Monday, December 14, 2009

R.I.P. Paul Samuelson

Paul Samuelson has died at the age of 94. Ed Glaeser:
He was an immortal among dismal scientists: one of the mighty trio, along with Kenneth Arrow and Milton Friedman, who dominated post-war economics, the great formalizer of the field.

Friedman’s policy insights may have been more radical and significant; Arrow’s genius may have produced more beautiful gems of economic theory. But it was Samuelson who gave economists our toolbox — the mathematical methods that define our field — and the magnitude of that gift made him an indispensible economist.
More from Marginal Revolution.

Mario Rizzo wishes "to strike a discordant note."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Are progressive income taxes a stable source of revenue?

RealClearMarkets - State Taxes Produce Wild Revenue Swings
More surprising, but ultimately logical, are the results from states with flat income taxes. The usual expectation is that flat taxes will produce more stable revenues than progressive income taxes that rely disproportionately on high earners. This is because high income people tend to have volatile incomes that move sharply with overall economic performance.

However, five of the seven states with flat taxes saw income tax revenue drops above the 11.4% national average. While Pennsylvania and Utah outperformed most states with drops under 9%, Indiana's flat tax saw a 20.3% drop in collections, and the four others ranged from 11.7% to 14.3%. Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey (which have graduated income taxes that rely heavily on high-income taxpayers) saw revenue drops under 9%.

Progressives will point to these results as evidence that graduated taxes do not promote revenue instability. They are wrong. What has happened is that states with flat income taxes have resisted political impulses to raise income taxes. Meanwhile, states with sharply graduated taxes have tended to impose (often sharp) income tax hikes for the current fiscal year. If states like New York and New Jersey hadn't raised taxes, their revenue performance would be among the worst in the country.

No state with a flat tax raised its income tax this year. However, eight states with graduated income taxes raised rates: Connecticut, California, Delaware, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin. Most of these personal income tax increases were in the form of new or increased "Millionaire's Taxes", which contrary to the name may be imposed on incomes as low as $125,000. The sole exception is California, which raised tax rates across the board including in its millionaire bracket.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In New Hampshire: 'A real win for the principle of fair and open competition '

Bid process marked by PLA stopped:
MANCHESTER -- Dick Anagnost went to bed Thursday night believing the nine years he invested in bringing a new Job Corps Center to the city was coming close to fruition.

He woke up yesterday not so sure.

That's when he learned the U.S. Department of Labor canceled the bid process for the 160,000-square-foot center planned off Dunbarton Road. The estimated cost of the project is $35 million.

"It'll be a terrible blow if this thing goes away," said Anagnost, chairman of the New Hampshire Job Corps Task Force.

Anagnost said he spent most of yesterday trying to find out when or if the bid process would restart. He also said he called on the help of the state's four legislators in Washington, D.C.

The Labor Department's decision came a day short of one month after North Branch Construction of Concord filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. North Branch decried the Labor Department's requirement for a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) that the contractor contends mandates following union rules and paying into union benefit funds as a condition for bidding on the project.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents 25,000 merit shop construction and construction-related firms that employ more than 2 million people, is supporting North Branch in its legal battle.

"This is a real win for the principle of fair and open competition in government procurement," said North Branch attorney Maurice Baskin of Venable LLC. "It is no coincidence that the Department of Labor canceled its unlawful PLA mandate the day before the agency was required to file a response to our bid protest. We demonstrated that there was no justification for imposing a PLA on this project and that the PLA mandate violated the Competition in Contracting Act and other long-standing federal procurement requirements."

North Branch filed the protest contending that most contractors in the state are non-union and the PLA would prevent them from working on the project.

"We are not anti-union," Ken Holmes, president of North Branch Construction in Concord, said in a statement at the time the protest was filed. "We work with union and non-union contractors, but the preponderance of contractors in New Hampshire are non-union. This knocks all of them out of the ball game.
The Beacon Hill Institute has published several extensive studies undermining the claims that Project Labor Agreements save taxpayers money. The latest can be found here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The dead hand on your television

It, of course, was only a matter of time. APNEWS: California targets TVs to lower electricity demand.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The most power-hungry television sets could soon be banned from store shelves in California as state energy regulators on Wednesday consider a first-in-the nation mandate intended to lower electricity demand.

If adopted, the regulations will require televisions sold in California to be more energy efficient beginning in 2011. The requirement would be tougher in 2013, with only one-quarter of the TVs on the market currently meeting that standard.

Energy commissioners say TVs account for about 10 percent of a home's electricity use. The concern is that the energy draw will rise by as much as 8 percent a year as consumers buy larger televisions, add more to their homes and watch them longer.

Some manufacturers say implementing a power standard will cripple innovation, limit consumer choice and harm California retailers because consumers could simply buy TVs out of state or order them online.

The standards would apply to all TVs up to 58 inches, allowing increasing power use for larger TVs.

For example, all new 42-inch television sets must use less than 183 watts by 2011 and less than 116 watts by 2013. That's considerably more efficient than flat-screen TVs placed on the market in recent years.

A 42-inch Hitachi plasma TV sold in 2007 uses 313 watts while a 42-inch Sharp Liquid-crystal display, or LCD, TV draws 232 watts, according to Energy Commission research. LCDs now account for about 90 percent of the 4 million TVs sold in California annually.

Industry representatives have said the standards would force manufacturers to make televisions that have poorer picture quality and fewer features than those sold elsewhere in the U.S.

California has previously led the nation in setting efficiency requirements for dishwashers, washing machines and other household appliances as a way to address the state's growing electricity demand.
So goes California, so goes the nation.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Where is the inflation?

It's there lurking according to this sketch by Veronique de Rugy:
Besides placing undue faith in the Fed’s ability to time perfectly any necessary anti-inflationary measures, the consensus suggests that the nation’s central bank now has the heretofore undiscovered ability to increase the money supply without creating inflation. If true, this would be an important new development, since inflation has long been rightly vilified for destroying entrepreneurship and long-term economic growth. But if false, this conceit could prove dangerous indeed. And it’s probably false.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Treasurer Cahill to address BHI's Competiveness Event

State Competitiveness Report
Keynote Speaker
Timothy Cahill,
Treasurer and Receiver General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 - 9:00 a.m

Sargent Hall
First Floor Function Hall, Suffolk University Law School
120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108
RVSP - phone: 617-573-8750;

Sponsored by:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Growth looks like this: 3.5%


WASHINGTON - The U.S. economy grew in the third quarter for the first time in a year, beating market expectations, as consumer spending and new home-building rebounded, signaling the end of the worst recession in 70 years.

The Commerce Department, in its first estimate of third-quarter gross domestic product on Thursday, said the economy grew at a 3.5 percent annual rate, the fastest pace since the third quarter of 2007, after contracting 0.7 percent in the April-June period.

The growth pace in GDP, which measures total goods and services output within U.S. borders, was above market expectations for a 3.3 percent rate. The economy last grew in the second quarter of 2008.

"Better than expected GDP is confirming that the Great Recession has ended," said Kevin Flanagan, fixed-income strategist for Global Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley in Purchase, New York.

"The question going forward is, is this more of a statistical recovery or are we going to get some meaningful momentum on a sustained basis."

More analysis here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009 Nobel Prize

Professor Ben Powell supplies his thoughts on both the 2009 Nobel Prize and a grad discussion board about the topic as well as some further reading material. Enjoy!

Sorry I'm a bit slow on this but I was out of the country until last night and am only now reading the commentary on this year's nobel prize winners Lin Ostrom and Oliver Williamson. I was shocked and thrilled to see this year's announcement. Williamson was not a surprise at all but I would have expected him to share the prize with Alchien or Demsetz. Instead by awarding it with Elinor the committee has highlighted a commonality in that both of them illustrating how to generate institutions to improve economic outcomes. In Williamson's case, it's the reason for the firm. In Elinor's it's the spontaneous generation of rules governing the commons and the reason why many top down solutions don't work. In both cases these should be conceived of as institutions embedded in the market or more broadly, civil society.

The reason I'm writing to the grad students specifically (and cc'ing the faculty) is because of the very troubling grad student blog (and very popular) I read this morning (warning, comments in it are vulgar and sexist):

The crux of their complaints seem to be that Elinor shouldn't have one because:
1) They never read her in their grad education
2) She hasn't published in many "top" economics journals
3) She's trained in political science and therefore not capable of doing economics.

