DRI-131 for week of 8-16-15: Hillary on CEO Short-Termism: Three Views

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Is the Purpose of Government to Eliminate All Sources of Discontent?

If we took every action taken by government at face value, we would be forced to conclude that its central purpose is to eliminate all sources of discontent. And that is exactly the goal set for it by a long-forgotten Labor Party parliamentarian in early 20th-century Great Britain. Is that really what motivates politicians and bureaucrats? Should it be?

Actions taken by state-government regulators in New York raise these questions. Earlier this month, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was the most prominent of 13 companies to end a work practice known as “on-call scheduling.” The Attorney General (hereinafter, AG) cited pressure by his office as the motivating force behind the change. The practice requires workers to be “on-call” for work in the sense that they must be prepared to show up or stay home on very short notice of as little as one hour. As noted in The Wall Street Journal (“Abercrombie Agrees to End On-Call Scheduling,” 8/7/2015, by Lauren Weber), “workers whose shifts are canceled don’t receive pay, even if they had blocked out that time and made child-care  or other arrangements.”

Abercrombie’s general counsel, Robert Bostrom, described the company’s capitulation by stating that workers will henceforth receive their schedules one week in advance and can choose to receive word about additional shifts that become available on short notice. The new policy, intended to “create as stable and predictable a work environment as possible” for Abercrombie’s employees, will become effective in September in New York and eventually be phased in nationwide.

Why did the Attorney General of New York state choose to intervene in the work-scheduling policies of a baker’s dozen retailers? “Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on all employees, especially those in low wage sectors,” commented Schneiderman, adding that other companies should follow Abercrombie’s “important step.” In April, the AG had claimed that Abercrombie’s policy “potentially” broke a New York law. That law states that staffers who report for scheduled work must receive at least four hours’ pay at minimum wage even if sent home. (Several other states have similar laws.) As the Journal points out, the law was passed before the advent of text messaging and e-mail made it easy to reach most people on short notice. Despite its change of policy, Abercrombie admitted no violation of law.

To an economist, the regulatory action taken by the New York Attorney General’s office and the explanations accompanying it seem utterly inexplicable – unless we are willing to believe that the inherent purpose of government is to eliminate all sources of human discontent.

Why Oppose – That Is, Regulate – On-Call Scheduling?

AG Schneiderman has chosen to regulate on-call scheduling by issuing an unfavorable opinion of this particular work practice, then pressuring firms behind the scenes to drop it. The question is: Why?

According to the Journal, “a number of current and former Abercrombie store associates nationwide left complaints about the scheduling policy on the employer-review site “Glassdoor….” (Parenthetically, we should note that the ghastly use of “a number of” could denote anything from one to infinity and is the kind of elementary error that freshman journalism students are taught to avoid.) Let us stipulate that some workers find the practice of on-call scheduling objectionable. So what? Is the purpose of government to act as a sort of all-purpose complaint department? Or is there something unique, perhaps, about the situation of retail employees – or human labor in general – that requires complaints to be addressed by government rather than directed to management?

As a matter of fact, why don’t workers who find the practice of on-call scheduling objectionable adopt the great American solution open to all workers in a free society; namely, quit and find a different job with working conditions more to their liking?

The Great Fried-Chicken Dilemma

To clarify this problem, consider a much easier problem posed in a much more familiar context.

Consider the problem of consumers confronted with a product they don’t like. Suppose a diner visits a fried chicken restaurant and finds the main course unpalatable. Should the diner complain to management? Well, many restaurants encourage this; it may or may not produce a refund for the diner. Conceivably, it might even result in alteration of the restaurant’s recipe or staff. But chances are that the diner will simply shrug and go somewhere else. After all, there are untold numbers of competing fried-chicken restaurants.

Should we demand that the Federal Trade Commission monitor consumer websites for customer complaints and “crack down” on restaurants that sell “inferior” fried chicken? No, there are huge flaws with this approach to the problem of maintaining restaurant quality. One drawback is that consumer tastes in fried chicken differ; one man’s inferior chicken is another man’s delight. Requiring government to enforce a quality standard in fried chicken will inevitably result in the production of “government quality” fried chicken; that is, one kind of fried chicken that diners of all tastes will have to eat or else. In this case, “or else” means they will have to prepare their own fried chicken. Since they previously had that alternative but rejected it in favor of dining out, this clearly makes them worse off than they would be if they could find a fried chicken to their taste. Of course, we could pretend to solve this problem by having government set up a different quality standard for each different flavor of fried chicken – one for extra crispy, one for spicy, and so on. But this would only create a host of new problems. And it assumes that government is just as responsive to consumer desires as producers are in free markets, whereas our experience tells us that government is quite insensitive to the desires of constituents and tends to impose a “one-size-fits-all” standard on the public whenever it can.

Another obvious drawback is the vast number of fried-chicken restaurants and diners, which would force government to employ huge numbers of people and spend ungodly amounts of time checking out complaints. (Lack of resources also argues against having government set up multiple quality standards for fried chicken, since it would hardly have sufficient time and manpower to enforce one standard, let alone multiple ones.)

Still another drawback would be the inducement sellers would have to file complaints against their competitors. Not only would this tie up government resources in investigating bogus complaints, it would also imperil the workings of competitive markets. If sellers could use government as a tool in falsely branding their competitors’ products as inferior, this would vitiate the very purpose that regulation is intended to serve.

Just think about all the problems we don’t have because we don’t force government to regulate fried-chicken quality in free markets. We don’t have to worry about how many different flavors of fried chicken to allow – are regular, extra-crispy, spicy, and Cajun-style enough, too many or insufficient to satisfy us? Should the number vary in different cities? Counties? States? Regions? Should it change over time, and if so how often? We don’t worry about any of these things. In fact, we take the answers to these questions completely for granted without ever realizing that they might be a problem in the first place. The market takes care of the answers without any of us ever giving the matter a moment’s thought.

Upon consideration, we realize that the mere fact that somebody doesn’t like fried chicken at a restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean that a market failure calling for government regulation has occurred. It might simply mean that the consumer has tasted fried chicken prepared in one of the various ways that don’t suit him; he needs to visit a restaurant better suited to his tastes. Of course, this could be styled a failure of information, but it is certainly not clear that government regulation could have prevented it or could solve it for other consumers. Markets, not governments, are collators and transmitters of information.

If we tried hard enough, we might envision a role for government in such a situation. Maybe the consumer didn’t like the chicken because it was tainted by salmonella. But we have government regulation of health standards in restaurants and preparation standards in chicken plants – and salmonella cases still happen. In reality, markets solve the problem of food poisoning in restaurants by turning restaurants that serve tainted food into commercial pariahs – a disincentive that exceeds any penalty government offers.

The Great Fried-Chicken Dilemma offers vast insight into the problems of labor markets in general and the regulation of on-call scheduling in particular.

The Potential Efficiency Benefits of On-Call Scheduling

Neither Wall Street Journal article nor Attorney General Schneiderman – nor, for that matter, Abercrombie itself – said anything to suggest that the practice of on-call scheduling might actually be beneficial for retail sellers, for consumers and for workers themselves. That omission is startling. There was a reason why Abercrombie and 12 other retail businesses employed this business practice.

Every consumer has patronized a retail seller and knows that these businesses are sometimes bustling with business and sometimes nearly empty. At some point, every consumer has experienced the frustration of seeking a sales clerk in vain. Businesses strive to keep exactly the right number of staff on the floor – not too many, not too few. Depending on the particular good(s) sold, human labor may be the most expensive cost incurred by the business, so it behooves managers to manipulate their “inventory” of sales staff to best advantage.

Just as businesses want to manage their inventory of sales staff optimally, so they also want to keep just the right amount inventory of goods on their shelves. For centuries, this was one of the biggest headaches facing the average business. Economists even identified the phenomenon called an “inventory recession,” caused by too many businesses simultaneously overestimating the need for future inventories and producing far more goods than were needed – only to find shelves and warehouses full to overflowing when consumer demand did not keep pace with expectations. Recent technological innovations in transportation, logistics and computers have allowed business to employ an inventory scheduling practice called “just in time” inventory management. This allowed businesses to postpone restocking until the last minute, letting them gauge demand much more accurately and avoiding the necessity for accurate long-distance forecasting of inventory needs.

If we view a retail business’s roster of employees as its staffing “inventory,” it is clear that on-call scheduling is a kind of “just-in-time” program for staffing. It allows retail managers to postpone determination of their final staffing schedule until the point when they can gauge the demand for retail staffing much more accurately. This allows them to avoid paying superfluous clerks when the store is virtually empty while having extra clerks on hand when demand is unexpectedly strong. It is crystal clear that on-call scheduling is potentially very beneficial for a retail business.

Moreover, it should be equally clear that on-call scheduling benefits consumers, too. This is a case where the interests of consumers and those of the business are directly aligned. Consumers want to have extra clerks on hand at busy times but don’t benefit much, if at all, from the presence of superfluous clerks in slack times. In the long run, competition between retail businesses will insure that the benefits of lower costs are passed along to consumers in the form of lower prices, so the efficiency gains from on-call scheduling really go to consumers, even though we associate the concept of business efficiency with productive advantage and gains to business owners.

What obviously failed to occur to AG Schneiderman, the Wall Street Journal and (from outward appearances) even Abercrombie and its spokesman is that on-call scheduling is also a potential source of benefits to retail employees. Just as consumers in our fried-chicken example derive benefits from product differentiation, so also may workers derive benefits from different terms of employment and work environments. Retail sales work is generally viewed as a form of low-skilled labor. Economists treat low-skilled labor as homogeneous; that is, as indistinguishable. But on-call scheduling allows workers the chance either to accept employment or, alternatively, earn a higher wage by competing on the basis of willingness to work – or forego work – on short notice. Since the decision to work for a particular employer is voluntary, nobody is forced to take this offer – just as no consumer is forced to eat fried chicken they don’t like. There are countless retail sellers, so workers who don’t relish the practice of on-call scheduling can work for a business that doesn’t follow the practice – just as consumers who don’t like one variety of fried chicken can patronize one of the many other competing brands extant.

So Why Regulate On-Call Scheduling?

On-call scheduling offers potential benefits to retail businesses, consumers and even to retail workers – just as different types of products offer potential benefits to consumers. Nobody is forced to endure on-call scheduling if they don’t like it, since the large number of retail businesses competing for workers gives workers a wide choice of employment – just as consumers have wide choices of different products and aren’t forced to put up with a particular brand. If it would be incredibly wasteful and a huge mistake to regulate brand variety and quality of consumer goods – and it would – wouldn’t it be just as big a mistake to regulate the practice of on-call scheduling for analogous reasons?

The answer is yes. There is no earthly reason for government at any level – municipal, state or federal – to regulate the practice of on-call scheduling. Only bad can come of it. The implication of AG Schneiderman’s actions is that government has a duty to prevent human beings within its jurisdiction from experiencing even momentary discontent. The AG must consider workers to be either too stupid to act in their own interest or too helpless to do so even if they had the wit to perceive it. Left unspecified, however, is how or where the AG acquired the superior wisdom and knowledge to substitute his judgment for those of the workers whose interests he claims to represent.

Free Markets vs. Regulation

We have shown that various ways of producing goods and services (such as utilizing on-call scheduling to staff retailing establishments) and various types of goods (such as different varieties and flavors of fried chicken) offer potential benefits to consumers. How is that potential actuated; that is, how do we cross the bridge from “potential” to “actual?”

Apparently, there are two ways. We can give the processes and products a trial in the free market and see how they work, keeping the ones that succeed and discarding the ones that fail. The failures will lose money for sellers because consumers will reject them, either because they do not like them or because they are too expensive. That makes it easy for producers to discard them. Alternatively, regulators can accept or reject them on an a priori basis. In order for this method to succeed, regulators must know as much about technology and costs as the producers of the affected goods and services do. Regulators also must know as much about consumers’ tastes and preferences as the consumers themselves do – as well as knowing what is “good” for consumers to consume in a physiological and moral sense. In other words, regulators must be well-nigh omniscient. (Where input markets are directly affected, as in this case, we can treat workers as the “consumers” of the relevant process.)

Put in this way, the choice is as clear as two-way glass. Free markets work vastly better and are less expensive than regulation. Given this, why do governments leap to regulate at every opportunity?

Why Governments Almost Always Choose Regulation

The New York State Attorney General chose to regulate on-call scheduling for a reason. Based on our analysis, we might suppose him to be perverse – deliberately choosing a result that makes everybody worse off than before. But that is not so. Economics tells us that somebody has to be better off, and the first place to look for the beneficiary or beneficiaries would be the AG himself and his sponsors and constituents.

The AG is a bureaucrat, a denizen of state government. He benefits when his domain grows larger and his power over it increases. When the number of firms he regulates increases, the AG’s power increases and his budget increases or, more properly, his basis for demanding a budget and staffing increase strengthens. When the AG’s office regulates the processes employed by retail firms, preventing them from using innovative means to compete with other firms, state government is cartelizing what would otherwise be a competitive market. The result of this will be less output and higher prices in the retail-sales sector. This creates a constituency of business owners and managers who are beholden to the AG and state-government politicians. (In the broad sense, this is what happened for over four decades when the old Civil Aeronautics Board cartelized interstate airline travel in the United States between the 1930s and 1978.)

Notice that the list of beneficiaries from regulation of on-call scheduling is small compared to the roster of potential beneficiaries from unregulated on-call scheduling. Regulation benefits government bureaucrats, workers and politicians directed involved with the affected industry, along with business owners who gain from market cartelization. It harms everybody else, most notably the consumers of the good involved and (in this case) almost certainly the workers affected as well. The gains of business owners are probably temporary, but the gains accruing to government will last as long as government regulation continues.

The best way to visualize the actions of government vis a vis markets is by thinking of government as entrepreneurship in reverse. Politicians and bureaucrats are always alert for opportunities to expand their domain. But whereas the invisible hand of competition and voluntary exchange insures that free-market entrepreneurship creates broad, mutual benefits, the coercive, visible hand of government subtracts net value from almost all of its interchanges with markets.

