Tag Archives: reform

The farm bill: a lesson in government failure

As a consumer and as a taxpayer, the farm bill is a monstrosity. But as someone who teaches public finance and public choice economics, it is a great teaching tool.

Want to explain the concept of dead-weight loss? The farm bill’s insurance subsidies are a perfect illustration of the concept. They transfer resources from taxpayers to farm producers; but taxpayers lose more than producers gain.

Want to illustrate the folly of price controls? Sugar supports which force Americans to pay twice what global consumers pay are a fine illustration.

Want to explain Gordon Tullock’s transitional gains trap? Walk your students through the connection between subsidies and land prices: much of the value of the subsidy is “capitalized” into the price of farmland, meaning that new farmers have to pay exorbitant prices to buy an asset that entitles them to subsidies. This means new farmers are no better off as a result of the subsidies. As David Friedman puts it, “the government can’t even give anything away.” The only ones to gain are those who owned the land when the laws were created. But those who paid for the land with the expectation that it would entitle them to subsidies would howl if politicians tried to do right by consumers and taxpayers and get rid of the privileges.

Want to illustrate Mancur Olson’s theory of interest group formation? Look no further than sugar loans. Taxpayers loan about $1.1 billion to producers every year. Spread among 313 million of us, that is a cost of about $3.50 per taxpayer. And who benefits? Last year just three (!) firms received the bulk of these subsidies, each benefiting to the tune of $200 million. As Olson taught us long ago, the numerous and diffused losers face a significant obstacle in organizing in opposition to this while the small and concentrated winners have every incentive to get organized in support.

Want to show how a “legislative logroll” works? Explain to your students that members representing dairy and peanut interests are statistically significantly likely to vote in the interests of peanut farmers and vice versa.

Want to explain Bruce Yandle’s bootlegger and Baptist theory of regulation? Note that catfish farmers want inspection of “foreign” catfish in the name of safety (the Baptist rationale) when the real reason for supporting additional inspections is self-interested protectionism (the bootlegger motivation).

This week’s lesson is on the power of agenda setters to block even modest reforms. Buried in the dross of privileges to wealthy farmers, both the Senate and the House versions of the bill contained a small glimmer of reform. Both included language capping the amount of subsidies that farmers and their spouses receive at “only” $250,000 per year. Right now, House and Senate conferees are working to reconcile the two versions of the Farm Bill passed this summer. And according to the latest reports, they plan to strip these modest reforms that were agreed to by both chambers.

Unfortunately, kids, this is how modern democracy works.

Markets Fail and Governments Do Too

We often hear that markets fail when it comes to preserving the environment, so government regulation is needed to protect natural resources from the ravages of capitalism. But what happens when government regulations themselves get in the way of innovative ideas that move us towards a cleaner and more environmentally sustainable future?

This is exactly what happened in Logan City, Utah when the local government built a small hydropower turbine and ran into a nightmare of regulatory red tape that led to large cost overruns and far more time committed to the project than was originally anticipated. In the end, the project was delayed four years and ended up costing twice as much as planned.

This abstract from a recent working paper from the Mercatus Center describes what happened:

In 2004 Logan, Utah, saw the opportunity to place a turbine within the city’s culinary water system. The turbine would reduce excess water pressure and would generate clean, low-cost electricity for the city’s residents. Federal funding was available, and the city qualified for a grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Unfortunately, Logan City found that a complex and costly federal nexus of regulatory requirements must be met before any hydropower project can be licensed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This regulation drove up costs in terms of time and money and, as a result, Logan City is not planning to undertake any similar projects in the future. Other cities have had similar experiences to Logan’s, and we briefly explore these as well. We find that regulation is likely deterring the development of small hydropower potential across the United States, and that reform is warranted.

This wouldn’t be the first time that regulations have led to perverse environmental outcomes. To prevent these problems in the future, agencies need to take better account of the expected costs and benefits of their rules before finalizing them. For example, recent analysis by myself and my colleague Richard Williams shows that agencies only rarely estimate dollar values for both benefits and costs of their regulations.