This is a VERY sad state of affairs. They instead should feel ashamed of the lack of breadth of their own reading and their narrow focus outside of the broader tradition of political economy. Elinor asks some of the biggest "big think" type questions about institutions that should have a major impact in one's thinking on economic development especially but many other things as well. Her main publications have been books rather than econ journals and she's influenced some of the other big thinkers in economics (for instance 2002 Nobel winner Vernon Smith). Her work doesn't collapse neatly into a max subject to type framework or other training these grad students have got. Instead of seeing this as a limitation of their models they see it as a limitation of what is interesting. This is very shallow thinking and blinds them to important questions. I'm glad I work in a place that does have some appreciation for a more broad tradition of political economy.

I encourage you all to get some knowledge of Ostrom (and Williamson but if you've done any IO you'll be familiar with him anyway, or perhaps should be regardless of field since he is the world's most cited economist). Here are a few excellent blog posts or op-ed's by accomplished economists who will give you a general sense of her work. If you want to read her own writing her most influential book is "Governing the Commons" but that is rather high cost. There was just a nice symposium in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization that summarizes the bloomington school and includes a contribution from her:
June 2005 57(2), "Polycentric Political Economy: Essays in honor of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom" that would be a lower cost intro.

At a minimum check out some of the following:

David Henderson's WSJ op-ed:

Vernon Smith's Forbes column:

Paul Romer's Blog:

Alex Tabborak's blog:

Peter Boettke's Blog:

And Peter Klein on Williamson

Congrats to Ostrom and Williamson and happy reading to all of you.

At 9.3

U.S. 9.8% MA 9.3%. Make of it what you will.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A morning Email

Before I had my first cup of coffee today, an interesting E-mail chain had formed. Starting with the following quote, curtosy of Professor Jonathan Haughton, a lively debate was set off. Professor David Tuerck, Professor Ben Powell, Alfonso Sancez-Penalver and I, both of BHI, weigh in on the subject of universal health care.

Just this weekend I came across this quote from Hayek (chapter 9 in The Road to Serfdom):
“Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance — where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks — the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.”

Is this not a case for universal health coverage of some sort (and for some conditions)?

Jonathan Haughton
Yes, it is. And I would say, sadly so. Of course, Hayek is talking about a state run insurance system as opposed to the single-pay system to which we are headed. Nevertheless, he did himself no good by succumbing to this one urge to recommend a statist solution.

David G. Tuerck
Agreed. You can find further, misguided, quotes from him in the Constitution of Liberty. I think these off the cuff concessions are inconsistent with the body of his work on knowledge and competition as a discovery procedure.

Ben Powell
Perhaps. I see a somewhat different problem, which I am a bit surprised that he didn't address: some sickness really is not the fault of the individual - alzheimer's, Type 1 diabetes, and the like. But what about illness that results from personal choices - lung cancer (from smoking), Type 2 diabetes (from obesity), for instance. A key problem from an insurance perspective would be how to distinguish between these. In other worlds, how to insure against serious problems that are not one's fault without creating too much of an incentive to go easy on prevention.

Of course we already have universal health insurance (thanks to Ronald Reagan!), in that emergency rooms may not deny care to those who need it. That's appropriate, but one can't help thinking that it is a hugely inefficient way to provide such coverage - it is financed in haphazard fashion (mainly as cross-subsidies from our tax-favored health premia).

I keep thinking that, aside from the best solution, which would be complete government withdrawal from health care, the government should just take care of people who are sick through no fault of their own and who can't pay for their very expensive health care. This is the "high risk pool" of uninsurable people with chronic, unpreventable problems. It should ignore everyone else. People who go to emergency rooms could be chased down and made to pay for their care, and if they can't or won't pay, the hospitals could pass that cost along to the rest of us. In a rational market, young people could contract for health insurance now at rates that reflect the cost of their health care as they get older. By the way, I suspect that emergency room care is pretty efficient. I've gone to the emergency room at least three times to get a quick prescription for bronchitis and gladly paid the premium rather than wait for my doctor to see me. 'We could expand the availability of health clinics, too.

People who don't pay for insurance until they are middle age and then come down with some predictable middle-age disease have nothing to complain about. They rolled the dice and now they're out of luck. The key is health insurance available to the young, who are usually healthy, that they are guaranteed to keep even when they get older and sicker. I would rather let private charity take care of people in the high risk pool than give the government the job of caring for them, but that much government involvement I could take.

Having read all these messages you are almost selecting what the government should cover instead of whether the government ought to cover. Going down that path opens a lot of questions that are not easy to answer. You mentioned before lung cancer from cigarette smoking. It is true that more patients of lung cancer are cigarette smokers but there has not been a definite scientific proof that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. What happens with patients of lung cancer that don't smoke? Even if it were to be proofed that smoking somehow caused lung cancer, what if the patient smoked in his 20s but had lung cancer in his 30s, what if he had it in his 40s, 50s or 60s? Continuing with cancer, what is considered to be the individual's fault? As we know cancer patients' descendents are at a higher risk of getting cancer. Is this the fault of the individual? Should the individual pay for the sins of the parents?

Having individually tailored insurance is not effective, either privately or publicly. The high risk patients may not be able to afford the insurance so the low risk patients are the ones who pay for the others' risks. Unless there is some risk poolin, insurance is not affordable by a lot of people. If you want the government to cover these high risk uninsurable patients, this funding is done via taxes. Why shouldn't it be done with a general private insurance plan? In the private plans they take into account whether you present a higher and lower risk at the time they issue the plan, so at least it is somewhat tailored. Private, for profit, companies have a higher incentive to look into a plead for free insurance from the people that claim to not afford the insurance they need.

The real question is, however, should we have universal insurance? The problem of answering yes to this question is that there are people who cannot afford it. How do they get it then? This may lead to government intervention, which is inefficient since government administration is not as efficient as private. The problem with answering no to that question is that some people cannot have their sicknesses treated. There are nonprofit health practices, but I'm not sure if they would cover open heart surgery.

Not a topic to be easily solved.

Alfonso Sanchez-Penalver
I agree there has to be risk pooling; otherwise why bother with insurance. But if one forces everyone to buy insurance, this represents a very regressive tax. A solution would be to provide everyone in the country with (say) a $4,000 health insurance voucher, and people could pay more for fancier coverage; but this provides an incentive for insurance companies to spend a lot of money figuring out ways to not insure high-risk individuals - surely a directly unproductive activity. Increasingly, I get pulled toward some sort of "basic medicare for everyone" solution with fairly high copayments, with scope for individuals to buy additional coverage (private hospital rooms, lower deductibles, etc.).

David may be right that emergency room service may not be as inefficient as all that; but if we were to encourage more "doc in a box" outfits, a lot of the relatively routine stuff could be handled more cheaply. More generally, I think we need to address restrictive practices in medical education and practice (excess certification; requiring a bachelor's degree before strating medical school; limited use of nurse practitioners and nurses for routine stuff).

On a related, but different issue; if a generic drug is available for, say, $20, and the brand drug costs, say, $50, why do insurance companies not limit reimbursements to ($20 - deductible)?

The core problem here is that health insurance as it currently exists is no longer insurance, but prepaid health care. Insurance is a contract voluntarily arrived at according to terms voluntarily agreed upon in which the person insured is promised benefits, given a specified, adverse turn of events. Moral hazard makes it uneconomical for such contracts to cover events over which the insured has control. That's why my car insurance doesn't cover oil changes, tire rotations and minor accidents. Also, to be economical, insurance must cover events that occur with increasing probability over the lifetime of the insured, provided the insured buys into the insurance when he is young. In this respect, health insurance is exactly like life insurance.

So what's wrong with the status quo? For one thing, mandated benefits mean that I am insured against the cost of taking my Nexium, this for a condition that I could alleviate by the simple expedient of eating fewer spicy foods - the equivalent of insuring my car against damage due to not changing my oil. The second problem is the push to insure people against "pre-existing conditions." It is one thing if a patient is 22 and poor and has a pre-existing chronic problem like ALS. It's another thing if the patient comes down with diabetes at age 50, when he is wealthy but hasn't bothered to buy insurance. In my judgment, both patients should have to turn to charity for help. Presumably, a charity will take more pity on the first patient than on the second. But it doesn't matter since contributions to charity are voluntary. On the other hand, since I'm only 99% conservative, I'd be willing to go along with using taxpayer dollars to help the first patient, as long as I didn't have to help the second.

Anything wrong here?

