Quotulatiousness

January 28, 2015

Employment skills at the very basic level

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Warren Meyer says what the US needs to do is to make changes to the structure of the working world to allow companies to profitably hire low-skilled workers:

A lot of head scratching goes on as to why, when the income premium is so high for gaining skills, there are not more people seeking to gain them. School systems are often blamed, which is fair in part (if I were to be given a second magic wand to wave, it would be to break up the senescent government school monopoly with some kind of school choice system). But a large portion of the population apparently does not take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist. Why is that?

When one says “job skills,” people often think of things like programming machine tools or writing Java code. But for new or unskilled workers — the very workers we worry are trapped in poverty in our cities — even basic things we take for granted like showing up on-time reliably and working as a team with others represent skills that have to be learned. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, despite his Princeton education, still learned many of his first real-world job skills working at McDonald’s. In fact, back in the 1970’s, a survey found that 10% of Fortune 500 CEO’s had their first work experience at McDonald’s.

Part of what we call “the cycle of poverty” is due not just to a lack of skills, but to a lack of understanding of or appreciation for such skills that can cross generations. Children of parents with few skills or little education can go on to achieve great things — that is the American dream after all. But in most of these cases, kids who are successful have parents who were, if not educated, at least knowledgeable about the importance of education, reliability, and teamwork — understanding they often gained via what we call unskilled work. The experience gained from unskilled work is a bridge to future success, both in this generation and the next.

But this road to success breaks down without that initial unskilled job. Without a first, relatively simple job it is almost impossible to gain more sophisticated and lucrative work. And kids with parents who have little or no experience working are more likely to inherit their parent’s cynicism about the lack of opportunity than they are to get any push to do well in school, to work hard, or to learn to cooperate with others.

Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to find a job. As I mentioned earlier, economists scratch their heads and wonder why there are not more skilled workers despite high rewards for gaining such skills. I am not an economist, I am a business school grad. We don’t worry about explaining structural imbalances so much as look for the profitable opportunities they might present. So a question we business folks might ask instead is: If there are so many under-employed unskilled workers rattling around in the economy, why aren’t entrepreneurs crafting business models to exploit this fact?

Spending more money on education won’t guarantee better outcomes for students

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Not having gone to university myself, I can’t speak from direct personal experience, but my strong sense is that the university degree today fulfils almost exactly the role for job-seekers that a high school diploma did about a generation ago. Most of the “entry level” jobs that actually offer some sort of career progression require no more skill or preparation now than they did 25 or 30 years ago … but the combination of lowered standards in secondary school and the vast expansion of post-secondary education have encouraged employers to filter job applicants for such openings by education first. As a direct result, parents have been pushing their children toward university as the only way to ensure those kids have a fighting chance to get into jobs that might, eventually, lead somewhere both interesting and remunerative.

But with more demand for places at university, the government is under pressure to provide funding — both to the universities to create more spaces, and to the students themselves to allow them to pay their tuition and other costs. Megan McArdle worries that pouring more money into the system isn’t the right answer:

The other day, I argued that maybe we should rethink our current policy of endlessly dumping more money into college education. It’s completely true that there is a big wage premium for having a college degree — but it does not therefore follow that we will make everyone better off by trying to shove every American through post-secondary (aka tertiary) education. We may simply be setting up college as a substitute for a high school diploma: a signal to employers that you can read and write, and are able to turn in scheduled assignments within a reasonable time frame. And in the process, excluding people who aren’t college-educated from access to decent jobs.

Predictably, this was not met with shouts of joy and universal admiration in all quarters. I was accused of just wanting to stick it to President Barack Obama, and also of wishing to deny the dream of college education that should be the birthright of every single American. I was also accused of being unfamiliar with the known fact that America woefully underinvests in education compared to other advanced nations.

It is true that I am unfamiliar with America’s woeful underinvestment in education, in the same way that I am unfamiliar with the tooth fairy, because both are legends with no basis in fact. American spending on education is in line with that of our peers in the developed world — a little higher than some, a little lower than others, but not really remarkable either way:

School expenditure per student

[…]

You can argue that there’s an inequality problem in our schools. In fact, I think there is obviously an inequality problem in our schools, but that the big problem is not at the college level, but rather in the primary and secondary schools that are overwhelmingly government-funded. And those disparities are also not primarily about the dollar amounts going into schools — Detroit spends well above the U.S. average per pupil, and yet one study found that half the population of the city was “functionally illiterate.”