Another improvement would be for agencies to consider more flexible approaches when regulating. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently proposed a rule to reduce silica exposure for workers. The rule requires businesses to consider gas masks or other personal protection equipment only as a last resort. Other methods of controlling silica dust, like enclosing work areas or using sprays and vacuums, should be considered first. These methods are likely to be more burdensome than asking workers to wear a gas mask. The agency should consider offering more flexibility to businesses and workers if it wants to relieve some unnecessary burden in its proposed rule.

Of course it’s true that markets can fail. But it’s important to remember that governments often fail too. Only an approach that considers both market failure and government failure can illuminate the best course of action when addressing a serious social problem like environmental degradation. Furthermore, until regulators start acting more like the experts we expect them to be, government is likely to fail just as much, if not more often, than markets.

Can Democrats and Republicans Agree on Anything? Yes! (At least in principle)

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look back one year from now and say that 2014 was the year in which Democrats and Republicans discovered substantial areas of ideological common ground? We’d laud them for putting aside their partisan prejudices, for simultaneously advancing economic freedom and social justice and for turning their collective backs on special interests in order to serve the common good.

With the parties so far apart on so many issues, you might think that no such common ground exists. But it does. It lies in the sugar beet fields of Florida and in the dairy farms of Wisconsin. This untrod common ground is U.S. farm policy and it is overripe for reform.

Valley Farm, West WrattingThat is me, writing at the US News Economic Intelligence blog.

I have a short new piece on farm policy called Ending Farm Subsidies: Unplowed Common Ground.

Credit Warnings, Debt Financing and Dipping into Cash Reserves

As 2013 comes to an end recent news brings attention to the structural budgetary problems and worsening fiscal picture facing several governments: New Jersey, New York City, Puerto Rico and Maryland.

First there was a warning from Moody’s for the Garden State. On Monday New Jersey’s credit outlook was changed to negative. The ratings agency cited rising public employee benefit costs and insufficient revenues. New Jersey is alongside Illinois for the state with the shortest time horizon until the system is Pay-As-You-Go. On a risk-free basis the gap between pension assets and liabilities is roughly $171 billion according to State Budget Solutions, leaving the system only 33 percent funded. This year the New Jersey contributed $1.7 billion to the system. But previous analysis suggests New Jersey will need to pay out $10 billion annually in a few years representing one-third of the current budget.

New Jersey isn’t alone. The biggest structural threat to government budgets is the unrecognized risk in employee pension plans and the purely unfunded status of health care benefits. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his final speech as New York City’s Mayor, pointed to the “labor-electoral complex” which prevents employee benefit reform as the single greatest threat to the city’s financial health. In 12 years the cost of employee benefits has increased 500 percent from $1.5 billion to $8.2 billion. Those costs are certain to grow presenting the next generation with a massive debt that will siphon money away from city services.

Public employee pensions and debt are also crippling Puerto Rico which has dipped into cash reserves to repay a $400 million short-term loan. The Wall Street Journal reports that the government planned to sell bonds, but retreated since the island’s bond values have, “plunged in value,” due to investor fears over economic malaise and the territory’s existing large debt load which stands at $87 billion, or $23,000 per resident.

This should serve as a warning to other states that continue to finance budget growth with debt while understating employee benefit costs. Maryland’s Spending Affordability Committee is recommending a 4 percent budget increase and a hike in the state’s debt limit from $75 million to 1.16 billion in 2014. Early estimates by the legislative fiscal office anticipate structural deficits of $300 million over the next two years – a situation that has plagued Maryland for well over a decade. The fiscal office has advised against increased debt, noting that over the last five years, GO bonds have been, “used as a source of replacement funding for transfers of cash” from dedicated funds projects such as the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund.


