Tag Archives: Germany

Would cutting Ex-Im’s ties to the U.S. Treasury amount to “unilateral disarmament”?

Before winning this year’s World Cup championship, Germany faced a dilemma during its qualifying match against the United States. Both teams could ensure their advancement in the tournament by colluding to do nothing. If they tied, both would advance. If one of them won, the other might not advance. However, neither could ensure that the other would cooperate. And as a result, they were both forced to compete.

This situation, known a “prisoner’s dilemma,” is one that manifests itself in all sorts of situations, frombusiness to politics to World Cup qualifying games.

It also helps explain where we find ourselves with the Export-Import Bank,or “Ex-Im,” a federal agency tasked with subsidizing U.S. exports. The bank’s charter is set to expire in a few months, and some are making the case that it should be reauthorized to help U.S. manufacturers “compete internationally” by“leveling the playing field.” This is simply another prisoner’s dilemma playing out in the real world.

That is my latest, coauthored with Chris Koopman, at US News.

Do We Need Speed Limits to Drive Safely?

A recent RegBlog post discussed a paper by van Benthem, which suggested that the social costs of higher speed limits outweigh their benefits. The paper examines the data from a natural experiment – the repeal of National Maximum Speed Law in 1995 that led many states to increase speed limits – to make its point. Yet, both the RegBlog post and the paper miss the larger question: lower driving speeds may be safer, but do we need the government-imposed speed limits to drive at safe speeds?

In the study, van Benthem finds that “a 10 mph speed limit increase on highways leads to a 3-4 mph increase in travel speed, 9-15% more accidents, 34-60% more fatal accidents.” Thus, he concludes that the difference between private benefits and social costs of faster driving provide a strong rationale for speed limits (while the paper looks at both traffic fatalities and increasing pollution levels, I focus on traffic safety. As the RegBlog post points out, there are alternatives to speed limits to deal with pollution, e.g. emission standards).

However, there is a natural experiment that van Benthem does not discuss: only a third of highways in Germany (mostly around urban areas) have permanent speed limits. On the remaining portion of highways, drivers choose their own speed. The data indicate that there is little difference between traffic fatality rates on highways with and without speed limits. In fact, over the last 20 years, the number of highway traffic fatalities in Germany decreased by 71% despite a 17% increase in number of vehicles on the road and a 25% increase in traffic flow. At 5.6 deaths per billion vehicle-kilometers driven, Germany’s traffic fatality rate is lower than the US rate (6.83) or even France’s (7.01). Apparently, German drivers are able to choose safe driving speeds even without government prodding.

Entrusting drivers with responsibility for their own safety and safety of those around them is behind another natural experiment adopted in several European cities – the concept of shared spaces. These cities are doing away with a thicket of street signs, streetlights and in some cases even sidewalks on some busy intersections. Instead, cars and pedestrians share the road, negotiating their ways as they go. While this may sound like a disaster waiting to happen, the cities report fewer accidents and increased foot traffic in businesses along the roads. The key to the concept’s success comes from drivers’ psychology; drivers compensate for lack of predictable traffic rules by paying attention to their surroundings and being more considerate to others. As Hans Monderman, a proponent of shared spaces, points out “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate… The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

For social regulation proponents, stringent rules are the go to response to all social ills. Yet, as European experiences with traffic demonstrate, regulation is not the only and may not even be the best alternative. Crazy as it may sound to some, treating people as responsible adults and trusting them to make the right choices may in fact lead to better social outcomes for all.

Hamilton’s Paradox

I recently finished reading Jonathan Rodden’s 2006 book Hamilton’s Paradox: The Promise and Peril of Fiscal Federalism. The book provides a fascinating analysis of fiscal federalism that combines theory, qualitative and quantitative analysis, and contemporary case studies.

Rodden begins by detailing the potential promises and perils of fiscal federalism. He states that the promise of federalism is straightforward: “decentralized, multitiered systems of government are likely to give citizens more of what they want from government at lower cost than more centralized alternatives.” The perils of federalism, although less examined in the literature, are rooted in the idea that “In decentralized federations, politically fragmented central governments may find it difficult to solve coordination problems and provide federation-wide collective goods. As in the private sector, public institutions only produce desirable outcomes when incentives are properly structured” (p. 5).

In Chapter 3 Rodden provides a very interesting history of federalism and federal bailouts in the U.S. Specifically, he discusses the federal assumption of state debt that took place in 1790, the rapid growth in state borrowing in the early 1800s, the nine states that defaulted in 1841 and 1842 (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi), and the constitutional debt limitations that many states adopted in the 1840s and 1850s.

