Category Archives: Public Choice

Randall G. Holcombe – Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained

Randall G. Holcombe – Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained

Excellent, though probably a difficult read for a layman. Most people have a two-axis view of politics—most countries are some blend of capitalism and socialism. Holcombe argues that there is a distinct third system, which he calls political capitalism. It has characteristics of market capitalism, such as private property and usually democratic political institutions. But political capitalism also features heavy control by elites. Because votes count for very little in any decent-sized election and because voters typically have low information, it is naturally easier for elites to control public policies with relatively little public accountability.

An underappreciated key point, first made by Mancur Olson, is that small groups have lower transaction costs than larger groups. A small group is easier to form, and it is easier to monitor members so they don’t shirk on the rest of the group.

Another point is that principled legislators have almost no chance of being influential under political capitalism. If a politician is known for sticking to their principles, other legislators will not bother trying to win their vote on bills. If they support a bill, they’ll vote for it no matter what. If they oppose it, their support cannot be bought, so it’s not worth spending resources on.

That means principled legislators aren’t offered choice committee assignments, fundraising assistance, or get introduced to powerful social connections. Principled legislators are doomed to ineffectiveness.

It is well known that political office naturally attracts certain undesirable personality types. Holcombe demonstrates that institutional structures actually reward them, so there is a natural selection process to put the worst on top.

Holcombe also makes several valuable contributions to the theory of rent-seeking. I wish I had known about these when Fred Smith and I were working on our 2015 rent-seeking paper, which would have greatly benefited from his insights. I will definitely be citing this book in the future.

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Boeing Pushes 100 Percent Tariffs on Airbus

Boeing, fresh off a victory in restoring the Export-Import Bank’s full lending authority, is floating the idea of a 100 percent tariff on Airbus aircraft and parts. Airbus is Boeing’s largest competitor. There are four factors in play here. The first three are public relations, the opportunity costs of cronyism, and how best to pursue a level playing field in the global economy. The fourth is the likely retaliation such a move would spark.

From a PR standpoint, Boeing wants to move public attention away from its safety issues with the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Most of the press Boeing gets for Ex-Im and Airbus tariffs will be negative, and the company knows this. It would still likely prefer that people be upset about those than about its safety problems, which are an existential threat to more than just airline passengers.

To that point, Boeing arguing for an Airbus tariff right now is almost perfect news cycle timing. The China trade dispute and NAFTA/USMCA are hot stories. Just today, President Trump announced a six-month delay on a possible European auto tariff, which will both keep that story alive for a while and give Boeing time to fold an Airbus tariff into a possible action.

Boeing also has a Baptists-and-bootleggers story at the ready. The World Trade Organization ruled, correctly, that Airbus received unfair government subsidies when it launched its A350 and A380 aircraft. Under WTO rules, the U.S. is entitled to retaliate. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it should. An Airbus tariff is highly unlikely to spur needed reform.

This ties into the opportunity costs of cronyism. Boeing puts significant resources into lobbying for Export-Import Bank support, Airbus tariffs, and other preferential policies. All of those resources are not being used to address the 737 MAX safety issues. This might improve a decimal point somewhere in a quarterly earnings report in the short term. But Boeing’s misplaced priorities could cause long-term harm to both aviation safety and Boeing’s own competitiveness. Competing in Washington is not the same thing as competing in the marketplace. Boeing’s investors should be upset at the company’s behavior.

Companies that engage in heavy rent-seeking are less profitable than more market-oriented companies. Even in Boeing’s case, the most profitable years in company history happened when Ex-Im was unable to offer its usual financing.

Which brings up the third point: It is not enough to have a level playing field. That level must be raised, not lowered. Boeing is right that Airbus’ massive government subsidies are unfair. But the way to address the problem is not to copy Europe’s policy mistakes. Don’t sink down to their level, raise them up to ours—though, admittedly, our own level of cronyism has much room for improvement. But reformers must start somewhere.

If anything, Boeing might have an interest in further tying up Airbus in webs of subsidies and favorable regulations—though I would strongly disagree with this strategy. Government protection tends to cause sclerosis in its beneficiaries, and Boeing should be pleased at the long-term implications of Airbus’ comfort. I am not a fan of this zero-sum thinking, but Boeing might be. Even from their self-interested perspective, an Airbus tariff is a bad idea.

Finally, as I pointed out yesterday, tariffs are nearly always met with retaliation, not cooperation. The European Union almost certainly will not change its tune on Airbus subsidies in response to a U.S. tariff—especially in a global market with many non-U.S. customers. Europe will harden its stance, likely at Boeing’s expense.

Given how tense global trade relations currently are, even if Boeing is just blowing PR smoke, this is a bad time to do it. Better for the company to refocus on making safe, innovative products than spending its resources on a political game with no winners.

See also relevant CEI scholarship on trade, the Ex-Im Bank, and the ethics of rent-seeking.

Institutional Economics in a Nutshell

Long-term structures matter more for policy outcomes than electing a preferred candidate.