You bring a good point. Here's my question, what should happen to the 50 year old who is poor, not wealthy, and comes down with diabetes? I believe in your mind you have a clear path where people are born poor and end up wealthy, but this is not necessarily the case. Even when it is, you are saying that in you 1% liberal mind, the government who is primarily financed by those wealthy 50 year olds to cover the 20 year old case... why? Well... because the 50 year old can afford to pay himself!!! Why should he have to when he is paying more taxes than the 20 year old??? That would be making him pay twice for insurance. That one percent mind of yours is very liberal!!!

My question on this, is in relation to what should insurance actually cover, regardless if its by the state or a private company. If I found out tomorrow that I was going to have a child, would I take out an insurance policy to pay for his or her first car in 16 years? Or would I start a small savings account, and put cash aside here and there. I know today that in 50 years time I will inevitably have medical issues. Should the insurance plan that I have cover there medical costs that I know will occur? Should I just expect insurance to cover actual random events (car crash injury, ect?) or above a certain expected level?

Mickey Head

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Look to history for the bright upside

Nathan Fisk in today's Christian Science Monitor: Why the US will survive this recession.
Then, as in 2008, America's most prominent financial institutions collapsed or nearly failed under the weight of speculative promises. Yes, the devastation is remarkably similar, but so is the cure.

From the Panic of 1837 to the Great Depression of the 1930s to the difficulties of 1969 and '70 when the cost of living jumped 15 percent, American ingenuity has consistently beat back economic calamity.

In 1837, it was the individuals who cast their vision forward who succeeded. Tough times spur recovery.

The time is ripe for American genius to surge. We must shed the idea that our government can buy us out of a depression or somehow use a new tariff or tax to encourage growth.

Rather, we must turn to our ingenuity and the audacious independence unique to our nation – and change the course of America.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A heavy social safety net

This will strain the entire concept of social security. Reuters: Half of babies born in rich world will live to 100
[Researchers] said huge increases in life expectancy -- of more than 30 years -- had been seen in most developed countries over the 20th century.

And death rates in nations with the longest life-expectancy, such as Japan, Sweden and Spain, suggest that, even if health conditions do not improve, three-quarters of babies will live to celebrate their 75th birthdays.

"But should life expectancy continue to improve at the same rate, most babies born in rich nations since 2000 can expect to live to 100 years," they wrote.

The researchers, who pooled and analysed data from several international studies, said they wanted to explore "a common view" that a big rise in the proportion of older people would come as a result of helping an increasing number of frail and ill people survive longer -- with huge personal and societal costs.

But they found that even though many people who live to age 85 have chronic diseases such as diabetes and arthritis, they have only become frail and disabled at a later stage, essentially postponing frail old age instead of extending it.

"This apparent contradiction is at least partly accounted for by early diagnosis, improved treatment, and amelioration of prevalent diseases so that they are less disabling," they wrote.

"People younger than 85 years are living longer and, on the whole, are able to manage their daily activities for longer."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Project labor agreements on federal projects are not a good idea

While not as prominent as the push for union card check elections, anti-competitive Project Labor Agreements are a significant part of President Obama's pro-labor agenda. Last February the President signed an executive order encouraging the use of union-only projects on efforts valued over $25 million. The problem is that PLAs are costly and counterproductive.

A new BHI report, Project Labor Agreements on Federal Construction Projects: A Costly Solution in Search of a Problem reviews the rationale for PLAs on federal projects and finds it wanting.

BOSTON, MA – A new study released today by the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) finds that Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), which will be permitted under an executive order from President Obama, will significantly increase construction costs on federal projects while doing nothing to protect the interests of federal taxpayers. The executive order reverses a prohibition on PLAs that was in effect during the Bush Administration.

The purpose of the BHI study, which is entitled Project Labor Agreements on Federal Construction Projects: A Costly Solution in Search of a Problem, was to determine whether the reversal of this prohibition is in the interest of federal taxpayers.

PLAs are agreements with contractors that establish the rules to be followed by firms that bid on construction projects. PLAs typically require a contractor to hire workers though union hiring halls, require non-union workers to pay dues for the length of the project and force contractors to abide by union rules on pensions, work conditions and dispute resolution.

In February, President Obama issued Executive Order 13502, which allows executive agencies to require contractors to use PLAs on federal construction projects costing $25 million or more. The federal government’s deadline for accepting comments on the order is September 23, 2009.The purpose of a PLA is to assure labor “peace” during construction projects.

But a review by BHI of federal construction projects during the Bush Administration found no instances of labor disputes that resulted in significant project delays or increased costs.“Our examination of the record produces no evidence of any systematic connection between the absence of a PLA, on the one hand, and cost overruns or delays caused by labor disputes, on the other,” said David G. Tuerck, one of the authors of the study and Executive Director of the Beacon Hill Institute. Therefore, the justifications offered by the Obama Administration for reinstating PLAs are not supported by the evidence.
The full report can be obtained here.

A veritable list for economics studentts

Something for everyone on this very useful list of the 100 Best Blogs for Economics Students.

My favorite is Marginal Revolution.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

If it walks like a duck...

'You get into a lot of semantics here,” says Eric Toder, an expert at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington. But he says if money is owed to the IRS, “I supposed you would call that a tax."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

That's a little more than spare change

The president's cap-and-trade idea will hurt working families

The Obama administration has privately concluded that a cap and trade law would cost American taxpayers up to $200 billion a year, the equivalent of hiking personal income taxes by about 15 percent.

A previously unreleased analysis prepared by the U.S. Department of Treasury says the total in new taxes would be between $100 billion to $200 billion a year. At the upper end of the administration's estimate, the cost per American household would be an extra $1,761 a year.

A second memorandum, which was prepared for Obama's transition team after the November election, says this about climate change policies: "Economic costs will likely be on the order of 1 percent of GDP, making them equal in scale to all existing environmental regulation."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Richard Epstein is a genius

Separating the heat from the light, Richard Epstein praises his University of Chicago colleague and Obama appointee Cass Sunstein before intellectually burying him.
"Sunstein is by any fair account the most prominent, versatile and influential left-of-center legal academic in the U.S. His nomination has been supported, sensibly enough, by The Wall Street Journal, which also sees him correctly as one of the more conservative players in the Obama administration. But apparently, its wise counsel did not slow down key Republican senators who held up his nomination on at least three separate occasions, in part because of their worries that his view on hunting and animal care make him an extremist on animal rights.

Regrettably, they seem more influenced by the caricature of his position on the American Conservative Union Web site and Glenn Beck's brutal hosing this past July that also denounced Sunstein for his passionate support of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights. This sad tale has been well recounted by David Weigel in the Washington Independent. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that Sunstein's was confirmed was by the embarrassingly narrow vote of 57-to-40.

These unseemly outbursts of ignorant incivility have ripped at our country's frayed political fabric. One oft-neglected cost of these hysterical tactics is that they discredit ordinary academics, like myself, who strongly disagree with the views that Sunstein has so consistently and elegantly defended. Quite simply, it is to be drowned out by the childish arguments of my supposed allies. The correct political stance is to give President Obama wide latitude in choosing his subordinates, and then to dispute them on the key substantive issues.not"
But of course then there are the problems with Sunstein's long-nourished fantasy, a Second Bill of Rights, rounding out FDR's expansive use of government to drown out the fear from wants far and wide.
... it is Roosevelt's treacherous transformation of human aspirations into enforceable legal rights. There are two enormous gaps in that chain of reasoning. First, it does not specify the persons who must bear the correlative duties to this expanded set of rights. Nor can we duck this problem by imposing the obligations on the state or government, which consists, of course, of all those original right bearers in a different capacity.

So in the end we can't maintain the universality of Roosevelt's claim: We have to distinguish between those of us who count as "the people" and everyone else, those who don't really count at all. If we all have the rights to decent jobs, then workers have the right to form unions, regardless of the consequences to employers, shareholders and the public at large. If farmers have the right to a decent living, the rest of us have to suffer Roosevelt's deadly double of agricultural subsidies and state-sponsored crop cartels.

A second difficulty is as acute as the first. Who fills in the content of the right by telling us what counts as a decent price or a remunerative wage? In a world of major uncertainty, these questions have no fixed answer. But in a political setting, we devised schemes then to assure living wages to autoworkers, only to see Roosevelt's rickety structure comes crashing down on our heads. But do we learn humility from failure? Of course not, if we think that now is the time to implement a regime of positive rights to health care--oops, to health care insurance--funded by punitive and self-destructive taxes on the rich.