Should we fix the issues with those schools? Absolutely — and doing so might mean spending more money. But that doesn’t mean that we need to increase the overall level of educational funding. It means that we need to identify ways to improve those underperforming schools, then find out how much more it would cost to implement those programs. It is just as likely that improvements will come from changing methods and reallocating resources as that they will require us to pour more money into failing institutions.

January 27, 2015

How to think like a government bureaucrat

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Robert Tracinski on the essential core of a control freak’s very being:

Here’s one of my favorite stories about how the mind of a government official works.

A few years ago, I was in a grocery store in Charlottesville when I overheard a conversation between two shoppers, one of whom was clearly in some position of authority (the City Council, I believe). This was right after the financial crisis. The real estate market had just collapsed, a whole bunch of local development project had just been canceled, and my wife was telling me about all the guys she knew in construction who were desperate for work. Yet here was this lady arguing for why the local government should not approve any new commercial building permits. The danger, she explained, was the prospect of “economic ghost towns,” retail areas where several shops had closed, hurting business for the others. Until these “economic ghost towns” were filled back up — whether anybody wanted them or not — there was no good reason to approve permits for new commercial construction.

I just couldn’t keep quiet and had to interrupt: Only in Charlottesville — a left-leaning university town — could an economic downturn be used as a reason to block new economic activity.

But you have to understand the outlook of those whose faith is the creed of government. Everything is proof of the need for more government power and control. The local economy is booming? Let’s hold back on building permits because we don’t want to grow “too fast.” The local economy is tanking? Let’s hold back on building permits because we don’t want “economic ghost towns,” or whatever. On the national level, in an economic collapse the government needs more money for “stimulus.” But if the economy is booming, that means we can afford higher taxes, right?

January 23, 2015

QotD: Taxicab cartels

Filed under: Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Around the world, the government-charted monopolies and cartels that run the taxi business responded with protests and violence to the emergence of technology-empowered competitors such as Uber, which does not undercut traditional taxis on cost — in New York, its drivers earn about three times what a traditional cabbie makes — but is much more convenient for those who do not live or work in areas that are generally well-served by traditional taxis. As in most cities, New York law imposes price uniformity on taxis and long protected them from most competition, with the entirely predictable result that consumers are the worst-served parties in the taxi business. (It does not help matters that, unlike their London counterparts, famously steeped in “the Knowledge,” the typical New York cabbie cannot find the Brooklyn Bridge without GPS or turn-by-turn instructions from the passenger.) The lack of consumer focus has some perverse consequences here in New York: The taxi fleet schedules its shift change from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., meaning that taxis all but vanish from the streets during the hours when they are most needed. The New York Times calls this an “apparent violation of the laws of supply and demand,” which, New York Times geniuses, is exactly what happens when you use regulation to take supply and demand effectively out of the equation. A platform that combined Uber’s on-demand service with Google-style driverless cars would probably put the traditional taxi out of business — assuming that the cartels are not able to use government to strangle innovation in its cradle.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Race On, for Driverless Cars: On the beauty of putting the consumer in the driver’s seat”, National Review, 2014-06-01.

January 22, 2015

Rumours of privatization in Ontario’s liquor control monopoly?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Government, Law, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:57

In the latest issue of Michael Pinkus Wine Review, Michael talks about the hints and portents (dealing with the Ontario government requires a certain amount of Kremlinological observation skills) that a tiny measure of privatization may be coming:

There’s a rumour in the wind that a certain amount of privatization is coming to Ontario (wouldn’t that be nice), but I wouldn’t get my hopes up about it just yet – no time line has been given and I am sure that ‘more study’ is necessary … and of course, if track record is any indication, this government will find some way to either screw it up or make it such a complicated piece of legislation that it’ll take years to get through all the red tape behind it. I once heard Jerry Agar, of NewsTalk 1010 fame, say (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘if you want something screwed up get government involved’; he’s a proponent of the private sector because they can do it more efficiently than government if only ‘the man’ would just get outta the way … I would have to agree with him here. So far the government has made a mess of our liquor system that even repressed, despotic and 3rd world countries have better access to alcohol then we do.