Is the Purpose of Government to Eliminate All Sources of Discontent?

Now we understand the heretofore inexplicable contention that the purpose of government is to eliminate all sources of discontent. How could anybody be so naïve as to think that government has the ability to remedy all unhappiness? Doesn’t the speaker realize that his statement is a recipe for fiscal insolvency? Writing a blank check to government is a fruitless quest for a non-existent nirvana.

Alas, the author of those words didn’t particularly care whether government actually succeeded in eliminating any discontent or not. He was not striving for universal bliss. Rather he sought an unlimited warrant for government intrusion in order to benefit his own special interest. The more power government has, the larger it grows. The larger it grows, the more its servants prosper. And the more the servants of government prosper, the more the rest of us suffer.

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DRI-191 for week of 3-15-15: More Ghastly than Beheadings! More Dangerous than Nuclear Proliferation! Its…Cheap Foreign Steel!

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

More Ghastly than Beheadings! More Dangerous than Nuclear Proliferation! Its…Cheap Foreign Steel!

The economic way to view news is as a product called information. Its value is enhanced by adding qualities that make it more desirable. One of these is danger. Humans react to threats and instinctively weigh the threat-potential of any problematic situation. That is why headlines of print newspapers, radio-news updates, TV evening-news broadcasts and Internet websites and blogs all focus disproportionately on dangers.

This obsession with danger does not jibe with the fact that human life expectancy had doubled over the last century and that violence has never been less threatening to mankind than today. Why do we suffer this cognitive dissonance? Our advanced state of knowledge allows us to identify and categorize threats that passed unrecognized for centuries. Today’s degraded journalistic product, more poorly written, edited and produced than formerly, plays on our neuroscientific weaknesses.

Economists are acutely sensitive to this phenomenon. Our profession made its bones by exposing the bogey of “the evil other” – foreign trade, foreign goods, foreign labor and foreign investment as ipso facto evil and threatening. Yet in spite of the best efforts of economists from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, there is no more dependable pejorative than “foreign” in public discourse. (The word “racist” is a contender for the title, but overuse has triggered a backlash among the public.)

Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised by this headline in The Wall Street Journal: “Ire Rises at China Over Glut of Steel” (03/16/2015, By Biman Mukerji in Hong Kong, John W. Miller in Pittsburgh and Chuin-Wei Yap in Beijing). Surprised, no; outraged, yes.

The Big Scare 

The alleged facts of the article seem deceptively straightforward. “China produces as much steel as the rest of the world combined – more than four times as much as the peak U.S. production in the 1970s.” Well, inasmuch as (a) the purpose of all economic activity is to produce goods for consumption; and (b) steel is a key input in producing countless consumption goods and capital goods, ranging from vehicles to buildings to weapons to cutlery to parts, this would seem to be cause for celebration rather than condemnation. Unfortunately…

“China’s massive steel-making engine, determined to keep humming as growth cools at home, is flooding the world with exports, spurring steel producers around the globe to seek government protection from falling prices. From the European Union to Korea and India, China’s excess metal supply is upending trade patterns and heating up turf battles among local steelmakers. In the U.S., the world’s second-biggest steel consumer, a fresh wave of layoffs is fueling appeals for tariffs. U.S. steel producers such as U.S. Steel Corp. and Nucor Corp. are starting to seek political support for trade action.”

Hmmm. Since this article occupies the place of honor on the world’s foremost financial publication, we expect it to be authoritative. China has a “massive steel-making engine” – well, that stands to reason, since it’s turning out as much steel as everybody else put together. It is “determined to keep humming.” The article’s three (!) authors characterize the Chinese steelmaking establishment as a machine, which seems apropos. They then endow the metaphoric machine with the human quality of determination – bad writing comes naturally to poor journalists.

This determination is linked with “cooling” growth. Well, the only cooling growth that Journal readers can be expected to infer at this point is the slowing of the Chinese government’s official rate of annual GDP growth from 7.5% to 7%. Leaving aside the fact that the rest of the industrialized world is pining for growth of this magnitude, the authors are not only mixing their metaphors but mixing their markets as well. The only growth directly relevant to the points raised here – exports by the Chinese and imports by the rest of the world – is growth in the steel market specifically. The status of the Chinese steel market is hardly common knowledge to the general public. (Later, the authors eventually get around to the steel market itself.)

So the determined machine is reacting to cooling growth by “flooding the world with exports,” throwing said world into turmoil. The authors don’t treat this as any sort of anomaly, so we’re apparently expected to nod our heads grimly at this unfolding danger. But why? What is credible about this story? And what is dangerous about it?

Those of us who remember the 1980s recall that the monster threatening the world economy then was Japan, the unstoppable industrial machine that was “flooding the world” with imports. (Yes, that’s right – the same Japan whose economy has been lying comatose for twenty years.) The term of art was “export-led growth.” Now these authors are telling us that massive exports are a reaction to weakness rather than a symptom of growth.

“Unstoppable” Japan suddenly stopped in its tracks. No country has ever ascended an economic throne based on its ability to subsidize the consumption of other nations. Nor has the world ever died of economic indigestion caused by too many imports produced by one country. The story told at the beginning of this article lacks any vestige of economic sense or credibility. It is pure journalistic scare-mongering. Nowhere do the authors employ the basic tools of international economic analysis. Instead, they employ the basic tools of scarifying yellow journalism.

The Oxymoron of “Dumping” 

The authors have set up their readers with a menacing specter described in threatening language. A menace must have victims. So the authors identify the victims. Victims must be saved, so the authors bring the savior into their story. Naturally, the savior is government.

The victims are “steel producers around the globe.” They are victimized by “falling prices.” The authors are well aware that they have a credibility problem here, since their readers are bound to wonder why they should view falling steel prices as a threat to them. As consumers, they see falling prices as a good thing. As prices fall, their real incomes rise. Falling prices allow consumers to buy more goods and services with their money incomes. Businesses buy steel. Falling steel prices allow businesses to buy more steel. So why are falling steel prices a threat?

Well, it turns out that falling steel prices are a threat to “chief executives of leading American steel producers,” who will “testify later this month at a Congressional Steel Caucus hearing.” This is “the prelude to launching at least one anti-dumping complaint with the International Trade Commission.” And what is “dumping?” “‘Dumping,’ or selling abroad below the cost of production to gain market share, is illegal under World Trade Organization law and is punishable with tariffs.”

After this operatic buildup, it turns out that the foreign threat to America spearheaded by a gigantic, menacing foreign power is… low prices. Really low prices. Visualize buying steel at Costco or Wal Mart.

Oh, no! Not that. Head for the bomb shelters! Break out the bug-out bags! Get ready to live off the grid!

The inherent implication of dumping is oxymoronic because the end-in-view behind all economic activity is consumption. A seller who sells for an abnormally low price is enhancing the buyer’s capability to consume, not damaging it. If anybody is “damaged” here, it is the seller, not the buyer. And that begs the question, why would a seller do something so foolish?

More often than not, proponents of the dumping thesis don’t take their case beyond the point of claiming damage to domestic import-competing firms. (The three Journal reporters make no attempt whatsoever to prove that the Chinese are selling below cost; they rely entirely on the allegation to pull their story’s freight.) Proponents rely on the economic ignorance of their audience. They paint an emotive picture of an economic world that functions like a giant Olympics. Each country is like a great big economic team, with its firms being the players. We are supposed to root for “our” firms, just as we root for our athletes in the Summer and Winter Olympics. After all, don’t those menacing firms threaten the jobs of “our” firms? Aren’t those jobs “ours?” Won’t that threaten “our” incomes, too?

This sports motif is way off base. U.S. producers and foreign producers have one thing in common – they both produce goods and services that we can consume, either now or in the future. And that gives them equal economic status as far as we are concerned. The ones “on our team” are the ones that produce the best products for our needs – period.

Wait a minute – what if the producers facing those low prices happen to be the ones employing us? Doesn’t that change the picture?

Yes, it does. In that case, we would be better off if our particular employer faced no foreign competition. But that doesn’t make a case for restricting or preventing foreign competition in general. Even people who lose their jobs owing to foreign competition faced by their employer may still gain more income from the lower prices brought by foreign competition in general than they lose by having to take another job at a lower income.

There’s another pertinent reason for not treating foreign firms as antagonistic to consumer interests. Foreign firms can, and do, locate in America and employ Americans to produce their products here. Years ago, Toyota was viewed as an interloper for daring to compete successfully with the “Big 3” U.S. automakers. Now the majority of Toyota automobiles sold in the U.S. are assembled on America soil in Toyota plants located here.

Predatory Pricing in International Markets

Dumping proponents have a last-ditch argument that they haul out when pressed with the behavioral contradictions stressed above. Sure, those foreign prices may be low now, import-competing producers warn darkly, but just wait until those devious foreigners succeed in driving all their competitors out of business. Then watch those prices zoom sky-high! The foreigners will have us in their monopoly clutches.

That loud groan you heard from the sidelines came from veteran economists, who would no sooner believe this than ask a zookeeper where to find the unicorns. The thesis summarized in the preceding paragraph is known as the “predatory pricing” hypothesis. The behavior was notoriously ascribed to John D. Rockefeller by the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell. It was famously disproved by the research of economist John McGee. And ever since, economists have stopped taking the concept seriously even in the limited market context of a single country.

But when propounded in the global context of international trade, the whole idea becomes truly laughable. Steel is a worldwide industry because its uses are so varied and numerous. A firm that employed this strategy would have to sacrifice trillions of dollars in order to reduce all its global rivals to insolvency. This would take years. These staggering losses would be accounted in current outflows. They would be weighed against putative gains that would begin sometime in the uncertain future – a fact that would make any lender blanch at the prospect of financing the venture.

As if the concept weren’t already absurd, what makes it completely ridiculous is the fact that even if it succeeded, it would still fail. The assets of all those firms wouldn’t vaporize; they could be bought up cheaply and held against the day when prices rose again. Firms like the American steel company Nucor have demonstrated the possibility of compact and efficient production, so competition would be sure to emerge whenever monopoly became a real prospect.

The likelihood of any commercial steel firm undertaking a global predatory-pricing scheme is nil. At this point, opponents of foreign trade are, in poker parlance, reduced to “a chip and a chair” in the debate. So they go all in on their last hand of cards.

How Do We Defend Against Government-Subsidized Foreign Trade?

Jiming Zou, analyst at Moody’s Investor Service, is the designated spokesman of last resort in the article. “Many Chinese steelmakers are government-owned or closely linked to local governments [and] major state-owned steelmakers continue to have their loans rolled over or refinanced.”

Ordinary commercial firms might cavil at the prospect of predatory pricing, but a government can’t go broke. After all, it can always print money. Or, in the case of the Chinese government, it can always “manipulate the currency” – another charge leveled against the Chinese with tiresome frequency. “The weakening renminbi was also a factor in encouraging exports,” contributed another Chinese analyst quoted by the Journal.

One would think that a government with the awesome powers attributed to China’s wouldn’t have to retrench in all the ways mentioned in the article – reduce spending, lower interest rates, and cut subsidies to state-owned firms including steel producers. Zou is doubtless correct that “given their important role as employers and providers of tax revenue, the mills are unlikely to close or cut production even if running losses,” but that cuts both ways. How can mills “provide tax revenue” if they’re running huge losses indefinitely?

There is no actual evidence that the Chinese government is behaving in the manner alleged; the evidence is all the other way. Indeed, the only actual recipients of long-term government subsidies to firms operating internationally are creatures of government like Airbus and Boeing – firms that produce most or all of their output for purchase by government and are quasi-public in nature, anyway. But that doesn’t silence the protectionist chorus. Government-subsidized foreign competition is their hole card and they’re playing it for all it’s worth.

The ultimate answer to the question “how do we defend against government-subsidized foreign trade?” is: We don’t. There’s no need to. If a foreign government is dead set on subsidizing American consumption, the only thing to do is let them.

If the Chinese government is enabling below-cost production and sale by its firms, it must be doing it with money. There are only three ways it can get money: taxation, borrowing or money creation. Taxation bleeds Chinese consumers directly; money creation does it indirectly via inflation. Borrowing does it, too, when the bill comes due at repayment time. So foreign exports to America subsidized by the foreign government benefit American consumers at the expense of foreign consumers. No government in the world can subsidize the world’s largest consumer nation for long. But the only thing more foolish than doing it is wasting money trying to prevent it.

What Does “Trade Protection” Accomplish?

Textbooks in international economics spell out in meticulous detail – using either carefully drawn diagrams or differential and integral calculus – the adverse effects of tariffs and quotas on consumers. Generally speaking, tariffs have the same effects on consumers as taxes in general – they drive a wedge between the price paid by the consumer and received by the seller, provide revenue to the government and create a “deadweight loss” of value that accrues to nobody. Quotas are, if anything, even more deleterious. (The relative harm depends on circumstances too complex to enumerate.)

This leads to a painfully obvious question: If tariffs hurt consumers in the import-competing country, why in the world do we penalize alleged misbehavior by exporters by imposing tariffs? This is analogous to imposing a fine on a convicted burglar along with a permanent tax on the victimized homeowner.

Viewed in this light, trade protection seems downright crazy. And in purely economic terms, it is. But in terms of political economy, we have left a crucial factor out of our reckoning. What about the import-competing producers? In the Wall Street Journal article, these are the complainants at the bar of the International Trade Commission. They are also the people economists have been observing ever since the days of Adam Smith in the late 18th century, bellied up at the government-subsidy bar.

In Smith’s day, the economic philosophy of Mercantilism reigned supreme. Specie – that is, gold and silver – was considered the repository of real wealth. By sending more goods abroad via export than returned in the form of imports, a nation could produce a net inflow of specie payments – or so the conventional thinking ran. This philosophy made it natural to favor local producers and inconvenience foreigners.

Today, the raison d’etre of the modern state is to take money from people in general and give it to particular blocs to create voting constituencies. This creates a ready-made case for trade protection. So what if it reduces the real wealth of the country – the goods and services available for consumption? It increases electoral prospects of the politicians responsible and appears to increase the real wealth of the beneficiary blocs, which is sufficient to for legislative purposes.