Or as Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan put it in the closing paragraph of The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy, p. 167:

Good games depends on good rules more than they depend on good players.

Blocking the T-Mobile-Sprint Merger: Competition, Rent-Seeking, and Uncertainty

Nationwide 5G networks are coming. They will expand possibilities for everything from smartphone applications to GPS to streaming video, and will enable new technologies that have not yet been invented. President Trump wants the U.S. to be a world leader in 5G adoption. But his Justice Department’s antitrust division might hinder that goal by blocking the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile.

The antitrust division’s rationale is that the deal would decrease the number of major wireless carriers from four to three. But my colleague Jessica Melugin argues that without the merger, the number of carriers might actually be two: “T-Mobile and Sprint will [need to] be able to combine their resources [in order to] stay competitive with Verizon and AT&T, and hopefully help the mobile communications industry in the United States win the race to build the first 5G network.” Together, they might survive. Apart, both might go under.

On the other hand, the rule of thumb is that 90 percent of mergers are failures, remember. This could well be the next AOL-Time Warner. Nobody knows how Sprint-T-Mobile would turn out, including the Justice Department, as well as the companies themselves. But unlike antitrust regulators, Sprint and T-Mobile have skin in the game, and thus a stronger incentive to make the right decision.

Then there is the rent-seeking angle. As my colleague Wayne Crews notes: “It’s also important to note that invoking antitrust laws in this case is de facto corporate welfare for Verizon and AT&T. It means they can stand pat rather than reacting to dynamic changes to the marketplace.”

Third, there is the uncertainty angle. There are no set criteria for what makes a merger legal or illegal. Regulators decide at their own discretion—and politics are often involved, as with President Trump’s recent unsuccessful attempt to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger (Time Warner owns CNN, which is often critical of Trump).

There are ways to measure market concentration, such as the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index. But its numbers are easy to manipulate to reach any conclusion—just define the relevant market however narrowly or broadly you want, and you can generate a number showing any desired degree of market concentration. The Federal Trade Commission has a set of merger guidelines, but they are not binding and can easily be ignored if politics or other merit-unrelated factors are more important at the moment.

This regulatory uncertainty has costs far beyond whatever happens with the Sprint-T-Mobile deal. Even if the merger goes through, and a merged T-Mobile-Sprint proves a viable 5G-era competitor, the fact that mergers are approved or denied at a whim will continue to have its chilling effect on companies far outside of technology or communications. For some companies, the upside is not worth the cost in legal fees, political engagement, and potential bad publicity. This is consumers’ loss, not just entrepreneurs’ and investors’.

For more reasons to be skeptical not just of the move to stop the Sprint-T-Mobile merger, but of antitrust regulation in general, see Wayne Crews’ and my just-released paper, “The Case against Antitrust Law: Ten Areas Where Antitrust Policy Can Move on from the Smokestack Era.”

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon – Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon – Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

An inside history of the New Horizons mission, which sent a satellite past Pluto. Stern is the Principle Investigator (head honcho) for the mission, and Grinspoon assisted with PR as well as some of the mission science. The photographs are beautiful, the science is awe-inspiring, and the amount of work the team put in is admirable.

I was especially struck by the amount of politicking, bureaucratic infighting, turf wars among contractors, and backroom-dealing that went into the mission, delayed it for years, and almost killed it altogether. I found a similar theme in Steve Squyres’ book about the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers (Squyres was the PI for that mission).

Public choice theorists will find a vindication of Gordon Tullock’s The Organization of Inquiry, which is an economics-based analysis of how scientists behave.

James M. Buchanan – Ideas, Persons, & Events: The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Volume 19

James M. Buchanan – Ideas, Persons, & Events: The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Volume 19

An essay collection that shows Buchanan’s wide range of interests. Most economists stick to their discipline, rarely wandering outside its comfortable enclosure. Buchanan thought, read, and wrote on a much bigger scale, incorporating political science, philosophy, history, literature, and more into his work. About the only thing Buchanan wasn’t interested in was agrarian poetry, a bizarre allegation of some of his critics. And he was delighted to be at least as influenced by his colleagues as they were by him. Those aspects of this book, and Buchanan’s larger research program, are as valuable as its contents.

GM Layoffs, Tariffs, and Subsidies

Over at Fox Business, I explore three lessons policy makers should learn from General Motors’ announcement of 14,700 layoffs and five plant closures:

One, GM is being too shy about the reasons for the layoffs. President Trump’s tariffs have already cost the company a billion dollars. GM is skirting the topic, possibly to avoid political blowback—a strategy that is already not working.

Two, President Trump is right to want to end GM’s government subsidies, but for the wrong reasons.

Three, contrary to popular belief, U.S. manufacturing is healthy, despite GM’s bad news.

On that third point, real value-added manufacturing output recently set an all-time record, eclipsing the old mark set in 2007. As is often the case, popular fears are unfounded. Read the whole thing here.