Category Archives: The Market Process

Congressional Economics

Some people think that the only reason poverty still exists is because Congress hasn’t passed laws guaranteeing the right to decent housing, health, and education.

Some of these people are in Congress. Over at The American Spectator, my colleague Jacqueline Otto and I explain why their hearts are in the right place, but their heads aren’t:

Suppose that poverty really can be abolished by passing a few laws. Jackson isn’t going nearly far enough, then. The Constitution should guarantee everyone not just a decent home, but a mansion filled with servants to take care of every need.

Everyone should have the right to not just a doctor’s visit every 6 months, but a cadre of specialists with access to the latest technologies and tests. This would be a boon for life expectancy.

And why only an iPod and a laptop for children? They deserve supercomputers! And the right to a Harvard Ph.D. Such a law would give America the most educated population in the world; though it would probably know the least.

Congress might as well pass a law guaranteeing an above-average lifestyle for all Americans.

From Poor and Sick to Healthy and Rich

Via Russ Roberts, this is an amazing video. I’m always impressed with creative, compelling ways to use data to tell a story. And this story is one of the most important in human history: how most of humanity went from being poor and sick to healthy and rich in just 200 years.

There is still a ways to go. But if past is prologue, I’m optimistic about the future.

Joe Biden’s Weak Case for Government Meddling

Joe Biden believes that government played a large role in the success of railroads in the 19th century. In this video, Don Boudreaux points out that that isn’t actually true. There were four transcontinental railroads. Three of them received subsidies.  The fourth was the Great Northern Railway, founded by Canadian immigrant James J. Hill. He alone rejected any special government favors.

All three subsidized railroads went into receivership. Hill’s Great Northern Railway remained solvent, and is still in business today as the BNSF Railroad.

One Way to Create High-Tech Jobs

My colleague Ryan Radia and I recently sent this letter to The New York Times:

Editor, New York Times:

Catherine Rampell’s September 7 article, “Once a Dynamo, the Tech Sector Is Slow to Hire,” mourns the recent decline in U.S. data processing jobs. She blames much of the decline on the automation of previously tedious tasks.

May we suggest one way to get those jobs back: No more automation. Ban the use of computers for data processing. Imagine how much information flows through today’s global economy in an average day. Computers handle most of the load. That costs millions of jobs.

The effects would reverberate far beyond the tech sector. The paper, pen, and pencil industries would also boom.

Companies are dead-set on doing more with less. True, that creates more jobs in the long run by freeing up resources — and employees — for new ventures. But if only they would consider doing less with more, they could create more data processing jobs.

Ryan Young and Ryan Radia
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

The Rahn Curve

A little government can do a lot of good. A lot of government can do little good.

Rules protecting life, liberty, and property can create the stable conditions that entrepreneurs need to flourish. It works best when these rules are simple, clear, and few. But problems emerge when government takes on other missions.

Rules that are complicated, opaque, and numerous create instability. Entrepreneurs are less likely to invest or innovate if they fear the rules of the game might change tomorrow on a whim. Complying with regulations takes up time and effort that could be spent creating wealth. When governments get involved in business, businesses will involve themselves with government. This is an invitation to corruption, rent-seeking, and regulatory capture. Many backs get scratched, but economic growth suffers.

Dan Mitchell‘s latest video introduces the Rahn Curve, named after top-notch economist Richard Rahn, to illustrate that concept visually. Most academic studies on the subject estimate that governments that take up 15 to 25 percent of GDP is about the right size. The U.S. government consumes roughly 40 percent of GDP. That wide range is because different government policies have different effects, and because the complexity of even the smallest economies makes any macro-level study uncertain.

The academics might be guessing too high, though. Historical data from the 19th century show that the best-performing economies had governments around 10 percent of GDP. That includes the U.S. and most of Europe.

Returning to that size government wouldn’t even be particularly austere. the U.S. government would have a $1.4 trillion budget. Roughly what we had during the Clinton years.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch. The Rahn curve contains valuable insights.

What’s at Stake for Entrepreneurs?

Everything. Funny how easy it is to lose sight of that. This video by Caleb Brown shows you in less than three minutes just how much one couple put on the line — so that you can enjoy fine coffee and wine. Too few people appreciate that aspect of capitalism.

By the way, this video is part of a contest. The winner is decided by traffic. So if you like what you see, spread it around far and wide.