Pension reform from California to Tennessee

Earlier this month Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers went on their second strike of the year. With public transport dysfunctional for four days, area residents were not necessarily sympathetic to the workers’ complaints, according to The Economist. The incident only drew attention to the fact that BART’s workers weren’t contributing to their pensions.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement employees will contribute to their pensions, and increase the amount they pay for health care benefits to $129/month.  The growing cost of public pensions, wages and benefits on city budgets is a real matter for mayors who must struggle to contain rapidly rising costs to pay for retiree benefits. San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed has led the effort in California to institute pension reforms via a ballot measure that would give city workers a choice between reduced benefits or bigger contributions, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Reed is actively seeking the support of California’s public sector unions for the measure that would give local authorities some flexibility to contain costs. Pension costs are presenting new threats for many California governments. Moody’s is scrutinizing 30 cities for possible downgrades based on their more complete measurement of the economic liability presented by pension plans.  In spite of this dire warning, CalPERS has sent municipalities a strong message to struggling and bankrupt cities: pay your contributions, or else.

Other states and cities that are looking to overhaul how benefits are provided to employees include Memphis, Tennessee which faces a reported unfunded liability of $642 million and a funding ratio of 74.4%. This is using a discount rate of 7.5 percent.  I calculate Memphis’ unfunded liability is approximately $3.4 billion on a risk-free basis, leaving the plan only 35% funded.

The options being discussed by the Memphis government include moving new hires to a hybrid plan, a cash balance plan, or a defined contribution plan. Which of these presents the best option for employees, governments and Memphis residents?

I would suggest the following principles be used to guide pension reform: a) economic accounting, b) shift the funding risk away from government, c) offer workers – both current workers and future hires – the option to determine their own retirement course and to choose from a menu of options that includes a DC plan or an annuity – managed by an outside firm or some combination.

The idea should be to eliminate the ever-present incentive to turn employee retirement savings into a budgetary shell-game for governments. Public sector pensions in US state and local governments have been made uncertain under flawed accounting and high-risk investing. As long as pensions are regarded as malleable for accounting purposes – either through discount rate assumptions, re-amortization games, asset smoothing, dual-purpose asset investments, or short-sighted thinking – employee benefits are at risk for underfunding. A defined contribution plan, or a privately managed annuity avoids this temptation by putting the employer on the hook annually to make the full contribution to an employee’s retirement savings.

Competition in health care saves lives without raising costs

The effect of competition on the quality of health care remains a contested issue. Most empirical estimates rely on inference from nonexperimental data. In contrast, this paper exploits a procompetitive policy reform to provide estimates of the impact of competition on hospital outcomes. The English government introduced a policy in 2006 to promote competition between hospitals. Using this policy to implement a difference-in-differences research design, we estimate the impact of the introduction of competition on not only clinical outcomes but also productivity and expenditure. We find that the effect of competition is to save lives without raising costs.

That’s Martin Gaynor, Rodrigo Moreno-Serra, and Carol Propper writing in the latest issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Does Anyone Know the Net Benefits of Regulation?

In early August, I was invited to testify before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action, which is chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).  The topic of the panel was the amount of time it takes to finalize a regulation.  Specifically, some were concerned that new regulations were being deliberately or needlessly held up in the regulatory process, and as a result, the realization of the benefits of those regulations was delayed (hence the dramatic title of the panel: “Justice Delayed: The Human Cost of Regulatory Paralysis.”)