Sadly, I believe it might be too little too late for some of Ontario wineries who have suffered this long, but might not be around to see the light at the end of the tunnel (if and/or when it comes). Yes, this might be the end of the line for a number of our precious wineries and we only have ourselves to blame for their demise. They have been as vocal as any sector, crying for help, not necessarily a hand out (which the grape growers seem to get) as much as a hand up – basically they’ve been pleading with each government: “please give us access to (our own) market (at the very least) and we’ll show you what we can do”, all to no avail.

Why the pessimistic attitude? Let’s look at the facts. It takes some rather deep pockets to own a winery in Ontario, that or a good credit rating, because money is the number one thing required to open the doors. But making it is more of an uphill battles then in any other business I this province. Post-1993, when the majority of the wineries around today opened their doors, your cellar door is the only place you can sell your wine – sure you could tap into the LCBO and the restaurant market, but that’s it. And although recent federal regulations have been lifted regarding the selling and especially shipping of wine across the country, many provinces have yet to enact their own legislation governing the practice, hence leaving the entire topic, not to mention hundreds of wineries, in limbo, unable to tap the rest of the country as a market for fear of breaking the law. With so few avenues to sell home-grown wine the government has basically handcuffed the industry – let alone the number of asinine rules that govern the industry from within (more on that next time) – it has all been put in place it would seem, so that wineries are destined to fail; that they remain open is a testament to their resolve and passion.

China (barely) misses growth target … as if we can trust their numbers anyway

Filed under: China, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Ah, well, I haven’t ridden this old hobby horse for a while, so let’s just let Tim Worstall explain why this time, we might be able to get a bit of perspective from the otherwise unreliable official Chinese government economic figures:

Many observers have been slightly sceptical of Chinese GDP numbers for some years now. Regional GDP numbers don’t seem to quite match with other regional numbers (say, oil consumption, other proxies for economic activity) and national numbers don’t necessarily reflect the sum of all of those regional numbers either. There’s absolutely no doubt at all that the place has been getting richer but whether quite so much or quite in the manner being reported is another matter. And then there’s another group of observers (this one including myself) who have some experience of how communists report economic numbers. There’s a plan, the Communist Party is in charge of executing that plan and, amazingly, the plan is always reported to have either worked or been exceeded. Anything less would reflected badly on said Communist Party. As I’ve also been exposed to the old Soviet accounting systems I’m more sceptical than most on this point.

So, there’s that slight worry that a slowing China (or one not growing at the former breakneck pace perhaps) will also lower growth in other countries. We’re pretty sure that’s going to happen. But we’ve also got this other thing to ponder. If the Communist Party is allowing the reporting of numbers that don’t meet the plan then what’s going on with that?

Is this some sea change in the management of the numbers? They’re actually reporting the correct numbers? Or are those suspected massages of the numbers still going on but they underlying reality is so bad that they just couldn’t get up to the planned target? This is, I agree, all wild surmise. But it is a surprise that the numbers came in below target because that’s just not what we’ve come to expect in such a political system. And that could be very bad news indeed.

January 19, 2015

US government to end seized-asset sharing with local police

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the Washington Post, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich report on a very hopeful move by the federal government to end one of the programs that has fuelled police civil forfeiture efforts:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.

Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing.

The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. It allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement.

Holder’s decision allows limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

H/T to Reason‘s Scott Shackford:

Big, huge news on the civil asset forfeiture front: Eric Holder is ordering an end to most of the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program. This is the program where the DOJ works with local law enforcement agencies for busts, and then the law enforcement agencies are permitted to keep 80 percent of the assets seized. It has been an incubator of the worst police abuses, as some agencies looked for any possible reason to take people’s property without ever actually accusing them with a crime.

Robby Soave says “Attorney General Eric Holder just made the best call of his political career” and lists just a few of the cases Reason has publicized over the years.

