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Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post is celebrating the auto bailout.

Last December I had a piece in the Post in which I argued that “pro-business” policies like bailouts are actually bad for business. I offered five reasons:

  1. Pro-business policies undermine competition.
  2. They retard innovation
  3. They sucker workers into unsustainable careers.
  4. They encourage wasteful privilege seeking.
  5. They undermine the legitimacy of government and business.

Read my piece for the full argument.

But aren’t things different in the midst of a major economic and financial crisis? Shouldn’t we have more leeway for bailouts in exigent circumstances?

No. Here is why:

First, we should always remember that the concentrated beneficiaries of a bailout have every incentive to overstate its necessity while the diffuse interests that pay for it (other borrowers, taxpayers, un-favored competitors, and the future inheritors of a less dynamic and less competitive economy) have almost no incentive or ability to get organized and lobby against it.

Bailout proponents talk as if they know bailouts avert certain calamity. But the truth is that we can never know exactly what would have happened without a bailout. We can, however, draw on both economic theory and past experience. And both suggest that the macroeconomy of a world without bailouts is actually more stable than one with bailouts. This is because bailouts incentivize excessive risk (and, importantly, correlated risk taking). Moreover, because the bailout vs. no bailout call is inherently arbitrary, bailouts generate uncertainty.

Todd Zywicki at GMU law argues convincingly that normal bankruptcy proceedings would have worked just fine in the case of the autos.

Moreover, as Garett Jones and Katelyn Christ explain, alternative options like “speed bankruptcy” (aka debt-to-equity swaps) offer better ways to improve the health of institutions without completely letting creditors off the hook. This isn’t just blind speculation. The EU used this approach in its “bail in” of Cyprus and it seems to have worked pretty well.

Ironically, one can make a reasonable case that many (most?) bailouts are themselves the result of previous bailouts. The 1979 bailout of Chrysler taught a valuable lesson to the big 3 automakers and their creditors. It showed them that Washington would do whatever it took to save them. That, and decades of other privileges allowed the auto makers to ignore both customers and market realities.

Indeed, at least some of the blame for the entire 2008 debacle falls on the ‘too big to fail’ expectation that systematically encouraged most large financial firms to leverage up. While it was hardly the only factor, the successive bailouts of Continental Illinois (1984), the S&Ls (1990s), the implicit guarantee of the GSEs, etc., likely exacerbated the severity of the 2008 financial crisis. So a good cost-benefit analysis of any bailout should include some probability that it will encourage future excessive risk taking, and future calls for more bailouts. Once these additional costs are accounted for, bailouts look like significantly worse deals.

Adherence to the “rule of law” is more important in a crisis than it is in normal times. Constitutional prohibitions, statutory limits, and even political taboos are typically not needed in “easy cases.” It is the hard cases that make for bad precedent.

Stephen Walters, Professor of Economics at Loyola University Maryland, has written a new book called Boom Towns. I’ve written a review for the Library of Law and Liberty. Here is the beginning:

Capital, in the 21st century, has a bad rap. Many say that because it is the source of “passive income,” it does nothing but pad the pockets of the idle rich, driving a wedge between the haves and the have-nots. It’s helpful, then, to be reminded that capital in all its forms is the source of human betterment. Capital is the accumulated stock of stuff (financial assets, physical equipment, human knowhow, even social connections) that helps us make and do more stuff. So policies that drain capital from a community or discourage its formation in the first place are likely to leave a trail of destruction. This is the central lesson of Stephen J.K. Walters’ Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream.

Here is another excerpt:

In some cases, reformers’ cures for urban decay have been worse than the disease. Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 is a case in point. It made federal dollars available to cities that bulldozed property in blighted areas and turned it over to private developers. While earlier reforms had sought to replace tenements with public housing, Title I allowed funds to be used for “shiny new office towers, upscale apartments, convention centers, or hotels.” By 1967, some 400,000 housing units had been razed, but only 10,760 low-rent dwellings had been built to replace them. The result was “an intra-urban diaspora” as about two million, mostly Black, residents were displaced. Though it is impossible to quantify precisely, Walters rightly emphasizes the significance of this unfathomable loss in social capital as people were driven from the communities that had sustained them for generations.

After I wrote this, a friend pointed me to this moving Reason video, written and produced by Jim Epstein and narrated by Nick Gillespie:

Over a century ago, the Italian political economist Amilcare Puviani suggested that policy makers have a strong incentive to obscure the cost of government. Known as “fiscal illusion,” the idea is that voters will be willing to spend more money on government if they think its costs is lower than it actually is. Fiscal illusion explains a great deal of public choices, including the popularity of deficit spending.