In short, there is no way to translate Roosevelt's--or Sunstein's vision--into sustainable social practices. But that's just what the First Bill of Rights can do with its bloodless protection of private property and freedom of contract, speech and religion. Now we can specify the correlative duties with precision: keep off the property of others, and don't meddle in their agreements. Follow these rules and you can stimulate investment and reward hard labor. By keeping our aspirations modest, we can keep our achievements high--which is why we don't want to undermine the first Bill of Rights by adopting the second.
When will people learn that there are only negative rights, not positive rights and the U.S. Constitution derives its power from the former, not the latter?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Association Health Plans hold the answer for small business

Is it time for Association Health Plans? GLOBE: Relief in state health plan sought
President Obama’s vision for overhauling the nation’s health care looks remarkably like the landmark plan Massachusetts launched three years ago, but in one striking difference he would exempt many small businesses from having to contribute to workers’ insurance coverage.

For those small businesses that do provide insurance, Obama’s plan would offer tax credits to offset costs and would create an exchange where employers could buy coverage at competitive prices - two key things Massachusetts has not done.

The differences underscore a sore spot for many small business owners in Massachusetts, who have been lobbying for relief under the state’s law, saying insurance has become unaffordable.

Obama said in his speech to the nation Wednesday night that his overhaul would exempt 95 percent of small businesses - those with fewer than 50 workers - from having to pay for workers’ health insurance.

But in Massachusetts’ overhaul, businesses with the equivalent of 11 or more full-time workers must offer coverage or pay a penalty - a requirement that has chafed at many small business owners who say they lack the buying clout of big businesses to bargain for cheaper insurance rates. Small business owners say they have had to shoulder double digit annual increases in their premiums in recent years, typically higher than the 7 percent to 9 percent increases larger businesses have faced.

A 1996 state law prohibits small businesses from negotiating as a group.

Yesterday, Governor Deval Patrick said publicly for the first time that he backs efforts to change that law.

“That [law] is wrong in my view, and it needs to be changed,’’ Patrick said in a conference call with reporters.

Pending legislation would allow businesses with 50 or fewer employees to form a nonprofit consortium to bargain for cheaper rates.
Back in 2005, the institute release a study highlighting the benefits of allowing small businesses to develop association health plans.

It found that
- a small group purchasing pool has the potential to: provide coverage to an estimated 10,258 firms, of which 4,273 did not previously offer insurance;

- extend coverage to 83,575 enrollees, of which 24,822 were previously uninsured workers and their dependents;
reduce the number of uninsured workers by 14,687, and

- reduce the burden of uncompensated care by $47.6 million
However, such plans were met (and will continue to be met) with resistance from large insurance companies in the Bay State.

Press release June 28, 2005

Here is the full study.

Herbert Spencer's Bad Rap

A closer look: Herbert Spencer reconsidered.

Bad news on the poverty rate

It was bound to happen:

U.S. poverty rate hits 11-year high.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's almost official: Recession over

Jay Fitzgerald reporting on the Federal Reserve's Beige Book release highlighting slight economic improvement, particularly in New England.
The Boston district is seeing minor economic gains in a number of sectors.

“Retailers, manufacturers, and software and IT service providers, while still reporting mixed results, are more confident about their companies’ and the economy’s eventual recovery,” the report said.

A sign that some businesses might be ready to start hiring, at least part-time workers, would be found in interviews with temp firms, the report said. “Staffing firms cite an uptick in activity,” the report said.

The number of residential homes sold has increased, though overall prices continue to fall, the report said. One big sore spot is commercial real estate, which remains “very soft.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Dropping to number 2!

Should we worry? World Economic Forum: U.S. drops to second in competitiveness index.
Switzerland knocked the United States off the position as the world's most competitive economy as the crash of the U.S. banking system left it more exposed to some long-standing weaknesses, a report said on Tuesday.

The World Economic Forum's global competitiveness report 2009/2010 showed economies with a large focus on financial services such as the U.S., Britain or Iceland were the losers of the crisis.

The U.S. as the world's largest economy lost last year's strong lead, slipping to number two for the first time since the introduction of the index in its current form in 2004.

"We have been expecting for some time that it may lose its top-position. There are a number of imbalances that have been building up," said Jennifer Blanke, Head of the WEF's Global Competitiveness Network.

"There are problems on the financial market that we were not aware of before. These countries (like the U.S. and Britain) are getting penalized now," she said.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The end of the recession?

"Today’s data should end, once and for all, any notion that the US is still in recession."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

There is no French free lunch when it comes to health care

Guy Sorman writing in City Journal:
It may indeed seem free, or close to free, for an American tourist receiving treatment in an emergency; as a French taxpayer, however, I paid a heavy price for Paretsky’s husband’s treatment. And you, my American reader, did too.

How much? France’s costly national health insurance is mostly financed by taxes on labor. A Frenchman making a monthly salary of 3,000 euros will pay approximately 350 of them (deducted by his employer) for health insurance. Then the employer will add approximately 1,200 euros, making the total monthly cost to the employer of this individual’s services not 3,000 euros but 4,200. High labor costs in France affect not only consumer prices but also unemployment rates, since employers are reluctant to pay so much for low-skill workers. Economists agree that unemployment rates and the cost of national health insurance are directly related everywhere, which partly explains why even in periods of economic growth, the average French unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sometimes it works the other way

HOUSTON -- Farouk Shami, a Palestinian-born hairdresser who built a $1 billion manufacturing company around a popular line of hair irons, is moving all of his production of hand-held appliances from China to a sprawling new factory here.

The move flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says gadgets like this are best made in a low-cost country. But, he says, outsourcing has led to a loss of control over manufacturing and distribution.

"We'll make more money this way -- because we'll have better quality and a better image," says the 66-year-old, who says his company, Farouk Systems Inc., spends about $500,000 a month fighting counterfeits, most of which he says originate in China. The company collects the fake products and tracks the source, and then brings action in China to shut down illegal producers.

Mr. Shami figures having production under his nose will help him control quality and inventory, and also fight the fakes, since imported irons will automatically be suspect. He sells in 104 countries, but the U.S. represents over 60% of the company's sales.

"I think you're starting to see more manufacturers rethinking outsourcing," says Daniel Meckstroth, an economist at the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, a public policy and research group based in Arlington, Va., calling a June speech by General Electric Co. CEO Jeffrey Immelt, where he said that overseas outsourcing had gone too far and that U.S. companies needed to expand domestic production, a "bellwether of what's happening in manufacturing."

Broken windows theory in action: Cash for clunkers!

BRIAN WESBURY applies the "broken windows" fallacy to Cash for Clunkers:
The basic problem with cash for clunkers is that it uses the old “broken windows” theory of economic activity. Everyone who lives in a hurricane zone knows that typically people are never busier than right after a major storm. Roofs need to be replaced, while damage to vegetation, glass, power lines, boats, etc., all require overtime to repair. All that activity gets counted in GDP.
But everyone also knows the storm was a bad thing, destroying property that was built at a cost in the first place. Sure, everyone is as busy as a beaver, but they’re just busy replacing what they had, not actually improving their standard of living.

A wealth tax for the deficit?

Other countries that have defaulted have not had the option of enacting wealth taxes. When you are in a banana republic with shaky government finances and you have a lot of wealth, you send that wealth over to the United States, where your government cannot get to it. That "safe haven" motive is what keeps the dollar so strong. Anyway, by the time the banana republic gets around to enacting a wealth tax, all the wealth has fled the country and there is nothing left to tax. So the banana republic defaults.

Will it be "U-shaped" or "V-shaped"?

There are also now two reasons why there is a rising risk of a double-dip W-shaped recession. For a start, there are risks associated with exit strategies from the massive monetary and fiscal easing: policymakers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they take large fiscal deficits seriously and raise taxes, cut spending and mop up excess liquidity soon, they would undermine recovery and tip the economy back into stag-deflation (recession and deflation).

But if they maintain large budget deficits, bond market vigilantes will punish policymakers. Then, inflationary expectations will increase, long-term government bond yields would rise and borrowing rates will go up sharply, leading to stagflation.

Another reason to fear a double-dip recession is that oil, energy and food prices are now rising faster than economic fundamentals warrant, and could be driven higher by excessive liquidity chasing assets and by speculative demand. Last year, oil at $145 a barrel was a tipping point for the global economy, as it created negative terms of trade and a disposable income shock for oil importing economies. The global economy could not withstand another contractionary shock if similar speculation drives oil rapidly towards $100 a barrel.

In summary, the recovery is likely to be anaemic and below trend in advanced economies and there is a big risk of a double-dip recession.