QotD: Austria becomes Austria-Hungary

Filed under: Europe, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Shaken by military defeat, the neo-absolutist Austrian Empire metamorphosed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under the Compromise hammered out in 1867 power was shared out between the two dominant nationalities, the Germans in the west and the Hungarians in the east. What emerged was a unique polity, like an egg with two yolks, in which the Kingdom of Hungary and a territory centred on the Austrian lands and often called Cisleithania (meaning ‘the lands on this side of the River Leithe’) lived side by side within the translucent envelope of a Habsburg dual monarchy. Each of the two entities had its own parliament, but there was no common prime minister and no common cabinet. Only foreign affairs, defence and defence-related aspects of finance were handled by ‘joint ministers’ who were answerable directly to the Emperor. Matters of interest to the empire as a whole could not be discussed in common parliamentary session, because to do so would have implied that the Kingdom of Hungary was merely the subordinate part of some larger imperial entity. Instead, an exchange of views had to take place between the ‘delegations’, groups of thirty delegates from each parliament, who met alternately in Vienna and Budapest.

The dualist compromise had many enemies at the time and has had many critics since. In the eyes of hardline Magyar nationalists, it was a sell-out that denied the Hungarians the full national independence that was their due. Some claimed that Austria was still exploiting the Kingdom of Hungary as an agrarian colony. Vienna’s refusal to relinquish control over the armed forces and create a separate and equal Hungarian army was especially contentious — a constitutional crisis over this question paralyzed the empire’s political life in 1905. On the other hand, Austrian Germans argued that the Hungarians were freeloading on the more advanced economy of the Austrian lands, and ought to pay a higher share of the empire’s running costs. Conflict was programmed into the system, because the Compromise required that the two imperial ‘halves’ renegotiate every ten years the customs union by which revenues and taxation were shared out between them. The demands of the Hungarians became bolder with every review of the union. And there was little in the Compromise to recommend it to the political elites of the other national minorities, who had in effect been placed under the tutelage of the two ‘master races’. The first post-Compromise Hungarian prime minister, Gyula Andrássy, captured this aspect of the settlement when he commented to his Austrian counterpart: ‘You look after your Slavs and we’ll look after ours.’ The last decades before the outbreak of war were increasingly dominated by the struggle for national rights among the empire’s eleven official nationalities – Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles, and Italians.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

January 17, 2015

Alberta to introduce a provincial sales tax?

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh explains why this is unlikely, at least in the short term:

Yeah, look, guys. I realize that Jim Prentice is talking about the possibility of a provincial sales tax for Alberta. I think he’s just trying to make sure he has our FULL ATTENTION before he passes a very austere budget, because I do not see a clear path toward us actually having a PST.

Under current Alberta statute — the Alberta Taxpayer Protection Act (ATPA) — Albertans would have to vote “yes” in a province-wide referendum before a PST could be introduced. The government gets to write the referendum question, which as we all know is a big advantage, but the economists who support a PST have not done anything like the necessary public outreach and education to soften up superstitious, PST-averse voters. The PCs are obviously hell-bent on a spring election, and spring seems far too soon for that sort of gamble, although the referendum could be held on the date of the general election.

It is more likely that if Prentice sincerely wanted a sales tax, he would try for repeal of the ATPA without an official referendum. Prentice could make that a centrepiece of the upcoming election campaign — a “no me without a PST” kinda offer — but then opposition parties and troublemaking journalists might ask why there is no formal referendum being held in parallel with the election. The whole point of the ATPA was to prevent premiers from forcing package deals of that sort onto voters.

And, of course, Albertans might actually take the “no me” option, rejecting a Conservative government in favour of … Stop laughing! It could totally happen!

January 16, 2015

It’s always a good time to cut taxes

Filed under: Economics, Government, Humour, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In a column explaining why he’s terrified that the “Modern Monetary Theory” folks might get anywhere near the levers of power, Tim Worstall fits in the best reason to cut taxes:

Given that we are discussing monetary policy it seems appropriate to bring Milton Friedman in here. And he pointed out that if you ever have a chance to cut taxes just do so. On the basis that politicians, any group of politicians, will spend the bottom out of the Treasury and more however much there is. So, the only way to stop ever increasing amounts of the the entire economy flowing through government is simply to constrain the resources they can get their sticky little mits on. We could, for example, possibly imagine a Republican from the Neanderthal wing of the party arguing that what the US really needs is another 7 carrier battle groups. And one from the even more confused than usual Progressive end of the Democratic Party arguing that each college student needs her own personal carrier battle group to protect her from the microaggressions of being asked out for a coffee. You know. Sometime. Maybe. If you want to?