In my testimony, I took the position that economic and scientific analysis of regulations is important.  Careful consideration of regulatory options can help minimize the costs and unintended consequences that regulations necessarily incur. If additional time can improve regulations—meaning both improving individual regulations’ quality and having the optimal quantity—then additional time should be taken.  My logic behind taking this position was buttressed by three main points:

  1. The accumulation of regulations stifles innovation and entrepreneurship and reduces efficiency. This slows economic growth, and over time, the decreased economic growth attributable to regulatory accumulation has significantly reduced real household income.
  2. The unintended consequences of regulations are particularly detrimental to low-income households— resulting in costs to precisely the same group that has the fewest resources to deal with them.
  3. The quality of regulations matters. The incentive structure of regulatory agencies, coupled with occasional pressure from external forces such as Congress, can cause regulations to favor particular stakeholder groups or to create regulations for which the costs exceed the benefits. In some cases, because of statutory deadlines and other pressures, agencies may rush regulations through the crafting process. That can lead to poor execution: rushed regulations are, on average, more poorly considered, which can lead to greater costs and unintended consequences. Even worse, the regulation’s intended benefits may not be achieved despite incurring very real human costs.

At the same time, I told the members of the subcommittee that if “political shenanigans” are the reason some rules take a long time to finalize, then they should use their bully pulpits to draw attention to such actions.  The influence of politics on regulation and the rulemaking process is an unfortunate reality, but not one that should be accepted.

I actually left that panel with some small amount of hope that, going forward, there might be room for an honest discussion about regulatory reform.  It seemed to me that no one in the room was happy with the current regulatory process – a good starting point if you want real change.  Chairman Blumenthal seemed to feel the same way, stating in his closing remarks that he saw plenty of common ground.  I sent a follow-up letter to Chairman Blumenthal stating as much. I wrote to the Chairman in August:

I share your guarded optimism that there may exist substantial agreement that the regulatory process needs to be improved. My research indicates that any changes to regulatory process should include provisions for improved analysis because better analysis can lead to better outcomes. Similarly, poor analysis can lead to rules that cost more human lives than they needed to in order to accomplish their goals.

A recent op-ed penned by Sen. Blumenthal in The Hill shows me that at least one person is still thinking about the topic of that hearing.  The final sentence of his op-ed said that “we should work together to make rule-making better, more responsive and even more effective at protecting Americans.” I agree. But I disagree with the idea that we know that, as the Senator wrote, “by any metric, these rules are worth [their cost].”  The op-ed goes on to say:

The latest report from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs shows federal regulations promulgated between 2002 and 2012 produced up to $800 billion in benefits, with just $84 billion in costs.

Sen. Blumenthal’s op-ed would make sense if his facts were correct.  However, the report to Congress from OIRA that his op-ed referred to actually estimates the costs and benefits of only a handful of regulations.  It’s simple enough to open that report and quote the very first bullet point in the executive summary, which reads:

The estimated annual benefits of major Federal regulations reviewed by OMB from October 1, 2002, to September 30, 2012, for which agencies estimated and monetized both benefits and costs, are in the aggregate between $193 billion and $800 billion, while the estimated annual costs are in the aggregate between $57 billion and $84 billion. These ranges are reported in 2001 dollars and reflect uncertainty in the benefits and costs of each rule at the time that it was evaluated.

But you have to actually dig a little farther into the report to realize that this characterization of the costs and benefits of regulations represents only the view of agency economists (think about their incentive for a moment – they work for the regulatory agencies) and for only 115 regulations out of 37,786 created from October 1, 2002, to September 30, 2012.  As the report that Sen. Blumenthal refers to actually says:

The estimates are therefore not a complete accounting of all the benefits and costs of all regulations issued by the Federal Government during this period.

Furthermore, as an economist who used to work in a regulatory agency and produce these economic analyses of regulations, I find it heartening that the OMB report emphasizes that the estimates it relies on to produce the report are “neither precise nor complete.”  Here’s another point of emphasis from the OMB report:

Individual regulatory impact analyses vary in rigor and may rely on different assumptions, including baseline scenarios, methods, and data. To take just one example, all agencies draw on the existing economic literature for valuation of reductions in mortality and morbidity, but the technical literature has not converged on uniform figures, and consistent with the lack of uniformity in that literature, such valuations vary somewhat (though not dramatically) across agencies. Summing across estimates involves the aggregation of analytical results that are not strictly comparable.