This is corruption, pure and simple. The authors of the Journal article present this corrupt process with a straight face because their aim is to present cheap Chinese steel as a danger to the American people. Thus, their aims dovetail perfectly with the corrupt aims of government.

And this explains the front-page article on the 03/16/2015 Wall Street Journal. It reflects the news value of posing a danger where none exists – that is, the corruption of journalism – combined with the corruption of the political process.

The “Effective Rate of Protection”

No doubt the more temperate readers will object to the harshness of this language. Surely “corruption” is too harsh a word to apply to the actions of legislators. They have a great big government to run. They must try to be fair to everybody. If everybody is not happy with their efforts, that is only to be expected, isn’t it? That doesn’t mean that legislators aren’t trying to be fair, does it?

Consider the economic concept known as the effective rate of protection. It is unknown to the general public, but is appears in every textbook on international economics. It arises from the conjunction of two facts: first, that a majority of goods and services are composed of raw materials, intermediate goods and final-stage (consumer) goods; and second, that governments have an irresistible impulse to levy taxes on goods that travel across international borders.

To keep things starkly simple and promote basic understanding, take the simplest kind of numerical example. Assume the existence of a fictional textile company. It takes a raw material, cotton, and spin, weaves and processes that cotton into a cloth that it sells commercially to its final consumers. This consumer cloth competes with the product of domestic producers as well as with cotton cloth produced by foreign textile producers. We assume that the prevailing world price of each unit of cloth is $1.00. We assume further that domestic producers obtain one textile unit’s worth of cotton for $.50 and add a further $.50 worth of value to the cloth by spinning, weaving and processing it into the cloth.

We have a basic commodity being produced globally by multiple firms, indicated the presence of competitive conditions. But legislators, perhaps possessing some exalted concept of fairness denied to the rabble, decide to impose a tariff on the importation of cotton. Not wishing to appear excessive or injudicious, the solons set this ad valorem tariff at 15%. Given the competitive nature of the industry, this will soon elevate the domestic price of textiles above the world price by the amount of the tariff; e.g., by $.15, to $1.15. Meanwhile, there is no tariff levied on cotton, the raw material. (Perhaps cotton is grown domestically and not imported into the country or, alternatively, perhaps cotton growers lack the political clout enjoyed by textile producers.)

The insight gained from the effective rate of protection begins with the realization that the net income of producers in general derives from the value they add to any raw materials and/or intermediate products they utilize in the production process. Initially, textile producers added $.50 worth of value for every unit of cotton cloth they produced. Imposition of the tariff allows the domestic textile price to rise from $1.00 to $1.15, which causes textile producers’ value added to rise from $.50 to $.65.

Legislators judiciously and benevolently decided that the proper amount of “protection” to give domestic textile producers from foreign competition was 15%. They announced this finding amid fanfare and solemnity. But it is wrong. The tariff has the explicit purpose of “protecting” the domestic industry, of giving it leeway it would not otherwise get under the supposedly harsh and unrelenting regime of global competition. But this tariff does not give domestic producers 15% worth of protection. $15 divided by $.50 – that is, the increase in value added divided by the original value added – is .30, or 30%. The effective rate of protection is double the size of the “nominal” (statutory) level of protection. In general, think of the statutory tariff rate as the surface appearance and the effective rate as the underlying truth.

Like oh-so-many economic principles, the effective rate of protection is a relatively simple concept that can be illustrated with simple examples, but that rapidly becomes complex in reality. Two complications need mention. When tariffs are also levied on raw materials and/or intermediate products, this affects the relationship between the effective and nominal rate of protection. The rule of thumb is that higher tariff rates on raw materials and intermediate goods relative to tariffs on final goods tend to lower effective rates of protection on the final goods – and vice-versa.

The other complication is the percentage of total value added comprised by the raw materials and intermediate goods prior to, and subsequent to, imposition of the tariff. This is a particularly knotty problem because tariffs affect prices faced by buyers, which in turn affect purchases, which in turn can change that percentage. When tariffs on final products exceed those on raw materials and intermediate goods – and this has usually been the case in American history – an increase in this percentage will increase the effective rate.

But for our immediate purposes, it is sufficient to realize that appearance does not equal reality where tariff rates are concerned. And this is the smoking gun in our indictment of the motives of legislators who promote tariffs and restrictive foreign-trade legislation.

 

Corrupt Legislators and Self-Interested Reporting are the Real Danger to America

In the U.S., the Commercial Code includes thousands of tariffs of widely varying sizes. These not only allow legislators to pose as saviors of numerous business constituent classes. They also allow them to lie about the degree of protection being provided, the real locus of the benefits and the reasons behind them.

Legislators claim that the size of tariff protection being provided is modest, both in absolute and relative terms. This is a lie. Effective rates of protection are higher than they appear for the reasons explained above. They unceasingly claim that foreign competitors behave “unfairly.” This is also a lie, because there is no objective standard by which to judge fairness in this context – there is only the economic standard of efficiency. Legislators deliberately create bogus standards of fairness to give themselves the excuse to provide benefits to constituent blocs – benefits that take money from the rest of us. International trade bodies are created to further the ends of domestic governments in this ongoing deception.

Readers should ask themselves how many times they have read the term “effective rate of protection” in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times of London, Barron’s, Forbes or any of the major financial publications. That is an index of the honesty and reputability of financial journalism today. The term was nowhere to be found in the Journal piece of 03/16/2015.

Instead, the three Journal authors busied themselves flacking for a few American steel companies. They showed bar graphs of increasing Chinese steel production and steel exports. They criticized the Chinese because the country’s steel production has “yet to slow in lockstep” with growth in demand for steel. They quoted self-styled experts on China’s supposed “problem [with] hold[ing] down exports” – without every explaining what rule or standard or economic principle of logic would require a nation to withhold exports from willing buyers. They cited year-over-year increases in exports between January, 2013, 2014 and 2015 as evidence of China’s guilt, along with the fact that the Chinese were on pace to export more steel than any other country “in this century.”

The reporters quoted the whining of a U.S. steel vice-president that demonstrating damage from Chinese exports is just “too difficult” to satisfy trade commissioners. Not content with this, they threw in complaints by an Indian steel executive and South Koreans as well. They neglect to tell their readers that Chinese, Indian and South Korean steels tend to be lower grades – a datum that helps to explain their lower prices. U.S. and Japanese steels tend to be higher grade, and that helps to explain why companies like Nucor have been able to keep prices and profit margins high for years. The authors cite one layoff at U.S. steel but forget to cite the recent article in their own Wall Street Journal lauding the history of Nucor, which has never laid off an employee despite the pressure of Chinese competition.

That same article quoted complaints by steel buyers in this country about the “competitive disadvantage” imposed by the higher-priced U.S. steel. Why are the complaints about cheap Chinese exports front-page news while the complaints about high-priced American steel buried in back pages – and not even mentioned by a subsequent banner article boasting input by no fewer than three Journal reporters? Why did the reporters forget to cite the benefits accruing to American steel users from low prices for steel imports? Don’t these reporters read their own newspaper? Or do they report only what comports with their own agenda?

DRI-275 for week of 9-28-14: Touchdown-Celebration Prayer: Time for Separation of Church and Red Zone?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Touchdown-Celebration Prayer: Time for Separation of Church and Red Zone?

Fans of the National Football League (NFL) have become inured to the spectacle of celebrations conducted by players who score a touchdown. These actions have assumed a variety of forms, ranging from ordinary excesses of joy and enthusiasm like jumping up and down to esoteric rituals like spiking or dunking the football over the goalpost. Perhaps the most common form is some sort of gyration or celebratory dance. The practice originated among certain players whose fame depended at least as much on their self-promotional zeal as upon their athletic prowess – Deion Sanders, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, comes particularly to mind.

Older readers will appreciate the striking contrast between this modern attitude and that exhibited by legendary stars of yesteryear like Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. Brown, who may have been the greatest running back of all time, was slow to assume his stance prior to the center snap of the football and even slower to rise after being tackled when running the ball. His demeanor was impassive. He conserved his energy and saved his exertions for the time between the snap and the referee’s whistle signaling the end of a play. Did this account for the fact that his average-yards-gained per carry was the highest of any Hall of Fame runner?

Unitas was similarly deadpan on the field. As quarterback for the Colts, he terrified opponents and awed teammates with the knack for leading his team from behind in the closing seconds of a game. But fans could never have guessed by looking at him whether he had just been sacked for a loss or thrown the winning touchdown pass as time expired. If any of his teammates had ever done anything as gauche as celebrating a long run or spectacular catch, they would have been frozen solid by the icy stare known throughout the NFL as the “Unitas look.”

In the so-called “greatest football game ever played” – the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants – Unitas provided the prelude to victory by completing a daring sideline pass to tight end Jim Mutcheller in the Giants’ one-yard line in sudden-death overtime. At the post-game press conference, a reporter ventured to question Unitas’s play-calling decision: “That was a pretty dangerous pass, wasn’t it? What if it had been intercepted?” The reporter was the first televised victim of “the look.” “When you know what you’re doing,” Unitas replied without needing to raise his voice, “they’re not intercepted.”

Nowadays many players feel obligated to supplement the audio and visual record of play supplied by television by advertising what has just happened. The newest wrinkle on this style of irrepressible self-expression is praying in the end zone after scoring a touchdown.

The Abdullah Case and Ensuing Fallout

In the fourth quarter of a game between the Kansas City Chief and New England Patriots at Arrowhead Stadium on September 29, 2014, New England quarterback Tom Brady completed a pass to Kansas City safety Husein Abdullah. Abdullah traversed the 39 yards to the New England end zone, where he dropped to his knees in prayer.

End-zone touchdown celebrations are now so commonplace that rules have been drafted to cover them. One of those rules forbids celebrating while “on the ground.” The referees invoked this rule, penalizing the Chiefs 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

That did not end the matter, though. Two days later, the NFL’s league office announced that the official decision had been in error. Why? It seems that “there are exceptions made for religious expressions,” according to NFL vice-president for football communications Michael Signora. But the referees may have been confused by Abdullah’s body language; he slid on his knees rather than simply kneeling down. Probably sensing an opportune moment, the well-known organization CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) lodged an objection to the original ruling. According to an article in the Kansas City Star (“NFL Admitting Error on Abdullah Flag,” October 1, 2014, by Tod Palmer), “Abdullah is a devout Muslim.” The CAIR spokesman urged the league office to “clarify the policy” so as to “avoid the appearance of a double standard” for Muslims and non-Muslims.

The sensitivities of Americans have been abraded by over a half-century of controversy over the separation of church and state. Now the debate over public religious observance has invaded the football field or, more specifically, the end zone. Will theologians have to be on call for replay decisions by officials? Should the NFL nail a thesis on the separation of church and red zone to the main gate of its stadiums? Is all this really necessary?

The Economics of Player Celebration 

Does associating end-zone prayer with celebration seem odd? Abdullah himself referred to his action as “prostrat[ing] myself to God.” Still, the religious faithful at their devotions are often called “celebrants.” In any case, the attributes of prayer and those of celebration are virtually identical in this particular context, which allows us to apply economic principles to both types of action. Both interrupt the normal flow of play and divert attention away from the game and to the celebrant. A case exists that each kind of action might either please or annoy a football fan.

One interesting thing about this example is the diametric tacks taken by the economist and the non-economist. The non-economist feels compelled to ascertain whether prayer itself is “good” or “bad.” A particularly discriminating non-economist might put that to one side and focus on whether or not prayer is a good thing in this particular context; e.g., on a football field with hundreds of millions of spectators. The economist may or may not feel qualified to supply answers to those questions, but does not care about the answers because they needn’t be answered by any particular individual. Markets exist to answer questions that individuals cannot or should not answer. 

Professional football is an intangible product supplied by the National Football League and its member franchises (teams) to consumers (fans). That product consists primarily, but not solely, of competitive athletic performance. A rhetorical question posed previously in this space asked: If O. J. Simpson were still in full flower of his athletic skills, would he be working as a running back in the NFL, all other things equal? The obvious answer is no, because football fans do not want to watch murderers play professional football, no matter how talented they may be.

The advent of touchdown celebration allows us to add another qualifying example to our definition of the pro-football product. To the degree that some fans enjoy and even encourage end-zone celebrations, it is clear that they derive satisfaction (or utility, in economic jargon) from this practice. That means that the pro-football product is defined as “competitive athletic performance plus entertainment.”

This is not merely an ad hoc formulation cobbled together by an economist for a column. In the same edition of the same Sports section of the Kansas City Star as the story of the NFL’s recantation of the penalty on Abdullah, the adjacent story is a profile of Chiefs’ cornerback Sean Smith. Study Smith’s comments about his flamboyant style of play and the attitude of Chiefs’ coaches to the on-field exhibition of his personality.

“‘I think (the Miami game) gave the coaches a chance to see that when I’m able to go out there and just be myself and let my personality hang out there, not only do I play well, but people feed off my energy,’ Smith said.” [Quoting reporter Terez A. Paylor] “‘Smith, like his other more animated teammates, appreciates Coach Andy Reid’s philosophy. He encourages his players to play with passion and let their personalities shine through on the field, and Smith has embraced that approach this season.'”[Back to Smith again] “‘Coach emphasizes to let your personality show, go out there and cut loose, and be yourself and have fun…That’s something I definitely took personal. I’ve been a very enthusiastic guy. I like going out there and having fun and putting a smile on people’s faces.'”

This constitutes an implicit endorsement by a player and head coach, as cited by a beat reporter, of the economic model developed above.

Does this mean that end-zone celebrations are a good thing? Does it mean that players have a right to indulge them? Does it justify the NFL’s policy? Or condemn it? The answers to these questions are various forms of “no.” End-zone celebrations are one more input into the productive process, no better or worse a priori than any other. They may or may not be appropriate. Players have no “right” to indulge in them because players do not control the production process – the team does. The NFL is the franchisor; it has the right to control end-zone celebrations only if they affect its ability to provide the right competitive environment for the teams and not when only team profitability is at stake.