Infant mortality and health care reform

"A lot of things could be done to keep babies from dying in this country. But the health care 'reform' being pushed in Washington is not one of them."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Federal minimum wage laws hurt those who need help!

Steve Chapman in Reason:
The suspension of disbelief required to support the minimum wage will only take you so far. It's impossible to deny that if it were illegal to pay someone less than a mere $36 an hour, a lot of jobs would vanish. But a small dose of poison is still po ison, and in this case it's being administered to a patient who is already ill.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Introducing the sociological imagination.

Josh McCabe, former BHI intern, has a new blog, The Sociological Imagination that will try to drag both economists and sociologists closer to each other.

Josh McCabe is a first year PhD student at the State University of New York at Albany where I'm sure he'll drag his teachers closer to the world of Austrian economics.

Hat tip: Organizations and Markets

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The sound of wind in Texas felt like a good idea

The bloom is off the rose! T. Boone Pickens's wind farm dreams meet the gale force of reality.
Plans for the world's largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle have been scrapped, energy baron T. Boone Pickens said Tuesday, and he's looking for a home for 687 giant wind turbines.

Pickens has already ordered the turbines, which can stand 400 feet tall — taller than most 30-story buildings.

"When I start receiving those turbines, I've got to ... like I said, my garage won't hold them," the legendary Texas oilman said. "They've got to go someplace."

Pickens' company Mesa Power ordered the turbines from General Electric Co. — a $2 billion investment — a little more than a year ago. Pickens said he has leases on about 200,000 acres in Texas that were planned for the project, and he might place some of the turbines there, but he's also looking for smaller wind projects to participate in. He said he's looking at potential sites in the Midwest and Canada.

In Texas, the problem lies in getting power from the proposed site in the Panhandle to a distribution system, Pickens said in an interview with The Associated Press in New York. He'd hoped to build his own transmission lines but he said there were technical problems.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New financial industry rules are self-defeating

In a recent letter to the Boston Herald, BHI Koch Summer Fellow Andrew Dabrowski thinks more rules don't make for better rules.
The Herald’s criticism of the new financial regulation package simply fails to go far enough (“Regulation history,” June 21). Suffice to say, there are many, many new rules, and very few of them will do anything substantial.

Does anyone really believe that the same tired government agencies will be able to manage ever more responsibility? Far from helping the American consumer, these new regulations will further restrict banking activity. Putting the brakes on the financial industry should be the last thing the economy needs. Obama’s regulation will fail to modernize the financial regulatory system, leaving it open to future disaster.

Ideally, the new rules should have centralized regulation by eliminating the legions of individual regulators. I don’t necessarily argue for a single agency, but rather for fewer, more effective institutions.

WSJ publishes letter from BHI Koch Summer Fellow

Last week the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor from BHI Koch Summer Fellow Alex Weckenman. Here's the entire letter:
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey argue that a public healthcare plan violates the privacy rights established in Roe v. Wade. But where is the violation of privacy?

Roe v. Wade.prevents the government from limiting access to abortion on the grounds that the decision to abort is a private matter best left to the woman. That same logic may prevent government from limiting access to the type of treatment that a patient deems most suitable. But the existence of a public plan does not preclude access to private insurance. Those that disagree with the government plan are free to pursue whatever private alternative they choose.

Government restrictions on access to private care are the real privacy rights violations. For example, the ban on interstate purchases of health insurance, like a ban on abortion, limits an individual's autonomy on a deeply personal issue.

Alex Weckenman

Thursday, June 25, 2009

BHI on Green Jobs

Green Jobs a Cost, Not Benefit, to the National Economy

Academic Study Finds Critical Economic Flaws and Assumptions in Previous Reports

BOSTON, MA – Recent studies forecasting the potential economic benefits of government green job programs are critically flawed and erroneously promote these jobs as a benefit, according to a report released today by The Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) at Suffolk University.

The economic analysis reviewed the primary claims of three of the most influential green jobs studies and found serious economic flaws in each.

“Contrary to the claims made in these studies, we found that the green job initiatives reviewed in each actually causes greater harm than good to the American economy and will cause growth to slow,” reported Paul Bachman, Director of Research at the Beacon Hill Institute, one of the report’s authors.

The studies reviewed by BHI include:
* The United Nations Environment Programme, International Labor Organization, International Trade Union Confederation’s Green Jobs Initiative, “Green Jobs: Towards Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World.”

* The Center for American Progress, “Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy.”

* The U.S. Conference of Mayors, “U.S. Metro Economics: Current and Potential Green Jobs in the U.S. Economy” prepared by Global Insight.
The authors of the BHI critique identified a fundamental error in each of these studies, specifically "counting the creation of a green job as a benefit and rationale for its proposed program in and of itself.”

The BHI study also stresses that “Jobs -- green or otherwise -- are not benefits but are instead costs. If the green job is a net benefit it has to be because the value the job produces for consumers is greater than the cost of performing the job. This argument is never made in any of these three green jobs studies.”

The executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute and co-author, David G. Tuerck, went further, noting that “these studies are based on arbitrary assumptions and use faulty methodologies to create an unreliable forecast for the future of green jobs.

“It appears these numbers are based more on wishful thinking than the appropriate economic models, and that must be taken into consideration when the government is trying to turn the economy around based on political studies and the wrong numbers,” Tuerck said.

According to BHI, the results of the study also show estimates on how a state-based cap and trade policy will negatively impact both job growth and wages. One specific critique involves job creation in the state of Indiana, where previous reports did not take increased energy costs from a “cap and trade” system into consideration when looking at job creation. In that case, BHI developed a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model and found that contrary to previous studies, Indiana would lose more than 18,000 jobs in 2009, up to nearly 29,000 job losses in 2011, and that real disposable income would be cut by nearly $1 billion in 2009 and close to $1.5 billion in 2011.

The authors concluded by noting that further economic analysis is needed before governments move forward on green job initiatives. “All three green jobs studies we reviewed are riddled with economic errors, incorrect methods, and dubious assumptions. Economic policy should not be based on such faulty analysis. Serious economic studies of costs and benefits are desperately needed before the adoption of any green jobs proposal.”

For more information and the full study, please visit

WSJ: Cap and Trade Fiction

WALL STREET JOURNAL skewers Waxman-Markey and the CBO.
... Congressional Budget Office did an analysis of what has come to be known as the Waxman-Markey bill. According to the CBO, the climate legislation would cost the average household only $175 a year by 2020. Edward Markey, Mr. Waxman's co-author, instantly set to crowing that the cost of upending the entire energy economy would be no more than a postage stamp a day for the average household. Amazing. A closer look at the CBO analysis finds that it contains so many caveats as to render it useless.

For starters, the CBO estimate is a one-year snapshot of taxes that will extend to infinity. Under a cap-and-trade system, government sets a cap on the total amount of carbon that can be emitted nationally; companies then buy or sell permits to emit CO2. The cap gets cranked down over time to reduce total carbon emissions.

To get support for his bill, Mr. Waxman was forced to water down the cap in early years to please rural Democrats, and then severely ratchet it up in later years to please liberal Democrats. The CBO's analysis looks solely at the year 2020, before most of the tough restrictions kick in. As the cap is tightened and companies are stripped of initial opportunities to "offset" their emissions, the price of permits will skyrocket beyond the CBO estimate of $28 per ton of carbon. The corporate costs of buying these expensive permits will be passed to consumers.

The biggest doozy in the CBO analysis was its extraordinary decision to look only at the day-to-day costs of operating a trading program, rather than the wider consequences energy restriction would have on the economy. The CBO acknowledges this in a footnote: "The resource cost does not indicate the potential decrease in gross domestic product (GDP) that could result from the cap."

The hit to GDP is the real threat in this bill. The whole point of cap and trade is to hike the price of electricity and gas so that Americans will use less. These higher prices will show up not just in electricity bills or at the gas station but in every manufactured good, from food to cars. Consumers will cut back on spending, which in turn will cut back on production, which results in fewer jobs created or higher unemployment. Some companies will instead move their operations overseas, with the same result.

When the Heritage Foundation did its analysis of Waxman-Markey, it broadly compared the economy with and without the carbon tax. Under this more comprehensive scenario, it found Waxman-Markey would cost the economy $161 billion in 2020, which is $1,870 for a family of four. As the bill's restrictions kick in, that number rises to $6,800 for a family of four by 2035.

