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-202 for week of 4-26-15: The Comcast/Time-Warner Cable Merger Bites the Dust

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Comcast/Time-Warner Cable Merger Bites the Dust

This week brings the news that the year’s biggest and most highly publicized merger, between cable television titans Comcast and Time-Warner Cable, has been called off. Although the decision was technically made by Comcast, who announced it on Monday, it really came from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose de facto opposition to the merger became public last week. This continues a virtually unbroken string of economically inane measures taken by the Obama administration and its regulatory minions.

Theoretically, merger policy falls within the province of industrial organization, the economic specialty spawned by the theory of the firm. Actually, the operative logic had nothing whatever to do with economics. Instead, the decision was dictated by the peculiar incentives governing the behavior of government.

The high visibility of the intended merger and the huge volume of comment it spawned make it worthwhile to examine carefully. What made it so attractive to the principals? Why was it denounced so bitterly in certain quarters? Was the FCC right to oppose it?

Who Were the Principals in the Merger?

Comcast and Time-Warner Cable (hereinafter, TWC) are today the two leading firms in the so-called “pay-TV” industry. The quotation marks reflect the fact that the term has undergone several changes over the course of television history. Today it refers to two different groups of television consumers. First are subscribers to cable television, the biggest revenue source for both Comcast and TWC. Born in the 1950s and nurtured in the 1960s, cable TV fought tooth and nail to gain a toehold against “free” broadcast television. It succeeded by offering better reception from buried coaxial-cable transmission lines, more viewing choices than the “Big 3” national broadcast network channels offered on free TV and a blessed absence of commercial interruption. Its success came despite the efforts of government regulators, who forbade local cable companies from serving major metropolitan areas until the 1980s.

In the early days, municipalities were so desperate to get cable-TV that local government would offer a grant of monopoly to the first cable franchise to lay cable and promise to serve the citizenry. In return, the cable firm would have to pay various legal and illegal bribes. The legal ones came in the form of community-access and public-service channels that few watched but which gave lip service to the notion that the cable firm was serving the “public interest” and not merely maximizing profit. Predictably, these monopoly concessions eventually came back to haunt municipal government when cable firms inexorably began to raise their rates without providing commensurate increases in programming value and customer service to their customers.

Today, the contractual arrangements with cable firms survive. But the grants of monopoly are no more. In many markets, other cable firms have entered to compete with the original firms. Even more important, though, are the other sources of competitive television service. First, there is satellite TV service provided by companies like Direct TV and Dish. A satellite dish – usually located on the customer’s roof – gathers the signal transmitted by the company and provides hundreds of channels to customers. Wireless firms like AT&T and Verizon can also transmit television signals to provide television service as well. And finally, it has become possible to “stream” television signals digitally by means similar to those used to stream audio signals for songs. Consequently, a movie-streaming service like Netflix has become a potent competitor to cable television as well.

What Did Comcast and TWC Have to Gain from the Merger? 

The late, great Nobel laureate Ronald Coase taught us that business firms exist to do things that individuals can’t do for themselves – or, more precisely, things that individuals find too costly to do themselves and more efficient to “import” from outsiders. Take this same logic and extend it to business firms. Firms produce some things internally and purchase other things outside the firm. Logically, the inputs they produce internally are the ones they can produce at a cost lower than the external cost of purchase, while external purchases are made when the internal cost of production is too high.

Now extend this logic even further – to the question of merger, in which one firm purchases another. Both firms have to agree to the terms, including a price, which means that both firms consider the merged operation superior to separation. The term used to denote the advantages that arise from combination is synergy – a hybrid of “synthesis” and “energy” suggesting that melding two elements produces a greater output of energy than do the individuals in isolation.

Why should putting two firms together improve on their separate efficiency? The first place to look for an answer is cost, the reason why businesses exist in the first place and the reason why they purchase inputs in the second place. The primary synergy in most mergers is elimination of duplicative functions. Because mergers themselves take time, effort and other resources to effect, there must be substantial duplication that can be eliminated in order to justify a merger on this ground alone. That is why mergers so often occur (or threaten) among similar, competing firms with similar internal structures.

This applies to Comcast and TWC. Large parts of both firms are devoted to the same function; namely, providing cable television to subscribers. A merger would still leave them with the same total territory to service. But one central office, much smaller than the combined size of both before the merger, could now handle administration for the entire territory. The largest efficiencies would undoubtedly have been available in advertising. Economies of scale would have been gained from having one advertising department handle all advertising for the merged firm. Economies of size would have been available because the much larger total of advertising would have commanded volume discounts from sellers.

Given the gigantic size of the firms – their combined revenue would have yielded well over $80 billion – these economies alone might well have justified the merger. And that leaves out the most important reason for the merger. In times of market turmoil, mergers are often referred to as “consolidation.” This is a polite way of saying that the firms involved are girding their loins for future battle. They are fighting for their business life.

This is completely at odds with the picture painted by self-styled “consumer advocates” and government regulators. The former whine about the poor quality of service provided by Comcast to its cable subscribers, calling the company a “lazy monopolist.” By definition, a lazy monopolist doesn’t have to worry about its future – it is living off the fat of the land or, as an economist puts it, taking some of its profits in the form of leisure. (Of course, the critics can’t have it both ways – if the firm is “lazy” then it must be extracting less profit from consumers than it could if it were “aggressive.” But the act of moral posturing uses up so much mental energy that there is little left for critics to use in applying logic.) Government regulators say that Comcast and Time-Warner have so much power that, when combined, they could exclude their potential competitors from the market for “high-speed broadband.”

But the picture painted by market analysts is completely different. Comcast and TWC are leading players in a market that is beginning to wither on the vine. They are not merely providing “pay TV;” they are providing it via coaxial cable buried in the ground and via subscription. This method of providing television service will sooner or later become an endangered species – and the evidence is leaning toward “sooner.” People are beginning to “cut the cord” binding them to cable television. They are doing it in at least three ways. For years, satellite services have made modest inroads into cable markets. Now wireless companies are increasing these inroads. Finally, streaming services are promoting the ultimate heresy – people are renouncing their television sets entirely by streaming TV programming on their computers. Consumers have begun abandoning pay-TV in both 2013 and 2014; in the last year, cord-cutting to streaming TV has begun to occur in the millions.

Not surprisingly, the prime mover behind all of these threats to cable TV is cost. In the early days of cable, hundreds of channels were a dazzling novelty after the starvation diet of three major networks (with perhaps one UHF channel as an added spice). People occasionally surfed the channels just to find out what they might be missing or for something of genuine interest. Over time, though, they bore an increasing cost of holding an inventory of dozens of channels handy on the mere off-chance that something interesting might turn up. That experience gradually made the tradeoff seem less and less favorable, making the lure of a TV lineup tailored to their specific preferences and budget more attractive. Today, the prices of cable TV’s competitors will go nowhere but down.

These competitors are not only competing on the basis of price but also on the basis of product quality. Increasingly, they are now creating their own programming content. This trend began years ago with Home Box Office (HBO), which started life as a movie channel but entered the top tier of television competition when it began producing its own movies and specials. Now Netflix has followed suit and everybody else sees the handwriting on the wall.

The biggest attraction of the merger for Comcast and Time-Warner was the combined resources of the two firms, which would have given the resulting merged firm the kind of war chest it needed to fight a multi-front competitive war with all these competitors. Each of the two firms brought its own special advantages to the fight, complementing the weaknesses of the other. Comcast owns NBC, currently the most successful broadcast-TV channel and a locus of programming expertise. Another of its assets is Universal Studios, a leading film producer since the dawn of Hollywood and a television pioneer since the 1950s. TWC brings the additional heft and nationwide presence necessary to lift Comcast from regional cable-TV leader to international media player.

What is an “Industry?”

Everybody has heard the word “industry” used throughout their lives. Everybody thinks they know what it means. The federal government lists and classifies industries according to the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code. The SIC code defines an industry by its technical characteristics, and the definition becomes narrower as the work performed by the firms becomes more specialized. From the point of view of economics, though, there is a problem with this strictly technical approach to definition.

It has no necessary connection to economics at all.

The only economic definition of an industry related to the economic substitutability of the products produced by its members. If the products are viewed by consumers as economically homogeneous – e.g., interchangeable – then the aggregate of firms constitutes an industry. This holds true regardless of the technical features of those products. They may be physically identical; indeed, that might seem highly likely. But identical or not, their physical similarity has nothing to do with the question of industrial status.

If the goods are close substitutes, we may regard the firms as comprising an industry. How close is “close?” Well, in practice, economists usually use price as their yardstick. If significant variations in the price of any firm’s output will induce consumers to shift their custom to a different seller, then that is sufficient to stamp the output of different sellers as close substitutes. (We hold product quality constant in making this evaluation.)

This distinction – between the definition of an industry in strictly technical terms and in economic terms – is the key to understanding modern-day telecommunications, the digital universe and the Comcast/TWC merger.

Without saying it in so many words, the FCC proposes to define markets and industries in non-economic terms that suit its own bureaucratic self-interest. It does this despite the fact that only economic logic can be used when evaluating the welfare of consumers and interpreting the meaning of antitrust law.

The FCC’s Rationale for Ordering a Hearing on the Comcast/TWC Merger

Comcast decided to pull the plug on its proposed merger with TWC because the FCC’s announced decision to hold a regulatory hearing on the merger was a signal of the agency’s intention to oppose it. (The power of the federal government to legally coerce citizens is so great than innocent defendants commonly plead guilty to criminal charges in order to minimize penalties, so it is not strange that Comcast should surrender preemptively.) It is natural to wonder what was behind that opposition. There are two answers to that question. The first answer is the one that the agency itself would have provided in the hearing and that already been provided in statements made by FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler. That answer should be considered the regulatory pretext for opposition to the merger.

For years, another regulatory agency – the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – passed both formal and informal judgment on antitrust law in general and business combinations in particular. The FTC even provided a set of guidelines for what mergers would be viewed favorably and unfavorably. The guidelines looked primarily at what industrial-organization economists called industry structure. That term refers to the makeup of firms existing within the industry. Traditionally, this field of economics studies not only industry structure – the number of firms and the division of industry output among them – but also the conduct of existing firms – competition might be fierce, lackadaisical or even give way to collusive attempts to set price – and their actual performance – prices, output and product quality might be consistent either with competitive results or with monopolistic ones. But the FTC concerned itself with structural attributes of the market when reviewing proposed mergers, to the exclusion of other factors. It calculated what were known as concentration ratios – fractions of industry output produced by the leading handful of firms currently operating. If the ratio was too high, or if the proposed merger would make it too high, then the merger would be disallowed. When feeling particularly esoteric, the agency might even deploy a hyper-scientific tool like the “Herfindahl-Hirschman Index” of industry concentration as evidence that a merger would “harm competition.”

In our case, the FCC needed a rationale to stick its nose into the case. That was provided by President Obama’s insistence on the policy of “net neutrality” as he defined it. This policy contended that the leading cable-TV providers were “gatekeepers” of the Internet by virtue of their local monopoly on cable service. In order to give their policy a semblance of concreteness – and also to make the FCC look as busy as possible – the agency established a policy that the top pay-TV firm could control no more than 30% of the “total” market. This criterion is at least loosely reminiscent of the old FTC merger guidelines – except for the fact that the FTC merger guidelines had a tenuous relationship with economic theory and logic. Here, the FCC’s policy as much to do with astrology as it does with economics; e.g., roughly zero in both cases. But, mindful of the FCC’s rule and in order to keep its merger hopes alive, Comcast sold enough of its cable-TV properties to Charter Communications to reduce the two companies’ combined pay-TV holdings to the 30% threshold.

In order to create the appearance of being progressive in the technical as well as the political sense, the FCC set itself up as the guardian of “high-speed broadband service.” For years leading up to the merger announcement, the FCC’s definition of “high-speed” was a speed greater than or equal to 4 Mbps. But after the merger announcement, the FCC abruptly changed its definition of the “high-speed market” to 25 Mbps. or greater. Why this sudden change? Comcast’s sale of cable-TV assets had circumvented the FCC’s 30% market threshold, so the agency now had an incentive to invent a new hurdle to block the merger. The faster broadband-speed classification had the effect of including fewer firms, thereby making its (artificially defined) market smaller than before. In turn, this made the shares of existing firms higher. Under this revised definition – surprise, surprise! – the Comcast/TWC merger would have given the resulting firm 57% of this newly defined “market” rather than the 37% it would previously have had.

Still, most industry observers figured that Comcast’s divestiture sale to Charter Communications, combined with what Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal called “Comcast’s vast lobbying spending and carefully cultivated donor ties with the Obama administration”, would see the merger over the regulatory hurdles. Clearly, they reckoned without the determination of FCC Chairman Wheeler.

What Was the Actual Motivation of the FCC in Frustrating the Comcast/TWC Merger?

Regulators regulate. That is the explanation for the FCC’s de facto denial of the Comcast/TWC merger. It is the bureaucratic version of Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am.” After over a century of encroaching totalitarianism, it is only gradually dawning on America that big government is dedicated solely to the proposition that government of, by and for itself shall not perish from the Earth.