A last key question may be the one most frequently asked when this issue arises in public controversy. What about the player’s “right” of free religious observance?

Why Freedom of Religion Does Not Guarantee the Right to Celebrate in the End Zone 

Freedom is defined as the absence of external constraint. It does not guarantee the power to achieve one’s aims over opposition; in particular, it does not confer rights. A right can be enjoyed only when it does not abrogate the exercise of somebody else’s right. A contract is a voluntary agreement that imposes legal duties on both (all) parties to it.

These definitions lay the groundwork for our understanding of prayer in the end zone.

Husein Abdullah is an employee of the Kansas City Chiefs football team. He helps produce professional football entertainment but he does not control the mix of inputs into that product. The team decides who the other players will be, what style of football the team will play, what offensive plays the team will run, what defensive sets the team will employ, who the coaches, assistant coaches and trainers will be. If the team chooses all these inputs into the production of professional football entertainment, why should it not also control the nature of end-zone celebrations? Of course, the team may opt for spontaneity by giving free rein to players’ imaginations, just as conventional entertainers in show business may opt for improvisation over a scripted performance. Still, the team will almost certainly forbid players from celebrating by making obscene gestures to opposing players, revealing intimate body parts to fans and performing other acts virtually guaranteed to offend fans rather than entertaining them.

So we should hardly be astonished if the team should choose to regulate an action as potentially sensitive or embarrassing as an act of religious observance – should we? And, speaking as students of economic logic, we can make no objection to that – can we?

How about Husein Abdullah? Or, for that matter, any religious celebrant of any religious denomination? Is he being treated unfairly? Are his rights being violated?

No. As an employee of the team, Abdullah works at the direction of the team and for its benefit. The fact that Abdullah is engaging in a religious observance in this particular case is irrelevant. Abdullah certainly has freedom of religion. He has freedom of speech, too, but that doesn’t give him the right to say anything and everything under the sun in his capacity as an employee with no fear of repercussion.

Suppose Abdullah were an employee working in an office building. Does he have the “right” to pray at the top of his lungs while wandering around and between the desks of his fellow employees? No, he has no right to disrupt the workplace in this fashion even with the excuse that freedom of religion allows him the right of religious observance. Similarly, his “right” to pray in the end zone is circumscribed by team policy.

Does this mean that the Abdullahs of the world are inevitably booked for disappointment in their longing to prostrate themselves before God in the end zone? There is no reason to think so. We know, for instance, that celebrations were once frowned upon and suppressed yet are now practically de rigeur. There seems no way to predict what twists and turns this penchant for celebration will take because there is no way to predict how the tastes of the public will change.

Are we afraid that “discrimination” against unpopular minority groups (Muslims, for example) will proliferate? No, we are not, because in this context the term discrimination loses its familiar colloquial meaning. There is no arbitrary exercise of power against a group because no business has a duty to employ all inputs to an equal degree. Instead, businesses have a duty to their owners and consumers to employ inputs based on productivity precisely by discriminating in favor of the more productive and against the less productive. Whether the inputs are engaging in religious observance, speech or any other activity does not matter. If a player can produce a productive form of celebration, this will make money for his team and provide the player with a celebratory meal ticket. If not, the player will lose the privilege of celebrating in the end zone. Business is not about what the boss wants or what employees want – it is about what consumers want. Economists characterize this principle as consumer sovereignty.

If a player demands a right to pray in the end zone, what he is really demanding is not freedom, nor is an exercise of a valid right. Rather, it is the power to abrogate his duty to his employer at whim. As often emphasized in this space, this confusion of freedom and power suffered by the general public has been repeatedly exploited to political advantage by the left wing.

The Absurd Position in Which the NFL Finds Itself

The framework for analysis outlined above is simple and logical. It is an outgrowth of the system by which we divide labor to produce and exchange goods and services. The pellucid clarity of this system stands out in brilliant contrast to the existing framework under which the NFL currently operates.

The NFL currently has rules governing player celebrations. These rules are part of the code that governs play on the field. Violations are punished with penalties such as the one Abdullah earned for the Chiefs. Consequently, the rules must be mastered, interpreted and applied by the referees. Inevitably, as with all sports decisions made by referees or umpires, subjective perceptions and interpretations cause mistakes and controversy. (The distinction between kneeling and sliding to his knees probably reminded Abdullah of the judging on Dancing With the Stars.) Meanwhile, the entities whose interests are most directly affected – team ownership and management – must sit back and await the chance to appeal any wrongful decision later.

And the fans – the people for whose benefit the system operates – don’t get any direct say in this administrative process. Whereas in a competitive market, input from fans directly determines the nature and extent of player celebrations, the regulated market gives immediate control to the administrative mechanism of the NFL. This allows the entertainment part of the product to contaminate the competitive part when penalties are levied for unsportsmanlike conduct, whereas under a competitive system the team handles problems of unsuitable celebration outside of the context of the competitive contest.

That’s not all to object to about top-down regulation of end zone celebration by the NFL. In fact, it may not even be the worst. The Abdullah case illustrates the political hazards of the top-down approach. The NFL began by wanting to suppress inappropriate celebration, which is surely not objectionable in and of itself. By doing the regulating itself instead of leaving it to the market, the NFL left itself open to the pressures of every special interest with an ax to grind. Because the NFL has no special interest in the profits of any one team, it has no incentive to favor popular celebration. Because the NFL is a bureaucratic organization, it is open to influence by every special interest with an ax to grind, CAIR being the most recent to step up to the grinder.

Suddenly, the NFL finds it can’t simply ban a form of celebration it doesn’t approve of (by “any player on the ground”) because that would run afoul of “religious observance.” Imagine – religious observance interfering with the conduct of a football game, when previously the only thing the two had in common was Sunday. And the minute the NFL starts making an exception for “religious observance,” it then has to confront the issue of different – and conflicting – religions. Wonderful – the two things attendees at a dinner party are never supposed to mention are politics and religion, and both are now elbowing their way into the end zone. What next? Will Stars of David start popping up on player helmets as an expression of their “right of free speech?” If only the fans had the power to throw a flag against the NFL for interference!

The General Principle at Work Here 

Americans have forgotten the value of allowing markets to decide basic questions. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed commented offhandedly that we have lost confidence in free markets as a result of the Great Recession. If so, this is a monumental irony, since that event was caused by the interference with and subordination of the market process. It is not clear how much of the current attitude originates with a loss of faith and how much with simple ignorance. Regardless of the source, we must reverse this attitude to have any hope of survival, let alone prosperity. We know markets work because the world in general and the U.S. in particular would never have reached their present state of prosperity unless markets were as effective as free-market economists claim they are. The pretense that regulated, administrative markets are a vehicle for perfect “social justice” is not merely a sham – it is a recipe for tyranny. Administrators possess neither the comprehensive information nor the omniscient sense of fairness necessary to decide whose celebrations to allow, which ones to ban and what standard to apply to all.

The best thing about the example of touchdown celebrations is that they provide a side-by-side illustration of free markets and regulated administrative markets. The free market is player celebrations as they evolved in recent years, encouraged by fan response and governed by individual teams. The Kansas City Star excerpts show in so many words that this market exists and the evidence of our senses shows that this market works just as economic logic predicts that it will. And our ever-more-dismal experience with top-down, bureaucratic NFL regulation shows that rule by fiat and by ventriloquists in the chattering classes is an escalating failure.

What about the older fans who are appalled by player celebrations and long for the good old days of strong, silent, heroic players like Brown and Unitas? Why, we’ll just have to find a team that suits our tastes – or found one.

DRI-303 for week of 8-17-14: When Fighting Fire With Fire Just Makes a Bigger Blaze

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

When Fighting Fire With Fire Just Makes a Bigger Blaze

Fans of the classic television series Get Smart will recall the snappy comeback of secret agent Maxwell Smart to a malefactor indignant at the prospect of detention: “You’re not going to arrest me on this flimsy evidence, are you?” “No,” Smart replied confidently, “I’ve got some more flimsy evidence.”

The quality of empirical debate over public policy has deteriorated to this level. Just as politicians are now compelled to act virtually any time something goes wrong, no matter what it is or how slim the likelihood of successful intervention, no exchange of opposing views is complete without quantitative citation. As soon as one side unveils its numbers, the other side must respond with numbers of its own – no matter how far-fetched or badly compiled. It is a Newtonian law of equal and opposite polemical reaction.

As a result, public discourse is now debased to the point of decadence. The long-running debate over the minimum wage has plumbed these depths of intellectual degradation. In the August 21 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Do Higher Minimum Wages Create More Jobs?” authors Liya Palagashvili and Rachel Mace probe for the bottom. It is as if they have rewritten Mel Brooks’ script: “You don’t expect me to believe this flimsy evidence, do you?” “Well, my flimsy evidence is a lot better than your flimsy evidence!”

The Left Wing’s Flimsy Evidence

Op-ed authors Palagashvili and Mace (hereinafter, P&M) correctly relate that the left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a report purporting to demonstrate the success of state-level minimum-wage increases in increasing relative employment growth among states. The report was released in June, 2014, and used data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. It examined 13 states that increased their individual minimum wage (as distinct from the federal minimum wage) that month and compared them to the other 37 states whose minimum wage did not rise. The report claimed that the average overall employment growth among the 13 states exceeded that of the 37 states for the five-month comparison period.

The Obama administration appropriated these conclusions with the alacrity of a police department confiscating drug-dealer assets. As P&M note, there was the little matter of “why [the] firms [would] hire more workers when the government raises the cost of hiring workers?” The straight-faced answer was that “hiking the minimum wage raises the incomes of poor workers, causing them to spend more. This additional spending, in turn, is so great that firms hire even more workers.” No less a personage than Barack Obama himself got into this act. “That [worker spending] gets churned back into the economy. And the whole economy does better, including the businesses.”

A priori, this “theory” of economic development is so ludicrous that it would qualify for an evening comedy skit at an American Economic Association convention. “Ludicrous” means ludicrous a priori; its theoretical underpinnings are so completely lacking that nobody would take it seriously enough to investigate. Well, nobody should – these days, no premise is too ridiculous if it can backstop a political point. Our Economist-in-Chief in the White House needs to bolster his standing with the public and shore up two key constituencies. One of those is obvious – the poor, downtrodden low-skilled workers who allegedly benefit from the minimum wage. The other is hidden – the higher-skilled workers, particularly union members, who substitute for the low-skilled workers laid off after the minimum-wage increase.

The “spending rescue” thesis is the culmination of two decades’ worth of left-wing attempts to promote the minimum wage as the salvation of the poor. This crusade began in the early 1990s, when economists David Card and Alan Krueger published a now-legendary study purporting to show that imposition of a minimum wage in New Jersey increased employment there relative to Pennsylvania. The defects of this study have since become almost as legendary as its conclusions. It utilized phone surveys to gather data – a technique heretofore shunned within the profession but thereupon praised as innovative and groundbreaking. But when other economists attempted to confirm the results using payroll data, this change instead reversed the results of Card and Krueger. The study’s econometrics has been panned by expert econometricians. Card and Krueger themselves were unable to supply a theoretical rationale for their result. Ordinarily, this would have been a fatal defect, but the policy implications of the study’s results were so delicious to the left wing that Card and Krueger were lionized and have gone on to professional fame and fortune. The only valid theory that would support their result does not comport with the reality of labor markets.

Why is the left so desperate to validate such a worthless policy measure? Their anxiety derives from the unique qualities of the minimum wage: it hides the benefits to their treasured constituency (unions), masquerades as a godsend to the poor while actually screwing them, and visibly appears to screw the rich (business owners, all of whom are assumed “rich” by definition) while actually doing so only in the short run. What a deal! The “optics” of the minimum wage are ideal for the left; that is, its visible or apparent effects are politically beneficial to them. Of course, its actual effects are harmful to everybody except the special-interest monopolists who comprise the left wing’s leading constituency these days, but that is jake with the left. Their ultimate goal is power – increasing real incomes for special interests are only a means to that end.

The Traditional Economic View of the Minimum Wage

Until Card and Krueger came along, the minimum wage vied with tariffs and quotas on foreign goods for the title of “most unpopular policy measure” among professional economists. Nearly a half-century of empirical examination reaffirmed the verdict of a priori theory: minimum wages redistribute jobs and real income from some poor and low-skilled workers to other poor and low-skilled workers by reducing employment, closing some businesses and temporarily reducing profits earned by businesses utilizing low-skilled labor.

These results are the outgrowth of the impact felt by business upon imposition of the minimum wage. Formally, it acts like a tax on the employment of low-skilled labor, which is the kind of labor directly affected by the minimum wage. That tax has three kinds of impact: a substitution effect, an output effect and a profit effect. (The first two of these are analogous to the substitution and income effect of a price change in consumer demand theory.) The substitution effect causes firms to employ less low-skilled labor and more of other inputs, including the higher-skilled labor previously mentioned as well as machinery that substitutes for labor. The output effect causes businesses employing low-skilled labor to produce less output, thereby employing fewer inputs of all kinds including labor. The profit effect reduces the profits earned by firms employing low-skilled labor. This third effect is only temporary, because the exit of some firms from the industry due to insolvency or better opportunities elsewhere will eventually raise the rate of return back to its previous, competitive level. That is why so-called rich business owners are adversely affected only transitorily by the minimum wage. The “permanent” gains go to workers who retain their jobs at the higher minimum wage. The “permanent” losses are suffered by workers who lose their jobs, some of whom may leave the labor force altogether. This phenomenon of exit from the labor force is by now well-known to most Americans; it has reached its highest level in over thirty years.

This is a formidable a priori case against the minimum wage. Economists never doubted that the minimum wage adversely affected employment of poor and low-skilled workers; they only doubted the degree to which this was true. Empirical studies of this issue began in the late 1940s, conducted by luminaries like future Nobel laureate George Stigler. Over the succeeding decades, economists used formal statistics to enforce the conditions necessary for a valid empirical examination of the issue.