Most interesting is the game theory model Rodden develops in the second half of Chapter 3. Specifically, it’s a dynamic game of incomplete information that takes place between the central government and a single subnational government. Information is incomplete because subnational governments don’t know exactly how the central government will behave in the event of fiscal crisis. That is, the central government will either allow the subnational government to default (resolute type) or will provide a bailout (irresolute type).

The fist move of the game occurs when a subnational government experiences a fiscal shock with lasting effects (i.e. recession). In response to the fiscal shock it can either adjust immediately or refuse to deal with the shock by borrowing, with the long term hope of receiving a bailout. The path that the subnational government takes is a function of, among other things, the expected probability of the central government being resolute or irresolute (the complete game is much more detailed than the brief description provided here).

Rodden utilizes this game as he develops each of the case studies provided later in the book. The case studies involve comparing and contrasting the events that have taken place in Germany and Brazil. In the 1990’s two states in Germany received formal bailouts by the federal government (the Bund). During the same time, however, bailouts were distributed to virtually every state in Brazil. In Chapters 7 and 8 Rodden carefully details the structures of government in these two countries and outlines the reasons their outcomes were so different.

Two of the many important conclusions that Rodden makes in this book are (1)

when free to borrow, growing transfer dependence is associated with increasing deficits, both among federated units and local governments (p. 116)

and (2)

The central government must not only allow subnational governments significant tax autonomy and disentangle its books from those of the subnational governments, but it must demonstrate through costly action that it will not assume subnational liabilities when times get tough (p. 267)

This brief review of Hamilton’s Paradox only covered a few of the many important topics that the Rodden details in the book. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in fiscal federalism.

Getting People Back to Work

Germany’s unemployment rate is only 6.2 percent today. This is pretty remarkable given the severity of the recent recession, the slow growth of Germany’s trade partners (including the U.S.) and the unfolding fiscal crisis in the Eurozone.

NPR’s Caitlin Kenney attributes Germany’s relative success to a number of reforms adopted a decade ago. Kenney reports:

To figure out how Germany got where it is today, you need to go back 10 years. In 2002, Germany looked a lot like the United States does now, they had no economic growth and their unemployment rate was 8.7 percent and climbing. The country needed help, so the top man in Germany at the time, Gerhard Schroder, the German chancellor, made in an emergency call to a trusted friend.

The friend was Peter Hartz, a former HR director whom Schroder knew from his VW days. Schroder put Hartz in charge of a commission, the mission of which was to find a way to make Germany’s labor market more flexible. The Hartz commission made it easier to hire someone for a low-paying, temporary job, a so-called “mini job”:

A mini-job isn’t that great of a deal for workers. In these jobs, they can work as many hours as the employer wants them to, but the maximum they can earn is 400 Euros per month. On the plus side, they get to keep it all. They don’t pay any taxes on the money. And they do still get some government assistance.

They also reduced the generosity of unemployment benefits:

Here’s what you get if you’re out of work for more than a year in Germany: 364 euros a month – that’s about $500 – subsidized rent and heat, and a job counselor. Before the Hartz commission, you would get around 50 percent of your last income indefinitely for as long as you were unemployed.

Kenney says that Hartz “wanted to make unemployment uncomfortable so that people would get off of it quickly.”

These changes haven’t made Peter Hartz a popular figure in Germany. His legacy is controversial. He was convicted of paying off union leaders at Volkswagen to go along with his cutbacks.

But no matter how people feel about Hartz, it’s hard to argue with the huge drop in the country’s unemployment rate.

One country’s experience is not dispositive. But a number of carefully designed studies — relying on more sophisticated models and larger data sets — have reached much the same conclusion. Generous unemployment insurance and regulations that add to the cost of employment tend to make for a static, unhealthy labor market. Though designed to make life better for workers, these policies may do them more harm than good.


Delaware’s Robber Barons

I recently drove across the Delaware Turnpike while traveling from Washington to New York.  It had been a while so I didn’t remember that the toll had risen to $4 in 2008 – this for a road 11 miles long. It amounts to 36 cents for eacdelaware-turnpikeh of those 11 miles.  This is ridiculous.