A recent Bloomberg Business editorial is an implicit rationale for the FCC’s action. The editor marvels at how only recently it seemed that the forces of cable-TV darkness had the upper hand and were poised with their jackboots on the throats of consumers the world over. But then, with startling suddenness, cable’s position now seems wholly tenuous as it is beset on all sides with uncertainty. And who should we thank for this sudden reversal? Why, the FCC, of course, whose wise regulation has turned the tide. Instead of crediting competitive forces with making the FCC’s action unnecessary if not a complete non sequitur, the editorial gives the credit to the FCC for creating circumstances that preexisted and in which the agency had no hand.

One of Milton Friedman’s famous characterizations of bureaucracy compared it to the flight leader of a covey of ducks who, upon discovering that the remainder of his V-formation have deserted him and are flying off in a different direction, scrambles to get back in front of the V again. By denying the merger, the FCC has re-positioned itself to claim credit for anything and everything that competition has accomplished so far and will accomplish in the future. If it had done nothing, regulation would have had to cede credit to market forces. By doing something – even something as crazy, useless and downright counterproductive as frustrating a potentially beneficial merger – the FCC has not only set itself up for future benefits, it has also fulfilled the first goal of every government bureaucracy.

It has justified its existence.

All this would have been true even if the FCC’s pre-existing commitment to net neutrality has not forced it to twitch reflexively every time the words “high-speed broadband” arise in a policy context. As it is, the agency was compelled to invent a “policy” for regulating a market that will soon be the most hotly competitive arena in the world – unless the federal government succeeds in wrestling competition to a standstill here as it did in telecommunications in the 1990s.

Why are Economic Theory and Logic Absent from the FCC’s Actions in the Comcast/TWC Merger?

Begin with a few matter-of-fact sentences from Forbes magazine’s summary of the merger. “Comcast and TWC do not directly compete with each other… and there is no physical overlap in the areas in which these companies offer services.” Competitors such as Direct-TV, Dish, AT&T, Verizon and Netflix have “reduced the Importance of the cable-TV market and given its customers other alternatives… Hence this merger would not significantly impact the choices available to the consumers in the service areas of these two companies.”

Forbes’ point was that old-time opposition to mergers by agencies like the FTC was based on the simplistic premise that when competitors merge, there is one few competitor in the market – which is then one step closer to monopoly. When there were few competitors to begin with, this line of thinking had a certain naïve appeal, even though it was wrong. But when the merging companies weren’t competitors in the first place, even this rather flimsy rationale evaporates. And this holds just as true in the so-called “market for high-speed broadband” as it does for the market for pay-TV. Why? Because President Obama and FCC Chairman Wheeler have anointed the cable companies as the gatekeepers of that “market,” and the only markets they can be the gatekeepers of are those same local markets in which Comcast and Time-Warner weren’t competitors before the merger announcement. Therefore the merger couldn’t have affected developments there, either.

The end-in-view of all economic activity is consumption. Consumers – the people who watch TV in whatever form – would not have been harmed or adversely affected by the merger. The consumer advocated who cite the bad service given by Comcast to its customers seem to have taken the view that the remedy for this offense is to make sure that nothing good happens to Comcast from now on. They apparently expect that the merger would have reduced the total volume of employment by the two firms – which it undoubtedly would – and that this would on its face have made customer service even worse – which it most certainly would not have done. Government never ceases to object to budget cuts and predict even worse customer service when they are implemented, but bigger government never produced better customer service. Only competition does that – and the merger was a desperate attempt to prepare for and cope with competition.

The FCC’s imaginary market for high-speed broadband and its 30% threshold were as irrelevant to market competition as the price of tea in Ceylon. The entire digital universe is inventing its way around the anachronistic gatekeeper function performed by local cable firms. (The Wall Street Journal‘s editors couldn’t help reacting in amazement to the FCC’s announcement: “Is anybody at the FCC under 40?” Today it is only the senior-citizen crowd that is still tethered to desktop computers for Web access.)

Why Should the Man in the Street Be Expected to Embrace a Merger Between Large Corporations?

It has been estimated that the sum of mankind’s knowledge has increased more since 2003 than it did since the dawn of human history up to that point. Given the breakneck advance of learning, we cannot expect to comprehend the meaning and benefit of all that goes on around us. Instead, we must choose between the presumptive value of freedom and the restraining hand of government. We owe most of what we value to freedom and private initiative. It is genuinely difficult to identify much – if anything – that government does adequately, less alone brilliantly.

This straightforward comparison, rather than complex mathematics, econometrics or “he said, she said” debates between vested interests should sway us to side with freedom and free markets. The average person shouldn’t “embrace” a corporate merger because he or she shouldn’t evaluate the issue on the basis of emotion. The merger should have been “tolerated” as an exercise of free choice by responsible adults – period.

DRI-265 for week of 2-23-14: False Confession Under Torture: The So-Called Re-Evaluation of the Minimum Wage

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

False Confession Under Torture: The So-Called Re-Evaluation of the Minimum Wage

For many years, the public pictured an economist as a vacillator. That image dated back to President Harry Truman’s quoted wish for a “one-armed economist,” unable to hedge every utterance with “on the one hand…on the other hand.”

Surveys of economists belied this perception. The profession has remained predominantly left-wing in political orientation, but its support for the fundamental logic of markets has been strong. Economists have backed free international trade overwhelmingly. They have opposed rent control – which socialist economist Assar Lindbeck deemed the second-best way to destroy a city, ranking behind only bombing. And economists have denounced the minimum wage with only slightly less force.

Now, for the first time, this united front has begun to break up. Recently a gaggle of some 600 economists, including seven Nobel Laureates, has spoken up in favor of a 40% increase in the minimum wage. The minimum wage has always retained public support. But what could possibly account for this seeming about-face by the economics profession?

The CBO Study

This week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a study that was hailed by both proponents and opponents of the minimum wage. The CBO study tried to estimate the effects of raising the current minimum of $7.25 per hour to $9 and $10.10, respectively. It provided an interval estimate of the job loss resulting from President Obama’s State of the Union suggestion of a $10.10 minimum wage. The interval stretched from roughly zero to one million. It took the midpoint of this interval – 500,000 jobs – as “the” estimate of job loss because… because…well, because 500,000 is halfway between zero and 1,000,000, that’s why. Averages seem to have a mystical attraction to statisticians as well as to the general public.

Economists looking for signs of orthodox economic logic in the CBO study could find them. “Some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.” The minimum wage is a poorly-targeted means of increasing the incomes of the poor because “many low-income workers are not members of low-income families.” And when an employer chooses which low-wage workers to retain and which to cut loose after a minimum-wage hike, he will likely retain the upper-class employee with good education and social skills and lay off the first-time entrant into the labor force who is poor in income, wealth and human capital. These are traditional sentiments.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s hired gun at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Chairman Jason Furman, looked inside the glass surrounding the minimum wage and found it half-full. He characterized the CBO’s job-loss conclusion as a “0.3% decrease in employment” that “could be essentially zero.” Furman cited the CBO estimate that 16.5 million workers would receive an increase in income as a result of the minimum-wage increase. Net benefits to those whose incomes currently fall below the so-called poverty line are estimated at $5 billion. The overall effect on real income – what economists would call the general equilibrium result of the change – is estimated to be a $2 billion increase in real income.

The petitioning economists, the CBO and the CEA clearly are all not viewing the minimum wage through the traditional textbook prism. What caused this new outlook?

The “New Learning” and the Old-Time Religion on the Minimum Wage

The impetus to this eye-opening change has ostensibly been new research. Bloomberg Businessweek devoted a lead article to the supposed re-evaluation of the minimum wage. Author Peter Coy declares that “the argument that a wage floor kills jobs has been weakened by careful research over the past 20 years.” Not surprisingly, Coy locates the watershed event as the Card-Krueger comparative study of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1994. This study not only made names for its authors, it began the campaign to make the minimum wage respectable in academic economic circles.

“The Card-Krueger study touched off an econometric arms race as labor economists on opposite sides of the argument topped one another with increasingly sophisticated analyses,” Coy relates. “The net result has been to soften the economics profession’s traditional skepticism about minimum wages.” If true, this would be sign of softening brains, not skepticism. The arguments advanced by the re-evaluation of the minimum wage have been around for decades. Peter Coy is saying that, somehow, new studies done in the last 20 years have produced different results than those done for the previous fifty years, and those different results justify a turnabout by the economics profession.

That stance is, quite simply, hooey. Traditional economic opposition to the minimum wage was never based on empirical research. It was based on the economic logic of choice in markets, which argues unequivocally against the minimum wage. Setting a wage above the market-determined wage will create a surplus of low-skilled labor; e.g., unemployment. Thus, any gains accruing to the workers who retain their jobs will come at the expense of workers who lose their jobs. The public supports the minimum wage on the misapprehension that the gains come at the expense of employers. This is true only transitorily, during the period in which some firms go out of business, prices rise and workers are laid off. During this short-run transition period, the gains of still-employed workers come at the expense of business owners and laid-off workers. But once the adjustments occur, the business owners who survive the transition are once again earning a “normal” (competitive) rate of profit, as they were before the minimum wage went up. Now, and indefinitely going forward, the gains of still-employed workers come at the expense of laid-off workers and consumers who pay higher prices for the smaller supply of goods and services produced by low-skilled workers.

The still-employed workers are by no means all “poor,” despite the face that they earn the minimum wage. Some are teenagers in middle- or upper-class households, whose good educations and social skills preserved their jobs after the minimum-wage hike. Some are older workers whose superior discipline and work skills made them irreplaceable. The workers who rate to lose their jobs are the poorest and least able to cope – namely, first-time job holders and those with the fewest cognitive and social skills. The minimum wage transfers income from the poor to the non-poor. What a victory for social justice! That is why even the left-wing economists like Alan Blinder formerly pooh-poohed the minimum wage as a means of helping the poor. (While he was Chairman of the CEA under President Clinton, Blinder was embarrassed when the arguments against the minimum wage in his economics textbook were juxtaposed alongside the administration’s support of a minimum-wage increase.)

This does not complete the roster of the minimum wage’s defects. Government price-setting has mirror-image effects on both above-market prices and below-market prices. By creating a surplus of low-skilled labor, the minimum wage makes it costless for employers to discriminate against a class of workers they find objectionable – black, female, politically or theologically incorrect, etc. Black-market employment of illegal workers – immigrants or off-the-books employees – can now gain a foothold. Business owners are encouraged to substitute machines for workers and have done so throughout the history of the minimum wage. In cases such as elevator operators, this has caused whole categories of workers to vanish. This expanded range of drawbacks somehow never finds its way into popular discussions of the minimum wage, which are invariably confined to the effects on employment and income distribution.

“If there are negative effects on total employment, the most recent studies show, they appear to be small,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  The trouble is that the focus of the minimum wage is not properly on total employment. The minimum wage itself applies only to the market for low-skilled labor, comprising roughly 20 million Americans. There are certainly effects on other labor and product markets. But it is difficult enough to estimate the quantitative effect of the minimum wage on the one market directly affected, let alone to gauge the secondary impact on the other markets comprising the remaining 300 million people. The Obama administration, the vocal economists, the Bloomberg Businessweek and the political Left are ostensibly concerned with the poor. Why, then, do they insist on couching employment effects only in total terms?

It is clear that the same reasons why economists have traditionally chosen not to confuse the issue by dragging in total employment are also the reasons why economists now choose precisely to do so. They want to confuse the issue, to disguise the full magnitude of the adverse effects on low-skilled workers by hiding them inside the much smaller percentage effect on total employment. That is what allows CEA Chairman Jason Furman to brag that the “CBO’s central estimate…leads to a 0.3% decrease in employment… [that] could be essentially zero.” 500,000 is not 0.3% of 20 million (that would be 60,000) but rather 0.3% of the larger total work force of around 170 million. 0.3% sounds like such a small number. That’s almost zero, isn’t it? Surely that isn’t such a high price to pay for paying people what they’re worth – or what a bunch of economists think they’re worth, anyway.

But we digress. Just what is it that causes those “apparently small” effects on total employment, anyway? “Higher wages reduce turnover by reducing job satisfaction, so at any given moment there are fewer unfilled openings. Within reasonable ranges of a minimum wage, the churn-reducing effect seems to offset whatever staff reductions occur because of higher labor costs. Also, some businesses manage to pass along the costs to customers without harming sales.”

This is mostly warmed-over sociology, imported by economists for cosmetic purposes. American industry is pockmarked with industries plagued by high turnover, such as trucking. If higher wages were a panacea for this problem, it would have been solved long since. Today, we have a minimum wage. We also have a gigantic mismatch of unfilled jobs and discouraged workers. The shibboleth of businesses “passing along” costs to consumers with impunity was a cherished figment imagined in books by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s and 60s, but neither Galbraith nor today’s economists can explain what hypnotic power businesses exert over consumers to accomplish this feat.

