expires without completion of the PTC system. Hamberger estimates 2018 as the PTC completion date, with another two years necessary for “testing and validation.”

Who Killed the Amtrak 8? 

Given the facts as outlined above, it is obvious who killed the Amtrak 8. Big government and the regulatory state killed them. Even Amtrak might have had the corporate brains to install ATC throughout the Northeast Corridor – by far its biggest revenue generator and arguably profitable in its own right – were it not faced with the overwhelming burden of having to install PTC.

This verdict is seconded by Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins in his latest column (WSJ, 05/20/2015, “How Congress Railroaded the Railroads”). “Is there a more absurd technology than positive train control, which Congress imposed as an unfunded mandate on railroads in 2008, and which supposedly would have prevented last week’s Philly Amtrak crash? Except it didn’t since its implementation has been draggy and its design so clearly inferior to cheaper, faster, more up-to-date solutions.”

Even beyond this, though, is the decisive point relating to the fate of passenger rail had big government not established and continually sustained Amtrak in the first place.

A World Without Amtrak

When Lyndon Johnson succeeded John F. Kennedy in the White House, he recognized that Kennedy’s assassination had created an extraordinary mandate for change. Johnson was perhaps the century’s premier legislative spearhead, and he essentially created the regulatory welfare state that presides over the country today. Johnson predicted that it would take 50 years to determine the success or failure of his “experiment” in social policy. A half-century later, we can deliver the verdict that the welfare state is imploding not just in the U.S., but worldwide.

Similarly, forty-four years should be sufficient to pronounce Amtrak a failure. Its infrastructure is ramshackle, its finances are a mess and its organization is a shambles. Amtrak’s only positive feature is a core constituency that leaves open the possibility of a profitable passenger rail service. That constituency, in the “Northeast Corridor” of America, boasts a population density roughly ten times greater than the rest of the U.S. This makes it possible for a for-profit, private-sector business to identify and isolate this customer base. In no sense is passenger-rail service a “public good” in the classical economic sense; it is neither non-exclusive nor non-rival.

Thus, the obvious solution to the problems plaguing Amtrak, of which safety is merely the one occupying front-pages currently, is to end its public subsidies, acknowledge its bankruptcy and sell off its assets. This includes its rights of way, which would enable a privatized successor to operate passenger rail for the benefit of the large number of people in the relatively confined area where that business is economically feasible.

To be fair, it should be noted that some are skeptical of privatization not on principle but as a practical matter. Like Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal, they think the profits of the Northeast Corridor are overestimated and costs of service underestimated. Variable costs should take into account incremental wear and tear on infrastructure, which are now obscured by capital subsidies. Congress has given Amtrak preferential right-of-way over freight traffic on lines owned by the freight railroads – another implicit subsidy that would vanish under privatization. Various regional commuter transporters now tacitly agree not to compete with Amtrak, which is still another hidden subsidy. Could a privatized rail carrier still serve the Northeast Corridor without these subsidies? The only way to know is to try it and see.

To be workable, privatization would demand relief from the killing mandate currently crippling Amtrak and greatly hindering freight railroads – namely, the 2008 law mandating the adoption of the already-obsolete and dreadfully expensive PTC. This would save hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and improve life for millions of people. The only losers would be regulators, politicians and, possibly, union members who would lose jobs and be forced to take lower-paying ones. The union members could be bought off through severance. The others would simply have to eat their losses. In fact, this is increasingly the choice that confronts us not merely in passenger rail but in the entire transportation system.

As things stand today, the American transportation system is a massive form of human sacrifice to the gods of government regulation and unionization. Tens of thousands of Americans lose their lives every year so that government regulators and union members can hold their jobs and earn more money than would otherwise be the case.

Let us hear from Holman Jenkins again: “Which brings us to another headline from the brave new world of self-driving vehicles. This month the truck maker Freightliner introduced a robotically controlled truck, licensed to operate on the roads of Nevada. Its onboard system, designed to relieve drivers of the monotony of motoring for hours down calm stretches of well-marked interstate, ‘never gets tired. It never gets distracted. It’s always at 100%,’ company executive Wolfgang Bernhard told the media.”

“Alas, Mr. Bernhard deflated expectations by predicting that, though the system is ready to roll today, deployment is likely five years off. ‘The biggest obstacle that we see is the regulatory framework'” [emphasis added].

“Five years may be optimistic: An unspoken burden for the future is the legacy of the Toyota travesty of 2010, in which congressmen and, most damningly, a head of the Transportation Department, whose agency knows better, preferred to allege an undetected electronic bug in Toyotas rather than acknowledge that drivers (i.e., voters) cause accidents by pressing the gas instead of the brake.”

“This scandal, hugely costly to Toyota and largely fabricated, has never been acknowledged or investigated by the government of the media…One big inconvenient precedent lies in its wake. As Toyota found, because it’s impossible to prove the nonexistence of a software bug, anytime there’s an accident involving a system in which software plays a role, the software will be blamed and the driver will be excused. Perhaps the only way forward, then, is to remove the driver altogether” [emphasis added].

Whether it is cars, planes or trains, the dirty little secret that nobody is willing to talk about is the driver – the source of almost all the deaths and injuries. Here we have a train traveling at 106 mph in a 50 mph zone and an engineer with a case of amnesia. Sure, there was a dent in the windshield and talk of a projectile. But the dent didn’t penetrate the windshield and there is no logical explanation for how a projectile would cause the train’s speed to double. Is a left-wing lawyer going to emerge claiming that the train’s engine was manufactured by Toyota? Or are we eventually going to wind up with “driver error” as the cause of the derailment? Once again, with trains as with planes and cars, self-driving is the ultimate way forward.

Holman Jenkins is now acknowledging what this space declared over two years ago with respect to self-driving cars and almost a year ago with respect to commercial aviation. Now the same chickens are roosting on the tracks of passenger rail. Big government and regulators are standing athwart technology and yelling “Stop!” while over 30,000 people are killed every year on the nation’s roads, hundreds die in each commercial air crash and hundreds more die annually in various forms of railroad accident.

Up to now, none dare call it murder. Yet Democrats get away with accusing Republicans of murder for the sin of holding a Congressional majority.