Tag Archives: GMU

No, bailouts are not something to celebrate

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.

What would a business-cycle balanced budget rule look like in Illinois?

A few years ago, I testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. I’d been invited to talk about the design of a federal balanced budget amendment and much of my testimony drew on the lessons offered from state experience. Since 49 of the 50 states have such requirements, and since these requirements vary from state to state, I noted that federal lawmakers could learn from the state laboratory.

The best requirement, I argued, would have the following characteristics:

  1. Require balance over some period longer than a year. This effectively disarms the strongest argument against a balanced budget amendment: namely, that it would force belt-tightening in the middle of a recession. In contrast, if budgets need to balance over a longer time period, then Congress is free to run deficits in particular years as long as they are countered by surpluses in others.
  2. Allow Congress some time to come into compliance. You don’t have to be a Keynesian to worry that a 45 percent reduction in the deficit overnight might be a shock to the system.
  3. Minimize the gamesmanship associated with revenue estimation: Across the country, states with balanced budget requirements have to estimate revenue throughout the year (I’m a member of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and our responsibility is to pass judgment on the validity of these estimates). But this invites all sorts of questions: what model to use for the economy, should revenue be scored dynamically or statically, etc. One way to sidestep all of these questions is to make the requirement retrospective: require that spending this year not exceed revenue from years past.

Michigan Republican Justin Amash has proposed an amendment along these lines. It would be phased-in over 9 years and from there on out would stipulate that outlays “not exceed the average annual revenue collected in the three prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.” Because it requires balance over three years rather than one, Amash calls it the “business cycle balanced budget amendment.”

Writing in Time, GMU’s Alex Tabarrok points to Sweden’s positive experience with a similar rule. And economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane also endorse such a rule in their book, Balance.

Now, some Illinois state lawmakers have put together a proposal for a state rule that appears to be largely based on this model. It requires:

Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed the average annual revenue collected for the 3 prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.

(Unlike the Amash plan, however, the Illinois plan is not phased in over a number of years. Rather, it takes effect immediately upon passage of the bill.)

To see how it might work in a state, I decided to take the Amash Amendment for a test drive, using Illinois data. The solid blue line in the figure below charts Illinois’s actual general revenue from 1990 to 2012 in billions of current dollars. The dashed blue line phases in an Amash-type “business cycle” balanced budget rule. Once fully phased-in, it would limit spending to the average revenue of the three previous years, with an adjustment for inflation and population growth.

BCBBA

Notice three things:

  1. From 1990 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2007, the rule would have kept Illinois spending in line with Illinois revenue, and would have even allowed the state to run surpluses.
  2. In lean years (like 2008) when revenue levels off, the limit actually continues to rise. That’s because it is based on a longer time trend. This means that it wouldn’t require the sort of draconian budget cuts that balanced budget critics often fear. The accumulated surpluses from previous years could also be used to soften the blow.
  3. Lastly, note the (9 percent) revenue uptick from 2011 to 2012. The amendment would prudently make legislators wait a few years before they can go out and spend that money.

Come Study at George Mason University

It is hard to believe but it’s been about 15 years since I attended my first Institute for Humane Studies weekend seminar at Claremont McKenna College. I can still remember the challenging conversations and stimulating lectures, especially those by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel and Lydia Ortega, both of San Jose State.

The most exciting idea I walked away from that weekend with was this: it’s possible to make a career out of advancing liberty.

From I.H.S. I learned about George Mason University. After doing quite a bit of research and attending a Public Choice Outreach Conference at GMU, I became convinced that the best thing I could do to set myself on the path of a career exploring the ideas of liberty was to get a graduate degree in economics from GMU. I eventually got my doctorate at GMU and now I have the best job in the world at the Mercatus Center.

George Mason University School of Public Policy 3351 Fairfax Drive Arlington (VA) 2013If you, too, have ever thought about such a career, now is the time to act on it. Here are a few opportunities:

The PhD Fellowship is a three-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students who are pursuing a doctoral degree in economics at George Mason University. It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and experience as a research assistant working closely with Mercatus-affiliated Mason faculty. It is a total award of up to $120,000 over three years. The application deadline is February 1, 2014.

The MA Fellowship is a two-year, competitive, full-time fellowship program for students pursuing a master’s degree in economics at George Mason University and interested in gaining advanced training in applied economics in preparation for a career in public policy. It includes full tuition support, a stipend, and practical experience as a research assistant working with Mercatus scholars. It is a total award of up to $80,000 over two years. The application deadline is March 1, 2014.