The magic word never mentioned by Peter Coy or the 600 economists or Jason Furman is productivity. Competitive markets enforce a strict link between market wages and productivity – specifically, between the wage and the discounted marginal value product of the marginal worker’s labor. Once that link is severed, the tether to economic logic has been cut and the discussion drifts along in never-never land. The political Left maunders on about the “dignity of human labor” and “a living wage” and “the worth of a human being” – nebulous concepts that have no objective meaning but allow the user to attach their own without fear of being proven wrong.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s cover features a young baggage handler holding a sign identifying his job and duties, with a caption reading “How Much Is He Worth?” Inside the magazine, a page is taken up with workers posing for pictures showing their jobs and their own estimation of their “worth.” These emotive exercises may or may not sell magazines, but they prove and solve nothing. Asking a low-skilled worker to evaluate their own worth is like asking a cancer victim what caused their disease. Broadcast journalists do it all the time, but if that were really valuable, we would have cured cancer long ago. If a low-skilled worker were an expert on valuing labor, he or she would qualify as an entrepreneur – and would be set up to make some real money.

A Fine-Tuned Minimum Wage

Into the valley of brain death rode the 600 economists who supported a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. Their ammunition consisted of fine-tuning based on econometrics. Let us hear from Paul Osterman, labor economist of MIT. “To jump from $7.25 to $15 would be a long haul. That would in my view be a shock to the system.” Mr. Osterman, exercising his finely-honed powers of insight denied to the rabble, is able to peer into the econometric mists and discern that $10.10 would be …somehow… just right – barely felt by 320 million people generating $16 trillion in goods and services, but $15 – no, that would shock the system. In other words, that first 40% increase would be hardly a tickle, but the subsequent 38% would be a bridge too far.

In any other context, it would be quite a surprise to the economics profession to discover that the study of econometrics had advanced this far. (The phrase “science of econometrics” was avoided advisedly.) For decades, graduate students in economics were taught a form of logical positivism originally outlined by John Neville Keynes (father of John Maynard Keynes) and developed by Milton Friedman. Economic theory was advanced by developing hypotheses couched in the form of conditional predictions. These were then tested in order to evaluate their worth. The tests ranged from simple observation to more complex tests of statistical inference. Hypotheses meeting the tests were retained; those failing to do so were discarded.

Simple and attractive though that may sound, this philosophy has failed utterly in practice. The tests have failed to convince anybody; it is axiomatic that no economic theory was ever accepted or rejected on the basis of econometric evidence. And the econometric tools themselves have been the subject of increasing skepticism by economists themselves as well as the outside world. One of the ablest and most respected practitioners, Edward Leamer, titled a famous 1983 article, “Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics.”

The time period pictured by Peter Coy as an “econometric arms race” employing “increasingly sophisticated” tools and models overlapped with a steadily growing scandal enveloping the practice of econometrics – or, more precisely, statistical practice across both the natural and social sciences. Within economics alone, it concerned the continuing failure of the leading economists and economic journals to correctly enforce the proper interpretation of the term “statistical significance.” This failure has placed the quantitative value of most of the econometric work done in the last 30 years in question.

The general public’s exposure to the term has encouraged it to regard a “statistically significant” variable or event as one that is quantitatively large or important. In fact, that might or might not be true; there is no necessary connection between statistical significance and quantitative importance. The statistician needs to take measures apart from ascertaining statistical significance in order to gauge quantitative importance, such as calculating a loss function. In practice, this has been honored more in the breach than the observance. Two leading economic historians, Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Ziliak, have conducted a two-decade crusade to reform the statistical practice of their fellow scientists. Their story is not unlike that of the legendary Dr. Simmelweis, who sacrificed his career in order to wipe out childbed fever among women by establishing doctors’ failure to wash their hands as the transmitter of the disease.

This scandal could not be more relevant to the current rehabilitation of the minimum wage. The entire basis for that rehabilitation is supposedly the new, improved econometric work done beginning in 1994 – the very time when the misuse and overemphasis of statistical significance was in full swing. The culprits included many of the leading economists in the profession – including Drs. Card and Krueger and their famous 1994 study, which was one of dozens of offending econometric studies identified by McCloskey and Ziliak. And the claim made by today’s minimum-wage proponents is that their superior command of econometrics allows them to gauge the quantitative effects of different minimum-wages so well that they can fine-tune the choice of a minimum wage, picking a minimum wage that will benefit the poor without causing much loss of jobs and real income. But judging the quantitative effect of dependent variables is exactly what econometrics has done badly from the 1980s to the present, owing to its preoccupation with statistical significance. The last thing in the world that the lay public should do is take the quantitative pretensions of these economists on faith.

This doesn’t sound like a profession possessing the tools and professional integrity necessary to fine-tune a minimum wage to maximize social justice – whatever that might mean. In fact, there is no reason to take recent pronouncements by economists on the minimum wage at face value. This is not professional judgment talking. It is political partisanship masquerading as analytical economics.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out that the $2 billion net gain in real income projected by the CBO if the minimum wage were to rise to $10.10 is a minute percentage gain compared to the size of a $16 trillion GDP. (It is slightly over 0.001%.) The notion of risking a job loss of one million for a gain of that size is quixotic. Even more to the point, the belief that economists can predict gains or losses of that tiny magnitude in a general equilibrium context using econometrics is absurd. The CEA and the CBO are allowing themselves to be used for political purposes and, in the process, allowing the discipline of economics to be prostituted.

The increasing politicization of economics is beginning to produce the same effects that subservience to political orthodoxy produced on Russian science under Stalin. The Russian scientist Lysenko became immortal not because of his scientific achievements but because of his willingness to distort science to comport with Communist doctrine. The late, great economist Ronald Coase once characterized the economics profession’s obsession with econometrics as a determination to “torture the data until it confesses.” Those confessions are now taking on the hue of Soviet-style confessions from the 1930s, exacted under torture from political dissidents who wouldn’t previously knuckle under to the regime. Today, politically partisan economists torture recalcitrant data on the minimum wage in order to extract results favorable to their cause.

The CBO and the CEA should have new stationery printed. Its logo should be an image of Lubyanka Prison in old Soviet Russia.

DRI-270 for week of 2-9-14: Can We Make Economic Sense of First Wives’ ‘Joining Forces’ Initiative?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Can We Make Economic Sense of First Wives’ ‘Joining Forces’ Initiative?

In 2011, the wives of President Obama and Vice-President Biden, Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, announced formation of a public-service initiative called “Joining Forces.” The action is ostensibly intended to “honor and support our veterans, troops and military families.” What sort of “honor” and “support” is provided? A fair idea can be gleaned from the op-ed appearing under Ms. Obama’s byline in the Monday, February 10, 2014,

Wall Street Journal. It is entitled “Construction Companies Step Up to Hire Veterans.”

It contains the sort of prose that adult Americans have been bombarded with since birth. Still, inquiring economists want to know: What sense can we make of this sort of appeal?

Why Should Construction Companies Hire Veterans?

Ms. Obama uses the lead paragraph of her op-ed to announce an announcement. On publication day, “more than 100 construction companies – many of whom are direct competitors – are coming together to announce that they plan to hire more than 100,000 veterans within the next five years. They made this commitment not just because it’s the patriotic thing to do, and not just because they want to repay our veterans for their service to our country, but because these companies know that it’s the smart thing to do for their businesses.”

“As one construction-industry executive put it, ‘Veterans are invaluable to the construction industry. Men and women who serve in the military often have the traits that are so critical to our success: agility, discipline, integrity and the drive to get the job done right.” Ms. Obama records her approval of this “sentiment” and reiterates the guiding challenge of Joining Forces: “Hire as many of these American heroes as you can.”

Joining Forces originated in 2011. “Since then,” Ms. Obama reports, “we have been overwhelmed by the response… The CEOs we have spoken to have been consistently impressed with their hires…veterans are some of the highest-skilled, hardest-working employees they’ve ever had… resilient, adept at building and leading teams, comfortable with diversity, and able to handle uncertainty.” This is attributable to veterans’ “training and experience,” including “some of the most advanced information, medical and communications technologies in the world.” To bolster her argument, she offers an anecdotal case of an Air Force manpower specialist whose service job was estimating the troop strength and specialties needed for missions. Like many veterans whose “qualifications aren’t always obvious from their resumes,” he would have been “easy to overlook” if not for the Disney Company’s human-resources specialists, who are “trained…to translate military experience into civilian qualifications.” They realized that his military background ideally qualified him to plan meals by specifying exact kinds and quantities of ingredients.

Ms. Obama earnestly implores us to consider the multitude of possible employment conversions. Military medics would make such good paramedics and EMTs. Tank crew members would make dandy truck drivers. The military employs “engineers, welders [and] technicians.” Small wonder, then, that “American businesses have hired nearly 400,000 veterans and military spouses” since Joining Forces opened up.

Why Do Construction Company Managers – or Employers

Generally – Need Advice on Whom to Hire?

The first question that occurs to the inquiring economist is: Why do construction company managers need advice on whom to hire? Indeed, why would any employer need that sort of advice?

Running a business can get complicated. But few decisions are as fundamental as qualifications for new hires. If owners and managers don’t know what they’re looking for in a job applicant, how can they ever hope to succeed?

It is true that we recently underwent a financial crisis, the trigger of which was a housing bubble. Undoubtedly many unwise decisions were made in housing sale and finance, and quite a few in housing construction. But nobody has suggested that the crisis was caused by construction companies hiring the wrong people.

In her op-ed, Ms. Obama didn’t actually

say that employers are boobs who are incapable of hiring the right candidates without the help of the federal government – more specifically, without the help of the wives of the President and Vice-President of the U.S. (Of course, her actions tacitly encourage this belief on the political Left, where it has always flourished.) In fact, what she actually said was that “CEOs …have been consistently impressed with their hires.” She even quoted “one construction industry executive” to the effect that “veterans are invaluable to the construction industry. Men and women who serve in the military often have the traits that are so critical to our success.” (The executive cannot be speaking from experience gained from working with Joining Forces, since that partnership is only now being announced.) If construction-industry executives

already knew

that veterans are “invaluable” – a plausible conjecture for reasons adduced above – why was the intervention of Joining Forces needed?

The clincher comes from Ms. Obama herself, referring to the commitment made by the consortium of construction companies. “They made this commitment not just because it’s the patriotic thing to do…but because these companies know that it’s the smart thing to do for their businesses.” If they

already knew that it was in their interest, in

advance

of this agreement, why was jawboning by Joining Forces required?

In her op-ed, Ms. Obama offers no hint as to why the employers she is urging need advice on hiring. She actually vitiates her own argument by providing persuasive evidence that they do

not

need her gratuitous advice.

If Employers Did Need Advice on Hiring, Why Would They Seek it from the First Wives?

When people need advice, they generally seek out experts. The hiring decisions of business owners and managers affect their livelihoods and the wealth of investors – all the more reason to obtain qualified opinions when in doubt. Why would a manager base hiring decisions on advice offered informally by two people whose fame and expertise lie outside the industry – and who have no experience in management or personnel?

Taking the advice of a lawyer and an English professor on hiring because their husbands happen to be the President and Vice-President would be tantamount to acting on the basis of a celebrity endorsement. We might heed a celebrity endorser on a question of taste – a choice of beer, say, or candy bar – but not on a matter demanding specialized or expert knowledge.

In her op-ed, Ms. Obama makes one reference to “current research,” but cites no original research attributable to her, Ms. Biden or Joining Forces. In other words, her initiative adds nothing not already available to employers, who already have the strongest possible incentive to seek out and act upon pertinent information about employment candidates.

It is clear that the First Wives would ordinarily not be people whom executives, managers and business owners would solicit for advice on hiring.

Is Ms. Obama Asking for Charity, Demanding an Entitlement or Offering Advice on Efficient Hiring?

Ms. Obama’s plea for hiring of veterans is a mixture of mutually exclusive messages. In the opening paragraph of her op-ed, she declares that construction companies made the commitment to hire over 100,000 veterans in the next five years “because it’s the patriotic thing to do…because they want to repay our veterans for their service to our country [and] because it’s the smart thing to do for their businesses.” Each of these motives is distinct from, and inconsistent with, the others.

In a free-market economy, the purpose of business is to produce as many goods and services as efficiently as possible. This requires hiring workers solely on the basis of their productivity. While business owners are not barred from having ulterior motives and acting upon them, they will suffer a penalty for indulging any prejudices or whims not consonant with the goal of maximum efficiency and profit. And when businesses depart from the straight and narrow, consumers suffer as well.

If the veteran is indeed the best employee for the job, everybody – the veteran, the company and consumers – wins if the vet is hired. But in that case, the intercession of Ms. Obama, Dr. Biden and Joining Forces is utterly superfluous. If the vet is not the best candidate, then the efforts of some outside agency might well be decisive. But that is hardly a victory for truth, justice and the American way. How is patriotism served by making the company and consumers worse off? For that matter, what is patriotic about sticking a veteran in a job in which he or she is inferior to somebody else?