One common defense of the minimum wage made by newspaper editorialists and readers over the years is that “the minimum wage went up but the U.S. unemployment rate did not go up; in fact, it went down, which proves that the minimum wage does not adversely affect employment.” This argument is invalid for several reasons. First, the minimum wage only affects employment within firms and industries that hire low-skilled labor. That does not begin to comprise the entire U.S. economy. Second, even within those industries directly affected by the minimum wage, the overall effects on employment of labor are equivocal. The substitution effect causes employment of less low-skilled labor but more higher-skilled labor, while the output and profit effects cause less employment of all inputs. It is not unusual at all to find that a liberal administration increases both the minimum wage and the money supply, with the latter causing temporary gains in income and employment that can swamp job losses associated with the minimum wage. This is not only ironic – since it harms the very people purportedly highest among the concerns of the left – but fully compatible with a condition in which the minimum wage causes job losses while the overall unemployment rate falls.

To avoid being fooled by effects outside the scope of the minimum wage, economists confined their studies to low-skilled workers and corrected their statistical methods to correct for trends and outside influences. That has been the traditional focus of econometrics, to compensate for the ways in which social sciences differ from the laboratory experiments common to the physical sciences.

Now, though, traditional econometrics has taken a back seat to raw political desire. And this corrupting influence has infected both sides of the political spectrum.

The Right Wing Retaliates With Its Own Flimsy Evidence

P&M disdain virtually all of the history and a priori theory cited above. They have their own flimsy evidence to present against the minimum wage. Their case is purely quantitative; clearly they believe in fighting fire with fire. They begin by finding the portion of the labor force comprised of low-skilled labor, which is roughly 2%, insufficient to generate the high-powered spending necessary to outweigh the minimum wage’s disincentives.

While no doubt true, this leaves room for counterargument by the left. Minimum-wage proponents will respond by accusing P&M of “overlooking” the greater propensity to spend by the poorest families. This is a feeble rebuttal, but the average person won’t know the difference and will probably rule the point a draw at best.

P&M then make a stronger point – that the logic of proponents’ case should mean that bigger minimum-wage boosts should have bigger effects on employment. In fact, the opposite was the case in January-May, 2014. The three substantial minimum-wage increases took place in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, the three falling between 5% and 14%. Yet these three states had the worst job growth of the 13 increase-states, an average of 0.3% compared to the 1.28% average increase in the other 10 states. “Indeed, job growth was worse in each of these three states than it was, on average, in the 37 states that did not raise their minimum wage at all,” P&M report. And “in New Jersey, the state that hiked [the] minimum wage the most – to $8.25 an hour from $7.25 – employment actually fell by about 0.56%.” In the state with the largest job growth, WashingtonState’s 2.1%, the minimum wage went up by a whopping 13 cents per hour, or almost $24 per month for a full-time employee.

If P&M had rested content with this demonstration, they could have escaped criticism. Up to this point, they were merely using the left’s own evidence against it without accepting its methods. They were showing that the left’s argument wasn’t consistent even in its own terms, albeit without demonstrating how hopelessly confused those terms really were.

But P&M couldn’t stand prosperity. To a roll of drums, they unwrapped the crown jewel in their collection. “We conducted a statistical analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data called a two-sample “t” test for comparing two means. We found, for this time period, no difference in the job-growth trend in the states that raised their minimum wages from states that did not. In other words, the correlation cited as debunking the economic case against the minimum wage is not statistically significant.”

Ta-daaaaaaa!!! Too bad there are no bows taken in print media; P&M would surely rate a round of applause in a run-of-the-mill graduate school economics seminar for their performance. It is surely no coincidence that “Ms. Mace studies economics at GeorgeMasonUniversity” while Ms. Palagashvili is a law-school fellow at NYU. Alas, they have displayed academia at its worst.

That is not to say that P&M flubbed their econometric dubs by conventional standards. We don’t know because we can’t see their results and have only their word as to their findings. But taking their comments at face value, it seems that they followed what have become standard econometric procedures. The t statistic is the standard one for small-sample tests of statistical significance. A comparison of sample means is a basic econometric procedure. Almost certainly, they assumed the standard “null hypothesis” of no difference between average job growth in the 13 states as compared to job growth in the 37 states. In this context, “no difference” does not mean that the two averages are exactly the same, which they obviously aren’t. It means that the degree of correspondence between the two is not sufficient as to enable us to be confident that the correspondence was not due to random chance. And just what does “confident” mean? The standard meaning for it is that we must be at least 90% certain. Lacking that degree of confidence, we enter a finding of “statistically insignificant” – which means that the minimum-wage increase did not “cause” the increases in job growth.

It is overwhelmingly likely that the readers of this op-ed – who undoubtedly make up a sample of Americans that is far more intelligent than any randomly chosen sample – fall into two categories: those who have no idea what P&M’s “statistical significance” paragraph meant and those who think they know but are wrong. Those who correctly understand it probably represent a statistically invisible sliver of its readership. And a majority of economists and statisticians are excluded from that sliver.

P&M thought that they were “one up” on the minimum-wage proponents at CEPR because they (P&M) were using the tool of statistical significance as it has been used for decades in academia and government. That statement would be correct only if the word “misusing” were substituted for “using” in two places. That is why they were fighting fire with fire – they were responding to CEPR’s misuse of numbers with their own misuse of statistical inference. Their mistakes were just fancier than CEPR’s, that’s all.

The Flaws of Statistical Significance

Various authors have expounded the flaws of statistical significance as developed by the late statistician Sir Ronald Fisher. The most comprehensive treatment is probably that of Deirdre McCloskey and Stephen Ziliak, The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice and Lives. For our purposes, it is sufficient to summarize how one of the two groups referred to above views the notion of statistical significance and compare it with the truth.

Ask readers of the Wall Street Journal op-ed to explain the meaning of P&M’s statistical significance paragraph in layman’s terms. Those who think they know the answer will probably say something like the following: “Well, it means that the effect of an increase in the minimum wage on overall job growth is insignificant, the opposite of significant. That means it is “too small to matter.” It’s so small we can’t be confident that something else might not be causing what we’re seeing in job growth.” That’s an intuitively appealing explication for at least two reasons. First, it incorporates the familiar meaning of the words “significant” and “insignificant.” Second, it incorporates the kind of answer we are looking for when we do empirical research on issues like this. Typically, we want “how big” or “how much” kinds of answers rather than “yes or no” types of answers.

Unfortunately, the concept of statistical significance is not what most people think it is. Its findings do not convey any quantitative sense of how big an effect is or how much influence one variable (such as an increase in the minimum wage) has on another (such as state-level growth in employment). Rather, it is a binary, “yes-no” type of concept. It registers the likelihood that the influence of one variable on another is random, as compared to systematic or non-random. Because the variables involved are invariably derived from sample data, it can be viewed as a verdict on the representativeness of a chosen sample.

This is useful information, to be sure. But it is not the most useful information we could wish to obtain. And that is a crying shame because the obsession with statistical significance has pretty much overshadowed everything else in empirical research in the social sciences and even in much of the physical sciences today. This has reached such epidemic proportions that McCloskey, a leading economic historian and econometrician, declares that most statistical work in economics done over the last thirty years is useless and must be done over. That is tantamount to saying that we might as well junk the leading academic journals published during that interval.

Fighting Fire With Fire

The proper reaction to P&M’s reaction to the CEPR study and the left-wing minimum-wage ballyhoo is a polite yawn and a “So what?” This should be followed by a trip to the woodshed and back to the drawing board for P&M, where they would be schooled in proper econometric practice. Alternatively, they can do what true free-market economists have done while their colleagues were practicing pretend-Science: spend the time honing their understanding of concepts like the time-structure of production and capital theory. That will better inform their grasp of reality than the most esoteric econometric model.

Fighting fire with fire can work in specialized cases like oil-well fires. But in today’s debates over economic theory and policy, fighting fire with fire does not extinguish the original fire. It does not even provide intellectual illumination. It merely makes the blaze bigger.

DRI-284 for week of 7-13-14: Why Big Government is Rotten to the Core: The Tale of the Taxpayers’ Defender Inside Federal Housing

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Why Big Government is Rotten to the Core: The Tale of the Taxpayers’ Defender Inside Federal Housing

Today the trajectory of our economic lives is pointed steeply downward. This space has been disproportionately devoted to explaining both how and why. That explanation has often cited the theory of government failure, in which the purported objects of government action are subordinated to the desires of politicians, bureaucrats, government employees and consultants. Economists have been excoriated for sins of commission and omission. The resulting loss of personal freedom and marketplace efficiency has been decried. The progressive march toward a totalitarian state has been chronicled.

A recent column in The Wall Street Journal ties these themes together neatly. Mary Kissel’s “Weekend Interview” column of Saturday/Sunday, July 12/13, 2014, is entitled “The Man Who Took On Fannie Mae.” It describes the working life of “career bureaucrat” and economist, Edward DeMarco, whose most recent post was acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Ms. Kissel portrays him as the man “who fought to protect American taxpayers” and “championed fiscal responsibility” in government. As we shall see, however, he is really integral to the malfunctioning of big government in general and economics in particular.

The Career of Edward DeMarco

Edward DeMarco is that contradictory combination, a career government bureaucrat who is also a trained economist. He received a PhD. in economics from the University of Maryland in the late 1980s and went to work for the General Accounting Office (GAO). As “low man on the totem pole,” he was handed the job of evaluating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They had been around since the 1930s but were known to few and understood by fewer in Congress. The decade-long-drawn-out, painful series of savings-and-loan bailouts had scalded the sensibilities of representatives and regulators alike. DeMarco’s job was to determine if Fannie and Freddie were another bailout landmine lying in wait for detonation.

His answer was: yes. The implicit taxpayer backstop provided to these two institutions – not written into their charter but tacitly acknowledged by everybody in financial markets – allowed them to borrow at lower interest rates than competitors. This meant that they attracted riskier borrowers, which set taxpayers up to take a fall. And the Congressional “oversight” supposedly placing the two under a stern, watchful eye was actually doing the opposite – acting in cahoots with them to expand their empire in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

DeMarco sounded the alarm in his report. And sure enough, Congress acted. In 1992, it established the Office of Federal Housing Oversight (OFHO). A triumph for government regulation! A vindication of the role of economics in government! A victory for truth, justice and the American way!

Yeah, right.

DeMarco pinned the tail on this donkey right smack on the hindquarters. “‘The Fannie and Freddie Growth Act,'” he called it, “because it told the market ‘Hey, we really care about these guys, and we’re concerned about them because they’re really important.'” In other words, the fix was in: Congress would never allow Fannie and Freddie to fail, and their implicit taxpayer guarantee was good as gold.

This was the first test of DeMarco’s mettle. In that sense, it was the key test, because the result jibed with the old vaudeville punchline, “we’ve already agreed on what you are; now we’re just haggling about the price.” As soon as the ineffectual nature of OFHO crystallized, DeMarco should have screamed bloody murder. But the “low man on the totem pole” in a government bureaucracy can’t do that and still hope for a career; DeMarco would have had to say sayonara to the security of government employment in order to retain his integrity. Instead, he kept his mouth shut.

Kissel discreetly overlooks this because it doesn’t jibe with her picture of DeMarco as heroic whistleblower. She is acting as advocate rather than journalist, as editor rather than reporter.

Any doubts about the fairness of this judgment are dispelled by Kissel’s narrative. “After stints at the Treasury and Social Security Administration, DeMarco found himself working at the very oversight office that his reports to Congress had helped create.” Oh, he “found himself” working there, did he? At the very office that had doublecrossed and betrayed him? “It was 2006, when Fannie and Freddie’s growth had been turbocharged by the government’s mortgages-for-all mania. Mr. DeMarco recalls that during his ‘first couple of weeks’ at the agency, he attended a conference for supervision staffers organized to tell them ‘about great, new mortgage instruments’ – subprime loans, he says, with a sardonic chuckle.” But what exactly did he do about all this while it was in progress, other than chuckling sardonically?

The first twenty years of Edward DeMarco’s career illustrate the workings of big government to a T. They depict the “invisible handshake” between orthodox, mainstream economics and the welfare state that has replaced the “invisible hand” of the marketplace that economics used to celebrate.

The Mainstream Economist as Patsy for Politicians and Bureaucrats

Mainstream economists are trained to see themselves as “social engineers.” Like engineers, they are trained in advanced mathematics. Like engineers, they are trained as generalists in a wide-ranging discipline, but specialize in sub-disciplines – civil, mechanical and chemical engineering for the engineer, macroeconomics and microeconomics for the economist. Like engineers, economists hone their specialties even more finely into sub-categories like monetary economics, international economics, industrial organization, labor economics, financial economics and energy economics. Economists are trained to think of themselves are high theoreticians applying optimizing solutions to correct the failures of human society in general and markets in particular. They take it for granted that they will command both respect and power.

This training sets economists up to be exploited by practical men of power and influence. Lawyers utilize the services of economists as expert witnesses because economists can give quantitative answers to questions that are otherwise little more than blind guesses. Of course, the precision of those quantitative answers is itself suspect. If economists really could provide answers to real-world questions that are as self-assured and precise as they pretend on the witness stand, why would they be wasting their lives earning upper-middle-class money as expert witnesses? Why are they not fabulously rich from – let us say – plying those talents as traders in commodity or financial markets? Still, economists can fall back on the justified defense that nobody else can provide better estimates of (say) wages foregone by an injured worker or business profits lost due to tortious interference. The point is, though, that economists owe their status as experts to default; their claim on expertise is what the late Thorstein Veblen would call “ceremonial.”

When economists enter the realm of politics, they are the veriest babes in the savage wood. Politicians want to take other people’s money and use it for their own – almost always nefarious – purposes. They must present a pretense of legitimacy, competence and virtue. They will use anybody and everybody who is useful to them. Economists hold doctorates; they teach at universities and occupy positions of respect. Therefore, they are ideal fronts for the devices of politicians.

Politicians use economists. They hire them or consult with them or conspicuously call them to testify in Congress. This satisfies the politicians’ debt to competence legitimacy, competence, virtue and conscience (if they have one). Have they not conferred with the best available authority? And having done so, politicians go on to do whatever they intended to do all along. They either ignore the economist or twist his advice to suit their intentions.