Regulation of the Day 93: Predatory Lending

Congress has used the financial crisis as an excuse to regulate what it calls “predatory lending.” As so often happens, its new regulations have had unintended consequences.

A bank in South Dakota, in order to comply with the new rules, is charging 79.9 percent interest for one of its low-limit credit cards. The pre-regulation rate was 9.9 percent.

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 makes it illegal to charge annual fees greater than a quarter of a card’s limit. For small-balance cards, the allowable fees are tiny now. That leaves banks with three options:

-1. Lose money. The Wall Street Journal correctly notes that “Banks can’t be expected to give money away, even if Congress is in the habit of doing just that.” So this option is unlikely.

-2. Stop offering low-limit cards. This will hurt people who need them, such as people with low incomes, people with bad credit records, and young people who are trying to establish a credit record.

-3. Charge higher interest rates to make up for the money lost in fees. This is exactly what is happening here with the 79.9 percent rate for a $250-limit card.

If the bank calculated correctly, the 79.9 percent rate will be roughly a wash compared to the earlier high-fee, low-rate policy. But different customers will be paying. The people who incur a lot of  interest-rate charges are usually the people who can’t afford them. And they’ll be paying a lot more than they were before the CCARD Act.

People who can afford to pay their balances on time often don’t pay little or no interest interest anyway. The 79.9 percent rate doesn’t really affect them. And now their annual fees have gone way down. The CCARD Act is, completely unintentionally,  a wealth transfer from poor people to richer people. Congress is actively hurting the very people it intended to help.

Regulation of the Day 83: Citations

The Code of Federal Regulations contains a regulation on how to cite the Code of Federal Regulations. It reads as follows:

The Code of Federal Regulations may be cited by title and section, and the short form “CFR” may be used for “Code of Federal Regulations.” For example, “1 CFR 10.2” refers to title 1, Code of Federal Regulations, part 10, section 2.

See for yourself at 1 CFR 8.9.

Standard citation formats are extremely useful. That would be why, even without regulation’s guiding hand, the private sector evolved the Chicago and MLA styles, among others.

Yet another example of spontaneous order at its finest.

Antitrust as Corporate Welfare for Aggrieved Competitors

Wayne Crews and I have an article in today’s American Spectator about the antitrust crusade against Intel. Our key points:

-An FTC picking winners and losers is not capitalism. It is crony capitalism.

-Chips in “Wintel” desktop computers increasingly constitute just one subset of a vast semiconductor market. Only a small fraction of the chips in non-PC devices are Intel’s — and these devices are where the future lies.

-Regulators’ charges against Intel have changed over the years, but their verdict always remains the same: guilty. Suspicious.

-We’d be better off prosecuting the DOJ and the FTC for colluding against free enterprise.

Making Broadband Accessible: Innovation, Not Intervention

FCC regulators want to provide wider and cheaper broadband access by subsidizing it, raising taxes, and forcing network owners to share their network infrastructure with competitors.

A few things the FCC should consider:

-Subsidies don’t make broadband access any less expensive. They just change who pays for it. In this case, that would be anybody with a phone. Which probably includes you. The great economist Ludwig von Mises observed that “A government can no more determine prices than a goose can lay hen’s eggs.”*

-The tax would make owning a phone more expensive. And when something becomes more expensive, people consume less of it. With tax-exempt technologies like Skype and Google Voice now available, people can switch away from a taxed phone to something cheaper more easily than ever. The more people who do that, the less revenue the phone tax would generate, defeating its very purpose.

-If a company has to share its network infrastructure with its competitors, it loses the incentive to maintain and improve that network. Why invest millions of dollars if it will help your competition just as much as yourself? Quality suffers. So does innovation. In the long run, it is innovation, not FCC intervention, that will make broadband affordable and accessible for everyone. The long-run view is just as important as the short-run view here.

-Land-based networks are expensive to build in rural areas. The cost per customer is huge compared to denser urban areas. Fortunately, that isn’t as much of a problem for wireless technologies. The FCC seems hellbent on the land-based networks since wireless networks aren’t yet advanced enough for mass-market broadband service. But they will be soon enough. And every dollar spent on old-fashioned wired networks is a dollar unavailable for improving wireless service. An unintended consequence of FCC intervention would be slower innovation.

*Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, 4th ed., (Irvington-on-Hudson New York: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996 [1949], p. 397.