It also explains why the public knows the least about some of the most controversial items in the public budget such as corporate welfare. But some would like to change this. Here are Jess Fields and Tom “Smitty” Smith, writing in the (subscription required) Austin-American Statesman:

Texans believe in government transparency and accountability. For this reason, we have some of the most advanced open-government initiatives in the nation. Yet one policy area remains outside the view of the general public: economic development.

When local governments cut deals that result in millions in incentives, they can do it behind closed doors in “executive session” — legally — thanks to exceptions to the Open Meetings and Public Information Acts for “economic development negotiations.”

Fields is a senior policy analyst at the free enterprise Texas Public Policy Foundation, while Smith is the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a progressive consumer advocacy group started by Ralph Nader in the ‘70s.

Texans aren’t the only ones interested in making corporate welfare more transparent. The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is considering rules that would require governments to report the tax privileges that they hand out to businesses. Here is Liz Farmer, writing in Governing Magazine:

Specifically, GASB is proposing that state and local governments disclose information about property and other tax abatement agreements in their annual financial statements. If approved, the new disclosures could shed light on an area of government finance and provide hard data on information that is assembled sporadically, if at all. Scores of public and private groups support the proposal and it has proven to be one of GASB’s most debated topic yet, as nearly 300 groups or individuals submitted comment letters to the board. But many still say the requirements don’t go far enough.

She notes that the proposal misses a number of tax privileges including:

  • Tax increment financing (TIF),
  • Agreements to discount personal income taxes,
  • “[P]rograms that reduce the tax liabilities of businesses or similar classes of taxpayers.”

Because of these omissions the new GASB rules may only capture about one-third of all tax expenditures.

Puviani would have predicted that.

I have a new essay, coauthored with two of my former students, Anna Mills and Dana Williams. We just published a piece in Real Clear Policy summarizing it. Here is a selection of the OpEd:

Liberals, conservative, and libertarians agree on the goals: Patients should have access to innovative, low-cost, and high-quality care. And though another round of federal reform may be years off, a number of state-level changes can move us closer to a competitive and patient-centered health-care market, making it possible to realize these shared aspirations.

In a new paper published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, we identify three areas for reform: States can eliminate certificate-of-need laws, liberalize scope-of-practice regulations, and end the regulatory barriers to telemedicine.

And here is our longer essay.

What is rent seeking? Ask the dino-hunters.

March 9, 2015

I haven’t had much time for blogging lately but I’m going to try to get back into the swing of things. Back in December, I had this to say in Real Clear Markets: The eminent political economist (and my former professor) Gordon Tullock, passed away last month at the age of 92. His greatest contribution to […]

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The Sharing Economy and Consumer Protection

January 7, 2015

(It has been a busy few weeks and I haven’t had much time for blogging). In early December, my colleagues Chris Koopman, Adam Thierer, and I published a piece on the sharing economy and consumer protection regulation. Here is a summary. A few days later, I was on the Diane Rehm Show talking about the […]

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What to expect from a lame duck

November 25, 2014

Two weeks ago, I sat down with CSPAN’s Greta Wodele Brawner to talk about “lame duck” sessions of Congress. Drawing on my research with colleagues Chris Koopman and Emily Washington, we discussed the ways in which roll call voting patterns differ during lame duck sessions compared with ordinary sessions. A few times I struck a […]

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An interesting development in state regulation of wine shipment

November 18, 2014
Thumbnail image for An interesting development in state regulation of wine shipment

Can one state enforce another state’s laws that prohibit direct-to-consumer wine shipment from out-of-state retailers while allowing it by in-state retailers?  That’s the question posed in a recent New York case. The New York State Liquor Authority has a rule that prohibits licensees from engaging in “improper conduct.”  The liquor regulator argues that direct shipments […]

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The Sharing Economy

September 30, 2014

Over at the Tech Liberation Front, my colleague Adam Thierer has sketched out a few themes in the debate over the sharing economy. His discussion of leveling the regulatory playing field is particularly important. Here is my favorite part: Alternative remedies exist: Accidents will always happen, of course. But insurance, contracts, product liability, and other […]

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How Complete Are Federal Agencies’ Regulatory Analyses?

September 12, 2014

A report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office will likely get spun to imply that federal agencies are doing a pretty good job of assessing the benefits and costs of their proposed regulations. The subtitle of the report reads in part, “Agencies Included Key Elements of Cost-Benefit Analysis…” Unfortunately, agency analyses of regulations are less […]

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