That is exactly what happened to Edward DeMarco. His superiors gave him an assignment. Like a dutiful economist, he fulfilled it and sat back waiting for them to act on his advice. They acted, all right – by creating an oversight body that perverted DeMarco’s every word.

Deep down, mainstream economists envision themselves as philosopher kings – either as (eventual) authority figures or as Talleyrands, the men behind the throne who act as ventriloquists to power. When brought face-to-face with the bitter disillusion of political reality, they react either by retreating into academia in a funk or by retreating into their bureaucratic shell. There is a third alternative: occupational prostitution. Some economists abandon their economic principles and become willing mouthpieces for politicians. They are paid in money and/or prestige.

It is clear that DeMarco took the path of bureaucratic compliance. Despite the attempt of WSJ’s Kissel to glamorize his role, his career has obviously been that of follower rather than either leader or whistleblower. His current comments show that he harbors great resentment over being forced to betray his principles in order to make the kind of secure living he craved.

For our purposes, we should see him as the wrong man for the job of taxpayers’ defender. That job required an extraordinary man, not a bureaucrat.

DeMarco, DeMartyr

The second career of Edward DeMarco – that of “DeMarco, DeMartyr” to the cause of fiscal responsibility and taxpayer interests, began after the housing collapse and financial panic of 2008. After bailout out Fannie and Freddie, Congress had to decide whether to close them down or reorganize them. They fell back on an old reliable default option – create a new agency, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, whose job it was to ride herd on the “toxic twins.” When FHFA’s director, James Lockhart, left in August, 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appointed DeMarco as acting director.

DeMarco began by raising executive salaries to stem the exodus of senior management. This got him bad press and hostility from both sides of the Congressional aisle. DeMarco set out to reintroduce the private sector to the mortgage market by reducing loan limits and shrinking the mortgage portfolios of Fannie and Freddie. But we shouldn’t get the wrong idea here – DeMarco wasn’t actually trying to recreate a free market in housing. “I wasn’t trying to price Fannie and Freddie out of the market so much as get the price closer so that the taxpayer capital is getting an appropriate rate of return and that, more important, we start selling off this risk,” DeMarco insists. He was just a meliorist, trying to fine-tune a more efficient economic outcome by the lights of the academic mainstream. Why, he even had the President and the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOV) on his side.

Ms. Kissel depicts DeMarco as a staunch reformer who was on his way to turning the housing market around. “Mr. DeMarco’s efforts started show results. Housing prices recovered, both [Fannie and Freddie] started to make money – lots of it – and private insurance eyed getting back into the market. Then in August 2012 the Obama administration decided to ‘sweep’ Fannie and Freddie’s profits, now and in the future, into the government’s coffers. The move left the companies unable to build up capital reserves, and shareholders sued.”

That was just the beginning. DeMarco was pressured by Congress and the administration to write down principal on the loans of borrowers whose homes were “underwater;” e.g., worth less at current market value than the value remaining on the mortgage. He also opposed creation of a proposed housing trust fund (or “slush fund,” as Kissel aptly characterizes it). Apart from the obvious moral hazard involved in systematically redrawing contracts to favor one side of the transaction, DeMarco noted the hazard to taxpayers in giving mortgagees – 80% of whom were still making timely payments – an incentive to default or plead hardship in order to benefit financially. How could mortgage markets attract investment and survive in the face of this attitude?

This intelligent evaluation won him the undying hatred of “members of Congress [and] President Obama’s liberal allies [including] White House adviser Van Jones [who] told the Huffington Post “you could have the biggest stimulus program in America by getting rid of one person;” namely, DeMarco. “Realtors, home builders, the Mortgage Bankers Association, insured depositories and credit unions” fronted for the White House by pressuring DeMarco to “degrade lending standards” to the least creditworthy borrowers – a practice that epitomized the housing bubble at its frothiest. “Protestors organized by progressive groups showed up more than once outside [DeMarco’s] house in Silver Spring, MD, demanding his ouster. A demonstration in April last year brought out 500 picketers with ‘Dump DeMarco’ signs and 15-foot puppets fashioned to look like him. ‘My first reaction was of course one of safety,’ [said DeMarco]. ‘When I first saw them, I was standing a few feet from the window of a ground-level family room and they’re less than 10 feet way through this pane of glass, and it was a crowd of people so big I couldn’t tell how many people were out there. And then all the chanting and yelling started.’ His wife had gone to pick up their youngest daughter…’so I had to get on the phone and tell her ‘Don’t come.’ Then he called the police, who eventually cleared the scene. ‘It was unsettling,’ he says. ‘I think it was meant to be unsettling… They wanted me to start forgiving debt on mortgages.'” This is what Ms. Kissel calls “the multibillion-dollar do-over,” to which “Mr. DeMarco’s resistance made him unpopular in an administration that was anxious to refire the housing market.” Ms. KIssel’s metaphor of government as arsonist is the most gripping writing in the article.

Epilogue at FHFA

Edward DeMarco was the “acting” director at FHFA. The Senate capitulated to pressure for his removal by approving Mel Watt, Majority Leader Harry Reid’s pick, as permanent director. Watt immediately began implementing the agenda DeMarco had resisted. DeMarco had successfully scheduled a series on increases in loan-guarantee fees as one of a series of measures to entice private insurers back into the market. Watt delayed them. He refused to lower loan limits for Fannie and Freddie from their $625,000 level. He directed the two companies to seek out “underserved, creditworthy borrowers;” i.e., people who can’t afford houses. He assured the various constituencies clamoring for DeMarco’s ouster that “government will remain firmly in control of the mortgage market.”

DeMarco’s valedictory on all this is eye-opening in more ways than one. Reviewing what Ms. Kissel primly calls “government efforts to promote affordable housing,” DeMarco dryly observes, “‘Let’s say it was a failed effort…To me, if you go through a 50-year period, and you do all these things to promote housing, and the homeownership rate is [the same as it was 50 years ago], I think the market’s telling you we’re at an equilibrium.’ If we assume “that only government can foster homeownership among people ‘below median income,’ that ‘suggests a troubling view of markets themselves.'”

And now the whole process is starting all over again. “If we have another [sic] recession, if there’s some foreign crisis that …affects our economy, it doesn’t matter whatever the instigating event is, the point is that if we have another round of house-price declines like we’ve had, we’re going erode most of that remaining capital support.” Characteristically, he refuses to forthrightly state the full implications of his words, which are: We are tottering on the brink of full-scale financial collapse.

Edward DeMarco: Blackboard Economist

The late Nobel laureate Ronald Coase derided what he called “blackboard economists” – the sort who pretended to solve practical problems by proposing a theoretical solution that assumed they possessed information they didn’t and couldn’t have. (Usually the solution came in the form of either mathematical equations or graphical geometry depicted on a classroom blackboard, hence the term.)

Was Coase accusing his fellow economists of laziness? Yes and no. Coase believed that transactions costs were a key determinant of economic outcomes. Instead of investigating transactions costs of action in particular cases, economists were all too prone to assume those costs were either zero (allowing markets to work perfectly) or prohibitive (guaranteeing market failure). Coase insisted that this was pure laziness on the part of the profession.

But information isn’t just lying around in the open waiting for economists to discover it. One of Coase’s instructors at the London School of Economics, future Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek, pointed out that orthodox economic theory assumed that everybody already knew all the information needed to make optimal decisions. In reality, the relevant information was dispersed in fragmentary form inside the minds of billions of people rather than concentrated in easily accessible form. The market process was not a mere formality of optimization using given data. Instead, it was markets that created the incentives and opportunities for the generation and collation of this fragmented, dispersed information into usable form.

Blackboard economists were not merely lazy. They were unforgivably presumptuous. They assumed that they had the power to effectuate what could only be done by markets, if at all.

That lends a tragic note to Ms. Kissel’s assurance that “Mr. DeMarco isn’t against government support for housing – if done properly.” After spending his career as “the loneliest man in government” while fighting to stem the tide of the housing bubble, Edward DeMarco now confesses that he doesn’t oppose government interference in the housing market after all! The problem is that the government didn’t ask him how to go about it – they didn’t apply just the right optimizing formula, didn’t copy his equations off the blackboard.

And when President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner and the housing lobbyists and the realtors and builders and mortgage bankers and lenders and progressive ideologues hear this explanation, what is their reaction? Do they smack their foreheads and cry out in dismay? Do they plead, “Save us from ourselves, Professor DeMarco?”

Not hardly. The mounted barbarians run roughshod over Mr. DeMarco waving his blackboard formula and leave him rolling in the dust. They then park their horses outside Congress and testify that “See? He’s in favor of government intervention, just as we are – we’re just haggling about the price.” Politicians with a self-interested agenda correctly view any attempt at compromise as a sign of weakness, an invitation to “let’s make a deal.” It invokes contempt rather than respect.

That is exactly what happened to Edward DeMarco. He is left licking the wounds of 25 years of government service and whining about the fact that the fact that politicians are self-interested, that government regulators do not really regulate but in fact serve the interests of the regulated, that the political left wing will stop at nothing, including physical intimidation and force.

No spit, Spurlock. We are supposed to stand up and cheer for a man who is only now learning this after spending 25 years in the belly of the savage beast? Whose valiant efforts at reform consisted of recommending optimizing nips and tucks in the outrageous government programs he supervised? Whose courageous farewell speech upon being run out of office, a la Douglas MacArthur, is “I’m not against government support for housing if done properly?”

Valedictory for Edward DeMarco

The sad story of Edward DeMarco is surely one more valuable piece of evidence confirming the theory of big government as outlined in this space. Those who insist that government is really full of honest, hard-working, well-meaning people full of idealistic good intentions doing a dirty job the best they can will now have an even harder time saying it with a straight face. It is one thing when big government opposes exponents of laissez faire; we expect bank robbers to shoot at the police. But gunning down an innocent bystander for shaking his fist in reproof shows that the robber is a hardened killer rather than a starving family man. When the welfare state steamrolls over an Edward DeMarco’s efforts to reform it at the margins, it should be clear to one and all that big government is rotten to the core.

Even so, the fact that Edward DeMarco was and is an honest man who thought he was doing good does not make him a hero. Edward DeMarco is not a martyr. He is a cautionary example. The only way to counteract big government is to oppose it openly and completely by embracing free markets. Anything less fails while giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Failure coupled with career suicide can only be redeemed by service to the clearest and noblest of principles.

DRI-303 for week of 5-11-14: The Real ‘Stress Test’ is Still to Come

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The Real ‘Stress Test’ is Still to Come

Timothy Geithner, former Treasury Secretary and former head of the New York Federal Reserve, is in the news. Like virtually every former policymaker, he has written a book about his experiences. He is currently flogging that book on the publicity circuit. Unlike many other such books, Geithner’s holds uncommon interest – not because he is a skillful writer or a keen analyst. Just the opposite.

Geithner is a man desperate to rationalize his past actions. Those actions have put us on a path to disaster. When that disaster strikes, we will be too stunned and too busy to think clearly about the past. Now is the time to view history coolly and rationally. We must see Geithner’s statements in their true light.

Power and the Need for Self-Justification

In his Wall Street Journal book review of Geithner’s book, Stress Test, James Freeman states that “Geithner makes a persuasive case that he is the man most responsible for the federal bailouts of 2008.” Mr. Freeman finds this claim surprising, but as we will see, it is integral to what Geithner sees as his legacy.

This issue of policy authorship is important to historians, whose job is getting the details right. But it is trivial to us. We want the policies to be right, regardless of their source. That is why we should be worried by Geithner’s need to secure his place in history.

Geithner and his colleagues, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, possessed powers whose exercise would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Nobody seems to have considered how the possession of such vast powers would distort their exercise.

Prior to assumption of the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, Ben Bernanke wrote his dissertation on the causes of the Great Depression. Later, his academic reputation was built on his assessment of mistakes committed by Fed Board members during the 1920s and 30s. When he joined the Board and became Chairman, he vowed not to repeat those mistakes. Thus, we should not have been surprised when he treated a financial crisis on his watch as though it were another Great Depression in the making. Bernanke was the living embodiment of the old saying, “Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” His academic training had given him a hammer and he proceeded to use it to pound the first crisis he met.

In an interview with “Bloomberg News,” Geithner used the phrase “Great Depression” three times. First, he likened the financial crisis of 2008 to the Great Depression, calling it “classic” and comparing it to the bank runs of the Great Depression. Later, he claimed that we had avoided another Great Depression by following his policies. For Geithner, the Great Depression isn’t so much an actual historical episode or an analytical benchmark as it is an emotional button he presses whenever he needs justification for his actions.

When we give vast power to individuals, we virtually guarantee that they will view events through the lens of their own ego rather than objectively. Bernanke was bound to view his decisions in this light: either apply principles he himself had espoused and built his career upon or run the risk of going down in history as exactly the kind of man he had made his name criticizing – the man who stood by and allowed the Great Depression to happen. Faced with those alternatives, policy activism was the inevitable choice.

Geithner had tremendous power in his advisory capacity as President of the New York Federal Reserve. His choices were: use it or not. Not using it ran the risk of being Hooverized by future generations; that is, being labeled as unwitting, uncaring or worse. Using it at least showed that he cared, even if he failed. The only people who would criticize him would be some far-out, laissez-faire types. Thus, he had everything to gain and little to lose by advising policy activism.

Now, after the fact, the incentive to seek the truth is even weaker than it is in the moment. Now Bernanke, Geithner et al are stuck with their decisions. They cannot change their actions, but they can change anything else – their motivations, those of others, even the truths of history and analysis. If they can achieve by lying or dissembling what they could not achieve with their actions at the time, then dishonesty is a small price to pay. Being honest with yourself can be difficult under the best of circumstances. When somebody is on the borderline between being considered the nation’s savior and its scourge, it is well-nigh impossible.

And a person who begins by lying to himself cannot end up being truthful with the world. No, memoirs like Stress Test are not the place to look for a documentary account of the financial crisis told by an insider. The pressures of power do not shape men like Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner into diamonds, but rather into gargoyles.

We cannot take their words at face value. We must put them under the fluoroscope.