The notion of “repay[ing] our veterans for their service to their country” is at best an anachronism, a throwback to the days before the all-volunteer military. The draft was viewed – erroneously – as a means of assembling a fighting force without having to pay the full economic costs that would be demanded by willing workers. In that context, it might have made a semblance of sense to provide extra compensation to surviving soldiers after demobilization. But today’s fighting force is composed of volunteers. They are professionals who are paid for their work and equipped with physical, mental and emotional skills that pay dividends after their service ends. It is patronizing and insulting as well as flagrantly inaccurate to treat them as naïve conscripts who need looking after. They are not “our boys.” They are men – and women. Apart from medical treatment for injuries suffered on duty, the only further payment they require is respect.

Why is it Desirable for Construction Companies to Collude in Hiring Veterans?

Ms. Obama went to great pains to announce that over 100 construction companies were “coming together” to “plan” their hiring of veterans. To alleviate potential ambiguity on the point, she noted that “many of [them] are direct competitors.” The term economists and lawyers use to characterize collective hiring decisions made by direct competitors is “collusion.” It is presumptively illegal, on the theory that it allows firms to set wages lower than would be the case were the companies to compete independently in the same labor market. Collusion allows the firms to replicate, or at least approach, the outcome attained by a single

monopsony buyer of labor – just as collusion by a cartel of sellers in a market for output strives to replicate the

monopoly

result attained by a single seller.

When owners of major-league baseball teams were adjudged guilty of collusion in bargaining with players, they were subject to legal penalties. Why is it wrong for baseball-team owners to collude in hiring players but praiseworthy for construction companies to collude in hiring veterans? Does the approval of Madams Obama and Biden sanctify the practice?

It seems axiomatic that when two people whose primary basis for association is political cooperate to achieve an outcome, their motives are presumed to be political. A political motivation does not sanctify collusion – just the opposite, in fact. A political motivation suggests that the collusion will benefit one political interest or party at the expense of the other or others. Moreover, it also suggests that the gains of the gainers will be less than the losses felt by the losers. That is one way of defining the difference between economic change and political change.

Will Madams Obama and Biden personally supervise the hiring to prevent the monopsony outcome described above? Ms. Obama made no mention of it. There is no reason to expect that, since we have no reason to think that either Ms Obama or Ms. Biden have advanced training in economic theory and no reason to think they could effectively supervise the hiring of thousands of people even if they did. It is competition that precludes the possibility of monopoly, not minute scrutiny of each economic transaction by government authorities.

How Do We Explain the History of Joining Forces?

We have cast overwhelming doubt on the public rationale behind Joining Forces, the initiative promoted by the First Wives. What, then, is its likely purpose? The late Milton Friedman likened the actions of politicians to those of the lead duck in a flying V-formation. Periodically, the leader glances back, only to discover that the formation has deserted him and is flying off in a different direction. The leader must scramble to find the formation and resume his place at the head. The point is that this form of leadership is purely ceremonial; the formation leads and the apparent leader is really following.

It was clear even in 2011 that the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package had failed to stimulate. The Federal Reserve had embarked on an unprecedented program of monetary expansion that was being sold as stimulus but was really designed to prop up the financial system. The Obama administration needed something it could point to as a success and claim credit for.

Presidential spouses since Mamie Eisenhower have been publicly active. Mostly their activities have been innocuous; i.e., non-political. The most conspicuous exception was Hillary Clinton’s leadership of her husband’s health-care program – a choice that turned out to be notably unsuccessful. This time, Mrs. Obama’s involvement was shrewdly chosen.

Politically, her support for veterans was designed to appeal to both friend and foe. It would satisfy Democrats who had become accustomed to a party line of supporting soldiers but not war and whose nostrils quivered at the scent of a victimized interest group. The President

was thought to be particularly unpopular with the military community and pro-military Republicans, so Ms. Obama’s stand couldn’t help but improve matters there.

Economically, Ms. Obama would be betting on a sure thing. The President’s wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with Defense Department budget cuts, would gradually feed veterans into the civilian work force. Mrs. Obama’s strategy would portray them as if they were draftees coping with a painful readjustment amidst civilian indifference or even hostility,

a la the World War II vets in the movie

The Best Years of Our Life or the Vietnam vets of

Coming Home

.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth than this pretense. The volunteer military has been working well for decades. In order to attract recruits, the military has had to offer not only wages and salaries sufficient to compensate soldiers for the opportunity costs of service, but also training in the skills and technological savvy necessary to run a modern military. To employers starved for job applicants with just those skills and training and the emotional maturity gained from military service, skilled vets are like raw meat to hungry lions. And even unskilled vets offer physically trained bodies coupled with mental self-discipline – two more attributes that are highly attractive to sectors like the construction industry.

What about the publicity given to returning vets suffering from forms of emotional trauma such as delayed stress? Could this have given rise to a bias adversely affecting the employment prospects of all returning veterans? Could Joining Forces play a role in overcoming this bias?

We will never know because Ms. Obama’s op-ed says nothing on the subject. We cannot very well grant Joining Forces the credit for overcoming a bias that may or may not exist and that the initiative has ignored. It is easy to understand why the First Wives might skirt the issue. They have no expertise in this area either and do not want to introduce an issue that can only detract from their otherwise favorable publicity.

So what role have the First Wives and Joining Forces played in the absorption of vets into the civilian work force? None whatsoever. They are the leader ducks scrambling to get in front of the formation. They are desperate to take credit for veterans’ inevitable success. No wonder, since this has been the only bona-fide economic success that the Obama administration has rubbed up against in recent years.

Why Has Business Cooperated in this Sham Initiative?

Ms. Obama’s op-ed makes it clear that businesses throughout the country have cooperated with the First Wives in professing solidarity with their initiative and making sympathetic noises toward veterans in general.

Our analysis shows that Joining Forces is a sham. Its motives are purely political. In economic terms, it is superfluous. The internal logic behind the project is so contradictory that the more contemplation it receives, the more ludicrous is becomes.

Why, then, have businesses been so cooperative with the First Wives? The obvious answers would seem to be: fear and prudence. Businesses have watched the conduct of the Obama administration. They have seen auto-company shareholders expropriated for the benefit of unionized employees. They have seen one regulatory agency after another launch assaults on industries in the form of new rules, regulations and policies. They have observed an entire Presidential campaign built around attacks on business success and a candidate who epitomized it. They saw the President’s approval rating remain consistently high throughout, suggesting that his actions resonated with a majority of the general public – not just the proverbial 47% that are supposedly dependent on government. Thus, they have every reason to fear the wrath of this administration and to avoid displeasing it if possible.

In this case, business leaders almost certainly reason that playing along with the sham of Joining Forces is a form of cheap insurance. They can make effusive public statements supporting the goals of the First Wives – talk is the cheapest form of political payoff. And they don’t even have to lie – at least not much. They can sign declarations of support and even make public “plans,” “announcements” and “commitments” – none of which contractually obligate them to anything and which the public will have forgotten about within days. The Obama administration has no intention of later holding their feet to the fire and checking to see if they follow through on that “commitment” to hire 100,000 veterans. (Follow-through would have everything to lose and nothing to gain, since the administration only cares about

seeming to cause veterans to be hired, not about actually

doing

it.) Businesses will certainly hire veterans, who constitute an attractive employment option. No economic archaeologist is going to later paw through the data to calculate whether veteran hires reached the promised total. As political blackmail goes, this is probably the cheapest form of protection these businesses will ever pay.

What’s the Harm?

Readers might wonder where the harm lies in allowing the First Wives their little deception. They aren’t altering the course of economic activity much by their actions. Perhaps this forestalls them from pursuing some more destructive pastime.

Willful deception practiced by government cannot be beneficial. Its effects will harm us both directly and indirectly. Waste and misdirection of resources are bad enough. But the misleading impression of an omniscient and confident government compensating for the ham-handed, ineffectual efforts of a short-sighted private sector establishes a precedent for future interventions. Each new intervention sets the stage for the one that follows. The success of a protection racket like this one emboldens and empowers politicians to attempt bigger and more expensive scams.

There is no conceivable rationale or defense for Joining Forces, the job-placement initiative for veterans begun by Madams Obama and Biden. Its economic benefits are entirely illusory. Its aims are purely political. It is big-government bunkum at its most cynical and demagogic. And this conclusion derives not from political animus, but rather from the straightforward logical implications of Ms. Obama’s own words.

DRI-266 for week of 10-13-13: Don’t Raise the Debt Limit

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

[The following was completed one day before the debt-limit deal between Congressional leaders was announced on Wednesday, October 16, 2013.]

Don’t Raise the Debt Limit

The political melodrama now unspooling in Washington, D.C. is unique because it is playing on split screen. Our point of focus is the government shutdown – or rather, the partial shutdown, since somehow we just can’t seem to get the federal government shut down no matter how hard we try. Somebody can always find an excuse to fire up the machinery of government, cut checks, get them signed and sent out for some ostensibly vital purpose.

Meanwhile, up in the corner of our field of vision, always distracting our attention even though not occupying it fully, there is the debt-limit crisis. October 17 is the deadline for Congressional approval on raising the limit on the total volume of federal-government debt, thereby clearing the way for Treasury borrowing to finance expenditures in excess of revenue collections. The party line has it that failure to increase the debt limit by that date will put the U.S. government in “default” of its financial obligations to holders of its debt. The implication is that we have to borrow more money to pay the interest on the money we have already borrowed.

And what happens if we default on our debt? Well, opinions vary. They vary from “financial disaster” to “the end of life on earth.” According to Warren Buffet, the threat of default “should be like nuclear bombs… it should never be used.” Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs declares gravely that default would be “magnitudes worse” than the current shutdown in its effects. Perhaps sensing a need for escalation, former Treasury official and current BUP Paribas SA executive Tim Bitsberger ups the ante by stating that default “…blows Lehman out of the water” in its potential effects, implying that the 2008 financial crisis would be dwarfed in comparison.

Alternative to Default: Sales of Federal-Government Assets

If we’re not to default, what are we to do? En masse, the Democrat Party wants to simply raise the debt limit enough to get by the current fiscal year. That is what Congress has been doing for decades. That is what has enabled the culture of tax-and-borrow-and-spend – a culture that has made Washington, D.C. and environs the most prosperous, recession-proof habitation in the nation. Gradually, the Republican Party has evolved into a go-along-to-get-along enabler to this culture. They have tolerated vocal dissenters among their ranks because that provides convenient cover for the tacit collusion of the majority with the Democrats.

The recent emergence of the Tea Party and current mutiny led by Sen. Rand Paul and Congressman Ted Cruz has discomfited veteran Republicans almost as much as it has their opposition. But the mood of the general public – on both the political right and the left – is so dissatisfied with the status quo that the pols are bent on preserving that they are reluctantly contemplating the need for some sort of change. At the moment, though, the problem is getting past the immediate crisis.

That is now the motif of the governing process: a calendar dotted by scheduled crises and spotted by unscheduled ones. Its momentum is best characterized as a stagger from one crisis point to the next.

On the one hand, the Establishment – consisting of most of Congress and the entire Executive branch, plus all the bureaucrats, rank and file employees, lobbyists, contractors and news media – maintains that the only option is to raise the debt limit. They say this because the increase is the only option that would keep their world intact – at least for awhile. The alternatives would shake its foundations or topple them.

The general public is largely unaware of any third option beyond increasing the debt-limit and default. That is by design. The Establishment views any option averse to the current spending culture the way a vampire views the dawn.

Yet there is such a third option. It sticks out a mile. It is the option customarily exercised by private businesses overburdened with debt.

The federal government owns a huge portfolio of assets, both liquid and non-liquid. Its total value can only be estimated, but it is only modestly less than the estimated value of privately owned U.S. assets. The most cogent approach to the immediate – debt-limit – crisis is to begin selling off those assets to fund government operations. Government assets are more than ample to support annual operations, particularly due to the sequester’s success in temporarily reducing the deficit for this fiscal year.

Every year, some private companies work their way out of trouble this way. The key is acknowledging the company is in trouble, then taking steps to dig it out of its hole, rather than doing business as usual and hoping for miracles. Today, the federal government (along with many state governments) is in trouble. Like many corporate conglomerates, it is bloated and over-extended. It needs to stick to its core businesses and sell off its conglomerate holdings to those who can preserve them and make them pay off.

Over the course of this fiscal year, branches and agencies of the federal government can concentrate on raising revenue by selling liquid and non-liquid holdings. Meanwhile, Congress can tackle the job of cutting spending – a task too time-consuming to consummate prior to October 17.

And speaking of October 17 – the date itself has very little meaning once it becomes known that the government is selling assets and revenue is assured. Creditors – even bondholders – are more than willing to wait for a payment they know is coming, as opposed to a situation when everybody knows that incoming revenue is insufficient and somebody will inevitably get stiffed. That is why the option of asset sales is a viable way of rejecting a debt-limit increase.

The last thing Republicans should do is to raise the debt limit. This is an act of surrender to the spending culture, a can-kicking capitulation to the Establishment. It is not the failure to raise the debt limit that is irresponsible; it is the act of raising it that throws responsibility to the winds.

Estimates of the Federal Government’s Assets

At various times, estimates have been made of the federal government’s financial and tangible assets, both liquid and non-liquid. Despite the fact that they were often made when annual deficits were higher than the one projected for the coming fiscal year, the estimates invariably found that assets sales could easily support annual government operations.