Note also that the CBO analysis is an average for the country as a whole. It doesn't take into account the fact that certain regions and populations will be more severely hit than others -- manufacturing states more than service states; coal producing states more than states that rely on hydro or natural gas. Low-income Americans, who devote more of their disposable income to energy, have more to lose than high-income families.
BHI's work on cap-and-trade can be found here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Taxes do matter: Hav-a-Tampa to close plant

A simple narrative. Taxes raise the price of a good. Demands trends downward. Fewer goods produced. Jobs lost. Taxes matter.
Several things conspired to hurt Altadis' sales, McKenzie said, including the recession and the growth of indoor smoking bans. The bans have especially hurt sales in cold-weather states, where it's impractical to smoke a cigar outdoors in the winter, he said.

However, the company attributed much of its trouble to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, a federal program that provides health insurance to low-income children. It is funded, in part, by a new federal tax on cigars and cigarettes. McKenzie couldn't say how much sales of Hav-A-Tampa cigars had fallen off, but the numbers have dropped significantly, he said.

Previously, federal excise taxes on cigars were limited to no more than a nickel, said Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America trade group. The tax increase, which took effect April 1, raises the maximum tax on cigars to about 40 cents, Sharp said.

Before the tax increase was passed, the cigar industry warned that consumption of cigars could fall as much as 30 percent in the year after its passage. It's not clear yet how big of an impact the law is having on sales, Sharp said.

Harrison said she understands the company's predicament and that Altadis has tried to treat its employees fairly, including guaranteeing employees two months of pay. Like her employer, she put part of the blame on the SCHIP tax hike.

"We can't afford to make these cigars in the U.S. anymore," she said.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"V" as in victory or V-shaped recovery?

Ever the optimist, Brian Wesbury thinks the economy is turning around.
We have said from the beginning that the recession would end quickly and a V-shaped recovery would follow. Now, a combination of loose monetary policy and reforms to overly strict (and inappropriate) mark-to-market accounting rules have ended the financial panic.
He has the charts to prove his case.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Has North Carolina handed out an unfair tax break?

The problem with targeted tax breaks? They apply only to the favored few companies that government thinks will win out in the marketplace.

Charlotte Observer: Apple to build computer data center in North Carolina

Apple will come to North Carolina, investing $1 billion in a computer data center over nine years.

Gov. Beverly Perdue announced the expansion this afternoon after signing legislation that will cut the California company’s tax bill in North Carolina by about $46 million over a decade. Legislators moved rapidly last month to approve the measure, which changes the way corporate income taxes are calculated for a capital-intensive business like Apple. It is expected to be the only company that will benefit.

“North Carolina continues to be a prime location for growing and expanding global technology companies,” Perdue wrote in a statement. “We welcome Apple to North Carolina and look forward to working with the company as it begins providing a significant economic boost to local communities and the state.”

The data center is expected to have at least 50 full-time employees, although another 250 contractors could be employed to manage security, landscaping and heating and air conditioning systems. Including construction jobs, the presence of the facility could put a total of 3,000 people to work, according to Department of Commerce estimates.
The best tax system is comprised of a low rate with few or no exemptions.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Cap and trade will cost you!

RON BAILEY: Energy Price Deceit: Congress tries to hide its cap-and-trade energy price increases.
The central fact of the cap-and-trade proposal is that it will increase the price of energy. If energy prices don't go up, the goal of getting energy producers, manufacturers, and consumers to shift away from carbon generating fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) toward low-carbon sources of energy (nuclear, solar, wind, conservation) will not be achieved.

Whatever else they are, the folks in Congress are not stupid when comes to protecting their electoral viability. They are painfully aware of the fact that, while Americans express support for regulations to reduce greenhouse gases, 77 percent in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll declared themselves either "very concerned" or "concerned" that "federal regulation of greenhouse gases could substantially raise the price of things you have to pay for."

So in an attempt to ward off voter displeasure over higher energy prices brought about by Congressionally-mandated carbon rationing, the denizens on Capitol Hill have tacked on a number of Rube Goldbergesque policy obfuscations designed the mask the price increases. These include subsidies and tax breaks for retrofitting buildings to use less energy, setting energy conservation appliance standards, subsidies for higher mileage automobiles, and imposing a renewable fuel standard on utility companies, among many other things.

The chief technique that Congress is using to hide the mandated price increase in electricity and natural gas from voters is giving away free emissions permits to local electricity and gas distribution companies. In the ACES bill, some 30 percent of emissions permits are allocated free to local distribution companies who are supposed to sell the permits and then pass along the money to consumers as a lump sum rebate to offset their higher utility bills. Why a lump sum?

As Harvard University environmental economist Robert Stavins explains in his article on "The Wonderful Politics of Cap-and-Trade," the hope is that such rebates will compensate "consumers for increases in electricity prices, but without reducing incentives for energy conservation." Even if they are getting a rebate, higher monthly electric bills will still likely annoy voters. But let's assume that this scheme actually works as intended and blunts household displeasure about paying more for electricity and natural gas.

There's one big problem: The proposal merely shifts the price paid by consumers for energy from local utilities to other products and services. For example, Resources for the Future economists Rich Sweeney and Dallas Burtraw calculate that auctioning all of the carbon emissions permits would result in a price of $20.91 per metric ton. However, allocating 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions permits free to local utilities as proposed under the ACES bill would mean lower electricity prices, and lower prices would mean more consumption. The result is that there would 24 percent fewer emissions reductions in the electricity sector than would have been the case had all permits been auctioned.

More on climate change mitigation here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

BHI in the Boston Globe: Sales tax hike necessary?

BHI Executive Director David G. Tuerck in today's Boston Globe:
On this matter, it is the governor who is right and the bill's sponsors who are being "disingenuous." For one thing, the $900 million estimate apparently ignores the fact that sales taxes drive business to other states and to the Internet. Under the new law, a TV set that could be bought for $1,000 in New Hampshire will cost $1,062.50 in Massachusetts, just another reason to drive an hour to make a big purchase and to stock up, along the way, on liquor, cigarettes, and other items.

The proposed tax hike will have negative consequences for the state economy. We predict a loss of 12,666 private-sector jobs, as stores in Lawrence and Lowell lose business to stores in Salem and Nashua. And because unemployed workers stop paying income taxes, the state will lose revenue from that source even as it gains revenue from the sales tax. In fact, the higher sales tax can be expected to yield only about $674 million in new revenue when losses in other revenues are accounted for.

Before the Legislature decides to inflict a new burden on state taxpayers, retailers, and workers, it would do well to ask just why it wants to enact a broad-based tax increase in the first place. A 25 percent increase in the sales tax would be a panicky response to what was seen just a few years ago as an exercise not in fiscal ruin but in fiscal dexterity.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gordon Brown's upcoming pluck of the goose: Britain raises marginal rates

We knew all along that Gordon Brown was no Maggie Thatcher! Here's the unvarnished Brown, class warrior.

JEAN-BAPTISTE COLBERT, Louis XIV’s finance minister, famously said that the art of taxation was like plucking a goose; the aim was to get the most feathers with the least hissing. But tax policy should aim to do more than smother protest: it should also seek to raise the most money with the least distortion to economic activity.

By this measure, Britain’s attempts to fill the fiscal gulf created by recession are a dismal failure and a lesson to cash-strapped governments everywhere. Take marginal income tax rates, announced in the British budget of April 22nd. Once national insurance is added in, effective marginal rates will climb from 31.5% to 41.5% through to 61.5% on those earning just over £100,000 ($147,000), thanks to the withdrawal of the personal tax allowance. After that, the rate will fall back to 41.5%, before rising again to 51.5% on incomes over £150,000.

The bizarre incentives of income tax are only the start. High earners also face the withdrawal of tax relief on their own pension contributions and a tax charge on the “benefit-in-kind” provided by employers’ payments into their schemes. Depending on how much the employer contributes, this will push marginal rates well above 50%. It will also discriminate against employees in defined-contribution, or money-purchase, schemes where employers match what workers put in. But the effect is not uniform; the convoluted rules will mean some high earners will get more tax relief on their contributions than they did before. What a mess.

As recently as 2006, the government drove through a reform of the pensions rules that simplified a notoriously complex system. Employees could, in effect, make pensions contributions when they felt flush and still get tax relief. Those reforms were a much-needed incentive for employees to build up their pensions at a time when many employers were abdicating responsibility for providing a decent income in retirement. The new rules return pensions to the complexity of string theory.

The best tax systems combine low rates with minimal exemptions. Businesses and citizens should be making decisions based on their economic opportunities, not the advice of their accountants. But Gordon Brown is too clever by half. He introduced a sliding scale that made capital-gains tax highly complex, and then reversed himself, introducing a single rate of 18%. The effect was both to raise the tax rates for sellers of small businesses and to introduce a vast discrepancy between the tax rates on capital and income. An attempt to introduce a levy on foreign workers (known as non-doms) was botched, and may yet drive many high-earners out of the country.