“We Were Three Days Away From Americans Not Being Able to Get Money from ATMs”

Not only are Geithner’s actions under scrutiny, but his timing is also criticized. Many people, perhaps most prominently David Stockman, have insisted that the actual situation faced by the U.S. economy wasn’t nearly dire enough to justify the drastic actions urged by Geithner, et al.

Geithner’s stock reply, found in his book and repeated in numerous interviews, is that the emergency facing the nation left no time for observance of legal niceties or economic precedent. He resuscitates the old quote: “We were three days away from Americans not being able to get money from their ATMs.”

There is an effective reply because its psychological shock value tends to stun the listener into submission. But meek silence is the wrong posture with which to receive a response like this from a self-interested party like Paulson, Bernanke or Geithner. Instead, it demands minute examination.

First, ask ourselves this: Is this a figure of speech or literal truth? That is, what precise significance attaches to the words “three days?”

Recall that Bernanke and Paulson have told us that they realized the magnitude of the emergency facing the country and determined that they must (a) violate protocol by going directly to Congress; and (b) act in secret to prevent public panic. Remember also that Paulson told Congress that if they did not pass bailout legislation by the weekend, Armageddon would ensue. And remember also that, typically, Congress did not act within the deadline specified. It waited  ten days before passing the bailout deal. And the prophesied disaster did not unfold.

In other words, Paulson, Bernanke, et al were exaggerating for effect. How much they were exaggerating can be debated.

That leads to the next logical point. What about the ATM reference itself? Was it specific, meaningful? Or was it just hooey? To paraphrase the line used in courtroom interrogation by litigators (“Are you lying now or were you lying then?”), is Geithner exaggerating now just as Paulson and Bernanke exaggerated then?

Well, Geithner is apparently serious in using this reference. In the same interviews, Geithner calls the financial crisis “a classic financial panic, similar to the bank runs in the Great Depression.” In the 1930s, U.S. banks faced “runs” by depositors who withdrew deposits in cash when they questioned the solvency of banks. Under fractional-reserve banking, banks then (as now) kept only a tiny ratio of deposit liabilities on hand in the form of cash and liquid assets. The runs produced a rash of bank failures, leading to widespread closures and the eventual “bank holiday” proclaimed by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So Geithner’s borrowing of the ATM comment as an index of our distress seems to be clearly intended to suggest an impending crisis of bank liquidity.

There is an obvious problem with this interpretation, the problem being that it is obvious nonsense. Virtually every commentator and reviewer has treated Geithner’s backwards predictions of a “Great Depression” with some throat-clearing version of “well, as we all know, we can’t know what would have happened, we’ll never know, we can’t replay history, history only happens once,” and so forth. But that clearly doesn’t apply to the ATM case. We know – as incontrovertibly as we can know anything in life – what would have happened had bank runs and bank illiquidity a la 1930s so much as threatened in 2008.

Somebody would have stepped to a computer at the Federal Reserve and started creating money. We know this because that’s exactly what did happen in 2010 when the Fed initiated its “Quantitative Easing” program of monetary increase. The overwhelming bulk of the QE money found its way to bank reserve accounts at the Fed where it has been quietly drawing interest ever since. We also know that the usual formalities and intermediaries involving money creation by the Fed could and would have been dispensed with in that sort of emergency. As Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke was known as “Helicopter Ben” because he was fond of quoting Milton Friedman’s remark that the Fed could get money in public hands by dropping it from helicopters in an emergency, if necessary. Bernanke would not have stood on ceremony in the case of a general bank run; he would have funneled money directly to banks by the speediest means.

In other words, the ATM comment was and is the purest hooey. It has no substantive significance or meaning. It was made, and revived by Geithner, for shock effect only. This is very revealing. It implies a man desperate to achieve his effect, which means his words should be received with utmost caution.

“The Paradox of Financial Crises”

Geithner’s flagship appearance on the promotion circuit was his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (5/13/2014), “The Paradox of Financial Crises.” The thesis of this op-ed – the “paradox” of the title – is that “the more aggressive the government is in designing a rescue plan, the easier it is to force more restructuring in the financial sector, and the better the chances of leaving the surviving system stronger and less dependent on the taxpayer.” Alas, Geithner complains, “Americans don’t give their presidents much in the way of emergency authority to fight” financial crises. As evidence of the need for this emergency authority, Geithner cites the loss of 16% of U.S. household net worth in 2008, “several times as large as the losses at the start of the Great Depression.”

No doubt eyebrows were raised throughout the U.S. when Geithner bemoaned the lack of emergency authority for a President who has appointed dozens of economic and regulatory “czars,” single-handedly suspended execution of legislation and generally behaved high-handedly. Geithner’s thesis – a generous description of what might reasonably be called a desperate attempt at self-justification – apparently consists of three components: (1) the presumption that financial crises are uniquely powerful and destructive; (2) the claim that, nevertheless, a financial crisis can be counteracted by sufficiently forceful action, taken with sufficient dispatch; and (3) the further claim that he knows what actions to take.

The power of financial crises is a trendy idea given currency by a popular scholarly work by two economists named Rogoff and Reinhart, who surveyed recessions featuring financial panics going back several centuries and ostensibly discovered that their recoveries tended to be slow. How much merit their ideas have is really irrelevant to Geithner’s thesis because Geithner’s interest in financial crises is entirely opportunistic. It began in 2008 with Geithner’s improvisations when faced with the impending failure of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, et al. It perseveres only because Geithner’s legacy is now tied to the success of those machinations – which, unlikely as it might have seemed six years ago, is still in dispute.

Geithner’s theory of financial crises is not the Rogoff/Reinhart theory. It is the Geithner theory, which is: financial crises are uniquely powerful because Geithner needs them to be uniquely powerful in order to justify his unprecedented recommendations for unilateral executive actions. In his book and interviews, Geithner peddles various vague, vacuous generalities about financial crises. In order to these to make sense, they must be based on historical observation and/or statistical regularities. But they cannot jibe with the sentiments expressed above in the Journal. Geithner claims to be enunciating a general theory of financial crisis and rescue. But he is really telling a story of what he did to this particular financial system in the particular financial crisis of 2008.

And no wonder, since the financial system existing in the U.S. in 2008 was and still is like no financial system that existed previously. Instead of “banks” as we previously knew them, the failing financial institutions in 2008 were diversified financial institutions – nominally investment banks, although that activity had by then assumed a minor part of their work – some of whose liabilities would once have been called “near monies.” Meanwhile, the true banks were also diversified into securities and investment banking, and the larger ones controlled the overwhelming bulk of deposit liabilities in the U.S. This historically unprecedented configuration accounted for the determination of Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner to bail them out at all costs. But they weren’t drawing upon a general theory of crises, because no previous society ever had a financial structure like ours.

Geithner stresses the need to “force more restructuring in the financial sector,” as though every financial crisis was caused by corporate elephantiasis and cured by astute government pruning back of financial firms. This is not only historically wrong but logically deficient, since the past government pruning couldn’t have been very astute if crises kept recurring. Indeed, that is the obvious shortcoming of the second component. There are no precedents – none, zero, nada – for the idea that government policy can either forestall or cure recessions, whether financial or otherwise. This is not for want of trying. If there is one thing governments love to do, it is spend money. If there is another thing governments love to do, it is throw their weight around. Neither has solved the problem of recession so far.

What leads us to believe that Timothy Geithner was and is well qualified to pronounce on the subject of financial crises? Only one thing – his claims that “we did do the essential thing, which was to prevent another Great Depression, with its decade of shantytowns and bread lines. We put out the financial fire…because we wanted to prevent mass unemployment.”

Incredible as it seems now, Timothy Geithner had even fewer economic credentials for his post as Chairman of the New York Federal Reserve than Ben Bernanke had for his as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Geithner had only one economics course as a Dartmouth undergraduate (he found it “dreary”). His master’s degree at John’s Hopkins was split between international economics and Far Eastern studies. (He speaks Japanese, among other foreign languages.) He put in a three-year stint as a consultant with Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm before graduating to the Treasury, where he spent 13 years before moving to the International Monetary Fund, then becoming Chairman of the New York Fed at age 42. As Freeman observed in his book review, Geithner “never worked in finance or in any type of business” save Kissinger’s consulting firm.

This isn’t exactly a resume of recommendation for a man taking the tiller during a financial typhoon. Maybe it explains what Freeman called Geithner’s “difficulty in understanding the health of large financial firms.”

When asked by interviewers if he had any regrets about his tenure, Geithner regrets not foreseeing the crisis in time to act sooner. This certainly contradicts his theory of crises and his claim of special knowledge – if he was the man with a plan and the man of the moment, why did he fail to foresee the crisis and have to go begging for emergency authorization for Presidential action at the 11th hour? Why should we now eagerly devour the words of a man who claims responsibility for saving the nation while simultaneously admitting that he “didn’t see the crisis coming and didn’t grasp the severity of the problems when it appeared?” He now boasts a special understanding of financial crises, but “didn’t require the banks he was overseeing to raise more capital” at the time of the crisis. In fact, as Freeman discloses, the minutes of the Federal Reserve show that Geithner denies that the banking system in general was undercapitalized even while other Fed governors were proposing that banks meet a capital call.

Geithner offers no particular reason why we should believe anything he says and ample reasons for doubt.

“The Government and the Central Bank Have to Step In and Take Risks”

Geithner’s book and publicity tour are a public-relations exercise designed to change his image. Ironically, this involves a tradeoff. He had image problems with both the right wing and the left wing, so gains on one side rate to lose him support on the other side. The Wall Street Journal piece shows that he wants to burnish his left profile. He closes by lamenting that “we were not able to do all that was important or desirable.  …Long-term unemployment remains alarmingly high. There are very high levels of poverty and appalling inequality, not just in income and wealth, but in the opportunities Americans have for a quality education or economic mobility.” Having spent the bulk of the op-ed apologizing for not allowing undeserving Wall Street bankers to go broke, he now nods frantically to every left-wing preoccupation. None of this has anything to do with a financial crisis or emergency authorizations or stress tests, of course – it is just Geithner stroking his left-wing critics.

The real sign that Geithner’s allegiance is with the left is his renunciation of the concept of “moral hazard.” Oh, he gives lip service to the fact that when the government bails out business and subsidizes failure, this will encourage subsequent businessmen to take excessive risks on a “heads I win, tails the government bails me out” expectation. But he savagely criticizes the moral hazard approach as “Old Testament” thinking. (The fact that “Old Testament” is now a pejorative is significant in itself; one wonders what significance “New Testament” would have.) “What one has to do in a panic is the opposite of what seems fair and just. In a financial crisis, the natural instinct is to let creditors suffer losses, let firms fail, and protect taxpayers from any risk of loss. But in a financial panic, a strategy based on those instincts will lead to depression-level unemployment. Instead, the government and the central bank have to step in and take risks on a scale that the private sector can’t and won’t… reduce the incentive for investors, lenders and depositors to run…raise the confidence of businesses and individuals… breaking a vicious cycle in which the fear of a financial-system collapse and a deep recession feed on each other and become self-fulfilling.”

This is surely the clearest sign that Geithner is engaging in ex post rationalization and improvisation. For centuries, economists have debated the question of whether recessions are real or monetary in origin and substance. Now Geithner emerges with the secret: they are psychological. Keynes, it seems, was the second-most momentous thinker of the 1930s, behind Sigmund Freud. All we have to do is overcome our “natural instinct” and rid ourselves of those awful “Old Testament” morals and bail out the right people – creditors – instead of the wrong people – taxpayers.

Once again, commentators have glossed over the most striking contradictions in this tale. For five years, we have listened ad nauseum to scathing denunciations of bankers, real-estate brokers, developers, investment bankers, house flippers and plain old home buyers who went wild and crazy, taking risks right and left with reckless abandon. But now Geithner is telling us that the problem is that “the private sector can’t and won’t …take risks on a scale” sufficient to save us from depression! So government and the central bank (!) must gird their loins, step in and do the job.

But this is a tale left unfinished.  Geithner says plainly that his actions saved us from a Great Depression. He also says that salvation occurred because government and the Fed assumed risks on a massive scale. What happened to those risks? Did they vanish somewhere in a puff of smoke or cloud of dust? If not, they must still be borne. And if the risks are still active, that means that we have not, after all, been saved from the Great Depression; it has merely been postponed.

It is not too hard to figure out what Geithner is saying between the lines. He wants to justify massive Federal Reserve purchases of toxic bank assets and the greatest splurge of money creation in U.S. history – without having to mention that these put us all on a hook where we remain to this day.

In this sense, Timothy Geithner’s book was well titled. Unfortunately, he omitted to mention that the most stressful test is yet to come.

DRI-322 for week of 4-6-14: How the Dead Hand of Regulation Is Holding Back the Future

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

How the Dead Hand of Regulation Is Holding Back the Future

Self-Driving Cars: What’s the Hurry? 30,000 Annual Deaths are Nothing to Get Excited About

Self-driving cars are automobiles that drive themselves. This is possible because they possess a system of sensors and computer programs that perform the basic driving functions of starting, shifting, steering, navigation, “seeing” obstacles and avoiding them, “observing” (coded) traffic and geographic signage and stopping. Most people are aware that Google has built a fleet of self-driving cars. Many people know that self-driving cars have been extensively tested, not only on private courses but also on public roads in states such as California. Some people know that self-driving cars have had no accidents during these tests.

It would seem that these facts have enormous significance. Currently, deaths due to motor-vehicle accidents constitute the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In 2012, the most recent year for which complete data are available, over 34,000 people died on U.S. roads from motor-vehicle accidents. (This was an increase from the 2011 total of 32,000+, for which the figure of 1.10 deaths per million vehicle miles travelled was an all-time low since this safety statistic was first measured in 1921.) This does not count an additional 2,000+ pedestrians and motorcyclists who also died due to accidents in which motor vehicles were implicated.

Combine the information in the first paragraph of this section with the information in the second paragraph. This amalgamation is tantamount to saying that a disease epidemic currently kills over 30,000 people yearly, and we have a nearly foolproof cure for the disease. And we are doing virtually nothing to implement that cure.