Using mostly Treasury and Federal Reserve data from 2011, economist Robert Murphy identified federal government liquid assets of about $1.6 trillion. In June, 2011, the Treasury reported “international reserve assets” of $144.2 billion. They consisted of gold, securities, foreign-currency deposits of euros and yen, Special Drawing Rights [an international asset provided to governments by the International Monetary Fund] and IMF reserves. (The IMF assets were developed specifically to provide liquidity in emergencies like this one.) The official valuation is distorted, since the government’s 261.5 million troy ounces of gold was valued at a par value of $42.2 per ounce rather than its then-current market value of $1500 per ounce.

We can update Murphy’s numbers with some back-of-the-envelope calculations. Adjusting the numbers using a current gold price leaves non-gold assets of approximately $133 billion and a true valuation of roughly $337 billion in gold, yielding liquid assets of $470 billion+. Subsequently, gold has declined while the yen and euro have fluctuated in value. A current estimate of $450 billion would be conservative.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve held about 726 billion barrels of recoverable oil. At today’s price nearing $100 per barrel, that would be worth about $72 billion. But since the oil is actually buried in salt caverns, Murphy suggested a discount of 25% to reflect recovery costs and time. Tack on another $58 billion to our current liquid-asset total, then.

The federal government owns offshore oil deposits whose estimated recoverable reserves total some 59 billion barrels. Murphy estimated the royalty income in years 8-38 of recovery at about $14 billion per year. He discounted that income at 5% and came up with $164 billion, which is an estimate of what the government might receive from selling the rights to that revenue for a lump sum.

So far, we have come up with nearly $675 billion. Murphy also found some $786 billion in “credit-market instruments” in Federal Reserve documents. These include $138 billion in agency-backed and GSE-backed securities and $355 billion in student loans. This total is much larger now, since the Fed has been buying mortgage-backed securities in order to support their market prices. He also included $55 billion in corporate (TARP) equities, which have mostly since been sold back into private hands. If we assume the changes cancelled out, we can stick with Murphy’s original $786 billion.

That produces somewhat less than a trillion and a half, far above the anticipated $650 billion deficit. It is reasonable to assume that the mortgage-related securities would be sold slowly over the course of the year and the full holdings might not be depleted, so as not to depress mortgage prices unduly.

We have not yet even touched the federal government’s huge land holdings. The government owns most of the state of Nevada, for example, among its 650 million acres of land. A couple years ago, then-OMB head Peter Orszag estimated that there are some 14,000 “excess” structures and 55,000 un-utilized or under-utilized structures and buildings in the federal government’s portfolio. These could and should be sold. The government’s power-generation facilities and the electro-magnetic spectrum are other lucrative holdings that are ripe for sale and privatization.

If we were to construct a net worth statement for the federal government, the bottom line would probably astound most Americans. Financial analyst John Rutledge has occasionally attempted it and come up with government asset valuations of between $150 and $200 trillion. (He estimates the value of private U.S. assets at $230-$250 trillion.) Thus, the potential for solving our debt problem completely by selling assets is clear. Of course, this would involve various technical and logistical complications. It would unquestionably alter the fundamental character of the federal government as it exists today. But isn’t it about time to do just that?

Arguments Against Selling Federal-Government Assets

The foregoing is persuasive. But it is only natural to wonder what drawbacks might lurk under its surface. In 2010, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner responded to calls for asset sales by pooh-poohing the idea. Holding a “fire sale” of government assets would damage “financial markets and the economy and undermine confidence in the United States,” Geithner maintained.

Each of these contentions deserves some scrutiny. It is perfectly correct that when a company starts selling assets, it tells the world that it is in trouble and it runs the risks that this knowledge will have adverse effects. Among other things, the company may now have more trouble borrowing money and its stock price may well decline (assuming the stock trades publicly). But these are not fatal flaws, merely tradeoffs; they have to be weighed against the risks of inaction.

The drawbacks of straightforwardness do not tell nearly as heavily against a country as against a single company. A company can sometimes hide its financial condition from the public and the markets, but a country can’t. We aren’t fooling anybody by sitting on our gigantic stockpile of assets; our credit rating has already been downgraded and our debt and deficit problems are open secrets. Sooner or later, our interest rates are going to rise – the only question is how much debt is weighing us down when they do. The world will have a lot more confidence in a United States that has finally started whittling down its debt than one that has buried its head in the sand while continuing to spend itself silly. This assessment is not merely speculative; two days before the financial equivalent of “Mayan calendar” oblivion, a Wall Street Journal headline reads “Uneasy Investors Sell Billions in Treasurys.” Apparently confidence in the debt-limit-raising approach is not exactly unshakeable.

Geithner’s warning about “damage to the economy” presumably derives from the Keynesian concept that government sales of assets to the public drain money from the circular flow of income and expenditure, thereby reducing income and employment. As Murphy points out, this requires us to believe that people would rather end the year with $650 billion or so of IOUs than $650 billion worth of valuable assets formerly managed (often mismanaged) by the government. How could asset sales “damage the economy” as much as the status quo of wasteful spending and debt accumulation?

There is at least some superficial cogency to Geithner’s concern about financial markets, since some of the liquid assets in the federal portfolio were purchased in the first place to prop up the asset’s price. Clearly, selling will have the opposite effect, especially in quantity. This is why sales of mortgage-backed securities would presumably be strung out over long time periods, although the anticipation of continued sales would have the effect of driving down prices in advance of sales anyway. But the real issue is the legitimacy of the price itself. In effect, Geithner is admitting that the so-called housing “recovery” is really an artifact of government contrivance and will evaporate without it. How long is this supposed to go on, anyway? Is the tail of the housing sector supposed to wag the general economic dog forever? Orderly asset sales would seem the indicated exit strategy for this misguided policy.

Democrat arguments against government-asset sales are a pretext. The sales would represent a turning point in over a century of big-government, “progressive” policy. According to progressive doctrine, government is supposed to accumulate power, control and authority – not cede it.

The ironic thing is that asset sales would leave the skeletal structure of big government intact. The entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicare – would be untouched. Most of the regulatory agencies would be unaffected; only those entrusted with caring for assets that were sold off would be downsized or eliminated. (A major benefit of selling assets would be that the overhead expense of minding them could be offloaded.) Yet this minor impact on the welfare state has little effect on the Democrats’ intractable opposition to the idea. The fact that government does a perfectly terrible job of managing assets is also completely beside the point. Democrat policies are inherently designed to exploit the many for the benefit of the few and this demands not only big government but continually expanding government. Anything that threatens that, threatens their livelihood.

Hole Card?

A recurring theme among reactions to the prospect of default is incredulity that Congressional negotiators (read: Republicans) would be so reckless as to tempt fate by flirting with the debt-limit date. How dare they run even the tiniest risk of default?

For several years, the Federal Reserve has already been doing the unthinkable, more or less in plain sight but without provoking the same sort of outrage from the business and financial community. It has been “monetizing the debt” by buying new issues of federal-government debt directly from the Treasury using newly created money for the purpose. That activity has been technically illegal throughout the Fed’s existence, but the Fed circumvents the intent of the Federal Reserve Act by acquiring new issues directly from the primary dealers who transact directly with the Treasury. This was an important part of the QE (quantitative expansion) policy, which was designed to keep the federal-funds rate (thus, short-term interest rates in general) as low as possible. If the rest of the world was becoming reluctant to take on more and more U.S. debt – why, then, the Fed would just have to step into the breach. After all, it’s not as if the federal government should actually have to cut spending, is it?

Of course, there was the little matter of all that money that the Fed created. Ordinarily, the money would have had a multiple effect on the total money stock. The Fed formerly did its bond buying in the secondary bond market for the express purpose of creating reserves for banks to use as a reserve base for pyramiding loans to businesses and households. (Students will recognize the term “money multiplier,” used to estimate the amount by which the money stock increases based on an initial injection of money.) When the money was spent, this effect produced economic effects extending beyond the initial recipients of the spending. The trillions of dollars the Fed has recently created (some of which has financed U.S. government debt) would be sufficient to kindle hyperinflation when fed through an ordinary market process. Throughout history, this kind of money-creation has been considered strictly “the policy of the desperado,” as F.A. Hayek called it. Allan Meltzer, whose multi-volume history of the Federal Reserve has cemented his reputation as perhaps the world’s leading monetary economist, admits that despite his personal liking for Ben Bernanke, “It’s pretty hard for me to argue that if you have a few trillion dollars of excess reserves in the banking system, you think you’re doing it for the good of the economy.” Once again, though, the Fed has escaped censure for its actions thus far.

Doubtless this general insouciance is explained by the results. The created money and/or its loan potential has mostly sat idle in bank excess reserves, because a law change allowed the Fed to pay interest on money held in excess reserves by its member banks. Meanwhile, the bonds themselves have been quietly added to the Fed’s portfolio, where they have been quietly drawing interest. The Federal Reserve has now become one of the world’s leading holders of U.S. debt.

This raises an interesting possibility. Even though the Federal Reserve is a bank and operates as such, earning profits and suffering losses on individual transactions, it is not an ordinary bank. One quaint feature of its operations as a “quasi-public” institution is that it remits interest earned on its holdings of federal-government bonds to the Treasury. (It does this in spite of the fact that the Federal Reserve System is composed of its member banks and the Fed presumably has a fiduciary responsibility to them.) Thus, when the Fed buys bonds from the Treasury and holds them, that means the Treasury is getting interest-free financing for its deficit expenditures with money the Fed creates.

This raises the possibility that the Obama Administration’s debt-limit hole card may be an arrangement with the Fed that it will buy up all new debt in the coming fiscal year – and maybe more besides. Remember, the Fed was widely expected to end its program of quantitative easing in September, but continued it unabated, confounding markets and the public. Its explanation for this was confused – even normally tame Fed-watchers criticized Bernanke for leaving markets in the lurch. Remember, also, what everybody is most worried about – that default on our debt will take away the U.S. government’s ability to borrow.

Preempting the bond market is not something the Fed would normally be happy to do. U.S. Treasury bonds are traditionally one of the world’s leading fixed-income assets. People line up to buy them. Frustrating this demand would be unprecedented. But recently the Fed has been buying most of the new Treasury debt anyway; Bloomberg estimated that in 2012, the Fed was starving the market for Treasurys by soaking up 90% of new issues. In any case, the prospect of a debt default might be considered a big enough emergency to justify such high-handed action. And the Administration would be willing to consider any alternative to spending cuts or asset sales, as explained above.

The Fed’s actions are so outré and its politicization so apparent that this kind of hidden agenda makes about as much sense as any other explanation for its actions. It isn’t as if Bernanke’s tenure thus far has been squeaky clean and free of any taint of political collusion. Quite the contrary.

And this theory doesn’t argue in favor of raising the debt-limit, either. Thus, the verdict on the debt limit is clear-cut: Don’t raise it.

DRI-312 for week of 5-19-13: Our IRS Relationship: Business/Customer or Ruler/Subject?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Our IRS Relationship: Business/Customer or Ruler/Subject?

Last week, it was revealed that, over the course of roughly two years between 2010 and 2012, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sorted applications for tax-exempt status by right-wing organizations and designated them for special treatment. Special bad treatment, that is; it delayed processing of these applications by an average of more than twice as long as other applications. The organizations complained about the delay and even voiced their surmise that political sabotage by a Democrat administration might have been responsible for the delay. The complaints got them nowhere until last week, when the truth began seeping out.

The first reports gave little hint of a major scandal. According to the mainstream news media, a few crackpot right-wing outfits with the words “patriot,” “tea party” and “9-12” in their names had to cool their heels until their tax designations came through. It was all the work of a few “rogue IRS operatives” in the Cincinnati office. The New York Times buried the story on page 11. The Washington Post, though, apparently remembered that back in 1973 it ran an obscure item about a President named Nixon using the IRS to investigate his political enemies. It ran the story on page one.

The agency harrumphed and allowed as how mistakes had been made, but no serious damage had been done. President Obama assumed his by-now-familiar pose of innocent bystander loitering in the vicinity of a crime scene, remarking breezily that the IRS was “an independent agency.” This was too much for The Wall Street Journal, which ran an editorial titled “The ‘Independent’ Revenue Service,” pointing out sharply that the IRS is a key agency in the Executive Branch of the federal government, with a chief appointed by the President.

Within the next two days, further revelations emerged. The manner of their revelation was as revealing as the revelations themselves. An internal report by the Treasury Inspector General, soon to be released, confirmed the IRS targeting and the fact that IRS officials had known about it for at least two years. The targeting was not confined to one office; it was nationwide. The basis for the “special attention” devoted by the IRS was not merely the names of the groups – it went much further than that. The issues addressed by the groups were also targeted; they included “government spending,” government debt” and “taxes.” Targeted groups included those that “criticized how the country is being run” and sought to “make America a better place to live.” Questionnaires were sent requesting voluminous information; some of the more intrusive questions demanded to know future political plans of employees and the nature of religious beliefs of groups requesting religious exemptions.