These wheezes were designed chiefly with politics in mind: all those nasty plutocrats deserved a hammering. By putting economics second, Mr Brown has made it harder to balance the books. Waste and lower growth because of poor tax policy will only make the fiscal hole harder to fill. The new tax will do little to reduce Britain’s budget deficit. On the government’s own forecasts, which assume the wealthy will not change their behaviour, the assault on the rich will raise just £7 billion. With avoidance, the tax will raise still less
A higher top marginal tax rate of 61.5% above $147,000 is going to sock a lot of people.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Herald lead editorial cites BHI sales tax study

Expanding the debate on taxes, The Boston Herald cites BHI's new study on a proposed sales tax increase for Massachusetts. The choice words are here:
That 20 percent increase in the sales tax no doubt will be filed as an amendment to the House budget on which debate is expected to begin April 27. That’s because for many lawmakers hitting up the taxpayers is easier than saying no to public employee unions (who would be asked to pay a greater portion of their health insurance under the proposed House budget) or cops (who would lose Quinn Bill pay hikes for college degrees).

But the Beacon Hill Institute study found that the 20 percent sales tax hike would “destroy 10,182 private sector jobs and reduce investment by $41.31 million per year. The average person would lose approximately $369 a year in wages.”

The tax, of course, is the most regressive and would hit low income families hardest. Also bearing the brunt of the impact would be small retailers along the New Hampshire border - already an endangered species - as Massachusetts residents head north to avoid taxes on computers and a host of high-ticket electronics.

The Institute noted that the state was already losing about 2.2 percent to 3.5 percent in sales taxes to Internet sales. And that’s 2008 holiday season sales increased by 16 percent over the previous year, while Massachusetts’ sales tax revenue dropped 8.6 percent for the same period.

There may be nothing that can be done to stop that kind of bleeding, but there’s no need to make it worse either. And that’s what a sales tax hike would do.
Tax increases have consequences.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A bad idea for retail in Massachusetts: Legislature again considers sales tax hike

Increasing the state's sales tax by 20 percent will have negative effects on the Massachusetts economy. According to BHI's trademark STAMP tax model, raising the rate to 6% would destroy approximately 10,000 jobs and preclude some $41 million in business investments. Sales taxes raise prices. They may raise revenue in the short-run but they have corrosive effects over the state's long-term competitiveness. A higher sales tax also means that shopping across the border in New Hampshire for big ticket items such as furniture, electronics and other home goods becomes more attractive. Moreover sales taxes (including the state's generous exemptions for necessities) are always regressive.

The BHI FaxSheet is available here.

Background on the current proposal from the Boston Globe.

Who's to blame for the fiscal crisis facing all 50 states? Reason Foundation suggests the states, for spending far beyond population growth and inflation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Boston Tea Party pays a visit to BHI's neighborhood

David G. Tuerck, BHI's executive director, addresses the April 15, 2009 Boston Tea Party.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

BHI reads The Nation

Yes it's true, we're glad to read The Nation, particularly when it unmasks some really bad bipartisan policies.
Thanks to an obscure tax provision, the United States government stands to pay out as much as $8 billion this year to the ten largest paper companies. And get this: even though the money comes from a transportation bill whose manifest intent was to reduce dependence on fossil fuel, paper mills are adding diesel fuel to a process that requires none in order to qualify for the tax credit. In other words, we are paying the industry--handsomely--to use more fossil fuel. "Which is," as a Goldman Sachs report archly noted, the "opposite of what lawmakers likely had in mind when the tax credit was established."

The massive tax subsidy has barely been reported in the press, but it's caused a stir in the paper industry, which is struggling to stay profitable in the teeth of the recession. "Everybody's talking about it," paper industry analyst Brian McClay told me. "In the US and elsewhere in the world--in Canada and Brazil and Chile and Europe."

On March 24 International Paper (IP) announced it had received its first check from the IRS for a one-month period this past fall. The total? A whopping $71.6 million. "It's probably close to a billion a year of cash," McClay said. "If you look at the economics of this business, to make that kind of money today you'd have to be on another planet." IP's stock rose 12 per-
cent on the news.

The origins of the credit are innocent enough. In 2005 Congress passed, and George W. Bush signed, the $244 billion transportation bill. It included a variety of tax credits for alternative fuels such as ethanol and biomass. But it also included a fifty-cent-a-gallon credit for the use of fuel mixtures that combined "alternative fuel" with a "taxable fuel" such as diesel or gasoline.

Enter the paper industry. Since the 1930s the overwhelming majority of paper mills have employed what's called the kraft process to produce paper. Here's how it works. Wood chips are cooked in a chemical solution to separate the cellulose fibers, which are used to make paper, from the other organic material in wood. The remaining liquid, a sludge containing lignin (the structural glue that binds plant cells together), is called black liquor. Because it's so rich in carbon, black liquor is a good fuel; the kraft process uses the black liquor to produce the heat and energy necessary to transform pulp into paper. It's a neat, efficient process that's cost-effective without any government subsidy.

"Seventy-three percent of the energy we use in our mill system we produce," says Ann Wrobleski, IP's vice president for global government relations. "We feel like we're the original green industry, if you will." (In developed nations, paper is the third-largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, behind the steel and chemical industries.)

By adding diesel fuel to the black liquor, paper companies produce a mixture that qualifies for the mixed-fuel tax credit, allowing them to burn "black liquor into gold," as a JPMorgan report put it. It's unclear who first came up with the idea--Wrobleski told me it was "outside consultants"--but at some point last fall IP and Verso, another paper company, formerly a part of IP, began adding diesel to its black liquor and applied to the IRS for the credit. (Verso nabbed $29.7 million at just one of its mills in the final quarter of 2008 for its use of mixed fuel.)

Hat tip: Mankiw.

The pitfalls of ethanol

Another reason to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for ethanol: wasted water resources.
The current Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is no fan of corn-based ethanol, presumably because a variety of studies have suggested that it takes a significant amount of energy to produce, diluting its impact on carbon emissions. Nevertheless, the Energy Independence and Security Act sets hard targets for ethanol produced from biofuels, and the US has largely met those through corn-based ethanol to date. A study that appeared in the journal Environmental Science & Technology suggests that we should carefully consider how we meet future goals, as different regions in the US require radically different amounts of water to get the ethanol to market.

Past studies have suggested that the cost in water use for ethanol derived from corn might be high—as high as several hundred liters of irrigation water for each liter of ethanol to make it to the pump, with an added 40 liters of water used in the process of converting the corn to ethanol. Still, those estimates were based on models of irrigation use that didn't account for regional variations in use, and relied on evapotranspiration models to estimate the amount of water needed.

The new study avoids these issues by diving down into data that's available from a variety of governmental organizations. These include the Census of Agriculture and the Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, made available by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Geological Survey. These provide a state-by-state breakdown of the use of irrigation water, while the USDA has data on the amount of corn produced at the county level.

Crunching the numbers revealed radical differences among the states. Some of the major corn-producing states, like Iowa and Illinois, required very little irrigation to get a liter of ethanol to market (5 and 11 liters, respectively). At the other end of the spectrum, drier states like Colorado and California required staggering amounts: nearly 1,200 liters for Colorado, and a staggering 2,138 for California.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"The largest corporate welfare program in the history of the U.S."

The coming Cap-and-Trade debacle.
The Supreme Court's decision last year that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act and the EPA's ruling in March that carbon dioxide threatens the public's health and welfare, have put considerable pressure on Congress to act. Naturally, when the federal government puts hundreds of billions of dollars in play, it attracts a lot of rent-seekers. "The special interests that seek to derail, blunt, or tailor any new climate policy to their narrow agendas have already gathered in staggering numbers," declared The Climate Change Lobby, a study conducted by Center for Public Integrity. In 2008, more than 770 companies and interest groups spent an estimated $90 million funding 2,340 climate change lobbyists in Washington, DC.

The prospects of carbon rationing and permanently higher fuel prices are going to produce far-reaching changes in the ways companies do business and hit consumers hard in their pocketbooks. In March 2008, House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee member Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, "You are either at the table or on the menu." Mixing his metaphors, Doyle added, "This train is leaving the station." Now it's largely a question of whom it's going to run over.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The House hikes the ante on climate change bill.

