Tag Archives: Brandon Pizzola

The Study of American Capitalism

(Note to readers: Three talks in three states over the last week have made me a terrible blogger. Thankfully, Eileen and Emily have stepped up where I have stepped down.)

Mercatus has now organized its work around government-granted privilege and crony capitalism under a new project called the Study of American Capitalism. We are thrilled that Celia Sandel has joined the Mercatus team to manage the project. If you are a scholar working or thinking about working in this field, please reach out to Celia. We’d love to hear from you.

Speaking of which, we’ve already released a number of excellent papers on the topic. And now, in no particular order:

In Crony Capitalism: By-Product of Big Government, Professor Randal Holcombe of Florida State University explores the links between government power and cronyism, writing:

The more government is involved in an economy, the more the profitability of business will depend on government policy. Even those entrepreneurs who would prefer to avoid cronyism are pushed into it, because they must become politically active to maintain their profitability. When the government looms large in economic affairs, businesses push for government policies that can help them, and try to avoid suffering harm as a result of government policies that can work against them. If one’s competitors are engaging in cronyism, avoiding cronyism means that one’s competitors will gain government-bestowed advantages.

In Government Cronyism and the Erosion of Public Trust, Professor John Garen of the University of Kentucky examines the relationship between cronyism and eroding trust in government. He writes:

Survey data show a large decline in trust in government, much of which has occurred while government grew rapidly. Evidence indicates that government growth has been associated with rent-seeking and cronyism, leading to a withdrawal of trust. Thus, cronyism—bad government— can undermine even the appropriate functions of government.

Professors Daniel Smith and Daniel Sutter of Troy University gauge public perceptions of the problem in Gauging the Perception of Cronyism in the US:

Cronyism can have real and significant costs, yet it is challenging to measure objectively. In fact, just the perception of cronyism can inhibit business formation, distort the allocation of entrepreneurial talent, and undermine support for free market capitalism. Refined measures of perceptions of cronyism among both business leaders and the public could help advance our understanding of cronyism and its effects on our economic system.

Last, but by no means least, my graduate-school colleague Professor Jeremy Horpedahl of Buena Vista University has teamed up with my current student, Brandon Pizzola, to explore the privileges that lurk in our tax code in A Trillion Little Subsidies:

Total tax expenditures in the United States are currently around $1 trillion, with over 80 percent accruing to individuals and the remainder to corporations. We review each of the ten largest tax expenditures for individuals and corporations, focusing on the following distortions of economic activity: spending on goods and services, capital allocation, the distribution of income, and lobbying and rent-seeking. The benefits of tax expenditures accrue disproportionately to higher-income earners, since they are more likely to itemize deductions and can afford to hire accountants to minimize their tax burden. Eliminating tax expenditures would increase economic growth and allow for lower tax rates, further increasing growth.

(Many) more to come!

New Medicaid Case Study Highlights the Role of Politics in Policy

Last week, Scott Beaulier and Brandon Pizzola released new research on Medicaid, conducting case studies of five states that have implemented reform measures designed to control program costs. They find that the political climate is essential to the success of reforms.

Medicaid is a cost driver in state budgets for several reasons, but an important factor is that most states have designed the program so that a formula determines the amount of federal money they receive based on state-level Medicaid spending. Reforms which move to essentially a block grant program, as implemented in Rhode Island and Washington, have so far successfully reduced Medicaid spending by eliminating this incentive. These two states have moved to a system where the federal government pledges a fixed yearly amount toward their Medicaid spending. If the full amount is not spent, the remainder can be transferred to the general fund. This reverses the incentive from spending as much as possible to searching for cost savings. Both states have also introduced measures of individual patient responsibility, requiring, for example, that Medicaid recipients do not rely on emergency rooms for routine care. While it is too soon to tell if Rhode Island and Washington will manage to control costs in the long run, both states appear to have achieved improved incentive structures for doing so.

These states passed reform bills not by making a gradual transition to new policies, but by moving decisively. In contrast, Florida lawmakers attempted to test reforms in two counties before expanding them to apply to the rest of the state. This time lag served as an opportunity for interest groups to block further changes. Rhode Island and Washington developed support from these interest groups by framing the issue as the state against the federal government rather than one of winners and losers within the state. In Tennessee reform has not been successful because key interest groups like the Tennessee Medical Association did not get behind proposed reforms, making them unworkable in practice.

Despite the apparent successes in Rhode Island and Washington, the federalism research that Ben and Eileen explored last week reveals that block grants are not a panacea. Block grants, like all intergovernmental spending, carry with them fiscal illusion. This obfuscates program costs to taxpayers by spreading the funding across multiple layers of government. While moving from a matching funds formula to a block grant is an improvement in transparency, total spending is still obscured. Furthermore, while neither state has failed to keep spending within the the budgeted block grant so far, it’s hardly inconceivable that program costs will outpace grants at some point, leading states to seek bailouts after implementing reforms.

The demonstrated reasons to be pessimistic about the viability of programs whose costs are shared across state and federal governments leave reason to question whether or not block grants are successful tools for curbing costs in the long run. However, Rhode Island and Washington have chosen a path that is at least more sustainable than other states, which face incentives to increase Medicaid spending with no limit in sight.