President Obama abruptly reversed his previous indifference to the brewing scandal by declaring that if the “allegations” were true, they were “outrageous.” As the Journal noted, the President was referring in the conditional tense to events that his IRS subordinates had already admitted to be true. Equally significant was the fact that both of these admissions came in the form of response to questions rather than at news conferences called to discuss the specific events, as would ordinarily have been expected. The obvious inference was drawn that, had the questions not been asked, the statements made by the IRS and the President would have gone unsaid. Subsequently, it transpired that the IRS question and response had been a preplanned strategy designed to minimize the impact of the eventual Inspector General report.

In general terms, what is the significance of the scandal? In particular, what does it tell us about the relationship between the IRS and American citizens?

“The Power to Tax:” A History of Abuse

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall coined the phrase: “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” The IRS was created with the birth of the federal income tax in 1913. A centenary is traditionally a time for recapitulation and stocktaking. A good place to begin is by recalling the IRS’s history of political abuses, which reinforces Marshall’s maxim.

President Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated the practice of using the IRS as an all-purpose tool of revenge and intimidation against his political opponents, particularly his bête noire, Col. Robert McCormick, Republican owner/published of the Chicago Tribune. One of the Kennedy administration’s many well-closeted skeletons was an Ideological Organizations Audit Project, devoted to auditing tax returns of administration opponents. Lyndon Johnson was among the beneficiaries of FDR’s influence with the agency, which derailed an IRS audit that might have ended his political career by exposing an early financial peccadillo. Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list” was a handy source of potential names for IRS scrutiny. The Clinton administration apparently launched hundreds of IRS audits of individuals and organizations that opposed the administration politically.

Now the Obama administration has taken its place on this historical roster of infamy. Its one distinctive talent seems to be one for extreme actions – spending, debt, regulation, exceeding its authority, et al. Now it has become the first administration whose IRS scandal has matured during its time in office.

Collusion Between the President and the IRS

Much of the furor surrounding the IRS scandal has raged over President Obama’s degree of involvement. Considering the history previously recounted, this is not surprising. It is hard to believe that such consummate politicians as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon should have left an incriminating paper (or audio tape) trail. To date, the President’s defenders have focused on the absence of any such “smoking gun” directly linking him with the agency’s actions.

But critics such as Kimberly Strassel of The Wall Street Journal have denied the need for any such link. President Obama’s public utterances – speeches in the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, public addresses and his remarks during press conferences – drew a road map for regulators and officials to follow. Sounding uncannily like Henry II, he lamented the burden placed on him, his administration and the country by the actions of his right-wing opponents. The only thing missing was a frustrated, whining cry a la T.S. Eliot’s Henry: “Will no one rid me of these meddlesome right wingers?”

The notion that President Obama could tell the IRS to harass the right-wing groups, not by making direct statements but purely by hinting, is embodied by the term tacit collusion. This concept is well-known to economists who specialize in the field of Industrial Organization. Ironically, academic economists tried for decades to pin the term on certain private markets – which didn’t deserve it – rather than applying to government and regulatory interactions – where it did apply.

In the 1930s, economists such as Edward Chamberlain, Joan Robinson and Paul Sweezy developed theories of “imperfect competition” – markets whose structural characteristics fell in between those of pure monopoly and ideal or “perfect” competition. One popular conjecture was that markets containing a small number of relatively large firms would feature sluggish price competition. The thinking was that each firm would be conscious of the effects of its own pricing and output decisions on the market outcome, as well as the reactions of rivals to its decisions. Instead of lowering price to compete with each other, firms would recognize their mutual interest in pricing and output restraint. Moreover, this recognition would come intuitively, without explicit cooperation on their part. Thus, they would collude tacitly to attain the same result otherwise obtained by formation of an illegal cartel.

In practice, this seldom if ever happened; it was just too difficult to achieve. The reasons for this were the same ones that made successful cartels so rare. Each party to the cartel agreement has an incentive to violate the agreement by cheating – lowering its price to steal customers while its fellow members keep their prices high. The incentive exists automatically whenever price is elevated substantially above marginal cost – which is what accounts for the profit potential of the cartel in the first place. But when all or most cartel members succumb to this temptation to cheat, the cartel falls apart because the large increase in output drives down the price and kills off the profits. This has been the fate of most cartels throughout history. And it is much harder to sustain a tacit cartel, where the terms are merely understood intuitively rather than agreed verbally or in writing, than an explicit cartel.

But collusion between government or regulatory agencies is much easier to achieve and maintain. It involves general actions rather than the specific, quantitative price and quantity decisions faced by private businesses. Instead of puzzling over “how much should we raise price, and how much should that change when our costs change by a certain magnitude?,” an agency like the IRS knows instinctively that its mandate is simply “hurt those right-wingers.” Bureaucrats and regulators do not have the same clear, strong incentives to cheat on the agreement that are present in a business cartel. When a business-cartel member cheats by lowering its price to steal customers from its fellow cartel members, its reward is increased profits. But government bureaus and regulatory agencies do not earn profits, so there is no profit motive to violate their (tacitly) collusive agreement.

Thus, collusive arrangements like the IRS policy can persist for years until and unless they are discovered. It is publicity and fear of prosecution that gives government employees their one and only motive to squeal, thereby upsetting the applecart. But the beauty of this type of collusion – from a Presidential standpoint – is that its strictly tacit character leaves the President untouched. Here, for example, there is no legal evidence – no signed document, no incriminating tape recording, no e-mail – that he instigated the IRS behavior, even though the world knows that he did.

“Was the White House involved in the IRS’s targeting of conservatives?” the Journal’sKimberly Strassel asked (5/17/2013) rhetorically. “Of course it was.” Mr. Obama’s collusive communication with his executive branch underlings began no later than his 2010 State of the Union address, when he “cast aspersions on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, claiming that it ‘reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests’ (read conservative groups).” He “derided ‘tea-baggers,'” whom his Vice-President “compared to ‘terrorists.'” Then, “in more than a dozen speeches Mr. Obama raised the specter that these groups represented nefarious interests that were perverting elections. ‘Nobody knows who’s paying for these ads,’ he warned. ‘We don’t know where this money is coming from.’…In case the IRS missed his point, he raised the threat of illegality: ‘All around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates…And they don’t have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation.’ Short of directly asking federal agencies to investigate these groups, this is as close as it gets.” Strassel noted that the President’s efforts were reinforced by Democratic representatives who publicly called on the IRS to validate the credentials of right-wing groups.

The President didn’t stop at corporate intimidation. His 2012 campaign website listed eight Mitt Romney donors by name and tarred each one with various slurs, the most outrageous being that they were “on the wrong side of the law.” The most prominent was Frank VanderSloot, an Idaho businessman and longtime donor to right-wing causes. This earned him mention by the Obama campaign as a “wealthy individual” with a “less-than-reputable record.”

In April 2012, shortly after the website mention, Democratic activists sought Mr. VanderSloot’s divorce records. In June, he and his wife were audited for two tax years. In July, the Department of Labor audited records pertaining to the guest workers on his cattle ranch. In September, the IRS audited another of his businesses. That was three audits in four months following the tacit signal sent out by the Obama campaign.

The Motivation for the Crime

Although President Obama and IRS officials initially pretended that the IRS targeting of right-wing groups was merely a wayward impulse that struck a few rogue IRS functionaries, it was really a serious crime. The key distinction separating felonious criminal acts from civil torts is mens rea, or criminal intent. This makes the issue of motivation highly relevant.

When the President speaks, the IRS listens. Not only does the President appoint the head of the IRS, he also submits an annual budget – or is legally supposed to, anyway. In this case, the IRS is the agency ramrodding ObamaCare, which means that the President has made it the most important agency in the federal government. Congress votes on budget appropriations for the IRS, so IRS ears are constantly attuned to the Congressional frequency as well. Leading IRS officials recently received annual bonuses worth over six figures. These had to be approved by the President. Recently it was revealed that the President’s counsel was notified in 2012 of the findings of the Inspector General’s report revealing the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS.

What inferences can reasonably be drawn from the above set of facts? That the President and the IRS tacitly concluded in a campaign to harass, intimidate and suppress right-wing political activist groups; that the President knew of its ongoing nature and its success and rewarded IRS officials for it.

Government officials do not commit crimes randomly or capriciously. Like all criminals, they respond to incentives, both positive and negative. In this case, the specific positive incentives were the bonuses received by top IRS officials and the increase in responsibility, size and budget conferred by the award of ObamaCare responsibility. The annual appropriations process left open the potential for additional future rewards in the form of increased appropriations. Because the IRS is a command-and-control, top-down bureaucracy, top officials could give orders to subordinates to commit and support these criminal acts. The negative incentives were the potential discipline of budget cuts administered by the President and/or Congress for failing to collude.

The latest development in Congressional hearings is the refusal by IRS official Lois Lerner to answer questions and her invocation of the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, following an opening statement in which she denied wrongdoing.

“Just Bad Customer Service”

Not surprisingly, the IRS from the outset has employed a typical criminal strategy: minimize the crime or redefine it away altogether. In May 17, 2013 testimony before the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, outgoing Acting IRS Director Steven Miller called the IRS actions “obnoxious” but “not illegal” – in fact, he did “not believe that partisanship motivated” the agency. What was responsible, then? “Foolish mistakes,” suggested Mr. Miller with a straight face – a case of “horrible customer service.”

Fewer recent public comments by a government official have drawn more hilarity. The Wall Street Journal editorially marveled at his equating of “the coercive power of taxation” to “rude service at a Best Buy.” But the full meaning of Mr. Miller’s comparison seems to have eluded observers.

The difference between the IRS and Best Buy is not a joke. It accounts for the existence and magnitude of the abuse itself. When private citizens approach the IRS, they do so with hat in hand, virtually begging not to be destroyed. Alternatively, they arrive in the company of a lawyer who does all the talking. But when Americans walk into a Best Buy, they are in control. They may complain about prices or service, but they hold the whip hand. They can always take their business elsewhere. And, in the particular case of Best Buy, they have done just that – its stock price has been decimated in the last few years. The company has been the one to go hat in hand to the public and capital markets in order to hang on by its fingernails.

The difference between the two cases is that we are not “customers” of the IRS because the IRS faces no competition. Our relationship to them is not “business/customer” but rather “ruler/subject.” They dictate and we obey – or go to jail. Under those circumstances, any demands we make for better customer service ring hollow indeed.

That is the key to the IRS scandal. To the degree that commentators have offered solutions, they have been the usual thin gruel of reform – politicians should behave better, the press should be more vigilant, the public gets the government it deserves, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But the only way to get better customer service from the IRS is to provide it with competition. Since that is impossible, the only solution is the removal of the IRS. And that requires the replacement of taxation as a basis for funding the federal government.

End the Power to Destroy

Several of the agencies scrutinized by the IRS are supporters of the Fair Tax, a measure designed to replace the federal income tax with a national sales tax. An ancillary result would be the elimination of the IRS. No wonder the IRS tried to harass and intimidate these groups!

Leaving taxation in place, however, would provide government with an ongoing weapon to hold at the public’s head. In order to make sure that we didn’t end up with the worst of both worlds – a national sales tax and a federal income tax still in place – we would have to amend the Constitution to end income taxation so as to eliminate the IRS. Since we have to go to this much trouble anyway, it would be far preferable to end taxation itself. That would allow us to solve the overriding crisis of our time by ending the welfare state and its mortal threat to our freedom and financial lives.

Taxation is a continual source of inefficiency and a serious hindrance to productivity. The true solution to the threat to freedom and productivity represented by taxation and the IRS is to fund government by user fees. Government would charge a price for each service it provides. Any private business could compete with government in the provision of any service.

This would allow the public to scrutinize government activities at the margin, comparing the price paid for each one with the value received. It would provide an automatic check on overspending. Coming at a moment when the civilized world is drowning in sovereign debt, it would provide an Alexandrian solution to the Gordian knot of big-government welfare-statism – a solution that probably will otherwise elude us.

Vested interests, starting with the executive and regulatory branches of government, would oppose this reform to their last breath. That and its inherent logic are two of the strongest arguments in its favor.

The chief difficulty in moving to a system of user fees lies in funding a big-ticket item like national defense, where the product must be funded and produced in advance of its “consumption” – that is, before citizens have an opportunity to gauge the value of what they are buying. Defenders of the status quo will insist that we cannot live with such a system and must put up with the bureaucratic behemoth of a defense establishment that we have now.

Increasingly, though, it is becoming clear that we cannot live with the system we have, which is now proceeding down F.A. Hayek’s famous “road to serfdom” at a breakneck pace.

DRI-313 for week of 3-24-13: The Power to Tax

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Power to Tax

The long-running economics news story of 2013 has been the budgetary battle between the Obama Administration and Congressional Republicans. The most recent skirmish featured a clash between Senate- and House-approved budgets – that is, between Democrat and Republican pretenses to reform.

Both sides are pretending because neither side really wants to abandon big government and out-of-control spending. The Republicans are harder pressed because they have long given lip service to concepts of limited government and budgetary control. But both sides want to make a political show of deficit reduction. The Democrats are wedded to their political constituencies unto death and must fund the spending that supports them.