The Adam Smith Fellowship is a one-year, competitive fellowship for graduate students attending PhD programs at any university, in a variety of fields, including economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology. Smith Fellows receive a stipend and attend workshops and seminars on the Austrian, Virginia, and Bloomington schools of political economy. It is a total award of up to $10,000 for the year. The application deadline is March 15, 2014.

Would You Oppose a Tax Cut on the Grounds that it Only Applied to a Few Firms?

A few weeks ago, Pete Boettke graciously invited me to speak at the Philosophy, Politics and Economics workshop at GMU. During the course of the talk, I extolled the virtues of what Hayek called “generality”—the idea that political action should not (positively or negatively) discriminate against any person or group of persons. (Note: generality goes beyond the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. That only prohibits discriminatory application of laws, but it does nothing to prohibit discriminatory laws such as taxes that apply to one group but not another. A true generality principle says that the laws themselves should not discriminate.)

Near the end of the talk, one of the attendees asked if I would oppose a tariff reduction for one (and only one) industry on the grounds that it violated generality. I believe many free-market advocates would say “No; we should always take any opportunity to expand economic freedom.” Milton Friedman expressed this view when he declared he’d “never met a tax cut I didn’t like”

My answer, however, is that in some circumstances the advocates of economic freedom should oppose such a tariff reduction. This is because I believe those of us who value economic freedom should also value generality. I have four reasons.

  1. Generality is morally intuitive. Kant called it the “categorical imperative,” others more prosaically call it the “golden rule.” Whatever you call it, it seems that lots of humans in lots of cultures value the idea that laws ought to treat us equally.
  2. Violations of generality make us poorer. When government discriminates in the way it taxes or in the way it spends, people change their behavior (note that in traditional public finance, a head tax creates no loss because it doesn’t discriminate between work and leisure or between consumption and non-consumption). And these changes in behavior are costly because they tend to discourage mutually-beneficial exchange. Economists call this the deadweight loss of taxation and these costs are greater when policy is more discriminatory. Thus, a tax that raises $100 million by taxing goods and services equally will involve less deadweight loss than a tax that raises $100 million by taxing only goods. What’s more, the tax rate on goods will have to be higher if the government wants to obtain the same amount of revenue. (I could mention other economic costs under this same heading. For example, knowledge problems and malinvestment, both loom large under discriminatory taxation).
  3. Violations of generality create rent-seeking loss. When government is in the business of privileging some and punishing others, citizens tend to invest resources (time, money, effort) in asking for their own privileges or in asking that others not be privileged. Quite often, these efforts produce no value for society and are a loss.
  4. Violations of generality make it easier to violate economic freedom. In the long run, I believe a norm which permits violations of generality will tend to make it easier to violate economic freedom. Consider a proposal to tax each of three people $10, plus one additional dollar in deadweight loss, in order to turn around and redistribute $10 to each of these same three people. None of our three citizens would be willing to vote for it. But now consider a proposal that costs each of three people $11 ($10 in tax + $1 in DWL) in order to turn around and redistribute $15 to two of the three. Now a majority coalition can easily be formed. The coalition is made viable only by violating generality. What’s more, the coalition will be even stronger if the proposal not only violates generality on the spending side but also on the taxing side. That is, if the proposal is to impose $33 in costs on only one person in order to distribution $15 to each of the other two, then the coalition will be especially strong. In fact, if it can shield itself from the pain of taxation, the coalition will be prone to ask for much more revenue. So in the long run, economic freedom is protected by adhering to generality, even if in the short run the two values appear as a trade-off.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t also value economic freedom. To put it in terms that economists will quickly grasp, my indifference curves look like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too often, in my view, conservative policymakers are suckered into violating generality because they believe they are advancing economic freedom. They end up supporting tax preferences for manufacturing, ethanol, housing, child bearing, and much else on the grounds that any tax cut is a good tax cut. Many of these tax preferences are the result of cronyism and each entails a host of economic and social costs. The end result is a tax code that is monstrously complex and that, too, is a cost.

The first-best solution is low and non-discriminatory taxation. Beyond that, I think we need to recognize that there are (short run) trade-offs.