QotD: The impact of lower oil prices

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

When oil prices are high there is a rush of investment into oil based enterprises from multi-nationals to frackers. No bad thing but there is always a real danger of over investment leading to the exploitation of very marginal resources. A lower oil price will strand some of that investment and, just as importantly, postpone a great deal of it. Which frees up investment for other, potentially more useful, purposes.

The second thing which happens is that governments become addicted to the joys of relatively painless oil royalties. This looks like revenue but, because it is drawn from a diminishing resource, is actually a rather dangerous drawing down of capital. A lot of oil “revenue” is seen as general revenue and is spent on non-capital expenditures. With a booming oil sector governments are tempted to think the exaggerated revenues are available for general expenses and will continue to be. Which means that government budgets are set based on a purely extractive draw down of a province’s or nation’s capital. This is a poor idea.

Not to take anything away from the bright guys who are fracking and mining their way to oil fortunes, the reality is that extracting oil does not leave much in the way of useful, secondary industry, much less innovation. Which, in turn, means that when the oil is no longer profitable to extract there is no residual, non-oil, economy left behind. If a government spends the oil revenue as it comes in, or worse uses it to secure loans, when the oil revenue dries up there is nothing to cover the spending or the debt.

[…]

The golden lining of additional pressures on nasty states like Russia, Iran and Venezuela is likely not as significant as the prevention of malinvestment and governmental squander. In time, as various emerging economies continue to grow, demand will drive the price of oil upwards again. With luck investors and governments will not make the same mistakes twice.

(One unalloyed good arising from the collapse of the price of oil is that so called clean energy renewables like wind and solar look even sillier with their present technology. I suspect wind will always make zero economic sense; I have more hope for photo voltaic solar as new materials promise significantly higher efficiency. And those same materials in a different configuration promise radical gains in battery efficiency for that daily occurrence known as darkness. Again, a low oil price will dampen the insane over investment in these marginal technologies.)

Jay Currie, “Oil Wars”, Jay Currie, 2014-01-03

January 10, 2015

The four kinds of healthcare spending

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Economics, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle explains why healthcare costs more than you think it should:

Milton Friedman famously divided spending into four kinds, which P.J. O’Rourke once summarized as follows:

  1. You spend your money on yourself. You’re motivated to get the thing you want most at the best price. This is the way middle-aged men haggle with Porsche dealers.
  2. You spend your money on other people. You still want a bargain, but you’re less interested in pleasing the recipient of your largesse. This is why children get underwear at Christmas.
  3. You spend other people’s money on yourself. You get what you want but price no longer matters. The second wives who ride around with the middle-aged men in the Porsches do this kind of spending at Neiman Marcus.
  4. You spend other people’s money on other people. And in this case, who gives a [damn]?

Most health-care spending in the U.S. falls into category three. In theory, the people who are funding our expenses — the proverbial middle-aged men in Porsches, except that they’re actually insurance executives and government bureaucrats — have every incentive to step in, cut up the charge cards, and substitute a gift-wrapped box of Hanes briefs with the comfort-soft waistband. In practice, legislators frequently intervene to stop them from exercising much cost-control. The managed care revolution of the 1990s died when patients complained to their representatives, and the representatives ran down to their offices to pass laws making it very hard to deny coverage for anything anyone wanted. Medicare cost-controls, such as the famed Sustainable Growth Rate, fell prey to similar maneuvers. The only system that exhibits sustained cost control is Medicaid, because poor people don’t vote, or exit the system for better insurance.

The result is a system where everyone complains that we spend much too much on health care — and the very same people get indignant if anyone suggests that they, personally, should maybe spend a little bit less. Everyone wants to go to heaven — but nobody wants to die.

Unfortunately, this is what cost-control actually looks like, which is to say, like people not being able to spend as much on health care. Oh, to be sure, we could achieve this end differently — instead of asking patients to pay a modest share of their own costs (the article suggests that this amount is less than 10 percent, in the case of Harvard professors) — we could simply set a schedule of covered treatment, and deny patients access to off-schedule treatments, or even better, not even tell them that those treatments exist. But people don’t like that solution either, which is why medical dramas are filled with rants about insurers who won’t cover procedures, and the law books are filled with regulations that sharply curtail the ability of insurers to ration care. And the third option, refusing to pay top-dollar for care, would be a bit tricky for Harvard to implement, given that they run exactly the sort of high-cost research facilities that help drive health-care costs skyward. Nor do I really think that the angry professors would be mollified by being given a cheap insurance package that wouldn’t let them go see the top-flight specialists their elite status now entitles them to access.