The Republican approach is to cut spending in order to lower government expenditures closer to revenue. The Democrat philosophy is to raise taxes to raise revenue to meet expenditures. The failure of either side to change their position significantly is presumably what the public means when it charges individual legislators with deliberately promoting gridlock and refusing to compromise.

Republicans are adamant in their unwillingness to raise taxes. This attitude has won them a public reputation for being unwilling to compromise. In recent years, the Republican reaction to public disapproval has been to retreat in confusion and dismay. This time, though, they remain intractable. Why are they so unwilling to raise taxes? What is the overarching purpose of a tax, anyway? How do taxes affect economic welfare and growth?

Taxation

Taxation is as old as civilization. Before democratic government, monarchs used it to extract wealth and income from their subjects. It has taken numerous forms, but the underlying principle invariably requires an involuntary levy or exaction paid to government by the governed.

One traditional form is a tax on either the production or consumption of a good or service. This is called an excise tax. This tax may consist of a fixed amount per-unit (a specific tax) or an amount expressed as a percentage of the selling price (an ad valorem tax, where the Latin phrase means “to the value”). It is a good place to start looking at taxes because its simplicity gives us a good look at the general principles of taxation.

The basic economic effect of a tax is to drive a wedge between the price paid by the buyer of the good and the price received by the seller. The result applies regardless of whether the tax is levied on the buyer or the seller. In fact, the resulting market price and quantity are the same regardless of who bears the nominal impact of the tax. This is referred to as the equivalence theorem; it is a fundamental principle of Public Finance, the economic sub-discipline under which taxation is studied.

The words “nominal impact” imply that the people who pay the tax may not necessarily be the ones who bear its real economic burden. This is correct. The ultimate end-in-view behind all economic activity is consumption, now or in the future. Only human beings can consume in this meaningful economic sense. Only human beings can suffer a loss of current or future consumption (e.g., savings). While a non-human entity like a corporation – recognized by law as a “fictitious person” – may pay a tax in the legal sense, it cannot bear the true economic burden or incidence of the tax.

Because both short- and medium-term market demand and market supply are each a function of price, an excise tax affects both the quantity buyers wish to purchase and the quantity producers wish to produce and sell. This means that the incidence of the tax is shared by consumers and business owners.

Consider first the case in which buyers pay the tax. If the tax is (say) $2 per unit of the good, the market price (net of tax) that buyers are willing to pay for every quantity of the good is now $2 less, since their total outgo will include the market price plus the tax. That is, their demand for the good will fall. This will lower the market price, forcing producers to produce and sell a lesser quantity. Alternatively, suppose that producers are liable for the tax. Now their costs will rise by $2 per unit, decreasing supply and increasing price. Consumers will pay a higher price for the decreased quantity.

In either case, consumers will pay more than before the tax – in the first case, a lower market price plus the tax; in the second case, a higher market price inclusive of the tax as reflected in producers’ costs. In either case, producers will receive less than before the tax- in the first case, a lower market price; in the second case, a higher market price whose value is reduced by their higher costs due to the tax they owe. The equivalence theorem states that the buyer and seller pay and receive, respectively, exactly the same in the two cases no matter who “pays” the tax.

In the long run, there is sufficient time for business firms to enter and (in this case) leave the market. Exit of firms tends to increase price by the full amount of the tax and drive profit toward the so-called “normal” level, at which owners receive a return just equal to what they could earn in the best alternative investment of equal risk. Thus, the long-run incidence of the tax may be shared by consumers and suppliers of inputs to the industry, or it may be borne by consumers alone.

Our excise-tax example illustrates general principles applicable to all taxes. Taxes discourage economic activity. They harm people on both sides of the market. Over and above this harm, they distort the prices faced by buyers and sellers, creating what public-finance economists call the “excess burden” of a tax.

Because taxes have these adverse effects, economic textbooks deem them a tool of limited resort. Some goods and services, such as national defense, cannot be produced and sold in private markets. These “public goods” must be produced and administered by government. To finance this activity, taxes are considered expedient.

In practice, however, public goods are very few in number, while government is pervasive. Taxes are numerous and lucrative sources of government revenue. Instead of a necessary evil, taxes have become a threat to our well-being. America today has become a locus classicus of the aphorism “the power to tax is the power to destroy.”

In the United States, the most familiar excise taxes have long been specific taxes on gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol. At the federal level, gas tax proceeds are devoted to maintenance of federal highways. Or rather, that was the original intention; today, about 40% of proceeds are diverted to general revenue for earmarked programs. Meanwhile, our roads and (especially) bridges have deteriorated markedly.

Maintaining vital infrastructure with a funding mechanism that is both ineffective and harmful to growth and prosperity seems quixotic. Recently, some state legislatures have begun to make long-term lease contracts with private firms who operate and maintain roads in exchange for the right to charge tolls and book the revenue. The companies have the strongest possible incentive to keep the roads in good condition and maximize their use. Other countries have already seized this chance to improve their transportation network by relieving government of a responsibility it handles badly.

We now shift from general principles of taxation to evaluation of particular types of tax.

Excise vs. Ad-valorem Taxation

A longstanding source of periodic irritation to Americans is the retail price of gasoline. The usual focus of anger is “the oil companies,” who are popularly supposed to possess monopoly power with which they earn “obscene profits” – modified to read “windfall profits” whenever an increase in gasoline prices accompanies an oil-related event on the national or international scene or “record profits” whenever a quarterly release of income statement date from Exxon Mobil reveals that the company’s total net income has exceeded its previous high.

The complete lack of cogency in these complaints has been demonstrated time and again. Another recurring gripe, however, bears on the issue of taxation. Talk-show callers often gripe that gasoline sellers are quick to raise prices but slow to lower them – even when this appears justified by events. If price increases are merely supply and demand at work, they inquire heatedly, why does the process only work in one direction? Shouldn’t prices be just as quick to fall when supply increases, when costs decrease, when Middle-East tensions dissolve, when demand goes slack?

Nearly fifty years ago, the distinguished specialist in international trade and industrial organization, Richard Caves, pointed out the role played by specific excise taxation in pricing. To modify his example using fictitious numbers for convenience, suppose that the retail price of gasoline is $2 per gallon and the excise tax is $1. Now ponder the effects of a 10 cent price reduction by a seller. In actual fact, sellers pay the tax, so the seller’s gross receipts fall by 10% (10 cents as a percentage of $1). But the price faced by buyers falls by only 5% (10 cents as a percentage of $2). Thus, the purchasing response to a price reduction will be depressed by a price reduction, compared to the case where taxation is absent.

Now consider the opposite case, where price is increased. A 10-cent price increase will increase gross margin by 10% while increasing the price faced by buyers by only 5%. It is the opposite situation to the price-decrease case. Specific excise taxation increases the incentive to raise the price of the good while reducing the incentive to lower price. In other words, it tends to create just the short of world complained of by gasoline consumers – one in which sellers are relatively quick to raise price but slow to lower it!

As Caves mentioned, this flaw could be remedied by changing the specific excise tax to an ad-valorem tax, in which the tax is comprised of a fixed percentage of the good’s selling price. But this hasn’t happened in the 49 years since Caves wrote.

The excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol have created additional problems by encouraging smuggling and illegal production to avoid payment of the taxes. Unlike the fuel tax, those taxes do not have a clear-cut rationale other than the raising of revenue. Lip service is given to the goals of discouraging smoking, but a prohibitive tax would be high enough to persuade all smokers to quit. Since the tax is set well below this point, its purpose is presumably to raise revenue instead. Another oft-stated goal is to use tax proceeds to defray medical expenses attributable to use of the products, such as medical bills of lung cancer sufferers. Again, this ambition has not been fulfilled. The only reasonable explanation for the persistence of these taxes is to support government – not for any productive or valuable purpose, but merely to provide income for officials and employees.

Income Taxation

This year, the federal income tax celebrates its centenary. From its miniscule beginnings, the federal income tax code has grown into a monstrosity fed and cared for by a huge federal bureaucracy, the Internal Revenue Service. The top marginal tax rate began at 7%, has grown as high as 92% and currently resides at 39.6%.

But the most destructive thing about income taxes is not their height but the indirect costs they impose on all of us. These include the impossibility of definition, verification and collection. The continual additions and modifications to the tax code have made it a byzantine nightmare for preparers; it is proverbial that even pre-eminent experts cannot warranty their interpretations of its provisions. Each year, Americans spend a chunk of Gross Domestic Product on federal tax preparation. This calculation includes the time and effort devoted to tax avoidance.

The biggest irony associated with the income tax is that its central logic was developed by a free-market libertarian economist, Henry Simons of the University of Chicago, while working for the federal government during World War II. In particular, it was Simons who developed the definition of “income” that had made the tax code so baffling and infuriating to subsequent generations. In fact, Simons sought to make the income tax consistent with the concept of real income or utility as defined by economic theory. Alas, his efforts demonstrated that the precise theoretical categories beloved of economists all too often lack real-world referents.

The clearest demonstration of the damage done by income taxation may be migration by high individual earners and businesses away from high income-tax rate habitations. Over the years, some of the world’s wealthiest authors, movie stars, athletes and moguls have become tax exiles. Among the historical sufferers of this brain drain have been Great Britain (movie stars Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine), Italy (movie mogul Carlo Ponti and star Sophia Loren) , France (movie star Gerard Depardieu) and Sweden (tennis great Bjorn Borg).

Apart from revenue, the other claim made in behalf of income taxes is fairness. For over a century, the Left has maintained that progressive income-tax rates are necessary to insure an equitable distribution of income. The most recent rhetorical recurrence accompanied the Occupy Wall Street movement. The counterarguments, marshaled concisely by authors Blum and Kalven in The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation, are convincing on a theoretical level. Empirically, the utter failure of regimes such as Soviet Russia and Communist China to achieve distributional equality suggests that government power is either inappropriate or insufficient for the task – even assuming it is worth doing.

Property Taxation

Property taxes have long been the primary source of income for local governments and schools in the United States. That constitutes a recommendation only to those employed by governments and schools. The assessments used to determine the property values to which the property-tax rates apply are notoriously inaccurate when compared to actual market values. For years, local politicians used rising property values and the prestige associated with education as levers to ratchet up property taxes and continually increase education funding.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, this gravy train came to a screeching halt. It became clear that continually rising taxes were funding an education system that was failing its customers. Despite fivefold spending increase in real terms over the previous three decades, average test scores were flat or falling. California taxpayers felt so thoroughly victimized that they approved the landmark tax-limitation measure Proposition 13. Other state-level tax limitation measures, such as Missouri’s Hancock Amendment, accomplished the same goals through less direct means.

The concept of property taxation bears at least a family resemblance to the form of taxation most admired by economic students of the subject. Henry George’s “single tax” on land was based on the premise that land is the only resource in completely inelastic supply. Given this, a tax on land cannot discourage its supply. George became the most popular economist of the 19th century by promoting this program of public finance.

Unfortunately, his view was simplistic. While the physical supply of land is indeed in fixed supply, the economically valuable and available supply of land is not. To achieve its goals, the single tax would have to apply only on the undeveloped component of developed land. It is not commonly feasible to sort out this datum and property taxes in reality do not even make the attempt.

Sales Taxes

Just as water seeks its own level, taxation tends to follow the path of least resistance. In recent years, this has been traced out by the sales tax. A tax on retail commercial transactions is easy to implement, verify and collect. This gives it a big advantage over other forms of tax that can be avoided legally, evaded illegally and put off indefinitely.

Ironically, the sales tax has also become popular with the organized anti-tax movement, many of whom have proffered it as a composite replacement for virtually all other forms of taxation. A flat sales tax of X%, where X might be some number between 10 and 25, could substitute for all other taxes by providing government with roughly the same amount of total revenue it currently collects, but without the tremendous costs of collection, verification and monitoring it now incurs. Similarly, citizens would be spared the tremendous burden of preparing, calculating and worrying over the taxes they now pay. And they could fight one single battle against future tax increases rather than having to fight on multiple fronts simultaneously.

One counterargument, perhaps the most telling, is that government cannot be trusted to first pass an omnibus sales tax, then repeal other taxes. We might well be stuck with a vastly higher sales tax on top of our current tax burden. From the Left comes the objection that sales taxes are highly regressive, falling much more heavily on low-income taxpayers whose annual retail transactions form a large part of their incomes and wealth.

Taxes and Economic Growth

In the late 1970s and early 80s, the economic philosophy of “supply-side economics” drew attention to the effect of taxes on economic incentives and growth. Federal tax-rate reductions in the U.S. and Great Britain, followed by the revival of growth and retreat of inflation in both countries, preceded tax-rate reductions in dozens of other countries around the world. To this day, economists argue about the effects of this revolution. The argument centers mainly on the sensitivity of households and business to tax-rate changes, with left-wing economists seeing little reaction and right-wingers finding great responsiveness.

One way to break this logjam would be to examine state-level U.S. data. Policy studies by think tanks like the Heartland Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation have all found in-migration toward, and higher rates of economic growth in, states with lower tax rates and downward tax-rate trends. These states have also tended to be the so-called “red states,” which have voted Republican in national elections.