 

Abolish Government Favoritism

I was on vacation last week, so I am a little behind on blogging. Before I left, the New York Times’s Adam Davidson ran an interesting article on F.A. Hayek, calling him Paul Ryan’s “guru.” In the piece, Davidson quotes my Mercatus and GMU colleague, Pete Boettke:

In actuality, Ryan is like a lot of politicians who merely cherry-pick Hayek to promote neoclassical policies, says Peter Boettke, an economist at George Mason University and editor of The Review of Austrian Economics. “What Hayek has become, to a lot of people, is an iconic figure representing something that he didn’t believe at all,” Boettke says. For example, despite his complete lack of faith in the ability of politicians to affect the economy, Hayek, who is frequently cited in attacks on entitlement programs, believed that the state should provide a base income to all poor citizens.

To be truly Hayekian, Boettke says, Ryan would need to embrace one of his central ideas, known as the “generality norm.” This is Hayek’s belief that any government program that helps one group must be available to all. If applied, Boettke says, a Hayekian government would eliminate all corporate and agricultural subsidies and government housing programs, and it would get rid of Medicare and Medicaid or expand them to cover all citizens. (Hayek had no problem with a national health care program.) Hayek also believed that the government should not have a monopoly on any service it provides; instead, private companies should compete by offering an alternative Postal Service, road system, even, perhaps, a private fire department.

I’m glad Pete picked up on this. In my view, Hayek’s generality norm is the polar opposite of the Pathology of Privilege. And as I have argued in the past, the abolition of favoritism in government policy has both economic and moral appeal. This appeal, moreover, seems likely to cut across the ideological divide.

Would a Biennial Federal Budget Save Money?

According to news reports, a number of members of Congress are urging the “Super Committee” to recommend that the Federal Government move to a two-year budget cycle. The advocates of biennial budgeting span the political spectrum and include Democrats Jeanne Shaheen and Kent Conrad as well as Republicans Paul Ryan and Johnny Isakson.

The idea has long been championed by fiscal conservatives who hope that it will reduce spending. But does it? According to Paula Kearns of Michigan State University, the theoretical impact of a biennial budget process is ambiguous. It might decrease spending if it shifts power from the legislature to the executive, but it might increase spending if it makes the spoils of lobbying that much more durable and encourages special interest groups to lobby for largesse. In a 1994 study, Professor Kearns examined the impact of biennial budgeting at the state level. After controlling for other factors, she found that states with a biennial budget process actually spend more per-capita than states with an annual budget process.

This result was confirmed in a 2003 study by Mark Crain (now of Lafayette College, though he was at GMU when he conducted this research). Crain found that, other factors being equal, states with a biennial budget process spend about $120 more than states with an annual budget process (I’ve converted this figure into 2008 dollars).

Of course, per-capita spending isn’t everything. Maybe biennial budgeting leads to more spending, but it is better spending?

For a review of this and other institutions that affect spending, see my new working paper with Mercatus Center Masters Fellow, Nick Tuszynski.

TEL Event and TEL Podcast

If you couldn’t make it to GMU last week for the Tax and Expenditure panel, you are in luck: the tech team at Mercatus was good enough to capture it for posterity:

I thank our two guests: Assemblyman Micah Kellner of the NY-65th district and Nick Kasprak of the Tax Foundation.

Nick has created a very handy on-line tool. It does what my paper on state spending restraint did: it traces out what states would (theoreticall) have spent had they adopted TELs in certain time periods. Unlike my paper, however, Nick’s tool is interactive, it examines all states, and it allows users to see the different impact of different types of TELs. Check it out.

I learned a number of things from Assemblyman Kellner. Perhaps the most-interesting thing I learned: if you live in the 65th district of NY and if your family earns $250k or more, the state considers you poor enough to qualify for affordable housing rent control but rich enough to pay the “millionaire’s” tax. The assemblyman notes that in pricey NYC, a lot of people who live modest lifestyles actually fall into this category.

I presented the results of my  paper on tax and expenditure limits.

Also this week, the Tax Foundation’s Richard Morrison interviewed me about TELs in their weekly podcast.

Talk on States Fiscal Health at GMU, April 21

George Mason University’s Department of Public and International Affairs is hosting Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, on April 21 from 4 to 6 PM for a talk entitled “The State Fiscal Situation, Health Care Reform and Federalism.” This should be of interest for most of the readers of this blog. The talk will be in Enterprise Hall on GMU’s Fairfax Campus. Continue reading