No one ever sold short the ambitions of individual Congressmen. They see opportunities in every crisis. The first draft of the climate change bill casts caution to the wind (excuse the pun).
The cap-and-trade portions of the draft bill are incredibly ambitious, covering 85 percent of the economy's carbon pollution—from electric utilities to oil companies to large industrial sources, leaving out only smaller entities. The legislation would aim to cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions 3 percent below 2005 levels by 2012, 20 percent by 2020, and 83 percent by 2050. That's slightly more stringent than what Obama has proposed, though not quite as steep as what the IPCC has called for to avoid drastic climate impacts.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Responding to Project Labor Agreement proponents

The Globe published our letter to the editor responding to Marc Erlich's defense of Project Labor Agreements.

For the record, here is the letter we sent to the Globe.

To the Editor:

In his op-ed defending Project Labor Agreements (“Unions a stabilizing force,” March 22), Mark Erlich claims that that our first 2003 study of Massachusetts school building projects had to be “completely revised” following “a stinging critique of the data, methodology, and conclusions.”

The fact is that we updated that study when several additional months of investigation permitted us to double the number of schools in our sample. In the second study, we found that PLAs added 14% to the minimum project bid, rather than 17%, as in our original study.

Somehow, Mr. Erlich did not feel compelled to recognize that finding, or our finding in subsequent studies, that, for school building projects in Connecticut and New York, PLAs increased bids by 17% and 20%, respectively.

PLAs and the Prevailing Wage Law are aimed at protecting the union monopoly over the minority of construction workers who belong to unions. The effect of that monopoly is limit the number of construction projects that can be undertaken and to limit the number of construction workers who can be hired – a result that gives the lie to Mr. Erlich’s hypocritical expression of sympathy for blue-collar workers.

David G. Tuerck
Executive Director
Beacon Hill Institute
Suffolk University

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cap-and-Trade Translates Into Job and Income Losses for California

Anyone who thinks that solving the climate change problem will generate economic benefits should think long and hard after reading the latest report from the Beacon Hill Institute. The institute examines claims made by proponents that reducing emissions will create jobs and benefits for the California economy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

BHI on ABC's 20/20 "Bailouts and Bull"

It's worth repeating: Not all economists agree on the Obama stimulus package. BHI's executive director David G. Tuerck on John Stossel's "Bailouts and Bull" segment on 20/20:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The irrepressible urge to raise the state sales tax

Talk is resurfacing about boosting the sales tax by 20 percent. The bad penny of tax policy; it won't go away.
Top state lawmakers are seriously considering a controversial and politically risky plan to boost the sales tax by one penny to 6 percent, socking it to Bay State residents already facing possible gas and booze hikes.

Both House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and Senate Ways and Means chairman Steve Panagiotakos (D-Lowell) are eying a sales tax of 6 cents on the dollar that they say would bring an additional $750 million a year into state coffers.

“I don’t think anything can be considered as off the table,” DeLeo said yesterday, later adding he plans to pass reforms before any additional taxes are considered.

A conservative think tank blasted any talk of a sales tax hike in a tough economy, saying that even a one penny increase could mean a loss of 10,000 private sector jobs along with a $40 million drop in investment revenue.

“Any tax increase the state undertakes right now will have a negative effect on the economy because it will drive business to other states,” said Beacon Hill Institute Executive Director David Tuerck, who urged lawmakers to focus on cuts instead.

Tax hikes can be hazardous to a political figure’s health - especially during a recession - as evidenced by a recent dip in Gov. Deval Patrick’s job approval ratings. Many speculated Patrick’s plans to boost taxes on gas, booze and candy were partially to blame.

The Age of Thrift

People are holding back when it comes to spending. Here are some tips on how to be frugal.

More here.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Does it pay to be a global warming skeptic?

Among the skeptics Ron Bailey of Reason reports from the Heartland Institute's 2009 International Conference on Climate Change.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus was today's marquee speaker. He held nothing back, apparently:
Klaus also warned that powerful rent-seeking groups were riding the global warming alarmism bandwagon all the way to the bank. Rent-seeking occurs when individuals, firms, or organizations attempt to make money by manipulating the regulatory environment rather than by trade and production. Klaus cited firms and non-governmental groups that plan to profit from carbon rationing in the form of emissions permits trading and by deploying highly subsidized solar and wind energy projects.
Climate change may or may not be real; "fixing" it will be especially expensive.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Not what it seemed: GDP fall is steep

Associated Press:
WASHINGTON (AP) - The economy contracted at a staggering 6.2 percent pace at the end of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century, as consumers and businesses ratcheted back spending, plunging the country deeper into recession.

The Commerce Department report released Friday showed the economy sinking much faster than the 3.8 percent annualized drop for the October-December quarter first estimated last month. It also was considerably weaker than the 5.4 percent annualized decline economists expected.

A much sharper cutback in consumer spending - which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity - along with a bigger drop in U.S. exports sales, and reductions in business spending and inventories all contributed to the largest revision on records dating to 1976.

Looking ahead, economists predict consumers and businesses will keep cutting back spending, making the first six months of this year especially rocky.
Meanwhile Greg Mankiw thinks the Obama administration's forecasts are a bit too rosy. The Obama forecasts are on the left (no pun intended):
2009: -1.2% -1.9%
2010: +3.2% +2.1%
2011: +4.0% +2.9%
2012: +4.6% +2.9%
2013: +4.2% +2.8%

Accumulating the difference, you find that Team Obama projects about 6 percent higher GDP in 2013 than do private forecasters.
As the eminent American philosopher Yogi Berra says: "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Catching on, Sumner and his 15 minutes of fame

Getting viral on the internet is still pretty much a black-box enterprise. And of course, luck has something to do with it.

Prior to this over-extended 15 minutes of fame, Bentley economist Scott Sumner toiled in macro obscurity. But a lot of the flash out of the pan starts would with who you know -- or rather -- who knows you.
I am still piecing together how I suddenly went from obscurity to semi-obscurity yesterday. I had sent Brad Delong my piece on Friedman and Schwartz, and he was kind enough to link to it (without comment.) I assume that Tyler Cowen saw that link, and his very kind comments suddenly pushed my blog into the public eye. Then Arnold Kling also had some nice things to say here.

Now that I have readers, I obviously need some new material. Please be patient as my teaching responsibilities (and my cold) will slow things down for a few days. However, this weekend I plan two of what I hope will be my best posts. So please stop back later. I greatly appreciate all those who commented. I will reply to recent comments later today.

Ironically, I had already been planning a post to send to some of my favorite pragmatic libertarians (such as Tyler Cowen, Will Wilkinson, Deirdre McCloskey, Robin Hanson) on a non-monetary topic (my recent research on cultural values and neoliberalism.) I’ll try to have that ready by Sunday. By Saturday you can expect a longer than average post on rational expectations, policy lags, and monetary transmission mechanisms that will give you an idea of how I developed my somewhat unorthodox take on monetary theory. I think you will find it interesting.

DeLong and Cowan, that's pretty much the A-team of econ bloggers projecting their own form of the Oprah effect. Get there and you can get far. Professor Sumner may regret the new workload and the glare but that's the price you pay when you are "Oprahsized."

The against-the-grain theory is explained here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Taking on the sacred cow, the mortgage interest deduction

No policy better demonstrates how the tax code distorts the market than the federal income tax deduction for mortgage interest. Ed Glaeser offers a modification to this gem.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In action, the law of unintended consequences of biofuels

It takes a large carbon footprint to grow biofuel. I would think we would have learned this lesson by now.

More on the deleterious effects of converting land for biofuels from Knowledge Problem.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Shovel Ready in Massachusetts

The Boston Business Journal is reporting that Governor Deval Patrick has released his list of the state's "shovel ready" projects. The projects will vie for a piece of the recently-passed, $789 billion stimulus package. As expected, Boston leads the list of municipalities with projects" ready to go" with $1.1 billion.

Wherever the money is spent you can count on big labor to be there ready to push for Project Labor Agreement designations on any major construction project. Non-union firms are already raising the red flag. That's because PLAs are costly, anti-competitive measures according to BHI's past research. But PLAs aren't the only problem. The state's higher than national average prevailing wage law will also mean fewer projects will be undertaken.

Meanwhile, how well will unemployed workers in Massachusetts benefit considering the huge influx of construction funding? According to ProPublica, a journalism site that tried to measure how well any benefits align with the high unemployment states, Massachusetts will do much better than high unemployment states such as Michigan and Nevada.

The 78-page "wish list" (dated 2/9/09) from the Governor's office is here.

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