The other tolls I paid driving up Interstate 95 were $2.50 for the JFK Highway in Maryland and $9.05 for the full length of the New Jersey Turnpike. The Maryland highway is 50 miles, and I drove 122 miles in New Jersey, amounting to 5 cents and 7 cents per mile, respectively.

Other Northeast tolls are much like New Jersey and Maryland. Driving the full length of the Massachusetts turnpike covers 135 miles and costs $6.85, amounting to 5 cents per mile. The length of the New York Thruway is 376 miles, costing $17.50, also 5 cents per mile.  The $28.45 toll for driving the entire 358 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike comes to 8 cents per mile.

So how can Delaware get away with tolls 5 to 7 times higher than other nearby states in the Northeast?  It is said to be the highest toll per mile in the United States. It helps that the Delaware Turnpike feeds into the Delaware Memorial Bridge, one of the few ways of getting across the Delaware River. There are no good alternative routes if you are traveling up the east coast. Once on the New Jersey side of the river, by contrast, it is easy to take Interstate 295, a toll-free road which allows you to bypass at least half of the Turnpike.

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Are Bikes the Answer to Urban Traffic Congestion?

A South China Morning Post editorial suggests that if more Chinese urbanites used bicycles for their commutes, the severe traffic congestion in China’s cities could be eased. Currently, Guangdong is considering limitations on vehicle use to help reduce crowding on its streets.

Unlike mass transit and road construction that take time and money to construct, bicycles can offer an immediate respite from traffic for individuals. However, expecting government to create incentives for increased bike use may be unrealistic if they clash with car manufacturers and commuters:

Conflicting interests are difficult for any government to deal with. In the mainland’s case, it involves balancing a policy of using vehicle production to boost industrial growth with ensuring that cities are liveable and function properly. The car industry is the catalyst for a plethora of spin-off industries that boost job creation, meet consumer demand and lay the groundwork for export markets. But cities are where factories, offices and workers are located and they need to be efficient and safe.

While bicycle commutes in many cities can be faster than car commutes as observed in Birmingham, England, congested roads that are not well-designed for shared use of bicycles and automobiles often pose dangers to riders.

Vauban, Germany has instituted a unique, local solution to city transportation, creating a community where car parking is very expensive, and only available on the outskirts of town. CBS’s Jim Sciutto, in a Good Morning America segment, suggests that Vauban’s solution is representative of the “city of the future.”

The New York Times reports:

Vauban, home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile, may be the most advanced experiment in low-car suburban life. But its basic precepts are being adopted around the world in attempts to make suburbs more compact and more accessible to public transportation, with less space for parking.

The article states that only 30 percent of Vauban’s residents own cars and suggests that many of them view this lifestyle as an improvement for their health and well-being. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be successfully adopted in other cities, but University of California-Davis Professor Jeff Loux suggests that this city’s policy could successfully be transferred to the United States, but adjusting to increased housing density would be a big change for many Americans.

Whether or not the Vauban policy is adopted by other cities remains to be seen, but it is an example of successful use in policy variation between cities. If increased bicycle were mandated or incentivized in Germany at the national level, it would be extremely costly with benefits accruing only to those who wanted to give up their cars for bicycles. Vauban was completed in 2006 after 20 years of planning, and all of its residents selected to live there with the knowledge of its policy environment; decreased car use was not forced upon any residents.

If any US communities opt to follow a model similar to Vauban’s, they should do it at the local level and follow their example of allowing residents the opportunity to live in car-free communities rather than implementing “the city of the future” from the top down.

A brewing awareness

People don’t generally think about the governmental framework in which they live. It’s assumed like oxygen.  But change that framework drastically enough, and things learned and forgotten from history textbooks develop a live pulse.

Federalism, as a point of common discussion, is relegated to Constitutional Law, economics and political science journals. It’s the stuff policy people and academics pour over.  But not lately, as Randal Barnett writes at the Wall Street Journal, tea parties and sovereignty amendments speak to a growing awareness of profound structural change in the relationship between the federal government and the states.  The ceding of local and state control to the federal level is not a new story. The debate over this changing relationship dates to the 19th century, but given the size and kinds of spending in the last several years, rounded out by the stimulus and budget of recent weeks, and a threshold is perceived.

For three different policy takes: an interesting solution offered by Greg Mankiw back in October, would have given the governors more discretion in accepting funds – they could elect to pass it on to citizens, rather than expand programs. The Brookings Institute suggests following Germany, a federalist system, in applying transportation funds. Chris Edwards of CATO has done work on how federal aid erodes state budget autonomy.