I don’t doubt Sen. Blumenthal’s sincerity in believing that the net benefits of regulation are reflected in the first bullet point of the OMB Report to Congress.  But this shows one of the problems facing regulatory reform today: People on both sides of the debate continue to believe that they know the facts, but in reality we know a lot less about the net effects of regulation than we often pretend to know.  Only recently have economists even begun to understand the drag that regulatory accumulation has on economic growth, and that says nothing about what benefits regulation create in exchange.

All members of Congress need to understand the limitations of our knowledge of the total effects of regulation.  We tend to rely on prospective analyses – analyses that state the costs and benefits of a regulation before they come to fruition.  What we need are more retrospective analyses, with which we can learn what has really worked and what hasn’t, and more comparative studies – studies that have control and experiment groups and see if regulations affect those groups differently.  In the meantime, the best we can do is try to ensure that the people engaged in creating new regulations follow a path of basic problem-solving: First, identify whether there is a problem that actually needs to be solved.  Second, examine several alternative ways of addressing that problem.  Then consider what the costs and benefits of the various alternatives are before choosing one. 

Has the Sequester Hurt the Economy?

Several weeks ago, Steve Forbes argued that the federal government spending cuts known as the “sequester” are actually having beneficial effects on the US economy, and not slowing growth as many economists and pundits in the media have claimed. Forbes’s statement attracted critics, and many economists have expressed skepticism about the sequester too. One economist even went so far as to say, “The disjunction between textbook economics and the choices being made in Washington is larger than any I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

So have the sequester cuts hurt the economy? One possible answer comes from a new paper by Scott Sumner of Bentley University. Sumner argues that cuts to government spending don’t have serious deleterious macroeconomic effects when the Federal Reserve is targeting inflation. This is because the Fed ensures that prices stay stable under an inflation targeting regime, which keeps demand stable even in the face of government spending cuts. Similarly, when the Fed stabilizes the price level it also offsets any beneficial effects that fiscal stimulus might have, which helps explain the lackluster results from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the “stimulus”).

Implicit in Sumner’s theory is that expansionary austerity, or the idea that the economy can grow even in the face of large government spending cuts, is indeed possible. Some of my colleagues at the Mercatus Center have described other ways in which expansionary austerity is possible.

Luckily, there are still things Congress can do to improve the economic outlook, even as spending cuts take hold. Lawmakers can enact policies that boost the performance of the real economy. By this I mean policies that increase the amount of real goods and services the economy produces, as opposed to policies that affect demand (i.e. spending).

One example is reforming the regulatory system, which discourages production of all sorts. With over 174,000 pages of federal regulations in place, there must be a few obsolete or duplicative rules that can be eliminated to relieve the burden on businesses and entrepreneurs. Congress could also reform the tax code, with its perverse incentives and countless carve outs for special interests.

Starting new government programs isn’t likely to do much to benefit growth. New projects take too long to implement, politicians waste too much money on silly boondoggles, and monetary policy will likely offset any beneficial effects anyway. If Congress wants to do something to improve growth, it should focus on creating a regulatory and tax environment that encourages investment and entrepreneurial risk taking.

What would real reform in Virginia look like?

A couple of months ago, I blogged about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and the gifts he and his family have received from businessman Jonnie Williams, Jr. The comments were eventually picked up by journalist Katie Watson, first in a column and then in an interview with the local CBS affiliate. Eventually the Richmond Times Dispatch invited me to turn the blog into an OpEd and this last Sunday Bart Hinkle of the Dispatch elaborated on the point in an excellent post. I suspect many readers will agree that Hinkle made the point far more eloquently than I:

Many have wondered why McDonnell, otherwise a paragon of rectitude, would take such swag. But nobody has asked why Williams would give it — because the answer is obvious. Star Scientific has not made a profit in a decade. But it might, if the governor were to place the weight of the state on the economic scales.…Virginia’s governor has a lot of quo to give whether or not he takes a fistful of quid.