The Power to Tax

There is simply no doubt that the incentives created by taxation are perverse; that is, they tend to discourage economic value, welfare and growth. The arguments for taxation are twofold – first, that its undesirable effects are quantitatively small; second, that it is necessary to support activities that would otherwise go begging and needs that would otherwise go unmet.

Both these arguments are remarkably weak. Given the omnipresence of taxes, their aggregate impact can hardly be weak. The case for a tepid reaction by individuals to changes in tax rates does not accord with everyday life or historical experience. And the Left has done nothing at all to convince the public that government programs are necessary, successful and responsive to consumer wants.

It is no wonder that Republicans in Congress are drawing a line in the sand on taxation. The wonder is that they have waited so long. Doubtless their reluctance reflects their unwillingness to face the implications of this decision. The welfare state has come to a dead end. It survives in an artificial atmosphere oxygenated by spending pumped in by government. We can no longer borrow or print the money to spend. Opposition to taxes implies opposition to spending. And that requires a political will that Republicans have not had to summon for many decades.

DRI-330 for week of 10-14-12: The 7.8% Unemployment-Rate Controversy

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The 7.8% Unemployment-Rate Controversy

On October 5, 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released estimates on employment and unemployment in the United States for the month of September. BLS does this every month, and these data are usually a source of interest but only rarely a source of controversy. This release was different.

The Bureau announced that its estimate of unemployment had fallen to 7.8% from its previous level of 8.1%. This came as a big surprise to economic forecasters and analysts, who had expected the rate to remain the same or even rise. The source of controversy was the magnitude of the decrease and its rationale.

The unemployment rate itself is estimated using a survey of roughly 60,000 U.S. households. The results of that survey have been quite volatile in recent years – last month, for example, they showed a seasonally adjusted decline of 119,000 in the number of those working. But the September survey estimated an increase of 870,000 employed. This was a staggering result – the largest total in this category since January, 1990 (1,251,000) and June, 1983 (991,000). (Two larger totals were attained earlier in the millennium, but BLS adjustments in the data make these totals non-comparable with others.)

This was the kind of increase in employment normally associated with rip-roaring growth in economic activity. In June, 1983, for example, annualized growth in GDP was 9.3%. In January, 1990, it was 4.2%. But here in 2012 it is a puny 1.3%. This seeming paradox raised suspicions in the minds of some people.

Much has been made during President Obama’s tenure that no U.S. president has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate above 8%. Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh went so far as to predict that the Obama administration would somehow contrive to bring reported unemployment down below 8% prior to the election – implying that deception might be involved.

In the face of the decline in the reported unemployment rate, former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch sent a text message to friends in which he directly accused the Obama administration (whom he characterized as “Chicago guys”) of somehow manipulating data to produce this result.

Tons of ink and reams of paper are consumed writing about markets and their misfortunes. Virtually nothing is said about the collection, preparation and presentation of economic data. This time is ripe for that discussion.

Political Theater vs. Political Economy

The brouhaha over the BLS’ handling of this data release is ironic. While clear wrongdoing occurred, it has been virtually ignored throughout the controversy. Public debate has instead focused on a hypothesized conspiracy to invent or distort data, to “cook the books.” As is so often the case, battle lines have been drawn along political lines. Meanwhile, the news media has been perfectly willing to dramatize the conflict as an exercise in political theater while ignoring the underlying issues of political economy.

The BLS, and particularly Director Hilda Solis, plays a key role in the drama, but that role has been miscast by both political factions. The right wing has cast the agency as accomplice and co-conspirator. Defenders of the administration have portrayed the BLS as staffed by politically independent professionals, completely devoid of political sentiment and as behaviorally pure as Ivory Snow.

In reality, the agency is a branch of the “permanent government,” the bureaucracy that keeps rolling along like Old Man River through Democrat and Republican administrations alike. Its only inherent goal is to maintain its existence, size and power. Ms. Solis is a political appointee, named by President Obama in 2009. As such, she has divided loyalties.

As political appointee, she owes her position to the President. The temptation to hew her actions and public pronouncements toward the positions of the administration is ever-present. This would be true regardless of her personal sympathies, but since presidents usually choose department heads whose views dovetail with their own, the sympathies of a director typically reinforce the incentive to side with the administration.

But as chief administrative officer of a federal bureaucracy, she is the only person capable of steering that agency away from its normal self-serving goals and toward the objective of serving the broad general interest. As far as the American public is concerned, that is her only valid function – to steer the agency between the Scylla of toadying to the administration and the Charybdis of bureaucratic inertia.

In this case, Hilda Solis failed miserably. That is the wrongdoing – indeed, the tragedy – of the 7.8% unemployment controversy.

Friday Morning, 8AM, October 5, 2012

On the morning of the announcement, Ms. Solis was presented with the statistical reports prepared by her staff. In order to contrast what she should have done with what she actually did, we must take a critical look at those reports. The BLS takes two surveys of employment that attract widespread public attention.

Its payroll survey uses payroll records of 60,000 businesses to estimate new hires during the target month. The results of this survey tend to be relatively stable. The September report not only presented results for that month but also upward revisions for the previous months of July and August. Payroll jobs for July were revised up to 181,000; the August estimate was revised up to 142,000. The September estimate was a job gain of 114,000.

The first thing to notice about this survey is the downward trend. This, combined with the fact that unemployment has long been considered a lagging indicator, influenced the expectations of many economists who expected the September unemployment rate to rise slightly. While there is no general agreement among economists, it would be fair to state that 142,000 jobs is close to a tipping point when it comes to lowering the unemployment rate – it is either barely adequate to nudge unemployment down or not quite enough, depending on how responsive one finds the labor force to be.

The 114,000 jobs chalked up in September, though, are not enough to make a dent. That is why the result of the other employment survey, the telephone survey of households conducted by BLS, created such a stir.

The household survey purported to locate a total of 873,000 new jobholders in September. Of these, some 582,000 were supposedly part-time jobs. The fact that this total had been exceeded only twice since 1983 – and both times when the economy was growing at elevated rates – made many anti-administration partisans doubt the veracity of the figures.

These job numbers were not only dubious on their face. They were also blatantly at odds with everything else we knew or conjectured about the state of the economy. Growth had begun the year promisingly but had stalled and slowed to an annualized pace of 1.3% in the second quarter. World trade slowed. Recession loomed in Europe.

Some good news tempered the general mood of gloom, but it was measured. Consumer confidence rose somewhat, perhaps buoyed by a stock market rally – but the rally was dampened. Labor force participation increased after steady decreases – but the increase was slight.

In order to believe in the veracity of the household survey’s jobs estimate, we would have to believe that the labor market had suddenly, inexplicably become the leading indicator for a roaring expansion that as yet had no other harbinger – that the household survey was telling us the truth while all other indices were lying, or at least keeping mum.

Historically, the household survey was known to be volatile. The previous month, August, it had recorded an estimated job loss of 119,000. Thus, the variance between the two surveys was still three times greater in September.

The only reasonable conclusion seemed to be that the household survey was wrong. “Wrong” doesn’t mean faked or fraudulent. It doesn’t mean that BLS employees didn’t make the survey calls, or didn’t record the answers correctly. It certainly doesn’t mean that somebody hid the results in the dead of night or bribed the BLS to suppress them.

All experienced economic forecasters and statisticians know that formulating estimates from sample data is far from an exact science. It is like dining out every night – sooner or later you’re going to get hold of something dreadful that needs to be purged. And that is exactly what statistics textbooks advise students to do with obviously aberrant values in a data set – omit them.

The argument for omission is fairly straightforward. The most basic type of statistical estimation technical, called linear regression, tries in effect to draw a straight line through a collection of data points for the purpose of estimating the course future data will follow. The line is an attempt to capture the central tendency of the data. Including a wildly aberrant value will pull that line off course and make the future estimation process less accurate.

What BLS Director Solis Should Have Done

For practical reasons, it may be difficult or impossible to simply cancel or postpone the release of the household survey and associated unemployment rate. This is an eagerly awaited statistic that is followed closely by analysts throughout the world. Regardless of any good reasons advanced for cancellation or postponement, such an unusual procedure would itself be suspect – people would wonder what the authorities were hiding.

Of course, that argument cuts both ways. The world isn’t waiting breathlessly in order to receive estimates that are worthless or downright misleading. Then there is the little matter of a Presidential election that probably won’t – but just might – turn on the result of these estimates.

What Hilda Solis should have done is: 1. order a double-check of all relevant figures and calculations in the household survey; 2. assuming the results check out, announce at the press conference that the data release contains survey data and a consequent estimate that defy common sense; 3. advise the general public that no weighty conclusions be drawn from the suspect estimates, since they are unsound; 4. invite all interested parties to inspect the Bureau’s data, methods, calculations and results.

She should have done this because the purpose of government is to aid and inform the American public, not to serve the political interests of any administration or the economic interests of bureaucrats. By presenting the data but warning the public, she would be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She would be allowing anybody who still wanted to accept the figures to do so, but at their own risk. And she would be putting everybody else on notice. She would be behaving the same way as a fiduciary – a professional who has the legal duty to put the client’s welfare above all else. That duty covers both commissions and omissions; it is the obligation to place the full range of professional expertise at the service of the client. In this case, the client is the American people.

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What Hilda Solis Actually Did

What Hilda Solis actually did was to release the household survey and unemployment-rate estimate without warning the public. Indeed, she not only refused to supplement the data release with a warning – she passed up opportunities in subsequent interviews. An interviewer from Bloomberg questioned her three times about the dubiety of the 7.8% unemployment rate and the 870,000 job gain in the household survey. She defended the household survey, citing job gains among 16-24 year-olds. At no time did she back away from or otherwise express reservations about the household survey.

Ms. Solis’s act had the effect of inviting the public to take the dubious household-survey results at face value. Some people did that. Others were shocked by the extremity of the 870,000 job-gain and 7.8% unemployment-rate figures. Still others were outraged by what seemed altogether too fortuitous a coincidence – that a bureau in the Department of Labor, long dominated by the Democratic left wing, would produce a wildly extreme employment report favoring a labor-union-supported Democratic incumbent on the eve of a presidential election.

But the people in the best position to evaluate the report were professional economists and forecasters. Here is a representative selection of their characterization of the two disputed estimates – the 870,000 September job gain and the 7.8% unemployment rate: “”Must be an anomaly;” “statistical anomaly;” “just a fluke;” “statistical quirk;” “implausible;” “almost certainly a statistical fluke;” “huge statistical outlier on the upside;” “not reality;” “an aberration.”

All of these comments came from respected economists, forecasters and consultants. One of them is a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. Some of them are known to be supporters of the Obama administration. None are rabid anti-administration partisans. Clearly, they all knew statistical salmonella when they saw it. Yet none of these people criticized Director Solis’ decision to release the estimates without warning or qualification.

The Harm Caused by the BLS Acts of Omission

The news media covered the issue as an exercise in political theater. They pitted right-wing claims of conspiracy against indignant denials and claims of pristine innocence on the left. When the conspiracy angle petered out for lack of evidence, the story died.

The real harm caused by BLS wrongdoing is much more mundane, but more hurtful than any partisan conspiracy. It concerns the day-to-day functioning of government, not the crimes of individuals. The unemployment rate is used by analysts throughout the world as a barometer and index of the U.S. economy. Investment company owners and fund managers use it to calibrate the timing of investments. Financial planners use it to manage their clients’ money. Large corporations use it to gauge the direction of consumer demand. Commercial and investment bankers use it; business and economic forecasters use it; employment agencies and corporate headhunters use it. Even small businesses use it.

All these people suffer when information disseminated by the federal government turns out to be disinformation. When people discover that they have been fooled, they will take the index less seriously in the future. As a result, their job performance will suffer. And their cynicism about government and the rule of law cannot help but harden – after all, they are already suffering their fourth year of being fed false information about interest rates by the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s QE series of government and private securities purchases is openly and deliberately designed to hold interest rates artificially low by increasing the supply of money. Interest rates are even more ubiquitously used and useful than government economic data.

The Enablers

The people best equipped to understand the abdication of professional responsibility by Hilda Solis and the BLS are the premier economists, forecasters and statisticians. They know that the household survey’s September estimates should have been released – if at all – with a stern caution to the general public. This is directly analogous to the warning labels that government regulators require private businesses to stick on products that present a potential hazard to consumers. The 7.8% unemployment-rate and 870,000 job-gain estimates were no less hazardous to the financial, intellectual and political health of the American public.

The quoted comments above demonstrate that these financial experts recognized this danger quite well. But while they noted it in casual asides and obiter dicta, they refused to take the obvious next step. They refused to call Director Solis and BLS to account. They refused to alert the American people to the true nature of the wrongdoing. They refused to limit the damage done. And they lost the opportunity to deter future episodes of misconduct.

The 7.8% Solution

The real wrongdoing in the 7.8% unemployment-rate controversy stems from negligent omission, not active conspiracy. It is patent in the reactions of professional economists and forecasters. The permanent government was derelict in its responsibility to aid and inform the American public. Instead, it catered to political and/or bureaucratic interests. That is not the kind of dramatic, theatrical conspiracy that attracts the attention of news media. But the failure of day-to-day government to do its job grinds down our living standards, morale and respect for law.