Instead, they persist in our mass delusion: that there is some magic pot of money in the health-care system, which can be painlessly tapped to provide universal coverage without dislocating any of the generous arrangements that insured people currently enjoy. Just as there are no leprechauns, there is no free money at the end of the rainbow; there are patients demanding services, and health-care workers making comfortable livings, who have built their financial lives around the expectation that those incomes will continue. Until we shed this delusion, you can expect a lot of ranting and raving about the hard truths of the real world.

January 7, 2015

How to create an investment monoculture

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer explains how what must have seemed to be a simple, common-sense regulation change led almost inevitably to a housing market melt-down:

… a redefinition by governments in the Basel accords of how capital levels at banks should be calculated when determining capital sufficiency. I will oversimplify here, but basically it categorized some assets as “safe” and some as “risky”. Those that were risky had their value cut in half for purposes of capital calculations, while those that were “safe” had their value counted at 100%. So if a bank invested a million dollars in safe assets, that would count as a million dollar towards its capital requirements, but would count only $500,000 towards those requirements if it were invested in risky assets. As a result, a bank that needed a billion dollars in capital would need a billion of safe assets or two billion of risky assets.

Well, this obviously created a strong incentive for banks to invest in assets deemed by the government as “safe”. Which of course was the whole point — if we are going to have taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and bank bailouts, the prices of that is getting into banks’ shorts about the risks they are taking with their investments. This is the attempted tightening of regulation to which Kling refers. Regulators were trying for tougher, not weaker standards.

[…]

Anyway, what assets did the regulators choose as “safe”? Again, we will simplify, but basically sovereign debt and mortgages (including the least risky tranches of mortgage-backed debt). So you are a bank president in this new regime. You only have enough capital to meet government requirements if you get 100% credit for your investments, so it must be invested in “safe” assets. What do you tell your investment staff? You tell them to go invest the money in the “safe” asset that has the highest return.

And for most banks, this was mortgage-backed securities. So, using the word Brad DeLong applied to deregulation, there was an “orgy” of buying of mortgage-backed securities. There was simply enormous demand. You hear stories about fraud and people cooking up all kinds of crazy mortgage products and trying to shove as many people as possible into mortgages, and here is one reason — banks needed these things. For the average investor, most of us stayed out. In the 1980’s, mortgage-backed securities were a pretty good investment for individuals looking for a bit more yield, but these changing regulations meant that banks needed these things, so the prices got bid up (and thus yields bid down) until they only made sense for the financial institutions that had to have them.

It was like suddenly passing a law saying that the only food people on government assistance could buy with their food stamps was oranges and orange derivatives (e.g. orange juice). Grocery stores would instantly be out of oranges and orange juice. People around the world would be scrambling to find ways to get more oranges to market. Fortunes would be made by clever people who could find more oranges. Fraud would likely occur as people watered down their orange derivatives or slipped in some Tang. Those of us not on government assistance would stay away from oranges and eat other things, since oranges were now incredibly expensive and would only be bought at their current prices by folks forced to do so. Eventually, things would settle down as everyone who could do so started to grow oranges. And all would be fine again, that is until there was a bad freeze and the orange crop failed.

Government regulation — completely well-intentioned — had created a mono-culture. The diversity of investment choices that might be present when every bank was making its own asset risk decisions was replaced by a regime where just a few regulators picked and chose the assets. And like any biological mono-culture, the ecosystem might be stronger for a while if those choices were good ones, but it made the whole system vulnerable to anything that might undermine mortgages. When the housing market got sick (and as Kling says government regulation had some blame there as well), the system was suddenly incredibly vulnerable because it was over-invested in this one type of asset. The US banking industry was a mono-culture through which a new disease ravaged the population.

January 1, 2015

The Laffer Curve at 40

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:39

In the Washington Post, Stephen Moore recounts the tale of the most famous napkin in US economic history:

It was 40 years ago this month that two of President Gerald Ford’s top White House advisers, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, gathered for a steak dinner at the Two Continents restaurant in Washington with Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jude Wanniski and Arthur Laffer, former chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget. The United States was in the grip of a gut-wrenching recession, and Laffer lectured to his dinner companions that the federal government’s 70 percent marginal tax rates were an economic toll booth slowing growth to a crawl.