Image by hin255

Image by hin255


In my view, Virginians need to think as constructively as possible about the sorts of reforms that would prevent scandals like this from happening in the future. Unfortunately, my guess is that the political response will focus—to use Hinkle’s words—on the quid and not on the quo. I believe this would be a huge missed opportunity.

In Virginia, gifts to public officials valued at $50 or more are permitted but must be disclosed, while gifts of any value to family members of public officials are permitted and do not need to be disclosed at all. Just about every article I’ve read on the matter emphasizes this point and I’d guess that a number of legislators are busy drawing up bills to change these laws as I type. For his part, the governor himself has indicated an interest in changing the ethics laws, though he’s offered no specifics.

It’s understandable that this is peoples’ first instinct: If business owners are giving money to elected officials and their family members in return for special treatment from government, it seems only natural that there ought to be a law forbidding such gifts to elected officials and their families. I’m not opposed to such laws per se. But it would be a mistake to think that they are going to solve the problem.

Water flows downhill. And as long as elected officials are expected to dole out lucrative privileges to particular firms, particular firms will want to play in the political sandbox.

Even if Virginia adopted a complete ban on all gifts of any size to elected officials and their family members, I predict firms and their leaders would still donate to political action committees, they’d endorse candidates, they’d sponsor third-party political advertisements, they’d organize get-out-the-vote efforts, and they’d host fundraisers and campaign events. In an endless game of whack-a-mole, reformers could no doubt try to curtail these efforts too (with the First Amendment a likely casualty). But so long as businesses face such lucrative incentives to play politics, the reformers will always be one step behind.

A better—more permanent, and more direct—reform would strike at the heart of the quid-pro-quo problem. It would limit the government’s ability to favor particular firms in the first place. This would require the elimination of all targeted tax exemptions and credits. The state could then use the extra money obtained from closing loopholes to lower its corporate and individual tax rates. The state would also need to eliminate all programs that make grants or loans to particular firms (you can see a listing of such programs here).

In one fell swoop, these types of reforms would instantly remove the incentive for firms to seek the favor of politicians. These reforms would also improve the economic climate of Virginia. Without government assistance, industries would be more competitive, lowering their prices and improving the quality of their products. Firms would pay more attention to trends in customer desires rather than political trends. This would help ensure that labor and capital would be allocated on the basis of genuine costs and benefits rather than political costs and benefits. And millions of dollars that are now wasted in seeking government-granted privilege could be put to more valuable uses.

This does not mean that the state would be powerless to entice firms to relocate here. Governors, legislators, and mayors across the state could and should work to make sure that Virginia’s tax and regulatory regimes are the least burdensome in the nation. Elected officials (and their spouses) could and should tout the state’s superior business climate.

And one of their talking points would be the fact that all businesses in Virginia get the same fair shake, whether they donate to politicians or not.

Lessons from North Carolina’s proposed budget

In today’s Room for Debate at The New York Times, I discuss what’s good and what is worrying about North Carolina’s proposed biennial budget.

The good: a doubling of the state’s Rainy Day Fund and end to the estate tax. But a big controversy surrounds the legislature this week. Lawmakers decided to cut unemployment benefits by one-third. This move disqualifies the state from receiving additional emergency unemployment insurance funds from the federal government, affecting 170,000 jobless in the state.

The issue points to the perennial calls for reform to the federal-state Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. North Carolina is one of many states that must pay the federal government back what it has borrowed to offer extended benefits to its residents, or face higher payroll taxes. Their choices are tough ones to make: raise the state payroll tax (or taxable wage base) and replenish the trust fund – which has its own effects on the economy and the workforce – or cut benefits. A better solution is to re-think our approach to social insurance, something economists, such as Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, have been highlighting the structural flaws of UI since the 1970s.

n.b. update: a reader rightly notes at the NYT – the states must pay back the money they’ve borrowed from the federal government to continue paying benefits. But they don’t have to pay back the temporary EUC program.