In this case, the “cure” entails making the necessary changes in infrastructure and law to allow self-driving vehicles (SDVs) to operate in the U.S. Whether SDVs are or are not ready for mass adoption tomorrow or the next day is irrelevant – at the moment, we couldn’t adopt them even if they were ready for prime time. What we should be doing is paving their way (no pun intended) so that when all their bugs have been exterminated, we can put SDVs into use post haste.

The federal government has assumed the role of safety czar for the nation. Superficially, one would expect federal agencies to be making rules, suggesting law changes and beating the drums for the dawning new era in American transportation in the same manner as (say) they have been propagandizing for Obamacare.

Instead, this is how the federal the federal government has reacted to the prospect of self-driving cars:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not recommend that states authorize the operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing at this time.” The NHTSA, as its name implies, is the agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation whose specific mandate is traffic safety. Yet, incredible as it seems, NHTSA not only is not proceeding full speed ahead with plans for the future of self-driving cars – it recommends that states do not authorize their general use in spite of the fact that states are doing just that.

Uh…what does NHTSA recommend that states do about self-driving cars, then? “NHTSA recommends that states require issue separate driver licenses, or at least special driver-license endorsements, for those who wish to operate autonomous vehicles.” A licensure requirement is a classic example of what economists call a “barrier to entry” into an activity. In other words, the NHTSA is trying to make it harder for people to drive SDVs.

The Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, had this to say about his department’s policy on SDVs: “…Our top priority is to ensure these vehicles and their occupants are safe.” Picture this hypothetical scenario: We are suffering an epidemic in which tens of thousands of people die every year. Some people step forward and volunteer to test a vaccine that will almost certainly cure the disease that causes the epidemic. Suddenly a Federal Cabinet head steps forward with hand upraised to place controls on the testing process. “Our top priority is to make sure this vaccine and these test volunteers are safe.” No, dummy! Your top priority is to keep the nation safe! Thousands of people are dying every year! If a few people have to endure a slight risk to eliminate those deaths, your job is to get out of the way and let that happen as quickly as possible!

That hypothetical scenario is an excellent analogy to the status of SDVs today.

At this point, the reader must be shaking his head in utter disbelief. Are these people crazy? Are they completely unaware of the progress of SDVs? Oh, no. NHTSA goes on to blandly admit that “self-driving cars are seen as having the potential to save many thousands of lives annually by avoiding deadly crashes caused by human error, the reason for the vast majority of auto accidents.” This means that NHTSA is placing roadblocks in the path of SDVs while knowing full well their lifesaving potential. In other words, the NHTSA will save those thousands of lives when it is good and ready or, as the late Orson Welles might put it, the NHTSA will save no lives before its time.

NHTSA to Americans: Drop dead.

Just in case the full picture isn’t clear by now, the NHTSA currently has power to affect the lives of virtually American and control the activities of all drivers. SDVs have the potential to leave the NHTSA with nobody to regulate, since there would be virtually no safety issues left other than purely mechanical ones that would gradually fall almost to zero. (But you can be sure that the agency will fight tooth and claw to retain safety regulation of SDVs anyway, to justify its existence in downsized form.)

NHTSA wants to set up its own tests for SDVs. In fact, these “tests” will be used to delay the progress of SDVs as long as possible. As precedent for this prediction, we can cite the long-drawn out deregulation and subsequent technological revolution in telecommunications, much delayed in America compared to many other countries.

 

“Someday All Planes Will Be Drones”

Ask the average American what he or she knows about “drones” and chances are the reply will focus on pilotless aircraft controlled by a military operator on the ground and used in Middle Eastern countries to assassinate terrorists. In a way, this is fitting, since drones began as military weapons over half a century ago.

The word “drone” connotes a mindless worker performing rote tasks, in the manner of worker bees. When mechanical, drones are under the control of a human operator. The earliest drones were developed for military-intelligence purposes in the late 1950s. When Francis “Gary” Powers was shot down while piloting a U-2 high-altitude spy plane in 1961, the U.S. military began substituting pilotless craft for U-2s to avoid incurring propaganda setbacks from the capture of live prisoners.

Drone technology was perfected in successive wars from Vietnam to Kuwait to Afghanistan to Iraq. Today drones are anything but an embryonic innovation, full of kinks and bugs. It is long past time for their debut in commerce. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently attracted attention with a plan to deliver packages via drones. Speculation about the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has raised the possibility of pilotless commercial airliners. After all, the most common cause of airline crash, as with automobiles, is pilot error. The general public is barely aware of the fact that most basic functions of commercial airline flight have already been automated.

Whenever scientific innovation threatens to make the world a better place, government regulators can be relied upon to build barriers to progress. This sounds highly pejorative to most people, yet it is really a perfectly logical state of affairs. Entrepreneurs and business owners use scientific innovations to make our lives better, not necessarily because they long to help us but because the only way they can profit is if we approve of their business decisions. Government regulators cannot earn profits and they do not benefit personally from making our lives better by (say) improving workplace safety or blocking a dangerous drug or process from coming to market. Consequently, they strive to improve their own welfare by maximizing government budgets and payrolls and minimizing risk of public-relations disaster. They do that by strangling innovation and risk-taking by the private sector.

Aren’t government regulators members of the society they regulate? If their decisions rebound to our disadvantage, don’t they lose by that, just as we do? Yes, but for any one regulatory decision there is only a small chance that the regulator’s consumption will be reduced markedly by restrictive regulation. But a too-favorable regulation that turns out wrong – a drug allowed on the market that later causes illness or death, for example – will kill the regulator’s career. And in the case of innovative technologies like self-driving cars, laissez-faire regulation will kill the entire regulatory agency or vastly reduce its scope. The political left has made its bones by insisting that corporations cheerfully kill their customers in pursuit of profits. In reality, it is obvious that government regulators are the ones who will send tens of thousands of Americans to their deaths annually rather than face the prospect of losing their regulated captives when self-driving cars replace human-driven ones.

Any doubts about the cogency of this analysis should be erased by consideration of federal regulatory policy regarding commercial drone use. While American businesses are lining up to use drones for various applications, this is the policy of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the commercial use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS):

“The first annual UAS Roadmap addresses future policies, regulations, technologies and procedures that will be required as UAS operations increase in the nation’s airspace.” “Policies, regulations, technologies and procedures” that will be “required?” This sounds as though the FAA plans to micromanage UAS by creating a thicket of bureaucratic rules that will slow the industry to a crawl. And sure enough: “The Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) have developed a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil UAS into the national airspace system.” To a professional economist, the words “comprehensive plan” specifically mean complete control by a central authority in the manner of the former Soviet Union’s GOSPLAN. The phrase “safely accelerate” has an Orwellian ring; it means that the government is going to slow down UAS development while pretending to move it forward with all deliberate speed.

We are now observing an excellent example of the FAA’s “safe acceleration” in action. The agency announced earlier this year that it would hold a public meeting on May 28, 2014 to “discuss the agency’s plans to establish a new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) center of excellence (COE).” The FAA considered 24 U.S. cities as candidates for sites to test the safety of UAS. It “considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk” in selecting 6 test sites.

Wait a minute – if the military has been using drones for over a half-century, why do we need a civilian agency (presumably lacking the military’s expertise) to test the safety of the technology? Drones have already been interacting within civilian airspace in the course of performing their military duties, both inside the U.S. (in transit) and outside it (accomplishing their mission). The testing sites and center of excellence are a classic regulatory stall. (A bureaucratic rule thumb is that the more seriously a bureaucracy takes itself by employing elevated, obfuscatory rhetoric and lengthy acronyms, the less valid is its mission.)

Superficially, the stakes may seem lower than with SDVs. There are no 30,000 lives to be saved immediately by the commercialization of drone technology. But that is deceptive. If it is possible to deliver Amazon’s goods, it is also possible to deliver vital foods, fuels and medicines, too. Public attention has focused on the possible abuse of privacy by drones, but why not focus on the potential to enhance privacy and security by using drones? History supplies plenty of cases in which the ultimate uses of technology differed dramatically from their initial ones.

In an incisive Wall Street Journal column, Holman Jenkins pointed out that most routine functions of commercial aircraft have been automated already. “Someday all planes will be drones,” Jenkins said. Predictably, his words elicited indignant denials by airline pilots whose jobs were threatened by the prospect of drones. But Jenkins is right. It remains true that airliner accidents are (still) due predominantly to human error – the very thing that drones will eliminate.

The War on HIgh-Frequency and High-Speed Stock Trades

Technology is also in the forefront of the latest regulatory jihad waged against the financial community. This particular war is waged against traders of financial assets, particularly stocks. The erring traders are not buying or selling the wrong stocks; they are trading in the wrong way. At this point, things become confusing. At times, the traders are trading too often; that is, they are engaging in high-frequency trading. Other times, though, the traders are trading too fast, engaging in high-speed trading.

Do the two sound like the same thing? Well, if you think so, you’re in bad company, because regulators apparently think so, too. A little thought will show that this need not be so. Even in the old days of trades penciled on slips of paper and consummated via open outcry, it was possible to trade many times per day, although it was rather uncommon. Of course, high-speed trades were ushered in with computer technology and became dominant during the digital Internet era. But regulators have recently issued overwrought bulletins suggesting that they view these practices as equivalent shady practices.

“The FBI has developed fact patterns of potentially illegal trading,” announced one of these bulletins. This sounds ominous, to say the least. But “because high-speed trades are executed by computer programs, it is often more difficult to detect nefarious activity and to prove that it was executed intentionally.” This astounding qualifier is enough to send a knowledgeable analyst’s eyebrows flying off his forehead. Potentially illegal trading? What on earth could merit this denomination? Why does cybernetic origin cloud the issue of intention? After all, somebody had to program the computer. And why on earth does computer trading make it hard to detect wrongdoing? Was wrongdoing unheard of back in the primitive, pre-computer days? This sounds as if regulators want to demonize high-speed trading but lack evidence of any real wrongdoing – so they have to content themselves with hinting darkly that something funny must be going on.

This impression was reinforced by subsequent comments by an FBI spokesman, who cited “the practice of placing a group of trades… to create the false appearance of market activity.” But this kind of “churning” and allegations of it have been going on for a few centuries, since the days when trades were conducted outdoors under shade trees. The FBI purports to investigate “whether high-speed trading firms are engaging in insider trading by taking advantage of fast-moving market information unavailable to other investors.” Surely the FBI must be kidding. Since time immemorial, the slogan on Wall Street has been “buy on the rumor, sell on the news.” The idea has been precisely to move fast to take advantage of market information before it becomes generally known. If that constitutes insider trading ipso facto, then Wall Street might as well close up shop and go home.

But the FBI is really serious. “There are many people in government who are very focused on this and who are very concerned about it and who think it breaks the law.” The only thing missing seems to be a Ten Most Wanted Financial Traders List.

Grizzled veterans of financial markets feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu at all this. They remember Richard Ney, for example. Ney was the young actor who starred alongside Greer Garson as her son in the 1941 Oscar-winning film Mrs. Miniver. The next year, Garson and Ney startled the film world by marrying. Ney’s film career fizzled out despite solid work in a few more films. After working in television, Ney became a Wall Street stockbroker and wrote bestselling exposes explaining why the stock market was rigged against the small, non-professional investor and in favor of proprietary trading firms.

Ney’s complaints were focused on the activities of specialists, people hired by the exchanges to insure that a market always existed for any listed stock. The specialist was required to take the other side of any trade for which either buyers or sellers were not soon forthcoming. As compensation for the potential financial inconvenience of playing this role, the specialist was accorded the benefit of a bid-ask spread; e.g., a kind of brokerage fee embodied in the differential between buying price and selling price. This size of this spread serves as a direct index of risk in the trade of the asset.

It is ironic that the advent of computer trading has consigned the specialist, if not quite to the fate of the dodo, at least to relative insignificance. How? Well, the whole purpose of specialists was to guarantee a liquid market, but computer trading has made practically everybody a potential trader. Not only that, but the presence of John Q. Public, Joe Doakes and Joe Sixpack in the stock market has meant that more trades are being done with a lower average size of each trade. And that happens to be the hallmark of high-frequency trading, as pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed (“HIgh-Frequency Hyperbole,” WSJ, 4/2/2014) by two veteran money managers who are not themselves high-frequency or high-speed traders (Clifford Asness and Michael Mendelson).

So Ney’s bogeyman, the foe of the small investor, has now been put in his place by high-frequency computer stock trading. This doesn’t exactly sound like high-frequency trading is a threat to the public weal. Asness and Mendelson’s opinion of high-frequency trading is that “we think it helps us. It seems to have reduced our costs [by reducing bid-ask spreads] and …enable[s] us to manage more investment dollars.” In effect, say the pair, high-frequency traders have assumed the liquidity-provision function once provided by specialists and then inherited by the “market-makers” who succeeded them. But they do it cheaper and better and “competition forces them to pass most of the savings on to us investors.”

Of course, whenever interlopers come along to chip away at profits once earned by bigger, less competitive firms or individuals, the latter invariably cry bloody murder. That is what has happened here, and the screamers form the cheering public audience for the immorality play being cast by regulators.

But a receptive audience isn’t motivation enough. Why have the national police force (the FBI) been called out by security regulators to cope with this menace that is benefitting small investors and reducing trading costs for the market at large? Precisely because the success of the market threatens to leave regulators without anybody to regulate. If the market works so smoothly that specialists are unnecessary and bid-ask spreads become tiny, people will begin to wonder why the majestic edifice of securities regulation is required. Brokers are fast going the way of insurance salesmen; prospectuses can be found on the Internet and index funds are becoming a way of life. The SEC is going to have to create a threat to justify suppressing the technology that is making it as obsolete as other artifacts of the old days.

Once again, the pattern is familiar. Technology is steadily improving the lives of Americans across the country and government regulators are frantically trying to hold it back to keep from losing their jobs. And they are being aided by incumbents whose jobs and profits are threatened by the competitive innovations.

The Big Daddy of Regulation

The biggest, longest-lived and most pernicious regulator of them all is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The story of this behemoth merits an EconBrief all its own.