To punctuate his point, he grabbed a pen and a cloth cocktail napkin and drew a chart showing that when tax rates get too high, they penalize work and investment and can actually lead to revenue losses for the government. Four years later, that napkin became immortalized as “the Laffer Curve” in an article Wanniski wrote for the Public Interest magazine. (Wanniski would later grouse only half-jokingly that he should have called it the Wanniski Curve.)

This was the first real post-World War II intellectual challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of Keynesian economics, which preached that when the economy is growing too slowly, the government should stimulate demand for products with surges in spending. The Laffer model countered that the primary problem is rarely demand — after all, poor nations have plenty of demand — but rather the impediments, in the form of heavy taxes and regulatory burdens, to producing goods and services.

[…]

Solid supporting evidence came during the Reagan years. President Ronald Reagan adopted the Laffer Curve message, telling Americans that when 70 to 80 cents of an extra dollar earned goes to the government, it’s understandable that people wonder: Why keep working? He recalled that as an actor in Hollywood, he would stop making movies in a given year once he hit Uncle Sam’s confiscatory tax rates.

When Reagan left the White House in 1989, the highest tax rate had been slashed from 70 percent in 1981 to 28 percent. (Even liberal senators such as Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum voted for those low rates.) And contrary to the claims of voodoo, the government’s budget numbers show that tax receipts expanded from $517 billion in 1980 to $909 billion in 1988 — close to a 75 percent change (25 percent after inflation). Economist Larry Lindsey has documented from IRS data that tax collections from the rich surged much faster than that.

Unintended consequences – charities suffer due to US anti-terror measures

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:31

It’s actually rather amazing how powerful the US government can be … and we’re not talking about military power here. US banking laws are being exported to other nations without their consent or consultation, and there’s nothing non-US governments can do about it:

Now here’s a real surprise. The various anti-terror laws, terrorist financing laws, know your customer, illicit money tracking laws which now festoon the financial system have costs. Really, who would have thought it that bureaucratic regulations have real costs out there in the real world? It’s something of an amusement that it’s a rather lefty think tank, Demos, that brings us this news. For, of course, it tends to be those who are rather lefty who tell us that regulation is the cure for all our ills and no, of course not, regulations never have any costs they only do good things. You know, the Elizabeth Warren approach, piles of regulations on finance will be just wonderful, no one will ever lose out.

It particularly interests me as I’ve a very vague connection with a charity, Interpal, that has been hit by these sorts of regulations. Not, I hasten to add, that I am actually connected with that charity, only that I was once on a TV program with the head of it discussing their difficulties in gaining access to a bank account. The basic problem was that the Americans thought that they were less than kosher (the charity themselves obviously disagree) and that thus they shouldn’t have access to the banking system. This shouldn’t be all that much of a problem as they’re a UK charity and they were looking for access to the UK banking system. But that isn’t how it all works. If the Americans decide that they don’t think someone should have access to the banking system then they tell the bank that, well, you wouldn’t want us to come looking at your American banking licence if you were to offer an account with your UK licence, would you? And thus there is the leverage required to extend US law to other countries.

[…]

It’s not particularly the British government that is causing these problems although they have a part in it, to be sure. It’s the general international rules over who a bank may deal with, what they’ve got to know about them and what they’re doing with the money. Everyone seems quite happy with this as it stops (or hinders at least) drug dealing, money laundering and tax abuse. But it does have costs. Absolutely any set of regulations will affect people who are not the target of said regulations. If you insist that banks make a large effort to understand what their customers are doing then the banks will simply reject some customers as not being worth the candle. If perhaps handling money for some Islamic terrorist means bankers go to jail then bankers won’t handle the money of anyone who might be an Islamic terrorist: nor anyone who wanders around in Huddersfield in Islamic robes and states that they’re raising money to help the poor of Gaza. The manager of, say, Lloyds Bank in Huddersfield doesn’t know what the heck is going on in Gaza, who is linked to Hamas, who is not, who is delivering food and who is doing other less reputable things. And there’s no reason why she should either. So, the laws to prevent the one will lead to the other not gaining access to a bank account. This is really simple, simple, stuff.

This is what happens when people regulate.

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